The power of our words

mlk spotlight

Martin Luther King, Jr., understood the power of words.

He spoke so beautifully and prophetically about his dream of a world in which everyone is treated as an equally beloved child of God. He challenged society to live up to its founding words of equality, liberty and justice for all.

His enduring words reengage us, reorient us and reenergize us in the daily struggle to decide our values and live up to them.

Words matter because they always take on flesh in some form.

Words have the power to inspire us, touch us, and transform us for better or worse, depending upon which words we choose to allow inside of us. They can bring us more peace, love and justice, or they can increase our levels of division, fear and hatred.

In the last few months, we’ve been reminded how easy it is to get sucked into the pool of hateful words.

A man immersed in racist words shot people in a Kentucky grocery store. A man immersed in fearful words sent bombs to people labeled as threats. A man immersed in anti-Semitic words killed people in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Words can inject poison into our veins, or they can be a healing antidote. They can bring illuminating hope, or they can appeal to our darkest instincts.

Words have power

MLK showed us how to change societies in nonviolent ways using nonviolent language. He reminded us that love involves recognizing each person as a child of God and respecting their human dignity, even if they don’t do the same for us.

We can’t return a slur or insult with one of our own. We can’t demean anyone or support those who demean others.

Our aim is never to harm any person, but to challenge their way of thinking and to defend those whom they are hurting. We must disagree and resist without being hateful.

This weekend is a fitting time to remember three important things about words:

First, it’s so very tempting to respond to incendiary, angry words with incendiary and angry language of our own. But when we do that, we’re giving power to the hateful words. We can’t go down that path.

Second, we can harm people with our silence as well as our words. Refusing to stand up against injustice – swallowing our words in the face of something that’s wrong – makes us complicit in the injustice.

Last, we must hold not only ourselves but also our leaders accountable for their words.

Silence can harm too

Religious, political and social leaders all have a “bully pulpit.” Their words are amplified throughout our society and will either elevate it or debase it. Leaders shape attitudes and inspire actions with their spoken and typed words.

When anyone in a leadership role uses language that marginalizes, demonizes or demeans, we must push back strongly, withhold our support, and hold them accountable.

This weekend reminds us how words can lead us forward or hold us back. They can promote goodness or spread darkness. They can inspire a dream or encourage destruction.

The enduring challenge is to choose our words carefully, speak them prophetically and live them courageously.

On the square: Lives written with the same words

Market Square

Market Square in downtown Pittsburgh was vibrant on the autumn afternoon that Gloria and I visited. Folks got a cup of coffee or a sandwich from one of the surrounding shops, sat at a table and enjoyed the company of strangers on a delightful day.

Some read books. Some listened to music. Some talked. One couple chased their young boy around. People made eye contact and smiled. Everyone was in their own space yet sharing this space.

I couldn’t help but wonder about each person’s story.

For instance, there was an older couple sitting nearby, holding hands and sharing one cigarette. How did they meet? What tough times have they overcome? What is it about each other that makes them smile?

Oh, and why only one cigarette?

Each one’s story

On the other side of the square, a couple doted on their young boy, encouraging him to run and watch the pigeons fly away. Will this moment become a fond memory for all of them? How many times have they been to the square already, enjoying the miracle of watching a child grow step by step?

Soon, a group of high school boys walked briskly through the square on their way home. Two boys in front were teasing one of the others. A boy in the back of the pack hung back a few steps and looked unhappy. Had he been teased? Does he get teased often for being different? Did he have that teenage feeling of wondering if you’ll ever fit in?

From the other direction came a student from the nearby college. She walked briskly and appeared troubled. Was she away from home for the first time and feeling homesick? Missing someone who had always been there for her? Wondering how she was going to get through the semester?

A family of Middle Eastern descent found an open table. They spoke in their native language. How have they been treated lately in their adopted country? What do they tell the children about our times? Do they live in fear?

A young man set up shop on a corner of the square, offering to draw portraits for $10. He was an extrovert, happily welcoming anyone who walked by. How did he learn to draw? Who are the most unforgettable people he’s met in this place?

