Well, whoops. I hadn’t posted to this blog in a while and now, in the late days of summer, decided to sail it into drydock to get a new start.
And in my haste to reconstruct I neglected to warn those of you who already subscribed. So, thanks for being a subscriber and thanks for your charitable comments about the whiteboard nonsense I’ve been up to.
So bear with the changes, and stay tuned! I’ll be changing it a bit, not only in content but in thinking about aligning faith and spirit and leadership in a changing – but still exciting – time.
test me out.
You call this easy? I am muy, muy, and mucho confused.
But that’s the basic idea
can I add a photo
This is me starting out. Do you like this?
Symbols can heal us in ways that speeches cannot. Years ago I recall being surprisingly moved by a national memorial: during Ronald Reagan’s funeral procession, as a camera closed in on the “riderless horse” with empty boots in the stirrups, a traditional army tribute to a soldier who has died, I found myself suddenly moved to tears.
You must understand that that symbol wasn’t one with particular meaning to me, nor was I especially impacted by the expected death of a former president. Yet the year mattered: this was 2004, just a few short years after the trauma of the 9/11 attacks, and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were growing. We as a country had not yet had occasion to grieve all that we had lost, from a baseline feeling of safety and security to the loss of thousands of people who could well be imagined by those empty riding boots. As I watched the ceremony and felt this unexpected emotion I realized that I was grieving something deeper, and wondered if this presidential funeral was, without meaning to be, serving as a needed memorial for a more immediate, yet unspoken, loss.
Symbols, handled properly with reverence and true humility, can heal in a way that words cannot, and can disrupt us and break us open to something new. This week I watched the presidential inauguration more closely than I ever had, in part out of concern for potential violence but also to hear what would be said in the stillness of a near-empty National Mall.
Instead of crowds, flags on the national mall silently bore witness to the loss of the past year. Against the bright backdrop of a socially-distanced platform, the symbols of the day skipped the applause and were forced to speak for themselves.
Symbols get under your skin, they keep you up at night and they speak to you in the morning when you first rise. That is a terrifying reality when those symbols speak of hate and threaten violence, as we well know from just two weeks before when that set of symbols painted blood across the very same canvas of the People’s House.
The symbols of January 20th exorcised those demons like nothing else could. Laugh if you must, but I thought the queen-sized dove on Lady Gaga’s dress was a great start: sometimes violent propaganda is best transfigured with playful absurdity. More significantly, the flags on the Mall spoke of those who’ve died in the pandemic, but in their own way represented every person who has marched in that space in hope of equality and human dignity.
Yet symbol from that day shines brightest to me was Amanda Gorman’s recitation of her poem The Hill We Climb: this didn’t just get under my skin, it reached my bloodstream and found its way to my heart. Love casts out hate, and beauty reveals cheap symbols for what they are: with words of truth and hope Ms. Gorman broke the fever of the past few weeks, and denied the rioters permission to decide how we are to speak going forward:
How could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert: How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was,
But move to what shall be,
A country that is bruised by whole,
Benevolent but bold,
Fierce and Free.
-Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb
Contempt is eating us alive right now. There is another way.
My sermon for February 16, 2020.
A couple of weeks ago Arthur Brooks addressed the national prayer breakfast. I realize that the President’s remarks are what made the news, but perhaps some of you saw what Brooks said when he shared it in the Washington Post a few days later. Brooks is, by his own description, a conservative who was raised by liberals who “were Christian people, who raised me to follow Jesus.” He went a different way, as he said, at “great inconvenience to them” but his point was that we can see things different ways and still love each other and that, despite what we’re being taught these days it’s not actually all that hard.
But that message – that we cannot love one another in difference – has become so consuming and so viral, our alternative reality has become so dominant, that we have reached a point where a soul crisis has become a national crisis. He said, “I am here today to talk about the crisis of contempt – the polarization that is tearing our society apart.”[i] Later he gives a definition of what he means, using Arthur Schopenhauer’s definition of contempt as “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.”
That word contempt caught my attention because I had just the week before read something that Bishop Robert Wright of the Diocese of Atlanta had written in an essay on preaching on the issues of the day. He was speaking to ministers and preachers with the task of speaking good news in a time when it’s hard to see it, to speak prophetically at some times and pastorally at others and at all times remain focused on the ultimate commitment to bring us all to maturity in Christ.
