Men and Their Marks

But Thomas (who was called the Twin*), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’  Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 

John 20:24-28

Men certainly have a thing about marks, that something visible ought be shown to offer proof, assurance of validity, especially in the case of an assertion regarding a wrong perpetrated upon a person. Thomas, often called Doubting Thomas (but, let’s be honest, if more of the disciples had been out of that room when the risen Christ first appeared to them, there would have been more doubters among them), boldly claimed that he would not believe unless he saw and touched the mark of the nails himself. And, Christ obliged.

I wish he hadn’t.

As we have recently experienced in the Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination process, and as we’ve witnessed in the past, violations against women—sexual harassment and assault—often don’t leave visible marks, nor do they involve witnesses for whom the event is as searing as it is for the victim. There is no place to put one’s finger upon a mark, no way to offer evidence—at least in terms of a scar upon the flesh. But, we do bear marks, marks inside, in our memories, in our spirits, in how we live our lives. Those marks may be different than visible, bodily marks, but they are powerful and substantial.

I was assaulted in the fall of my senior year in college. Thankfully, I was not raped. The attack occurred in my dorm room in the middle of the night. I had been asleep when I awoke to find a man standing next to my bed. That incident happened in the fall of 1985. Though I don’t often think of it anymore, I remember it still with vivid detail. No visible mark was made upon my flesh, and I never learned the identity of that man, but I remember exactly what happened to me. I don’t remember what I had done the day before or the following day, but I remember those few moments in the middle of the night when that unknown man loomed over me and shoved his tongue into my mouth and down my throat.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to talk about that incident today in a public setting, where I would likely be grilled on my credibility, where I might be ridiculed for leaving my dorm room unlocked (a common practice at my small, rural college) or accused of having had only a particularly vivid dream.

The marks that so many women bear are internal marks. Yet, time and time again, we learn that these internal marks are not the marks that really count. Somehow, we need to be able to show scars upon our flesh in order to prove what happened to us really happened to us.

I wish that the Risen Christ had not shown Thomas what he wanted to see, that believing and understanding consist of something more than scars. Christ didn’t need to show the remnants of the physical wounds, nor the physical proof of his resurrection. The women had reported on the empty tomb and Mary Magdalene had seen and spoken to the risen Christ. But, yet again, that wasn’t enough for the men.

Although Christ goes on in the Doubting Thomas story to suggest praise for those who believe without seeing, I wish such a concept started before Thomas declared his doubt, rather than after. While the story is surely more about the believing of later followers (John was written decades after the crucifixion and resurrection), I still wish that we didn’t have this moment of what seems to me to be an unfortunate offering of a physical sign of proof to a man who shouldn’t have needed one.

Invisible marks ought not be so easily discounted or dismissed or doubted. And the stories of women ought not be so plainly greeted with disbelief and derision, nor should they be cast as simple errors of memory.

The marks we bear are powerful and substantial, despite their lack of physical presence on our flesh. The witness of those who bravely share the stories of their internal marks of violence and terror should be respected. Physical scars are not the only marks that should matter.

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Do Politics Belong in Church?

I have an essay in the current Christian Century, part of a series of essays on politics and church.  Click here to check it out!

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Stuck in the Middle with No One

In my work with the Maine Conference United Church of Christ, I currently find myself in the midst of a difficult situation just on the edge of crisis. One of the dynamics running through this situation (just one of many) is an older versus younger problem. It’s not the first time I’ve been in such a dynamic, such a weird crossroads where I am alone, not one of the older group and certainly not one of the younger group.

It’s a lonely place to be.

In the United Church of Christ, not just in Maine but across the denomination, an effort has unfolded over the last decade or so to encourage young clergy and gather them in an affinity group of sorts—the 20/30 group. Attend any large gathering of UCC people and there are bound to be younger people in attendance sporting their bold “20/30” t-shirts.

On the other end, there are the older people. They don’t need t-shirts. They have gray hair, or no hair in some cases. Their faces sport wrinkles and some walk with canes. They are organized by their shared experiences with the vicissitudes of getting older. It’s not hard to pick them out of a crowd.

