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Being the holy superstar that he was, Jesus was couldn’t go anywhere without drawing a crowd. In the last days of his life, he attracted three especially significant throngs:

Sometimes an encouraging word is like salt, not salve, on a wound.

1. The festive crowd that celebrated his entry on a little foal into Jerusalem for the Passover holiday.

The people in that crowd were overjoyed, at least for a short time, because they snapped to the fact that the prophet Zechariah had proclaimed that their savior/king would ride into town on a donkey.

2. Then there was the mob, comprising some of those same people who had laid palms in Jesus’ path and boogied in the streets with joy over him. Now they wanted Pontius Pilate to go all Mel Gibson on him.

3. The third crowd — many mourning women among them — were those who followed Jesus as he bore his cross (with a little help from a good-hearted African). It was those women, God bless em, who gave Jesus what we all need when we’re at our lowest, most painful points in life.

They gave him the gift of their presence.

Image: Antonio Ciseri’s 1871 depiction of Pontius Pilate presenting a scourged Christ to one of the 3 crowds.

And therein lies a pastoral-care lesson in Luke’s gripping account of the Passion. Even when they followed him at a distance, Jesus knew the women were there for him. In all his anguish, he could feel their loving presence.

It’s a wonderfully pleasant thing to be with someone we love on a happy, festive occasion like a wedding or birthday or Christmas bash. Not so easy simply to be there when someone is laid low by grief. We want to speak platitudes at them in futile attempts to make them feel better.

Really, it is not that hard to simply say to someone who is in pain, “I cannot imagine how you are feeling, but I’m here for you.”

If you really love and care deeply about someone, allow them to feel and express their inescapable pain.

Allow them to say what they want to say to get their pain off their chest without jumping in with an encouraging word or two or 50.

Because, ironically, an encouraging word has the potential to salt the wound rather than salve it. (“He’s in a better place and he wouldn’t want you to be so sad and remember that this will make you stronger in the end and God has some good reason for this, you know.”)

Like those women in mourning who followed Jesus all the way to the cross — and let him do what little, meaningful talking he did to them without talking back — just be there to share the pain.

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The latest annual survey of happiest nations on earth is out.

Have a happy day!

In the happiness rankings of every nation in the world, America — God bless her — has dropped from 18th to 19th, this in spite of a booming economy and America’s greatness restored to that of the roaring 20s (which didn’t end so well).

You would think a nation that codified “the pursuit of happiness” at its inception would not have such a sinking case of the blues, but there you go.

According to this year’s survey, the happiest nation is (drum roll please) Finland, followed by the other Nordic nations of Denmark, Norway and Iceland.

(Our good neighbor Canada, where your average citizen is happy to sit at home with a Moosehead Beer and watch nonviolent curlers go at it, came in No. 9.)

Read it and weep, ye whose American hearts are so restless for more and more of the things that money and prestige can’t buy.

Here’s a Lenten reflection for you, right out of your Good Book, which concludes with a verse on how to achieve the perpetual joy of noonday brightness in spring.

ISAIAH 58 (With my italics for emphasis)
1 Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.

2 Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,

    as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
    and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;

they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.

3 “Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

    Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
    and oppress all your workers.

    4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to strike with a wicked fist.
    Such fasting as you do today
    will not make your voice heard on high.

5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

    6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
    to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?

    7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
    when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

10

    if you offer your food to the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
    then your light shall rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be like the noonday.

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The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”

— Deuteronomy 29:29

Stunned people at one of the mosques attacked in Christchurch, New Zealand.
PHOTO BY Mark Baker/Associated Press, via The New York Times

The Bible tells how the world is, complete with all the suffering, hatred and wrenching violence, and how the world could be, and should be — and ultimately, how it will be.

With the advent of the Internet, “modern evil,” if you will, seems to make our ability to counter it futile. In the chilling, 74-page manifesto written by the young man who mowed down Muslims as they prayed in New Zealand, he noted this about the Internet:

    “You will not find the truth anywhere else.”

