Politics, Bluegrass, and Punishment: A Longing for Lent (again)

By Joe LaGuardia

I came off of a very productive Lent this past season.  My Lent involved fasting from politics–from listening, watching, reading, and, well, reading anything having to do with politics (and, in many cases, religion).

That was a good exercise.  Before Lent, I was up too late watching CNN, wasting away in the midnight hours reading The Washington Post, and subjecting my family to the XM politics station during road trips.  It was bad.

Lent is not only a time to give up something just to give it up, but to consider why that which you are giving up has detrimental effects in your life.  While I fasted from politics and yearned for the XM, I had plenty of time to pray and reflect on my politics addiction.  The news was definitely affecting my life, setting me up for exhaustion, and (at worst) producing in me a moodiness that rippled through my whole family.

I decided that once Lent came to an end, I would limit my access to that kind of toxin.  It has been about three days now, and I have not watched CNN or Fox. I only stayed up late one night to watch clips from The Daily Show and read articles on my cellphone.  I’ve listened to the XM channel, but not while my family was in the car.  Fair enough.

Yet, as I have taken in only a spoonful of the news, I have already seen the affects draw on my mood.  Since Sunday, I’ve been annoyed by a terrible United Airlines incident, frustrated with a misstatement (and I’m being polite here) about the Holocaust from Sean Spicer, and flustered by an inability to assess a coherent foreign policy strategy from the State Department as it relates to our allies and those not so friendly to the United States.  I can’t make heads or tales of it.

But in catching up and staying abreast of the news (as minimally as possible, mind you!), I have come to realize something that frightens me a bit: It seems that many policies and the politics of the day have not turned a corner to bring about the type of bipartisan compromise and legislation that I had hoped for since the election in November.  Rather, there seems to be a reckoning or sense of punishment in contemporary politics that has stifled the promise of good, modest governance.

Could it be that healthcare reform–much needed, for sure–did not happen not because there weren’t better plans on the table, but because the spirit in which reform arose was out of an eagerness to punish the opposing party?  And, by way of that, appearing to punish people who have benefited from the Affordable Healthcare Act?

Could it be that a coherent foreign policy has not surfaced because we are still trying to punish belligerent nation-states that stand in the way of peace and progress throughout the world?

The election is now five months over, and I am still hearing about emails, Benghazi, healthcare, financial crises, conflicts of interest, careless rhetoric, and unwieldy town hall meetings even this week alone–Holy Week!  I watched a video in which an innocent doctor was bludgeoned and punished for not volunteering his seat for which he reserved and paid on an airplane.

So, please give me Lent again.  Put me into a cave, bury my head in the sand.  Let me live in the dark where I can stumble on my own with as little damage to others as I can possibly muster.  I’ve even started listening to bluegrass more than politics in the car to stay grounded, to live into a sense of being at home as I recall the many vacations and sabbaticals that we took from the world by venturing in the foothills of North Georgia.

But then again, its Easter.  My sermon for Sunday quotes Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  That’s not just about evil–(don’t read into my quote, ya’ll; this is not a partisan article!).  Its about the choice of either doing nothing or working constructively–together–to bring about the change and transformation we all long to see in the world.

Right now, we have to change the tone of our politics.  We have to move from punishment to progress, from bickering and hostility to conversation and compromise, from one-upsmanship to friendship.  It doesn’t take an act of congress, it only takes a commitment to get over ourselves and do what is right, for people to stand up to corporate and big-money interests, and for voters and constituents to be involved in the workings of government.  As the adage goes the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, and the only way to be the presence of Christ in the world is to be present in the world.

I guess the cave will have to wait.  Christ calls me to live in the light, not the darkness of the tomb.  Christ calls me — and you — to live into God’s future by God’s miracles, not the present realities that stumble along by happenstance and coincidence.  Its a word of hope, but easier said than done.  As Holy Week unfolds, I’ll still wrestle with that whole notion.  I have a feeling that bluegrass will continue to soothe my aching ears and heart until then.

