“How long, O Lord?” No longer, people!

Remarks I made at the United in Love rally at Center Square, Allentown, August 13, 2017:

Centuries ago the ancient prophet Habbakuk said something that any one of us might have said this past week: “How long, O Lord, shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?How long shall I cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise…. the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.The wicked surround the righteous … judgment comes forth perverted.”

Does that describe our situation? Do you hear it? Do you feel it? How long, O Lord?

God’s people have prayed that prayer through the centuries: they prayed it through slavery in Egypt…

They prayed it through ages of corrupt kings and wicked judges

They prayed it through exile in a foreign land…

God’s people prayed it through trial and tribulation, through persecution and distress, through peril, famine and sword.

They prayed: How long O Lord, and God delivered them … and yet … here we are again.

The words of Habakkuk and the prophets, the words of the psalmists and the apostles, all come back to challenge a 21st century empire whose president stirs up the meanest tendencies of the human spirit (How long, O Lord!); a president who seems to take delight stoking the basest of passions in his base (How long, O Lord!); a president whose politics and policies brought a resurgence of racism that raised its vicious head in Charlottesville.

Many of us hoped and prayed that racism was dying on the vine, but others know racism been lurking beneath the surface all these years, lurking beneath the surface all these centuries. (How long, O Lord!)

How long will those who confuse and confound, those who contort and distort the purpose of God be allowed to rule over those who simply want to live in peace and security? (How long, O Lord!)

When I saw what was happening in Charlottesville and I prayed, How long, O Lord, God answered me: “I don’t know. How long, Bob?”

How long, says the Lord, will you ask ME how long… when it is your founding fathers who melded patriarchy with patriotism, when it is your founding fathers who stitched slavery into the fabric of your financial systems, and when it is your own 21st century privileged white complacency that’s enabling the most hateful white supremacy to return today.

And it HAS returned, returned like an infection that the first round of antibiotics didn’t eliminate… and so it has come back even stronger.

How long, says the Lord to me, how long will you and your white colleagues stand by, tsk tsk tsking at the ravages of racism in this country? How long will YOU allow such behavior to go unchecked, unchallenged and unchanged?

So I said, how, Lord?

And then it came to me: 1 Corinthians 13 – one of the best known and best-loved Bible passages, called the love chapter by Christians. It describes the kind of love this “United in Love” rally would be about. Here’s a key passage:  “love is patient and kind, it is not jealous or boastful,  it is not arrogant or rude love does not insist on its own way.  It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice at wrong but rejoices in the right.”

This isn’t some schmaltzy kumbaya kinda love … because what we are up against is the exact opposite of that love.

Let me run through that love-list again, but this time consider how it applies to Donald Trump. Of course I don’t know the man personally; I know him by his words and actions, and they seem to me to be the opposite of the love that is described in 1 Corinthians 13.

I leave it to you to fill in specific examples. Does this accurately describe the way the President has behaved: he is NOT patient, he is NOT kind, he IS jealous and he IS boastful, he is arrogant and he is rude; he insists on his own way, he is irritable and he is resentful; and he even seems to rejoice at what is wrong.

This is what we are up against, not simply in Donald Trump but also in the white supremacist movement he has empowered. White supremacy is the polar opposite of love and the only way to fight that is if we, all of us: whites and people of color, LGBTQ, cisgender and all, Protestant and Catholic, Muslim and Jew, Buddhist and atheist, if we all unite in love to work for justice.

How long, O Lord? I say NO LONGER!

How long, people! (NO LONGER!)

How long, people! (NO LONGER!)


Homelessness reveals the lump in our cultural carpet

As a downtown Allentown church, we at Zion’s thought we knew something about ministry to the homeless. But there’s nothing like running an overnight shelter and soup kitchen for a month to teach us a few new lessons.

Thanks to some forty volunteers, like Rochell Figueroa, from a dozen different churches, Zion’s “Liberty Bell” Church  opened our Fellowship Hall to the homeless on Easter weekend, one day after the Lehigh Conference of Churches abruptly closed its shelter.

