Who’s a Fool?

I know I haven’t posted in some time. My life has been too full lately. I’m finally finding some balance.

This is the sermon I preached today for Easter based upon Mark 16:1-8.

The period from Maundy Thursday, which was last Thursday, to today, Easter Sunday is the most significant and sacred time in the entire Christian calendar.  Known as Triduum, they are the holiest days for all Christians.  It is so important that the Vatican proclaimed today, April Fool’s Day, postponed until next week.  The pope issued a proclamation which said in part, “the importance of Easter should not be overshadowed by jokes and frivolity.  The Easter message is of grave importance to all humankind.  We should not give rise to jokes and puns on Easter.”  April Fool

Seriously, the pope did not postpone April Fool’s Day.  And today is not the first time April Fool’s Day and Easter came together.  The last time was in 1956 and the next time will be in 2029.

I admit that many of my colleagues have been joking about this coincidental collision of dates for weeks.  Theologically, we agree that Easter is the ultimate joke on the devil. Death had no hold on Jesus.

The Roman and religious authorities crucified Jesus.  It was an exceptionally cruel form of execution reserved for people who were deemed a threat to the Roman Empire. The authorities saw Jesus as a threat because they used fear to keep the peace, which they enforced with weapons of war and destruction.  They feared Jesus’ message of love. He taught that the route to true peace came through breaking bread with people, which overturned the assumptions upon which the Empire protected and projected its authority.  Jesus was their enemy.  Jesus was an enemy of the state.

Their fear made them more likely to succumb to sin.  The authorities thought that by executing Jesus, they would silence him forever.  Thus, they put him on a cross.  They believed and placed too much faith and trust in the ways of the Empire rather than in the ways of God.  The ways of the Empire, however, were not life-giving.  They emphasized scarcity over abundance.  They promoted greed over generosity.  They pursued self-interest over community.  They destroyed their enemies.  This did not foster true peace.  The ways of the Empire were the ways rooted in sin.

Resurrection was an emphatic no to sin. Resurrection rejected sin.  Life, not death, was the final word.  Life, not death, is the final word today as well.  As I said before, Easter is the ultimate joke on the devil.

Despite the joke, we might wonder if we’re good enough to enjoy eternal life at the end of our mortal days.  While we’ve heard for years that heaven is for the righteous not the sinner, as Christians we also understand ourselves to be sinners.  Paul acknowledged this in his letter to the Roman church in which he wrote that all of us sin and fall short of the glory of God.  Yet, in the next line he wrote that we are justified by grace as a gift through the redemption of Christ Jesus.  He also wrote in his letter to the Ephesians (2:8), “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”  Or as Mark Twain wrote, “Heaven goes by favor.  If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”

Jesus’ death and resurrection didn’t save us from sin as much as it was to remind the world that sin cannot triumph over righteousness and that fear cannot prevail against love. Easter is our reminder that life not death is the victory.  Furthermore, the peace that we believe is ours in eternal life can be ours in this life when we live according to Jesus’ teachings.  We don’t need to wait until we die to experience true peace because the kingdom of heaven can be here and now if we place our faith and trust in the upside down, overturned ways of the gospel.

That, though, is a frightening prospect.  Describing the women who came to the tomb, Mark wrote, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  They feared because in that moment they faced God’s power.  What Jesus taught and said was true.

On one hand that brought great joy because all that he said and did in his ministry brought hope to people who had very little, whether it was money or power or basic human dignity.  It was a sign that the kingdom of heaven on earth would be made real and that God’s power, power rooted in and nourished by love, would prevail over the Empire’s power, power rooted in and nourished by fear.  They had hope because resurrection made clear that a world organized and built upon sin was weak and unsustainable and would ultimately fail.

However, when we think about all of that very deeply, we can’t help but to be frightened as well.  The kingdom of heaven on earth changes everything.  True for people who are at the bottom of the economic ladder, life certainly looks bright.  But it also means changing our relationships with people, especially with those whom we feel have harmed us in some way.  It means giving up habits, especially unhealthy habits which we have used to cope with the world.  It can change our relative positions in society’s pecking order.  It’s no wonder that the authorities saw Jesus as a threat; they risked losing all that they knew and loved.

Certainly, Easter is joyful because we affirm life over death.  Easter is hope that though we may be entombed in our own despair, God will remove us from our tomb, lift us up and restore us.  Easter reminds us that when sin is the foundation of the world, it cannot stand and it is not sustainable.  Easter is our reminder that God did not demonstrate true power by coming down from the cross, but by humiliating himself even unto death to show the world then and through every age even to today that we must embrace life-giving ways even when they frighten us.  Easter demonstrates that love is the greatest power to transform the world; that perfect love casts out fear, and that when we embrace love as the foundation for the world, the world will be strong and sustainable because love never ends.  Love is inexhaustible.

In one sense, when we embrace the gospel fully and live very closely to the ways and teachings of Jesus, we are fools.  As Paul wrote, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’” (1 Cor.1:18-19)

The reality, though, is we are fools for not embracing Jesus and the cross. We are fools when we believe our wisdom and ways are superior to Jesus’.  We are fools when we fail to see resurrection as clear evidence that the ways of this world are what are truly foolish.

