What is truth?

I realized this morning that I know very little about Pontius Pilate. I’ve read a few sentences about him in the gospels, but even those focus primarily upon his role in the crucial moments of another’s life. Because of those sentences, I’m able to affirm my belief that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate,” but I still know next to nothing about the man himself.

Nevertheless, I feel a certain camaraderie with Pilate this morning as his question to Jesus resounds in my mind, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)

From my vantage point, I can’t imagine a more timely, consequential, or appropriate question in August 2020 than Pilate’s from two thousand years ago.

Though the age of his question may comfort us that truth has always been elusive, my sense is that our understandings of truth are particularly disparate and fluid in the present age. Here, in this present moment, regardless of whether we articulate it, our almost constant question is “What is truth?”

Given the legal proceedings over which he presided, Pilate was likely accustomed to pursuit of “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” from the perspective of eyewitnesses. Legal truth, then as now, was what could be witnessed, described in testimony, and corroborated. In Jesus’ case, Pilate discovered, as we so often do, that a person’s perception is often affected by a person’s perspective.

Consider the consequential questions over which we collectively wrestle. Whether the topic is global warming or mask wearing, experts and authorities from differing political perspectives offer differing counsel. Far from corroborating, they present conflicting and contradictory testimonies. When experts clash, what is truth?

Furthermore, we live in an era in which the very ideas of authority and expertise are consistently challenged and undercut. Deference is giving way to defiance. Societally, it seems we give greater credence to conspiracy theories than to scientific theories. We once allowed scholars to shape our view of truth, but now, when expertise doesn’t matter, “What is truth?”

Similarly, we have a rapidly diminishing sense of media’s trustworthiness and capacity to deliver objective truth. Right now, you’re probably thinking about particular news organizations’ conservative or liberal biases. Certainly, this is not a new development; two hundred years ago, we would have discussed their federalist or states’ rights inclinations. What is new, however, is the unprecedented proliferation of pseudo-news, quasi-news, fake news, and no-effort-to-be-news online “publications,” whose sensational stories are so often quickly shared and spread across social media. If the “news” we read and see is no longer reliable truth, what is truth?

Speaking of seeing, another great impediment to our pursuit of truth is that we’ve learned that we sometimes cannot trust what we have actually witnessed. Where we once trusted the photographic evidence before us (because “the camera doesn’t lie”) we’ve now learned that photographs and videos can be manipulated very cleverly. Social media accounts can be hacked fairly simply. Foreign “trolls” convincingly imitate real people’s online presences. Even when we see it with our very own eyes, it may not be true. So, what is truth?

In her Republican National Convention speech this week, First Lady Melania Trump said, “We all know Donald Trump makes no secrets about how he feels about things. Total honesty is what we, as citizens, deserve from our President. Whether you like it or not, you always know what he’s thinking, and that is because he’s an authentic person who loves this country and its people.” Is truth equal to candor? Is honesty defined as authenticity in revealing our thoughts in our words? What is truth?

A member of a congregation I served and led years ago seemed to embrace a similar understanding of truth. He once said something like this to me: “You’ll find that I’m your best friend around here because I have the courage to say the things that others won’t. I tell the truth even when it hurts.” True to his word, he was both candid and vocal. No one wondered how he felt because he said it–even when it hurt and regardless of who it hurt. At our worst, however, we may use such candor to inflict pain upon another, rationalizing that honesty is always virtuous and claiming, “Truth hurts!” Is truth to be self-serving or weaponized? What is truth?

Even as the First Lady commends his honesty, some media fact checkers call President Trump’s truthfulness into question, claiming that he has uttered over twenty-thousand “false or misleading” statements. We know that “misleading” implies interpretation, and therefore, we likely would differ considerably over whether a statement actually is misleading (again, depending upon our own biases and perspectives).

However, “false” suggests objectivity, factuality, verifiability–all criteria that seem familiar to most of our definitions of truth. From our earliest experiences in school, we’ve generally believed that true and false are antithetical and that one excludes the other. However, a recent addition to our cultural lexicon is “alternative facts,” which probably means claims of fact from alternative sources, yet again depending upon our preferences, assumptions, and various worldviews. When even “facts” collide, what in the world is truth? Is there even such a thing as truth?

In the 2009 movie Couples Retreat, when his wife and friends diminish the severity of his brush with a shark, Dave says repeatedly, “I know my truth. I know my truth.”

Maybe Dave’s answering our question. Maybe our world has become so disjointed, individualistic, and self-interested that truth is simply “my truth.”

I alone am the authority of my truth. I will find the news sources, the experts, and even the alternative facts to verify my truth. I will discount and diminish any voice or claim conflicting with my truth. I will loudly proclaim and defend my truth, regardless of the hurt it might cause another. My truth is the truth, and sometimes the truth hurts.

No wonder Pilate tried to wash his hands and walk away from it all.

For followers of Christ, however, “my truth” is inadequate, insufficient, unholy, and unChristlike. Earlier in the gospel of John, a few chapters before his encounter with Pilate, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6), and on three occasions thereafter, he refers to the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of truth.” In contrast to a self-insistent “my truth,” the truth is Spirit-inspired and both proclaims and honors Jesus Christ and his love.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes, “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (4:15). A self-involved “my truth” is childish and immature; the truth and all of its expressions are neighbor-loving, mature, and Christlike.

Truth is best found in the effort to love the Lord God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. As love rules and guides us, we will be people of honesty, authenticity, and integrity. Our love for God and people will inspire us to generosity and charity, rather than paucity of spirit and petty defensiveness over our little preferences and biases.

In pursuit of love, we just might find that we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free.

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For Grace as you begin college

Tonight you’ll spend your first night in a dorm room. Congratulations! Your college experience has begun!

Though I’ve had years to prepare, I confess this day has come before I’m ready, but I trust that you are. You’re going to be great!

From day one, I’ve cherished my role as a supporting actor in your life, and even when you haven’t needed support, I’ve loved the view from the front row. Though I’ll be watching from a greater distance now, I’ll constantly hold you closely in my love and prayers.

A few months before you were born, someone gave your mom a card with these words attributed to Elizabeth Stone: “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

As of today, wherever we may be, know that a big part of our heart is walking around on the Emory & Henry College campus.

Over the past few days, your mom and I have felt like we’re back in college cramming for a final exam, furiously trying to answer tough questions. Have we prepared you well enough? Have we bought all the things you will need? Have we taught you all you need to know?

In truth, we know that’s not possible. Part of your college experience is to learn things for yourself, to make your own mistakes and discoveries, to learn to rely upon and trust your own judgment.