I am in the middle. And I have been for a long time. Now on the late edge of my early fifties, I am well beyond the 20/30s group (which, of course, didn’t yet exist when I was in that age range) and I’m too young for the post 60 near retirement or actually retired group.

I am in the middle, and mostly alone.

A few years ago, whenever I attended a large gathering of UCC people—conferences, general synod, etc.—I would joke around about creating a 20 plus 30 group. People would look at me in puzzlement. Then, I would emphasize that it was about addition: 20 + 30. Add them together and you get 50. There would be a spark of recognition and then the puzzled look would return. Why in the world would anyone want that sort of group?

If there is a group.

But, I know there are other clergy who are around my age. Somehow most of us just do our work, without the benefit of a gathering of similarly aged individuals. Last year, when I attended the UCC General Synod, a multi-day meeting of UCC folks from around the country, I reconnected with several old friends from divinity school, all of us around the same age. Here in Maine, though, I have few colleagues who share my vintage.

I’m stuck in the middle.   With no one.

It’s not easy, then, when situations arise where one of the components is an “older versus younger” affair. I sometimes feel like I’m the net in a heated tennis match—just there keeping the two sides from attacking each other. And feeling woefully inadequate to the task.

And sometimes I feel that person on the tall chair at a tennis match, trying to keep order. Keeping order, though, doesn’t mean that each side will take the time necessary to comprehend the other, or appreciate the other. Instead, a whole lot of assumptions are discussed just amongst each side, leaving a chasm in the middle of suspicion and misunderstanding—and that’s where I am.

I can see and understand issues raised by both sides, yet that doesn’t help much in trying to find common ground.   Each group remains unsure about the other. One side worked hard to make things the way they are. The other wants to change things because, well, things have changed.

I’m stuck in that strange, vast space in the middle, land of sea monsters and dragons. In the current crisis that looms in the midst of our life together in the Maine Conference, let’s hope that we will find other ways of working through our various difficulties. If it’s left to the younger versus older business, I fear it will only result in a fierce battle. One side may win, but we will all lose.

 

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The Island Life

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Most years, a bit of my summer vacation involves spending time with old friends on an island off of the Maine coast. The island has no electricity and, except for rainwater collected in cisterns to assist with washing dishes, no running water. There are no cars, no stores, no restaurants, or anything of that sort. There are several houses on the island, each equipped with a gas range and gas refrigerator—we are not completely roughing it.

Preparing to go to the island takes a bit of work and forethought. Just getting to the island requires a ferry, then driving across Swan’s Island (not far from Bar Harbor) and then taking a small launch from a lobsterman’s dock over to the island.   Food must be purchased ahead of time and carried to the island. There’s a small (and I mean very small) market on Swan’s Island for things like milk and bread. Alcohol of any kind must be purchased on the “mainland.” The tiny market doesn’t sell those kinds of provisions.

Why go through all of this hassle? For one thing, it’s great to spend some time with old friends. Plus, the island is a beautiful place, featuring nice walking trails and lovely views of the rocky Maine coast:

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These days, perhaps the most significant of the island’s allure: no internet.

I should admit that I’m not completely without access to the outside world while I’m on the island. I have my smartphone, along with an external battery, so that I can be reached in case of an emergency. But, to ensure that I am reachable in an emergency, I limit the use of my phone. After a quick check of email and daily headlines, and then completion of the NYT mini-crossword, the phone goes away.

This year, I cannot adequately articulate how wonderful it was to be able to disconnect from the world. Not only is the news so hard to bear—from politics to the latest scandal from the Catholic Church—but news on the smaller scale is also increasingly difficult.   The town of which we have been part for most of the time we’ve lived in Maine has become a microcosm of what’s happening nationally, politically speaking anyway. Lines are clearly drawn. Terrible things are said—posted, actually, to social media sites—one group to the other, one person to another. And, at least a few people seem to be living and speaking out of an alternate reality.

