… A Little Like a Day Care Center

… A Little Like a Day Care Center

New York Times reporter Julie Hirshfield Davis describes the detention centers for refugees in Texas border towns as being “a little like a prison and a little like a day care center.”  (The Daily podcast 6/19/18).  A little like a day care center?  Really?

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Texas Border Youth Facility, AP 6/18/18

What nonsense.  How can these holding tanks be benignly described as daycare facilities?  Ms. Davis, however, should be cut some slack.  She suffers from the same national cognitive dissonance disorder millions of us suffer.  What we see, we think, can’t be real.  We are facing the sinister riddle of who we have become as a society.  We ponder over how it happened.  Who are these people, mirrored back to us on television?  Pogo was right — We have met the enemy and it is us!  How did we arrive at this place?  Is this me, my nation? 

Let me help Ms. Davis — these are NOT daycare facilities.  These are prisons — for children.  Children sleep on the floor, have little choice in how to spend their days and are kept in floor-to-ceiling fenced cages.  No matter the rosy stories told by the “care givers” this is a prison… this is incarceration.  Families are torn apart because they feared for their lives and they sought a safe place where they might begin again and scratch out a living. Babies, toddlers, wee little children are being used as pawns.  Can our cruelty deter others?  Might we trade better treatment of these families for a political win — something about this likes a wall.

We didn’t arrive in this place overnight, or over an election cycle.  We have come a long way from President Reagan’s first inaugural address describing the United States as a shining city on a hill.  He spoke these inspiring words:  “And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”

Sadly, what we have believed deep in our bones, that the United States was a place of refuge, of new opportunity, is being lost, sacrificed to political expediency.  There has always been an uglier side to our identity.  This broken reality of our humanity is now on full display in our treatment of the refugee. 

Reagan’s soaring language was, sadly, tied to a “Southern Strategy” of thinly veiled racism and jokes about welfare queens.  The uglier side of our nation’s story was also at work when George Herbert Walker Bush who understood the U.S. to be a moral leader, nevertheless was elected in part, by his appeal focus to television spots about Willie Horton, an ex-con who was said to have been released on society early and then committed fresh acts of violence.  Be afraid… This became a potent symbol of racism designed to elicit fear, especially among white working class folks.  But now we have fallen further — we have forgotten those fundamental values to which we aspire and now live under the sadly misguided focus on new enemies who offer us new fears.  From every podium of the White House we are told, in one way are another, that we should “be afraid, be very afraid.”

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How is this possible?  What to do?  I confess to being confused myself — almost confused enough to call a prison a daycare center — but not quite.  What does it mean to be a citizen in these times?  Prayers are essential, as are protests.  This is not who we are as U.S. citizens.  This is not who we are as people of faith.  We cannot allow this to be the definitive word on how we treat “the stranger in our land.”  The nation is not quietly accepting that children should be separated from mothers and fathers in a journey from terror without dissent.

There is an upside-down, inside-out quality to what is occurring.  Let’s be clear — I have not been blind to the drift in our nation’s identity in recent years.  People in cities, small towns and countryside across the U.S. have been struggling.  Tens of thousands of manufacturing and mining operations have been closed over the past twenty years.  Small farms continue to disappear.  Investments in education have dwindled.  Our nation has become better at hiring people to run prisons than building much-needed infrastructure.  No wonder, then, that our imaginations turn to incarceration rather than welcome centers.

We have allowed false dichotomies, false economies, to be used as political theory and practice.  This is a complex issue and the demagogues want us to believe that there are only two choices and one simple answer.  Just a little thought about the situation on the border causes a rational person to say — how do we bring imagination to this?  What other alternatives are there?  What might be done in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras that can alleviate this?  There must be dozens of ways to allow entry and do close monitoring of refugees that are less expensive than imprisoning mothers, fathers and children.

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The stage was set for our foolish binary choices years ago.  It did not begin in 2016.  Many so-called “leaders” especially on the right, preached a narrative of  “me first” and “fear the other” for years: us or them… either/or… my way or the highway.  When one lives in a binary world regarding social interaction and possibilities, every choice is a false choice. Cable television and talk radio have laid out the predicate — a world was composed of distrust, soft prejudices, implicit and sometimes outright racism.

Meanwhile churches focused on entertainment and worried about numerical decline — they were too busy with this to speak on behalf of the immigrant or the poor among us.  The tragic, sickening, self concern of Christian leaders, scurrying to “fix” our broken institutions, without stopping to consider the inevitable changes related to secularization and demographic shifts, meant that important voices on the behalf of the most vulnerable were silent or muted at best. 

