Beer bellies and bad tattoos, 26 check-out lines and just two a-workin’, I got the Wal-Mart blues, Flip-flops malfunctioning, You don’t need no shoes, Keep on walkin’, I got the Wal-Mart Blues, Leave your cart in the space I’m parkin’, Cut me off while I choose, The biscuit I’d be eatin’, I got the Wal-Mart blues, Customer service manager smirkin’, When I tell her the news, My lawn mower ain’t startin’, I got the Wal-Mart blues, All over searchin’, The automotive center for clues, Bald heads with pony tails lurkin’ I got the Wal-Mart blues, The register ain’t checkin’ Dude on steroids tries to schomooze, The cute pharmacist who just started workin’ And I still got the Wal-Mart blues.
It’s never good when the phone rings late on Saturday night at the preacher’s house. I go to bed early on most nights. But, on Saturday, it’s a must. Sunday is always around the corner, and I don’t like staying up late for any reason on Saturdays. By 11:00 pm, I’m usually well on my way to sleep. The BBC World Service is playing softly in the background and I’m ready to dream about a full congregation.
The ring scares me to death. I admit it; I am startled. No matter how tough I pretend to be, I am jumpy when the phone rings at night. It’s never, “I’m the preacher; hand the receiver over dear, let me see what problem there is to solve.” It’s always, “Dear God, what’s happened.” As I reach for the phone, hundreds of scenarios run through my mind at the speed of light. Is someone dead, has something happened to my church? Are my parents alright? Are the kids okay?
Tonight it is the latter. It is our middle daughter. She is preparing to graduate from college in a few weeks. In these last few days of her undergraduate education, she finds herself sad, overwhelmed, lonely, and in one of those classic “dark nights of the soul.” I know those places. I tell her this. I have been there many times. She speaks for a moment to her mother. Then, after a time, I ask her to hand the phone to me. “I want to tell her I love her,” I say. Thus begins the process of listening and weeping.
For a moment we say nothing. “Are you alone?” I ask.
She says, “No.”
“Good,” I say. “Keep someone with you tonight. We can come there if we need to.”
I tell her I love her. I will always love her. I say that our brains sometimes lie to us, and we believe those lies. You are more than the chemicals your brain releases to regulate your mood. Listen to me, listen to mom, listen to your counselor, look at your friends: you are life and you are love.
I hear her breathing begin to slow. Finally, she says, “You sound like a motivational speaker.” We both laugh. It’s good to listen to her infectious laugh. I hear hope. I sense that she is going to be okay. She has heard what I’ve said about perspective and making it through the night. I believe she believes me when I tell tomorrow will look entirely different than tonight.
“Look for the first rays of sunlight,” I say. That’s how you know you made it.
That was the most important thing I did all last week. I helped bring resurrection to life, from a two-dimensional story to a three dimensional reality and I did it for my daughter. We walked out of darkness into light. We walked to Emmaus on the phone.
I’m thinking a lot about Easter these days after the resurrection. Jesus is popping up everywhere but never in the synagogues or the Jerusalem First United Methodist Church. He’s always somewhere else – on the road to Emmaus, out by the tomb, busting in the Upper Room, or taking my daughter’s hand and telling her to call home late on a Saturday night. We meet life and resurrection in the wildest places; more often than not, it’s not in church. So where do you think you might meet Jesus today?
There is always someone with another quarter to feed the outrage machine. I admit I’ve spent my fair share of change but think I’m about broke. Mea culpa. Kyrie Eleison. My ashtray is empty, my has been card declined, and my overdraft protection is zero.
I can choose to be mad forever at the injustices in our world or do something about them in a positive, loving way. When people start dying for turning around in the wrong driveway, it’s time for all of us to take a deep breath. To paraphrase Jesus of Nazareth, we are at a live by the sword, die by the sword moment. And now, more often than not, we seem to be dying by the sword.
