Below are selected writings, including my award-winning nationally syndicated column with GateHouse Media distributed to over 600 papers reaching 21 million people in 36 states.

Hope Religion and Spirituality

Pray Like A Telemarketer

PRAY LIKE A TELEMARKETER

 This piece was featured as a nationally syndicated column with GateHouse Media. 

Tell me if this sounds familiar: You come home at the end of a long day, hoping for a little peace and quiet. You change into some comfy clothes, click on Netflix, then—of course—the phone rings, and an enthusiastic voice on the other end chirps, “Hi! You’ve just won a timeshare in south Florida!”

Ah, telemarketers—one of God’s great mysteries and the #1 consumer complaint in 2018. Whether it’s a salesperson pushing timeshares in Florida or a politician trying to get votes, they are interminable, unceasing, relentless salespeople that never give up.

Will we ever get our peace and quiet? Who knows? But as the old saying goes, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” So, I say, let’s learn something from their tactics.

The Bible gives us an example of how to do this in the book of Luke. There Jesus offers a parable in how we should pray and never give up. The story involves an unjust judge who “neither fear[s] God nor ha[s] respect for people” and a widow who constantly—relentlessly—pesters the judge for justice (a telemarketer kind of approach). The widow eventually wears him down, and the judge gives in. (Luke 18:1-8).

So, Jesus is saying that we should pray like a telemarketer? Really?

I guess one could argue that with all the billions of prayers going up, we need to pray relentlessly in order to be heard, especially this time of year with March Madness brackets and the Mega Millions jackpot edging toward $100 million (not that I track it).

But honestly, I can’t see Jesus saying that we need to pray like a telemarketer to be heard. I think the parable is about something deeper—about how consistent, unceasing prayer can soften even the most hardened heart.

Think about it like this: If we are sick and a doctor prescribes a course of antibiotics, we don’t take just one pill, then ask, “Why am I not cured?” We take the whole course. And we take it consistently. Why? Because we trust the doctor who prescribed it.

Prayer operates the same way. God prescribes it. For example, in Jeremiah 29:12, God says, “Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.”We can’t just raise up one prayer, then say, “Why am I not healed?” Prayer is a course of medicine. Why? Because we are the ones who are sick—we are the ones who need our hearts softened, our eyes opened, and our minds changed about how we see and treat others.

Some of you may argue, “My heart is not hardened. I pray and serve God.” Great. But that’s only half the formula. It’s no accident that the unjust judge in our story is described as someone who cares neither for God NOR others. Those two things are inextricably bound. Remember the words in 1 John 4:20: “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

Some of you may also be thinking, “I want to pray for others, but I’m in pain—I need help, too.” Praying for someone else is the way to heal both of you at the same time. The act of focusing outside yourself simultaneously blesses those you pray for and brings you a perspective and purpose that takes your mind off your own situation.

This week, when the phone rings at an inconvenient time, and a voice says, “Hi, I’d like to talk to you about buying land in Nevada,” use that moment (after you hang up) to say a prayer for someone in need. Rather than getting mad at the annoying calls, use them as a reminder of the power of incessant, relentless, unceasing prayer—prayer that can not only soften the hardest of hearts, but also bring strength in the face of great pain.

All we have to do is pray and never give up, just like a telemarketer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Justice Kindness Religion and Spirituality

WINTER IS COMING: A Study of Holy Week and Game of Thrones

This column was preached as the Palm Sunday sermon at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in NYC as well as featured by Baptist News Global. 

 

It’s finally here! The last season of Game of Thrones! And when did the first episode debut? Palm Sunday. The parallel seems too obvious to ignore.

For those of you who aren’t wrapped up in this addictive show, it’s a medieval fantasy epic about kings, queens, knights, and renegades, all of whom are playing a deadly game for control of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. One of the great houses of Westeros, the House of Stark, sits far in the north where the onset of winter can be fast and perilous. Their motto, one of warning and vigilance, is comprised of three words: Winter is Coming.

How ironic that the final season debuted on the same day as Palm Sunday, when we remember how people welcomed Jesus and hailed him as the Messiah, though all the while, winter was coming. And oh, how fast people can turn when the cold sets in.

The story of this treachery during Holy Week shares an important lesson about hospitality and welcome. It invites us to ask what true Christian hospitality is all about.

