I am not Trayvon Martin and probably neither are you.

The sympathy (not empathy) and outrage (not action) of many persons of my class and race in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin and acquittal of George Zimmerman is somewhat irksome to me. And it provides me with an opportunity to be self-righteous in feeling but perhaps helpful in writing. One young black man is killed by one non-black young man who is then not found guilty of a crime and a wailing and wringing of hands abounds in the media and social network world.

Here’s another reality. Young black men are killed by guns held by other young black men far, far too often in a nation that claims to be just and among people of faiths who claim to be compassionate. This reality happens invisibly or nearly so. Certainly, it pales to near-invisibility in the bright light of responses to the Martin-Zimmerman incident.

Where is the outrage over the daily deaths and systematic injustice visited upon family after family of color and poverty? Where is the outrage over the murder of young men and women who threatened no one, whose deaths engendered no frustration over “stand you ground” laws? Where is the lament over the number of young black men who spend time incarcerated by a system that disfavors persons of color and poverty in a nation that has the highest rate of incarceration of its citizen than anywhere else in the world!

Let us be sad at the death of Trayvon but let some of us be rigorous in judgment of ourselves, our passivity and participation. The system that led to his death was not the Florida criminal justice system and “SYG” laws. That’s where it ended. This death, like far too many before it and far to many that will follow, was the product of the systemic racism of America that makes it hard for families of poverty and color to hold together, that manifests itself in harmful and lethal violence that has become the norm, that pushes children to arm themselves against one another.

This is not my life. The lives of 17 year-old urban black men like Trayvon Martin are so far from my life to post anything even hinting of identification is…whatever is beyond hypocrisy. My life, my self, is much closer to the racist fear of George Zimmerman. Let those who truly suffer this system’s sin hold signs that say “We are all Trayvon!”, but let us who are far and fearfully removed from their lives whisper to ourselves, “We are all George Zimmerman.”

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A Christ-like Nation Rather Than a Christian One (1)

The founders of our nation varied in doctrine but they shared passionately in the religiopolitical commitment that the new nation should be a land of religious tolerance.  From Washington’s condemnation of “Pope Night” (albeit for practical purposes2) in 1775 to the ratification of the First Amendment to the Constitution in 1791 and the of Treaty of Tripoli (with its famous paragraph in the English translation3) the leaders of the nation’s early life sought to establish a clearly defined tolerance with regard to persons of various faiths and of no faith.

In the foolish battle over which version of Christianity held sway over the hearts and minds of those who fought for the establishment of a new nation and who wrote its defining documents we have lost sight of their common commitment not to a Christian nation (They would abhor such a concept.)  but to a “Christ-like” politic.

I say “Christ-like” rather than “Christian” because Jesus Christ’s approach to those with whom he differed was one of tolerance, acceptance even embrace, even, especially when it was contrary to the dominant culture.  AndHis call was not to political change but to a spiritual transformation, a change of heart.  As those who follow Christ in loving “the other” faithful Christians know how difficult this can be.  It is truly a struggle,4   but this is exactly the task to which we American Christians are called, to change our hearts.

To do so not only to be Jesus disciples in faith but that we might also be the citizens Jesus would have us be, that is, tolerant, accepting, embracing.  Our role as citizens ought to reflect our faith as Christians.  This does not mean an adherence to one doctrine or another, one set of tenets instead of another.  It means looking at the importance we place on those characteristics we use to judge one another and reducing their importance until our common citizenship can be seen clearly.  It means discerning and disempowering our fear and judgment of those who are different in irrelevant ways.

Ironically enough, it is our fellow Islamic citizens, the very persons so many of us seem to be fearing in the present, who have the perfect concept for this struggle—jihad.  This is not a simple concept.  Among its understandings is the one most commonly held by non-Muslims that of “holy war.”  But though this may be its most common understanding, it is not its primary understanding.  Its primary understanding is the internal struggle to be faithful.  That is exactly what American Christians are called to—to struggle with the fears and prejudices within that keep us from being faithful in our citizenship.  It not a “battle for the heart of America”; it is a battle of our hearts as Americans.

We are not called to create a Christian nation or to recreate it from some misconceived past.  We are called to create a Christ-like nation, a nation as embracing, as accepting, as offering of hospitality as was Jesus of Nazareth.  That will not spring from arguments won from one end of the political spectrum or the other.  It will not spring from correct doctrine or political correctness.  It will not be born in code or commandment.  It will spring forth from hearts transformed.  It will spring from a  victorious battle/struggle/jihad carried on within ourselves.

