Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Some Election Year Resolutions

Below is my column from today's edition of the Grand Haven Tribune. It is also online at their website here.

As we approach New Year’s Eve tonight, many people will commit themselves to new resolutions, commitments they have made to change something about their lives for the better.

This New Year brings, I believe, one of the most significant presidential elections our country has ever faced. Furthermore, the elections in the United States legislature in the fall of 2020 will have a significant impact on the presidency of whoever wins in November. So, I’d like to make some suggestions for resolutions in this presidential election year, commitments I hope all of us can make as our country decides which way forward we want to go.

First, pay attention to facts and reject outrageous claims. While a politician’s loose relationship to the truth is hardly a new idea, it has advanced significantly over the past several years. And I’m not just speaking about our current president and his nearly 16,000 false or misleading claims since he took office. In December, Presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren made bold claims about fellow candidate, Mayor Pete Buttiegieg, and his being beholden to billionaires because of a fundraiser held in a wine cave. An opinion piece in The Washington Post clarified the actual nature and content of the event, the piece written by one of the attendees. But still, there is the tendency of candidates on all sides of the political spectrum to distract from policy with wild suggestions and theories which demean their fellow candidates. Don’t play into it.

Second, try to listen more carefully to those with whom you disagree. And I don’t mean listen so that you are ready to respond and prove them wrong. Rather, listen until you understand their perspective and point of view well enough to argue it yourself. The fact that so many people were shocked by the election of Donald Trump underscores how little broad segments of the population actually listened to the concerns and perspective of those who voted Trump into office. Maligning or mocking his supporters now will do nothing to advance your own cause. Seeking to understand—and, dare I say, empathize with—the supporters of your political opponent, however, can help you see the broader picture.

Third, reject attempts to scapegoat. This is, once again, an approach that all sides of the political spectrum have employed. We’ve seen it most heinously these past years in the scapegoating of immigrants when it comes to questions of violent crime and the economy (even though study after study has shown immigrants are far less likely to commit violent crimes and are actually a driving force in making the economy better). Democrats have also used the scapegoat method when they have failed to mount a persuasive campaign. Look to the actual reasons for the problems you identify instead of the easy group or person to blame. (See the first resolution on focusing on facts to help with this).

Fourth, and most importantly, show up and vote. If I was in charge of Facebook or Twitter, I would make it a rule that if you were eligible to vote and sat out the election, you have lost all rights to complain in social media about the state of our country. Data from Statista indicates that for the most recent national election, we rank eleventh behind other countries, with just over 55% of people participating in the 2016 Presidential Election. By contrast, 87.2% participated in the last election in Belgium. Along with this resolution, I would encourage every American to stand up to attempts by any power to make it more difficult for a citizen to vote. Everyone’s voice should be counted. 

As a Christian priest, I’d also like to make a suggestion to those who, like me, follow Jesus as their Lord. Remember what Jesus taught us, everything in the law and the prophets rests on love of God and love of neighbor. Ask yourself constantly during this election year if the way you are behaving, the political opinions you are staking out, and the words which come out of your mouth are advancing love of God and love of neighbor. If not, you may be falling into the trap of self-righteousness—and our Lord had very little patience for the self-righteous.

The American experiment has made much about this country great—but we have also several times throughout history missed our guiding principles and gone down paths which were dark, hate-filled, and contrary to the ideals of liberty and justice for all people. If the American voter will seek to be committed to principles of robust and respectful engagement with the election cycle, maybe our candidates can be encouraged as well. If they will not, then start asking if there is someone else you should support who can actually carry our country forward into a future that is free, fair, and just for every person. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The difficulty of truly seeing Jesus in Advent

Below is my column in today's edition of the Grand Haven Tribune, also online here.

This past Sunday evening, our church hosted an ecumenical offering of “Advent Lessons & Carols.” I was blessed by the area pastors who joined in reading Scripture, the sense of unity as Christians from a variety of denominations gathered together for song and reflection. And the music, offered by Diane Penning alongside of our own music ministry, was transformative.