Along with all of this, there’s work. Thankfully, Old South is mostly quiet and behaving itself. But, my role as chair of the Maine Conference UCC Board of Directors has become rather problematic, with disgruntled people making themselves known, and also making it known that they expect a response to their complaints quickly—like now. As if any Board of Directors can move quickly about anything . . .

It was all too tempting just to stay on the island. So what if acquiring provisions requires considerably more thought and planning. So what if meal clean up is a major task.  So what if water must be fetched and hauled from a well.  So what if an occasional squirrel finds its way into the walls of one of the old buildings and starts scurrying around at 4 o’clock in the morning. So what if my lovely, well-equipped bathroom at home is replaced with this:

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Outhouse and all, it just might be worth it to stay.

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When Right Is Wrong (or, if not exactly wrong, not exactly right either)

Perhaps in response to a humid, but dry, summer in Maine, much of my reading this season has involved a lot of cold and ice. After watching the AMC series “The Terror” in the spring, I read the book by the same name by Dan Simmons. The book is a fictionalized account of the two ships, the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus, and their combined 129-man crew, that went in search of the Northwest Passage in the 1840s. And never returned.

Now, I’m reading In The Kingdom of Ice, by Hampton Sides, the nonfiction account of the voyage of the USS Jeannette. This ship ventured in search of the North Pole around 1880. Of the crew of 33, only 13 returned home, without tales of a successful discovery of the North Pole.

These books may offer a bit of a reprieve from the heat of summer, with the endless scenes of ice, cold, and the notion of a “balmy” June day in the 20s. The books also offer into an interesting view into the age-old concept that we human beings can really get carried away with ideas of our own destiny, God’s desire for us to conquer and dominate, and that sheer will can allow us to achieve what we believe to be ours and will allow us to overcome any obstacle in our path. Hubris is the neat and tidy word.

It’s hard to listen to these stories (I’m a big audiobook fan) and not be filled with a deep sense of dread. How could they not see that so many of their decisions were terrible ones, that they were doomed to failure? From the beginning of the germ of the idea and then all the way through their journey, decision after decision is shown to be misguided or just plain wrong. And, instead of seeing each disaster as maybe a sign that the plan was a bad one, there’s only the sense that God (or some sort of power beyond themselves) likes to place obstacles, somehow in order that strong men (they are all men in these stories) can become yet stronger.

While such groundbreaking exploration as these two stories unveil involves a great deal of risk, these two adventures contain something beyond risk: an overwhelming amount of recklessness. That recklessness is certainly clear in hindsight. Yet, it’s interesting to wonder if the voice of reason was ever raised in the decision-making process—and dismissed—or if the voice of reason was simply silent all the way through.

As I listen to these stories, I can’t help but reflect on my own decisions and, at the present time, the decisions related to my work as a pastor of a local church and as the chair of the board of directors for the Maine Conference United Church of Christ. It’s not hard to be lured into the notion that my decisions or the decisions of which I am part are all good and right ones, that they are part of the laying out of such things as healthier group dynamics. Past decisions and behaviors were clearly bad ones and have led to “dysfunction” and problematic practices. And, now we are all about bringing health and wellbeing.

It’s much more difficult to see that current decisions and choices have their own elements of trouble and waywardness. After all, we are all imperfect beings.   Our decisions and choices cannot lead to a perfect, or even near perfect, system. Yet, somehow we find convenient ways of keeping our own imperfection at bay.

It’s awfully tempting to see ourselves as saviors, of a sort, to the groups of which we are part—church and conference. Look at the good work we are doing, “righting the ship,” so to speak. Such work always invites a disgruntled group, or groups, of those who represent the old, bad way of doing things (which, of course, they tend to see as not at all bad or dysfunctional). Can we get them onboard with our new plan, or find a way to dismiss them or discourage them, or minimize their attempts to undermine this new, better way?

It’s hard for decision-makers to see the mistakes inherent in their own choices. It’s also hard to fathom that some future group will look back to this time and wonder what in the world we were thinking. On the one hand, we see ourselves as contributing to the improvement of whatever situation we are in. But, on the other hand, we are certainly making errors that will contribute to dysfunction of some sort, now and into the future—whether we want to realize it or not.

