Thursday, December 21, 2017

Candles and Lights...

At St. Paul's, as in some other churches that started Advent a week earlier than the liturgical calendar suggests, we have four candles burning on our Advent display. Each of these candles slices through the darkness, as the Fourth Gospel says, "...and the darkness has not overcome it."

I like candles. I probably got this appreciation from my father, who was always buying, making, and experimenting with candles. He wouldn't just burn them, but would "fuss" with them when they weren't burning brightly and consistently, a quirk of many a "fat" or "pillar" type candle. Especially at Christmas time, the Sterlings would have numerous candles burning throughout the house. (With my two brothers and me, it's a miracle we never burned the place down.)

Candles burn wax (or often today, soy) via a wick that allows it to be slowly digested. While the flame is rapid oxidation, the ancient technology of the candle slows this to a crawl. Originally, candles were made from beeswax, and the best ones today still are. So, each simple candlelight is a product of the science of rapid oxidation, the burning of wax bees create to house both their young and the honey they produce, and mediated by a wick typically made from woven cotton. Candlelight requires some sacrifices and science to exist, but it has defeated the darkness for millennia, lighting churches, schools, homes, and places of commerce. Few of humanity's advances would have been possible, were it not for those earliest days of candlelight.

The other lights of Christmas have evolved, beginning with the candle as well. Edison's invention brought forth strings of large, hot, colored lights that began to adorn Christmas trees and porch eaves. I'm old enough to remember the transition to "miniature" lights, and while these offered a much simpler and "twinkling" alternative to the earlier incandescents, they introduced a greater frequency and fervency of profanity to the decorating process. Still, this newer technology caused neighborhoods to explode with the colorful lights of Christmas, unless you were one of those "all white," or "all blue" people. Our family never had the economic resources to be the Griswolds, but my Dad did always decorate our front door, illuminating it with a huge spotlight. Leaving our house at night at Christmas time meant being blinded for about the first five minutes or so.

When we were kids, my Dad would load us into the car and we would drive all over Venango County looking at Christmas lights. I continued the tradition, doing this with our kids, and to be honest, Dara and I usually take an annual drive to do the same. Christmas lights are still magical to me. The beginning of my personal Christmas spirit begins when I see the first seasonal lights in the neighborhood appear.

Now that we have our own house, I have taken to decorating outdoors as well. We have a townhouse, which is three stories high, so I'm not climbing a 40-foot ladder to hang lights. So thankful am I for the "latest in 21st Century Christmas lighting technology," the laser Star Shower!

Candles and Christmas lights are one way we announce to a world needing the illumination, hope, and love of God, that Christ has come into the world to BE the light, and to shine that light in such a way that the darkness shall not overcome it! So, let the light shine! Whether it is the flickering flame of the ancient technology of the candle, or the shimmering, bright points of light from a laser Star Shower, let our lights speak of the eternal light of Christ, a light that shines in the hearts of all of the children of God far beyond the short days of the Christmas Season! And may the darkness never, ever, EVER overcome it! Merry Christmas, Yinz!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Now is the Winter of our discontent...

While this line from Richard III by Shakespeare has nothing to do with the snow flying outside my office window right now, it seems a perfect lead-in to a column about the season.

It IS snowing, as I write this, and since it is a Wednesday, St. Paul's has its ambitious schedule of our children's program, Kids Go and Grow with God (KG3), choir practice for their big music program this coming weekend, a parents' LifeGroup, and the evening iteration of my mid-week Bible Study, ahead. Already people are calling wanting to know if we are cancelling activities for the evening. If I were still serving in Warren, PA, the calls would bring laughter on the staff-side, as cancelling events in Warren because of snowfall less than a foot is, indeed, laughable. But here in Allegheny County, it doesn't take many flakes looking like they will stay on the roadways more than 30 seconds to set off a wave of cancellations. I think the local TV stations hire extra personnel this time of year just to post that crawl at the bottom of the screen listing them all. Of course, our track record here at St. Paul's is not great when we DO cancel, given that the two times we made the decision in my three-plus years back here each resulted in a halting of the flurries and a burst of sunshine right around starting time. Talk about a discontenting Winter...

Last weekend, this church put on a multi-generational production of "Elf, Jr.," a down-sized stage version of the Will Farrell movie, "Elf," which has itself become a holiday classic. "Elf, Jr." was expertly staged, incredibly acted, sung, and "cuted-up" by a youthful cast, and deftly directed by Dick Neely, veteran of the long-standing "St. Paul's Players." It was absolutely incredible. Funds raised will benefit our Summer youth mission trip. Now, before you suggest that a topic like "Elf" isn't in the religious genre, let me make a few observations. "Buddy" is born to a single mother who sends him to be raised at the North Pole by a loving Santa and brother and sister elves. There, Buddy learns how magic life can be, and becomes his joyful, playful self. Then, when his humanness is discovered, he is sent to a "far country" in search of his earthly kin where he brings joy, love, and great expectations to everyone he encounters, literally transforming the lives of the people he touches. Hmmm...starting to sound familiar? It was a religious experience.

Speaking of Bible Study, my class this year is doing a second "Disciple Lite" whereby I created a "Cliff Notes" version of what was known as Disciple IV: Under the Tree of Life. We are pursuing the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible, and the Gospel of John and Revelation in the New Testament. This week's lesson was on the Song of Songs, or "Song of Solomon" as some versions label it. The "Song" is basically a semi-erotic poem, if you're trying to be "good," and a patently erotic one, if you use a little mischievous imagination. As the Disciple author points out, it has "no commandments, no covenant, no Moses, no Temple, no mention of God." (Actually, "Elf, Jr." has more religious references.) Why is it in the Bible? Our group's answer is multi-faceted:

1. It is a beautiful reflection of intimacy and eros love between two EQUAL partners, countering the male-dominant version of relationships prevalent at the time of its writing. (Have we come very far since?)

2. Much of the story is told in a woman's voice, and was possibly written BY a woman--revolutionary stuff for that era.

3. The reader is naturally drawn in to reflecting on her/his love relationships--past and current--and a desire to better understand and practice integrity, equality, and intimacy in loving. For the Christian, this sure sounds like a good thing.

4. Being careful not to turn a love poem into a pure allegory about humans and our relationship with the Divine, we CAN imagine that God, in Christ, desires to enter into a relationship with us that is also one of integrity, equality (with each other), and intimacy, remembering that not all intimacy is sexual in nature.

5. Sex, when part of a mutual, covenantal relationship is fulfilling, nurturing, blissful, and fun. The Song of Songs sets such a beautiful context for erotic love that anything less begins to look like lust, by comparison. And promiscuous sexual activity appears tawdry, even exploitative, when held up against the rapture written of in the Song.

Bet you never expected Bible Study to get you hot under the collar, did you?

Next subject: Advent.

St. Paul's is celebrating the fourth Sunday of Advent this week. Yes, we know that the "official" liturgical calendar didn't begin Advent until December 3, but we started a week early--along with many churches--to complete the Advent cycle before Christmas Eve, since it lands on a Sunday this year. We didn't want to short-change the "preparation" season of Advent by lighting the fourth candle on Christmas Eve, and then lighting the Christ Candle in the same service. Call us didactic, say we're pandering to the "spirit" of the season, but also say we gave Advent its just due so its final candle of "love" didn't get lost in the shimmering lights of Christmas Eve. Our theme this year has been: "Be Home for Christmas," and our weekly themes were: Longing, Meeting, Welcoming, and Rejoicing. And on Christmas Eve, we're Arriving, and on New Year's Eve, we're Going. Yes, it's good "journey theology!" We're proud of that around here, because we do, indeed, believe the Lord Jesus is a peripatetic Savior who walks with us on each mile of life.

Last subject: Christmas! Oh, let's wait on that until next week. Shalom for now, Dear Ones!

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Passionately Grateful...

I guess that could be a dangerous title, in this time of daily sexual harassment scandals and firings? Since I've already addressed that topic in a recent BLOG, let's not go there again...

"Passionately Grateful" is the title I gave to my message spoken at the Hampton/Shaler/Etna Ministerial Association's Community Thanksgiving Service on 11/22, based loosely on the Philippians 4:4-9 passage. The gist of the sermon was that our expressions of gratitude--to God and even to others--should not occur only after prayer had been answered or a kindness received. Instead, "passionate gratitude" could be offered "proactively" in response to the regular stream of grace and affirmation we receive from God and the others in our supportive community. In the message, I reported on a meeting I had on that very afternoon, during which a friend literally came to tears just over thinking of the "miracles" of everyday life--the love of a child, the majesty of the world and the universe around us, and the blessing of friends. And in regard to our relationship with God, offering our "proactive thanksgiving" for the blessings yet to come is appropriate. In fact, this might be a definition of the word, "praise."

