Archive for the ‘Justice and Peace’ Category

Truth Is Still Truth; Lies Are Still Lies

June 22, 2017

“Truths are true no matter how many people deny them. Lies are lies no matter how many people believe them.” This quote I recently saw on a friend’s Facebook post jumped to my mind as I listened to Donald Trump’s address his adoring crowds in Cedar Rapids, Iowa last evening. It made me physically ill to see the young people, behind him on the platform and in the crowd, cheering and waving signs as he told lie after lie. Specifically:

That he was drafting “new” legislation which would bar new immigrants from receiving welfare for at least five years — a bill President Clinton signed into law in 1996. That it was “his idea” to put solar panels on his proposed hideous border wall on our southern border. That the official Russian investigations by Congress and the FBI are nothing but “witch hunts.”

That his Administration has made historic governing accomplishments like “few Presidents ever before.” That he decries the $6 trillion spent and lives lost in the Middle East over the last fifteen years — even as he has recently decided to reauthorize and even increase troop presence in Afghanistan. That the Paris climate agreement — from which Trump removed the United States — was actually “binding” had we stayed in…when clearly it was not.

One of the most heartless and hypocritical statements came when he praised the wealth of his top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, a former executive at Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street firm Trump so loudly criticized during his 2016 campaign. “In those particular positions, I just don’t want a poor person — does that make sense?” our President sneered. I wonder how justice might be advanced if there were a few “poor persons” (or persons who even know what poverty feels like) in the Cabinet.

How can Iowans continue to cheer for this buffoon when he ridicules the wind energy now produced in our state by thousands of turbines and criticizes trade deals in that same state whose economy relies heavily on exports? How can they continue to swallow his lies — including  that the United States is one of the world’s highest-taxed nations (we are not!)? And how can they continue to swoon at his untrue statement about the size of the crowd even though “We’re not even campaigning…” — even though the event was sponsored wholly by his campaign committee?

How — I still do not understand — can people continue to vote against their own self-interests time and time again? So much so that Trump could tout the recent Republican victories in House races in Georgia and South Carolina, even claiming to be “five out of five” in such recent contests.

I do not understand what it happening in our country.

But I do know this:

Truths are still true no matter how many people deny them. Lies are still lies no matter how many people believe them.

We Must Do Better!

June 17, 2017

“Sometimes it’s not that we want to break your laws,” said the handsome, blue-black Congolese man, “It’s that we do not know what those laws are!” This was one of the amazing insights I gained in attending the Eastern Iowa Refugee Summit in Iowa City yesterday. And then the young man gave us an example:

“In my country, when the police stop you, it is a sign of respect to put your hand in your pocket. (This probably hearkening back to the time-honored possibility of offering some money for a bribe). Here, they believe you are reaching for a weapon.” One wonders how many times this innocent gesture has had tragic results.

These are the kinds of insights we only get when we take time to get to know newcomers to our country, be they immigrants (those who have chosen to come here) or refugees (those fleeing persecution in the lands of their birth). And this was the unanimous recommendation of the many presenters at yesterday’s summit. The opening panel “Refugees as New Iowans” consisted of representatives from Lutheran Services, Americorps VISTA, the Iowa Department of Human Services, and the founder of EMBARC (Ethnic Minorities of Burma, Advocacy and Resource Center) in Cedar Rapids.

Workshops during the day consisted of five topics: Advocating for Refugee Children and Youth, Investing in the local economy: Refugees and Employers; Empowering You for Political Action; Becoming an Effective Volunteer and Ally; and Enhancing Health in Refugee Communities. My only frustration was that I could not attend them all!

The day concluded with a powerful address by Anesa Kajtazovic, a 20-something former member of the Iowa House of Representatives from 2011-2015 and a Bosnian refugee settled with her family in Waterloo in the 1980’s. This feisty and brilliant young woman left many of us with tears in our eyes as she received a standing ovation at the conclusion of her story.

In this dark time of our nation’s political life, it was so encouraging to see how many people do care about immigrants and refugees and how it is possible to make a difference at the grassroots even in the face of great opposition. Next steps may include the formation of an Eastern Iowa Refugee Alliance which could serve as a clearing house and coordinating mechanism for the many organizations and entities which already seem to be working together, but could do so much better in and through such an Alliance.

