The Bible on my desk

The Bible on my desk is nothing to look at. It’s black leather, with gilt edges and a black ribbon to mark your place. If you were looking for a generic idea of what a Bible should look like, it would look like this one.

No, this Bible is nothing special on its own, but it is very important to me. Thoreau said the value of a things lies in what of ourselves we have to give up to obtain it. By that measure, it is one of the more valuable things I own.

It’s the King James Version – a no longer fashionable version first published in 1611, with archaic language that uses thee and thou as pronouns. In my experience, two kinds of people still use the King James Version. The first is people who grew up using it, who find the language comfortable and soothing, who relish the poetic notes as the language of devotion. The second is people who are fundamentalists, who desire a scripture that is fixed in time, an immutable authority that does not change.

I am the first sort of person. Matt was the second.

He first came in my office perhaps six years ago, just off the bus from Virginia, where his marriage had ended because of his chemical addiction. He had an ex-wife and a daughter, neither of who would talk to him, and he had been raised by a grandmother, now dead. She had given him the Bible he carried everywhere, with his name embossed in gilt on the front.

Matt would come to church and lead us in hymns he knew, which were the most strict sort, involving lots of blood atonement and proclamations of our unworthiness. He believed in a wrathful, powerful God in a way I have never believed in anything. He could cite obscure scriptures to “prove” his points, and when he was sober – which came and went – he was a kind and caring guy.

He would go away (several times) for a while in rehab, and he would write me letters filled with Biblical citations and affirmations of his complete recovery when he was released. Sadly, his aspirations always exceeded his abilities, for Matt never lasted more than a month outside of rehab before he was using again.

One day he walked into my office. He looked like hell, and had his Bible in his hand.

“Preacher, this is my Bible. My granny gave it to me when I got saved at a revival when I was a teenager. I don’t want to lose it – will you hold onto it for me?”

Of course I would.

Matt began a steady descent after that day. I wonder sometimes if the responsibility of keeping track of his one prized possession hadn’t been good for him. I don’t know – I just know that after that, he spiraled down quickly.

One day he came in, relatively sober, and asked if I still had his Bible. I told him I did, and asked if he wanted it back.

“Not yet,” he said. “You keep it for me until I am ready for it.”

That was the last time I saw Matt. He disappeared, and I later learned he had died one night in a storm, drowning in a drainage ditch while high on paint fumes.

Matt didn’t make it, but I still have his Bible. It is the Bible I use to read from daily. It serves to remind me of truths I know, but that we humans are prone to forget.

The page at the front of the book where marriages are to be recorded, that has Matt and his wife’s names written in, but her name marked through and obliterated, reminds me that things don’t always go like we wish they would. The underlined verses about the wrath of God and the power of God (but never about the love of God) remind me that people like Matt, who in this life was powerless but loving, needed a God who was what he wasn’t. The embossed cover with his name on it, a gift from his Granny, reminds me that as broken as Matt was when I knew him, he was once loved and prized by his family, and that all of us have a back story – none of us are the worst thing we have done.

But mostly, this old Bible reminds me that you don’t always win. When I read from it, I am reminded that no one ever wanted to be sober as much as Matt, and that just wanting it isn’t enough.

But I really wish it was.

Our stories matter. So tell good ones.

Life is about stories. Our lives are made up of stories, and as the computer in the Spike Jonze movie Her said, the past is a story we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Because of that, I believe that stories matter.  And sometimes, the stories we tell ourselves are the problem.

In his book The Powers That Be, the theologian Walter Wink unveiled what he called The Myth of Redemptive Violence.  This myth tells us that the way you overcome evil is with violence. That violence saves us.

This myth is pervasive. Think of the Popeye cartoons. Every single episode has the same plot:

  • Life is good.
  • Bluto desires Olive
  • Bluto tries to rape Olive
  • Olive resists, but is not powerful enough
  • Popeye tries to save Olive, but is not powerful enough.
  • Popeye eats spinach, beats the crap out of Bluto
  • Life is good again.