When I was your age and leaving home for my first night in a dormitory at Emory & Henry College, my dad gave me some timeless counsel: “Don’t let your mouth write any checks your butt can’t cash.” I wish I had something that wise and memorable, but here’s the best I can offer you . . .

Be sure to answer your mother’s calls and text messages as quickly as possible. Remember, a big part of her heart is now walking around on a college campus in another state. No one loves you or worries for you like your mom. Please don’t make her worry needlessly.

On the other hand, even if it is your mother calling, please don’t pay attention to your phone while you’re driving! It can wait. Keep yourself safe.

And don’t ever get into the vehicle with a driver who seems impaired in any way, whether by alcohol, or any other substance, or even lack of sleep.

Keep your car parked as much as possible. Enjoy the luxury of living on a pedestrian campus! Breathe the fresh air. Get some exercise. Don’t let the car become a crutch or an escape from spending time in community with people.

Keep your phone in your pocket as much as possible. It can also become a convenient escape from community. Instead of staring at a screen, notice people, see their faces, say hello.

In these first few weeks, meet as many people as possible. There’s time later to form more tightly knit small groups. Enjoy the luxury of a smaller college community! Challenge yourself to learn people’s names, faces, and stories.

Spend as much time with people as with assignments. As the years pass, you’ll forget some, much, or even all of the academic material. You’ll never forget the feeling of being part of community. Invest in that.

On the other hand, don’t neglect to do your very best on every assignment. That’s the wise counsel my mom gave me every single day of elementary and high school. When no one is watching or there to remind you, take pride in your work.

Develop good habits. Set aside time for study. Make time for relaxation and fun. Be sure to get enough sleep and rest. Don’t spend more money than you have. Avoid overeating. Take time to exercise and be well.

Be a person of integrity. Tell the truth, even when it’s hard. Be reliable. Be dependable. Be the kind of person people can trust. Have principles that you won’t let yourself violate. Stand up for what you believe.

Be a person of compassion. It’s almost certain that some people will feel out of place, left out, and left behind. When you discover who they are, go out of your way to be kind to them.

Be grateful and patient. Develop spiritual maturity by giving thanks every day to God and to the people around you. Make a habit of thanking people who work in support roles around campus. Work hard not to complain. And if you dine out, be sure to tip your servers.

Trust your heart. Like mom says, if it feels wrong, it probably is–or at least it’s wrong for you. Avoid the things you’ll regret, but live out your passions!

Use your brain. Some people are predatory and manipulative. Keep your eyes open. Don’t walk alone at night. Don’t accept a drink from anyone. And don’t let anyone drive your car. Insurance and accidents are expensive.

Leave earlier than necessary and walk to class. You’ll have time to settle your mind, to enjoy the scenery, and to get to know the people around you.

Participate in class. Answer the questions. Take part in the discussion. Demonstrate that you’re interested and prepared.

Be open to new possibilities. Try a different food in the cafeteria. Take a class in an unfamiliar academic area. Have a conversation with someone from a different part of the world. Hear from someone who votes differently than you. Sing in the choir! Learn a new instrument! Commit yourself to learning and growth even outside the classroom.

Don’t be afraid to ask. The faculty and staff are glad to help you find your class, grasp the concept, or find the best solution to your dilemma. You’re not supposed to know it all, and sometimes the only way to learn is to ask. Please ask humans more often than you ask Siri or Alexa, ok?

Grace, there will be plenty of questions, and you will probably begin to question yourself and your deeply held convictions. There will be plenty of new ideas, opportunities, and ways of looking at the world. Sometimes the novel feels more appealing than the familiar. Dear child, no matter what you embrace or cast aside over these four years, please reserve space for Jesus at the center of your heart. Your aging brain will lose its grip on knowledge, and your strongest friendships are only lifelong. The love of God–and only the love of God–is eternal.

Wendell Berry once wrote, “Advice is best given when it is sought.” Well, please forgive me for offering these unsolicited thoughts, and know that I simply offer them out of love.

When you were younger and smaller, I often asked, “How much does your daddy love you?” And you would answer, “More than anything in the world.”

So, as you spread your wings, find your own way, and live your best life, here’s one last and very most important thing to remember:

Mom and I love you more than anything in the world, sweet girl. More than anything in the world.

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Responsibilities in a world of rights and privileges

As I hung it recently on my new office wall, I noticed again perhaps the most significant feature of my Emory & Henry College diploma. Beyond the paragraph proclaiming that I earned a degree, or the attractive frame my parents bought, or even the little gold seal signifying that I graduated with honors, the most crucial part of the document may be a single word.

An Emory & Henry College diploma specifies that the graduate is awarded a degree “with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities thereunto appertaining.” That single word, “responsibilities,” makes it clear that my diploma is not merely a celebration of accomplishment but also a benediction for the rest of my life. Because of that one word, my diploma doesn’t merely say, “You did it!” It also asks, “Now, what are you going to do?”

I appreciate the word because it is a motivator. It is a constant beckoner. It perpetually causes us to ask how we will live and who we will be in the present and future, rather than allowing us to rest upon the laurels or wallow in the ashes of who we have been in the past.

Well over half of my life has passed since the college entrusted me with those responsibilities, and because they have been my companions for so long, I have become protective of responsibilities, almost as if they’re family.

Lately, I find I’m more defensive than protective, because frankly, responsibilities are endangered in our nation and culture today.

The same is not true of responsibilities’ neighbors on my diploma, the more beloved rights and privileges. We cherish our rights. We cling to our privileges. I wonder why we so vigorously avoid responsibilities?

Perhaps we have unconsciously agreed upon too narrow a definition of responsibility. We too closely associate responsibility with fault or blame, as in when we ask, “Who is responsible for this mess?”

In the world of bipartisan politics, where I find very little that is creative or constructive these days, this is the preferred understanding of responsibility. Partisans of opposite persuasions are glad to assign responsibility–by which they mean fault or blame–to the other party or ideology. Rather than offering a compelling vision for a better future, each party is content to grasp for higher ground in public esteem by describing how the other party is “responsible” for all that is wrong around us.

When this is our understanding of responsibility, we tend to assume a critical tone, seeking at once to excoriate others and exonerate ourselves. No wonder we would avoid this kind of responsibility. No one wants to be wrong or at fault! No one likes to bear the blame.

The etymology of responsibility, however, points us back to the Latin verb respondere, which means “to answer,” or “to respond.” So, I guess we could justify a critical tone and seek responsibility by asking, “Who will answer for this mess?” Just as easily and legitimately, however, we may choose an an earnest, inquisitive, compassionate tone and believe that the more appropriate, productive, responsible questions are, “Who will respond to this mess? Who has an answer to this problem?”