The Conference of Churches, along with the Allentown Rescue Mission, the Salvation Army, and the Sixth Street Shelter, helps people who live at the edges of our community. Our recent experience with this “stopgap” shelter reveals the importance of their support for the homeless. It also showed what happens when the charitable safety net is withdrawn, even for a short period of time.

One case in point: when the Conference shelter closed, one man who was staying there wandered the streets when he left work that Friday evening. With light rain falling, the temperature in the upper 50s seemed especially cold, so José looked for a warm, dry place. He walked the streets until he passed an empty laundromat. Going inside, he curled up and fell asleep, until awakened by police. They told him only that he couldn’t sleep there and sent him on his way.

He finally wandered into a hospital ER where staff agreed he could sit in the waiting room till morning. It was warm, dry and safe, and he dozed off. When he suddenly awakened, realizing the hour, he hurried to the restaurant where he recently had gotten a job, arriving just in time to be fired for being late.

Progress for the homeless is just that tenuous; their achievements are just that precarious. For him, simply not having a place to sleep was enough to cost him his job.

Homelessness is the lump in our cultural carpet. For years we have been sweeping problems under the rug. We closed state mental institutions, then underfunded or de-funded hospitals, counselors and other service providers that might have given care to more of the mentally ill and addicted.

We over-incarcerate. We promise to rehabilitate. But the penitentiary is just the beginning of the penalty. Those with criminal records are continually penalized when seeking jobs or housing.

Our economic system expands wealth at the top and squeezes those at the bottom. Finding a full-time job often is not enough to liberate people from the ranks of the working poor. When living from paycheck to paycheck, homelessness results from unexpected, sometimes catastrophic bills. (Read this Profile of the Working Poor: http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpswp2012.pdf

Rising rental costs and a shortage of affordable housing means even those who find a decent job have difficulty finding a decent place to live.

In our short, stopgap stint helping 64 homeless individuals, we encountered people who struggled with each of those systemic problems; many struggled with multiple systems. And I haven’t even mentioned the way racial issues affect the homeless. Minorities are significantly over-represented. Read more here: Minorities and Homelessness

Homelessness is the lump in our cultural carpet that should remind us we can’t keep sweeping these systemic problems under the rug.

The good news from the gentleman mentioned above is that he found a new job in another restaurant. He wants to work. Although the new job pays 50¢ less per hour than the previous one, he resumed saving toward a security deposit so at last he’ll be off the streets. Let’s hope there isn’t another bump in the road. Or a bigger lump in the carpet.

That’s really the point in this “case in point.” The National Alliance to End Homelessness advocates a “Housing First” approach : provide housing first to create stability so people can address the root causes of their situation.

At Zion’s church the homeless slept just a few feet from where the Liberty Bell once was hidden. Inscribed on that bell is the jubilee text (Leviticus 25) proclaiming economic freedom as well as liberty to those who lived at the edges of the community in ancient Israel.

It is fair and just; it also should be our patriotic duty to provide better care for those who live at the edges in a nation as prosperous as ours.

# # # an edited version of this blog article appeared on the opinion page of the Allentown Morning Call

God’s House Band … and the Spirit’s Blend

WFoster Kathryn Fahringer Bob God's House Bande are so blessed every Sunday to have music like this:  Grace Like Rain / thanks to the ministry of Kathryn Foster, our student pastor, Bob Fahringer (Kathryn’s husband) as well as Lynn and Paul Rice from Zion, professional musicians in their own right. They start us off with 15 minutes of great contemporary praise music before our liturgical service begins. For many of our members, this has helped create a blend that includes the best of traditional music as well as contemporary Christian songs. (CCLI podcast license # CSPL034777).

God, Bless America

During this time of economic turmoil in our nation, five Allentown clergy from Congregations United for Neighborhood Action (CUNA) traveled to New Orleans last week to join more than 500 clergy from 26 states, representing Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim faith traditions.

