Passing the Torch

Reflections on the Journey

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Super Bowl Ad a Warning?

That damn Ram ad! Using some of MLK, Jr.’s most inspiring words about selflessness—borrowedRAM, MLK from Jesus—for promoting trucks “built to serve.”

I was immediately offended. And I wasn’t the only one. Angry tweets circled the globe.

“Black people can’t kneel and play football but MLK should be used to sell trucks during the Super Bowl? Unbelievable.” –  writer and comedian Akilah Hughes.

“MLK who died striking with workers decrying militarism & imperial war makers – used to sell shiny trucks with marching soldiers – corporate America NBC NFL should be ashamed.” -actor John Cusack

There were other shameless examples during the Super Bowl.

  • Toyota vaunting interfaith understanding by piling Christian, Buddhist, Jewish and Muslim clerics into one of their cars.
  • Monster headphones like a “Savior” that will turn your world from B&W to Technicolor.
  • Budweiser truly caring about clean water supplies in developing nations.
  • Hyundai so deeply concerned about victims of cancer.

Folks, this is nothing new.

27 years ago, in his book Wake Up, America, Tony Campolo warned of this trend—the selling of goods that supposedly satisfy our deepest needs. He mentioned ads that promised spiritual fulfillment, like one shot from an aerial view, panning across a throng of people gathered on a hill. They represent all races and colors of the world, joining hands and singing in a unity this planet has never seen. Was it a symbol of the Kingdom of God? Was it a call for racial reconciliation? No, it was a commercial for the Pepsi Generation. Similar soda ads ran during Super Bowl LII.

Corporate encroachment like this is so insidious. Campolo put it this way. “In our TV ads, it is as though the ecstasy of spirit experienced by a Saint Theresa or a St. Francis can be reduced to the gratification coming from a particular car, and the kind of love that Christ compared to His love for His church can be expressed by buying the right kind of wristwatch ‘for that special person in your life.’ In all this media hype, things are sold to us on the basis that our deepest emotional and psychological needs will be met by having the right consumer goods.”

The ultimate result of these ads is the tragic reverse of their promises. Materialism causes a decay of spiritual contentment. It increases our alienation from God and each other. Jesus knew this. It is why he said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” – Matthew 6:19-21

Maybe we really are living in that “inverted totalitarianism” that Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and Presbyterian minister has pointed to for years. In his book, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, written with Joe Sacco, he defines the term as “a system where corporations have corrupted and subverted democracy, and where economics trumps politics. Every natural resource and living being is commodified and exploited to the point of collapse, as the citizenry is lulled and manipulated into surrendering their liberties and their participation in government through excess consumerism and sensationalism.”

Wake up, America!


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When Sarah, Liz, and Their Daughter Joined Our Church…

When Sarah and Elizabeth Clapp considered joining Northwood Presbyterian Church Clapps(NPC) in San Antonio, Texas, Pastor Traci Smith knew the congregation would welcome them. The question was “how deeply?”

She decided to employ a simple exercise as the elders gathered for their monthly meeting. Share a story, she asked, about one person you know who is gay, and specifically tell us—if you know—about how other churches received them. The stories were diverse, and throughout all of them it became obvious that NPC’s leaders wanted to extend an unconditional welcome. It was a sacramental moment, illuminating the truth that listening is hospitality made flesh.

When the Clapps joined, they immediately experienced this inclusion. It was especially gratifying for Sarah, who grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition and attended a conservative non-denominational Christian school for 13 years. She looks back on that time with mixed emotions.

“There are so many negative things I could say. They were hypocritical, judgmental, rich, white, ‘know-it-all’ Christians. But there were also many positives. That school grounded me in my faith. I received an in-depth micro-seminary education. They gave me questions without easy answers. They taught me to think for myself and to have my own relationship with our Creator.  They showed me how to incorporate spirituality into my daily life.  All this was extremely important during a formative period in my life, ensuring that I had a solid foundation for my faith.”

Those benefits, however, were ultimately outweighed by the fact that Sarah could never fully be herself. Further, she saw the tragedy of students expelled for openly declaring their sexual orientation. Later, she and Elizabeth experienced this same exclusivity at other churches, where they were barred from working with children and found closed doors when it came to positions of meaningful leadership.

In a testimony to the strength of her spirit, Sarah says, “All that judgment and rejection didn’t shake my faith, just my faith in people.”

Everything changed when they came to NPC.