As I looked around, I wondered how many of the people on the square had overcome cancer or some horrific health problem. Which ones were grieving the recent loss of a loved one. Which ones just got good news – a clear scan result, a promotion, a pregnancy test that came back positive – that had them feeling more alive than ever.

Each of us was in our own little world and also sharing our world with everyone else. Places like Market Square reminds us of our innate connectedness.

The same words

We give into our tendency to fixate on superficial differences, and we create opposing categories — young or old, male or female, gay or straight, single or married, black or white, Democrat or Republican, this religion or that one, this sports team or another one, and on and on. We draw many lines between ourselves and others.

As we do so, we overlook how we’re so much alike at our core. We’re all made from the same ingredients. We’re all doing our best to try to navigate through life at any given moment, in our own unique and yet universal way.

Our stories differ in their details but not in their genre. All our stories fit on the same shelf marked “human,” tucked snugly next to each other, cover to cover. When we listen to others’ stories, we’re reminded of our similar experiences and familiar feelings.

In swapping stories, we recognize that our lives are written with the same words.

As the shadows grew longer in the late-afternoon sun, the older couple got up – still holding hands – and walked away, taking turns sharing drags off that one cigarette.

They were walking each other home. Like all of us.

A headlight and a voice

headlight3

In the ‘60s, I attended a church that had very little to say about my world. I heard sermons about heaven, but hardly a word from the pulpit about what was happening on Earth.

And a lot was happening.

The Civil Rights Movement was forcing us to have a challenging conversation about equality. So was the women’s rights movement. With cities shrouded in fog and a river catching fire, the environmental movement questioned what we’re doing to God’s creation.

The “sexual revolution” asked whether intimacy is about more than propagating the species. The Vietnam war raised so many troubling questions about the use of power and military might.

With church so hesitant to wade into the subjects of the day, my generation began drifting away and looking for other places that were engaged in discussions about how we treat one another and our planet.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was challenging church to get its act together, get engaged and stop ignoring what was happening right outside its doors.

King told his congregation at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery that “any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.” And the people in the pews who knew oppression first-hand said amen.

Dry-as-dust religion

As the Civil Rights Movement grew and many white churches either ignored or encouraged the deep injustices in our society, King challenged them directly. He lamented that the church was so often a “weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.”

“But the judgment of God is upon the Church as never before,” he wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. “If today’s Church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early Church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the 20th Century.

“Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the Church has turned into outright disgust.”

He was prophetic. Millions of people – especially young people – have turned away in disgust at what they’ve seen and heard in organized religion. And who can blame them?

I’m disgusted by much of what’s going on, too. Sexual predators protected and applauded. Women marginalized. Racism ignored and encouraged. Gay and transgender people condemned. People of other faiths attacked. Mulligans granted for unacceptable conduct in exchange for political favor.

But I also know from experience that so many people today yearn for real faith communities — and they do exist.

People want places where they can gather and be transformed by God-filled words about loving each other, healing the broken, caring for the poor and the stranger, and nurturing creation.

They want places where they can raise important questions without being dismissed as lacking faith. They want places where people help one another heal by entering each other’s pain and guiding them through it, not just reciting a prayer for them.

They want places that speak to their world and get engaged in those many important conversations that started in the ‘50s and ‘60s and continue today.

MLK mentioned how “so often, the Church in our struggle has been a tail light rather than a headlight. The Church has so often been an echo rather than a voice.”

Hope and possibility

Many people want faith communities that are prophetic rather than merely partisan. They want a voice reminding everyone that we are all equally beloved children of God and must be treated that way in all respects.

And especially now, people want places that remind them of the reasons for hope.

Tarana Burke, who started the #MeToo movement, says, “Christianity is, really, when you take away all the pomp and circumstance, it’s about hope and possibility.”

People need to be shown hope and possibility. They need to be reminded that God always gets the last word, even now. It’s always been that way.

Pharaoh thought he could enslave the Jewish people forever. He was wrong. God had other ideas.

