Monday, June 26, 2017

Why Dogs Go to Heaven

I wrote the following article for my church's newsletter. I wrote the following poem just for fun. I hope my fellow dog lovers will enjoy them both.

Related image
Luc-Olivier Merson (1840-1920) "The Wolf of Agubbio" (1877) Note the wolf wears a halo!

“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Gen. 1:31a)

I’ve been thinking a lot about dogs lately. As many of you know, Marilyn and I recently lost our beloved pet of almost fourteen years, our shih tzu dog, Greta. A dear Christian friend offered us some comfort, but reminded us that dogs were not made in the image of God. Of course I am always grateful for any expression of kindness and sympathy at a time like this, but I have to wonder if, perhaps, my friend isn’t putting too strict an interpretation on Genesis. After all, doesn’t the Bible say God’s spirit moved over the chaos? Isn’t the breath of God the source of all life, not just human life?

When I was a little kid in Sunday School, I was told that only human beings have souls. Animals don’t have souls according to the dictates of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod of the 1960’s. But as a long-time pet owner, and as one who has found himself in relationship with non-human life, I have to marvel at the interconnectedness and the sharing of personalities which I see in God’s “lesser” creatures.

There’s a great story about St. Francis of Assisi. You’ll remember that Francis was said to preach to the birds of the air and called the sun his “brother” and the moon his “sister.” He felt a great connectedness to God in all of the created world. Once, a legend goes, the Umbrian town of Gubbio was being ravaged by a vicious wolf. The wolf killed all of the livestock outside the city walls and menaced the human beings who lived within. Francis, in the spirit of forgiveness, is said to have bravely gone outside the walls of Gubbio, found the offending wolf in its lair, and talked it out of attacking the good people of the town. Subsequently, the townspeople adopted the wolf as their pet, feeding it from their doors, and gave it a Christian burial when it died. This legend dates from the thirteenth century, but when the church of Gubbio was renovated in the nineteenth century, the skeletal remains of an enormous wolf were discovered buried beneath a slab near the church’s wall. The church members re-buried the skeleton inside the church as a holy relic and symbol of God’s love for all creation.

I can’t say for theological certainty that we’ll see our pets in Heaven—although I certainly hope we will. I can marvel, however, that God was good enough to give us such wonderful companions and examples of divine love and obedience here on earth. For centuries dogs have helped humans hunt, retrieved our kill, and protected out homes and our livestock. They have rid our homes and farms of vermin. They have found lost travelers, pursued fleeing criminals, and alerted us when rescue was needed. They have pulled sleds and carts. They have kept us warm in the winter. They have turned spits in ancient kitchens. They’ve herded sheep and pigs and other livestock. They have been eyes for the blind, ears for the deaf, and hands for the disabled. They have warned us of the approach of cancer, stroke, seizures, and heart attacks (For real! One of my neighbors was able to call 911 when his Yorkie jumped on his chest, revived him by licking his face, and saved his life just before he passed out and coded). They have sniffed out drugs, bombs, and illegal firearms and protected our police and military. They have been companions for those suffering from post-traumatic stress, and they have reawakened the spirits of dementia patients. They have been our friends in loneliness and despair. They have made us smile with their antics, and helped us get our needed exercise by insisting we walk them and play with them. They have loved and protected our children, rejoiced in our joy, and cheered us in our sorrow.

The late journalist and TV commentator Andy Rooney once said, “I think we can all agree: Dogs are nice. In fact, most dogs are nicer people than most people.” What a blessing our Lord gave us in our companionship with these creatures! If we are to understand God’s unconditional love and devotion to the human race, we can find no better example than our family dog. We might do well to let our canine friends teach us the simple joys found in wind and sunshine, and the pleasure to be had in obedience to our Master.


In Celebration of Greta
October 4, 2003 – June 13, 2017

Shih tzus come from China, so I guess they’re Oriental.
They don’t serve any function, they’re rather ornamental;
Yet when I think of MY OWN dog, I get quite sentimental.

