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Business as Usual

One of the great joys of our recent trip to Africa was the opportunity to visit with South African Bishop Peter Storey.

Peter Storey

Now retired and pushing 80, he still has the twinkle in his eye and the fire in his bones that has always made him such a winsome and powerful witness for the Gospel, particularly in the years when he stood along side Bishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela in the struggle against apartheid.  For Peter it was not a political struggle, it was a moral struggle.  He was convinced that if the church was to be the church it had to be willing to confront the evils of the day and speak the word of truth, even if it was costly.  In fact, his book “With God in the Crucible” carries the sub-title “Preaching Costly Discipleship”.

When I got home I pulled out the book.  In so many ways it speaks to our own day in America when gun violence is killing all to many people and the rise of white supremacy and bigotry is tearing at the fabric of our society; when the jingoism of “America First” and the arrogance of greed is isolating us from our brothers and sisters around the world; when sexual aggression by men in power continues to dehumanize women.  The list could go on and on.  Peter’s words are a call for the church to be the church and to lift up the values of the Kingdom of God over/against those prevailing values.  He says “business as usual” for the church means living into that Kingdom now.  He writes:

“If false gods are failing and if God’s victory is assured, then even though this world has yet to acknowledge Him, we must live in His future now.  For the followers of Christ, he is already Lord–NOW!

In a world of cruelty we know that compassion and caring will one day rule, so we will demonstrate them NOW.

While this world bows to the love of power, we will cry “No!”.  We will live by the power of love NOW.

While truth lies fallen in the streets, we will affirm that Jesus, who is the truth, is Lord and we will live by His truth NOW. 

 While people live comfortably with injustice we know that justice will one day rule.  It must therefore be our standard NOW. 

While people continue to trust in military might, we know that the Prince of Peace is Lord and we will cast out violence from our midst NOW. 

That is what “business as usual” is all about for Christians.  That is what Christian hope is all about–not sentimental optimism but the insight that enables us even in the face of the darkest hour to know that Christ is Lord.  Christian hope is living by God’s future NOW. ”                                                                                        (“With God in the Crucible”, page 54)

In all honesty, I can’t say I have always lived up to Peter’s challenge and in my ministry I have not always been as bold as he in confronting the evils in our society that are out of step with the values of the Kingdom.  But in my own feeble and failing way I’ve tried to lift up those values and live into that future Kingdom because in my better moments, I agree with Peter–that is what “business as usual” for the church should be NOW.

Until God’s Kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth, even as it is in heaven,

Jack Harnish

 

 

 

 

Jonah, Martin and Not the Whale

You sometimes wonder if anyone reads the Bible anymore.  Ask anyone about the story of Jonah and the first thing they want to talk about is the whale–How big was it? How could Jonah have survived three days underwater in the midst of gastric juices and garbage?  You would think the whale was the center of the story…but it isn’t.  The second audio visual special effect this outlandish fable is really more important, but gets little notice.  That’s the gourd vine.

The story of Jonah is not really about what happens when you disobey God, though of course that is a part of it.  You might be thrown in the sea, but the good news is God might even send a whale to save you and get you back on solid ground.  The whale comes as an act of grace, not judgement, and God gives Jonah a second chance.

The real issue here is Jonah’s lack of compassion for the city of Nineveh because of the ethnic, religious and racial divisions which separated him from them.  God calls him to go preach repentance and instead he runs the other way.  Then after being rescued by the whale, he goes and does it as a grumpy prophet who could care less about the results.  When they do repent, he is so unset he goes out in the Middle Eastern sun thinking he would be better off dead.  But again as an act of grace, God plants a gourd vine to shade him.  He loves it until a worm destroys it and he is really sad.  Then comes the punch line of this little comedy.  God says, “You are concerned about the gourd vine for which you did nothing.  Should I not be concerned about Nineveh in which there are 120,000 people who don’t know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

Jonah cares more about the gourd vine than he does people.  He cares more about his own comfort than the city of Nineveh.  He is more concerned about his own ethnic pride and racial prejudice than he is about these folks who are different from him.  He even cares more about the gourd vine than he does the cattle.

In my brother’s book on the minor prophets he says:

“The tale of Jonah is not about what happens when a prophet gets swallowed by a whale, it’s about what happens when we become swallowed by narrow, nationalistic or racial pride; an unhealthy love for nation or race that turns in on itself.  It’s the comic portrayal of religious and racial jingoism in stark contrast to the universal, inclusive love of God.” 

