We are four months into the presidency of Donald J. Trump, son of Fred Christ Trump (yes, President Trump is Christ’s son). Often I find myself sputtering and fuming incoherently in response to his most recent Tweet or Executive Order or policy proposal. This weekend I have felt something different – pity and sadness, wondering if there is a little boy stuck there in a man’s body.
Three images last week brought me to this place. First was the strong, enduring handshake between France’s Emmanuel Macron and President Trump. This certainly is not the first longish handshake between Mr. Trump and another; each one has lasted an extended time and has reminded viewers of tugs-of-war, or a modified form of arm wrestling, in which a winner must be determined. In this instance, it appears that Mr. Trump was the one who cried “Uncle.” But that is not the point; keep reading.
The second image was of the prime minister of Montenegro being pushed aside by President Trump. It is true that Montenegro’s prime minister downplayed the scene, but I also know how tempting it is to tell a teacher about a bully, “No ma’am, nothing happened; it was nothing – really. He was just playing with me.” At least to me, the possibility that more was going on between the two is glimpsed in the way President Trump shoulders past, never looks at the other, and then thrusts out his chest; I really expected him to thump a time or two as he lifted his head and looked at the camera. That appears to me at least to be Alpha dog behavior, putting another in his place while strutting victoriously and powerfully over the foe. Never mind that President Trump never speaks or makes eye contact, never apologizes or even “sees” the other. The prime minister of Montenegro is made invisible and inconsequential, of no regard.
The final image again involved France’s Macron as he walked toward the gathering of G-7 leaders. As he draws nearer, Macron seems headed directly for President Trump; when Mr. Trump begins to extend his hand toward Macron the French leader suddenly veers away, leaving Mr. Trump’s hand grasping…well, nothing. He has been publicly shunned and humiliated, as Macron intentionally goes toward Angela Merkel, warmly greets her, then another leader, and finally shakes Mr. Trump’s hand briefly and moves away.
Why do I dwell on these images? Because they all could have taken place on a playground with 8 year old boys in various ways seeking to assert supremacy, or being knocked down a peg or two. While President Trump has won his previous arm wrestling matches with other world leaders, he didn’t seem to win against President Macron and he certainly was brought up short in their other encounter. On last week’s power playground, Mr. Trump was 1-2, and he only managed to eke out a win against a much smaller foe; after all, how many of us can even find Montenegro on a map, much less expect its leader to take on the leader of the Free World in a shoving match?
But whatever Mr. Trump’s win-loss record from last week, he seems always to feel the need to win; never to back down or admit error or defeat; when attacked, to swing back harder; to demean, diminish, dismiss, or demolish any and all opponents; and to exude emotions of aggressiveness, anger, braggart brashness, confidence, cockiness, intimidation, and unrelenting stubbornness – all of which combine to create a certain hard, stony harshness to his persona.
How did he become this person? I wonder if there were there wounds received earlier, frights or experiences of falling short that led to stumbles or painful scars that hardened previously soft tissue? I know very little about his parents or his growing up years, but when your father’s middle name is Christ, I wonder if that would feel overwhelming or intimidating to a small boy who looked up to you for love, acceptance and approval. In my mind’s eye I see a little boy, too young to be a Donald yet, a small youngster named Donnie. Would you feel like you had to please, but could never quite do so as fully as wished or expected? Would acceptance and love feel like it had to be earned even if it was offered freely; would recognition seem a bar too high, a bridge too far? Like the triumphant and distant Pantocrator Christ in the dome of an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, would that young Donnie’s father Christ feel distant, demanding, unapproachable; and even if he wasn’t, could that have been that little boy’s perception? Or did this Christ teach his son to feel superior and always to be tough, no matter what the cost? We know that President Trump’s brother died at a relatively early age, his life shortened by alcoholism (this is one reason the President does not drink, and he is to be commended and honored for that discipline). But did his brother drink because he was too soft and tender, and was overwhelmed by life or his father or expectations for hard, unforgiving toughness? Did that young, small Donnie see what happens when you are tender or too gentle, and decide that the only way to survive is to be tough, never to back down, never to be vulnerable or open to a wounding blow? I have no idea at all, but I did wonder these things this past week.
During this presidency, I confess I have been greatly troubled by what I perceive to be outrageous, hurtful, illegal or unconstitutional, belittling and dismissive words and actions by President Trump. And I have also been stunned by his sudden and unexpected changes in direction or opinion. Even members of his own political party don’t seem to know which way he will go with any change of wind, or whether his words today will be trustworthy or reliable, or have any cache tomorrow. He seems to be untethered, unmoored, unanchored, so much so that his words, demands and promises seem light, airy, impermanent, diaphanous, ephemeral, insubstantial gossamer nothingness. There is no there there.