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A Silver Lining in the Tax Cut

The recent tax cut makes me angry and leaves me in despair.  The time, however, to lament is over.

This was not tax reform.  Primarily, tax reform would be revenue neutral, certainly not blowing a hole in the federal budget.  Tax reform would have made changes to the tax code so it could reflect some economic realities today which were not present in the mid-1980s.  Good tax reform would have sought to achieve laudable economic objectives, such as encouraging an increase in personal savings to help people accumulate assets for their post-working lives (aka retirement), or it might have sought to diminish the disparity between rich and poor.  Instead, this tax bill blatantly shifted wealth from the poor to the rich and reduced revenue in order to cut social programs.  (Darn this is like the Roman Empire during Jesus’ time.)

But it’s too late.  It is the law of the land.  However, the bright silver lining in this really dark cloud is an opportunity for the Democrats in 2018.  I hope they don’t blow it.

The Democrats can use this tax cut to make clear not only how they are distinctly different from the GOP (in case people continue to believe there is no difference between the parties), but their vision for America.  It must go beyond platitudes and feel good phrases.  (Attention Democratic leaders, “A Better Deal” doesn’t say much when the GOP set a pretty low bar.)

No Republican voted for the Affordable Care Act.  The party spent years vilifying it.  Repealing it was its rallying cry.  Speaker Ryan even unveiled a replacement for it in 2016.  That was an empty proposal because when the Republicans took control of both houses of Congress this year, they failed to pass any replacement legislation.  They, however, severely damaged the Affordable Care Act.  They did further damage with this tax bill to the health insurance market by eliminating the mandatory insurance penalty, thus disrupting the health care market for everyone.

The Democrats have to be better.  They have to be prepared to be a credible opposition party beyond “we’re not Trump and we’re not Republicans.”  The party should prepare a solid tax reform proposal to present to the public in the second half of 2018.  It should not have “to be determined” blanks or include wishful thinking about economic growth.  It should articulate clear economic objectives with equally clear rationales.  It should be just, otherwise known as progressive so that those at the bottom of the economic ladder have a lesser burden than those at the top.  It should offer credible support to strengthen and sustain the common good.  It should be ready for passage should the party capture either the House or the Senate or both.

I find the idea of tax reform perplexing without linkages to government spending, which should relate to larger aspirational goals and objectives for this nation.  Furthermore, our current reality should inform those goals and objectives.

Technology that did not exist 30 years ago has disrupted companies and industries.  National boundaries no longer restrain the movement of capital.  Like the past, companies will seek out the lowest cost producer, except today that lowest cost producer could be across the ocean.  Thus our tax policy should reflect this reality by encouraging companies to develop new products and new businesses here in this country, such as promoting long term research and development.

Technology also allows knowledge to move across the globe with few barriers.  I often use the example of accounting.  Not long ago an accounting major could get an entry level job in a large company and expect a reasonable upward career path.  Today, financial data moves via the internet and with accounting principles the same regardless of currency, why can’t a company located here in the United States find cheaper entry level accountants in Vietnam?

Consequently, we need to enable people who lose their jobs to gain new skills.  It could entail lifelong education programs.  How can we make the tax code work to enable people to get this education at minimal or no expense?

As an aging nation, we face two issues.  First, we are living longer.  As Social Security relies upon current contributors supporting current recipients, we are facing fewer contributors supporting a larger pool of current recipients.  Younger workers already worry about diminished Social Security benefits upon their retirement.  Additionally, traditional pensions are vanishing.  We should encourage savings for retirement.  Second, as we live longer, the costs to keep us healthy increase.  The Democrats should make clear why some form of universal healthcare is necessary, (note there are four basic models to provide universal health care) and then develop a tax policy to support it.

I want to hear how the people of this nation will ensure that everyone, regardless of gender, gender preference, age, race, physical and mental ability, ethnicity, or country of origin, can live their lives with dignity.  I don’t want to see people standing in line waiting for food at a food pantry, especially people who worked hard all their lives and now in their later years have to suffer this indignity. (Reflect upon this for a moment.  That we have accepted people standing on line for food means we have accepted begging as a part of our food security policy.)  I don’t want to figure out how an unmarried single person without children, who lost his pension because his employer used his pension as an asset when it got sold a decade ago, will live with his health issues when he can’t afford housing or private care.  I want us to find unacceptable children who live in poverty.  I want all people to live in peace, as in shalom, the wholeness of life, and to have hope for their future.

Tax policy provides an economic foundation for our national hopes and aspirations.  In one sense, it is an economic reflection of the type of nation we believe we are and hope to be.  To the Democrats … tell us and make it real.

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Advent Lighting Liturgy 2017

I’m late posting this, probably because I’m not preaching every week in Advent this year.  This liturgy uses the Isaiah texts for Year B, except on the fourth Sunday, which I used Romans.  You can use this liturgy for home or church.  If you do, please write or note the following:  Liturgy prepared by Quentin Chin.  Used by the author’s permission.