It will manifest itself in relationships that are perhaps discomforting, perhaps difficult, but faithful to the example of Christ and the vision of our founders.  It will be expressed in policies, codified in laws that establish a political hospitality sorely needed within our boarders and beyond.

————————-   Notes   ————————–

1In recent years conservative Christians have taken the public stage calling for a return to the faith of “our founding Fathers.”   Almost without exception the Christianity they discover is a reflection of their own, finding in the volumes of spoken and written words those paragraphs, sentences or phrases that resonate with their own beliefs.  The ultimate intent seems to a divine sanctioning of their political philosophy.

And inevitably, the battle for right understanding of these authorities has been enjoined from the other end of the spectrum with liberal Christians pointing to the same forbearers but lifting up those paragraphs, sentences or phrases that resonate with their beliefs.  Though I side with the latter group, neither of them addresses what I see as the most pressing concern for American Christians.

2“As the Commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form’d for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope—He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting, and have really obtain’d, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause. The defence of the general Liberty of America:
“At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.”

3As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims],—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Muslim] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

4 The Apostle Paul probably said it best for Christians in his letter to the Romans 7:15 “15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

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EEL 7 Christian Education: The Springboard of the Dive of Faith (or a millstone about the neck)

I want to begin with where I began as a Christian learner and then move to where I am now and then end with a proposal for this fall.
Margret Mitchell, Dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School in speaking of models of learning in the study of religion compares two venues of production—the factory and the workshop. I won’t say more about her remarks except to say that she dismisses the idea of religious education having as its goal to produce an assembly line product. And she elevates the idea of religious education as providing a broad set of skills for examining the subject.
The model of Christian education with which I grew up was very much the “factory assembly line” approach. This was especially true during my confirmation instruction—three years of three hours a week, Saturday mornings. The central focus of this enterprise was learning/memorizing the questions and answers of the Heidelberg Catechism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heidelberg_Catechism). This 16th century document consisting of 129 questions and answers was considered to be a summation of Lutheran and Reformed orthodoxy, right doctrine, the Truth. There was no mention by our pastor of any other catechism or any context for our beliefs. Indeed, I remember more than a few disparaging remarks about Christians of other denominations, particularly Roman Catholics. Fortunately, my best friend was Catholic so such religious bigotry found little purchase on my heart/mind.
Here were the questions to be asked and the answers to be given. And after learning these and being examined before the congregation, one was then qualified, perhaps even worthy, of becoming part of the congregation and of receiving Communion as such. I cannot tell you, DR, how contrary to the teachings and life of Jesus I find this to be. For a number of reasons.
First is it the reduction of faith—which is a relationship of fidelity and affection between the believer and the Divine—to the holding of a limited number of tenets, beliefs.
Second is the error to assume that right belief (in the sense of intellectual tenets) somehow makes one worthy of being part of the church, the community of followers of Jesus, the One who welcomed sinners, children, outcasts, religious zealots, all. Jesus reached out, invited others to community; my home church and its pastor erected a barrier. And a meaningless one at that. This reduction of the relationship of faith to an intellectual accomplishment of sorts creates a stumbling block for those of limited intelligence but who may well be “great of heart.” Who could possibly think this is in accord with Christ?
Third, this exercise tends to truncate the growth of understanding of Christianity, its Scripture, its history, its variety, etc. Though not essential, an increase in knowledge often leads to an increase in tolerance, understanding, acceptance—Christ-like attributes—in addition the necessary virtue of humility, born of an understanding that one does not have THE truth and that others who hold different beliefs/opinions are not only in error but not in a right relationship with God. Ignorance is a fertile ground for bigotry.
Fourth, memorization and regurgitation ill-prepares one to live in a religiously pluralistic society unless one is willing to wear intellectual blinders.
So what form should Christian education take?
I believe it should prepare the Christian to be a lifelong learner, not just a lifelong believer. It’s first purpose is to inform.
It should give to the Christian an understanding of his/her context—the context of his/her own life, the context of the history of Christianity, the context of world religions and world history, the context of the present cultural/social milieu. In other words, the person of faith as a learner needs to first understand where he/she is, the source of some of his/her assumptions, beliefs, myths, etc. And the intellectual influences operative in his/her life. This can be as simple as a brief overview of Church history, a survey of world religions, a look at contemporary Christianity and an examination of one’s own “faith journey.”
These contexts also provide opportunities for conveying some of the basic information about Christianity, in general and in particulars regarding denominations and the local church.
It should give the Christian the tools for continued learning. First and foremost in this regard is helping the Christian understand that knowledge is not a threat to belief.1 It has been my experience—lo, these many years—that the more I know about some aspect of my faith, the more I appreciate it, admire it and receive from it. It should provide the tools for further study—information about commentaries, dictionaries, video and internet resources, etc.
And most importantly, it should provide for the Christian an encouragement, an enthusiasm for learning at whatever level and to whatever degree he/she chooses.
Having said all of this, Christian education needs to be put in perspective with regard to Christian practice. As I wrote in my opening paragraphs, defining Christianity primarily as an enterprise of the mind reduces it, limits it, to less—I believe far less-than either Jesus or Jesus’ Jewish ancestors ever understood a life of faith to be.