She was eleven pounds of love wrapped in fur of black and white
With a little Teddy Bear black nose and a friendly underbite.
Oh! If you’d ever seen her, she’d fill you with delight.

She had a way about her that just turned your heart to jelly
When she leapt into your lap and made you rub her belly.
(And, by the way, she was awful clean and very rarely smelly!)

Sometimes she’d bark at strangers, but that was just her way.
She’d jump and paw their trousers. I think she tried to say,
“Hello, friend! I’m Greta. Would you like to play?”

Greta learned a little game she’d play with Marilyn and me.
We’d throw a chew toy in the air and count off “One, two, three!”
Then Greta caught it in her mouth—an impressive sight to see.

Our little doggie slept each night on a pad beside our bed
And woke at six as if to say, “Hey, Dad! It’s time I’m fed!”
But first we’d have to cuddle and I’d scratch her ears and head.

Then I’d pour her out a bowl of her favorite kibble
Which with relish she’d attack and daintily she’d nibble,
Then do her morning ‘business’ (I’d wipe her lest she dribble).

Should I come home in a bad mood, feeling somewhat pissed,
Greta always made me smile. You see, she would insist
I notice how she wagged her tail to tell me I was missed.

Greta only misbehaved when I took her to be groomed.
She’d whine and poop and carry on and acted as if doomed,
But she’d come home so beautifully clipped, bathed, and perfumed.

The groomers always understood—they had marvelous tact.
They’d say, “She’s faking all this angst. She’s putting on an act.
She NEVER gives US trouble, and that’s the honest fact.”

And, if I do say so myself, the groomers’ praise was true.
She really was the sweetest girl who’d never bite or chew.
I challenge anyone to find a worthier shih tzu.

Her antics were so whimsical. She was NEVER boring,
And when she snuggled up to you, you couldn’t help adoring.
Though it seems odd for me to say, she was even cute when snoring!

We loved her little smooshed-in face, it gave us so much joy.
We loved the way she’d wag her tail for her new squeaky toy—
Or the way that she’d play tug-o-war: she growled just like a boy!

But now that she’s in Heaven I just miss her company:
The way she’d nestle at my feet and gaze lovingly at me.
We wished she’d live forever, but that is not to be.

We think of her each morning: how we’d cuddle and we’d kiss her.
Perhaps she wasn’t perfect, but now we’d never “dis” her.
She was part of the family and—OMG!—we miss her.

See: if you love your doggie, you’ll never feel regret.
She’s one member of your tribe who’ll give more than she’ll get.
If you think money can’t buy love, you’ve not bought a puppy yet.

Most dogs are nicer people than some people you might know.
They’re loving, loyal, forgiving, and affection they will show.
Perhaps dogs are the noblest of all creatures here below.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

For Christ's Sake, Tell the Truth! (Reflections on Pentecost 3, Year A)

As some of my readers know, I have often whimsically nick-named myself “The Red Baron of Neighborhood Funerals.” (I guess I could’ve picked another individual known for achieving a high score in his field like Barry Bonds or Bill Gates, but “Red Baron” is so swaggeringly romantic, don’t you think..?) I’ve presided at over 500 funeral services, mostly for people I’ve never met. I often, in preparation for the eulogy, ask their family member this question: What’s the one thing you want everyone to know about your departed loved one? Nine times out of ten the answer will be “She really loved her family.”

Strangely, in all of those hundreds of conversations, I don’t recall anyone ever answering by saying, “She/he really loved the Lord.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not questioning the faith of anyone of the dear departed or the piety of their survivors. I’m just pointing out how much we love our families, and how difficult the gospel lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary appointed for Pentecost 3 Year A (Matthew 10:24-39) might be to hear. It talks about divisions in the family and has verses like this one:

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matt. 10:37)

That’s some pretty rough stuff to choke down! Don’t we make loyalty to our family a priority? Granted, we don’t live in the time of the New Testament when a commitment to Jesus would mean being thrown out of our families and out of the larger societal family as well. But I think most of us know that an allegiance to the teachings of Jesus—faithfulness to the cause of righteousness—can have some pretty crappy family consequences. Sometimes it feels like someones’s ripping a part of your body off and beating you with it.