Advent Liturgy

Dec 3:  Isaiah 64:1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence– as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!  When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.  From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.  You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.  We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.  There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.  Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.  Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

One:       We turn to face the past and see a world with gaping wounds.  Too many victims of mass violence.  Anger simmers in our communities.  Children suffer in poverty.  Opioids flood our streets.  We are lost.  We need the Almighty to tear open the heavens and come among us.  We need the sword of righteousness.  We need love’s healing balm.  We need God to lead us towards a new day.

Many:    The world we see, O God, is of our making.  When we are motivated by fear rather than love, believing in scarcity more than abundance, we lose our way.  Come among us and guide us from this world’s turmoil to your realm of peace and justice rooted in your steadfast love.  Amen.

Dec. 10:  Isaiah 40:1-11

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.  A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”  A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass.  The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.  Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”  See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.  He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

One:       Have we been watchful?  Have we listened carefully?  In the midst of bad news, there are signs of hope and glimmers of new possibilities leading us to God’s kingdom on earth.  This year researchers tested a new drug to fight ovarian cancer.  The civil war in Columbia ended.  Americans of all ages and political persuasions set aside their differences to marvel at a solar eclipse.  A court in Chicago extended civil rights to LGBTQ people.

Many:    Steadfast and loving One, though we may have difficulty seeing signs of your love and peace in our midst, you do not fail us.  Nothing shall stand in the way of your coming.  We have nothing to fear.  May we not wither like the grass or fade like the flower, but stand fast and proclaim your power and glory in this world.  Amen.

Dec. 17:  Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.  They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.  Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.  I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.  For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

One:       By our baptisms, God calls us to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.  We shall with God’s guidance and help rebuild the ancient ruins, raise up the devastation, and repair our communities.   The Holy Spirit, which is in each of us, gives us strength and courage to exceed our limitations and in so doing make plain the good news to come.

Many:    O God, lover of justice and purveyor of peace, let the struggles we see in our community and the world prod us to be your instruments of peace.  May we be inspired by love to serve as your hands and feet in order to hasten the new day when your peace and your justice will prevail.  Amen.

 Dec 24 (morning):  Romans 16:25-27

Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith–to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

One:       The new day is almost here.  We can hasten that day when we serve God as Jesus demanded of us.  Peace and justice rooted in radical, inclusive love will prevail.  Fear will be banished.  Scarcity and deprivation will be no more.  Hope will spring forth.  Be strengthened in Spirit.

Many:    O God, we will be your instruments of grace.  We will bring hope to the poor.  We will be stewards of your Creation.  We will be your servant leaders.  By your Spirit give us strength.  By your Spirit give us courage.  May your Spirit move us to action.  Lead us on righteous paths so that we do not stray.  Amen.

Dec. 24 (Christmas):  Isaiah 9:2-7

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness– on them light has shined.  You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.  For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.  For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.  For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

One:       Christ has come again.  Though peace and justice for all is not yet, we know that God has been working to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.  Such work cannot be done without the Holy Spirit moving in us and through us.  Progress has been made and progress will continue.

Many     God of peace, we are awed that you came to us on a night long ago to share our common lot, to proclaim the captives free, and make the lame leap for joy.  We give thanks for your presence in our lives.  In celebration of your presence in our world tonight, we promise to be your hands and feet to continue the ministry Jesus began so that the darkness of this world will be dispelled forever.  Amen.

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Two World Views

I preached this sermon on Sunday in North Adams, MA. It was based upon the morning’s gospel reading Matthew 22:15-22. I also made slight allusions to the morning’s psalter, Psalm 96.

Jesus’ answer to the tax question was laden with more meaning than appeared in that moment. His clever answer allowed him to evade arrest. It also encapsulated his intentions of an entire week. This exchange took place between his entry into Jerusalem the day before and his execution on a cross four days later.

Jesus came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. He also directly challenged the Roman Empire. It was a confrontation between two visions for the world. One vision was ruled by Caesar, which we know as the Empire. The other vision was ruled by God, also known as the realm of God, the kingdom of God, heaven on earth.

Jesus’ answer, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” distilled his ministry and his intention. The Pharisees and the Herodians wanted to arrest him. Jesus was too much trouble. He disrupted Roman peace. He agitated for the people, especially those who were poor or otherwise unable to share in the Empire’s wealth because the political and economic structures were organized against them.

Jesus’ death on a cross was a moment of triumph for the Empire. Crucifixion, execution on a cross, was a punishment meant to humiliate and literally break the criminal in order to demonstrate the state’s power. It was reserved for people who the state believed posed a threat. By executing Jesus, the state believed they put down the insurrection they feared. It was the apex of the Empire’s power.

As it was the apex, it also was the beginning of Empire’s end. When Jesus rose from the dead, the finality the Roman authorities believed they had on that Friday was demolished. The New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop N. T. Wright wrote in his most recent book The Day the Revolution Began, “The death of Jesus launched the revolution; it got rid of the roadblock between the divine promises and the nations for whom they were intended. And it opened the way for the Spirit to be poured out to equip God’s people for their task.” In other words the ways of the Empire were over, albeit its death took hundreds of years, and was a call to God’s people to bring about peace and justice rooted in love.