Like the Jews and Muslims, we Christians live in hope, which lies at the core of Abrahamic faith.

But how can we, as Christians in a world so modern that technology seems to outpace our ability to cope, counter the kind of suffering, hatred and violence that took place in a hospitable city ironically named Christchurch?

The Torah (the first five books of the Bible’s Older Testament) insists that we in fact can and must counter our seemingly endless inhumanity toward one another.

As Deuteronomy 29:29 notes, some things are not for us to know; some things only God knows and God keeps God’s secrets.

But the rest of the verse is a reminder that God has revealed to us how to do all the good we can do, individually and communally, for our sakes and the sake of our children.

Whether we live in Christchurch, New Zealand, or Bump-in-the-Road, Texas, there are wrongs around us that we, in community and individually, can set right.

There is suffering we can alleviate.

There is brokenness we can repair.

We always have the power of choice. We can choose the greatest good or the worst evil. We can be a blessing to others or we can be a curse.

The worst thing we can do is be complacent, waiting for God to set things right in the world while we obsess over our personal salvation, not that our salvation is not important.

Waiting for God to set things right assumes that God never expected us to respond to others in obedience to God’s own will for mercy and peace on earth, with justice.

I believe in the efficacy of prayer, but also believe in putting prayer into action. And here is my prayer for this day of Lent:

    Lord in your mercy,

    Give us the spiritual eyes to see the infinite number of wrongs around us that are in need of being set right.

    Give us the spiritual ears to hear the cries of those who are hurting and vulnerable because of the biases and prejudices that we, in our fears, harbor toward other religions, cultures and customs.

    Help us to develop fuller God consciousness, not just on days of worship in our churches, but in every moment we live, being mindful every moment of the Golden Rule.

    Help us to live and act every moment in the stream of your grace that flows through the cracks in the world, starting in our own homes and neighborhoods, our businesses and workplaces, our houses of worship.

    Deliver us Lord from complacency.

    Deliver us Lord from despair.

    Deliver us Lord from evil, and forgive us as we forgive those who offend us.

    Help us to be inspired by the horrific events in Christchurch, New Zealand — and by horrific events that happen around the world every day and threaten to overwhelm us with complacency — to do all the good we can do.

    Amen.

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“Leave the past in ashes.”

1. I’ve heard it said a thousand times: “I’ve done so many terrible things in my life God could never forgive me.”

As if God has no desire to forgive even the worst of the worst.

The Ash Wednesday service in The Book of Common Prayer includes this line:

    “Return to the Lord with all your heart; leave the past in ashes and turn to God with tears and fasting, for He is slow to anger and ready to forgive.”

Ash Wednesday is a sort of “Ask Wednesday.”

Ask for forgiveness with a penitent heart.

Ask for an Easter heart that points on a new pathway.

God in God’s grace has been wooing you and waiting for you to surrender your whole life.

2. I have to say that seeking forgiveness and turning one’s life around to follow Jesus does not absolutely require “tears and fasting,” per The Book of Common Prayer’s Ash Wednesday manual.

Conversion only requires the sincere desire to align the heart with God’s heart. The payoff happens to be holistic health of the mind, body, soul and spirit.

3. There is always the temptation in Lent to become a spiritual athlete in order to show God how mighty strong we are.

But Lent is not about becoming strong. Lent in fact is about allowing our weakness to be penetrated by God.

4. Thomas Merton wrote:

    “Nevertheless, the liturgy of Ash Wednesday is not focused on the sinfulness of the penitent but on the mercy of God. The question of sinfulness is raised precisely because this is a day of mercy, and the just do not need a savior.”

    ~ From Seasons of Celebration, 1965

Mercy.

Mercy.

Mercy.

Mercy.

Mercy.

It’s all about that divine Mercy.

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So much for the welcoming, open arms of The United Methodist Church.

United Methodist delegates from around the world voted for a divorce because of irreconcilable difference on sexual orientation.