Some years ago my daughter Sandra, feeling that her work for a major corporation was not a considerable enough contribution to society, joined the US Army Reserve. While on deployment in the Middle East, she reported one of her NCO’s for a serious violation of regulation. The soldier was reprimanded, but Sandra was shunned as a snitch by her fellow soldiers, her promotion was blocked, and her life was made a living hell through constant—and sometimes physical—intimidation in retaliation for her doing what she knew was the right thing. She was viewed as having been disloyal to the “family.” Few things can bring us so much pain in this life.

The truth is, we just don’t want our family secrets to get out. We don’t want anyone to be offended. We don’t want anyone to be mad at us, and we struggle constantly with juggling kindness and consideration and shame with righteousness and wholeness. We keep quiet about the sexual, physical, or verbal abuse we have endured or known others have endured. We lie for those who violate the company rules or their marriage vows, we let our junkie child sleep in our house and never dream of forcing that child into a position where he must deal with his own demons.

We have this awful horror, you see, of severing the family relationship. To do that would be a kind of death.

But our soul is dying by inches already. And it’s not like others haven’t already sniffed out our deception. Or like it won’t come to light eventually anyway. 

Jesus warns us that discipleship has a cost. He doesn’t say the Christian life is going to be a trip to Disneyland. Proclaiming him and his loving righteousness is going to piss people off. But there are worse consequences for our own well-being if we chicken out in our proclamation.

Did you ever see that great musical Les Miserables? There’s a song lyric that succinctly makes Jesus’ point in verse 10:28. Jean Valjean, the ex-con who has broken parole and started a new life, learns that a man who looks just like him has been arrested in his place. He knows he will be sent back to prison if he corrects the mistaken identity. He also knows the cruelty the innocent man will face in prison. In a poignant and powerful solo he sings, “If I speak I am condemned. If I keep silent I am damned.”

Jesus knows how hard our obedience to the truth can be. After all, wasn’t he hated in his own time for violating the selfish interests of others? The gospel lesson challenges us with the painful necessity of loving the world through our obedience to God.

Thanks for reading, Family. BTW, if you want to hear Hugh Jackman sing the song from Les Miserables I referenced above, click here.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Travelling Light (Reflections on Pentecost 2, Year A)

Image result for jesus sends out the twelve disciples

I have to be honest with you: the Gospel lesson appointed for Pentecost 2 (Matthew 9:35 – 10:23) scares the living crap out of me. Jesus’ instructions to the twelve to go and proclaim the Kingdom of God without first figuring out any of the details about cost, lodging, or safety is pretty gonzo in my book. I want to say, “Hey, Jesus, haven’t you heard the old saying: If you fail to plan, you plan to fail?” Just what the freak does he mean telling these guys to start a mission without taking any money or provisions or even figuring out where they’re supposed to stay or what they’re supposed to say when they get arrested—which he seems pretty darn sure they will be.

Jesus is sending his disciples out knowing there’s going to be some upset. He seems to think that they have the capabilities to do the stuff he does: heal the world and bring folks back to a place of wholeness. He’s actually asking his disciples (that would be us, by the way) to free people from their demons of addiction and brokenness and poverty and to acknowledge their personhood. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a tall order to me, and one which makes me feel pretty inadequate.

And yet, we’re being asked to believe that if we just get on with it, God will provide all that we need to accomplish it. I guess there’s something to be said for having a Christ-like purpose. It requires faith, which is a heck of a lot more than just “positive thinking.”

Stop me if I’ve told you this one before (which I know I have), but when I was just ten years old my dad lost his job. He was out of work for about fourteen months straight after his first lay-off, and he rarely had continuous employment after that time until the time he retired. It wasn’t his fault, it was just the slump in the industry in which he worked. Like Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield, however, he kept insisting during those lean times that “something will turn up.” He never lost faith that God would provide. And God did.