The first century Palestinians did not see Jesus’ death as their path to eternal life. Jesus’ death signaled their liberation from a daily life where fear maintained peace and where scarcity organized its economy. Jesus’ death was a rejection of the wealthy increasing their wealth at the expense of the poor. Jesus’ death was the affirmation that love transforms the world and secures true peace not weapons of destruction. Jesus’ death meant that the justice for all people was not some dream, but could be a reality.

We cannot ignore, however, that Christianity is truly strange. The gospel, the good news, is the world overturned. The ways of this world are contrary to the ways of the kingdom of God. Think of it this way. How truly weird it is that we follow a God who was tortured, humiliated, and left to die in a most hideous execution? No other religion began in this manner.

I think we forget this. Whereas in Jesus’ day if we walked along the roads, we would see crosses on the hills. Some were empty. Some had bodies. The state invoked fear with those crosses to keep the peace. Today, we’ve tamed the cross; we wear it as jewelry.

Jesus’ answer then remains relevant today, perhaps even more than in first century Palestine. We need to see the cross for what it was, a brutal instrument of torture which became a sign of hope that another world is possible. Doing so becomes the opening to understanding that peace and justice rooted in radical inclusive love is real.

That’s what has sustained me over the past several months as I’ve thought about the world in which we live. I don’t want to convey that I’m depressed and without hope, but am I alone in thinking that something is really wrong in this nation? How is it that a gunman can spray bullets from a hotel window into a crowd without outrage from political leadership? Why is it that in the richest nation in the history of the world we tolerate more than 20% of our children living in poverty? What does it say about a nation where people hold a spaghetti supper fund raiser to pay for cancer treatments? Where else do we see political leadership pressing for tax relief for the very rich while the disparity between rich and poor grows wider every year? And it’s not just political. Is there logic to our celebrity culture where people, like the Kardashians, are famous for being famous? What drives the increased hostility towards Muslims and people of color and immigrants? Then, I think of opioid consumption. According to a United Nations study in 2015 our daily  consumption per 1,000,000 people, the United States consumes 50,000 doses, whereas the second highest nation, Canada, consumes just over 30,000 doses. Maybe we are truly sick?

If there is a time when we need the ways of God, it’s now. We need that illogical, upside world of the gospel. We need to end our fears and put our faith in love remembering that perfect love casts out fear. We need to remember that God’s creation is abundance not scarcity. We need to trust that the bread and cup will do more to transform this world than a stockpile of weapons of violence and destruction. We must strive to create the common good. We must turn our inward gaze outward to end our self-centeredness. We have to stop celebrating wealth and power and embrace servanthood as true leadership. We can’t continue to measure wealth by how much we have. The cross tell us that we measure it by how much we give away.

In this world we hear a siren’s song. It beckons us. It is sweet music sung with voices caressing every note. Its words are promises, but they are false promises. They are promises for material riches and fame as the path to glory. They are promises that enable us to deny aging. They are promises that elixirs will relieve our ailments and suffering. They are promises that celebrate external beauty as our path to upward mobility. They are promises that we can remake ourselves because we’re not good enough as we are. They are promises that we have nothing to fear as we will be protected by the power and might of the state. They are promises that shield us from our mortality. It is a loud song that with its beauty overwhelms and intoxicates our senses. However, the promises in this song can disappear in an instant.

God sings too. Though an old song, today it may sound new. Though not quite as loud, it is the epitome of simple beauty. It is a quiet song with words reminding us to live generously and always giving thanks. It is a song about love’s transforming power and reassures us to trust love, especially in times of fear. It teaches us that the rewards for today may be greater if we wait until tomorrow. It promises that we don’t suffer alone and that our suffering can be redemptive. It promises that by our aging we grow wiser. It promises that we are fine just the way we are. It promises forgiveness. It promises eternal life. God sings a song of promise. Those promises are eternal and will give us the eternal peace and justice rooted in radical inclusive love that we all seek. Those promises are real.

We must listen for God’s song. We must follow it. We must learn it so we can sing it too. We will learn it in the church. We will learn it so we can sing it in the streets. We will sing it in places where hope is in short supply. We’ll sing it where our community needs a healing balm. We’ll sing it to tear down the walls of injustice. We’ll sing it because the world needs to hear a song of shalom. Friends, here in the church we sing this song. Let us sing this song together.

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An Opening to Healing

I covered the  pulpit yesterday for a friend.  This is the sermon I preached using the texts from Isaiah 25:1-9 and Matthew 22:1-14.

I serve Soldier On, a transitional shelter program for homeless veterans, as one of its chaplains.  Serving homeless veterans has its rewards and challenges.  Moving someone from homelessness to independent living is tremendously rewarding.  That’s especially true when many of the veterans we serve became homeless due to an addiction, typically to alcohol or drugs or both, and some may even have mental illness.  But that’s also the challenge.

Consider Gary.  Gary is a composite of many veterans I serve.

Gary is in his mid-60s.  He served two tours in Vietnam evacuating bodies of soldiers killed or wounded in battle.  When he came home he got married.  He has a couple of children, who are adults now.  We can trace his alcoholism to his combat history from which he suffers PTSD and moral injury.  Alcoholism destroyed his marriage, which lasted only a few years.  His wife left with his children.

