Monday, October 23, 2017

Fidelity is Up and Obedience is Down: A Fiery Furnace Sermon

Digging through the deep archives of my emails, I found this gem of a sermon that my father preached at a church in Indianapolis in 2001. Among other things, it explains why our de facto family motto was "Fidelity is Up and Obedience is Down." I hope it influences you as much as it did me.


Three Young Students in a Fiery Furnace
(A Tribute to Clarence Jordan)

Delivered by Bob Walters
Meridian Street United Methodist Church
April 29, 2001

As I was preparing the sermon for today I initially thought that I would tell you the story of Habitat for Humanity, how Millard and Linda Fuller in a time of spiritual crisis - career was going well, marriage was failing – went to Koinonia Farms in Americus, Georgia, for a retreat with Baptist preacher Clarence Jordan.  They stayed there with Clarence until they had the breakthrough that gave their lives new meaning and purpose. While living in the community they became aware that many families there lived in run down shacks, some of those families were partner families of the farm. Something had to be done and the community was brought together to build for one another decent houses. Thus began Habitat for Humanity which is this year celebrating its 25th anniversary.

But the more I worked with Clarence Jordan’s writings in sermon preparation the more I realized that that is not what he would do or want me to do.  Our church’s participation in Habitat for Humanity’s 25th anniversary build is a slam-dunk. We will do that. But for Clarence Jordan the Gospel pulpit is not for infomercials, even for a cause as great as Habitat for Humanity. Clarence was a tough preacher. He made people feel uncomfortable. He was kicked out of more churches than he was invited into. Clarence kind of saw the Gospel as a 2X4 and the Church as a mule. Occasionally you have to whack the mule between the eyes to get its attention.

Looking through Clarence Jordan’s old sermons I came across “The Three Young Students in a Fiery Furnace.” It was written in the days of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, so I won’t preach his sermon but I want to use the same title and preach in the style and spirit of Clarence Jordan.

Biblical Text: Daniel 3:8-23

A couple Saturday’s ago we were in the family minivan pulling out of the Wal-Mart parking lot, stopped at the light, sun warm through the windshield, windows down, light breeze, Jimmy Buffet on the radio and Teri said, “Life just doesn’t get any better than this.” And I agreed. Granted, we are simple folk and a Saturday that begins at the soccer field with Robbie, lunch at Taco Bell, a stop by Wal-Mart to pick up fertilizer, mulch and other garden supplies, motor oil, filters and other car supplies, then a day of yard work and changing the oil in the MG is a Saturday well spent. And life just doesn’t get any better than this.

On a rainy, dreary, depressing day we know what the Gospel means. It means that the sun will shine again. Resurrection overcomes crucifixion, life beats death, and hope replaces despair. But on a beautiful day like today, what does the Gospel say to us? When everything is going our way and our lives are lives of privilege, how does the Gospel challenge us?

Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego were three young students enjoying the life of privilege. They were the best and brightest of the land, hand-picked to govern. They were trained in the best schools, they ate the finest food, and they dressed in the finest clothing. They were the spoiled and pampered pets of King Nebuchadnezzar. They were on the top of the world going up. All they had to do was embrace the king’s values, bow to his gods.

No one was more disappointed in this turn of events than King Nebuchadezzar. His disappointment turned to frustration as he tried to reason with them and then to rage when they refused his command. He loved those young students and had given them everything a young person could ask for and he couldn’t understand why they would refuse to participate in the pageantry that celebrated his reign. He also needed them. Those sycophants who told on Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego were useless to him. He didn’t need that kind of leadership. To run a kingdom he needed the kind of character that Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego demonstrated.

Every generation needs students like Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego, the best and the brightest who will take our training and frustrate us with a solid refusal to work for our system, who will challenge the values of our institutions, even the Church.

Let me give you a couple examples. Please forgive me on the first example for some fatherly pride. Taylor, our daughter, is a student at American University in the School of International Service, soon to be a graduate student in that same school. Graduates of that school are frequently hired to work for the World Bank or the IMF or any number of multi-national corporations exploiting globalization. Taylor instead works on Capital Hill for our denomination’s General Board of Church and Society as an advocate for justice in the area of population and development. In that job she was called upon to draft a response to our new president’s first executive order – the order that stopped funding to any aid agencies that include in their programs, albeit, funded by other sources, any counseling including abortion as an option in family planning. The response noted that we are cutting off desperately needed aid to the poorest of women and children in the world and that we were in effect legislating laws in other countries stricter than the laws of our country thus retarding the growth of democracies. You do not have to agree with Taylor and the response of the General Board of Church and Society. It would surprise me if you did. But we still need students like Taylor who will say, “Mr. President on this point you are wrong.”

