I began my career as a Chemical Engineer. I helped to design pilot plants – small versions of larger chemical plants that were going to be built in the future. I worked with computer programs that simulated what would happen as chemicals traveled through the plant, so that I would know what kind of products and emissions were going to be produced. And this was important to me because I was interested in protecting the environment.
I first became interested in protecting the environment as a child. I remember sitting at the McDonald’s in Baden, Pennsylvania and watching orange dust from the steel mill across the river settle onto our car as I ate my cheeseburger. The hillside behind the lead smelter where I worked was totally devoid of vegetation because of the poisonous emissions that had been released by the plant.
But now, being environmentally conscious is all the rage, isn’t it? We are concerned about what comes out of the tailpipes of our cars and burning coal has become taboo. We are supposed to buy energy-efficient lightbulbs and set blue cans filled with recyclables at the end of our driveways each week. Scientists have become increasingly concerned about greenhouse gases as rivers that supply drinkable water to tens of millions of people fall to record lows. We even send cleanup crews out to pick up trash along highways because some people just roll down their window and throw trash from the moving car.
Jesus was, also, concerned about emission standards. He once said, “There is nothing outside of you that by going inside will defile. It’s the things that come out of you that can defile.” It’s not the types of food that you eat or the things that you decide to drink that can make you unclean in the eyes of God. What makes you unclean are the things that come out of your heart and that, eventually, come out of your mouth: Your verbal emissions.
We are living in strange times, aren’t we? People are on edge, and little things are suddenly becoming big things. A lot of people don’t care about how they are using their words, and social media has made it even worse because it’s easy to type words onto the screen of an electronic device that you would never speak to someone face-to-face. Political debates are destroying friendships, are dividing churches and are even tearing our families apart. The space between “being on my side” and “being on your side” has become, for many of us, a nearly impossible chasm to cross.
Today, as a pastor, I’m telling you that it needs to stop.
We need to work together, as God’s people, so that the way that people are using their words these days doesn’t become normalized and an acceptable part of our society. We need to stop defining ourselves only in terms of “us” and “them” and believing that verbally attacking “them” (whoever “them” may be) is OK. As Jesus people, we need to be drawn back to the base of the Cross where Jesus calls us to confess whatever part we have played in creating the divisions around us; and then, we need to repent and change course. As Jesus people, we need to hear God’s call to look for the good in each other, to encourage and build each other up, to search for what we still have in common when we disagree, and to do our best to speak words of truth to each other in loving ways.
I guess that there is still a Chemical Engineer inside of me. But now, my calling as a pastor is to speak as clearly about what comes out of our hearts and out of our mouths as I used to speak about what escapes from a chemical plant’s smokestacks.
Jesus once said, “There is nothing outside of you that by going inside of you can defile.” St. James once wrote, “Be quick to listen and slow to speak. And remember: If you think that you are religious and do not bridle your tongue, you are just deceiving your heart and your religion is worthless.“
Let’s think about those words as we move through the coming week; and let’s, also, allow those words to lead and guide us as we live and interact with each other in these strange and unusual times.
I began this series of posts about conflict by stating that none of us can avoid conflict in our lives and in our relationships with other people. We are like porcupines who can travel through life without much angst and confusion when we’re left to ourselves; but, when we begin to interact with other porcupines, we need to realize that there are going to be times when we are stuck by the quills of others and when we are going to stick a few people ourselves. This is a natural part of human relationships and there is not much that we can do about it. However, we have many options and opportunities during times of conflict with others. And so, as I bring this series of posts to an end, I would like to summarize some of the things that we have explored together:
First, in times of conflict, we need to remember the Eighth Commandment, and we need to be able to separate what happened from our interpretation of what happened. Some of the conflicts in our lives are created by the things that other people do and some of the conflicts in our lives are caused by our interpretations of things that other people do. Perhaps the tension and stress in our lives would begin to decrease if we learned to separate what has happened in our lives from our interpretation of what has happened? Perhaps we can find a sense of peace and calm in our lives, even when we are feeling weary and frazzled, by stepping back and by trying to interpret the actions of others in a more kind and gentle way?
