A wide spot in my imagination.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Black Lives (Still) Matter

“Black Lives Matter to God and to Us.” That’s a banner on the wall of the church I serve.

Yesterday a neighbor of the church called to talk to me about parking concerns. In the course of our wide-ranging conversation, this neighbor said to me that the banner should come down because its purpose is over and it encourages people to kill police officers.

I admit: I’ve wondered how long the banner should stay up. Does it (or any banner) lose its effectiveness after a period of time? Is there a moment when this particular slogan is no longer relevant? I also admit: I am a well-educated, white, middle-aged, middle-class, Christian male who grew up in the American South—with all of the privileges and blind spots that come with that background.

Here are some facts:
  • 1905. A group of 300 white men see the racist play, The Clansmen, then storm a jail and lynch an African-American inmate awaiting trial.
  • 1912. White people with guns, dynamite, and bottles of kerosene chase 1,098 African-Americans out of Forysth County, GA, and take over their land and homes.
  • 1920s. Restaurants had signs that said, “No Dogs, No Negroes, No Mexicans.”
  • 1939. The DAR refuses to allow Marian Anderson to sing at Constitution Hall because she is black.
  • 1944. The “race-neutral” G.I. Bill gives stipends and low-interest loans for returning soldiers to go to college; except that many African-Americans are not allowed to attend an overwhelming number of colleges.
  • 1953. Black baseball player Frank Robinson is not allowed inside a movie theatre in Ogden, Utah.
  • 1960s. The Moses Cemetery in Bethesda, Maryland—which was the burial site for dozens of African-American children, women, and men—is paved over for a parking lot.
  • 1973. A white committee chairman in the U.S. House of Representatives makes a black Congressman and a white Congresswoman share a chair in a meeting, saying that “a black man and woman are worth only half of one regular member.”
  • 1983. A medical school yearbook includes a picture of white people dressed in black face and a Klan hat. (In 2019, we learned that this was the yearbook page of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.) Klan garb is what white men wore as they raped, maimed, killed black people. Black face is an old form of "entertainment" used to mocking, dehumanize, and belittle black people.
  • 1990s. White high school football fans in Pennsylvania shout, “Good luck in the playoffs, n*****,” to black players on the opposing team.
  • 2007. Intel publishes a print ad of six black men bowing down to a white man.
  • 2011. Countrywide Mortgage admits to charging higher fees and interest rates to black borrowers.
  • 2012. Black people account for 31 percent of police killing victims in the United Sates, even though they make up just 13 percent of the US population. 
  • 2014. Academic researchers use two “white-sounding” names (Jake Mueller and Greg Walsh) and two “African-American-sounding” names (DeShawn Jackson and Tyrone Washington) to email public service providers. The emails from “DeShawn” and “Tyrone” get fewer and slower responses from government entities—including sheriff’s offices and even libraries.
  • 2014. The owner of a professional basketball team tells his girlfriend, “Don’t bring black people to my games.”
  • 2015. Professional wrestler Hulk Hogan is fired for referring to himself as a “racist” and using the “n” word in a conversation about his daughter sleeping with a black person.
  • 2016. Flyers in North Carolina contain a picture of an black man and promise to beat “black apes.”
  • 2017. A white man in a Chicago Starbucks is filmed calling a black man a slave.
  • 2018. A white woman tells me that a banner that says, “Black Lives Matter to God and to Us,” should come down because it serves no purpose.

I wish the woman who called me was right. She is not. History and the present say that black lives do not matter in the way that white lives matter. 

Some thoughts:
  • Saying “Black Lives Matter” does not mean that white lives don’t matter; it means that black lives are at greater risk.
  • Saying “Black Lives Matter” does not mean people should kill police officers. Are all police officers racist? Of course not. Are some? Sure. The system is stacked.
  • The banner on our church is a fact: God loves black people. The banner is also an aspiration, a reminder, and promise: We (the members of our church) hope for equality and justice; we remember those days are not here; we must work hard.
  • The Christian Church is complicit in racist structures.
  • White liberals can be racist.
  • Can’t black people be racist? Sure. That’s why it may be more helpful to think about the harm done by white privilege or white supremacy rather than racism.
  • Saying “white privilege” doesn’t mean that some white people don’t have very tough lives; it means that their skin color is not an added difficulty.
  • As the inheritor of white privilege, I have racist tendencies that frighten and worry me—many of which I’m not even aware of, I’m sure.
  • Aren’t there other racial tensions (antipathy toward Native Americans, for instance)? Of course. And they should be addressed, but should not be used to avoid white-black relationships.
  • Aren’t things better? Yes. No. Maybe. Slavery is outlawed. Jim Crow is abolished. Other forms of racism and white supremacy still exist and still harm black lives.
  • Aren't the events on the timeline above isolated incidents. Each is unique sure, and together they are like individual drops of water that create a deadly flood.
  • Racism, white privilege, and white supremacy harm black people (the oppressed). Those forms of injustice also harm the souls of white people—being an oppressor is soul-sucking, life-denying, energy-draining work.