After decades of conflicts and dialogue and debate on top of more conflicts and more dialogue and debate on matters related to sexual orientation, my beloved United Methodist Church voted Monday for schism.

(Mind you …. UMC delegates are still in conference in St. Louis as of this writing, wrangling over whether and how to split the church. That global church meeting won’t be over until evening, but the essence of what I have to say in this post will undoubtedly be unchanged.)

This amounts to an ecclesiastical divorce between church progressives and conservatives. With the strong support of United Methodists in African nations where homosexuality is a crime, American conservatives “won” in the long theological conflict (in which nobody really wins), all because of irreconcilable differences over issues of sex and sexual orientation.

LORD, BLESS THIS SNAKE
As an ordained United Methodist deacon, I can come into your home and bless your pet snake and turtle and cat and dog. But I’m not allowed to so much as bless the union of a same-sex couple who love each other. In spite of gay marriage being legal, I sure as hell can’t preside at the wedding of that couple.

A THREAT TO TRADITIONAL MARRIAGE? REALLY???
Years ago, a fellow progressive United Methodist clergywoman, was anguished over her inability to do the wedding of two lesbians, one of whom was a lifelong friend she had been raised in the United Methodist Church with. In fact, both lesbians were raised — and baptized — in United Methodist churches.

In a horribly tragic twist, on the day after the couple’s wedding, they were killed in a car wreck involved multiple casualties while traveling on their honeymoon.

My clergy friend, who by United Methodist law was not allowed to marry the couple, was allowed to bury them. She did their funeral at the request of both families.

At the risk of sounding bitterly cynical, I have to say that conservative “church traditionalists” in my beloved UMC are fine with we who are ordained clergy doing funerals of married gay couples, because married gay couples who are dead no longer pose a threat to “traditional marriage.”

That’s a whole lot of the problem, according to conservatives — the “threat to traditional marriage” by LGBTQ folk.

I have to wonder how many American United Methodists who’ve succeeded in essentially sweeping us progressives out of the church are down with what I call “Trumpianity.”

(*For more on Trumpianity,” scroll down and follow the link.”

THE UMC’s LAW AGAINST HOMOSEXUALS IN MINISTRY
We progressives in the church have for decades opposed the ban on homosexuals serving in ministry or performing same-sex marriages. Here is the church rule banning the ordination of gays:

    “While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. [My italics for emphasis.] Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”

CONSERVATIVES DON”T DIVORCE, OF COURSE
The practice of many things, like divorce, are commonly “practiced” (being a good heterosexual takes no practice at all) by United Methodists around the world. Yet NOBODY IN the United Methodist Church has ever called for the exclusion of divorced folks (like me) from ministry or any kind of leadership in the church. (If you’re not familiar with teachings on my Lord Jesus Christ on divorce, trust me when I tell you he was radically conservative on the issue — according to the Bible.)

I’m heartsick not only for the pain of this impending, denominational divorce, but more so for friends like a fellow retired clergyman, who came “out of the closet” a few years ago and married a partner of many years.

My friend wrote this on his Facebook page Monday night after the vote to hand the keys of the church over to conservatives opposed to the church’s full inclusion of gays and leave us progressives without a church we can live in and with:

    Right now I’m grieving, angry, and maybe in a bit of shock that the church that baptized me, raised me, ordained me has made it clear today (& will probably make it official by a vote tomorrow) that in the denomination’s eyes I’m a sinner in my very being in ways that straight people are not, that I never should have been ordained or should probably have been ousted by a witch hunt as a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” years ago, that my marriage is not blessed by God. All of these contentions are untrue. It pains me that, while I have many friends and colleagues who are allies … there are some whom I have known and worked beside, some I attended seminary with, including at least one bishop, who advocated for the traditional plan and my demonization. I don’t know where my spiritual home will be going forward; perhaps it will be something that grows out of the ashes as a better and more inclusive Methodism, maybe even the reborn and reforming form of a congregation that has to come out of its own “United” closet and become truer to itself. But … I know one thing. My days as a United Methodist as it was died today. Because that once beautiful thing has become ugly … and in fact was murdered today on the floor of the General Conference. Tomorrow will likely be the signing of the death warrant. But even if something unexpected happens, I fear the damage is done. The wounds inflicted today are almost sure to be mortal.

