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July 21, 2014, 3:00 PM

The Root Problem on OUR Side of the Border...

One of the major drivers of the current crisis on our border is something which rarely gets mentioned. It is that many of those people from Central America are fleeing societies drenched in murderous violence. That violence is being perpetrated by drug cartels that are so psychopathically savage that they are at least the equals of the most fanatical jihadis. They have caused the highest murder rate in Honduras, and have essentially fought a low-grade civil war in Mexico that has killed tens of thousands.

I've seen reporters tell people who are trying to illegally enter the US, that they will be arrested and deported. They don't care. They will try anyway, because they are desperate to escape their blood soaked homelands and the cartels.  The terrorism they are fleeing is not that different from that which others are fleeing in the Middle East.  The risk of deporatation pales before the risk of slaughter.  They will try, no matter how many Border Patrol officers or National Guard troops, we deploy on the border, unless we start shooting children trying to make the crossing.  That would make us as despicable as the narco-terrorists.

The cartels don't do these things because of an ideology (unless it is the most laissez faire form of capitalism imaginable) or some religious dogma. They do it to become filthy rich, by providing addictive and deadly drugs, for which people of every race and class in this country will shovel mountains of money at them. 

The insatiable American appetite for drugs has wrought misery and murder across the hemisphere. We complain about the Islamic fanatics who fund the barbarism of the Taliban or ISIS...but it's a torrent of US dollars, from American "recreational" dopers and hardcore junkies that funds the terror closest to our country. The consumers of these drugs conveniently overlook the blood that is intermingled with their with...because their personal high is more important to them.  (BTW.  The heroin they buy often comes from poppies grown by the Taliban in Afghanistan, which subsidizes their acts of terror and their attacks on US soldiers.)

The "war on drugs" has been a colossally expensive failure. Because there is a deep spiritual crisis which goes unaddressed, and can't be fixed by law enforcement. People go looking for pharmaceutical joy or escape, because they can find no deeper happiness or purpose for their lives. That emptiness has generated all sorts of crises.
I can understand the frustration and concern of people in the border states who see their social services being overwhelmed by unaccompanied minors from Central America, who have little more than the clothes on their backs when they arrive.  But, I also understand the terror and despair which drives these people from their homelands.  The irony is that they seek safety in the very country where people are subsidizing the drug dealers from their homes, yet many in this country will deride and reject the refugees for trying to escape them!  These people are bing doubly victimized!
Tragedy often contains irony.
Our "War on Drugs" has been an abyssmal failure, largely because it has focused on punishment.  People who get involved with drugs, do so thnking they will somehow be able to escape the consequences.  And, once they are addicted, they fear being punished, so they don't seek help.
I'm not saying we give all druggies a pass.  But jail time isn't working as a deterrent, or a cure.  Instead, we need to focus more on preventation and treatment.
Prevention needs to be about more than just telling people that drugs are bad.  We need to provide a better way of coping and a better source of joy.
Jesus said,  "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full."  Sleazebag prosperity preachers on TV pervert that to mean Jesus wants you to have a Lexus.  But it means that he wants us all to have the love we need to live with hope, purpose and strength.  It's a powerful alternative to drugging yourself.
But, the church needs to be about offering that alternative in powerful, transforming ways.  Too often, it has sat on the sidelines and "tsk-tsked" about the situation. 
We need to look at ways to get into the game, and start addressing this profound spiritual problem, which has wrought misery, addiction, terror, and social dislocation across our continent. 

June 9, 2014, 4:00 PM

Spiritual AND Organized

   The Illinois Great Rivers Conference recently announced that it exceeded its goal of raising $2.5 million to support the United Methodist church’s Imagine No Malaria campaign.  The United Methodist Church, as a denomination, has poured tens of millions of dollars into this effort, and thousands of members of the church…both native Africans and visiting American volunteers…have put countless hours into it.

  You can find out more here...

   The goal of the campaign has been to end deaths due to malaria in Africa.  The program has already significantly contributed to a dramatic drop in malaria deaths.  Overall, the mortality rate has dropped by 50% across Africa since the effort go underway.  In some countries, the death rate has dropped even further than that.

   The bottom line of all this is that hundreds of thousands of people, most of them children, have had their lives and the health saved by this effort, which was made possible because the church organized itself to do it.