That one’s practice is enhanced, enabled and encouraged by learning is nearly universal in disciplines. Musical theory helps performance; knowing the rules of the game helps playing; understanding the mechanics helps operate the machine, etc. But learning is not necessary for practice.
Learning also enhances relationships—which is finally what Christianity is. Knowing something about human development, psychology, emotional dynamics, etc. helps us in relationships with everyone from family to stranger. Knowing how children develop helps us as parents. Knowing the issues for aging adults helps us as caretakers of parents. I’d even toss in the necessary of knowledge for being a pet owner or raiser of livestock.
It’s these two ends—the enhancement of practice and relationship (with God and neighbor) that Christian education serve as a means not as an end in itself. Every aspect of teaching in the church should be considered and evaluated in light of these two closely intertwined concerns—one penultimate and one ultimate. In other words, Does this learning lead to greater faithfulness in the Christian life of love of God and neighbor. If it does not do so clearly and directly, then its implementation and/or continuance really needs to be questioned.

1 The anti-intellectualism that pervades much of Christianity, especially toward the conservative end of the spectrum is one of the tragic legacies of early 20th century Fundamentalism and the (unnecessary) conflict between Creationism based on a literal reading of Scripture and the data-based theories of Science.

 

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In Response to the Aurora, CO shootings

This past week the news and many our conversations and prayers have been concerned with what can only be described as a massacre occurring in Aurora, Colorado. As rational beings whose anxiety is reduced when threats are understood, as religious beings who seek to trust in a God who protects, we as Why? How did this evil come into our world? Is God present? Is there a similar threat to me and mine? Should laws be changed? Should my behavior be changed?
Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, eminent mathematician, scientist and theologian has responded to the question of theodicy that rises at times like this. That is, If God is good, why is there evil in the world? Rev. Polkinghorne addresses the question by discussing the relationship between evolution and cancer.
He asserts that the mechanism, given from the hand of the Creator, which has made possible the evolution of life from single cell to humanity is that of cell mutation. And it has been this inherent potential of cells to (seemingly) randomly introduce changes from one generation into the next which has brought about the great diversity of live, including humanity.
But this same potentiality of spontaneous mutation is also the source of cancer, with all of its threat, loss and pain. That which has brought us into being as a species is also that which threatens our being and well-being as individuals.
I think Rev. Dr. Polkinghorne’s wisdom applies the event in Colorado as well. Not that James Holmes’ actions stemmed from cancer, but that their source of mental malfunction, of moral failing was his very human brain, an organ more complex than stars and planets, more plastic than the clouds, more mysterious than quantum physics. An organ capable not only of such tragic malfunction but also of creative genius, of seeing beyond assumptions, of perceiving reality in completely new ways, even of understanding space and time as curved and flexible. In other words, we do not get minds of the “Einstein’s” without also getting those of the “Holmes’” as well. Life-saving genius and life-robbing madness are the twin potentials of the human mind. Neither is going away.
So what are we to do? Two things—one public, one personal. Continue to create systems—laws, schools, community programs, agencies, etc. that encourage the development of our “better selves.” Using our common resources to develop strong senses of identity and altruism, of the advantages of community, cooperation and compromise. Toning down—for we’ll never delete it—our culture’s overly-strong sense of individualism, competition and tribalism.
On a personal level, to recognize that the same potentials of blessing and curse, of genius and insanity, to various degrees reside within us as well, and to look to our own behavior. Yes, of course, very, very few of us will either develop a revolutionary understanding of reality for science as Einstein or will visit such evil and suffering on others as Holmes. But all of us are capable of both healing or hurtful words and deeds. All of us are capable of creating caring relationships with others—even “enemies—as wells as alienating others—even family and friends.
The question will remain—Why?
Let three more rest with us as well:
Who have we become as a people?
What sort of person am I today?
Who will I and we choose to be?

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EEL 6 Preaching as Public Love

First some personal notes. It’s probably obvious to anyone who has seen me preach that I (usually) enjoy the task. I have almost always enjoyed being in front of people. My social niche as an identity-forming adolescent was class clown. So I have long enjoyed ”making” people laugh and the position of preacher and other occasions of having a public voice give me opportunity for this. I also enjoy teaching a lot, learning and then sharing what I have learned, and preaching avails me of this opportunity as well.