Years ago, Parker Palmer, anticipated our current state.  It is almost as if he knew Attorney General Jeff Sessions was going to pull Romans 13 out of context last week and use it to justify the tragedy on our borders.  Palmer wrote “traditional Christian language has been taken hostage by theological terrorists and has been tortured beyond recognition” (Parker Palmer, The Promise of Paradox, p. xxi). 

A type of theological malpractice has found ascendancy in the rhetoric of our public life.  When there are pictures of pastors endorsing and praying over the POTUS, who on the same day is implementing horrific policies, I want to shout out in protest: “there has been identity theft!”  In this, Biblical Christianity has been traded in for a cheap imitation of the faith — something that may sell as comfort in the short-term but will bear little long-term fruit.  Like the POTUS, these religious leaders are day-traders, seeking to ride the cultural swing of the moment.  The life-giving, life-transforming language of restoration and reconciliation has been replaced with a distorted gospel giving license to exclusionary, selfish, violent and war-condoning ideologies.

Here is one way to recast what is occurring and offers some guidance as to how we proceed — every time some national official suggests that there are drug dealers, gang members, thieves or rapists coming across the border and this justifies the cruelty we see, we need to stop and shout “who do you think you are kidding?  Where is your evidence?” Evidence is scant, almost nonexistent, you see.  Good research shows that refugees contribute much more than they require of their new home.  They are, like ALL PEOPLE, to be cherished more than feared.  How we treat them and their children reflects how we ought to be treated… Yes, that is Biblical… and also the guidance of other faith traditions.

Is there no hope of redemption or restoration for those who might bring their own set of brokenness or troubles?  We should and must screen those who would do us harm.  The calculus, however, isn’t even close.  There is enormously more potential for good than evil arriving at our portals.  Do we have such limited imaginations that we will simply define everyone arriving, even children, as our enemy?   When I see the young ones standing, crying as their mother side, as she is being taken away, I believe I see in that little one a future medical doctor, a chemist, a university president, a journalist, a teacher or a pastor — and, if we are lucky, that little one may one day be a friend to one of my grand children.  That is what I see — that is what our nation must see.

On Earth As In Heaven

On Earth As In Heaven

As a preacher I am blessed to hear a great sermon.  I know the challenge of crafting words and theology designed to move believers to live more faithfully or welcome unbelievers into the faith.  Fortunately, I hear such preaching often as I travel or attend worship at my home congregation St. Marks United Methodist Church in Bloomington, Indiana. 

Recently I heard one such finely crafted and moving sermon delivered by one of my pastors, the Rev. Jimmy Moore.  I invite you to read it, to consider the wisdom it contains and to be moved by his call to live with a more robust theology of Creation.  Here it is:

Creation Groans, Creation Glories

[Prior to this sermon, Rev. Moore Interviewed Dr. Jeffrey White, Professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs and Director of the Integrated Program on the Environment at Indiana University.  This interview is available through St. Marks United Methodist in Bloomington.]

Sermon:  I want to tell you about a friend of mine.  She is great.  She is one of the most reliable friends I have ever had.  When my dad died when I was fourteen, she was there for me.  She just didn’t place any restrictions on what I needed.  When I reached my late-thirties and had a time of depression she was there for me.  She just said, “you come and be where I am, and you don’t need to say anything. Just be here and it is fine.” She is intriguing. She is graceful, and she is full of mystery and wonder.  And her name is Nature.  I have found that she has a really big job to do.  This is a big world with a lot of people in it.  She helps feed and clothe this world. 

I think that part of what I needed to know this week is that she is still present for me.  You see, this is not how I expected this sermon to begin.  This has been one of the more challenging weeks in my pastoral ministry.  Some of that I won’t be talking about and some of that I will.  I am doing a funeral tomorrow night for a family Mary Beth and I know.  This is public story, so I am not speaking out of turn, but a twenty-three-year-old man took his life. Then on Thursday, one of you called me to let me know there was a seven-month-old baby in Riley Hospital who was nearing the end of her life.  The family wanted a baptism. I went over there, was with this family and baptized this baby who is still on life support, only so that her organs can be harvested for other children in the hospital.

