Ashamed of America?

Are you ashamed of the United States?  In a 2021 Pew Research study, 60% of Americans responded that they were often ashamed of our country.  How is it, then, that we have become a nation where people like Michelle Obama and Colin Kaepernick are vilified when they express disappointment in the way we approach issues of race, climate, and gun violence?

I thought about that last week on the long flight back from Europe after ten days in Spain and France.  I flew home with a heavy heart after yet another horrific school shooting, trying to wrap my head around what happened in Texas while I had been immersing myself in the joy of other cultures.

Even as our plane had landed ten days earlier, I couldn’t help making comparisons and feeling somewhat abashed.  The first thing I noticed as we traveled the streets of Barcelona and Arles wasn’t the amazing sites but the number of enormous recycling bins on every street in both cities.  The difference in our effort and theirs to reduce our carbon footprint continued to be striking throughout the week.  Most of their water and bottled drinks were packaged in either glass or cardboard.  On the return flight home on a European airline, we were given reusable utensils made of metal—a stark contrast from the unrecyclable plastic utensils our American airline gave us on our flight to Europe.

European vehicles were also more environmentally friendly.  The cars were smaller and more fuel efficient, and the streets were filled with people on bicycles and motorbikes.  The only large SUVs on the road were shuttles for transporting tourists.  On our first tour of Barcelona, an American complained loudly from the back of the bus about the inadequtae air conditioning.  In a moment of unvarnished truthfulness, our Spanish tour guide responded, “You Americans like everything big.”

I quickly became ashamed of myself for failing to brush up on the little bit of Spanish I learned in high school when I saw how many people abroad spoke fluent English and how many of them asked us questions to learn more.  When our server on the ship, who was Bulgarian, learned that we were English teachers, he immediately asked us questions to help him respond better to passengers. It was his very first week as a server, and, unfortunately, one of the tables assigned to him was a group of ugly Americans.  A man that I had observed flouting the mask rules and then being extremely rude to his wife when she called him out for it was quite nasty to the server when he made mistakes in their order.  The man called the head waiter and demanded a different server, and afterwards the poor trainee was a nervous wreck that the ugly Americans may have cost him his job.

By far, however, I was most ashamed when the news of the latest school shooting made its way across the ocean in the middle of the night in Europe.  Already weary of the bad news at home when we left, I had tried to limit my news consumption as we left for a vacation that had been postponed three times because of Covid.  I had left the United States feeling guilty that I had the luxury of turning off the news from Ukraine, but I couldn’t possibly ignore the news alerts when I saw the faces of yet more innocent children and their teachers who will never come home from school again.

I am deeply ashamed of the politicians who immediately began the dance of defending gun rights and of their constituents who blame the home life of the shooter.  This is a boy who was bullied as a child for his stutter, yet state leaders do little to improve the mental health services in schools.  Instead, they focus their attention on banning books that might make children more empathetic.

Worst of all, instead of working with President Biden to pass sensible gun laws, they bully a leader who overcame a stutter similar to the shooter’s and refuse even to have a sensible conversation with the president about it..  Even many people who voted for Trump have said to me over the years that they support some sensible gun laws.  I am deeply ashamed of my fellow citizens who voice this opinion every time another parent loses a child to a shooter but then continue to elect the very politicians who obstruct such measures.

That I am ashamed doesn’t mean that I’m not patriotic as we approach another Memorial Day.  I am deeply proud when I hear a French guide point out the mortar damage on ancient buildings and then acknowledge all that America did to protect them from Hitler once we finally entered the war.

But when do we begin to protect our own children from the madmen who walk among us every day? When do we begin to vote with the common good in mind, rather than the wealth of our own purses?  When do we recognize the value of every life, even the life of the tormented shooter, who should have had a village of compassionate people to help him when he felt hopeless and tormented?

My fellow Americans, we should all be ashamed that we’ve done nothing in the years since the first horrific shooting to prevent these grieving families from having to plan funerals as we approach another Memorial Day.  Instead of planting flags on every corner, we should be asking ourselves what we can do to prevent parents from having to plant flowers on the graves of their children.