This past week what came to mind was T. S. Eliot’s “hollow men,” or C. S. Lewis’ “men without chests.” Mr. Trump’s reluctance to engage in self-reflection seems to suggest a disquieted fear that if he ever did so, he would find no one home. Where there should be heart and substance, there is only straw and empty space. What is missing in that vacuous emptiness is heart, love, acceptance, the sense of being cherished for who you are, not for what you have. And while Mr. Trump may laugh on occasion, it is never at himself, and he seems not to know joy, or happiness, or authentic peace. He is a troubled soul.
Buddhist philosopher Ken Wilber, in his book, A Brief History of Everything, describes modern people as Flatlanders who think the only thing that is real is what can be counted, measured, possessed. It is a shallow and superficial existence that fails to notice or experience the great depth and mystery of the richer, thicker, substantial, spiritual entirety of the Kosmos. Wilber believes we can all experience this spiritual depth and reality, but often we are wounded and crippled by previous experiences and get “stuck” in early, immature positions that block and impede further growth and deepening of life.
In thinking about Wilber’s work, I wonder how many wounds Mr. Trump carries and how stuck he is with earlier pain and defensive responses from childhood or other early years of life. What if, beneath The Donald’s suits and ties and insistence on being right all the time and need for recognition and take no prisoner mentality, there is still that little child Donnie, hidden away, scared, uncertain and hurting, just wondering what it would be like to be loved and accepted unconditionally? What if the next time that hidden Donnie extended a hand to begin a power wrestling handshake, he was pulled into a warm embrace and held and comforted and reassured that his life mattered, regardless of wealth or success? What if the members of the G-7 had surrounded that young hidden Donnie and provided a strong, caring, accepting, welcoming embrace that held him close and would not let him go as he was told he didn’t have to be strong, and could stop trying relentlessly to prove himself because they would treat him with dignity and respect and honesty, period? And what if I and 1,000,000 other people wrote him a letter, assuring him that we prayed for him and wanted him to be healed and whole, and that he didn’t have to be a bully or loud or pushy to get our attention. I honestly don’t know, but I wondered this week if beneath all the bluster there’s still a little Donnie deep down there who doesn’t know how to get out, but would be so much happier if he could be set free.
“God is Spirit, and those who worship God worship in spirit and in truth.” – John 4:24
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” –1 John 4:7-8
There are many things I love about being a WOMP (Worn-Out Methodist Preacher), but the nerdiest thing I am delighted to do is to read theological texts of many descriptions, some of which have been on my shelves for decades. These days I am more than half-way through Raymond Brown’s two volume (!) The Death of the Messiah, two-thirds into Eberhard Bethge’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and in preparation for preaching on Trinity Sunday I’m plowing through Jurgen Moltmann’s The Trinity and the Kingdom. Which leads to how this particular blog was birthed.
Moltmann’s reflection on the mystery of the Trinity, published in 1979, is not some new, avant-garde, radical, contemporary rant. Indeed, what stopped me dead in my tracks was inspired by his reference to a 1300 year old statement of faith affirmed in the Council of Toledo in 675. Moltmann is pondering the interrelationships between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the tri-unity of God, when he writes:
“[I]f the Son proceeded from the Father alone, then this has to be conceived of both as a begetting and as a birth. And this means a radical transformation of the Father image; a father who both begets and bears his son is not merely a father in the male sense. He is a motherly father too. He is no longer defined in unisexual, patriarchal terms but – if we allow for the metaphor of language – bisexually or transexually. He has to be understood as the motherly Father of the only Son he has brought forth, and at the same time as the fatherly Mother of his only begotten Son….According to the Council of Toledo in 675, ‘it must be held that the Son was created, neither out of nothingness nor yet out of any substance, but that He was begotten or born out of the Father’s womb (de utero Patris), that is, out of his very essence.'” The Trinity and the Kingdom, p. 164 f. (my italics)
Be still, my heart. Doesn’t that simply inspire with its thrilling, easy to follow verbiage?Yes, I am that nerd who thinks it’s awesome – difficult, dense, seemingly arcane and irrelevant to 21st century folks, not ready for prime time preaching, but an enriching blessing to me to be afforded the time to ponder. But what I saw did seem to have deep relevance for us, at least worthy of a thought experiment.
Scripture clearly affirms that the Triune God is encountered as spirit and as love. As Spirit, God is not exclusively male or female; indeed God is neither; whatever language we use for God is symbolic, metaphorical and poetic, not literalistic. And because God is love, the Triune God has to be essentially relational and in relationship, because at the very least love requires lover and beloved.
Clearly Moltmann is both struggling, and playing with language as he delves into the interplay and relationship of Father and Son within the Trinity, when he puts forth the metaphorical language of God’s bisexuality or transsexuality. At the very least, it seems to me that he is arguing that gender specific language is woefully inadequate to the Godhead, metaphors and images drawn from both traditionally male and female characteristics are appropriate (and necessary?), and that the mystery of God transcends all such images.
