Monthly Archives: February 2023

And the Plan is…There is No Plan

SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT

Genesis 12:1-4a

Psalm 121

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

John 3:1-17

Prayer of the Day: O God, our leader and guide, in the waters of baptism you bring us to new birth to live as your children. Strengthen our faith in your promises, that by your Spirit we may lift up your life to all the world through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” Genesis 12:1.

As an institution, the church in America is in free fall. Numerous trees have been felled and gallons of ink spilled by learned observers of religion on books and articles explaining this phenomenon. Discussion of these explanations is far beyond the scope of a single blog post. Suffice to say that, whatever the reasons, the decline of the mainline American church is a fact we simply cannot ignore. That has been clear to me for some time, but it became concretely so at the congregational meeting of my own congregation this last Sunday. Several people expressed concern over rising expenses, decreases in financial support and stagnant to declining membership. “We can’t go on this way!” one exasperated individual remarked. She is correct-but if not “this way,” then “what way?”

Adding to all of this is the fact that we are generationally top heavy. There is much work to be done simply to maintain the ministries we have going, to say nothing of the new ones we would like to initiate. Yet most of us are at a point in life where we feel as though we are entitled to slow down, let go of some responsibilities and allow the upcoming generation to take the reigns. Problem is, there is no upcoming generation. We have but a hand full of younger people with families. That seems to be the case with a lot of our churches these days. So, as much as we would like simply to sit out in front of our tents, look up at the stars and enjoy our golden years in peace, that is not an option. It seems God is not finished with us yet.

It strikes me that we are finding ourselves in much the same position as Abram and Sari. They, too, were old and seemingly faced with limited time, limited potential and limited energy. There seemed to be no room for anything new to happen in their lives. I can well imagine Abram replying to God’s call to leave home, family and community with the suggestion that God find someone else, somebody younger, somebody with some fire in their belly. But Abram did what most of us in our church are doing-leaving (often reluctantly) the old ways of doing things that have served us so well for so long without knowing where we are going or what we are supposed to do next.

Let me say at this point that I am not the least bit anxious or concerned about the demise of the church. I am convinced that there will be a church for as long as God needs a church. It won’t be the church we have grown to know and love. It probably will not be the church for which we hoped and which we expected. But whatever shape the church takes in the next generation, it will be the kind of church God needs. Thus, our concern should not be whether there will be a church in the next century, but whether we are being the kind of church God desires in this one.

Once we turn the discussion away from anxiety provoking questions of ecclesiastical survival and toward the issue of faithful discipleship, the issues become a lot more hopeful and interesting, if not easier. If expecting seminarians to incur substantial debt to complete their education only to receive calls from churches that cannot pay them adequately is not sustainable, how do we train ministers of word and sacrament without compromising the depth, commitment and oversight required for this essential work? If we cannot provide a full time pastor for each congregation, how do we raise up and train lay leaders to assume responsibility for aspects of pastoral ministry that can be delegated? Most importantly, how do we transition from a consumer model under which the church is a producer of religious goods for its membership to a model under which the church is a manufacturer of faithful disciples of Jesus? None of these questions admit of an easy answer. Struggling with them will not stem the demise of the institutional church in America. In fact, it might well accelerate the process! But this is perhaps a time in which it is of particular importance to hear Jesus’ assurance that those who lose their lives for his sake will surely gain them. Matthew 16:25.  

At times like these, we are particularly vulnerable to the siren song of hucksters who claim to know the way forward. During the near forty years of my active full time ministry, a week did not go by without an advertisement coming across my desk promoting a program promising to grow my church. There were variations of method and approach, but they all had one thing in common. None of them worked-at least not in terms of reversing congregational decline. I am reminded of Jesus’ warning about listening to those who cry out, “Look! Here is the Messiah!” or “There he is!” Matthew 24:23. It would be nice if we had a leader who could show us the path ahead, assure us that the end is near and bring an end to our uncertainty. Hence, the appeal of preachers who pretend to know God’s timetable for the end of time and populist political leaders who offer us simplistic solutions to difficult and complex problems. But God gave no such assurances to Abram. Neither does Jesus offer them to us. We don’t get an itinerary, we don’t get a schedule, we don’t get a road map. What we get is a call to leave the comfortable and familiar and venture out into an unknown future.

