Society

Early yesterday morning I rolled the kids out of bed, quickly walked our beagle, and then got drinks and snacks ready to go. Although a holiday, we we’re headed to see the start of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, one town over from Southborough.  We arrived at a friend’s house before the roads had closed and enjoyed some breakfast together as we chatted. Then my family along with the daughter of our friend walked the quarter mile to the starting line.

The weather couldn’t have been more perfect for a race, a bit crisp but sunny. And Melissa, a half-marathoner and lover of all things running, was unbelievably excited. We made it to the start, looked around at the tents set up on the town green, and chatted about the race.  Our kids found a tent selling cowbells to ring.  Olivia picked out one with hearts with a peace signs drawn all over it.  We walked back down to our friend’s house and took up residence on Main Street to cheer people on.

We watched wave upon wave of starts—first came the folks with disabilities of all kinds, the ones on prosthetics, a man we had read about in the Sunday Globe and Team Hoyt.  Then the women’s elite start.  Finally, the elite men followed by three waves of about 9,000 people each.  Our kids rang their bells out when people ran by, and we clapped and called out encouragement, by name, if the person had printed their names on their shirts. By the time all the runners had passed our vantage point, the wheelchair race was nearing its completion.  We headed back inside to watch the finish of the elite runners on TV.

Our family traveled back the 8 miles to Southborough and watched a bit more coverage before enjoying the glorious day.

My brother called to check on us, and that’s how I learned of the bombings. A good friend had just finished the race and was waiting for his wife who was about a half mile behind him.  A parishioner stood forty feet from the second explosion.  These three and others we knew racing are physically unharmed. The mental and emotional toll will linger for some time.

But I can’t help but think of Olivia’s bell with those heart shaped peace signs. Love and peace. That’s what marathons provide. We saw that in the aftermath yesterday as thousands of people helped out in so many ways.

As I sit in my office on another gorgeous day and think about those impacted forever by this, I am sad. I recognize how much we need love and peace in our world. And I know that even though there are a few out there that want to destroy both of those things, I’m gonna keep ringing that bell in all the ways I know how.  Terrorism of any kind only wins when we allow fear to creep in and control us.

One year Melissa will run the Boston Marathon for a charity she loves, and the kids and I will be watching in Boston and cheering her on.  Olivia will be ringing that cowbell of hers, and I’ll remember that love and peace are so much stronger than fear.

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A rabbi once said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”

Love your enemies.

We don’t do that well in America at all, this supposedly Christian nation.  We hate our enemies. We treat them horrifically; we call them names. We laugh at their missteps, and refuse to listen to them.

This has always been simmering in the background, but really came to the forefront in the 2000 Presidential election, when Gore v. Bush made it to the Supreme Court and people felt that their votes didn’t count. So the best way to address this was to resort to name calling.

I saw on Facebook last week a picture of Hitler talking about Socialized Medicine. A friend of a friend posted it, and tagged my friend. Of course, the implied message was that President Obama had stooped to the depths of Hitler. I’ve heard this before of course. And I saw bumper sticks for Bush/Satan back in 2004 (instead of Bush/Cheney).

Where has the dialogue gone? What about even showing a bit of love?

Many Christians have aligned themselves with the GOP who have quite a few incendiary radio personalities (the left have them too, but I don’t think they are as well known). They listen to the radio and then get worked up themselves and start viciously name calling. There is little if no denouncement of things that cross the line. Some Christians have aligned themselves with the Democrats, and often claim a sense of superiority, looking down on Republicans as unintelligent (and much more).

The problem is that Christians have gotten so used to this that they get downright nasty to those who disagree with them. And when people who do disagree with them (be they Christian or no) talk with them and get heated, well it keeps escalating.

Jesus says we need to love our enemies. Show them respect. Turn the other cheek.

If nothing else we should at least be civil.

When a person claiming to be a Christian equates a President wishing to bring medical care to more people is equated with a man who killed 6 million Jews, well that’s just wrong. When a person claiming to be a Christian says all those living in Red States are ignorant, inbred rednecks who can’t have an intelligent thought, well that’s just wrong too.

If we were a Christian nation, there would be more civility in the public arena. And this won’t change until Christians, and others, begin following the advice of that wise rabbi.

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Photo Credit: Stock Exchange, Sebastian Pothe

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It’s Independence Week here as we celebrate July 4th.  I’ll be celebrating with my family at a local parade and a possible visit to Old Sturbridge Visit (the kids aren’t quite old enough yet to deal with the Boston Pops).