One song in particular struck me as deeply meaningful. It is “Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” published in 1934 by Robert MacGimsey. Though he was not a black composer, MacGimsey spent much of his early years in Louisiana around the African-American community and he wrote the song in the style of an African-American spiritual. One of the greatest renditions is the one offered by Mahalia Jackson (you can easily find it on YouTube), but Diane’s offering was also tremendously powerful.

If you’ve never heard the song, it centers around the sadness and feeling of penitence that we did not recognize the Christ child when he came. In the third stanza, the singer mourns, “Just seem like we can’t do right, look how we treated you. But please, sir, forgive us, Lord – We didn’t know ’twas you.”

As Diane sang, I was reminded how this truth is one of the fundamental teachings of the Advent season, as Christians prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. The religious and powerful in the first century didn’t see that it was God incarnate in that small baby crying in the stable next to the inn. The religious and the powerful didn’t see that it was God incarnate in the itinerant carpenter’s son turned preacher from Nazareth. In fact, the religious and the powerful found the way he challenged accepted beliefs and practices, found the very people he spent time with, so unsettling that they conspired to torture and kill him.

If we remember this truth, every single one of us will hopefully take a moment in this season to pause and reflect. Because missing the coming of Christ in the child Jesus was not just an historical accident. It is something Jesus himself warned that religious people would continue to do. At the last judgment, when the Lord sends the accursed to eternal fire, he is very clear about why, “Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’” (Matthew 25:44–45)

Jesus is saying that when we see someone who is hungry or thirsty, we are seeing Christ himself. When we see someone naked or sick, we are seeing Christ himself. And, even more troubling perhaps for American Christians who like their Jesus respectable, when we see someone in prison, we are seeing Christ himself. And when we see someone who is a stranger – the Greek word being xenos, literally meaning foreigner and the same word from which we get xenophobia – we are seeing Christ himself. What we do for someone in any of these situations is an action done to our Lord Christ.

When we wrestle honestly with this verse, we will have to acknowledge that there are many times Christ has come to us and, like the singer in the song, “We didn’t know it was you.”

Everett Patterson’s picture,
called “Jose y Maria,”
reimagines the Holy Family
in contemporary times.
I’m reminded of one of my favorite Advent images, by comic-book artist Everett Patterson called “Jose y Maria.” In it, the artist reimagines the Holy Family in contemporary times. Joseph has an autoworkers shirt on with the name “José” on it and is trying to find change to make a call as he looks for lodging. A pregnant Mary is wearing a sweatshirt for “Nazareth High School” and sits on a broken horse ride outside the convenience store. The rain pours down upon them and they both look worried and unsure of what is coming next.

They also look tremendously easy to ignore.

Advent is a beautiful time of the year, a time of traditions and a growing sense of joy. It’s a time when people are often moved to give generously of their time and treasure to those who are in need. I’d encourage you, though, during this season to take it one step further. Spend some time in self-examination and ask where you may be blind to the presence of Jesus in this world.

Who is the hungry person whose causes you to avert your eyes? Who is the person struggling with serious health issues while our country fails to create meaningful change in a broken health care system? Who is the person in prison, wishing someone cared and that they didn’t just feel like they had been warehoused by society and forgetting? Who is the immigrant, living in constant fear because the only choice was a dangerous journey to live undocumented in America or certain poverty or even death back home?

Maybe you have trouble seeing Jesus in that liberal priest who writes those columns that annoy you. I know I’m broken and can be mistaken, but can you see that I’m trying?

I know I sometimes have trouble seeing Jesus in people with whom I disagree, but I try to let God’s grace continue to challenge me in that area. Maybe you can, too?

Each person, no matter what, carries inherent dignity and worth with the image of God pressed into their very soul. And each person you meet this Advent season is an opportunity for you to see Jesus in a new way, and find yourself changed in the process.