“Black Lives Matter to God and to Us.” The world still needs that reminder. It’s not yet time to take the banner down.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Mourners or Midwives: 9 Reasons People Don't Go to Church

I got a text this morning telling me that the seminary I attended is closing its doors.

That’s not surprising. The school was started almost as an experiment. It was founded by a bunch of liberal Baptists (a rare species, that) in the South as a place dedicated to inclusive, free thinking. Most of the initial cohort of faculty members had been fired by other seminaries for being too liberal. The seminary rented an old house that was converted into classroom space.

And the story is that at the first chapel service, the communion officiant meant to say, “Take the cup and pass it to the person next to you,” but instead inverted some vowels and said, “Take the cup and piss at to the person next to you.”

Hardly a stable beginning.

But still, my diploma (which is in a box somewhere) looks so official, so lasting. We kind of think that institutions of higher education are permanent.

But they’re not. Institutions of all kinds are changing. Especially religious-related institutions.

Congregations all across the country are closing their doors. The mammoth Crystal Cathedral shut its doors in 2013. In 2016, three Baptist churches in Marshall, Texas, merged together because they were no longer viable apart. More than 1000 Roman Catholic parishes across the country have closed since 1995. In 2012, Temple Sinai in Sumter, South Carolina closed. It was founded in 1815; the building is now a museum.

Religious life in America is changing. Fewer people take part in religious services. The people who do take part, show up less frequently. People are giving less and volunteering to be active less. In 2012, 19% of Americans said they were spiritual but not religious. In 2017 that number had increased to 27%.

There are many reasons for those changes. Here are nine:

1.     Social expectation and pressures have lightened. People used to go to church because they felt guilty if they didn’t. Guilt is out of fashion.
2.     Church is no longer the best (or only) show in town. Sport events take place on Sundays. Stores are open on Sundays. That hasn’t always been the case.
3.     Increased mobility. People travel more. Affluence lets us gas up our cars and take our kid's travel soccer team to another state or head to the beach for the weekend.
4.     Weekend work. More businesses are open on Sunday than 30 years ago. And working remotely means that a Sabbath can be spent responding to email rather then resting or praying.
5.     Globalism. With the click of a mouse, a person raised a Baptist in East Texas can “become” Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim. Plus, a good TED Talk online can be far more meaningful than a boring sermon in person.
6.   People need a day to do nothing. Dual-income, stressed-out, over-scheduled families need some time to sleep late, do the laundry, pay the bills, and go eat at Denny’s.
7.     Individualism. “Do what you want, think what you want, believe what you want.” Those are things we say to each other. It’s not surprise, then, when someone says, “Okay, I’ll stay home and be a ‘Lone Ranger Christian.’”
8.     Burn out with no spiritual growth. Religious groups have worked people hard in the past and people experienced little benefit.
9.     Scandal and Politics. Sexual abuse scandals, televangelist scandals, and the close identity of religion with political parties are turn offs to many people.

I probably stole these ideas from other writers over the years. (Sorry about that.) And I’ve observed them in my own work as the minister of liberal churches. These ideas--and a host of other factors--helped my experimental little seminary go out of business. Change happens. Institutions shut down. Churches close. Roads twist. Life evolves. 

Let me steal another idea. Theologian and writer Diana Butler Bass has written about changing religious life. Bass says (in her book, Grounded, I think) that religious people have a choice—They (we?) can be inconsolable mourners at the graveside of dead religious institutions. Or, they (we?) can be expectant midwives at the places where new things are being born.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Harvey Weinstein Is Not Responsible For All This

Harvey Weinstein is not responsible for all this.

Let me be clear. I don’t know Weinstein. But I’m comfortable saying he’s a gross, immature, emotionally stunted, insecure, manipulative, bullying rapist. He needs to go to jail.

But he is not responsible for all this.

