Sunday, February 26, 2017

Start with Repentance

Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, season of repentance and of waiting. 

Some years the season catches me off guard, but this year I'm ready. My heart is already resting in the words of our weekly confession: 
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. 
We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. 
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us, that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen. 
I find myself in an odd space this winter.  Just as the weather has been soaring to unexpected temperatures, with crocuses blooming and hailstones bouncing in the yard, my own life has been unexpected, strange, somewhat out of my control.

Fair Districts PA, the redistricting reform coalition I helped launch last January, has captured statewide attention. I've been speaking to crowds in churches and schools, fielding requests for media interviews. Last week I was live-streamed on Facebook for over an hour - and people, lots of people, watched. Just today I was featured in a 

At the same time I've been talking to legislators, pouring over bills and scrambling to organize a growing band of incredibly capable, passionate volunteers.

My days start early and end late.

The list of what's been accomplished each day is long.

The list of what's been left undone is longer.

I am humbled by my deficits and staggered by all that's accomplished through and around and in spite of me.

I've been reading in the epistles and for the first time hear in Paul's letters the incredible discipline and challenge of a man shepherding an explosive movement. As he traveled through the maritime nations he left eager bands of passionate volunteers sharing God's love, teaching and preaching and healing and praying.

His letters show him coaching and correcting, encouraging and entreating, reaching across borders and cultures. His words reflect the growing capacity of new, young churches reaching out in love. The movement of faith was sometimes chaotic, sometimes divided, sometimes zealous, jealous, confused, yet lives were changed and the good news spread, a tide sweeping along trade routes into every known nation.

Where is the good news sweeping now? 

Where are the lives being changed by faith?

I've been praying for years for increased capacity: capacity for love, for service, for justice.

I've been praying for years to love what God loves, to have my heart broken by the things that break the heart of love.

It's only lately that I've begun to realize that capacity starts with letting go: letting go of old ways, old comforts, self-protective habits, self-determined goals.

I grieved when I left youth ministry. For over a decade I knew it was my calling.

Then that calling ended. 

How could I have known that the first step in greater capacity and greater love is letting go. 

Dying to old dreams.

And it starts with repentance, confessing I wanted my own way most. 

Loved my own ideas best.

These days I'm living out a different calling in a very different way.

I start with repentance. 

And grief.  

Not the emails unanswered, although I regret them.

Not the tasks not yet accomplished, although that list keeps growing.

I grieve the places where fear, doubt, anxious thoughts slowed me down or ate away time.

I grieve the internal patterns of irritation or impatience that undercut effort and undermined unity.

I grieve every moment spent living out false cultural assumptions about value or beauty or purpose or success.

My grief is fueled by the daily news: white evangelical Christians are the strongest supporters of a Muslim ban.

White evangelical Christians are the strongest supporters of a vindictive president with deep conflicts of interest and no visible compassion.  

These are my people.  

How is that possible?

I read the prayers for Ash Wednesday. They have much to say about the space we live in, the state of the church, the challenges surrounding us.

My challenge, this Lent, is to live deeper into these words and to continue to grow in capacity to love, to serve, to share and be good news:
We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us. We have not been true to the mind of Christ. We have grieved your Holy Spirit.
Have mercy on us, Lord.
We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives,
We confess to you, Lord.
Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people,
We confess to you, Lord.
Our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves,
We confess to you, Lord.
Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work,
We confess to you, Lord.
Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us,
We confess to you, Lord.
Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty,
Accept our repentance, Lord.
For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.
For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.
Restore us, good Lord, and let your anger depart from us;
Favorably hear us, for your mercy is great.
Accomplish in us the work of your salvation,
That we may show forth your glory in the world.
        (Book of Common Prayer, Ash Wednesday)

Other Ash Wednesday posts:

Sunday, February 19, 2017

A Prayer for the Eagles

This week's post was written by my daughter Anna Kocher, artist, musician, mother of three. The photos were taken by my friend George Tallman at Conowingo Dam, a large hydro-electric dam on the Susquehanna River, crossed by US Route 1 between Pennsylvania and Maryland. I am grateful to both for sharing their work and for their wise stewardship of unexpected beauty.