Bishop Wright started at a place I didn’t expect – not at prophecy, but at a kind of exorcism. He said that “what is necessary here is that you and I begin the slow and essential work of coughing up the asphyxiating mucus of contempt for one another.” He goes on to speak of how he intentionally listens to media on both sides of the spectrum, including some of the most more extreme voices. He said,
I listen to both because my diocese listens to one or the other. What I have learned is that both news sources share a spirit of contempt for the core constituency of the other…Both are trafficking in a substance more addictive than opioids – contempt. [ii]
The crisis of contempt. The demon opioid of contempt. And to that I would add what Jesus said about it, right here in today’s gospel. You have heard it said since ancient times, those who murder will be liable to judgment. But if your anger leads you to insult a sister or a brother, then what’s going on in your heart is also sin…and if you say, “you fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire. Jesus was proclaiming a higher law in saying that what goes on in your heart and your mind matters, and that the insults we level at others are the sign and symptom of a deeper contempt.
Why does this matter? Because contempt and love cannot coexist. They can fight for one another for space and oxygen, but in the end they are not compatible. If contempt rules our hearts, then love is kept at bay. And when we do not love, we give up the power we have to change the world.
This is some of the most challenging stuff in the gospel, because we are accountable not just for our actions, but for the inmost thoughts of our hearts. At first glance, this is terrifying. If sin is about not doings thing that are obviously wrong, them most of us at most times can stay in the right lane. Jesus says, “you shall not murder,” and I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty good at not murdering. I’m 100%. But suddenly Jesus tells us that I am also accountable to God and to my neighbor for what I think and what I feel, that these inward movements my soul are at play when I speak, when act, and when I worship.
Years ago George A. Buttrick wrote that God sees the inmost motive, and must be worshiped in truth – worship being the crowing act of life; and a heart harried by grudges cannot offer any wholeness of adoration[iii]. A heart harried by grudges cannot offer wholeness of adoration.
Our contempt hurts us as much as it hurts the object of our scorn. But the point here is not to punish us for our inmost wrongdoing, but to name something insidious that crowds out the goodness and love that forms us in God’s image. The other side to this is that through Jesus we can heal from our contempt, we can go into recovery: we can see it, confess it, and actually get better. We can see how contempt warps us and keeps us from doing God’s work in the world.
In fact – and this is a key part of understanding what contempt is and how to fight it – there’s a very quick way of dealing with it. Jesus says, simply, go to the brother or sister who you’re mad at, and be reconciled. It assumes a world where two people can come together quickly and begin the process of healing, because when they see one another, face to face and with an inclination to love despite differences, they may not come to perfect agreement but they are able to cast out that demon of contempt and return to the altar together.
Understand that when I speak of contempt I’m not speaking about righteous anger, or prophetic speech, or critical thought, all of which are essential to building the beloved community. If those two at the altar have a surface-level reconciliation but one still lords power over the other, then we haven’t solved the problem. Rather, I’m talking about when we drift into the “unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another” and stay in that seductive place, not only because contempt weighs down our hearts, but because it also dilutes our power.
I actually think that Jesus’ prohibition of contempt has a lot to say to us about power. It’s what I wish Brooks had talked about at the prayer breakfast, because he lifted up two opposing views of the world – contempt on one side, and love and neighborliness on the other. As people of faith who live in the world, we have to name that both of these their own relationship to power, and that just as contempt and love will battle for control of our own souls, I believe that contempt and neighborliness are two very different forms of power that are fighting to rule our hearts as well as order our lives.
I think we despair in moments when we feel that contempt is winning.
And you know what? I think it is winning. It’s winning because it’s a proven strategy for gaining and holding power. Rallying around the worthlessness of others is a really quick way to exploit folks’ fears so that we can gain and hold on to power and privilege. Terrifying movements have been built around this, nations formed and wars fought.
Contempt is so easy, and it has incredible staying power. It uses fear and anger and laziness for fuel. You don’t have to weaponize it…it comes out of the box that way. And it makes us incredibly vulnerable…if contempt is what rules our hearts, we’ll fall for the first delicious poke that comes across our self-selected news feed, and we’ll pass it along without questioning it. Another vote for contempt rather than love, another brick in the wall that separates us from our neighbors.