   But, I’m guessing that you didn’t hear that good news broadcast in the secular media.  It’s far more likely you did hear or read about the ghastly discovery of the bones of hundreds of infants and toddlers which were found in the septic take of an abandoned convent in Ireland, where unwed mothers and their children were housed in decades past.

   The horrific discovery of hundreds of children who probably died of poor care is genuinely newsworthy.  Such sickening atrocities should not be covered up or ignored. 

   But, a little perspective is in order…

   It’s common to hear people refer to “organized religion” with an air of disdain, and facial expressions that make them look like they just smelled something really rancid.  They will point to the babies’ bones and other genuine crimes and scandals and insist that this “proves organized religion is a thoroughly corrupt and misbegotten enterprise.

   Many will also proclaim that they are “spiritual, but not religious.”  Meaning that they don’t bother to congregate with others in icky organized ways that could possibly do anything but stifle and poison their pure spirits.  Besides, if you let too many people into your little circle, someone is bound to suggest that you're wrong about some things.  Who wants that grief?

   I’m sure these spiritual people are revolted and disheartened by dreadful and monstrous  stories, like that of the 800 dead babies, placed in the care of organized religion.  I suspect at least some of them feel a certain moral superiority, because they have no part in the institution which caused, or allowed, this tragedy to take place.

   But, here’s the flipside…

   They also had no part in the epic and highly organized work which has saved hundreds of thousands of babies from death or lifelong disability, due to malaria.  The church did that.  And it could do it, precisely because it is organized to do such things.

   When it fails in that mission…that makes news.  I’m not complaining about that.  Failures, and especially criminal failures, must be exposed and confronted honestly.  Churches shouldn’t whine about such exposures, but should face them, admit to them, and fix them with courageous integrity.  The cover-ups which have attended some of these failures have only compounded the misery of the victims and done nothing to truly help or protect the church.

   But when it succeeds, who notices?  People often seem to shrug and say, “Well, isn’t that what the church is supposed to do?  Why should that be treated as news?”

  Maybe because telling half a truth is little different from telling an untruth.

  Yes, organized religion does some dreadful things that merit exposure and correction.  But right now, millions of people are alive and well, because people who are spiritual and organized came together to do something wonderful and heroic.

   The world should know that.  Because the world needs hope and inspiration.

   Tomorrow, all sorts of “spiritual” and many decidedly non-spiritual people, will render more verdicts and spew more invective against organized religion, claiming it does not and cannot do enough good to justify its existence.  They will point to the bones of hundreds of babies as damning proof of their indictment.

   But, tomorrow, the people of the United Methodist Church will carry on the work of saving millions of people from a deadly disease.  They will support hundreds of schools and colleges fighting ignorance.  They will support homes for battered and abused children, where no bones will ever be found.  They will support homes for the aged.  They will support ministries to the homeless and imprisoned.  They will do all these things, and much more.  Even though the world takes little notice and offers only occasional praise.  Good news is rarely seen as news, at all.

   They will do all these things because that is how they practice the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who identified with the sick, poor and imprisoned.  And, they will do them for millions…because they are organized to do it.  They couldn't do it otherwise.

April 1, 2014, 5:06 PM

And Now For Something Completely Different...

And now for something completely different…

Some of you may recognize that as the tagline which began each episode of the classic (and decidedly different) British comedy series from the 1970s:  Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

For those of you not familiar with this exercise in oddball British humor, I will direct you to a couple of their classic sketches.

This one literally inspired the use of the word “spam” to mean unwanted, constantly repeated ads on the internet…

This one inspired a t-shirt you may sometimes see me wear, which says, “The Spanish Inquisition, Expected by No One Since 1970”  (That was the year the sketch first aired.)

It strikes me that the words, “And now for something completely different…” make a fitting introduction to the story of the Resurrection.

I know there are cynics and skeptics who will immediately respond that the Resurrection is a joke and a bad one…some kind of fraud or fantasy that a man who was well and truly massacred by the Romans (who knew a thing or two about efficiently massacring folks) was brought back to life.

