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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Best and Worst Films of 2012

I love films. I love films not just for the entertainment value, but for the fact that films have a capability to transform us individually and collectively. I can still remember where I was and how I was changed from watching The Mission, Do the Right Thing, The Shawshank Redemption, and Hotel Rwanda, among others. Films can lift us above the mire and routine of our daily lives and show what opportunities await us in the here and now to change the world. Even more, when we watch a film in honesty and vulnerability, films can mirror to us who we are and where we need to change and grow ourselves. So, in many ways for me, films have been means of grace; ways in which God has infused a greater degree of holiness into my life.

So, I wanted to share with you the best and worst films of 2012. I am listing these in the order in which they were released, not necessarily in the order in which I am ranking them.

These are films that somehow touched me, spoke to me, did something more than just entertained me or occupied my time with sensory overload. These are the films I would want to see again because there is something of value in them, even if that value is only to me. Films are like that. They can speak to one person and to no one else. So, you may disagree with my list and I would love to know if you agree or disagree so be sure and let me know below!

Best Films of 2012
Rock of Ages (June 15) - Yep, I know I will get some razzing for this, but I loved it. It was a flop, the critics hated it, but I am a sucker for 80s music. I thought Tom Cruise actually pulled off being a narcissistic rock icon, and there was a cameo by Kevin Cronin, the lead singer of REO Speedwagon. Hey, what more do I have to say? My only critique is that they chose the wrong song from REO for the film. They put in I Can't Fight this Feeling, which certainly is an 80s staple. But any REO fan will tell you for this film, Rock N Roll Star is the ticket. Amateurs.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (June 22) - Not a good film for a pick-me-up, but  yes, the world does end.  Sorry to spoil it for you. But the journey two people engage in together as their world is literally crashing down around them and their character development was powerful to watch. They really deepened themselves, one another and they learned to love and be vulnerable. Their personal growth, which culminates with the ending scene, was inspiring.

The Dark Knight Rises (July 20) - Finally a summer movie that lives up to its hype. I think the approach to Batman was refreshing throughout the trilogy - a dark personal struggle for Batman, weighing his personal passions and struggles with his duty and responsibility. All of those who serve can resonate on some level with this. The best one of the trilogy was of course the second with Heath Ledger playing the Joker. This was not better than that, but did not do damage to the series and more than lived up to the billing, even when our lack of gun laws allowed someone to shoot up a movie theater in Aurora, CO.

Hope Springs (August 8) - I wavered on this one a bit for, of all things, what I felt were lackluster performances by Streep, Jones, and even Carell, whose character seemed listless. Still, I felt like the story was a good one, it had a nice ending, and since I saw it with my wife, it makes the list. At the very least, I felt challenged to avoid the marriage we see at the beginning of the film.

The Campaign (August 10) - OK, it was horrible, but it was timely and I needed to laugh at politics so it make the best list. At any other time, it is one of the worst, but man, it was funny. Will Farrell is just plain funny, perhaps the funniest guy alive today. An d I laughed out loud during the film and in my car on the way home.

End of Watch (September 21) - Powerful, gripping, and incredibly intense. There was a greater depth to the characters than I imagined there would be. I liked Colors in 1988 and this was what Colors, in many respects, aspired to be. Great film, but not for the faint of heart.

Argo (October 12) - This film, along with The Town, marks Ben Affleck as one of the better Director/Actors we have around today. This film was excellent from beginning to end. I had wished for a more critical look at the historic failure of U.S. foreign policy towards the Middle East, but I got the feeling Affleck, given his liberal political leanings wanted to especially avoid that so as not to repel half his audience. But this film excels on every level and I would gladly see it again.

Flight (November 2) - Denzel Washington is the best actor alive today. This film was incredibly powerful and showed the slow, excruciating, unraveling downhill trajectory of addiction and how it does not stop until you are dead or honest with yourself about who you are. I cannot recommend this film enough and I urge churches to view this film and talk about  - really talk about addiction. Incredible.

Lincoln (November 9) - This was a great film, but not the greatest of the year. Still, I could heartily resonate with and was deeply inspired by the strategies, planning, and the ultimate success of the passage of the 13th amendment. This was a process film and so was very wordy, but still, it wasn't unnecessary verbiage so it works in the end. Anyone who cares about social change and has regularly experienced the long, hard, cruel upward battle towards implementing that social change into real legislation knows the sting of crushing defeat all too often. Seeing the real-life victory of something that changed our nation forever was welcome indeed and made this film a must-see.

The Silver Linings Playbook (November 21) - I love films that have a certain cringe factor - you can feel the awkwardness and discomfort happening in the scene and you cringe as the characters experience the scene with you. This film has lots of cringe factors - as they fully exhibit their peculiarities/foibles/mental illness behaviors - whatever you want to call it. But the characters are also lovable and you cannot help but root for them and root for them I did. This has Oscar winning performances and for once, Robert DeNiro is in a film and cannot overpower the others in it. Incredible film because of the actors more than anything.

Worst Films of 2012
Red Tails (January 20) - This was one of the biggest disappointments of 2012 for sure. I had high hopes for this film because of the subject, but a bad script, poor acting, and utter predictability made this a terrible disappointment.

Safehouse (February10) - It is very hard to put anything with Denzel Washington into the worst films category and to be honest, this wasn't dreadful. He made it watchable. But it was fairly typical and thus, entirely forgettable. I honestly forgot I saw this until I looked at the list several times; not a good sign for a film.

Total Recall (August 3) - Not bad entertainment value, but a mindless, narrativeless, and somewhat valueless couple of hours. This is what I hate about summer movies. It is like the movie studios assume we suspend all of our taste and morality, and want to be degraded by having entertainment appeal to our basest appetites and values. Of course, I never saw the first Total Recall (never been an Arnold Schwarzenegger fan), but I doubt that would have helped me with this one. I couldn't follow this very well, but I honestly did not try very hard - not much to follow. Will Colin Farrell ever make a decent film?

The Odd Life of Timothy Green (August 15) - You know those movies that pull of the right strings and make you cry and make you laugh and seem to be perfectly put together - as in too perfectly put together? Yep, this is one of those. I liked it at the time, but it felt like it had been screen-tested (though I do not know if it really was). It all felt like the actors tried too hard - they were too sad, they were too happy, they were too disillusioned, etc. Even the story tried too hard and it felt like a made-up story. It didn't feel natural. Not a horrible film at all, not a great one, just somewhere in between.

Trouble with the Curve (September 21) - No, this is not for Clint Eastwood's ridiculous chair routine at the Republican National Convention. I think that was better than this movie. The story was not entirely a bad one - it was a good story, at least in its conception. But I just never bought the relationship between Eastwood and Amy Adams. I feel like Adams carried Eastwood who is an excellent Director, but whose roles now seem to vary between pissed and grumpy. If I want to spend two hours watching someone always pissed and grumpy, i will just tape myself. I love baseball, but this should have been better.

Wreck-It Ralph (November 2) - I slept through half of this - enough said. I love some animated films, but this was one of those films where you see every funny scene in the previews so there is not much left. D-U-M-B.

Films I Wish I'd Seen
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Brave, The Sessions, Life of Pi, Wanderlust

Films I am Glad I Didn't See
Every horror film made this year and every year, Magic Mike, Red Dawn, This Means War, The Hobbit

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Today IS the Day

Like so many of you, in my church on Sunday we spent much of our worship praying for comfort and peace for the families who were devastated by the gun shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. We prayed and we cried as we read the names of the victims, but we also did something more; we decided we had had enough.

Now, my church, like so many of yours, is not of one mind when it comes to access to guns - we have disagreements. Yet, after this tragedy, we know that wherever we stand on access to guns, all of us believe that there are simple things that Congress can and must do to prevent gun violence and more senseless tragedies.

My church asked me to put together a letter and I am pasting it below here. We, as a church, are going to sign it and send it to the President asking that meaningful action be taken. My pastor has pledged to keep the letter in the church foyer each week, asking people to sign it each week, and then send it each week. We will send it to the President now and later to Congress until action is taken that will help prevent such tragedies from occurring. This kind of persistent action is what it will take for Congress to know that we want leadership and meaningful action.

My prayer is that more churches will take part in this effort. As we celebrate the gift of life in Jesus the Christ, I hope we will honor the lives of those so tragically and unnecessarily taken by demanding that steps be taken - steps that everyone can agree on regardless of where you stand on gun rights - immediately.

President Barack Obama
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington DC 20500

Dear Mr. President,

I write to you joining you and the rest of the country in grieving for yet another gun shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. Tragically, 27 people were shot and killed, with 20 of those being children. I know we as a nation mourn this senseless loss of life and we pray for comfort and healing for the families who have been devastated by this unnecessary violence.

