Free at Last

This week marks the forty-fifth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was shot and killed on April 4, 1968, while standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The year was 1969 and I was five years old when I first heard Dr. King’s name. I was sitting in a car listening to a radio report about James Earl Ray, the man who shot Dr. King. With the exception of three days in June of 1977, when he and six other inmates made an escape, Ray would spend the remainder of his life at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, Tennessee, not far from where I grew up.

When the radio report was complete, an adult in the car said, “I would like to shake his hand.” I remember being uncertain about whose hand was in question, but the conversation that followed among the adults in the car made it clear that Ray’s hand was the one that deserved of a shake. This left me uncertain about what a man might have done that would cause someone to want to shake the hand of the man who had shot him. Up to that point in my life, all the indications I had received were that killing someone was not a good thing to do.

Slowly, but surely over the next several years, I would learn about slavery, race relations, civil rights and the strongly held opinions of people both inside and outside of my family. In college and seminary, I began to see the significance of the role that the church played in motivating Dr. King to do the things that he did. The civil rights movement for Dr. King was an expression of his understanding of the Bible and an outgrowth of his relationship with God. I do not recall many, if any, references to Dr. King’s faith during my growing up years. However, he was a product of the church.  What became the civil rights movement was for him merely doing what God had called him to do as a Baptist, as a preacher, and as a follower of Christ. He was sharing Christ’s love.  Not everyone understood the importance of Christian faith to participants in the civil rights struggle, but Dr. King made the point in a foundational way in his last speech given in Memphis, Tennessee the night before he was killed:

Bull Connor (Sheriff in Birmingham, Al) next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denominations, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water. That couldn’t stop us.

More to the point of the importance of Dr. King’s faith, as he challenged our nation to live up to the ideals upon which it was founded, was the peace and the strength that he found in it in the face of bitter resistance and threats to his life. He obviously spoke out a deep trust in and complete reliance on God that night before he was shot.

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I’m happy, tonight.

I’m not worried about anything.

I’m not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!

Let us always choose to love even when others, maybe many others, would choose to hate. Let us have eyes to see all the ways the Lord is coming to us and may the love we share with others be visible sign of the Lord’s coming to them.

Christian Rights?

In the midst of the debates around social issues of the day, hearing some Christians speak about their right to their viewpoint is quite common.  In listening to and reading various points of view, some Christians seem to think that they have certain rights because they are Christian.  They seem to think that being Christian gives them the right to express their opinion, hold their beliefs or stand up for what they think is right.

Ironically, the notion of individual rights or entitlements seems to be missing from the vocabulary of the New Testament.  In fact, something very different is expected of those who would be followers of and believers in Jesus Christ.  When Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” he was offering a choice, but no rights or privileges.  Denying self and letting go of claims to what one might be due is a starting point for being in relationship with Jesus.  He taught that holding onto life was a sure way to lose it, but not being afraid to lose it was a sure way to gain it.

Jesus offers a number of moral and ethical imperatives, the greatest of which is love — love of God and love of neighbor.  So central is this ethic of love to the life to which Jesus calls his followers, that some might conclude that following Jesus means giving up the right to retaliation and revenge, giving up the right to deny food to the hungry and shelter to the homeless, or giving up the right to bear animosity toward those who are different and treating others in a way one would not want to be treated oneself.  Jesus has a clear expectation of his followers to be salt and light.  Jesus expects his followers to act and to speak in ways that bring to life the values of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus does not expect that such words and actions will be well received by those in authority.  In fact, he expects just the opposite as he preemptively declares those followers blessed who are reviled, persecuted, and lied about on his account.  He admonishes his disciples to not be surprised if the world hates them, since the world has already hated him.  Jesus does not call people to follow him because they have a right to do so, without fearing consequences, he calls them to follow him because doing so is right regardless of the consequences.

Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus introduces the idea that being in relationship with Jesus is a new birth resulting in a new life.  The Apostle Paul goes further in that the old self is crucified with Christ, and the new self is brought to life in Christ.  The result is a follower whose will is yielded to God.  Paul says he is a slave of Christ.  Christians allude to this transformed status when they pray Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, “…not my will but yours be done,” as their own. Following Christ is more about surrendering status than claiming it.

Conversely, the height of rebellion for a follower of Christ would be to choose one’s own will over God’s will, and to assume that one’s life is one’s own rather than God’s.

The rights granted to followers of Christ in the New Testament are few and far between, namely to be obedient to the will of God.  Fortunately, for all the Bible does not say about rights, it says much about relationship and God’s continual desire to be in relationship with those whom God has created, and about God’s abundant grace that makes such relationships possible. While following Christ may not come with special rights, it does come as grace freely given.

