A replacement theory: Love for hate

Ruth Whitfield was headed home after visiting her husband of 68 years at a nursing home. Can you imagine what the two of them talked about that day – so many memories!

On the way back, the 86-year-old woman stopped at a grocery store in her Buffalo neighborhood.

Andre Mackneil was there, too, picking up a cake for his son’s third birthday celebration. What a wonderful day for that family, right?

Katherine Massey, a 72-year-old former writer for the Buffalo News, also was getting groceries. Nearby was Pearl Young, 77, who ran a food pantry in the predominantly Black neighborhood for 25 years.

Pearl embodied the gospel message of feeding the hungry and caring for the poor. She was Jesus incarnate.

She was about to be gunned down.

In another aisle was great-grandmother and cancer survivor Celestine Chaney, 65, shopping with her 74-year-old sister. Also in the store: 62-year-old Geraldine Talley, 32-year-old Roberta Drury, and 52-year-old Margus Morrison.

Watching over them was Aaron Salter, 55, a retired Buffalo police officer working as a security guard.

Making trips between store and the parking lot was church deacon Heyward Patterson, 67, who helped people board a shuttle for those without transportation. Earlier, he fed people at a soup kitchen.

Wonderful, beautiful, inspiring people. People of deep faith. People of great love. People of such decency and goodness and kindness. People who made an impact on many lives and their community.

The kind of people our faith celebrates. The kind of people who remind us what we can be. The kind of role models we should tell our children to emulate.

In minutes, all were shot dead by Payton Gendron, an 18-year-old white man who perceived all of them as a threat because of the color of their skin.

He, too, was a victim of the poison offered so readily and convincingly by so many in our society – people in politics, media, and culture-war religion. Another life ruined by the flames of hate devouring our society.

Just the latest.

In every generation, opportunists fan the flames of hate until they’re white-hot. When hate is acted out, we focus on the weapons involved, and rightly so; America is uniquely defined by guns and the carnage they produce daily.

But our attention can’t stop there. It needs to go deeper. It must start with identifying and challenging the hate that sows fear and impregnates violence throughout our communities.

Choosing love over hate

We must push back against the hate that tells people to fear anyone who is different. The hate that urges people to arm themselves because “those people” are dangerous – those Black people, those Jewish people, those Muslim people, those gay people, those trans people, those Asian people, those Mexican people, those immigrant people, those doctors and teachers and scientists, and on and on.

Hate that says “those people” are out to get you, replace you, destroy your way of life. You must protect yourself. Stop them. Keep them away. Get them before they get you.

Hate that also says: Don’t get to know any of those people we’ve labeled a threat. Don’t listen to the stories of a long-married couple or a man picking up a child’s birthday cake – you know, people just like you.

Don’t hear their stories because you might realize you’re being told lies about them. Don’t let your children learn about any of this because they might start seeing through the lies, too.

Keep the lies and the lines in place. Feed the fear. Fan the hate.

At church last Sunday, we shared the stories of those gunned down in Buffalo. We mustn’t forget their stories, nor the hate that told so many lies about them.

But remembering them isn’t enough.

Our society is awash in people peddling hate for personal gain. They pollute our politics, our airwaves, our social media, and yes, even many pulpits with their us-against-them poison that produces these atrocities.

Stopping the poison

We mustn’t ignore the hate being circulated. We can’t be silent about the evil being promulgated. Nor can our response be limited to words alone.

We need to lovingly and persistently call out those who inject this poison into our world. Turn them off. Vote them out. Hold them responsible when their inciteful words have the intended effect.

Our faith calls on us to not only reject the ideology of hate but to work collaboratively to protect all God’s children and build communities where all are treated equally as God’s beloved.

Places where the divine image is seen in all, not only a select few. Where loving lives are celebrated, not desecrated. Where the peddlers of poison are turned off and turned away.

Where hope-filled, faith-filled and love-filled people — like those at the supermarket — partner with God and put their lives into in the redemptive work of replacing hate with love.

(Information about the shooting victims comes from The Associated Press and media outlets in Buffalo.)