I deeply appreciate the statement you made immediately following this tragedy when you said, "As a country, we have been through this too many times. Whether it's an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago -- these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children. And we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics."

I hope as you begin your second term that preventing senseless gun violence will be a high priority for you and for Congress. Your leadership is crucial in addressing this issue. As a follower of Jesus the prince of peace, I want to live in a society that gives less easy access to weapons, especially weapons such as assault weapons that can cause widespread death and destruction. What's more, those who might be inclined to violent actions should not have access to guns at all. Therefore, I ask you to focus on two things:
  1. Make gun ownership a more responsible process with universal background checks no matter where the gun is purchased.
  2. Reinstate a vigorous ban on assault weapons.

In addition, we must make services which determine and treat mental illness more accessible to all those who need it. Mental illness must no longer be hidden, but should be something openly discussed so that those who suffer can receive the help they need.

We as a nation have been through this kind of tragedy too often. It is time for this senseless gun violence to be addressed and for sensible solutions such as those listed above to be implemented. I strongly urge you to resist individuals, groups or forces that want to sweep this conversation under the rug and do nothing to prevent this kind of tragedy again. To honor the life of those who were killed in Newtown we must take meaningful action, we must protect peoples' lives, and we must stop gun violence.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Sacred Space on Black Friday

This post was written by my friend, Stephanie Kimec, a US-2 missionary with GBGM and a Justice Discipler in the California-Pacific Conference leading United Methodist congregations in the journey to become Immigrant Welcoming Congregations

As I reflect on my experience of risking arrest and being arrested at the Paramount Wal-Mart on Black Friday I find myself thinking of sacred space. What a sacred space to be in, to be surrounded by workers, activists, clergy, supporters and media as I, with 8 others, sat in the street to speak up against the ways Wal-Mart treats its employees. When I was asked the week before if I would be willing to risk arrest with a few others, including Wal-Mart workers, I responded with, "let me pray about it."

And I did. I thought about when I first became aware of what kind of a corporation Wal-Mart is. When I was in college a documentary on Wal-Mart came out, and I went to a screening on campus with a few progressive friends. My older sister worked for a little while at Wal-Mart, and the whole time I watched the documentary I thought about her, about the discrimination she faced and the poor wages she was given along with little opportunity for advancement. It was then I decided I would try to limit my purchases at Wal-Mart as much as I could.

Then this past summer there was an action in Chinatown, near my house, to try to stop a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market from opening. It was so powerful to march in the streets of Chinatown and see the shop owners standing outside to support us. A Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market would destroy the local shops in Chinatown. Only later did I realize that this Neighborhood Market would actually be the closest grocery store to my house.

I am slightly sad to say the biggest hang up on being arrested would how would this affect my ordination process. Just last month I had a paper notarized saying I have no misdemeanors or felonies. After consulting some trusted mentors I decided it was worth the risk. I have been wrestling a lot this past year with my privilege and the power that comes with that privilege. I ultimately decided that this was a good way to use my privilege to help shed light to a company who has committed many grievances against its employees, the people who make Wal-Mart run. I was willing to take part in this Civil Disobedience because it was not me as a white woman saying I know what’s best for you poor Wal-Mart employees, but a way to say yes, I will stand with you as a few of you also risk arrest, as you have decided this is what you want to do to tell Wal-Mart this must stop. What a sacred space to be invited to join with workers as they risk much more than a misdemeanor, but risk losing their jobs and livelihood.

What a sacred space to be in a holding cell with two Wal-Mart employees, as they shared their experiences. Both have looked for other jobs, but no one will hire them. Both of them had to spend Thanksgiving Day at Wal-Mart, as Wal-Mart has decided to stay open Thanksgiving Day now. One woman is a cashier, and she shared how she had to turn angry customers away who tried to buy special sale items before they could be sold. Because Wal-Mart never closed on Thanksgiving Day and night, certain items went on special sales at special times. She was clearly exhausted, she does not create the rules at Wal-Mart, but yet sometimes she must enforce them. She did not get the opportunity to spend the day with friends or family, or even eat good turkey. She got to spend Thanksgiving Day at Wal-Mart.

Both women shared that they work with people who remember what it was like to work at Wal-Mart just 15-20 years ago, when it was a place that valued its employees. All they want is for Wal-Mart to return back to a place where employees matter, earn fair wages, have opportunities to care for and support their families, can receive health benefits, can work full time and are again valued. What a sacred space to be invited into, a space where workers can share experiences as they continue a movement to bring about real change to Wal-Mart. I was only in jail for a few hours, and it was nothing like what my brothers and sisters who work at Wal-Mart in any way, shape or form go through every day.

I’ve become more aware of what warehouse workers experience who are contracted out to work for Wal-Mart. They work in horrible conditions, receiving little with regards to wages and threatened if they try to speak out. My wrists still hurting from the handcuffs are worth it if very soon Wal-Mart decides to listen to its employees and finally begin treating them as human beings, people with rights. I pray that Wal-Mart repents, and as the Hebrew word for repent implies, turns back from its ways and is a place that cares about and for its employees, shares its vast wealth with the very people who have allowed it to become so wealthy, and becomes a place that fosters love instead of greed.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Salute to Bob Costas and the Ravings of the Lunatic Fringe

During the halftime show of the Sunday Night Football Game on NBC, Bob Costas gave a much-needed commentary about the need for greater regulations to stop gun violence in light of the Jevon Belcher shooting of his girlfriend and himself on Saturday. Gun violence is pervasive in US society and I applaud Mr. Costas for speaking out. Here is the video:

Mr. Costas simply recognized the fact that there are too many guns and too much gun violence. Common sense regulations like waiting periods, closing the gun show loophole so that massive amounts of guns are not available to buyers at gun shows, and reinstating the assault weapons ban do not constitute a repeal of the 2nd Amendment. They are simply reasonable and necessary responses to the national scourge of gun violence that has not gone away and will not as long as people of faith say nothing. We have to tell our elected leaders to stop giving so much of their attention to the NRA and other fanatical groups and make laws that protect public safety and make sense.

Of course, Mr. Costas is feeling the heat from the NRA and their thoughtless minions who parrot overly-simplistic sound bites that are incorrect and utterly void of compassion. I am sure I will soon be hearing from these same people as I have before whenever I have spoken out in favor of more responsible gun ownership and against unchecked gun violence. But I am tired of letting the NRA and their minions control the debate on this. Enough is enough. That is why I am including the actual words of Mr. Costas in this post. I only hope you will share this with others.

And that is why I am including the words of some of the groups and the people below who are going after Mr. Costas so that they can be heard as well. It is time for the crazies to be heard so that we choose: common sense, or the maniacal ravings of the lunatic and often-racist fringe.

These are the actual posts of people that I have read. I have not changed anything and I apologize in advance for the racism and crudeness of their words. I think they should be heard so we know what we are fighting against.

Written on Wikipedia:
[Bob Costas] is one of the very small percentage of men that was born with a vagina. His creditability in the sports world has slipped since he was recently seen at a Chicago night club sipping an appletini and having unprotected sex with with several random men. Many attribute his recent homosexual actions to the large amounts of gay porn on the internet. After all, if there wasn't gay porn to look at, how would he know how to have gay sex?

Fuck bob Costas, he's just a moron, let me guess. spoons make people fat too and cars also murder people every day.

Bob Costas is wrong...this tragic incident was caused by a depraved urban black culture that has been brainwashing blacks to accept violence and guns as normal. Gun control is not the answer. There is no hope for young black males. Even successful ones are prone to violence because violence is an expectation. I know he suffered from some type of mental illness, but even mental illness by itself doesn't make one prone to violence. Liberals like Costas don't want to address the real problem.

Go to hell Costas, you and the idiot you are quoting are both morons. The gun cause this guys to commit murder, of course that makes perfect sense. Screw you.

Keep this Jerk and his left-wing, un American politics out of my living room.

Fuck you, Bob Costas and fuck Jovan Belcher too. I need a gun because there are bad people out there.  I and my family need protection from the predators. When seconds count, the police are only minutes away. There are many countries where the people have no right to keep and bear arms, I suggest that Bob Costas and Jovan Belcher pick one and go live there.
The like and dislike choices tell a lot here.