By “all this,” I mean, the phrase, “Me too,” that I’m seeing all over social media. The suggestion is for women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted to write, “Me too,” on their social media feeds as a way to give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem of sexual assault and harassment.

And women have posted that. In tremendous numbers. Black women, white women, Native women. Straight women, lesbian women, transgender women. Women in Texas and Illinois and California and New York and Maryland. Millions of women.

Harvey Weinstein seems to have assaulted or harassed dozens of women. Maybe more. He’s disgusting and pathological. He’s responsible for his actions.

But Harvey Weinstein did not assault millions of women by himself. Donald Trump did it too. (He said so himself.) And Bill Clinton did too. (If you believe the women who he assaulted; and I do.) And Bill Cosby did as well. It’s not just famous men who have assaulted women. It’s strangers in movie theaters. Co-workers on business trips. Neuroscience professors. And preachers. Millions of men did this. Do this.

I know the story of a woman who went to her pastor for counseling. During their conversations he hugged her and put his tongue on her ear. When confronted, he said he knew how to console women. His church board quietly let him retire. (That church board is responsible for this too.)

Harvey Weinstein's name in the news now. He’s an ass of a man. But he’s just one man doing wrong. Misogyny, sexism, and violence toward women is a larger cultural failing. Weinstein has been fired. His name has been stripped from films he produced. The Academy of Motion Pictures deleted his name from membership. Maybe he’ll go to jail. But that won’t solve the problem.

The problem is that women are treated as second class humans. Women are paid less than men for the same work. Women are talked over by men. (I’ve been watching that in a group I’m leading these and it’s driving me crazy.) Women are underrepresented in elected offices. (Women make up 21% of the U.S. Senate for example, while they are 51% of the population.)

As hard as it is to imagine, both of my grandmothers were born into a world that didn’t allow women to vote. That has changed, but attitudes of discrimination remain. Until 1981, a male spouse could take out a second mortgage on a home that he owned jointly with a female spouse without telling her.

Harvey Weinstein’s twisted thinking that he could force women to have sex with him? Donald Trump saying he “doesn’t even wait” to start kissing women and that he grabs ‘em by the genitals? Those are new verses in old, old, very long, nasty song of men thinking of themselves as superior. It’s been embedded in our laws and in the way we relate to each other.

It’s got to change. It will, I hope. But it will take more than Harvey Weinstein’s downfall.

For now, from me, four things.

First, I apologize. I’m sorry (and appalled) that women have to put up with this.

Second, I’m also spending some time wondering about the ways in which I have been complicit in such acts and behavior. In what ways have I ignored or dismissed harassment and discrimination?

Third, I’m glad to be part of a progressive faith tradition (the United Church of Christ) and a local congregation (Westmoreland UCC in Bethesda, MD) who offer to children and teenagers a broad-minded, body-positive, sex education curriculum grounded in facts and respect (Our Whole Lives).

Fourth, women, I’m listening. I hear your stories. I believe you.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Outrunning Ourselves: Requiesce in Pace

A friend of mine died today.

Some years ago as she was moving to a smaller home, my friend gave me several books. They were written by a person we mutually admired, Carlyle Marney.

Dr. Marney was a pastor and a Southerner and a Baptist and a liberal. He drank and smoke and admired the classicists and put up with little bullshit. He believed in ecumenism and preached in favor of integration long before Brown v Board of Education. He preached like a prophet and a poet and a scholar, and his liturgical druthers leaned high church.

When I got word of my friend's death, I took several of Dr. Marney's books off the shelves and flipped through them, pausing over this phrase or that, and thinking.

In the middle of my mulling, I came across these words...

“We are outrunning life….

For example, we have outrun a really concerned and informed citizenry….

We have outrun a vital valid religious faith; we simply sandwich in our religious lives between runnings here and yon….
We have outrun the world of literature and music and drama and art. We saturate ourselves with quick doses; we buy little condensations of important new writing in order that in our bridge clubs and other places we can say with that animated expression peculiar to literary discussions: “Oh yes, I read it last week.” We didn’t read it last week; we read somebody’s hashed up version of it last week.

I am saying we have outrun the fundamental verities of our culture.
We have outrun true education and—tragedy of tragedies—we have outrun the highest and deepest of personal relations. A person’s own family goes by so fast that they become a blur…

We have outrun personalized Christian service by canning up what we do for our neighbors under the name of great worth-while projects. We have lost the tremendous spiritual impetus of one person doing for the person who is nearest to them.

