Another ‘lost’ generation?

Irish novelist Sally Rooney has been hailed as the voice of her generation — millennials, that is.

Wondering what all the fuss was about, I recently read her three novels: starting with the second, Normal People; then the first, Conversations Among Friends; and finally the most recent, Beautiful World Where Are You.

The books focus on the relationships of several sets of friends. In Normal People, for example, Marianne and Connell spend a lot of time having sex, or talking about having sex, or feeling anxious about having sex – either with each other or with someone else. They drift apart and back together several times.

Description of their sexual encounters is sometimes almost perfunctory, sometimes almost clinical in detail, as if automatons were pushing buttons on other automatons. Given all the sex being described, you might think that something interesting was going on, but the stories quickly become tiresome.

Maybe that’s part of the point. Despite some talk about class consciousness, desire for social acceptance and even search for religious meaning, the characters seem mostly unaware of the social milieu in which they flounder.

They want to be “normal people,” whatever those are. They yearn for what they’ve heard is a “beautiful world,” though they have no idea where it might be or how they can find it.

Rooney’s books have been dismissed as “slacker fiction” about people stuck in “horny malaise.” Those descriptions are a little harsh. But only a little.

Somewhere along the way, I picked up the notion that proper stories are about people who are changed by events and interactions with other people. Maybe in her next book, Rooney might allow one or two of her characters to wake up to their situation, take an honest look at themselves and take some faltering steps toward change.

Jesus calls us

Jesus Calls Us – message delivered May 22, 2022, at Paola United Methodist Church, from Acts 16: 9-15.

In our Bibles, the book of Acts is formally titled “The Acts of the Apostles.” Many commentators think it might better be titled “The Acts of the Holy Spirit” because the Spirit is the real power driving the story.

We see that clearly in today’s episode focused on the calling of Lydia.

This episode raises several important questions for each of us about our own calling, how we experience that calling, and how we respond to it.

Let’s place this episode in the broader story of Acts.

The Apostle Paul is ready to set off on his second missionary journey. He’s recruited three new helpers: the study and experienced Silas; the young and inexperienced Timothy; and a fellow named Luke.

Luke doesn’t contribute much to the story itself, but when he later records it in the book of Acts, he signals his presence by mentioning the things that “we” did, or happened to “us.”

These four know where they want to go. But God keeps telling them no.

They want to go north into Asia, but Luke says the Holy Spirit forbids it. How the Spirit forbids it, he doesn’t say. So they decide they’ll go to Bithynia; that’s closer anyway. But the Spirit won’t allow that either. Again, we’re not told how the Spirit makes this known.

What we are told is that one night Paul has a vision. It may come in a dream, but Paul is perfectly capable of having visions outside dreams. Paul is a mystic. He is aware of spiritual forces that most of us are only vaguely familiar with. In his vision, he sees a man from Macedonia who pleads with him. “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

The four are immediately convinced that God is calling them to proclaim the good news in Macedonia. So that’s where they go. Traveling by sea, they head for northern Greece, and they land in the Roman colony of Philippi.

It is Paul’s practice to go first to the synagogue to tell local Jews about the content of his preaching. He knows he’ll likely get thrown out of the synagogue, but he always starts there before he turns to Gentiles, to whom he feels especially called.

It takes at least 10 men to form a proper synagogue, but apparently there aren’t that many Jewish men in Philippi, so Paul looks for someplace else believers might gather for prayer on the Sabbath. Gathered by the river outside of town, he finds a group of women – and the one who responds most strongly to his message isn’t even Jewish.

Luke describes her as a God-fearer. That means she’s a Gentile, a non-Jew, who is moved by the Jewish message about God but is not ready to convert.

In fact, Paul always finds some of his best converts among God-fearers. Leaders of the synagogues resent this. They think he’s targeting God-fearers and essentially stealing sheep from their pasture.

This particular sheep would be a good one to rustle. Her name is Lydia, and she is a wealthy and independent woman. Luke says she’s a dealer in purple cloth. In those days, purple cloth was difficult to dye, and therefore both rare and expensive, essentially reserved for royalty and the upper class.