Hey Bob Costas you piece of shit stop using your spotlight to push your views in taking away Americans god giving right to protect ourselves and families from enemies foreign and domestic

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Voting Redemptively

Why does it seem like neither political party or presidential candidate has talked about what they will do to address poverty this election season? Of course, their silence resembles the same lack of substantive discussion by candidates in recent memory. Unfortunately, the media has also miserably failed at raising these issues as well. For instance, there were no real questions at the debates about poverty that I can recall, except for a question about immigration and one other about equal pay for women. Other than that, nothing.

To see where the parties stand on these issues you can look up the platforms of the Republicans and the Democrats, but to be frank, I am not sure what good studying and comparing the platforms of the two major parties would do as Romney has largely ditched his party's platform, as well as his own positions he had taken during the primary season in order to get the nomination. I have been disappointed by the lack of substantive rhetoric of the campaigns regarding poor and marginalized people and for that reason, I will focus here on what has been communicated in the campaigns despite the lack of language. Actions do speak louder than words and that is even more evident during election season.

One thing that stands out to me in every election since Clinton's first run for the presidency in '92 is that the Democrats have largely abandoned much of their language and messaging which once centered on poverty. Instead, they have fully embraced a focus, if not downright obsession, with the middle class. In fact, when accused (wrongly) by Romney of gutting the work requirement for access to welfare for states, President Obama wasted absolutely no time firing back through an ad featuring Obama speaking directly to the camera (an approach used when campaigns want to speak strongest to a specific issue), and accusing the Republicans of lying (which they were).

Interestingly, the strength of his response shows he wanted nothing to do with the Republican accusation of "catering to the poor," and instead, maintained the old Republican line, now adopted by the Democrats, that help for the poor - the group that has born the brunt of the downturn in the economy - should only be given if they "work" for it (furthering the misperception that the poor are lazy). President Obama wanted to make sure everyone knew that he only favored helping the "deserving" poor, a term that resonates politically, but one that does not have any real biblical support (there is no biblical distinction between deserving and undeserving poor).

On the other hand, the Romney/Ryan campaign has not talked about the poor at all, but yet, they have attempted to look compassionate towards poor and marginalized people. In the last days of the election and even in response to specific questions like if he supports equal pay for equal work for women, Romney has tried to muddy the water by telling compassionate stories without speaking to policy specifics. The stories might be touching, but they carry no weight as to what the candidate would actually do - no policy, just a nice hallmark message. The use of smoke and mirrors usually means there is nothing of substance behind the curtains and so voters should not be fooled. Republican efforts to show compassion for the poor have been awkward at best, but in truth, they also reveal a detachment and condescension towards the poor that is stunning. Let's recall just a couple of these actions by Romney and Ryan.

First and perhaps of greatest importance in this election season, we must remember Mr. Romney's remarks at a closed door fundraiser regarding his disdain for the 47% of the electorate, notably his belief that these are people who refuse to take responsibility for their lives. Meaning, these people are mooches. Romney has been roundly excoriated for these remarks and rightly so. A candidate for higher office who writes off 47% of the population and then condemns them with the language he used seems ill-suited to be able to effectively lead them. I can't imagine effectively leading people I had so much disdain for.

But what is so striking to me the more I reflect on this is that Mr. Romney has given tens of millions to charities, much of which has gone to aid the same people he so disparages in his behind-closed-door remarks. I think this nefarious episode is important to note not because of the campaign implications, but rather, to show that simply giving tremendous amounts of money to ministries among the poor does not make a person a saint (though we in the Church love to give them plaques and seats of honor!). Giving money is a good thing, but doing so while remaining detached and unaffected personally by the lives of those who are served is hardly heroic or something to be admired. We in the Church should learn something important in this lesson: giving money does not excuse someone from needing to be in incarnational relationships among the poor as a means of liberation and sanctification.

Unfortunately, for the Republicans, there are more pictures that reveal Republican candidate attitudes towards people experiencing poverty and marginalization. It was several weeks ago that Paul Ryan stopped by for a photoop at a soup kitchen in Youngstown, OH, attempting to show his personal concern for the plight of the poor. The problem was that the ministry wasn't serving people at the time and even the dishes he washed weren't dirty. No matter, the photo op must go on regardless  if the poor or the ministry needed him to serve or not! Obviously, this laughable scene was not about concern for the poor - it was about softening the image of Ryan whose budget he put forward in past Congresses decimates important spending for services for the poor.

What is most disturbing about this whole sordid affair is that when news of the fake photo-op came out and shed a negative light on Ryan, the soup kitchen was besieged by angry calls as well as a loss of donors. Why were folks so angry at the soup kitchen? Perhaps because the soup kitchen wasn't happy to be used as a prop for the dark agenda of a wealthy, powerful politician. They told the truth about what happened and people seemed more eager to punish a ministry serving the poor than shed light a detached, selfish politician. Perhaps some were angry because Ryan's actions touch too close to home - too often our own ministry among the poor is more about projecting an image we'd like others to have of us than it is about actually serving people in need. Ryan just got caught being like us.

Another sad example from the Republican candidates occurred this past week when Romney chose to slightly change his campaign rally in Kettering, OH to a storm relief event following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy. It has since been reported that the canned food asked for by the campaign to give to people affected by the hurricane - something the Red Cross has specifically NOT asked for - was actually bought by the campaign so that people could have something in their hands to bring forward and give to Romney as he accepted the food and shook peoples' hands in front of the cameras. Once again those in need are decoration for someone else's hidden agenda.

What these sad but comical events show is the fact that it is politically advantageous to show concern for the poor, but politically detrimental to adopt policies which actually benefit the poor or to even be able to connect with the poor in some real way. These are three prime examples of how the poor are little more than props for a campaign that does not seem to know how to talk about the poor at all, and certainly does not know how to relate to the needs of the poor.

Though there was a certain level of consternation aimed at the Romney campaign for how botched these efforts were, what is surprising to me is how the Obama campaign has not capitalized more than it has on these miscues. You see, except for a few mentions here and there, the Obama campaign isn't talking about the poor either, at least not substantively, though they have been helped by the President appearing as Comforter-in-Chief following Sandy. But everything in terms of messaging is focused on the middle class. In fact, in their efforts to contrast with the top-down, trickle-down wrong-headed approach by the Republicans their contrast isn't all that much contrasting. Democrats claim that instead of a top-down approach, they begin with the middle-class and build out. Why not go for the full contrast and begin with the poor? Simple, the poor are not an organized voting block.

It should be pointed out in a discussion of important symbolism during this campaign, that the Democrats did something unheard of in past national conventions. The Democrats featured a DREAM Act student - an undocumented immigrant - as a speaker at their convention in Charlotte. This was a huge step forward to humanize immigrants and their struggle, and it should be applauded. However, at the same time, when seen against the backdrop of the raids and deportations of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants during the first few years of the Obama administration - something amounting to a reign of terror for immigrant communities - this symbolism fails in comparison to the real damage done by President Obama's administration. Policies really do speak much louder than words.

Now, it must be said, even as I attempt to critique both sides for a lack of focus and specificity on the needs of the poor, these are not two campaigns whose policies will have the same impact on poor and marginalized people. Republican policies will certainly have a much more devastating impact on poor people by far, which is why they have tried harder to muddy the water and prevent us from looking closely at what they would actually do. I am not being partisan, I am being truthful. Yet, it is tiring to hear from both sides of so much concern for the middle-class and almost no mention of the poor and what can be done to ease the suffering of folks who have paid more than their fair share of misery these past few years.

Thus, this brings me to my suggestion. I want to urge you to consider something as you decide to cast your vote. I want to suggest that the role of the voter whose faith is in Christ, who seeks to follow the biblical Jesus who so incarnated himself among the poor to the extent that he claims that for those who serve the poor, who welcome the poor, who count the poor as our sisters and our brothers, that we are doing the same to him; that in approaching this election this year we use our vote for redemptive ends.

As a middle class, white, evangelical (mostly), southern male voter, I am first and foremost a citizen of God's Kingdom. And that supersedes any allegiance to any nation on this earth and certainly any political party. Therefore, as a simple measure of my stewardship, I must cast my ballot for the candidates whose policies - not just their rhetoric or their PR stunts - actually substantively benefit the poor. As a white, middle-class, evangelical (mostly) southern male voter, I have all I need and even more so. I don't need tax cuts and I don't need politicians claiming they look out for me. Sorry, I don't see anyone coming after me so I am not sure I need someone to protect me.

I am tired of so much money and so many focus groups and public relations firms trying to find out what I need. So let me save them the money and effort - as a follower of the biblical Jesus, I want to see honesty and integrity in candidates who pursue and seek to implement policies which will best reflect the values of God's Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is present when the poor are lifted up, the affluent are given opportunity to share, and the marginalized brought in. The values associated with God's Kingdom are not military triumphalism or national security or personal prosperity. The values are instead justice for those too often ignored, inclusion for those too often cast aside, protection for those who are vulnerable and courage to hold accountable those who benefit from injustice.

