Saturday, September 10, 2016

September 11--Do You Remember?

Pictures of those lost in 9/11 from Ground Zero Museum

The Sunday following September 11th we were out West and couldn't get home. The Airlines were either shut down or swamped. So I didn't preach that Sunday--I was too far from the church. But the next Sunday I tried to gather my thoughts and preach to a group of people huddled together under a cross wondering. Wondering. And so was I.

As that sermon ended an Usher came and said, "There's a young man back here that would like to talk to you." I went back to talk to the man. He was dark-sinned. Obviously from some middle-eastern country. The first thing he said was, "I hope you don't hate all of us." Strange way to open a conversation. "I hope you don't hate all of us." And then he poured it out. He was from Iraq. He was a student. He was far from home. A Muslim. He was so embarrassed at what had happened. He said that in that long week since the towers fell some people had been ugly to him. Some didn't say anything--but they just looked like they hated him."I hope you don't hate all of us." And I tried to reassure him that I didn't and we didn't. That we did not hold all his people responsible for what happened.  That we were glad he was in our country and I hope things would go well for him. The young man turned around and left and I never saw him again. 

Now fifteen years later and a changed, mutilated world--I still remember what he asked me that Sunday morning. Do we hate them? In our over-reaction we sent our boys and girls out to fight the wrong enemy. No wonder they hate us. We tore their world apart while back home we seethed and raged. We didn't seem to remember that what had happened to us had happened to the rest of the world again and again. 

And here we are on another September morning. The stock market soars. Unemployment is about as low as we have seen it. We've had a black President whom so many hate. We have political candidates gouging at one another. And all around us people have taken sides about who is lying and who is really our enemy and who really will make or keep America great. We pick and choose how we see things. 

Refugees look for a safe home. Thousands have drowned trying to get to safety. Immigrants shudder these days. Many of their children don't sleep well at nights. Their wives with burkas do not travel alone to our Malls. In the Grocery stores we stare at Hispanics and wonder if they have papers. We hear about Terrorists continually. And we have made many rich with Homeland Security. And we have made ourselves much poorer with guns and bombs and drones and devastation in so many foreign places.  What is our future--we refugees from September 11th? Will we hate each other. Will we look out our windows where most of us are safe and grit our teeth and ignore the colored falling leaves. Will we be deaf to the birds that sing outside? Or the butterflies and the bees that still do their work.

I remember the young man with the dark-skin that asked me that troubling question. And it has reminded me of the question that woman asked Benjamin Franklin years ago. "What kind of country are you going to give us, Mr. Franklin? He said, "A republic lady, if we can keep it."

On September 11th I am drawn once again by those words of the Polish poet. He writes:

"Try to praise the mutilated world
Remember June's long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles. 
You must praise the mutilated world...
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.

You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle right that strays and vanishes,
and returns."*

No, there is no such thing as closure. 
But out there we still have a chance to 
find our way.
To forgive one another.
To speak kindly to the brown-skins...
and the crippled...and to the black skins...
and the white faces...and to the old and
the young and to say to one another
No, we really don't hate you.

But we, one and all will praise, together, 
our mutilated world. 

*partial poem by Adam Zagajewski

Letters written and posted on Ground Zero Museum wall

--Roger Lovette /

Friday, September 9, 2016

A Scholar of Fascism Looks at Trump

(This particular article appeared in Sightings. Sightings is a very responsible publication. It is published by the Martin Marty Center. Found at the University Chicago Divinity School. Worth pondering. --R. Lovette)

The Last Trump?

Editor's note. This is the first in a series of reflections on the Trump phenomenon—or "Trumpism," if such a thing can be defined—and what it says about the relationship between religion and politics in America today. Needless to say, the views expressed in these pieces are those of their respective authors and are not necessarily shared, or endorsed, by the Martin Marty Center, the Divinity School, or the University of Chicago. Look for further installments from Sightings leading up to the U.S. presidential election.
Blowing the Trumpet at the Feast of the New Moon | Source: Holman Bible (1890)
"In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality."
1 Corinthians 15:52-53

To English eyes the run-in to the U.S. presidential election sometimes suggests that the Olympic Organizing Committee has been commissioned to run politics. I hope some remarks from a historian from across the Pond and three thousand miles outside the Washington Bubble will add more light than heat.

