Different Questions — Faith and Politics

Especially for Murph and Marilyn and Bob and Carrol…

[This is a sermon I gave at Plantsville Congregational Church, UCC, Plantsville, CT   July 27, 2012. I am particularly proud of it, because it solves some questions I wrestle with frequently her in blog-land.]

First, let me start off this morning by saying “Thank you” to this congregation and Pastor Sandy for inviting me here to Plantsville UCC. This is my third time here and I’ve enjoyed each time I preach here. In years where I haven’t preached elsewhere, I’ve preached here at Plantsville.  This gives me a long time to think about what I want to say, so hopefully you get “prime” material in my sermons. Having said that…

When I was a kid, and people worried about being “polite”, it was said that there are three things you should never talk about in polite conversation – religion, sex, and politics. The challenge, of course, is to talk about the important things in life without at least talking about one of them. This morning, I want to talk to you about two of the three – politics and religion. Maybe we’ll save that third topic for next year – or never.

So, about politics… This year, in October, you will be asked to decide a lot of things about a lot of people. Certainly, there’s the Presidential election, but I’m sure there must be a Senatorial race, and State officials to be elected, and local boards of selectman and such. Then there will be, I assume, questions on the ballot for each of us to decide.  And somewhere in there, there’s the Christian vote – not The Christian Vote – as in Pat Robertson and all the folks on TV claiming the title, though they are somewhere in the mix.  I assume if you’re here, then you are the Christians I’m talking about voting come October.

Now, before anybody out there thinks I’m going to tell them who they “should” vote for, don’t worry, I’m not. I could give you all the reasons I’m voting for who I’m voting for, but that would be me and my vote. This is a democracy, after all, and you still get to vote for who you want to.  I can only tell you how I think you should decide, not who to decide for.

So, how do Christians like you and I decide?  Well, frankly, it’s not all that clear, but we have some clues to start with.  My seminary professor Mark Heim once opened a lecture with the statement, “If Jesus is the answer, what’s the question?” . That should be our jumping off point. Jesus – at least the Jesus who was alive in Biblical times – has never been to America in 2012. Just as Jesus of 4 A.D. had nothing to say about Madonna’s outfit in her day or Lady Gaga’s  anything in our day, there is no proof text that says “Vote for a Republican” or another that says, “Vote for a Democrat”.   Jesus never had to deal with the internet. Jesus didn’t even have to deal with movie theaters, let alone bombings that happen there.  So the world we consider is not the world of Jesus 2000 years ago.  We were left with the Holy Spirit and these texts here in the Bible to do the best we can. To believe we must vote this way or that is to limit ourselves and to commit idolatry. To worship one party or the other is too limiting for a God and Spirit who have seen it all. God is neither Democrat or Republican and we do God and our faith a disservice if we think  we have to vote one way or the other.

So, we don’t have one answer in the Bible, and we don’t have one answer in politics. So what do we have? We have questions – and we as Christians have to ask different questions of our leaders than, say, the Rotary Club.  So what questions do we ask to make up our minds?  The answers – at least some of them – can be seen in today’s texts.

In the Psalm reading, we see that God is a God of justice and a call for fairness to widows and orphans.  So, if a candidate were to walk in here today, we would have to ask them about justice and fairness to people with no voice – people in ancient days who were exemplified by widows and orphans.  Widows, as women, had no vote in the matters of the day. They had influence if they had a husband, but since widows no longer have husbands, they had no voice.  Plus, I assume they were grieving at the loss of their husband, in much the same way that orphans grieved at the loss of their parents.  You know what a mess kids can make with no parents around. Multiply that by some factor and you have orphans left to fend for themselves – thrown to the wind to make it on their own.

So, whichever candidate you vote for, and whatever ballot initiative you are asked to vote for, it seems to me,  we should take into account those who have no voice, those who have no vote,  those who are grieving, and those left by society to fend for themselves.  I don’t know about you, but in all the TV ads for this or that candidate, I haven’t heard anyone talk about the people who don’t vote, or can’t vote. That’s because the ads are aimed at those who do and can vote. We in the church are supposed to think differently.

