Sunday, March 15, 2020

Fear and love in the day of COVID-19

Fear is not all bad.

It has, in fact, vital roles. For instance, it can move us to marshal resources in the face of crisis. It can cause us to pause before doing something potentially destructive to others or self. It factors into our fight or flight decision-making.

At the same time, though, I’m sure you agree that excessive fear is dangerous. It can lead to misperceptions and destabilize our interactions. It can contribute to depression and cause us to focus on easy, often-scapegoating solutions to complex problems.

These days, there is plenty of fear. Coronavirus. The stock markets. The election.

Those are in addition to the usual fear or anxiety-producing events like finding or losing a job, changes in health or health care, and relationship difficulties.

There’s much to unpack about legitimate and illegitimate fear, about the causes and products of anxiety, and about the social and mental constructs that filter and shape our perceptions.

For today, though, let me offer a word of comfort by simply reminding us that the phrase “fear not” is one of the most common in the Bible. It appears some 366 times. That’s a “fear not” for every single day of the year, even during a leap year like this one.

Fear not is in the Bible’s first book (Genesis) and its last (Revelation). It rolls off the tongue of Joseph to his brothers, Moses to his followers and Jesus to his disciples. It is sung by the psalmist and pronounced by the prophet.

Fear not is a frequent refrain when people are embarking on distinct new ventures in life, such as in the Book of Acts. In Acts 18, Acts 27 and other places, Paul encourages those with him to “fear not” and keep their courage.

There are texts often used at funerals, such as Isaiah 41:10, “Fear not, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

I’ve been to more than one ordination service for a Christian minister that included spoken or sung renditions of Psalm 27: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”

Fear not is all over the Bible. It’s as though the compilers and inspirer of Scripture had a hunch that fear was a prominent emotion.

I wonder what’s at the core of excessive fear. Sure, there are events and happenstances in life such as the ones I named above, but they don’t produce fear so much as reveal it. What’s at its core?

Is a lack of trust – in God, in others, in ourselves – at the core of fear? In other words, since I lack trust in God, I fear my circumstances; since I lack trust in others, I fear them; since I lack trust in myself, I fear being honest about my strengths and my shortcomings.

Or is self-centeredness at the core of fear? That is, since I think raising my status depends on depreciating others, I fear them. Since I think my security hinges on excluding others, I fear them.

I’m not sure what’s at the root of this nearly ubiquitous emotion. Whatever it is, though, it seems to have a mutually limiting relationship with love.

You’ve probably heard, as I have, that divine love can cast out fear. I think that’s true. Equally true, it seems to me, is that human fear can cast out love.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

