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A couple of sentences from Donald Trump’s interview with the British tabloid paper Sun, on 12 July, explain the phenomenon that has come to be known as Trumpism and its fervor among the 62.9 million Americans who voted for him in 2016. (His opponent, by the way, received 65.8 million votes and this anomaly is also rooted in the dominant mindset). He asserted during the interview, that “allowing millions and millions of people to come into Europe is very very sad. I think you are losing your culture. Look around. You go through certain areas that didn’t exist 10 or 15 years ago”. Later, in a press conference with PM Teresa May he speculated that he won the election because of his campaign’s immigration stand.

This is a cry for the past – 10 or 15 years ago is actually language for centuries and centuries of a particular mindset or world view. But before we come to that, the clock ticks forward. That is the universal law, it is how the universe runs. No one can turn back, as to rewind the movement of the dynamics of the universe. It is like wishing to stop the sun (we are told in the bible that Joshua did if you want to be literal) or undo aging. It is inevitable that body joints clink, pop, snap, sizzle and crack in the course of aging.

What is happening is painful resistance to the inevitable.

But what is the nucleus of the predominant mindset? I am convinced the nexus of the worldview Trumpism represents is white male domination. The white male has dominated every aspect of society over the centuries. Rebecca Traister pointed out in an article titled Summer of Rage in New York Magazine (6/29/18) that “white men are the minority in the United States – no wonder they get uncomfortable when their power is challenged”. On illustration she uses is the fact that in the 242 year history of the U.S there have been 92 presidents and vice presidents, 100% of them males and more than 99% white males. The one black male elected president became the rallying grievance for Trumpism.

All the major social and political struggles in the U.S have been attempts to challenge the ruling minority. Whether it is Women’s Suffrage, Reproductive Rights, Civil Rights, Planned Parenthood and so on, the white male has exerted coercion, intimidation and any rhetoric in between, in a quest to continue to dominate society. The reality of not only a black man, but a woman, becoming president, sent shock waves into the worldview of the dominant culture.

But change is inevitable. In the popular British TV drama series, Downton Abbey, Robert Crawley, the patriarch of the clan, worries about the future because of the changes in the society. He laments, “Sometimes I feel like a creature in the wilds whose natural habitat is gradually being destroyed”.  This is after Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson (played by Shirley MacLane) makes this comment:  “You know the way to deal with the world today is not to ignore it. If you do, you’ll just get yourself hurt”. As to the feelings of the creature in the wilds, Martha recommends that “some animals adapt to new surroundings. It seems a better choice than extinction”.

Certainly Trumpism is not in any sense an attempt to ignore the changing world. It is not adaptation to the new world either, otherwise there would not be wishes for the past 10 or 15 years. What we are seeing is a fight for what is fast slipping away and the fight is choking everyone in society. But there is only one outcome, fight or refuse to adapt: the clock will never tick backwards, it is not how the universe runs.

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There has been a lot of talk about Oprah Winfrey’s interview in the August issue of Vogue magazine. I was particularly impressed by her comment that she made a fortune being herself. She reiterated in effect that she does not have a persona that is different from the person she is. She is authentic, in other words, and her authentic story has rewarded her well.

I am suggesting, or paraphrasing, that Oprah found a way to share her life story and people responded positively. There is a story in the Gospel of Mark chapter 6 where Jesus went to his hometown and into the local synagogue. The townspeople marveled at his wisdom initially but soon scoffed at the whole idea – because well, “he is nothing special, just one like his brothers and sisters and any of the kids around here”. In perhaps another version of this story in Luke 4, the townspeople drag Jesus out of the synagogue and would have tossed him down a cliff had he not somehow escaped.

The point is that this is Jesus’ story and it does not appear to have a happy ending. I suspect many of us would like happy endings to every episode in our life story. I am also suggesting that often we embellish our stories or choose not to share them because of those not-so-happy chapters.