If that is so, then perhaps the following are true – or definitely worth pondering:
- Both males and females are made in the image of God as we reflect something, but not all, of who God is.
- We each bear within ourselves both maleness and femaleness, since attributes or characteristics of both are exhibited within the Godhead.
- While maleness and femaleness are important and valued dimensions of being human and individual identities, if characteristics, images, roles, and metaphors assigned to each are transcended within the mystery of God, they do not have to have undue significance for us as humans who, regardless of gender identity, are all made in the image of God.
- Transgender and/or queer persons are valued, vital reminders to us of the utter mystery and wonder of God, who is at the heart of the universe and is not limited to, or bounded by our understandings, categorizations or endeavors to manipulate, control, legislate and reduce reality to our narrow expectations and comprehension. The God we meet in scripture truly embodies a Reality that transcends gender and is queer (e.g., “My ways are not your ways; my thoughts not your thoughts;” “God’s wisdom is foolishness in the eyes of the world; God’s power is weakness”); crosses boundaries; will not be limited, nailed down, or confined to specific spaces (tombs or toilets?); and is encountered in the demeaned, mocked, ridiculed, condemned, outcast, marginalized, rejected and scorned. How odd it would be of God, to be seen particularly clearly these days in these, the least of our sisters and brothers (Matthew 25:31 ff.).
- Galatians 3:26-28 is even more radically revolutionary and relevant than Paul (or we) might have imagined: “[I]n Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
This WOMP was reading Moltmann at the same time as the Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church was ruling on a case involving Rev. Karen Oliveto, a married and openly lesbian who was elected a bishop last year and currently serves the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Conferences. This is the most recent significant action in the denomination’s long wrestle with sexuality, done in the context of the ongoing endeavor of the church’s Commission on a Way Forward discerning whether we can find a better way to live together with our diverse understandings of sexuality. Following the Judicial Council’s ruling, the WCA (Wesleyan Covenant Association, a newly formed unofficial United Methodist group that holds church prohibitions against the practice of homosexuality to be part of Christian orthodoxy) responded, “We…call upon those who feel they cannot, in good conscience, abide by the doctrines and discipline of our church, to seek an honorable exit from our denomination.”
I confess I didn’t know the Church belonged to the WCA – or to the General Conference of The UMC, for that matter; my understanding from scripture is that none of us owns the Church but all submit to the Lordship of Christ who is the Head of the Church, which is his body. Once again, I am thinking that we continue to make sexuality a false idol to which we give undue priority and turn our stance of homosexuality into a heresy by overstating and overemphasizing something, and thereby creating a false imbalance. If God is surprisingly queer and/or transgender, perhaps we ought to lighten up, calm down and carry on, and revel in the mystery of God who continues to surprise us, lead us down unexpected paths, and reveal Godself in ways we could never have imagined.
One of the most dangerous and prideful risks taken by a retired preacher (or any homiletician not preaching on a particular day) is to share publicly how they would engage with a biblical text if given the opportunity. But as a WOMP (Worn Out Methodist Preacher) I have a certain liberty (or diminished sense of self-control) and much more free time to let my mind go where it will without having to meet that deadline my colleagues still face – the relentless return of the Sabbath.
Case in point: this week’s Old Testament lesson (5th Sunday in Lent) is Ezekiel 37:1-14 (http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Ezekiel+37:1-14&vnum=yes&version=nrsv). It’s the story of the prophet Ezekiel being caught up in a divine dream/vision in which he sees a valley of dry bones and is questioned by God as to whether the bones can live again. After following God’s commands to prophesy to the bones and to the wind/breath/spirit, the prophet sees the bones rise up as a mighty host, restored to life, at which God explains this is a vision of the the dried up, dead and hopeless people of Israel whom God will restore, reassemble and revive.
Rightly so and well done this week, the preacher I heard engage with the text named personal experiences of being dead, dried up and hopeless: loss of job or health or marriage, lost hopes for children, etc., and encouraged us to hear the promise that God is able to bring new life even to our most hopeless circumstances. He also broadened the scope of the sermon to marvel at the ways a missionary in another country works among the poorest of the poor to bring hope, education and new life to children displaced by the government to live literally among garbage heaps. Can these bones live? Yes! It was a word from the Lord, for sure, and I was grateful to be in a place to hear it.
But I hungered for more and found myself thinking, “If I was preaching this week what would I want to speak to God’s people? What are the questions I would want to ask and what would God’s gospel be?
