What’s your Salamander: Confronting Fear and Discrimination
So crazy things happen in politics. Crazier things seem to happen in Idaho politics, did you see the GOP Gubernatorial debate last May? It went viral around the country thanks mostly to the participation of Harley Barnes and Walt Bayes who are summed up by Washington Post:
With his bushy white beard and khaki shirt, Walt Bayes looked like a slender Santa Claus on spring break as he thundered Bible verses from the podium. And then there was Harley Brown. Clad in a black leather vest, hat and gloves, the engineer biker with a more manicured white beard and missing teeth looked like a bad Santa. And he sounded like one, too. “I’ve got a master’s degree in raising hell” was one of the many gasp-worthy things uttered during the hour-long debate.
So after two years of living here I no longer get surprised with the antics of our legislature and politicians. Not surprised, but still frustrated and saddened. It struck again this week. House Bill 1 was being heard by the House State Affairs Committee. This bill was attempting to have the Idaho giant salamander named as the state amphibian. 8th grader Ilah Hickman was even on hand to present why she thought this was important, and she had the backing of several voices on the committee who tried to move the legislation to be sent to the House floor… but, no. This is Idaho. The legislation lost – again. And then in words I will not soon forget I read the words Representative Ken Andrus said to her:
When I grew up, when I was a young boy, in our swimming hole, there were salamanders, and we called them water dogs… and I learned to despise them. To me, and to my fellow youth, they were ugly, they were slimy, and they were creepy. And I’ve not gotten over that. And, so, to elevate them to a state symbol and status of being the state amphibian, I’m not there yet.
Really? You grew up thinking they were ugly, and 60-70 years later you aren’t over how ugly those salamanders were so you can’t allow this species of salamander, mostly unique to Idaho, to become our state amphibian???
This makes me almost unbearably sad. I read this the next day and sat dumbfounded and dismayed. This is where I live? We are so governed by our fears and dislikes that can’t put aside a childhood impression of a salamander? How are we supposed to address more engrained problems like systemic racism, gender discrimination, the oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender neighbors, and religious intolerance? When I was a child I had irrational fears – it’s part of being a child. I grew up in an old Midwestern farmhouse with a large unfinished basement. Like so many kids I was convinced that unspeakable things lived under the stairs to our basement. We also had playroom in the basement that required me to traverse those stairs daily. And you know what? I ran. Every day I went down those stairs as if the devil was on my heels… because I was CONVINCED that was exactly the kind of plight I was in.
But guess what? The place under the stairs in our basement? It was not a den of inequity. It was not a place of horrible monsters or great evil – I know it, and you know it. But little Andy didn’t. I grew up. I saw the world different. I learned to confront my fears to gain new understanding and appreciation for that which was outside my comfort zone. In fact that process took me to mission work in the Philippines and chaplaincy in large public (and very urban) hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. Experiences that became formative, if not fun for this introverted shy boy who grew up in a sheltered suburban community, because they challenged me and helped me grow. They made me see the world differently and with much more perspective than an eight year old version of myself was ever capable of. In fact, they made me see the world with more perspective than 38 year old me is capable of, and with more perspective than 78 year old Andrew will be able to manage. That is why we need community and diversity to help us understand things we aren’t naturally going to know anything about. This is how we grow, change, and become wiser versions of ourselves. We confront the other, and become known and we come to know it or them, and our sense of neighbor grows bigger. Our world becomes bigger.
And we all have such stories. At least I hope so. But maybe not. Maybe we all have some things we can’t, or won’t, change our mind about. Maybe we all have our “salamander.” Maybe we all have something or someone that we refuse to get to know. We refuse to let go of our presupposed opinions and allow ourselves to be changed by them. Maybe Ken Andrus’ statement is the most apocalyptic and helpful words that have come to me in a long time. Because, you see, he was willing to be unveiled about a “thing” in a way he would never be about a person. He was able to be honest, because he didn’t have to care about a salamander. But most of our salamanders are people. People whose faith we have judged as ugly or destructive. People who we have decided don’t work hard or well and therefore deserve their lot. People whose priorities are different than ours and we decide they are dysfunctional or irrational or wrong or… an abomination. I have heard those words used recently, by a law-maker… of a person. Talk about your “salamander!”
