Harvesting Surprise

Harvesting Surprise

Each autumn, as harvest-time nears, I re-live a surprise. Now, in early walks on crisp, chilled October mornings, I am reminded anew. I look to see if Jack Frost has spray-painted fresh abstract art on meadows. Recollections of other autumns come: hayrides, jack-o-lanterns, golden, maroon and salmon colored maple leaves gathered and pressed in the pages of an old encyclopedia. Or, I recall watching children “bob for apples” in an old wash tub or remember sweet, steaming cider served by a fireplace.

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As I gaze to discover if hoarfrost has tinted a field in a crystalline hue, a rime-like shadow reaches across my consciousness. Perhaps the year was 2011; or thereabouts. A lovely autumn day and I am traveling across the nation’s farm-belt from of a distant meeting to my home, several hundred miles away. It promises to be a leisurely drive.

There being no urgency, I think of long-time friends. They work a large family farm. I will pass nearby. Hospitable folks, these. We exchange annual Christmas greetings. Every few years, some special event might bring us together. Each time — scribbled on a holiday card or spoken in a face-to-face visit — is the same gracious invitation: “Please, come visit; just drop by, anytime; no need to plan ahead.” I would nod, saying I would love to see their place; and, mean it. Still, years passed and the visit was never made. This would be a day I could stop. Surprise them.

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This visit was the first of several unforeseen miscues that day! Readers familiar with the ebb and flow of agricultural life already know my error, my blunder. My surprise landed right in the middle of harvest. From sunup to sundown, and sometimes longer, combines whirled, rumbled and slashed. Farm trucks carried grain to the elevator cycling back and forth and back again unloading their bounty. This “surprise” visit was a first unforced error of the day.

When I greeted her on the phone, I should have picked up the overwhelm in her tentative voice. “Yes, so good to hear from you. Today? Well, yes, we would love to see you. The fellas will be gathering in the barn at noon. Can you make it by then? It is quicker if you take the county road over to our place. Come to the house first. You can help me carry over the lunch.”

Slow witted me! It was only as the call ended I realized I had bushwhacked them right in the middle of harvest! I was the city-slicker dropping by announced from the outskirts of hell.

I made it to the farm with a few minutes to spare and immediately offered my apologies. My friend only smiled and said, “It’s okay. You can help carry these things to the car.”

Arriving at the barn a half mile away, we pass the Pioneer Seed signs, the fuel pumps and grain storage elevator. Parking by an old John Deere we walk into a large structure with huge sliding doors at each end. It is full of implements: tractors, planters, harrows and several charts and computers along the western wall next to a small office. I am reminded that farming is an ever more sophisticated business.

We set out the lunch on a long table. Slowly others, family and farm hands, gathered. My friends introduce me as “a preacher friend who came by to pray for us today.” Okay, my turn to be surprised. So, I pray for a good harvest, for safety and well-being of all in our world during this harvest. I kept the prayer short knowing folks were eager to get back in the fields before rain might arrive.

Ample portions of chipped ham sandwiches, potato salad and iced tea are served. Some peanut butter cookies followed. There is teasing, talk about the weather, feeding the barn cats, and a few questions about mutual friends and grandchildren. Knowing the need to return to combines and trucks soon, I am amazed when my friend goes to his small office and returns handing me some papers. “Your going to enjoy this,” he chuckled.

It is a printout from an old dot matrix printer. Here before me were a collection of “jokes.” Reading the blue inked words, were some of the most offensive, racist jokes imaginable. They were about the President of the United States. Surprise hardly captures my emotions. It was closer to horror.

Still, I care for these people. My friend thought I would be amused, but this had burst across a divide in our worlds. I was confused, sad, disgusted, tongue-tied. I knew there was racial animus and bigotry toward Barack Obama, but surely not here. These were my friends, my good Christian friends.

I wish I could tell you of my courageous response, of my righteous witness. As I remember it now I didn’t say much, only mumbling “I don’t find this very funny.” A human hoarfrost was now stretching across our faces, our conversation, challenging the core of our friendship.

Soon, I was off, watching the dust of the combines in my rear view mirror. I was on my way home — back to another world, my natural habitat, an urban setting, on a university campus.

This surprising harvest occurred nearly a decade ago. Each autumn its memory returns and I realize it was a harbinger of much that has unfolded in our nation, especially in the last four years. Without any sense of irony, these are “good Christian folks,” at least in the way the see themselves and are seen by others. Even so they had burst open my easy assumptions.

