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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Nothin' but the Truth

Recently I saw the excellent film, Kill the Messenger, which is about Gary Webb, a journalist in the 90s who uncovered the truth of US complicity in the drug trade from South America during the 1980s. It was during the 80s that the US professed to be committed to a “War on Drugs.” The failed “War on Drugs” is not the central part of the film, but it sets the backdrop; an enormous system dead-set on protecting a false reality that is pierced by Webb’s investigative reporting. Webb’s truth-telling at first brings great acclaim and notoriety to him and his paper and while I won’t spoil the ending, the notoriety does not last as the systemic powers intent on self-protection came against not just Webb’s story, but Webb himself.

It is a powerful film and I strongly recommend it not only to highlight the horrible drug policies and sentences that the United States has maintained for over four decades now, but I also recommend it for those who truly desire to tell the truth regardless of the consequences and no matter how big or entrenched the powers are we speak the truth to. The reality is that truth-telling is never without consequences.

I tire of the clichés used when people talk about telling the truth. There is “telling truth to power” which I hear at the endless rallies where people are standing outside some building signifying an entrenched power, screaming and yelling while some speaker makes the claim they are “speaking truth to power.” No, you are screaming at a building in which, most likely, not a single soul can hear you or gives a damn what you are saying. But everyone in the crowd yells their assent more out of their own need to feel like they are making a difference than actually making that difference real. If you find yourself at a rally where the speaker rails on and on about speaking truth to power just know that you are likely speaking truth (or better yet, someone’s weird agenda) to concrete and mortar. Rallies tend to benefit us more than transform entrenched power.

Or another cliché is when I hear someone say we must “speak the truth in love.” This is usually spoken by someone who loves more than they tell the truth. In fact, they are so afraid of the truth that they add the love stuff so they don’t have to hear the truth at all. Too much love without truth is like wet oatmeal – yuck.

To speak truth as Jesus did – to speak truth that could possibly result in individual and societal transformation or could possibly end in your own demise – I believe inherently involves risk. We have to have skin in the game so to speak. Whether it was confronting his own disciples for their lack of faith, or especially confronting the religious leaders for their lack of faithful example and their corruption that came through protecting their entrenched status and power at all costs, Jesus risked the fragile movement he was building in being brutally honest.

Matthew 23 is one of those Bible passages that is rarely preached on because it makes us so damn uncomfortable. Jesus is not trying to take over the place of the Pharisees and scribes so there is no turf war happening (though they think he is). He simply wants them to be something that many of them seem incapable of being: true to who they claim to be. If Jesus had won the religious leaders over, his movement would have, at least momentarily, been sustained. But Jesus preferred honesty to his own temporal success. So he blasted them.

And man, did they ever get even. They colluded with the very power they were most worried of corrupting the culture of their faith: Rome. Jesus spoke the truth directly to the face of those who most needed to hear it – no articles, no emails, no fundraising campaigns denouncing the religious leaders so that his ministry could collect funds, no ulterior motives or covert agendas. His tirade in Matthew 23 was public, it was straightforward, it was angry, it was right, and most importantly, it was honest. It should be said that Jesus’ verbal assault in Matthew 23 was preceded by a number of open invitations to all people throughout the gospels – religious leaders included. We don’t get to be brutally honest unless we also radically love. But let us also not forget that brutal honesty is a necessity of that love.

Speaking the truth cost Jesus his life. I worry today that we are more afraid of speaking the truth than in living comfortably with lies. I am concerned when United Methodist clergy insist that they must protect lifetime appointments if they are to speak prophetically. I suggest that clergy can’t speak prophetically – they cannot speak truth that entails any risk unless their security in the institutional system is removed. I know that sounds harsh and many will not agree with me, but I truly believe that it is only when we speak the truth and have our own position or title at risk that what we speak has a chance to truly be prophetic. It is when what we say has the equal possibility to individually or collectively transform or to cause our own demise that we can honestly say we are being prophetic. Until then it is far too often merely rhetoric.