If there is to be hope in this world, we have got to let go of our unchecked and unconfronted biases and fears. We have got to sit down with our “salamanders” and learn about them and let them learn about us and find a way forward together. Most of those biases are not our fault. They were handed on to us by instinct, by friends or family, by society as whole. They were kneaded into the dough we are made with and they are a part of us. They are so ingrained into our being that we react out of those fears and biases without knowledge: as one wired to feel and believe certain things without thought. We should not feel guilty because we have bias toward or against something or someone.
And yet. Setting that guilty and shame aside, we cannot stop there.
It is when we stop there that we incur responsibility. When we refuse to confront and learn and do the disciplined hard work of rewiring our biases? That is on us. I have never met a person, nor do I ever expect to, who didn’t have some fears, who didn’t have some jaded understanding of someone else, who didn’t have bias. But I also hope never to meet people who aren’t working to address them. Walk down the stairs, maybe get a friend and go under the stairs – have a picnic there! Meet people outside your normal network and learn how to care for them as a neighbor. Make your world bigger, more informed, and more understood by being willing to sit down with “others” and make them companions. Learn to appreciate salamanders!
Because fear of “salamanders” is leading us down dark roads toward a scary future. And I don’t want to live in that future! We all owe it to each other to work toward something better: more caring, more understanding, more whole.
What and who and where are your salamanders, and what are you prepared to do about it?
I am the Resurrection
I have been involved in many conversations of deep hurt the last week. I have felt overwhelmed.
I have been in many conversations about ministries (church and non-church) experiencing formlessness and void, crisis about the future. I have felt overwhelmed.
The world is experiencing much violence and fear from every side. I have felt overwhelmed.
Today, in the dark sanctuary of my congregation, light was shining through the stained glass windows and they are wonderfully designed such that the window for “I am the Resurrection” is 10x brighter than any other window. Dazzlingly bright. (I cannot do it justice here but I have tried with a couple of phone pictures.)
The window spoke to me. Is speaking to me.
Do not fear.
I have come to give you life.
You are not alone.
You are my beloved.
I am the Resurrection.
A Prayer – of sorts – of Lament in Search of Hope for the World
Creator? Redeemer? Sustainer?
I do not know what name to lift up to you God. Not in this moment of prayer. Not to get your attention at this time. Will a pleasant name give my plea a greater hearing?
God who is – I AM. God who claims naught but existence… and hearing – for you heard the cries of your people. God who claims naught but existence and hearing and yet also responds through broken vessels like Moses and Paul, in prophets like Elijah and Jesus, in poets and priests and prostitutes and peons and… and whatever you can lay eye on. God who is, hear our prayers – our cries – our lamentations – our bafflement and our despair, and respond. Because we need you.
“In the beginning… the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” (Genesis 1:1)
Our world knows much of formlessness, void, and darkness. Our world – your world I might remind you – is swirling out of control. (Are there controls on this thing?) Madness seems to have taken over. We are killing each other at obsessive rates. Killing over land, over long held hatred, out of neglect, self-interest… or for no reason at all. God… we are killing. We are killing ourselves.
“Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10)
So much hate. I do not know what to do in the face of hate. I feel overwhelmed by it all. I do not know how to look into the eyes of one who sees another human being as unworthy of life. I do not know how to stare deeply into those eyes… with love. I do not know how to love the hate-filled other. To love them in such a way that the only death is the hate and not the other.
“Forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 22:34)
We lack the strength Lord to be a gracious people. We are consumed by a need for personal safety. We are consumed by a need to protect our own. We are consumed by our self. We are literally consuming ourselves in the name of our own glory. And the victims of our hunger are legion.