How Religious People Can Actually Help -- TEXT

Interfaith unity can reduce misconceptions
Some describe the United States of America as the most religiously diverse country, while others depict it as the most religiously devout, at least of nations in the northern hemisphere.
Regardless, the important issue is how we allow religion to shape us. Will religion be a source of conflict or of community, a basis for clashing or for cooperating?
With kids enrolled in two universities and frequent interactions with students at a different university, I recently thought about how this religious interaction is particularly pronounced on campuses. Colleges and universities are ideally positioned to help all of society determine effective ways to recognize religious diversity and promote cooperation.
Diversity, by itself, is not automatically socially constructive. History shows that when diversity – whether it’s racial, ethnic or religious – is left unattended, it can lead to tensions, intolerance and even outright conflict.
But when diversity is positively engaged, as history also shows, it can build social cohesion and social capital.
Similarly, interactions between people of different faiths are not automatically helpful. They require attention.
Interfaith engagement has often meant interfaith dialogue. Interfaith dialogue, while certainly important and needed, primarily impacts those involved in the dialogues, which is usually a small group of people.
What’s needed now, alongside dialogue, is broader-scale interfaith cooperation. Interfaith cooperation is a civic imperative, not just a religious interest, and so it is no longer only for a small group of committed dialogists.
If colleges and universities engage religious diversity with the same hopes and resources that they dedicate to other identity and diversity issues, there’s an opportunity for lasting impact.
What, specifically, could this impact be? For starters, maybe we could move closer to a world where there is mutual and ongoing respect among those who claim religious identity and those who don’t. I used to bristle in academic discussions when others
would deride my religious convictions. Their attitude was that because I am a committed Christian, I can’t possibly be as educated or thoughtful about literature or philosophy or science. Ridiculous! But I’ll be darned if I don’t hear religious people commit the same sin of shortsightedness toward the nonreligious. These religious folks sometimes talk like the nonreligious are incapable of acting morally. Ridiculous!
Mutual and ongoing respect among those who claim religious identity and those who don’t would move the United States and the world forward.
Let’s not leave without this topic without a reminder: Dumbing down religion to “I’m OK, you’re OK,” or saying that all religions are the same is neither helpful nor correct.
They aren’t all the same. Many religions do have similar ethical expectations – namely, treat others the way you want to be treated, and show hospitality to those unlike you – but they have distinct doctrines, rituals and practices, and in some cases, different understandings of what is authoritative in life. So, all religions are not the same. They should not be treated as such. But the core issue for us, and especially the us in the U.S. this election year, is to progress – not despite different religious languages and loyalties but because of them.
Let it be so. In other words, amen. Wilson is a minster of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) serving as director of communications for the Christian Theological Seminary. Read his blog at www.nathandaywilson. com and follow him on Twitter: @nathandaywilson.

How Religious People Can Actually Help

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Lessons from Hanukkah TEXT VERSION

Lessons we can learn from celebration of Hanukkah
I’m spiritually indebted to Jewish traditions, such as Hanukkah. This year, Hanukkah begins at sunset next Sunday, Dec. 22, and runs until Dec. 30.
The word “Hanukkah” comes from the Hebrew verb meaning “to dedicate” and generally is translated as an eight-day festival of lights. Specifically, it refers to the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem at the end of the Maccabean Revolt, which was a war between Jews and forces from the Seleucid Empire.
There seem to be different versions of what Hanukkah is all about, and all of them have to do with miracles. I will only mention one. The Talmud teaches that there was a small jar with enough oil to light one candle in the Temple’s menorah for one night. Instead, the oil lasted eight nights — and this was the miracle.
These days, the menorah is lit at sunset each night of Hanukkah. Candles are added from right to left, just as Hebrew is read, but they are lit from left to right. Doing so celebrates the new miracle of continued light on each successive night. The blessings that are recited include praise for the One who provides the light and continues to perform miracles.
Giving and receiving gifts is an integral part of celebrating Hanukkah. I was told the gifts do not need to be big or bought — in fact, there is some preference to the gifts being homemade — but they are to be shared with all loved ones. Oftentimes, children and adults play dreidel together. The game uses a four-sided spinning top, which has a Hebrew letter imprinted on each side; together, the four letters are an acronym for the Hebrew words referring to the miracle of the oil.
There are several songs associated with Hanukkah, such as “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” and “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah.”
And, of course, there are certain foods connected with Hanukkah. I’m a fan of latkes (but preferably with very little minced
onion). And some good doughnuts, be they jam-filled or not, are always high on my personal list.
All of us, Jewish or not, could learn much from the celebration of Hanukkah.
Here are some examples. We could all review that to which we are dedicated. Who or what gets my attention, my allegiance, my affection? Am I dedicating all I should to what I should? Or, do I need to realign my commitments with my values?
Here’s another one: How do I define what a miracle is, and what miracles have occurred around me? Maybe they were really big; maybe they were pretty small and certainly not supernatural, but still quite significant. With whom should I share the miracles I’ve witnessed?
Just one more for now: Maybe life works somewhat like the oil in the temple jar. The more we share with others, the more we all benefit.
Wilson is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Follow him on Twitter: @nathandaywilson

