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Monday, August 25, 2014

Our Captivity to Racism, Part 1

After watching the over-militarization of the police in response to mostly peaceful protests by the folks in Ferguson; after seeing the murder of Kajieme Powell in St. Louis; after seeing video after video showing the police treat African American men with brutal force for the most mundane of matters; after all of this, what I wanted to make the title of this piece is, “All Whites are Racists.”

I didn’t though. I chickened out. I honestly get tired of people – especially the non-stop talking heads on TV – throwing out words such as “racist” with little thought or context. It’s a controversial word that carries a lot of power, but often very little substance or meaning. People yell racist when they have very little idea what it means. In the end, it detracts from the value of the word and even more importantly, from the possible change that could happen if we readily accept what it really means to be racist. Sadly, although it makes for good news television, using the name without any thought detracts from the substance of what should be a meaningful and possible transformative conversation.

I wanted to put this title out there to be provocative, but I changed my mind because I honestly want to be more serious than provocative so pardon my cowardice. I want to be listened to and not just heard.

But yes, I do think all whites are racist. So, let me explain.

Racism is embedded in our culture. It has been since this country was discovered. Yes, in the last 50 years some much-needed transformative steps have been taken, but much of these were taken to get us to a place where we are not murdering, raping, and oppressing people of color and specifically African Americans out in the open as a means of entertainment. And let us not forget, it took a generation of African American leaders who sacrificed their livelihoods, their families, their sanity in some cases, and even their lives to get us here! So, let’s try not to break our arms giving ourselves a pat on the back for where we are at this point in time.

Still, there has been progress.

But we still have a culture deeply embedded in racism. It goes beyond the fact that our criminal justice system imprisons African American men at a much faster rate than whites when they commit the same crimes. It goes beyond the fact that neighborhoods are still very much segregated as are the schools serving those communities, not to even mention our churches, the most segregated institution in our society. It goes beyond all of this because racism is so deeply embedded in our culture we rarely openly talk about it. It is as accepted as our beliefs that the world is round and the sky is blue. To use a fancy term, racism in our culture is hegemonic.

In a study of the colonization of a tribe called the Tswana in South Africa, Jean and John Comaroff discussed the process of colonization as being hegemonic. Hegemony, for the Comaroffs, is “habit-forming . . . For it is only by repetition that signs and practices cease to be perceived or remarked; that they are so habituated, so deeply inscribed in everyday routine, that they may no longer be seen as forms of control – or seen at all” (1991:23, 25). Colonization of the Southern Tswana was established through adopting the daily activities of life within the Tswana culture through a common exchange of ideas and practices with their colonizers.

It is my contention that white privilege and racism directed against people of color in US society has become hegemonic, something accepted so easily as to rarely be discussed, at least in any kind of deep or profound way or when there is some kind of horrific event such as the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.

Although hegemony is pervasive and unspoken, the Comaroffs assert that hegemony is also quite fragile. Once the colonized became conscious of the contradictions within their own subjugation to the colonizers, the hegemony was broken. When the silent hold of hegemony is spoken out, it loses its intensive grip on those held captive and instead becomes an ideology to be debated and changed by the various groups involved. My hope is that we can move racism from the unthinking reactionary yelling, and identify the hegemonic ways in which we participate and benefit from white privilege and perpetuate racist attitudes, behaviors and ideas. For when it comes to racism, whites are in captivity as much as are people in color, although we benefit from it at the same time.

I will discuss ways we can be saved from racism in my next post, but for now, it is enough to identify racism as hegemony. How is racism hegemonic? There are numerous ways of course, but I would point out not just the fact that churches are perhaps the most segregated of institutions in our society, but even more, there is a common belief – hell, it was taught in my doctoral classes in seminary – that to grow local churches numerically, you can only do so homogeneously. From an institutional standpoint, diverse, multi-cultural churches just are not financially sustainable.

This seems stunning when we look at how the church was birthed – on the day of Pentecost when the disciples of Jesus were so filled with the Holy Spirit they spoke in other languages! A Church birthed in diversity and justice is now ironically dying and becoming irrelevant through the homogeneous synchrotization between church and dominant culture.

However, the historical growth of the Body of Christ throughout the book of Acts – from the diaspora of the Church after Stephen’s martyrdom, to Philip witness to the African eunuch, to Paul planting churches throughout the Roman Empire, to Peter witness to Cornelius and his household of God-fearers, to the first church council in Jerusalem when the early leaders finally acknowledged that Gentiles could become followers of Jesus too – every expansion  of the Church was accomplished through crossing the racial, ethnic, moral, social, economic, and political barriers of the day.