They had reached out with hospitality to me — at least before I made my raid on their assumptions and routines. Racism is not the exclusive property of country folks. Many, many rural folks do not accept such bigotry; but many do. And yes, racism is alive and well in our cities and suburbs too. Still it seems to wait along the corridors of everyday activities to suddenly startle and divide us.

I have thought much about the culture that shapes these friends and their religious and political perspectives. Through study and conversations with many farmers, I know more of the stresses on those who today seek to make a living following a plow. I better understand the racial and cultural divides that can so easily be manpulated into fearful mistrust and misinformation.

I have learned that agriculture is changing dramatically, at an ever more rapid pace. Industrial-style agriculture is extraordinarily expensive and risky. Debt is high and weather is increasingly unpredictable. It is destined to change. It will ultimately be replaced by models more attune to sustaining the land, water and soils. Efforts to farm with perennial polycultures, like those being researched at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, will hopefully offer new options.

I am sad for my friends who carry the heavy load of racism and fear (and probably economic threat) that limits their ability to see the depths of racism that damage the soul of our nation. I pray they learn — in their church or social gatherings — of the ability to see others as persons of worth and dignity. I am saddened by the urban/rural and cosmopolitan/ localist divides in our nation and world.

I suspect my farm friends think me to be a “latte drinking urban elitist.” Even though, I don’t like latte! And, I am mindful of my own limited vision and fears that shape my understandings.

Richard Longworth’s fine book “Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism” offers compelling insights into the challenges of those who currently farm in America. He notes the phenomenon of vertical integration wherein every element of farm activity, from selecting seeds to spreading fertilizer to selling in a market is controlled by a large agribusiness — and not the farmer. As Longworth puts it, “Why own the farm when you can own the farmer?”

I don’t excuse the racism of my “friends.” Not at all. Nor do I miss the reality that a deep social/cultural divide was already emerging on the day I burst in on them. I fear such racism has only taken up greater residence in the minds of good people who now share their “jokes” on Instagram or Facebook rather than on a dot matrix printouts.

Something else was harvested on that October day a decade ago. My unacceptable silence was surfaced. It is the silence of too many of our churches, too many of our cultural and political leaders. What might I do better to express theology that valued all as Children of a loving God? How might I do better at harvesting respect, hope, love for the neighbor AND the stranger?

Perhaps I am overly optimistic, but it appears a harvest is underway in our society regarding racism. In the midst of the tragic deaths of folks like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd a new awareness seems to be possible. I suspect my farm friends don’t see anti-racism activities in the same hopeful light that I do. I see these as a sign of a potential harvest of hope — a sign that increasing racial justice might some day arrive… a time when the frozen assumptions and categories of our common life are thawed. It is not easy, not for my friends or for so many others caught up in the swirl of human distrust.

As I write a national election is only days away. I pray the current patterns of racism and ugly vitriol encouraged by the current national administration will be rejected and fresh sense of respect and the valuing of our common life can be harvested.

No matter the outcome, I will plan to make another visit to my farm friends — it has been too long since I saw them. Be assured I won’t bushwhack them again during harvest!

Beyond a House Divided

Beyond a House Divided

Prayers for our nation today — and a resource for hope.

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This week, my friend, Mark Feldmeir’s book,

A House Divided: Engaging the Issues Through the Politics of Compassion,” will be released. It offers a hopeful way forward in these challenging times.  Mark is pastor of St. Andrews United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.

Regarding racism, Mark offers these axioms:

How we think about racism is largely determined by our own particular race.

Race is the child of racism and not the father.

Colorblindness is a myth that blinds us to the truth about racism.

(https://www.markfeldmeir.com/a-house-divided-engaging-the-…/)

A Prayer for Guidance and Grace:

God of justice, in your wisdom you create all people in your image, without exception.  Through your goodness, open our eyes to see the dignity, beauty and worth of every human being.  Open our minds to understand that all your children are brothers and sisters, in the same human family.  Open our hearts to repent of racial attitudes behaviors, and speech that demean others.  Open our ears to hear the cries of those wounded by racial discrimination, and their passionate appeals for change.  Strengthen our resolve to make amends for past injustices and to right the wrongs of history.  And fill us with courage that we might seek to heal wounds, build bridges, forgive and be forgiven, and establish peace and equality for all in our communities.  Amen.  (A House Divided, page 30)

Prayer for Today, August 31, 2020:

Dear God, calm the fears of our nation. We think especially of the events in Kenosha, Portland, Louisville, Atlanta, Minneapolis and in so many other places.  We pray for our own home towns.  [Silent prayer]  Show us the way to greater justice for all as we seek understanding.  Even as we go about our lives in this restricted world of COVID 19, awaken us to, and remind us of, the gifts and value of our neighbors.  [Silent reflection]. Make of us, who are your church and who live outside the church, advocates for non-violence and renewal. [Silent prayer]  Amen.