See what I mean, we’re supposed to ask different questions? It’s because God’s version of “success” and your average American’s version of “success” might be totally different. According to the prophets of the Old Testament and people like Jesus, it doesn’t matter if we have all the money in the world. It matters if everyone has what they need – even people you’ve never heard of, people you don’t know, and people are the opposite of success by society’s standards, even – dare I say it? – your enemies.

If you and your politician are voting for yourselves, you’re missing the point. When you step into that voting booth, you need to vote for everybody – even people who can’t vote. You may have heard that some states are putting into place new voting rules like “needs a picture ID” or “must prove residency” . These rules, according to some people, are designed to keep people away from the polls. If that’s true, it’s even more important that you vote for everybody, because so many others have no voice but yours.

But if “Jesus” isthe answer to political questions, then we need to ask ourselves about what Jesus stood for.  To sum it up as has been done in the Bible, “Love God with all your strength and soul and mind and heart” and “love your neighbor as yourself”.  If that God – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — is the same God of Christians and Muslims and Jews, then we need to vote for people who let all of those groups worship God as they see God.  How’s that for a different question?! Who is the candidate that allows all of those people to worship God – whether they call that entity God, Yahweh, or Allah? That person should get your vote. Which candidate expects people of those faiths to use all of themselves – their heart, their mind, their soul, and their strength – not just one or the other? That person is who you should vote for.

There are people who would have you vote with your soul – putting fear for it in you. There are people who would have you vote only with your heart. (so-called “bleeding heart liberals”) There are people who want you to vote with your head – people who love objectivity and the formulas that do this or that for the budget, for instance.  (There are people who want you only to vote for your wallet. I don’t think Jesus ever made a choice that way, so they don’t count).

I write a blog and every once in awhile, it gets hairy around politics, representing the polarization that we’re experiencing in this country today.  We get stuck in this either/or belief system. “Be a bleeding heart liberal” or “Use your head” we think. Others think, “save your soul and the soul of America”. But in the church, we’re supposed to be different.

The fact is that God gave you and I all three of those things, plus strength.  There are people who want you to think about who makes America the “mightiest” country, but might does not make right. Which of the people you elect tempers America’s might with its heart and soul and mind? The person who uses all of those deserves your vote, from a Christian perspective.

By now, you may be saying to yourself, “Then who’s left to vote for? Nobody on the ballot meets all those qualifications!” and you’d probably be right. But since we’re limited to choosing human candidates, you and I have to ask “who’s the closest to that answer?”.  Whatever we can do, we should do, even if that candidate is some weird third-party candidate that’s “never going to win” — or not. You have to use all your heart and soul and strength and mind to vote for  whomever you think is going to going to use all of theirs and is most likely to make a difference in the world in that direction.

Now, regarding the “love your neighbor” part – that polarized America thing I just mentioned even strikes there.  There are politicians out there who think that we “love our neighbor” by giving them everything. There are politicians out there who indicate that “love their neighbor” is rather like “tough love” —  let them wrestle with their choices, let them struggle and grow in their own strength. Give them nothing but “freedom” and let them be”.

Let’s look at Jesus and his community of faith, the disciples, in this morning’s text, the feeding of the five thousand.  Jesus has just come back from time alone on the other side of the Sea of Tiberius and is met by a pack of people who want healings. Jesus, knowing he’s going to help the people, points out that there’s still a problem – 5,000 people need to eat. He suggests the first thing that comes into their heads – “we’ll go into town and get some”.

Then they realize that the 12 of them combined, and Jesus, don’t have that kind of money. I don’t know about you, but I never have enough money with me to feed 500 people by myself. That’s the ratio of “people out there” to “disciples”, so, no, that’s not going to work — so much for the “easy way” or the first thing that comes into their minds.

Next up, Andrew, the brother of Peter, says what they do have. – a young boy has 5 small loaves and 2 small fish. The writer underlines the point – a young boy has 5 small loaves and 2 small fish. Then Jesus gives thanks and – surprise – the miracle happens.