Trump and Christianity

Throughout history state power and state violence against the vulnerable have formed an unholy alliance with religion, perverting creeds which (if the sacred texts are read selectively in a compassionate spirit) may even encourage respect for nature and compassion for all human beings. The Aztecs; the ancient Egyptians, Jews, and Romans; the Crusaders and Conquistadors of Christianity; the countries fighting in the First World War, whether Christian or Islamic and whatever alliance they were part of, all believed they had, as Bob Dylan once put it, "God on their side." The horrors of Japanese Imperialism were enacted by a regime legitimized by Shinto, a nature religion. Hitler invoked God repeatedly and has convinced at least one scholar he was a true Catholic. The Sinhalese extermination of the Tamil Tigers was justified by Buddhism. Islam has been invoked by all the most brutal tyrants of the Middle East. Religious sectarianism and interfaith wars have probably cost millions of lives throughout history.

So when we learn that James Dobson, founder of the group Focus on the Family, claimed Donald Trump recently accepted "a relationship with Christ," adding, "I know the person who led him to Christ," jaws should not drop. Both George Bush and Tony Blair, who almost double-handedly are responsible for the collapse into anarchy of Iraq and the consequent rise of ISIS, both claimed a special relationship with (an allegedly Christian) God. Christian supporters of Trump should perhaps be urged to re-read some of the key passages of the New Testament in which Jesus reveals his Gospel of compassion for different ethnicities and the socially deprived, and the tolerance of violence directed against oneself. The sword he brought divided Christians from Jews in terms of salvation, not Americans from the rest of the world militarily.

Trump and fascism

Despite the frequent stigmatizing of Trump by his critics as a "fascist," it would be refreshing if more journalists used political categories with greater nicety. Trump is a populist, or to be exact, a radical right-wing populist. He owes his power to voicing in hardly sophisticated rhetoric widespread prejudices and simplistic diagnoses to complex problems which, if translated into practice, would prove counterproductive, discriminatory, and inhuman in many areas, both domestically and on the international stage. The flamboyant Vladimir Zhirinovsky in pre-Putin Russia was a right-wing populist who said he wanted to charge foreigners in Russia a fee if they could not speak Russian, make vodka dirt cheap, and force all of Europe’s homosexuals to live in Holland. Putin is another, far more dangerous form of populist with geopolitical ambitions, while Berlusconi was a more lightweight, comic, less puritanical version; whatever their considerable weaknesses neither can be accused of fascism.

To be fascists they would, like Mussolini and Hitler, have to set about seizing power democratically so as to be able to dismantle or pervert the institutions of liberal democracy entirely. Trump, whatever his faults, has given no sign that he intends the destruction of the U.S. constitutional system and its replacement by a totalitarian "new order" with himself as its charismatic leader for (in his case a short) perpetuity. Nor did other so-called "fascists" such as Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, George Bush, or Barack Obama, which similarly disqualifies them from the description. I grant that "Trump Is a Radical Right-Wing Populist" has less of a (populist) ring as a headline than "Trump Is a Fascist," and lends itself to less funny cartoons, but that is what he is. He wants America to be great again, but not to be reborn in a totalitarian new order, let alone force its citizens to be subjected to a coercive state monopoly of power, which for one thing would stop billionaires like him from enjoying the fruits of their ill-gotten gains or running for president.

Trump and fanaticism

Still, Trump embodies and encourages a process that underlies a considerable percentage of the suffering that has been inflicted by a minority of depraved human beings on fellow human beings down through the centuries: Manichaeanization. The Trump world is split into good and bad, black and white (or in his case White and anything non-White, or White without an American accent). Like a grotesque parody of Dante’s Inferno, Trump’s Hell has many places reserved for a host of those who are beyond redemption as potential American citizens. Manichaeanization combined with unchecked political or religious power leads to inhumanity, because those "in darkness" are demonized and dehumanized to a point where their suffering and death is regarded as moral and compassion for them is hence legitimately suspended.