Sadly, if you Google “church hospitality,” you get articles about, yes, coffee hour.

Coffee hour!

I mean, don’t get me wrong. I love a good coffee hour, but I think Jesus had something bigger than coffee hour in mind for hospitality and the church.

It’s easy to welcome people with smiles and pleasant words at coffee hour, but it’s life aftercoffee hour that matters. It’s life when faced with an onslaught of winter that matters. It’s life when the cold sets in that matters. It’s life when the trials start that matters.

What do we do then? Do we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters, or do we step back into the shadows in silence as the crowd yells, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Thatis the true test of hospitality.

Many people hear that question and answer, “Of course I stand in solidarity with people. I would never stand in the shadows in silence—or worse, yell ‘crucify them!’”

In truth, I am afraid we do it every day.

Think about it on an individual level. We can be the best of friends, partners, spouses, or parents at coffee hour on the sunny Palm Sundays, but what about when winter sets in and the trials of life start? What happens when the divorce hits, when the addiction crisis surfaces, when the cancer diagnosis is made, when a job is lost? Can we still wave the palm of hospitality and stand in solidarity in times of trial like these?

Or consider it from a national perspective. Oh, we’re right there in the beginning waving the palm leaves. In fact, we have a huge statue in New York Harbor that waves a proverbial palm leaf:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

But winter is coming. When the trials of life start, do we really show hospitality as a nation? Or do we allow the cold to harden our hearts? The answer is pretty clear. Just look at the statistics.

This year a report by the United Nations showed that 40 million peoplelive below the poverty line in the United States. This is in the richest nation in the world. How about equal access to health care? 3.9 million childrenin this country have no health care. Or what about showing hospitality to the over 15,000 immigrant children being heldin detention centers across the country? We quickly turn from waving palm leaves in New York Harbor to yelling, “Crucify them! Crucify them!”

Don’t think that’s you? When is the last time you signed a petition against unfair legislation? When is the last time you wrote a letter to your senator or congressperson on a justice issue? When is the last time you stood up and publicly spoke out for something you believed in or against something you believed to be wrong? Standing in the shadows and saying nothing is the same as chanting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

One of the most painfully clear examples of this is a common response to racism in America. Last week, Kyle Korver, a white NBA basketball player, published a powerful articleabout coming to terms with white privilege. He reflected on all the times that players of color had been harassed by fans in his presence, treated unfairly, even injured by the police, all the while he stood by, in the shadows, saying nothing. He called it “blending in and opting out.”

Over the years, after watching teammate after teammate stare down the raw, ugly face of racism, he began to realize his personal responsibility in their pain. He explained, “[T]he more dangerous form of racism isn’t that loud and stupid kind . . . It’s the quiet and subtle kind. The kind that almost hides itself in plain view. It’s the person who does and says all the ‘right’ things in public: They’re perfectly friendly when they meet a person of color. They’re very polite. But in private? Well … they sort of wish that everyone would stop making everything ‘about race’ all the time.”

Ultimately, he recognized his responsibility, saying, “I know that, as a white man, I have to hold my fellow white men accountable. We have to hold each other accountable. And we all have to be accountable—period. Not just for our own actions, but also for the ways that our inaction can create a ‘safe’ space for toxic behavior.”

Winter is here.

Will we allow the cold to harden our hearts so that we simply blend in and opt out? Or will we recognize our responsibility and stand in solidarity? As the book of Romans commands, “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”(Romans 12:13)

This week think about the palms waved for Jesus when everything was sunny and celebratory. Then think of the courage it will take, later in the week, to stand with Jesus and wave that palm in front of Pilate.

That trial—Jesus’ trial—is the same one that so many face every day of their lives. And when those trials of poverty, hunger, racism, homophobia, and religious hatred start, where are we? Are we standing in solidarity? Or have we opted out, preferring to hide in the shadows, yelling, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

Brothers and sisters, winter is coming.

Where will you stand when the cold sets in?

Empowerment Self care

Life Lessons from a Wooly Mammoth

This was featured as a nationally syndicated column with Gatehouse Media on March 6, 2019.

I love watching the famous Iditarod dog sled race that’s taking place this week in Alaska. Okay, yeah, I live in New York City. And yeah, the only dog I’ve ever owned was a Labrador retriever named Stuart who spent his days eating Fritos and sleeping. But (and hold on to your hats) I have experience as a musher.