“Everyone here was willing to listen to the fullness of our stories, and the acceptance has been like coming home. We have had people say to us, ‘I wasn’t sure about where I stood on marriage equality, but after experiencing it with you and Elizabeth, I have come to embrace it, and now I am sharing the message with my friends.’”

Since joining NPC, the Clapps have celebrated the baptism of their daughter, Samantha, and Sarah’s ordination as a Ruling Elder. She is now leading the Membership and Evangelism Team, strategizing ways to welcome all people into a community of love and acceptance. She is spearheading the effort to bring Jennifer Knapp to NPC, the Christian recording artist who came out as lesbian and now has a touring ministry called Inside Out Faith. Its mission is to “actively engage faith communities in order to educate, affirm and foster support of LGBTQ persons and their allies.”

Sarah remains grateful for the community of faith their family has found at NPC, and the ministry of witness it provides.

“The longer we are here,” she says, “the more we see how our continual presence is working its way through the hearts of so many people.”

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My Faith Boiled down to One Word

Excuse my simplicity, but this is what I believe.

After all the clashing of religious truths, after the endless verbiage of theologians, and at the end of every spiritual quest, there are three immortal words spoken by the Apostle John: “God is love.”

Could it really be this simple? Yes! Love. But what kind of love? We see romantic love, 26993637_1752941528069796_2062889683675727005_n love of Self, love of money, love of power, love of our own family, tribe, or political party at the exclusion of others. In February, a month equated with love, it behooves us to recall some words from the New Testament, that collection of writings that rise like a hymn of God’s love sung to all of us.

The first were spoken by Jesus, part of the accumulated sayings we call The Sermon on the Mount. I have chosen Eugene Peterson’s The Message version because of its bold freshness.

       You’re familiar with the old written law, “Love your friend,” and its unwritten companion, “Hate your enemy.” I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.
           In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” – Matthew 5:43-48

The second selection is from the Apostle Paul, a man who “breathed hatred” towards Jesus’ followers, then had a conversion so dramatic that he climbed what I call the Everest of Love. From that lofty vantage point, he wrote the timeless words of I Corinthians 13, a Himalayan peak of world literature. Here are a few of its verses, again from The Messageso applicable to our lives today!

     If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.  If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
      Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “Me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel. Love takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best. Love never looks back, but keeps going to the end.

I pray that the depth and quality of our love for all people will grow, not only this month of February 2018, but throughout our allotted days. God is love and love is our highest calling.











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Danger or Opportunity? You Decide…

A jailhouse tattoo on the forearm of a San Quentin inmate: that’s when I first saw theChineseSymbol word. We were in a visiting room, seated under harsh fluorescent light as I interviewed him for an article.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It’s the Chinese character for crisis,” he said, “but it’s made up of two symbols, one meaning danger, the other opportunity.”

“Why did you put it there?” I asked.

His smile said, I was hoping you’d ask.

“Because the events that led to my incarceration, along with the danger in a place like this, actually gave me the opportunity to turn my life around.”

Since then I’ve learned that this translation of  危机, wēijī, is incorrect. But the cultural trope remains, especially in America, popularized in speeches by John F. Kennedy, Condoleeza Rice, Al Gore, and scores of motivational speakers.

On New Year’s Eve, 2017, I thought of wēijī as a loved one said to me, “Krin, I want to talk with you about my crisis of faith.”

Nothing stirs me more than discussing spiritual matters. These are messages from the deepest fronts of our Selves, struggles that reflect the essence of why we are created. I was all ears.

She told me that she is increasingly skeptical of her traditional Christianity. It began with simple questions about other religions. How could she claim that hers was the only valid path, especially when she saw that happenstance of birth and culture clearly mold our beliefs?

Her thinking crystallized after she saw The Book of Mormon. She considered the fantasies of that faith: a soothsayer translating golden plates, Jesus appearing to Mesoamericans after his resurrection, a lost tribe of Israel that flourished in North America but left no shred of archaeological evidence.

“How can people believe such bizarre events?” she said with a laugh. “Then I thought about my own tradition with Jesus: a virgin birth, miracles like walking on water, the supposed need for blood shedding, resurrection from the dead.”

When I asked why she used the word crisis, she talked about the shifting ground beneath her feet, the potential judgement of others, her anxiety about the future. Would faith remain in any form at all?

When she was finished, I recalled some words from the late James Fowler: “When we are grasped by the vision of a center of value and power more luminous, more inclusive and truer than that to which we are devoted, we initially experience the new as the enemy or the slayer—that which destroys our ‘god.’”