Peace on Earth and Goodwill towards all?

peace-on-earth

By Joe LaGuardia

In a recent article for USA Today, Robert Parham noted the oddity and the timeliness of God’s message of “peace on earth” to Mary and Joseph during the Christmas season.

He stated that peace was a ridiculous notion back then as it is now, a notion hard-pressed in human community filled with violence and vitriol, domination and oppression.

That first-century world was one of utter darkness: Rome was in charge, applying financial pressure through high taxes and a military economy.  Not many politicians were friends to families in Nazareth.  As one observer of Jesus noted, “What good can come out of Nazareth anyway?” (John 1:46).

And shortly after Jesus was born, during Epiphany, an infuriated Herod commanded the genocide of children throughout Bethlehem (Matt. 2:16-16).

Peace is certainly ridiculous because it assumes that we aspire to be better than this, to lift ourselves above the fray of retaliation and revenge, and seek avenues of justice and forgiveness instead.  After all, we know more than people did back then.  Ours is the age of Enlightenment, science, and technology.

But it is also ridiculous because it assumes we can follow in the footsteps of Jesus: When tortured and sentenced for crimes he did not commit, he forgave his oppressors, forever breaking the Cycle of revenge and showing us what true reconciliation looks like. No amount of science and social media can inspire that kind of peacemaking.

It is, however, that type of peace we Christians are to proclaim on Christmas, or whenever we are together, really.  In worship, we model what it means to look to God rather than ourselves.  Our praise and proclamation of Gospel is the alternative to a world that is “me first.”  In ministry, we surrender ourselves to learn and walk with that Galilean peasant rather than give in to princes who wield power.

In our missions, we practice restorative justice when we declare that all we own is to be shared with the “least of these,” bringing healing to those places still under the thumb of empire and hardship.

God’s peace in Christ was– and is–radically different than the militaristic values that set the tone of violence in Rome.  God’s peace in Christ sets a new tone for today too.

Yet, peace has been hard to find this season.  Leading up to the Christmas weekend, there was talk among politicians on Twitter concerning, of all things, nuclear escalation.  When we sang, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” in our hymnody this past weekend, there were over 50 shootings with at least a dozen fatalities in the city of Chicago alone.

Across the nation, there were multiple reports of violence and fighting–and at least one mass shooting threat–in malls, the very places where we purchase gifts for our children to remind them of the gift of Jesus.  Violence erupted in a Aurora, Colorado, mall of all places, a town victimized by a mass shooting some years back.  People should know better.

I am not sure how people who celebrate or observe Christmas can become violent, but this seems to play into the narrative that anger in America (or at least the perception of anger, as reflected in the nightly news and in our political rhetoric) is becoming a new norm this year.

Anger can only be tempered with intentional acts of love and kindness, and in the actual testifying to and spreading of the Gospel –the Good News– of Christ in our midst.  It was Jesus who walked among angry Roman soldiers who derided, dehumanized, and tortured him.  It was in the middle of that kind of storm that Jesus ushered in a silent witness of Good News of peace and calm, perhaps the loudest plea for non-violence anytime in history (Mark 15:16-20).

Civil Rights activist Ruby Sales learned long ago that tempering violence may be resolved with asking different questions of those who are angry and to do so right in the midst of violent communities.  She learned to ask, “Where does it hurt?”

We too–the church as a whole–must learn how to ask this question and listen to the answers.  Then we must, in turn, go into the public square and ask that question of neighbors and communities alike.

God came to us as Emmanuel not in places where we ought to be, but where we are: right in the middle of our hurt.  Jesus was born there not to leave us where we are, but to mature us to be vessels of peace who have experienced forgiveness and healing once and for all.  Remember that is was in the Gospel of Mark where a Roman soldier–once angry, but healed at the cross of Christ, who was the first human on record to declare, “This Jesus is indeed the Son of God!”

God’s peace in Jesus was a bold scheme, and I agree with Robert Parham that it does sound ridiculous, especially when we see a different picture painted across our nation on the nightly news.  But if we Christians can’t be the ones to be intentional in sharing God’s love and peace–to ask the hard questions of where it hurts–then who will?