So, what do we make of this? What does it have to do with politics and elections? As I’ve said, we’re in a weird time in this country, where people divide things up in black-and-white terms. Some people say, “The government should fix everything!”. I’m closer to that way of thinking generally, but the more I work with people, the more I also see the value of expecting things from them.  If the government does everything, then that leaves a lazy populous who expect things to come their way and never work to better themselves, never become what they can be.

There are those who believe that government should do nothing but give people freedom. These are the people who say “the government that governs least governs best”.  And in today’s world of not compromising, people lock into one position or the other. Either the government should do everything and the people nothing or the people should do everything and government should do nothing.  But it’s not either of those. It’s both, as we can see if we look at the text this morning from the eyes of a faith community.

My wife and are going through the ups and downs of our faith lives together, as our own little community of faith. I think I have the strongest, truest deepest faith. Given to depression at times, I also have times where I have little or no faith at all. I think in twenty years of marriage, my wife has never lost her faith. Hers evolves, but it is never really gone.  Sometimes, she’s more rational, sometimes I am.

Years ago, she preached on this text and she said “the ladies did it”. I said, “What ladies?” She said, “Women with children always have food in their purse”.  When the disciples brought out the loaves and fishes and the women realize that it’s not enough, they feed their kids with what they have and they all have plenty!” For her, the parable was about believing that Jesus would provide, so sharing out of our bounty, much like the book “Stone Soup”.  I was always the “miracles” man and I just said, “naw, Jesus wants to feed everybody, he (as God) makes all the bread and fish anyway, so what’s the problem with making a few more. It’s about believing in Jesus’ love for us”.

But what if it’s both? What if Jesus, in God, does make all of the fish and the wheat and the leaven. That’s God’s soul or spirit in action. What if Jesus, as Jesus, wants the people to be fed?  That’s God heart in action. But what if Jesus, perhaps as both, sees the wisdom in letting humans do the work with what God supplies? I’m reading this book called “Kissing Fish” and it’s all about progressive Christianity. In it, the author says that God, even though God could do everything, chooses to limit Himself/Herself so that we can have equal partnership in creating the world – we can learn to create the world ourselves!

Preacher Jonathan Edwards was once asked, do we do things or does God, and he answered, “We do all. God does all.” That’s the way it really is. We do all we can, God does all that God can to further God’s design for our world.

So it is in politics as well. You know that quote about government governing best and least? The actual quote I saw on the wall of a church or Masonic lodge in Baltimore, I think, is this:  “Government that governs least governs best, after the people are taken care of”.  God gives us everything we need, and then leaves us alone to do what we will, hoping that we will share it. As long as we share it, God doesn’t need to correct us or send us prophets to point the way.  If we create a just society and God gives us everything we need, the world will function pretty darn well. Is it a miracle? Yes.  Are we allowed to do nothing because God can do it all? Were the disciples? No–  and neither are we.

So here’s the last question to ask as you vote for this person or that, this bill or that. Who expects the most out of us while providing for our needs. Who gives us the whole package– freedom to choose, responsibility to act and freedom from want? The person closest to that ideal, the question that leads us closest to that ideal is the one you should vote for as a Christian.

See what I mean, we Christians ask different questions than others? We’re not a simple people, we’re a complex people, in a complicated time and we’re capable of coming up with complex answers to complex questions which – Lord knows – we’ve got plenty of this election year. May God grant us the wisdom to do what we can with that which God gives.  Amen.


Living Authentically Is Hard… And Worth It

Looking at a friend’s Facebook post today, after a day of doing couples therapy, then listening to a squabble about theology in the Catholic church on the radio, I am struck by how hard it is to live authentically. I realize that as a therapist, and as Christian, that is my goal for people, but it’s not one a whole lot of people even think about or consider, let alone seek. Virginia Satir, my model for both family and church systems, says that about 1% of people live an authentically. 