Often during the week I wonder how what is happening the week is going to run into what is going to happen on Sunday morning.  I didn’t see this one coming… but my heart has been super heavy and full.  My mind knows it is not smart enough for what I’m having to deal with.  I needed my friend.  So, ironically, I was doing a wedding in Greenwood and because I am not of good cheer when I drive up Indiana highway #37 (with all the construction), I drove through Nashville and up Highway 135. And the woods were there.  And, she brought some of her healing… and I will need more.  And so, will some of these people. 

What I will tell you is that I know most of you here.  I know you and I know if you had a friend and someone was treating your friend badly, you would intercede.  My friend needs help.  My friend needs you.  So, I actually do believe that the Doctrine of Creation is as potent for us as the Doctrine of Redemption.  It tells us how we are here and how God’s life breathed into the life of the world, and breathes still. 

Dr. White, in our interview, used the word, “sanctuary.”  I told the Sunday School class this morning if someone vandalized this room with ugly graffiti, you would be livid.  I would be.  Yet, the world is our sanctuary.  The cosmos is our sanctuary.  I do not believe it is the will of Jesus for us to ignore the fact that this world is in need.  I think one of the things that happened in the Christian tradition is that in earlier translations of Genesis, the word “dominion” was used to describe what humans were to be given in terms of our responsibilities in creation – we had “authority.”  I think that came subtly, and not so subtly, to mean we could do whatever blessed thing we wanted to do with the world and it would be alright.  More recently those who study scripture are liking and valuing the word “stewardship” more than “dominion.”   Stewardship says we have this care, this gift that has been given to us. 

I know that you have people in your lives that have been given to you – your children, your friends, your parents, your partners and your congregation members.  I am deeply convinced, deeply convinced, that the responsibility we have is the responsibility of love. We are called to treat creation like we would our children, our partners and our friends.  To love it that much.  To love it exactly that much.  And so, the Psalmist says, in Psalm 19 “The heavens are declaring the glory of God.”  Now, I have already told you that I don’t believe that science and religion are at odds. I do believe that when I step into this world I am stepping into a holy place filled with glory — FILLED with the possibility of being healed and blessed, filled with the fact that I am in a world that is here for us and in a world for whom we are to be present and caring and responsible. 

I will also reject the notion that somehow it is a violation of Christian calling to care for the environment.  I have heard people say, “if it is going to be burned up anyway, why should we care?”  Please don’t take that view toward my home!  It makes no sense.  This is the world you are given… right now, this is it.  This is the world where unless something unbelievable happens, your children will be living, and their children will be living, and their children will be living.  It is part of Christian calling to invest in that.

So as the Romans passage tells us, all Creation is groaning.  This groaning is swept up into reconciliation, into the longing of God to bring all things together.  Not only by creation but also by redemption, God is bringing us together to care for this world.  There are some bad things happening in this world.  There are some bad things happening in this State.  In Indiana, we are one of the most polluted states in the country.  That is not an opinion, that’s a fact.  So, we could talk about arctic temperatures warming.  We could talk about draughts in Australia or Africa. We could talk about what climate change is doing in the world.  But, I am asking you to do something different today.  I want you to know that our call today is to recognize what is given to us.

So, In the span of eight days I will do a funeral, a memorial service, I will have baptized an infant and will have done a wedding.  What all of these have in common is the word “cherish.”  In funerals and memorial services, we are invited to cherish the memory of the ones we love and cherish the faith that calls them to God.  In our marriages we are called, not only to endure marriage, but to cherish each other. You can laugh at that.  Everyone who is married knows what I’m talking about.  If you feel you are doing more enduring than cherishing, there is a problem. Right?  When we baptize babies, even when babies only have a few hours to live, we are cherishing the breath that is in them and the hope that is in them and the love that surrounds them.  And, we are called to cherish this world.

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Oregon Coast, Spring 2017

Let me close mentioning two theologians.  One is named Matthew Sleeth who was an emergency room doctor until he was on a vacation with his wife.  Sitting on a beach, she asked, “What is the biggest problem in the world?”  He said, “It is the fact that we are poisoning ourselves and it makes my job as a doctor more difficult.”  She responded, “Well what are you going to do about it?”  He quit as a doctor and became a pastor and works in creation care. 