Second, in times of conflict, we are all going to need to choose a path forward after we have carefully reflected upon what happened and have tried to interpret the actions of other people in the kindest way. Can we accept the fact that porcupines cannot avoid sticking each other with their quills? How do we decide if our strained relationship can be mended, or if the fine china plate has been so severely damaged that it can no longer be repaired? There are three different kinds of conflict: (1) there are conflicts that arise simply because porcupines cannot help but stick each other once in a while, (2) there are conflicts where the relationship has suffered some damage, but can be repaired, and (3) there are conflicts where the relationship has been so severely damaged that there is no longer a road back. Which type of situation are you facing in this time of conflict? How is your understanding of what has happened going to shape your End Game? Your End Game is, ultimately, your choice.
Third, in times of conflict, we can return to the teachings of Jesus for guidance. The person who has hurt you may want to apologize to you if you simply talk to him/her one-on-one. If that does not work, you may want to take one or two level-headed and fair-minded people along with you the next time you talk. Please remember that this is not about finding allies and Triangulation. This is about level-headed and fair-minded people being asked to help to keep the discussion on track as a path toward resolution is sought. If that does not work, you may need to get other people involved. If you are a part of a church, synagogue, mosque or temple, you can probably rely upon some sort of governing board. If you have experienced sexual abuse within the Church, you may want to contact the Bishop, another leader and the police. You have the right to be heard and to be taken seriously, but moving conflict to higher and higher levels of hurt, distrust and embarrassment may not be necessary. Remember: The goal of Jesus’ teaching about how to handle conflict is to help you to regain your brother or sister. Dragging more and more people into the middle of a conflict may not be the most fruitful approach.
And fourth, in times of conflict, you need to clearly ask yourself if you are being physically or emotionally abused. You are precious and valuable. God smiled on the day when you were born and God is cheering for you, right now. You are a good person who deserves to live a good life. God created you to have good relationships with people who love you; but, maybe because of what is happening in your life right now, you have begun to doubt that. Abuse changes people’s lives and abuse changes how people think. If you think that you somehow deserve what is happening to you, I want to assure you that that is not true. If you are confused and doubting yourself, I want to remind you that God has given you a wonderful mind and the ability to think. If you are feeling both alone and isolated, please remember that there are still people who care about you and who want you to have a good life. If you are feeling trapped right now and believe that you don’t have any options, I want you to know that there are people in your community who are more than willing to help you to escape what’s happening and who are willing to help you to get back on your feet and move in a better direction. And, if you have been told by a religious leader that it is your duty to submit to the person who is abusing you, I want you to know that you have been told a lie. You are precious and valuable, and there is no kind of relationship in your life that is so important for you to maintain that you need to jeopardize your physical or emotional health – or even your own life.
I hope that this series of posts has helped you to think about conflicts that you have, or may have, with other people. Please remember that conflict is an unavoidable part of human relationships; however, conflicts come in many different shapes and sizes. Some conflicts can be resolved with a simple apology, but other conflicts can create enough damage in a relationship that there is no longer a way back. Please choose your End Game wisely and remember to pray as you are trying to decide what to do. Jesus has promised to be with us in times of conflict, and Jesus will surely point you in the right direction when you ask for His help.
We have been discussing ways to journey through times of unavoidable conflict in the last three parts of this series. We have talked about the fact that people are a lot like porcupines. We can usually sail through life pretty smoothly on our own; but, once we begin to interact with other people, we cannot help but stick other people with our quills once in a while, or be stuck by the quills of other people. We talked about the fact that, during times of conflict, we need to be able to separate what happened from our interpretation of what happened; and we talked about the fact that, at some point, we all need to assess the damage that’s been caused by the conflict. And then, in the third part of this series, we talked about a method of conflict resolution that Jesus provides for those who follow Him. And, if you recall, each step of this process involves trying to regain your brother or sister. Think about the fact that, when Jesus was asked how to pray, He included these words: “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Many conflicts can be resolved if we’re simply willing to accept the fact that other people are no more perfect than we are and that most people are not trying to intentionally hurt and offend others any more than we are.
But it is not always that easy, is it?