Seeing our belovedness in sanitized ashes

On the first Sunday of Lent, we discussed the story of Jesus hearing God’s voice calling him beloved before going off by himself to make choices based on that belovedness.

Then, everyone was invited to come forward for ashes.

I know – in most churches, those got distributed the previous Wednesday. It’s not practical for our church, which meets in a YMCA that is busy on Wednesday nights just like many of our church members.

So, this year we reverted to the original practice of starting our Lent on a Sunday. We called it Ash Sunday.

The palm branches from our virtual, pandemic service a year earlier were burned into a gritty, ashy pile. Instead of blending in a few drops of oil for lubrication, we use hand sanitizer to make the ashes stick and avoid germs.

Folks in our church come from different denominational backgrounds. Some are familiar with Lent and ashes; others have never experienced the centuries-old practice.

On this day, everyone is invited to come forward and choose where Lent’s message will be traced. If they leave their arms down, the ashes will go on their forehead. Or they can present the back of a hand to be marked with a cross.

Made from the same ashes and love

I sink my right thumb into the wooden bowl holding the ashes and scrape out a small load. I make eye contact with the person in front of me and greet them by name as I reach my ash-blackened thumb for their forehead or hand.

“Remember you are God’s beloved,” I say, “made from the same ashes and love as everyone and everything else. Keep living your precious life in this love.”

Remember your belovedness. Relax into it. Embrace it. Let it transform how you look at yourself, at others, and at all creation. Live in this connective love.

The ashes remind us of two defining truths that need to be revisited not only during Lent but throughout our lives daily.

First, they remind us that life and love are unlimited – how could they be otherwise? — but this phase of unending life comes with a shelf life. It’s the most precious gift we receive. What are we doing with this part our precious life?

Second, the ashes remind us of our connection to everyone else and everything else that God has made. The beautiful, poetic creation story describes God scooping ashes and dust from the earth – our umbilical cord to the rest of creation — and breathing divine life into us.

Then God makes us one from the other, locating our precious lives within a sacred and universal mutuality. All is done out of love. Everything pulsates with this eternal breath of life.

Remember you are God’s beloved … and so is everyone else. You have sacred life within you … and so does everything else. Now, go live in that love. Try to live gratefully, graciously, generously, lovingly, sacrificially, joyfully. Go and nurture the breath of God in all.

Remember …

Some members of my church had other commitments on the first Sunday of Lent. When they expressed disappointment at missing out on the ashes, I was tempted to respond: Well, maybe next year.

Then I thought: Why not next week, too?

So, for the second Sunday of Lent, we shared ashy blessings again. Those who couldn’t be there the previous week were invited to come forward. Those who had already received ashes were invited to come up for seconds and another blessing – there is no limit!

They came forward to hear their name and receive Lent’s everlasting reminder:

You are God’s beloved, made from the same ashes and love as everyone else and everything else …

A communion of dust

(Photo by gocyclones@creativecommons.org)

Watching the horrific images from Ukraine – buildings and people and communities turned into dust – pulls us more deeply into the message of a day focused on ashes.

Some faith communities use ashes to open Lent, a season of trying to do better. In a skin-on-skin way, the tracing with ashes reenacts two foundational truths.

First, the ashes remind us life is the greatest gift, freely given to each of us. It’s meant to be savored and celebrated and shared gratefully, generously, and sacrificially.

Although life itself is unending, this phase has a shelf life. The ashes shaped into a cross pose an overriding question: What are we doing with our precious life?

Which brings us to the second reminder writ in ash: Our lives are meant to be lived in communion with God, each other, and all creation.

A beautiful and poetic creation story in Genesis presents the image of God forming us from the dust and ash of the earth, a vivid reminder that we are linked on our deepest levels to the rest of creation.

All is created from the same unifying stuff.

Although the long-ago authors of that story didn’t know much science, they got it right in the big picture. Science details how we are indeed made of the same stuff on our deepest physical level.

We are human. We are stardust. We care connected to everything in our shared dustiness.