He tells the story that around this time he took his son fishing.  It was a small town on a river and they took a guy named John with them.  He said my boy caught a fish and John said “Well, that’s a trout.”  The boy said “Dad, can we keep it?” and Matthew said, “No it needs to grow some more.” He released the fish and John looked at him in a strange way.  Then his boy caught another fish, not quite as big as the first and asked, “Dad can we keep it?”  Sleeth said, “No son, it’s smaller than the other one, right John?”  John said, “Well, frankly, I’ve lived here all my life and the trout you are holding up there is the second largest trout I have seen in my life.  The one you threw back was the largest.”  Sleeth said to his son, “Okay, we’ll take it home.”  As they were walking back to their car, John grabbed Sleeth’s arm and said, “I need to tell you something.  Do you see that sign right there?  It says that ‘This river is full of dioxins’.  Your boy, if he takes a bite of that fish, take it away from him and don’t let him eat anymore.  Children in this area aren’t supposed to eat more than one fish a year.”   

You, you good people of God aren’t supposed to eat fish more than twice a week.  This is a problem, in the making of paper and other products we have released these toxins and all over the community this is happening.  As Walter Brueggemann would say “This is an issue of neighborliness.”  What we do, does impact the other.

One more theologian is A. J. Swoboda, who is a Pentecostal Christian.  He calls himself a Pentecostal Environmentalist.  He says we should know that there are three things about Pentecostals.  He says: 1) “We believe the Spirit is moving and so God is involved in what is happening right now.” 2) “We believe in caring for the marginalized. This issue is marginalizing people everywhere because of what it is doing to their environment.  It effects the poor more than those who can get away from it.  3) Finally, he said, “We cry.  If you go into a Pentecostal church, you will find Kleenex all over the place that means we can be moved.”

Then he says this, “We believe in two conversions.  The first conversion is to God.  The second is a conversion (which sounded outright Wesleyan to me) is a conversion to be back to the world.  This is the conversion I am preaching today – that the God who loves you says, “love my world.”  Don’t pretend that what is true is not true. Christians don’t do that.

Wendell Berry said “We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us was good for the world.  We were wrong.  Rather we should adopt the assumption that what is good for the world is good for us.”  To go back to my earlier point, Wendell Berry, like Jeff, like me, like you, finds grace in the world. 

This is Berry’s poem The Peace of Wild Things that many of you know:

“When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go lay down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief.  I come into the presence of still water

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

Waiting with their light.  For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

Good people of God, this world, this grace-filled world, this groaning world is given to us. The call in the invitation of today, the request of today, is to take care of what we do with it.  It is full of glory and full of longing and we are called to be in it.  That’s the Gospel too.  Amen.

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Thy kingdom come on earth” is a core element of our foundational prayer… the Our Father.  How then shall we live?  How can we sing the great hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth” in these days?  What if we had the eyes to see God’s realm in our every day living?

Save Us From Our Plastic, Jesus

Save Us From Our Plastic, Jesus

Few movie scenes are more memorable than “Luke” Jackson singing Plastic Jesus while sitting as a convict in a Florida prison.   Cool Hand Luke, starring Paul Newman, was a 1967 classic, a favorite, a parable about corruption and the abuse of power.  It was the story of a poor man convicted of a minor crime and sentenced to two years in a prison work camp.

Luke is shown singing the song Plastic Jesus after finding out about the death of his mother.  It is a forlorn, haunting portrayal.  You can see this scene here.  Perhaps you already know the song, or the first lines at least: 

I don’t care if it rains or freezes; Long as I’ve got my plastic Jesus; Sitting on the dashboard of my car; Comes in colors pink and pleasant; Glows in the dark cause it’s iridescent; Take it with you … when you travel far.

The song was a parody, written a few years before the movie.  It is a spoof, an over-the-top critique, of a “Christian” radio station in Del Rio, Texas in those years that sold prayer handkerchiefs and other phony spiritual artifacts.  One could purchase “actual splinters from the cross of Jesus.”  Yes, there were dashboard figures for sale — ones that glowed in the dark — representations of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.  This “border busting” high wattage radio station, when not selling religious wares, featured a disc jockey known as Wolf Man Jack.  To learn more about the song Plastic Jesus and its evolution, click here.

Without doubt, the most memorable and repeated line from the movie Cool Hand Luke is “What we got here is a failure to communicate.”  It is spoken by the warden and one other in the film.  For those who haven’t seen the movie, I won’t spoil this by offering more information now.

The idea of a “failure to communicate” and “Plastic Jesus” came to mind this month when I read that on June 7th, several United Methodist conference representative are planning to pass out plastic water bottles in downtown Indianapolis — as a Christian witness.  Help!  Talk about a failure to communicate.  Save us from our plastic, Jesus!

These plastic bottles are to be “relabeled with a message of hope.” Hope?  It seems what was intended was a symbolic action referring to the giving of a cup of cold water mentioned in Matthew 10 or Mark 9.  Unfortunately, for many, this is more an act of pollution.  Please check out this brief You Tube on Plastic pollution.