The good word for a dying church is that we follow a risen Lord. We cannot see the path ahead, but we know who walks with and before us. We have no idea where we are in time, how much further we need to travel or what will meet us on the road ahead. We have only the promise of a land, a people and a blessing at the end of it all. We get just enough light to put one foot in front of the other. It is not as much as we want. But it’s enough.

Here is a poem by Fenton Johnson articulating the kind of vision that can sustain us on our long journey through the dark wilderness-with a reminder that we are, in fact, still in the dark wilderness.

A Dream

I had a dream last night, a wonderful dream,

I saw an angel riding a chariot-

Oh, my honey, it was a lovely chariot,

Shining like the sun when noon is on the earth.

I saw his wings spreading from moon to earth;

I saw a crown of stars upon his forehead;

I saw his robes algleaming like his chariot.

I bowed my head and let the angel pass,

Because no man can look on Glory’s work;

I bowed my head and trembled in my limbs,

Because I stood on ground of holiness.

I heard the angel in the chariot singing:

“Hallelujah early in the morning!

I know my Redeemer livet-

How is it with your soul?”

I stood on ground of holiness and bowed;

The River Jordan flowed past my feet

As the angel soothed my soul with song,

A song of wonderful sweetness.

I stooped and washed my soul in Jordan’s stream

Ere my Redeemer came to take me home;

I stooped and washed my soul in the waters pure

As the breathing of a new-born child

Lying on a mammy’s breast at night.

I looked and saw the angel descending

And a crown of stars was in his hand:

“Be ye not amazed, good friend,” he said,

“I bring a diadem of righteousness,

A covenant from the Lord of life,

That in the morning you will see

Eternal streets of gold and pearl aglow

And be with me in Paradise.”

The vision faded. I awoke and heard

A mocking-bird upon my window-sill.

Source: Poetry, December 1921. Fenton Johnson (1888 -1958) was an American poet, essayist, author of short stories, editor, and educator. He came from a middle-class African-American family in Chicago where he spent most of his career. His father, Elijah Johnson, was a railroad porter and owner of the State Street building in which the family lived. Johnson received his secondary education at various public schools in the city, including Englewood High School and Wendell Phillips High School. Johnson earned his bachelors degree from the University of Chicago and later attended the Columbia University Pulitzer School of Journalism. After completing school, Johnson worked for a short time as a messenger and postal employee. Shortly thereafter, he secured a teaching position at the State University of Louisville, a private, black, Baptist-owned institution in Kentucky later re-named Simmons College. There he taught English until he returned to Chicago in 1911 to concentrate on his writing career. Johnson published his first volume of poetry, A Little Dreaming, in 1913. Thereafter, he published two others books, Visions of the Dusk and Songs of the Soil in 1915 and 1916 respectively. His work is included in many anthologies of 20th-century poetry. Johnson is considered by many to be a forerunner of the Harlem Renaissance. You can read more about Fenton Johnson and sample more of his work at the Poetry Foundation website.

The Seductive Allure of Power

FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Psalm 32

Romans 5:12-19

Matthew 4:1-11

Prayer of the Day: Lord God, our strength, the struggle between good and evil rages within and around us, and the devil and all the forces that defy you tempt us with empty promises. Keep us steadfast in your word, and when we fall, raise us again and restore us through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’” Matthew 4:8-9.

The devil does not waste time tempting the wicked. He can trust them to find their own way to hell. The devil tempts good people, people with high ideals, people longing for a better world. And he accomplishes that purpose by offering them the tool they need to achieve their noble purposes, namely, coercive power.

