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Donald Trump: The Devil or the Holy Spirit?

Friday, July 1st, 2016

The United Kingdom voted last week to un-unite from the European Union, and the world is suddenly in free fall. Facebook posts from those under 40 are filled with fury while those from the older folks express fear and frustration. What are the implications for us in the still-United States? What are the implications for our world? For our faith?

It’s six weeks into my sabbatical in Britain and, until last week, most people would just raise their eyebrows if the subject of Donald Trump came up. When I either nodded sadly or cast my eyes to heaven, they would respond with silent tenderness. There are clear parallels between Trump’s popularity and the appeal of those who voted to leave the European Union, but even the most passionate Brexit conservatives are at a loss to understand the logic of those Americans who believe that Trump would be a worthy CEO for the most important nation on earth.

What is going on? First – and some would argue most persuasively – there’s the issue of hot air, literally and figuratively. In Britain, to “trump” is to break wind, i.e., fart. While I struggle to honor the gifts of my name (“felicity” means happiness), I don’t believe that Mr. Trump has any trouble living up to his.

The troublesome issue is not Mr. Trump but the people who see him as a solution for the mess we’re in. At another time, I may explain the victim-abuser seesaw and the danger of victim mentality, but right now I want to explore the possibility that Trump is the embodiment of the devil tempting us with simple solutions, prosperity, and peace. In what ways could he be a modern embodiment of the devil that tempted Jesus during his forty days in the wilderness?

As you reflect on this, remember the beginning of Jesus’ ministry:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. (Mark 1: 9-12)

What is going on? A supposedly loving God honors Jesus as the beloved and then immediately sends him into the wilderness, where he has to deal with the horrors of hunger, terror, and vulnerability. In this physical and spiritual desert, the devil tells Jesus to:

  • Make bread out of stones to relieve hunger
  • Jump from the highest mountain and rely on heavenly spirits to prevent injury or death
  • Worship the devil in exchange for worldly power

Certainly there is a connection between this devil and Trump who asks us to buy into his idea of (figurative) comfort food, financial security, and power over lesser mortals.

But again I return to the Biblical narratives and wonder how a loving God could drive Jesus into such a place and situation… Could it be that the devil was just the Holy Spirit in disguise?

However you explain that, I believe the answer is the same as it was for Jesus. Each of the three temptations forced Jesus to examine his understanding of himself, the world, and God. What follows fear? Is it fight, flight, or faith? As Jesus dismissed the devil’s taunts, he also discovered his power and his role as a beloved child of God. And so I argue that the challenge – and the gift – of the wilderness is that it pushes us to identify three things: our power, our passion, and our purpose in life.

The Jesus whom we honor shows us that the path to heaven (certainly in this world and perhaps in another) begins with a faith that (excuse the pun) trumps fear. But he only was able to do so because he had gone through the wilderness where he learned who he was, who God was, and what the world should be.

Our country, if not the entire world, is smack dab in the middle of the wilderness.  We miserable, we don’t know where we are, and we’re desperately looking for a guide to lead us into a modern Promised Land.  Who will it be?  Will Donald Trump a.k.a. the devil win? Will we succumb to his false temptations? Or is God using Trump to make us examine what it means to be the United States of America? Is the God of Love pushing us to discern what American power, passion, and purpose looks like for the 21st century?

That is the challenge. And so it is not Mr. Trump, but the American people who will decide whether he is channeling the devil or the Holy Spirit.

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Channeling

Friday, May 27th, 2016

The young man plopped his backpack on my sofa, scowled, and announced that he would not be driving back with my cousin, staying instead in my small timeshare studio apartment until I worked out a plan to … do what ???

So much for my quiet vacation to finish the book. So much for solitude. So much for … whatever ….

The cousin left abruptly, seemingly pleased with his sudden freedom, and the young man offered a sheepish thanks, apparently assuming that I would do something other than throw him out on the streets, penniless and without even a driver’s license since he had handed that over to my cousin and forgot to ask for it back.

It’s a long and complicated story that I don’t wish to revisit, except to note that my response was uncharacteristic. Specifically, I was kind, I was generous. I found the young friend a room, bought him an airplane ticket, and paid for a taxi to the airport. When he left three days later, I was $900 poorer and feeling blessed. It seemed that the nasty Mr. Hyde part of me had evaporated, leaving only lovable Dr. Jekyll. I liked the peace and pleasantness of the new me but wondered what caused the transformation.