Indeed, everyone has a story. Life is a continuous story with ups and downs, corners and detours, mistakes and even foolishness in some places. The temptation is to seek to paint a rosy picture of the journey, as if rosy means soft only. We know, though, that even roses blossom from stems with thorns. And talking of thorns, the apostle Paul mentions in his second letter to the Corinthians that he had “a thorn in the flesh” that was most unwelcome in his life. Yet, that did not deter him from the journey and sharing his story.

That is exactly what Jesus did after that discouraging episode in Nazareth. He did not give up or go into a depression. (I do that a lot of times – I mean, go into a depression).

When we accept and embrace vulnerability our life stories are authentic, stripped of the facades designed to project success, achievement, importance or significance and prestige. The world in turn responds, not because of a rosy outcome but because of the grace of accepting and embracing the whole journey as it continues to unfold. That is possible in a spirit of gratitude and humility.

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In a reflection piece published in Yale Divinity School’s Spring 2018 Reflections, and titled, The Future Depends on Our Image of God, Nancy Jo Kemper observes that ”Christianity has become a cult selling false certitude as a balm for modern anxieties rather than a faith movement following the way of Jesus”.   I’d like to point out from the  outset, that this may not be the picture of all of Christianity but only a part, albeit a good part of Christianity. Jesus’ way was of course,  the way of the cross, Via Dolorosa, which, some either don’t quite grasp it’s meaning, or, like the disciples at first, are still saying, “Heaven forbid Lord! This will never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22)

I like to hear people of faith give testimony of how God has acted in life. At the same time I am also conflicted by what seems, to me, to be denial of the way of the cross, or misleading theology of equating faith with prosperity.

Three years ago, a friend who worked side by side with me in outreach ministry was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer and after undergoing treatment the cancer was in complete remission, which, of course, was cause for celebration. During her illness she had remained strong in faith and of course we prayed a lot for cure and sure enough, our prayers were answered.

Less than a year after she got the news of remission, the cancer came back and more aggressively. She travelled to a prominent university hospital where an innovative procedure for treating that kind of cancer was being experimented. Unfortunately it turned out that she was not the right candidate for that procedure.

Complicated treatment procedures continued at her hometown medical center for a long time. As time went by she got weaker and weaker and a pitiable figure to look at – reminiscent of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. Still, no treatment could match the cancer’s aggressiveness. One day her doctors summoned the family to announce that they would terminate the treatment because at that stage she was only wearing down and suffering pain.

She died the next day.

I remember her messages during that long ordeal. “My God is larger than the cancer”. She taught us a lot about faith – and that did not include certitude. That did not mean being cured only. She taught us that even in death we do not walk alone. That is how Paul could say, “whether we live or die we belong to the Lord” (Rom. 14:8) and also, “neither death nor life…can separate us from the love of God” (Rom. 8:38-39).

So when I hear testimonies of thanksgiving that God woke us up in the morning, that some did not wake up, I have to remind myself that, yes, I need to live a life of gratitude, even for the seemingly ordinary like waking up in the morning  but also remember that God did not forget nor favor less, those who do not wake up.

 

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Psychologists tell us that it is a lot more emotional to part with possessions than to acquire them. that’s why we hoard. But this is not about hoarding but, well…emotions and awakening.

I woke up in the morning and as I descended the stairway I gazed through the tall stairway windows as I have done every morning for the past five days. This morning I did not see what I have seen first thing in the morning and what I expected to see. I rubbed my eyes and squinted, gazing across the street to the spot of my focus.

No, my eyes were not missing anything, nor was I not fully awake. But something was missing alright, what I expected to see and my dose of anticipated energy every morning for the past week. My heart was beginning to race, I could feel – and actually hear – my heightening heartbeat.

Dear Lord, let me not be mad, I prayed silently. What use will it do anyway, I thought. My mind was still trying to convince me that there was a mistake somewhere. I might have used a different spot last evening, and I was actually praying that God would make it so, because, after all I had used another spot during the day.

It was my treasured newly acquired bicycle I was not seeing, and the more I squinted my eyes in disbelief the more it was sinking in that it was stolen overnight.

Yes, I had owned it for only five days but it had become attached to me and I to it. It had given me a new perspective and even healed me – literally; but first things first.