It is tempting to buy into the notion that the power of the nations and their splendor is neutral. It can be used for good or ill, in the service of justice or oppression, for altruistic or selfish ends. But that is not what the gospel tells us. According to the gospels, the power and splendor of the world’s kingdoms belong to the devil. You cannot make use of them without paying the devil his due.

The demonic nature of coercive power is often obscured by all that power promises to deliver for the cause of good. I want my children to be successful in life and so I use parental power to punish and reward, to restrict and permit in order to steer them into the paths I believe are best for them. I want my congregation to be focused on outreach and service to my community. So I influence the nomination committee to select for leadership positions people I know share my vision. And why not? If I know what is good and what is right and I have the power to make it happen, why not use it? My children will thank me someday for what they now resent. God will surely overlook a little manipulation of pastoral relations and a few procedural irregularities in congregational process if the result is a powerful witness of justice, peace and service to my community. Coercive power gets results-or so the devil would have us believe.

Of course, things seldom work out as well as one hopes. I wish I could tell you how many unhappy people I have met over the years damaged by and estranged from parents who exercised excessive control under the rubric “I’m doing this because I love you.” A pastor who knows the ropes of church politics can run almost any proposal through a church council and get it approved by the congregation. But to make it work, pastors need the trust and confidence of their people, something they lose once it becomes clear that they have abused their influence to get their way. The splendor and power of the nations is not all that it seems. It is not as effective as it appears. Worse still, it comes with a heavy hidden price and the devil is a merciless creditor. The words of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar ring true:

Slight was the thing I bought,
Small was the debt I thought,
Poor was the loan at best-
God! but the interest!

The costly failure of coercive power is evident. The guns marketed by the gun industry promising protection and safety for our homes are killing our children. The militarization of the police in the name of “law and order” has served only to inflame the fault lines of racial injustice in the United States. Elections imposing the will of the majority on the minority have neither resolved the issues dividing us as a nation nor united us as a people. In the name of saving and/or liberating Ukraine by flooding it with arms and fighters, the nations of the world are destroying it-along with the peoples dying of starvation in the horn of Africa due to the resulting disruption of grain transports. The greatest military power on the planet failed spectacularly in Iraq and Afganistan. The power of the nations is illusory. It cannot deliver the peace, security or prosperity it promises. The devil knows this well. That is why he is willing to part with his so-called power so freely. The devil knows very well how attractive is all the good such power promises to deliver and how blind we are to its cost. So also does Jesus. That is why Jesus tells the devil to keep his power and take a hike.

According to Saint Paul, God’s power appears to the nations of the world as “weakness.” The cross is folly to the nations. It has no place in their struggle for dominance and control. I Corinthians 1:20-25. Our way of exercising power is not God’s way. God loves the world too much to impose God’s will upon it. God will rule the world through love-or not at all. That means God sets aside God’s power of coercion-even if it means that the best God has to give us will be rejected, ridiculed and nailed to a cross. God will not avenge the murder of God’s only Son. Instead, God just keeps raising him up and offering to us again for as long as it takes to win our hearts. God’s power is God’s patience, God’s refusal to be suckered into the devil’s game of intimidation, violence and retribution.

During this Lenten season I think we would do well to meditate on the kind of power exercised in our families, in our work, in our schools and in our churches. What are the practices of coercion that need to be rejected along with all the other works and ways of the devil?

Here is the full poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar cited above expressing the consequence of incurring indebtedness to evil.

The Debt

This is the debt I pay
Just for one riotous day,
Years of regret and grief,
Sorrow without relief.

Pay it I will to the end-
Until the grave, my friend,
Gives me a true release-
Gives me the clasp of peace.

Slight was the thing I bought,
Small was the debt I thought,
Poor was the loan at best-
God! but the interest!