This Thanksgiving Eve message was an outgrowth of St. Paul's stewardship campaign, and the preaching and writing we did around the theme, "Pay It Forward," borrowed from the movie by the same name. What if we, rather than turning back to thank our benefactors, paid it forward by blessing someone else, in turn? This is not to say that we don't thank those who do for us, but instead, to not let the blessing die there. For church stewardship of time, talents, and treasure, it means investing in the future of our community of faith to assure that the ministries and programs offered will be there for the coming generations. The idea seemed to resonate with the people of St. Paul's, which celebrates its 50th year in 2017.

Passionate gratitude is a pay-it-forward form of thanksgiving. Passionate gratitude is "activist" gratitude. It is a win-win-win--those who performed kindnesses for me are blessed by my response to their gifts; those whom I, in turn, bless are gracious receivers of the blessing, and I am nurtured and affirmed by the acts of being thankful and by passing on the blessing.

I also see passionate gratitude as living with an attitude that asks the question at each point of interacting with another: "What can I do to bless this person and to enhance their journey, in some way?" You know, kind of a personal version of President Kennedy's famous: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Way too many of our interactions begin with the selfish rhetorical question, "What's in it for me?"

And then there is an even greater version of passionate gratitude--that of Jesus, himself. Jesus too the anger and hatred focused upon him at his crucifixion and turned it on its head by paying forward our redemption by his death. When is the last time that you were the victim of an unkindness or an act of derision, and in response, looked for someone to bless? This would be a truly Christlike action, wouldn't it? Maybe this would be an "activist" way to live a life of passionate gratitude--one that is focused more on our response to our experiences, whether bad or good, and purposing to pay it forward by blessing someone? And what if the person we decided to bless was the very person who precipitated the unkindness upon us? Could this be what Psalm 23 means when it states: "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies..." Rather than choreographing an elaborate plan of revenge, we invite our "enemy" out to a lunch or for a cup of coffee. That might be revolutionary. Passionate gratitude, even?

We are living in tough times. Today, I awoke to news that our nation's President re-tweeted hateful white nationalist videos aimed at Muslims. I got very, very angry, even lashing out on FaceBook about it. As Doctor Phil says, "How's that working for you?" Maybe, if I take my own advice, I will be wise to react by helping assure my Muslim friends that I stand with them, and will offer more ways we can engage in ministries of justice and peace together. This could be another win-win-win.

Monday, November 13, 2017


I don't mean the title of this BLOG to be trivial, but I do allude to the terrible and fast pace of happenings around us. Since my last BLOG entry, there has been another mass shooting, with 26 persons losing their lives to a crazed mad man with a semi-automatic weapon. A huge earthquake has killed hundreds of people along the Iran/Iraq border. President Trump has been overseas, where he made a couple of "normal" speeches, and yet continued to utter incredible and divisive rants on the sides, and tweeted a few things that would have had any past president dragged before a congressional committee, most likely. But he gets a pass? Oh, and hundreds--hundreds of women have stepped forth with testimonies of being sexually harassed or assaulted by other film directors, famous Hollywood stars, and even a serious candidate for the Senate from Alabama (and in his case, some of his "dates" were apparently children). Friends, I'm not making this stuff up--this has all happened since my last BLOG, which was a little over a week ago!

If I were a Bible literalist with Southern Baptist, dispensational leanings, I'd say all of this stuff were signs Jesus was coming back soon. You see, these folks interpret these things as biblical prophecies foretelling a literal Second Coming of the Messiah to clean up the mess and judge the "bad guys." But I'm not, and it is my belief that Jesus isn't coming back for a long time, and that God has empowered US to clean up the mess and reform the "bad guys." Jesus isn't coming back as a celestial janitor and judge, at least not now. God's people should get to work lobbying for some decent gun safety laws, for example. And even though I am convinced that the Second Amendment has outlived its usefulness (and its historical reason for being), I do believe it can be regulated just like we regulate hate speech and speech that might incite a riot or a human stampede, like shouting "fire" in a crowded movie theater. And we should lobby for better healthcare, not less, for those struggling with mental illness and addiction. We should work to fix the social issues that are filling our prisons and stop building new--and private--ones. As Christian people, we should be building relationships that bridge gender, race, and religious gaps, instead of endorsing pedophiles for public office (and yes, I'm talking about YOU, the 50 "Christian" pastors in Alabama who have endorsed Roy Moore for the U.S. Senate!).

Prayer has always been the fulcrum of both my life and the services of worship I have been privileged to lead. Prayer IS doing something, and I don't want to sell it short. However, there come times when we have to "put feet to our prayers" and do something. Democrats can do something. Republicans can do something. Libertarians can do something. Young people can do something. Seniors can do something. Able-bodied as well as persons with disabilities can do something. Christians can do something, and maybe even more things, by joining with Jews, Muslims, and people of other faiths, to address social issues that are a common concern. Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Pentecostals--we can all do something. Efforts begun with prayer will be energized by faith and cross the finish line on the feet of those who DO something to address whatever issue WE see as a concern. These things won't fix themselves. In fact, like an un-weeded garden, they will probably just get worse, without our attention.

This is not a good time to pull into our various camps and take verbal potshots at each other while the world around us is groaning with birth pangs (or death-moans, if you are a pessimist). It's a time to polish up our peace-making skills, all the while becoming "wise as serpents and harmless as doves, in the midst of wolves," to quote Jesus from Matthew 10:16.

And, stay informed. These are dangerous times not to know what is happening in the world around you, friends. As I have urged you before, make sure you get your information from a broad base of reliable news sources, not just the polarized "specialty" cable TV news outlets or most especially from Internet fake news sites like Breitbart, InfoWars, (NOT ABC News), News Examiner, NewsWatch33, etc. I trust the major newspapers like the NY Times, the Washington Post, and the conservative Wall Street Journal. As to news services? The Associated Press, Reuters, the BBC, NPR, these are probably some of the best. And while I'm not a big TV news watcher, I'd go for the three major networks--ABC, NBC, CBS. Fox and CNN can be pretty skewed, especially depending on who is presenting. The most dangerous place to get news is through Facebook memes or through pure Internet news sites, in my opinion. So many of the Facebook memes that pretend to be news sites are not reliable sources, and many have names that mimic serious news organizations, such as the listed above, which is actually a private fake news site run by a guy named Paul Horner, who posts a wide variety of similar sites. Many of these sites will mix "real" news with their embellished or fake stories to even further confuse the uninitiated reader.

Don't you wonder if Jesus was looking far off into our future when he uttered the "be wise as serpents and harmless as doves" phrase I mentioned above? I'll bet.

Keep a sober view, a prayerful heart, and willing feet, Dear Ones. We have miles to go before we sleep. And someday...someday...may we all find true Shalom!

Thursday, October 26, 2017

What Ever Happened to Middle Earth?

Warning: this is a political post--sort of. What I mean is that in it, I am hoping for, praying for, advocating for a type of sanity that has gone missing from the American political landscape. Here's what I mean...

If you read multiple newspapers, as I do, and try to read a balance of news across the spectrum from "liberal" to "conservative," a fearful thing emerges: the polarization of America into extremes has roots and wings--it is not just a myth of Facebook posts and bar conversations, apparently. Where did we lose "Middle Earth"?

In the political world, we have devolved into Bernie Sanders, Socialist Democrat, on one side, and "The Party of Trump" on the other. Responsible politicians falling anywhere away from these poles--even a really conservative guy like Jeff Flake--becomes persona non grata. Off with his head. Are we  even hearing from any Democrats several rungs down the fire escape toward reason from Senator Sanders? Chuck Schumer is a kind of Democratic Jeff Flake--a really liberal guy whose voice is lost as people seem bent on listening to the siren song of the far extremes. Where is Middle Earth where we all--common citizens and elected officials--used to meet to talk real solutions to the real problems facing us?