Anger, directed outwardly toward others or bottled up inside my soul, isn’t going to change how anyone else thinks. I admit it, it feels great to get it off your chest. There is value in making a well-reasoned point-to a point. What our society has come to define as “culture wars” are, in fact, not conflicts ultimately about beliefs – what you or I believe about scripture, human sexuality, God, or the church. They are issues of identity. For example, my view of scripture is central to my identity as a person and fundamental to how I see the world. It is the same way for my traditionalist sisters and brothers.
Years-long debates and disaffiliation votes don’t change someone’s identity or who they see when they look in the mirror. If anything, they, as we’ve seen, harden the resolve of all parties involved. Extended arguments make it more challenging to find grace-filled, Holy Spirit-led solutions. Why? We’ve stop seeing something sacred in each other’s identity. Once you’ve “othered” your neighbor, no matter who your neighbor is (even if they’re your blood kin), it’s hard to love them as you love yourself.
I’m beginning to wonder, is there winning a religious argument? Is there a point in getting into a religious argument? No, not really. There are no winners. We all lose at one level. Which of us is getting the Bible right or wrong? Probably, none of us. How do we know we’re interpreting the Bible correctly? We don’t. Whose vision of God is leaner and meaner? Yours or mine. I don’t know. We’re both right. We’re both wrong. I do believe our greatest sin is that of certainty. Of this, I am certain.
I admit it; I’m physically and emotionally drained. Will we come to a point where we recognize that those we’ve demonized are not demons? I hope so. I do not believe there are demons in the United Methodist Church. There are plenty of flawed humans and ordinary sinners. I count myself among them. United Methodists are regular people trying to win our version of the world’s oldest unwinnable argument: religion. If we speak peace, we talk to Christ; then we can talk to each other. If the Catholics, Protestants, Serbs, and Muslims can keep speaking, Methodists have every hope for the future as well (United or not).
If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be [routinely] practiced in Russia; that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed within iron rings; that a human being would be lowered into an acid bath; that they would be trussed up naked to be bitten by ants and bedbugs; that a ramrod heated over a primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal (“the secret brand”); that a man’s genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that, in the luckiest possible of circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being kept from sleeping for a week, by thirst, and by being beaten to a bloody pulp, not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to an insane asylum. —Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
As I watch the rising tide of fascism from my front-row seats here in early 21st-century America, I’ve started to re-read some of the 20th-century classics which chronicled the rise of fascism in central Europe both before and during the second world war. Since the beginning of Lent, I’ve spent time with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Viktor Frankl, Hannah Arendt, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and most recently, Anne Frank.
After re-reading Anne’s diary alongside Arendt’s, The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem, I’ve come to a few conclusions. Namely, most of us (hopeful, western religious types) are taking Anne’s famous quote, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart,” out of context. We see what we want to see and hope for the future, something beyond anti-Semitism, death camps, and gas chambers. I’m no longer sure that’s what she meant. Instead, I think she’s asking us to look beyond the superficialities of the moment, something we desperately need to do at a time when democracy itself is under a once-in-a-generation existential threat and religious practice is reduced to a zero-sum game-of one fundamentalism fighting another to the death.
As one must do in good Biblical textual criticism, you must look at the next verse. Context matters. She followed that hopeful line with an almost apocalyptic sentence that referred to the “ever approaching thunder” and “the suffering of millions.” Hardly the pollyannish revelations of a young woman who thought goodness lay at the center of every human heart. Anne knew the full horror of fascism’s once-unleashed terror and how it enabled ordinary people to commit unspeakable crimes. Hence, she saw what Arendt would later describe during Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem.
Whether they were Dutch collaborators (in Anne’s case) or Nazi soldiers, ordinary recruits from German homes-regular people did the job of exterminating their fellow human beings. Middle class German husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons committed crimes against humanity; day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year until they came for her. Horror, as Arendt would observe, is contradictory. It is banal, evil, brutal, inane, and insane all at the same time. Anne sees and senses this. It is evident in her diary. She considers the randomness of her situation when she writes, “I keep asking myself, whether one would have trouble in the long run, whoever one shared a house with. Or did we strike it extra unlucky?”