Whether she’s a widow or an especially good businesswoman, or both, Lydia has done well for herself. She has her own home in Philippi and a household that may include slaves or free domestic staff as well as children.

According to Luke, the Lord opens Lydia’s heart to respond positively to Paul’s message about Jesus. She makes a confession of faith right then and there, and Paul responds by baptizing her and all her household in the river.

She invites Paul and his friends to stay at her home, and it becomes the center of Christian worship in Philippi.

Lydia is the first Christian convert in Europe, and her home is the first Christian church in Europe. Today, she is widely considered a saint, and many Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate her feast day on May 20.

The church that Paul founds in her home at Philippi will be one of his favorite churches. The letter that he writes to the Philippians some years later is one of his warmest and most charming letters.

Lydia also is notable for being the first of several women whom the New Testament lifts up as heroes of the faith. Paul is often derided as a misogynist, a woman hater, but he encourages and celebrates the leadership of women in the church, including Rhoda, Tabitha, Eunice, Lois, Priscilla, Euodia, and Syntyche.

Lydia, though she now lives in Philippi in Greece, hails from the city of Thyatira in Asia Minor – what we today call Turkey. Forty or fifty years later, Thyatira is one of the seven churches that John of Patmos writes to in the book of Revelation. It’s a strong enough church that it survives for 1,800 years. We might wonder if Lydia wasn’t at least partly responsible for founding it.

Well, you might chalk this episode up to a string of happy coincidences. But instead don’t you see the slender but strong thread that the Holy Spirit weaves through lives and events to bind them together?

Paul is warned away from Asia and Bithynia and led to Macedonia. There, in the pagan city of Philippi, he is led to a gathering by a river, and he meets a spirited and influential woman who will help spread the good news of Jesus to everyone she encounters.

Coincidence? No, no – not at all.

Allow me to jump in time and space. In 1738, in the city of London, the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, are in spiritual despair. They have just returned from a disastrous missionary journey to Georgia in the American colonies, and they are discouraged and distraught. They both preach salvation, but they cannot feel assurance of it personally. And they so much want such assurance!

In early May, Charles falls seriously ill. Everyone is convinced he is going to die. Instead, on May 21, he senses what he calls “a strange palpitation of heart,” and he suddenly feels at peace with God. He shouts, “I believe! I believe!”

Three days later, on May 24, John ends a long and tiring day by reluctantly attending a meeting of a religious society on Aldersgate Street.

The class leader is reading from Luther’s writings on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. John describes what happens next: “About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change that God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.

“I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

This episode is frequently called a “conversion experience,” as if somehow he was not a Christian before it. It is not a conversion. It is an awakening and a deepening of a faith that was already there but had been pounded flat by events in his life and needed to be revived and fanned into flame.

And so it was. For the next 50 years, John and Charles lead a revival that blazes across England, into Ireland and Scotland and to America as well.

Their awakenings by the Holy Spirit do not come out of the blue. John and Charles had prayed and studied and prepared for such a thing – alone, together and with others.

Just as Paul and Silas and Timothy and Luke prayed and studied and prepared to receive guidance from the Holy Spirit, and received it;

  • just as Lydia was led to gather by the river that day, and rejoiced in the message she heard;
  • just as John and Charles Wesley rejoiced in the blessed assurance they received in May of 1738;
  • so today we also pray and study and prepare to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit calling us – calling us to new adventures in faith, new encounters with others, new direction from above.

To the Romans, Paul says that the Holy Spirit bears witness to our spirit that we are beloved children of God (Romans 8:14-17).

To the Corinthians, Paul says: “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). We never walk blindly, though, for we are assured that God walks with us every step of the way – behind us, beside us and before us, every step of the way.

The great contemplative Henri Nouwen once said that 10 years earlier, “I didn’t have the faintest idea that I would end up where I am now.” I was so busy running my own life, “that I became oblivious to the gentle movements of the Spirit of God within me, pointing me in directions quite different from my own.”