The liberation we can know when we risk our status, titles, and position to speak the truth far outweighs the pseudo-comfort we mistakenly believe will keep us secure. Could it be that this is the kind of truth that will set us free? 

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Dangerous and Contagious Outbreak in the United States

Take a crisis happening somewhere in the world, such as a dangerous and infectious disease, bring it closer to the US, add in an election year, throw in radio and TV pundits who seem to get a kick out of making the most bizarre claims with no basis, and that recipe will produce not just fear-based over-reaction, but sheer stupidity. The United States is indeed in danger of a deadly and highly contagious outbreak, but I am not talking about Ebola. I am talking about stupidity based in fear.

Whether it is listening to the questions from members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee at their hearing on Ebola this week, or hearing from folks on TV claiming that Ebola was started by the US government, or that President Obama doesn’t care about stopping Ebola in the US because he favors Africa (yeah, I am not sure I get that one either), and you will see some of the worst aspects of US society.

While there is such a tremendous need for building the catastrophe response systems and healthcare systems in many of the affected countries, the one constant refrain I hear as a solution to stop the spread of Ebola is flight bans from West African countries (although I have even heard some say from all African countries). Once again we have a serious issue before us and our elected leaders and media pundits are responding from a protectionist and isolationist position. Build walls or fences, seal borders, arm ourselves to the teeth (and pay out our nose to defense contractors for those overly priced and unnecessary arms), live in gated communities, lock our doors and isolate, isolate, isolate. We have done this before; in fact, all too often.

Before we forget:
  • Earlier this year when larger than normal numbers of children were arriving on our southern border fleeing violence from Central American countries, a number of elected leaders and media analysts called for their immediate deportation with no due process and regardless of whether they might be sent back into the violence from which they came.
  • In 2005, the House passed H.R. 4437, the anti-immigrant bill that sparked mass protests across the nation. The legislation not only made undocumented status an aggregated felony (it currently is a civil, not a criminal offense), but it also criminalized communities – including faith communities – that offered aid to immigrants. 
  • And we can go back to the 1950s with McCarthyism and the HUAC hearings (House Un-American Activities Committee, which actually was not abolished as a committee until 1975).
  • Other instances include a number of anti-immigrant bills aimed at Asians in the early 1900s, the PATRIOT Act and other similar suppressive bills in each of the wars fought by the US (going back to the first Alien and Sedition Act passed under President John Adams), the broken treaties and genocide of Native Americans, and of course, the heinous Jim Crow laws put in place following the failed Reconstruction after the Civil War.
All of these efforts (and so many I did not name) certainly are unique and differ from one another contextually, but yet, they all seem to include over-reactions to outside threats based in fear and which result in horrible policies that ended in devastating consequences on so many populations.

The US response to the Ebola crisis seems to be well on its way down the same road, sadly. Banning flights, claiming the US government is hiding information, calls for sealing the southern border because of a baseless fear that ISIS is planning on infecting themselves with Ebola, cross the southern border and then infect everyone they find; all are making the rounds on TV and Capitol Hill and creating panic instead of the strategic planning needed to effectively confront this deadly disease. Throughout the madness you can hear the constant theme (more like scream), batten down the hatches, lock and seal the doors and windows, and keep “them” out until we are safe.

One reason why banning flights is a horrible idea is that the current policy in place includes screening all passengers on flights from affected countries. This screening examines passengers before they leave and after they arrive and quarantines all who have any symptoms of Ebola. Ebola is only contagious when someone exhibits symptoms. This allows us to know who is travelling, from where they are coming, and where they are landing. This is precisely why we have isolated cases of Ebola in the US and not an outbreak.

If we ban all flights from West African countries it would be easy for someone from one of those countries to fly to another country with no flight ban and then to fly, undetected and unknown, to the US. Banning flights would actually accomplish what we are trying to defeat. And banning flights does nothing to build the infrastructure in impacted countries, train doctors and nurses, or other important work to stop the spread and effectively treat those currently affected, all of which should be of highest importance right now.