Gary also had a harrowing childhood.  He was the middle child of three.  Their alcoholic father beat them.  Their mother couldn’t protect them as she was an alcoholic, too.  They got some relief during those occasional months when Dad spent time in jail.  Sometimes Mom had to put them in an orphanage.  Their life was chaotic.  After the family moved for the fifth time, Gary stopped counting them.  The moves became too disruptive for the children’s education.  Gary never finished high school.

He hasn’t seen his brother in ten years, but he last spoke to him by phone about three years ago.  He hasn’t seen or talked to his sister in twelve years.  He lost track of his wife.  He hasn’t spoken with either of his children in at least twenty years.  When asked where they might be, he said, “I don’t know. Texas, I think.”

An alcoholic’s estrangement from family is not uncommon. It’s similar to people addicted to drugs, whether cocaine or opioids or any sort of mind-altering substance.  They don’t have to be in their 60s, either.  Some years ago I met a woman in her late 40s whose family lived in Alford.  They kicked her out due to her drug addiction.

It’s not that an addict is despised or hated by their family.  Caring for an addict is exhausting.  Your heart breaks when they are heavily drugged or drunk.  You stop trusting them because they’ve lied too often to cover up their addiction or they’ve promised to stop only to relapse again and again.  You worry financially because you keep giving them money to live after every job they lose or even worse stealing from you to support their habit.  You’re tired of running to the emergency room or having to deal with another DWI at all hours of the night.

The woman whose family kicked her out shared some of her story with me.  She said they couldn’t keep her home any more.  She was out of control and the family feared that she would suck them into her vortex.  The emotional roller coaster for them was too much.  They stopped taking her back for their own protection.  She had to leave.  And she had no desire to go back to them, either.

The addict is the odd man out in Jesus’ parable.  The family has no problem welcoming people to their table, but the addicted family member no longer fits.  Still the family doesn’t necessarily stop loving them.  However, the history of hurt and disappointment and betrayal makes their relationship tenuous, brittle, or even non-existent.

Stories like Gary’s or the woman’s are terribly sad, especially to people who have stable and reasonably intact families.  When I tell people stories like these, many are almost in disbelief.  Losing a family member in such a manner is unimaginable.

So, a question, and an embarrassing one at that.  With the opioid epidemic we have in Berkshire County as well around 20% of the county having an excessive alcohol problem,[1] why is it that a sizeable majority of our churches don’t seem to have many families, if any, who have a family member struggling with some sort of addiction?

I’ve served three congregations in Berkshire County in three different denominations.  Not once has someone stood up during joys and concerns and said, “I need help with my addiction.”  Not once has someone stood up and said, “Our daughter is struggling with addiction and we are at the end of our rope.” Oddly, though, some people have informed their friends in the congregation, such as with the choir, that their son or daughter is struggling with addiction so it is an open secret.  They’ve even shared it with me in confidence.  But we act like addiction is “out there,” not “in here.”

Is it shame? Vulnerability?  Does fear keep addiction in our congregations hidden?  Or maybe as a Christian community to admit that an addict is a member of the congregation or that a family struggles with a member who is an addict is a sign of our failure as Christians to live a Christian life?

Let’s be real.  If everyone were perfect, we’d have no need for the church.  If there is any place where an addict or the addict’s family can be loved, held, and cared for, it is the Church.  When we make clear that we will share the struggles and sadness of addiction we destroy the accompanying shroud of secrets and shame.  We can work with addiction when we’re honest, open, and willing.

This does not mean that we will end the addiction because few of us have all the skills and knowledge to do that.  Ending addiction takes professionals.  Even at Soldier On we will place people in addiction treatment programs when an individual’s case is too much for us.  Even then, sometimes an addict has to go to more than one treatment program before finally ending their addiction.

Our task as the church is to support the addict and the family.  We begin by accepting that addiction is not a sign of weakness or a failing, but a disease.  We have to understand the nature of alcoholism and drug addiction, which may entail sponsoring community programs about addiction if only to edify ourselves. We need to acknowledge that addiction is not a function of race or class.  Today a substantial percentage of opioid addicts are not poor or people of color, but are middle class and white.  They’re addicted because they need the opioid after their prescribed pain medication script ran out.  As for veterans, many became addicted because their combat experience upended their moral universe.  This is known as moral injury and is not limited to people who served in Iraq or Afghanistan.  We need to remind them that they are indeed loved and worthy of compassion and grace through our clear demonstrations which must go beyond words and platitudes.  We have to bring ourselves to listen to their stories.  Sometimes those stories are really very hard and emotionally draining, but isn’t that what we’re called to do as Christ’s disciples?  Furthermore, if people we know and love can’t share their burdens with us, then we should ask ourselves why.

Addiction is a health crisis.  It destroys lives.  It destroys families.  It places a terrible economic burden upon our community, our commonwealth, and our nation.  They can be poor health outcomes, the cost of incarceration, the damage it causes within families and neighborhoods, and increased demands for government support programs.