I hear all the time that we are a Christian nation, or that America’s framers were all Christians. I’m not going to argue with either of these, but I want to spend this week thinking about what America would look like if we truly were a Christian nation.  And it’s not what you think. Neither political party has the market cornered on this.

If we were truly a Christian nation, there would be very few poor people in America.

The disparity between the rich and the poor in this country is unbelievable. It’s the largest in the world, actually.  The median US wage was $26,364 (in 2010).  The average couple spends $26,984 on their wedding (also 2010).  You can do that comparison.

And this disparity also impacts education.  The gap in education is growing, and education was seen as the great equalizer.  Students from poor communities—regardless of ethnicity—are generally doing poorly in school.  Parents from wealthier families are investing more in special programs for their kids.  Poorer parents—often single parent homes—struggle to make ends meet, so special opportunities are rare.

Now you may be quick to say, “Yes.  But people can choose to spend their money wherever they want, and that’s why we should have better education standards since teachers aren’t doing their jobs.”  And I would say that we have misplaced values.

The poverty line in the US sits at $23,050 for a family of four.  We had more than 15% of Americans living below the poverty line in 2010.

If we were truly a Christian nation we’d be doing something about this.  First by saying that it’s criminal to claim that the poverty line is at $23k for a family of four.  Second, by recognizing that most people don’t want to be in this position, and want to work hard.  I’m personally surprised by the number of folks who say it’s due to lazy folks looking for a handout from the government.  Yet minimum wage jobs nets you only $15K a year or so. If you work fulltime.  If not, well, then you won’t get any benefits and will make less than that $15K.

We don’t stand up for the poor because we don’t really care. We think they got themselves into this problem and we shouldn’t have to get them out.  Besides God helps those who help themselves.  (Which isn’t in the Bible, by the way.  Ben Franklin said it.  In Poor Richard’s Almanac).

But God says something very different.

Deut. 15:7-8. If there is a poor man among you, one of your brothers, in any of the towns of the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand to your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks.

Ps. 140:12. I know that the Lord maintains the cause of the needy, and executes justice for the poor.

Is 41:17. The afflicted and needy are seeking water, but there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst. I, the LORD, will answer them Myself, as the God of Israel I will not forsake them.

Luke 3:11. And [John the Baptist] would answer and say to them, “Let the man with two tunics share with him who has none, and let him who has food do likewise.”

Mt. 5:42. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.

There are hundreds more.  Literally.  God cares more about the poor than we think.  I’ll gladly list more verses to prove this point. Hebrew Scriptures or New Testament.  It’s all over the place.

And we ignore it because we choose not to care.  If we were a Christian nation, we’d be doing more.  Instead we want to spend more and more (and rack up debt) for ourselves without considering those in any kind of need.  And we do this because we are selfish.

I’m not holier than any of you.  I have struggles here too.  My kids go to great schools because of where I live, and I am glad for that.  I make a terrific wage.  I give away a portion of my income to charities.  And I could certainly be doing more.

This is a real passion for God, but it gets lost in the politics of the day.  Churches would rather build bigger buildings and have more programs than give away more of their money to the needy.  I think churches should work at giving away at least 10% of their pledge income to organizations that reach out to those in need.

We need to fix this.  Either that or stop saying we are a Christian nation.  And we need to help those who aren’t Christians too.  I don’t think Jesus ever once asked to see someone’s attendance record for the local synagogue before he healed them.  He just did.

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Photo credit: Stock Exchange (MeiTang).

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It’s early and I’m drinking my cup of coffee.  I bought a good sized mug when I traveled to Disney World earlier this year.  An old style Mickey graces the front as a waiter carrying a steaming cup of joe.  Two Lents ago I followed a cleanse, and I gave up caffeine entirely; these days I drink half-caf, and only one cup at that.  I know, that’s pretty weird.  I’m 40-something and trying to learn some new things.

When I traveled to Swaziland the summer following my college graduation, I tried to learn some of the local language, siSwati. It’s a Bantu language similar to Zulu, and most of the tribal populations in and around South Africa have kindred languages (sort of like Portuguese and Spanish).  I didn’t really succeed since most people also spoke English, but I learned a few words.  “Yebo” meant “yes” but also could be used in reply to a greeting.  “Babé” and “Maké” were my host parents, or any other person old enough to be my parent as a term of respect.  “siYabonga” meant “Thank you.”