And were the directions you set for yourself so superior to those in which you were led by God? Haven’t you felt the tug of the Holy Spirit at key moments, nudging you toward paths you never considered before?

It is sometimes thought that Jesus calls only those who pursue vocations within the church. That is simply not so. Jesus calls each of us and all of us. Through the Holy Spirit, through Scripture, through the experiences of our lives and the encouragement of loved ones, Jesus calls each of us to follow him in ways that are both common to all and unique to each of us.

You may never have had what you thought was a vision from God. You may never have encountered a man from Macedonia or anywhere else saying, “Come over here.” But surely you have heard Jesus calling you.

You may be afraid because you’ve heard about the violent fantasies of killers who claim they obey the voice of God. You can be assured that any voice they hear is not the voice of God, for God never calls anyone to harm anyone.

You also may be afraid because you imagine, “Oh, I just know God will send me to Africa.” More likely, God will send you to an even scarier place – right next door.

You can’t just sit and wait for it to happen while you watch TV or scan social media. The Wesley brothers called this “quietism,” and they condemned it as spiritual laziness. Like the Wesleys and Paul and others, you have to want to hear the call, and you have to pray and study and prepare so that when it comes hear it and when you hear it you’ll know how to respond.

Will you do it? Are you ready to hear it? Are you prepared for an Aldersgate experience? Are you primed, like Lydia, for the next chapter of your life?

Jesus calls us, the old hymn says.

Day by day his voice calls us, saying, “Christian, follow me.”

Can’t you hear the call?


A little talk with Mom

Several nights ago I had a conversation with my mother, who died four and a half years ago.

It was part of a dream, of course – but unlike any other dream I recall having.

Whatever else was happening in the dream, suddenly she was there. I moved toward her, and we embraced.

“How can this be?” I asked.

“What, you don’t believe I’m here?” she replied.

Her appearance and her voice were the same as they were about the time she died at age 93. She was so very slight that it was almost as if she were not there. But however frail she was, she definitely was solid. No ghost here!

“I’ve missed you so much!” I said.

“I’ve missed you so much, too,” she said.

We caught up on a few things; I don’t remember exactly what. I do remember telling her that she had a new great-grandson named Heath. She was pleased to hear that.

Then we got down to business – the reason she wanted to talk with me. We had a few things to clear up, words that had gone unsaid that needed to be said, finally.

These things I remember but won’t report on. They’re too personal. Just little irritants that had come between us. Misunderstandings, really. We straightened them out. Then she smiled and brushed the side of my face with her hand, and she was gone.

I woke with a start and lay there awhile wondering what had just happened. I rarely remember dreams, but this one I remember clearly.

I suppose you could explain it as wish fulfillment, some long-delayed yearning for closure after she died so unexpectedly. Or Easter projection: This is the season of unexpected appearances, after all.

Call it what you like. All I know is that several nights ago, I had a conversation with my mother, and it was good.

The court endorses tyranny

The draft Supreme Court decision throwing out Roe vs Wade is a triumph of ideology over constitutional law.

It is precisely what was most feared when three Trump appointees joined the court.

It is precisely what was most wanted by the MAGA crowd, who scream about “law and order” but don’t give a damn about law as long as they get the kind of order they want.

The opinion by Samuel Alito, court Neanderthal-in-chief, attacks Roe as “egregiously wrong” because abortion is not mentioned in the Constitution and is not “deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and traditions.”

Of course, a lot of things the court routinely rules on are not specifically mentioned in the Constitution. The court’s job is the adjudicate those cases based on what is mentioned and what is implied though not specifically mentioned.

Alito’s main appeal, then, is to tradition. Abortion was not legal before Roe. Therefore, it should not be allowed now. With this blithely nonsensical argument, Alito throws out nearly 50 years of precedent based on Roe.

Roe was decided on a right to privacy and personal autonomy that the justices found in the 14th Amendment. Alito implies that he’s waiting for other cases based on this right to come his way so he can sweep them away, too.