Iowa has a long history of refugee resettlement. In 1975, Republican Governor Robert Ray became the first in the nation to respond to President Gerald Ford’s request to assist in the refugee crisis. Since that time over 3 million refugees have resettled in this country from all over the world. Yet today there are 21.3 million refugees out there. Of these 86 % are hosted by developing countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, and Lebanon. Less than 1% of the world’s refugees are ever resettled.

The world must do better. We must do better.

Yesterday’s summit convinced me that we can!

 

 

Rhetoric Did Not Injure Anyone Yesterday

June 15, 2017

Let’s be clear about one thing. Yesterday’s shooting of Republican congressmen and staff persons in Virginia was not about rhetoric. It was about the violence inherent in human nature coupled with easy availability of “weapons of mass destruction” in the United States coupled with a mentally and emotionally unstable person.

Oh, we hear yesterday and today all kinds of cries, mostly from the Right, to tone down our rhetoric, to realize that we are one nation, and to work together to find solutions to the problems. Where were those sentiments when proposals to take away health care from millions of Americans, plans to build a wall across our southern border, and a “travel ban” affecting mostly Muslim-majority countries were floated with very little conversation “across the aisle?”

Actually, politically-motivated violence of the kind we saw yesterday is not very common in this country, compared to earlier times in our history and to many other nations around the world today. However, if the ever-widening gap between rich and poor continues to increase, if the “forgotten” people pandered to by Donald Trump (and, to some degree, by Bernie Sanders) do not actually begin to feel that their voices are being heard somewhere in the halls of power, and if some actions are not taken to regulate the sale and possession of firearms to people who should never have them, incidents of this kind are likely to increase exponentially in the coming years.

We may think that we are protected from “class warfare” of the kind history has witnessed time and time again. As long as there was an ever-expanding middle class and people had some hope that their children would be better off than they are when they grow up, that was probably true. But we are quickly reaching a time when frustrated, angry, and desperate men like James T. Hodgkinson will not be so exceptional, but rather may begin to gather in decidedly “unregulated” militias and we may find ourselves with blood in the streets, not just on an isolated baseball diamond.

Heated rhetoric did not injure anyone yesterday. Anger, frustration, and emotional instability which found its outlet in the use of assault-style weapons which no one except the military and possibly the police should own did. When will we begin seriously to address the underlying causes of such violence? And when will we enact sensible gun-control measures which can at least mitigate the damage done in the meantime?

Movement Politics

June 7, 2017

Attended a workshop last night put on by local organizers for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. It was entitled “Doing Politics Differently” and I found the whole evening encouraging. First of all, the leaders were all very young people as were approximately half the 35 to 40 of us who were in attendance. There was a a young woman who is a union organizer sitting in front of me, several one-time local politicians, and a contingent of “100 Grannies” a group of activists actually formed years ago by one of our Iowa Episcopal priests.

These folks are mostly left of Hugo Chavez on the issues. They were mostly Bernie Sanders’ supporters (but who harbor no desires for him to ever run again — “It’s time to move on”). They were openly critical of the Obama years (drones, support of the TPP, etc.) and were scathing in their disdain for the Clintons, seeing them as one more example of compromised baby boomers who are as much in the pocket of the 1% as Donald Trump.

Even though most of these folks have been involved in political campaigns in the past, they despair of the state of politics today and about the only thing they look back on with nostalgia was the “Occupy” movement which had such potential, but which failed to sustain itself because of a lack of an organizational strategy. The motto of this group is “We talk. We act. We get things done.” And they are clearly committed to make those more than words.

After opening introductions of ourselves and Iowa CCI, there was a fast-moving presentation of “the political moment we’re in.” The main takeaway here was the disastrous influence of big money in politics and the fact that Republicans and Democrats are equally guilty of this. We discussed how politics are currently being done in Iowa and how we want to do politics differently. The final segment was a definition of “movement politics as opposed to business-as-usual politics. A summary of that presentation follows. Forgive its length, but I believe every couplet is important.

