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Monday, April 27, 2015

They Know Me, And They Love Me

This past week I traveled to beautiful San Diego and met with my accountability group, something we have been doing for the last 17 years. It’s a small group of us that got together towards the end of our seminary time and we have been meeting each year ever since.

It might be the most important commitment – outside of our marriages – that we have. It is for me. No matter the job I have, the church I am attending, the place I live or anything else that comes and goes in and out of my life, this group is my mainstay. They know me. They know me better than anyone outside my wife and my boys. And they love me. I know them. And I love them.

Sounds easy enough, huh? It hasn’t always been. Back during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq our group nearly shattered because I took a very hard line against the war. I made it very uncomfortable for anyone to sit silently by, particularly leaders in the church, while the war raged on and precious lives were lost. I said extremely hard things and challenged the members of our group. That war was a moral travesty to the United States and the entire world and support for it – either active or through silent complicity – was sinful. I believed it then and I believe it now.

My fellow members in the group felt judged by me and there were hurt feelings. The truth is, I still don’t regret anything I said or did. If you want to speak prophetically, it is easy to do it when the people to whom you are speaking will either never hear you or will never care what you say because you are so far away from them in status or geographically. Speaking to those you love? Man, it is hard and it hurts. On both ends. I cried many times for the pain that was felt in the relationships that I knew also brought me the greatest amount of joy and encouragement in my life. I felt a greater sense of disappointment and discouragement than I ever have in my life because of the distance between me and the guys in the group.

But we stuck it out. They stuck with me. They know me. And they love me. I know them. And I love them. We still differ on some things, and some of those things are fairly substantive, but our differences do not overwhelm our commitment to one another. Sure, there have been times when it seemed easier to just get out, to just go on, perhaps with people who might agree with me on more issues. But I just kept coming back to this thought: They know me. And they love me. I know them. And I love them. There is just something about this truth that would not let me go these last 17 years.

It won’t let me go now. I need this group now more than ever. I need them to remain faithful to my wife and my family. I need them to remain faithful to my calling to ministry. I need them to remain faithful even to myself. I still hold strong opinions regarding social and political issues. Those values and opinions are dear to me. Those opinions and values shape me and deeply shape my worldview. But those issues and my active engagement in them do not define me in total. I am also shaped very much by the relationships in my life and it has been one of God's greatest gifts to me to be shaped by the men in my accountability group.

I just love these guys. They know me. And they love me. I know them. And I love them.

I tire of the blogs that end with "this is what the United Methodist Church needs" so forgive me as I trespass my own rule, but may I suggest that small accountability groups is something that United Methodists might want to do amidst all of the talk about splitting? Heck, aren’t Wesley’s classes what we came out of? It isn’t just about loving people. We throw that term around far too often and it means very little most of the time. This is about accountability, this is about life together, this is about knowing people. And when you know them; in spite of what you know about them, loving them.

I am talking about being the Body of Christ y’all. If we as United Methodists can’t do this or just simply do not want to do this, then maybe splitting up ain’t such a bad idea. If we can’t love people or if we can only love people who agree with us then we aren’t much of a church in the first place. Regardless of what happens to the institution though I can tell you what I will be doing in 2016. I will be meeting with my annual accountability group somewhere in Texas. You know why? Cuz they know me. And they love me. I know them. And I love them. And man, it’s beautiful. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Death by Hierarchy

I have a friend (no, seriously, I do!) who, several years ago, worked in an urban ministry organization that went through the change of hiring a new Executive Director (ED). The new ED did what all new heads of organizations get to do: he re-structured the entire organization.

Now, my friend was originally excited for the new boss. She and her colleagues were ready for new ideas. She loved her work – especially the people in the neighborhood that she worked directly with.

She, like many of her colleagues, thought at the time that a re-structuring was in order. However, the ED’s new structure quickly countered her hopes for a fresh beginning. She discovered that new structures do not necessarily bring about new ideas or visions. She learned firsthand that you cannot always restructure yourself into renewal.

Before the arrival of the new ED, the urban ministry seemed to thrive in the midst of chaos. It was exciting, but also tiring. When the ED’s new structure was implemented it benefitted a few in the office, but relegated my friend and her colleagues to the lower rungs of the ladder. Those who were promoted were given new titles and higher salaries, which naturally generated some hurt feelings. What once a community of colleagues took on a corporate culture.