The way we get life to be good, Popeye tells us, is we beat the crap out of oppressors. Rambo tells us that too. So does Rocky, by the way, as does many of our movies and songs.

It isn’t just Popeye and the movies. The myth is wrapped up in US history as well.

  • The British enacted oppressive taxation – so we went to war.
  • The Southern states would not quit owning and selling people – so we went to war.
  • What ended the Great Depression? – We went to war.
  • How did we tackle poverty? Or drugs? – We went to war with poverty. And drugs. .
  • When we were victims of terrorism in 2001, what did we do? We went to war with a country that was not involved in the attack. When that did not work, we went to war with another country.

It’s why, when we hear of people who do not own guns and are not afraid, they are almost always asked what they will do if someone threatens a loved one. It is almost like we don’t have any other language for how to resolve our difficulties.

The Myth of Redemptive Violence is everywhere. So what do we do about it? Wink said that we need to tell better stories. The reason we can only imagine violent responses to evil is because those are the only stories we hear and share. Those are the stories we tell, and they become normalized. So much so that when we occasionally hear of an elderly woman outwitting her attacker by nonviolent means, we discount it, and think it cute.

But violence isn’t the only place we see false myths that reside in stories, myths that reinforce the status quo.

A contemporary example:

After midnight on Friday morning, the Senate healthcare bill died. It was super close, but because of John McCain’s last minute vote, the bill was defeated, saving the Affordable Care Act and keeping millions of people insured. That is the way the story is being told.

And it’s true, as far as it goes.

But we tell that story as if it just sprung up out of nowhere, waiting for McCain to do the right thing. He is lionized for his bravery for changing sides. John McCain as the hero of the story reinforces what my friend David LaMotte, in his book Worldchanging 101, calls the hero narrative – that the way we overcome obstacles and injustice is by having a hero lead us. A hero like Martin Luther King. Like George Washington. Like Rosa Parks. A hero like John McCain.

We want a hero. We want the story to be simple – that one man (it’s almost always a man) stood up to oppression, stood up to the powers that be, and thus overcame the darkness.

But LaMotte argued that change seldom happens because of heroes. Change mostly happens because of movements.

John McCain did a courageous thing, going against his own party and voting “no” on a bill that there was tremendous political pressure to vote “yes’. But McCain has a long history of going against his party. He is one of the most senior members of the Senate. He is 80 years old and was recently diagnosed with brain cancer, so he probably is at the end of his career. He had very little risk. He isn’t going to be fired, he doesn’t need the votes to get re-elected, and is probably going to be absent from the senate for a long time going forward as he gets treatment for brain cancer.

Those of us who are glad the bill was defeated should be glad of how he voted, but I don’t know that it is heroic.

On the other hand, Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski also voted no. But they were always clear that they were voting no. Both have much less seniority than John McCain. Both are young enough to have potentially long careers in front of themselves. Both are risking a great deal. And yet they stood firm. They made it possible for McCain’s far less risky vote to make a difference.

So, why is it that when we tell the story, the idea of a man who does the “right” thing at the last minute at very little risk to himself is a powerful narrative we wish to embrace, while the story of two women who stand their ground at great political risk, whose actions enable the man to act isn’t?

I suspect it has to do with several things, but the hero narrative is a big part of it. And in our culture, people we laud as heroes tend to be male. And when we tell the story of McCain as a hero for his vote, we reinforce the idea that heroes are males, and that the women who did the risky work that made his act possible are not doing heroic things, and are not themselves heroes.

Both Walter Wink and David LaMotte were convinced (and they convinced me) that the way we overcome the pervasiveness of these myths is to tell better stories. Tell the stories that involve the world we wish to see. Tell stories that tell the truth, that share other ways of navigating violence, stories that share other ways of enacting social change. Tell the stories about the contributions of movements, tell stories of nonviolence.

In other words, our stories matter. Our stories change things.

So make sure you are telling a good one.