The second example is Emily Greising, a student at Brebeuf and soon to be student at St. Louis University. She has learned well from her Jesuit teachers the values of social justice. She has rented a 15 passenger van and loaded her otherwise conservative family into it to drive them to Fort Benning, Georgia, to stand in the rain to protest the School of the Americas, the school where our army trains the elite fighting units of other governments. Emily will tell you that far too often these units have been used as assassination squads. We need young students like Emily to stand up against the most powerful army in the world and say, “On this point, you are wrong.”

That is two. According to the story we need three. We probably don’t need many more than three. If you’ve ever had to live with these students, you know how difficult they can be. But every generation needs at least three young students who will stand up to us and refuse to participate in our institutions of power and wealth.

Emily, Taylor, young people, we need you. Preachers like me are getting old and tired and we are too wedded to our pensions to go into the fiery furnace any more. We need you to do it for us.

Parents, nurture your children toward authenticity. Teach them to be genuine and true.

At the Naval Academy the answer to the question, “What’s up?” is “Fidelity is up and obedience is down.” That’s how you knew which way to wear the parade belt buckle. The word “Fidelity” was stamped on the top of the buckle and “Obedience” was stamped on the bottom. Its been a long time since anyone cared how I wear my belt buckle, the answer has stuck with me. Fidelity is up and obedience is down. Fidelity, faithfulness, genuine loyalty, true love trump blind, stupid obedience every day.

Parents, nurture your children toward authenticity.

Teachers, don’t teach toward the test. Teach toward the genius in each child. We are not running wiggit factories. We are creating geniuses. Teachers, teach toward the genius that is in every child.

Captains of Industries, you Masters of the Universe, be afraid. Be very afraid. There are students out there who will take you down. They will take your scholarships, your gifts and your job offers and they will say, “No.” Some day you will invite a young student to your skybox and she will say, “No, thank you.” Be afraid of this student. Be afraid because her parents nurtured her toward authenticity and she lives with an internal integrity that you cannot buy. Because her teachers have given her the skill of critical thinking and she can see the truth behind the seduction. Because her church has introduced her to the God of justice, righteousness and compassion and she will not bow down to any other gods or serve their minions.


Suggested reading:
The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John, Clarence Jordan
The Substance of Faith and other Cotton Patch Sermons by Clarence Jordan, Dallas Lee
The Cotton Patch Evidence, Dallas Lee
No More Shacks! By Millard Fuller with Diane Scott

Saturday, September 16, 2017

When a Whovian Dies

Today would have been my father’s 65th birthday. Instead, he had a heart attack seven weeks ago while on his bike and was gone before he knew what happened. His was a poetic death—exactly what he would have wanted albeit the part about it coming at least a quarter-century too soon.  

The Saturday we gathered at church to celebrate his life was majestic. We stood in the receiving line for five nonstop hours before it had to be cut off for the service to begin. The overflow crowds sat in folding chairs, and the live feed had over 3,000 viewers from around the globe—including Bishop Ntambo and Bishop Mande who were unable to get last minute flights. The tributes we received that day and the days afterward were overwhelming in a wonderful way. If only my father had fully understood that he was loved by so many and so much.  

For me, “Biking Bob” (self-dubbed: The Mad Man on a Bike) was more than my father; he was my mentor, my coach, my co-conspirator, my teammate. He was the only person who could tell me I was wrong about something and I’d accept the correction without question. He was brilliant, and if people thought he didn’t make any sense, it was simply because they weren’t keeping up. 

In addition to being a pastor, missiologist, and retired Marine Corps helicopter pilot, my father was a die-hard Whovian and raised me to be one too.

Death looks different through a Whovian’s eyes. We are acutely aware of the universe and time itself, and we put our sorrows in the context of the bigger picture, yet we also affirm that there are no un-important people--what we do matters. Whovians are used to thinking in terms of everyone being simultaneously dead and alive, depending on when one happens to be at a given moment. We see death as a constant companion, and we find comfort in the idea of regeneration* and a non-linear view of time. We move forward, knowing that pain and loss define us as much as happiness and love. We know that pain is a gift. We know that we are all stories in the end.  My father's was a great one.  


*My mother is currently in the process of regeneration. It is an excruciating transformation; she doesn't want the old her (Bob's wife and beloved traveling companion) to go, but she clings to the faith that the new Teri is about to arise. She is uncertain that she will be fine, but I assure her that she will be amazing.  

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Life in Algiers: The pastor in a church without a pastor

Worship at Algiers UMC
When we were bidding on Algeria nearly 4 years ago, I knew nothing of the history of Methodism in the country. I didn’t know about the historical link between Methodist mission stations in Algeria and DR Congo; I didn’t know about Hugh and Fritzi Johnson, and I definitely didn’t know there was a United Methodist congregation in Algiers. I was about to experience a steep learning curve.

