God People, Trump, Morality and the First and Greatest Commandment

352F795F-C66F-45DB-838E-B2CEDFF6EA39Take a trip with me into the Bible Belt for a visit to the town of Luverne, Alabama, population 2,700. In the First Baptist Church on Main Street, we can hear a sermon on one of the Ten Commandments, one sermon in a ten part series. The people in the pews are good people, “salt of the earth” Christians who seek to live exemplary and moral Christian lives.

Good to see you this morning,” the pastor said, shaking hands as the worshippers took their usual places in the wooden pews. He walked up to the pulpit and opened his King James Bible.

“Today we’re going to be looking at the Seventh Commandment,” he began. “Exodus 20:14, the Seventh Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ ”

And from there the pastor’s dilemma is whether or not to mention the adultery of the president of the United States, the man that these Baptists believe is their savior.

Surveys and polls abound, but one particular survey indicates that Trump’s support among Southern Baptists is over 80 percent. These are the 80 percent people who showed up on Sunday morning to hear what their pastor had to say about committing adultery. 

On this day, in this sermon, the U.S. president will get a pass. After all, the people insist, he alone has saved them from sure and certain annihilation by hordes of illegal immigrants, MS-13 gang members, Muslims, terrorists, abortion supporters, liberals, and black people who most certainly would have taken over their country and killed all the white Christians.

Does that sound a bit too dramatic to be real? Tragically, it’s not an exaggeration. It is exactly what these people believe.

The Washington Post article sums it up:

The First Baptist Church’s pastor “looked out at all the faces of people who felt threatened and despised in a changing America, who thought Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were sent by Satan to destroy them, and that Donald Trump was sent by God to protect them, and who could always count on [pastor] Clay Crum to remind them of what they all believed to be the true meaning of Jesus Christ — that he died to forgive all of their sins, to save them from death and secure their salvation in a place that was 15,000 miles wide, full of gardens, appliances, and a floor of stars.”

And there you have it . . . a snapshot of the erroneous beliefs that have divided the American people. The remedy? Who knows what might unite a people of such disparate convictions and skewed ideas? It is a question worth pondering and asking for God’s wisdom in finding the answer. One thing I do know: divisions, xenophobia, racism and general hatred between the people who carry the labels “liberal” and “conservative” is not pleasing to God. In fact, God might counsel us to focus less on “Thou shalt not commit adultery” and instead to live into “the first and greatest  commandment” and the second one too:

Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’

This is the first and greatest commandment. 

And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

— Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV)

God Images

B33BBCE1-46BB-404E-8429-32535C46106FHow do you see God? What images of God do you see? How do you find God? Where do you find God?

Most of us have at least one image of God. It may be a vague image, but still, we have an image in our minds of a higher power. There are as many images of God as there are people. People have images of a “god” they may or may not know as a part of their spiritual journey. Some imagine God as a benevolent spirit, others as an omnipotent ruler. Some imagine God as as a father, others as a mother. Some imagine God as a protector, others as a punisher.

I remember a sermon I heard many years ago proclaimed by a passionate, animated African American preacher. “Tell me brother,” he preached with a lyrical chant. “Tell me brother, how do you find God? Tell me sister, how do you find God?”

And he repeated the questions again and again, building into a spirited crescendo, after which he said, “You find God when you get little enough that God can get big in you!”

And all the congregation responded with exuberant “Amens” and “Hallelujahs.”

I would surmise that the image of God held by that congregation, at least in that moment, was the image of an all-powerful, mighty Spirit just waiting to hear their praises and then responding with little miracles of answered prayer.

God images fill the world: there is the Creator God, the gentle shepherd, the God of vengeance, the God Most High, and from sacred music, the Mighty God, Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.*

But we must acknowledge a significant exception. Some people simply say that they do not believe in God at all, any God. No images. No spiritual need for God. Nothing. They call themselves atheists.

I have known people who profess to be atheists. By no means am I an authority on this, but in my years as a hospital chaplain, I have never known a dying patient — whether believer or atheist — fail to cry out to God. In my years as a trauma specialist, pastor and pastoral counselor, I have never known an atheist who is in the depths of trouble fail to cry out to God.

I do not say that every person who does not believe in God always reaches for God in times of trouble. I am simply saying that in my experience, people in the midst of pain, grief, fear or other kinds of chaos search for a God who, by the way, is always there.

I recently read an intriguing quote by Marcus J. Borg:

When somebody says to me, “I don’t believe in God,” my first response is, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.”

― Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary

What a wonderful response, to affirm a person’s choice of unbelief while opening the door for meaningful conversation. That response is so much more respectful than a response that 1) forces a person to listen to a treatise on the existence of God; and 2) insists that the person must immediately become a believer by following a series of simple steps.

In the last analysis, a person does not find God on our timetable or through our methods. A person will find God in his or her own way and, on the spiritual journey, will see very personal images of God. They will discover the timeless grace offered to us all: a presence of God that is is constant and never-ending.

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?

If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.

If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.

— Psalm 139:7-10 (NKJV)

As for me, I hold on to the image of a constant and ever-present God. Of all the images I have of God, the God I find “on the wings of the morning” most comforts me. I see God in many ways and in many places . . .  in Scripture, in nature, in my spirit. How do you see God?

For all who have eyes to see, let them see . . . images of a God strong and true, powerful and gentle, loving and accepting. God images are most assuredly there for us, for those of us who believe in God and for those who do not.

 

* “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah

 

 

A Broken, Waiting World

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Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you. ― L.R. Knost

When I was in seminary so many years ago, I worked part time in the Development Office, that extraordinary place that dreamed up words designed to gain support for the seminary and to tell the world what we were about. The one creative theme I most remember, because we made it our catch phrase and printed it on everything, was “We’re out to change the world!”