All anti-state and state terrorists apply a Manichaeanized ideology to reduce the irreducibly complex realities of the world to a simple dualistic narrative. At this point the new-born "visionary" sees him- or herself (curiously) as entrusted with a mission to represent, or even fight for, Good. A close study of the atrocities of Nazism, the massacre of Breivik, or the horrors (not at all "medieval") of ISIS will reveal different groups of human enemies to be demonized and persecuted, but the same dualism, fundamentalism, and fanaticism at work. "Fanatic," from the Latin for a temple (thus a "profanity" is something outside the temple) implies that the Manichaean has a religious sense of fervor about the Truth, and in extremis will regard violence and inhumanity committed against alleged enemies of the Truth (or the culture/nation that is its guardian) as a sacred duty. But because Trump is operating in a rationally constructed, liberal constitution, there are countervailing powers that would restrain him from undertaking the most extreme actions. Once his hysteria and incompetence revealed themselves as a bad basis for a successful U.S. presidency he would in any case soon be removed democratically and peacefully, like Thatcher or Berlusconi, without being shot like Mussolini, committing suicide like Hitler, or being lynched like Saddam Hussein.

A bottom line

So what are genuine American humanists—Christian, Muslim, or secular—to do as the great political Superbowl approaches? Perhaps they should bear in mind that the crises of the present world system demand forms of non-fanatical activism which refuse to demonize or dehumanize anyone, even Mr. Trump. He is not the first simple-minded demagogue to appear on the political stage of a major nation. Nor will he be the last. Trump is no more (politically) immortal than his predecessors, and it is for those who can live with the complexity and tragedies of the world without being seduced by simplistic diagnoses and solutions to make sure they outlive him.


- Anthony, Michael. "Exclusive Interview with Dr. James Dobson - Did Donald Trump Recently Accept Christ? June 24, 2016.

- Kagan, Robert. "This is how fascism comes to America." The Washington Post. May 18, 2016.

- Matthews, Dylan. "I asked 5 fascism experts whether Donald Trump is a fascist. Here's what they said." Vox. May 19, 2016.

- Shekhovtsov, Anton. "Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the LDPR." Foreign Policy Journal. November 7, 2011.
Author, Roger Griffin, is Professor in Modern History at Oxford Brookes University. He is widely acknowledged to be one of the world's foremost experts on the socio-historical and ideological dynamics of fascism, as well as the relationship of various forms of political or religious fanaticism, and in particular contemporary terrorism, to modernity. His publications include The Nature of Fascism (Pinter, 1991), Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of a Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler (Palgrave, 2007), and Terrorist's Creed: Fanatical Violence and the Human Need for Meaning(Palgrave, 2012).
Sightings is edited by Brett Colasacco, a Ph.D. candidate in Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

--Roger Lovette /

Friday, September 2, 2016

If I Had Just One Sermon to Preach

photo by Bev Norton / flickr
I have been trying to decide what would be most appropriate for this last  Sunday. I remember a friend of mine saying if you had just one sermon to preach--what would you say? Good question: if you only had one sermon to preach--what would you say?

Certainly that sermon should deal with the essence of the gospel. Surely it would be a good news in a world of so little good news. 

After thinking about all that is going on in the world—which is a lot—and all the things you bring into this room—what should I say? And what is it that we all need to hear?

I have chosen for our text that wonderful scene in Jesus' life. Our Lord pushed aside the carpenter shavings and turned toward adulthood. He found his cousin John and said, "Will you baptize me?" Standing there in the Jordan River, the wind blew. A bird sang off in the distance. And a voice spoke. It was a holy moment. For itwas God that spoke. And as Jesus came up out of the water that voice said: "This is my beloved." And this became the word that would carry him through thick and thin for the rest of his life. And there, in the Jordan River I have found my sermon. This is my beloved.

Tony Morrison has a wonderful novel called Beloved. It's the story of a woman trapped in slavery--a black woman in the 1800's in Ohio. The only thing she had in all her life--the only
photo by elycefeliz / flickr
thing she had--was her two-year old child who died. Who can imagine such grief? In her devastation, she went to see the man that carved tombstones. Knowing she had little or no money he said to her: "I've got a little sliver of granite left over. It is just the size for a baby's tombstone. If you can give me seven letters in the next few minutes I have a little time and I'll carve the tombstone and give to you for free." She couldn't read. She did not know how long letters were. She wanted to put "Dearly Beloved " on the tombstone because that's what the preacher had said over and over at the funeral for her baby. But the man said that was too many letters. And so she said, "Would the word, beloved be too long?" He counted on his fingers: "B-E-L-O-V-E-D." And he carved those seven letters of a very great love and an enormous, enormous loss.