In a column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (10/26/17), Ed Rogers, a conservative contributor to the Washington Post, makes this statement: "Let's remember, the mainstream media wants nothing less than to see the destruction of the Republican Party." This statement is wrong on so many levels. First of all, "mainstream media" is a pejorative term made up by people who don't like to read stories more than 140 characters in length. It can also be fired as a bullet from both "sides" of the debate, although I see the term being slung more from the conservative side. As one trained in journalism and communications, I can say that reporters are taught to "get the facts"--the "five Ws and the H"--Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How? Reporters take meticulous notes, and make sure quotes are accurate. And, they seek multiple, corroborating sources. Columnists, on the other hand, may give opinions. While these should also be backed up with facts, the Op Ed writer is not under the same constraint to maintain balanced sources. Have these lines become blurred, from time to time? Probably, as something called the "New Journalism" crept into prominence back in the 1970s, as I recall. However, in the field of reporting, news stories are on dangerous ground if they contain inaccurate information about people or companies, as litigation may ensue. Not so much with opinion pieces. Secondly, there is no media conspiracy for the "destruction of the Republican Party." That is a ludicrous assertion. As much of the media is owned by staunchly conservative syndicates and wealthy individuals today as by liberal ones. No one is out to get the Republican Party, but when it is fully "in power" as it is now, and doesn't seem to be accomplishing anything but killing its own wounded and wallowing in a mire of unfinished legislation, this is news, and any reporter worth her salt will write about it. To have one political party so much in charge and to see nothing coming of it for almost a year is a true "man bites dog" moment. If (and God, please don't let it be so!) the Republican Party is destroyed, it will be a case of self-cannibalism.

What about the treatment of the Democrats in the press? Frankly, we're not reading much. After Clinton's loss, that party hasn't really fielded a lineup of reasonable voices, that I can see. Schumer says something, Bernie pontificates, Adam Schiff barks about Devin Nunes' flawed definition of what "recuse" means--these are fodder for Op Ed, not much actual reporting. As a Democrat, I'm way beyond disappointed with the miasma emanating from this party right now, but I'm even more angry about the lip service they are paying to finding Middle Earth.

I have to confess that I have not been immune from being dragged into the polarized dog fight on social media. America has elected a highly polarizing "media star" as President, and this has greatly catalyzed our rapid run to the extreme poles. However, he is President, and nothing will get done in Washington without passing over the Resolute Desk, so it will have to be part of Middle Earth, if we are ever to find it again. I'll be honest: beyond praying for our government, including President Trump, I don't know what to do. My occasional opinions posted on Facebook or in this blog are mostly signs of my frustration over how Middle Earth has disappeared like Atlantis, and over people labeling things like "Mainstream Media."

As a United Methodist Pastor, I'm quite concerned for the cares and needs of people, and history tells us that Middle Earth is the only place their concerns will find the proverbial balm. The political extremes have never been kind to the middle class, who are the people filling our pews and living in the neighborhoods I have lived in. And what about the poor and the oppressed? They are either radically under-served by the extremes, or exploited by them. At a few points on the timeline of history, they have united and risen up in revolution, but usually wind up pretty much back where they were, and with some self-self-aggrandizing despot in power.

And then there's religion. Those labeled "Evangelicals" have stolen the news cycle because they seem to have moved into the Trump camp. Seeing the President as a sudden and surprising chance to realize their monotoned agenda--getting a conservative Supreme Court that will roll back Roe v. Wade and marriage equality--they have abandoned nine-tenths of the teachings of Jesus, in my view. But they are in the news, currently among the "man bites dog" stories. As they keep playing this one note on the piano of social issues, though, I suspect even the "Mainstream Media" will give them less column inches. Is there room for us liberal gospel preachers in this debate? As such, I am for connecting people to God, people to people, and helping people who need a hand-up. And in reality, we know that these pursuits will only find legitimate fruition in Middle Earth. Religious liberals want to play chords and songs on the proverbial keyboard of ideas, not one note, but in the current polarized climate, it's like the piano keys are disappearing, an octave at a time.

So, what do we do? How do we reset our socio-political GPS for Middle Earth? I think this begins by being informed. We should stop getting most of our news from Twitter or Facebook (the latter is OK if we use it to follow links to legitimate news sources, not Breitbart or BlueState). Read, people, read. Read a broad base of books--they are actually still publishing books, and serious authors from across the socio-political spectrum are writing them. Read newspapers. Responsible papers like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal are available online, with a limited number of free stories. Better yet, subscribe. The First Amendment feeds on printed news. Printed information is absent the non-verbal component of communication, which allows the reader to form her or his own opinion about what they read. That's a problem with video and audio-based news--these non-verbal cues (facial expressions, eye contact, body posture, intonation) may speak a very different message from the words the speaker is actually saying, and this often obfuscates the intended message, or in the worst case, allows a hidden message to be presented, counter to the words spoken.

Let our own planet earth provide a parable: The poles are forbidding, cold, cold places where even compasses can no longer provide guidance for proper navigation. Middle Earth is a warm gathering place where trade winds blow and seasons change. More of us live in Middle Earth than in any other place on the planet. May we move our ideas there with us and begin to reason together to fix our common problems, care for those disenfranchised and hurting, and set a course for a hopeful future for us all. As Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

How did Halloween become such a thing?

I read again recently that the amount of decorations sold for Halloween exceed even what we shell out for Christmas. How did Halloween become such a huge thing?

First of all, many of us don't spend as much on Christmas because we have TONS of decorations acquired over the years, and much of it came from our parents or grandparents when they "downsized." St. Paul's and North Hills Community Outreach does a thing every Fall where we collect donations of Christmas decorations and then offer them for free to persons who maybe can't afford to purchase them. You can't believe what all gets donated. Clearly, there is a prodigious glut of Christmas decorations out there, languishing in attics, basements, garages, and probably even stuffed into the little doors and drawers under nightstands and end tables!

But what about Halloween? It's always been a kid-favorite holiday, with the costumes, trick-or-treating for candy, and the resulting overall sugar overload. And, many people like to scare or be scared. Also, there is a long dry spell between the July 4 holiday and Thanksgiving, which is basically a football and eating marathon, anyway, neither of which much appeals to children. So, Halloween filled the gap. As an aging Baby Boomer, I can say that my friends and I looked so forward to getting dressed up and going out on neighborhood candy hauls. Then, when I was about 11, something went wrong: deranged individuals began hiding razor blades in candy or coating it with drugs. I can remember how the whole Halloween trick-or-treating thing took a huge hit. It was a seriously depressing time.

Now, we aging Baby Boomers are grandparents, and our children are parents. Both groups of "adults" want our kids and grand kids to recapture some of the fun of Halloween, so we do what we always do--go WAY overboard. Decorations have become quite sophisticated, costumes have become much more fantastic, and all of the candy is hermetically sealed (in fact, it's almost impossible to get into it). Parents inspect every treat, just to make sure, though.

Adult costume parties for Halloween have multiplied, too. I can't believe the number of email advertisements I get from places selling elaborate--and costly--adult Halloween costumes!

All in all, I don't think there is anything wrong with all of this. People of faith have often had a kind of bittersweet relationship with goblins and demons, with many believing the "real things" are conspiring to use Halloween to recruit little ones into devilish behavior. They thought the same thing would happen if they read any of the Harry Potter books. I really don't see a difference in kids from either activity.

Still, Dara and I never celebrated Halloween with our children. Maybe it was because of some of these spiritual concerns, coupled with fears over getting candy from strangers. Maybe it was due, in part, to the fact that we were students during much of our kids' childhood, and we couldn't afford to reciprocate with the treat distribution. I do know that we taught our children about the significance of All Saints Day, and honoring the saints who went before us. And, I know we took our kids out for a special night on Halloween--dinner at a place of their choice, and then to the Carnegie Science Center, for example. I don't think they missed anything. And it didn't "poison" them to the holiday, as our daughter and son-in-law take our grandchildren trick-or-treating.

Whatever you and your family do for Halloween, be safe. And take some time to explain the origins of "All Hallows' Eve" and "All Saints Day." As we honor the saints of our lives, this may be almost as important as telling our kids about the Christmas story of the birth of Jesus.

Happy Halloween, Yinz.

Friday, October 13, 2017


As a white, privileged male in a culture that makes me a dominant figure just because of how I look in the mirror, I am so sad for women today.

[Let me qualify this post by first stating that I no longer believe in gender being merely a "binary" thing, so when I use the terms "male" and "female," I am using them broadly, at least while addressing the topic of sexual harassment. For the purpose of this narrative, the terms describe persons who identify as female being exploited  or harassed by persons who identify as male. Such is the case of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and the women who have begun to come forward publicly  about his sexual aggressions.]