Business-as-Usual Politics                                           Movement Politics

*Runs on  money power (corporate)                                    *Runs on people power, donations

*Top-down, bureaucratic structure                                      *Bottom-up, grassroots structure

*Candidates have access to big money                                 *Candidates are everyday people

*Campaign on issues, but don’t act on them                        *Govern as you campaign

*Define democracy as voting every 2 years                         * Organize day-in and day-out

*Winning is its own justification                                           *Winning is a way to move issues

*Focus on swing districts considered winnable                  *Don’t write off any areas

*Staff and consultant driven                                                   *Volunteer-driven

*All about the candidate                                                           *All about the issues

*Maintains political and economic status quo                     *Changes the establishment

*Reliant political party organization                                      *Reliant on people’s organizations

 

As one who made phone calls and knocked on doors in both the Obama campaigns and for Hillary Clinton and who is now almost completely disillusioned about party politics in this country, I find all this true and immensely appealing. I rejoined CCI because I wanted to focus on the issues rather than on partisan politics after being assured by our Democratic party bosses here in Iowa that Hillary Clinton could not possibly lose to Donald Trump and that, therefore, we needed only shore up her base and not bother phoning or visiting Republicans or even Independents. Right!

Next steps for us in Iowa CCI will be our 2017 Convention in Des Moines featuring keynoters Bernie Sanders and Alicia Garza (Black Lives Matter co-founder). Workshops will be led by Bree Carlson (People’s Action), Erika Andiola (Our Revolution), Judith LeBlanc (Native Organizers Alliance) and Michael Lighty (National Nurses United) as well as an Illinois State Representative and a Chicago Alderman.

It’s time to take our country back. It’s time for Movement Politics!

 

 

 

Connecting The Dots

June 5, 2017

Now let’s see. US President Donald Trump (I still can’t believe I am writing those words) has called on China to put pressure on its ally North Korea to curb its developing nuclear weapons program. Donald Trump has refused to criticize Russia’s Vladimir Putin for anything and continues to suggest that better relations with Russia would be a good thing.

And yet “trade between Russia and North Korea increased by 73 percent during the first two months of 2017 compared to the same period the year before, boosted mostly by coal deliveries from Russia…In addition…A Russian company Investstroytrest opened a new ferry line in May connecting the Russian port city of Vladivostok to the North Korean city of Rajin…”

“(And) Russian railway officials in January visited North Korea to discuss upgrades to the Rjink-Hasan railway, which links Russia to the Korea peninsula…and (the two countries) have reached a labor immigration agreement to expand a program that already employs 40,000 North Korea laborers in Russia’s timber and construction industries…These moves come despite Russia’s signing onto recent sanctions by the United Nations Security Council which call for reducing trade with North Korea…” (Oren Dorell, USA Today, June 5)

It should perhaps not surprise us that a duplicitous liar like Putin would have no qualms about signing a solemn agreement at the UN on the one hand and systematically ignoring it before the ink is dry on the page on the other. He and his puppet government have been doing such things for decades. Anyone who believes that “things have changed” in Russia just because there is no longer a Soviet Union are living in a dream world.

As we move ever nearer former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before Congress about Russia’s meddling in the recent U.S. presidential election process and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, it may well behoove us to continue to connect the dots between Russia’s continued support for North Korea and the refusal of the Trump Administration to say anything about it. Could it be that Trump is effectively gagged on this and other issues because he knows that Putin could ruin his presidency with a word or two about influencing the election or releasing even more embarrassing details the Russians may be holding about Donald Trump and his business interests?

If we had expected any new light to be shed or dots connected by the much-touted NBC interview of Vladimir Putin by Megyn Kelly on last night’s debut of her new “60 Minutes” knock-off, we would have been sorely disappointed. The ten minute segment mostly showed Putin outfoxing Kelly at every turn and being given a huge megaphone to the American public in order to appear completely innocent of any relationship with Trump, his campaign, or administration.

You can’t have it both ways, Donald. Either strangle North Korea’s nuclear ambition through tough sanctions. Or strangle yourself by continuing to talk out of both sides of your lying mouth about your buddies in Russia.

Mary’s Pentecost — And Ours!