Should the church encourage such blight on creation? I know, I know, it may only be a small number of bottles — 500 or 1,000 and this is only a tiny part of the more than 35 billion water bottles used and discarded in the U.S. every hear.  What witness are we to give to such a danger to us, our children, and all our relatives?

Most bottles are used once for perhaps ten or fifteen minutes and then tossed away.  (There are health dangers from repeated reuse.)  Most plastic bottles don’t fully degrade for 700 to 1,000 years.  Ten percent of plastic bottles end up in our oceans and waterways killing millions of animals annually and over 2/3rd of our fish now test positively for plastics in their blood streams!  We eat the fish… and so on. 

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I write this as a small plea, a tiny protest to those who think it is a witness to pass out plastic water bottles in the name of Jesus.  Is it too late to reconsider? To repent?  To offer a more positive witness?  Think of the greater witness that could be made if there was an act of repentance, a public turning around.  A call to the local newspapers could generate quite a story of faithfulness, of Christians who care enough to change. 

This would be a real sharing of Gospel news, that actual cups of cold water are given and not polluting plastic bottles that will despoil our environment and diminish the health of our planet and our children’s children. 

Sometimes what is meant for good instead communicates an opposite message.  These folks who plan to give out plastic bottles are good people and their message is well-intended.  Sadly it is at the same time a misguided effort.  One can’t blame these good folks entirely.  The Indiana Annual Conference has avoided taking a clear stand on the importance of caring for God’s creation.  In fact for years there has been an effort to avoid working together on critical justice issues.

Last year, in June 2017, a simple legislative proposal that each congregation study a document calling for “Environmental Holiness,” for the care of creation was put on hold.  Some thought it was “too political.”  Others, among them some Conference leaders, thought it would take too much extra work.  So it was decided that consideration should be delayed. 

This year, June 2018, we have plastic bottles offered as our witness.  I know that good folks haven’t thought very clearly about how we care for God’s good creation.  What we have here is a failure to communicate… Unless we repent and believe.  So we pray — Save us from our plastic, Jesus.

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From the United Methodist Bishop’s pastoral letter entitled God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action, 2009.

The Council of Bishops made the following pledges: “With God’s help and with you as our witnesses—

  1. We as your bishops pledge to answer God’s call to deepen our spiritual consciousness as just stewards of creation.
  2. We pledge to make God’s vision of renewal our goal.
  3. We pledge to practice dialogue with those whose life experience differs dramatically from our own, and we pledge to practice prayerful self-examination.
  4. We pledge ourselves to make common cause with religious leaders and people of goodwill worldwide who share these concerns.
  5. We pledge to advocate for justice and peace in the halls of power in our respective nations and international organizations.
  6. We pledge to measure the “carbon footprint” of our episcopal and denominational offices, determine how to reduce it, and implement those changes. We will urge our congregations, schools, and settings of ministry to do the same.
  7. We pledge to provide, to the best of our ability, the resources needed by our conferences to reduce dramatically our collective exploitation of the planet, peoples, and communities, including technical assistance with buildings and programs, education and training, and young people’s and online networking resources.
  8. We pledge to practice hope as we engage and continue supporting the many transforming ministries of our denomination.
  9. We pledge more effective use of the church and community Web pages to inspire and to share what we learn.

            From God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action, 2009.

Reclaiming Jesus

Reclaiming Jesus

When the history of the church in the U.S. in the early twenty-first century is written, there will be a question as to exactly who the one known as Jesus of Galilee was understood to be.  There will be questions as to whether what he taught made any difference in the way folks lived their lives today.

My prayer, my hope, is that the history will include the sermon that Bishop Michael Curry preached at the wedding of Britain’s Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.  Bishop Curry’s powerful message captured much of the teachings of the Jesus long ago.  It was a vision that is far from much of what passes for Christian teaching in too many American churches. 

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Bishop Michael Curry, Reuters photo

While the wedding sermon for Prince Harry and Meghan Merkle was heard by perhaps two billion people around the world, Bishop Curry joined hundreds of other religious leaders in the United States only four days later in an even more important event focused on “Reclaiming Jesus.” 