What women put up with--and have for millennia, most likely--is unbelievable. Books, research, and mountains of case studies have revealed a glimmer of what it is like being discriminated against, underpaid, and objectified because of one's gender. And now, this Weinstein story breaks, revealing the long and sordid history of this infamous "image-maker" who, all along the way, used women for personal pleasure in exchange for offering them fame. While Weinstein's pathology may go even deeper than "pleasure," given his psychopathic sleaze alleged in the emerging testimonies, the fact remains that women are subjected to this kind of thing every day in about every place. It may not be "sleep with me or I'll ruin your career" kinds of things all of the time, but lewd commends behind their backs from male co-workers, bosses who leer, or dump their frustrations on women subordinates because they can, are frequent occurrences in offices, academia, retail, or the military--even in the church.

The horrific stories about Weinstein's behavior, which in many cases is likely criminal, serve to uncover this phenomenon afresh, hopefully prompting corrective and constructive conversation. I do fear, though, that it could cause some men who may be guilty of lesser infractions to "justify" their own behavior: "Well, at least I'm not as bad as Weinstein!" As people of faith, we must encourage the corrective, and to some degree, therapeutic conversations, and pray for women bold enough to join them and share their own stories. We should also offer our support for these women and explore ways to enjoin efforts aimed at justice and safety in the workplace for them. The last thing we should do is justify the behaviors, which, unfortunately, the church has done far too many times for the Jimmy Swiggarts, Jim Bakers, and numbers of lessor known clergy who have been caught harassing or even sexually assaulting women. Bishops, in many cases, just move clergy accused of inappropriate activity with church members or staff, and everyone is urged to "be good Christians and forgive." But what about the victims? How do they feel when this is the "fix"?

Why does this stuff happen? Unfortunately, the "Because we can" answer out of society's general model of male dominance and privilege is valid. Testosterone is another culprit. Coupled with the tendency to nurture males to be "tough" or "manly," while women are urged to be "soft" and "sensitive" (some TV ads for body lotions actually USE this line), this dangerous mix sets up the potential for predatory behavior, which may range from flirtation to harassment (or even worse, in the case of the Weinsteins and Cosbys of the world). How many cases of young college men harassing women on campus have been dispatched with the phrase, "Boys will be boys"?

If it is true that testosterone is a factor in prompting inappropriate behavior in males, what is the role of religion and its system of morals and ethics in reining this in? As former President Jimmy Carter pointed out in an interview with a "men's magazine" during his election campaign, most men are guilty of some level of "lusting after women," something Carter confessed to, further saying he sought God's forgiveness and empowerment to modify his negative thoughts and behaviors. I believe the teachings of the Bible and the ethics which can be extrapolated from them may help us build a "code of conduct" between men and women:

  •  Jesus' teaching, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" should be construed in this situation to mean that I, as a man, would not want to be exploited, manipulated, or otherwise harassed to do something against my will, values, or desires in order to keep my job, receive a promotion, or be treated respectfully in the workplace or any place, for that matter. hence I must refrain from participating in any of these behaviors toward others.
  • "Loving our neighbor as we love ourselves" means developing a respect for the personhood of my neighbor in such a way that I value them, even as I value my own self and integrity. Thus, I will treat them out of this respect. One of the core values of the Wesleyan tradition is that: Every human being is endowed with a sense of dignity and moral responsibility. We should act like it.
  • Love has many different understandings and levels, ranging from liking something (like chocolate) to loving as God loves, loving romantically, and even loving intimately. Understanding these differences and maintaining appropriate levels of self-control so as to apply and experience the appropriate "level" of love to the persons and circumstances of our lives leads to healthy relationships and behavioral norms that maintain appropriate boundaries with them. 
  • Avoiding stimuli that blur or obscure the understanding of these "love values," such as alcohol/ substance abuse, pornography, literature or films that denigrate or exploit women, or associations with men who indulge in these kind of things.  Steering clear of activities like these is helpful in developing and maintaining what the Bible calls self-control.
  • Entering into regular and healthy conversation with the women in our social or occupational circles about women's issues may serve to sensitize men to what women experience in these interactions. (When I engage in these conversations, I learn all kinds of things! One of the most valuable lessons has been that what males of my generation were taught to be polite compliments to women are often now considered inappropriate, such as comments about how nice a dress looks. I confess, this is a hard habit to break, and while all women do not feel objectified by this, many do.) 
  • With God's help, work to develop a healthy model of personhood, appreciating others for the person they are and affirming them for the contributions they make through their talents, labors, and attitudes, without regard to their gender identity. 
  • Get to know people. Build legitimate trust, over time, and resolve to do nothing to erode or destroy this gift of trust. For men, who will continue to wrestle with our own enculturation and testosterone, this may go a long way in creating healthy relationships across gender identity lines at work, in our social circles, and even in our homes!
Well, these are just a few I thought of. You may have more good suggestions, if you think about it. And that is the final suggestion: Think. I have taught the teens in my youth groups that one extra second of thinking before engaging in an action may make a huge difference as to the outcome. This same caution works for men of all ages regarding how we interact with others along the gender spectrum. We have a great model in Jesus, who, according to the biblical record, initiated and maintained respectful and egalitarian relationships with the people he encountered, earning their respect in return. Do thou likewise! Shalom.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

What happened in Vegas will probably stay in Vegas...until it happens again...

Another mass shooting. This time the worst in U.S. history! Frankly, I'm tempted to just write blah, blah, blah, blah, blah...for all the good it does to write anything more about these tragedies. Here are a few facts I have read in the wake of this latest bloodshed:

-The number of persons killed by guns in the U.S. since 1970 is greater than the total of all of the deaths of Americans in all of the wars we have fought, beginning with the Revolutionary War!

-When ISIS claims responsibility, all Muslims are condemned as holding to a "violent religion"; when a person of color commits a violent act, many stereotype all persons of color as tending toward such acts; when a white person commits a heinous act like the Las Vegas shootings or the Charleston shootings, he is dubbed a "lone wolf." How very sad.

-A bill before the Congress to make silencers for guns legal has, at least temporarily, been delayed. AND, the NRA has gone dark. My pessimism says that they will very soon begin their ridiculous rhetoric and spin once again, and plead for Congress to pass the silencer bill.

What are we going to do, people? Since the church I serve has committed to working for justice as part of its new Vision statement, I hope to explore with them some options, possibly working with an interfaith group such as N.O.R.T.H. (Neighboring Organizations Responding Together for Hope).

What are you going to do? If you are a gun lover, probably nothing. Some of these, in "fear" of new regulations which seem to never come, have gone out and emptied the shelves of gun shops since the Las Vegas shootings. Just what we need--more fearful people with guns...

It's again time for action. Again. Once again. What are we going to do? Of course, we will pray, and we will talk, and we might even write a letter or two. But these things have yielded no fruit on the gun issue. So? What now?

As a person of faith, I will pray. But maybe it's time to pray for more than comfort, even more than wisdom. Maybe it's time to pray for empowerment for people to make some changes. Let's start by working for a ban on semi-automatic weapons. I'm in.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Take a Knee...

When I played sports, or should I say "played AT" sports, as I wasn't very good at anything except tennis, it was typical for a coach, wanting to get our attention in practice, to call us together and say, "Take a knee." By planting one knee down, a group of young, restless guys were anchored to the turf, and would listen to the coach's instructions. Thanks to NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and the events that swirled around the National Football League last weekend, the phrase now has a totally different meaning. It didn't help to have the flames of the controversy fanned by our Commander in Tweet, either.

Last year, after yet another young African American man was shot to death by police, Kaepernick, whose father was African American, decided to protest racial injustices by kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem before a football game. It became a thing. He also became persona non grata to many people who felt he was "disrespecting" his country. Last weekend, after You-Know-Who tweeted that Kaepernick--and any other players who joined him in such protests--were "SOBs" and should be fired, the controversy rose to national prominence. This taunt from a white person in a position of authority brought forth many more protests, and now, here we are. Twitter wars, Facebook debates, and even opinion-slinging in the national media have ensued.

That injustices in the lop-sided arrests and use of deadly force against African Americans when it was not shown to be appropriate are incidents of fact. These things have happened. We have all seen the "eye witness" videos. I am not saying that all arrests of persons of color are unjust, nor are all uses of deadly force inappropriate. However, there do seem to be a much larger share of inappropriate treatment of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement that we see against white people. In her book The New Jim Crow, author Michelle Alexander cites statistics that show that, while African Americans make up only 13% of the population, they make up over 40% of imprisoned people. She attributes much of this disparity to the "War on Drugs" which was a linchpin of the Richard Nixon presidential campaign and administration. This "war" stiffened drug laws and largely sought to blame the spread of illicit drugs on the American black population, especially young, male, urban gangs. Alexander cites statistics that show how, when white persons and black persons were arrested for the same drug crimes, the black person would almost always be sentenced to jail time, while the whites were released on probation or simply got a pass. Hence, the escalating African American prison population.