Have you ever pressed the button or raised the telephone receiver for customer assistance in a big box store? It’s not uncommon in that circumstance to hear a voice over the house speakers indicating that a customer needs assistance, closely followed by the question, “Who is responding?”

Let that be a lesson in responsibility for us. That retailer isn’t blaming its associates that I don’t know where to find an item; the voice simply wants to know who’s responding to the call for help. The same concept is true with the civic servants we call “first responders.” In the heat of danger or crisis, we’re glad and grateful that they’re answering–responding to–the call for help.

From its roots in respondere, perhaps responsibility really is as simple as offering ourselves to respond to the call for help, to seek the answer to our common question, to work together for a solution, rather than merely (and lazily) assigning blame.

Again, though, responsibilities struggle for acknowledgement and even survival alongside their much more popular neighbors, rights and privileges.

Lately, I’ve been heartbroken by often belligerent and seemingly self-centered social media posts and comments justifying and rationalizing the refusal to wear a mask in the COVID-19 pandemic as an exercise of individual rights. Where responsibilities ask who will respond or answer the call to seek a solution to our common crisis, rights lure us to answer, “Not I. It is my right to refuse a mask. I am not to blame or at fault (responsible) for another’s exposure or infection.”

Similarly, my heart hurts when we cling to privilege, often failing to see it, and denounce or decry others’ efforts and struggles for social injustice or racial inequality. We can’t hear responsibility asking us who will respond because privilege cries out, “I never owned a slave. I don’t have a racist bone in my body. I am not to blame or at fault (and therefore responsible) for injustice.”

When privileges are named and challenged, those who enjoy them might even convince themselves that they are becoming the oppressed! Just that easily, a perceived threat to our privileges begins to feel like an encroachment upon our rights! In our agitation over what we stand to lose, we feel no inclination or incentive to join others’ struggles for equality. If anything, we feel instigated to oppose them.

By their very nature, rights and privileges–which we feel we have earned or deserve, or to which we feel entitled–can lead us to a place of self-centeredness or self-interest from which it is difficult even to perceive injustice. We can become unsympathetic, unempathetic, uncompassionate, and simply unable to see the injustice or inequality others endure.

There’s the danger of rights and privileges. They give us permission to assert what we deserve, which can lead to insistence upon self, diminishing and threatening any sense of community we might feel. Their less popular counterweights are responsibilities, which encourage us to ask what we can contribute to society, to focus on what we can give and not merely upon what we might get.

The one to whom I strive to offer my absolute devotion said, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). Maybe that’s another way of saying that the one with many rights and privileges also has many responsibilities.

In just a few days, my daughter Grace will become a first-year student at Emory & Henry College, and over the next four years, I hope and trust that she will learn many lessons–academically, socially, and spiritually. I hope she’ll come to appreciate even more fully the values and virtues of ambition, hard work, and achievement, and in May 2024, I expect to smile, applaud, and maybe even cry a little in celebration of her accomplishments and the recognitions she has earned. I will be proud of the rights and privileges accompanying that hard-earned diploma she will hold.

But on the inside, I’ll also be whispering a little prayer that her four years in that unique community inspire her to spend the rest of her life looking beyond blame, responding to the call, seeking the best answers for all . . . embracing responsibilities.

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The Importance of “I’m Sorry”

Elton John sang, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” A few years later, Chicago confessed, “It’s hard for me to say I’m sorry.”

Those words probably stick in my mind because I can remember all the times those words have stuck in my mouth. It really is hard for me to say, “I’m sorry,” and if sorry isn’t the very hardest word for me to say, it’s certainly near the top of the list.

Why is that? I imagine it’s because I really don’t like to be wrong. Pridefully, I think an apology is more about me than the person to whom I need to apologize. Blinded by my own need to be right and justified, I lose sight of the importance of being in a right relationship. Tragically, my pride and unwillingness to apologize often cause even more injury to the very people I love most of all.

To apologize requires humility and empathy–humility to admit our capability to err and empathy to identify with the other’s hurt. To say, “I’m sorry,” is to affirm that another’s injury–whether intended or not–is more important than our own need to be above reproach. Put simply, it is to love neighbor as self.

But it is hard.

I experienced that first hand today with my own Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church. In our morning session of the annual conference, we considered a resolution about our ministry together with LGBTQAI+ brothers and sisters that concluded:

THEREFORE, Be it Resolved that as the Holston Annual Conference we commit ourselves to join hands as one, united through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness as we work together toward God’s hope for the people of Holston and apologize for the harm caused to the body of Christ and its witness in the world.

As an annual conference, it was hard for us to say, “I’m sorry.” Sorry proved to be the hardest word.

I’m not surprised. Our differences over human sexuality cause strong emotional reactions, and I’m sure that many members of our annual conference found it hard to apologize because they felt it would be admitting to wrongdoing for which they do not feel responsible. Some probably are simply unable to see that any harm has been done, so inextricably and hopelessly are their ideas of sexuality and sinfulness intertwined.

Regardless, the resolution was amended to say that we grieve, rather than apologize for the harm caused.

I can appreciate our collective emotional desire to amend the resolution. Grieving allows us to be compassionate, but it doesn’t require us to feel responsible. Grieving lets us wish that others weren’t hurting without necessarily seeing our own place in causing their pain–even accidentally.

My biggest heartbreak is that we have diminished–with the change of a word–our urgency to bring about reconciliation. We have not demanded of ourselves a resolve to renew and redouble our efforts to do no harm–even accidentally.

Today’s annual conference action has helped me to see myself more clearly, and I hope I’ve taken another step in growth and maturity toward being better able to value my relationships over my pride.

I hope I’ve learned that an apology is not fundamentally about me.  Its primary purpose is not to point out my wrongness or to imply my willful injury of another. Rather, to say “I’m sorry” is to affirm my love for the other, to say that I regret his/her hurt, and that I want our relationship to be restored even more than I want to be blameless and right.

I wish our annual conference had done that through our resolution today.

We are not of one heart and voice in the Holston Annual Conference today. Even in its amended form, I doubt that we adopt the resolution.

Nevertheless, in my heart and in the hearts of many of my brothers and sisters in Christ, the resolution remains unamended. We really do “apologize for the harm caused to the body of Christ and its witness in the world.”

No matter how hard it is to say, and even if it’s the hardest word of all, we’re sorry.

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Goodbye Too Soon Connor

“He’s gone.”