And when we come to the Scriptures, two Gospels have carved this word into the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. And across waters and time and cultures and two thousand years, the word still remains: B-E-L-O-V-E-D.

It isn't the only time we bump into this word. Jesus would face the dark clouds and opposition and friends and family who did not understand and finally the Cross. All four gospels tell the story that of that time when Jesus and his three friends went up into the mountains to the place which has become known as The Mount of Transfiguration. There on top of the mountain, so far from the difficulties he would face, he would find a preparation to go on. Peter, James and John witnessed this surreal scene. They heard a voice that came to Jesus and said, "You are my beloved." And so he led them down, down the mountain with its twisting, winding trails all the way down where he would face the hard things that would lead him to the Cross. The Gospels tell us he did it with his head held high moving through his darkest hours with great dignity and grace because he had heard a word.

So this becomes the last word I think I would say if this was my last sermon. For if we listen closely the One that heard that word gave it out again and again wherever he went. And if we, too, can claim this word for ourselves, we can go out into all the hard things that we must do and we shall find that anchoring word, and we shall make it.

But someone here says, "But what about those other words?" Other words? "You are no good." "You are lazy." "You'll never amount to anything." "You're a nobody." "Worthless--absolutely worthless!" “Illegal.” “Trashy.” “Nobody.” “Deadbeat.” “Sissy.” "Stupid." We have heard these words all our lives from kindergarten and home and school and church and, it seems, everywhere. "Just who do you think you are?" And many of us have fought these old labels all our lives and we are exhausted from the fighting. And so we have tried a multitude of prescriptions to cancel out the ugly, ugly words: work, success, jobs, money, things sex, drugs, alcohol—addictions of all kinds. And none of these have not worked at all. 

Do you see why I have chosen this old story? For if you and me can somehow capture the essence of this word God gave his son, it may just carry us through. To close the gap between what God says and the realities of your life and mine. For this is our task and this is the great missionary word of the church: to tell each other and the whole wide world what God himself has called all of his children to discover this healing word, beloved.

But we can't do it alone. We can't operate on ourselves. And I think this is why we need church, if it's healthy. We shake the amnesia of many things in order to hear this special, special word. We hear music. We ponder sermons. We sing hymns. We wade through the baptismal waters. We take the Bread and the Cup. We listen to the old words of Scripture. But the great hope is that, somehow, we will be addressed and our names will be called. And if we ever, ever hear that word, beloved, we keep coming back because we know it's real and right and true.

photo by chick_e_poo / flickr
But it doesn't stop there. For Jesus did a wonderful thing. He took that benediction, that which had been given, and broke it and gave it away like the loaves and fishes. And they just kept coming. Not just the right people. But everybody. Like those hungry, hungry five thousand he fed that day. They kept coming--hungry for affirmation. Why did they all come—because they knew he thought they were beloved. We could go on and on, Lepers. The centurion’s son—an outsider, that stormy time when the disciples thought they would sink. Wild demoniacs, paralytics, tax collectors, Zaccheus. They all heard that wonderful word addressed just to them as if they were the only one: Beloved. You are beloved. 

The beat goes on. It is not just confine to stories in the Bible. Maybe you have heard the name Raymond Carver. He was one of the great writers of the twentieth century. He died a couple of years ago. He had an awful time with alcoholism. Lost his wife. Lost his family. Lost about everything he had. But in the last ten years of his life he put the bottle away with the help of some groups and doctors and AA. He met a woman named Tess Gallagher whom he dedicates his last book to. I love that dedication:
Tess. Tess. Tess. Tess. 

She was his light. He found some joy and meaning in those last ten years. Then he discovered he had lung cancer. He went through all the chemotherapy. There were ten months of courageous fighting before he lost the battle. The last book of poetry he ever wrote was called A New Path to the Waterfall. The last poem in the book is his benediction for his life.

And did you get
what you wanted
from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved.
To feel myself beloved of the earth.

It is the great, great dream of us all. To hear that voice that tells us, deep down, we matter and we count.

Leonard Sweet, a Methodist preacher tells of a little boy named Michael who was four years old. His mother told him one day that she was going to have a baby. Michael was so excited. He wanted a baby in their family. As his mother's stomach grew larger and larger, Michael would go up as she was standing there at the sink and put his nose on her stomach and put his arms around what he said was the baby. And he would sing:

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
You make me happy when skies are gray.
You'll never know, dear, how much I love you,
Please don't take my sunshine away.