6 steps to overcome discouragement

praying-womanBy Matt Sapp

It’s A Wonderful Life opens with a conversation between God, St. Peter and Clarence, angel second-class. Clarence is about to get his big chance as a guardian angel, and upon hearing that his charge, George Bailey, is in desperate need of his services, Clarence asks with urgency, “What’s wrong? Is he sick?”

To which God replies, “No. Worse. He’s discouraged.”

Discouragement is the worst. It sneaks up on us. It’s hard to pinpoint a single moment when discouragement sets in, but discouragement finds its way into all of our hearts at one time or another, and it’s an awful way to feel.

When we’re discouraged we feel incapable, unaccomplished, lost, like we’ve ventured too far into the woods without realizing it and are sure we can’t find our way back.

Uncertainty is a key source of discouragement. A lot of churches today face uncertain futures, so it’s easy for clergy and lay leaders to give in to discouragement.  A lot of families today aren’t as stable as they’d like to be—financially and otherwise—so it’s easy for families to feel discouraged, too.

Unexpected financial setbacks, health scares, relationships gone bad—you name it, most people are one life event away from disaster, and that in and of itself can be discouraging. Discouragement drains energy, stifles motivation, clouds vision, and leads to paralyzing anxiety and inaction.

So, I hope you’re not experiencing discouragement right now, but if you are, let me suggest six things you can do when you’re discouraged.

  1. Take The Long View

Step back and see the big picture. Sometimes the sources of our discouragement are much smaller than they appear. When we see the big picture we can give ourselves credit for progress and success that discouragement seeks to hide from us.

Seeing the big picture allows us to view setbacks as momentary and gives us the perspective to envision creative and healthy ways to move beyond our present circumstances.

  1. Evaluate Shortcomings

When we’re discouraged, unless we’re just dreadfully off base, it’s usually because of a real obstacle or setback in our lives. So one of the first things you can do when you discover that you’re discouraged is to honestly evaluate the circumstances that have led you to this point.

What are your individual shortcomings? Are there organizational or family shortcomings involved? Have changes to the larger culture or the environment contributed to your discouragement? Use your discouragement as an opportunity for honest evaluation.

  1. Make A Plan

Once you’ve evaluated your situation, make a plan. When we’re discouraged, it’s easy to feel like we are being carried along by forces beyond our control.  Active planning helps us feel in control again.

Outline necessary changes. Figure out what it will take to overcome the present obstacles. Are there things that you can do better? Are there things you need to do more? How about routines or habits or patterns you need to change? Are there new realities you need to accept or new environments you need to explore? Make a plan.

  1. Resolve To Act

Put your plan into action. Go ahead, give it a shot. Don’t wait for the perfect time or the perfect circumstances. Realize that failure will always be a possible outcome of action. And then act anyway.

And don’t let one bad day or one bad outcome get you off track. Keep plugging along, each day resolving to do what that day requires of you.

  1. Remember That God Is In Control

It doesn’t all depend on you. Discouragement becomes such a heavy burden because we delude ourselves into thinking that we have to climb out of the pit alone. But we don’t. As Christians, we have the supportive community and partnership of God and God’s people—a repository of healthy relationships on which to draw when the events of life seem overwhelming.

So when you need it, ask for help–in prayer and from your Christian community. Don’t have a Christian community? Then find a church to attend this Sunday.

  1. Encourage Someone Else

Finally, remember, the opposite of discouragement is encouragement. Use your own discouragement as a reminder to be an encourager to others around you. Where discouragement drains energy, stifles motivation, clouds vision and leads to inaction, encouragement does just the opposite.

It provides energy, creates motivation, clears vision and leads to action.

We all need encouragement, and the Bible is a great place to find it. In fact, that might be the most important thing for me to do when I’m discouraged. Usually when I’m discouraged I discover that I haven’t been reading my Bible like I should.

In John 16, Jesus tells us that he comes to share God’s truth with us so that we might be encouraged, saying, “I’ve said these things to you so that you will have peace in me. In the world you have distress. But be encouraged! I have conquered the world!” Sometimes, that’s all I need to hear.