Couple this with the highly publicized--and cell phone recorded--violent arrests of African Americans, and finally a young man in a position of some notoriety--Kaepernick--decided to use his "bully pulpit" to stage a protest. He--and those who have joined him in these athletic field protests--are not protesting against the flag, our patriotic anthem, or those who serve in the military. They hope to put attention on a growing racial problem, and one that has been exacerbated by the Charleston incident and the President's "both sides" reaction to it, publicly. They are showing their disappointment and concern that their country seems to be fine with these injustices.

You are free to disagree with their method of protest. "It's a free country," as they say. The statistics author Alexander cites are real facts (not "alternative facts"), and anyone who suggests that these athletes have "no right" to stage such protests would be arguing with the First Amendment. (A tweet posted by one of our military personnel recently went viral. He tweeted: "If you think I joined the Navy and fought for this country so these NFL players could kneel during the Anthem, you'd be right!")

So, what gets us to this point? White supremacists walking the streets of Charleston? African Americans being locked up at an astonishing rate and going to jail for years over crimes white people get a slap on the wrist for? Yes, but there is something at the root of it all.

It's called white privilege, or "white advantage," if the former statement is too "harsh" for you. If you don't believe it exists, just ask a friend or neighbor who is black! And don't just ask the ones who have managed to survive through the myriad racial barriers they faced in finding success. Ask a young black woman or man. Ask a student. Ask a young African American man fresh out of college who went on his first car-buying trip, or went looking for an apartment in a "nice" neighborhood. Ask an African American what goes through his head if he is pulled over by the police. I guarantee it's not the same thing a white person thinks ("Oh rats, another ticket!").

How about considering a few "less threatening" things that point out our white advantage? Peggy McIntosh, associate director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, came up with 50 statements that express things she doesn't have to consider or face as a member of the white majority race in America. Let me list just a few of them as food for thought:

  • If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
  • I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about "civilization," I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  • I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.
  • I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
  • I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
  • I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the "person in charge," I will be facing a person of my race.
  • I can be pretty sure that an argument with a colleague of another race is more likely to jeopardize her/his chances for advancement than to jeopardize mine.
  • I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing, or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race.
  • I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
  • I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
  • I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps, professionally.
  • I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.
  • I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
  • If I have low credibility as a leader, I can be sure that my race is not the problem.
  • I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my race.
  • If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven't been singled out because of my race.
Just a few, mind you. The one that really grabbed me as a parent and a grandparent was: "I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them." I can't imagine the empty and fearful feeling that just sending my kids out into the world could be a threatening thing for them. Wow.

So often when speaking about racism, whether it is in a seminar, from the pulpit, or even person-to-person, a typical response is "I'm not racist! I have friends who are black. I don't see color." Friends, racism is not a personal thing, primarily. If right now, as I write this, every white person were to suddenly be healed of individual racist feelings, there would still be racism! That is until laws and systems (political, legal, social, economic, educational, religious) are changed to not discriminate. AND, just being a minority people will always have social implications--implications that do not stop at the African American community. Just ask an American Muslim.

If we refuse to see the systemic nature of racism, we will continue to believe that "both sides" can be racist. If racism is only personal, then a black man is "racist" if he says something derogatory against a white person. But if we understand the harmful, threatening, even destructive nature of systemic racism, backed up by the power of white majority privilege, then African Americans are not capable of being "racist."

So, Colin Kaepernick is not just being "difficult." He is not disrespecting "the flag," or the National Anthem, or those who proudly serve in uniform. He is trying to start a conversation. He is shining a spotlight--one he is granted him by being an NFL star--on a pox in our midst.

Until my country is able to be a place where all human beings have equal treatment under the law, equal opportunity in all aspects of life, and a place where all citizens are equally respected, then I will continue to be a white racist. With all my heart, I don't want to be. I want to fix this stuff, and RIGHT NOW! But that's not how it works. We have to have those conversations. We have to admit that Charleston was an anti-American event at the hands of white supremacists. We have to stand up to public officials who support the continuation--even the strengthening--of racist systems and laws. And, as people of faith, we must look to our religious "better angels" to drive our politics rather than our politics to inform our religion, in this and many other matters. Maybe that is another way we can "take a knee"--in prayer for our nation and ALL of its people. What Martin Luther King, Jr. said way back on August 28, 1963 is still yet to be fulfilled in our midst:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

God and Hurricanes...

The age-old questions of "Why do bad things happen to good people?" and "If God is good, why does God let things like hurricanes cause so much damage and kill people?" never get old, because this stuff does happen. Theologians call these the questions of theodicy. Is there a decent answer to either of these questions? Probably not one that is absolutely satisfying, especially to those who are victims, or who are in the path of destruction.

The Planet Earth is an amazing thing. I happen to believe a divine mind was involved in its creation, but am quite happy to let the scientists describe how it "came to be," how its evolutionary processes resulted in life as we know it--including our own--and so forth. Believing in a divine "spark" and/or divine, intelligent input to this creative process doesn't negate the efforts, observations, and findings of science, in my opinion, and believing in these scientific factors do not detract from my religious beliefs. This planet refreshes, replenishes, and "cleans" itself, using magnificent weather systems, air and water currents, thunderstorms, and even naturally occurring wildfires. If we weren't here, it would thrive quite nicely, thank you.

However we are hear. Again, I think this was intentional, and was planned by a benevolent creator. The Bible even says the Earth was made for its living, breathing life, including ours. Psalm 8 indicates that humanity was created "a little lower than God," or "a little higher than the angels," depending on which translation you read. Genesis even says we were to "have dominion" over the Earth, and to "subdue" it.

Boy, have we. If I were to look at the hurricane disasters (and we might include earthquakes, floods, and wildfires in this), I could say, very empirically, that we just "get in the way" of the processes that the planet uses to care for itself. Coastal lands are popular places for us to live because of the ocean tides, breezes, and sunshine. These are the same factors that give rise to hurricanes. We like the rugged, mountainous terrains as well, and so do the wildfires. And when we over-build or build shoddy structures in areas prone to earthquakes, well, you see where I'm going with this.

No, I don't believe God sends hurricanes, floods, fires, or earthquakes to smite us because of some doctrinal quirk or moral infringement. The Holy Spirit convicts us of these things and prompts us to get our act together, person to person. And I don't believe anyone--anyone---deserves to suffer at the hand of these naturally occurring events, but when we locate ourselves in their paths, we might.

I am NOT saying we aren't partly to blame for the severity of these events. Hurricanes are a natural phenomenon, as are rains which may bring flooding. However, the top climatologists among us say that our rapid pace of development of the lands, our years of spouting "greenhouse gases," and burning fossil fuels have warmed the world's oceans at an alarming rate--far faster than have ever been extrapolated from the evidence extracted from core samples of the poles and the fossil records of the land. And when the oceans warm, hurricanes are gluttonously fed "fuel" that turns them into super storms, and torrential rains and monster storm systems develop at a greatly accelerated pace. When a section of our nation sees two "500 year" storms in a single season, something is amiss. It's not God, it's us!

What if Planet Earth's evolutionary systems have detected our "sabotage" of these factors? Possibly, then, these systems are compensating by "punishing" us in such a way that we will be forced to work together to reverse the damage we have caused. If we want to keep our coastal properties and our chalets in the forests of the West, then we will need to be more gentle with the Earth and give it time to cleanse and heal itself while we stop mucking it up from our end. Just a thought...

Here's what I do know about these disasters: they do draw us together to help each other. Weren't we all touched to read about how people showed up with fishing boats to help rescue those stranded by the storms? Wasn't it a good thing that so many ways to help out--and places to send relief funds--were advanced by the media, Hollywood, the pro sports people, etc.? J.J. Watt, a star football player with the Houston Texans started a drive to raise $200,000 to help the folks around Houston, and the last I heard, over $30 million had been raised by his social media site. UMCOR donations at St. Paul's and other churches across our United Methodist connection have been pouring it to help. And, rather than being discouraged by these events, we are hearing faith stories and testimonies coming out of the storm zones.