Over and over Michael would sing that song. Sometimes the baby would kick and he would
photo by Scott & Elaine van der Chijs / flickr
giggle. He was so happy about the baby. The time came for the mother to go to the hospital and she had the baby. But there were a lot of complications. They did not know if the baby was going to live. She told Michael as best she could that the baby was very sick. Michael was so distressed and he wanted to see the baby. Well, the baby was in the neonatal unit and they didn't want him to see the baby with all the tubes and things she was hooked up to. But Michael insisted. He would not take no for an answer. All he talked about was his baby sister. Finally, the mother got permission from the doctors and they brought Michael to the hospital. He went upstairs and they took him by the hand and led him into the room. And he saw the baby. He didn't see the wires and feeding tubes and the monitors. He just saw his baby sister. He said, "Mama, I want to touch her." So they lifted Michael up and he put his nose against her nose and he said, "She's beautiful!" And he started singing:

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
You make me happy when skies are gray.
You'll never know, dear, how much I love you,
Please don't take my sunshine away.

The next day at kindergarten, someone from the hospital came to the school and said they wanted Michael to come back to the hospital. Was something wrong with the baby? No, the baby was a little better. But when the doctor read all the charts and reports from the night before, he noticed that at a certain time during the day, somehow the baby began to calm down and to rest peacefully. The Doctor discovered that a change came about the time that Michael had been there and when he had sung. They said the doctor wants Michael to come back and to sing to the baby. And so every day at the same time, they would take Michael from the school to the hospital, up the elevator, to the neonatal unit and he would put his nose on the baby's nose and he would sing: "You Are My Sunshine."

Leonard Sweet, in telling the story, says his favorite picture in his office is a picture of nine-year-old Michael and his five-year- old sister.

Once upon a time, God came down the stairs of heaven with a child in his arms. And you know, I think he was singing. But I don't think he was singing just to the baby. I think he was singing to the whole wide world. And I think I know what he was singing. Will you sing it with me?

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
You make me happy when skies are gray,
You'll never know, dear, how much I love you,
Please don't take my sunshine away.

And that's what I would say if this was the last sermon I was ever to preach. You are beloved. Beloved of God. And if we ever, ever get our arms around that idea we can take it all: death, life, things present, things to come, powers, no matter how high the waves or dark the night—nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(This is the last sermon that I preached at the First Baptist Church, Pendleton (SC) as I finished an eighth-month interim. August 28, 2016. Fine, fine church.)

photo by Kyle / flickr

--Roger Lovette /

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Cell Phone Curse

My friend Ken Sehested first introduced me to this funny picture. Hope you find it as hilarious as I do. Sometimes I think technology is demonic--or at least negatively addictive. It may well sink us all. Folks, it 's not "get a phone" it's get a life!

--Roger Lovette /

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Insensitivity Is Donald Trump's Middle Name

photo by Alan / flickr

Of all the things I could say negatively about Mr. Trump--I guess his insensitivity bothers me more than anything. Now he is going after Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton's top Aide. Her husband, Anthony Weiner has been caught yet again sending out salacious pictures of himself to women over the internet. Somehow Trump has linked this sorry incident to Hillary Clinton via Huma Abedin. His paranoia has run wild saying Abedin must be connected to the Muslim Brotherhood. He has implied as a Muslim she may have even be in league with Islamic terrorists. There should be nothing of political fodder about this story. Think of the burden of embarrassment and shame this woman must carry because of her husband's sorry behavior. But finally she has had enough and has separated from him. How heart-broken this woman--or any woman--would be. Six years of marriage, a baby--and her husband's pathetic behavior. But Mr. Trump's response reflects his utter insensitivity to human brokenness and this woman's pain. He only sees another chance to make some points for his campaign. Winning has no boundaries. 

We've seen his cruel responses so often that maybe we just look away. He began with those ugly remarks about Mexicans and how so many of them were rapists and murderers and maybe, he generously said, there might be some good ones among them. Who cares what he says now about his immigration policy? Making fun of a newsman with physical disabilities. Dismissing the five years that John McCain spent as a prisoner of war. Snarling at candidate after candidate in his own party just to win the nomination. Linking Mr. Cruz' father with Kennedy's assassination. His remarks about women. His tirades after Mr. Khan's impassioned remarks about his Muslim son giving his life for his country. Bringing up all of Hillary Clinton's painful past about her husband's pathetic behavior with Monica Lewinsky. This must have been the darkest, most painful experience in Hillary's life. All their dirty linen spread everywhere with their child in college. Did Trump even think for a moment what this must have done to all these people he has personally attacked.