The discussion of human rights has been, through the centuries, a much more human endeavor. Naturally, humans have a tendency to claim divine origins for matters of great importance.  Our own Declaration of Independence is a case in point.  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  Scholars and politicians can debate the source of these unalienable rights and what it means that human beings are created with them.  However, what we know to be true is that before there was a United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, before there was our present form of government, Baptists and others in this country who refused to adhere to the established religion were jailed, flogged and unfairly burdened with taxes that were collected for the benefit of state-sponsored churches.  The Creator has endowed men and women with the right to “. . . life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but without the resolve of a people and a government to secure those rights, what meaningful difference would it make?

People do follow Jesus even under governments that do not allow freedom of religion.  Today, some of the most passionate and devoted followers of Christ had their faith forged in what was the Soviet Union. They endured great suffering because of their commitment to Christ.  There are others who live in countries where it is illegal for them to convert from the religion of their birth to Christianity.  Yet, there are people in those countries who believe in Jesus even though they risk their lives to do so.  We are created by the same God with the same inalienable rights, but we worship in freedom and they worship in fear.  Whatever else, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” may mean, it surely means that person ought to be able to worship and believe according to the dictates of his or her own conscience without fear of reprisal from government or neighbor.

For Baptists, religious liberty is both our best contribution to America and a treasured freedom that America has given to us.  We treasure it best by remembering that we were once a minority sect on the fringes of society, and maintaining the resolve of our nation’s first president, “. . . to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.”

For many faith communities across America, religious liberty has been challenged with deadly and terrifying force in recent days:

A gunman opened fire at a Sikh gurdwara, killing six.

A mosque in Joplin, Mo. burned to the ground.

An Arab-Catholic church was vandalized in Dearborn, Michigan.

An Islamic school was hit with an acid bomb in the Chicago suburb of Lombard.

A Texas man was charged with threatening to bomb a mosque in Murfreesboro, TN.

Now is a good time for those in this country who profess to follow Christ to take hold of the rights they cherish, together with Jesus’ command to love our neighbor and strive to be the presence of Christ to those who long for the same freedom we cherish.  If everyone is not free to worship without fear of attack or persecution, then none of us are free to worship.  An attack on the religious freedom of my neighbor is an attack on the freedom of us all.    “And who is my neighbor?” said the lawyer to Jesus.

Seeing Others As We See Ourselves

There are times when fact can appear to be stranger than fiction.  The facts about a recent revelation regarding the ancestry of Csanad Szegedi are strange indeed.  Szegedi represents Hungary in the European Parliament and is a member of his country’s far right wing Jobbik Party.  To fuel his rapid rise to the upper echelon of his party, he has blamed the Jews for problems facing his country.  He has claimed that they were “buying up” the country, desecrating national symbols and having undue influence on the affairs of state.  Evidently blaming a small group of people or singling out a segment of the population for special derision pays political dividends in countries all over the world.

What is not clear is whether or not Szegedi really believed what he was saying about the Jews. In his heart, did he really hate them or was he just saying what he was saying because he knew that it would play well with the voters he was trying to reach? Politicians do that sort of thing from time to time. Whatever the case may be, the antisemitism of Szegedi and his party is no small matter.  This is especially true given the treatment of the Jewish People in Hungary and Eastern Europe in the last century.  Nonetheless, Szegedi, who is only 30 years old, has built his young career on such vile and hateful rhetoric.

That is, until the facts got to be stranger than the fiction. Rumors began to surface about Szegedi’s ancestry. Then there was a tape recorded conversation of Szegedi being confronted with the evidence that his grandmother was a Jew and him offering to pay money to suppress that information. Then he gets in trouble not only for being Jewish, but also for trying to bribe someone to keep that knowledge out of the public eye. When he realized that he would not be able to keep the information from the public, he did what any good politician would do. He shared the information with the public.

Can you image what that would be like? In the twinkling of an eye, you are that which you have blamed for all your problems. Just like that, you are that which you have always seen as being the source of your ills. Without any warning, thought or preparation, you are what you, just moments ago, could not tolerate, abide or stomach.