Lessons from Hanukkah

Sunday, December 08, 2019

It’s time to find room at the inn for everyone TEXT VERSION

It’s time to find room at the inn for everyone
William Sloane Coffin said the best sermon he never preached was at a Christmas Eve service when he pastored New York City’s Riverside Church.
The poinsettias were beautiful. The people were joyful. The place was packed. It was time in the Christmas pageant for the innkeeper to deny Mary and Joseph with the resounding line, “There’s no room at the inn!”
The innkeeper role was perfect for Tim, a young man who had Down syndrome. That’s what the pageant organizers thought. That’s what Tim’s parents thought.
Tim had, in fact, rehearsed the one line – “There’s no room at the inn!” – many times with parents, pageant organizers and participants alike. He had it mastered. He was ready.
So there stood Tim at the altar of that church’s majestic sanctuary, bathrobe costume firmly belted, as Mary and Joseph made their way down the center aisle. They approached him, said their lines as rehearsed, and waited for his reply. Everyone in the sanctuary and a host of angels waited with bated breath, leaning forward as if willing Tim to remember and resound his line.
“There’s no room at the inn!” Tim boomed, just as rehearsed. But then, as Mary and Joseph turned on cue to travel further, Tim suddenly yelled “Wait!” They turned back, startled and surprised by this off-script move. “But you can stay at my house!” he called.
Bill Coffin strode to the pulpit, looked out at the congregation, and said “Amen.” He sat down. The best sermon he never preached.
Remembering this story made me, again, wonder when we individually and collectively will have the courage to stop saying so often, “There’s no room at the inn” and instead, like Tim, start saying, “But you can stay at my house.”
To the hungry and homeless, imagine the impact if we were to say collectively, “Wait! We’ll make a place for you at America’s table of plenty!”
Or to the sick and uninsured, “Wait! We won’t turn you away from the doctor.”
Or to those working hard every day trying to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads, “Wait! We will help you escape poverty and we’ll authentically analyze and act on the systems and situations that exacerbate poverty.”
Or to children who are home alone or on the streets after school, “Wait! We’ll make a safe place for you with caring adults in after-school programs.”
I’m one who believes that God came to live among us as a child – a child who cried and laughed, loved and learned, born as a vulnerable baby needing care and dying surrounded, at least partly, by a supportive community. And, between his birth and death, he challenged the cultural and political priorities of his time and stood up for the poor, the weak and the vulnerable.
It seems to me this is a good time of year for all of us, and especially those who believe in the incarnation I named above, to repent and reaffirm our commitment to building communities, a nation and a world where all can find room in our inn.
Nathan Day Wilson is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter: @nathandaywilson.

It's time to find room at the inn for everyone -- Faith & Values, 8 Dec 2019

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Ways to deal with what we don't want to see TEXT VERSION

How do we deal with what we do not want to see?

 Garfield is one of those comic strips that sometimes evokes more than a polite smile.

In the first panel of one such strip, Garfield is sitting at the table with a feast in front of him: Turkey, dressing, biscuits, vegetables, pies and more. He is obviously enjoying it. In the corner of that panel is the subtle image of Odie the dog outside the window.

The second panel is a closer view of Odie; he’s covered with snow and has empty water and food dishes.

What will Garfield do? Will he open the window and hand food to Odie? Will he invite Odie in to share the feast? How will Garfield handle his abundance alongside Odie’s scarcity?

In the third panel Garfield shuts the drapes and says, “That’s better.”

How do we deal with what we do not want to see?

I thought about that Garfield strip – one that I have in a large, disorderly folder of comic strips and poems and other things labeled “This Will Preach” – the other day when I came across Langston Hughes’ gripping poem, “God to Hungry Child”:

Hungry child,
I didn’t make this world for you.
You didn’t buy any stock in my railroad.
You didn’t invest in my corporation.
Where are your shares of Standard Oil?
I made the world for the rich
And the will-be-rich
And the have-always-been-rich.
Not for you,
Hungry child.

That poem took my breath. If it does not cause you to think or feel something, you might want to check for metabolism.

The powerful dissonance of attributing those words to God is exactly the point.