Beyond what I receive sort of selfishly from preaching is the deeper satisfaction of preaching as an act of compassion, of care. Preaching is fundamentally and necessarily an act of love. Its primary purpose is to facilitate the parishioner’s relationship with the Divine. There are secondary purposes—to teach and inform, to encourage and comfort, to chastise and awaken, and so on—but always with the ultimate purpose of escorting the listener into a more faithful relationship with God.
In addition, as part of corporate worship, preaching is part of the church’s important task of creating a community as parishioners together hear the same words—even if they don’t receive them with the same understanding and/or enthusiasm! In fact, a diversity of understanding and application is probably desirable (though not an excuse for ambiguity).
Preaching is one of the most well-received and encouraged aspects of ministry and thus one of the most potent for both harm and blessing. So it must be done with awareness:
of the authority that many parishioners invest in the Scripture from which the sermon itself derives much of its legitimacy;
of the authority that many parishioners invest in the office of ministry;
and that for many parishioners it is the central focus of weekly worship.
But beyond all of this, the preacher must carry into the pulpit an awareness of the personal respect and affection with which the he/she is regarded by many parishioners and the vulnerability that comes with it. This personal respect and affection is not universal nor a given with one’s call. It is developed over time on both parties part. It is created to some degree in preaching, but more profoundly it is developed through pastoral care. I cannot overemphasize the foundational role of pastoral care in preaching. It is developed through deeds of pastoral compassion both directly and indirectly. It takes time and love.
And by time, I don’t mean a few months. The preacher will be listened to attentively and even appreciatively. But it takes years to establish a deep and broad sense of trust. Some parishioners will take the preacher and her words to heart. They will bring to the sermon the good regard that they had for previous preachers. Some will bring pain and anger. Most will bring a willingness to hear.
But this is only half of the story. It also takes years before the preacher has that Sunday on which he stands in the pulpit and realizes that he has come to love his congregation. Again, it is not universal, automatic or given. But it is a wonderful surprise when it happens.

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EEL5 Pastor as Prophet (or not)

EEL5 Pastor as Prophet (or not)1

For as long as I can remember I have refrained from preaching on political and/or social issues. Oh, I’ve certainly preached on the wide inclusiveness of Christ’s invitation to Christian community and have written publicly on universal salvation. But I have never from the pulpit proclaimed the acceptability of homosexuality, the benefits of socialism, the role of human enterprise in global climate change, etc. The excuse/reason I have given is that I have political opinions I hadn’t been inspired to make any proclamations regarding more “secular” issues.
There is in this a mixture of truth and, for lack of a better phrase, fear-based fiction. Let’s do the latter first. I curb(ed) my tongue in this regard because I believe(d) that proclaiming, especially from the pulpit, would place a barrier, a strain, a hindrance to pastoral care. I still think this is true. Though I do not think it is justification for complete silence on these subjects. I also think that preaching is rarely the medium for this. While there is an advantage to having one’s opinions received with the level of trust and affection that is given to a sermon, I believe this advantage is unfair. A far better medium is the church newsletter or other mailing which puts both parties on a more equal footing but also has the advantage of the written word over the spoken one, i.e. the opportunity to more carefully consider and reconsider what is presented.
There is a prophetic function for the local pastor. That is, there are times and places in which the pastor is called to name and confront the error, neglect or harm (read “sin) of parishioners. To declare, in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, specific deeds that are contrary to the will of God, that there are consequences to continuing in this way and calling them to a different behavior. There is an understanding of this calling into question, possible confrontation, condemnation of behavior that is also pastoral. That is, there is something very caring to pressing someone away from behavior that is ultimately hurtful to themselves even if at the time it is discomforting to do so.
So the line between what is prophetic and what is pastoral is not clear and bright. In fact, for authentic and whole ministry to take place both should be present and practiced.
The difficulty for me lies in having a personality and personal history which ill-prepares me for prophetic ministry. I am more comfortable with the interpersonal intimacy of pastoral care. It may be the case that those less comfortable with such intimacy are more comfortable and more inclined to be prophetic.