I realize now, more than forty years on, that my dad (And hey! Isn’t Father’s Day this weekend?) was doing what a dad should do—teaching faith and confidence to his children. You just can’t be a dad without faith. The scariest thing in the world to a child, I’m told, is fear in an adult. As a little kid, it would be too easy for me to imagine the devastation of financial ruin. What if the bank foreclosed on the house? What if they repossessed the car? What would become of us? More than the hardship, I feared the shame of it all. But my old man just kept on singing his gospel hymns and assuring his family that everything would be all right—eventually. And it was. It just isn’t logical that God would give us a commission and not see that we had what we needed to carry it out.

I have to confess that, even though I’ve experienced God’s providence over and over in my life, my sphincter still quivers every Monday morning when I read the church financial report from the previous Sunday. Frequently I ask God how he expects my little parish to keep on functioning. We don’t seem to be taking along a bag for the journey!

We are, however, trying our darndest to do what we’ve been told to do. We’re casting out demons of addiction through our 12-step meeting and addiction support group. We’re welcoming the stranger through our partnership with a Haitian community and through sheltering homeless families via our ties to Interfaith Hospitality Network. We’re feeding the hungry through our links to various charities. We visit the sick and lonely. I don’t always know how we’re going to keep our doors open, but I do know in my heart that we have a mission, and that closing up shop is never going to be an option for us here in Northeast Philly. At least not on my watch.

Martin Luther called despair a great and serious sin. He was right. I can’t imagine a more powerful tool of the devil than filling our mind with the notion that God would let us down when we’re trying to proclaim his love and healing. Faith is living and moving forward in the certainty that God will always provide a way.

God’s way, I must say, may not always be the way we imagine it. There will be times when our “Plan A” just doesn’t work. If the door gets shut in our face, we’re told to believe that our peace will return to us. We just shake the dust of our disappointment off and go on to “Plan B.” The church and her mission may not look like we think it ought to look. God may be calling us to do a new thing in a new way for new people. So let’s not make up our minds ahead of time.

Just wait on the Spirit.

By the way, a Happy Fathers’ Day to you dads out there. I never mind it when people call me “Father.” I think it’s an honorable title for a man who is completely responsible for something over which he ultimately has no control. Pastors have that in common with dads.

This will be a gloomy Fathers' Day for me, my friends, as my little, furry,  four-legged "foster daughter" was called home to the Lord this week. I was told that Luther once said in Heaven all dogs have golden collars and silver fur. I'm sure he was right.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

So Who Is God? (Reflections on Holy Trinity)

The Holy Trinity - Szymon Czechowicz, 18th Cent.
“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20b)

I freely admit that I often talk to myself. Actually, I talk to people who aren’t there. I’m not schizophrenic. I know they’re not there, but I like to talk and argue and discuss with them all the same. I like to try out my theological arguments on noted skeptics and atheists. I imagine sitting in my local Starbuck’s having a dark roast with, say, Thomas Jefferson or Richard Dawkins debating the existence of God. I want to cross wits with the late smug and supercilious intellectual dink Christopher Hitchens and see if I could hold my own against his withering anti-Christian rhetoric. Or, just for gits and shiggles, I want to cross verbal swords with the departed comic genius George Carlin or even with the current acerbic tongue of Bill Maher—both gentleman being less than complimentary about matters of religion.

I wouldn’t try to convert any of them to my Trinitarian beliefs, mind you (Not that it would even be possible. Only the Holy Spirit does that). I’d just like to get them to see the Christian faith as being, perhaps, a little closer to their own belief systems and vastly less ridiculous than they have imagined it. I would start with the most elemental question:

So what do you really mean when you say the word GOD?