Somehow – and there are numerous sociological and historical reasons that are beyond the scope here – we have turned this biblical truth on its head. We now accept the false truth that to experience growth – numerical as well as spiritual – we must do so homogeneously. Rare it is do we have truly multi-cultural and multi-socioeconomic churches; diverse churches in make-up and leadership. And when I say multi-cultural churches I mean churches lived out in faith from multi-cultural perspectives. I have seen (and been a part of) too many churches where there are different races and ethnicities present, but it is, for all intents and purposes, a white church: white worship, white discipleship models, and white leadership.

Racism is hegemonic in the church – speaking very generally I know – in that as whites we tend to be discipled by other whites while any cross-racial relationships occur more in a missional context; “us” reaching out to “them.” From this framework, is there any wonder why racism is so endemic in the Church?

I will focus more on solutions in future posts, but with hegemony, remember, we merely need to raise this to the level of discussion – something I hope is done here, though likely not for the first time I admit. But let me posit this: what would happen if whites intentionally left their white churches and went to churches where they are in the minority and then intentionally submitted themselves under the cross-racial leadership of the leaders in those churches for their spiritual growth? What would happen if we took our large all-white churches and split them up and intentionally planted small groups within predominantly cross-racial neighborhoods and let them attend churches where they are the minority?

I know one thing as I write this – I do not have all the answers. Heck, I doubt I have even a few of the answers. But I know I live in a racist society, I am part of a racist Church, and I struggle with racist thoughts and feelings. I know I must be intentional if I am to be free from the binding sin of racism and this must first start with my recognition in the very silent, subtle ways in which racism has infected my life and the life of my Church and culture. Freedom starts with recognition.

More on this to come but I pray the hegemony of racism is broken, and that racism can be deeply discussed, not in an effort to score points or point fingers, but as a means to live into the power of the early church. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Michael Brown, Yazidis, and Our Racism

It has been an unusually eventful news week. Seeing yet another unarmed black youth gunned down sends outrage through me as a parent of a young man who is perceived to be African American (he is biracial; his birth dad is Caribbean and his birth mom is white). And you know what? I am exhausted from being outraged by the constant racist murders of young black men and the fact that it continues means that we have yet to fully exercise this demon from our society.

At the same time, I am also struck by the grotesque images of ISIS in Iraq and the brutality they are committing against vulnerable people, including the genocide they are threatening against the Yazidis (which is also spelled Yezidis). It reminds me that for whatever reason this is happening – and I believe that there are numerous reasons for this with one of those being the horrible foreign policies put in place by President Bush that are still coming back to haunt us – we have to accept the fact that there are people who are simply bent on evil in the world and no diplomacy or reasoned outreach will stop them.

I also think far too often we settle for the most simplistic explanations for why we see such social evil in the world. I do not want to add to the simplicity – really, to the stupidity. There are reasons for the violence – both in Iraq and against young black men in the streets of the United States – that are beyond my capability to understand if only for the fact that I cannot see life through the eyes of those responsible for the violence being done. However, I am struck by at least one common theme I see in both of these events.

It is striking to me that there are some who see the highly weaponized police in the streets and who applaud their efforts to “maintain the peace.” They aren’t alarmed by the fact that much of the police weaponry was supplied to them by the Pentagon due to a directive in the early 90s to provide local police departments with the weapons they had a surplus of. That means our local police have weapons at their disposal that were meant for war. The fact that police departments are armed for war means that a war of some kind will eventually be found – or created. You don’t arm yourself for something you don’t expect to happen. So, now we have police, in far too many cities, who, far too regularly, over-react to situations and then exacerbate small events into large scale violence. The presence of such heavily armed forces can easily fan peaceful protests into violent outbursts.

At the same time, we see ISIS systematically killing and brutalizing entire populations as they make their way through Iraq, including a group called Yazidis and even some Christians. They are unashamedly attempting to commit genocide particularly against the Yazidis while President Obama takes even the most timid of steps to protect the Yazidis through humanitarian food drops where they are trapped and one round of air strikes against ISIS to protect them. While I am certainly no fan of re-invading Iraq – a quagmire of a foreign policy for the past 14 years, I am greatly in favor of doing whatever it takes to protect victims from genocide. Yeah, I may not win the “Liberal of the Week” award for being ok with US military involvement in Iraq, but I believe we have to protect victims of genocide even if that means military intervention in addition to the use of all other efforts.