A Democracy Smothered to Death

Democracy Smothered to Death

There are multiple reasons to ignore the Republican National Presidential Convention this week: Hurricane Laura battering the Gulf Coast; unrelenting wildfires in California, the death toll from the coronavirus passing the 180,000 mark, as millions of students from kindergarten to graduate school return to classes — and others face months of isolated online learning; concerns about future postal service as persons wait for needed checks and medications, another young black person, Jacob Blake, shot by police — this time shot in the back, seven times — and the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin erupt in protest.  Plenty of reasons to ignore the GOPs made-for-reality-television episodes.

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Balcony in Barcelona, 2018

It can be overwhelming.  Each of these tragic events deserves attention, human care and response.  There are so many threats as so many innocent people face unexpected, life altering events.

Two images come to mind as I watched the Republican National Presidential Convention.  The first is a balcony curtain seen in Barcelona two winters ago. It was, to my eyes, a delightful piece of whimsical art: two hands appear to be pulling back the curtains on a balcony.  It represents the joy of discovering what might otherwise be hidden.

The other image is a photo taken on the same day in a nearby neighborhood.  There were dozens of these banners, hanging from balconies and roof tops.  The image is a blank face where a mouth has been smeared over and the word “democracia!” is printed below.

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Democracia!  This is a cry heard round the world in our time.  From Hong Kong to Belarus to Damascus to Louisville and Kenosha the cry, too often muted and all too real, rings out.

As I watch snippets of the made-for-television Republican convention, there is little mention of the multiple tragedies that surround and threaten to overwhelm.  In fact, these calls for democracia are not mentioned.

Folks are paraded in front of the cameras — grifters, cons, wanna-be-future-presidents.  There are folks who seek profit or status by supporting the forced alternative reality that is being sold from the platform of fear and grievance.  It is a world deconstructed of truth; a world of scarcity that is broadcast by folks who have more than enough.

All aimed at good persons, who have bought into conspiracy theories because they fear the future and, like too many people all across the world, they are willing to put their trust in a totalitarian idea… No worse yet, trust is put in a totalitarian and narcissistic man.  He actually suggests we shouldn’t believe what others may say or think — trust him only as a source of truth.   Forget science, ignore history, avoid moral thinking apart from a few made for grievance and simplistically answered dilemmas.  He who, though you know he cheats and manipulates, still claims to be the one to bring the order and easy solutions you hope will one day come.

Truth is turned on its head — the immigrants who bring talent and a willingness to work are turned into the enemy.  Young people who seek justice and protest out of conviction are turned into rioters.  NATO becomes our enemy and Russian operatives who seek to undermine our common well-being are turned into our friends.  After all, the supreme leader sends love letters to the North Korean dictator and speaks fondly of the tyrant in Turkey.  He is “doing foreign policy differently” we are told and any appeal to human rights disappears.  The scriptures are not read or studied; no.  The “holy book” is but a symbol, a prop; it is held up like some talisman that can block out the truth contained in the great and true counter narrative within the book.

The idea that there is only one person who can fix things, all of the social disarray around is what this man openly stated four years ago.  Today, in the United States the true believers are the Trumpists.  Who would imagine, who could imagine, a political party that decided it needed no plans for the future, no party platform, especially when tragedies abound?  Who could imagine?  Would someone please pull back the curtain and let the realities of our situation be made apparent.  Might “we the people” discover it is essentially our shared, widely enacted, response that can begin to bring renewed health and hope.

There are also well meaning, sincere folks.  Persons I think of as “the genuine articles” who are given a cameo performance on the GOP stage.  They have bought into the big lie.  The lie that the world is an either/or place.  Either you are with the supreme leader, and that is the only way to fix things, or you will lose your place of security, of status and order.   There are multiple alternate paths for a people who might seek truth together; however we will have to work with persons who see some parts of reality differently.  Pull back the curtain.  There are options to being a Trumpist. It will require pulling back a curtain to see that those who differ are also Children of God, like you? The Trumpist wants to say all who differ are “socialists.”  Such astonishing, deceptive, untruthful language is repeated over and over until good people believe the lie.

Democracy means we will have to work with others to solve the complex real world problems; we must, in fact, do it together.  I so value the good folks who seem stuck in this trap of binary thinking — they are my neighbors, my friends, my family.  Still, my reality is that our democracy is now being smothered. 