Source: Johnson, James Weldon, The Book of American Negro Poetry (c. 1922 by Harcourt Brace & Company). Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906) was one of America’s first influential African American poets. He grew up in Dayton, Ohio where he lived with his widowed mother. His poetic skill became evident already in high school. The only black student in his class, he was elected class president and class poet. Though he was never able to obtain a college education, he read voraciously. His early poetry gained the admiration and respect of influential poets such as James Whitcomb Riley. With the support of Orville Wright, then in the publishing business, Dunbar was able to publish his first book of poetry. His popularity continued to grow and in 1896 he was invited for a six month reading tour in England to present his poetry. He returned in 1897, married fellow writer Alice Ruth Moore and took a clerkship position in the U.S. Library of Congress, a job that left him time to continue his writing career. Tragically, Dunbar’s physical and psychological health began to deteriorate in 1902, leading to his eventual divorce. He became fatally ill in 1905 and died in February of the following year.

You can find out more about Paul Laurence Dunbar and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

RNC and CPAC Commission Trump Theme Song

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

The Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) and the Republican National Committee (RNC) have conferred to produce a theme song for the Republican Primaries, calling for Republicans to unite behind the only declared Republican presidential candidate, Donald J. Trump. The tune for this new promotional anthem is that of the hymn, “Softly and Tenderly.” Said RNC chair, Rona McDaniel, “We know that a lot of Republicans are wavering in their support for Donald Trump. Some might be thinking of challenging him and we want to get out in front of that.” CPAC chairman, Matt Schlapp, told Ghost reporters, “We recognize that white evangelical support for Mr. Trump has been slipping and we want to reverse that trend asap.” He added, “We think a theme song with a good solid evangelical melody might be just what we need to turn the tide.” The full text of the song is as follows:  

Loudly and vengefully Donald is Calling (Approved by CPAC and the RNC. Can be sung to the tune of “Softly and Tenderly”)

Loudly and vengefully Donald is calling,

Calling the whole G.O.P.

Spewing his venom on faith breaking RINOs

All who will not bend the knee.

Chorus: Come home, come home

Reprobate RINOS come home.

Loudly and vengefully Donald is calling

Reprobate RINOS come home.

Chorus

Traitorous Kingsinger with turncoat Cheney

Turned on their Donald with ‘crats.

They paid the price of blaspheming their savior.

Voters drowned both just like rats.

Chorus

Some men denied their dear Donald in weakness.

Lindsey and Kevin did waver.

Groveling and pleading in dark Mar a Logo

Brought them back into his favor .   

Chorus

Why will you wait to return to your Donald?

You know that you must in the end.

His base is your ticket to staying in power

You must make that lynch mob your friend.

Chorus

**************************************************************

FAKE NEWS ALERT: The above article is satirical. The events it describes didn’t happen.  “There are people who will say that this whole account is a lie, but a thing isn’t necessarily a lie even if it didn’t necessarily happen.” John Steinbeck

A Transfigurative Moment

TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD

Exodus 24:12-18

Psalm 99

2 Peter 1:16-21

Matthew 17:1-9

Prayer of the Day: O God, in the transfiguration of your Son you confirmed the mysteries of the faith by the witness of Moses and Elijah, and in the voice from the bright cloud declaring Jesus your beloved Son, you foreshadowed our adoption as your children. Make us heirs with Christ of your glory, and bring us to enjoy its fullness, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“For [Jesus] received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.” II Peter 1:17-18.

Any way you look at it, we who follow Jesus stake everything on second hand information. Unlike Saint Peter, we were not there on the mountain top where “Jesus received honor and glory from God the Father.” We did not witness his transfiguration or overhear his conversation with Moses and Elijah. We were not enveloped under the bright cloud or brought to our knees by the divine voice. What we do have are the sacred writings of the apostles and their disciples passed on over the last two millennia first through oral tradition, then in written form and finally canonized by the church as faithful and reliable witnesses to Jesus and the reign of God he proclaimed. The immediacy of Jesus’ transfiguration-as is the case with the rest of his life and ministry-is forever beyond our reach.

