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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.

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?

Loaves and Fishes

“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”  So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.(John 6: 11-13, NRSV))

This story is one of those that even people otherwise unfamiliar with Christianity know. A huge crowd has gathered to hear Jesus speak, and they are ravenously hungry. Christ takes a small amount of food from a little boy and uses it to feed thousands of people, and at the end of the meal, there is more food left over than Jesus had originally borrowed from the boy. It is a story that make nonbelievers incredulous and even some Christians skeptical. 

We all have to acknowledge, though, that God sometimes comes to us in ways that we haven’t even imagined. We face a decision or a crisis, and in our heads we go through all kinds of scenarios for ways that we hope things will work out. And then in desperation we cry out to God, and sometimes things work out in ways that we can’t even begin to explain or understand. One of the messages of this story is that Jesus may not always grant what we ask, but without fail, he always gives us what we need. In every story where people open themselves to the possibility of what God offers, they walk away satisfied.

Wondering:    How can we be sure that God will give us what we need when we’re hungry?

Tormented by a Demon

Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15: 22-28, NRSV)

Some stories of Christ, like this one, are puzzling.  Given the values that Jesus usually exhibits, it seems unthinkable he would respond in such a way to a mother pleading for help for her child.  His response to her is actually offensive, given that he compares her to a dog.  So what is going on here?  One way to make sense of it seems to be to accept Jesus’ humanness in this story. Is he just exhausted by all the people constantly begging for help?  Perhaps.  It’s also possible he is using this as a teachable moment for his disciples.  He initially reacts to the woman with the same impatience the disciples do, but then he responds in a way more in keeping with the compassion we see in other stories, providing them yet another example of what it means to be Christ-like.

What is extraordinary isn’t so much the miracle of healing but the way Jesus and the woman interact.  This woman challenges his thinking, as any desperate mother might do—especially if this is the only hope.  But in Jesus’ time, for a woman to challenge a man in such a way was truly extraordinary.  Does Jesus change his mind?   Perhaps.  Stories like this one can torment us, but they can also help us think about what it means for Jesus to be both fully human and fully divine.

It seems there are two lessons in this for us:  First, it is okay to challenge God sometimes.  A God worth believing in is a God who can take it when a thinking person asks questions.  Second, though it’s easier just to ignore the passages in the Bible that challenge our own thinking about God, wrestling with them can help us see a multi-faceted God that doesn’t always fit into the neat little box of our initial thinking.

Wondering:  How can wrestling with the times when Jesus seems more human than divine help us to see God more clearly?

Hardness of Heart

They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. (Mark 3: 2-5, NRSV)

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day are constantly looking for a reason to condemn him. They find it when he breaks a long-standing law about working on the Sabbath by showing compassion for a man with a disfigured hand. Jesus tries to reason with the leaders, searching their faces and their hearts for any sign of compassion. He sees none. There are few times in the Bible when Jesus is described as being angry, and this is one. To Jesus, showing compassion and love for another human being always stands above the letter of the law. And so, Jesus gently commands the man to hold out his hand, and Jesus makes his hand whole again.

Jesus points out a number of times that he does not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill the law. These people have forgotten that the reason laws exist is to make life better and just for all of us. They focus on the letter of the law, rather than the intent. Jesus clearly shows that the first law is to love and care for those who are in need.

Wondering:  How can we show compassion, even in the face of others who have hard hearts?

The Sweet Spot of Rachel Held Evans

I argued with a church leader and teacher a few months back about Rachel Held Evans, best-selling author who died tragically last weekend at the age of 37.  I’d recently read her book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, and I suggested it as a book study for our church’s Adult Education Hour.

The church leader, who, like me, is a former evangelical, actually snorted.  “You need to move past evangelical writers.  Some of her work is just silly.  I left those people behind when I was 19.  She needs to get a good therapist and do the same.” Continue reading The Sweet Spot of Rachel Held Evans

Dreams, Visions, and Politics

Somewhere near the end of our cross-country drive to visit some of the most beautiful sites in America, my husband and I picked up a strange passenger. We didn’t have room for him in the blue BMW. A sports car isn’t the most practical vehicle for a month-long cross-country trek, but my husband loves the vroom and the heated steering wheel.