Some years back, when I was a volunteer chaplain at Aria Torresdale Hospital, I entered the room of a young man who had been in a pretty nasty car wreck. His legs were in really bad shape from the accident. I remember the first thing he said to me was, “Father, I’m losing my faith.” It seems this kid had lived a pretty straight arrow life, and yet everything in it was turning to crap. Like Job, he couldn’t understand why a loving god would open his almighty bowels on someone who hadn’t really done anything to deserve it. The problem, as I understood it, was this young guy was imagining God as either the judgmental “Invisible Man” of George Carlin’s outrageous rant or as some kind of cosmic Santa Claus. Neither image does Yahweh justice—not that we’re even capable of doing that.

Who is God and how do we speak of God? That’s the question the bishops at the Council of Nicaea tried to answer all those centuries ago when they gave us the creed of the Christian faith and cooked up this doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The problem is—and was in their day too—that we can’t really understand or define God. We can only experience God.

The Trinity is a mystery. So is everything else about God. I wish I could understand quantum mechanics and quarks and dark matter and the Higgs boson particle and string theory. But even if I did, all the study of the physical universe and all its associated mathematics can do is try to define the “how” of being. It can’t answer the question of “why.”

My answer to the “why” of is-ness is always “God.” There is matter and energy, and in some miraculous, vibrating way this matter and energy is capable of manifesting itself in what we recognize as “life” and “consciousness.” What’s more, this life and consciousness seeks and desires a purpose—to be in relationship and to know love and sacrifice and joy. We can’t separate the miracle of creation from the miracle of life, nor can we divorce being alive from seeking purpose. There’s a three-fold connection here which I think those ancient bishops in Asia Minor intuited back in the fourth century.

The study of physics is a great and noble pursuit, but I think it will always lead us deeper into more mystery. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. It’s just that it won’t teach us how to love our neighbor. Those dear ancient bishops took a much simpler approach. They just said, “It’s all God.” God in creation, God in the sacrificial love of Jesus, God in relationship—God in us.

Jesus, in our appointed Gospel Lesson for Holy Trinity (Matthew 28:16-20) says “I am with you always.” God is not an external being living off in a cloud somewhere. God is with us and in us and all around us. When we baptize in the name of the Holy Trinity we are acknowledging that this mysterious God, the creative power that made all things, is with the baptized, and that the baptized is connected through God to all people and all creation. It all might sound a bit confusing, but that’s okay. I long ago learned that you don’t have to understand someone in order to love them. Neither do we need to understand God. The love will be there all the same.

Someday I really want to sit down for a chat with someone who claims they don’t believe in God. Maybe they might find out they’ve known him all along. You think?

Thanks again for dropping by. Might I ask you to take a look at the “Featured Post” at right? It’s an homage to the late George Carlin I wrote a while back. I challenge you to watch the linked video (sorry about all the swearing in it—Carlin liked to work “blue”) and think about how you would respond to someone with Carlin’s opinions about religion.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Calling on the Spirit (Reflections on the Day of Pentecost, Year A)

Image result for Images for Pentecost
“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’” (John 20:21)

I have been praying all this morning and much of yesterday for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I’m about to preach my nineteenth Pentecost sermon at Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia, and I can’t for the life of me come up with something clever or novel to say. Help me, Holy Spirit!

I need help because, as is the tradition of our parish, we’ll celebrate the Rite of Confirmation at the 11 AM mass. That means I’ll be preaching to two teenagers whom, I’m sorry to say, I barely know. Even though I baptized one of them and have watched them grow up through the years, I haven’t really had that much interaction with them. For the last two years my congregation has been participating in a conference-wide joint confirmation program. This was a well-intentioned program cooked up by some of my colleagues (bless their hearts) with the idea that getting all of our kids together would make for a lively and dynamic program full of energy—and vastly better than having only two or three kids isolated in their home churches with their pastors boring the snot out of them. Unfortunately, for reasons I don’t need to elucidate, the whole project blew up like the Hindenburg and has left me with two pretty nice—albeit rather taciturn—kids whom I had only a marginal hand in teaching.

Help me, Holy Spirit. What the freak do I say to these two—and to my congregation—to inspire them on one of the principal festivals of the liturgical year? I mean, this is supposed to be the birthday of the whole Christian faith. What can I say that will make this matter to them?

