• Enjoyed a beautiful week in New Mexico, spending most of the time in Santa Fe (visited lots of art galleries) and Los Alamos.
  • Mindy has taken a part time job with me in the Mattoon Church working with the children's program.  Her first project here will be the production of a children's musical for Christmas.  This makes one and a half new jobs for her this month.  And she's really busy when you add in the play she'll be in:  The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940.  Dates for that are November 8-18, selected days.  Click here for information.
  • Reading a book of short stories, Lucia Berlin's A Manual for Cleaning Women.  She is a snappy writer from the 70s and is just now starting to get more attention.  Also reading Elif Batuman's The Idiot, a novel about a girl from Turkey going to college at Harvard.  She sees the ridiculousness of many things that we take for granted.  So far both books are keeping me interested. 

October 28, 2018
The Devil in the Mailbox
They caught the two guys.  The first one tried to change things with bombs rather than ballots.  He made the explosives himself and then sent them through the mail to his political enemies, including two former presidents. 

None of the bombs themselves actually exploded, but the story of them detonated politicians of both parties, the news media, and an already over-stimulated public.  
Before we could even catch our breath on the first story, a second guy went on a shooting spree at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg, killing eleven.  He had this thing against immigrants.  
(And then this morning, in Mattoon, two churches received threats of violence and had police presence all morning.  In our own church, we were on quiet lockdown, with only the front door open, being heavily watched.)
Every week we hear a new horror story, trumping the ones that went before.  It seems our country has reached a new low.
How are we, as a nation, handling all this?  As usual, we make it about the leader.  Either we believe that the president is the cause of all this, or we believe that he is the only one able to save us from ourselves.  

This is how people often caricaturize any leader in modern times.  Problems get personalized, then reduced to an individual.  Ask any pastor.  Problems faced by even the smallest of churches are complex. But there are plenty of people who will simplify and distort those problems until they can project everything onto the personality of the pastor.  Consequently, the pastor is blamed for everything that goes wrong...OR... is seen as the Messiah, the only one who can save the church.
Donald Trump didn't help matters any at the Republican convention in 2016, when he recited a list of the nation's problems, lamented how these problems had turned us into a broken nation, and then declared, "I alone can fix it." 

He now encounters the same questions God has faced for centuries:  If you, and you alone can fix it, then why are we still getting cancer and people are still getting shot in church?  If you can fix us, yet don't, that's virtually as evil as causing the problems in the first place!
Everyone who knows me knows that I am no fan of Donald Trump, although some of my friends, my family, and my parishioners are. And in these tense days, we are doing our best to maintain our bonds of affection, (and mostly succeeding.)
But you all should know that Mr. Trump and I go way back.  I was sparing with him long before he entered politics. Not that he knew it.  As a pastor, trying to influence people by the grace and teachings of Jesus, I found Mr. Trump and his statements to be a worthy foil and adversary.  For decades, he openly and courageously advocated greed, lust, lying, and anger.  He made for great sermon illustrations!

It just so happens, surprising him and me both, that such a brazen style became politically popular by 2016.  And now Mr. Trump is President of the United States.  As for me? I am scrambling to find someone new to illustrate the seven deadly sins: separation of church and state and all that.
But my longstanding disputes with Mr. Trump aside, is he really the incarnation of evil itself?  I don't believe so. My problems with Mr. Trump are merely political, not historical or theological.  
To be political is to be in the middle of something: doing all you can to make things go the right way (whatever way you think is right.)  To be historical is to extricate yourself from the middle, best you can, and strive to see things from a distance.  

Politicians seek to make things happen, or not happen, best they can. Historians seek the truth, scrap by scrap, as much as they can find, in a noble but ultimately illusive quest for the whole truth. 
To be theological is to practice a disciplined imagination so that we can experience, (through songs and stories and symbols,) truths that will save us.  

Electing Donald Trump, it turns out, hasn't saved us.  But good theologians know that defeating him will also not save us.  Vote against him and his party, or vote for him.  But do so for political reasons, and with history in mind, not because you think he is the source of evil...or our salvation from it.
Let's not get our theology wrong.  Evil didn't just start with the election of Mr. Trump...or Mr. Obama (whichever side you're on.)  Evil has been around from the beginning.  It is not better or worse now than it has ever been. Good history will testify to this. 

Mr. Trump is no more evil than Mr. Obama.  All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  In Pakistan alone, Mr. Obama authorized drone strikes that killed more civilians than al Qaeda killed on 9/11.  Personally, I liked Mr. Obama's political style:  his erudition, caution, and wit gave me comfort.  But theologically, he was no less evil than Mr. Trump.  None of us are.  And historically, the jury is still out on both Mr. Obama AND Mr. Trump.  No smart historian will try to put a definitive picture together at this point on either of these guys.
Mr. Bush got us into an unnecessary war in Iraq (over a million killed, few of whom knew bin Laden.)  Mr. Clinton sat on his hands and did nothing while genocide raged in Rwanda, almost a million people killed in a 100 day period. And he was supposed to be the president who respected black folk.  Ronald Reagan authorized financial support and training for death squads in Central America, squads that ended up butchering priests and laity, far more prolifically than did the emperor Nero, who slaughtered  the first Christians.  Richard Nixon sabotaged the Viet Nam peace talks in October of 1968 so he could win that year's election. Consequently, another 22,041 Americans died in that war.  John Kennedy was a serial adulterer, far more than anything Donald Trump brags about, and a number of women have come forward and reported that Mr. Kennedy raped them, while inside the White House.  Harry Truman dropped two atomic bombs, killing countless children and infants.
History!  Learn the history.  And theology.  Let politics be politics...but no more than that.  Let's not confuse our political enemies with historical low points...or true evil.  
While we are not experiencing anything new in our history or theology, we are in a different kind of political climate. And the new difference in American politics is this:  the veneer of political politeness (that often masked evil) has been rudely stripped away.  And we are now seeing alienations, rages, and dehumanizations being flouted.  They were there all along, but hidden from the naked eye.
Many bemoan the loss of civility in our politics.  But civility is only skin deep, a sophisticated form of dissembling. Civility doesn't mean that we are innocent.

Some of the most civil politicians in American history were southern senators, who refused for decades to allow any kind of anti-lynching law to be passed.  Civility is only a veneer.  And now it is no more.
For those nostalgic for the civility of a bygone era, the news these days is nauseating. But for those of us who study history, and for those of us who believe the Bible, this brazen age might be just the thing we need if we are ever to get better.  

I served an African-American congregation in West Virginia when I was in college.  A retired professor, who had spent part of his career in the north, and part in the south, once told me, "I'd rather be in the south.  People are more brazen there, but at least you know where you stand.  Racism in the north is just as violent, but it's masked in politeness."

The cloaks and masks are indeed off in our political discourse.  There is screaming and name-calling all around.  Rules of politics are being rewritten, and no one knows exactly how to win these days, politically.

And so I read more history...and theology.  And I'm okay.  Both disciples remind me that i t's always darkest before the dawn.
 The Sunday letter is something I have done now for over 20 years.  It is a disciplined musing:  mindfulness, memory, and imagination.  I write it when I first wake up on a Sunday morning and then share it with the congregation.  The letter you see published here is usually revised from what the congregation receives.  This discipline of thinking and writing puts me in the place of describing rather than advising.  It prepares me to proclaim the gospel rather than get preachy with the souls who will sit before me.  --JMS


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