I think God shows up when these things happen. Often, it is in the form of a great human chain of caring, but I believe God is at the center, prompting, encouraging, and triggering a generous and compassionate response from us. God comforts those who experience loss of loved ones and property, fostering the courage to recover and move on. God even works through government entities, as disaster response agencies like FEMA are learning how to efficiently and effectively intervene to help. I don't know why it often takes some kind of disaster to get us to work together, to reach out to help that neighbor in need, but I'm sure glad we do. Maybe that is OUR human systems and evolution kicking in that causes us to do so? And when we do step, we don't examine the color of the other person's skin, their social status, or their religion.

As has often been pointed out by poets, philosophers, and scientists alike, the Earth is all we've got. We're not moving to a new neighborhood any time soon. For now, between storms, may we recharge our energy and our tender hearts for loved ones, friends, neighbors, and Mother Earth. Shalom, Yinz...

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Birthdays and Anniversaries...

Kids look forward to birthdays, don't they? Sure, a birthday means presents, and possibly a party with family and friends, but there is a kind of overall excitement that happens when a child has a birthday. For many teenagers, the "kid" excitement is replaced by a countdown until eligibile for a driving learner's permit--"Only two more years and I can get my permit!" During the college years, birthdays are an excuse to "party," or at the very least, have someone buy us a drink.

Adult birthdays--at least for me--aren't much of a thrill. At my age, they tend to remind me that I'm actually--finally--getting older, something I've denied for years. Sometimes they become an occasion to "take stock" of one's life up to that point. Doesn't sound too thrilling, does it.

As I've shared with some of you, this year something different happened. In my waking moments on August 23, the day I turned 63 years of age, I started to contemplate, which is a very dangerous pursuit for me before my requisite morning caffeine infusion. But on my birthday, I came to the realization that if I were fortunate enough to live as long as my Father, I have 27 years left. Now, I realize that there is certainly no guarantee that I will live that long, and none of us knows about this. However, as a point of "contemplating" reference, the figure took on some significance. I own a Mazda Miata that is 27 years old. I actually have ties that are 27 years old. All of a sudden that 27 years began to look like a pretty short span of time. My fantasy of not growing older and living forever (and I'm not talking about heaven here) was melting under a new-found 27-year "speed" limit.

I didn't get depressed at all by this contemplative realization. Instead, I began to focus on what I wanted--or feel called--to do with my time left here on Terra Firma. This wasn't a "bucket list" moment, but more of a shuddering within my Myers-Briggs "Perceiving" quality, that which causes me to default more to taking things as they come rather than building lists and planning my activities around some master-plan matrix. With less time than I imagined, should I begin to make plans? Is this a time to figure out the things I haven't accomplished in the first 63 years in order to make sure they make the agenda for the years ahead? Thankfully, the "P" won out, and instead of pulling out the pen and Post-A-Notes for a list-making session, I thought about the stuff that is important to me and how I would choose to focus more on those things than on the "expectations" and "shoulds" that we pick up through life like sweater finds lint. I guess you could say it caused me to begin to prioritize things? (Myers-Briggs "P"s don't like to do that, either.) What really matters to me? And how will that guide me through the rest of the years I have? Where am I going with this?

Well, I'm not going to share all of my personal meanderings with you, but I will say that my personal Christian faith commitment got a good going over. As a pastor, I have been too frequently a "professional Christian." I do more theology than actively and intentionally encountering God, and it's time to begin to "fish or cut bait," as they say. I love to study the Bible, but just sitting back and reading it to let it "message" as well as massage my life? There needs to be more of that, going forward. That's the "God stuff." I am married to an amazing individual. I want to learn more about her and from her. She has a wisdom and a connection with God that I envy. I also just want to spend more time with her that is not guided by a clock and a calendar. Maybe we can actually develop some friends? That hasn't happened much in pastoral work. While we have had a blast with our church folk, and have come to value those relationships, we have been pretty "arms-length," so as not to create (or even appear to create) a "clique," or to bow to favoritism among church members. I think  we would like a friend or two. There's more than that, but you get the idea. Might this blog post be a subtle nudge to the reader to make a similar "self evaluation," and even before a significant birthday or anniversary comes along? Could be.

Speaking of anniversaries, these, too can be important points of re-evaluation. Dara and I hit wedding anniversary number 40 in 2017. I wish I could say I had a similar "come to Jesus" contemplation session inspired by this occurrence, but it didn't happen. I did tell Dara that I still can't believe it has been 40 years. It seems like yesterday that we walked down that aisle of our home church in Rocky Grove, PA, and I still get a thrill when that woman walks into a room. Oh, and I still am trying to convince her she didn't make a huge mistake on May 28, 1977.  But, as those "retirement" years are also getting closer, I know it soon time to make some goals for what we want to do together when July 1, 2021 rolls around. Yeah, it's necessary, for she is a "J" on the Myers-Briggs indicators--they are the list-makers and the organizers! (So much so that when I want to get my wife in a romantic mood, I buy her a label maker or a selection of the latest Post-A-Note iterations.)

St. Paul's United Methodist Church is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this month. In 2,000-plus years of Christian Church history, that is but a breath. (Warren First UMC, which I served before being appointed back to St. Paul's in 2014, is celebrating its 200th Anniversary this year!) Is this a good time to re-evaluate who we are as a church and make plans for what comes next? Of course it is! In 2017 we completed a two-year process to write new Mission and Vision statements for our congregation, and we are challenging our folk to share some of their hopes and dreams for the church with our staff and leadership. We are excited about what how the next 50 years are beginning to take shape!

Here's a final thought: don't ever give up on the birthdays and anniversaries. Maybe they don't have the same luster as they did when we were younger, but as we age and move into the later years of life, they become even more significant, not only as measures of how far we have come, but opportunities to intentionally re-prioritize, then launching a fresh vision of what will be. Even an ancient book like the Bible is filled with countless stories of how memorable people constantly did just that, throughout its pages. Personally, I would like to be one of those memorable people. Will you join me, Dear Ones?

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Bigotry--the malignancy of America...

It's frustrating. Being on vacation half a world away when something sickening like the KKK/Alt-Right/Neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville occurs, and being away from the pulpit, is making my stomach churn. I was thrilled to hear that my colleague, the Rev. Karen Slusser, addressed the malignancy that is bigotry, racism, and extremism during her messages and the pastoral prayer during worship services at St. Paul's this weekend. Knowing her, her theological views, and her integrity, I'm not surprised, and am grateful, knowing that she spoke for both of us. Still, I have to say a few things.

Malignancy may not be a strong enough label for what is happening in the creepy corners and dark shadows of The United States of America right now. Having lost family members to cancer, and having spent thirty-plus years as a pastor supporting those struggling with such awful stuff, it may be a fair analog, though. You see, a diagnosis of cancer makes one's stomach churn and mind race to find a "new normal," but for those who are told, "You have cancer," there really is no "normal." And, if you are one of the fortunate ones whose malignancy goes into remission, there is still the residual fear that this dastardly disease could, at some point, reoccur. The best "cure" for the anxiety raised by this disease is a strong, practical faith that inspires hope, and surrounding oneself with a host of cheerleaders and supporters who will walk with you and "fight the fight" alongside of you.

So it is with racism and bigotry. Even as the faceless malignancies that may attack our bodies seem to us, evil, so those who lurk in the shadows and in the underbelly of American society who secretly (or as in the case of the Charlottesville rally, not so secretly) hold to anti-immigrant, anti-minority, anti-anything without white skin, or in some cases anti-anything not testosterone-soaked male, embody a palpable evil in our midst. And so they invoke the stomach-churning anxieties, and the continuing fear that, even after a couple generations of the "chemotherapy" of Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights Act of 1964, not to mention a bloody civil war and a world war against the Nazism, the disease has left what we thought was a period of remission. Here it is again, threatening our very way of American life. The "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled-masses yearning to breathe free" life. The "melting pot" America. The America as defined by the Constitution of The United States of America. Bigotry and racism are a cancer, and they are back, and they will ravage the American body and destroy the American spirit.

Like many cancers, this "disease" never fully left us. It had been thrown into remission by a maturing society, the efforts of many, including people like Dr. King, and rendered less deadly by the growing diversity of the nation, causing neighbors to meet new neighbors who don't look like them, discovering that they are caring people like themselves, loving their families, working to make a living, and worshiping God in their own context. The cancer of bigotry was present, though, in isolated cells in the deep south, sure, but also in the minds of some well-educated white people who were fine with diversity as long as it didn't threaten their dominance and privilege, but who were not so comfortable with the advent of true equality in the land. It was even to be found in the hearts of young people raised in quietly racist families which continued to tell ethnic jokes around the table and to speak racial epithets while watching TV news stories or reading the newspaper, all as their children listened. When the Bible said: You shall not bow down to false idols or serve them, for the the Lord your God is a jealous God, visiting the sins of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation...(Exodus 20:5), this is what it was talking about. But what has been the trigger to reawaken this fearful and life-killing disease in the body of our nation?