“But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine.” (Daniel 1:8)
Our hearts are empty. We care not. Certainly not enough to deprive ourselves. Besides, we cannot get beyond our own hurts, for they are real and true and hardship abounds. We cannot be moved to care for another when we cannot care for ourselves. Where do we go when everyone is a patient and no doctor will come to work? Is there balm for the wounded soul?
“I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” (Matthew 23:37)
But our children are scattered and dying. Hungry and homeless and… what future does this world hold when schools are warzones and warzones are shielded in their bodies?
“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:18)
Our leaders are as scared as we are – perhaps even more because they can see farther than we can, for all their short-sightedness, from their elevated lofts of luxury. What does a disciple do when then master is aimless, absent, apathetic or amorally removed from the plight?
“I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.” (Ezekiel 34:10)
Them too – but maybe you are not hearing me, where are you, O God…. How long O Lord… if we die in this wilderness of hate and indifference who shall be left to you of your creations? My God… my GOD… why have you forgotten us… forsaken us…. Whither shall we go – shall we look to the hills? Shall we find you in the shadow of death? The demons have overturned the furniture and made a mess of the homes in our heads… the bleeding will not be stopped… the death-throws of the Beast – if death throws they are – are far too much for our little lives to stand. If you are Alpha and Omega.. we need you in the middle too – where are you, O Lord… my God?
“Be still… know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)
I find myself almost out of breath… that is – out of God, out of you. Molded and breathed into and given life, it is death now that I see, that I breathe, that I live. Justice isn’t rolling down, Habakkuk is no more pleased today, does he still stand his watch tower? Do I stand in his place? Do I have it in me? I am out of breath, and our world feels out of time. Oh Ancient of Days – it’s time to appear on scene. At least a little late I might say. Where do we go from here – when just to stand seem more than I am able?
“At the beginning of your supplications a word went out, and I have come to declare it, for you are greatly beloved.” (Daniel 9:23)
I was looking for a little more Revelation.
I am stirred to anger and I am ready for an angry God. We are past the point of words… we need action. Oh God – DON’T YOU SEE IT?!?!
“Hear, O Israel-” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
YOU DON’T GET IT – I’M DONE LISTENING. I NEED YOU TO FIX THIS!
“Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” (Mark 10:21)
I’m not sure I know what to do with that. Is that an answer? Why won’t you answer me – don’t you know I have your life in my hands…..
“Jesus began to weep.” (John 11:35)
I didn’t mean it, God I didn’t mean it. I’m just frustrated. More than a little lost. More than a little heart-sick for all those whose lives have been thrown to the wind. More than little despairing that we just can’t get this love thing. I’m tired… God knows, you must be too.
“My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” (Hosea 11:8)
God may our hearts be broken… broken open to one another. Broken up by you and for you and with you. May our hearts be kindled and may our anger be healthy. Angry at killing, not killing angry. Angry at systems of homelessness, violence, power and dominance, ignoring the widow and orphan, at imagining there is no room in the inn… But not angry at the homeless, the violated, the least and the lost. May our hearts be kindled. May our compassion grow warm, yes, and tender. May seedlings of hope be scattered in the wilderness and the rocks and roads and the urban slums and the rooftops of palace and stable and may the sprout up. May we protect them for them are a hard won and precious gift. May we honor them for their roots go deep into the marrow of the earth connecting pole to pole – person to person, and their leaves are absorbing the starlight of different worlds and in their veins lies the life blood of heaven and hell.
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
Just help me see the hope… for all the rest is all too easy to be consumed by.
“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13:13)
Make it so. So be it. Amen
Celebrate Life; Celebrate Each other – a Pentecost sermon
This is a shorter version (you are welcome) of a sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church of Boise, Idaho on Pentecost Sunday. June 8, 2014. It was preached from the text of Acts 2:1-21.
The Apostles post-resurrection are a fairly reluctant group. They keep hiding out. They keep sending motions back to committee. They aren’t ready to do the whole ‘go and be my witnesses to all the world’ thing. That is… until the matter gets taken out of their hands. The Holy Spirit literally swoops onto the scene from stage up-above and gets them going. A violent wind… as tongues of fire… speaking and hearing in all manner of languages and breaking down all kinds of barriers.