Those were the two words my wife Suzanne said when I answered the phone on Wednesday afternoon at 5:18 pm.

Since I was out of town, she had called me about an hour earlier to let me know that our eighteen-year-old nephew Connor was nearing the end of his journey. In that earlier call, she had given me the priceless gift of putting me on speaker so that I could say to him through tears, “I love you. I have since the day you were born.” His answer—the last words he ever spoke to me—was, “I got it.”

As much as I dwell on the hurt of Wednesday’s telephone conversations right now, I absolutely resolve to remember the “hell of a fight” (his mother’s words) that Connor waged to postpone those phone calls as long as possible.

About two years ago, we learned that Ewing sarcoma was the cause of a persistent pain in Connor’s hip, from which the sinister intruder had spread to a shoulder and ribs. Since then, trips to Winston-Salem, scans, tests, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments have become Connor’s new normal.

He was a trooper through thousands of miles of travel and hours of treatment.

The insidious disease took so much from him—his hair, his body mass, his stamina, his junior year of high school—but it didn’t take his courage or resolve.

And so we were able to cry—joyfully—when he rang the bell in that hospital hallway in January 2018, signifying that he had made it to the end of chemotherapy. We cried again in October 2018 when he was crowned Abingdon High School’s homecoming king after being introduced by the stadium announcer as “cancer survivor, Connor Bartz!”

One week later, we cried yet again when we learned that Ewing sarcoma was back. And it was angry.

For the rest of my life, I will refuse to spell that horrible c-word with its vowels. I will spell it cncr, because it is dirty and ugly, like a four-letter word. It takes and takes until there is nothing left to give. In the words of the psalmist, “I hate it with perfect hatred.”

Again, it took—this time, from Connor’s senior year and from his remaining strength and stamina. And again, he gave—as his mom Shea says, “a hell of a fight.”

Round two was fought in Cincinnati, and though the setting was different, his courage was the same. He took on the grind of thousands of miles, hours, scans, needles and treatments, and he gave it all he had.

I emphasize that. In the end, I refuse to say that cncr took Connor’s life. Last Monday, he made the very difficult and courageous decision to discontinue treatment. He came home to face the final round with a horrible disease on his own terms, in his own bed.

He was surrounded by love, as he had been his whole life. In fact, if love alone could cure cncr, it never would’ve had a chance against him. You’ve never seen two more devoted parents or two more devoted sisters than Connor’s.

I’m grateful that his very last awareness was that he was cherished.

Even under the weight of this present grief, we can look beyond how he died to celebrate with a smile how he lived!

He was an artist, by talent, by training, and by temperament. He loved music, and he lived to perform.

Always a percussionist, he marched through life to his own cadence. A great love of his life was marching in the Abingdon High School band, and he would’ve loved the opportunity to march in front of the band as drum major. He dreamed of marching through his young adult summers in a DCI drum corps.

He began playing piano only in the past few years, but he had a real gift for it. His long slender fingers seemed to navigate the keys instinctively. He played with nuance and passion, and no one had to tell him to rehearse because he seemed to have a perfectionist streak and wanted to rehearse until he got it right.

A highlight of his sister Elise’s wedding this summer was Connor’s playing the song to which Elise and their dad Chandler walked down the aisle at the beginning of the service. It was beautiful. The kid simply made beauty on a piano.

Music was a very natural expression of his innate passion.

He was passionate about politics. One of the great injustices of Connor’s life is that he never got to vote in a presidential election. What a shame it is that many don’t even vote, because it would have meant a lot to him.

William Sloane Coffin wrote a book entitled, The Heart Is a Little to the Left. Connor’s was a lot to the left. He was a fan and supporter of Bernie Sanders and was more than a little frustrated with Howard Schultz over the past few weeks because he feared he might siphon votes away from the Democratic presidential nominee.

I believe his political convictions emerged from his natural protective streak, which always seemed visible in his love for his younger sister Abby. He cared deeply for the ones on the margins—the poorest, the most oppressed, the ones least assured of justice, and perhaps most passionately for LGBTQ persons.

He was an idealist. That doesn’t mean he was ideal. He was a teen, and before that he was a child. He complained. He critiqued. He pushed people’s buttons. He was flawed in all the ways that people are flawed. That’s just part of being human.

Nonetheless, he was an idealist, and in his ideal world there would be justice for all, respect for all, and loving affirmation of all. In the ideal world, everyone would practice their musical instruments to perfection. In the ideal world, there would be no terminal illnesses.

But here in the real world, in the closing rounds of the fight for his life, Connor found comfort in a description of an ideal world to come. His favorite image from scripture over the past few days was from Revelation 21:3-4, in which the voice from heaven’s throne says, “the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

Eternal God of heaven, please hold Connor now that we cannot.

I’ve thought about this a lot over the past couple of days. When Connor was younger, he was fascinated by the HMS Titanic. His parents took him to the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and I believe he even had a Titanic theme birthday party a few years ago.

Do you know what fascinates us about the Titanic? We remember it because the voyage ended before it should have. The story is tragic because it ended too soon.

That’s what strikes me most right now about my nephew Connor. He will be forever eighteen in our memories. We will grieve all the things that he never got to do. We will always have the sense that his story among us simply ended too soon.

Too soon indeed.

Connor, I will always be proud and grateful to have been your uncle.

I will always cherish our parting hug on Saturday night.

I will always be thankful that I got that one last chance on Wednesday to tell you on the telephone what I will simply say again here:

I love you. I have since the day you were born.

And I always will.


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The Heart of an Alien

Last Thursday, April 5, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided a meat processing facility about ninety miles away in Grainger County, Tennessee. The result of the raid was that several dozen people were detained for further legal proceedings related to their immigration status.

The first of those “further proceedings” occurred yesterday, as people identified in Thursday’s raid reported to an immigration intake office in Knoxville, Tennessee. Religious leaders from a variety of denominations–including some of my own respected friends and colleagues of the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church–were present to demonstrate their solidarity with the people and families who fear they are on the verge of deportation.

As you read that last sentence, you may have felt encouraged or outraged, depending on your perspective. It may have given you hope or caused you heartburn.

We live in an era in which our society and church are increasingly polarized, and our deeply held passions and convictions about faith and politics become so commingled that it can be difficult to discern whether our beliefs shape our political views or vice versa. Moreover, we often call this a “Christian nation,” further entangling our views of faith and policy.

So, whether you celebrate or seethe, may I please ask you to stop right now to question why you feel as you do about immigration? What convictions do you hold that make you glad, sad, or mad that ICE raided the packing plant or that the church came out yesterday to show solidarity with immigrants and their families?