At this point, I feel like I have to ask this: would we be a little more outraged over the murder of Michael Brown if he were an unarmed, white, suburban teenager? Would we demand answers a little more intensely if his parents were members of a local United Methodist church, members of the PTA, and Boy Scout leaders?

Or what if the Yazidis were Brits or Northern Europeans? Would we be more inclined to defend them no matter the cost if they were people who looked like us, whose names sounded like ours, who professed beliefs similar to ours?

I don’t know the answers to these questions of course and those who say they do are just trying to make headlines. But I do believe these are questions worth asking. I cannot help but wonder if, for some of us at least, our white privilege prevents us from having empathy for those being victimized unless they look or sound more like we do.

I continually will wonder if all the military that is in place in Ferguson might be better utilized in Iraq pointing at ISIS rather than being pointed at the black and brown members of the Ferguson community. It seems to me we will have a more peaceful and just society when we see the value of black lives as important and significant as white members. When we do, maybe the Michael Browns and Trayvon Martins will live to see adulthood and maybe then, the groups such as ISIS will be stopped and the Yazidis will be allowed to live in peace. And maybe the parents of children of color can sleep a little easier and not be as exhausted at the constant feelings of terror that grip when our children simply walk down the street. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

To Do Justice AND Walk Humbly...

This past Monday I officially started my long-awaited sabbatical. I definitely have some things I want to accomplish while I am away from work, but I mainly want to have fun, rest a lot, hang out with my boys and did I mention have fun? I have greatly appreciated everyone’s good wishes, many of which have been accompanied with statements encouraging me to enjoy my “well-deserved rest” for the cause of justice. I understand the sentiment and, like I said, I am very appreciative, but to be honest, I am really not that tired from the work of justice.

I honestly love what I do. I get to work with amazing United Methodists from all over who are committed to seeing justice made a reality for those who have known injustice. The overwhelming majority of those I work with are people directly impacted by broken systems, or those incarnated among those directly impacted by broken systems. These are United Methodists who witness the brokenness of injustice among people they love intimately, who care for those whose lives are torn apart, and who steadfastly and faithfully make witness of a better world, a better Kingdom where the poor are valued and the marginalized are recognized and treasured.

Working alongside these kinds of folks does nothing but excite me and encourage me, inspire me and make me want to work that much harder. I don’t need a sabbatical from my sisters and brothers in the field. Man, they are what get me up in the morning.

Nope, my sabbatical comes from being worn out by those who live and work in the same city as I do. Yep, Washington DC. And nope, I am not talking about the knuckleheads in office – you can’t get worn out by someone for whom leadership and progress are a complete surprise.

I am talking about the supposed “leaders” of the issues I work on, at least the leaders the media loves to quote. In the over 8 years I have been in DC I have seen more ego-driven, narcissistic, self-absorbed leaders of “justice” movements than I have seen in the 36 years of my life prior to arriving in DC combined. And these are supposed to be leaders of justice!

The personalities honestly wear me out. I am so sick of press conferences because I know almost every one is a battle royale of who gets to speak, in what order and for how long. And don’t get me started on rallies – good Lord, those things can be a real mess. Few and far between are the leaders who speak out because they know and experience the injustice directly or who are incarnated among those who do. Few and far between are those leaders whose passion for justice is so great that they speak out not because it will advance their name or sell more copies of their latest book, but rather, because it will advance the cause of justice. Like Jeremiah, they speak because they are unable to hold it in.

It is a rare thing – and I mean a rare thing – for justice and humility to go hand in hand these days among some of our “leaders” for justice. But it shouldn’t be.

In the first chapter of Isaiah, as God rebukes God’s people for expecting God’s blessings while they practice empty traditions, God instructs the people to “seek justice, rescue the oppressed” among other things. However, before God tells us to do justice God first says to “wash yourselves, make yourselves clean.” I feel like far too often those of us who care for social justice forget our own individual righteousness – which necessarily entails humility.

Even more bluntly, one of the most quoted Scriptures we like to use to support the work of justice (and it does support that work by the way), is from Micah – a contemporary of Isaiah’s – who tells God’s people to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” (6:8)

Something tells me that doing justice and walking humbly means God doesn’t give a damn what the order of speakers are for an immigration press conference. Yes, we should utilize every resource we possibly can to build the movement to defend and support the rights of immigrants, but I also believe we have grown far too dependent on certain justice personalities and this breeds the cult of personality that makes Washington DC such an odious place to be.