Though we won’t end addiction by ourselves nor can we come close to covering its costs, the church has a role.  We can support families struggling with addiction, both the addict and those burdened by the addict.  When we do that we are saying, “You don’t have to carry this burden by yourself.  We do not believe you have failed, but you have a disease from which we want to see you recover.”  We can listen to stories, especially the difficult and painful ones.  In so doing, we say, “We truly care, and with the Holy Spirit we have the strength to sit with you in your pain because we love you.”  We can begin with ourselves to teach people about addiction so that as a community we can take a proactive role to help people step away from behaviors that might lead to addiction and to provide community resources where once they are addicted, they can get the help they need.

We are the Church, the body of Christ.  Our table is long enough and wide enough to provide the rich food and well-aged wines strained clear to all people.  Some may come to the table dressed appropriately, others less so.  And some hardly at all.  But even if we send the addict away, addiction still affects us.  Isn’t it much better to keep the addict at the table where we can all share in their care, where they are fed and, most importantly, a have a chance to get well because they are loved?

[1] Berkshire Health Systems.  https://www.berkshirehealthsystems.org/documents/Health%20Needs%20Assessment/Berkshire%20County%20Health%20Needs%20Assement%20REVISED%20Nov%202015.pdf  2015 Page 27

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DACA – Anger and Sadness

The president rescinded DACA today.

I will agree with one thing.  DACA could not indefinitely stand as an executive order.  It needed passage by Congress.

However, Obama signed the executive order because Congress, specifically the House, could not pass any immigration reform.  Just to refresh our memory, the Senate passed a bi-partisan agreement on immigration reform with support from the White House.  It could not pass the House because too many Republicans opposed it.

Compassion for the children of undocumented immigrants who came with their parents and grew up in this country was the right thing to do.  How do you live with uncertainty hanging over your head every day?  Your life is on hold.  By ensuring their ability to remain in the United States, these children could live, attend school, and work in this country.

Returning “dreamers” to their country of origin is heartless as they have developed deep roots in this country.  They have absorbed American culture.  Their connection to their country of origin is tenuous at best.  Going back would leave them adrift.

Deporting the dreamers would render a huge economic hit in this country.  The Cato Institute (not one I would cite often, but heck, why not use a libertarian think tank’s data when it works) estimated deporting dreamers would cost $60 billion to the federal government and would result in a $280 billion economic reduction in economic activity over a decade.

A different angle, which is really demographically wonky.  The age distribution in the United States skews older.  In other words we are an aging nation and over the next couple of decades will have fewer people supporting older people.  An aged population will drag down the economy.  We need young people and dreamers who are part of that demographic cohort to maintain economic vitality and sociological health.

I was in the car a lot today and had a lot of time to think about this.  Though there are Republicans and Democrats who oppose rescinding DACA, there remain many, mostly Republicans, who support the president.  Though it sounds compassionate to give Congress six months before moving to formal deportation, it’s really cynical.

First, there remains plenty of opposition in the GOP caucus to DACA.  If the House considers legislation in the manner it has been doing since Dennis Hastert was Speaker of the House, there is no incentive to pass this legislation.  (The Hastert rule required that a majority of the GOP’s caucus must vote in favor of the legislation before it can go to the full House.) By not passing it (as in doing nothing), those who oppose it get what they’ve wanted all along.  The only way it passes is for the House leadership to work across the aisle with Democrats and freeze out GOP members who oppose it.

Second, the aggressive anti-immigration sentiment in this administration makes me worried about other family members.  Even if Congress passes legislation to keep the dreamers in the United States, would Immigration go after their parents or other family members?  After all, the dreamers registered with all their information.

Despite the pending lawsuit filed by some GOP state attorneys general against DACA, the president could have chosen to press Congress for legislation while renewing it.  Of course AG Sessions would have been opposed, but the president could still have ordered the Justice Department to defend it.

This was heartless.

This announcement continues to diminish the aspirations and ideals for which this country stands.  Our greatness came from an ethos that (as imperfect as it was) sought to welcome people needing a place where they could live out their dreams and seek to fulfill their potential.  We were a country that offered refuge from turmoil and violence.  We were a country where hope burned brightly.

No more.

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Charlottesville and Three Lectionary Readings

I’ve been thinking how to express the emotional turmoil in me regarding Charlottesville.  I initially thought that I could write something combining lectionary readings from August 6 (Genesis 32:22-31, Jacob wrestling with the unnamed man) and August 13 (Matthew 14:22-33, Jesus walking on water).

I would have written that Charlottesville should force us to confront racism’s poison and how it permeates so much of our life as community.  We need to do more than have conversations on race.  We need to wrestle with racism’s affect on incarceration, economic policy, gun laws, healthcare, public education, and … well you may get the idea… racism touches almost every part of our public institutions and practices.

Reflecting on the images from Charlottesville, I would have added that we cannot succumb to fear.  We cannot let our innate primal response freeze, flee, or fight seize us.  Rather, we have to hold fast to the teachings of Jesus:  gratitude, generosity, tolerance, justice, forgiveness, compassion, mercy, and love. Those bind us together as a healthy community and give us resilience when we must face trials that sometimes present existential challenges.