The protectionism seen throughout history and now in the Ebola crisis is natural. When real threats present themselves, it is normal to shrink back and be protectionist. But this does not mean it is smart. And it certainly does not mean it is missional either. Taking even a cursory look at the gospels we see Jesus engaging not isolating:
  • In John 4, Jesus intentionally travels into Samaria – a no-no for most pious Jews of his day, and then interacting with the woman at the well from a position of need making a request for her help, not dictating what she must do to be saved,
  • In Luke 8, Jesus, walking in the midst of a crowd to an important religious leader’s house to heal his daughter, stops to heal – physically and socially – a woman afflicted with a disease that has likely caused her years of shame and social marginalization,
  •  And in John 9, Jesus heals a man born blind while his disciples and others seem content to discuss philosophical questions on the origin of his "sin."
And there obviously are so many other examples. Jesus engages and interacts from an incarnational position while others – at times the Pharisees and in some instances even his own disciples, seem more comfortable to stay on the sidelines offering needless commentary. Or worse, they join in the cursing of the vulnerable and blame them for their own suffering. I fear we are careening towards the latter approach in response to the Ebola epidemic rather than following the way of Jesus.

In the midst of blatant fear-mongering and the stupidity that arises from it the Church can have a real impact. In addition to the direct service to those currently infected – and the example of Dr. Kent Brantly should not go unnoticed. Dr. Brantly is the Christian doctor who was infected with Ebola while serving patients in Liberia and now, after being cured, has offered his blood to those with Ebola. We can offer ourselves as well, including:
  • We can call our elected leaders and demand an end to the fear-mongering for the sake of political gamesmanship. We can ask our officials what they are doing to build the infrastructures and repair the healthcare systems in the affected countries and ask them to focus on these efforts.
  • We can educate our congregations to the factual ways in which Ebola is transmitted and pray for the Church in affected countries, and supporting ministries such as UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) who are doing all they can to stop the spread of Ebola.
  • And long term, we can ask that our foreign policy be based more on the need to protect the human rights of all people – especially those whose voices are not able to pay high-priced lobbyists when it comes time to pass budgets (as seen in 2013 when the budget for the Center for Disease Control was cut by $770 million – don’t we wish we had that money back!) rather than just protect US interests alone.
The voice of the Church is to be prophetic in the midst of violence and greed, the voice of calm in the midst of unrestrained panic, the voice of reason in the face of stupidity, and the missional presence of love in the midst of fear. Unfortunately, all of this is needed in our current national “discussion” on the Ebola crisis right now.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

An Update on My Sabbatical

As many of you know I have been graciously given a time of sabbatical from my work at the General Board of Church and Society. I have worked at GBCS for over 8 years. It is a job I love – getting to connect and support the work of United Methodists as they incarnate themselves among people directly impacted by the broken systems of immigration, mass incarceration, and other issues of justice is one of the greatest blessings of my life. Still, I desperately needed this time of rest and renewal.

I must say at the outset that I LOVE sabbatical. One of the primary goals of my time away has been to better connect with my family, my amazing wife, Marti, and my two incredible boys, Eli and Isaiah. For my work I travel quite a bit. And I must admit, I love connecting with United Methodists passionately incarnated among people directly impacted by injustice in their home contexts. I love seeing life from their perspective – something that simply cannot be done from a desk in Washington. But at the same time, I hate travelling – endless airports and airplanes and hotels – ugh. It wears me out. So, I have loved being home, just being present. Each morning I take each of my sons to school and we get to talk about stuff, from the mundane to the profound. We always recite a specific Scripture verse – this year it is Hebrews 12:1 – and then we will talk about something funny, or deep, or current or whatever. I love these times in the mornings. My boys amaze and fascinate me.