The surprising things about contempt, though, is that while it’s really good at building the kind of power that gathers like unto like and separates the rest, it’s actually surprisingly fragile. All it takes is for two people who are angry with one another – going back to Jesus’ example – to see one another as children of God and to love them as children of God. This is the kind of power that love has. It’s real. And we know, because the world tells us this, that this kind of work often takes generations, “because that’s how the world works.” But the secret of love (and it really isn’t all that secret) is that that isn’t actually how the world works. When two people who are inclined to love one another finally get in that room together, it can also take, like, 10 minutes. It’s actually isn’t that hard. Because we know, as followers of Jesus, love eats contempt for breakfast.
And that’s why contempt needs walls. Brick by brick, that power stays where it is. And when we respond to contempt with contempt, we don’t knock down the wall, as we like to think, as if the right insult or the snarkiest tweet will change the game. What we do is add a brick to another wall, which only separates us further from the power to transform the world.
When we respond to insults with insults, when our despair and feelings of powerlessness leads us to drift off into the muzzy opioid-sleep of contempt, we give away the power that we have in Christ, power that is grounded in love and given to us by God so that we can live life in its fullness and so that we can be agents of healing in this world. So let me ask you…before you let the soothing burn of contempt take residence in your gut…let me ask you…do you have power that you can afford to give away right now?
I do believe that contempt is winning these days, but I don’t believe for a minute that we are stuck with that. I know that love and neighborliness have a power all their own, and that connecting to that brings us both hope and healing.
What can the world look like when we build on the power of love rather than the things that divide us? In a couple of weeks, Thursday, February 27 (The day after Ash Wednesday, so a perfect way to start Lent) Trinity Cathedral will join people of faith from across the city at a Greater Cleveland Congregations community action in support of two pre-charge mental health clinics. We are seeking the creation of two diversion centers – one on the east side, and one on the west – so that when police encounter folk whose substance abuse or mental illness flareups result in minor offenses they can take them for in-patient treatment rather than being charged as criminals. Imagine, something that discourages further marginalization of those already suffering, something that costs the county far less, something that gives treatment for the mentally ill and frees the police to deal with more serious crimes.
When we come together on Thursday the 27th we will see first-hand what power based on love can look like. Love honors the integrity and humanity of everyone involved – those who are ill or addicted, the police, the victims of crimes. Love does not remain silent or complicit, but it refuses to eat the poison pill of contempt.
I hope you’ll join us, I hope you’ll be a part of this because the more of us go, the more we see how power that comes from love of neighbor and faith in God can transform and heal our world.
Contempt will always be with us, and even though Jesus put it its proper place we are wise to see and name the power it can have over us. The crisis of contempt that Arthur Brooks names is that right now, contempt is winning. But we know that love will always cast it out, if we can name it and if we can dismantle the walls that keep us separated from one another. Sometimes that is the work of lifetimes, but sometimes it is quick work indeed. Never underestimate the power of love, and the power of the Holy Spirit to transform hearts.
Brooks is hopeful, and so am I. In fact he charges us all to be missionaries, he sends us out as people of love: he says, Go out looking for contempt so you have the opportunity answer it with love. (It’s a surprisingly Buddhist statement for a conservative Christian, but then again that’s what happens when we get down to core truths.) Don’t just hang out in spaces where folks agree, and don’t go with an expectation to convince or even be welcomed, but only to love. “Missionaries,” he says, “go where they are needed. It’s hard work, and there’s lots of rejection involved (here are words that have never been uttered: “oh good, there are missionaries on the porch.”) But it’s the most joyful type of work, isn’t it?”
I agree.. This is joyful work. It’s hard work, and there are many temptations along the way. Don’t wall yourself in. Don’t give away your power. Don’t let contempt cloud your soul. That’s the place designed to hold the presence of God, that’s the place from which God breathes words of healing and hope into a world collapsing under the weight of its own contempt.
The greater power is love.
The Very Rev. Bernard J. Owens, Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio, Feb 16, 2020. The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A.
[i] Arthur C. Brooks, “America’s Crisis of Contempt,” https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/02/07/arthur-brooks-national-prayer-breakfast-speech/?arc404=true
[ii] The Rt. Rev. Robert C. Wright, Preaching on the Issues of the Day, Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2019, p. 119.