Or is it? Do we still experience what the New Testament calls “Kairos” time? Instances when time and eternity intersect? Occasions when centuries of chronological time collapse into a single moment? Intense experiences of God’s presence to us in the present moment? I think that most believers can describe experiences of that kind. Many of us who have spent weeks of our childhood at Christian camps have memories of deep friendships formed, intimate worship experiences that deepened our faith and moments of intense spiritual joy. Some of us have experienced a rebirth and deepening of our faith at some crisis point in our lives that has imprinted itself on our hearts and minds.

I, for one, frequently sense a foretaste of the new creation when I see dancers defying the power of gravity and hinting at our final release from the gravitational pull of sin and death. I sometimes experience the timelessness of the communion of saints at the funeral of a loved one when, through tears, the congregation finds itself singing as one with the saints in light. I experience the immediacy of God’s inbreaking kingdom when poets stretch human words and images to the breaking point making room for mysteries too big for words. These are just a few ways God’s Spirit breaks through the ordinary rhythms of life and transfigures our vision, letting us know that there is more, so much more.

The thing to remember is that these transfiguration moments are transitory. Most of our days continue to flow in plain old chronological time where one thing follows another. Most of our weeks involve going to work or school, preparing and eating our meals, reading the mail, taking out the trash and singing the liturgy on Sunday. I do not mean to denigrate the ordinary. There is holiness to be found in the humblest task and joy that flows from the routine work of living and serving others. Indeed, I would say that the joyful work of discipleship is always done in the ordinary and that the ordinary is where our focus ought to be. Transfigurative experiences are not intended to free us from the ordinary, but to drive us back into it with a renewed sense of urgency and purpose.  

Transfiguration moments can be transformative. They can sustain one’s faith in times when it is being sorely tested. They can broaden one’s vision and remind one that beneath the smallest subatomic particle the Spirit of God is throbbing with unlimited potential, the Word of God is tenaciously holding creation together against the powers of evil that would rip it apart and the parental providence of God is drawing it toward its proper end in God’s Trinitarian Self. Life is not directionless. It is going somewhere. Every so often, the Spirit of God gives us a glimpse-but no more than that-of the final destination. That is often just enough to keep us putting one foot in front of the other.

At this juncture in the gospel narrative, the disciples needed the Transfiguration. Jesus had just told them what was about to happen to him in Jerusalem. He told them that the cross he was to bear would be theirs to share. The gospels tell us the disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying and were unwilling to accept it. How could they have reacted otherwise? Who can blame Peter for wanting to prolong the moment of Transfiguration and drown in the light of Jesus’ glory his call to take up the cross? Who can blame us for wanting to turn off the frightening news of war, deadly earthquakes, unidentified objects flying over us and ever new permutations of Covid 19? Who can blame any of us for wanting to tarry in the sunlight rather than take up the cross and follow Jesus into the darkness of death? How is it possible to believe that this dark path leads finally to a new creation?

Thank God for artists and sculptors who open our eyes to what is not yet, but might be. Thank God for musicians who lift our spirits, joining our hearts and voices in song, giving us a brief taste of the unity God desires for all humanity. Thank God for dancers and athletes whose bodily antics prefigure the freedom of the resurrected body from the gravitational pull of sin and death. Thank God for poets who stretch our minds and our imaginations beyond what we typically observe. Thank God for preachers who open the letter of scripture, making it a portal into the new age toward which we are being led. Thank God for transfigurative moments, great and small. May they give us just enough light to make once again the journey through Lent and into the mystery of the Resurrection!

Here is a transfigurative poem by James Weldon Johnson inviting us to “Look up, and out, beyond, surrounding clouds.”

Sonnet

My heart be brave, and do not falter so,   

Nor utter more that deep, despairing wail.   

Thy way is very dark and drear I know,   

But do not let thy strength and courage fail;   

For certain as the raven-winged night

Is followed by the bright and blushing morn,   

Thy coming morrow will be clear and bright;   

’Tis darkest when the night is furthest worn.   

Look up, and out, beyond, surrounding clouds,   

And do not in thine own gross darkness grope,   

Rise up, and casting off thy hind’ring shrouds,   

Cling thou to this, and ever inspiring hope:

   Tho’ thick the battle and tho’ fierce the fight,

   There is a power making for the right.