Maybe I’m expecting too much. I always want to make Pentecost be like the story in Acts 2. I want fire and passion and a stirring wind to blow through the church and fill us all with awe and gratitude and love and an incredible feeling of the presence of God. I want Pentecost to be like the Azusa Street Revival.

You know about the Azusa Street Revival, don’t you? It was this weird thing that happened in L.A. back in 1906. It seems this preacher named William Seymour was asked to speak at a local church. He preached that, according to Acts 2 (in his opinion), the true manifestation of God’s Holy Spirit could only be revealed by speaking in tongues. The host church considered this and, concluding that Seymour was full of crap, locked him out of the church the following Sunday. This did not discourage the preacher, however. Invited by a few faithful let’s-speak-in-tongues devotees, Seymour moved his operation to a house on Bonnie Brea Street (a street I know well as it was once home to the synod offices of the old Southern California-West Synod).

From the house on Bonnie Brea Seymour continued to encourage his followers to seek the baptism of the Holy Ghost and the gift of tongues—a gift which he didn’t actually possess himself. Three days into a ten-day fast, Seymour’s host, a certain Edward Lee, hit the spiritual lottery and began to babble incoherently. Soon a handful of other followers started speaking in tongues and Seymour, after an all-night prayer marathon, finally abandoned his native English for a miraculous prayer language.

The legend has it that the Holy Spirit filled the house on Bonnie Brea Street. Uneducated working-class folks, mostly African American, were said to begin speaking in actual identifiable languages which they’d never studied, and others, similarly linguistically ignorant, were able to interpret the ecstatic utterances. News of this miracle spread through the neighborhood, including stories of miraculous healings and other fantastic goings-on. So many people descended on Lee’s house on Bonnie Brea that the front porch collapsed. This caused Seymour to relocate to a run-down former AME church on Azusa Street where he set up headquarters. The Pentecostal movement was born.

A lot of folks in Los Angeles were initially scandalized by Seymour’s church. They weren’t convinced that the babbling, moaning, and roaring which emanated from Azusa Street was particularly godly. Worse, Seymour, an African American, was worshiping with white folks, Latinos, and representatives of all of L.A.’s ethnic stew. Mixing the races just wasn’t done in 1906.

I guess I have to admire Seymour’s revival for the fact that, like the apostles in Acts 2, it managed to bring all kinds of people together—albeit for only a short period. I certainly long for the great emotional passion of Azusa Street, but I know good and well that ebullient praising, shouting, fainting, and assorted hullabaloo-ing in church would doubtless give most of my elderly Lutherans a spastic colon. And if my two teen Confirmands want to experience inter-racial crowd ecstasy, they’d probably prefer to find it at a Beyonce concert or an Eagles game.

So help me, Holy Spirit. Maybe the message of Pentecost is neatly packed into that one verse from the assigned Gospel lesson (John 20:19-23) which I’ve quoted above. The spirit which Christ gives us isn’t to be found in passion or even in miracles. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is found in peace. It’s in the certainty that Christ, who is one with the Father, is also dwelling in us through the Holy Spirit. This isn’t just a sterile assent to a doctrine giving us the smug satisfaction that we won’t go to Hell because we believe the right thing. If that were all then church would be unnecessary and my Confirmands would be right in sleeping in on Sunday mornings.

No. The peace of the Holy Spirit is the assurance that we have the comfort of an earthly family of believers who see the cross of Christ as the lens through which they keep the world in focus. It is also the inculcated knowledge that we are sent. We have a mission and a purpose in life. The Creator God has given us gifts to use for his glory in this psycho-crazy world.

I may not know my two Confirmands well, but I know in my soul that they are created by God and that God did not make them without giving them a purpose. And that purpose can only be found through the lens of Jesus Christ—through his compassion, his sacrifice, his exhortation, and his faith that God can use us to do all things glorifying to him. Any goal in life which is not Christ-centered will never be satisfying. It will lead to complacency at the least or pain and frustration at the worst.