Gratefully, generously, sacrificially

The creation story also forcefully reminds us we are connected to each other. There’s no room for strident individuality; we’re made in mutuality.

And the breath of God – the divine force of life – animates everything. All is woven together in endlessly sacred breaths – people, plants, animals, oceans.

On Ash Wednesday, ashes become our reminder and our communion.

We trace with ashes in solidarity with Ukrainians and all who are beset by violence and oppression. We pray for them and work with them to bring more peace into God’s world.

People of many nations, races, and backgrounds are tracing with ashes today, rubbing them into different skin tones as a reminder of our combined work of bringing more justice and less hate into our lives and our world.

The ashes connect us with those struggling to breathe in hospitals and hospices, and with newborns taking first breaths in maternity wards and homes around the world.

The ashes also remind of our connection with the green daffodil shoots poking from the cold ground and the rhythmic pounding of the piliated woodpecker prying a meal loose from tree bark.

Life. We are connected in life. How are we recognizing it? How are we using it?

Life from the ashes, love from the dust

Ashes ground our time of Lent, six weeks of taking a clear-eyed look at ourselves and our world and seeing how we need to repent. Simply, we acknowledge how we’re missing the mark and we try to do better. There’s plenty of room for improvement.

We try to reconnect where we’ve pulled away. We try to live more fully within the love from which and for which we are made. We try to move beyond the attitudes, insecurities, fears and self-centeredness that cause division and pull everything apart.

We’re invited to make small changes that will lead to bigger changes in our lives and our world. As more people change and work together, the world changes in profound ways.

On earth, as in heaven.

From the ashes, may we experience a rebirth of God’s peace, love, and justice in the world. May the dusty reminder of life’s preciousness inspire us to use it more gratefully, generously and sacrificially.

May new life grow from the ashes. May new love emerge from the dust yet again. 

More than dried ink on a page

(Photo courtesy of Jemasmith@CreativeCommons.org)

A dust-up over the Catholic priest who didn’t precisely recite the words for baptism underscores the two different approaches to religion.

In case you haven’t heard, a well-intentioned pastor in Phoenix said “we baptize you” – recognizing he represents Jesus and the entire faith community – instead of the assigned “I baptize you” in the church’s rulebook. A furor followed.

The beloved pastor resigned. The diocese suggested thousands of baptisms performed by the priest were invalid, meaning other sacraments that followed – including marriage and ordination – could be invalid as well.

Because, well, the rules, you know.

It must be pointed out that the Catholic church’s practice of baptism has changed significantly over the centuries. Are those baptisms invalid as well because they deviated from today’s proscribed formula?

And if we say those baptisms were valid even though they differed, why the kerfuffle? Is it about the words, or something else?

Which brings us to the foundational question: Is faith about parroting words, or something more?  Are sacraments about dried ink on a page, or are they about the Spirit living in the hearts of people?

Dried ink on a page

In one view, God dictates – Scripture, doctrines, rulebooks, what have you – and we’re the recording secretaries who write things down, memorize them, and repeat them accurately.

Memorize, recite, repeat.

In this approach, our rituals must be tightly regulated and closely policed, with major penalties for even a small deviation. If we misread one word or substitute one pronoun, we lose points and pastors.

It also bears repeating that Jesus frequently got in trouble for going off-script. Eating with the wrong people. Yes, saying the wrong things. Loving in the wrong ways. Baptism is an invitation into this off-script way of living.

His teachings remind us that faith isn’t about duplicating rituals or parroting words.

Faith is about trying to live in the Spirit of the words – words of love, compassion, healing, inclusion, peacemaking, forgiveness, reconciliation, helping the needy, welcoming the stranger, renouncing power and wealth and self-interest.

Basically, faith is about living in the love from which and for which we were made. It’s about moving beyond the fears and the insecurities and self-interest that separate us from one another and from God.

It’s not about reciting correct words; it’s about living in the Spirit that is the inkwell for those words.