I have been present with Marti as well. Helping out with cooking or cleaning, running the boys to their events or activities, walking the dog, doing chores around the house, all has been of help to Marti (or I sure as hell hope so). During all of my travels she has been forced to be a working one-parent home; something that is very difficult to have to constantly do. I honestly do not know how one-parent families do it day after day.

Much of my focus during my sabbatical has been simply creative and free expression. One thing about being in a prescribed role for 8 years – and that role being located within a highly institutional and sometimes rather rigid bureaucracy – is that it can start to feel a little cramped at times. I crave freedom and creative expression. My sabbatical has allowed me to open that up big time. In fact, I have been surprised how much I have enjoyed the no-holds-barred time to think and dream and express.

One project I worked on that gave me such creative expression is the challenge I participated in, 30 Ding Dongs in 30 Days. Yep, entirely stupid, but it is something no one has ever done and that alone appealed to me. I filmed myself eating a ding dong every day for 30 days – a completely dumb idea, but also one I found myself strangely passionate about. Some of the films took over 3 hours for me to shoot and edit. And I loved every minute of it. It has felt like being let out of a cage. My favorite part was “premiering” them for Marti and the boys over dinner.

Blogging, tweeting and being the usual smart-ass on Facebook have proven avenues for me to let loose. It’s been cathartic. Again, I have surprised myself with how much I have enjoyed this and how much I crave it.

What I am learning in this time is that, at least for me, sabbatical is not so much about a list of things to do or accomplish, but rather, a time for new dreams and new perspectives. And my hope now is that I won’t return to the same work I used to do being done in the same way. I want new wineskins for new wine. Renewal must include re-evaluation of who I am and what I am doing and where I am going. It has become a time to be reborn in many ways. Even physically, as I have re-pierced my ears and starting allowing my beard to grow (I would have done the same with my hair, but there’s not enough to grow it long again!).

One thing I know is that I have no desire to go back to work and do the same things as I was doing before – the same things that brought me remarkably close to total burnout. This was an almost burnout that was coming because of the 12-16 hour days I had to pour in to get even the smallest amount of growth in building movements towards social justice. Perhaps this is true no matter the context, but I have found that trying to build movements for justice from within a highly institutional organization that is hierarchical and has been wracked by years of detachment between the national and the local is like moving mountains. I mean that literally, not figuratively. I don’t spend most of my time building trust with people in local congregations – I spend all of time doing that. It leads me to the inevitable consideration of whether or not the very structure of the United Methodist Church lends itself to the impossibility of building movements from within. You can bet this will occupy my thoughts and dreams in the time I have left. Dreaming and thinking outside the box revs my engines even at the mere thought.

I have written previously of the need for more institutional imagination and I will continue to spend time on this for the duration of my sabbatical not only for the health of GBCS or the United Methodist Church, but for my own as well. But for now, I will gladly and passionately pour myself into my time away: my time connecting with my family, being weirdly creative and a royal pain in the ass to the powers and individuals who benefit from screwing the poor and marginalized. This is a small step in my overall journey I know, but it feels pivotal and I am loving it.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Using Institutional Imagination (and I Need Your Response!)

I am not oblivious to the struggles of the United Methodist Church. Indeed, there are many. But frankly, I get tired of the endless blogs and articles by writers of all kinds claiming they have the “answer” to those struggles. I also tire of the endless finger-pointing for our struggles as well. I can’t help but wonder if we stopped writing and debating, finger-pointing and scapegoating, how much more our churches might have space for the Kingdom of God to break through.

So, this is not another “I have the answer” post on the struggles of the UMC. This is me trying to honestly wrestle with how I can be faithful where I am to bear witness to God’s love for the world.

I was spurred to writing as I was reading a book during my sabbatical time called, Church in the Present Tense. To be honest, the book, mostly about emerging churches, didn’t impress me all that much, but two pages struck me as I was reading. One quote reads, “any institution that forms to deliver good practice will always wrestle with becoming so bureaucratic and concerned for itself that it undermines the very thing it seeks to define.”