The world as it should be

Note: The following is the sermon I delivered this past Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Raleigh NC. It is also a pretty good example of applying a Christian humanist view to Christian Scripture. 

I bring greetings of Grace and Peace to you from the worshiping community at Love Wins Ministries. I am glad to be here this morning, and glad I was able to do it and allow Sasha some time away.

This is my fourth time to be allowed to speak in this beautiful sanctuary, and I am always honored (and a little amazed) that you keep having me back.

A friend of mine is a UU minister in another state, and she heard I was preaching here again.

She asked me what my text was. I told her I was preaching on the story of the rich man and Lazarus.

The phone got quiet.

“What?,” I asked.

“Hugh. That story revolves around a guy being tormented in Hell. Why on earth are you going to preach on that text in a UU congregation?”

I told her that the last time I was here I preached on Noah’s Ark, a story where God throws a fit and destroys all of humanity except one family, and y’all handled that OK, so I figured y’all could handle this one.

But seriously, I do want to acknowledge that texts like this one have been used to perpetuate some pretty horrible ideas about the Divine – about who God is and what God is like, and it has been a tool used to harm people who were on the wrong side of power.

But I keep coming back to these hard stories, because I believe there is something there for us. After all, the impoverished colonized people who originally heard these stories did not think them hard, but instead heard them and said that it was good news, which is what the word Gospel really means.

What I love about this story is that it is really two stories: a story about the world as it is, and a story about the world as it should be. This is not a story about a literal heaven and hell, as if it is some sort of Lonely Planet guide to the afterlife. No, this is a story about power and privilege and how we use it. Or, how we don’t.

Jesus tells us the story of a rich man who lives in a gated community, who is insulated by his privilege from the poverty literally at his gates.  The poor man dies and is carried off by angels, and the rich man dies and is tortured in Hades.

When they were alive, in the part of the story that concerns itself with the world as it is, the rich man was doing OK. He was rich and powerful, and wore fine imported clothes and ate sumptuous foods. We should probably point out that the story is not a condemnation of his wealth. There is no evidence that he got his money unethically. And that Lazarus went to the gates probably meant that he had been fed there before – in other words, the rich man had handed out charity in the past. He probably gave money to the PTA fundraiser at the school, and was probably a member of the Rotary club. According to the standards of the day, the rich man was a “good” man.

But the world as it is wasn’t good for Lazarus, however. He was poor. Desperately poor. And not just poor, but sick – so sick he could not keep the unclean dogs from licking his sores. And hungry. So hungry that he longed for the scraps from the rich man’s table.

Here is the truest thing I know:

When you have two groups of people – let’s call them groups A and group B – and there is a disparity between those groups, when one of those groups has more than the other, the moral and ethical responsibility for changing that disparity lies on the group with more.

Which we all agree with, right? I mean, when we look at the history of woman’s rights in the US, we don’t think that if women wanted to vote, they should have demanded it sooner. We think that it should have been put in the Constitution in the first place.  The people who already had that right should have demanded that women have it too.

Likewise, we don’t think that Lazarus should have just begged harder. No, we think the rich man should have voluntarily lifted Lazarus up. In the world as it is, the rich man had more, and should have used that excess to advocate for Lazarus in their lifetime.

But he didn’t. In the story, he isn’t in hell because he was a rich man, but because he chose to not use his excess to change that disparity.

That disparity between two groups of people – it isn’t just money we are talking about here.

Like at Love Wins Ministries, where I pastor – some six years ago, we were given the use of a building. We used it for offices and to worship in on Sunday, but most of the space sat empty during the week. And we looked around and realized that the people we knew who were homeless had no space to be during the day.

So there were two groups of people: One group had space no one was using, and the other had no space they were allowed to use. So we opened our doors and shared it with them, planting the seeds of what would become the Love Wins Community Engagement Center, a place where some 70 to 100 people who have nowhere else to go come to rest, get out of the weather and build unlikely friendships.