An off-script faith

It’s about sharing meals with those who are hungry, giving a word of encouragement to someone who is struggling, sharing our authentic self with others so they, too, can be their authentic self with us.

It’s about seeing the many injustices around us and putting ourselves into the struggle to right these wrongs.

It’s about seeking and questioning and being open to different perspectives and new experiences of God in every place, in every circumstance, in every life.

It’s about becoming more gracious, more compassionate, more accepting. Becoming a little more in love with God and life, with one another, and with all God’s creation.

A living faith always begins with a “we” instead of an “I” or a “me”. Faith isn’t a solo endeavor. We grow collectively – that’s aim of any Spirit-filled community. Two or more, as the saying goes. An “us” and a “we”.

Together, we create space for people to be their authentic self, share their stories, hold one other in their joys and their struggles, and experience the God of love together. Then we go into the wider world embodying this transformative way of living.

Every moment becomes baptism, bringing us more deeply into the Spirit that washes over us without exception, without word, without end.

When church is deeply dangerous

(Photo by John Morse, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=569761)

The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., was bustling the morning of Sept. 15, 1963, as the faith community prepared for its Sunday service.

They gathered even though Black churches across the South were firebombed and the homes of their leaders were set ablaze by white supremacists intent upon keeping Jim Crow the law of the land.

As the service was about to begin, dynamite exploded beneath the front steps. Four girls were killed. Many others were seriously hurt.

Why were Black churches so frequently targeted by those defending the status quo? That’s a relevant question for Black History Month.

Short answer: Black churches were accurately perceived as a threat to the status quo. Faith-filled people gathered each week in beloved community, shared the Good News, felt the Spirit, had hope renewed, prayed for justice, and left their sanctuaries to go work with God to change their world.

On earth, as in heaven.

They didn’t merely recite those words to the foundational prayer; they lived those transformative words despite the cost. They went out their front doors to elevate the poor, liberate the oppressed, challenge unjust systems, and love everyone equally as a child of God.

Are we doing the same today in faith communities? How can we do it more like them?

We focus on building beloved communities where people’s physical and spiritual needs are met, and rightfully so. But it’s easy to get so caught up in what’s happening within our walls that we forget our faith communities are meant to be launching points into our wider communities.

“a taillight rather than a headlight”

We’re called to leave the safety of our stained-glass space and do this work of challenging attitudes and systems that treat some as less than a beloved child of God.

And that’s when the work of faith becomes dangerous.

A transformative faith community is a threat to the status quo. It’s always been that way. Jesus’ message — the last are first, the poor are blessed, the rich are living woefully, everyone is your neighbor to be loved – was unpopular then and now.

We’re called to be light for the entire world and salt for the whole earth. Not only are we obligated to help the hurting and the needy, we also are obligated to challenge the injustices that leave so many people hurting and needy.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was saddened by how in this prophetic work, the church has often been “a taillight rather than a headlight … an echo rather than a voice.” He was disheartened by faith communities functioning as little more than social clubs, “more cautious than courageous” in areas where faith ought to lead us.

“an echo rather than a voice”

His Letter from Birmingham Jail was directed to white religious leaders who agreed with his principles but urged him to stop pushing for justice, which was placing them on dangerous ground within the white church circles that provided safe harbor for supremacists.

His response: “The judgement of God is upon the Church as never before.”

In religious circles today, there’s much discussion about where church is heading, what it will look like in years to come, how it’s changing, and what it should do to adapt to the times.

A starting point is to open wider to the love-bearing, reconciliation-seeking, justice-driven Spirit that refuses to be confined to sanctuary or pew.

To follow that Spirit as it leads us out of our safe spaces onto the holy ground around us where there’s much work to be done. To be light and salt where they’re not wanted or welcomed.

To be churches that are considered threatening because they brightly illuminate what many people would rather not see.

Traveling the familiar road

(Photo courtesy of formulanone@creativecommons.org)

Interstate 71 connects the top and bottom of Ohio, bridging the gap between Lake Erie to the Ohio River. For 252 miles, it meanders through busy cities and remote cornfields.