There is so much more I could say on all this, and I do believe with my friends that a new and more inclusive and welcoming church of people with open hearts, minds and spirits and arms will grow out of the ashes.

But right now I just need to try to process it and pray to God to help us all.

* For my definition of Trumpianity, go here.

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The universal church is impossible to defend, and extremely difficult to hang with.

I don’t know how many times a week — sometimes even a day — I feel like quitting the church and so-called “organized religion” and doing my own things with God and Jesus.

Vatican Reforms

I don’t know how many times a week somebody scoffs and looks at me like I’m a 3-headed version of Gomer Pyle when I tell them I’m a retired United Methodist deacon.

I’ve had two especially hurtful encounters in the past two weeks with American expat acquaintances who never knew I’m a retired clergyman and member in good standing of, uh, “organized religion” (i.e., a ghastly church denomination!).

Small wonder that the number of church haters expands as revelations of more atrocities in the Catholic Church are brought to light every are endless.

And now comes a similar scandal in the Southern Baptist Church, which two Texas newspapers (including my former employer of many years The Houston Chronicle) joined forces with the San Antonio Light to expose. (And good for them for their great journalism — in spite of print journalism being on life support, there is still some terrific print journalism being practiced on occasion outside of New York and Washington.)

All that said, I want to share with you something that the great Carlo Carretto wrote about his love-hate relationship with the church, reflective as it is of my own love-hate relationship. Carretto was a member of The Little Brothers of Jesus, a contemplative community of lay Catholics who lived in the desert. Read more about this joy-filled ascetic and superb writer here.

And I commend his Collected Writings book to you, still in print available for order online.

This is adapted from the book Carlo Carretto: Essential Writings, which is still in print and available online.

How baffling you are, oh Church, and yet how I love you!

“And that is where the mystery lies. This mixture of good and bad, of greatness and misery, of holiness and sin that makes up the church… this in reality am I.” — Carlo Cattetto

How you have made me suffer, and yet how much I owe you!

I would like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence.

You have given me so much scandal and yet you have made me understand what sanctity is.

I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity, more compromised, more false, and yet I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful.

How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face, and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms. . .

No, I cannot free myself from you, because I am you, though not completely. And besides, where would I go? Would I establish another? I would not be able to establish it without the same faults, for they are the same faults I carry in me. And if I did establish another, it would be my Church, not the Church of Christ. I am old enough to know that I am no better than anyone else.

The Church has the power to make me holy but it is made up, from the first to the last, only of sinners. And what sinners! It has the omnipotent and invincible power to renew the Miracle of the Eucharist, but is made up of men who are stumbling in the dark, who fight every day against the temptation of losing their faith. It brings a message of pure transparency but it is incarnated in slime, such is the substance of the world. It speaks of the sweetness of its Master, of its non-violence, but there was a time in history when it sent out its armies to disembowel the infidels and torture the heretics. It proclaims the message of evangelical poverty, and yet it does nothing but look for money and alliances with the powerful.

Those who dream of something different from this are wasting their time and have to rethink it all. And this proves that they do not understand humanity. Because this is humanity, made visible by the Church, with all its flaws and its invincible courage, with the Faith that Christ has given it and with the love that Christ showers on it.

When I was young, I did not understand why Jesus chose Peter as his successor, the first Pope, even though he abandoned Him. Now I am no longer surprised and I understand that by founding his church on the tomb of a traitor… He was warning each of us to remain humble, by making us aware of our fragility. (…)

And what are bricks worth anyway? What matters is the promise of Christ, what matters is the cement that unites the bricks, which is the Holy Spirit. Only the Holy Spirit is capable of building the church with such poorly moulded bricks as are we.