So come, Holy Spirit. We don’t have to speak in tongues or shout “Hallelujah.” Just confirm our faith, guide our lives, empower our serving, give us patience in suffering, and lead us to the peace that come from knowing we share eternal life in you.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Some Thoughts on Memorial Day (And Easter 7, Year A)

“And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3)
Image result for folded flag

I stood looking down at the beautiful young woman in the casket, and I thought of Shakespeare’s words when Romeo looked at the dead Juliet:

“Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath,
Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty:
Thou art not conquer’d; beauty’s ensign yet
Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks,
And death’s pale flag is not advanced there.”

This Juliet was a sergeant in the United States Marine Corp. She wanted to be a Marine because she’d heard it was the toughest branch of the military, and she wanted to be up for the challenge of being a badass. She served two enlistments, including a tour in Iraq. She died this past spring at the age of thirty from a drug overdose. She left behind a young daughter and a grieving family and a lot of unanswered questions about why so accomplished a girl couldn’t seem to pull it together following her time in the military. The mother of Juliet’s idiot boyfriend (and there always seems to be an idiot boyfriend who either colludes, encourages, or enables drug use. This one couldn’t attend the funeral because he was incarcerated on drug charges) told me she believed Juliet had suffered some trauma in the military, but was too proud to talk about it or ask for the help she needed.

I think about Juliet this Memorial Day. I think of my brother-in-law who died from the results of exposure to that ungodly shit called “Agent Orange” when he was in Vietnam. It took thirty years after his separation from the service, but that war finally killed him when he was only fifty years old. I think of a boy I heard about this past week, another US Marine, who died from an opioid addiction he developed while on pre-deployment. Yes, I revere those who gave their lives in the military service of our country, but I really mourn for the ones whose deaths weren’t in combat—the ones who suffered lingering pain and loneliness as a result of what they’d seen and done or had done to them. The dying doesn’t stop at the end of the deployment or combat mission.

I hear you, Jesus. I hear your prayer for us in the Gospel reading for Easter Seven (John 17:1-11). You’re praying that we might be unified, because there’s safety in unity, and this is one freaky, scary, brutal, and hostile world. And we don’t stand a snowball’s chance in it apart from you.

I need to know and keep knowing, Lord, that although you seem to be gone, you’re still here. You still hang out with us. I see you in my brothers and sisters and I pray that they can see you in me. I get scared that in this me-centered era of millions of facebook friends and no real eye-contact with a breathing human being culture that no one understand the need for your holy church. It’s ironic, but as I write this post I’m anticipating a pretty crappy church attendance this coming Sunday, just when I want to tell people how much we need our togetherness. Just when we hear Jesus praying for unity.

I prayed and preached the Gospel at Juliet’s funeral. We laid her body to rest in the veterans’ cemetery. The Marine honor guard played taps and folded the flag. As I was leaving, the mother of Juliet’s boyfriend pulled me aside. We prayed together for her son in jail. She gave me a green elastic wristband she’d been wearing that said, “Be part of the conversation.” I wore that wristband throughout Holy Week in Juliet’s honor.

“Be part of the conversation.” You have to be in relationship to do that. You have to be in relationship with God and with one another. How are we doing with that, Church? Are we communicating with our children about who Jesus is and what he means to us? Are we making an attempt to connect to the other people we see in the pews? Are we looking in on those or calling those who have been missing from worship? Are we making it a priority to witness by our presence? How are we doing with that?

As we remember those who sacrificed this Memorial Day, I’ll be thinking of Juliet and all of the other non-combat victims of military conflict and I’ll reflect on what a powerful tool the devil has in loneliness—and in how great a need we have to know we have each other’s back.

