Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Thirty-Five Years and Counting


June 1st I will celebrate the thirty-fifth anniversary of my ordination to the  Christian ministry.   It was the twenty-fifth anniversary of my father's ordination.  He was already serving student parishes when I was born.  For all of my almost sixty-two years I have been a part of this institution, so I am hardly an objective observer.  But I am an experienced one.  I have been a preacher's kid, a lay person in  the pews and a pastor in the pulpit.  I've seen the local church from most all angles, and while it is far from perfect, indeed at times very flawed, it is also an institution which has the capability of being an enormous force for the good in our world today, even as it has been in the past.

My PhD studies focused on church history, in particular, American Church History.  I asked my seminary president what he thought I should major in for my doctorate, New testament Studies, Church History or Theology.  He asked me how I was with languages.  I said, "It's not my favorite part of being a student."  "Well," he said, "if you go into any of those fields you'll need at least two languages, but except for American Church History, you'll need three or four languages."  I opted for American Church History!

In my course work and writing my dissertation, I was reminded over and over again of the many ways we have failed as an institution, how all too often we have been on the wrong side of history.  While the church led the charge in the abolition movement, much of the church vigorously defended slavery for decades.  While some in the church were part of the women's movement, patriarchy was often the rule rather than the exception.  It still is in parts of the church.  While there were and are compassionate folks in the church who have helped address the AIDS pandemic, some in the church have seen it as a punishment for persons living in ways of which they did not approve.  You get my point. 

But all that said--and there is much more that could be said--I remain firmly committed to the church, for I believe that it is an institution that has the capacity to being open to the stirring of God's Spirit.  I believe that it can be (and often is) a source of healing, reconciliation, forgiveness and grace in a world sorely in need of all the healing it can get.

But, as I said, I am far from objective !

Monday, May 18, 2015

Strong . . . or Wrong?

Two years ago, a few weeks after the bombing at the Boston Marathon, I received a package in the mail from my daughter Liz.  She lives in metropolitan Boston, and shares my enthusiasm for the Red Sox.  So I was both surprised and pleased when I opened up the small box and found a cap she had bought for me with the Red Sox "B" logo and underneath it the word "STRONG".

In the weeks and months following that senseless attack, I would occasionally see news articles about how very people who had been impacted by the bombing we living out the Boston Strong motto.  I was especially impressed by the amputees and others who ran in the marathons in 2014 and 2015.  The strength of character demonstrated by such folks truly enhanced the city's reputation.

Then in recent months as Dzohokhor Tsarnaev was tried for his role in the tragedy I once again witnessed various persons showing real spiritual, emotional and psychological strength as they took the stand and testified to what they had seen and experienced on that April day in 2013.  Such testimony always calls for real courage in the face of fear and sorrow.

On the day that Tsarnaev's sentence was to be handed down, I noticed at least one Boston Strong sign among those who waited outside the courthouse.  But, I wondered, what does Boston Strong mean in such a context?  Some have suggested that passing down the death penalty is a show of real strength.  We'll show terrorists we mean business.  But the way I see it, the death penalty is never a symbol of strength.  At best it is a symbol of frustration, at worst, it is a reminder that the human need for revenge can, at times, be overwhelming.

Don't misunderstand, the guilty verdict was clearly the right verdict.  And the jury demonstrated strength in their willingness to sit through testimony that was at times most painful.  I applaud their willingness to serve their community.  And under the circumstances, I can understand their desire to mete out what they perceived to be the most severe penalty for such an atrocious act.  They wanted to be Boston Strong.  But the death penalty isn't strong.  In fact, it is weak, for when it is administered we human beings are giving in to our basest emotions.  Yes, Dzohokhor Tsarnaev should be locked up for life, with no chance of parole.  But putting him to death only reinforces a cycle of violence that leads to more violence.

I will continue to wear my cap.  I will continue to be proud of a city I love dearly.  But each time I wear it I will pause and consider what it really means to be strong.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Needing Some Truth, Needing Some Reconciliation

I recently came across a quote from Desmond Tutu which struck a nerve.  "If you are neutral in situations of injustice," he said, "you have chosen the side of the oppressor.  If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality." 