For a little over six months now, it has been a blessing to begin every new week, in a very inspirational tone. Along with other volunteers, we begin every Monday morning at 5:30 making breakfast for our homeless neighbors at Capitol Hill United Methodist Church. We pray every morning that the joy of the experience will continue with us and our guests for the rest of the week. And it does.

We do have a lot of fun. The other day Jane, our chef, complimented me for my newly acquired expertise in making potatoes – she taught me, actually. “Now you have job security”, she said and we all laughed. Not long after, as I was opening the oven doors I accidentally burned my forearms. I showed her the red bruises. “That has happened to me sometimes”, she confessed. Then in a serious note she added, “Don’t let it happen again, you’ll be fired”.

Then this added and unexpected blessing happened. Rob, one of the volunteer coordinators, informed me that there were a couple of donated bicycles and I could have one of them if I wanted.

Cycling has been a game changer for me. I am diabetic which means exercise is a life saver. Cycling has given me tangible health benefits that make my doctor proud – and me certainly.

The offer was exciting. One of those bicycles was a 21 speed mountain bike, I was excited about it but unfortunately it was too big for me and presented challenges mounting, and especially dismounting. I also had become accustomed to knee braces because of osteoarthritis. I had even believed that I was crippled without braces.

The excitement of the bicycle prompted me to exercise stretching my knees and hips and discovered that I actually did not need the knee braces at all. What a relief it was to discover that I was not after all immobile without braces. I was able to stretch one leg over the seat to get on and off the big bike.

Just for reassurance of the fact that blessings often come in multiples, another smaller bicycle was donated and it was a perfect much for me. It too was a 21 speed but a light weight. I could go up hills and inclines I could not scale before. I started making plans to get around, savor the landscape far and beyond the city and take pictures.

I have to confess that when I first read the owner’s manual online – 44 pages that include 62 warnings and caution alerts – I was intimidated. Will I be able to operate this thing? I thought. How about all these warnings not to get on the road before thoroughly practicing on deserted stretches to get a feel for it?

Guess what! No practice in a park or on empty streets. Once I got on it, it felt like I had had it for all my life.  Smooth, comfortable and easy to operate. I was having the time of my life and looking forward to extended rides. I delighted in the thought of continuing to be doctors’ envy.

It is now five days since I picked it up my precious gift from the church, and somebody stole it overnight. I had it chained securely to the rack as I had done every night. Now I am still processing. Should I be mad? Mad for what? For the cheap chain, or my decision to keep the bicycle at the same spot every night? Or, may be with the thief?

There is more to come.

Meek and weak are opposites

 

In a tweet to announce US isolation from the G7 communique, Trump referred to Canadian  Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as being meek and weak. The implication in Trump’s claim is that the two – meek and weakness – are complimentary or even the same. Nothing can be further from truth.

Actually the opposite of meek is brash which describes Mr. Trump, and not Prime Minister Trudeau.

Brashness is a sign of weakness. During a press conference before departing from the G7 Summit, Mr. Trump asserted that all the summit leaders “smiled” at him. Smiling is a sign of cordiality not necessarily rapport. Being cordial or “friendly” in diplomatic parlance is not weakness.

And then it is said a picture is worth a thousand words. So we got a picture worth a psychology text book about body language. Psychologists have much to say about that, you may like Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on the subject.

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Back in 1965 the Rolling Stones released a song written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. And the reason for no satisfaction is …”Cause I try and I try and I try and I try and I try…” Essentially what the Rolling Stones are saying is indeed a universal reality. Satisfaction, happiness, peace of mind don’t come from effort or performance. We can all agree that Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, even at the time the song was released would more than qualify for what we call success. And yet (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.

Then in 2003 Andre Crouch released an equally popular song for some audiences, me included, titled, Through It All. The lyrics include “I’ve been to lots of places, seen lots of faces. I’ve had many fears and sorrows” but “Through It All I’ve learned to trust Jesus, I’ve learned to trust God”. Implied in these lyrics is the message that satisfaction and peace of mind, happiness and joy come from a source bigger  than self.