Public figures--whomever they are--are human beings. Just like the rest of us. And to use shootings and grief and the poverty of black Americans and questions about President Obama's birth certificate--Mr. Trump in his desperate desire to win has run rough-shod over everyone who gets in his way. The feelings of his opponents do not matter at all. 

We have never seen the likes of him before in any national election. And we have had some lulus in our past. The opposition calling Andrew Jackson's wife a whore. The mean-spirited antics of George Wallace. These are just a few of many other hard-hearted examples. Donald Trump is certainly not the first candidate to lie again and again hoping to win the Presidency. But this continual pattern of merciless disregard toward just about everyone is alarming to say the least.

Have you read the long article about Mr. Trump's treatment of just the workers that built the Trump Tower by a Time Magazine writer? Failing to pay Polish immigrants and threatening to "send them back" if they were illegal. His pattern with so many who were partially or never paid for work done. Are all these hundreds of lawsuits just greedy folk after a millionaire?

We all know that Hillary Clinton has a dark side and a multitude of faults.--but this is only part of who she is. Look at her record of public service. None of the multitude of charges against her have stuck. She may have made some very serious mistakes but she is no traitor.

These words are not a "Vote for Hillary" piece. Far from that. But Donald Trump's insensitivity is a character trait of the first magnitude. All the hoopla and the glitter cannot erase what we have heard during this last long year. Mr. Trump cannot re-invent himself any more than any of us can. And to elect in any age a man who cares so little for anyone but himself would be scary indeed.

(You might want to read Laura Clawson's take on thrice-married Trump's attack on Huma Abedin.)

--Roger Lovette /

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Church says Welcome to Muslims

photo by Santi / flickr

Unfortunately the church often gets bad press. Rightly so much of the time. ACLU sent me a questionnaire the other day asking if I thought: "Religion was detrimental to our society." I wrote back--some religion, maybe. Don't paint us all with the same brush.

With all this anti-Muslim sentiment floating around out there--if we didn't know any better we would think all those Muslims in our country (and others) are just here to do us harm. Once upon a time we heard the same thing about the Irish, the Poles, the Chinese, the Japanese, the blacks, the poor, the gays--and now the transgender. Many of us have muttered about "them."  We are all in the same boat--and if we puncture our vessel with too many holes  we'll all sink.

On it's better days the church reaches out to all those that feel disenfranchised. There should be no them or they--there should only be we. The Gospel writes across every page: all...All...ALL. We are all the same under the skin.  This is why I stand and applaud the Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia. And especially it's Pastor, Chris George.

Recently he said in a sermon, "I have a proposal for you today.. What if Smoke Rise developed a reputation as a community of welcome? What if here, in this church, we were known first and foremost as a good neighbor?"

The Pastor had already written church members about Malik Waliyani, whose gas station and convenience store just a block away was burglarized and ransacked earlier that week. After learning about the crime in the gas station, Pastor George went by the store and visited the owner. Waliyani is a practicing Muslim born in India. He had purchased the business just three months earlier.

As the Pastor talked to his church staff they decided to challenge the church to do something besides just paying lip service to their faith. He challenged the church "to offer hospitality, care and compassion because this is what Christians do."

That afternoon an estimated 150 to 200 church drove over to the service station to buy gas or make other purchases. Over the next week an estimated 350 plus churchgoers had stopped by the gas station.

That Church and Pastor needs a standing ovation. This is the task of all Christians and churches. Quit the Muslim-bashing.  Put our fear-mongering in perspective. Reach out in positive ways to our brothers and sisters who come to us from foreign lands dreaming of a better chance.

What is your church doing to practice love and hospitality? Looks like we all have some work to do in our time. 

photo by Hernan Pinera / flickr

(I am indebted to Bob Allen of Baptist News Global, August 16, 2016 for spreading this good news.)