[iii] George A. Buttrick, The Interpreter’s Bible: The Gospel of Matthew
Perhaps it’s fitting that in the same week we officially start the 2020 presidential election campaign we also commemorate a priest and civic leader who helped shaped a vision of the proper relationship between church and state.
Born in 1603, Roger Williams was an ordained priest in the Church of England who opposed the autocratic high church-policies of Archbishop William Laud. Yet when he came to Boston in search of greater religious freedom, he found that that civic and religious power was dangerously intermingled, and that local officials were even empowered to punish religious offenses. So, he set out once again, this time founding a settlement called Providence Plantations and eventually gaining a charter for the new colony of Rhode Island, whose constitution would grant wide latitude for religious practice.
Williams envisioned a “wall of separation between religious and civic powers,” laying the groundwork for this precious gift that we call the separation of church and state. Williams reminds us that when we blur the line between state and religion, we tend to get the worst of both. Religion and piety will inevitably become compromised by worldly power; and when the emperor becomes a god, all accountability, indeed all true freedom, is lost.
The Iowa caucuses for 2020 are now, sort of, behind us (at least the voting part). We’ve begun a process that will consume our energy for months and shape our country for years to come. What does that mean for us as people of faith? I believe that separation of church and state is good for the country and for human freedom as well…but it’s also good for the witness of the church. It’s a vital discipline that allows us to speak faithfully and prophetically while honoring that true freedom comes not from the next exciting politician or by joining in the chant of the crowd, but from placing all our hope upon God. Williams knew what he was doing when he named his capital city Providence.
But “a wall of separation between civic and religious powers” doesn’t mean that we simply compartmentalize the two, or that that we abandon the moral witness that is essential to who we are. Separating religious and civil power is not the same thing as saying that faith has no voice in public life.
It’s foolish to declare that faith and public life have no relationship with one another; rather, our call is to discern what that relationship is and how that relationship can be redemptive rather than harmful. That means having a right relationship with power: who holds it, who keeps it if we stay silent and what all this means for our coming to maturity in Christ.
Roger Williams gave us the “wall of separation” between civic and religious authorities because he had seen how enmeshing the two brought out the worst in both. Jesus gives us a hope for something more: by being in right relationship with our neighbor, by learning about our power and privilege and by working to create a community where the dignity of all people is honored, we begin to claim the human freedom that is God’s intended gift for us.
Seventy-five years ago today the prisoners in the concentration camps at Auschwitz were liberated. Since that moment we’ve had to face, and live with, the horrifying reality of what humans can do to one another when in the grip of fear and hatred, poisoned thinking and nationalistic fervor.
A few years ago when I toured Temple Emmanuel in Greensboro, North Carolina, I was shocked to learn that the worldwide Jewish population today (14 million) has yet to reach the level of 16.6 million of 1939. There are so many lingering tragedies from those awful years, from the failure to honor the promise of “never again” to the rise in hate crimes in America in the past few years. Perhaps the greatest tragedy, though, is the long-term impact of the final solution: it was not final, but it was truly devastating. Our world is impoverished for the loss of those millions of people, each one beloved of God. Our world is impoverished for how that loss has shaped the world since, even as its aftermath has challenged us to rise up against racism and hatred wherever it surfaces.
Seventy-five years is not much time at all. We must remain attentive to what happens when truth goes underground, when nationalism becomes seductive, and when hatred and violence become the new normal. We must recommit ourselves to speak the truth even at great cost, to confront evil when we see it, to confess our complicity and arrogance in an unjust world, and to hope for a world without violence.
I am blessed to be surrounded by Jewish friends, colleagues, and neighbors who have, in their graciousness, welcomed me into their lives and invited me to share in the work of community building. In these humble steps lay the tools of rebuilding, and though it has been generations since the tragedy of the Holocaust the work of rebuilding continues. And so it shall continue when we mark 100, 125 and 150 years, and my children and grandchildren, and the faithful people of my church, continue this work.
May this painful memory call us to confession and reconciliation, but also kindle a hope that we can truly live in a world without hatred violence.
News reports and analyses of the first wars I followed in any sense of real-time – the Iraqi war and the wars in the Balkans in the 1990’s – often seemed to wander towards the same open-ended conclusion: there’s so much history here, and it’s complicated. The reports recognized with some measure of fatalism that history runs deep, and that in the end history is hard if not impossible to overcome.