Forget about contraceptives. Forget about a right to sleep with or cohabit with or marry whomever you want – whatever that person’s sex, race or nationality.

In fact, forget about freedom altogether. You are not free. You have no rights. As Alito and his allies on the court have ruled in the past, corporations have more rights than human beings. You need to learn your place. Your rights begin and end only where the control freaks in the all-powerful MAGA government say they do.

You’ll note here how right-wing operatives have cleverly hijacked the language of freedom. Freedom is not having to wear a facemask or get an antivirus shot. Freedom is being able to dictate how your neighbors live their lives. Freedom is being able to claim a cash prize if you turn in someone for crossing a state line to have an abortion.

Freedom of religion is not being able to worship as you choose while granting others the same right. Freedom of religion is being able to impose your religious views on others. Others may not agree that personhood beings at conception. (Biblically speaking, it’s a dubious notion.) But your opinion rules. Your ideology rules because the Supreme Court says it does.

Several states have passed draconian anti-abortion laws in anticipation of Roe being overturned. These laws do not include exemptions for incest or rape. That clearly signals that these laws are not about abortion at all but about enforcing violent male domination of women

Earlier this week many people celebrated Star Wars Day – “May the Fourth be with you.” Remember that the second movie in the original trilogy was titled “The Empire Strikes Back.” As one of my seminary professors frequently said, “The empire always strikes back.”

The bigger story here is that white “Christian” nationalists want to create an invincible apartheid shield before they become a minority. They want to fabricate a system that keeps them in power and in control forever.

Missouri, a slave state, is already poised to criminalize abortion. Kansas, always a bloody battleground over slavery and human rights, at least gets a chance to vote for the right thing. Other slave states, and some new ones, are eager to form a new Confederacy where a certain “tradition” always wins

Vlad the Impaler Putin is smiling. He knows who his allies are. All despots do – except for Alito and friends. They think freedom is a privilege granted to a new, not a human right.

Schism rips my church

As of May 1, the United Methodist Church is officially in schism.

Actually, the church has been far from united for a long time. Just how fragmented it is will take some time to learn.

May 1 was the official start date of the Global Methodist Church, the dream of a break-away segment of the church.

Over the next couple of years, individual churches, and perhaps even whole annual conferences, will align either with the GMC or remain with the UMC.

The GMC will be the “traditional” church – that is, the body of believers who are staunchly opposed to homosexuality. The UMC will continue to be the big tent church, welcoming all people of varying persuasions. So some tension over homosexuality will remain.

Apart, the two churches will be considerably weaker than they were together. But at least they may not be ripping into each other all the time.

Dissidents within the UMC have spent many years looking for a decisive dividing issue. They finally settled on homosexuality. They claim it’s a matter of scriptural integrity. They say progressives have a weak doctrine of biblical authority. Progressives say no, it’s a matter of biblical interpretation, not biblical authority.

I say it goes back to the Civil War. It’s a matter of Confederate culture versus Union culture. Morality and questions of biblical authority or interpretation are secondary. They’re just fancy window dressing. The real issue is that in the Confederacy, you just don’t do unseemly things like that. (Or if you do, you sure don’t talk about it.)

The schism represents a win for the Institute for Religion and Democracy. It calls itself a conservative group fighting for scriptural integrity. I consider it a right-wing hate group working to destroy all semblance of faithful Christianity in America.

IRD operatives will be hanging around the UMC trying to break it apart even more. These folks need to be outed and encouraged to spread their evil virus elsewhere.

If you want more even-handed commentary on these issues, I suggest you check out the blog of David Livingston, pastor of Old Mission UMC in Fairway. He’s done an especially good job of reviewing the proposed Book of Discipline of the GMC. Read him at

I will not mourn the loss of the schism’s leaders. I will mourn the spiritual well-being of the many good people they have lied to and manipulated, and the authentic witness of Christ that has been diminished by this vile episode in church history.