We have talked about the fact that our relationships can be like pieces of fine china. A piece of fine china that has been dropped on the floor might be able to be glued back together. However, pieces of fine china that have been dropped on the floor may not be able to be glued together. Sometimes, quite sadly, our relationships with other people need to end; and this is most certainly true when some sort of physical or emotional abuse is occurring.
Abuse can be very confusing. People who are abused sometimes think that they are causing the person who is abusing them to hurt them. Abusive people often use something called “gaslighting” to confuse the people that they are hurting and to make their victims doubt their own sound reasoning. People who are abused often believe that there is nothing they can do to escape the horrible situation that they are facing because they cannot imagine what it would we like to leave. A lack of money can cause someone who is being abused to put up with what is happening. The lack of a place to live can be problematic. Uncertainty about the future of little children can create great angst. And, of course, many people who are being abused believe that the person who is abusing them will simply track them down and terrorize them if they decide to leave. The reasons to stay are many and the way to leave may not be clear. People who are being abused sometimes do not know what to do.
Let me remind you that you are precious and valuable. God smiled on the day when you were born and God is cheering for you, right now. You are a good person who deserves to live a good life. God created you to have good relationships with people who love you; but, maybe because of what is happening in your life right now, you have begun to doubt that. Abuse changes people’s lives and abuse changes how people think. If you think that you somehow deserve what is happening to you, I want to assure you that that is not true. If you are confused and doubting yourself, I want to remind you that God has given you a wonderful mind and the ability to think. If you are feeling both alone and isolated, please remember that there are still people who care about you and who want you to have a good life. If you are feeling trapped right now and believe that you don’t have any options, I want you to know that there are people in your community who are more than willing to help you to escape what’s happening and who are willing to help you to get back on your feet and move in a better direction.
Many people inside the Church have been told that they need to continue to make the best of horrible situations. I once heard about a pastor who told an abused woman that it was her Godly duty to continue submitting to her husband. Many Christians continue to remain in horrible situations because they can remember the day when they stood before God and said: “Until death do us part.” Many people continue to look at a divorce as a personal failure. And the Church has not helped. The Church continues to tell women to submit to their husbands and to keep their mouths shut. The Church continues to tell people who are divorced that they are not welcome to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion. The Church continues to proclaim that every relationship can be mended by forgiveness. The Church continues to tell people who have been sexually abused by members of the clergy that the problem is being fixed; and yet, the Church continues to protect members of the clergy who are named as perpetrators of sexual abuse by keeping files that contain important information sealed and by offering solutions to the problem that are far from clear. If you have been told that you need to continue to endure abuse, you have been told a lie. God weeps with you when you cry, and Jesus feels the pain every time someone hits you. God created you to live in a relationship where you are respected and loved. God understands that you may need to walk away from a relationship because of the physical or emotional abuse. God understands that you are lonely, and God will send people to support you. And guess what? No matter what you have heard from a pastor, priest, rabbi or imam, I want you to hear, right now, that God understands that a divorce is better than death.
And so, what are some things that you can do if you are caught in an abusive relationship?
First, let someone that you trust know about what is happening. People who are being abused often feel isolated and alone. Abusers often try to isolate people that they are hurting to protect themselves and to limit the options that are available to the people that they are abusing. You may be feeling totally cut off from your family and friends. You may believe that people are not going to believe you. You may have already tried to reach out to someone that you know. Many people that you know are afraid to get involved in situations that involve physical or emotional abuse. Many people that you know find it hard to accept the fact that people who are prominent and beloved leaders in their community are abusive behind closed doors. Isolation is scary and it is sometimes difficult to admit you are being abused to another person. But please remember that God does not want you to be alone. In the very Beginning, God saw that it is not good for any of us to be alone as we journey through life. Is there someone that you can talk with about what is happening in your life? Make a list of possibilities and promise yourself that you are going to talk with one of the people on your list as soon as you have the chance to do it.