And perhaps most tragic of all, we have outrun the meaning of work and what work ought to be and mean in a person’s life. The work that is made by integrity, character, and honest to goodness stick-to-it-iveness—the creativeness that ought to come out of a person’s personality…. 
What are we outrunning? Life itself. Everything important.
I can’t tell you how to stop. I am not sure I can find out how I can stop; but I am becoming more and more concerned with what I am going to miss if I don’t learn how to quit outrunning myself.” *

Dear God, I thought... (and I meant that phrase both in the sense of sacred prayer and of profane curse...) Dear God, I thought, he wrote that in 1960. (It was actually probably earlier; that's just when the book was published.) 

In 1960, Dr. Marney thought we were outrunning ourselves. Sweet Lord, what would he say about us now?

Requiesce in pace. Rest in peace, I say to my newly deceased friend who gave me her Marney books. But really I say it to us all, Rest in peace. Requiesce. Rest.

* Quotation is from "Outrunning Ourselves," found in Beggars in Velvet, published by Abingdon Press, 1960. I have altered the language in paragraph's 6 and 8 for gender inclusivity, changing "man" to "person." I like to think that Marney would approve of my minor edits.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Who Speaks for God? Some Thoughts on Donald Trump, North Korea, and Preachers

On Wednesday, Donald Trump threatened North Korea saying, 
"North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen."
Before that day was over, a megachurch preacher had chimed in to say that, 
"God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.”
The preacher is Robert Jeffress. He's the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, which has 12,000 members. Jeffress has a trail of controversial statements. He referred to gay persons as "filthy." He said that Mormonism is a cult. And he compared Donald Trump's plan for a wall between the U.S. and Mexico to the prophet Nehemiah's city wall around Jerusalem.

I have friends who go to the First Baptist Church of Dallas. They like it. I have a colleague who has done TV appearances with Jeffress. I've heard he's amiable. He once appeared on "Let's Make a Deal" dressed as a banana. So there's that.

In explaining Trump's divine okay to take out Kim Jong Un, Jeffress referred to a chapter in the Book of Romans. (For those of you who don't know much about the Bible, Romans is a letter written in the first century CE by the Christian missionary Paul to an early group of Christian in Rome.) 

In Chapter 13 of that letter, Paul wrote a paragraph saying that Christians should "be subject to the governing authorities." He indicated that governments are "instituted by God." He also said that rulers can "execute wrath on the wrongdoer." From those words, Jeffress infers that Trump can take out North Korea's leader.  Jeffress also said "the government" can use "assassination, capital punishment or evil punishment to quell the actions of evildoers."

Jeffress also pointed out that while Chapter 12 of Romans--which encourages pacifism by saying, "Do not repay evil for evil"--was only for Christians, Chapter 13 was for governments. (Though the text itself never says that.)

There are so many problems and questions with this mean-spirited, war-mongering language.

First, if governments or authorities are instituted by God, isn't North Korea's government just as God-approved as the U.S. government? After all, Paul was talking about the Roman Empire which was brutal, so God doesn't come across as very picky. 

Second, how much credence do we give to Paul's writing? In other words attributed to Paul he says women shouldn't braid their hair or wear gold jewelry. Paul urges people not get married. In some places Paul seems to support slavery and in other places he seems opposed to it. Do we follow all of Paul's teachings without question? Does Jeffress? And should 21st century international policy be based on the writings of a 1st century tent-maker?

What about the Bible's contradictions? Okay, maybe Romans 13 can be interpreted the way that Jeffress says. But Romans 12 offers a different view. Jeffress wiggles out of that by saying that Chapter 12 is for the Christians and Chapter 13 is for the governments. But he's making that up. The text itself doesn't say that. That's just his view. And what about the Prophet Isaiah's words about not hurting or killing people? What about beating swords (an presumably nukes) into plowshares? What about the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, "Blessed are the peacemakers?"

Jeffress has found a way to excuse those by saying they only apply to limited groups while the bits he likes apply to the United States president. But again, those are his views. And only his views. Sure, he has a congregation of 12,000. And he has the ear of a newspaper reporter. But that doesn't make him right.

It's tempting for me, as a Christian and as a pastor, to say, "Robert Jeffress is a dunder-headed dolt who likes power and violence and doesn't understand the ways of Jesus." And maybe that's correct. But if I say that, then I fall into his trap. While its tempting to speak with certainty for God, I don't know that that's helpful. Or possible.

Here's what I think: Understanding the Bible is very hard work. Being a Christian is very hard work. Being a human is hard work.