I believe we should be wary of always looking to the same voices. Why do we look for these same old personalities when we need to hear first the voices of those directly impacted by broken systems and then invest our lives for years in their lives so that we are adequately shaped and formed by their perspectives? The more incarnated we are I believe the less we will be dependent on the prima donnas of justice, those whose voices have become rather stale and routine. What we need is a fresh movement of the Spirit in our lives and in the lives of those directly impacted. If it is justice we seek, then we only have to hear God speaking from within ourselves.

I will be happy to end my sabbatical early if we can do that. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Hobby Lobby Makes the Score, Christendom Church-1, Missional Church-0

A lot has been made by many people about the Hobby Lobby decision by the Supreme Court this past week and well it should. The continuing favoritism towards corporations by the Roberts-run Supreme Court – now assigning the right to religious beliefs to privately-owned corporations is radical and dangerous in my opinion. The fact that those religious beliefs by corporations trump a women’s right to full health care coverage, while men have that same full coverage (all the vasectomies and Viagra you can dream of!), is indeed disturbing, but just another step in the long journey by this Court to protect the rights of corporations over and above people. The fact that this Court protects corporations while not protecting minority access to a fair education makes the future prospects of this court deeply troubling.

Still, at the same time, I feel a certain, though limited, sympathy for the owners of Hobby Lobby who profess to want to run their business by “Christian” principles and felt that providing their employees access to certain types of contraception would violate those principles. Now, this claim is certainly contentious – claiming “Christian” principles over specific areas of business while not over others makes those primary claims specious. Further, as I will write later, I feel it was a horrible move to take this claim to the Supreme Court – horrible in terms of the missiological public engagement of the Church.

What I have found particularly troubling has been the lack of thoughtful reflection on both sides of yet another cultural divide. Hobby Lobby has gone the way now of Chik-Fil-A in that there is no neutral position. You can’t shop at Hobby Lobby unless you are making a political statement. I am not worried about the future of Hobby Lobby – religious conservatives will certainly support their business and good Lord, I know that religious conservatives like to shop! But Hobby Lobby has become another watchword in which feelings are evoked at its mere mention with no real thought as to why.

For example, I jokingly posted on Facebook the other day, “I am proud to say that I have boycotted Hobby Lobby my entire life.” That is, of course, a joke. You can’t boycott something you have never shopped at, nor ever will.  Sadly, but predictably, the two sides lined up on this post – progressives commenting “me too!” with conservatives spouting their support for Hobby Lobby and Chik-Fil-A!

So, in the midst of this kind of bumper sticker silliness I cannot help but wonder what should be the missional purposes of the Church. How can the Body of Christ be missional? In other words, how can the Church love God fully and love the world fully as well? That is what it means to be missional.

In competing justice claims as represented in the Hobby Lobby case where, theoretically, cases could be made for all sides, we are forced look at the context and also continually remind ourselves of the purpose of missiological engagement. Is missiological engagement undertaken to defend the Church or our claims, to stake our ground and, in viewing the world as the opposition, stand ready to refute all competing claims? Or, through viewing ourselves in missional service to the world, do we see where God is already present and then look to build salvific bridges between those “outside” the Body with those on the inside? I would obviously opt for the latter as the former reflects the Christendom Church, a Church fused with cultural or state-sponsored power. While the missional church exists often (though not only) on the margins, the Christendom Church sits (and “sits" is the key word) in the middle and expects others to come to it.

I would propose that when the social positioning of the Church is defensive and refuting whatever claims are made by those outside the Church; that when we stake our ground and build up our rhetorical walls viewing the world suspiciously and oppositionally, we are not being missional. We are instead the Christendom Church. There could be valid times for this social position and I admit some would argue that the Hobby Lobby case is included in just such a time. I wholeheartedly disagree of course. But when this position is repeatedly taken up by the Church in issue after issue (remember Chik-Fil-A!) it is self-defeating. Indeed, it cancels our mission of love and service to God and to the world. Christians defending their claims may legitimize those claims for certain Christians, but this is only retrenching and  is rarely evangelistic or “winning” to those who do not hold those claims prior. It might feel good to members of certain churches, but it is not missional.

A crucial aspect of being a missional church is that when we enter into the public realm we do so advocating for justice for others before ourselves. What does advocating for justice mean? I believe it means those in the Body redemptively utilizing their access to resources to gain that same access to those same resources for those whose access has been restricted or denied. This mirrors what Jesus did for us. Indeed, Jesus did it for the whole world and so must we.