As I seek to know and understand my own reactions, the United States citizen in me recognizes the need for immigration policy and border security, and I realize that the ICE agents–both at the processing plant last week and at the intake center yesterday–were doing exactly what we the people have asked and expected them to do on our behalf. I’m grateful for them and for the protection they provide us.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, I am also a citizen of the eternal Kingdom of God, and if I am to obey that Kingdom’s greatest commandment, to love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, strength and mind, I must allow the Lordship of Jesus Christ reign over the sovereignty of the United States of America.

As a member of Christ’s body the church, I believe that God calls me–and all Christians–to lift our voices on behalf of, to stand in solidarity alongside, and to offer help and support to the immigrants in our midst.

Why? Because God has always shown favor to the stranger, the alien, the immigrant.

Those words are the various translations of the Hebrew word ger in the King James Version, New International Version, New Revised Standard Version, and Common English Bible.

From the very beginning of scripture in the book of Genesis, Abram(-aham) is a ger, a stranger/alien/immigrant, and his descendants keep up the family tradition throughout God’s holy word.

The twelfth chapter of Genesis reports that Abram(-aham) leaves his homeland of Haran, and from then on he is at various times an alien in the lands of the Egyptians, Canaanites, and Philistines. In Genesis 20, he and Sarah are aliens in the land of Gerar, whose name literally means something like “the place of strangers/aliens/immigrants.”

In Genesis 15:13, God tells Abram, “your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs . . . for four hundred years.” The next four books of the Bible tell us not only about God’s rescue of the oppressed strangers/aliens/immigrants from Egypt, but also about their wandering about for another forty years until they finally occupy the land that will be their home.

Their Exodus is led by Moses, a man who had two sons, one of whom was named, “Gershom (for he said, ‘I have been an alien in a foreign land’)” (Exodus 18:3).

As the Israelites travel through the wilderness, God prepares them to be hospitable to the strangers, aliens, and immigrants who will live among them in their promised land. In Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, God requires that they offer to both citizens and aliens equal protection under the law.

In Leviticus 19:33, God specifically requires, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.” Beyond merely refraining from oppression, God requires the people to provide for the strangers’, aliens’, and immigrants’ needs in Deuteronomy, both as they leave extra produce in their fields for gleaning (24:19-22) and as they provide directly for the “aliens, the orphans, and the widows” from the people’s tithes (14:29).

Because God commanded that the Israelites leave room for the aliens to glean from their crops, Ruth, a ger from Moab, was able to gather enough gleaned barley to feed herself and her mother-in-law Naomi. While gleaning, she meets and eventually marries Boaz, and they become the great-grandparents of David, the great king of Israel.

This is momentous enough that when Matthew the gospel writer records forty-two generations of Jesus’ genealogy, he mentions only five women, and names only four. Ruth, the stranger/alien/immigrant is one of the four (Matthew 1:5).

Just as Matthew’s gospel begins with a ger playing a key role in Jesus’ genealogy, the story ends with Jesus himself telling his followers that our treatment of strangers is a key expression of our faith.

In Matthew 25’s judgment of the nations, he says to the righteous, “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” Likewise, he says to the accursed, “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.”

Through all of scripture, the message is consistent: it matters to God how we treat the ger–the stranger, the alien, the immigrant–in our midst.

As if in summary, God says to Moses and Israel in Exodus 23:9, “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

The Common English Bible translates that same verse, “Don’t oppress an immigrant. You know what it’s like to be an immigrant, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.”

We citizens of the United States of America could just as easily hear that particular translation entirely apart from any context of faith. We know what it’s like to be immigrants because we were immigrants, or at least our ancestors were. We can find a way to be hospitable toward immigrants, because we have benefited from previous generations’ hospitality.

I can hear the immediate objection: “Let them come into this nation legally!” I agree that it would seem that simple, but my own family’s experience convinces me otherwise.

There are two immigrants in my household, my sons Brett and Micah, whom Suzanne and I adopted (absolutely legally and at considerable expense) from Guatemala as infants. In a court deposition, their birth mother said she was at peace with the decision to make Brett available for adoption because she could not provide for him financially.

She testified that she made a “few centavos per day making tamales.” At today’s exchange rate, a Guatemalan Quetzal, the standard unit of currency, is worth thirteen cents. One centavo is worth 1/100 of a Guatemalan Quetzal, or 1/100 of thirteen cents. In other words, it would take seven centavos to equal one US cent.

I’ll leave you to imagine what she meant by “a few centavos.” Imagine further what she could or could not purchase with those few centavos.

We learned later that she saw a picture of our wood frame home with vinyl siding and said, “Palacio!” To her, our home was a palace, and the child she carried was going to live in a land and family of unimaginable wealth.

There’s the problem with, “Let them come into this nation legally.” Earning a few centavos a day, neither Maria nor hundreds of thousands of her Central American neighbors will ever afford to pay attorneys, to acquire documentation, or to access commercial transportation.

Their financial desperation is often compounded by the circumstantial desperation of living in communities and nations in which the rule of law has not yet superseded the rules of corruption, violence, ethnic conflict, or trafficking, and in which the words “human rights” are merely words, hollow and empty of meaning.

So, in desperation, they come by any means available in search of a job that pays more than a few centavos a day, in pursuit of a modest home that is a palacio compared to what they have left behind, with dreams of an education for their children, in hopes of living in a land without widespread corruption and oppression, a land in which they are not persecuted . . . in short, they are probably very much like our immigrant ancestors.

However, we have become so accustomed to being part of the “we” that it is easy for us to forget that we were once “they.” That’s really what this conversation is all about. In fact, the English word “alien” derives from the Latin word alius, which literally means “the other.”

It is easy to identify what is other than ourselves, and the more foreign something or someone is, the easier it is for us to respond in fear. As foreign as our income and palacio seemed to Maria, she would probably seem even more foreign here in our community.

With her small frame, her dark complexion, wearing her distinctive Guatemalan K’iche’ Maya huipil, and speaking some Spanish, but mostly in her K’iche’ dialect, she would be different from most of “us.” She would be a ger.

Unable to understand her language and unaccustomed to her appearance and habits, we might fear her intentions or dismiss the possibility that we would ever find enough common ground to consider each other neighbors . . .

. . . neighbors, as in “Love your neighbor,” the second great commandment of this Kingdom of which I am a citizen. In this Kingdom, we do the hard work of finding the neighbor in the stranger. In this Kingdom, we walk by faith and not by fear.