The Bible is collection of dozens of books written by dozens of people over centuries. It not a uniform theological or political how-to manual. 

There are something like 2 Billion Christians in the world. With differing views on liturgy, the purpose of baptism, the meaning of communion, the nature of Jesus, and more. Not to mention differing views on Paul's writing. 

There are 7 Billion humans on the planet. We vary on food preferences, eye color, clothing styles, and languages. And politics.

We've got a lot of work to do to figure out how to sort out these differences and how to get along.

So how about this in the meantime? Let's not kill each other. Lets not threaten anybody with fire and fury. Let's not claim that God allows us to "take out" anyone. Let's struggles with all of these differences of religion and politics. And as we struggle, let's live in peace. How about that?

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

An Open Letter to My Methodist Friends

On Friday, April 28, a United Methodist church court announced that a married lesbian bishop is not a suitable church leader. That same court also ruled that two
Methodist regions had to ask questions to screen out potential LGBT clergy persons.

On Sunday, April 30, at the church I serve, our closing hymn was, “In the Midst of New Dimensions.” That hymn was written in 1985 by a United Methodist minister who was then doing AIDS work, at a time when AIDS was a pandemic, especially among the gay community.  The hymn was written for a diversity conference. It is poetic and rousing.

Our Music Director picked the hymn several days earlier, not knowing what a Methodist court might say. And I doubt many people in our non-Methodist church paid much attention to the Methodist ruling. But as we sang that hymn, and as I thought about the hymn's history, I also looked out over our congregation as they sang. I saw lesbians, gay men, bisexual people, and at least one transgender person. I was (and am) grateful for the gifts they bring to our church and to the world.

Many of my Methodist friends are worried: Will their denomination splinter? Will people leave the church? Is there room to stay and work for justice? Maybe open-minded Episcopalians will welcome like-minded Methodists into their fold?

I don't know what the United Methodist Church will do. As a non-Methodist it's probably not my place to offer opinions. I can say that the United Church of Christ has been striving for full justice and inclusion for LGBTQ persons since the early 1970s. Our denominational tapestry is vibrant and inclusive. I am grateful for that. My life and my work as a pastor is enriched by being part of our open and affirming church family. I believe that full inclusion of all God’s children is vital work for our church, our nation, and the world.

Here's what I can say to my Methodist friends…

“In the Midst of New Dimensions" is your hymn. Sing it! Sing loudly! Sing off-key if needed. Sing it with hope for justice. Sing it in protest. Sing it while holding hands with as many people as you can. If someone wants to tell you how LGBT are unfit for anything, stick you finger in your ears and start to sing. Sing all five verses. Repeat them if needed.

Here are the words: 

In the midst of new dimensions, in the face of changing ways. Who will lead the pilgrim peoples wandering in their separate ways?
[Refrain] God of rainbow, fiery pillar, leading where the eagles soar, We your people, ours the journey now and ever, now and ever, now and ever more.
Through the flood of starving people, warring factions and despair, Who will lift the olive branches? Who will light the flame of care?
As we stand a world divided by our own self seeking schemes, Grant that we, your global village might envision wider dreams.
We are man and we are woman, all persuasions, old and young, Each a gift in your creation, each a love song to be sung.
Should the threats of dire predictions cause us to withdraw in pain, May your blazing phoenix spirit, resurrect the church again. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

When the Noise of an Election is Stilled

With apologies (actually, with gratitude) to Howard Thurman and to the framers of the Constitution, here is a bit of post-Election Day verse:

When the speeches of the campaign are over,
When TV ads return to hawking Viagra and dog food,
When the winners begin measuring the drapes for their new offices,
When the losers cry a bit and begin plotting for next time,
When the election signs blow off into the trees of vacant lots,
The work of democracy begins:
To form a more perfect union,
To establish justice,
To insure domestic tranquility,
To provide for the common defense,
To promote the general welfare,
To secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

In case you don't recognize the inspirations for this poem, the first six lines are inspired by Howard Thurman's poem, "When the Song of the Angels is Stilled," which printed below.   The last six lines are lifted directly from the Preamble to the United States Constitution.


"When the Song of the Angels Is Stilled"
by Howard Thurman

When the song of the angels is stilled,When the star in the sky is gone,When the kings and the princes are home,When the shepherds are back with their flocks,The work of Christmas begins:To find the lost,To heal the broken,To feed the hungry,To release the prisoner,To rebuild the nations,To bring peace among people,To make music in the heart.