Years ago, during the innocence (and ignorance) of my youth, I signed up for an Outward Bound dog-sledding trip in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota near the Canadian Border.

In January.

Oh, and we were camping.

It was there that I spent ten of the coldest days of my life learning to run a dog sled team. But this was not your average team of cute huskies you see at the pet shop. The Outward Bound camp had adopted a group of specially bred huskies from the Mawson research outpost in Antarctica. Unlike their state-side brethren, my dogs, including my two leads, Cardiff and Bear, resembled a cross between a miniature pony and a wooly mammoth.

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. To be honest, there were days on that trip when I wasn’t sure which it would be. But I lived and eventually made it back to New York City armed with unforgettable life lessons, mostly from the dogs.

Perhaps the most powerful lesson was about life itself—and how to lead it. Those burly dogs wanted nothing more than to pull that sled. It was an ingrained passion. You’d hitch them up and their eyes would light. Their ears would perk, and they’d be ready to bust out of their harnesses with joy.

Each dog knew its role and had its place. For every team, there were two lead dogs that were particularly skilled at obeying directional commands and finding trails. Behind them were the two point dogs that acted as back-up leaders. Directly in front of the sled were the wheel dogs that helped keep the sled on the trail. And in between were the team dogs that brought the power and endurance to keep the sled going.

The success of the team depended on each dog using its particular skill in concert with the others. When they were in full swing, each dog fully zoned into his or her role, it was thing of grace and beauty. It was in those moments of watching my team at work that I learned the value of using individual strengths to support a group’s effort and the lesson that the gifts of others are all important, even if they are different than ours.

Sadly, there were a few dogs at the camp that were injured and unable to pull a full sled. I would spend a little time sitting with one of my favorites every day. Petting her, I couldn’t help but notice that her coat and eyes had grown a bit dull. Then, one day, an instructor brought over a tiny, super-light sled that they were going to let her start pulling for just a few minutes a day, and she exploded into life.

We all have that place where we, too, come to life—where we feel like we’re doing what we were born to do. Of course, there is the opposite as well—the places in life where our coats and our eyes grow dull. And what a waste it is to spend time there.

There’s an old saying that every creature has its rightful place, and in that place, it becomes beautiful. The Psalmist put it another way: “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). Either way, it’s an affirmation of our unique gifts and our innate worth in this life.

This week spend a few minutes watching the Iditarod (Iditarod.com) and see first-hand the raw passion of those dogs. Once you see it, you’ll never forget. And, perhaps, like me, that image will inspire you to live to your fullest potential and never let your eyes grow dull.

 

 

 

 

Judgment and Forgiveness Justice Kindness

BAPTISTS IN VEGAS

This piece was featured as a nationally syndicated column for GateHouse Media as well as preached as a sermon at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church.

 

I just played Vegas.

As a Baptist minister.

Okay, so I offered a workshop for seven people ninety miles outside of Vegas.

Either way, that trip created one of the craziest combinations imaginable: a Baptist minister in Vegas! Think about that. It’s like putting an Episcopalian in an improv troupe.

Vegas is nothing if not a series of crazy pairings. The town is one of humanity’s tackiest and most garish creations, and it’s situated in the midst of one of God’s most beautiful creations—the Mojave Desert. There are gondolas in fake Venetian canals floating by Elvis impersonators. The Eiffel Tower stands proudly next to the Statue of Liberty. The Sphinx and the Great Pyramid tower over an IHOP. And my personal favorite: a billboard for the Mormon church appears next to one advertising an all-male dance review from Australia called “Thunder from Down Under.”

But from all these crazy things that seemingly have nothing in common, a city emerges—a community that bridges the differences and unifies them into one joyful, celebratory spirit. Tell me that isn’t a lesson we need.

The joining together of unexpected things breaks open our way of seeing the world. It helps us approach situations in a fresh way. In fact, here’s a statement I bet you never thought you’d hear: Vegas and Jesus have a lot in common.

Jesus knew how to jar people out of their comfortable places and challenge old images with what might have seemed like crazy pairings: the kingdom of God and a mustard seed; the weakest as the greatest; a banquet table where the honored guests were tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. His images still jar us today. They make us stop, reconsider, and reevaluate. It’s like the old saying goes, “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.”