Then I shared my journey, one human being to another. I talked about my grasp of Fowler’s Stages of Faith, especially the movement from 3 to 4. It’s a time to emerge from the spoon-fed acculturation of family and nation. A time to step outside our boxes and see the beauty of other beliefs. A time of both/and, not either/or. A time of release from the creeds and doctrines that too often calcify our brains and spiritual development. A time to join the pilgrimage of all people in our common humanity. This is the ancient way mentioned in Psalm 139:24 of the Hebrews.

“I deeply admire your courage,” I told her. “And I believe that what you label a crisis is actually a beautiful opportunity. It’s a calling to experience the universal love that lights the path of all our journeys. Let’s keep talking. I, and countless others, are with you!”

On the cusp of a new year, what a joy to be part of this birthing!



Blowin’ in the Christmas Wind

Keith blew in with a cold front three days before Christmas, already seated on the front1297630843288_ORIGINAL steps of our church as I got to work. His clothes were filthy and threadbare, and the face that peered out from beneath a hooded sweatshirt was reddened by more than wind. Body odor and booze fumes tore at my nostrils.

“Can I help you?” I asked.

“I was wondering if you could spare a few dollars,” he said.

“I don’t give out cash,” I answered. “I’m not judging you, but people drink up the money as soon as I give it to them.”

“Yeah, I do drink some beer,” he said with a smile.

I smiled back.

“How about I take you to get something to eat?”

“No thanks. I already had one of those breakfast burritos at McDonald’s.”

“How long have you been homeless?”

“Many, many years.”

“If you want, “I said, “I can get you a room at the Rescue Mission. They’re a great outfit, and I know the people in charge. They’ll help you get settled, find work, make a new start.”

“No thanks. I prefer to be on the road.”

“OK. Is there anything else I can do to help you?”

“Actually, I could use some new shoes and a coat.”

What an understatement! His black tennis shoes were soleless and his flimsy sweatshirt was no buffer to the cold.

“Tell you what,” I said, “Let me take you to the Trash and Treasure Resale store and we’ll see what we can do.”

Friends, never underestimate how the simplest of gifts can make a difference in someone else’s life! Truly one person’s trash can be another person’s treasure. I took Keith to the store, an ecumenical ministry in our town, praying silently they would have what he needed. My prayers were answered. On the shoe shelf was a sturdy set of leather Skechers, his size, barely used. And there on the rack hung a beautiful wool coat with quilted lining and an over-sized hood.

I held out the coat with a flourish, mimicking a sales clerk at Men’s Wearhouse.

“Here you go, sir,” I said. “This looks like just your style.”

He laughed and slipped into it, playing his part. Perfect fit.

“I really appreciate your help,” he said.

“No problem,” I replied. “Are you sure you don’t want me to get you a room at the Mission? They’ll help you in ways that I’m not able to.”

“I’m sure. I think I’ll just head down to Kingsville. I once spent a Christmas there. Can’t even remember what year.”

“You’re determined to do the Forest Gump thing, eh? Just keep walking and walking?”

“Guess so.”

We exited to the back alley. You could feel the coming front in the cold, sharp wind. I shivered, imagining how Keith would fare during the night. He thanked me again as we shook hands. Then he strolled off down the alley, resplendent in his new shoes and coat.

Just before he rounded the corner, he stopped, lifted his arms and shouted “Merry Christmas, everyone!”

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You’re Thankful for THAT?

Everyone agrees that thankfulness is a banner of victorious living. We elevate gratitude into-the-light21to a cardinal virtue, especially at this time of year, our voices rising in song: “Give thanks with a grateful heart!” and “Come, ye thankful people come!”

If we count our blessings instead of sheep (kudos, Irving Berlin), most of us begin with obvious gifts: food, shelter, loved ones. It’s like stepping up Maslow’s ladder of need, relishing the view from each rung. We may even do so with a prayerful awareness that these basic needs are lacking in the lives of others. A colleague of mine, Rev. Traci Smith, calls this Gratitude 101.

I, too, am thankful for this surface abundance in my life. Yet, on this Thanksgiving 2017, I am grateful for treasures born of deeper struggles.