Source:  Complete Poems (c. 2000 by Penguin Publishing Group). James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) was a lawyer, teacher and civil rights leader in the early part of the twentieth century. As head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during the 1920s, Johnson led civil rights campaigns aimed at eliminating legal, political, and social obstacles to black advancement. Johnson was appointed under President Theodore Roosevelt as U.S. consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua from 1906 to 1913. In 1934, he was the first African American professor to be hired at New York University. Later in life, he was a professor of creative literature and writing at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, a historically black university. In addition to these achievements, Johnson was also a gifted author and poet. He established his reputation as a writer and was known during the Harlem Renaissance for his poems, novel and anthologies collecting both poems and spirituals of black culture. His poem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” was later set to music and came to be known as “the Negro National Anthem.” It is found in many Christian hymnals today, including Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW). See ELW # 841.You can read more about James Weldon Johnson and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth

SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Psalm 119:1-8

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Matthew 5:21-37

Prayer of the Day: O God, strength of all who hope in you, because we are weak mortals we accomplish nothing good without you. Help us to see and understand the things we ought to do, and give us grace and power to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

“Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No;’ anything more than this comes from the evil one.” Matthew 5:34-37.

How often haven’t you heard some one say, “Well, frankly….” Or “To be perfectly honest with you…” Someday I will work up the courage to say, “Wait! You mean you haven’t been frank with me for the last ten minutes? You mean that, ordinarily, you are less than honest with me, but now you are deciding to be “perfectly honest?” If and when I ever pull a stunt like that, I suspect the response will be that, no, my conversation partners are not implying that they are being dishonest. They only mean to say that what they are now telling me is important, that they are making a strenuous effort to be accurate and that I should pay close attention. Be that as it may, should we not always strive to be accurate? Should we not always pay close attention to each other? Is any communication so unimportant that we can afford to be less than scrupulously truthful? 

I do not believe Jesus is suggesting that oaths requiring truthful answers under pain of perjury are wrong in themselves. Oaths required by law are designed to put those taking them on notice that false or misleading statements are subject to criminal prosecution. Jesus seems to be making an oath like statement when he appeals to the testimony of his Heavenly Father. John 8:17-19. I took an oath to defend the state and federal constitutions when I was admitted to practice law before the courts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the United States.[1] The problem comes with invoking the name of God on one’s own behalf, which is a tacit admission that without the oath, one’s representations would be less than credible. Disciples of Jesus should have no need for such oaths. They should know that everything they say is said in God’s presence and under God’s judgment. They should know that the truth matters, whether it pertains to matters great or small. “Yes” or “no” in their mouths always means yes or no in the presence and hearing of God.

Playing fast and loose with the truth is sadly common place in our civil discourse. Who can forget former President Bill Clinton’s rationalization to the grand jury attempting to explain why he wasn’t lying when he said to his top aides that, with respect to Monica Lewinsky, “There’s nothing going on between us.” Here’s what Clinton told the grand jury according to footnote 1,128 in Starr’s report:

“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the—if he—if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not—that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement. … Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true.”

Lame as this linguistic gobbledygook surely is and as preferable as “coming clean” with the truth may have been, give the man credit at the very least for understanding that lying is wrong and something about which one ought to be ashamed (along with a good many other things). Furthermore, a fib over one’s sexual indiscretions pales in comparison to the over thirty thousand lies told by former President Donald Trump who, when caught, simply doubles down, repeating them more loudly and emphatically. But the prize for most outrageous prevaricator goes to newly elected Representative George Santos who sold himself to the voters as a self made millionaire, grandson of Holocaust survivors, honors graduate of a prestigious college and the grieving son of a mother who perished in the September 11, 2001 attacks. Of course, it is now known that he was neither rich, Jewish or a college graduate. Nor did his mother die in the 9/11 attack. Nonetheless, Mr. Santos was seated in the house of representatives, thereby demonstrating that the truth is now entirely without value in our government.[2]