It is like a giant pillow of grievance and fear is forced down across the face of our body politic.  There is not room for protest, dialogue, compromise.  As Bill Moyers put it “A democracy can die of too many lies. And we’re getting close to that terminal moment, unless we reverse the obsession with lies that are being fed around the country.” (See Bill Moyers on Truth).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remembering Community

Remembering Community

“Racial Prejudice is a sin.” So reads the lead sentence in an ad from a well meaning Christian institution. Yes, it is! “Good,” I thought. “Not sufficient,” was my second thought.

The ad was announcing a new educational program. Daily I read of a new degree program, or certificate, or workshop on racism. There are programs featuring inclusion and diversity; some offering cultural awareness. Good — many in our nation have been woke to our nation’s prevailing racism. Then, again I think, not sufficient.

Anti-racism work involves more than addressing individual prejudice, or practicing inclusion, or graduating from diversity training. The deeply embedded racist practices, white privilege and enduring structures of our society require more than changing bad attitudes or reorienting mental categories. I am helped by Isabel Wilkerson’s recent argument that our society is, in reality, a caste system.

In my tradition, the prayer for each day begins “New every morning is your love, great God of light, and all day long you are working for good in the world. Stir up in us desire to serve you, to live peacefully with our neighbors, and to devote each day to your Son, Our Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord.” Once woke, there is the need to keep awakening.

Setting aside my unpleasant thoughts about the marketing and commercialization of programs to address racism, it is clear that antiracism work will require more than a new curriculum, or a certificate or registration for a webinar. If we are to continue movement toward the Beloved Community we will be required to do some major overhauls, yes personally, but also in our institutions and economies.

As I have come to realize, over and again, my personal confession and repentance is only the prelude to a life-long reorientation. Recently I was asked if I was suggesting there is need for a “continual conversion.” In short, YES. As one friend suggests, this is “one-hundred-year-work.” It is as Eugene Peterson reminds us “A long obedience in the same direction.” Antiracism requires sustained commitment to institutional and cultural change. If you thought differently, I want to disabuse you of belief in any easy path. This is to say those eight week or eight month programs are… well, a small, good beginning, but only that.

In ways too numerous to list, we will always be learning, confessing, repenting, and re-imagining our common life and its institutions. In our podcast/videocast, Mike Mather and I suggest this lifelong commitment will involve Remembering Community — remembering our common Beloved Community.

While we don’t offer a certificate, a degree program, or a $135 workshop or webinar, Mike Mather and I invite folks to listen in and join the conversation. We are reflecting on our own racism and the deep caste-like patterns with which we have struggled in our ministries — personal, institutional and cultural. In the weeks ahead we will be looking at this along with the many stories from parish and community ministry.

In this weeks episode we speak of institutional racism, and of how two remarkable African American women, Hertha Taylor and Sadie Flowers, each acted in creative and joy-filled ways. Our call is to remember folks like these and to venture beyond the comfortable formats of small projects in “helping others,” that so many assume to be best. You can watch the video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbFkguEMsSw.

Or, you can listen to this as a podcast here:

Please join us in Remembering Community.

Parish – The Thought(s)

Parish – The Thought(s)

We are “two old white guys.” United Methodist pastors with over 90 years of parish experience between us. In the attached podcast we think about racism and anti-racist work. We laugh, we confess our failures and we acknowledge the joy of ministry in places of diversity. Over the years we have spoken of the romance of work in a parish and its surrounding community. Here is a taste of what we have discovered.

If you find something here that parallels your journey — or even if there is something helpful, or something with which you disagree — make a comment, share your story.

Words, Words, Words…

Words, Words, Words: Hamlet

As I watched the tragic scenes unfold across our nation in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, I remembered the phrase scratched on a napkin and slid toward me: “Words, words, words: Hamlet.” This writer of the quote in 1992 was Bill Hudnut, former long-time mayor of Indianapolis. Bill was a friend. I was pastor at Broadway United Methodist Church. We often had to agree to disagree. In considering the wounds to our nation’s soul just now, I think of Bill.