Going way back in history, we have a letter in the New Testament written by Paul at a time when he was under house arrest in Rome, about 61 A.D. One need not be a Christian to appreciate the sheer joy that fills this letter to the Philippians. Again and again Paul urges his audience to be joyful. There is no exhortation to try and try or to pursue through hard work and  success to attain satisfaction. It is evident that satisfaction is already present; it does not need pursuing.

So the letter says, “Do not be anxious about anything”. Nothing renders joy and satisfaction more fleeting than anxiety. Anxiety for success and achievement, anxiety for power and prestige, anxiety for fame and recognition or even just anxiety because of uncertainty.

The remedy for anxiety and the assurance of peace and joy is trust in the power that is higher than self.

How do I know God?

 

We are told (in the bible – Exodus 3) that almost 4000 years ago Moses asked to know God’s name. Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you’ and they ask me, ‘what is his name?’ what shall I tell them?” Moses pleaded with God.

The quest to know God is a perpetual human struggle. It is not any easier today than it was for Moses. God’s response to Moses was, “I am who I am…Tell them, I am”. Today we have various doctrines and creeds in attempts to know God. None of these are any easier than “I am who I am”. The Christian doctrine of Trinity and affirmations like the Nicene Creed are as mind-boggling as I am who I am.

Even the idea of God as a Father has come to be seen by many as an archaic patriarchal mindset so flawed that it does not come close to revealing God. Many of us can recall Sunday School mental images of God and of Jesus and the two could not be more different. Then you have the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost (in some Anglican traditions) and the puzzle is complete.

I grew up in a village on the slopes of Kilimanjaro. I remember, as a child, my parents and their generation prayed, often facing the mountain or their eyes looking up into the sky. They knew God but they never attempted to define linguistically who God was. There were no doctrines and no creeds; these came with Christianity and the Church. In the eyes of this new way, the old folks’ expression became superstition to be fought against. As I and my generation grew up, we knew God as defined in the Catechism and the books of the Church.

It seems to me that God is a mystery. God cannot be defined with a universal language because there is no universal language. All attempts in that direction have raised more questions than answers. And when I think about it, my ancestors experienced God as strongly as anybody can. For them it was experience that was important not knowledge.

 

 

Wednesday before the Memorial holiday marks our last day of guided bible study for our small group at our parish. It is the end of the academic year for us until we reconvene in September for a new year. It may sound not so “churchy” but Episcopalians take vacation seriously, even from bible study.

This year we studied The Dream of God, a book by a late long-time member of our parish, Verna Dozier. We decided to read her book to mark 10 years since her death and to celebrate the tremendous impact she made in our church community. This final Wednesday of bible study brought back memories of many years ago when, as graduate students, we met at the professor’s house for the final session of the semester and a sampling of wines.

It was academic, a point I’ll return to later.

In The Dream of God Verna argues that the people of God have strayed away from God’s purpose in creation and that God’s dream is for the return of the people of God. The first part of the book deals with how we have misunderstood the bible and the negative consequences, ranging from subjugation and marginalization of women and minorities to the worship – rather than following – of Jesus.

Much of the presentation about scriptures is not new to the clergy and theologians. They learn this information in seminaries and graduate schools as part of biblical and historical criticism. Yet, this knowledge has not been transmitted to the faithful in the pews and in parishes. For some reason, or reasons, the clergy have not articulated this knowledge to their flock. Why? What are we, having refreshed our minds in these sessions, going to do about the refresher?

Verna does not give an answer and it seems to me that neither did we adequately seek to address the mystery.

The second part of the book is about the institutional church, and according to Verna, in establishing an institution, the people of God formulated creeds and doctrines which have taken the place of Jesus of Nazareth. Similarly, the institution elevated the order of clergy and stifled the laity. In so doing the institution prevails over the community.

Two questions remain lingering in my mind; one Verna raised right from the outset and she attempts to make a suggestion at the conclusion, yet it remains to me, unanswered: How can the church as a community function without the institution?