We don’t read this story and think that the reason Lazarus was starving was because he did not beg hard enough, or that he did not protest the injustice enough. Lazarus is not the victim of injustice because he did not speak up. No, when we hear this story, we immediately assume the rich man should have taken the initiative.

The rich man in this story is condemned because he had the power to change things, and chose not to.

So we go now in the story to the world as it should be.

The poor man is taken on the wings of angels to be with Abraham in paradise, and the rich man is tortured in hell.

The rich man is burning in hell and sees Lazarus with Abraham – apparently part of the torture is being able to see the people who are not being tortured, which is just mean, y’all – and asks Abraham to send Lazarus on an errand.  Not just once, but twice.

Do you hear that? This man, this rich, privileged man is so used to being in control that when he is being tortured in hell, when he is literally on fire, he still feels that he has the right to dictate the movements of the poor man who died of starvation at his gate while he feasted.

And in the midst of that hubris, that privilege, that power, the rich man makes demands of Lazarus, attempting to perpetuate the power dynamic. Lazarus says nothing in response to this, but Abraham does.

Abraham says “No. No, that isn’t going to happen.”

Here we again have two groups of people, and one has more than the other – in this case, more power.

And the person with more power – Abraham – sees the rich man try to use the historical systems of power and oppression against Lazarus, and he speaks out. He is a bystander who speaks out, who inserts his privilege in the gap between the rich man and Lazarus, and who, when sees an injustice be attempted, says, “No, that will not happen on my watch”.

Notice what doesn’t happen: Lazarus does not have to speak out to defend himself. It is never the responsibility of the oppressed to ask the oppressor to stop oppressing them. And in the world as it should be, they don’t have to.

No, in the world as it should be, those of us with power speak out when we see injustice happen.

In the world as it should be, those of us with excess use our excess – whether it is power or money or space or food – to make things right.

In the world as it should be, the only people punished are those who had the chance to help, but chose not to.

In the world as it should be, those who are on the side with less do not have to beg for the things they need, whether that is food or shelter or advocacy or rights, but they are given by those who have more of those things than they need.

This story presents us with two worlds: The world as it is, and the world as it could be.

And the only thing that prevents the world as it is from becoming the world as it could be is those of us with more – more money, yes, but also more power, more privilege, more time – not taking the initiative in making things right. In our not leveling the disparity.

In the world as it is right now, Lazarus is at our gates, dying of hunger while we feast. Don’t make him have to ask us. May we have the moral courage to stand up and say, “Lazarus! Come inside! Sit down and eat. We have plenty.”

Voices of doubt: Tiny church edition

We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

I struggle with doubt. Not just faith doubt, but self doubt, vocational doubt, doubt of other people, and future doubt. I want to believe, and so am always on the lookout for hope – searching for the evidence that proves me wrong. Because I have found that you tend to find the things you look for in this world.

One way I handle my doubts is to give voice to them. When I am most down, I will journal about the things in my head to give them voice and structure. This not only gets them out of my head, but also helps me articulate the issue, and once you are clear what the issue is, you can do something about it. (See, there I am looking for hope again! It’s pervasive.)

I said once on these pages that most of the stuff I write never sees the light of day – this is an example of why. Writing teaches me what I am thinking. The piece below is an excerpt of something from a journal entry from 2014 when we had a particularly crap-tastic Sunday service that played to all the voices in my head that told me I should maybe apply for a job at the auto body shop instead.

* * *

I’m a pastor. That is a title that doesn’t mean much anymore. As they say, that and $2.25 will buy you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

But I am one, still the same. I have tried to explain to my secular friends how that came about, but am left resorting to language about being called, and their eyes glaze over, and someone changes the subject, because Hugh is a pretty good guy to have around if he can stay away from the Jesus talk.

Called, huh. Called, indeed.

Like today. Today was Sunday, which means it is a work day. It means I am expected to stand at the front of the room, and deliver an edifying word, a bit of wisdom or glimmer of hope, to stand firm and bear witness to the goodness of God to a people that have legitimate reason to doubt that goodness.