When we jar our thinking, we shift our perspective. We begin to see and appreciate the marvelous diversity of God’s creation, things like heaven and earth, platypus and blowfish, Jerry Springer and Jerry Falwell.

It’s a crazy, wondrous variety, and yet a variety from the same creator. As the Apostle Paul said, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6).

Today, we are faced with factions, dividing lines, and anger. The only lens through which we seem to see is the lens of difference. And therein lies the problem—our current inability to see past the differences to our commonalities. I say current because we are capable of a much broader vision.

In addition to the Thunder from Down Under and Mormon Church billboards, I saw one featuring a photo of Abraham Lincoln with one of his most famous statements, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Underneath that familiar quote was a new phrase: “Civility is in you. Pass it on.” This was such a simple reminder, but one that hit me like a jet breaking the sound barrier. We have civility in us. Find it, remember it, and pass it on.

One of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, died last week. In her poem, “The Summer Day” she wrote:

Tell me,
what is it you plan to do
with your one
wild and precious life? 


I can’t imagine a better way to spend that wild and precious life than to dedicate yourself to seeing our commonalities first.

Baptists in Vegas? Why not.

If Elvis and the pyramids can come together to create an oasis in the desert, then what greater thing might we build if we bridge our differences and come together with one joyful, celebratory spirit?

 

 

Gratitude Justice Kindness

A PRAYER FOR THOSE WHO WORK FOR SO LITTLE

A MORNING PRAYER:
REMEMBERING THOSE WHO WORK FOR SO LITTLE 

Madison Avenue Baptist Church NYC
January 20, 2019

Gracious God,

We give you thanks today for all our many blessings. So many of those blessings are provided to us by our brothers and sisters—your children—who work for so little.

We raise up all who do the jobs others don’t want: those who clean, who take care of our sanitation, who care for our poor, homeless, sick or elderly.

We give thanks for their work.

We remember those who do the jobs behind the scenes: those who wait on our tables, cook our food, deliver our papers, drive the trucks that bring food to our grocery stores, operate our transportation, patrol our streets, and protect us from fires and danger.

We give thanks for their work.

We acknowledge those who do important jobs for low pay, like home healthcare aides, teachers, farm workers, nurses, and social workers.

We give thanks for their work.

We specifically pray for all the federal workers who are furloughed or working without pay: our TSA and homeland security workers; our tax workers; our air traffic controllers; the National Park Service workers; the National Weather Service; our EPA inspectors who keep our chemical factories, power plants, oil refineries, and water treatment plants safe; workers in the criminal justice system, including the F.B.I., the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Prisons, Customs and Border Protection, the Coast Guard, and the Secret Service; and our Food and Drug Administration workers who inspect our food and protect us from contamination.

We give thanks for their work.

Lord, this morning we are mindful of those blessings provided to us by our brothers and sisters—your children—who work for so little. May we remember their sacrifice. And may you give us the strength to ensure that the blessings we receive from them are not only used for the betterment of our world but someday are equally returned to them. Amen.

Hope Uncategorized

Come Back Star of Bethlehem . . . Come Back!

This piece was preached as a sermon at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City on Sunday, January 6, 2019. 

I spent New Year’s in North Carolina, and in addition to becoming reacquainted with my fabulous southern foods, I was re-introduced to something I hadn’t seen in years.

Stars.

Star in the night sky.

That may sound crazy to some of you, but here in New York City, you can’t see the stars because of the glow of the city lights. And when you don’t see them for a while, you start to forget.

One night over the holiday, I noticed a bright star on the SW horizon. It turned out that it was not a star at all but a planet: Mars. If you look in the early evening these days Mars is the brightest object in the night sky.

I had to wonder . . . was that a sign of some type?

I am a big believer in signs. It’s not hard not to be, especially if you read scripture. The Bible is filled with signs and prophecies. And one of the most beautiful is the story of the star of Bethlehem.

Here the Wise Men saw a star “at its rising” and somehow knew it marked the birth of the Christ child. “There, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising until it stopped over the place where the child was” (Matthew 2:9).   

The Star of Bethlehem was sent to guide and announce the great news of the birth of the Christ child. It was the brightest light in the desert night sky. The ultimate sign of love.

And yet, today, January 2019, the brightest light in our sky is Mars. If you know anything about mythology, unlike the star of Bethlehem—the ultimate sign of love, the planet Mars, the red planet, is named after the ancient Roman God of war.