As I think about the ongoing conversation in our nation about police relations with minority communities, I can't help but wonder what it means to remain neutral.  Clearly, there is a measure of injustice at play.  Clearly, racist attitudes impact such relations.  If remaining neutral means saying, "well, there may be injustice here, or maybe not"--then I am most certainly not neutral.  There is injustice.  Black detainees have been mistreated.  Being stopped and frisked does happen for no other reason than a driver is a young black male.  If being neutral means saying those things may or may not happen, may or may not be fueled by racism, then count me out!  I'm not at all neutral!

But, if being neutral means recognizing that no social ill can be explained away with a simple answer, if being neutral means recognizing that cops are people too, if being neutral means recognizing that many, maybe even most, police officers are doing their job faithfully and well, then count me in.  I am more than willing to take sides about the issue. But I want to make sure we don't demonize either side.  Members of minority communities are human beings.  So are cops.  And we must never forget that. 

But, we must also remember we have a very real problem.  The very ones police officers are sworn to serve and protect often feel they are neither served nor protected.  Indeed, they often feel they are considered less than human.  And often for good reason, for the treatment they receive is at times sub-human.  And no one--no one--should ever feel that way. 

Desmond Tutu was instrumental in helping establish the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa.  A process  that led to genuine understanding and healing between persons who were at least as estranged as cops and minority community members are in our country today.  Perhaps we need to look there for a model.  Certainly we could use some truth.  And a little reconciliation would be a good thing too.  For mice and for elephants--and for all the rest of us as well.

Monday, May 4, 2015

And So We Wait

So, the arguments have been presented and now we wait for the court to make it's decision.  Will the judges allow for marriage equality across the land?  Or will they place limitations on it, maybe even eliminating it altogether?  While the later seems highly unlikely, stranger things have happened over the course of history.

How often do we find ourselves in just such a place?  For me, and many others, I'm sure, the days of waiting are often harder than anything that follows.  I have heard more than one person waiting biopsy results say they just want to know what's going on so they can move forward with their lives.  If it's good news, wonderful.  But if it's not, well then, they can begin to address it.  But this waiting, Pastor.  This is hard!

And so it is.  I've never been known as a patient person.  My seminary president once wrote in one of my first professional references that I was a very gifted person, but--and it was a big but--"but John will need to learn that everything can't happen all at once."  It's a lesson, some thirty-five years later, that I'm still trying to learn!

So we watch and wait as the court makes up its mind.  We've been in this place before, and we'll be in it again.  It may not be marriage equality, or cancer tests, but it will be something.  Because my old seminary president was right, everything can't happen at once.  And sometimes, sometimes, the greatest lessons happen in the gaps, the in-between times, the transitions, the times of waiting.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Tale of Two Women, Part II (with thoughts about Indiana)

There's good news and bad this week.  First the good.  My daughter Liz, her partner Erica and their two children have found an apartment just two blocks from their daughters' school.  It's a bit smaller than where they are now, but they are pleased to have the matter settled.

The further good news is the incredible amount of support they received as they dealt with the blatant bias exhibited by some of the folks they encountered during their search.  In a Facebook post Liz wrote:  "This past month and a half has wreaked havoc on my spirit. I've almost lost faith in [our city], organized religion, humanity in general but you all haven't let me. You've offered prayers and thoughts, legal and tenants' rights advice and referrals, babysitting, storage, guest rooms, and even short term rentals. . . . Thank you all for being there."  I add my thanks as well!  I'm glad my kid and her family have such a supportive network--including her church!

But there is bad news as well.  For religion is still being used as an excuse for biased behavior.  I refer to the so-called "Religious Freedom Restoration Act"(RFRA) just signed into law in Indiana. 

I looked up the legislation itself, and found this summary of the legislation's purpose: "The Religious Freedom Restoration Act .  Provides that a state or local government action may not substantially burden a person's right to the exercise of religion unless it is demonstrated that applying the burden to the person's exercise of religion is 10 essential to further a compelling government interest; and 20 the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling government interest."  The summary goes on to describe legal actions that can be taken if the law is violated.(iga.in.gov/legislative/2015/bills/senate/568)

The bill itself contains definitions of "exercise of religion" and "person" among other items.  I know I'm asking you to wade through a lot this week--but this is important!  Here's the definition of "exercise of religion" put forth in the legislation.  "'Exercise of religion' means the practice or observance of religion.  The term includes a person's ability to 1) act; or 2) refuse to act; in a manner that is substantially motivated by the person's sincerely held religious beliefs regardless of whether the religious belief is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief."