Like Anne Frank, we are also burdened with the inane and insane banality of civilizational ending violence. Instead of killing thousands of people in organized camps, Americans opt to do it in groups of 5-20 at a time using a weapon called the AR-15. We can be so unlucky as to walk into school or a bank one morning and pay with our lives. We can only hide for so long from the weapons which may kill us or our neighbors (husbands, wives, daughters, sons, sisters, and brothers) who’ve lost touch with reality and have lost the ability to see humanity as human. As with Arendt, Frankl, Frank, and Bonhoeffer, this type of evil is not only becoming normalized; it’s also adapting to the 21st century, like artificial intelligence, into something so banal that we can’t see our reality for the fascism it is becoming. Unless there is a series we can binge, we’re prepared to go to vigil after vigil for the dead we know and those we do not know. We mouth the words of memory, say “never again,” and return home to watch the final season of Succession. At this point, some of us will become victims while others will become perpetrators. Who assumes what role may depend on, as Anne said, “striking it extra unlucky.”
I fear this: it will be too late to realize what’s happened when, to paraphrase futurist Ray Kurzweil, the armed singularity occurs. We will be hiding in attics, writing in our diaries. The most dangerous place to live will be a country with more guns than people, and everyone is convinced that everyone else’s religion is wrong. News flash: we’re halfway there.
Yesterday was a long day. Most Sundays are demanding. This one was a humdinger. In addition to the standard stuff and nearly 70 in worship (yes, we keep going up each week), we had one of those meetings in the afternoon. You know the kind of meeting I’m discussing: a disaffiliation meeting. Following our annual conference procedures, our church council hosted a question-and-answer session. Well over fifty were in attendance between those in person and on Zoom. The purpose of the meeting was for the council to take the congregation’s temperature on disaffiliation. If the council decides there is enough interest, they will pull the trigger (so to speak), and we will go forward with the process. If not, the status quo will hold.
Two weeks prior, the church council began to collect questions from the congregation about the disaffiliation process. They placed a heavy wooden box in the narthex and set up a specific email address to receive questions. We weren’t overwhelmed with questions. However, there were plenty of good queries to occupy the council, and all gathered for the planned two hours.
The chair of the council (and I) sent the questions out to the entire church, saying these were the questions we’d received and would attempt to answer at Sunday’s meeting. Early Sunday morning, the council chair received an additional e-mail; a new story was floating that I, the pastor, had written all the questions to shape the debate. Oh Lord, these people watch too much of one television network whose name I will not say. Are we not able to check the conspiracy theories at the door? For the record, the people who wrote the questions self-identified in the meeting, and I made it clear I was used to having a target on my back (as pastors often have) but questioning my integrity made me mad as hell—my day got worse from there.
Disaffiliation is my kryptonite. The closer I come to it, the weaker I become. I’ll come right out and say it. It’s a soul-destroying (also a local church, friendship, and family destroying) process that steadily erodes my faith, my faith in humanity, the church, and other people from the inside out. That’s not pessimism; that’s reality. I didn’t attend seminary to become a paid shill for the United Methodist Church. I wanted to become a pastor, preacher, and poet of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I love his biases and opinions. I work daily for them to become wholly and entirely mine. If I seem one-sided for any position, it is for the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. I have a personal agenda. It is for love, grace, and forgiveness. I push the Beatitudes, day in and day out. I have this phrase I like to ask people on Sunday morning, “How would this look through Jesus’ eyes?”
How would our disaffiliation process and the quest for self-righteous division look through Jesus’ eyes? Frustrating. Of course, I’m biased. I can’t think the guy who said the Beatitudes would believe that any of this is a good idea. I’d bet everything, while loving us and forgiving us, he wants us to do much better in the loving our neighbor department. Again, I’m biased-for Jesus. What do I know?
I’ve got to get away from disaffiliation. The problem is that there’s nowhere to hide. Like the COVID pandemic that preceded it, this virus seems to be everywhere. God help us all.
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