The crowd becomes confused how this group of people could be doing all of this – this group of nobodies from Galilee… this is hardly a group of people expected to be so worldly, educated, and articulate. It’s like they’re a bunch of people from Idaho. And yet here they are showing off a flare for the dramatic with worldly inclusivity (old and young, slave and free, men and women, heavens and earth are all wrapped up in this spiritual awakening). The presumption of some in the crowds is that they must be drunk, a move that is natural because we have a tendency to meet the miraculous or mysterious with disbelief and mockery whether its unexpected healing or Jesus’ head on a piece of toast.
This is a rousing call by the Spirit of the Lord to celebrate all people, to bring down all walls and all divides both real and tangible, and those deeply rooted in the coding of our hearts and minds.
This is a rousing call to celebrate life.
I have had a tough transition from May to June. It isn’t unique to me or this month in particular, I’m in one of those kind of times – but so are many people, and many more than that who have had far worse. But here I am.
We went into this month with challenging family medical issues. Surgeries. Complications. Insurance battles. Add to that our own church community has had three members die in the last two weeks, and then over the weekend, I lost a good friend. My across the street neighbor growing up – Mike. Mike was also the younger brother of my best friend for life, and the two of them became like my brothers as I grew up with only sisters. He had overcome his own childhood disease and illness and become a fine young man, teacher, coach, husband, and father of twin one year old girls. And then in one fell sweep a massive and unexpected stroke took him from us.
So all of this is going on for me and in the midst of that Caroline and I had planned a night out for a late celebration of our anniversary. My middle sister and brother-in-law are in town so like it or not they got the kids for a night and we booked a hotel… a mile down the road. We went out to dinner and our conversation was mostly about my younger sister still in the hospital for a third straight week, and about Mike. After dinner I took a break to call my Dad to check in on my sister and what the new plan is (we get a new plan several times a day). We hung up and then Caroline and I went on a late evening sunset walk along the Boise river and my dad texted me one final thought:
“Celebrate life, celebrate each other.”
There is fragility to life. And that fragility can make us scared, cynical, fearful. That fragility can make us despair. And we can respond to the fragility of life by doing everything in our power to secure safety. We can try to build the thickest walls, and have the strongest guards. We learn to doubt, we do not trust, we disbelieve good news. We can obsess about death…
Or… we could choose to celebrate life.
Celebrating life doesn’t deny death; it isn’t a denial of the suffering and the agony. But we do not let them rule us either. Celebrating life is an intentional choice in spite of fear, anxiety, and doubt. It is courage. It is a bold choice to limit the sway and power of death. Because as victims we can allow tragedy more power than it’s due. We allow it to kill not once, but twice. First it kills a beloved reality – be that a loved one or something about our life we cherish. Then it kills our spirit… our hope…. our ability to celebrate life. And we live in fear. To live “with fear” is probably unavoidable but to be ruled by fear is the second death, the death we perpetrate on ourselves.
What I believe attracts me to the poetry of the Psalms or to African American spirituals is the very resistance to this second death. They do not give in to despair. Certainly they speak of suffering, loss, and struggle. They wrestle with the “how long, O Lord” of injustice. But there is a hope that is transcendent to their current misery. In the midst of pain they do not allow hope to die as well. The cling to, they proclaim, they celebrate hope. We may die, but will never cease to celebrate life.
Celebrate life, celebrate each other.
In the wake of Jesus’ death he knew his followers would struggle with this kind of celebration – resurrection or not. He knew that despair was a difficult enemy to keep at bay. And so he promised them that one would come who was life itself. That the Holy Spirit would come to them as a comforter, as an advocate, as a mighty wind that was the very breath of divine life and that it would sweep them up in empowering celebration of life.
And – ready or not – they are now caught up in a bubbling over of the cup of life, an ascendant celebration of life and each other whose tenor was so lively and audacious that the crowds think it must be drunken revelry. And Peter says no this isn’t the foolishness of alcoholic public indecency in some kind of avoidance of the world. Oh its drunkenness he says. Its foolishness for sure. It’s even a dance of public indecency. But the only thing they are drunk on is life, and it’s the foolishness of hope that will not give in to death, and a celebratory dance of each other – of all life.