Caesar and his religious minions thought they could kill Jesus, bury his spirit and end his kingdom-of-God-on-earth movement. They were wrong. God had other ideas.

A white man thought he could fire a shot toward a balcony of the Lorraine Motel and kill Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, end his movement and erase his words. He was wrong. God had other ideas.

The political, social and religious leaders of our day who promote division, supremacy and discrimination think they have the power to prevail. They’re wrong, too.

God has other ideas.

So, let’s go work together with God on those other ideas. Let’s be a headlight that shows people a different way. Let’s be a voice that leads people in a different direction.

Serving without exception

ServeOthers

Self-described Christians are refusing to serve gay couples. The president’s spokeswoman was denied service by a restaurant owner with deeply held beliefs.

Our society is fraying. The refuse-to-serve mentality is spreading, leading us to a dark place.

As Gandhi taught, an eye for an eye and soon the whole world is blind.

We don’t have to continue down this road blindly. We can light another way. But if we want to be that light, we can’t reject, shun or demean anyone.

Instead, We must love, serve and respect everyone. Each of us has many such opportunities each day.

Last weekend, my church participated in the local Pride Parade. As we waited for the march to begin, a man walked through the crowd carrying a sign that said, “Jesus Is Coming.” He told us we were horrific sinners doomed to burn in hell.

We had to decide how to respond. Do we ignore him? Argue with him? We chose to offer kindness. We smiled, said hello and offered him a bottle of water. He was free to turn it down, but he graciously accepted it.

We didn’t attack his views but respectfully explained ours – Jesus is already here, calling us to love everyone. We wished the man a blessed day as he went on his way.

Serving others doesn’t mean endorsing their beliefs; it’s recognizing and respecting them as a child of God. To refuse service is to deny the image of God within each of us.

There are many ways to advocate for our beliefs. Demeaning others is not one of them.

Faith is service

Many self-described Christians argue that living their values means shunning those who believe differently. It’s a dishonest claim. If love is your core value, then every act of kindness and service is an expression of faith, not a rejection of it.

Sacrificial service is the heart of God’s value system. It’s the only way out of our current darkness.

What’s happening today isn’t new. Sadly, it’s been the norm in our society. Over the centuries, many Christians have refused to love and serve black people and Native American people and many others – including other Christians — whom they deemed inferior.

In Jesus’ time and place, many religious people also shunned those who lived and believed differently, insisting that any interaction with them amounted to participating in their impurity and their sin.

Jesus took direct aim on that attitude.

He befriended the marginalized and the shunned, pushing back hard against the religious people who objected. He ate with those whom others labeled great sinners.

To Jesus, a lack of love was the only sin. He understood that simply telling someone to change means nothing; we must be a source of the unconditional love that makes change possible.

And when the religious leaders objected to all of this, he told them to worry more about the plank in their own eye — take a good look at yourself and drop that stone from your hand.

Lack of love is the only sin

Instead, be like the Samaritan in the parable, the shunned person who gets it right because he loves and serves. Don’t be like the religious people who walk past with their noses in the air.

Be a source of love.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us, hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that. That’s the rule we must apply.

We need to remember that shunning doesn’t help anyone grow or change. Only love can do that.

Refusing service doesn’t fulfill our faith. Only love can do that.

We can’t vanquish darkness by bringing more darkness into the world. Only love can do that.

That is the way, the truth and the light that can lead us to a better place.

All the young prophets

MLK women's march3

Watching the huge crowds of people marching worldwide Saturday reminded me of the 1960s, when there were demonstrations for civil rights, women’s rights, an end to a war, the environment, and many other causes.

We’ve come a long way as a society. A lot of progress awaits. In every instance, change arrives in the same way.

It starts with courageous and prophetic people who insist that the status quo is no longer acceptable. We see it in the spirit-filled young people challenging our acceptance of the ongoing slaughter in our society.

Several lines in scripture remind us: “I send you prophets.” We hear that promise fulfilled in the thousands of young voices calling on us to repent of our failure and transform our society.

We’re also reminded that prophets gather a following, but they’re not popular with most people in their societies. They get treated badly by those determined to keep things just as they are.