The decisions that we make may, at least on some occasions, be wayward. Sometimes our choices are just plain wrong. Yet, our intentions are usually good ones. In looking into the past, and trying to undo, or redo, some of the work of our predecessors, we ought to cut them a little slack. With the grace that I’m sure we would appreciate when some of our decisions are clearly shown one day to be bad ones, we ought to look back with that same sort of grace, resisting the dangerous appeal of believing that we are the ones to finally “right the ship” fully and completely.

Decisions in local churches in Maine, and on the Maine Conference board, will likely not result in considerable death and destruction like those adventurous voyages of the nineteenth century, of the Terror and Erebus and the Jeannette. Still, those of us who participate in the decision-making for and with our peers, and for the institutions of which we are part, ought to spend some time in serious and deep reflection regarding the way we are forging. For the sake of the past, the present and the future, we should be of a conscientious mind in resisting hubris, appreciating that our knowledge is, like that of our predecessors, incomplete.  We may steer the ship in a more positive direction, for this time and context, but we will never fully “right the ship.” That is beyond our capabilities, no matter how hard we try.

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Please, Evangelical Christians, I Beg You

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Matthew 5:14-16

At a recent rally in Montana, President Trump took aim at an old George H. W. Bush slogan, the Thousand Points of Light. “We’re putting America first,” President Trump declared, and then continued, “You know all that rhetoric you see, the Thousand Points of Light. What the hell was that by the way? Thousands of Points of Light. What did that mean? Does anyone know? I know one thing: Make America great again, we understand. Putting America first, we understand.” And the crowd cheered and applauded. The President then added, “Thousand Points of Light, I never quite got that one. What the hell is that? Has anyone ever figured that one out?”*

In that crowd, I suspect there were Evangelical Christians. Good, honest people. People who have deep concerns regarding what’s going on in the United States, people who are drawn in by the President’s bold claims, people who helped elect this President, people who have, at least to some extent, the President’s attention.

My guess is that a lot of people in that crowd were among the “thousand points of light,” of which George H. W. Bush spoke when he accepted the presidential nomination at the 1988 Republican National Convention, and then repeated at his Inauguration. The “thousand points of light” highlighted the good work and value of volunteerism, “of taking part and pitching in.”

This is an important element of American life. It is also an essential Christian value.

Yet, the notion of “points of light” is obviously a complete mystery to the current President. The notion is mercilessly mocked, and all that goes with it: volunteerism; taking part; pitching in; getting involved in one’s community; caring for neighbor; etc. You know, that good ol’ Golden Rule sort of stuff that Jesus taught.

Please, Evangelical Christians, I implore you: stop applauding the President when he denigrates good citizenship, when he demeans the Golden Rule, when he casts aside those things that actually make America truly great.

Please, Evangelical Christians, I beg of you: listen to what he is saying. And understand that he’s putting you down, and your way of life. He’s mocking YOU.

And, tell him so. He might listen to you.

I don’t know for sure (I’ve never been to a Trump rally and haven’t ever spoken to anyone who has attended such a rally), but I feel like it’s a safe bet that a lot of people in that crowd in Montana are volunteers. They are caring, community-oriented people, who give back, who participate, who “take part,” who “pitch in.” They are people who help neighbors when they are sick, who give their time and money to places like soup kitchens and homeless shelters, who respond to disasters, who lead local boy scouts and coach youth soccer teams, who teach Sunday School and lead Bible studies.

I think I can safely bet that an average Trump rally attracts all sorts of “points of light.” People who make their light shine in all sorts of ways—big and small—in their own communities and beyond.

Please, Evangelical Christians, tell the President that you are among the Thousand Points of Light, and that volunteerism and caring should not be the subject of ridicule.

This is not the only issue I’d like you to take up with the President, Evangelical Christians, but it’s a good start. And, I beg you to start somewhere.

Please.