They marched on the White House and proclaimed that the ‘America First’ slogan adopted by national leaders in the U.S.  is “a theological heresy for the followers of Christ.” [See: Reclaiming Jesus in a Time of Crises]

It is the sermon Bishop Curry preached at National City Church in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday evening that deserves even more attention.  Cur5b0830e51a0000cd04cdfc71.jpegry said we are called to: “Love the neighbor you like and the neighbor you don’t like. Love the neighbor you agree with and the neighbor you don’t agree with. Love your Democrat neighbor, your Republican neighbor, your black neighbor, your white neighbor, your Anglo neighbor, your Latino neighbor and your LGBTQ neighbor. Love your neighbor! That’s why we’re here!”

Yes, that is indeed why we are here.  When the story of the church in this century is written, I pray it will be of the church that decided to Reclaim Jesus.

 

Whitsun Walks

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Whitsun Bride, Pieter Brueghel the Younger

Whitsun Walks

Yesterday, I walked from meeting to meeting.  I had lunch with a Pentecostal minister; confided with a United Methodist pastor; participated in a planning meeting with a Baptist, a Jew, and a Buddhist; and completed the day conversing with a Roman Catholic layman.  It seemed right, this visiting with such a diverse group of folks.  My meetings were a “getting ready”… ready to move, to be led by the Spirit to new places of discovery.

Today we have arrived at the eve of Whitsunday (Pentecost Sunday), a celebration Christians call a moveable feast.  (Whitsunday is celebrated on the seventh Sunday following Easter.  Since the date of Easter changes from year to year so does the date of Whitsunday.)   I consider Pentecost a moveable feast for another reason – it is our call to new places, new understanding, new language.  Whitsun Walks occur in communities across the world, especially in Europe.  These walks, or parades, traditionally take place on almost any day in the week following Whitsunday — but Friday is a favorite.  The Whitsun Walks typically end with a community-wide party.  You see, Whitsuntide festival is a time of new beginnings — marriages are often are scheduled, crops are typically in the ground and graduation ceremonies abound.  Folks are in motion. 

Across Europe there are still vestiges of these Whitsun Walks in Italian, British and German towns.  Sadly, as commercialism, and its inevitable secular shadow, reach across these cultures, Whitsun Walks have diminished and in many places have disappeared.   In Great Britain, such festivities have largely been replaced by a fixed day, appropriately and ironically known as Bank Holiday, which is set on the last Monday in May.

Might we reclaim the week ahead (and the year ahead) as a time of Whitsun Walks?  Our world needs to remember the gifts of the Spirit set in motion at Pentecost.  We need a time to look around, all around, and see the gifts in the smiles of friends, to laugh, to hear the aria of the nightingale and thrush at dusk, to revel in the rich tapestry of music, language, art and to grow with the insights from multiple spiritual sources.

It was heart-breaking this past week, the week before Pentecost, to see the images in the Holy Land.  The celebration of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem this week is a picture that is the very opposite, a reverse image, of the stories we read of the first Pentecost.  This week, folks of wealth and privilege gathered to congratulate one another on the opening of the new embassy in Jerusalem.  Only a few miles away, others who differ in culture, physical appearance and faith commitments were protesting.  There were more than fifty deaths and hundreds of injuries while the elites in power were giving one another high-fives. 

Both groups — those protesting in Gaza and those celebrating in Jerusalem are imprisoned.  Those in Gaza are trapped by unemployment and horrible living conditions.  They are trapped by a history many of their leaders helped create over decades of failed negotiations, broken promises and the heartless oppression from Israeli practices.  They are trapped by an inability to move past the physical and ideological fences and barriers that prevent migration to a place of greater security and opportunity.

Those who were celebrating the new embassy are trapped by arrogance and bigotry, horrible theologies and a foolish trust in economic and military power.  Some of this bigotry not only condemns all others to hell, now and in the future, but serves to daily undercut, ever more deeply, the prospect for a lasting peace.  This trap has become a never-ending cycle of fear, violence and retaliation, followed by new fears. 

Whereas the folks at the first Pentecost were able to communicate across divisions that separated peoples in the ancient world, the celebrants at the embassy opening seem to have lost any common language that speaks of hope, vision or the true source of human power.

It is amazing to see “Evangelical” pastors baptizing this embassy with their prayers and simultaneously condemning the rioters only a few miles away — persons they do not know.  Do they not know, for example, that there are tens of thousands of the Christian Palestinians in the Holy Land and there are hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Christians in diaspora? (See Richard Mouw’s To My Fellow Evangelicals, Richard Mouw.)

So we pray for peace; but we must also walk.  I do not oppose an embassy in Jerusalem — but at what price?   The decades of promises of a two state solution, of Jerusalem also being an international city, a capital city for both Jews and Palestinians, may have been permanently erased as a possibility.  We not only pray — we must walk — keep moving — keep learning from and about others.