Second, it is probably a good idea to explore what resources are available to you. You may want to do some exploring yourself, or you may want to ask someone who knows what is happening in your life to give you some help. Many communities have shelters where women and men who are being abused can land if they decide that they need to get away. Many of those very same shelters can help people who are being abused pursue legal actions that can result in protection from abuse orders. Some of those same shelters offer free counseling services. Some shelters even help people who have been abused to settle into a new home and start anew. You may, or may not, want to do this research yourself. Many shelters offer toll-free telephone lines, but the telephone number remains visible in your cellphone’s call history. Please remember to clear your web browser’s history if you search for help on the Internet. Many abusers want to control the people that they are hurting, and spend time searching through telephone and web browser histories. Please be careful. Help is available, but you may need some assistance to find it.
Third, you may want to think about what you will do when you decide that you want to get away. Are you going to need the assistance of another person (i.e. do you have access to a car, etc.)? Where are you going to go and how are you going to get to that place? Is there anything that you need to take with you? What are you going to do if there are children in the household? At this point, these questions may be very overwhelming. Please remember that it is OK for you to feel overwhelmed at this point. But please remember that, if you decide to leave, you are going to need to have a place to go. Your trusted friend(s) may be able to help you. Many pastors, priests, rabbis, imams and counselors can help to point you in the right direction. You are not alone, but how and when you are going to leave is, ultimately, your own choice.
Lastly, if you decide you need to get away, please remember that you are going to hear many apologies and many promises from the person who has been abusing you. How many times have you already heard, “I’m sorry”? How many times have you been told that what happened to you is never going to happen again? People who are abusing others make many promises and offer many apologies, but their patterns of behavior seldom change. One of the best things that you can do is turn your cellphone off, so that you’re not tempted to answer telephone calls, respond to text messages and emails, or even respond to messages posted on social media. One of the things that you are going to need, if you decide to get away from the person who is abusing you, is some time to think. You will probably be numb and confused. You might be afraid of what is going to happen to you. Your head will probably be spinning. But I promise you that your mind will settle and you will find that you are able to think more clearly when you have some time and space. Lean on the people that you trust. Take advantage of free counseling or legal help that is being offered. And remember that you are both precious and valuable, and that you deserve to be surrounded and to be supported by people who care about you.
Conflict is something that none of us can avoid. But please remember that there is a difference between conflict and abuse. Times of conflict can be addressed and ended by using some of the principles that I have offered in my previous posts, but physical and emotional abuse are different. You cannot reason with someone who is continuing to abuse you. You cannot trust that the person who is abusing you is going to change after a heart-felt apology. We all deserve to feel safe; and, while times of conflict can be filled with both angst and discomfort, physical and emotional abuse cannot be explained away and ignored. If you are being abused today, you need to get away from your abuser, so that you have time to think and to clearly look toward the future. I, of course, cannot tell you what you need to do after you have gotten away from the person who is abusing you. The decisions that you are going to make are your own. But what I can do is offer you some insights and ideas that may help to save your life.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been one year since the unconscionable slaughter of eleven innocent worshipers at the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill (a part of the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). I’m reminded of my first feeble attempt to “do something” and to “take a stand” after a senseless tragedy that left me both numb and speechless each time I see the sign in the front yard of my home.
We have been challenged to think and to reflect in the last year. Many of us have grown and have been changed as we took a more honest look at ourselves in the mirror and as we’ve wrestled with what we believe about other people. Faith leaders in the Pittsburgh area have traveled for many miles – coming from churches, mosques, synagogues and temples – to join in both open and honest conversations that have helped us to better understand each other and the faith traditions that we represent. God has been at work in our communities to challenge us, to soften our hearts, to open our ears and hearts to the voices of others, and to stretch both our patterns of thinking and faith.
The last year has, also, been a time when leaders and members of spiritual communities in Southwestern Pennsylvania have worked hand-in-hand to create a Statement that we, as leaders of different faith traditions, believe expresses the principles and beliefs that we can embrace together. I am providing a copy of this newly released Statement to you, and am hoping that you will take some time to read it, to reflect upon it and even to pray about it. We, as faith leaders in Southwestern Pennsylvania, believe that our faith traditions challenge us: to recognize the dignity and worth of those around us; to speak boldly and clearly against racial supremacy, demonization of those from other cultures and religions, and the violent acts that grow from those bitter roots; to stand in solidarity with minority and marginalized communities; and to repent from our own complicity in words and deeds that have expressed individual and systemic bigotry, racial and religious supremacy, and oppression.