It’s been so long that I’ve even heard the concept on general conversation, that I thought I would raise it here. Authentic living is this: using your emotions and your thoughts, and your spiritual self and your beliefs beliefs about the way the world should be and acting on them all as often as you can, maybe even all the time.

Living authentically is easier, I think when you’re single and on your own. The minute you are in community or a relationship or with others in any way that means anything, it becomes that much harder to remain true to yourself. If you are true to yourself and the other person or people are true to themselves, there’s going to be disagreement — a difference of opinion. Whether that difference becomes an “issue” depends on a whole lot of factors — self-esteem, maturity, love, ability to cope, past history, etc. Whether that issue becomes a conflict/war is also due to a number of factors — systemic things, individual things, thing things.

Thoreau once said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation”. By “men”, I assume he meant “people”, but I also know that it’s true that most men lead lives of quiet desperation. The economic system and making a living, being a “good man” requires putting yourself aside at times, just as (I’m pretty sure, but don’t know know) that being a “good woman” requires doing so, Once people are depending on you — children, especially — there are times when you have to put their needs ahead of yours.

The problem is as Thoreau said, “quiet desperation” if you do it too much. Maybe our current fascination with zombies is that we often feel like the walking dead or at least the walking wounded given pressures of our time. If you raise your children to believe things that you don’t because you’ve kept yourself to yourself, it’s going to be miserable for you. If you treat your spouse or partner in ways that only work for them, again you’ll feel miserable, then resentful, then “boom” — something will explode in the relationship. If you work for a company that — for instance, makes bombs — or are part of a gang that does things that you believe are immoral — no matter how much money you make, you’ll feel that something’s wrong — because it is.

On the other hand, living authentically feels right, and strong, and real. Sometimes we have to be alone to hear ourselves think. We need to rest to do so. We need to read and think or contemplate the universe or have some system of beliefs to know what you think and don’t think. How many of us live lives always with others,or as roles? It doesn’t happen as much any more, but there are a lot of women out there who have been somebody’s child, then somebody’s girlfriend, then somebody’s wife without ever just being themselves. How many of us are too busy and tired, or without any contemplation about how things should be?

As I said, it’s hard to be authentic in the present world, but it’s still a goal worth having.




On Learning From Psychopaths

This morning, in Colorado, a man opened fire on a crowd of people after putting a gas canister in the theater.  I,  and probably everyone in the  legitimate media (“professional” media?) will want to make something out of it. We will try to learn a lesson from it, make meaning of it, as human beings naturally want to do. We will ask ourselves, individually and as a nation, “Why did this happen?” and “What can we do to prevent it?”. You know what? I don’t care why it happened. I care that it happened, and I might care about how not to have it happen again if it doesn’t involve a change in behavior on my part.  I want it to change behavior on the shooter’s part.

I read someone’s comments this morning and they were talking about doing something re: gun laws. OK, I can go with that. I’m also against gas canisters indoors and yelling “fire” in a crowded movie house. Perhaps we need to look at the culture of violence that the Batman series shows.  OK. Perhaps we need to spend more on mental health services to identify people like this before they become people like this. OK. But you know what? I don’t want to do any of it because of this psychopath. All of the things I suggested above, we should look at — at some point. But I don’t want to give people like this  credit for anything.  I don’t want to try to understand the kids from Columbine — ever. I don’t want to consider the demands of terrorists or gun-toting drive by shooters or child kidnappers or serial rapists.

When 9/11 happened, The Nation magazine had two columnists discussing it — one who said we should accept blame for whatever they think we did. The other person said “even if that’s true, no one has the right to take a life”. I guess it was a big controversy. I’m with the second guy.