By the time we arrived in Algiers, I’d done enough research to know that somewhere in the vast city there was a Methodist community, but I didn’t know where they worshipped, if they were in a neighborhood I was allowed to go to, or even what language they worshipped in. They didn’t have a website (preferring to fly below the radar), so I started asking around. What I discovered seemed too amazing to be true: not only did they worship primarily in a language I spoke (French), our embassy-assigned apartment was barely two blocks away from them!

We showed up at church the next Friday (in this part of the word, churches meet on Fridays), and I introduced myself to the lay leader. “Alleluia!” she proclaimed. It turned out that the congregation had been without an ordained pastor for quite some time and praying intensely for one. Their previous missionary pastor had left the country due to health problems, and they had been lay-led since then. Long story shortened, after a flurry of emails, the bishop of the UMC’s France-Swiss-North Africa episcopal area, Patrick Streiff, invited me to serve as the congregation’s new pastor. 

Nothing is simple when you are married to a diplomat, though. Legally, I was under Chief of Mission authority, and so had to get the ambassador’s blessing before doing any public speaking or taking a leadership role in any local organization—even as a volunteer (it is forbidden for spouses of diplomats to work on the local economy in Algiers). She gave her nod provided that the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave their nod. Then came the deafening silence. Finally, the Algerian Ministry of Religious Affairs gave their nod of approval, and we announced publicly my appointment just in time for a wonderful Easter celebration.

A few months later, though, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs came back with a bureaucratic “No.” I couldn’t be a religious leader in Algeria because I was here on a diplomatic visa—not a religious worker’s visa.  Ugh. Now what?  I sought guidance from the embassy and was told that although I wasn’t allowed to be the pastor of my congregation, there were no prohibitions against being an active member. So, that’s how I became a highly active member of a congregation without a pastor which is led by its active members. Let those with ears hear what I’m saying.     

I'm assuming you now can guess why, despite the Algiers UMC being a major part of my life the past few years, I haven’t shared much about it online.  There is so much I have wanted to tell you, though. It is a truly beautiful congregation—multi-national, multi-lingual, multi-generational.  We’ve been through much during our journey together, and I’m so lucky to have had this opportunity.  One of these days I’ll tell you more about it.  

Photo with some of my beloved congregants
(I had the honor of being the commencement speaker for the Uganda Student Association this year)
Hanging out with Hugh Johnson at the Swiss-France Annual Conference UMC
Worship at Algiers UMC

Potluck meals at Algiers UMC

Congregants pulling an all-nighter at our place to cook up a feast for Easter

Worship at Algiers UMC 
(We have a number of Algerian members, 
but most do not wish their faith to be publicly known)  

Receiving on behalf of Algiers UMC the grand prize in 2016 from Connexio
for the outreach ministry of the year in the France-Swiss-North Africa conference.


Friday, April 21, 2017

Life in Algiers: Looking Back and Moving On

Easter Sunday in the DCM's garden
It is hard to believe that we are approaching the end of our 3-year posting in Algiers, Algeria. Next stop: a 2-year teaching gig for hubby at the Foreign Service Institute in the DC area.  This will be our first PCS state-side. Foreign Service folks know what this means: Transition mode has begun.  

In a desperate attempt to avoid overweight shipping fees, we have made a mountain in the guest room full of stuff that we’re leaving behind. Even the Christmas tree is going overboard. I’ve been baking up a storm and showing no restraint on using everything left in our pantry and spice rack. We are reviewing our check-lists so we don’t miss key deadlines (permission to sell car, paperwork to take our dog with us, etc.).  At the same time, it is starting to sink in just how much we’ll miss our life here.  When the final day comes, tears will be shed.

A couple years ago, I didn’t expect I’d be able to say that. Our first year in Algiers was rough—really rough.  All three of us were demoralized. Ten months in, it got to the point that we started talking curtailment. Other colleagues had already done so. Ultimately, what stopped us was the promise I had made to the Methodist congregation (and my bishop) here and my theostitious belief that God had placed us here for a task we had not yet completed. (that’s another story in itself)  

When hubby mentioned the ‘c’ word to front office, the response was “You haven’t taken a vacation since you arrived. Why don’t you take a long one and hopefully reconsider?” Although we’d already decided to stay, we jumped at the opportunity for a getaway and booked ourselves on the first cheap cruise we could find on and paired it with a church conference in Versailles (Did you know that Paris Disney tickets are a fraction of the cost for DisneyWorld?!). 