So I am up early this morning, pouring over the scriptures because I just can’t seem to get my words to say what I want them to say, hoping they say something more intelligible this morning then they have said the last six mornings I have endured this exercise. But today is different. Today is game day. Today, “good enough” has to be good enough. Because today I have to be done.

So, I put some words on paper and hope they are more meaningful to the congregation than they are to me, because honestly, today I am just not “on it”. But whatever. All you can do is all you can do.

Today was also different for another reason – I spoke at a local church about our work, and I answered questions and allayed fears and was so damned awesome and winsome my head nearly exploded. And after that, which was good for the organization and good for the congregation and yet exhausting all the same, it was time for me to go preach our weekly chapel service.

So I go to the chapel, and of course the chairs aren’t set up, and of course we are out of grape juice and bread, and it is 15 minutes before we are supposed to start. I slip Danny $20 and send him traipsing off to the local convenience store, in search of grape juice. Meanwhile I cut some whole grain sandwich bread I found into strips and set them on the communion paten, and notice the cloth napkin that covers it is a bit dingy.

Maybe no one will notice. Speaking of no one, where is everybody?  Two people were at the chapel waiting on me when I got here, and now it is 5 till and no one else has shown up. Maybe I worried too much over that homily if no one is going to show up today.

People begin to trickle in now, and Danny shows up with a bottle of fruit punch he bought at the store because it was all they had. It has come to this – juice punch and sandwich bread and dingy napkins and a half-assed make-do homily that doesn’t make any sense to me. And did I mention the headache that has came on because I was standing at the front of a church being winsome instead of eating lunch today.

And of course this would be the Sunday a new guy comes, who looks around and sees us and, I am convinced, is scoping out the dirty napkin and Snapple juice punch in the chalice and totally judging us.

So I go over and meet new guy and introduce myself. We are now up to a whopping seven people, and it is already 10 minutes after the hour, and we are way late. It is obvious no one is coming, so we might as well start.

With a little help from my friends

In the second chapter of Mark is a lovely little story I first heard in Sunday school years ago.

When [Jesus] returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

It is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. Like all the best stories, it doesn’t tell you too much, so you have to fill in the blanks and ask questions of the text. I grew up in a church where you weren’t encouraged to ask too many questions – about anything, really – but especially about anything the Bible said.

I always had questions.

For example, in this story: They climb up on the roof and drag this guy up there, and cut a hole in the roof and lower him down, right in front of Jesus! That is what the text says.

What the text doesn’t say, and what I want to know, is – was the owner of the house mad that these guys cut a hole in his roof? Who paid for that? Did they bring a saw with them, and that’s how they did it? Why was the man paralyzed? Was he born that way, or did it happen later?

But sometimes, what is most interesting about a text isn’t what the story leaves out, but what we leave out when we tell the story.

Because the way I was taught this story is not the way the story happens. The way I was taught the story was that a guy couldn’t get to Jesus to get healed, and so his friends cut a hole in the roof and Jesus heals the man – the way we tell the story it is all about access. If only we can get the man to Jesus, everything is going to be OK. If only we have enough faith to get to Jesus.

But that isn’t what the story says. The story says that the friends cut a hole in the roof, and dropped him down, and then Jesus acted – not because of the man’s faith, but because Jesus saw the faith of the man’s friends. (Go back and look. It’s right there: “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic…”)

But not the man’s faith. It isn’t the man’s actions or even his faith that bring him healing and wholeness – it is the actions and faith of the man’s friends. We don’t know if the man has any faith of his own. We don’t know if the guy is even conscious. Was he a good man? A bad man? We don’t know. All we know is he has friends with faith, and that that is enough.

And it is there that I find hope in the story.

Because if the story is that the man finds healing because of the faith and actions of his friends, I think that is really good news. If the healing of my wounds, the fixing of my troubled soul, the repair of my brokenness is dependent on my actions, my intent, my… faith, if you will, well, I am in a heap of trouble.

But the good news in this passage is, like John Lennon said, I get by with a little help from my friends.

I bet you do, to.