In response to Senate confirmation of Scott Pruitt as head of a the EPA and to the Audubon headline, The New Head of the EPA is a Major Threat to Birds and People:

When I was a kid, I remember being taught in school about our National Emblem, the Bald Eagle, and how it was in danger of becoming extinct. We learned that the Bald Eagle had nearly disappeared from the United States, and how important it was for us to reduce, reuse and recycle, etc. as our way of doing our part for the planet. What I didn't understand at the time was the role EPA regulations played in their protection.

My mother and other members of my family are avid bird-watchers and take great joy in recording their rare and unique sightings. I love to watch birds, for their beauty and freedom, but I'm not naturally a keeper of records or lists. I'm as happy watching a flock of pigeons as I am a pileated what-have-you. I always joke with my family when they get excited about a rare bird sighting, saying, "Don't even tell me unless it's a Bald Eagle!"

The other weekend my sister and I were driving home from DC, having gone down for the Women's March to be bodies in the crowd of millions of people trying to say, through our presence, "This is not ok with us. We have a voice and we are not alright with this." We were touched by the peaceful friendliness of the marchers.

After the march we spent a lovely night and morning at our brother's house, but on our way home on Sunday we hit a ton of traffic. So many others were also trying to return home after the march that traffic on 95 was crawling and I needed to get back to my kids. We took an unfamiliar detour and wound up crossing over the Conowingo Dam.

We were driving over the bridge with water on either side when all of a sudden my sister looked out and said, "Wait, what's that there?"

We both looked out and I spotted it too: a Bald Eagle, massive and regal on a branch hanging over the water. I started to scream and swerve (safely, within my lane) and we continued to look over the edge (while maintaining safe following distance). Then we saw another! And another! Eventually I had to drag my eyes back to the road, but my sister counted ten Bald Eagles!

I was so moved. I've seen a few Bald Eagles over the last few years, and have always reacted with an embarrassing level of excitement; but this was different. This was proof, with my own eyes, that a species had been successfully brought back from the brink by our society rallying, regulating, changing and choosing to do what was maybe less convenient in the moment in order to achieve a greater, future good.

If you've known me for any length of time you know that I'm not usually very political. I'm also not confrontational. I also don't like making phone calls. Doing things like speaking up about this kind of thing and making phone calls to my senators is a bit of a departure for me.

But for me, this is not about politics. I've never been a registered member of either of our country's leading political parties. It's also not about being liberal or conservative. I imagine many of you would accuse me of being too liberal and many of being too conservative.

It's about the deep disappointment and disgust I feel towards those in power for actively dismissing and dismantling those things I always, naively, thought we could all fundamentally agree upon, however different our opinions of how to achieve them: the common good, the future good, the protection of the vulnerable, the "just and proper use of your creation," as we say in my church.

Lately I've been saying a lot, old-lady style, semi-joking but mostly serious, to the possible chagrin of my family members, "Why do the wicked prosper?"

But I've been saying to myself with equal frequency the words Martin Luther King Jr. used when he said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." That's what I'm praying for, and that's what I'm praying I'll learn how to work towards.

If you've made it this far in my little speech, thank you. Pour yourself a Friday night beverage, or Sunday afternoon tea, and let me know if you see any Bald Eagles.
In peace, we pray to you, Lord God.
For all people in their daily life and work;
For our families, friends, and neighbors, and for those who are alone.
For this community, the nation, and the world;
For all who work for justice, freedom, and peace.
For the just and proper use of your creation;
For the victims of hunger, fear, injustice, and oppression.
For all who are in danger, sorrow, or any kind of trouble;
For those who minister to the sick, the friendless, and the needy.
For the peace and unity of the Church of God;
For all who proclaim the Gospel, and all who seek the Truth.
For all who serve God in his Church.
For the special needs and concerns of this congregation.
Hear us, Lord;
For your mercy is great.

Sunday, February 12, 2017


Our church has been working through the book of Nehemiah.

It's an odd choice for the season of Epiphany, a historic narrative from Jewish history full of difficult names and odd little details about the building of the wall around Jerusalem.