“He Has Been Raised”

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.” (Matthew 28: 1-6)

Like Mark, Matthew tells us that Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene, although Matthew gives a bit more detail. Mark focuses on the fact that the disciples do not believe that she has actually seen Jesus. Matthew gives a broader view of the story, including more of the people who are involved, as well as some insight into this miraculous and incredulous story. Matthew creates a movie of the mind for us, helping us picture an angel with strength enough to move a boulder and perhaps a sense of humor enough to sit casually upon the stone once the task is done. It is also interesting to note that the focus on strength is continued in describing the guards, the presumably strong protectors of the tomb, who become weak and immobile in the presence of such a sight. To hear the angel’s message requires a different kind of strength, an inner strength granted to the women in this story.

In the same way, our faith sometimes requires a different kind of strength—a willingness to allow that sometimes, miracles do, indeed, happen.

Wondering:  What kind of strength does it take to put our faith in God when what we hope for seems impossible in a world of hurt and fear?

Jesus: “Woman, here is your son.”

When Jesus saw his mother the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. (John 19: 26-27)

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if just one of the Gospels had been written by a woman? It can be a little frustrating sometimes that all the stories that involve Jesus’ interactions with women seem to be the shortest and most abrupt accounts. It is a perspective we must imagine for ourselves.  This story, then, is all the more moving because there are so few of them. At the time of this event, Jesus has been hanging on the cross for hours, and this is one of the last things he does. He sees his mother standing there, watching him suffer, and he turns to her and tells her that “the disciple whom he loved” is now her son. Then he turns to the disciple and tells him that Mary is now his mother. According to John’s account, from that hour on, Mary lived with and was taken care of by the disciple.

Jesus’ last act of human compassion is to see that his mother will be cared for. Despite his own agony, his last thoughts as a human being are of his concern for the woman who has given him birth. Even though there are few stories like it in the Gospels, this speaks volumes about Jesus’ compassion for others and his respect for women.

Wondering:  What can we learn from Jesus as we walk with him on the last days of his earthly journey?

“Truly this man was God’s son.”

Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” There were also some women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.  (Mark 15: 39-41)

Mark gives this description of the people who remain with Jesus up to the moment he dies. The disciples who have been so devoted to Jesus are nowhere to be seen, having run in any direction that offers safety from the people who crucify Jesus. In fact, Peter has denied three times that he even knows Jesus. The disciples leave Jesus before they can see that even an unbeliever like the centurion who is guarding him admits that this person must be more than a mere man.

The disciples, in their humanness, have left Jesus to die in fear of their own lives, and any of us who have ever felt that we were in grave danger have to understand their fear. It is interesting to note who remains with Jesus, though. According to Mark, the women aren’t really doing anything; there is no description other than who they are and the fact that they are still there. However, Mark describes how these many women who have ministered to Jesus remain with him in the most difficult moment of his life on Earth. Occasionally, as in this passage, we get a glimpse of the women who play a very important part in the life of Jesus. All of us need people to minister to us when we’re not up to the task of dealing with the world. How wonderful to know that there were women who provided for Jesus when he might have been feeling more human than divine!

Wondering:  If Jesus were among us today, what stories would he be able to tell us about the women in his ministry that are so often omitted in the Gospels?

The Way, and the Truth, and the Life

Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”  Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”  (John 14: 5-7)

Thomas always seems to ask Jesus tough questions. And Jesus’ answer to this question has probably raised more questions for many Christians than anything else Jesus ever says. Some people see this as a direct command to evangelism, a call to convert others to the Christian faith. In its wake, many followers of Christ have done much wonderful and powerful good in the world. Unfortunately, this verse has also been used as a reason to oppress others in the name of God, and history is full of examples of those who have gone on crusades, using both peaceful and forceful means to convert others to Christianity.

Is it possible that Jesus was saying to Thomas that no one comes to God without first struggling to figure out who God is? We have such difficulty with the concept of the Trinity. How can God be three people? How can God be Jesus’ father? How can God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit all be one? How can Jesus be fully human and fully divine?  Can someone who thinks Jesus was just a man still believe in God? Unless we mindlessly accept what we read in the Bible, all of us struggle to try to figure out all the contradictions we read there. Perhaps, though, the struggle is the way to—and through—God. Perhaps any sort of conversion is positive only when others have the desire to convert because they have seen the face of God in us, just as many see the face of God in Jesus.

Wondering:  What does Jesus mean when he says, “No one comes to the Father except through me”? How can we find our way to God by wandering after Jesus?