And that is where the mystery lies. This mixture of good and bad, of greatness and misery, of holiness and sin that makes up the church… this in reality am I. (…)

The deep bond between God and His Church, is an intimate part of each one of us. (…) To each of us God says, as he says to his Church, “And I will betroth you to me forever” (Hosea 2,21). But at the same time he reminds us of reality: ‘Your lewdness is like rust. I have tried to remove it in vain. There is so much that not even a flame will take it away’ (Ezechiel 24, 12).

But then there is even something more beautiful. The Holy Spirit who is Love, sees us as holy, immaculate, beautiful under our guises of thieves and adulterers. (…) It’s as if evil cannot touch the deepest part of mankind.

He re-establishes our virginity no matter how many times we have prostituted our bodies, spirits and hearts. In this, God is truly God, the only one who can ‘make everything new again’.

It is not so important that He will renew heaven and earth. What is most important is that He will renew our hearts. This is Christ’s work.

This is the divine Spirit of the Church.

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I have many and very many friends who share this belief about the Super Bowl. They’re more into green tea, herbal and food gardening, cleansing music and spiritual conversation. May their tribe increase.

— From the Sanskrit mantra in the Tina Turner video below.

Om Sarveshaam Svastir-Bhavatu |
Sarveshaam Shaantir-Bhavatu |
Sarveshaam Purnnam-Bhavatu |
Sarveshaam Manggalam-Bhavatu |
Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih ||

Meaning:
1: May there be Well-Being in All,
2: May there be Peace in All,
3: May there be Fulfilment in All,
4: May there be Auspiciousness in All,
5: Om Peace, Peace, Peace.

So you’re put off by today’s latest edition of the Super Bowl of American Excess & Vulgarity.

That’s understandable. I don’t think I’ve missed a Super Bowl game in my life, but my interest in it — and in football in general — wanes more every year.

I’m not even sure I’ll watch tonight’s game.

Super Bowl fans this year — including those with no taste for football but who watch for commercials or the halftime performances — are now being entertained to a ludicrous controversy over the halftime act. As a friend of mine opined about the flap on Facebook, “For God’s sake just get a marching band!”

So if you’re as put off as I am about the whole Super Extravaganza to End All Super Extravaganzas Until This Time Next year, I recommend you take a few minutes to bathe yourself in the sights and sounds of some great Mantra Rock on videos with that force of cosmic love and positive energy Tina Turner.

Come to think of it, Tina’s cleansing mantra music and movement could bring some class and dignity to the Super Bowl Halftime Shows and put some much needed harmony-and-love vibes out in the broken world. But then, American consumerism left class and dignity in the dirt a long time ago.

We’ll never see a Super Bowl of Love & Harmony as long as there are beer and pizza and insurance to sell.

Longtimers here at The Cult of the Jitterbug know that I, a Christian minister,

One of the many books by my former World Religions professor Ruben Habito, professor at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

have had an abiding interest in Buddhism and other Eastern religions for about half my rather long life. It’s not that I want to leave my Christian faith for Buddhism or Taoism or Hinduism or anything else. The interest is in all the congruity with the other great religions.

Many illuminating books have been writ about those intersections in faith traditions. A number of those were written by my friend and former seminary professor Ruben F.L. Habito, a former Jesuit priest who keeps one foot planted firmly in his Christian faith and the other planted in the Buddhism of which he’s a world-renowned master.

He’s one of the most calming people I’ve ever known and was one of the best and kindest teachers I ever had. I commend his books to you.

But back to Tina.

When I was young and wild, I was wild and crazy about sexy Tina Turner. And what American male lover of rock wasn’t wild about the primal rock of Tina Turner?

But there has always been so much more about Tina than her rock life. She went from being a rock superstar to being a true American hero when she shared the story of her escape from her hyper-violent rock-legend husband Ike Turner.

Her legend grew as the world became aware of her full conversion from her traditional Baptist-Christian faith to Buddhism.

You won’t get much hyper-thrill watching these vids, but you might get some hyper-chill.

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