We have committed ourselves to building more loving communities and neighborhoods that uplift the oneness of humanity and the worth of every individual, and that bind us to one another as moral neighbors in both trying and peaceful times even as we continue to both recognize and accept the fact that we believe many different things about both God and our world because of our different faith traditions.
I am now presenting this Statement to you hoping that you will take some time to read it, to ponder it, to pray about it, and to allow it to both challenge you and lead you toward the new kind of life that God calls us to embrace in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
Living Faithfully with One Another
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to interpret and draw guidance from sacred texts and traditions.
The sacred texts of the world religions all affirm the created dignity and worth of each individual and our sacred responsibility toward those in need. As we interpret our own sacred traditions in preaching, teaching, meditation or prayer, we will lift up these values. As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to speak and act in support of the dignity and worth of each person.
With sacred texts and traditions as our guides, we reject the theories and rhetoric of racial supremacy, the demonization of those of other cultures and religions, and the violent acts which grow from these bitter roots. We embrace the right of all people to worship (or not to worship) according to the dictates of their own consciences, and we expect the government to respect this freedom. As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to speak and act in solidarity with those in need.
We turn with compassion toward those in our midst who have the greatest cause for fear and insecurity. We stand in solidarity with all marginalized and minority communities, especially those who have been targets of injustice, discrimination, prejudice, and hate. When any of us are attacked in word or deed, we promise our support, help, and protection. As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to speak truth to those in positions of power.
Our voices must be spoken and heard in public discourse. We seek to bring the perspectives of sacred traditions to bear in our shared public life. We call upon and remind elected, appointed, and professional leaders throughout our community to uphold and enforce the values of justice, fairness, nondiscrimination, and dignity. As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to high standards of self-reflection.
We call upon ourselves, our faith communities, and our institutions to acknowledge and repent for complicity in words and deeds that express individual or systemic bigotry, racial or religious supremacy, and oppression. We are committed to growing in wisdom and inclusivity as we learn from one another. As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to live abundantly, joyously and harmoniously with one another.
We will work resolutely to strengthen the ties that bind us to one another as moral neighbors in both trying and peaceful times. When and where we disagree in our understandings, we commit to acknowledge, listen to, and value the perspectives of others even as we respectfully present our differing opinions.
We covenant to create, expand and nurture a community of mutual support throughout Southwest Pennsylvania. Seeking Divine help and guidance, we commit to building the beloved community, a neighborhood of neighborhoods that lovingly uplifts the oneness of humanity and the worth of every individual.
These are words that resonate deeply with my soul.
I’m sure that we were all both shocked and horrified when we learned that a lone gunman had walked into theTree of Lifesynagogue near Pittsburgh, PA on Saturday morning and had opened fire on innocent worshipers who had gathered there on the Sabbath. The story of what happened quickly moved to the center of the daily news. Eleven of the worshipers, ranging in age from 54 to 97, were killed almost instantly as the police, emergency teams, SWAT teams and the FBI mobilized and quickly traveled to the scene. The gunman, who was later wounded in a shoot-out with the police, surrendered and was quickly removed from the scene. And our journey into the “unspeakable” began.
I learned, many years ago, that there are times when our words can’t fix things.
What do you say to a mother who has just watched her child die? What do you say to the loved ones of someone who decides that life cannot be endured for another day and who then ends it? What do you say to the families of eleven innocent people who were killed while worshiping in a synagogue by a man who ran into the building with guns in his hands and screaming, “All Jews must die!”? What do you say to a community filled with people who trusted in the fact that senseless slaughters always happen somewhere else?
I learned, many years ago, that God didn’t give me any magic fairy dust.