We could end hunger. Since we have not, are the hungry to conclude that God somehow wants it this way? Why else would decision makers fail to end the scandal of hunger?

How do we deal with what we don’t want to see?

One way we could deal with what we don’t want to see is to close our drapes, our minds, our checkbooks. We could reveal our inner Garfields and pretend like what we don’t want to see doesn’t exist. (News flash: It still does.)

Another option is to blame the things we want to avoid on something outside of our control. God, perhaps. Hughes is not doing this but is pointing to the absurdity of doing so.

Or we could go all anti-Garfield. Rather than close off or close out what we don’t want to see, we could intentionally and courageously open ourselves to it.

Open our hearts to feel the plight of others. Open our minds to consider creative solutions. Open our mouths to engage in authentic discussions. Open our hands to work alongside others. Open our checkbooks to support those who are creatively working alongside others. 

How do you deal with what you don’t want to see?

Nathan Day Wilson is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Follow him on Twitter: @nathandaywilson

Ways to deal with what we don't want to see

Sunday, November 03, 2019

God's will be done. How are you helping?

Imagine the following scene. In a hurry, as usual, familiar words rush from your mouth: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on Earth as it is heaven.”

Suddenly, abruptly, almost curtly, a voice responds: “Are you sure?”

Shocked, you reply, “Sure of what?"

The voice continues: “Sure that you want my will to be done, my desires to be made actual.”

You: “Well, yeah, we could always use a little more heaven on Earth!”

The voice: “My will: No more children dying of hunger. No more extreme poverty. No more allowing the greed of a few to trump the need of many. No more drawing lines between people based on worldly standards. Peace among nations, even religions. People truly loving me and each other. These are my desires. This is my will. Is this what you want?”

You: “Yes, sure. Absolutely. All that sounds exactly right. It sounds very good, in fact.”

The voice: “Then what are you doing to make these things happen?”

If that dialogue happened, what would you think and feel; what would you do? Would you ever dare to pray those words again?

After all, the voice — which we assume to be God’s voice — has called you out. You claimed to want God’s will on earth. And the voice met your claim and raised you one: What are you doing to make that claim, those words, become reality?

That’s a tough one. In fact, it is so tough that I think we ought to back up and blame it on Jesus. After all, he’s the one who used this phrase in his model prayer.

It’s true. Jesus was big on realm of God, or kingdom of God, talk. Line up 100 New Testament scholars and ask what is most central to the message of Jesus, and I bet a bunch and then some will say it is this idea that God’s realm can transform earthly realms.

Just open the Bible. Kingdom of God talk is all over the place, especially in the first three Gospels. In Mark, which is the oldest, Jesus uses the phrase in his inaugural address: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe” (Mark 1:15). Matthew and Luke both include kingdom talk in their beatitudes and many parables.

So, what did this phrase mean for Jesus? For Jesus, God’s kingdom had a present and a future meaning at the same time.

In the present, right now, you can claim the presence of God within you and among you within community. The future aspect for the kingdom of God envisions a transformed world where relationships are deeper, and the Earth and its fullness are rightly recognized as belonging to God (Psalm 24).

One of my favorite people to quote – that being me – is fond of saying that the future can be better than the present and those of us with opportunities to make it so have responsibilities to make it so. It’s one of my core beliefs and it is rooted in texts such as this one.

God’s will be done on Earth as it is in heaven. It’s a big claim. What are we doing to make it real?