So, what does this mean in the Hobby Lobby case?

It means that for missional Christians we do all we can to ensure full health care coverage for as many people as possible. The Hobby Lobby owners chose instead a Christendom model of defending themselves and their claims, no matter how legitimate they may sound to those who politically or culturally agree with them. But, in the end, they entrenched themselves within and behind their belief systems rather than living out the gospel claims of loving and welcoming others. While Christendom might force societal or political change through dominance and the use of power, this is actually triumphalism without much of a disguise. Further, for any student of Christian missions, triumphalism most often results in Christian syncretism – the minority acceptance of the dominant religious belief system on the surface while having no change or transformation in their worldview.

The missional church, as modeled by the New Testament Church, advocates for the welfare of the other above oneself, especially when we have such tremendous access to so many resources. Should Hobby Lobby cover the health care of their employees? Absolutely! The claims of valuing and respecting life can still be more than lived out through many other ways other than restricting the rights of others. But the Christendom Church is interested only in their own rights and that is why this case came before the Supreme Court.

I am constantly reminded of this as I think of adoption. Our youngest child is adopted and is biracial and when we adopted him we went through a Christian agency that worked in coordination with a number of other Christian agencies in the area. That meant there were many, many families willing to adopt children. It is of course possible that our experience was not always the case, but since we chose to adopt biracially there was no wait time. In fact, the agency could not get us through the process quick enough. The problem was, in all of the families in the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex waiting to adopt children during the entire time of our adoption process – approximately six months – there were no families willing to adopt biracially.

I don’t put this forth as an indictment of Hobby Lobby or the entire supposed “pro-life movement” (and I contend that if you are against abortion but supportive of the death penalty and cuts to crucial social services then you aren’t pro-life), but I do think it opens an important window for how those so passionately opposed to abortion can more effectively socially witness their support for life. To put it succinctly, perhaps more White supposed pro-life families should be willing to adopt non-white children. Until one’s opposition to abortion becomes a welcoming, hospitable presence to all of life (from innocent baby to supposed guilty murderer in prison), the “win” for Hobby Lobby and those who oppose abortion is a somewhat futile win. It was a “win” that entrenches their belief system but transforms no one. Only sacrificial love can do that. And the missional church thrives on sacrificial love. The Christendom Church doesn’t.

So, instead of lobbing political grenades at one another – or totally abdicating our political engagement altogether in the name of pseudo-peace – perhaps we can rethink and re-engage in a way that puts the needs of others ahead of ourselves. We will avoid retrenchment, we will be attractive to others outside our belief systems and more than anything, the transformation of the world will once again be attainable and something for all of us in the Church to focus on – and maybe even agree on! Instead of Hobby Lobby winning a court case, focusing on the needs of others would mean a win for everyone inside and outside the Body of Christ. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Advice to the Newly Ordained from a Lay Person

Every May I get to watch the Facebook updates of folks who are graduating from seminary, many – though definitely not all! – also becoming ordained and for some, beginning their full-time vocational ministry through an appointment to a church or ministry. Often times the first appointments are at a small country church off the beaten path. It is exciting to see the faces in the pictures, seeing both the excitement and the uncertainty of what lies ahead.

Though I have never been ordained, I have served churches in various capacities and, much more importantly, I have attended church for all of my life. I have worked under and attended church under some really, talented, amazing pastors. My current pastor is the most amazing pastor I know in fact. I have also worked for and attended church under some pastors who were either awful or abusive. I have seen the good and the bad and I feel deeply invested in the life and ministry of the Body of Christ.

So, I want to offer my unsolicited thoughts and hopefully, exhortations to all entering full-time vocational ministry – particularly those newly ordained and beginning their ministry in the coming weeks.

First, no matter what your theological or political leanings are, your call is essentially the same: love God entirely and love God’s people (meaning everyone!). One particular encouragement I want to make will sound strange coming from someone who works at GBCS, but here it is nonetheless. Don’t try to be prophetic. Just stick to what is essentially the same call for all of us – love God entirely and love God’s people (meaning everyone!).

Why don’t try and be prophetic? Here’s why. I am quite suspicious of people or organizations who wake up one day and “decide to speak prophetically” about some issue they feel passionate about. How are you, of your own volition, able to speak with God’s mind and God’s voice regarding something God is deeply passionate about? Certainly it is incumbent on us to speak and act on what God is passionate about, but we do not have the power to be prophetic. I believe the prophetic is more gift of the Holy Spirit than a result of our own decision-making, or especially the decision of some group or agency in the church.