The Reverends Dick Baumann, Maritza Dolich, John Grabish, David Charles Smith, CUNA executive director, Joshua Chisholm, and I attended the convocation in response to a “prophetic call to action.” That call reminds us about the responsibility of a people, especially those in power, to care for the poor and the vulnerable members of their society.

In fact-filled presentations, we saw statistical evidence that poverty and inequality are growing faster than any time since the 1920s. Indeed, the income gap between the top 1% and the rest of the people is almost as extreme as it was in 1929!

Clergy in New Orleans shared story after story about the devastating realities of unemployment, foreclosure and financial stress on our communities. How can anyone not be moved by the plight of a young father searching fruitlessly for work; parents and children evicted from the home they can no longer afford; or a retiree watching her life savings disappear – all due to an economic crisis they did not cause?

We clergy have witnessed the emotional and spiritual suffering that such stress often brings. The “occupied” sections of many of our nation’s cities demonstrate the despair and frustration that people feel. And now the “super-committee” has brought us the same old same old: political gridlock and gamesmanship. People who already are stressed and despairing lose hope as politicians position themselves for re-election instead of collaborating for the common good.

For generations America was a land of opportunity, a place where hard work led to a better life. Many working people now feel like the deck is stacked against them, yet attempts to discuss fairness in our society often are labeled “class warfare.” Just as the ancient prophets in our scriptures were called by God to condemn idolatry and injustice, so we feel called to speak out when we see unchecked greed and the corrupting influence of powerful special interests on our government.

The faith leaders who gathered in New Orleans believe that current public debate about economic recovery reflects competing moral and spiritual values that have profound consequences for us all. Who are we as a nation, and what binds us together? Americans always have believed in taking personal responsibility for our own well‑being; we also believe in helping our neighbors in need. Should we not expect a government as good as our people, a government that works for everyone, not just for the powerful and well‑connected?

We think that faith communities have a vital role to play in healing our nation, to shine the light that will remind our leaders to make decisions reflecting our deepest moral values. These values always have included a sense of fairness. These values always have included care for and protection of the most vulnerable among us. These values always have included courage to stand up for those who are being treated unjustly.

We have returned from New Orleans committed to preach, teach and organize in ways that unify people of faith to “do what is just, to love what is kind, and to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).” We challenge all of our elected leaders to put the needs of working families and the poor as well as the common good of our nation ahead of short‑term political strategies and special interests. And we invite all clergy to stand with us by reading and signing the call to action (www.cunapico.org) to reduce poverty and increase justice.

We ask for everyone’s prayers, that people of faith will be spiritually emboldened to work for the transformation of our nation, so that we may again give God every good reason to bless America.

NOTE – this was published as an “op ed” in the Morning Call, Nov. 23, 2011

Free-market Christianity or A New Thing from God

Try explaining contemporary Christian music to an Amish man!

I talked with Isaac Lapp about worship and music in his Amish community. Ike is the Amish carpenter who built the 1/2 scale Conestoga wagon for the Liberty Bell Museum, and I drove him, his family and two of his helpers to Allentown last Saturday so they could be with us for its dedication. The long drive gave us a lot of time for conversation.

Holding his thumb and forefinger to indicate the thickness of the big Gesangebuch his Amish community uses for worship, Ike explained this has been passed down for generations. They sing in German, without musical accompaniment of any kind. They sing the same songs sung by their German ancestors, who were persecuted and killed because of their religious ideas. “If it was good enough for them, why wouldn’t it be good enough for us?”

An interesting statement. On one hand, can you imagine a young adult in the suburbs saying that, about almost anything their parents have done? On the other hand, how could I explain to Ike the need for contemporary Christian music? How could I suggest that God is doing new thing in the 21st century church when I’m talking with someone who essentially lives somewhere between the 18th and 19th centuries?

From the worst angle, I suppose the drive to sing contemporary music is due to competition in the marketplace of churches, where individual Christians are free to worship wherever they want. Contemporary music is a marketing strategy, both to retain members and to recruit new members. And clearly, by the numbers alone, contemporary music is drawing many people, for whom contemporary music is the best expression of their spirituality.