June 4, 2017

She always felt better when she could be with his friends. True, all of them except the young one John had deserted him in the end. But she understood that. She’d been afraid too. And she wasn’t even in immediate danger from the Romans like they were. In any case, he had told her just before he died, “Behold your son.” And to John, “Behold your mother.” So, clearly, he wanted her to be part of them.

She really would have preferred to stay in Olivet which is at least a little distance from where it all happened. But, as they gathered there, it was clear that Jerusalem was where he had wanted to go, and Jerusalem was where they must re-assemble as well. So, they crept in, over the course of a couple of days….individually, sometimes two by two…and began meeting in that same upper room where they had celebrated Passover.

Now, it was the Feast of Weeks, fifty days after the ceremony of the barley sheaf during Passover. It had originally been a harvest festival, marking the beginning the offering of the first fruits. She had always loved its celebration as a child…and so had Jesus! So she accepted their invitation to be together that morning. There were other women there in addition to his brothers and, of course, the Twelve (and they were 12 again now, with the addition of Matthias – who had never been far from their assembly).

They had just begun to dance — and sing the Hallel: “Hallelujah! Give praise you servants of the Lord; praise the Name of the Lord” Psalm 113:1 – when the wind picked up. It first whistled and then howled through the streets of the old city. And, even though they had been careful to secure the door, suddenly the shutters rattled and blew open.

Strangely, there was no rain or fog as one might expect with all that wind, but sunshine – bright glimpses of it, lighting up every face around their make-shift “altar table.” But they were too caught up in their praise dance to worry about open windows now! And the volume of their singing only increased over the noise of the wind:

“Let the name of the Lord be blessed! Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your Name give glory! How can I repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for me? I will lift up the cup of salvation…Praise the Lord, all you nations; laud him all your people!” (Psalm 113-117 passim)

It was their custom, during the Feast of Weeks (or Pentecost) to gather the poor and the strangers, as well as the priests and Levites, for the communal meal which was the high point of this great agricultural feast. It was a way of recognizing their solidarity as people of the Covenant, across all the natural divisions of life.

And so, people in the streets were from all over the Mediterranean world. But their racial and ethnic diversity was no barrier to understanding God’s praise that day! She had no idea how it happened, but no matter in what language God’s praise was being spoken or sung, everyone heard it. Everyone “got it” — all of them, from east to west, from the different traditions, ethnic Jews and converts.

And, when the praises began to abate, Mary saw Peter slowly walk to the open window and, flanked by the other eleven, he said, “People of Judea, and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you…and listen to what I say…” (Acts 2:14)

Well, that may not be exactly how it happened on the first Pentecost. But it must have been something like that.  Clearly, something momentous must have happened to transform that ragtag group of frightened disciples into missionaries and evangelists. Several things happened to accomplish that…in addition to the miracle of Pentecost.

 

Their experiences of the Risen Christ, perhaps particularly the one we heard about in the gospel today – the so-called “Johannine Pentecost” from the Gospel of John, with Jesus breathing on them and saying “Receive the Holy Spirit” and challenging them to forgive sins…or to withhold forgiveness. And then, gradually, their discovery of gifts in each other; gifts such as Paul would catalogue years later in his First Letter to the Corinthians:

“Wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous works, prophecy, discernment, various kinds of tongues and their interpretation.” (I Corinthians 12:4-11). Those were the kind of qualities they had seen in Jesus, but now began to see in one another! Clearly, they were meant to do the kinds of works he had done — and to do, perhaps, even greater works…as he had once promised.

What are those works for us today? Well, there are a lot of lenses through which we might view those works, the “mission of the church” in our day. In fact, contemporary missiologists no longer speak so much of the mission “of the church” but rather of “God’s mission” (the missio dei) in which the church has a role to play. All people of good will can be partners in God’s mission, the “ministry of reconciliation,” not just Christians. But I have found “The Five Marks of Mission” defined first by the Anglican Communion and then signed on to by The Episcopal Church as a helpful check-list for us. First of all, we are:

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom – that is, to talk about, to preach about, to set forth the reign and the commonwealth of God. To know that God is sovereign and we are not!
  2. Secondly, to teach baptize and nurture new believers – Christian formation for adults and children, so desperately needed today.
  3. Third, to respond to human need by loving service – direct action to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and protect the defenseless is not an outdated concept. It is still needed today. (Sanctuary is still needed today!)
  4. But – number four – we also need to seek to transform the unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation – we need to get upstream from the problems and to address the systemic causes of what a recent conference in Chicago called the “unholy trinity:” poverty, racism, and violence.
  5. And, finally, to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth – -environmental stewardship, in all its forms. (Whether or not our government chooses to lead in this area, we must!)