--Roger Lovette /

Does God Know Your Name?

photo by Geoffrey Fairchild / flickr

A man standing in the checkout line of the grocery store came up to pay and get his groceries sacked. As the bag boy was sacking his groceries, the man turned to him and said, “What is your name?” The boy said, “Humphrey Bogart.” The man said, “Well, that’s a pretty well-known name.” The boy said, “Well, it orta be. I’ve been sacking groceries here for four years!”

When Paul wrote a circular letter to the churches in Asia Minor, he wrote for a lot of reasons. One of the reasons he wrote was for them to get a clear understanding of who they were. He also wanted them to catch a vision of a church big enough to take everybody in.

Not just Jews. Not just Gentiles. He had already told them what his intention was in that first chapter. “God has made known to us the mystery of his will…as a plan for the fullness of time to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” If that was not enough, a few paragraphs later he says, “God has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in our body through the cross.”

He gets at this dream by using a word over and over. Remember. Remember who you are. Sit down for just a moment. Relax. Put on your thinking cap. Remember. “Remember that at one time your Gentiles by birth (outsiders) called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’ (insiders)—remember that at that time you were without Christ…aliens…strangers…having no hope and without God.” Do you remember? Paul said.

It is a word for us too, Sit down. Relax if you can. Put on your thinking cap. Remember who you are, Paul says. Remember. When we begin to remember, it begins to come back in focus. Things get a little clearer. We begin to make connections that we have never made before. All this happens when we remember.

He asked them to remember three things. Remember who you are and who you are not. Buried in that nineteenth verse of that second chapter of Ephesians, he gives us the answer. Remember “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”

Listen to what he says. You are no longer strangers. The Greek word here means“foreigner.” Outsider. Those that were regarded with suspicion and disliked. They had no rights in the community. They were the uncircumcised. They did not bear the mark. They didn’t really belong.

photo by Dennis Skley / flickr
There were four courts in the old temple. It was ringed in four circles. Larger. Smaller. Even Smaller. Very Small. The largest ring, the outer ring, was called the Court of the Gentiles. Anybody could come there. It was furthest away from the altar. Way up in the balcony, you could hardly see and certainly couldn’t hear. Maybe stuck behind a post. Then next there was the court of the women. It was a little closer. Sorta like the top of the mezzanine. It was real high and if you looked straight down you could get dizzy. Some people couldn’t sit there. But that’s where the women had to sit. But then closer to the altar were God’s chosen people, in the orchestra section. The real bonafide Israelites—male, of course—they could sit there. They could all see—and they could hear every word. It was a good view. Then there was even a smaller circle. First and second rows probably. It was called the Court of the Priests. God’s anointed, of course. Not just anybody could come. But they had a big sign by the Court of the Gentiles that read: “No foreigner may enter within the fence and enclosure surrounding the sanctuary area. Whoever is caught so doing will have himself to blame for the death which is to inevitably follow.” You could be killed if your broke rank. That was some pecking order.

Have you ever felt like you were in one of those outer circles—left out? Have you ever felt not quite a part? One of my favorite stories is the one Merle Miller tells about President Truman, who after he retired, moved back to Independence, Missouri. He built his Presidential Library there and he loved to walk down every morning with his cane and greet the boys and girls and talk to them and find out where they were from. One morning as he was visiting, a little tiny boy with hair and big ears raised his hand when they had the question and answer time. He asked, “Mister President, wuz you popular when you wuz a boy?” Mr. Truman sorts of smiled and looked over his steel-rimmed glasses and said, “Well, no. I was not popular. The popular boys were the ones who were good at games and had big tight fists. I was never like that. Without my glasses, I was blind as a bat. To tell you the truth, I was kind of a sissy. If there was any danger of a fight I would always run, and I guess that’s why I’m still here today.”

Merle Miller wrote that the boy began to clap and everybody else began to clap, until the President had been given a standing ovation. Merle Miller said it was an eminently satisfactory answer for all those of us who have ever run from a fight, which is really all of us.