My life has played out on the two-lane road. I’ve traveled major sections of it more than any other highway – nearly 200 times, I’d estimate.

The first trip came when I was only 16 and visited Ohio University for a tour. A year later, we packed my stuff in the family station wagon and headed down the interstate again, bubbling with anxiety and anticipation on the trip from my hometown of Cleveland to my new dorm address in Athens.

During my four years there, I retraced that route many times, visiting home for holidays and breaks. After graduation, I got a job in Cincinnati and made the four-hour trip regularly.

I traversed it for baptisms and birthdays, weddings and funerals, reunions and goodbyes. I drove it as a young single person, a married person, a parent with two kids in the back, an empty-nester, a retiree.

The road hasn’t changed much – it’s expanded to three lanes in places and the rest stops have been upgraded, but it’s much the same.

By contrast, I’ve changed from trip to trip. That ribbon of road has been a backdrop for my life’s journey.

People on the go

It’s almost cliché to talk about our journey, but it’s one of the most common themes of our lives and our faith traditions. Scriptures are full of stories about people on the go: leaving for a promised land, heading toward a manger.

Our faith traditions remind us we’re meant to be people on the move. As Rachel Held Evans puts it: “Scripture doesn’t speak of people who found God. Scripture speaks of people who walked with God. This is a keep-moving, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other, who-knows-what’s-next deal, and you never exactly arrive.”

It’s important to travel well, and our faith traditions offer advice.

First, travel light.

In the synoptic gospels, Jesus tells his followers to hit the road and share the good news of love, reconciliation and healing.  He tells them to carry no money, food or traveling bags. Instead, they’re to stay wherever they’re invited and eat whatever they’re given.

Same applies to us. We need to travel light, especially in our consumer society where accumulating, storing, maintaining and showing off our stuff is a priority.

Travel light

We also need to be careful not to overpack other stuff: grudges, insecurities, judgement, expectations, ideas that things should be a certain way. It slows us down and gets in the way.

But why should we travel light? This brings us to the second piece of advice: Travel together.

When you don’t carry much, you’re more open to people helping you along the road. And that’s the whole point! We’re not individuals accessing a common road; we’re one traveling party heading down the road together.

This is the heart of true religion: Love one another and care for everyone because they are your neighbor. We’re traveling together.

Travel together

The famous parable describes a person traveling alone who sees someone bleeding by the side of the road and stops to help this fellow traveler. The Samaritan and the injured stranger complete the journey together to a place of healing.

As Ram Daas puts it: “We’re all just walking each other home.”

A final bit of advice: Travel openly.

Make the journey with an open mind and an open heart. Pay attention to those around us – don’t just walk past. Embrace the mystery, the uncertainty, the surprises.

Travel openly

Don’t fixate on the destination. Let the journey take us places we wouldn’t choose. Remember, it’s about the traveling, not the arriving.

Bethlehem wasn’t a final destination for any of the characters in the Christmas stories. It was a stopover where they met, had an encounter that changed them, and then headed for the road again with a different outlook on everything.

Same for us. Each stop, each encounter, every step should bring us closer to the truth of who we are, connect us with others, and lead us together into the heart of God, which is ultimately where the road wants to take us.

A ride home on Christmas eve

It was dark. We were hungry. Mom decided we would eat without my dad.

I was 6 years old that Christmas eve. The traditional Slovak dinner was prepared — mushroom soup and pierogi. My mom, my younger brother and I had been waiting for dad to get home so we could eat as a family.

The waiting part was no surprise.

My dad served as a paratrooper in the Korean war. He was wounded during a mission. The experience changed him. He brought home many demons from the battlefield.

The demons emerged during the holidays. My dad would get off work at a marketplace in downtown Cleveland and head across the street to a tavern with co-workers. The co-workers would have a holiday drink and go home; my dad would stay and drink, trying to drown those demons.

Meanwhile, we were home waiting. It was dark. We were hungry. We ate without him. After supper, my brother and I got into our new pajamas. We got new PJs for Christmas every year, the kind with footies and cool designs like race cars or superheroes.

Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited. Mom was anxious, afraid that something bad had happened.

A light in the darkness

Finally, two headlights illuminated the darkness. We looked out the front window. We could see a car, but it wasn’t my dad’s car. There were two silhouettes in the front seat — a driver and a slumped-over passenger.

The slumped-over passenger? My dad. Someone had given him a ride home.

The driver helped my dad walk up the driveway. When my mom opened the door, we saw both figures in the light. The man who drove my father home? A black man.

I mention his race because it’s relevant. We lived in an ethnic neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side. There were no black people in my neighborhood. Many people in my neighborhood wouldn’t welcome a black person to their door. This was the 1960s. The civil rights movement was in full swing. There was much racial tension in cities like Cleveland.

This man had great courage coming to my house, not knowing how he would be received.

After they got my dad inside, my mom invited the man to stay and eat – her way of saying thanks. He had done enough already and could have just left, but instead he graciously accepted. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him. I’m guessing it’s the only time in his life that he had pierogi and mushroom soup.

After he ate, the man wished us Merry Christmas and went off into the night.

Embodying the light

Years later, I asked my mom about that night. The man told her that he knew my dad, saw him at the bar, realized he was in no condition to drive, and decided to get him home safely.

The man could have found any number of legitimate reasons to avoid getting involved. It was Christmas eve. He’d be putting someone drunk into his car, risking a mess. He didn’t know my family and whether we would welcome his gesture or even appreciate it. Besides, my dad would probably just get drunk again and be in the same predicament, so what’s the point?

Why bother with him?

Instead of walking away, the man thought about how my dad could get behind the wheel and kill himself, and maybe someone else, too. The man could do something about it, so he did.

He changed everything about my life – more than any of us can ever know.

Months later, my dad recognized that his drinking was a problem. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and courageously transformed his life, dealing with those demons in a healthier way. My family had many good times together over the years, times we might not have received if not for that courageous man on Christmas eve.

And who knows how many other families were affected that night? Many people were on the road. How many other lives and other families did the man save?

One choice changed everything

At Christmas, we hear readings about light shining in darkness and God with us in our messiest and darkest moments, never giving up on us. The Christmas message both comforts us and challenges us to be the light and embody that Love more fully into the world, just as the man did for our family on a very messy and dark Christmas eve so long ago.

I never saw the man again. I’m thankful for what he did and for what he taught me. He showed me how race and other differences need not divide us. Love knows no boundaries. And light is there for us in the darkness, trying to shine through us.

He could be alive today, totally unaware of how his kindness that long-ago night is still remembered and treasured. Every Christmas, I pray for him and for the courage to be a little more like him.

Maybe you could, too.

A funeral at Thanksgiving

In elementary school, I was an altar boy for our Catholic services, meaning I’d help prepare for the Mass and put things away afterward. I assisted at weddings and funerals, too.

One funeral remains in memory after all these years.

A small group – perhaps two dozen people – gathered for a funeral the day before Thanksgiving on a bitterly cold day in Cleveland. At the cemetery, the wind off the lake turned their teary cheeks bright red. Their pain was palpable.

I wondered: What will these people feel tomorrow on a day set aside to give thanks? What does “gratitude” mean in such moments: death, divorce, illness, depression, separation, a lost job, not enough money to pay all the bills?

What is gratitude? Is it even possible in those times?

Our culture has rendered gratitude irrelevant. We’re told to earn everything. Everyone must pull themselves up by their bootstraps. You get what you deserve.

No wonder we skip over the one day annually set aside for thanksgiving. When we convince ourselves that everything is earned, we develop a sense of entitlement – I’m just getting what’s coming to me – that leaves no need for actual thankfulness.

The “prosperity gospel” sells the same illusion that we earn our health and wealth and God’s favor by believing the right things and following the right code of conduct. Some people are worthy; others are not. If someone’s struggling, just tell them to pray harder and live more like you.

Our prayers of thanksgiving can absorb this sense of entitlement: Thank you God that I have a roof over my head … unlike those other people; thank you that we have this food … unlike so many others.