Before I unpack this a bit, I do want to say that United Methodist agencies are not the only bureaucracy in the UMC. Bureaucracies, or what I think of as collective power remaining at the top of hierarchies that unfairly at times impact the lives of people who are kept out of the power, are present in any system of governance, including the local church. In fact, from my experience, local churches are notorious for bureaucracies – bureaucracies that often stifle creativity and promote turf protection. This is seen in the chair of the finance committee who has been chair for years and refuses to step down because he (yes, it is usually a man) gives the most money to the church and subtly threatens to withhold his funding if his reign is not upheld. That is a bureaucracy and it is destructive to the mission of the Church.

The quote above hit me hard because as much as I hate to admit it (and words cannot express how fully I hate this admission), I am part of a church bureaucracy. Double UGH. Now, I can’t stress it enough: I love what I get to do. I get to help support the struggle for justice by some of the most amazing followers of Jesus, many of whom are directly impacted by injustice and by those incarnated among those directly impacted by injustice.

But, working at a general board means like it or not I am part of a bureaucracy. And like all bureaucracies – as the quote points out – there are times when we have been more concerned with our own existence than with what our mission is and should be. Defending one’s existence and funding stream seems to be the primary concern at every General Conference for every agency, committee, or group within the UMC.

It is a legitimate fear by all accounts, but like all fears, it is given far too much weight and often allowed to fill up the space for discussion and work to such an extent that it chokes the very work we are called to do; it “undermines the very thing it seeks to define” as the author puts it. The fear choling the real work and mission honestly keeps me up at night.

But what was so instructive for me in this book was that the author didn’t advise chunking the institution altogether as so many “solutions” offered by so many concerned United Methodists seem to be drawn to (including me at times). Instead, the author challenges us in this way: “The relevant issue is not whether we can avoid being an institution but that of imagining forms of institution that can support and not hinder the purposes for which they were created.” The writer calls for institutional imagination. That’s so funky I loved reading it. At the same time, I was a little let down because the author didn’t really spell it out.

But I can speak for me, institutional imagination brings to mind the effort to utilize all of the institutional resources to build relationships with the amazing United Methodists directly impacted by injustice or with those who are incarnated among those impacted by injustice and to support their work.

This is where I live and breathe.

The natural question I think is good to ask is why aren’t those in leadership positions of the UMC asking questions about institutional imagination (and to be equally honest, some are). I want to suggest that some of it is due to the institutional culture that often exists in bureaucracies. While most discussions of culture are done in a positive light, in his discussion of culture, Sherwood Lingenfelter reminds us that culture is also a prison. He claims that, “We find comfort, security, meaning, and relationships. Yet the walls of culture restrict our freedom and sets barriers between us and others of different ethnic origin” (1998:20). Challenging one’s cultural walls is like challenging one’s identity.

Part of what makes the discussions of deciding the future mission of the UMC is that these are not abstract conversations. They are very personal – the reason for so much heat often with very little light. Often times, our identity is wrapped up in the very bureaucracies in which we exist – whether they are at the general church or local church level. Thus, finding institutional imagination within the bureaucracies that fear for their professional livelihoods might not be the best place to find the imagination we need.

Going back to the example of the chair of the finance committee who refuses to step down, some of the best imagination for how the finances of that church can be used missionally will come from those who have never served on that committee.

So, this is where you come in. Like I said, there are some within the bureaucracies who are thinking and working with a wild and creative institutional imagination. Pray for those people.

Whether it is on this forum or on Facebook, I want to hear from you. Don’t just read this blog and walk away. If you are a United Methodist you have a voice and it should be heard. How can the institutions of the UMC be more creative in supporting the work of United Methodists in mission?

I feel like if I can’t hear from you and from other United Methodists we might as well pack it up.

I would love to know. So here’s your chance – respond!!