On Sunday the text was from Nehemiah 5: 
Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their fellow Jews. 2 Some were saying, “We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.”
Others were saying, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.”
Still others were saying, “We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our fellow Jews and though our children are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.”
When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. 
Our minister, Richard Morgan, has been using Nehemiah to illuminate our life together as a congregation but also to shine a light on the larger Christian church within the context of American politics. Without naming names or stirring partisan passions, he's invited us to consider our witness and calling.

On Sunday, he described the outcry of the people without economic opportunity, calling out for justice. The Hebrew word for justice, "mishpat," 
goes beyond what I must do to avoid doing something wrong and goes to God's concern for all people. It's not that the rules are all being kept but that the people in the land are living in a way that is just according to God's standards that all may eat and all may work and none may be enslaved and all may have opportunity.
Richard referenced Tim Keller's focus on mishpat in his book "Generous Justice":
Mishpat, then, is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care.
This is why, if you look at every place the word is used in the Old Testament, several classes of persons continually come up. Over and over again, mishpat describes taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor—those who have been called “the quartet of the vulnerable.”
In premodern, agrarian societies, these four groups had no social power. They lived at subsistence level and were only days from starvation if there was any famine, invasion or even minor social unrest. Today, this quartet would be expanded to include the refugee, the migrant worker, the homeless and many single parents and elderly people.
The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups. Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity but a violation of justice, of mishpat. God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to “do justice.”  
Scripture is full of reference to mishpat, repeatedly linking justice to treatment of the vulnerable: 
This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’  (Zechariah 7-9)
 The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern. (Proverbs 29:7)
Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:17) 
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Proverbs 31:8-9)  
According to scripture, the correct response to injustice is anger and intervention.  When Nehemiah heard the outcry of his people, the text says he "was very angry."

 Not angry at those crying out. Not angry that they dared to complain or dared to disrupt the smooth flow of commerce. 
Nehemiah was angry, very angry, at the injustice of those whose selfishness and greed had pushed others to the brink of slavery and starvation.
When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, “You are charging your own people interest!” So I called together a large meeting to deal with them. 
The exploitation of Nehemiah's day seems mild compared to the inequities of our own.

Our Congress just approved the richest cabinet ever, including a billionaire who has used her wealth to buy influence and shape public policy in a way that has worsened segregation and undermined education for the poorest and most needy.

Our president has defrauded thousands of workers and has cheated thousands of students of both tuition and time. 

Here's what Nehemiah said to the wealthy nobles of his day:
“What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies? I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let us stop charging interest! Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the interest you are charging them—one percent of the money, grain, new wine and olive oil.”
“We will give it back,” they said. “And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.”
Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised. I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, “In this way may God shake out of their house and possessions anyone who does not keep this promise. So may such a person be shaken out and emptied!” 
That image of shaking out God's robe is a strong one, but scripture is full of even sharper warnings to wealthy leaders who ignore the cries of the vulnerable. As Nehemiah promised God would shake out those taking interest from the poor, so God promised, again and again, to punish the powerful who mistreated the weak. 
Woe to those who enact evil statutes and to those who constantly record unjust decisions, so as to deprive the needy of justice and rob the poor of my people of their rights, so that widows may be their spoil and that they may plunder the orphans. Now what will you do in the day of punishment, and in the devastation which will come from afar? To whom will you flee for help? And where will you leave your wealth? (Isaiah 10:1-3)
Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice. All the people shall say, “Amen!” (Deuteronomy 27:19)
We are surrounded by the vulnerable crying out. 

Refugees turned back at our borders.

Families struggling to survive on minimum wage jobs.

Communities harmed by toxic industries.

Parents worried as for-profit charter schools syphon public money from under-resourced systems. 

Where do God's people stand: with those crying out or with those who would silence them?

From Psalm 82, a cry for justice:
God says, “How long will you defend evil people?
    How long will you show greater kindness to the wicked?
Defend the weak and the orphans;
    defend the rights of the poor and suffering.
Save the weak and helpless;
    free them from the power of the wicked.
You know nothing. You don’t understand.
You walk in the dark, while the world is falling apart.