Well, I expect even Jesus would have to admit that, while these are the kinds of works he began to address in his ministry, the challenges we face may be even greater today. We will need every one of those gifts of the Holy Spirit listed for us in First Corinthians today to get on with this mission – wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, mighty works, prophecy, discernment, and prayer beyond our ability to put into words.

But, dear friends, we are promised today, on this Feast of Pentecost, Jesus’ own first gift to those who believe – the very spirit of God. Perhaps our Collect for today puts it best:

“Spirit of truth, whom the world can never grasp; touch our hearts with the shock of your coming; fill us with the desire for your disturbing peace; and fire us with longing to speak your uncontainable word. Through Jesus Christ,

 

Amen.

We Are Living A Nightmare

June 2, 2017

We really are. Not only is the Trump Administration under investigation by the FBI and Congress for likely working with the Russians to influence the presidential election in favor of the GOP, not only has Donald Trump successfully undermined the Affordable Care Act by assuring people that it is collapsing and “unsustainable” (rather than working to improve it), not only is he preparing to build a wall across our southern border to keep the “bad hombres” out, and not only has he terrorized Muslims by threatening a “travel ban” from some of their countries, he has now pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Accord, a worldwide agreement to stem the harmful effects of man-influenced climate change.

I am not so much concerned that our pulling out of this Accord will plunge the world immediately  into a death spiral with respect to global warming. The New York Times lead editorial today expresses some confidence that “…the United States, whatever Mr. Trump does, will continue to do its part in controlling greenhouse gas emissions. Market forces all seem to be headed in the right direction. The business community is angry. A Gallup poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans are worried about climate change, and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that almost 70 percent of Americans wanted to stay in the agreement, including half of Trump voters.”

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, agrees that “Despite this announcement, many U.S. businesses, states, cities, regions, nongovernmental organizations and faith bodies like the Episcopal Church can continue to take bold action to address the climate crisis…Faith bodies like the Episcopal Church occupy a unique space in the worldwide climate movement…We are an international body representing 17 countries in the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, and the Pacific…Furthermore the Episcopal Church is a member of the worldwide Anglican Communion, the third largest Christian tradition, and we remain committed to ensuring that Anglicans everywhere are empowered to undertake bold action in climate change mitigation and adaptation.” (Episcopal News Service, June 1)

No, this decision will not halt the progress of environmental stewardship, even though it may set it back and cost us valuable time. My real concern is that this decision, added to the many unfortunates ones made already by this Administration, further erodes confidence in the United States around the world. Pulling out of NAFTA and the T.P.P., reversing commitment toward universal health care, threatening to weaken NATO (which is, at least, not now considered “obsolete”), and rattling an economic saber at Canada are now joined with reneging on what was in any case a purely voluntary international commitment to work together across national boundaries to combat a global environmental crisis.

Is it any wonder that our Allies and even our enemies are wondering whether the United States has any core values any more and whether we can be trusted to keep our word on various international treaties, trade agreements, and the like? German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent comment that Europe must now be prepared to go it alone is only the latest expression of the rapidly-eroding confidence in the United State’s ability to lead…or even to be counted  upon in a crisis. The next time we need Europe’s help in sending their young women and men to die in support of one of our foreign interventions, we may look in vain for such assistance. And who could blame them?

With respect to the climate crisis, I can only hope that a coalition of U.S. businesses, states, cities, NGOs, and faith bodies such as mentioned above will have a sufficient megaphone to assure the world that the people of the United States are with them — on this issue as on so many others — no matter what this Pitiful Little Man in the White House may do next.

 

Iowa’s New Governor

May 25, 2017

Yesterday was an historic day in my adopted state of Iowa. The longest-serving governor in American history (Terry Branstad) resigned his office to be sworn in as the U.S. Ambassador to China. Within the hour he was succeeded by the Lieutenant Governor, Kim Reynolds who, incidentally according to her, happens to be the first woman governor in the state’s history.