According to Roman myth, Mars rode on a chariot pulled by two horses named Phobos and Deimos (meaning fear and panic). The two small moons of Mars are named after these two mythical horses.

So today our Star of Bethlehem–our rising star–is the God of war riding the horses fear and panic.

That hits a little too close to home.

Makes me want to say, “Come back Star of Bethlehem, Come Back!”

On Christmas eve a few weeks ago, NASA celebrated the 50thanniversary of Apollo 8, the first manned mission to orbit the moon. One of the incredible things that came from that mission was the photo entitled “earthrise” which was our first view of earth from space.

I’ve always thought of that image as God’s view of creation. Looking at our broken world with that global perspective, it makes sense to have Mars (the God of war, fear, and panic) as the brightest star in the sky. Is there is a spot on our earth that is free of conflict? I’m not sure. Antarctica, maybe? Although that continent is fighting its own battle with global warming.

There are wars and conflicts in every corner of the globe: Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine, Yemen, Myanmar, Columbia, Somalia, Indonesia, Croatia. But don’t think it’s just “out there.”

We have a war going on in our own country. Gun deaths in the United States are at their highest levels in years. Or how about our ongoing battle with racism, homophobia and religious discrimination?

There are all kinds of wars in our world; wars for power, water, food, freedom, honor, self-defense. Then we have our own personal wars: conflict within our families, workplaces, or the wars within ourselves.

This red planet on our horizon, this sign given to us in this 2019thyear since the birth of Christ, is a God of war. And it’s our God of war because it is what we have wrought.

Five-star General Omar Bradley explained it this way: “We live in a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants, in a world that has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. We have solved the mystery of the atom and forgotten the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount.  We know more about war than we know about peace, more about dying than we know about living.”

Come Back Star of Bethlehem, Come Back.

But let’s shift gears. Imagine for a moment, what the world would look like if the original Star of Bethlehem did come back. Came back and eclipsed this Mars in our sky—this God of war.

It could happen. And it wouldn’t have anything to do with eclipses or gravity or principles of astronomy.  It will happen when the God of War—not in the sky but in our hearts –begins to dim.

That said, it’s not easy to rein in this God of war. We all know that fire and force is much more fun than forgiveness.  As the author Thomas Moore said, “no one wants their passions restrained by intelligent reflection.”

The ancient Greeks and Romans also knew this.  They knew the explosive power of the human desire for war and vengeance. But they also knew the power of peace. In fact, in their songs of praise to their God of war, they would beg the Gods for peace. Think about that: they called on the God of warfare to still the urge to fight! The words of the prayer translated to something like this: “Restrain that shrill voice in my heart that provokes me to enter the chilling din of battle.”

This is a powerful prayer because it not only acknowledges the human tendency for violence, but it harnesses the power of peace

Humankind has done many an evil thing. Yet, the human spirit is capable of extraordinary love. And somewhere, out there, the Star of Bethlehem awaits as a sign of what could be.

Come Back Star of Bethlehem, Come Back.

Over New Year’s week, I was struck by the juxtaposition of two completely different images in the news. On one hand, the fear and panic in our government, and on the other, transcendent photos from space. One of those photos was our first close-up view of the dark side of the moon thanks to the Chinese who landed a robotic spacecraft. Then we saw breath-taking photographs of an icy rock named Ultima Thule. The images were from the New Horizons Space probe which broke free of gravity and traveled 4 billion miles from earth—farther than any spacecraft has ever gone.

There was something so powerful about those images from space. They not only lifted our eyes from our daily conflicts here on earth, but they raised our spirits. They remind us that we, too, can break free of the bonds that hold us captive; that our spirits can soar much farther and higher than the fear and chaos surrounding us.

Maybe it’s time for another sign.

This morning, Sunday, January 6, 2019, we got one. Somewhere around midnight, Mars, the war planet set, and in the cold pre-dawn hours about 4 am, a new light rose in our sky: The planet Venus. You can’t miss it, as Venus is one of the brightest points in the morning sky. And where did the name Venus come from? The Greek Goddess of love and beauty.

This morning, the sign of war has set and the sign of love has risen. And here’s the really amazing thing. Many scholars believe that one of the possible explanations for the Star of Bethlehem is the rising of the planet Venus in the eastern sky 2000 years ago.