In my gut, I knew. The generosity was not from me but from others: I was simply channeling the tenderness of those who founded The Park Church 170 years ago – people whose love of God translated into acts of uncommon courage and sacrifice on behalf of runaway slaves passing through Elmira. I was channeling the love of those in the church who continue its legacy on behalf of people who are differently abled or of different sexual persuasions, or undervalued and challenged for whatever reason.

I was channeling the generosity of so many friends who have helped me navigate the challenges of ministry throughout the years. I was channeling the kindness of Robin, my best friend from elementary school with whom I had recently reconnected, and her sister Randa. Hearing their stories of courage and sacrifice, my heart went out to this young man, so alone and scared by what was happening to him.

I was channeling the generosity of my grandparents, who made such contributions to a small Sardinian village 100 years ago that a young researcher reached out to my family in kindness. A month after I contacted him in hopes of meeting over coffee or lunch, he informed me that he had arranged for me to stay for a week at a friend’s flat just a block from Westminster Cathedral and two blocks from Big Ben.

It wasn’t me that was kind. I was merely channeling the kindness of ordinary heroes and heroines from my church, my family, and my past. I was channeling the kindness of new friends who extended hospitality in welcoming me to Britain for my sabbatical, finding me free lodging and use of a car during parts of my time there. The blessings from others overflowed such that that they had nowhere to go but onto this young man.

And isn’t this the Kin(g)dom of God?

I am not an especially kind or generous person but on this day I was caught in God’s web of eternal connection. The largesse of the peace more than compensated for the shrinking of the purse.

We give thanks.

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Jesus Believed in … WHAT???

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

This was my Easter sermon at The Park Church in Elmira, NY — the church of the early abolitionists, Thomas K. Beecher, and Sam and Annis Ford Eastman, and of people who understand the radical message of Christ’s all-welcoming love.

 

Taking a lesson from Howard Baker, eminent politician and ranking Republican on the panel investigating Richard Nixon – the question is: “What did he know and when did he know it?”

Nixon protested that he didn’t know about the Watergate break-in until a year after it happened. But when evidence surfaced that he was involved from the onset, it wasn’t long before he chose to resign rather than be impeached.  Now, it seems to me that if the question of what Nixon knew and when he knew is was a critical one for U.S. politics in the 20th century, the question of what Jesus knew and when he knew it has been a critical one for … let’s see … almost 2,000 years!

What Jesus knew and when he knew it might also clarify the bigger issue of what he believed in. Why would he allow himself to go to the cross with nary a protest? If we can determine what Jesus believed in it might help us determine what we should believe in.

Did he, for example, believe that he was the one and only true son of God?  Did he believe he would reign from heaven after death? Did he believe that 2 millennia after his death, one out of every three people would profess faith in – and often be willing to die for – the values he espoused?  In short, did he – nailed to that shameful and vicious cross – have any notion that his death would change the world for all time?

If he had an exalted sense of himself as the son of God and just a few breaths away from heavenly paradise, then, in a certain way, that trivializes the viciousness of Good Friday.  And if the horror of Good Friday is diminished, so also is the elation of Easter morning. If nothing much happened on Easter, what are we doing here?  Why are we baptizing Tristan James – why do we call ourselves Christians, and why do we make certain life decisions and not others?

Something did happen on Easter morning – something very big indeed.  But I don’t believe that it has a whole lot to do with Jesus’ bodily disappearance from the tomb. As important as that is, I question whether it is the true source of our faith.  Let’s consider the bigger picture.

Many people assume that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is the singular act that defines our faith. For them, his disappearance from the tomb on Easter morning is incontrovertible proof that he was the Son of God.  Anyone who questions the physics behind the Easter miracle is, by definition, not a Christian.

Others say that Jesus’ body was removed by stealth or that his followers concocted the story.  Some scholars note that Jesus was not the first or the last person to be resuscitated after death – in fact, we have Biblical stories of Elijah and Elisha, to say nothing of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter. Later, his disciples reportedly raised some people from the dead.  There were also resurrection stories in Egyptian, Greek, and Assyrian cultures circulating at the time of Jesus. So the disappearance of Jesus’ body was not the single most important fact that gave birth to the most powerful religion in the world for all known time.