How many rally speeches did you listen to from the candidacy of Donald J. Trump? I don't know if President Trump is a racist bigot, and it isn't really germane to my point here. The fact is that he pushed many "bigot buttons" during these speeches, and his very campaign slogan, Make America Great Again, was seen by some as a "dog whistle" calling out the shadow-lurkers who believe that America was great when it was run by white men, when white men dominated their families and the "little woman"--and ethnic minorities--"knew their place." There were people who believed the Trump assertions that immigrants stole their jobs, rather than admitting that advances in technology or declining markets for the product they built or mined, did. Make America Great Again meant for way too many people a country far less diverse, far less equal, and with far less opportunity for those who aren't white. Candidate Trump parlayed the repressed anger of white people on the fringes, whipping it into a froth, and making myriad patronizing promises to this group to get elected. (Please note that I understand that some voted for Trump because of a long-standing loyalty to the Republican party and its typically conservative values--some in my own family, in fact. But Donald Trump would not have been elected without the "rally crowd"--the "Trumpers" who bought his line about making America "Great" again.) And as to the President's condemnation of the radical, bigoted  forces which marched hood-less and proud in Charlottesville this past week? "Crickets," as the young adults say today, meaning there WAS none. In fact, this President blamed "both sides" in a statement that his White House staff has had to retrace and cover for, in the light of harsh criticisms from leaders of the President's own party.

I'm a Christian pastor, and I have to say that it is sad that I must so often defend my faith against persons using it to advance a bigoted, racist agenda. It was enough to have to defend it against those who use it to assault LGBTQ children of God, or who denigrate women pastors. (I guess this could be called the "new apologetic"?) I'm also weary of those who distort the scriptures by holding to the letter of the law and denying the spirit of the law, which is the redemption of humankind through Jesus. The writer of the letter to the church at Galatia stated emphatically, There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ. (Galatians 3:28) I believe this with all of my heart, and this is what I preach. And I believe the you are all one in Jesus Christ truly means all, beyond even those listed. 

Friends, it is time, yet again, to stand up to those who attempt to make anyone a second-class citizen of this nation because of the color of their skin, their national origin or ethnicity, their sexual orientation, their gender, or their religion. My congregation has adopted a Vision Statement that says, We will be a diverse, inclusive church, loving others according to the teachings of Jesus, and working for justice and peace in our world. Maybe we could advance these principles, with slight modification, as a nation? We will be a diverse, inclusive country, loving each other according to the teachings of our better angels, and working for justice and peace at home, in our nation, and in the world. Now that's a transformation I can wholly support. In the meantime, beloved, let us pray and work for a country conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men [ALL people] are created equal. Shalom.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Staying in a house with the Wright stuff...

My wife is a really hard person for whom to buy gifts. She always says she doesn't need anything, and I already help her pick out clothing, as she says I'm a pretty good judge of what looks best on her. She never likes a big fuss made for her birthday, although since she was born on July 4, a big fuss is pretty much built into the scheme of things. This year was a little different.

We are both interested in the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. I had read a lot about him when I was much younger, and then, early in our married life, we visited Fallingwater. On that same tour, we learned of another local Frank Lloyd Wright home that had just opened to tours--Kentuck Knob--and we toured it, too. SO, when I stumbled across a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home that could be rented for a couple of nights, I jumped.

For a bit less than a small fortune, we spent two nights and three days in the Louis Penfield House in Willoughby, Ohio. Mr. Wright designed one of his "Usonian" homes (smaller and for "common folk") for Penfield, a 6'8" portrait painter. Wright had never designed a home for such a tall man, and Wright's homes tend to have low ceilings to accentuate the wider horizontal lines he designed around. So, he kind of went crazy with the Penfield house, putting a 20 foot ceiling in the living room area with an entire wall of glass looking out onto the 29-plus acres of woods behind the home. While the whole Penfield house is only about 1800 square feet, it is long and "tall," just like Mr. Penfield. It has many Wright trademarks including a suspended staircase to the second floor, hot water heat in the floors, lots of windows, and skinny doors. Wright designed small kitchen areas, as they were not meant to be "lived in." Being that the Penfield house is a Usonian home, it has a carport instead of a garage. And, of course, Mr. Wright designed all of the furniture in the house. It fits in wondrously, gives it that famous Frank Lloyd Wright "look," and is some of the most uncomfortable stuff I've sat on in a long time. Still, the aesthetics are amazing.

And just outside the entrance is the famous Frank Lloyd Wright Cherokee Red signature tile:

I have to say that staying in the Penfield House was a magical experience. If you have any penchant for arguably the most famous American architect, just sitting there and taking in his other-worldly use of space, color, form, and lighting is almost a religious moment. Like the music of Bach or Mozart, Wright's designs lead one to believe he was a true muse, like these composers. One afternoon, I sat on one of those uncomfortable chairs to page through a Weintraub coffee table book entitled "The Houses of Frank Lloyd Wright." As I opened the massive volume to the opening two-page flyleaf, I was looking at Weintraub's photo of the exact view before me! Coincidentally, I was seated about where the photographer must have set his camera to take the photo of the magnificent living room in the Penfield House. Here's what I saw:

Dara and I had a great time just drinking in this place and the genius behind it. The inspiration it brought will be with us for a long time. Here are a few things I observed in our stay:

1. Mr. Wright designed art. He was a visionary who really didn't care what others thought of his work, including his clients. Generally, clients were his "patrons" who made his art possible. He listened to their desires and needs, but then designed from a vision that was much larger than both. And in the process designed something that is timeless. That sounds like a wonderful model of effective leadership to me. As a pastor, I hope and pray that my inspiration is a combination of my vision, God's vision, and the synergy with my people and their hopes and dreams. However, if I only "design" the church to meet the needs and desires of the people I serve, we are all being cheated. 

2. Much needs to be said for inspiration. While someone has said that inspiration is two-thirds perspiration, sometimes inspiration takes wings on its own, and one has to catch the "kairos" moment and go for it. Frank Lloyd Wright designed Fallingwater in three hours. THREE HOURS, and it is considered the most significant modern period home in the world.

3. Mr. Wright designed for the context in which the home would be built. Context was everything. This also made each of his homes unique. As a theologian and preacher, I applied this to interpreting scripture. Scripture comes "alive" when its two contexts are considered: what did it mean when it was first written, and what does in mean now in this time and place. Even as is the case with Wright's architecture, awareness and use of context of the then and now makes scripture come to life and gives it a unique timelessness. A hundred years from now, people will still be marveling at Wright's designs. The same is said for the Living Word of God.

4. Mr. Wright did not "obey" many of the conventions of the architecture of his day. He stretched the limits of the materials available at the time, sometimes to the breaking point. He used different forms than others were using, and looked at the world through very different "glasses" than those who were very happy conforming to the existing "laws" and mores of his field. Maybe it is this "Wrightian" method that can bring the Christian Church back to life? Or at least the United Methodist branch of it? 

5. Always sign your work. That bright red tile is unmistakably Frank Lloyd Wright. We live in an age when many are reluctant to own--let alone sign--their vision and work, hoping then to place the blame on someone or something else should it be a bust. We are in a time when a bold, clear vision is needed, and no "design" for it should be rejected out of hand.

6. If I ever get a chance to stay again in a Frank Lloyd Wright house, I will jump, again, at the chance. I may--just may--sneak in my own comfy chair, though.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Bible Stories...-

For the Summer months, we have decided to center our worship and preaching at St. Paul's UMC around several of the famous stories of the Bible. Many of us learned these on the "little painted chairs" of a Sunday School room, but an increasing number of church attenders were not raised in this tradition, and often don't know these stories. So, when we preachers say something like, "You remember the story of Cain and Abel...", the fact is, many don't remember it, and even if they do, they will think of the story as they remember it from their childhood days. And that can be bad.