But I learned something else about that one.  “Thank you” always took the plural form, the “si” at the beginning of the word.  Even if I said thank you to my Maké for making me breakfast, if I said thanks in the singular, she corrected me.  “Not ngiyabonga, but siyabonga,” she would say.  Always plural.  Always.

It took time but I discovered why.  If you said thanks for something, the Swazis realized there couldn’t be only one person involved.  The breakfast from Maké?  She cooked the toast, to be sure.  But someone else sold the bread to her at the market.  And that person probably made it.  But she bought the flour from another person entirely (never mind the other ingredients).  Someone delivered that flour, and another person placed it in the sack.  Surely someone worked the mill to grind that flour up, and the flour didn’t just magically walk into the mill.  Someone need to pluck the grain either by hand or operating a machine, and someone needed to sow that seed. The farmer got that seed from somewhere or someone.  And on it goes.

siYabonga.  Thank you.  All of you.  For the breakfast of toast and butter.

I learned gratitude there in Swaziland.  I often forget, of course.  I get lost in the culture of consumerism that penetrates nearly every aspect of my life and tells me I’m the most important and that I should do things for myself.  I sometimes give a half-hearted thanks to Melissa when she hands me something if I’m lost in thought, barely thanking her let alone a whole host of others.

But today, as I drink my half-caf in a mug bought in Florida, I remember.  Thank you.  Every single one of you that had a hand in bringing the coffee and the mug and the milk and the splenda to my home.  Wherever you are, whatever you do.  May this day be filled with blessing.  I am grateful for this mug and the coffee it holds.  siYabonga.

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Whenever something politically happens like Amendment 1 in North Carolina, I hear arguments that if same-sex couples were allowed to legally marry or partake in a civil union heterosexual marriages would fail.

Ironically, when I’ve met with couples whose marriages are falling apart, not one person has ever said to me it’s because of a gay or lesbian couple.  So I think it’s safe to say that this is just an out for people so as not to face a more difficult political conversation.

I can tell you that when I meet with folks these are the issues that come up:

  • infidelity
  • lack of communication
  • money and finances
  • falling “out” of love
  • unmet expectations

And unfortunately, by the time a couple comes to see me it’s usually too far gone–the relationship is on life support–and divorce is on the horizon.

And I think the chief reason this happens is this: We can’t admit that there are problems.  We live in a world were everything appears to be perfect–we are inundated with this message day after day from Madison Ave.–and so when a storm kicks up, we hide it.  We don’t talk to one another or to any close friends.  We let our communication skills go to seed.  Anger and resentment creep in.  We look for solace wherever we can find it–be it in the arms of another person or in the bottom or a bottle–and we spiral downward.  All the time keeping the mask on that everything is okay.

We’ve gotten so used to the idea of divorce that it doesn’t really shock us nor does it snap us back to our senses in working at ways to make our marriages more healthy.  It’s almost inevitable when rough seas come up.  A couple assumes they weren’t meant for each other, and so they go their different ways.

Actually, they’ve decided either together or individually that what they have isn’t worth fighting for.

I think God wants us to have strong marriages that last a lifetime.  And unfortunately, that requires tough work.  It’s not easy.  But that might be a blessing in disguise.  We have a tendency to value that which costs us when we make it through the other side.  So keep at it.

If your marriage is on the rocks, I’m truly sorry because that’s a really crappy place to be.  I hope that you get help if you can, if not as a couple because your spouse is unwilling, at least on your own.  If you can’t find anyone, drop me a line.

And let’s realize that other couples and their recognized or non-recognized relationships don’t destroy our marriages. We do that all by ourselves, and it’s time to at least be honest about that.

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In the midst of the debt talk and how we don’t have enough, Jesus tells us often that there is more than enough.

This poem is from Walter Brueggemann, theologian and altogether an amazing guy (and wicked funny to boot).  I used it in my sermon this morning.