The events that unfolded at the Tree of Life synagogue near Pittsburgh dragged me back in time to a very different – yet hauntingly similar – event that I faced several years ago. I was preparing to begin another busy Wednesday in Lent when my cellphone beeped and alerted me to the fact that a young man had walked into the Franklin Regional High School (about five miles from my home) with two knives in his hands and had stabbed twenty people(click here to learn more)before being tackled. I was speechless. I felt both paralyzed and numbed as I stared at the screen of my television; and yet, I wanted to do something helpful. I suspect that many folks felt that same paralysis on Saturday. When senseless tragedies unfold, we stare blankly at our television sets and watch first responders rise to the occasion. We want to shut the news off and return to our more normal routines, but we can’t. Senseless violence changes us. We sense a solidarity with all of humanity when the lives of innocent people are ended by violent outbursts of anger. We, perhaps, sense our need for human community when violence drives us into isolation. But what then? What do we do in the days and weeks that follow senseless tragedies? How can we begin to take the first steps forward after we’ve been paralyzed by senseless violence?
Here are some things that I learned as I moved through the difficult days and weeks and months that followed the violent outburst at the Franklin Regional High School. And I offer these ideas hoping that they’ll be helpful to you:
I learned that, in times of shock and horror, we need to take care of ourselves. In the Beginning, God said that it’s “not good” for us to be alone (Genesis 2:18) and that’s especially true when we’re struggling. We need each other, and we need to gather in community with other people as we try to make sense of violent acts that change our lives. I remember gathering with people at Christ’s Lutheran Church in Murrysville, PA on the evening of the incident at Franklin Regional High School. We sang hymns together and prayed. We listened to the words of Scripture, and we spent time together. My wife and I did the same thing yesterday. We attended a gathering of several hundred people at Temple David in Monroeville; and we mourned with Jews and Muslims and Christians alike. We were reminded that we must not allow hatred and bigotry to win. We were reminded that we are people who can make a lasting difference in our world by committing ourselves to the path of love and deeper understanding.
I learned that, in times of shock and horror, we need to watch the helpers. I find it quite ironic that the violent outburst at the Tree of Life synagogue unfolded in the same neighborhood that once provided a home for Fred Rogers. I grew-up in the Pittsburgh area and Mr. Rogers was a part of my childhood. I still remember his friendly smile. I still remember him changing his shoes and putting his sweater on at the beginning of each show. But, perhaps even more than that, I remember Mr. Rogers’ kindness and embrace of others. Fred Rogers once said (or at least we are told that he said) that, when bad things happen, we need to watch and to focus upon what the helpers are doing. The world is full of good people. The world is full of people who care about each other and who want to help each other. Think about the first responders and the police officers who were wounded when they rushed into the synagogue. Think about all of the doctors and nurses who rushed to the hospital, so that they would be ready to treat the wounded. Think of the people who will walk beside the families of those who were killed in the weeks and months ahead – often unseen and unnoticed. We can all learn a lesson from Mr. Rogers; because, even in times of unspeakable tragedy, good people gather and help.
I learned that, in times of shock and horror, we need to be willing to listen to what people are saying – even when we hear things that make us feel uncomfortable. I listened to stories from the lips of many young people who were being bullied at school in the weeks and months that followed the incident at the Franklin Regional High School – and it all began when I sat down with a small group of teenagers and said, “When I was your age, bullies flicked your ears and shot spit balls at you. I don’t know what bullying looks like today. Will you help me to understand?” When we listen, we learn. I’ve believed that those who are suffering are my teachers for a long, long time. I’ve been given a small glimpse of what it’s like to lose a child, to face a terminal illness, and to say goodbye to your spouse. I’ve learned a bit about bullying by listening to teenagers tell me about their lives. Perhaps, this is a time when we need to listen to people share stories about Anti-Semitism, racism, bigotry and hatred? Perhaps, this is a time when we need to allow people who are usually silent to speak? I was once told that God gave me two ears and one mouth for a very good reason. We need to remember that in times like these.