Officer Derek Chauvin on neck of George Floyd from Daily Guide Network, May 28, 2020

There have been too many words. I believe this is a message the rioters are tying to communicate — in imperfect ways, yes, but there have been too many words… words of promise, words to placate, words to delay. And, there have been too many words from the highest office in the land that harm and destroy. More, even worse, there have been words designed to incite violence. There are words tweeted in short attacks or enshrined in policies that reinforce the systemic racism of a nation that has never recovered from slavery, segregation and centuries of discrimination and shame.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – MAY 27: Two men wear shirts stating “Rest in Power George Floyd” outside the Third Police Precinct on May 27, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images as shared in United Methodist Insight, May 28, 2020)

Hudnut wrote the note “words, words, words” as we listened to the remarks of a popular young governor. The speaker was his opponent in 1992, as Bill challenged the young governor for his seat. Hudnut lost that race. The governor went on to another term; then was elected senator, like his father before him. As I recall all these years later, Hudnut was reacting to the governor’s word-salad related to a question about law enforcement and tragedies like the death of Michael Taylor. How might we better address police abuse? In 1987, Michael Taylor, a 16 year old, was handcuffed and in the custody of Indianapolis police officers when he was shot and killed. The officers claimed Taylor had somehow, with hands in cuffs, behind his back, grabbed one of their weapons. — So, they said, “they had to kill him.”

Michael Taylor’s murder remains an open sore for many in Indianapolis, myself included. George Floyd’s murder and the national response only displays that we have a pervasive and longtime pattern of such abuse. We have only formalized the “lynching culture” prevalent a century ago. In 1987 Bill Hudnut and I publicly disagreed about Indianapolis’ response in the Michael Taylor case.

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Don’t get me wrong — Hudnut was a wise voice, took a lot of heat for not being tough enough on crime and too friendly with the minority community. At the time, Bill challenged some prevalent police practices. Still, he was the mayor and thought his primary job was to keep the peace and the support of his party. In private, we talked on several occasions, we prayed together and he shared his profound sadness. Behind the scenes Bill took actions to improve police practices, including better public review — something that is still not sufficiently dealt with today.

Words, words, words: Hamlet” is remembered now. At the time they were first shared with me, neither of us knew how much “the Rev. Bill Hudnut,” graduate of Princeton University and Union Theological Seminary, was a part of a dying breed. He was a Republican committed to racial justice and civil rights in word and DEED. A part of his story is told in Indiana History, “William Hudnut III versus the Reagan Administration” (https://indianahistory.org/stories/william-hudnut-iii-versus-the-reagan-administration/).

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The Republican Party lost its way. How can they claim to be the party of Lincoln or Grant? How? I wish it was this easy. If one can just blame someone else, it is too easy. Our nation has lost its way as well. Bill Hudnut was a practical politician — yes, he made compromises. He was right to have a jaundiced view of the language of the Democrats.

We have all lost our way. We somehow think that there is some easy way to undo the massive damage of racial injustice that is four centuries old in our land. “Words, words, words” Bill Hudnut rightly quoted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In every arena related to racial justice we have talked too much and accomplished too little. The deceit was implicit in the opening words to our constitution, written by a slave owner, who knew better but never emancipated his own slaves. “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men (and women) all are created equal…” Perhaps our generation can do some bold things to make these sentiments more than words.

Treasured and Loved: Whose Life? Which Livelihoods?

Treasured and Loved: Whose Life? Which Livelihoods?

Who will take responsibility? Is there a voice of ethical clarity among the leaders in the White House?

As a six-year-old I accompanied my father to a religious bookstore in Louisville, Kentucky. To my preschool eyes, the counters were a wonderland — filled with lovely trinkets — “notions,” as the store owners called them. I saw dozens of inviting small treasures designed, no doubt, by someone in post-war Japan to appeal to a six-year-old American child. One of these items, a small two inch pocket knife somehow, mysteriously, ended up in MY pocket. The imitation pearl handle carried the inscription “God is Love.” Those were the same words beautifully stenciled in the front of the sanctuary of the antebellum church where my father was pastor. In fact, those words, “God is Love,” were among the first three words I had learned to read.

Heading home, back across the old K & I bridge that separated Louisville from New Albany, I took out my new prized possession, opening the blade and reading the words again. Then I heard, “where did you get that?” I was jolted from my revere. I remember that my heart leaped and there was a noticeable wetness in my six-year-old pants. Again, “Where did you get that?” my papa asked. Through tears, I told him that it was beautiful and it had the words “God is Love” printed on it just like in the front of the church. “See,” I held it up, trembling and then handing my booty over. Within a half-an-hour we were back in the store. After paying for the knife, papa explained that he had given me a loan and I would be paying him back out of my allowance, with interest!

I learned a lot that day… and on many other days, as I learned personal habits of responsibility and about the lifestyle to be expected of followers of Jesus.

As the COVID-19 virus lumbers across our nation destroying the lives, health and the future of millions, I wonder if our president ever learned such a basic ethical lesson. As our healthcare, educational, commercial and technological strength is sapped away, instead of a clear taking-of-responsibility, instead of a plan, we are offered up excuses, phony narratives, wagons-full of diversions, and, most troubling we are given binary options as to who is to blame and how we are to proceed. We are told again and again — and shifting from day to day — that one idea, or group, or preference must be sacrificed to another in order to recover from this scourge.