Celebrate life; celebrate each other. Amen.
Advent Hope, Bubbling Up, and Nelson Mandela
Yesterday, Joanna asked us: “How do we live a hope filled life without then being one who only ‘looks through rose colored glasses’?”
It is a great question. Is there a difference between optimism and hope? I think we do well to remember the one who anchors our hope is Jesus Christ. Our hope is not a general sense of goodness or well-being, or a “Don’t Worry – be Happy.” (Does anyone even remember that song? Google it youth, you missed out on a whole phenomenon with that one.)
What does it mean to have our hope rooted in Jesus Christ? I think it means the character of our hope ought to take on the character of the one in whom our hope rests. (Because it isn’t Pandora’s hope, after all, it is God’s hope resting in the one who is God-with-us.)
As God with us we know that Jesus sets aside glory and honor to take on flesh and blood, sin and grief. That is to say our hope is decidedly not rose colored glasses. It’s the opposite. Hope takes an extra-long and very real look at suffering. We know as well that our hope resides in one that died for us. Our hope is not a self-serving thing of comfort, ease, and material well-being. Our hope is rooted in the one who had nowhere to lay his head, who sought out the least and the lost, and chose as companions the ones that others had deemed unworthy.
But to come full circle this doesn’t mean our hope is less than rose colored glasses, or benign happiness. The point is that our hope is so much more. Our hope resides in the one who rose from the dead, who healed those left for dead, who united people across cultural and racial divides tearing down the dividing walls of hostility, the one who proclaimed along with the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) and more than proclaimed it by chapter seven when John the Baptist is wondering if Jesus is the one to come – the one in whom our hope resides – Jesus response is not to say yes or no. But to say look what is happening in my wake? Where I go hope rises; lives experience tangible good news.
The hope we find in Jesus is BIG. It is world transforming. Its aim is creation-wide. But it’s accomplished one person at a time. It starts at the bottom and bubbles up. It sees the worst the world has to offer, and responds in counter-intuitive love and blessing.
You want tangible hope? Why don’t we end this week’s reflection on hope in the most tangible and fitting manner. With these words from Nelson Mandela who the world celebrates even as we mourn our loss in his death yesterday because his was a great spirit:
“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
This is hope.
Illuminating Hope, Day 3: Pandora’s Box
(The day one reflection can be found here: https://akukla.wordpress.com/2013/12/02/illuminating-advent-hope-day-1/ and the responding reflection from Joanna Dunn here: http://pastormomjdunn.tumblr.com/post/68927576328/first-thoughts-on-advent-illuminating-hope)
Joanna started me on thinking about the journey of Hope when she mentioned how we see it differently at different ages. We all probably on some level remember the story of Pandora in Greek mythology. She is presented to Prometheus’ brother as punishment for stealing fire. She is the first woman. She bears a box and curiosity. She opens it… and all manner of evil spills into the world.
What you may, or may not, recall is that one thing and only thing that does not spill out of Pandora’s “box” (actually a jar in the original Greek work by Hesiod, Works and Day), hiding just under the lip of the jar, is hope.
And even scholars of such things are undecided about what it means that she (elris is a personified spirit of hope that takes the form of a young woman) remains in the jar. Perhaps it is that Pandora, and humanity with her, is left clinging to hope in a world gone amiss. Perhaps it is actually meant to have a less positive reading – that the one good she had to give Pandora kept sealed away in the jar, spreading evil but not the hope to endure it. (Because Pandora does indeed put the lid back on the jar once she sees that hope hasn’t escaped.
So what do you think? Do we cling to hope for ourselves – do we loose it on the world?