Charles Caleb Colton, 19th century British minister and writer, said, “We hate some persons because we do not know them; and we will not know them because we hate them.” As Szegedi was coming to terms with the new information about his family origins, he had a conversation with his grandmother. A conversation the likes of which they had never had. She told him about what it was like to be deported. She described for him being imprisoned at Dachau and Auschwitz.  As he learned about the brutal treatment and the deplorable conditions, he began to understand why it was that his grandmother was the only member of her generation of the family that had survived the atrocities of the concentration camps.  He was not only Jewish, but he was descended from a Jew who had endured and survived the very worst of humanity’s inhumanity to humanity.

Now he is changing. He has apologized for anything he said that was offensive to the Jewish People, he has promised to visit Auschwitz to pay his respect and he has visited with a rabbi to discuss his own need to understand what it means to be a Jew. The rabbi is hopeful even while he acknowledges the difficulty and stress of processing such a revelation.

How we see each other makes all the difference.  Csanad Szegedi can no longer look at another Jew and see someone who is all that different from himself.  When we can look at another person and see someone who is something completely other than what we are, that is the starting point for treating them in less than human ways. If we can look at a race of people as being completely other than what we are, then we can justify their enslavement and their status as second-class citizens. If we can look at a group of people and see nothing that we have in common with them, then we can more easily turn an indifferent eye to the treatment they receive from others and the rights and privileges that they are denied.

We miss out as well when we see another human being as someone completely different from ourselves and not as someone who bears the same image of God in which we have been created.  When we look at another and see a human being created and loved by God, then that person can be, just by being a human being, a wonderful gift to us.  In sharing life together with those who are not exactly like us, we open ourselves up to the possibility of receiving the unique giftedness possessed by everyone created in the image of God.  We impoverish ourselves when we fail or refuse to see one another as a person made by God’s hands and dear to God’s heart.

Looking on the Heart

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” I Samuel 16:7

The Lord had sent Samuel to meet the new king that the Lord had already chosen. The going wisdom would have suggested that the new king would be someone that looked like Saul — big and strong of stature. Yet, that was not the case. Samuel, like all of us mortals, was impressed with the outward appearance while the Lord was looking deeper.

I was in a restaurant recently that had menus with pictures in them. As I was glancing through the menu a sandwich caught my eye.  It was different. Different enough that I decided to order it. When my order arrived and I tasted the sandwich that had looked so appetizing in the menu, my first thought was, “What was I thinking.” It looked good in the menu, but on the plate, it was not what I thought it was going to be.

Aesop’s ancient story of the wolf in sheep’s clothing still illustrates well the length to which appearances can deceive as well as the tragic consequences of such deception.

A Wolf found great difficulty in getting at the sheep owing to the vigilance of the shepherd and his dogs.  But one day it found the skin of a sheep that had been flayed and thrown aside, so it put it on over its own pelt and strolled down among the sheep.  The Lamb that belonged to the sheep, whose skin the Wolf was wearing, began to follow the Wolf in the Sheep’s clothing; so, leading the Lamb a little apart, he soon made a meal off her, and for some time he succeeded in deceiving the sheep, and enjoying hearty meals.

When I heard the news that our nation was involved in another military action in still another nation, I could almost hear my mother’s voice, “The Bible says that there will be wars and rumors of wars.”  If the Bible says there will be wars and rumors of wars, who are we to think, act or speak otherwise?  I have heard people cite scripture in that way all my life as if citing a word or phrase from scripture removes the need to read the rest of what Jesus said about war, violence and human interaction.  Like the wolf in Aesop’s story, a word of scripture is slipped over a situation and deception follows.  Never mind what Jesus said about loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, and acting with love and compassion toward others.  To be certain, there will be wars and rumors of wars so long as human beings fail to love as Christ taught us to love.  Jesus acknowledges this reality, he does not endorse it.

Hearing Jesus statement, “For you always have the poor with you,” cited in response to the plight of the less fortunate is not unusual. But in that statement Jesus is not predicting the future or dictating it, he is acknowledging the logical outcome of a society that values self interest over common good.  The words of Jesus, inappropriately cloaked over the day-to-day challenges of living in poverty, deceive us, as surely as the sheepskin covering the wolf, into thinking that men and women living in poverty somehow is part of  God’s design for creation. What did Jesus mean when he spoke these words?  I do not know, but perhaps he spoke of them in a resigned way while thinking, “You will always have the poor with you as long you extend tax breaks to the wealthiest individuals and corporations among you and then seek to balance your budget and reduce your deficit by cutting the programs and services that provide safety nets and opportunity to the neediest among you.”

Appearances can be, and often are, deceiving. While some might say there is lack of money to help the poor and the needy, others would say that the poor and needy are just not high enough on the list of priorities.  After all, we find the money to bail out banks and automotive companies, to fight wars and to offer tax advantages to those who don’t really need them, yet for the hungry, the homeless, the elderly and the working poor what few dollars we allocate to assist them must be cut in order to make ends meet.