Brothers and sisters, we may find ourselves in troubled times, contentious situations, a world filled with war. But that planet of war is setting. And a new light has risen in the east. One of love and beauty. We need only to open our eyes to see it, to know that the world has changed, to know that our prayers have been answered for today, and every day, the Christ child is born anew in each of us.

We know it to be true. Our hearts know it to be true. And the skies show it to be true.

For in the cold, darkness before the dawn, a bright light rises in the east. Brothers and sisters, love has won for the star of Bethlehem has finally come back.

 

Gratitude Justice Kindness

The Struggle Behind the Gift

This piece was also featured as a nationally syndicated column in such papers as the Providence, RI Journal and as a sermon at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in NYC

It’s the time of year when traffic snarls, check-out lines explode to epic proportions, and shoppers channel characters from Apocalypse Now.

Ah, the angst of holiday shopping and the struggle behind the gifts.

But how about we shift gears for a moment and move past the traffic, the lines, and the crazy shoppers to consider the true struggle behind the gifts.

Think about it like this. Have you ever sent a fruit and nut basket as a gift? It takes us about five minutes to order, but who performs the back-breaking work of harvesting the nuts? Who does the grueling dawn-to-dusk task of picking the fruit? If we look closely, we see that those who truly struggle are the Mexican and Central American farm workers who perform these demanding tasks—many under abusive conditions.

Let’s try another scenario. What if we send a fancy box with gourmet chocolate and coffee? Who bears the struggle behind a gift like this? Who harvests your cocoa beans? Who does the physically exhausting work of drying and roasting the coffee beans? That struggle is borne primarily by millions of West African children forced into labor, many into slave labor.

And these struggles aren’t just related to fruits, nuts, coffee and chocolate. Slave labor and abusive work conditions exist in the production of a wide array of holiday gifts, including toys, technology, textiles, and fashion.

Since about 10 zillion bible verses command us to help the oppressed, why not consider these four steps to satisfy our holiday giving at the same time we assist our brothers and sisters who bear the struggle.

They’re easy to remember because the first letters of the steps spell C-A-R-E.

C: CHOOSE YOUR GIFTS CAREFULLY

There are many merchants who exploit workers and children for their cheap labor, and there are many who don’t. In this age of the Internet, it takes about three minutes to check a company’s record. For example, it took me about two and a half minutes to discover that LEGO recently signed a deal with UNICEF to promote children’s rights and eliminate child labor.

This information is easy to find. So, choose your gifts carefully.

A: ACT

Why not donate to organizations that fight child slave labor or support migrant workers’ rights? For example, if you are considering a gift for a child, you could buy a LEGO present, then make a side contribution to UNICEF. If the child receiving the gift is old enough, include a note explaining why you did it. That way, your gift is a learning experience for the child receiving it and an outreach to lift up the children struggling behind it.

R: REPORT

Take ten minutes out of your busy life to do a quick Google search about the reality of those who struggle behind your gifts. Educate yourself, then talk about it with your friends or share the information in your workplace. Reporting what we know about the plight of the oppressed is one of the most powerful ways to defend them.

E: EXERCISE YOUR RIGHT TO VOTE

The ex-governor of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura, once suggested that we make all politicians wear NASCAR suits. If you’ve ever seen a NASCAR suit, you know that the sponsors are clearly displayed with the largest donors in the most prominent spots. Ventura suggested a NASCAR suit for politicians because, as he explained, “then we’ll know who owns them.”

When you vote, make sure that you know who owns your candidate. Is their largest contributor a company that is accused of using child labor or one that fights to alleviate it? When our voices come together on issues like this we can truly effect change.

This season give your gifts and give generously. But when you give, make sure that you C-A-R-E. Choose your gifts carefully, act to make a difference, report the issues, and exercise your right to vote.

Remember those who bear the true struggle behind the gift. For as the greatest giver of all taught us, “What you do for the least of them, you do for me.”

Judgment and Forgiveness Justice Kindness

A World Without Kudzu

This piece was also featured as a nationally syndicated column with GateHouse Media and preached as a sermon at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church.

 

As a North Carolinian living in New York, I miss so many things: good barbeque (or maybe I should say “legitimate barbecue”), and Southern accents, such as people who put the accent on the first syllable of words like “HALL-o-ween, and “THANKS-giving.”