I also strongly believe that you can think you are being prophetic and not be loving, but you cannot fully love without being prophetic. Try loving all of God’s people in your community (and remember Wesley said the world was his parish and not just the butts in the seats of our comfortably-located sanctuaries!) without ultimately speaking out for those who are marginalized or oppressed. If you can go 2 years – heck, if you can go for a single year – without speaking to the economic inequities, or the demonic nature of racism, or the warehousing of millions of people through the criminal justice system, or the objectification of women, or any number of other issues present in your community (and I don’t care where you live, they are there) then you really haven’t loved the people in your community. You likely do not even know your community. You are probably just doing church maintenance.

More importantly than speaking, if you are loving God’s people then you will not be able to go a year without finding ways to bridge any separations or detachments that exist between your congregation and your community so that all the people in your community and congregation may not only know your love – they might know the love of the Body of Christ and hence, the presence of God. Love God’s people, just love ‘em.

My second exhortation is this: after a few years (maybe shorter for some or longer for others), you will be tempted to think the problem with the Church is with the people. But let me tell you this: the problem ain’t the people, it’s the system; it’s the institution. I know there are problem folks in every congregation and unfortunately, some congregations have more than their fair share. The Church attracts problem people like white on rice. But who did you expect to be in the church? A church full of Oprah Winfrey’s – fully actualized, spiritually self-sufficient (though is one supposed to be spiritually self-sufficient?), and extremely wealthy so there is never any problem with the church budget? The healthy don’t need a physician, the sick do, and sadly, the church is swimming with needy, enmeshed, emotionally detached, angry, racist, classist, hurting people. Sometimes it feels like the church is drowning with them. Guess what you are supposed to do?

LOVE THEM. Yep, go back and see #1.

The problem ain’t the people, it’s the system. What kind of system anoints one person to head at least one, and sometimes, unbelievably up to 4 congregations? What kind of a system circulates people around geographically every 3-5 years touting that this sole person is the fount from which all of the vital ministry of the local congregation will emanate? What kind of a system is it that calls good behavior paying the bills and adding butts in seats (and let’s face it, you could have one butt in the seat if that one butt paid all of your apportionments and the system would only sit back and smile) and rewarding that “good behavior” through higher paychecks and bigger churches just as if you were working at IBM?

What kind of a system does all this? A corporation, not a Body.

So, when you are tempted to blame the people for their odd behavior, remember, they are behaving exactly as the system expects them to. I truly believe that for the Kingdom to break through in your local congregation you are going to have to resist the strong temptation of corporate relevancy and institutional conformity and you will just have to love God’s people. #1 really is a keeper. Don’t buy in to someone else’s definition of a good church “career.” Just love God’s people and let those who climb the institutional ladder get lost in the building of their own empires. Be true and love God’s people.

Thirdly, remember that as you are called to be ordained, as God has called you to lead the Church, as you have been set apart for the purpose of serving the Body of Christ; lay people are called to ministry as well. If we have received the transforming power of God’s grace and love, then we are called by God to participate in the building of God’s Kingdom. God has significant callings on the lives of lay people. Often, it is the lay people who will do mighty things more so than those who are ordained.

Just as you resist corporate relevancy and institutional conformity you will need to resist the false dichotomy that has developed separating the ordained from the non-ordained. As a lay person I do not mean to take anything away from those who have gone through ordination. It is a high and holy calling and one I celebrate for many of my friends though not for myself personally.

But those who are ordained are not loved by God any more than anyone else. You were not created more special than others. In fact, your calling is most difficult of all for you are called to empower and lift up others, often while standing unheralded behind the stage. That can be hard!

But as soon as you see your congregation as not just a bunch of random individuals waiting for you to pour your magical words into, and instead, see us as fellow members of the Body of Christ filled with the Spirit and called to do amazing and spectacular deeds for the building up of the Kingdom of God, the sooner you will see the Kingdom moving in your community. Our churches are vital not because we have a preacher who is the best in town. We have significant ministries in our local congregations because we have churches filled with people collaboratively living out missional dreams and visions given to us by God for the purpose of building the Kingdom; a Kingdom eradicating poverty, eliminating oppression, and celebrating diversity. As an ordained leader, lead us in the articulation and manifestation of those dreams and visions.