I am sick of being terrorized by terrorists. I am sick of going crazy worrying about random criminal people. I am sick of curtailing my kids’ childhood because some pervert doesn’t feel they got one. Each of these people is a spoiled brat in one way or another.  That’s it. They’re throwing a tantrum big enough so the whole world will feel their pain, but no one’s pain justifies taking someone the life of someone else. No unreasonable loss of  one person’s freedom justifies the unreasonable loss of someone else’s freedom.  In a population of 100,000 or 1,000,000 people, one person with a gun doesn’t get to effect the lives of all the others, or paint the tint on my world view. You may remember that there was a campaign in England after a terrorist attack where people said, “I am not afraid” and posted it on the internet. I think terrorists increased the number and severity of the attacks.  You know what, though? That’s what brats do. If one temper tantrum doesn’t get your attention, they throw a bigger one. After awhile, the behavior extinguishes (goes away).

As horrible as some people’s lives are — and, as a therapist, I have heard some horrible , God-awful stories in my time — we don’t have the right to pass along our pain. We shouldn’t pass our pain onto our children. We shouldn’t pass it on to our friends, our neighbors, our countrymen and countrywomen or people overseas.  We might need to give it back to the people that gave it to us, but even then, I hear that taking life via capital punishment  doesn’t really give closure. Just because the second person is dead doesn’t bring back the first person.

When I was 18 or 20 and had first come home from college, I had learned how incredible community could be, for the second time in my life (after Deering). Apparently, around the same time in West Covina, where we lived, there were gangs doing random drive-by shootings. My mother was terrified that I might go to the 7-11 near our house and get a slurpee. But the statistical chance of me and a specific gang member and a specific bullet being in the same place at the same time were so small I went anyway. The odds were so much in my favor that I’m still here to write about it.

We cannot give into fear. We cannot stop going to the store, or the movies, or to the park or our yards or hallways. When we give in, we die. If I’m going to do that, I want to actually die. This is why it’s better to be dead than to be a vampire or a zombie in mythology. We’re all going to die sometime. Living and dead at the same time is no way to be.

So, this weekend, I’m going to probably see The Dark Knight Rises. Or maybe I’ll wait til it works best for me — when time and finances allow. In any case, I will go, because I was planning on going and I’m not going to change my behavior because of some psychopath in Colorado. I might think about the violence or not. I might contemplate what happens when we escalate our violence. I might support funding for mental health or gun control.  But I never want to understand the way these people work, because I don’t want to give them the time of day. There is nothing they can say to justify their behavior.


For My Daughter on Independence Day

Last night, just before I went to bed, my daughter asked me if I could write her an article on Independence Day. When I asked her why, she said, “Because I have to read an article on Independence Day”. I’m not surewhoshe has to read it for, it being summer and all, but I thought I’d give it a try.

On July 4, 1776 a bunch of men put their lives in danger by signing a piece of paper that said what they believed. Never be afraid to do the same thing, if you believe strongly enough in something.

Most people don’t realize that the men who signed this paper were in a small, but I think, growing minority. As I understand it, 1/3 of the people wanted to be independent, 1/3 wanted to keep things the way they were, and 1/3 couldn’t care one way or the other.  It’s always this way. There are plenty of people who will go along with anything and do nothing to help it get there. There will always be people on the other side of your opinion. That’s ok. Believe what you believe and, if it’s important enough to you, say it and do something about it, whatever “it” is.

On that point, while I’m at it, the Founding Fathers — heck, even your own father — don’t have a clue what the future holds or what will be important to you,. In 1776, people thought that only men counted, that people could own other people, that Black people weren’t really people at all, that everybody was a Protestant Christian, and that you, as a girl, could only do certain things in  life like stay home and be a mommy. Also, as a girl, you had to only fall in love with boys. Your dad has seen so many of those things change in just his lifetime.  The world will be different than it is now.  Every generation faces different challenges.  Learn enough about those challenges to know what you believe. Being upset about something that isn’t true is a waste of time and energy. Sadly, there are a lot of people who say things that aren’t true right now.  Don’t listen to them and — more importantly — don’t be one of them.

Now, about that paper the men signed: It starts by saying, when things get so bad that people can’t listen to their government, it’s only fair that they say why they are so upset.

Then it says why they were upset. They start with some beliefs that they thought were obvious:

1)  That they were all equal.