From the best angle, in the United Church of Christ we not only say “God is still speaking,” We also say it is “the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make the faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.” Ideally, contemporary music forms, from folk to hip-hip and everything in between, become vessels for the faith in a new age.

Over the past two years I have come to love the Lapp family and their uncomplicated approach to life and faith. I would never try to talk them out of it. But I am sad to think about children growing up in a community where music is ossified, where they never will take music appreciation or learn to play an instrument or write a new song unto the Lord (much less a love song to their betrothed!).

At Zion we are beginning to learn the new music, with some members cautious and some members cheering as we create “blended” worship, an elusive goal and a moving target. I suppose the goal really is a blended congregation, with members who affirm there are needs-differing as well as gifts-differing. Members who value one another and value community enough to talk about their spirituality and their musicality. Members who also would say they don’t want their church to be “amished,” stuck in the forms of an earlier generation.

A New Gang in Town

This mischievous graffito, drawn Saturday night by an anonymous  soul from “New Thing in a Church Basement,” was on the whiteboard Sunday morning when our custodian arrived.

The white board is strategically positioned at the Church Street entrance so that staff, group leaders and members may sign-in as they enter. This ensures that the building alarm is not inadvertently set while someone is still puttering about (or quietly praying) somewhere in this large facility.

I entered by the Maple Street door early Sunday morning to prepare for the service, so I didn’t see the whiteboard. Surprised was I when our custodian knocked on my office door and asked, “where is Jesus?” Where, indeed!

I am hopeful this theological tag signals new gang activity in Allentown. After all we Christians have our own signs and symbols we could use, lots of them. We want to claim our turf in the city; or rather, we want to state our gang leader’s claim. (Lordship, after all, covers a lot of territory.) But we’re not looking to disrespect anyone out there. To the contrary, our gang leader offers a better alternative than street respect: self-respect.

So what did I say to our custodian’s question, where’s Jesus? Before I could muster the profound thoughts welling up within me into one coherent sentence, she explained the source of her question and quickly moved on to her next task.

Now I’m left wondering whether that anonymous soul will dare to tag every building in town, a reminder to Christians of Christ’s presence throughout the city, and a challenge to everyone else to look for him:  where is Jesus?

Work, Faith, Dignity

I was blessed to participate this past summer in a job-creation program for teens through Congregations United for Neighborhood Action. Although I had only a small role in the project, I also was blessed to be asked to write the op ed article that appears in the Morning Call today, “Allentown summer teen jobs program sows seeds of hope.” It is a good story to share.

After writing that op ed last week, and then preparing today’s message about work (which you can find under the Sunday Message tab), I find myself with new questions that I would like to ask the CUNA teens when we meet again: Where did you experience God in your work? Where did you feel God’s grace? What did you learn about your faith in your summer employment experience?

These are questions that we all could ask ourselves from time to time, even clergy. It may seem obvious that pastors would find God in their work. But I’m as prone as anyone to get lost in the details of the job, and to lose the “eternal perspective” that I prayed today we all would carry into our workaday world.

So to answer my own questions: this past week, I think I saw God’s hand at work in expanding our music ministry here. (I’m never sure that it is God’s hand till long after the fact.) Grace came in the midst of a visit with a dying woman, who offered forgiveness to some who had wronged her. And  I’m learning again is how wonderful it is to rely on the faith, and receive the gifts, of others in the community of believers. We have a small congregation of members and friends who faithfully serve God in their occupation (job, school, home, community volunteer) and then work overtime to serve within the church as well. Bless them.

In the words of a traditional hymn:

All labor gained new dignity

since he who all creation made

toiled with his hands for daily bread

right manfully.

No work is commonplace, if all

be done as unto him alone;

life’s simplest toil to him is known

who knoweth all.

His service is life’s highest joy,

it yields fair fruit a hundredfold:

be this our prayer – “Not fame, nor gold,

but – thine employ!”