I wonder — did anyone ever hold the six-year-old Donald Trump accountable that made a difference in his sense of the value of himself and others? Or, how about when he was twelve, or twenty-five, or sixty? Has this sad, sad man ever been asked to move toward healthy adulthood? It is precisely this that would help him now lead a nation in answering the questions, “Whose lives are to be saved and what is to be treasured?” Did he ever have to look past his own self-interests to know that life is complex and most things are NOT a simple either/or choice?

With the virus, a veil has been lifted that makes evident what was present but unseen by too many prior to this pandemic. It is much more than the narcissism and deceitfulness of the White House that is exposed. It is a revealing of the inequalities in healthcare access and economic resources available to our citizens. [I will not rehearse the data here as to which groups of persons are currently suffering the most from this virus. I will suggest that ultimately, we ALL face difficulties due to these inequities.]

The disparities in healthy options for care based on social class or race have become painfully clear. Who are suffering the most? Will we treasure these? As the statistics from this pandemic are presented it is clear that the essential front line workers, healthcare providers, AND public service personnel are also those who are the most economically challenged. They are the lower-middle class, the poor, the immigrant and those without shelter or healthcare options.

The United States represents less than five percent of the world population and current reporting has us with more than twenty-five percent of the reported cases in the world! Something is amiss. Something more than the way the counting is done — here or elsewhere!

Where is Our Treasure? If God is Love, what does it mean for us?

Persons familiar with Christian scriptures will have already anticipated that I will point to the teaching of Jesus found in Luke 12:34 and Matthew 6:21. Jesus offers this observation, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Jesus goes on and teaches, in these passages and throughout the gospels, that it is the neighbor, the weak ones, the stranger, the immigrant, the poor, the wealthy — ALL are to be treasured. All are a part of God’s household of love.

What do we believe should be valued and who should be sacrificed? These are matters of the heart — they are core values. For most they are learned in childhood. Sadly, for some, these are never learned. They may also reflect our ability as a nation to stand tall and take responsibility now.

A second answer, found throughout scripture is our kinship with all others and all of creation. Every other person is a child of God and they should have BOTH a life and a livelihood.

In Genesis 4:9 after killing his brother Abel, Cain responds to the question, “Where is your brother?” He answers with those famous words, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Some translate this as “Am I my brother’s guardian, my brother’s baby-sitter, or my brother’s brother?” In this exchange of questions, it is the next question asked of Cain by God that we now face. It is “What have you done?” Are we our brother and sister’s kin?

I believe the answer for our citizens and responsible adults everywhere is, and must be, a resounding “YES.” Who is my neighbor? Who is the one who should receive my care? Every other person!

Sadly, I have known some pastors, rabbis and imams who read their scriptures differently. They would say the answer to the question “Where is your brother or sister?” is “they are only those who are in my congregation or who are truly Christian, Jew or Muslim. Only these are to be considered my neighbor,” they would suggest. Think of the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). How can we not see that the three words “God is Love” apply to all, everywhere?

This is NOT a screed against the wealthy. Some of the most generous folks I have met are blessed with many resources and they share them wisely and widely. At the same time, some of the stingiest people I have known are persons who always, in every action and decision, seek to selfishly add to their possessions. In a year, or perhaps two, the answer will be clearer as to what we have truly treasured. We will see how some of those who have taken political actions in these months were also benefiting their own status, portfolios and bank accounts. This is, sadly, too often the human behavior.

We can love our livelihoods — but not if we sacrifice the neighbor.

For me, as a Christian, I continue to learn the core lesson that “God is Love.”

Loves and Treasures

Loves and Treasures

Late in 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I came across a surprising passage from an economics text. Edmund Phelps, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, and professor at both Columbia and MIT, edited a book back in 1975 (Altruism, Morality, and Economic Theory). In his introduction he writes, “When Sir Dennis Robertson lectured at the bicentennial celebrations for Columbia University, it was therefore expected that he would address a question of grandeur: What Do Economists Economize?” His unexpected answer: We economize on love.”

We economize on love. How apparent this has become in recent weeks. What or who do we love most truly? What or who do we treasure most dearly? It is an ancient religious question that has been raised to the highest levels of our consciousness by this pandemic.

Life or Livelihood? The debate ramps up. Will we preference saving lives or saving livelihoods? My congressman, Trey Hollingsworth, was an early voice (April 14) proposing we should “put on our big boy pants” and accept some loss of life to secure the ‘American way of life.’ The genie was out of the bottle — there would soon be a wider call to sacrifice some people to the benefit of others. We shouldn’t let the “cure be worse than the disease,” meaning, of course, that a national effort to shelter-at-home shouldn’t get in the way of quickly returning to “business as usual.”