And when the movement begins to gain traction and it appears that change is occurring – it’s going to be more than just a march or a speech – those invested in the status quo will fight back ruthlessly to protect their privilege and profits.

I send you prophets

But finally, things reach a tipping point. Significant change occurs, and then we stagnate. We find ourselves at a crossroad again. New prophets emerge to lead the next part of the movement.

That’s how the process works. We’ve seen it play out many times and in many ways during the last half-century alone. What’s required now is persistence and faithfulness.

The moral arc is long, but it keeps bending so long as we keep tugging.

We saw this when a young woman in Montgomery, Alabama decided she wasn’t moving to the back of the bus any more – enough was enough. Her courageous determination sparked the Civil Rights Movement, a long struggle that has made much progress but remains a work in progress. The Promised Land hasn’t yet been reached.

We’ve seen generations of courageous women say it’s long past time that they’re treated as equals in society – more than a servant or sex object. We’ve come a long way, with a long way yet to go. The #MeToo movement is just beginning to transform the world in ways no one thought possible even a few months ago.

In a comparatively short time, there’s been great progress in making sure gay people and transgender people are treated as equals.

Bending the arc

We’ve changed how we think about physically and mentally challenged people, finally recognizing them as fully and wonderfully human in every way.

People are working to help the needy, the immigrant, and the refugee receive the respect and the care they deserve as children of God, even as others argue they’re dangerous and lazy and should be ignored.

We’ve seen mothers who lost their children to drunk drivers change an entire culture’s outlook and save many lives despite great opposition from those who wanted things to remain the same.

Movements take time. They have an ebb and flow – two steps forward, one step back. People lose interest or get distracted. Others get tired of struggling. Some insist that a little progress is enough and the movement should stop.

There can be no stopping. When it feels like we’ve hit a wall, we need to remember it’s only temporary so long as we maintain our resolve to keep going.

There will be times when it feels like all the hard work and all the progress have been crushed and buried in a cold, dark tomb covered by a giant rock that no one can roll away.

Let this week remind us that those who are co-workers with God never get buried for long. Someone always rolls the rock away. Love always rises and re-emerges, as strong and as determined as ever.

Let us rise with it, too.

Hearing God in a female voice

Female voice

Many courageous women are challenging powerful men who abused them. Those female voices have started a national conversation and brought about significant changes already.

It’s fitting that we’re focused on those voices as Advent begins. It’s a season for all of us to honor, encourage and hear the many female voices that challenge us, teach us, love us, and bring us into a deeper experience of God, if we let them.

Throughout history, female voices have been ignored, marginalized, and muted by those who think that only males should be heard. By contrast, the Jesus story places women front-and-center, right from the start.

 

All by herself

In Luke’s telling of the tale, a woman decides all by herself – a subversive thing, then or now – whether the Jesus story will even happen. Mary’s let-it-be gets everything started.
 
A courageous, hesitant, female voice brings God more fully into the world.
 
Mary’s role is shocking in a time and a place when only men made important decisions and women were treated more like property than persons. That’s only the beginning of this theologically radical and socially subversive story.
 
Luke’s version has Mary visiting her relative Elizabeth — two strong women — and talking about God’s passion for justice in ways that her son would later repeat, which is no surprise. After all, who teaches Jesus and molds him? His mom.
Jesus first learns about God through a female voice.
 
Perhaps that’s why Jesus is so persistent about ignoring and violating the rules in his society and his religion that try to limit the role of women. He constantly interacts with women in ways the religious and social leaders find scandalous.
 
There’s the famous story of Jesus visiting two sisters and one of them chooses to sit with him and discuss religion – a man’s realm – instead of joining her sister Martha in preparing the meal, as a woman was required. Jesus encourages Mary to do what she values.

Men will learn from the women

The story culminates in a crucifixion, and it’s the women who show courage and love while the men run and hide. Peter denies knowing Jesus to save his hide. The women? They risk their lives to be with Jesus up to his last breath.
 