But there is one thing I do not miss from the South: kudzu. Nicknamed “the vine that ate the South,” kudzu is an invasive green parasite that grows up to a foot per day and has now blanketed more than 7 million acres in North America (mostly in the Southeast).

To keep kudzu at bay, you have to be vigilant in tending your yard. The second you give it permission, that vine creeps in and begins its destructive work. First it wraps around the heart of the plant or tree and strangles its access to nutrients. Then it suffocates the tree or shrub by blocking out sunlight and air. Finally, the sheer weight of it can cause plants and even trees to just snap.

Oh, for a world without kudzu! How much more beautiful the place would be without it.

The same can be said of a similar blight that, like kudzu, has a stranglehold on our country. It’s the blight of hatred, racism, and anti-Semitism — an evil parasite that has eaten up our land.

We all watched or read in horror Thursday morning as a gunman killed 12 people in Thousand Oaks, California, and recently as two African-Americans grandparents were gunned down in cold blood in Kentucky, 11 congregants were slaughtered while praying in a Pittsburgh synagogue, and 12 pipe bombs were mailed to various American leaders across the country.

Evil has been given permission in this land.

We have not been vigilant in keeping an eye on this blight. Like kudzu, evil just waits until goodness and decency have turned their backs for a split second. Then it starts to suffocate all things good, strangling off all sense of justice, then growing to the point that the sheer weight of it can snap us in two.

I think we’d better do a little gardening.

The first and best way to fight kudzu is to keep your land clear of it in the first place. Once kudzu gets a strong hold, it is much harder to fight. So, too, the best way to fight evil is to prevent it from growing in the first place. And the best place to do that is with the young. Children are not born with the blight of evil. They learn it, sometimes at a tragically early age.

As the lyrics to a wonderful song from the musical South Pacific remind us:

“You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

Think about children on the playground. They don’t see things like color or religion … until they are carefully taught. We must be vigilant in keeping the garden in which our children grow full of love and light and free of the vine of evil.

A second way to fight kudzu is to fence it off. We must do the same with evil by joining together, arm in arm, in solidarity against its devastation. Consider the example of the members of the mosque in Pittsburgh who locked arms with their Jewish brothers and sisters, raising over $200,000 for the synagogue. They reached across differences to fence off evil.

But even with our most vigilant work, there comes the day when kudzu makes it over the fence and arrives at our door. At that point, we have no choice but to pull that evil up by its roots. We must separate it from its power.

An example of this was recently seen in a small village in Germany. The town’s residents had grown sick and tired of the neo-Nazis marching in their square, so for every meter the group marched, the town donated 10 euros to an organization that helped people leave right-wing extremist groups. Residents threw confetti at the end of the parade to celebrate the fact that the neo-Nazis had just raised 12,000 euros against their own cause.

What if we fought to keep evil from creeping into our hearts, our homes, our towns, and our nations? What kind of world might we then have then?

We’d have a world without kudzu — a world without hate. May we work to make it so.

Judgment and Forgiveness Justice Kindness

Pray for the Spiders

This post was featured by “Gather” the magazine of the Women of the ELCA and The Christian Citizen. It was also preached as a sermon at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. 

 

People can usually be divided into simple categories:

Beach people vs. mountain people;

Salt lovers vs. sugar cravers;

Those who believe Sasquatch exists vs. those who don’t;

And the most common division (certainly the most personal to me): those who hate spiders vs. those who hate snakes.

Me?  I hate spiders. I would rather swim in a bucket of copperheads than be in the same zip code as the tiniest garden spider. Growing up, I hated it when people read Charlotte’s Web. I will NEVER watch a Spiderman movie. And I get cold chills every time I walk past a glimmering, shimmering web.

In short, Spiders. Are. My. Enemy.

I had a personal encounter with the enemy on a cold May morning last year. Nestled under my electric blanket in the bedroom of our 110-year-old uninsulated Norwegian cabin in northern Wisconsin, I was happily dozing in that I-don’t-have-to-get-up haze when suddenly, I had the feeling that someone or something was watching me. Opening my eyes, I saw what looked like an eight-legged avocado. His eyes stared at me with a vicious evil, and I knew, just knew, that I was about to die.

I threw off the covers, screamed bloody murder, and ran into the kitchen to get my husband Toby (who has no problem with spiders or snakes), to deal with the intruder. Of course, when he marched into the bedroom with the mini vac, the evil avocado was nowhere to be found.