Now don't misunderstand.  I am a big fan of religious freedom!  I think it is essential and have stood up for it more than once.  But that said, religion should not be used to fuel bigotry. A person may believe that black folks are all damned by God, but that doesn't give such a person the right to deny housing or service at a restaurant to African-Americans!  Someone may believe that God demands that women be subservient to men, but that doesn't give such a person the right to refuse promotions to women in business based on their gender!  (I realize such things happen--but they are illegal!)

Part of the issue in the case of the Indiana legislation as it currently stands is that sexual orientation is not a protected class like race or religion or ethnicity.  It is not illegal (in Indiana) to discriminate against someone based on their sexual orientation.  Which opens up the possibility that the RFRA can be used to protect folks like the potential landlords who told Liz and Erica that they wouldn't rent to them because of their "lifestyle" was contrary to the religious beliefs held by the landlords.  

No doubt "fixes" to the legislation will be instituted in the days and weeks ahead--the potential financial cost to Indiana is too great to let it stand!  But Arkansas is considering a similar bill--and across the country, religious freedom is being pitted against civil rights.  And it is one of my core religious beliefs that that is just plain wrong. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

A Tale of Two Women

My daughter Elizabeth and her partner Erica were told earlier this winter that they would need to move out of their apartment.  Their landlords are older folks and have been having some health issues, and so their son is going to move in so that he can watch out for their welfare.  A noble thing to do.

So they've been apartment hunting.  They'd like a three bedroom apartment, but their two daughters could share a room if it came to that.  They've got several real estate agents working on it.  They've announced it at church, they've posted it on their extensive Facebook networks.  They are both employed.,  They have great references.  Their credit checks out.  But despite seeing several places, they've yet to land a new home.

Liz and Erica live in Massachusetts, in one of the most diverse and liberal cities in the country.  Yet what they are encountering a bias.  They suspected it all along, but it was confirmed by their most recent experience.  A potential landlord told their real estate agent flat out:  we won't rent to them because they are, well, you know, two women.  It goes against our religious beliefs.  (I can't help but wonder what they'd say if they knew Liz and Erica's daughters were African-American!)

Liz is a very religious young woman.  Very active in her congregation.  So is Erica. My point is, she appreciates the value of faith and the institutions that support it.  "You know, Dad," she told me the other night, "I'm not going to leave the church or anything, but I do understand better why so many of my friends are opposed to organized religion."

So do I. 

And frankly, it has me worried about the future of religious institutions in general, and the church in particular.  We who are part of an older generation often wonder why young people seem so estranged from the church.  I suspect some it has to do with apartment hunting--so to speak.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The American Family Secret

I've been co-teaching a course on race and religion in nineteenth-century literature this month with my friend Dr. Tom Cooley.  Tom taught English at Ohio State University and is now retired.  He's a very insightful guy, and we've been having a lot of fun teaching together.  That said, this is pretty we're dealing with pretty sobering stuff.

This week we finish up our course taking a look at Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.  It's not the best of books, from a literary perspective.  Nor is it the most theologically sophisticated read of the nineteenth century.  But it's impact on American society is legendary!  Hundreds of thousands of copies sold in the first year alone.  And minds were changed.  That which had been easy for some to ignore, suddenly became very real. 

Nancy Koester, in her excellent Harriet Beecher Stowe:  A Spiritual Biography, recounts Stowe's comment that writing about slavery felt like being "forced by some awful oath to disclose in court some family disgrace."  (147)  And of course, it was and is.  For the American family, it was a great disgrace.  Something we don't want to talk about--a family secret.

But talk about it we must.  For it's impact, these many decades later, is still being felt.  For though great strides have been made in terms of the laws of the land, racial bias still lies just below the surface, just waiting for a Ferguson or a frat house video to come along and remind us of it's destructive power.

Only when our biases are exposed to the light of day can we see them clearly enough to remove them.  That's why I'm teaching about our history as a nation.  The problems we face today didn't come out of nowhere.  They are deeply rooted in the soil and souls of our beloved country
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