And that’s where Martin Luther King comes in. Jonah’s lack of compassion for the Ninevehites can be contrasted with Dr. King’s call for justice for all of God’s people and the witness to God’s expansive, universal, inclusive love. Like the old hymn says, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea”.  I just wish Jonah could have learned that.  I wish we could learn that.

Well, that’s my sermon for Sunday morning at Traverse Bay UMC in Traverse City.  If you are “up north”, come and celebrate Martin Luther King Sunday with us and hear the whole thing.

…and it’s not really about the whale.

 

 

“Heart and Soul”

When I was a kid I learned to play a simple little one-finger ditty on the old upright piano in my Mother’s living room.  “Da-da-da…”  It was called “Heart and Soul”.  Then if you had someone who was a bit more skilled, you could make it a duet.  Over and over again.  Who of my age didn’t learn to play it?  And I’ll bet we still could.

I thought about that tune when I heard one phrase from Mr. Trump’s Oval Office address.  Though I agreed with very little of the speech, one phrase jumped out at me and I couldn’t agree more:  “We have a crisis of heart and soul”. 

To acknowledge that we have a crisis of heart and soul is say many of our problems stem from deep-seated issues of the heart and often our failure to look into our soul is truly the heart of the problem.  To reflect on our heart and soul is to think about the values which guide us and the principles we hold dear.  I believe our current crisis of heart and soul is demonstrated in our lack of compassion for others, our unwillingness to care about the “tired and poor, the huddled masses yearning to breath free”, those who would seek refuge and asylum in this country.  It can be seen in this hard-hearted government shut-down which harms hundreds of thousands of families or the proposals to cut Medicare and Social Security on which so many people depend. It happens when our hearts become hardened and our souls become empty.

Jon Meacham is arguably one of our brightest and best historians. He has written Pulitzer Prize winning biographies of Presidents Jefferson, Jackson and George Herbert Walker Bush.  His eulogy at President Bush’s funeral was nothing short of eloquent and his most recent book “The Soul of America:  The Battle for our Better Angels” should be required reading for anyone who cares about the present and future of America. He says, The soul is the vital center, the core, the heart, the essence of life”.  Then he lifts up core values which have been our “better angels” throughout our history.  He says one of the key elements at the heart of the American experience is Hope.

The opposite of fear is hope.  Fear feeds anxiety and produces anger; hope breeds optimism and feelings of well-being.  Fear is about limits; hope is about growth.  Fear points at others, assigning blame; hope points ahead, working for the common good.  Fear pushes away; hope pulls others closer.  Fear divides; hope unites.”    (page 16)

So in that light, I would argue we indeed do have a “crisis of heart and soul”, much of it rooted in fear which spreads like a cancer;  fear of others who are different from us, fear of the future, fear of immigrants, fear of change. Some fears are legitimate and must be confronted, like the fear of climate change or gun violence.  Others are manufactured for political gain. But one of the best antidotes for fear is a strong dose of hope which is grounded in our hearts and souls and expressed in our “better angels”, those principles which have made America great throughout our history.

That same hope brought my immigrant ancestors to these shores and calls asylum seekers fleeing violence from around the world today. That same hope burned in the hearts of our Founders who sought to form a “more perfect Union”.  It’s about our heart and soul as a nation and as individuals.

In spite of all that divides us, I still believe we can come together and plunk out the old tune–“Heart and Soul”–and we can make beautiful music together once again.

Epiphany Goosebumps

Back in the ’80’s, the inimitable Lily Tomlin (turning 80 this year and still going strong) did a delightful one-person stage play called “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe”, based on a script by Jane Wagner.  I was so taken by the play I went out and bought the book.  You might consider doing the same.

Tomlin Trudy

Tomlin plays Trudy, the bag lady roaming around New York City with post-it notes stuck all over her coat and constantly carrying on a one-sided conversation with visitors from outer space whom she calls her “space chums”  She appears to be crazy and claims to be crazy, but actually she is the one who understands. In one scene she tries to explain goosebumps to her space chums:

         “Next, they insisted I take them somewhere so they could get goosebumps.  They were dying to see what it was like.  I decided maybe we should take in a play.  I got goosebumps once that way.  On the way to the play, we stopped to look at the stars.  As usual, I felt in awe.  And then, I felt even deeper in awe at this capacity we have to be in awe about something.  Then I became even more awestruck at the thought that I was, in some small way, a part of that which I was in awe about.  And this feeling went on and on and on.  

        My space chums got a word for it:  awe infinitium.  Because at the moment you can comprehend how incomprehensible it all is, you’re about as smart as you need to be.  And I felt so good inside and my heart felt so full, I decided I would set time aside each day to do some awe-robics.”