2) That God (some of them believed different things about God than others) gave them rights — among those rights were the right to be alive, the right to be free, and the right to try to be happy. If you put the last two together, you get that you are free to try to be happy. There are no promises that you will be happy, but you have the right to try to be. In fact, the maker of the universe wants you to try and no one has the right to get in your way.

That  same maker of the universe gave us the will to make governments to help us with those rights. Since people make governments, and governments are supposed to do those things, when they stop doing those things, the people have the right to make a new one. This is not something to be done on a whim, but — since most people will suffer until they can’t take it anymore — we’re not worried about it. The government has done so many things and ruled with such force that we’re done with it.

The head of the government (the king of England, in their case) has refused to agree to laws that are reasonable and  for the public good.

The head of the government won’t let laws be passed that are of importance to us until he agrees with them. Until he really does, he won’t put them into place.

He’s told large groups of people that he won’t let them pass laws unless they give up the right to be represented.

He sets up meetings at places and times that nobody would think of, trying to wear people down.

He’s closed people’s governments when people get upset with him.

He won’t let them elect new people, leaving the people in chaos, and open to attack because they can’t organize themselves.

He won’t let new people come here.

He won’t let us have judges so we can decide about the laws for us. He hires only his own buddies to be judges and he sends so many of his own buddies here that take what little we do have.

He has sent armies to us without letting us decide if we wanted them.

He put the military in charge, instead of the people’s government.

He and others force us to have laws imposed on us, instead of asking what we want.

He makes us put soldiers up in our houses, without asking us.

He pretends to give justice to us when those soldiers kill one of us, but never holds them responsible for their crimes.

H e won’t let us sell things to other countries.

He taxes us without asking us.

He takes us to a foreign country and they put us to trial there for made up things.

He closed one government nearby and put in another one that does what he wants.

First he told us we could be here and have our rights, now he says we can’t.

He won’t govern us, and won’t let us govern ourselves. He even declared war on us and destroyed our harbors, the land around them, and the lives of the people who live there.

He’s now sending troops to finish off the job, acting in a way that’s so unlike a real king.

Anybody that fights the government’s troops on the ocean — if they get caught — has to either kill their friends or kill themselves.

The government makes us fight against ourselves and sends in Native Americans (whom we know want to kill all of us) to attack us.

Every time we try to talk to him about all of this, he only makes it worse. Not that our fellow citizens out there help a lot. We’ve told them again and again and again what’s going on and how much pain we’re in and they don’t care. We have told them that we’re going to separate from them and they attack us. Like everybody else, they are enemies if they attack us and friends if they leave us alone.

Because of all of that, we declare ourselves free from them, free to set up a government that works for us, like any other country has.  Relying on God as we understand Him, we pledge ourselves to stand up for each other, because we have as much right to dignity as they do.

And then they signed.


Having just read all of that, it’s apparent that we were wrong about what all Native Americans wanted. They didn’t all want to kill us, but we didn’t know that. So we didn’t know everything then, and we don’t know everything now. We’re doing the best we can with what we do know. Don’t be mad at us for not knowing everything. We didn’t know what we didn’t know.  But, certainly, change things as you learn more.

The other thing that I notice is that it’s not all about taxes or the economy as some people would say.  It’s about justice and people getting what they need. It’s about people being heard and making decisions for themselves because they are important (to God, in their case, and just in general in today’s world) and are capable of making decisions for themselves.

So live up to the promise that these men believed in — believe you are important. In your case, as a Christian, believe that you are important because God made you (and everyone and everything else).  Believe you and your fellow citizens make the government what it is. Know that everybody matters and allow people to have what they need.  When the government doesn’t do that, or doesn’t allow you to do that, it’s time for some changes. You can figure out what that means when you get there.

These people, though, were under serious oppression, for a long time, and their government was actually trying to kill them for what they believed. Only if things get that bad do you get to throw it all out and start again.

So, on Independence Day, 2012, be free, be smart, believe in your own worth. Get upset when things are wrong, stand up for yourself, make the government work for justice for all of its people. Understand that it might be hard work, and that you won’t always be happy, but you can try.