The second question regards the head of the church. Verna points out, that Jesus was not God – meaning he should not be worshipped but followed. Yet a good majority of Christians, even an overwhelming majority, believe otherwise. Indeed, I personally go to a church where in the liturgy we chant the Nicene Creed: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty…And in one Lord Jesus Christ; the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made…”

It may be true, that many who recite this creed do not believe – with the intellect – what they are saying. I personally do not pause to think, “wait a minute, what am I saying?” But that is the point: When they (the council of Nicaea in 325 C.E) formulated the statement of affirmation, it was known, in Latin, as Symbolum Nicaenum, the Symbol of Nicaea. Our present mindset understands a creed very differently from a symbol, and we need to acknowledge too that the council did not have our mindset of a creed. In fact, even “I believe” did not carry the meaning of our modern day idea of intellectual rationale. What it meant was, “I agree/affirm with you: I join in the consensus” that so and so.

Obviously, in our – especially American mindset, consensus is not our way. Indeed in the course of our bible study, the “consensus” was, “it is alright to believe what you want to believe and for me to believe what I want to believe”. I like it, provided that we bear in mind that our “believe” does not exactly mean what they, the council, meant by “believe”.

And that brings me back to where I started. Then what? Are we engaging in these and similar sessions so that we can all be firm in our own convictions? Is this academic only? Or, as Verna points out in the book “what difference does it make?” You believe so and so and I believe this and that. So what? What difference does it make?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Brene Brown, in a TED talk on vulnerability six years ago, points out some of my own struggles that over the years I never fully came to grasp with. Two recent personal  experiences however have drawn my attention to the power in vulnerability and the courage to confront shame.

I have been blessed with wonderful friends and incredible meaningful connections. These fill the all-human need to know that we fully belong and we are loved. It’s a wonderful blessing to be in a caring community.

Recently two wonderful friends asked if I needed help in a situation that I needed to deal with. The question spun me into a panic. “Why are they asking if I need help?” I thought. “Shouldn’t I be the one to help?”

This is a classic example of vulnerability and shame. I shared in my book, Paths as yet Untrodden my societal privilege of education in the final years of British rule and the early years of post-independence Tanzania. Like many of my generation we came out of school invested with privilege and opportunity.

Because of that there is a sense of shame and failure to find oneself needing help. It takes courage to be vulnerable and as Bene Brown points out vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.

Recently I posted a blog about the paralysis of depression I succumbed to after the death of my sister. Much of that depression was rooted in shame.

I know I am not alone in this emotional trepidation. But vulnerability is not weakness and we can overcome depression if we courageously confront shame (something we avoid to talk about).

 

 

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There is a sobering story – for me – in the New Testament apocryphal book Acta Petri, or Acts of Peter. which reminds me of the significance of coming to senses. In this story, at the height of emperor Nero’s persecutions, Christians were fleeing from Rome. Peter’s colleagues advised him to leave Rome too.

“Shall we be runaways brethren?” he struggled with the idea.

“Not quite”, they responded. “But you may be able to serve the Lord better”.

“Let none of you come with me, but I’ll go forth alone having changed my appearance”.

And so, as he fled from the city, he came face to face with the Lord, headed in the opposite direction.

“Domine quo vadis?” (Lord where are you going?), Peter asked.

“I’m going to Rome to be crucified”, Jesus answered.

“Lord, are you being crucified again?”

The text says, Peter then came to himself and the Lord disappeared. Peter went back to Rome and would eventually be crucified upside down according to the same Acta Petri.

The expression “he came to himself” reminds me of Luke’s story of the prodigal son who in Luke 15: 17 “came to his senses” and reversed course.

By the way, on Rome’s Appian Way today, there is a small church of the same name, Domine Quo Vadis, built at the site of Peter’s yet another encounter with the Lord when he (Peter) was off course. And in the National Gallery in London, there is a painting of the same name by the Italian artist, Annibale Carracci, painted in 1601-02.

This is a story which, from time to time, serves to bring me to my senses.