Awe.  Wonder. Mystery.  Majesty.

Day to day, our lives are so earth-bound we sometimes fail to look up and allow ourselves to simply be in awe; to lift our eyes from the omnipresent 24/7 news cycle and look to the heavens; to rise above the negativity and bitterness of our day to see the stars.

The Magi did.  These ancient soothsayers or astronomers or astrologists, the scientists of their day managed to see beyond their limited worldview and glimpse the stars.  Something grabbed their attention and drew them in a new direction.  They followed that star, the star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright, until it led them westward to find its perfect light.

I suggest this would be a great way to start a New Year, or to start each new day–looking to the stars and creating space for wonder, mystery, beauty and maybe even worship in our daily lives.

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Thy name in all the earth. 

When I consider the heavens, the moon and the stars which Thou hast made, what is humankind that Thou art mindful of us and the sons and daughters of humankind that Thou carest for us? 

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Thy name in all the earth.   

Maybe this year we could set aside some time for awe-robics.  Maybe we can experience Epiphany goosebumps, too.

Everybody Comes for “The Moment”

For years and even decades of my ministry, I tried to make Christmas Eve “work”.  Every year I would search out liturgies and litanies, trying to make sure the service was creative and new.  I did monologue sermons–The Innkeeper, Joseph, A Shepherd–each one trying to capture something of the story and make it fresh for the worshipers who packed the pews.  One year we did “Christmas Eve Around the World” with an international flavor and I suppose the one which really pushed the limits was the year our seminary intern Melanie Lee (later to become Rev. Melanie Lee Carey, the ring being offered and the question being asked in the church balcony that evening between services!) built Advent/ Christmas around a Hispanic theme with “God’s Eyes” instead of wreaths and bright pinata colors instead of green and red.  We really worked at it and sometimes it even worked.

Then one year it dawned on me why people seek out a place to worship on Christmas Eve, even if it is the only time they come all year.  Finally I figured out that people come for “The Moment”.  They come to sing “Silent Night” and to light their candles in the darkened sanctuary.  They come for that one brief, shining moment when they can lift their candles high, then peek around to get a glimpse of the whole sacred space filled with flickering light.  The clergy and the choir usually have the best view and invariably it would bring a tear to my eye and a lump in my throat to see hundreds of candles all lifted in adoration and praise.

I’m “friends” with quite a few clergy on Facebook, so on Christmas Day, I get to see photos from all around sharing the moment in small country churches or large city cathedrals.  It’s the moment we all come for:

xams eve bham

And if you ask “Why?”

If you ask why we all come to witness the light of one lone candle breaking through the darkness, then gradually spreading from one person to another until the whole sanctuary is ablaze, I think it is because there is something in all of us which hopes the light still shines in the darkness and even though all the evidence would suggest the darkness might have the upper hand.  We come in hope that the promise is still true–“the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will never overcome it.” 

If I were still a local church pastor, I would still work hard to make Christmas Eve special.  I would still labor over my sermon to make sure I was bringing my best to the hour.  The music, the hymns, the liturgy, the decorations and the sermon–all of it matters.  All of it works together to get us to “The Moment”.  But in the end, I would know why people come and I would celebrate the moment when we claim the light and lift it for all the world to see.  I would come to the moment still believing and still proclaiming the word of assurance and hope–in spite of the darkness of our day, the light still shines and the darkness will never overcome it.

May the Light of Christ shine in your life and in our dark world in this New Year.

Jack Harnish

 

The Mary We Need This Year

Don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas and I love the images of “…’round yon Virgin Mother and Child”.  The stillness of the moment and the beauty of the Madonna have been a centerpiece not only of Christian worship, but of art and music throughout the centuries.  There is just something about the eloquent simplicity of a young mother (usually dressed in blue–I have no idea why) holding her newborn son in the hush of a stable with all the friendly beasts gathered around.  With the Reformation we Protestants tended to throw the Mother out with the bath water in reaction to what we perceived as an overly abundant adoration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.  We can debate the theology of it all, but in these sacred days of Advent and Christmas, the love and grace of Mary the Mother speaks to all of us in ways that calm our weary hearts and troubled souls in these tumultuous times.  We need to hear the strains of “Ave Maria” and envision, as the carol says,

         “…his Mother only, in her her maiden bliss, worshiped the beloved with a kiss.

Mary 1

No doubt about it.  In the face chaotic politics and hard-hearted policies, a painful government shut-down and stock markets crashing amid erratic international affairs, we need the stillness and the calm of the Madonna.

But perhaps this year, there is another Mary we need. 