__________

*Quote from RealClearPolitics

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Summer’s Here and the Livin’ Ain’t So Easy

Summer has arrived in Maine, finally. As the weather heats up, the overall tone and mood seem to be heating up as well. On the national and local stage, the news is difficult, even crushing—for those who are not fans of the current President (or those who fashion themselves in the President’s style, like some Maine-based politicians). From families being torn apart at the border—and the language that accompanies this practice—to the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, to another terrible shooting, the summer isn’t starting off very well.

I’ve been asked by several non-church-going friends about how I’m “dealing with what’s going on” at work at the church I serve. How am I preaching about the President and his terrible policies? How am I talking about the horrible things that seem to be constantly falling out of the President’s mouth? How am I highlighting how little the President seems to understand such concepts as loving neighbor, and showing kindness, these being the best known Christian practices to liberal leaning non-religious types?

When I respond, initially, to these questions with silence or a slight shrug, indicating that I don’t really talk much about such things (at least not directly), I’ve been met a few times with active derision. Clearly, I’m not doing my job.

I usually try to defend myself, but I don’t get very far. There’s just disappointment, along with a wee bit of anger.

If I’m given an opportunity, I try to explain that my congregation doesn’t have many Trump supporters, if any at all, so I don’t feel the need to offer an alternative view, or “corrective,” in those instances when Christian principles are in the mix. Plus, I’m quite sure that the members of my congregation are already not very happy with what’s going on in the world, and in the United States. To the extent that people express what they are looking for in worship, it can be summed up in one word: respite.

I serve a well-educated, well-informed congregation, with several people who are politically active. I also serve a congregation that embodies something rare these days in that it contains a broad spectrum of political perspectives. We have quite a few Democrats (progressive as well as conservative Democrats), we have Republicans (while some may be relatively content with at least a few current policies and developments, I don’t think there’s anyone who is an active Trump supporter), and several people who are decidedly Independent.

Except for one or two people who occasionally ask for more clearly political material in worship, most people seem to be looking for relief from the barrage of bad, ugly and almost unconscionable news. Regardless of one’s political affiliation, the back-and-forth political barbs that have become outright hostile and mocking are just too much. Most of the people at Old South are looking for a bit of a reprieve.

I don’t believe that they are looking for an escape, exactly. They simply want something different, an opportunity during the week that might offer a balm for their weary souls.

And, that’s what I try to do. Although I will throw in an indirect remark, and certainly lift up justice, love and kindness whenever I have the opportunity, I endeavor to create a space for a little peace and quiet, a place for reflection, a chance to remember the big picture, and to reconnect and renew in our individual and collective relationship with our Creator.

In news coverage, there are plenty of politicians and clergy of various perspectives who seem very comfortable in claiming that God is on their “side.” I am not one of those people. I believe that it is critical, for the sake of others as well as our own selves, to consider deeply and carefully, what it means for us to love our neighbors as ourselves—especially as a dictate that came very clearly from the mouth of Jesus. But, I also believe that it is essential that good people of faith appreciate the notion that to worship God is to know that we are not God. And, therefore, we do not know everything there is to know about the mind and desires of the Creator.

It’s not easy to walk this tightrope. While I would love to rail against the President, and those in league with him, every Sunday morning—for there is plenty to rail against in the gulf that exists between Christian theology and practice and what the President and his administration say and do (even while quoting the New Testament), I simply don’t think that it’s the right thing to do. Sunday morning worship ought not be another place where we get our political ducks all lined up in a row. Sunday morning worship ought to be worship—for praise and prayer; for singing and silence; for renewal of hope in a chaotic and violent world; and a place to connect with what it means to be God’s people, appreciating that we can only barely glimpse the enormity and wonder of what that is.

I may disappoint my non-church-going friends, but in the heat and ugliness of the world in which we live, I choose to refrain from trying to line my congregation up with one particular side.   Instead, I endeavor to provide a bit of rest and perspective for the weary traveler, so that we can be the people we are called to be, sharing love and hope, even in—especially in—these difficult and challenging times.

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