And lastly, I learned that, in times of shock and horror, we can begin to turn the corner and step away from feelings of powerlessness by helping. In the weeks and months after the violent incident at Franklin Regional High School, the good and always-faithful people at Christ’s Lutheran Church collected money that was used to pay medical bills, to financially support parents who needed to quit their jobs to care for their teenagers, and to provide resiliency training for local teachers. We were told, yesterday, that the Muslim community is collecting money to help pay medical bills and funeral expenses and to bring financial relief to those who have already faced so much. I found that becoming a helper was even more empowering than watching helpers. If you’d like to help the families of those who have already faced so much because of the horrific attack at the Tree of Life synagogue
I helped to design pilot plants – smaller versions of chemical plants that would be built in the future. I worked beside a computer programmer every day, and our daily task was to write and utilize computer programs that simulated what would happen as chemicals traveled through a chemical plant – so that we could accurately predict what would come out of the plant based upon what we put into it. And that was always important to me.
I remember my parents taking my sisters and I down to the McDonalds in Baden, PA and watching orange dust from the steel mill across the river settle onto our car as we ate our cheeseburgers. I remember the brown hillside behind the lead smelter where I worked – totally devoid of vegetation because all of the plants and trees had been killed by the chemicals that had been spewed from our plant for decades. And that’s why I became “environmentally conscious” long before many other people even cared. But now, people talk about the environment all the time, don’t they?
We are concerned about what comes out the tailpipes of our cars, and many people want us to stop mining and burning coal. We buy energy-efficient light bulbs, and we talk about the irreparable damage that could be done to the Boundary Waters in Minnesota if mining companies are permitted to take-over a pristine, untamed wilderness. We talk about animals (like the black rhinoceros) becoming extinct, and stories about carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere fill the news. And that’s good. I think that it’s good for us to watch what we are doing and to remember that God has placed us on the face of this earth to take care of it – not to just consume it. Jesus was concerned about “emissions standards,” too!
“There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile,” Jesus says, “but the things that come out of us are what make us unclean in the eyes of God.”(Mark 7:15) “The things that we take into our bodies are not the things in life that make us unclean in the eyes of theLord,” Jesus says. “What makes us unclean in God’s eyes are all of the things that come out of our hearts and, then, out of our mouths.” According to Jesus, Christians need “emissions standards.”
How many times do we all hear faithful Christians swearing and using vulgar language when they are speaking with each other? How many times have we used our own tongue to spread gossip, to talk about people behind their backs, and to speak to each other in unhelpful ways? How often do we find ourselves attacking people that we haven’t even met on social media? I suspect that we’ve all let words fly from our lips – or from the tips of our fingers – and suddenly wished that we could take them back. But it’s often too late for that, isn’t it?
In this week’s message, “Christian Emissions Standards”, we explore what it means to be good stewards of our language. St. James once wrote, “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for, your anger does not produce the righteousness of God.” (James 1:19b-20) James further writes, “If any of you think that you are righteous and do not bridle your tongue, you just deceive your hearts and your religion is worthless.” (James 1:26)
How would our lives be changed if we more carefully chose our words, so that we spoke to others in encouraging and up-building ways more consistently? How would our lives – and our country – be changed if we became as concerned about what comes out of our mouths – and off the tips of our fingers – as we are about what comes out of smokestacks at chemical plants?
We can protect our environment by bridling our tongues and by being more careful about what we post on social media. We need to remember that we don’t have to enter every debate and every argument. Sometimes, it’s best for us to say absolutely nothing than to say what we think in a way that hurts people.
How can we use our voice – and the words that we type on our computer screens – to foster deeper understandings, to call forth the best in each other, and to “be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves“? (James 1:22)
Perhaps, in an age of increasingly divisive rhetoric and ugly arguments that end life-long friendships, one of the best things we can do is become better stewards of our language – by watching what comes out of our mouths more carefully – and by being just as careful about the words that emerge from our fingertips as we leave messages on social media?
Most people believe that God created the world to be a place that was entirely good, and that everything fell apart when Adam and Eve went astray. God pauses at the end of each day of creation in the first chapter of Genesis and says, “Wow! That’s good!” The same thing happens each day – culminating in God’s recognition of the fact that everything is “very good” on the sixth day. And then, many of us have been taught, everything fell apart when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit.
However, we find another truth buried in the second chapter of Genesis where God says: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” “It is not good” for us to live in isolation. We are most complete when we are in fellowship with others. Isolation stands at the heart of what God identified as being “not good” in the story of creation.