We live in a world where some people think Elvis is still alive and that the moon landings were faked. But most of us are not so deluded.  So why shouldn’t we believe that Jesus is as dead as anyone else from that era?  It certainly seems a far less preposterous notion than the idea he was raised from the grave.

Besides, even the Gospels don’t agree on what happened.  Not one of their accounts entirely agrees with any of the others.

I would point out that hundreds of people witnessed the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and fifty years later, there are still countless versions of what “really happened” that day.  Events that surprise and shock, have a way of rattling the systems of even the calmest souls and the keenest eyes.  Frankly, I would find it more than a little suspicious if all the accounts did exactly agree.  That would come across as a bit too rehearsed.  Reality, and our reporting on reality, tends to be a lot messier.  But, despite the many different perceptions of what happened, the witnesses to the JFK assassination agreed that he was dead, and witnesses to the resurrection agreed Jesus wasn’t.

In the case of Jesus, this was an extraordinarily dangerous claim for them to make.

If they had simply said, “Jesus’ spirit lives!  It’s like he is still alive with us!” there would have been all sorts of people who would have understood that and not been scandalized by it.  We say that about all sorts of beloved and departed figures.

But, saying that Jesus was literally raised from death by God, was a dangerous, and potentially lethal proclamation.  He had been killed by a collusion between the religious and political establishments.  To claim that God had revived him in defiance of their claims to authority and power, was to engage in a profoundly subversive act.  You could be arrested for it.  You could be whipped to within an inch or your life for it.  You could be sent into slavery for it.  You could die for it.

Why not just say it was “as though” he had been raised, when that could spare you danger and death?

But, there were people who insisted that he HAD been raised from death, even at the cost of their lives.

These days, we see some despicable scammers, blingy bishops, and money-grubbing televangelists who pad their bank accounts, claiming that Jeeeeeesus is gonna make you rich, if only you send them your money.  But, back in the day, his followers were poor and among the most oppressed and powerless in their society.  Following him didn’t make them rich (as the world counts wealth) or powerful, and it tended to make them less than popular with the people who were.

But, still, they insisted he had broken death.

People point to him creating an expectation that he would rise, before he was killed, and they claim it generated a sort of group fantasy that he had somehow done so.  They note that the Jews believed in resurrection before Jesus ever showed up, and that helped set that stage for his desolated disciples to engage in a mass delusion, as a way to buffer their grief.

Actually, many Jews did NOT believe in resurrection or any kind of afterlife.  The Sadducees, didn’t.  The Pharisees did, but they did not expect the Messiah to be crucified, or to be raised.  Resurrection was to be a mass event they expected to take place at the end of the world.

Jesus violated all those expectations.  He wasn’t what anyone had expected.

There are other surprising twists in the Easter story which defy expectation and easy explanation.  But hey, I’m not going to give away all my preaching materials here!

Whatever happened, it changed the world in an unexpected way, using the most unlikely characters.

I suspect that when the stone rolled away that impossible morning, the first sound that echoed from the broken grave was…laughter.

And while the Scriptures don’t record what he may have said as he emerged, I can easily image the Risen One saying, maybe with a bit of a giggle, “And now for something completely different!”

February 4, 2014, 11:34 AM

Getting Messy

I’m a fan of “messy” churches.

I don’t mean that they have to be slovenly to suit me.  But, I would rather have a church that is a little frayed around the edges because it is getting lots of use, than to have one that is neat, tidy, and usually empty.

At one church I served, we had a pre-school program which made use of our basement.  A sizable faction of church members (none of whom had young children) complained constantly and bitterly about “the mess” and the inconvenience of having to accommodate this program.  Actually, the workers did a good job of cleaning up after themselves, but the place wasn’t as pristine as when there were no children in it during the week.

These same people complained about “strangers” invading their space.  The kids didn’t come from families who attended their church.  But, I noted that not a single one of the complainers ever made any effort to get to know those children or their parents, or to show them anything approximating hospitality.  In fact, at times, they were downright rude.  They certainly never invited them to be part of the church.

Now, not everyone was inhospitable to them.  But those who were, left such a sour impression, that the people who were involved with the pre-school never set foot in that church, once the school year was over.

I couldn’t blame them.  To be honest, after what I witnessed, I didn’t want to be there, either!