Fellow citizens of the Kingdom of God, how would our sovereign God have us respond to the ger, to the stranger, alien, or immigrant in our midst?

How would Jesus Christ have us welcome him by welcoming the stranger in 2018?

We already know the answer to these questions, don’t we?

God calls us to respond from our hearts, because as the Israelites learned so long ago, we know “the heart of an alien.”


For further reflection, the United Methodist Church offers these resources related to global migration.

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Cleaning Up the Cross

Just over a year ago, I mentioned to some leaders in our church family that I would really love to have a larger wooden cross to use in our Holy Week worship services. Like many churches, we had one that had been made from the carcass of some prior year’s Christmas tree, but I wanted something sturdier, more substantial, more lifelike.

I realized the irony as soon as the word departed my lips. How lifelike should an instrument of death be?

Nevertheless, our worship committee chairperson Donna Fowlkes assigned herself a mission, and a few days later, her husband Tom brought a sturdy, straight, weathered trunk of a cedar tree that was fifteen feet tall.

One afternoon last spring, I cut it into lengths of nine and six feet, carefully measured and cut notches, and finally joined the two sections together with the most rustic looking coconut twine I could find.

We had a large, intimidating old rugged cross that served beautifully as the focal point for our Holy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday services. Then, on Easter Sunday morning, we stapled chicken wire around that old rugged cross, and our congregation covered almost every inch of 9 by 6 ruggedness with fresh flowers and greenery. It was transformed into a thing of beauty.

Then, when the flowers had wilted after a few days on display in front of our church building, the cross returned to its storage place in the attic . . .

. . . until yesterday, when I brought the cross out of the attic for the annual Maundy Thursday service. Since I’m a fairly large (and stubborn) man, I didn’t ask anyone to help. I wrestled the cross through the attic to the top of the stairs easily enough, but as I started down the four flights of stairs, I began to notice how unbalanced and unwieldy a 9 by 6 cedar cross can be.

At one point, I stumbled a bit under its weight.

Whoa. That was a profound moment.

As I continued my journey down the stairs and into the chapel, I became increasingly aware of all the stems and protrusions that remained on the trunk where limbs had once grown. Again, I noted the irony as I concentrated not to rip my clothes on this truly rugged cross.

Finally, as I moved the cross into position in the chapel, my hands felt the remaining wood staples and–worse yet–staple fragments that had secured last year’s chicken wire. Out of frustration and disgust, I said aloud to myself, “Someone’s going to get hurt on this thing!”

Again, whoa.

I sat there on the chapel floor with heavy pliers in one hand and a hammer in the other to remove or drive flush all the staples and pieces I could find in that rugged trunk. As I literally cleaned up the cross, I prayed that I wouldn’t clean it up figuratively in my ministry.

That’s a real temptation, though, isn’t it?

We seek the empty tomb, but prefer to bypass the agonizing cross.

We cherish the cross as a symbol of victory, overlooking that it was for Jesus an instrument of suffering and death. It becomes a brass or golden symbol, shiny and smooth–in other words, the kind of cross that doesn’t hurt anyone.

Hundreds of people will gather in our church the day after tomorrow to celebrate Jesus’ triumph over the grave. A few dozen gathered today at noon to remember his suffering. I’m not being critical. I’m just restating that the church suffers from cross avoidance. Maybe it just hurts too much.

As I carried that cross down the steps yesterday, a stray staple dug into my left hand, just below my index finger. It drew blood and left a mark.

I’m glad and grateful for that reminder that someone could get hurt on that rugged cross.

My heart overflows this Good Friday with gratitude for my Lord Jesus Christ, who not only hurt, but suffered, agonized, and ultimately died on a larger, heavier, more burdensome and sinister cross.

May I never clean up that cross.


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Giving Up Mass Shootings for Lent

This post approximates my sermon from this past Sunday, February 18, at State Street United Methodist Church.

16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:16-20).

As we celebrated Ash Wednesday just a few days ago, we remembered that the ashes imposed upon our foreheads were expressions of grief and mourning for our human mortality and sinfulness.

Mortality and sinfulness.

On that very same day, miles away (and worlds apart) from the Ash Wednesday services in our chapel, mortality and sinfulness were conspicuous at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a young man armed with fury and an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle killed seventeen students and faculty members.

Because of my faith, I believe that each was made in the image of God, that all of them were lovingly and uniquely knit together by God in their mothers’ wombs, and that not one of them fell to the ground apart from God. I believe each was–and is–precious in the sight of the Lord.

So, for me, and I suspect for churches and Christians all across our land, Ash Wednesday’s ashes have become a sign of grief and mourning for the mortality of seventeen precious lives and for the sinfulness of the shooter and all like him who have such callous disregard for God’s good gift of life.

Nearly one thousand seven hundred years ago, the season of Lent likely began as an intensive period of fasting, prayer, and repentance for candidates preparing for baptism on Easter morning. From these roots, our practice of “giving up” something for Lent is more than merely an act of self-discipline; it is an act of repentance, of walking away from something that stands between us and God.

Most often, the ashes upon our foreheads are very self-centered. We mourn our own mortality, and we tend to repent from our own individual sinfulness. Less often do we lift up our shared mortality or our collective sin, but I believe this year’s Ash Wednesday massacre in Parkland invites us to just such an awareness.

So, Christians, let’s walk away. Let’s give up mass shootings for Lent.

It may sound ludicrous or hopelessly idealistic, but walking away from evil is what we Christians do. It’s why our ancestors in the faith got a forty-day head start in their walk away from sin and evil before beginning a journey with Christ through baptism.

We United Methodists continue to acknowledge the primacy of turning away from evil in the covenant we share for baptism, confirmation, or profession of faith. Before asking a person to profess faith in Jesus Christ, we begin by asking about the person’s willingness to “give up” or to walk away from sin and evil.

The first covenant question to the candidate is, “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?”

The second question is similar: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

To give up mass shootings for Lent, let’s begin with our vows: Renounce. Reject. Resist. Repent.

Renounce! Renounce the wickedness and evil of mass shootings.

Have the courage to say both often and out loud that there is no place in our society–and certainly no place within the reign of Jesus Christ–for this deplorable evil.

For far too long and at the expense of far too many precious God-knit lives has the church remained silent, or at least relatively quiet. Our failure to renounce the evil epidemic of mass shootings is a failure to keep our covenant vows.

Worse yet, failing to decry the evil is in fact accommodating to the evil, accepting the evil, and–God forbid–becoming complicit to the evil.