Some students left the seminary, degree in hand, and did just that. The rest of us labored mightily and did everything we knew to do to change a world that most assuredly was waiting and broken. What a mission!

I must admit, that short statement from seminary days became my personal quest. In every ministry position, I tried to change the world, much to the dismay of my parishioners. I took on every worthy cause as my own challenge to change the world. I committed myself to justice and set my face toward hope and healing for every person suffering injustice and indignity. It became a life-long quest, a personal commission. And what’s more, I sincerely believed I could do it, at least for the first few years I spent banging my head against various walls.

The song lyrics “to dream the impossible dream” come to mind. For those of you who may be too young to know about the magic of the 1964 Broadway musical, Man of La Mancha, I must give you the lyrics of the song that was the pronunciamento of the primary character, Don Quixote, and that almost instantly became the credo that many people of God embraced in trying to change the world.

To dream the impossible dream …
To fight the unbeatable foe …
To bear with unbearable sorrow …
To run where the brave dare not go …
To right the unrightable wrong …
To love pure and chaste from afar …
To try when your arms are too weary …
To reach the unreachable star …

This is my quest, to follow that star;
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far:
To fight for the right, without question or pause;
To be willing to march into Hell, for a Heavenly cause.

And I know if I’ll only be true, to this glorious quest,
That my heart will lie will lie peaceful and calm,
when I’m laid to my rest.

And the world will be better for this:
That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove, with his last ounce of courage,
To reach the unreachable star.

— Lyrics by Joe Darion

Today, as I watch military strikes against Syria and know that our country has not welcomed desperate Syrian refugees, I am painfully aware that I did not change the world. I worked in Uganda after the devastation of Idi Amin, but I did not change the world for millions of Ugandan widows and orphans.

I worked with persons who were sick and dying in hospital ministry, and I did not change their hopeless world of suffering. I have written letters, contacted government officials, participated in demonstrations, and signed hundreds of petitions, but I have not changed the world.

It has indeed been an “impossible dream.” And yet, I believe that I lived into my call from God and followed every path God placed before me. I faced off against what I viewed as evil many times and was deeply, demonstrably angry many times. But always, my mission remained in the center of God’s gentle grace and love. How?

I learned along the way — finally — that changing the world God’s way means holding tightly to lovingkindness, compassion, love and gentleness. The Scripture in Galatians 5:22-23 (NIV) says it like this:

. . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

“Change the world with gentleness,” God might say to me.

While others stand for bigotry, racism, violence and war, change the world with gentleness. While leaders refuse to welcome refugees who long for a safe haven for their children, change the world with gentleness. While the highest positions in this country are embroiled in collusion, corruption, lies, greed and unkindness, change the world with gentleness.

This is a broken, waiting world that yearns, not for my righteous anger toward the world that is, but rather for my gentle hands of healing for the world that can be.

Change the world with gentleness? How? Why?

Because “Gentleness is not weakness. Just the opposite. Preserving a gentle spirit in a heartless world takes extraordinary courage, determination, and resilience. Do not underestimate the power of gentleness because gentleness is strength wrapped in peace, and therein lies the power to change the world.”

― L.R. Knost

May God lead us all in the paths of righteousness and gentleness. Amen.

On Being a Mystic

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A breathtaking sunset over Arkansas’ Mount Nebo photographed by Josh McCray.

Some Christians tend to be frightened by the word “mysticism.” The word “mystic” raises irrational fears based on a misunderstanding of mysticism as a part of the Christian’s spiritual experience. So what exactly is a mystic? A mystic is simply one who has moved from mere belief systems to an actual inner experience with God.

That brings us to the sticky concept of belief systems. Christians definitely have belief systems, sometimes rigid and judgmental belief systems. The reality is that there is never a shortage of persons spouting out their beliefs, beliefs that are often based on systems of fake religious piety.

A life lived in the spiritual realm of God is much, much more than a set of rigid beliefs. Spirituality is much more than what we think or what we say. Spirituality is who we are, our inner spirit, our soul that dances to the rhythms of the God who dwells within us.

Richard Rohr understands the inner spiritual experience.

Until people have had some mystical, inner spiritual experience, there is no point in asking them to follow the ethical ideals of Jesus or to really understand religious beliefs beyond the level of formula. At most, such moral ideals and doctrinal affirmations are only a source of deeper anxiety because we don’t have the power to follow any of Jesus’ major teachings about forgiveness, love of enemies, nonviolence, humble use of power, and so on, except in and through radical union with God. Further, doctrines like the Trinity, the Real Presence, and the significance of Incarnation itself have little active power. They are just “believed” at the rational level.

– Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation

Any of us can believe at the rational level. We can easily formulate a set of personal doctrines, doctrines that often hold us captive to self-righteousness and rigid relationships with others. To be truly free is to be open to the winds of the Spirit, to rest in the presence of God, to follow Christ into places of deep need, to give ourselves over to inner spiritual experiences.

When we live in the comforting place of the mysticism of spirituality, we will not find in ourselves a judgmental spirit that uses our beliefs to denigrate those whose beliefs differ from ours. We will not find in ourselves the need for the criticism and condemnation that results in divisions.

What we will find within ourselves is the ability to love as Christ loved, the longing to bury our souls in the gentle grace of God, the deepest desire to transform the world around us and thus create the “beloved community.”

So I, for one, want to be a mystic. I want to live in the very center God’s spiritual realm, to be moved by the Spirit, to scatter the love of Christ in all the places I walk.

May God make it so.