If there was any movement in Jerusalem this week it was in the wrong direction.  Tomorrow across the world, Christians will read from the second chapter of Acts, the story that recounts how persons from diverse backgrounds were drawn forward by the Spirit into a new community.  These early followers of Jesus were known as People of the Way.  Too many of us today have become People of the Fence, or People of my Same-Ole-Stuck Place

It is a challenge for we humans, who have adapted to the power of fear, to act out of love for the stranger.  The early Jesus followers certainly had reason to hide, to protect themselves, to cluster in ever smaller worlds of kinship.  However, the hope of the Resurrection or the power loosed at Pentecost required risk.  Even when there is not clear path ahead, we walk — by faith more than sight.

 

 

 

James Cone, Gaye Hudson and Other Difference Makers

James Cone, Gaye Hudson and Other Difference Makers

I have come to understand that there is a rather simple human choice each of us can make.  It is this, will the generosity of a loving God be reflected in our lives?

In the past week two such difference makers for me, died.  Their names, James Cone – renown theologian, faculty member at Union Seminary in NYC and author of ground-breaking work on Black and Liberation theologies, and Gaye Hudson – elementary school teacher, musician and supporter/surrogate parent of students at Indiana University both passed away.

Gaye and James were in many ways different, and yet, in essential ways they were similar.  It is this — though both of them had reasons to live otherwise — they turned toward hope and healing as they lived their lives.

I remember the joy it was for me when James Cone would visit during my time in the administration at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary or when we were attending various academic meetings together.  I would argue that more than any other writer in the last century, James Cone named the racism that constrained and corrupted the church in the United States.  James understood the way all of our institutions, including his own alma mater, Garrett-Evangelical, were diminished by the toxins of racial bigotry and discrimination. 

Still I knew him as a man of hope and… wait for it… JOY.  I can see that smile and loved the ease with which he shared a small laugh, a riddle, a pun, that betrayed an underlying sense of hope.  On more than one occasion, he expanded my ability to see past the fear-filled static and toxins of our society.  Even when his words began in anger, they found their way to the gift of transformation. John Robert McFarland writes meaningfully and beautifully of memories with his seminary  classmate James Cone — the difference maker (see: http://christinwinter.blogspot.com/).

Gaye Hudson was a member of First United Methodist Church in Bloomington, Indiana.  This is a church I served as pastor for almost a decade.  It was, and is, a congregation filled with remarkable folks — few more remarkable than Gaye.  For over thirty years she sang in the choir and for all of this time she was a friend to many.  Hundreds of students knew of Gaye’s care while in school.  She fed them, provided transportation, encouraged them, attended their recitals and on occasion slipped a little extra cash their way.  Some went on to teach; some became opera or recording stars; many were choral conductors, some wrote music and published books — ALL of them were in debt to their “dear friend Gaye.”

Gaye was the choir-mothercaring, challenging, sometimes lovingly disagreeing, anticipating the needs of others, and, yes, difference making.  At her funeral service on April 29th, the choir loft was overflowing with her “children.”  My, my, the music they made in her memory!  I suspect that nowhere in American — or the world for that matter — was music of praise and generosity more gloriously sung than yesterday in that sanctuary.

In a world too full of anger and blame, fear and shame, I give thanks for James Cone and Gaye Hudson, two folks who didn’t know one another, two who knew injustice and burdens, but they knew more, they knew the joy of living with generosity toward others.  I give thanks for these two who make a difference in my life.

 

Our Racism: Tears Are Not Enough

Our Racism: Tears Are Not Enough

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Who or what will wash away the tears?  On April 5th, 1968, I woke up crying.  It was a cool morning, sunny as I remember, but a crushing shadow of sadness enveloped our small apartment.  I had arrived home from travels late the night before.  Stopping for fuel along Interstate 40 near Jackson, Tennessee that evening I was met by an attendant (others pumped gas in those years) who, even before asking whether I wanted “regular” or “high-test,” ebulliently announced, “We finally got the SOB.”  I didn’t know what he meant.  “Regular,” I remember saying.  Later I would think that there was nothing regular about that evening.

Upon leaving the gas station I turned on the radio and heard the horrible news.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered, in Memphis, just a few miles away.  The words “We finally got the SOB” were still fresh in my ears on that Friday morning, April 5th, 1968.  They continue to echo fifty years later.