Since that time, in a rising crescendo, the American people have been called on by folks like Larry Kudlow, Chris Christie, Donald Trump, and the governors of Texas, Georgia, Florida and other states, to “wage a war” on COVID-19 by… you guessed it — restarting the economy. It is that simple? Really? These folks admit such actions will threaten the lives of many, especially the most vulnerable, still they persist. Why? The true purpose, in far too many cases, is the protection of wealth, property and businesses of those who are at the top of our economic system. I am not unaware of the damage that is being done to small businesses — what I do argue is that we can find a better way.

How far we have come from early American leaders like William Penn who wrote: “A good end cannot sanctify evil means: nor must we ever do evil that good may come of it… let us then try what love will do.” What might love do differently? What might faithful people seek in this time. As a Christian, I ask myself, “isn’t there a better way to proceed?”

Life or livelihood is, of course, a false choice. Why are we not approaching this with a third option? Why are we not asking how can we save as many lives as possible and at the same time do as much to stabilize economic interests as well? The answer may be that what we truly love, what we most deeply cherish, is exposed by this pandemic.

What do we treasure?

Like so many of the choices offered, things are being boiled down to simplistic dichotomies – either/or – either the wealth some have accumulated or the life of many others. In some places (New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, California), after the tragic loss of life, there seems to be a slowing of new infections. Yet, even this is at risk, if we are not prudent.

In other places where the COVID-19 virus is only now appearing, governors and mayors are being urged “open up the economy and immediately get back to normal.” My fear, based on considerable experience and research, is that we will see, not only many persons in poor and/or rural and/or isolated communities succumb to this virus, and in the process we will see the destruction of the economic life of these poor and already weakened communities, their businesses, hospitals, social services and safety personnel. All of this will be due to this false choice that has been unevenly conceived with a preemptive “restart” and “return normal.”

A few days ago Donald Trump projected that “tragic as it is” we will “ONLY” lose about 60,000 lives, then a few days later it was “ONLY” 75,000, and as I write, he suggests “tragic as it is” we will “ONLY” see perhaps 125,000 die but, he argues “we must all fight the war and restart our economy.” One wonders what will be the “tragic as it is” number of lives that will be counted among the dead from this virus by mid-summer? One wonders what is most loved and most treasured?

All of this begs several questions for people of faith, and especially for those of us who are Christians. Here are three that come to mind today; questions we will consider in the days ahead:

1) Which livelihoods are to be preferred and saved?

2) What shall we consider to be normal?

3) What do we truly love and what do we treasure?

The Whiteness Problem

The Whiteness Problem

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday arrives.  Another year.  Another invitation to dream, to conceive a different world.  Memories cascade:

  • Dr. King’s funeral, standing with other seminarians outside Ebenezer Church, then, marching/weeping along the route;
  • Harlem, a year later, discovering my profound ignorance of the white problem in our nation;
  • Two years later, substitute teaching in Atlanta and realizing that the young shy boy named Marty, who seemed so lonely, had the last name of “King;”
  • Graduate research on Racism and Suburban Congregations opened new vistas on the complexity of white racism.
  • Then, I was honored to pastor a predominantly Black church.

These memories and many more remind me of the Whiteness Problem our nation faces.  I am white; and have been shaped by hidden and obvious advantages of being placed in this racial category.  Even though there is more than a hint of Native American ancestry, my whiteness still shapes how I navigate the world and the social structures in which I live.  In the end I believe that all of our racial categories are only social constructs, they are none-the-less real and filled with the potential to do continuing harm to persons and groups.

White racism is the most negative of the templates shaping our nation’s core identity.  There is slavery, reconstruction, lynchings, Jim Crow, federal policies restricting loans for African Americans leading to widespread housing segregation, the practices of red lining that continue, the courage of Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights movement.   The Whiteness Problem is embedded in the warp and woof of our core.  Years ago Toni Morrison said that “Every American novel is about race.”  Her novel “Beloved,” for me captures a way of seeing who we are and seeing a more hope-filled future.

Sixty-five years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation was illegal.  Desegregation of public schools was to be undertaken with “all deliberate speed.”  In a majority of our cities little has changed since then.

Sixty-two years ago, as I was preparing to enter the seventh grade, there were nine young African American persons in Little Rock, Arkansas who would risk personal safety to enroll in Little Rock Central High School.  President Eisenhower faced with the threats of violence responded by sending troops to protect those young persons.