Then, things started to turn around. After the summer turn-over, the embassy became family-friendly. E got off the waitlist for a new preschool. We finally found an evening babysitter. We were moved into a new apartment building with great neighbors, so we now do things like help each other with grocery shopping, carpool, and keep an eye on each other’s kids. I got over my fear of driving in Algiers and learned my way around town. I joined an amazing gym and started making new friends.  Our choir started doing truly meaningful performances. The Algerian government began renovating its public parks and installing playground equipment. We found affordable dance and gymnastics studios for E. I stopped fearing getting PNGed and started leaning into my ministry at the church and outing myself as a pastor--even taking on a de facto chaplain role at the embassy (again, another story). We started taking more trips and discovering more of the beauty and history of the region. And that’s just a partial list. 

I’ve become so spoiled by our life here. Sure, living in a glass cage still gets annoying sometimes. (example: I had to Skype into a Methodist women’s retreat this week because it was being held in region off-limits to us)  But, in all honestly, I’ve been living the dream. From our balcony I can see the Atlas mountains in the distance.  Nora regularly knocks on our door with freshly-baked bread or hot borek as a gesture of friendship. Mahdia comes and cooks us up a pot or two of Algerian cuisine made with the fresh produce I pick up from the road side stand I stop at on the way home from preschool. When we travel, the vet comes to pick up our dog (who adores her) and looks after him for a token fee. I get to hang out with interesting people from all over the world. When we tell our daughter we are going to the ambassador’s house, she asks which one: the one with the playground or the one where we sing?  Not only that, she is getting free coaching from one of the best gymnasts in the country.  I get the honor and fun of serving a multinational multilingual congregation and getting to experiment with preaching and worship styles in ways most clergy can never dare try at their appointments. In short, I’m really going to miss this place.  

But here's the thing I've realized:  What I've loved most about our last year here is the 'normalcy' of it all.  I finally got what so many of my non-nomadic friends take for granted: a community of folks who look after each other. I got my own sit-com life--the kind where the neighbor kid walks through our front door without knocking.  I got to serve a congregation where the treasurer insists she doesn't want to be the lay leader (but, de facto, she clearly is), and where the hospitality committee serves tea and sweets after every service. 

Will we be able to build such a village at our next address? Only time will tell.   

Thursday, February 09, 2017

The Real Shame of #TrumpCantRead

image source:
Unless you’ve managed to live off-the-grid this season, you’re probably aware of the hashtag #TrumpCantRead and the evidence various commentators (including the ghostwriter of The Art of the Deal) have presented to suggest that Donald Trump has difficulty reading and thus avoids doing so.  I suspect these commentators are onto something, yet this hypothesis has actually made me feel a bit more sympathy for him.*  While I feel strongly about calling out people for destructive behavior, shaming someone for something they can’t control—that crosses the line.  

You see, lately I’ve been working on learning more about the psychology of shame.  After seeing BrenĂ© Brown’s TedTalk “Listening to Shame,”  I bought one of her audio books that delves deeper into the subject. Shame is a powerful emotion that drives so many destructive behaviors (chauvinism, perfectionism, bullying, etc.).  Like the fight-flight-freeze response, humans respond to shame by either puffing up, shrinking, or appeasing. Shame often manifests in violent ways: from suicide to cruelty to others.  As psychologist Mary C Lamia points out, “Narcissistic personalities often have the emotion of shame at their core.” 

Let’s imagine for a moment that Trump really does have trouble reading.  Perhaps it is dyslexia; perhaps it has something to do with his attention span or countless other issues that ideally would have been identified in childhood. According to a Frontline documentary I saw, his father was a man who praised toughness and mocked weakness. Perhaps little Trump was deeply ashamed by his struggles in school and developed coping mechanisms to mask his struggles and deflect these feelings. Perhaps his coping response was to puff up—to lash out at others.  Jessi Sholl writes thatTo compensate [for our shame], we scramble to cover up our perceived flaws by engaging in a long list of broken behaviors, including blaming and shaming others, perfectionism, lying, and hiding out.”   

Hmm… sound familiar?
Here’s the thing about shame:  When someone’s toxic behaviors are in response to their shame, trying to shame them into changing only makes them more ashamed—and thus even less likely to change. (this especially applies when trying to intervene with loved one who has an addiction problem)

Here’s the other thing: Shame is highly contagious. While the intention of the #trumpcantread conversation may be to suggest that Trump isn’t well educated on key issues, all the other people out there with reading difficulties get the message loud and clear that their struggles are shameful and their adaptations (getting news from t.v. instead of newspapers or enjoying movies over novels or having someone type their Tweets for them, for example) merit ridicule.

And that, is a real shame.


P.S. I recently met a pastor who shared how, despite his severe dyslexia and previous beliefs that college wasn't for him and his only career options were manual labor jobs, he courageously went back to school and had just completed seminary.  Bravo. 

*That is, in the same way I feel more sympathy for a school bully after hearing about her horrid home life.