My Peace I Give to You

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live…Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14: 18-19, 27)

Jesus promises his followers eternal life, and all of us have an instinct that tells us that there is something that is eternal—a soul, an essence of some sort that cannot be explained. Great writers have written about it. The stage manager in Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, says it well:  “We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars…everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it.” This is the something that Jesus talks about in these verses. Jesus never truly leaves us, and we can see him and see the eternal in each other by remembering that the inexplicable spirit that lives in Christ lives in us as well. This faith can be a source of peace and comfort to us if we try not to lose hold of it.

Wondering:  How can we hold on to the assurance that in life and in death, we belong to God, and how can we hold on to a peace that passes understanding?

Greater Works than These

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14: 8-12)

Jesus’ followers constantly question him in their very human confusion to try to understand what it is that he is saying to them about the nature of God. He understands that it is a stretch for his disciples to believe all that he tells them. Even more, Jesus understands that there are others in the world who will only be able to believe because they have seen the face of God and heard the stories of him from his people. One of the very important ways that we experience God is through the people who love us and take care of us on this earth. Just as Christ’s disciples experienced God through the person of Jesus, people in need can experience God through us if we reach out and care for those in need.

The most miraculous thing about this verse may be that Jesus says that anyone who believes in him will be able to do even greater works than he has done.  What must that have been like for Christ’s followers to contemplate?  They probably felt like kindergarteners who can’t read yet but are listening to someone trying to explain Einstein’s theory of relativity.  It may not even be possible for us to fathom doing greater good than Christ did.  But isn’t it a goal worth reaching for?

Wondering:  If you were able to do greater works than Jesus did while he was on earth, what would you want to do? How could you work toward his desires for the world?

Bread of Life

“…life is more than food…”

“I am the bread of life…”

Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”  (Luke 12: 23; John 6: 48; Luke 22: 19)

Even though Jesus says that “life is more than food,” he also calls himself “the bread of life.” He uses this analogy of God as essential food a number of times, probably because he knows that the need for food is something all of us can understand. Anyone who has ever tried to diet or who has ever gone hungry knows how much the body craves food. Notice that Jesus’ analogies consistently use the word “life,” not “survival.” “Life” implies much more than mere survival. Truly being alive means more than just existing from day to day. Jesus wants life for us, not simply existence. One of his last acts on Earth is to break bread with the disciples, telling them the bread represents his body, broken that they may live. Sometimes we forget that this key symbol of Christianity represents more than the hope of an afterlife. It represents the importance of savoring all that God has given us to enjoy.

Wondering:  How can we savor and enjoy life each day, remembering that Jesus wants us to have and abundant life?

Jesus Serves Bread and Wine

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.  (Matthew 26: 26-30)

The scene could not have begun in a more familiar and commonplace way. At the end of a long day, Christ and his disciples sit down to share a meal, as they have no doubt done countless times during their work together. And yet what happens is so unusual that three of the four Gospels recount the events of the evening in almost exactly the same way. As he has so often done during his time with them, he turns what is pedestrian and routine inside out. He breaks bread with them in a way that neither they nor anyone who comes after them will ever forget. By forgiving our sins and shortcomings, Christ reminds us that all of us need forgiveness. He tells the disciples that he will give his very flesh and blood to ensure that they—and we—remember that even the most mundane moments of our lives should be honored by serving others. 

Wondering:  How can we honor Christ by remembering at every meal that nothing should be as commonplace as serving others in the name of God?

Left Alone with Jesus

…and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”  (John 8: 9-11)

We don’t know what happens to this woman after Jesus speaks to her. Her response is not part of the story. Imagine it, though. This woman has come very close to being executed by a mob of men who are intent on stoning her as a pawn in their quest to entrap Jesus in that place where love and law meet. Coming so close to death must have been life-changing for this woman. Jesus’ words to these people show us that life is a place where compassion and conscience meet. He forces these men to see beyond themselves and realize that while they have made this woman’s sins public, they must certainly know that they have their own sins—sins for which they are not judged as harshly, not only because they are men but because men hold the power in their culture.  The man who has committed adultery with her is not called to account as she has been, but Jesus reminds these men of privilege that God does not grant them a pass for their own sins.  Then, gently, he reminds this woman that she, too, must search her own soul at the end of this road of compassion down which he has led her.

Wondering:  How are we changed by our encounters with Jesus?  How can we walk away feeling empowered rather than condemned by God?

For People Who Don't Know All the Answers