1Rant alert: I have found the use of the term “prophetic” and the phrase “speaking truth to power” by individuals or representative bodies to describe actions that contained little or no risk as being a trivialization of the work of the Hebrew prophets. I am most familiar with this occurring within my own denomination of the Unite Church of Christ. Let me suggest a couple of examples. In 2005 at the 25th General Synod a resolution titled Equal Marriage Rights for All (http://www.ucc.org/assets/pdfs/2005-EQUAL-MARRIAGE-RIGHTS-FOR-ALL.pdf) was passed with a greater than 75% majority. This was of little/no risk for representatives hundreds, thousands of miles away from their home churches with no compunction to report the vote and armed with the caveat that actions of the GS are not binding on local congregations, etc. etc. Far, far less risky than those lay persons and clergy who have stood in the middle of their congregations and advocated for the acceptance of same-gender love/attraction risking the loss of job, friends, church, etc. And doing so not because they had strong feelings that it was the right thing to do in terms of morality or politics but because they were compelled to do so as persons of faith in Christ, in spite of the cost. That is being prophetic.
I’d add one more piece. Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity UCC in Chicago was often praised for being prophetic. But the particular reason was most often for his public condemnation of U.S. foreign and domestic policies, and especially his sermon of April 13, 2003. But this sort of political rhetoric was well-received, even applauded at Trinity UCC, Rev. Wright’s church. No, it has been Rev. Wright’s long-time and consistent inclusion of GLBT persons into the membership and ministry of his congregation that has probably brought Rev. Wright the strongest criticism, especially as he serves a community that has been slow to accept homosexuality. Being prophetic is never applauded and given headlines. Being prophetic gets you phone calls on Monday morning and visits from discomforted parishioners. That is being prophetic.

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EEL 4 The Cost that Pays (and keeps me here)

One of the aspects of this call is that it asks so much of those who practice it. To some degree the difficulty of what is asked is dependent upon the personality of the pastor. As I wrote earlier, there is much in my own make up that makes that “fits” this job, but even still there are aspects that are “satisfyingly demanding.” I will list them in no specific order as they change from time to time, except to say that the last is the most important.
Preaching. I’ll write more about preaching, but it is a challenge to not always talk the most central tenets of my/our faith each Sunday. Someone once said that preachers only have 3 sermons and they just keep changing the scriptures and illustrations. I think that’s close to the truth. But preaching from the lectionary readings helps. One of the more difficult aspects of preaching is being relevant to a congregation diverse in age, doctrine and education. Another is being “on” no matter what is going on in my life or what has gone on just before worship. I’m sure it is no surprise to anyone that some preachers preach when they just done feel much like preaching and sometimes when they themselves are no enthusiastic (even bored) by the text and sermon before them. To preach well and helpfully in spite of these can be trying and taxing but very satisfying. It is important for me to remember that what happens in preaching is not completely up to me. I once apologized the following week for what I thought was just a bad sermon. And one of my favorite parishioners said gently and somewhat chastened herself, “I thought it was a good sermon.” It’s not up to me alone.
Listening. I have no trouble listening to persons who are hurting. I have trouble listening to people who are enjoying self-pity, who are dissing fellow parishioners, who are angry at me, who are complaining about something I consider meaningless, etc. What I have learned and relearned and relearned is that quite often the most difficult people to hear are those most needing to be heard. What is difficult yet satisfying is staying present until the real person emerges beyond the defense. Sometimes this has taken a few minutes, sometimes years. I don’t know always know what I’m hearing.
Expressing anger. So much of being a pastor is maintaining a relationship in which care and compassion can be received. Because I value that so much I tend to swallow my anger rather than risk straining or severing that tie. The parallel to this, of course, is avoiding others’ anger to the point of being inauthentic. Blech. Neither of these positions is easy. But when I have (too rarely) had courage to share my anger it has been surprisingly well received.
Loving the unloveable. Some years ago when my son was in kindergarten I learned from his teacher that children act out where they feel safest. I think to some degree this is true for parishioners. It may also be true that persons who are neurotic (well, who isn’t, really?) are attracted to religion. In any event, some persons, sometimes are difficult, even dangerous, in the midst of a congregation. Some persons are just not my “type” (whatever that is). Some people are mean. Some of these characteristics are permanent and some a passing phase of life or the day.
These are exactly the people that draw me nearer to the Divine. They are the people that ask/demand that I be more patient, more attentive, more understanding, more accepting than I would choose to be. These are exactly the person that “stretch my heart.” It has taken me years to understand that following Jesus means costly compassion. And that through that portal of decision/action lies the Kingdom and a peace the world cannot give.
I cannot over emphasize this. This is the central practice of the Christian faith. Period. Because pastoral ministry is a calling to love a congregation of diverse personalities, temperaments, needs, etc. etc., it offers a unique setting for the practice of Christianity. I think lay persons often see the pastor as more of a “Christian” because she/he spends time in prayer, leading worship etc. No, it is loving the parishioners themselves that draws the pastor closer to God and neighbor.
It is this last demand of ministry, this last way of giving, that has bound me ever closer to this vocation.

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