Unless those of us who are middle-class and take seriously our calling to follow the biblical Jesus use our vote redemptively for the sake of those who are impoverished in this country and throughout the world, and vote for candidates who commit to implement these Kingdom values as their policies, we cannot piously shake our heads at the continued suffering of others. We cannot pray for the needs of others and continue to use our vote - our political resource - for our own indulgence. We have the power November 6 to vote not for our own interests, but rather, for the interests of those who have no lobbying firms advocating for their wellbeing. We have the responsibility and even the opportunity to vote redemptively and to thus engage in our own liberation.

And November 6 can be just the beginning. We can go farther once we vote redemptively. In fact, for our vote to have lasting impact we must continue to advocate for policies that reflect the justice and righteousness of God's Kingdom and do so from a position - like Jesus - of incarnation and intimacy among the poor. Voting redemptively, engaging politically as a means of our missional calling, is a vital part of following the biblical Jesus. It is one crucial way that we can begin to change the world.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Change or Die: Some Friendly Advice to My Fellow United Methodists

I want to emphasize that these are my thoughts and do not reflect any position taken by GBCS

A recent study by Pew found that 1 in 5 young adults (less than 30 years old) do not hold any religious affiliation and more importantly, are not looking for any religious affiliation. It has rightly raised alarm in church leaders who are already seeing our congregations dwindling and our leadership aging with fewer and fewer people to replace them. I am sure the religious blogosphere is already filled with thoughts on what the church, particularly the United Methodist Church of which I serve, should be doing to better serve and bring in these younger adults. I share not so much their sense of alarm – I actually am not surprised at all. But I am hopeful that a study like this can possibly stir us in the Church to meaningful action.

This study presents some interesting and stark challenges to the church, though I prefer to call them opportunities rather than challenges and this is why I am daring to add my own suggestions. My suggestions are specifically for the United Methodist Church to adopt innovations such as the one I list below or to go quietly into that good night of irrelevancy.

I especially see the stark choice before us when I look back at our most recent General Conference in Tampa. In reflecting, I simply cannot refute the fact that right now the United Methodist Church is irrelevant to far too many people. We fight over marriage equality for same-sex couples and for younger generations, this is simply not something to fight about at all. We fight over church structure, and particularly about who will run that structure, and the absolute last thing that will win over coming generations is control of church structures. In fact, when we make the struggle for control over church structures the central piece of business for an entire two weeks of General Conference (and then we are led over a cliff by a group of people not smart enough to check ahead and see if those changes can even by adopted by current constitutional rules), we only end up permanent alienating younger generations from ever wanting to join such a dysfunctional organization. Who can blame them?

So, before I share my suggestions below for what the United Methodist Church should do to meet the missional challenges of being relevant to newer generations I should say that my approach is not one based on making minor tweaks here and there. I think the time for that has come and gone – years ago. We must radically readjust ourselves and our Church – no halfway measures need apply. I also want to say that I am not getting deeply specific mainly because of space (though this post is certainly long enough!). These suggestions will not be liked by all people. In fact, I guarantee that no one will like all of them. And you know what? I am ok with that. This is not a liberal challenge before us, or a conservative one. This is a missional challenge and that requires we sacrifice some of our golden calfs if only, so that the Kingdom of God might be more deeply experienced by newer generations. Isn’t that why we exist? So here it goes:

1. We need to drop entirely the fights over sexuality language in the Books of Discipline and Resolutions for a period of 12 years. Instead, we need to focus on building bridges between those who favor inclusion with those who do not through missional engagement. I mean take out every reference to sexuality in any and all church documents and focus on loving and serving other people. Focus on mission. I know, waiting twelve years is unfair to those who, in my opinion, should not be excluded right now at all. And yes, I know, it is easy for a straight, white, southern, kind of evangelical male to tell people who are unfairly being left out to wait, but I am. Like I said, not everyone is going to like these suggestions. But let’s be realistic, changing the language in the BOD to welcome the GLBT community into full and recognized membership and leadership in the Church is not going to happen at the 2016 or even the 2020 General Conference. It’s just not going to happen. The votes are not there. And instead, we are going to keep fighting these battles with no winner and we are going to continue to be increasingly irrelevant to the many people who do not give a damn about these battles. They just want to be part of an organization whose sole purpose is to love and serve others – mission.

Instead of each side always making the same speeches, what I find that could be truly prophetic, is to spend twelve years serving and loving other people together together. Rather than fight about being inclusive or welcoming, we should just do it as we engage in missional outreach and service. What do you think folks would say if they saw the Confessing Movement and the Reconciling Ministries Network undertake a joint effort to dramatically lessen the number of homeless in the United States both through direct ministries and advocacy at the state and federal level? Or what would young people say if they saw the General Board of Church and Society and Good News jointly address the need to reform the broken immigration system and create welcoming churches? What would younger adults say about the Church when they saw the Mission Society and the General Board of Global Missions join together to plant new churches in urban areas throughout the world and, from that position of incarnation among the poor, utilize strategic partnerships with suburban affluent churches to serve people and advocate for policies that build up inner-cities through strengthening their infrastructures and create opportunities for sustained local control?

Do you think that these kinds of partnerships – free from the constant bickering where no one ultimately wins – would create a space for greater affiliation among younger adults than currently exists? Moreover, do you think we might actually make ground in the struggle to secure a more inclusive Church membership and leadership? No doubt in my mind that we would.

2. As someone who has started the process of ordination several times (and backed out each time), we need a completely new process for ordination. The process we have now is antiquated and clearly does very little to separate good leaders from bad ones. In fact, I know all too many people who have a clear call for ministry, but it did not fit neatly into the District Committee on Ordained Ministry's definition of what ministry was and so they were rejected and, in a few cases, lost their love for serving others. That is shameful.

We all have horror stories of pastors who are not gifted for ministry or leadership in the Church, but yet who serve for years and move from dwindling church to dwindling church. I am not sure we can have any system in place that gets rid of all bad pastors. But what is more troublesome for me is to see unused gifts for ministry within local congregations that are not being used primarily because we spend so much of our time trying to give every form of service a title or a long and often excruciating process of recognition. What is disturbing to me is also the arrogance of the current system of ordination that seems more bent on ideological agendas and maintaining a status quo than equipping and unleashing those gifted for serving and leading people in ministry.

I have sat in too many churches where the most gifted people for ministry are in the pews without titles or positions and who go unnoticed and even marginalized from the work of the local church because they do not care about being noticed – they care about loving and caring for people. They do not play the games to get the positions with the titles – they just do the work of loving and welcoming people and transforming their communities. Sadly, all too often, this means they continue to do the work of loving and serving other people in their neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and other areas of their communities and yet, they do so without the endorsement and support of the local church!

The problem is that these doers of the word are not often supported with the resources of the larger church because they have no official title and they have not subjected themselves to an often impersonal and debilitating process that is so often the case with too many district and conference boards of ordination. They have neither the time nor the desire to fill out mountains of paperwork, to write answers to often inane questions that have little to no context. They are too busy doing the work! Being set apart for ministry should be based more on actual gifts and real engagement in ministry than in the ability to play institutional games.

I believe we get away from those games if we take the bulk of the recognition of calling into ministry from conference or district-wide structures and instead, place it back into the life of the local church from which that person comes and among whom that individual person is best known. Making the identification of calling more local than institutional will do more to improve the quality of those called to ministry than any tweaking of the ordination system that is currently being considered, in my opinion. Churches can then be connected through a much lighter and more responsive overall structure which works to identify and “share leaders” with one another for what they are challenged with. This will work far more effectively than waiting on someone from up on high who supposedly knows their challenges better than they do and who supposedly knows the gifts and strengths of the pastor better than they do. We should not only let local churches interact with one another - we should do all we can to make it happen!

So yes, I am saying we should do away with the current appointment system because our current system of moving pastors around from place to place is too often not dependent on matching gifts with needs. Instead, it is almost entirely dependent on salary structures. Tell me the last time an ordained pastor whose kids had grown, whose financial needs were less because they were older (no seminary school loans for example), and they were best gifted for a smaller church and they were moved there solely because their gifts were more needed there. It never happens! Why? Because a smaller church means a smaller salary and it would ruin the entire appointment system to move a pastor "down the ladder" even if that were the perfect place for them to serve. We must face the fact that the United Methodist Church is like any other large corporation: success is solely defined by moving up the ladder because that means more prestige and more money. Prestige and money – NOT giftedness – is what drives our appointment system as it is. But it doesn't have to be this way.