Wilson is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Follow him on Twitter: @nathandaywilson

Monday, October 07, 2019

We won’t fix climate crisis until we treasure the globe

We won’t fix climate crisis until we treasure the globe
Nathan Day Wilson

“The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.” (Psalm 19) I was pleased and disheartened, when I was reminded of that verse this week.
I was pleased for the reminder that, according to the Bible, nature and nature’s God are inseparable; they are one. In the words of another psalm, “When I consider the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in place...” (Psalm 8).
For the Bible and those who read it seriously, there is a core, inescapable relationship between God and nature or creation or the environment. It’s that relationship that leads church people to sing hymns such as “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” and “The Spacious Firmament on High.”
And, yet, I was disheartened, too. For while they tell of God’s glory and proclaim God’s handiwork, these days the heavens and earth must surely also declare reprehensible the effects of human activities: overconsumption, overexploitation, pollution and deforestation.
Take pollution as one example. The dangers of pollution start at the beginning of life. Toxic pollutants cross the placenta, increasing the risk of preterm birth and low birth weight, which can cause lifelong damage to multiple organ systems. Children breathe more rapidly, so they absorb more pollutants at a time when their developing organs are more vulnerable. As a result, air pollution causes an estimated 600,000 deaths each year in children younger than 5, mostly from pneumonia.
In adults, pollution contributes to a wide range of respiratory and circulatory diseases and may accelerate cognitive decline in seniors.
Pollution is only one part of our climate crisis. Many people are struggling with anger and depression in the face of an overwhelming climate crisis. Climate
change has been known of and talked about for decades, while attempts to preserve the environment and reduce climate change have been blocked by corrupt politicians and corporations overtaken by greed.
How should people of faith respond?
We begin by reasserting with vigor the connection between God and God’s nature. I’m convinced that until we do, we won’t be moved to consistent actions.
In addition our relationship to nature must change from “owner” to “steward.”
Stewards are caretakers, not consumers. Stewards practice social justice. Stewards know that equity is not optional if we are to live together.
“We have forgotten that we belong to each other,” Mother Teresa said.
Perhaps remembering that is key to our survival.
Wilson is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Follow him on Twitter: @nathandaywilson

faith and climate crisis jpeg

Monday, September 16, 2019

God's unbounded and unboundable love -- text only, no images, easier to read

I don’t know who, but someone quipped, “I used to be an incurable optimist, but now I’m cured.” More and more, I resemble that remark; do you?

But a loss of optimism does not have to mean a loss of hope. Optimism, after all, is rooted in me and my abilities; it’s the expectation of a better future based on the reading of present circumstances. Hope, on the other hand, is the trustful anticipation of genuine newness, perhaps beyond our imagining, based on something much bigger than ourselves — for people of faith, it’s based on the divine.

One of my favorite verses is 1 John 4:16, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” It is, for me, not only a hopeful verse, but also a verse of hope.

After all, God’s love is given to all. Not all of a certain nation or race or religion. All. And not only all people. Surely we can tell that God’s love abides in other animals and the plants, the fauna and the flora.

An interesting note about God’s love and its connection to our hope is that God’s love doesn’t seek value, it creates it. We are loved not because we have value, but we have value because we are loved. Our value, like God’s love, is a gift and not an achievement.

Maybe that’s the first reason that Jesus commands us to love our enemies: God loves them too. Notice that the very same sentence in which Jesus commands us to love our enemies goes on to say “for God makes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.”

If you have stepped foot in a church very often you likely have sung about “a wideness in God mercy” and “one great fellowship divine throughout the whole wide earth.” If so, you have affirmed God’s impartial love for all people, with no special privileges only for some.

In other words, you have affirmed as have I that “God Bless America” means “God Bless North Korea” and Russia and Mexico and so on. The biblical truth is that there is no special providence for any nation at the expense of any others. Territorial discrimination is as evil as racial.

It's important to remember in this affirmation of God’s unboundable love, that God’s love does not mean God’s approval. I don’t know that God hates, but if God did I suspect the object of that hate would be hateful things. Carnage. Racism. Xenophobia. I suspect they turn God’s stomach, even make God mad. Certainly they must make God sad. 

That’s what makes freedom so tricky, it seems to me. If God’s love is real, then our freedom is real. We are not slaves or puppets but children of God, free to do good and free to sin. Unloving choices are sometimes made.

When in anguish over human violence we turn to God and ask, “How could you let that happen?”, I sometimes wonder if God asks us the same question.

Follow Wilson on Twitter: @nathandaywilson

God's unbounded and unboundable love