The Accidental American


Less than two weeks from now, Leah and I will be leaving the continent of North America. After a five-day stopover in Madrid to see our oldest daughter and her husband, we’ll be continuing on to South Africa to take up our new lives.

These days are full of packing, disconnecting from services, and saying goodbyes to friends. I’m fairly used to the routine after years of being moved around by a bishop, but this time, I can’t help reflecting on another powerful reality.

As I pack boxes, I am acutely aware of my privilege. That’s a loaded word; most of the time the word is used, it refers to race, as in the term “white privilege.”

But I want to use it in a slightly different sense. Let’s talk about the privilege that comes with holding a navy blue passport, the privilege of being a citizen of the United States of America.

Despite the labyrinthine complications of procuring a visa to South Africa, there is no doubt that it’s easier to get one as an American than it is from many other places in the world. 

In world travel, there is a marked advantage to being a US citizen, for many reasons. For one, we are still the world’s lone superpower, at least for now. Americans might be mocked or ridiculed, but we are always taken seriously by other nations. 

The dollar remains the most-desired currency in the world, too. Everywhere you go, people want the green bills. 

And compared to the vast majority of humans on the earth, we live in luxury.

We can pretty much go anywhere in the world. Many of us have the disposable income to travel whenever we want, wherever we want. We can visit practically any country in the world, and be warmly welcomed in doing so.

Think for a moment how recently in world history this development has taken place. A century ago, a vacation to Europe meant a long boat trip, horse and buggy rides, and the means to sustain oneself for a very long stay away from home. Today, you can make all your plans in a single evening on a computer screen and go to Paris and back in less than a week!

But we should never forget that this is a luxury enjoyed by only a small percentage of the world population. International travel is still reserved for those who can afford it. The vast majority of the world’s people don’t have a travel “bucket list.”

Not only that, but when Americans travel or live in other countries as we will be doing, there is always a safe place to return, a place to which we can go back. No matter where we go, there is always the option to return to the US. 

That’s an extremely reassuring thought; no matter where we go, we can always come back. But it’s a privilege that many people don’t have.

Imagine being a refugee family and being chased out of your home, unable to return. Or think about what it’s like to be one of those hundreds of thousands of people who are in the US right now without proper documentation because they have fled their home country for safety or economic security. This week, the President of the United States has essentially announced that these people are personae non gratae, a Latin phrase which means “people who are not appreciated.” 

I am an accidental American. I was born here, and I had no say at all in where I was to be born. I am lucky, or fortunate, or blessed. Percentage-wise, it was much more likely that I would have been born in Asia, or in another time period, but here I am. 

And there you are. 

We are privileged. That’s the hard truth. 

We didn’t do anything to deserve the privilege that comes with being an American citizen, it happened without our input. Our privilege doesn’t make us any more or less deserving of God’s grace, nor does it make us more or less a child of God. 

But it does make us more responsible. Our privilege becomes a responsibility for those of us who believe in the shalom and justice of God. When we look at the world, we recognize that there are billions of people who are not likewise privileged. We recognize that there are millions of people in our own country who suffer from the disparities of race and wealth. We come to realize that our privilege is something that is truly accidental.

As Christians, we have a responsibility to look out for those who are not privileged, those who suffer from poverty or geographical hardship, those who are not appreciated. 

So … what are you going to do with your privilege?

The Shape of Our Lives


I love the KPUMC sanctuary for many reasons, but my favorite feature of our worship space is its cruciform shape, meaning the ground plan is in the shape of a cross.

While it is common for Catholic and Anglican/Episcopalian churches to be built in this shape, it’s rare in the United Methodist denomination, particularly in the south.

The shape of our church is not just an architectural feature; it’s not only a nod to the most recognizable symbol of Christianity.

It also makes a statement about the shape of our lives together — the life of a Christian disciple is supposed to be cruciform.

What does that mean?

This is metaphorical language, of course. But it means that, in some sense, as we follow Jesus, we will also experience suffering and crucifixion. Our lives will mirror Jesus’ life; the contours of our faith journey will resemble the ebb and flow of Christ’s journey.

Jesus himself mentioned this when he said, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” Obviously, Jesus didn’t mean that we should all be dragging wooden crosses behind us everywhere we go; he meant instead that the experience of following him involved hard choices and difficult challenges. There is a necessary struggle that we must each embrace if we are going to be God’s people in the world.

I reflected on this truth as I walked the Stations of the Cross in our sanctuary this week. The Stations of the Cross are a cruciform spiritual discipline; not only do we literally walk in the shape of the cross while meditating and praying, but we read through the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, torture, and crucifixion as we go.

We don’t do this only to commemorate or remember what Jesus went through; we do this because we are called to a life which will resemble his.

This doesn’t necessarily mean our individual lives will resemble each other’s, or that we are called to the same kind of choices in life. To paraphrase the opening lines of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “Each cruciform disciple is cruciform in its own way.”

“Taking up the cross” will mean one thing for me, and another thing for you . “Saying no to yourself” will challenge my behavior in a certain way, but perhaps another way for you.

Lent is a season in which we must check ourselves and ask if our lives are actually cruciform, or whether they take a different shape. What about you?

Don't Skip to the End!


Are you one of those people who reads the last couple of pages before starting a book? Or do you fast forward to the last couple of minutes of a movie before watching the whole thing? Do you need to know how something ends in order to decide to commit?

If so, I’ve never understood that impulse. The fun of reading a novel or watching a film is sustaining the mystery of how things will end. The narrative or plot is what matters, the flow of events from one to the next.

In the same way, I don’t understand people who attend only Christmas and Easter services. Essentially, these folks are cutting out the entire life, ministry, teaching, miracles, and crucifixion of Christ in order to focus merely on his birth and resurrection.

I feel the same way about those of you who only attend the Sunday services of Holy Week. If you skip directly from Palm Sunday to Easter, you’re missing some important pieces of the narrative. To go from the celebratory mood of Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem directly to the glory and majesty of Jesus’ resurrection is to skip directly to the ending!

The faith which we share and call “Christian” is really nothing but a story, a narrative of how God has worked in the world to bring salvation to all people. It’s tempting to focus entirely on the end; yes, it’s great news that we are saved by grace, forgiven of our sins, and raised to new life.

But the whole story matters. We need to know how God accomplished this salvation, because it tells us something important about God and God’s nature. Put simply, the fact that God in Jesus embraced the suffering of the cross should assure us that none of us are truly alone in our suffering. Jesus Christ embraced the entirety of what it means to be human in order to unite us to him. We are never separated from God, because God consented to be with us in our humanity.

Nowhere does this become so clear as in the story of Holy Week, beginning with Palm Sunday. We will celebrate Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem this Sunday by waving palm branches and singing songs of praise. 

In our Maundy Thursday service, we will remember and reenact the Last Supper, in which Jesus left his disciples the example of his servanthood in washing their feet, and instituted a ritual meal in which his ongoing presence is celebrated.

And of course, on Good Friday, we will hear the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, torture, and crucifixion. None of it is pretty, but the details are important. We need to peer closely, to pay attention to what happened.

All of this sets the stage for what happens on Easter morning. The Easter story simply doesn’t have the same weight unless you are clear on what came before. Easter doesn’t matter unless Maundy Thursday and Good Friday happened. 

For that reason, I hope you make plans to attend our extra Holy Week services. Even if you already know how it ends.