Equally problematic is the idea that Jesus was a willing sacrifice for our sins.  This idea – called substitutionary atonement – posits that Jesus was a ritual offering intended to appease God from wreaking greater havoc on the rest of us.  In dying a horrible death, some people argue, Jesus took on the sins of all so that we will have everlasting life in heaven with God, regardless of our sins on earth. But did Jesus believe that he was the scapegoat for our sins?  Did he believe God to be a sadist demanding such appeasement?  — I think not.

Then there’s the idea that Jesus thought himself the son of God, which would explain his willingness to go to the cross as proof of his divinity – sort of “I double dare you….”  But I don’t believe that, mostly because – with the exception of the gospel of John, which was written much later than the others and has a decidedly Platonist influence – Jesus never calls himself the “son of God,” but rather “son of Man.” He doesn’t call himself the Messiah either, except to urge his disciples not to refer to him by that name. This suggests that Jesus thought himself fully human, fully able to suffer, fully able to die as all mortals do. So did Jesus think himself the only son of God? – Well, that notion doesn’t work for me.

Another question is what Jesus thought about the “second coming” and the “kingdom of God.” Scholars argue mightily on the issue of whether Jesus expected to return to earth in his human body, so I don’t know what to say about that.  Fortunately, there’s more clarity about the “kingdom of God,” so often illustrated by Jesus in parables.  The kingdom of God might (or might not) mean a future paradise in some far-away heaven, but it certainly does mean a loving and just world in the here-and-now.  This understanding of a generous and God-loving society undergirds Jesus’ every act and statement.

So, if Jesus didn’t believe himself the son of God, and if he didn’t believe he was the scapegoat for the sins of all mankind, and if he didn’t believe that he would come back to earth and vanquish all of his foes, and if he didn’t believe in a kingdom of God as happening only in some fairytale time and place, then what did he believe?

Writing 600 years earlier during the Babylonian captivity – a time of cruelty and dislocation for the Hebrew people – the prophet Jeremiah gives us a clue.  He assures the Israelites that God has not forgotten them and will come again in the future to restore their hopes and dreams.

“At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people…. I have loved with an everlasting love; I have stayed faithful.”

Like Jeremiah, Jesus believed in the goodness and faithfulness of God.  That’s the big one.  Jesus believed that God’s love trumps human fear and cruelty.

But was that enough?  Was that enough to give him courage to patiently endure a vicious and unjust death?  What did he believe that somehow got transferred to his followers to help them follow in his footsteps, often going to their own vicious and unjust deaths? What did he believe that changed the world for all time?

As I was struggling with these issues, I discovered a sermon by Annis Ford Eastman, one of few women ministers in the 19th century, and a revered preacher and pastor here at The Park Church.  She begins her message by considering Satan’s understanding of mankind, as expressed in the conversation between him and God in the Book of Job.  The devil’s doctrine is this: “All that a man hath will he give for his life.”  According to Satan, life – and the more comfortable the better – is man’s prize possession.

But Jesus proved the devil wrong.  People are not driven only by love of life.  It’s not all about living for me and mine. Jesus felt that if he could illustrate the kingdom of God to decent, ordinary people, they would strive to change themselves and society so to create equity and opportunity for all. He believed miracles happen whenever individuals become agents of divine love, transforming the world through generosity of heart, mind, and spirit.

Jesus believed that we want to connect with God and each other.  We are happiest when we are doing good – not for ourselves only – but for each other and for God.  He knew that, despite the fear and cowardice that gripped his followers on the day of his crucifixion, their experience of transformation in his presence had forever changed them.  It was only a question of time before they emerged from their dark caves of mortal fear to follow his lead in bringing the kingdom of God to this earth.

In short, Jesus believed that selfless love can never be crucified or buried, but will rise again and again throughout our lives, throughout the centuries, throughout the millennia, whenever people give of their own pride and their own needs – and yes, their own lives – to become witnesses for and agents of divine love.

Jesus believed in the resurrection of the dead precisely because he – and any and all of us who give our lives to God – never ever really die.  Connection with God cannot die.  Goodness cannot die.  Love cannot die.  Even when our physical bodies disappear into the ground, the love we have shared and the goodness we have birthed live on through the ages.  This is the power of Christianity.  This is the miracle of Easter.

So, in closing, what did Jesus believe?  What did he believe in so fervently that he could endure condemnation and crucifixion? What did he believe in so passionately that it would change the world for all time?

In a word, Jesus believed in God , most especially the transformative power of God’s all-embracing love.

and he believed in … us!

… and that has made all the difference. Hallelujah!

 

 

 

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