And in a letter already too long, lastly, have fun. Too much in the church is taken WAY too seriously. There are too many battles, too many fights and too many endless debates and “conversations.” Fighting oppression, lifting up those who are voiceless, welcoming the marginalized into our communities and so much more all is fun! Live into the excitement that is the Kingdom and make folks laugh along the way.

God has called you to the most important work on the face of the earth: leading the Body of Christ in building the Kingdom of God on earth. There is truly nothing greater to do. So, work hard, pray unceasingly, take care of yourself and your family, and laugh. It’s a good life. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Imagine, Pray, Act for Change: July 31 Let's Stop the Deportations

As we prepare for July 31 where people of faith, including United Methodists, will engage in civil disobedience in front of the White House to get President Obama to finally stop all deportations, I sent several messages to United Methodist leaders in the struggle to defend and support the rights of immigrants. Here are those messages: to imagine, to pray and to act. We will need all three to stop the state-sponsored reign of terror being inflicted on the immigrant community in the United States

Monday, June 23: Imagine Change
I encourage you to think about being in DC on July 31st. Imagine marching from the United Methodist Building, surrounded by people from all faiths, visibly illustrating the mantle of responsibility for alleviating the suffering immigrants are facing from the Congress to the White House. There is joy and hope, but it only thinly veils the hard determination felt by everyone who is marching. It is a long march. It is hot. But there is a powerful Spirit present and you can feel it. Imagine yourself in that long line as you arrive at the White House. There is prayer and singing and then everyone gathers in front of the White House holding the picture of the family you know who has been ripped apart by the out-of-control deportation policies. You have been thinking and praying for them the whole time you marched. But what you didn’t expect was how powerful it was to see the pictures of families of all who came and joined you. The weight of the suffering and injustice washes over you as you see the pictures of family after family and there is no other place you want to be. You are called to be here. You kneel down in front of the White House. You sing loudly with all of the others while the police ask you to leave and instruct that you will be arrested if you do not leave. There is no turning back. You are ready. You close your eyes and you pray for God’s Kingdom to come, God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. God’s Kingdom is coming. You can feel it.

Can you imagine this? Can you see yourself here?

On Monday we imagine….

Tuesday, June 24: Pray for Change
Once we have imagined ourselves there, as we did on Monday, we know that the power and effectiveness of the action will rise and fall not so much on all of the logistics – though they will be important. The power of our movement lies in our connectedness to our immigrant sisters and brothers who are directly impacted by this country’s failed immigration system as well as by state-sponsored terror through deportations, and our power lies in our connectedness to God. We must pray. We can’t start praying on July 30 when we arrive in DC. We must start praying yesterday. God has called you to follow the lead of Jesus and be incarnated among those whom the rest of society counts only as units of economic prosperity or as possible threats to a certain way of life. It is in prayer that we see the world as God sees the world, that we feel the pain as God feels it, that we celebrate the joys that God celebrates and that we dream the dreams that God dreams. Prayer empowers us and lifts us, allowing us to see a world created as God intended it. We pray for God’s Kingdom to come, for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. If we are to live it we must catch vision of it in prayer. If we are ever to show the President and the Congress a picture of a world where all people are recognized for their inherent dignity and respect as children of God then we must catch this vision and live it out. We catch it in prayer and we live it out in incarnational presence among our immigrant sisters and brothers.

We must pray for July 31 and that the power of God will be revealed and all who are part of the action and all who witness it are invited into holiness. Whether you come to DC or stay home, pray. We must pray for not just an end to deportations and an end to suffering, but we must pray for the presence of shalom. Pray. 

Wednesday, June 25: Act for Change
And so on Monday we imagined ourselves in DC, standing up for righteousness and justice. Tuesday we prayed for God’s grace to be at work even now changing the hearts of the President and the Congress to actually work to bring about an alleviation of suffering. On Wednesday, the day we will join together at 3 pm EST on a call, we act. I am tired and worn out if imagining and praying does not lead to action. I need action not only for the salvific impacts it will have on those to whom my message is focused. I need action for my own liberation. It is no coincidence that the book about the birth and growth of the Church was called Acts. When the United Methodist Church today is mired in church trials and debates and endless discussions – when we are worn out by constant re-imaginings and calls for prayer, we could use some action. We act because we serve a God who has not stopped acting. We act because if we don’t the injustice and oppression will swallow us alive. We act because no one else is – at least justly and rightly. We must act because there is no other way for the pain and suffering immigrant families are living can be stopped other than through acting.