While staff meetings previously had included a time for collective sharing and dreaming, the new staff hierarchy assigned decision-making power solely to the senior staff. Ideas could be submitted, but decisions were owned by senior staff and implemented by the rest of the staff. I never knew the toll it takes on a person when you take away their creative input until I saw it in my friend. Communication no longer ebbed and flowed organically among staff as they sought to discover new and innovative ways to serve their community. The ED’s new structure emphasized more tightly controlled means of communication. Ideas and requests flew up the chain while decisions and responses sailed down.

I remember being shocked when I ran into my friend at a conference a few years ago just a few months after the ED’s new structure had been implemented. I literally could see her depression on her face. Whereas she previously had been fully engaged in the life and vision and direction of the urban ministry, it was painfully obvious that she had become cynical and derisive. She still was passionate about the people in her community, but she felt invalidated, detached and alone in the place she once had felt so a part of.

Hierarchy had brought those who sat at the top greater efficiency and control, but efficiency and control do not always result in faithfulness ad effectiveness. In fact, I believe they rarely do. It is my strong contention that hierarchical structures in the church do not reflect Jesus’ Kingdom as much as “flatter” or more egalitarian structures.

Most of the renewal movements in the Church throughout history have reflected aspects of the New Testament church. It is in the birth of the Church that we see worship at its most vital, missional outreach at its most effective, and communal love at its greatest sense of harmony. That is, until a dispute erupts over the distribution of food.

It is in Acts 6 when the Hellenist Jews complained that their widows were being ignored in favor of the Hebrew Jews. This was, in fact, a cultural divide between Jews who spoke Greek and were acculturated in the wide reaches of the Roman Empire. In contrast, Hebraic Jews spoke Aramaic and came from Israel. This dispute over food was not a minor problem over structure or the need for better organization. It was a clash of cultures.

But the disciples instead saw the problem as one of structure and organization. Look at how they respond: “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” (6:2) Of course, in one sense they are right; they cannot do everything. But I cannot help but feel when I read this that they view this problem as less important than their work of preaching and teaching. Their work is viewed as more significant than that of “waiting on tables.” In this early moment in the life of the Church, they have created a hierarchy of responsibility within the Body of Christ. What makes this so problematic is the fact that on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit is poured out and the Church is born, Peter stands up and recites the prophet Joel:

In the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18)

When the day of Pentecost comes and the Spirit is poured out, the hierarchies of the world are flattened. Valleys become hills and hills become valleys. The last will be first and the first will be last. It turns out that God prefers a more flattened structure where all people, men and women, sons and daughters, old and young, slaves and free, are to speak the words of God to God’s people.

I am saddened by what I see in the local churches and agencies of the United Methodist Church today. We seem bent on making the hills more hilly and the valleys more…valleyer? Instead of reflecting the New Testament church’s emphasis on the prophetic priesthood of all believers, we are a corporation filled with employees seeking upward advancement and the titles and recognition that go along with rising mobility. As we develop new structures and fool ourselves into believing God’s anointing will bless our misguided efforts, we too easily forget that those relegated to the bottoms of our little individual fiefdoms will be lost. Many of our pastors and deacons will leave the ministry and while there will be various reasons that account for their departure, one of the reasons I hear often is that they didn’t feel like their ministry mattered to the life of the institution.

God damn us for opting for the life of the institution and the preservation of a hierarchical structure over the gifts and callings of even the “least” of our sisters and brothers in fulfilling their callings and living out their gifts. Hierarchies work for those who are at the top, or those who buy into the ethic of climbing to the top, but hierarchies are not effective when the task is about loving God and loving others. Any structure that relegates large numbers of voices to the bottom and innately values some and invalidates others will never be effective. That is why Paul compares us to a Body with equally important parts, and not just a big head that mandates unthinking, subservient appendages to engage in mostly insignificant tasks for the pleasure and the benefit of the head.


I pray we recover the bottom-up ministry of Jesus and leave the top-down, title-filled, power-hungry hierarchies to the corporations where they belong. If we truly believe in the priesthood of all believers then let’s allow everyone a turn at speaking. Let’s get rid of the titles and the corporate-based salary structure that ignores legitimate need among our pastors and instead rewards institutional ass-kissing. Institutional hierarchies are efficient for those at the top, but they are not effective in helping us love God and love people. Flattened structures may be a little chaotic at times, but it was in those chaotic moments when everything seemed out of control that Pentecost happened once and can happen once again. I say let it come. 