Our children and our sheltie occupied what passes for a back seat in the car. But we couldn’t just leave the passenger behind, so we had him sit on the emergency brake between us.

It worked, though I worried what would happen to him if I crashed. He was small—a child-sized version of a former president. He climbed into the car when it was my turn to drive, and I was thrilled to be sitting next to him.

I was vaguely aware that it might be inappropriate for my right arm to be pressed up against his left, and I tried to make myself a little smaller to give him room.

I had no idea what to call him as we made conversation on the drive back to D.C. “Mr. President” didn’t seem fitting for a little man who had hitched a ride.

I started tentatively, trying and failing to achieve the coolness I hoped for. “Hey, Barack…hey, Barry…hey, Mr. B.”

He grinned widely at my discomfort, just as I awoke.

Yes, the political climate has officially made its way into my dreams. I rarely have a dream of such clarity, and I usually have only a vague notion of what led to the dream.

This one is easy, though. Feeling vaguely uncomfortable with a man who was not my husband? Believing that I had no choice but to take a chance on driving him back to Washington?

Taking my turn behind the wheel? My husband says that alone told him it was a dream, since I hate driving. But I was in control of the President of the United States.

I’m not alone in feeling helpless and having my psyche affected by the current political climate. Shortly after the January inauguration, therapists started to report an uptick in patients seeking help for anxiety. In the months since, experts have written numerous articles offering ways to deal with the stress of the current political climate.

Some positive things have come out of this ugliness, though. While it’s disheartening to know the magnitude of sexual harassment and assault in this country, it’s good to know that so many victims are seeing their attackers finally held to account.

Reputable researchers are also beginning to study ways to increase young people’s civic knowledge and involvement. The efforts are nonpartisan, and they seek to understand the beliefs of young people under the age of 30.

In addition, churches are reporting that progressives are reconnecting with their faith communities. Perhaps this will mean that we will finally stop ceding the conversation about Christ to fundamentalists who behave in distinctly un-Christlike ways.

Experts who offer advice about dealing with stress all emphasize the importance of holding on to hope. Psychology Today ends its advice column with this reminder:

Personal and national growth typically follow struggles with anxiety. Nervousness forces us to reevaluate what is most important and what we most want for ourselves, our loved ones, and our fellow citizens. From careful reevaluation emerges a course of meaningful behavior based on our deepest values.

Right now, I’m grateful for an occasional dream that offers me hope and reminds me of what is important.

Isn’t it interesting that I didn’t for a second in that dream consider kicking out my children, my husband, or even our beloved pet so that President Obama would have a place to sit?

I can’t control the current president, but I most assuredly can keep my family close and take hold of the wheel when an opportunity presents itself.

Tug-of-War and Remembrance

As a teenager, I hated no activity at the summer church camps that followed Memorial Day weekend more than the tug-of-war. I was almost always the smallest person in the group, chosen last and put at the end of the rope where my efforts to pull backwards had the least effect on the outcome. When my team lost, I inevitably scraped my knees as all of us were pulled forward into the dust. Even when my team won, I landed on my butt in the dirt, and someone usually fell on top of me.

In even the best of those summer games, I didn’t like competition. But I abhorred the tug-of-war, where humiliation seemed to be the end result for almost everyone except for the big guys at the front of the line on the winning team, who crowed and jeered at the losers in a most un-Christlike way.

It seems to me that our politics have become just such a game. Continue reading Tug-of-War and Remembrance

Images of Beautiful Babies in Syria and at Home

“Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror,” said Donald Trump in his remarks announcing the U.S. military strike in Syria.

I’ve never agreed with him more, though I question the wisdom of basing foreign policy decisions on an emotional reaction to horrific images of victims of what he now calls “our very troubled world.” Continue reading Images of Beautiful Babies in Syria and at Home