I wept on that cool sunny morning.  Spring was near but hope seemed to be further away than ever.  I was midway through my seminary education having come to understand and believe in Dr. King’s efforts.  Professors like Gilbert James and Bob Lyon had challenged me to think more deeply about injustice.  And I was reading widely — stretched to think that sin was more than individual and that prejudice was only the window dressing of racism.  I was learning that discrimination and systemic injustice were often more difficult to see and much more difficult to address.  I had not joined in any marches by then.   Reading Dr. King had lead me back to the works of Gandhi, and surprisingly, back to E. Stanly Jones and J. Waskom Pickett out of my own tribe of Methodists.

(I chuckle at the folks who today tell their story of heroism — joining the Freedom Riders and so on.  I’m glad, but my memory of those years does not include much heroism on my part.)  I did march but it was four days later at Dr. King’s funeral in Atlanta.  A few other students from seminary joined a couple of professors in the trip but we couldn’t get near Ebenezer Baptist Church for the funeral. 

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We did march, in truth it was a procession, continuing for several miles from Auburn Avenue to the Black Colleges in west Atlanta.  I recall seeing the mules and a wagon pass.   At a distance there was Mrs. King and the children.  There was Harry Belafonte and other civil rights leaders: Andrew Young, Hosea Williams and Jesse Jackson.  The Kennedys and Nixon, Humphrey and other politicos passed by.  More than anything, I remember the press of people and their tears… and songs.  Men hanging on telephone polls singing.  One fellow, handkerchief in hand, weeping from a perch high up in a tree comes back to memory.

“We Shall Overcome” and “I Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” were the songs.  I knew then that tears and these songs would not be enough.  Racism was more profound and entrenched than I understood then.  My racism.  Much as my heart was in the right place, this national sin required more than changing my heart — or the hearts of ten million others.  Like so many of my peers in those days I was blind to this pernicious illness that touched every sector of our lives.  There were expansive institutional, economic and cultural dimensions of this sin.  Shaped by a predominantly white southern Indiana culture, racism was like the water in which a fish swims.  It was all around me, in the language spoken and the institutions that would educate and credentialed me and in the church where I prayed. 

It was in my senior year of high school that I had first experienced any real racial diversity.  No, let me be more specific, it was only then I had my first lasting conversations with black students.  It was then I had my first African-American friends.  Here were my first arguments, first disagreements with black students, who were also friends.  I was growing toward understanding, but slowly.  At the time I didn’t know it, but that year was a remarkable gift, a privilege. 

My “white privilege” was being unmasked, slowly and sometimes painfully, my layered naiveté about racial relationships was exposed.  This unmasking of our nation’s sins continues these fifty years later. Still I live with hope — I have seen some positive changes.  I have also witnessed great ugliness that can only be shaped by a nation still laboring to find equality for all.

Six years prior to Dr. King’s assassination, in 1962, the bishop moved my father, a pastor, to Indianapolis to serve a central city church.  This meant I would be attending Shortridge High School.  Shortridge was at the time among the most racially diverse schools in the state, probably the nation.  The African-American students were about half of those enrolled. 

Here I met African-American students as smart, and many smarter, than me.  I remember another tenor in our choral group who one day said to me, “You have your prophet Billy Graham but we have a King.” He meant it out of kindness and I heard it in confusion.  Didn’t we share both? I wondered. 

Years and study have followed.  I did graduate work looking at how racial attitudes, institutions, and cultures might be changed.  Like my tears and songs, the teaching, preaching, writing and sharing I have done over these fifty years have not been enough.  Racism still rages like an unchecked fever in our society.  I have sometimes thought I should return my diploma to Emory University where I wrote a dissertation titled: “Suburban Churches and White Racism: Strategies for Change.”  What more might I have done?  Or, perhaps, I should turn in my ordination papers as the church seems as limited in addressing its own racism as ever.  There are still too many who would join in saying “We finally got the SOB.”  Some days it seems that even those in our nation’s White House live in a world that cannot acknowledge this national sin — and are far from supporting efforts to bring equity.

It is true, tears are not enough.  Nor are songs, or sermons, or books.  But they are all essential, I have come to discover.  These and other artifacts of our learning new ways to live, help us as we work to reshape our communities, our friendships, our churches, our politics. 

So there are still tears, and songs, and sermons, and books, and movies, and churches, the institutions we lead and serve, and our mundane daily schedules.  All of these are a part of moving beyond our nation’s blindness. 

And, yes, then there are the upcoming elections…