There is power in saying the words. When we can name the opponent, we can form a game plan or battle plan. When we can name the cancer, we can begin to treat it. When we can name (and renounce) the evil, we can begin to defeat it.

Christians, speak up! Say that mass shootings are nothing but wickedness, and they are outside the will of God.

Renounce, and then reject this systemic evil.

Reject the notion that the heartless mass-scale reaping of human life is somehow an unavoidable consequence of living in a fallen, sinful world.

Reject that this is a secular problem, somehow removed from our lives of faith.

Reject the idea that the problem is too big, and we are helpless to do anything about it. Ours is the society that first landed a human on the moon. Ours is the society that eradicated polio. Ours can be the society to eradicate this evil too.

Reject the temptation to assign blame. Pointing a finger at parents, teachers, FBI, NRA, legislators, or law enforcement officers does not help. Arguing over who’s primarily at fault distracts us from finding common ground and mutual solutions.

Importantly for the sake of any meaningful progress, reject the temptation to politicize mass shootings and any potential solutions to this horrible evil. Otherwise, we will fall too easily and readily into our partisan trenches and continue to make the mass shooting madness an argument to be won against our foes, rather than a mutual evil to be confronted with our neighbors.

When we begin to talk about the availability of firearms and accessories, the temptation is to frame that conversation purely along partisan lines. We become either the protectors or the enemies of the Second Amendment. Reject the temptation to categorize and oppose someone politically just because firearms are the topic! There is room for conversation when we cease our arguments and see each other as neighbors, rather than partisan opponents.

When we begin to talk about the availability of mental healthcare, there is a similar temptation to devolve into arguments about profits, payers, universality, Obamacare, and other hyper-politicized terms and concepts. Again, this is not an argument to be won; instead, it is an evil to be eradicated. Reject the notion that mental healthcare conversations must necessarily become political debates.

The church and its individual members have been too idle, perhaps because we believe that the evil is too great and complex to be vanquished. Let me remind us that the proper name Satan means “the adversary” or “the obstacle.” As we seek to eradicate evil, the evil one will use anything–including petty arguments–to get in our way. Reject them!

Renounce, Reject, and Resist.

Resistance is active. It is not passive or submissive. Resisting means actively opposing the evil in our midst. It requires doing something.

You may be growing anxious because you suspect that I’m about to tell you to do something with which you disagree politically. I assure you I am not.

If the solution were easy, we would have identified and agreed upon it already. This is a complex evil without a simple solution. So, I will not dare tell you how to resist. I simply implore you to do something to combat this evil.

If you are convinced that the problem is the availability of particular firearms and accessories, do something about it! Contact your legislators today and share your convictions.

If you believe the availability, accessibility, or quality of mental healthcare is at the heart of this evil, do something about it! Lift your voice and advocate for greater funding, for more availability, for less stigmatization.

If you believe the FBI needs more resources to follow up on tips, or if you believe schools need more security measures or greater law enforcement presence, do something about it! Offer to pay more taxes, advocate for greater resources, and in the name of Jesus Christ, do something to resist the evil!

If you believe the fundamental problem is that hearts need to be changed, be a changer of hearts. Perhaps your church (like my church) is within a few meters of a nearby school. What if you proclaim that school your mission field? What if you resist the evil by doing everything in your power to ensure that every student in that school feels loved, embraced, and included in community?

There are thirty-five days remaining in the season of Lent. If every person who reads this blog reaches out to share the love of Christ with just one person per day for the remainder of Lent, thousands of people might be touched by that simple effort.

We shrink from the evil and do nothing because we assume there is nothing we can do. Harry Emerson Fosdick’s 1930 hymn, “God of Grace and God of Glory,” offers up this prayer to God: “Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.”

Enable us Lord to resist the evils that you call us to renounce and reject!

When you feel that you are too weak, and that your resistance is ineffective, recall the question from the United Methodist covenant, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

God empowers our resistance on behalf of Jesus Christ. That’s an important qualifier. Don’t let your resistance be merely about your opinions, convictions, or political affiliations. Let your resistance be in the name of and within the will of Jesus Christ.

How will you know if you’re doing the Lord’s will?

Repent. Turn to him with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength through the remainder of this season of Lent.

Though I am saddened and hurt by all the critical rejection of “thoughts and prayers” over the past few days, I realize and embrace that we cannot simply pray for consolation for the families of the slaughtered innocents. We must also pray for God’s deliverance from this ongoing evil.

So, to know how to reject and resist, I suggest we spend this season in fasting and prayer to seek God’s wisdom. Fasting is not merely an act of self-denial; it is also an act of vulnerability and humility before God, reminding us of our ultimate dependence upon him. Let us prayerfully depend upon God to inspire and shape our rejection and resistance, so that they are Christlike and holy. Let us admit that we are ultimately dependent upon God’s wisdom and power to end this wickedness.

I hear God’s Spirit calling me to repent from the ways I have contributed to this systemic wickedness, not only in the larger world and community, but even in my own family.

I have not walked away from the gratuitous and profitable violence in the entertainment industry that numbs us to the effects and consequence of intentional harm to others.

I have not walked away from the kill tallies and headshots of video games that celebrate violence with point bonuses and allow our children to notch countless kills from the comfort of their own game consoles.

I have not led my congregation in heartfelt renunciation, rejection, resistance, and repentance each time another 17, or 58, or 33 innocent lives are lost in a mass shooting.

In fact, I repent that I am more familiar with the numbers than the names of the people senselessly slaughtered in our society. I have allowed them to become statistics, rather than beloved individuals created in the image of God.

I repent because I believe their deaths matter to God.

In the passage from Matthew’s gospel at the beginning of this post, Matthew tells the story of Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents,” in which Herod, filled with fury, causes a mass killing in and around Bethlehem.

There are no known extrabiblical historical sources to verify the account, and the death total has been subject to speculation for generations. Given Bethlehem’s estimated population of only a few hundred people during Jesus’ lifetime, the number of children killed by Herod’s soldiers was probably a dozen or less. Still, Matthew associates this story with inconsolable weeping.

Whether a few children in Bethlehem, seventeen in Parkland, fifty-eight in Las Vegas, thirty-three at Virginia Tech, or any number anywhere, I believe God’s is the first heart to break when the innocent are slaughtered.

God knows enough mothers, fathers, and communities have wept inconsolably.

Through this season of Lent with the ashes fresh on our heads, we join with them in weeping over mortality and sinfulness.

Mortality and sinfulness.

So church, let’s give up mass shootings for Lent.

And let’s keep giving them up until Rachel weeps no more.

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I hope he really is a con-man . . .