Of course, these same people worried and fretted over the fact that their tiny church was growing steadily older and tinier.  They kept saying they wanted, “new blood.”  But they wanted it to flow in the same old veins.  They were unwilling to make any real changes to their routines or accept the messiness that would come with new and different people.

If our church wishes to grow…and more importantly, if we wish to share the Good News of God’s love…we are going to have to get messy.  We are going to need to reach out and welcome people who are in distress and crisis, and who are often “high-maintenance.”

Evangelism is NOT primarily about parking more butts in our pews.  It is about helping people experience the grace of God in the times when they most need it.  That means reaching people who are “strangers” to us and often to the Gospel.  It means reaching outside the walls of a place many of them regard as alien, and possibly hostile, territory.

They often consider it hostile because they don’t fit the stereotypes both they…and too many Christians…have about who really belongs and is welcome in church.

This is not easy work.  But Jesus didn’t say it would be.  He just noted that, like a doctor, he didn’t come for the well, but for the sick and struggling.

As we think and pray about what it means to be followers of Jesus, I hope we will realize that it is a messy enterprise, and that we will accept that inescapable fact, so that we will be open to the very people for whom he came, in the first place.

I submit that a messy church is one which has truly answered the call of Christ.

January 10, 2014, 3:11 PM

The Party Is Just Getting Started...

Over the last few years, we have heard a lot about the “War on Christmas.”

The claim is that the “war” is about taking Christ out of Christmas by having store clerks say, “Happy Holidays,” instead of, “Merry Christmas.”  Evidently, Hannukah is to be dismissed.  And let’s not get started about Kwanzaa…

The only reason people are going to be in the stores is, Jesus.

Yeah, right.

Mike Slaughter, pastor of the vibrant Ginghamsburg UMC  <> has written a book entitled, “Christmas is Not Your Birthday.”  He even means that for the people who were born on December 25.

He notes that Christmas has degenerated into a hyperactive exercise in rampant materialism, which bears little resemblance to a celebration of God assuming the flesh of a homeless peasant child in order to bring hope to the poor, the oppressed, and the dispossessed by first identifying with them.

Now, it’s about the swag…the stuff…the gifts we want…and who deserves to get gifts from us.

It used to be that Advent was the season in which people prepared for the celebration of the birth of Jesus.  Now, the Commercial Christmas season starts right after Halloween and we are subjected to a steady ratcheting up of the campaigns to get us to buy stuff, until Dec. 25.

The way things are going…I expect that the stores will be open on Christmas Day, before long. 

Like the Corleones said in The Godfather, “It’s just business.”

Slaughter’s answer to this trend has been to challenge his church members to spend as much on missions to help the poor as they do on Christmas presents for each other.  He sees that as an appropriate gift for Jesus.

Following that approach, his church has raised funds to build schools and drill water wells in Africa, and support several ministries to the needy in his Ohio community.

I also have an idea, that might help to reclaim Christmas…

The twelve days of Christmas come between December 25 and January 6, which is Epiphany.

By the end of that period, the pre-Christmas shopping frenzy has died, and the malls have moved on to their pre-Valentine’s Day promotions.

Sadly, too many churches follow the examples of the malls, and quickly return to “business as usual.”

But, what if we decided to continue celebrating each day of Christmas, even after much of the world has moved on?  What if we did it by finding ways to mark each of those twelve days with some kind of special activity that would benefit the poor, the sick, the lonely, the imprisoned and the grieving?  What if we invited non-churchgoers to come an share in celebrations that involved good food and friendly fellowship?

What if we told the world, “It’s not over!  It’s just begun!”

In fact, I would hope that the twelve days would mark the launch of new ministries which would continue throughout the year.  I would hope that churches of various denominations would join together…at least during those twelve days…to do some of this work and to share in celebration.

The Real War on Christmas is the transformation of a holy season in which we are called to remember with gladness and gratitude that God loves the least of us, into an orgy a hyper-consumption that tramples over so many wounded souls on its way to the store.  I would like to see us reclaim its true meaning by reminding ourselves, and the world, that Christmas doesn’t end when the stores close.

I plan to take this up with other clergy and church leaders.  Maybe by next Christmas, we can do something special to remind the world that if Jesus really is the reason for the season, then we need to let people know the party is just getting started!

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