And as the story goes, it’s the women who have the courage to go to the tomb. While the men are still hiding in fear, the women experience the still-alive Jesus. He tells them to tell the men about what they’ve experienced — the men will learn from the women.
 
Predictably, the men don’t believe the women and dismiss their accounts. They run to the tomb to see for themselves.
 
The same thing happens in every generation. Men choose to ignore the voices of women who have experienced things they know nothing about.
 
Today, many faith communities bar women from going to the pulpit and telling about their experiences. Women’s voices are marginalized and ignored, just like 2,000 years ago.
 

#MeToo

Our society considers a female voice less believable and less important than a male voice. When it comes to sexual abuse, for instance, a man’s shifting denial is believed over the word of so many courageous and prophetic women saying #MeToo.
 
It’s long past a time for change.
 
Let’s use this Advent – the season that starts with one woman’s courageous voice – to pay closer attention to all the female voices in our world. Let’s honor them and hear God still speaking to all of us through them.
 
May we let those voices teach us their truths, especially the truths that we’re reluctant to hear. May we allow their courageous and persistent “let it be” change each of us and our world all over again.

Time to say: Enough!

Enough2

Last Saturday, I stopped in traffic behind a car that displayed gun decals and a bumper sticker that depicted the “Hello Kitty” character with a bullet hole. The bumper sticker said: “Goodbye Kitty!”

I was appalled! How many children in other cars would see the sick caricature? How twisted is our society when people consider that funny?

The next day, a man with a gun and a grudge walked into a church in Texas and committed our latest massacre. The sickness in our society confronts us again, mere weeks after the massacre in Las Vegas.

Another day of darkness.

Honestly, I’d rather write about anything except another shooting, but we can’t ignore it. The massacres will keep multiplying and the body counts will continue rising until we do something to change it.

It’s time for each of us to say: Enough!

Things that matter

Say it firmly, prophetically and persistently. No more of the #prayers cop-out. Our silence, our fear and our indifference have helped create a culture in which there’s another worst-such-shooting every few weeks.

Martin Luther King, Jr., reminded us that our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Individually and collectively, we must say: Enough!

We need to be a light in the great darkness that has overtaken our land. We must challenge our culture’s worship of weapons, violence and war.

How do we do it? Here are a few suggestions.

— We resolve that we will never again be silent. Silence enables the sickness to grow and makes us complicit in the evil.

— We reject the notion that nothing can be done. The onslaught of guns, bullets and murders isn’t inevitable. Our society is the only one where these things happen on such a scale.

Instruments of peace

— We remind ourselves what courage can accomplish. In the last few weeks alone, many brave women have pushed back against the notion that sexual abuse is ingrained in our culture, so they might as well stay silent and accept it. Their courageous words have already started making a difference.

— We push back against those who say the bloodshed has nothing to do with the guns. They blame “evil” or “human nature” or “mental illness” to distract us. Such dishonesty must never go unchallenged.

— We educate ourselves about the many aspects of the problem and the possible responses. We can’t have a productive conversation about solutions if we’re not knowledgeable.

— We talk to those who disagree with us, bringing an open mind and a respectful heart to those discussions. That’s how we forge common ground and make progress.

— We respectfully but firmly challenge those who insist the only appropriate response is more weapons and more violence. No, we don’t need more “good” people buying more guns and shooting more “bad” people. Enough!

Let’s not forget that it goes beyond guns. It includes challenging violence in all forms – bullying, shaming, verbal attacks, abuse of any sort. None of it should be considered acceptable, under any circumstance.

Enough!

There’s one more thing we must do. We must resolve that we will not support any person or any organization that considers these massacres acceptable. Our endorsements and our votes must reflect our determination to stop the carnage.

The world needs prophets, Jesus says, while in the next breath reminding us that they’re never popular. They do get results, however. They stir things up. They get a backlash from those who benefit from the status quo and want to preserve it.

Peacemakers and prophets have the courage to stand up and advocate for a different way. They change the world. It’s on you and me to do it, prophetically and persistently. It’s time to become instruments of God’s peace and heal our sick society.

Enough!