However, based upon the reports of Tuesday’s press conference in which the president voiced his support for the alt-right, white supremacists, and white nationalists I am stunned and shocked.  Not that he surprised me.  His tepid response on Saturday signaled his position.  Rather, he had no hesitation to display his support for them.

The president wrote off every person of color.  He dismissed the faith of non-Christians and ignored the history of antisemitism.  He denied the humanity of every LGBTQ person. He relegated women to a second class status.  He openly embraced white, overwhelmingly male, conservative Christians and validated their grievances rooted in white privilege and Christendom.

By his statement, as a person of color, I have no legitimate standing in this country, despite being born here.

August 15 will be a stain upon our history.  On this day a President of the United States openly endorsed hate.  He accepted and validated the repugnant evil of Nazism.

In one sense I’m fortunate.  I’m one of tens of millions of people whose relationship with Trump is that he is our nation’s president.  I can continue to oppose his positions and denounce his leadership.  I believe those who serve the president as his appointees and serve as government officials have a different dilemma.  My question to them:  “How can you keep your personal integrity and still serve this president?”  I specifically ask the vice-president, “Do your Christian values allow you to remain in office?”  My question to the White House staff and the cabinet, “Do you believe Trump is fit to continue serving as president?”  My question especially to the GOP: “Have you had enough?  Are you going to remain at this president’s side to pursue your agenda and in the process wear the spreading stain or will you finally take strong steps to rebuke the president publicly and collectively?”

When demonstrators appear in public brandishing swastikas, Confederate flags, and assault rifles, they are not peaceful protesters.  Those symbols intentionally provoke anger and fear.  They provoke violent reactions.

One of the conference ministers from the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, the Rev. Kelly Gallagher, was in Charlottesville and wrote a blog post bearing witness to the event.  It was passionate, frightening, powerful, and sad.  Clearly, though, some of the demonstrators who gathered to protest taking down the Robert E. Lee statue were seeking to provoke the counter-demonstrators.  Rev. Gallagher wrote, “While there were those protesting the White Supremacists who were not committed to non-violence, the violence began when one of the hate groups intentionally plowed through the group of clergy as we stood on the steps of the park. There were many ways around us – we were a small, unarmed group and they had guns, shields and sticks. But they chose intentionally to climb the steps and push through our group. This was without provocation and without thought to another way. Other groups moved forward to protect us before that could happen again.”

The president was wrong.  He was wrong for his false equivalence.  He was wrong for endorsing white supremacists, white nationalists, and neo-Nazis.

When I read the news early yesterday evening, the first thing I said was, “He’s toast.”  Though damaging, it will take a majority of the cabinet to determine that he is unfit for office or the majority of the House to impeach him and two-thirds of the Senate to convict him in order for him to be removed from office.  Despite his statement, I don’t think either of these will happen.  However, whatever he says or proposes from now on has to be viewed with suspicion and skepticism.  We can (or at least me) no longer believe he will act on behalf of all people in this nation as yesterday peeled away the thin veneer which covered his racist views which he publicly displayed for years as he led the overtly racist birther movement against President Obama.

Ironically, this Sunday’s lesson from the gospel is Matthew 15:10-28.  I can’t ignore a part of that lesson in which Jesus said, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” (18-20)


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Graduation: Expense or Investment?

Today I attended the graduation of eight men (plus one who was already released) who took a course offered by Berkshire Community College at the Berkshire County House of Corrections.  They learned about landscaping.  I was one of the instructors; I taught workforce ethics.

This was the sixth year for this program.  It’s run from late winter into the spring.  I met with the men for 90 minutes weekly.  I’ve taught in this program since its inception.

The course is funded by a grant.  It’s about $15000.  It costs over $40000 a year to house an inmate.  It’s my understanding that typically 70-75% of inmates return to jail.  However, this program reduced recidivism among its participants to about 20%.  Do the math.  The savings is enormous.  Savings are even more dramatic when we consider that the inmates who don’t return will not be an ongoing cost to the state and will begin working and paying taxes.  (I can’t tell you how good I feel when I see former students working in the community.)

I think of this program a lot because it illustrates the value it has for the state.  It leverages ten times its cost in savings.  It’s not an expense, it’s an investment.

Today as we look at the proposed budget the Trump administration sent to Congress with its drastic cuts, it’s clear to me that this budget views social programs as expenses.  Thus, as an expense, cutting is easy.

But if we understand social programs as investments, doesn’t that change our perception?  When we adequately fund education from pre-school through post-secondary, what will be the return a generation from now?  When we fund SNAP (aka food stamps) so children can have access to nutritious food, that helps to ensure they will have good physical and mental development.

Social programs are investments, which will not show returns next year or the year after.  We will see them a generation from now.  We’ll see those returns when we spend less money to house inmates or reduced long term health care costs as physical and mental health improve.  As an investment, imagining a more vigorous and robust economy with lots of creative and educated workers is not a stretch.

One of the men spoke at today’s graduation ceremony.  He was truly thankful for the opportunity to take this course.  He spoke about the mistakes he made in his life which got him incarcerated.  He went on to say that this course truly makes the Berkshire County House of Corrections a place where people can actually correct their mistakes.