The truth is, this suggestion will be tougher to implement than the first recommendation. It's almost like those who go through pledging a fraternity or sorority: those who make it through the current ordination maze do not want to change it precisely because they made it through. But as a lay person, let me remind my ordained friends of one important biblical truth: institutional ordination does not necessarily have anything to do with faithfulness to what God has called us to. We are all called to ministry and human-made structures will never erase someone’s calling nor will it alone authenticate someone’s calling. As a lay person, I am just called to ministry as any ordained person and we would do well to rediscover that truth if we want to raise up and unleash a new generation of leaders. Very few of the coming generations will want to go through our current system of ordination and I cannot blame them at all. 

3. One interesting point in the study is that younger adults do not affiliate with the Church because it is too political. That would seem, on the surface, to say that what I do – building movements among United Methodists to protect and defend the rights of immigrants and to end mass incarceration – is hurting the work of the church in attracting younger adults. Lord knows I am sure I will hear it at some point in the future by some who refuse to think about exactly what they are saying. The problem with this assertion is that we also know that younger adults deeply want meaning and purpose in their lives. They value justice for the most vulnerable and authenticity in their relationships - those are valued highly, in fact.. Their avoidance of anything political thus means an avoidance of anything partisan, which sadly is what describes much of the nature of politics in the United States today.

But to incarnate oneself among the most vulnerable – among populations experiencing marginalization or oppression – and from that position, to advocate for their full inclusion in society and the full recognition of their right to exist and to live free and full lives; this is the essence of what biblical missional engagement is all about. And this is not only missional in the sense that advocating for justice from a position of incarnation among the most vulnerable brings liberation for both the vulnerable as well as those who incarnate themselves among them. Incarnational advocacy is also deeply evangelistic. New people are won to Christ as they see the Church redemptively utilizing their access to resources to gain that same access to those same resources for those whose access has been restricted or denied.

We must realize that genuine relationships are personally and societally transformational. Authentic relationships with people experiencing marginalization will necessarily be political in nature, at least in part. You see, the work I do at my day-job is not essentially about building political movements. It is about building essentially spiritual and inherently relational movements that have deep and profound political implications.

This is why the average age of the church is in the mid-50s and the overall average age of our grassroots leaders on issues like immigration and criminal justice is probably upper 30s to lower 40s. The movements built first and foremost on incarnational relationships among those most vulnerable will inevitably result in political engagement, but it will not be partisan in nature, it will be redemptive.

So, these are my suggestions, at least for now. These are not complete. There actually needs to be more – we need to radically change the way we do things. But this post is already long (thanks for reading all the way to the end!). There is time for me to write more about these changes in the future. But sadly, I should also say, we do not have all the time in the world. We have taken too much time already. We really must change or die and the longer we wait to change the quicker we become an intriguing footnote in history. And the younger generations are not waiting for us. They are moving on. It is time we move as well.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How to Lose Friends and Influence No One

It’s not something I am proud of, but I actually was part of a social club (meaning fraternity) in college. McMurry University does not have national frats on campus and instead, has “social clubs” that function as the same thing. While I largely regret the time and energy I poured into being a member of the social club while I was at McMurry, there is one specific part of it I regret most of all.

You see, my last year in college I became President of my social club. Yep, it makes me cringe to even write that – President of a frat does not usually lead to political activist. But like it or not, I was. I had occupied several offices in the years before and I figured since it was my last year in college, I “deserved” to be President. It made sense to me. The thing is, I really did not want to be. In fact, while the rest of the club voted between me and a friend of mine, Shane Brue, everything inside of me was saying, “NO!!!” I didn’t really want to be President. I wanted to just hang out with friends, play intramural sports and actually devote more of my time and energy to the social issues and causes on campus.

I remember it vividly, wanting so badly to run in the room where everyone in the club was voting and ask them to remove my name and make Shane Brue President by acclimation. Shane, who tragically lost his battle with cancer a couple of years ago and who I actually shared this story with several years before that, would have made an incredible President. And I would have had a much happier senior year (actually second senior year – yep, I was smart enough for two senior years!).

But I didn’t run in and tell them to stop voting. My need for recognition and for what I thought I “deserved” overrode my deeper and more pure need to just have fun and allow someone else who would have done a better job to actually do it. I wasn’t a horrible President, but I didn’t enjoy it and I know Shane was better suited to do it. Like I said, I greatly regret it mainly because my pride got in the way.

Now that I am in DC working on issues of such great national importance – defending and supporting the rights of immigrants and ending the mass incarceration of people of color – I honestly work with people who are among the most sincere and most intelligent that I have ever known. At the same time, I also work with people (some of these people are the same as the last group I named) who are as interested in promoting themselves and their organizations as they are in promoting the causes of justice for which we are called to work.

I know I have too often been bitten by this deadly and movement-killing disease since I came to DC. Indeed, the disease is quite contagious. The truth is though, the more I focus on grassroots work – building movements among United Methodists defending and supporting the rights of immigrants, and ending mass incarceration of people of color – the less I am inclined to fall to the endless Washington DC pursuit of self-promotion. Self-promotion is the DC form of pride that eats away at genuine partnership and alliance. Self-promotion of this kind undermines authentic friendship and even human interaction.

I have found DC to be the most superficial place on the face of the earth, but I am still stunned by some of the ladder-climbing that happens at the expense of others – even those you are supposedly working alongside of. I recall a while back working hard to put together an event that was meant to benefit grassroots folks, particularly in faith communities. It was postponed at the last minute and then rescheduled while I was travelling. Because I was travelling I had to share putting it back together with a colleague, a friend. Since I had the original vision for the event it made the most sense for me to host it. However, when I returned from travel I came to find out my colleague had rearranged the entire event and featured themselves as the host and responsible organization for it. The event came off and was a success – which really is the most important thing – but I was stunned at the power grab. Self-promotion knows no loyalties other than to oneself.

And that is what is so damaging to genuine movement building. Working on such important issues and working so closely with others should naturally lead to deeper allegiance to the shared cause, but also for deeper respect to one’s fellow workers. And I honestly can say that this does indeed happen with some of those I work with in DC on certain issues, ending mass incarceration being one. But all too often among too many of us in DC, our loyalty to the issue and the people directly impacted by the issue, is clouded and frankly, marginalized by our loyalties to our organizations and even more, ourselves. It should be no wonder why we lose so much of the time.

In the end though, I constantly remind myself when I am in DC that the main thing – defending the rights of immigrants or ending the mass incarceration of people of color – HAS to remain the main thing. Pride does indeed come before the fall and can affect anyone, including myself. We are all susceptible. But I am afraid all of the work happening throughout the country on such issues like immigration will be ruined because those of us in DC are so consumed with self-promotion. Like no other issue I work on, the funding money available for working on immigration issues to DC organizations is fairly immense and, as a result, the struggle to get a piece of the pie is intense. Several years ago, I was in the thick of the struggle to acquire this funding. But the way in which funders force organizations to behave to acquire funding feels inhumane so I have walked away.

The truth is that the self-promotion I describe above which does such damage to working in genuine partnerships is certainly not confined to Washington DC – it can easily happen in any place large or small! But it is also true that pride is more difficult to sustain the closer you get to the people who are directly and negatively impacted by broken systems. Our efforts to get ahead just do not mean that much to those trying to survive. And that, in great part, is the problem with Washington DC – we simply are too detached. I know it. I hate it. But it is true. When we connect with the people who are directly and negatively impacted by the issues we advocate for I think we will focus less on getting funding and promoting ourselves and our organizations and we will function more as partners, which is the only thing that will defeat the forces of injustice and oppression. The people we advocate alongside of and on behalf of deserve more than our obsession with self-promotion, they need our willingness to sacrifice simply and solely because they have sacrificed so much.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Meanness versus Love and Meanness is Winning

After deporting more immigrants than any President in recent history – and we are talking in the hundreds of thousands – President Obama’s decision this past June to grant deferred status to DREAM Act-eligible students was very much a long-awaited and welcome one. It was, and is, a reason for celebration as it represents a move forward for the movement to defend and support the rights of immigrants. DREAM Act students have led the way when it comes recognizing the presence and contribution of immigrants to this country. They have given this movement a face and a powerful story. Though I am sure this is not what the Republicans meant when they professed last week at their convention in Tampa, “We Built It,” it is certainly a true statement for immigrants to make that claim about the United States – “They Built It” is spot on.