I love this quote from Anthon St. Maarten (an unlikely reference). “If we never experience the chill of a dark winter, it is very unlikely that we will ever cherish the warmth of a bright summer’s day. Nothing stimulates our appetite for the simple joys of life more than the starvation caused by sadness or desperation. In order to complete our amazing life journey successfully, it is vital that we turn each and every dark tear into a pearl of wisdom, and find the blessing in every curse.”

Today, I hold two of these pearls—these blessings—in my hands. Jesus would call them pearls of great price.

One represents my recovery from alcoholism. Early on, as I attended meetings and absorbed the wisdom of others, I heard a phrase that startled me: “My name is ________, and I’m a grateful alcoholic.” What?! You’re grateful for a disease that causes blackouts, ravaged relationships, poisoned bodies, the suffering of incarceration and rehab? How could those two words—grateful and alcoholic—be spoken in the same breath? Now I know. The Twelve Steps brought me to my knees, offered rebirth through surrender, and today I am eternally grateful for a path that leads to serenity.

The other symbolizes my journey in parenting a special needs son. It requires herculean doses of patience, a quality that was never my forte. But today I am abundantly grateful, not only for this daily character shaping, but for the privilege to see life through Kristoffer’s eyes, to affirm forever the dignity and worth of every human being in the Kingdom of God.

Last month, I shared a classic of Christian literature at a men’s breakfast: Corrie Ten Boom’s story of the fleas in Barracks 8 at Ravensbruck, a Nazi concentration camp for women. Corrie and her sister, Betsy, were imprisoned for harboring Jews. Betsy taught her sister to be thankful even for the fleas that infested their cramped and filthy quarters. Why? You can read the story and its stinger ending here.

What I didn’t share with those men, but do so now, are some of Betsy’s final words before she died in that squalid prison. They shout to me across the decades.

“We must tell people what we have learned here. We must tell them that there is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still. They will listen to us, Corrie, because we have been here.”

I ask you a question, my friends. When you count your blessings, are there some that would cause people to say “You’re thankful for THAT?”

I hope so.


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Every Story Matters

For years, CBS ran a program called “Everybody Has a Story.” Host Steve Hartman threw a dart at a U.S. map, flew to that city, opened a phone book, put his finger down and called that household. If the individuals were willing, Hartman highlighted their life stories. Before leaving, he asked them to throw a dart for his next destination.  156227-34744 with wordsWhat a marvelous illustration! It shows two things. First: the struggles of being human are something we all share, no matter our age, race, or background. Second: our stories matter, especially when someone really listens.

But listening is a dying art. We fixate on our TVs, computers, or smart phones. With sound byte mentalities, we wish people would just get to the point. We formulate responses before others finish, cutting our attentiveness to zero.

Paul Tillich once said, “The first duty of love is to listen.” People long for someone to hear them. In our raucous world, open ears and hearts provide an oasis of acceptance. And the benefit to us can be astonishing. Our worlds expand! Here’s an example.

One day a short African-American man with a warm, near toothless smile came to our church. He was homeless, sleeping in his car, and wondered if I could help with lodging and food. When I agreed, he said, “Thank you, sir!”

That’s when I saw the military bearing in his shoulders; I heard the respect in his voice.

“Are you a Vet?” I asked.

“Yes, sir. I served in Desert Storm with the First Mechanized Infantry.”

“Tell me your story,” I said. Then I listened without interruption.

What followed was a harrowing page of American history, and it was my privilege to hear every word.

Raised in New Jersey, William Milburn inherited his family’s tradition to join the military. He enlisted in the Army National Guard after high school. When he got laid off from a factory job, he decided to go active duty. Eventually he was transferred to Fort Bliss, assigned to the First Armored Division.

In August of 1990, William was a front-line tank gunner when the U.S. invaded Iraq. As he spoke, I could hear the roaring jets, the deep booms as William locked onto distant Iraqi targets and destroyed them. Those traumatic memories still open fresh wounds.

“We saw trucks, jeeps and tanks with mangled, blackened bodies. The smell of death is horrible, pastor. I was a soldier, but as a Christian, any loss of life is terrible. I remember looking at one body draped from a jeep and thinking ‘man, that guy had a family.’ It was war. I did my duty. But it was still so sad.”

William received bronze stars for his valor. I told him I couldn’t thank him enough for his selfless service to our country. I’m happy to tell you he is back on his feet, working hard, enjoying life with a new girlfriend.

So think of this as you shop, work, and travel. Every person you see has a story. And sometimes the people we pass over the quickest have the most mind-blowing tales of all. A homeless veteran taught me this lesson.

All I had to do was listen.