The church, the Body of believers in Jesus, are called to truthfulness in the extreme. Truthfulness that begins with ourselves. After all, the most dangerous lies we tell are the ones we tell about ourselves to ourselves. That is perhaps the source of all dishonesty. If you have a false view of yourself, that colors the way you understand the world, the way you form opinions about others and the way you express yourself. Honesty begins with learning to know ourselves as we are known by God. We call that repentance, something we cannot do on our own. To see ourselves as we really are-as we are seen by God, we need to see ourselves through the eyes of others, particularly those who live with and observe us, those who can point out our blind spots and those we have harmed. There is no other way of getting a clear picture of ourselves. Until that happens, there is little hope for change.

What applies individually also applies corporately. The church has much over which to lament and repent. We need to understand our instrumentality in the cruel legacy of colonialism. We need to recognize the grip of white supremacy and patriarchy that have permeated so much of our ecclesiastical life. We need to acknowledge the shameful presence of predatory behavior in our midst and our long held practice of covering it up and silencing its victims. We need to confess our demonization, exclusion and complicity in the hatred, violence and persecution of LGBTQ+ folk. It is tempting to deny all of this, minimize it or pretend that it is all in the past and that we can march into the future as though it never happened. To that, Saint Paul has a blunt response: “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.” Colossians 3:9-10. One could say that truthfulness is the foundation for all Christian ethics. Unless we get that right, the rest will be hopelessly skewed.  

Can a community as fragmented and morally compromised as the church really be “salt” to the earth or a “light” to the world? My answer is a qualified “yes.” I believe that the church, like every individual, is capable of redemption, reform and renewal. When we can stop imagining ourselves as the righteous few preaching to a sinful world and instead see ourselves clearly as recovering sinners struggling for our own sobriety, we will finally have something of value to say to that world. But it begins with each baptized member, each congregation and the leadership of each ecclesiastical tradition taking an honest look within, making a fearless inventory of our sin, corporate and individual, and openness to being made new-however painful that process might be. Until we address the sin in our midst, until we are ready to be the change we call for in our many social teaching statements, the rest of the world will continue to dismiss all of our bold, well articulated ecclesiastical proclamations as preachy screechy moralism.  Again, in the words of Saint Paul, “putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” Ephesians 4:25.

This being Black History Month, I plan to post poems of Black American poets for the next severa weeks so that we might begin to see more clearly ourselves, our nation and our churches through their unique artistic perspectives. Perhaps that is a good place for learning truthfulness to begin. Here is one such poem by Langston Hughes.

I Look at the World

I look at the world

From awakening eyes in a black face—

And this is what I see:

This fenced-off narrow space   

Assigned to me.

I look then at the silly walls

Through dark eyes in a dark face—

And this is what I know:

That all these walls oppression builds

Will have to go!

I look at my own body   

With eyes no longer blind—

And I see that my own hands can make

The world that’s in my mind.

Then let us hurry, comrades,

The road to find.

Source: Source: Poetry (December 2008; c. by New Haven: Beinecke Library, Yale University). Langston Hughes (1901-1967) was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.”  Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. You can read more about Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).


[1] To be precise, the New Jersey oath allows one to “affirm” rather than swear. That might alleviate the consciences of some who are uncomfortable with the biblical language. But it is really a distinction without a difference. In either case, you are representing your awareness that if the statements you make turn out to be false, you are subject to legal prosecution. In other words, you are saying, “OK, now I am really telling the truth.” 

[2] House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy rationalized the seating of Mr. Santos by pointing out that, after all, the voters elected him and, if they find his behavior offensive, they can deal with it in the next election. In my view, that is a little like telling the victim of a scam perpetrated by someone claiming to be an IRS agent that the scammer should not be prosecuted because, after all, the victim willingly paid him money. Just as the victim paid the scammer because he was convinced he was dealing with the IRS, so the voters thought they were electing a self made millionaire with a compelling story of heroism and achievement. What both actually got was a shameless scammer.