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Danger of Incarnation to National Security

In March of this year Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials conducted an operation called, “Operation Cross Check.” Operation Cross Check detained over 2000 immigrants for the purpose of removing them from the United States. These people were deemed the highest priority for removal by ICE – they were supposedly the worst of the worst. Here is some of what ICE and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials had to say:
  • This nationwide operation led to the apprehension of more than 2,000 convicted criminal aliens who pose the greatest risk to our public safety. Today, communities around the country are safer because of the great work of the men and women of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement - Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas 
  • [Those apprehended in Operation Cross Check] meet our highest priorities to ensure public safety and national security. By focusing on those who pose the greatest risk to our communities, we are marshaling our limited resources in the most responsible manner - ICE Director Sarah SaldaƱa
Boy, do I feel safer since these ICE and DHS officials are out there getting the really horrible people bent on mayhem off of our streets. What they claim might have some veracity except for the fact that they are largely lying.

The Mennonite Central Committee has published a powerful and devastating critique called “Worst of the Worst?” In it, they highlight the blatant falsehoods of the quotes of the officials above. Almost half of those picked up had misdemeanor convictions and of those who had felony convictions, half were immigration-related violations. These are hardly the most dangerous people in our communities.

The Mennonites then highlighted several people who were among the 2000 people swept up by ICE, among them, a Mennonite Pastor named Max Villatoro. Pastor Max had “a records tampering conviction from 1999, related to his trying to obtain a state identification card. He was also convicted of DUI in 1998. Sixteen years later, Villatoro is now pastor of a church, husband and father of four U.S. citizen children, and works to help those struggling with substance abuse and addiction.”

Man, am I glad that ICE has kept this man far away from my community. If they had dared allowed him to stay, many more people might escape the clutches of addiction and might experience the presence of the Kingdom of God anew in their lives.

Yes, I am being sarcastic. But this angers me so much. In the process of “upholding the law” ICE has managed to separate families and weaken our communities, making it that might harder for impacted families and communities to succeed. This is the perfect image of a system that is absolutely broken and in desperate need for repair.

And the ICE officials who issued the above quotes are hoping that you and I will not know the difference. They are counting on us not knowing people directly impacted. Just reading what they said makes it seem like they are watching out for us – that they are genuinely interested in our safety. They are banking on our detachment from the people whose lives Operation Cross Check completely devastated through their sweep. They are counting on the accepted belief – an almost hegemonic belief that is – that law enforcement crackdowns on behavior deemed “illegal” are always a good thing.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have served in urban and impoverished contexts and I believe that the police can serve as a very positive and powerful resource in those communities. But I also know firsthand, that law enforcement crackdowns or sweeps or operations almost always carry destructive results for the most vulnerable people in impacted communities. And whether it be immigration sweeps, or drug busts in urban neighborhoods, or any kind of enforcement operation; these actions are the least effective at really stopping the illegal behavior. But the actions continue because the officials who run them (who are far more at fault than the ICE agents or local police who have to carry them out), are counting on me and you knowing very few if any of those directly impacted. Because if we knew them, we would not allow them to continue.

Think about it. If we really were interested in stopping illegal behavior and preventing those in positions to commit illegal behavior from doing so again, then why, after the economic collapse in 2008, didn’t a bunch of police vans and trucks pull up to Wall Street and then pile in a couple thousand of the hedge fund managers and CEOs and CFOs of the stock-trading corporations that devastated our economy? Talk about amnesty! The hedge fund managers are still in those same jobs (and are back lobbying Congress to let them do what they did before again!) precisely because those of us in the predominant culture know those people. We are those people.

And in this lies the promise and danger of incarnational relationships among those directly impacted by broken systems. The story of Pastor Max is out – it can’t be hidden among the statistics that ICE and DHS officials want to throw at us and pacify us with. The actions of ICE and DHS are not entirely for the benefit of society and now we know that this is true. The good Mennonites who put this important study together have refused to allow his story and others like his to be swept away under the guise of “national security interests.”

There are literally millions of other stories of people whose lives have been crushed by the false claims of “public safety” or “national security.” These are peoples’ lives at stake. These are people from our communities with families who are devastated by dysfunctional and unjust systems; systems that are innately racist and classist. It is those systems that will not stop until people incarnated among those directly impacted stand up and ensure that those stories do not remain hidden. The Mennonites have shown us the way. Shall we follow?