But ours is not spastic, mindless action. We are strategic and we have purpose. Here is what you can act on today:
  • Join the call at 3 pm to discuss the July 31-August 1 event. The number to call is 605-475-4800 and the code is 540390.
  • Urge those on your congregational and conference-wide teams to call in as well.
  • Decide to come to DC on July 31-August 1
  • Invite others in your congregation and conference to join you
  • If you cannot come, find 2 people who will go in our place. Tell them you cannot go but you want them to go in your place. You can pray for them daily and you can help raise funds for them to go.  

Join the call today at 3. Our movement has imagination and we are bathed in prayer. The question before us is one simply rooted in faithfulness. Will we act?

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Being Faithful in the Midst of Pluralism

Due to yet another fake controversy stirred up by groups with some weird agendas I recently had the opportunity to have some interesting conversations with some good folks about the role Christians should play in the public sphere. This is one of those rare times when perhaps something good can come out of fake controversies.

Some of the questions I have heard seem to focus on whether church leaders should always and everywhere proclaim the name of Jesus, particularly when it comes to instances of public prayers in a pluralistic context? I have had conversations with folks who believe that we should utilize exclusivist prayers even when the listeners are not Christian. If I can paraphrase, I have mainly heard from folks that “we must not be embarrassed about the gospel we preach” and “how else will we win others to Christ if we don’t use specifically Judeo-Christian prayers?”

I personally think these are fair statements and deserve a reasonable response. So, away we go!

I think a good example for us in all of this is Paul. In Acts 17 Paul is in Athens and is “deeply disturbed to see that the city was full of idols.” (17:16) So, he went to the synagogue and debated “Jews and devout persons” there. I think it is interesting to note here that Paul does not go to the people who worship the idols to debate; he goes to fellow Jews and devout persons – people with whom he already shares much of his worldview since he himself was Jewish.

In contrast, when Paul is brought to the Aeropagus, which functioned for the people of Athens as a civil and criminal court, he no longer is trying to debate people and instead takes on a more conciliatory note. He begins his address,
Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. (17:24)

Paul goes on with a speech I won’t quote in full here, but I urge you to read it. It is Paul at his finest, moving from the general to the more specific, all the while tying the good news he is proclaiming with cultural examples they can identify with. At no time, however, does Paul mention the name of Jesus. It is more important for Paul for them to identify with God’s overarching story than to make sure he makes his favorite point. The focus is on the listener and not the speaker.

Also, note the contrast with how Paul relates with those whom he shares at least the basics of his faith with those who do not. In a pluralistic setting Paul does not slam the belief systems of others. We know from hearing Paul in other settings that he is most assuredly not embarrassed of the gospel nor is he timid. Paul is smart. He knows that it is far more important that he build bridges with those who are not yet Christians than it is for him to win theological or doctrinal debates. He begins by affirming their culture and their religious commitment. He starts with opening doors rather than slamming them shut with proclamations of God’s dominance over their idols.

The key is Paul starts with where people are and builds on what they believe to point them to God made known through Christ. Paul was inclusivist, meaning, he did not believe that we have to arm wrestle other beliefs or cultures to “win” people to Jesus. I am inclusivist because while I believe that all who want to know God intimately must know Jesus I do not believe that there is any culture that is without the evidence of God’s presence. To say that there are cultures without the presence of God is to deny God as Creator of the universe. Therefore, my task is not to walk into a pluralistic setting and start proclaiming “Jesus” at the top of my lungs while at the same time ignoring how God is already present.

If we start general, if we begin where people are we might end where Paul does after he is finished with his address to the Athenians. The text says that, “some scoffed, but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’” (17:32) What’s more, some became believers right then and there.

Too often, our sloganeering about proclaiming Jesus anywhere and everywhere is more about our own insecurity about our faith and our fear of being faithful in a pluralistic setting without insisting that our beliefs be dominant. Demanding that others who do not share our beliefs listen to them in a plural context is simply not effective evangelism. It reeks of religious triumphalism.

For those whose hope is truly in Christ, we have absolutely nothing to fear from pluralism. There is no reason why I need for my particular expression of faith to be sponsored by the government or blasted all over the place. I am not that insecure in what I believe that I have to have it maintained by the state, or that others cannot be given the kindness of being allowed to be faithful to their religious beliefs in that same context.

I am not timid, nor am I embarrassed of the gospel of Christ. In fact, it is because I believe that Jesus is the Savior of the world that I prefer that plural settings actually be pluralistic. I want to invite others into a relationship with Jesus not because I am afraid of what they believe, but because my life has been transformed by who I believe in.