At the announcement of his decision President Obama stated, “[DREAMers] are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper.” He went on to say that his decision represented “a temporary stopgap measure” that would “lift the shadow of deportation from these young people” and make immigration policy “more fair, more efficient and more just.”

I have no doubt the President was moved to act in this way due to two very powerful forces. One is politics: the President must win at least 60% or more of the Latino vote in order to win re-election and he has rightly faced much resistance for his Administration’s frankly reckless handling of this issue and the terror that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have routinely implemented on immigrant communities through raiding immigrant businesses and homes, breaking up families, and deporting hundreds of thousands of people – many of whom represented no threat whatsoever to the safety of their communities. He needed to do something big and he did it.

Secondly, I think the President and his administration have been moved by the stories of DREAMers and the amazing character and bravery they have shown as they have willingly put themselves at the forefront of the immigrant movement. They know that by putting themselves out there they could very well end up arrested and deported by ICE agents, many of whom have shown no respect or regard for the decision made by the President.

To clarify – because there is an attempt by many on the fringe far-right to further demonize immigrants and to cast the President’s decision as one made outside the law – the President’s decision directs the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to stop deporting undocumented immigrant youth and allow them to obtain work permits if they arrived in the United States before they turned 16 and are younger than 30, have no criminal record, have been in the United States for at least five consecutive years, graduated from a U.S. high school or hold a GED, or served in the military.

The President’s decision is definitely NOT the long-term solution we need. We still need Congress to act, to pass the DREAM Act, to reduce the long waits for family members to be reunited, to provide a pathway to undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S., and to protect the rights of workers. But this has been rightly seen as a step forward.

Now, I tend to be jaded and cynical when it comes to politics, but even I did not expect the anger and the backlash by far-right conservatives, some of them whom I thought were not that extreme. Judiciary Committee member and Senator from Iowa, Charles Grassley responded to the President’s announcement, saying, “The president’s action is an affront to the process of representative government by circumventing Congress…It seems the president has put election-year politics above responsible policies.” Hmmm, interesting comments by Senator Grassley, especially since we know that Republicans (and some Democrats) have been putting election-year and xenophobic politics above responsible immigration policies for years. And his concern about circumventing Congress seems also an interesting commentary since Congress – again, due to Republicans and a handful of fearful Democrats – have been circumventing responsible governing for years when it comes to providing humane and reasonable solutions to a broken immigration system. But don’t let introspection get in the way of scoring anti-immigrant rhetorical points Senator Grassley!

Republican Governors have been getting into the act as well. When they aren’t too busy making it impossible for seniors and poor folks who can’t afford government-issued photo ID’s to vote – thereby reinstating the poll tax from the 1950s and before – many Republican Governors are now mandating that state agencies not give driver's licenses or other benefits to undocumented immigrants who obtain work authorizations under the deferred status granted them by President Obama. In states like Nebraska, Mississippi, Texas, Arizona, and others, Governors have chosen to stand in the way of progress and to score anti-immigrant rhetorical points by slamming the door shut in the faces of people who want nothing more than to be recognized as human beings and to contribute to a society that is their home.

This is when anger simply knows no reason, when hatred towards immigrants has no basis other than to simply hate and prevent them from coming into the fullness of their humanity. In many ways, the Governors’ actions taken against DREAMers are redundant to current laws in their states. Therefore, the reason they took their action was not for any other reason than to assert their own (mis)use of authority; to dampen any enthusiasm for the President’s announcement among DREAMers; to perhaps reassert for themselves that theirs is not a dying social and political order. To cut off DREAMers from the state benefits serves nothing other than to be mean and spiteful.

And like all meanness and spitefulness, the negative impact will be felt more deeply by the Governors and their states they supposedly lead than by the DREAMers. As stated above, many of these executive orders given by Governors are already found in current state law. This is nothing new for DREAMers, but by mandating it in this way, the Republican Governors open themselves up for further legal challenges by DREAMers. Those legal challenges are going to cost states financially and these are states that are already ridden with legal costs because of past multiple anti-immigrant laws. In addition, it shows once again that hatred for undocumented immigrants clouds one’s judgment and does not allow people who are in the business of hating and benefitting from hating to see that if undocumented immigrants were allowed to work they would contribute far more to economically strapped states than would doling out thousands of dollars for legal fees for laws that are designed to marginalize and not build up.

At the end of the day, those of us who support immigrants, those of us who are building a movement among people of faith to defend and support the rights of immigrants need to learn one major lesson from all of this mean-spiritedness directed against DREAM Act-eligible students. That lesson is this: anti-immigrant forces have absolutely no interest – and I mean zero interest – in finding common ground for real solutions to a broken immigration system. There is no possibility of negotiation when the other side has nothing on their minds than the absolute and complete deportation of millions of people, breaking up hundreds of thousands of families, and instituting a reign of terror never seen before inside the borders of the United States.

So what do we learn from this? For us to constantly try and negotiate with people like Governor Brewer of Arizona, or Governor Bryant of Mississippi, or Governor Perry of Texas or Kris Kobach, the writer of the Arizona and Alabama anti-immigrant laws, the writer of the voter ID law in Kansas and other states, and the primary advisor to Mitt Romney for his immigration policies shows not only their meanness, but our stupidity. There is only one answer to such meanness: we must build a movement more powerful than theirs. Our movement, based on love and respect certainly has the potential to be more powerful – love is truly the most powerful force in the world. But we have got to stop insisting that we try and find common ground with these people who simply hate immigrants. We have to overpower them, plain and simple. So far, all too often, their meanness has been more powerful than our love.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Why I Love Cleveland

When I tell people that my family and I went to Cleveland for vacation this summer I almost always get this weird reaction: scrunched up nose, quizzical look, and the one word question, “Cleveland?” It reminds me of the line in the film, Good Morning Vietnam, when Robin Williams, who plays a popular DJ in Vietnam in the 60s, is surrounded by several trucks filled with infantrymen and he is asking them where they are from and one responds, “Cleveland,” to which Williams says, “Well, then Vietnam is not that much of a change for you then.”

Such disrespect for Cleveland! But I love Cleveland! The first time I ever went to Cleveland was in the summer of 1995 after my first year of seminary. I had spent the previous year in rural Kentucky (with the four years prior to that in rural Texas as a Youth Pastor) and I was hungry for some urban living. I went to Cleveland to serve as a summer missionary working with African American youth on the East Side through The City Mission.

I arrived in Cleveland with little to no experience living with and serving poor communities. I honestly did not realize how much of a culture shock I was going to experience being a minority race for two and a half months. There were days and even weeks at a time when I would not see another white face. The culture shock though never really hit me until I went back to school in Kentucky for a brief visit just after the summer was over and I was suddenly surrounded by white students. I felt claustrophobic and had a hard time breathing, realizing later that I had a panic attack. It only stopped when I ran back to my car and sat in it for more than an hour.

Being a minority during my time in Cleveland had its’ up and down times. I learned so much from the largely African-American team I served with. I knew nothing about Cleveland and I knew none of the kids The City Mission worked with so I was completely dependent upon the wisdom and knowledge of my team. What was particularly interesting was that I was the sole team member that had any youth ministry experience – I had served as a full-time Youth Pastor in West Texas for four years. The director of the program at The City Mission intimated to me that I might be a leader who could share some of my wisdom with the others on the team, most of whom were one or two years out of high school if that.

I readily assented. The director and I could not have been more wrong. I quickly learned I had very little, if any, wisdom to lend at all. I was entirely dependent on them and so much of the time there I hated it. I remember the first week of summer which was a camp for fourth and fifth graders and I was asked to lead one of the Bible study times for the boys. I can’t remember the exact topic of the study, but it had something to do with Jesus as peacemaker. I started in with my sterling teaching abilities and I remember vividly a small boy, about 10 minutes into the study, raised his hand and asked how was he supposed to be a peacemaker in his neighborhood. As the other kids nodded in agreement, he described the reality – as a fourth grader – that when he walks down the street, if he isn’t ready to fight back, he will at least get beat up, and could maybe get killed. It had happened before to boys his age so he had no reason it could not happen to him.

The question was a serious one – he wasn’t being sarcastic, he really wanted me to answer. I honestly was stunned – I had no idea how to answer him. I had spent my life ministering among youth who knew – as I knew – they could walk down any street they chose at any time they chose and they did not fear a thing. I knew in an instant that my white, suburban, affluent, sheltered gospel was impotent for what these kids lived with every single day of their lives. I knew then that I needed a new gospel, a new message, a new understanding of who Jesus was and how he related with the kids who lived on the East Side of Cleveland. I was face to face with my complete inadequacy to teach these kids about Jesus and it just crushed me. I was helpless.