Branstad has been a relatively moderate Republican governor, off and on, for 22 years. Like most Republicans he has moved farther to the right over the years but, in my opinion, has stayed in the moderate range in the GOP. I have disagreed with him over the years on a whole host of issues, but I will give him this — he is the most effective politician I have ever seen.

Part of it is that Terry Branstad is a quintessential Iowan. He is, of course, a native of this state and has kept his ear to the ground in order to remain completely connected to the heartbeat of Iowa voters. If they lean left on a particular issue (wind and solar power) so does Terry. If they are conservative on something (abortion) so is Terry. If they fall into the moderate camp (women’s advancement) “plump”, there falls Terry.

I’m not sure how much of that is shrewd political gamesmanship and how much of it is attributable to the fact that Branstad is filled with Iowa DNA and bleeds Iowa blood from his core. It may seem strange that the governor of a flyover Midwestern state has been chosen to be ambassador to China, but Terry has developed deep ties over the years not only to Chinese President Xi Jinping, but also with business leaders to whom he has marketed Iowa agricultural products (beef, corn and soybeans) with remarkable effectiveness. He did surprisingly well in his confirmation hearings, answering questions on China’s nuclear threat to its human rights violations and concerns about intellectual property theft.

Kim Reynolds is cut out of the same mold as Branstad. A fifth generation Iowan, she was born in the little town of St. Charles, she grew up in the metropolis of Osceola (!). After a classic Iowa upbringing where she played six-on-six basketball, worked as a checker at the local Hy-Vee (Iowa based grocery) as well as in Younkers Department store, she began her public service as clerk in the Clarke County Treasurer’s Office and as county treasurer. From there she was elected to the Iowa Senate and, in 2010, answered Branstad’s call to run as his lieutenant governor. The rest, as they say, is history.

It is, of course, too soon to know how she will govern. So far, she has been the good soldier always standing at Branstad’s side and, from that position, having his back. I was pretty impressed with her “inaugural address” in which she outlined her four top priorities as tax reform (lowering rates and simplifying the code), energy innovation, education, and workforce training. The devil is in the details, obviously, but those are things which could conceivably receive bipartisan support and move the state forward in some solid ways.

I am sure that I will disagree with Reynolds as often as I did with Branstad. But I am encouraged that she is a woman and I believe women govern differently. More collaboration, more likely to reach out across the aisle, deeper concerns for matters affecting women and children. She may disappoint on any or all of these issues. But, for now, I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and hope for the best.

After all, anyone who, on her first day in office as county treasurer, enlisted her husband and some friends to assist her in literally tearing down a wall within the office to improve customer service and collaborative communication among employees can’t be all bad!

Interfaith Dialogue and Evangelism

May 22, 2017

In 2001, I was asked by the Presiding Bishop of our church, then one Frank Griswold, to come onto his staff in New York to oversee ecumenical and interfaith relations for the Episcopal Church. It was not an easy decision because I had loved being Bishop of Iowa. But I had lost my wife, Pam, to an untimely death and decided (after much spiritual direction and counsel) that a new venue and context for ministry might be just what I needed.

And I had become deeply involved in the ecumenical movement, especially with the Lutherans, while still bishop here. So I thought I might be of some use to our church doing that ministry fulltime. I knew less about interfaith relations, dialogue with Jews and Muslims and the great Eastern religions, but I had studied them some at the university and even once taught a community college course in comparative religions while I was still a young priest in Florida.

It turned out that I had a steep learning curve in both ecumenical and interfaith relations, but I wouldn’t take anything for those nine years where I was blessed to travel around this country and the world engaging in conversation with fellow Christians and people of other religions on behalf of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. Most of the people in our church understood ecumenism – the movement to draw closer one another as Christians, heal the divisions between denominations, and seek closer cooperation or even full communion with each other when possible.

But interfaith relations were a different matter: Often, people would say – in an adult forum or coffee hour discussion — what are we doing dialoguing with the Muslims? Are you trying to create some kind of one world religion and do away with the uniqueness of Christianity? Do you think all religions are the same and one is as good as another? I always tried to assure them that, No, we are not trying to merge all the religions together. In fact, It’s been my experience that the more committed you are to your own faith the more you will be respected by people of other faiths.