Perhaps this year more than ever, we need to take Mary literally in the words of her “Magnificat”. If you read it for what it says, it does not sound like a sentimentalized sonata or soothing lullaby.  It reads like an anthem of protest, a voice crying out in the wilderness.  It sounds like something to be sung by mothers protesting at the border or women marching on Washington.  Strip off the flowing blue gowns, pull down the halos and allow this bold Mary to say what needs to be said today:

        “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.  He has shown strength in his arm.  He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.”

This is no “gentle Mary meek and mild”.  These are the words of a warrior with raised fist who is willing to speak out about God’s compassion for those who hunger and God’s judgement of the proud and the arrogant, the rich and the powerful.  You could say, “Nevertheless…she persisted”!

Sure enough, in these troubled times we need the calm and comfort of Mary the Blessed,  but maybe this year, more than ever, we need to hear the words of Mary the Bold who offers a vision of God’s Kingdom which will be made known in her Son, a vision yet to be fulfilled, but the vision we are called to proclaim.

Maybe this is the Mary we need this year.

Mary 4

 

And the Grinch’s Heart Grew

grinch    Probably we all know the story by heart–the story of the Grinch who stole Christmas–and probably we can all repeat the lines at his change of heart:

          “…what happened then, well in Whoville they say, that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day, and the true meaning of Christmas came through, and the Grinch found the strength of ten ridges plus two.”

There’s nothing quite like a person with a big heart, a heart that can expand to feel the needs of a Whoville or a whole world.  Nothing quite like having a big heart, unless, of course, it happens to be an “enlarged heart” in the medical sense.  I thought I was just having abdominal pains, but a dozen blood draws and an echo-cardiogram later, I discover I have one and that’s not necessarily good.  Hopefully a regimen of medications and good cardiac care should take care of it, but it has messed up my Advent for sure.

The need for “enlarged hearts” must be one of the greatest needs of our day.  I get so troubled when I listen to the news and realize how hard-hearted some of our policies and politicians are.  By now, I guess I should be used to it, but it still amazes me to see the grumpy, Grinch-like scowls and the mean-spirited voices which fill our airwaves. Are Lou Dobbs and Ann Coulter just downright nasty by nature or is that an act they are putting on?  And why do so many folks listen to them?   We can debate the issues related to immigration and border security, but if we no longer feel the desperation of families who would rather risk their lives on a migrant journey than face the brutality of their homelands, we have lost something of our humanity.  If our hearts become so hardened they aren’t open to the needs of children who have no home or families without health care, our hearts have truly turned to stone.  Remember the story of the Israelite children in Egypt?  The Bible says Pharaoh’s “heart was hardened” to the plight of the slaves.  God ultimately delivered the slaves, but the consequences for Pharaoh were devastating because a hardened heart can strangle and kill the one it inhabits.

The good news is that even the hard-hearted Grinch discovered the truth of Christmas and so did Ebeneezer Scrooge and so can we.  If we don’t have room in our hearts for migrant children or homeless children or the children of Yemen, there is probably very little room for the Child of Bethlehem.  And if our hearts aren’t big enough to care about refugee families seeking asylum, we will have a hard time identifying with Joseph and his young family fleeing to Egypt. Receiving the Christ Child of Christmas will enlarge our hearts because His coming  always calls us to expand our compassion and to open our hearts to the needs of others as we seek to welcome Him into our lives.

Maybe like the Grinch, our hearts can grow three times their size. Then the true meaning of Christmas will come through.

grinch happy

Light a candle

First week of Advent, on the Danube River.  First Christmas Market in Visenhof. We aren’t allowed to light candles in the cabins of our ship, of course, but if I could we would light one candle for the beginning of Advent and for the second night of Hanukkah.  Of course the two holidays have nothing to do with each other historically.  (Please don’t call Hanukkah “Jewish Christmas”). But the one thing they do have in common is the candle, the symbol of light.  I love Peter, Paul and Mary’s Hanukkah song “Don’t let the light go out.” Check it out on YouTube.

In a dark world sometimes all you can do is light a candle.  The light of love, the flame of compassion for others, the candle of hope.  Whether you say Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy Hanukkah or Seasons Greetings doesn’t really matter, as long as you are sensitive to the life and faith of the person you are greeting.  Only the arrogant would suggest the ONLY appropriate greeting is Merry Christmas.  Whatever you say as a way of greeting should bring joy to the person you meet.  And whatever we say can be a way of lighting the candle in someone else’s life.

I can’t light a candle in my stateroom, but if I could, it would be the light of love, the light of joy, the light of peace in the bitter and broken world.

So Happy Whatever!

Jack