. . . but not in the typical way we use that phrase. I don’t want President-Elect Trump to gain our confidence, only to use it as leverage for manipulation. I don’t want him to be shady.

But I do hope he will strive to lead us into the truest sense of that prefix con-, which literally means “together” or “with.” I know you agree that our United States feel a little less than united, a little short of together these days.

Part of the reason for that, I believe, is that we are becoming a nation of experts. In this postmodern era, there are increasingly few agreed-upon normative truths. Some describe this as an age of “self-referentiality,” in which we are losing the ability to seek the common good because we are so consumed with what seems best for ourselves. Without caution and self-awareness, we can easily slide down a slippery slope from reference to what seems best for us to reverence for what we merely like, want, or prefer.

Here’s the great danger of that: when each sees himself/herself as the moral, rational, or political point of reference, anyone who disagrees is wrong. If I am the arbiter of what is good and true, you are wrong (and perhaps evil and/or stupid) if you disagree with me. Did we not see this in the presidential election? Didn’t candidates, campaigns, and individual voters treat their opponents as if they were absolute imbeciles?

The perfect storm is that this rise of self-reference has coincided with the rise of social media. So, we can all publish our expertise via tweets, posts, and blogs. We can critique, criticize, and rate via likes, retweets, and comments.

Though it allows us to express ourselves to a larger audience, social media doesn’t necessarily facilitate better communication. Posts and tweets are not conversational. They are necessarily one-way, monological expressions. I acknowledge the irony that I’m expressing and you’re reading this thought in a blog post.

We’ve all seen the worst of social media “communication.” One person posts a rant. Another offers a rebuttal in the comments. The author of the original post responds defensively. They unfriend/unfollow each other.

That’s not communication. It certainly doesn’t build community. Tweets and sound bytes can give the impression  that we’re not interested in what anyone else might say. They can alienate us and drive us even further into self-reference.

So, when he assumes office tomorrow, I hope President-Elect Trump will use his Twitter account a little less often. I hope he will strive to be less self-referential than Presidential. I hope he will be a con-man, striving to bring us together with each other.

I hope he will enter into conversations, requiring him to be present with people and to enter into that very real form of communication that occurs only as we both express and listen.

I hope he will make a genuine effort to connect with people, whether they agree or disagree with him. I hope he will strive to lead toward what is best for all.

In his interactions, I hope he will be humble and conciliatory, believing that individual concessions are often necessary for the corporate good.

I hope he will strive for consensus, as seemingly impossible as it is in our generation of hyperpartisan politics. I hope he will lead efforts to find the wisest, best solutions for both parties and all people.

Idealistic? Perhaps, but it’s the kind of idealism upon which our nation is built. Our national motto is E Pluribus Unum, or “out of many, one.” Though we have always valued individual rights, we have equally realized that we are stronger and better when we are united than when we stand alone.

You might even say we are a nation of cons.

Our legislative branch, the congress comes together to legislate for the good of the whole.

Our constitution is the covenant (or contract) that binds us together “to form a more perfect union.”

That constitution, by the way, replaced the Articles of Confederation adopted by a Continental Congress.

I believe with all my heart that we live in the greatest nation on earth. I thank God that we will observe a significant transfer of governing authority tomorrow with no shots fired, lives lost, or battles fought. But our nation can be–ought to be–greater still. I pray and hope that President Elect Trump will be a con- man as he leads us.

Because united we stand; divided, well . . .

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Weeping for the Children

As I ironed a shirt this morning, making my typical preparations for a typical day of work, a heartbreakingly and increasingly all-too-typical news story caught my attention and gripped my heart.

Shots had been fired. Life had been lost.

Cell phone videos replayed the struggle among two Baton Rouge police officers and a civilian suspect. Broadcast journalists, experts, protesters, and family members debated whether the shooting was justifiable. They all agreed that it was tragic, and I agreed with them.

The next scene underscored and emphasized the tragedy for me. As his mother spoke to the media, fifteen year old Cameron Sterling sobbed and cried out, “I want daddy!”

There’s the tragedy.

See, regardless of our arguments over justifiability of shootings, availability of guns, culpability of suspects, avoidability of responsibility, or any other –bility we can imagine, sudden and violent deaths are tragic because they strip children of their parents, parents of their children, loved ones of their loved ones . . .

Perhaps Cameron Sterling spoke for all of us when those three words rushed and gushed up from his heart–“I want daddy!” When violence of any kind wins, we all lose something, maybe even some part of ourselves.

Though my heart and spirit were heavier, my typical morning progressed until my wife Suzanne called my attention to the atypical–tragedy had forced its way into our community. Overnight, there had been an “active shooter” even here in Bristol, just minutes from our home. As the story unfolded through the morning, we were numbed by the unthinkable, the unimaginable. The shooting victim who lost her life was our age. Her children are about the same ages as our children. Her son played on the same soccer team as our son.

Just weeks ago, we sat on the sideline with her, cheering for our children. This morning, as she made her typical preparations for a typical day of work, her beautiful life ended tragically, senselessly, violently and suddenly. At this very moment, I can imagine her son, Chauncey, our team’s goalie, crying out through his own sobs, “I want momma!”

Sadly, this isn’t the first time that tragic violence has come so close to our children’s hearts. On July 27, 2008, Chloe Chavez sat with her family when a gunman opened fire in the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville. Before he was subdued, the shooter had injured Chloe’s mother, grandfather, and great uncle and had killed a family friend who was like a great aunt to her. Only a month earlier, Chloe and my daughter Grace had finished their Kindergarten year together in the same classroom. Earlier in the year, we had enjoyed meeting all those nice people at Chloe’s birthday party.

When Suzanne and I learned that she had sat there among her family members–splattered in their blood as they were wounded and killed–we could imagine six year old Chloe’s screams . . .

Today, as young Chauncey and his family cry out in grief, I remember the familiar words of my Judeo-Christian faith tradition, “How long, O Lord?”

But as a follower (and a father), the primary scripture-image that comes to my heart and mind is, “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15).

In Jeremiah’s prophecy, the image is of Rachel in her tomb in Ramah, crying for the children of Israel as they are taken away into exile. In Matthew 2:18, the gospel writer suggests that Herod’s massacre of infants is the reason for Rachel’s weeping.

Today, whether from her tomb in Ramah or from her place in God’s eternal presence, I believe with all my heart that our ancestor Rachel weeps for her children like Chloe, Cameron, and today, Chauncey, as they cry out primally for the ones they’ve loved and lost.

Our hearts weep with yours Rachel. We weep with you.

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