 

On Generosity, by Walter Brueggemann

On our own, we conclude:
there is not enough to go around

we are going to run short
of money

of love
of grades

of publications
of sex

of beer
of members

of years
of life

we should seize the day
seize our goods
seize our neighbors’ goods
because there is not enough to go around

and in the midst of our perceived deficit
you come
you come giving bread in the wilderness

you come giving children at the 11th hour
you come giving homes to exiles

you come giving futures to the shut down
you come giving easter joy to the dead

you come – fleshed in Jesus.

and we watch while
the blind receive their sight

the lame walk
the lepers are cleansed

the deaf hear
the dead are raised

the poor dance and sing

we watch
and we take food we did not grow and

life we did not invent and
future that is gift and gift and gift and

families and neighbors who sustain us
when we did not deserve it.

It dawns on us – late rather than soon-
that you “give food in due season  you open your hand
and satisfy the desire of every living thing.”

By your giving, break our cycles of imagined scarcity
override our presumed deficits

quiet our anxieties of lack
transform our perceptual field to see

the abundance………  mercy upon mercy
blessing upon blessing.

Sink your generosity deep into our lives

that your muchness may expose our false lack
that endlessly receiving we may endlessly give

so that the world may be made Easter new,
without greedy lack, but only wonder,

without coercive need but only love,
without destructive greed but only praise

without aggression and invasiveness….
all things Easter new…..  all around us, toward us and by us

all things Easter new.

Finish your creation, in wonder, love and praise. Amen.

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When Melissa and I were getting married, the minister who did our pre-marital counseling gave us a copy of the Holmes and Rahe stress scale.  The test—which can be taken online—asks if certain life events have happened in your life over the last year or so to see how stress can be wreaking havoc on your body.

So you simply checked a box if the situation applied.  Things like: marriage, divorce, death of parent, death of a spouse, move, work changes, change in finances, different sleep patterns, arguments, and 30+ other items.  Each is given a number, and if the total number is more than 300, you have a very good chance of becoming physically ill due to the stress.  If it was 150-299, you have a moderately good chance of getting ill.

In the past number of years, I don’t think I’ve scored lower than 200, most times pushing higher.  I suspect many of you might be in the same boat.  I’ve lived much of the last years with near constant stress.  Since my ordination 7 years ago I’ve relocated 3 times for church positions, experienced the birth of my two kids, dealt with the death of my mother, had major surgery, and the list goes on.  I’m not looking for sympathy as much as to say these things happen in life and often we are unaware of the long term impact of stress in our lives.

I mentioned in my sermon on Sunday that we have a tendency to isolate ourselves when things get rough.  We don’t want to talk about it either because we don’t want to admit that life is difficult right now or because the constant rehashing of our experiences is emotionally draining.  And not only do we pull away from friends and family members, we also have a tendency to stop doing things that give us life.  We stop engaging in activities that feed us.

One of the things I often ask people who come to see me about issues in their life is this: How are you taking care of yourself?  Often in stressful situations we get so bogged down by it all—the pain of divorce, the late nights with a newborn, planning for a new endeavor—that we don’t take the time to rejuvenate or to connect with God.

I wish I could say I’ve got it all figured out, but I too get caught up in the stress at times.  But these things have helped me.

1. Set aside a regular time for God. Yeah, I’m a priest and I get paid to say something like this, but it actually works. When I set aside a regular time each day to pray, read scripture, or just sit quietly I am able to recognize God’s deep love for me and that God cares for me and is with me in the stress.

2. Do something I love. This takes intentionality, but if I can go for a walk, do some cooking, see a movie or one of the other things I love to do (I have a lot of hobbies), then I’m able to be fed by those things. I met a person recently who said his thing was trying new beers, so this summer he’s doing just that. Each night he’ll try a single bottle of a new brew and then keep a list of the ones he likes.

3. Connect with a friend. Tell someone you love that you’d like to do something together. Grab a cup of coffee or a meal. Browse at a local bookstore. Whatever. Spend time with them and be honest about some of the stress you’re experiencing. “Bear one another’s burdens,” Paul tells the Galatian church (Gal 6:2), “and in this way you’ll fulfill the law of Christ.” One sure way to reduce your stress is to talk with a trusted friend who can give you support.

I hope you’ll take time this next week to take an inventory of where your stress is at and also to become intentional about how to take care of yourself.  We don’t do ourselves any good if we just let the candle keep burning on both ends without becoming aware of how it might damage us or our relationships.

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This is must-see-TV in my book.  We often don’t see what happens behind the scenes when it comes to commercials or photo shoots, and this let’s us in on a glimpse of what that is like.  Props to Dove for doing this.  I hope every tween and teen-aged girl sees this and then talks with a trusted adult about the realities of “perfection.”

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