We all sometimes feel like an outsider, don’t we? A couple of years ago my phone rang and somebody on the other end of the line wouldn’t identify himself. He said, “You don’t know me, but I picked your number out of the phone book. I want to tell you a story and I want to ask you a question.  My girlfriend and I are going to get married about six months from now. I had a hard time, got downsized at work, lost my job, and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I thought I was going to move back home, but my girl friend asked me to move in with her.” He kept saying, “We are going to get married in the fall.” And then he said, “We’ve been going to this particular church and last week we decided to join. So we walked down the aisle and joined the church. The next day the preacher called. He said he had been reading our cards and he asked, “Are you all married? You have different last names. I told him we weren’t and I told him my story about what a hard time I had. And the preacher said, “Well, you can’t join our church. We don’t take alcoholics or drug addicts and sure don’t take homosexuals and I want to make it clear. We don’t take people who are not married to each other and are living together.” I asked him if the pastor had helped him find a job or a place to live and he said no. This is what he asked me, “Can we come to your church?” I said, “It’s not my church. It’s God’s church. And if I understand it, everybody is welcome.”

Paul told those people scattered all across Asia Minor in that letter, “you are not foreigners. Even if you say up in the upper level where it is dizzying. You are not foreigners.” That’s not your name.

photo by Ted Eyton / flickr
And then Paul said, “But you are not aliens either.” The word in the Greek means “temporary residents.” It means visitors. It means those who have limited rights but they are not really residents.

The Greek word meant to live among the Jews, but not to be one of them. The word meant to dwell nearby. Sometimes it meant to visit. We all have been visitors at somebody’s house. And if you wash your hands in their bathroom, you don’t know what to do with that little bitty hand towel in the bathroom with all that fancy embroidery all over it. Are you supposed to touch it? I don’t ever know. You try to be quiet and hope you don’t knock over something on the coffee table. You are a guest. You don’t live there. Aliens were those that were in-between. Not really at home. Just a visitor.

Paul said you are not foreigners or aliens. No! He gives us all a new name. He says: You are citizens. You are citizens with the saints. You are members of the household of God. You belong. You are kin.

The Greek word here is oikos. This is where you live. You put your stuff in the drawer. Hang your clothes in the closet. You put your little photographs on the dresser and it’s home. Now that’s different from just being a guest or a visitor. This is the place where we all belong.

This is the only time in the New Testament that this word, citizen is used. But it flows out of acceptance and grace. And do you know how very rare that is in 2016? The divisions are everywhere. Rich--Poor. Black--white. Red-necks--sophisticated. Illegals--citizens.  Republicans--Democrats.  Men--women.  Us--them. And one of the worst categories going around: College-educated and Blue collar. We know about strangers. We’ve felt like that a lot. We know about visitors. We felt like an outsider just visiting a lot. But what about kinfolk? Have you ever felt like you are really a member of the household of God? That’s the name he calls us. 

Since it is getting to be football season very soon and the players are already at school and
photo by Sameh (Sam) Fahmi / flickr

practicing—it reminds me of a story. The greatest football player in the little county seat town lived way out in the country. He lived with his grandmother and she had been somebody's maid all her life. And so when the word got out about this young man who could really play football the scouts started coming. They’d find that little town and ask directions to the boy’s house and go down past the pavement where the red mud road began. And a mile or so down there they found the house. It happened over and over. Everybody knew the boy was good—very good. And everybody wanted him. Finally he made up his mind where he was going to school. And the TV commentators with their cameras came to that little four room house and got the signing on the news. Weeks later it was time for the boy to leave home. He would be the first child ever to go away to college. So that last morning his Grandmother got up early and put on the bacon and sausages and a slice of country ham. She made biscuits as big as your fists and there were eggs and grits galore. And then she called him and told him to get up and get dressed. Breakfast was ready. After finishing breakfast he went back to his room to get his suitcase tied with a cord. There was a car from the college waiting outside. And as he came back into the kitchen his ninety pound Grandma said, “Baby boy come here.” And she reached up, up and he had to lean down so she could put her little arms around the neck of this mountain of a grandson. She hugged him hard. And she tried not to cry. As he straightened up, she looked him straight in the eyes and whispered, “Son, remember who you is. Remember who you is.” And she kissed him. And he turned, picked up his suitcase and went out to the car.

I think this was what Paul was trying to tell his brothers and sisters in those little scattered churches. Remember who you are. Remember your name. You’re not a stranger and you’re not an alien—you are no visitor. We—you and I—have a different name. We are citizens with the saints. We are members of the household of God. We belong. We asl belong. Thanks be to God!

photo by Daniel Fuller / flickr
(This sermon was preached at the First Baptist Church, Pendleton SC August 21, 2016)

--Roger Lovette /