This week our nation’s long running conflict with Iran entered a new phase, with the killing by an American drone of the Iranian general Qassim Suleimani. The future is uncertain, and the worst-case scenarios are terrifying. Most of us can do little but wait to see what happens next: will either country escalate? Are we headed for wider war, or does this new tension hold the possibility for some new form of dialogue?
As in all wars, hot, cold, potential or actual, there is so much history to consider, and it’s all so very complicated.
As a Christian, though, I am called not only to carefully consider that history, but also to look beyond it to the hope and promise of a world that has made violence and war a thing of the past. Yes, it’s a lot to imagine such a wonderful state of affairs given the reality of life as we know it. But if that’s what God imagines for us, then we can envision it for ourselves as well.
“There’s a lot of history to consider” cannot be the end of the conversation if we’re to be faithful to our call to work for peace and reconciliation. The Caesars of this world who would define for us the contours of our relationships with our neighbors – and put our lives on the the line for good measure – cannot put an end to our eternal hope for peace and justice.
Who do we let shape our vision for a world beyond war? When worldly leaders betray a dangerous lack of imagination we might instead look to prophets such as Isaiah, who remind us what God imagines for us all, far beyond the petty histories and complexities in which we remain stuck:
In the days to come, God shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
How do we find the right people to rebuild a church? Or even build on something that’s plugging along fine? Do they need to be of a certain generation? Have a certain income or skill set? Do you prefer lifelong members of your church or new blood?
I’ve found that they need to be none of the above, and all of the above. Looking back at the patterns of people who’ve nudged a church towards renewal I notice a core pattern, but beyond that it can be just about anyone. Longtime members can be a force for rebuilding, yet so can folks who are brand new. All kinds of skill sets are needed, and most people have something to contribute.
If you’re looking to do a bit of church rebuilding, seek people who:
- Love the church, deeply but not uncritically.
- Love one another, however imperfectly.
- Will put in the work, over a long period of time.
- Are willing to try new things every once in a while.
There’s layers of nuance and tension in all that but I think it’s a good start. We never know what God has in mind so there’s no such thing as foolproof. Even in the best of circumstances it takes years to unfold so it takes commitment and patience. Faithfulness, time, and a capacity for change can be fertile soil for something that might surprise us.
Sometimes we let most anxious person in the room decide the agenda and the tone. When we do, the work that we need to be doing do often goes undone.
This week’s experience with Florence reminded me of the hurricane that accompanied my early days at my first church gig. A gulf-coast storm had disrupted gas supplies for the entire Southeast, and though it was just an inconvenience North Carolina had become seized with anxiety about the possibility that we’d all run out of gas and have to leave our minivans stranded by the side of the road.
Thus the stage was set for my first-ever-church-committee-meeting. We’d worked for just a few minutes when someone barrelled in late, blurting “everybody’s out of gas! The stations are dry!” In a polite panic everyone speed-walked to their cars to commence the hunt for fuel. Meeting adjourned.
Every storm and every disruption is different, but in this case there was little need to worry. News reports told us this was coming and would probably last a few days, and with some foresight there was no reason to panic. But panic we did, and now we’d lost an important meeting with mere weeks to go before a fall program was to begin. It made a fairly straightforward committee job a lot harder.
It was a lesson to me, right there in my the very first of many hundreds of committee meetings: if there’s anxiety in the room, it will want the floor. And without effort to diffuse or redirect it, that anxiety will likely derail the actual work that needs to be done.
It’s helpful, when it surfaces, to see anxiety for what it is. That doesn’t mean we get to dismiss it or ignore something we don’t want to hear as “anxiety.” Sometimes the most anxious person in the room is telling us exactly what we need to hear. And there are times that each of us becomes the most anxious person in the room…we all take our turns. But seeing anxiety as something pulls our focus away from the work at hand, and puts us instead on shakier ground, is a first step in unwinding it.
The deeper lesson over the years, though, is that anxiety isn’t a given. It took me a little while to realize that, especially after that first capsized committee meeting: the great majority of groups and team meetings I’ve been in over the years have actually been pretty productive, and folk usually show up to get it done and go home. Anxiety will always be there, of course, gets better over time, if we can learn to be attentive to headaches before they become crises, if we can stay focused and practice some discernment along the way.