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[Elizabeth Eckford on her way to class at Little Rock Central High School.  Photo by Will Counts.]
Fifty-two years ago, February 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Rights, otherwise known as The Kerner Commission released their extensive and clear analysis of the White Problem: “What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

At the time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said of the report that it was a “physicians warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.”   Two months later, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis.  Even so, President Johnson and Congress ignored the recommendations from The Kerner Commission Report.  Johnson was leaving office as his Vietnam War policies were an evident failure.  Richard Nixon would assume office in January of the next year.

In 1975, forty-five years ago, I completed my graduate work.  My dissertation title was simple, “Racism and Suburban Congregations: Strategies for Change.”  The research was part of a national effort entitled Project Understanding.  We measured changes brought about through a variety of interventions.  More than 1,100 persons were surveyed from more than seventy congregations in six cities.  We learned much; at the core of our learning was that the extent and pervasiveness of the Whiteness Problem waited to be addressed. 

Any enduring change would require more than sermons, teaching, pulpit exchanges or even legislation.  Change required relationship.  It required those of us who are categorized as “White” to see with new eyes.  It would require people lumped in each and all racial categories working together to uncover and end discrimination and prejudice.

Being “non-racist” is not sufficient. This myth of neutrality in vogue at the highest levels of our government seeks to paper over the deep wounds and sins that beset us.  It is the notion of “good people on all sides.”  Astonishingly, the racism that fueled the murders in El Paso is dismissed.  Defenders of the current administration say, “It’s not us, the White Nationalist are the true racists!”

This is the challenge — how to name the evil, the oppression and remain clear.  Amazingly, many leaders dismiss, confuse and obfuscate even as racist language, behaviors and institutional practices are on the ascendancy.  Senate Majority leader, Mitch McConnell stood before T.V. cameras and said “President Trump is not a racist.”  Really, Senator McConnell?  You say this with a straight face.

There are few who write about race and racism today as astutely as Tressie McMillan Cottom.  Her collection of essays “Thick” is a tour-de-force as it looks at the challenges and opportunities we face as a people seeking to live together with honesty and care.  One of the sharp essays in this collection is entitled, “(Black is Over) Or, Special Black.”  She writes of the way some seek to dismiss our deeply embedded racism by suggesting that the acceptance of academics like herself proves that we have entered a new era where the gifted, special Blacks prove we have moved on. 

She writes: “Black is not over… There is no post-black race theory or race work or racial justice or activism that can thrive by avoiding this truth.  Whether at the dinner table or in grand theories, the false choice between black-black and worthy black is a trap.  It poses that ending blackness was the goal of anti-racist work when the real goal has always been and should always be ending whiteness.”  [Thick, p. 152]

Let Caravans of Hope Be Our Response

Caravans of Hope — Our Response

“CARAVAN” it is a word being used to stir up fear among the good people of the United States.  You can hear it daily — the underlying message is “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” Those of us who follow Jesus need to respond. We need not accept the false dichotomy being offered. 

There are humane and Christian alternatives we can choose.  It is not the either/or of “barbarians at our gates” versus “wide open borders.”  As a nation we can respond with safe and honest practices of processing those who seek and deserve asylum and those who don’t.  There are many constructive ways to offer hospitality and security at the same time.

Those of us who claim to march with the Prince of Peace, who came to earth surrounded by the message “Fear Not,” must respond.  How?

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One possible response is to form our own Caravans.  Let’s make them “Caravans of the Spirit,” “Caravans of Hope and Love,” “Caravans of Compassion.”  Might we join together and march in another direction?  All of us can actually move toward the borders of our nation or at least to the borders of our daily routines to welcome, to send a message that we stand with those who suffer from FEAR — all of them — those brothers and sisters looking for asylum from terror in their home countries, AND those in the United States who are being misled by the deceits of some who seek to divide us and leave many to dwell in a muddle of fear.

Might we substitute HOPE for the HATE that is being encouraged?  Will you join in making today a day when you participate in Caravans of Hope?  From Eastern and Southern Europe, across the British Commonwealth and along the borders of the United States, in our hometowns, in our shopping malls and public spaces — 

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real people are facing the tragic reality of being demonized by those who seem to have no ethical or Biblical moorings. 

Let’s recommit to forming and joining our own caravans — ones that welcome and offer Biblical hospitality to the stranger and sojourner.  The time for a new direction can begin today through simple acts of including others with a smile, a kind word, a gift to those who work with refugees and a VOTE in the coming elections.   These acts indicate we are part of the LARGEST CARAVAN EVER — a Caravan of Hope.