So, starting that day, and every single day that summer, I learned. I learned from these kids and I loved these kids because they were willing to teach me. I loved them, I listened to them and they taught me what it was to be poor and Black in a city in which they were mostly ignored and in a nation in which they were considered expendable. They feared the streets and they feared especially the police and criminal justice system supposedly charged with keeping the streets safe for them. Almost every day I ran face-first into my preconceptions of life and faith, and every day I discovered my own inabilities and failures, my own prejudices and biases, my own proclivity to lean upon my own understanding rather than to trust God and the people with whom I lived and served among. That summer was more than one luminous moment of transformation for me. I had a hundred epiphanies that summer and most of them revolved around my discovery that my white, suburban, affluent, sheltered gospel was not big enough to love the world, much less to transform it. I needed to see and experience the gospel of the poor, the gospel of a disenfranchised and marginalized African American urban community; in other words, the gospel of the Bible. I was the one in need of transformation.

Driving around Cleveland with my wife and my boys this summer I was filled with memories of that summer in 1995. Man, how I hated feeling so weak and useless. And what I do now to avoid those feelings entirely. But I thank God now for what I learned – it truly changed my life. I also cannot think that in all my work to avoid feeling or looking helpless or useless, have I ever been as effective at loving and serving people as I was the summer of 1995 in Cleveland. But the process of learning often has little enjoyment in the actual moment. I fear to think who I would be without that incredible summer in Cleveland. As a Wesleyan, I believe that salvation is always being worked out within us by God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit. We call it sanctification. I know, in so many ways, the summer of 1995 in Cleveland, OH, among a group of people who the world will probably never know or care about, I was saved every day. Man, I love Cleveland.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A Time to Listen, and a Time to Shout Insanely at the Moon

In response to a call we issued asking for a ban on all assault weapons after the shooting in Aurora, CO I was the subject of an email campaign by a pro-gun organization on the web. Below are portions of some of the emails I received. I will preface this by saying I know not everyone who owns a gun feels this way. But sometimes it is best to amplify the voices of the fringes if we are to know the entrenched interests that are present that are dead-set against responsible gun ownership and public safety. Sometimes these voices are better instruments for change than the dream of a future where swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

After reading these statements, I think we are rightly concerned about the theology that undergirds these beliefs. It means, tragically, that there are a lot of churches not fulfilling their responsibility to equip their members with sound doctrine and a fidelity to Scripture. Lord help us.

Please note, I did not change any spelling or grammatical errors – I left them all intact as I received them.

I stopped going to church because of UMC"s postion on firearms.

I am deeply offended by the stand this body is taking against gun control. For some reason we don’t seem to read the same Bible.
Luke 22:36 “Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one”.
I’ll not say anymore, Jesus said it all.

It would be a rare occasion for me to enter my church and not be discretly carrying a handgun, as I do everywhere. Funny, but I have never found myself feeling the need to shoot anyone while there. However, if the occasion ever arose that someone entered the church with murder on his mind, I might be able to stop it, just as a legally armed citizen might have stopped the Aurora shootings.
I think it’s high time you folks in your ivory tower come out here and meet with some of us common folk. The Washington air has polluted your minds and robbed you of reality. Guns are not the problem – criminals are the problem.

I'm disappointed that you missed this opportunity to teach what the scriptures say about such things. I'm just as disappointed that you took this opportunity to make a shameless stab at an organization which is not in conflict with scripture. The NRA in particular. The NRA fights for freedom and liberty. That is exactly what Christ admonishes leaders to afford to those under their charge. I realize that the laws which you seem to be calling for will actually stifle liberty and freedom. I hope that you have thought about where human nature will cause our future leaders to take liberties away once the public cannot defend themselves from the government.

From an email entitled, “God loves Guns”
I recently attended my father in law's church (he is a Methodist pastor). I was confronted by members of the congregation for wearing a hat, even though I removed it during worship and prayer. Now you idiots are telling me that my God doesn't want us to own guns. You people are what's wrong with religion in this country. God bless America. Stay strapped.

From an email entitled, “Gun Ban and Queers”
How dumb and stupid can the United Methodists get? I have to listen about a UM minister that is in a lesbian relationship and performs lesbian marriages with no way to unlicense her. Someone sends me photos of a 'gay pride' parade and there is a United Methodist Church van in it supporting 'gay pride' and children are in this parade. Now people get killed in a theatre because they can't fight back because of gun control and the UM church wants to bring on 'gun control' so more innocent people can die in the hands of criminals.

A homosexual relationship is banned by the Bible so the United Methodist Church is anti-Biblical. A gun ban is anti-Constitutional so the UMC is anti-Constitutional. A gun ban is anti-Bill of Rights so the UMC is anti-Bill of Rights. You have attacked my Bible and my country's laws and you are unfit to be a religious organisation. I can no longer hold my head up and be proud to be a United Methodist; in fact I will try to keep it a secret and seek membership elsewhere.
I consider the UMC to be on the 'fast track to Hell' and I no longer will be a part of it, I will be moving my membership to another denomination as soon as possible.

The heirarchy of our church is firmly in the camp of the Democratic party and it's socialist, humanist and God defying policies. I trust that you will be held accountable for church statements supporting the murder of the unborn and ordination and marriage of sexual deviants.
I promise that I will do all I can to rid our church of you and others like you who do not reflect the beliefs of the membership and who oppose traditional and Biblical Christian doctrine.

I have read the Methodist Church’s position on gun control. I totally disagree. I’ll have to support new leadership in the Methodist Church that also apposes your anti-gun bias. I suppose you blame easy access to nails and lumber for the crucifixions. Put the blame where it belongs.

I can't believe you people are so naiv about guns. Read your history about disarmed people. How did it work out for the Jews during World War II after Hitler disarmed them? Not so well. Read Luke 22:36: "He said to them, '... And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.'"
Stay out of U. S. Constitutional, & Bill of Rights issues. And, don't interfere with my right to defend myself - with a gun!!!!

If it had been in Texas we would have shown what good gun control looks like while at least 10 of us in the audiance would have returned fire and killed that coward. Gun control means only the bad guy had a gun…If you want protection from a shooter then get a gun and learn how to use it. You can't profile what next idiot will start shooting…AND by the way the commandment is not " Thou shall not kill" its " Thou shall not murder". The Bible doesn't have a problem with protect yourself and your family,someone else' family, or our Country.

We have become a nation without a moral compass - help restore that compass - look at what our Constitutional writers had to say about moral values. It is time to do away with political correctness and entitlements for those who will not work for what the government will give away. Where are our Christian values: a work ethic? talk about that.

It is obvious you are elitists with little or no personal knowledge of guns, who would gladly subject innocent people to defenselessness. I will say that your bigoted hatred of guns, gun owners, gun-rights advocates, & gun-rights associations, has a striking similarity and direct parallels with the racial bigotry of the civil rights efforts since the 1960's.

This was directed to me and my boss:
Both you gentlemen and the United Methodist Church's General Board of Church & Society have stepped up on the bodies of the dead and wounded in Colorado to call for a range of gun-control measures -- including banning handguns -- as a result of the Aurora shooting. SHAME ON YOU! The First Amendment is not a license for religious entities to impose their dogma on society through the law. The vast majority of Americans do not agree with your bigoted anti-gun political-action document.
The United Methodist Church's anti-gun owner dogma is a clear partisan play. The real threat to religious liberty comes from the effort to impose one church’s doctrine on everyone. Also, if you two in particular and the United Methodist Church in general continue to be prejudiced against gun owners, don’t be surprise if more people repudiate the Methodist Church.

Thomas Jefferson put it plainly in several letters/quotes. In the end we may be called upon to defend our country against all enemies—foreign and domestic. You cannot do this with a 22 and a shotgun. Our government knows this and wants to eventually eliminate all citizens owning the means to protect themselves---thereby making us subjects/slaves.


From an email entitled, “Socialism”
Teaching the bible and religous freedom need to be the focus. The path to socialism the Church is on will cause the loss of the right to practice our religion openly. The church should take a hard look at the current direction being followed. It is time to rethink the current path and bring Crist to the forefront, not politics.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Hate Really Does Hurt: A Final Word on Chik Fil A

I haven't posted anything on the Chik-Fil-A controversy because I thought everything was already being said and I am not sure I could have added anything. But here is a letter from a friend of mine who is gay. I always believe that the voices of those directly impacted should be heard above all others. I appreciate his willingness for me to share this.


I haven't engaged in Facebook or Twitter discussions about CFA. I wasn't silent on the issue because I wasn't bothered by the events yesterday, I just felt they were more personal than 140 characters could express.