Thank you, God, that I am not like them.

No wonder our thanksgiving is a miserly confinement to one meal on one day in the midst of a months-long Christmas spending splurge.

The illusion of worthiness

We need to get back to gratitude, which is more than a day or a prayer or a meal. It’s how we get to know God.

Gratitude sets aside our illusions of worthiness and grounds us in humility. We recognize all we have, all we are, is a freely given gift – none of it earned.

Creation has gone on a long time without you and me and could have continued just fine without us. Yet in this moment, God decided creation was incomplete without us.

Think of that! We’ve been invited to the divine party — an invitation totally unearned and unmerited on our part. And all we can say is: Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

As we grow in the spirit of gratitude, we become less like the older child in the famous parable, the judgmental one who stands with arms crossed and jaw set, refusing to join the party. He’s not thankful for the Parent’s unlimited and unearned love; he’s only interested in making it an earned reward for those like him.

Like his prodigal brother, he lacks a grateful heart, one that recognizes love and trusts it. Gratitude involves a deep trust.

When we’re in tough times – someone has died, something has been lost, we’re struggling and confused and anxious – we’re reminded to trust that God’s love and presence are always with us.

Gratitude involves a deep trust

The One who decided creation is incomplete without us will take care of us and get us through whatever we’re up against in the moment, including the transformative moment of death. For that, we’re thankful.

Gratitude grows as we get to know God more intimately and trust more deeply. We become less clingy and let go of some of the anxiousness that blocks gratitude from taking root in our hearts.

We relax into God’s love and hear that voice calling us beloved. We’re thankful not just with the words of our prayers, but with the generosity of our lives. We’re grateful not only for what we have, but for all that is in the moment.

For all of it, we humbly say: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

When religion leaves faith behind

(Photo by Pete Bannan)

Many people today categorize themselves as spiritual but not religious. What I hear them saying is they believe in God and spirituality, but many forms of religion these days take them the opposite way.

Many practices of religion get in the way of living in a truly loving, spiritual way, and people feel forced to choose between faith and religion. It’s good to remind ourselves that the two are not the same.

Let’s define faith as the Spirit in which we’re made to live; the love from which and for which we are created; the values embedded in the foundation of our spirituality.

Faith centers us in the truth that we love God by loving all our neighbors as ourselves, caring for those who are struggling, seeing the image of the creator equally in every person, following the call to work for justice.

Religion is how we put that Spirit and those values into practice. It’s supposed to be the expression and implementation of those values in our individual and collective lives; sadly, it often is not.

As we know, religion easily gets detached from the faith in which it’s meant to be grounded. It rejects the Spirit and values it’s supposed to embody, choosing to go a different way.

Making religion align with faith

We don’t need to look hard for examples: culture wars, holy wars, crusades, inquisitions, burnings at the stake, Nazi extermination camps, white churchgoers firebombing Black churches, KKK crosses lit in Jesus’ name, Capitol rioters carrying Bibles and rosaries.

Religion gets reduced to theological propositions about who’s in and who’s out, who deserves unconditional love, who should be attacked. Religion is turned into a wall, a weapon, a rejection of not only God’s children but the God who created them in the multiplicity of the divine image and likeness.

Prophets of all ages and all religions call people back to the foundation of their faith when religious expression becomes unmoored and needs to repent and change.

Jesus embodied this prophetic tradition. He called out those who turned religion into rejection. He felt a harsh backlash from those intent upon defending their religion at the expense of their faith.

He reminded the religiously observant that faith isn’t about following rules and laws and theologies; instead, love and love alone fulfills all that God seeks from us.

That is our faith. That also should be our religion.

We’re imperfect people, so our faith and our religion will always be an imperfect match. That’s a given. But we’re called to be vigilant in seeing how we can make our religion align more closely with our faith.

New ways of being faithful

Our prophetic role is to challenge religious expressions – including our own – that pull us away from faith toward something else: power, control, self-importance, domination, ego, judgement, privilege, bullying, ostracizing, self-aggrandizing, rejection, and fighting.