May we take Jesus’ prayer to heart. May we be one in him. God’s peace to you all.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

My (Inadequate) Thoughts on Race In America

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

On June fourth the Church celebrates one of her six principal festivals, the Day of Pentecost. This is the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit to the early Christians. It is a day when the boundaries of the ancient world were cast down, and God gave His holy Word to all people regardless of nationality or ethnicity. Annually we read the story of this glorious event from the book of Acts (Acts 2:1-21). As this is a day commemorating God’s radical act of inclusivity, I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to discuss a subject which was the focus of our 2017 Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod Assembly—the touchy subject of race relations in America.

Yes, I admit this is a scary subject for many of us, myself included. It was difficult to hear at the recent Assembly that, in spite of the ELCA’s vaunted efforts at inclusivity and welcome, we still remain the most Caucasian denomination in the United States. My parish, Faith Lutheran of Northeast Philadelphia, reflects the neighborhood: working-class white folks. Our community remains mostly homogenous and there doesn’t seem to be much pressing need to integrate; nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that something still needs to be said, and that our assumptions still need to be challenged.

I am personally uncomfortable with the issue of race, and I question whether a white boy like myself—raised in a mostly white community—has any right to express an opinion on the matter. That vile, hate-filled word beginning with “N”—a word I refuse to speak and will not suffer to be spoken in my presence—was routinely used around my family dinner table when I was a child. It was used by the parents whom I loved, and who took me to Sunday School and taught me to pray.

I was fortunate, I believe, to have grown up in the 1960’s and to have had this early indoctrination counteracted by the witness of Dr. King and the efforts of a progressive public school education. It was not, however, until I was in my late 20’s and teaching in the Los Angeles public schools that I really understood the privilege of being white in this country. When I was ten years old, my father lost his job to an industry-wide lay-off. For a time we lived on public assistance. We always believed that, somehow, our fortunes would return and the American dream would be realized. The non-white children I taught in LA, whose families had lived for generations in poverty and on public assistance, had no such hope. For them, public housing, drugs, and gangs were the only reality. My family remained “middle class” because of our address and skin color, not because of our resources. I recognized that what separates “broke” from true poverty is the absence of hope.

The biggest take-away I received from the 2017 SEPA Assembly was a discussion of how African Americans have been routinely treated by police and the criminal justice system, and how official government policy in housing created segregated ghettos in our nation. It seems only right and proper that people of good will and moral scruples should do our part to redress these injustices. It is incumbent upon us to hold government accountable for the wrongs of the past, and to insist on electing representatives who will work for police accountability, reform of criminal sentencing, affirmative action in hiring, and will do all possible to promote industry and opportunity in areas blighted by segregation and poverty.

It’s also imperative that we all examine our preconceptions about those who share a different heritage and experience from our own. I recall a party I attended when I was an undergraduate. It was thrown by an African American friend. One of my host’s cousins, a perfectly charming and beautiful young woman, approached me and asked me to dance. I remember how my brain seemed to go into slow motion as I gradually figured out that there was nothing at all wrong with dancing with a black girl—even though it was something which my parents would never have done or even countenanced. Today, I see young people in inter-racial relationships all the time. They seem to recognize that we all share a basic humanity, but I have to constantly keep scanning my Baby Boomer brain for the viruses and default settings of my childhood.

At Faith we have a great opportunity to push our thinking forward a bit. Our partnership with the Beersheba Seventh Day Adventist Fellowship, a congregation sharing our worship space made up of Haitian Americans, might offer us a chance to get to know and appreciate people of a vastly different culture and experience. I hope that sometime in the near future we can share a fellowship meal with our African American and African Caribbean brothers and sisters and learn to see some things from their perspective.

My own reluctance to deal with racial issues always comes from knowing that I will never see our society through the eyes of non-white Americans. I will never know internally the fears or feel the frustrations and the multiple petty indignities suffered from those who live with the consequences of racial injustice. To be honest, I actually fear my own ignorance. It seems almost blasphemous for me to speculate or comment on the sacred pain of those who live with the burdens of our American past. I fear walking in my dirty feet through their sacred space. The best I can do is acknowledge my own ineptness, and hope that my African American, Hispanic, Asian, LGBT, etc. brothers and sisters will receive my inadequate efforts with patient forgiveness.