Friday, January 16, 2015

The Spirit of the Age

Each year, as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day rolls around, I pull King's book, Stride Toward Freedom off the shelf and reread it. This is his personal telling of the Montgomery bus boycott, launched by the arrest of Mrs. Rosa Parks. It is a powerful and "tear-jerking" tale of something wonderful that happened that began prying open the floodgates of racial justice. King just doesn't chronicle the story--he comments, theologizes and philosophizes about what really happened during those events. Here is  his telling of the arrest of Rosa Parks:

On December 1, 1955, an attractive Nego seamstress, Mrs. Rosa Parks, boarded the Cleveland Avenue Bus in downtown Montgomery. She was returning home after her regular day's work in the Montgomery Fair--a leading department store. Tired from long hours on her feet, Mrs. Parks sat down in the first seat behind the section reserved for whites. Not long after she took her seat, the bus operator ordered her, along with the three other Negro passengers, to move back in order to accommodate boarding white passengers. By this time every seat on the bus was taken. This meant that if Mrs. fParks followed the driver's command she would have to stand while a white male passenger, who had just boarded the bus, would sit. The other three Negro passengers immediately complied with the driver's request, But Mrs. Parks quietly refused. The result was her arrest.

There was to be much speculation about why Mrs. Parks did not obey the driver. Many people in the white community argued that she had been "planted" by the NAACP in order to lay the groundwork for a test case, and at first glance that explanation seemed plausible, since she was a former secretary of the local branch of the NAACP. So persistent and persuasive was this argument that it convinced many reporters from all over the country. Later on, when I was having press conferences three times a week--in order to accommodate the reporters and journalists who came to Montgomery from all over the world--the invariable first question was: "Did the NAACP start the bus boycott?"

But the accusation was totally unwarranted, as the testimony of both Mrs. Parks and the officials of the NAACP revealed. Actually, no one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually the cup of endurance runs over and the human personality cries out, "I can take it no longer." Mrs. Parks's refusal to move back was her intrepid affirmation that she had had enough. It was an individual expression of a timeless longing for human dignity and freedom. She was not "planted" there by the NAACP, or any other organization; she was planted there by her personal sense of dignity and self-respect. She was anchored to that seat by the accumulated indignities of days gone by and the boundless aspirations of generations yet unborn. She was a victim of both the forces of history and the forces of destiny. She had been tracked down by the zeitgeist--the spirit of the time. [Stride Toward Freedom, Harper and Row Publishers, San Francisco, 1985, pp. 43-44]

Thank God for the zeitgeist, or the "spirit of the age." When she lands in human affairs, things begin to happen and things begin to change! The zeitgeist is an incarnation moment when the divine intersects with humans, and often, "regular folk" become the catalyst for novelty. If there is a giant "justice timeline" on the walls of Heaven, you will see on it the account of Mrs. Rosa Parks.

And what of King? He was the "new kid in town" in the local ministerial association, and thereby was contacted by a clergy colleague officer in that ministerium and asked to intervene on Mrs. Parks' behalf. He did, and the rest--as they say--is history. He, too, was singled out by the zeitgeist for a leading role in the unfolding, shining moment of human justice and freedom.

Of course, the pursuit of racial justice is an unfinished agenda. Ferguson showed us this. A recent study released by the University of Pittsburgh and splashed across the front page of the Post-Gazette shows us this, too. (The study showed that the economic disparity between whites and persons of color is no better now than it was two decades ago, and this disparity is much larger in Allegheny County than is the national norm.) M.L. King once said that the most segregated hour of the week is Sunday morning at around 11:00AM. The church has not shown itself much of an agent of the zeitgeist in this matter.

So, we can wonder when the zeitgeist will strike next? Some--such as author Thomas Piketty--suggest that the huge, huge wealth/income gap between the "haves," the "have nots," and the middle class may trigger a visit of the Spirit of the Time. I think the zeitgeist may already be at work in the national movement for equality of rights for same-sex couples and LGBT persons. How about the growing problem with gun violence? The zeitgeist may be the only stroke of divine/human power that can take on the NRA, whose agenda is getting curiouser and curiouser (a spokesperson for the NRA recently said on a TV talk show that Americans should be permitted to own any weapon their government could use against them, including a cruise missile or a warhead!).