Feeling defeated, I returned to the kitchen to warm myself by the woodstove and plot my revenge. How dare that evil creature deny me my warm bed! My fingers tapped the mini vac as I contemplated my enemy’s demise.

Just as I was about to head into the bedroom for another flyby, Jesus’ words from the book of Matthew came into my head, although the wording was a little different than I was used to: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, love your enemy—the spiders—and pray for those spiders that persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44).

It’s rare that I call out Jesus as wrong, but I knew there had been an error in transmission.

Love a spider? Never. Not doing it.

Eventually, I got too cold in the kitchen and decided to return to my warm bed (with the mini vac just in case). As I sunk down under the toasty electric blanket, I started thinking about Jesus’ words. Love your enemies, I get. But pray for them? I went through my list of personal enemies to see whether I could:

The next-door neighbor with the yappy dog? Sure, I could pray for her.

The guy who cut me off in traffic yesterday? Yeah, I could pray for him.

Politicians and political parties with whom I disagree? Sigh. In a pinch.

Spiders? [Long pause] Let’s try.

So . . . what’s loveable about a spider? For a long time, I couldn’t think of anything. Then, I remembered Genesis. And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and everything that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:25).

I pulled out my iPhone and googled spiders. Wikipedia quickly informed me that without spiders and the insects that they eat, crops would be decimated, and livestock diseased; the earth as we know it, would probably not survive. In short, that spider had as much if not more reason for being here than I did.

Finding some forgiveness for my friend who creepeth upon the earth, I then asked myself, what would the spider want me to pray for? What could a spider possibly want or need on this cold morning? As my breath blew tiny puffs of condensation out from under the covers, it dawned on me: maybe that spider had not been coming to sink its gigantic fangs into me and wrap me up in its web as a midday snack. Maybe that poor little guy was just cold and looking for a warm place to sleep.

Tears welled up as I envisioned his little creepy crawly legs shivering in the frigid Wisconsin morning. I pictured him stepping onto the furry, warm blanket, and letting out a wee spider-sized sigh of relief, and then, just as he started to relax, BAM, he was flung through the air, smack into a wall.

Guilt rained down. I closed my eyes and prayed: “Please let the avocado with legs—I mean the spider—be okay and help him find a warm spot to sleep.”

In that moment, my heart began to soften. And I realized Jesus was right.

When you pray for something or someone, by default, you think about them. And when you think about them, you find yourself wondering things. What do they need? What do they want? What scares them? What makes them angry? What do they hope for? It’s then that you begin to see them in a different light. You come to understand their motivations in a new way.

When you pray for something or someone, by default, you think about them. And when you think about them, you find yourself wondering things. What do they need? What do they want? What scares them? What makes them angry? What do they hope for? It’s then that you begin to see them in a different light. You come to understand their motivations in a new way.
When you pray for something or someone, by default, you think about them. And when you think about them, you find yourself wondering things. What do they need? What do they want? What scares them? What makes them angry? What do they hope for? It’s then that you begin to see them in a different light. You come to understand their motivations in a new way.

For example, maybe your boss is short with you. Rather than fire back a terse response, try saying a quick prayer: “Lord, bring peace to this person.” When you take a moment to change the dynamic through prayer, your response changes. Empathy opens hearts. Who knows, maybe you’ll find out later that she was short not because she’s mean or wanted to make your life miserable, but because her kids were up sick all night and she got no sleep.

It’s the same with any relationship. Maybe your co-worker tends to railroad over people, not because he’s a self-centered ego-maniac, but because he is maxed on his credit cards and is terrified about losing his job. Or maybe someone you’ve just met who talks too much about herself or dismisses you isn’t actually arrogant or rude; maybe, she’s compensating for the fact that no one has ever listened to or valued what she has to say.

It’s like the old saying, “never judge anyone before you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” Of course, I like the alternate version: “Never judge anyone before you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Because then you are a mile away and have their shoes.” Whichever version you prefer, prayer is the fastest way to walk that path.

Who are your enemies?

What about them is loveable?

What can you ask for them in prayer?

My message today? Pray for the spiders. Or the snakes or the Democrats or the Republicans or for anyone who is different or threatening and scares us.

Pray for them.

Love them.

And then watch as your own heart softens, transforms and begins to engage the world in a manifestly different way.