Pandora’s name is derived from the words for all and gift. She is the all-gifted one. But also could be the she is the all-giving one. Meaning she gives hope as well as ill to the world. Regardless of the meaning of the myth the implication to me is that we each have the ability to loose pain on the world, but we also have the ability to give hope. It is inevitable that we do the first; it would be regrettable if we do not seek to do the latter at least as much. How are you loosing hope on the world this season, even as we await with expectations the one who is hope for all?
Illuminating Advent: Hope (day 1)
We began this week reflecting on Hope. Each Monday of Advent our devotional will be a synopsis of the sermon from the day before and then Joanna and I will continue through the week with a conversational devotion continuing those thoughts in various trajectories. So how does scripture illuminate hope, we asked yesterday in worship? When we illuminate the darkness two things happen. We being to see what something isn’t – that isn’t the bogey man under our bed, it’s my dirty clothes. And we begin to see more clearly what something is. So what did we see about the hope that is routed in Jesus Christ?
This hope in Jeremiah 33:14-16, Romans 8:18-25, and 1 Peter 1:3-9 wasn’t a promise that life would be easy. Even those who have the first fruits of creation, Paul tells us, still groan in labor pains with all of creation. We are still waiting for something not yet fully realized. Our hope is not a panacea that promises an easy journey. Our hope also doesn’t promise an escape from this world to some idealized place removed from here. Jeremiah reminds us that the messiah links our past, present, and future. Hope is dirty and rooted in earth. God intends not to redeem me – God intends to redeem (all of) creation. Nothing is getting scrapped (God reminds God’s self of that with every rainbow). Hope doesn’t promise us escape and it also doesn’t promise that we can just sit by as bystanders because God’s work is incarnational – God’s work is in-the-flesh – and this reminds us that God works through human agency. God called Abraham and Moses and Ruth; God calls Mary, Peter, and Paul. God came in flesh: rooted not just in earth but working with all creation as partners in love and care. God calls us.
So if hope is not about ease, retreat, or having our work done for us, what is hope? Is there anything left to make hope have substance?
I think the essence of our hope in Jesus Christ is two-fold. It’s that God’s creation is one. We are all inter-connected; we are all called into neighbor-love in which we understand all that exists – people, earth, stars and sea – to be our neighbor. We are not alone, nor are the tasks before us ours alone. Our hope lies in a God who gathers in all of creation and binds us together in love. We are not alone.
The other aspect of this hope is that God just doesn’t give up on us. The parable of the prodigal son gets us in touch with our own elder brother bitterness. Why do good if even the good-for-nothing younger brother that squandered his inheritance is rewarded in the end? This is the wrong question, an understandable one, but the wrong one. Flip that script. The good news is that God doesn’t give up on us. There is nothing we can do that makes God love us less. There is nothing we can do that puts us outside of God’s grace. There is nothing we can do that puts us beyond the reach of hope. God doesn’t give up. This is our hope.
I leave you, again if you were here Sunday, with this story. My son Warren loves playing video games (he gets that from me) and he gets extremely frustrated by them (sadly he gets that from me too). He annoys Caroline and me to no end with his whining about them. I take the phone away or turn off the PlayStation. I tell him to either stop letting the game bother him or stop playing. But he won’t. He is determined to prove his efforts to win aren’t futile. (Subject to futility anyone?) Staunching determined. He just won’t admit defeat. So there he is – in tears with puffy eyes and contorted limbs – playing. (I’m not exaggerating here. And this is what he does for fun?) And then I realized there is something of God in this. No creation isn’t a video game. God isn’t simply controlling us like a giant APP on God’s iPhone. But God is engaging us day after day hoping it all goes right, vexed that it doesn’t and yet unable to give up on us, unable to give up on creation, unable to imagine that it is not futile but in fact is the groaning and moaning of labor that is birthing something we cannot yet see but know to be a reality. So day after day God engage us again. Generation after generation God – lamenting the brokenness of creation – endeavors to work it towards good. And this – this God contorted and weeping with loving frustration is our hope, because the maker of all that exists is so determined to make it all work to good that God is not capable of giving up on anyone or anything.
We are not alone. We are bound together. We are the people of a God incapable of giving up on us. Thanks be to God. Amen.