I am indeed a WOMP and the Christian denomination I love and that formed and shaped me as a follower of the Way is at risk of schism in a way we have not faced since the American Civil War. Questions about right and proper attitudes and actions around sexuality, especially homosexuality, have been part of our theological terrain my entire ministry. That is not surprising; it’s been the situation for many oldline denominations, most of which have changed their practices to be more inclusive of GLBTQ folks, including allowing for ordination and officiating at same sex weddings.
But such things are not sanctioned by The United Methodist Church and there are strong forces on all sides pushing and pulling to change or maintain the status quo. Currently a special commission of our denomination is meeting regularly to discern if we can find a way forward to maintain unity in the midst of diversity, in preparation for a special called meeting of our General Conference to determine what changes, if any, we should make in our polity and practice around human sexuality, or whether we will break the heart of Jesus and sunder his Body once more.
Last month I had a conversation with another WOMP who is convinced that division of the denomination is inevitable, or we face a season of church trials and punishment of progressives by traditionalists. My colleague is resigned to the death of the denomination as we know it, the consequence of a bridge too far for progressives and traditionalists; his deeply sad words echoed for me the despair and seeming hopelessness of Ezekiel’s vision scene; if I was preaching this week, I would address the existential threat we United Methodists face and ask the question, “Can these bones live again?” (Ironically, our Annual Conference has been asked to pray this week for the denomination as part of a systematic strategy of prayer as the commission seeks a way forward; where I worshiped we indeed did pray, but based on the way the prayer was framed I wondered if most of us gathered had any idea of how fraught our future is or what the issues are that evoked such a request).
If I was preaching this week, I would announce the hopeful news that even these bones of The United Methodist Church can indeed live as we confess the truth of our dry and barren faith, our lifeless worship and lack of zeal for the ways of God, our cheap grace and easy ways, our arid discipleship and lack of vibrant desire to seek and welcome all, our seeming lack of interest in being transformed into the image and likeness of Christ, our clinging to the familiar tradition that cannot have a vision/dream that God can indeed do new things beyond our understanding or comfort, our contentment with the status quo, and our reticent resistance truly to seek God’s will and purpose for us, no matter the cost. We grumble about denominational decline, but seem to be more focused on membership and facile faith than costly discipleship or following a Lord who seemed to break barriers of division and prejudice with extravagant, graceful, holy glee.
Can these bones live again? Yes, if we understand that life is restored as we heed and respond to the grand Story and Vision of God experienced in scripture (which means we also have to read, know, take seriously and be shaped by the whole of scripture), which from beginning to end is a story of radical trust and adherence to God’s ways marked by compassion, mercy, speaking and living the truth in love, forgiveness, accountability, commitment to healing, humility, sacrificial long-suffering, extraordinary hospitality, generosity, and counter-cultural risk for the sake of God’s Empire – even when that puts us at odds with the ways of the world and whatever empire(s) also want our allegiance and final loyalty. Instead of trying to save an institution, dry bones come alive as fresh winds of the Spirit blow and take us where we are not in control or try to program and legislatively manipulate for our purposes, but pray, seek, listen, discern, and submit to God’s ways. The prophet and we are blessed as we trust that our hope ultimately is in God’s good purposes, plans, and power, and not ours. Instead of being actors, the bones live as we are acted upon because we know that on our own we can do nothing.
And as an American citizen who also is a Christ follower, 10 weeks into the new US administration, I would want to know if these bones of our civil society can live again. When political leaders claim (as has White House political strategist Steve Bannon) that they want to “deconstruct” the body politic, is that akin to scattering the bones of our life together? Are we at risk of having the life sucked out of the body politic by dissembling, division and ill-will, disregard for one another (especially the most weak and vulnerable), and bullying and battering of one another and our most cherished values and commitments as a nation? Are we at risk of losing what has truly made us great in exchange for a thin gruel of nativism, racism, Islamophobia, heterosexism, xenophobia and overly monetized values that cheapen our souls? Can these bones live again?
Again, I would announce the odd, counter-cultural, radical hopeful promise that they can live and that we as people of the Cross have a special role to play by relentlessly and humbly advocating for the disadvantaged and marginalized (including the so-called “deplorables” who also are precious and beloved), speaking the truth in love to and about one another, believing the best of each other, praying fervently for our leaders, welcoming the stranger, living by the Golden Rule (treating other the way we would want if we were in their shoes), listening to all, and working fervently to find a way to live together that more fully resembles the Commonwealth of Heaven, where all are cherished, respected and valued. The church and other faith communities have great potential to be the one remaining place where people of differing political priorities and perspectives can come together united in the common purpose of serving God (and for us followers of the Way, emulating Christ who is Lord of all), speaking respectfully and faithfully to one another, and seeking together to work on the shared agenda of doing God’s will and not being beholden ultimately to any political party.
Those are hard words, not easily spoken or readily received. But I wish I could have said them, or heard them this week.