Seeing the lines at Chic Fil A yesterday, I felt I saw hatred. The people in that line weren't there to defend the right of the CFA CEO to have free speech, many of them were there to say, "queers go home." They were there to display open hate toward a group of people they haven't tried to understand.

This isn't about free speech, this is about hate. Yes, CFA has a right to support, and "speak", with their charitable dollars, any cause they want. Their speech is on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of morality. They have given dollars to a group founded by the CEO which is supporting an effort in Virginia to pass a law specifically saying gays are not part of a protected class -- effectively giving permission to fire someone for being gay, or not rent an apartment to a gay couple, etc.

This group, funded by CFA dollars, has also supported an organization in Uganda that has supported beating homosexuals.

CFA is free to have their opinion and their voice. To me, that voice is one of hate. It is one that says Jimmy, me and people I love are less than human. It is a voice that says we need to roll back the clock, to the time where homosexuality was defined as a mental illness and a criminal act. It is a voice that says gays are deviants and a threat to society.

I equate CFA's views, and those they support, similar to Hitler and the KKK. They are using their voice and dollars to suppress the rights of a group of people. That is wrong.

Worse than CFA is the reaction of the Religious Right community. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, called for yesterday's CFA Appreciation Day. Several times yesterday, I heard him on the radio, along with other "religious" leaders like Rick Warren, celebrating the hundreds of thousands who were standing up for CFA and the Biblical definition of marriage.

It was neither. It was a mob of people supporting hatred. It was people feeling it was ok to hate gays yesterday by having a sandwich. It was a lynch mob sending a message to the fags: stay in line.

As for a Biblical definition of marriage, I guess I have missed the part where it says marriage is between one man and one woman. The Old Testament speaks of one man and many wives, and as many concubines as one can afford.

When Jesus was asked which law was most important, he said, "to love the Lord with all your heart, and to love your neighbor as yourself." Obviously, Rick Warren and Mike Huckabee overlooked that lesson.

Yesterday, I observed CFA Appreciation Day in my own way. I joined the Episcopal Church. While I haven't regularly attended a Baptist Church in over 20 years, I have been a member of a Baptist Church since 1983. So yesterday, I made a decision to leave the denomination of Mike Huckabee, to leave the denomination where I first heard a Youth Minister say "gays are not worthy of salvation and are bound for hell." No more of the denomination that adopts the ridiculous saying, "love the sin, hate the sinner." (is it really up to humans to judge and categorize sin? Aren't we all just sinners?)

Yep, I choose CFA Appreciation Day to move to a church where I feel people have more open hearts and open minds, a place where I feel the emphasis is on love and not on hate.

I also left CFA. No more worrying about whether they will put a pickle on my delicious chicken sandwich. Their speech is protected. But I will no more support speech that pursues objectives which will deny me rights than I would support speech from the KKK which denies rights to people of color. Free speech is guaranteed, even if that speech is hate.

It isn't about chicken, it isn't about disagreement with his right to say whatever he wants. It is about hate.

Shame on Rick Warren, Mike Huckabee and other religious leaders. They are pushing people away from faith. The hate they support, directly or indirectly, leads to fear and nothing good comes of fear.

Shame on CFA for their support of causes which seek to suppress the rights of a group of people and seek to minimize that group.

Hate really does hurt.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

It is Time, Wednesday, August 1 is the Day

This was sent to thousands of United Methodists urging them to join in a call-in day this Wednesday to Leader Reid and Speaker Boehner asking them to take leadership and to enact a strong an effective ban on assault weapons. I hope you will join in this call-in day Wednesday, with the information below.

I know we all were horrified to see the events unfold from the mass shooting in the theater in Aurora, Colorado where 12 people were murdered and 58 were injured. In the days that followed, some have claimed that now is not the time to discuss efforts to dramatically reduce this kind of senseless gun violence from happening again. This same claim was made right after the Tucson gun shooting in January of 2011 that injured Representative Gabrielle Giffords, and in April of 2007 when the terrible gun shooting on the campus on Virginia Tech occurred, as well as in April of 1999 with the gun shooting at Columbine High School. In that time virtually nothing has happened to further the discussion on how to make our communities safer and how to make gun ownership a more responsible process.

I believe the time for a sensible discussion that prevents more victims and saves lives from further gun violence is now. Yes, we will continue to pray for comfort for the families of those killed and for healing for those who were injured and traumatized. And, in addition, we will act to see that this senseless gun violence does not create more victims.

I hope you will join me in letting our political leaders know that the time is over for allowing anti-public safety groups like the National Rifle Association stand in the way of common sense and necessary reforms that will allow gun ownership to be safe and responsible. On Wednesday, August 1, I urge you to call Senate Leader Reid (D-NV) at 1-888-427-0484 and Speaker of the House Boehner (R-OH) at 1-888-427-0480 and tell them:

As a United Methodist concerned about peace and public safety, I urge [Speaker Boehner or Leader Reid] to do all he can to end senseless gun violence such as happened in Aurora, Colorado. This can begin now by a strong and effective ban on assault weapons.

We are focusing on the House and Senate leadership to urge them to make public safety a priority and to put an end to senseless and unnecessary gun violence. We are focusing on enacting a strong and effective ban on assault weapons – a ban that was in place from 1994-2004, during which time there was a 66% drop in the use of assault weapons in crimes – because it has zero effect on those who use guns for sport. We want an assault weapons ban that is “loophole free” to ensure that unscrupulous manufacturers cannot get around it, as too many learned to do with the expired ban.

We are calling both Speaker Boehner and Leader Reid because this is not a Republican or Democratic issue – both parties cower to the money and influence of the NRA. But no longer. It is time for people of faith, it is time for United Methodists to make our voice known and to tell our political leaders that we can have safety in our neighborhoods, on our campuses, in our schools and even in our theaters. They can do something about it, they can. We can take assault weapons – weapons originally created solely for military and law enforcement use – off the streets and out of our communities.

As you call, and as you urge your fellow church members, friends, and family to call as well consider these facts (and you can find out even more on

  • Did you know that just since the gun shooting in Tucson January 8, 2011 that injured Representative Gabrielle Giffords, there have been 60 mass shootings? And during that time there has been no meaningful legislation passed that makes gun ownership a responsible process.
  • Did you know that in an average year, almost 100,000 people are shot or killed with a gun in the United States? 
  • Did you know that in the ten years that assault weapons were banned by Congress (1994-2004) use of assault weapons in crimes declined 66%? This means that banning assault weapons, which are not used by hunters and were originally created solely for use by the military, actually creates safer communities. 
  • Did you know, according to a 2003 study, an estimated 41% of gun-related homicides and 94% of gun-related suicides would not occur under the same circumstances had no guns been present (Wiebe, p. 780). There is a strong correlation between increasing gun ownership in a home with higher rates of homicides, suicides, and accidental shootings. The myth that guns provide safety must be exposed. 
  • Did you know only 1% of gun dealers account for almost 60% of crime guns recovered by police? Did you know, according to a undercover study by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, 94% of licensed dealers approached at gun shows in Ohio, Tennessee, and Nevada, completed sales to people who appear to have criminal records or to be straw purchasers. 
  • Did you know gun violence costs U.S. taxpayers roughly $100 billion annually through medical costs, the costs of the criminal justice system, and security precautions among other costs? Did you know that U.S. lifetime medical costs for gunshot injuries total an estimated $2.3 billion? That's over $6 million dollars a day. 
  • Did you know that exposure to violence, including gun violence, can cause intrusive thoughts and sleep disturbances, emotional withdrawal, and post-traumatic stress disorder among children? These violent acts have the equivalent emotional impact on children as war or natural disaster.
The myths that stand in the way of public safety and an end to senseless gun violence simply do not hold up. Elected leaders will not act though unless they hear from you – unless they are compelled to act. We must compel them. Reinstating the assault weapons ban is sensible and it is something that hunters and those who have nothing to do whatsoever with guns can agree on – no one needs an assault weapon.

Jesus is called the Prince of Peace and he calls those who practice making peace sons and daughters of God. And we know from the gospels that Jesus did not create peace by violent force, but rather, through a force far greater and transformative: love. The Kingdom of God will not be fully manifest if we reinstate the ban on assault weapons. But a ban on assault weapons will certainly save lives and create safer communities. And I believe those are evidence of a world being transformed from the forces of fear by the Kingdom force of love and a concern for the welfare of human life.

So, please share this with others and join with me on August 1 in calling Leader Reid and Speaker Boehner with the message above. It is too important for us not to make our voices heard.