What we did try to do was to find common ground with those folks. We tried to see where, with all our differences, we might find some agreement, at least as a place to start. I think we were trying to do what St. Paul was doing in our First Lesson today. As Luke tells the story in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul was in Athens, that great seat of intellectual and philosophical curiosity and dialogue in the first century.  He was standing in front of the Areopagus which was a big rock outcropping located northwest of the Acropolis in ancient Athens. In Paul’s day it had become a popular center for trying court cases and engaging in all kinds of debate.

He begins his conversation with these intellectuals (as he often does in his epistles to the churches) by complimenting them: “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For, as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17)

He even goes on to affirm their common humanity as children of the one God as he speaks of “The God who made the world and everything in it (who) gives to all mortals life and breath and all things…” These are themes the church will explore on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week as we observe the Rogation Days which some of our hymns pick up on today. A celebration of the Creation!

Now, clearly, Paul’s purpose here was not interfaith dialogue. He was trying to convert the Athenians as the rest of our passage this morning makes clear. But he started, as we do in interreligious relations, by finding common ground.   He doesn’t ridicule the Greeks’ faith. In fact he commends them for being extremely religious. He doesn’t begin by disrespecting their worship of other gods. But he finds an opening by referring to an altar they had dedicated to “an unknown god” (covering all their bases, I guess!). And he says, what you acknowledge as unknown, this I am proclaiming to you!

He’s starting with them where they are, not where he would have liked them to be! Unfortunately the church has often forgotten this diplomatic approach by the greatest missionary who ever lived. Our latter day missionaries have often gone into cultures – be they Native Americans right here in our own land, or societies overseas – and have begun evangelizing by trashing their indigenous religions and even making it appear that they had to adopt Western culture in place of their own if they converted to Christianity.

Desmond Tutu puts it this way about our missionary work in South Africa: “When the missionaries came to us, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, Let us pray, and when we opened our eyes, we had the Bible and they had the land!” Not exactly high praise for Christian missionary work in the 19th century! We’re doing a little better today for we often send our missionaries into foreign lands, but as partners not conquerors these days.

We establish hospitals and schools not primarily to convert people but to carry out Christ’s command to care for the least of these. And to show the people what Christ was like. Missionaries today look to raise up indigenous leadership in new churches, hoping to ordain native deacons, priests and bishops and to – as it were – work themselves out of a job as soon as the new leadership is trained and deployed. That’s how the Anglican Communion has developed so rapidly and why our churches in Africa are among the fastest growing and most committed in the world.

But what I want to point out most of all this morning is how this missionary strategy can work for us right here at home. Each one of us is a missionary in our day.  Our culture has become so secular, so “anti-religious” in some quarters that it’s almost like we’re starting over again, evangelizing in America! Well, let’s take as our model St. Paul, as I said perhaps the greatest missionary who ever lived, and modern missionaries be they Anglicans or Jesuits or Maryknoll Sisters around the world.

Start where people are, not where you would like them to be. Become a good listener before you become a talker.  Let people tell you of their lives, their joys and their sorrows, their struggles and their successes. People long to be listened to today. Listened to deeply and not only with 140 characters on a Twitter feed… or by so-called “friends” on Facebook.

Listen to other people deeply and compassionately. Then, when you can, make a connection with your own life perhaps even with your faith. “You know,” you might say, “when I was going through something like what you’re going through my church was really helpful. It was so good to have a community I could rely upon.” Or, in another conversation: “that’s fantastic, thank God (literally!) you had the gifts necessary to take advantage of that job opening.”

Something like that simply can be a way of sharing the good news with your family members, friends and neighbors, and others who so desperately need to hear such news these days. When you do something like that, know that you are standing on the shoulders of St. Paul the Apostle and countless missionaries and evangelists around the world.

And, like them, know that you can rely on the same Advocate Jesus promised his first disciples in our Gospel reading this morning. He said “…I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be…in you!”

That’s a promise, dear friends, from Jesus to us. His spirit is within us to guide us in our sharing of the good news. And we can rely on that Holy Spirit!