But this we know--for the zeitgeist to appear, a human being has to stand up--or sit down, in the case of Mrs. Parks--and say "enough." Who will be the one to say "enough" to continuing racial injustice? Who will be the one to say "enough" to the disparity of wealth? Who will be the one to say "enough" to the ecological destruction of Planet Earth? (A recent report by the Commonwealth organization said that we have already crossed 4 of 9 key danger thresholds in maintaining the viability of Earth to sustain human life.) Who will be the one to say "enough" in the church to using the Bible to bash gay people and make then "second class" Christians? (Yes, this is a controversial topic among persons of faith, but let's just see where the zeitgeist lands in this one!)

Who knows? Maybe 2015 will be "The Year of the Zeitgeist"! Blessings, Yinz.

Friday, January 2, 2015

2015...and Counting

How long will it take me to get into the routine of writing 2015 instead of 2014? Is that another one of those "You know you're getting old when..." confessions? With the new year comes all of the prognostications, hopes, fears, and resolutions which add to its mystery and overload our expectations. And then it is over before we know and we have to start writing 2016 on our checks and forms!

As my personal years advance, I find myself wondering more about what the future will hold. My Christian faith serves to remind me that I am not alone on this quest, and that whatever may happen, it will not be beyond God's grace and presence. As a United Methodist in the wesleyan tradition, in theological parlance, I don't believe God has an ironclad "will" for my life, which I must live out sort of like a rat in a cheese maze. Instead, I believe God works in "partnership" with my gifts, interests, and circumstances to assist me in carving out a life with meaning, and one dedicated to serving others. While I do not believe my primary purpose is "to glorify God," I suspect that if I live out what my life calling is, and what I am about, then God would probably be pretty happy about that.

One of the things I feel "called" to is to be an encourager of persons. With love as the prevailing operative, I do my best--both in my vocation as a pastor and in my role as me (husband, father, grandfather, friend, neighbor, etc.)--to be a positive presence in each person with whom I am privileged to interact. And I am usually drawn to those who are the most currently oppressed by the society and/or the church. Ethnic minority persons will always be high on this "encouragement" agenda, but the most current group I am trying to affirm are LGBTQ persons, as they are still "second class citizens" in my denomination, and may even suffer more hurtful oppression in some churches. May 2015 be the year we stop harassing people and include all persons in the Realm of God and the full participatory life of each church. As I told my current congregation in one of my first sermons, "If our interpretation of the Bible causes you to exclude persons who do not wish to be excluded, then your interpretation is in error. A simple "The Bible says..." is never an acceptable way to shut out any child of God who wishes to fully participate in the church.

Oh, and as persons of color will quickly remind us, mere encouragement is not enough. Justice doesn't happen just by well-wishing or back-slapping "atta-boys." May 2015 be a year the church seriously focuses on justice as well as justification. 2014's numerous incidents of deadly clashes between minority persons and law enforcement officials reinforce the fact that institutional racism is still an unfinished justice agenda. Our systems are still prejudiced and repressive. And we can be concerned for the injustices suffered by persons of color and believe also that "police lives matter." These two "sides" should never be "sides," and we cannot be seduced by the narrow view that they are mutually exclusive. One can want justice for blacks and have respect for law enforcement, but the justice part can't happen until our law enforcement officials exorcise all vestiges of prejudice and fear based on skin color.

I'm also praying that 2015 will be a year when grace gushes forth from God and through God's people. May we not just espouse our opinions, be they political or otherwise, without relying upon this grace available to all. Grace is both the vehicle of forgiveness and the grease of justice. Let's stop bashing one another--that will be the single most effective way of glorifying God! And the time to start is upon us. As someone posted the words of the Dalai Lama on Facebook this morning: "There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done. One is called yesterday and the other is called tomorrow, so today is the right day to love, believe, do and mostly live." Amen. Peace, Dear Ones!

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...