The letter attributed to James reminds us that if our religion doesn’t put our faith into practice, it’s thoroughly lifeless. Or, to paraphrase Paul, religion that’s lacking in love amounts to nothing more than noise. It leads nowhere.

Any religion separated from faith is going to wither and die – and it should. We see this happening in so many expressions of religion today. It’s a necessary step. These forms of religious expression are withering away so something more faithful can be reborn in their place – the cycle of death and resurrection.

There’s the marvelous line in the gospel of Luke about leaving the spiritually dead to bury their dead. We’re at that moment. Leave those deadened by these forms of religion to bury them.

Instead, let faith inspire yet another time of reforming in ways both old and new — new ways for this old faith to thrive, new places to offer healing and discovery and growth, new gatherings where we can be comforted and challenged and transformed.

New ways of being faithful.

Our work of making peace

We drove through a small town that has a quaint public square. A large war monument dominates – a cannon with plaques recording the names of town residents who died in far-away wars.

That’s all there was about the town’s history.

No mention of the town’s founders; or the first town doctor who visited sick children in the middle of the night; or those who started the town’s first school; or the wise and compassionate leaders who helped the town through its many challenging times.

War was remembered and monumentalized. Only war.

The town is typical of other small communities and big cities across our society and our world. There are many monuments to war. Wars and warriors get the pedestals and parades.

What about the makers of peace? Those who save countless lives by leading us away from conflict?

One of my favorite monuments to a maker of peace is in downtown Pittsburgh. Across the river from Fort Pitt – a place of war – is a statue of Mister Rogers.

Fred Rogers once said: “Peace means far more than the opposite of war.” It’s a spirit, a work, a way of life that we’re called to follow.

Our faith reminds us we’re called to be makers of peace. “Peace on Earth” is more than a feel-good verse; it’s the work given to us. It’s challenging and unpopular and counter-cultural work, but it’s our work.

Making peace means more than hoping and praying and wishing for peace. We must actively challenge attitudes about war and peace, reminding everyone we’re meant to love each other as siblings in God’s family instead of fighting one another out of self-interest.

Unpopular work, but it’s our work

War is the ultimate human failure: God’s children killing each other over land, religion, power, influence, wealth, supremacy. We destroy each other, what we’ve built together, and what God has created.

War must never be glamorized or romanticized. Instead, we need to lead our societies another way as makers and promoters of peace.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they understand what it means to live and children of God.

Making peace involves building and nurturing mutually beneficial relationship, which is the heart of our faith traditions and our scriptures. We’re called to put selfishness aside and find ways to meet others’ needs for food, housing, healing, and spiritual uplift. We do this not only in our collective relationships but in our individual ones as well.

Making peace involves a willingness to do the hard and unpopular work of changing attitudes and showing people that we can and must get along. It entails working for justice for all God’s children.

We need peace on our pedestals.

Creating peace requires listening, honesty, trustworthiness, and justice. It’s about seeing everyone’s needs as equally important to my own – love your neighbor as yourself.

Peace on our pedestals

Again, this isn’t popular work – never has been, never will be. Many “religious” people have rejected the summons to be peacemakers and instead embraced the us-against-them warrior mentality that we see raging in our society right now.

Wars never just happen. They’re the accumulation of many smaller moments of injustice and selfishness. And they always result from demagogues riling people up for combat, insisting they must attack others before they themselves are attacked.

Demagogues excuse themselves from any actual sacrifices, increase their power in the fog of war, then put themselves on pedestals as great warriors to be emulated.

And war follows war follows war …

We’ll always have war – it’s who we are as humans, one of our original sins – but we can and must create conditions for a more just, humane, equitable, and peaceful world. We can and must create more peace in our individual lives.

This is the work given to us. It’s our calling. May we be makers of peace in how we live and interact with one another. May we work for the justice and mutuality that create conditions for all God’s children to live together as we’re meant.

(Image courtesy of uwgbadmissions@creativecommons.org)