One Hundred Days Of “Accomplishments”

April 29, 2017

Even though Donald Trump has said repeatedly that the “100 days” marker is an artificial one and ridiculous to comment on (one of the few things he has said with which I actually agree!) he has nonetheless decided to commemorate it with a campaign style rally today. So, artificial or not, I guess that gives us permission to commemorate it as well.

The President has claimed that no chief executive in history has been able to accomplish as much as he has in the first 100 days. Certainly his volatile personality, Twitter fetish, and braggadocio have resulted in his receiving more press coverage than any of his predecessors. But does that equal actual accomplishment? I don’t think so.

From the time he falsely claimed that his inauguration was the largest in attendance of any one in history, Trump’s statements — mediated through, initially, the evil Kellyanne Conway (what ever happened to her, by the way?) and now the clownish Sean Spicer — have been laden with so-called “alternative facts.” No one in this country or world knows whether or not they can take Donald Trump at his word or whether he has any core beliefs whatsoever outside an all-consuming desire to line his pockets with more and more wealth.

He has successfully branded any media reports unflattering to himself as “fake news” and in so doing insulated himself from any revelations that might lessen support from his “true believers” base. It has become virtually impossible for the legitimate news media to do its job as watch dog on the powers that be since almost no one pays them serious attention anymore. Some of this, it must be said, is the media’s own fault for their slavish coverage of the Trump campaign (to the near exclusion of other candidates) from day one.

Accomplishments? Well, the travel/Muslim ban is hung up in the courts. The repeal-and-replace method of undoing Obamacare has been an embarrassment which shows no real signs of resuscitation at this point. After all, “nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” right?  The absurd claim of a “wire tap” by the previous administration on Trump Towers has now resulted in FBI and Congressional investigations into Russia’s interference in our election process and possible collaboration by the Trump campaign.

Our President is a laughingstock around the world as far as foreign policy is concerned. From his snub of Angela Merkel to his oft repeated promise to “build a wall and have Mexico pay for it” (how’s that working out for you, Donald?) to his back and forth position on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO is obsolete; NATO is not obsolete after all!), no one knows what to think about this new President. Including Canada which has now been threatened with some kind of trade war concerning lumber and dairy products.

A certain amount of unpredictability may indeed be successful in the short run (i.e. keeping North Korea off-balance with a good cop, bad cop approach), but over time our allies (and our enemies) must know that the leader of the free world will keep his word and that he has certain core beliefs which guide his actions and this country’s.

Is there nothing we can point to in these first hundred days that is positive? Well, firing Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor because of his Russian involvement was a good decision. But why was he hired in the first place? I believe the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court is a plus overall because he seems to be a man of integrity. Surely, he will be a conservative vote for the next 30 years, but I do not believe he is a rubber stamp for anyone.

The recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions from the Russian investigations was appropriate given his huge role in the Trump campaign. But it is troubling that the first action taken by the new chief cop in our nation was to recuse himself from a major investigation! While most of Trump’s Cabinet are billionaires who have no experience whatsoever in their new spheres of influence, I do believe Nikki Haley has handled herself well at the United Nations and appears willing to stand up to Trump while still keeping his confidence.

The one positive thing about a non-ideological president is that he can, and does, change his mind when confronted with new information. His new embracing of NATO, willingness to work with China, the souring of his opinion of Syria’s Assad after the latest chemical weapons attack will be positive provided nothing happens which allows him to flip flop once again.

However, none of these “accomplishments” are enough to keep the Donald’s approval rating from being the lowest of any sitting president since such polls have been taken. It seems to be becoming clearer and clearer that the one thing Donald Trump is focused on like the proverbial laser is making huge profits for himself, his family, and their vast joint holdings. The skeletal proposal for tax cuts (not real tax reform) should make that clear.

The only thing that gives me hope for the next four years is the genius of the United States Constitution with its checks and balances on the three branches of government. Even with the Republican Party in control of the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court, there seem to be enough level heads to counter the narcissism, misogyny, and just plain ignorance of the man this country somehow elected to be President of the United States. At least so far.

One hundred days may indeed be an artificial marker for evaluating a new President. But let’s hope the next hundred…and the hundreds to follow that…will show improvements.