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Stop this Madness

Trump exposed the GOP.

Jason Chaffetz, chair of the House Oversight Committee, asked for “memoranda, notes, summaries, and recordings” pertaining to discussions between Trump and Comey.  It’s a start.

The GOP’s indignation over the president’s conduct has been imperceptible.  The party leadership was noticeably silent after Michael Flynn had to resign due to his Russian ties.  The party hardly made a peep when the president fired Comey.  They started to grumble when the Washington Post published its article that the president revealed intelligence to the Russian ambassador and foreign minister that had limited dissemination within our own intelligence establishment.  I guess we should be relieved that GOP party members have become “troubled.”

The New York Times reported last week that former national intelligence advisor James Clapper warned that the United States government is under assault from Russia and President Trump.

This is a serious charge.  This came before the president gave the Russian officials intelligence on ISIS.  But, no investigation.  No outrage.

The GOP was outraged in 1998 when it brought charges of impeachment against President Clinton.  Yes, oral sex with an intern was wrong.  Was it a threat to this nation’s institutions?  Did it threaten our intelligence relationships with other countries?  Did it demoralize our nation’s intelligence community?  Was it even close to what Trump has done, divulge intelligence secrets and obstruct a federal investigation over Russian interference with our election process?

The GOP could draw up articles of impeachment, but that’s my fantasy which many liberals share.  However, the GOP could censure the president.  Or even send a delegation of senior GOP leaders, none of whom currently hold office in the Senate or House, to tell the president that his conduct diminishes the presidency and this nation’s international standing.

Trump has exposed the GOP to be party that loves itself more than the nation.  The GOP is a party that loves power more than it loves governing.  (And I can’t not put this in)  Whereas God shows a preference for the poor, the GOP turns that on its head and shows a preference for the rich.

Seven years ago Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein published a book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks:  How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of ExtremismThey observed then that the GOP is more loyal to party than to the nation.  They have declared a war on government.

Their hands-off attitude towards Trump makes that abundantly clear.

The longer the GOP stalls and refuses to take its head out of the sand, the easier it will be for the Democrats along with the media to attach the party and the president together.

Although I truly find the GOP positions on the economy, race, climate change, and just about any other major topic really appalling, my concern is more about the institutional damage that has already been incurred.

The other day I read something about the percentage of Americans who trusted the government.  Prior to Vietnam and Watergate about 77% of the public trusted the government.  Since then the trend has been steadily downward.  Today it is about 20%.

We really can’t afford for this trust to fall further.  It will, however, if the GOP refuses to accept its responsibility to put this nation’s welfare over party dominance.  They must stop delegitimizing Democrats and start seeing them as partners in governance.  Certainly, though, the party leadership cannot not do anything.

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100 Days – Sad

The first 100 days of the new administration was a demonstration of breathtaking incompetence.  President Trump’s lies, racism, personal attacks, ethical failings and just plain meanness made clear that this president is truly unfit for office.  The travel ban targeting Muslims from countries in the Middle East, except where Trump has business interests, was, thankfully, a failure (twice). He, then, personally attacked the judges who ruled against him.  Trump’s accusation that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower was a blatant falsehood.  Whisking foreign dignitaries to his Florida club gave him free advertising.  This is only the beginning of a long list.

The administration got the GOP-controlled Congress to roll back many of Obama’s achievements, thus setting back this nation’s progress, especially in addressing environmental concerns.  The president insulted the Australian Prime Minister Turnbull and appeared as a petulant child when he met German Chancellor Merkel.  He showed his ignorance when he lamented that reforming health care was harder than he thought and when the Chinese President Xi Jinping had to teach him about currency manipulation.

Other than the Gorsuch nomination, which due to Sen. McConnell’s bald-faced political ploy made his confirmation easy, the administration has not put through any legislation to move its campaign initiatives forward.  The administration has made no progress on infrastructure spending, tax reform, and the wall.  Its repeal of ACA was failure because the bill was terrible beyond comprehension.

I should be pleased that this administration is staggeringly incompetent.  In some way I am.  However, as I reflect upon the first 100 days, I’m sad and dismayed.

Imagine for a moment that Clinton won.  The first 100 days of a Clinton administration with this GOP-controlled Congress would have been a series of hearings by several committees in both the House and the Senate.  The Washington Post reported Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz’s pledge in October, “‘It’s a target-rich environment,’ the Republican said in an interview in Salt Lake City’s suburbs. ‘Even before we get to Day One, we’ve got two years’ worth of material already lined up. She has four years of history at the State Department, and it ain’t good.’”

Though Clinton would not have worked to roll back Obama’s achievements and would not have tried to repeal ACA, its initiatives would be stymied by Congress’ desire to investigate Clinton from day one.  Nothing would be done.  Nothing would address the deep problems we have a nation.  Nothing would respond to the frustration millions of people have over their lack of economic security and their shattered hopes and dreams due to global economic forces and automation.

Sad, isn’t it?

Our government is dysfunctional and I don’t see that change anytime soon.


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