Domestic and sexual abuse isolate. People who are being abused often withdraw from significant relationships. Women and men who are sexually assaulted often withdraw into deep, isolating silence. Domestic and sexual abuse create what God has clearly said is “not good” in the lives of His people. And, in that breaking of human community, abusers create something very different than what God plans for our lives.
We commit ourselves to helping our world to grow toward what God first intended when we promise to stand against domestic and sexual abuse; and we participate in God’s redemption of Creation when we commit ourselves to standing against behaviors that strip dignity from the lives of God’s people and drive them into isolation that “is not good” in God’s eyes.
I suspect that we all have times when we need to forgive.
People get hurt when other people speak or act too quickly. We’ve all had times when we have been offended by people that we know, or by people that we don’t know. We even have times in our live when we hurt ourselves by getting too puffed-up, or by thinking less of ourselves than we ought. We need to be forgiven by God and by other people, but we also have times when we’re the ones who need to forgive. And sometimes it’s easy – but sometimes it’s very hard.
In this week’s message, “Binding and Loosing”, we explore the fact that Jesus never said that forgiveness must always be offered quickly. Forgiveness and reconciliation are gifts that we offer to people who have hurt us, but they are also gifts that need to be extended in the “appropriate” time and in the “appropriate” way.
Forgiveness is NOT saying that what people did is no longer important and that it can simply be forgotten. The “Dance of Forgiveness” happens when the peace of Christ fills our hearts and when the breath of Jesus fills our souls. The “Dance of Forgiveness” happens when we get to the point in our lives when we’re able to release the hurt that we feel, and when we can honestly and authentically ask ourselves what must happen in order for reconciliation to occur.
Have you ever thought about what would happen if God took us to court?
A lot of us believe that “good” people go to Heaven and “bad” people go to Hell. A lot of us probably picture God sitting on a great, big throne in the sky – always keeping an eye on us and making a list of “good things” and “bad things” that He sees us doing, so that He can judge our “worthiness” to enter Heaven after we die.
But, have you ever thought about the fact that God speaks to us and tries to point us in the right direction when we fly off course, right now? Have you ever thought about the fact that the Holy Bible, the “Sacred Story” of God’s journey with His people, is part of a story that’s continuing to unfold even now? We can find ourselves in the midst of the Exodus during times of dramatic change and transition. We can learn how to live with faith, in a world where God’s grace is often only sufficient for today, when we find ourselves in the “Sacred Story” of people who trusted that God would provide “manna” in the Wilderness each day. The “Sacred Story” we find in the Holy Bible is OUR story. The “Sacred Story” we find in the Bible is not just a story about historic events that happened long ago. It’s the story of OUR journey. It’s the story of OUR struggle to make sense of what it means to live our lives with faith in changing (and sometimes scary) times. The “Sacred Story” that we find in the Bible is the story of OUR continuing relationship with the Risen Christ, who came into the world to set us free from the power of sin and to raise us up to a new life.
In this week’s message, “God’s Taking Us to Court!”, we find ourselves in the midst of a courtroom. The prophet tells us that God’s taking us to court! We listen to God’s clear and pointed testimony. We hear the “Sacred Story” of God’s continuing love. And, as we are drawn into that “Sacred Story,” God challenges us to think about how we treat people who are hungry; how we respond to people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol; how we respond to the cries of refugees who are fleeing from their homes and countries to escape certain death; how we treat people who are being victimized by domestic violence, child trafficking, our inability to forgive, and “systems of power” that trap them in poverty, homelessness, fear and uncertainty.
This is a challenging message, but it’s a message that will speak to your heart. It’s a message that will remind you that YOU are a part of the “Sacred Story” that God’s been writing since the beginning of time. Perhaps, you’ll hear a Word that challenges you to be more forgiving and embracing? Perhaps, you’ll hear a Word from God that challenges the ways you think about people who are less fortunate than you are? Perhaps, God will speak to you in a different way and help you to discover a new and life-giving way to respond to the “Sacred Story” of God’s faithfulness in your own daily life?