Nevertheless, the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.

Thoughts and a Prayer

Here is some interesting reading this morning and a prayer that always draws me closer to God.

Joe Phelps asks the question “if politics makes a lousy religion, what makes a lovely religion?” He finds his answer in the psalms,

Do not put your trust in princes,

in mortals, in whom there is no help…

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,

whose hope is in the Lord their God,

who made heaven and earth,

the sea, and all that is in them;

who keeps faith forever;

who executes justice for the oppressed;

who gives food to the hungry.

Jim Evans Reminds us that Jesus blessed the poor. He not did give his blessing to the poverty and injustice that the poor endure.

Merton’s Prayer

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
And you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

from Thoughts in Solitude

Jesus, Justice and Loud Rocks

The crowd is loud and excited.  Their enthusiasm grows as they catch a glimpse of a man riding a borrowed horse.  Some of them have seen him do the unbelievable.  Most all of them have heard the stories.  He heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, raises the dead, feeds the hungry and proclaims good news to the poor.  He looks at women not as objects, but as human beings created in the image of God.  His idea of being a neighbor is not limited by race, religion, social status or politics.  He invites everyone to the table and eats with anyone no matter how scandalous his or her past might be.

For those who have eyes to see, He is the Messiah, the Christ.  For those who cannot see Him, cannot see Him in the face of a hungry child, a thirsty man, a sick girl, a boy in need of clothes, or an imprisoned woman, He is nothing more than a trouble maker, a problem in need of a solution.

Today, this crowd sees.  Given what they see, the whole multitude praises God with great joy.  Never in their entire lives have the hopes of these people been so close to becoming reality.  No longer able to restrain themselves, their hopes and dreams pour out. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Some who are in the crowd, but not of the crowd, tell the man of the borrowed horse to quiet the crowd.  Their words have become dangerous, even treasonous.  Everyone knows that there can be no king but Caesar.  All the shouting could very well displease the Roman occupiers.  The results of such displeasure would not be welcomed by those who had made their peace with the powers and principalities of this world.  So they tell Him to shut the crowd up.  They do not understand that if the crowd is quiet, then the stones will start shouting.

In just a few days, the shouts of another crowd will fill the air.  A crowd that may well include some of the same people from the crowd that wanted Jesus to be king will shout, this time, for His death.  They will call for a cross instead of a throne and treat Him as a criminal instead of a king.

Looking back at those two crowds, one wonders how the public attitude about Jesus changed so quickly.  From the perspective of one who seeks to follow Christ, one wonders how the second crowd could have been so wrong about Jesus.  What happened in those few days to turn the opinion of so many against him?  Granted, political and religious leaders had already made up their minds about Jesus, but the people still seemed to look at Him with hope.

As tragic as Good Friday is, it is not the end.  Easter will come.  Resurrection will happen.  Unfortunately, that is not enough to convince most that Jesus is the Christ.  So through the years, Jesus continues to be not so much crucified as remade. He is remade into a more palatable figure, one who tends to agree with our way of thinking more than to challenge it.  He is fashioned as a Messiah who saves those that deserve to be saved and who condemns those that the crowd has already condemned.  He is worshiped as the Christ who bears the unmistakable image of the interpreters, editors, preachers and politicians who have, through the centuries, softened His hard sayings and radical demands.

What is to be done?  Is Jesus, riding on a borrowed horse, to be our king, or would we prefer to exchange him for someone more to our liking?  Which crowd will be our crowd?

Serious questions to ponder while we wait for Easter.  Even still, the stones are shouting,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Casting out Demons in Haiti

People are giving in all kinds of ways to relieve the suffering in Haiti.  Many are giving through their cell phones. Some are giving with credit cards through the websites of various relief organizations. Others are putting dollars into the offering plate at their places of worship.

The sad reality is that when all the millions of dollars are given and used to relieve the suffering in Haiti, Haiti will still be under crushing debt.  Centuries of exploitation and oppression have left Haiti an impoverished and indebted country.

Contributions to relief organizations are needed to help Haiti recover from this devastating earthquake.  Debt cancellation is what is needed to set Haiti free from the demons of greed and abuse that have haunted her for centuries. You can add your voice to those seeking justice for the poor and suffering of Haiti by signing this petition urging the cancellation of Haiti’s indebtedness.

You can be a part of casting out the demons that have tormented the least of these in Haiti.