The simple moral lessons we learned as kids probably are a real short-sell of what is going on in the original story. In a recent sermon, I likened this to the two different "levels" brought to the cartoon feature The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. When you watched the adventures of the buck-toothed flying squirrel and his goofy moose sidekick Bullwinkle J. Moose, you laughed and enjoyed the prevailing mayhem. However, when you review one of these episodes as an adult, you uncover an entirely different message. The little squirrel and his friend remind us more of the Smothers Brothers, speaking critically about the social justice issues of the day, lampooning those in power, and attacking the ethics and prejudices of the Cold War and the civil rights injustices of the day. Wow. Rocky and Bullwinkle carried out their subtle social protests and satire under the radar of the sensors, but Tommy and Dick Smothers got cancelled by CBS at the peak of its popularity for their version.

The Bible story of Adam and Eve tells us more about the human condition, human suffering, and our often failed attempts to remedy our situation than they do about sin and redemption. The oversimplification of this myth causes us to miss asking the important questions: Did God REALLY not want human beings to live without the knowledge of good and evil? Was the demonizing of the female protagonist in the story more about the prejudices of the author than a pronouncement that women are to blame for the world's problems? Did the devil really make us do it? I'm afraid many of us perpetuate childish ideas about what we can learn from Bible stories like Adam and Eve!

What we can learn from the story is that the "best design" of human beings is that we are made to need each other, and for far more than perpetuating the species. We need each other to care for the earth and to live in harmony with it. WE need each other to live what Jesus would later call "the abundant life." We need each other to create healthy communities and to share resources, talents, and abilities for the common good, as well as our own. Any strong thrust toward individual rights and power skews human society toward economic and political injustice, and creates a class of people who have not money, power, nor influence. These people will suffer unfairly. Eden, even after the "tree" incident, was a place where people needed each other and would not survive--let alone thrive--in isolation. And having a relationship with the Creator was a part of this we-need-each-other topology. Even after the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, when Cain is set to the land of Nod, East of Eden by God, he is not condemned. The seeds of his rehabilitation are sewn in God's command that no one would be allowed to harm him as retribution for his act.

And anyone who tries to use either biblical creation story to justify attacking people who are not at the extreme ends of the gender spectrum, or who are transgender, is missing the meaning of this story, and is turning it into a "clobber passage." The biblical story is about relationships, the social interaction of the human creation, the fickleness of human judgment, and how human suffering plays out while working through the difficulties of these. It is not an apologetic for hard-line, conservative ideas of gender exclusivity. Our blood should curdle when we hear someone say, "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve," or some other such ignorant blather as an assault against other children of God. An oversimplified, childish statement such as this misses the whole reason we even have this story preserved in scripture, and should be seen as an affront to the whole human community, not to speak of it being an offensive slur against the God who created us and loves us all.

Over the coming weeks, we will look at stories such as the Tower of Babel, Esau's Birthright vs. Jacob's chicanery, Jacob and Laban, David and Goliath, David and Bathsheba, Queen Esther, Shiprah and Puah, the Temptation of Jesus, Ananias and Sapphira, and the Conversion of Saul. Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, we suggest that if you are an adult, you start using the same mind--the same mind you use to be successful in your field of endeavor, wisely parent your children, prudently manage your finances, maintain a happy and growing relationship with your significant other, and plan well for your future--to read and study the Bible. And try not to listen to anyone who feeds you oversimplified, dismissing, or hurtful interpretations of what you read in its pages. The fact that we are all still here is the best proof that God is more about love, forgiveness, and helping us work out the challenges of human suffering than about condemnation, judgment, and retribution. This stuff is complicated! But, as Mr. Wesley said on his deathbed, "The best of all is, God is with us!"

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Irrationality of Violence...

An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (originally featured in the Washington Post) cited a study of mass shootings which tied a great majority of them to persons who had long histories with domestic violence. Most mass shootings are perpetrated by men. That is just a fact. So, researchers began to look into the criminal histories of mass shooters, and what they found was startling. James Hodgkinson, the shooter who attacked the Republican senators and congressmen practicing for a charity baseball game, had been cited for stalking and at least one instance of striking a woman. Similar findings of violence, stalking, and/or domestic abuse were tied to: the Virginia Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho; Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista, California shooter who killed six and wounded 13; Cedric Ford, who shot 17 people at a Newton, Kansas plant last year; and Omar Mateen, who murdered 49 people in Orlando, Florida at the Pulse nightclub. All of them had various incidents of legal citations for domestic violence.

It would be easy to demonize these people--as we typically do with sexual predators or child pornographers--and want to "lock them up and throw away the key." While some might say that these people are "deviants" who could be "cured" by having a religious conversion experience, the truth is that many of them are also religious, sometimes reaching what we would call the fanatic stage. One thing seems clear--these criminal acts are committed by people with an established pathology. Is this pathology genetic? Is it a form of mental illness?

There is no doubt that deadly criminal acts should be prosecuted by our legal system, although many of the shooters take their own life at the end of their killing spree. And there is no doubt that society should be protected from them, to the best of our ability. The NRA says the answer is to arm ourselves, even dramatizing the Virginia shooting, saying that without the Capitol Police who were present and armed, that baseball diamond could have become a killing field. Yes, but the Capitol Police are well-trained officers, not just people with guns. Had there been more citizens with weapons on the scene, there may have actually been more injuries due to untrained people discharging their firearms. If there is an answer, it is not in more citizens carrying guns.

Nor am I suggesting that those perpetrators of deadly acts--at least the ones who survive--should be simply confined to mental health facilities. While the pathology they exhibit, which according to the study cited in the Washington Post article is possibly a root cause of what can escalate to more serious acts of violence, the actual crime needs to be addressed according to the rule of law. However, the question I believe the article begs is: Should we require some kind of mandatory intervention for these individuals when they are first cited for stalking or domestic incidents? Could it be that the "secret" to getting ahead of the increasing number of senseless killings is to get persons who exhibit excessively controlling and violent behaviors HELP as early as possible?

One thing I do know, though: a recent act by the current administration and Congress to allow persons who have been treated for mental illness to buy and own firearms makes no sense. NO sense. You can cite all of the Second Amendment legal arguments you want, but in so many cases, this is just lighting the fuse. Almost all of the mass shootings have been carried out by persons using legally-owned weapons. In a perfect world, persons who run afoul of the law due to domestic violence or have court ordered PFAs because of stalking would not be allowed to own or possess firearms. We are not a perfect world, and for all of our bluster and rhetoric about this being "the greatest country on Earth," we are far, far from being a perfect country, especially on this issue.

It remains to be seen if the Virginia shooting makes a difference in Congress's views about gun violence, or whether the "bipartisanship" it has temporarily spurred, lasts. While we pray for the survival of Congressman Scalise, we might also pray for our better angels to whisper in the ears of our leaders about heading off the apparent root causes of these deadly incidents, and finding ways to stop arming those with a pathological history.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Final Questions from "Ask the Pastors"...

Since this will be my final installment from our 2017 Post-Easter "Ask the Pastors" session, I'll try to pick a couple of good ones! Here goes...

What is the significance of the "Jesus fish"?

This question is from one of our Mid-High youth. The "Jesus fish" was actually featured on an episode of Seinfeld. David Puddy, Elaine's boyfriend has one on his car, and they get into a humorous "spiritual" battle about David's Christian faith and why he doesn't seem to care if Elaine is going to hell or not. She ends up prying the "Jesus fish" from his car and retuning his car radio away from a Christian music station, in a fit of revenge. Sorry...serious questions usually take me to Seinfeld...

The "Jesus fish" is a simple symbol made of two opposing arcs, which, when overlapped, form what looks like a fish-shaped line drawing. Legend has it that it was used as a kind of code for early Christians during the time of persecution under Roman Empire rule, when it wasn't a great time to be very "public" about one's faith. If a person suspected another was a fellow Christian, they would draw an arc in the sand with her or his foot. If the other person WAS a Christian, they would draw the opposing arc, forming the fish. Without saying a word, they could confirm their common profession of faith. If the other person WASN'T a Christian, the little sand figure would be meaningless--no harm, no foul.

There is more to this fish story, however. Sometimes you will see the Christian fish symbol with several capital Greek letters contained within its belly. The letters look something like this ΙΧΘΥΣ. These are the first letters of the Greek words which mean: "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior." And when you put them together into an acronym such as shown, they form Greek word "Ichthus," which means "fish." So, as you see, the "Jesus fish" has much going for it as an early secret code and as an interesting theological word puzzle. Who knows, maybe its use saved a bunch of lives of early Christians? Now, though, it's just a "Jesus fish."

Here's one more from our youth...

What do you think is something people misunderstand about our church?

Wow. What a great question. Depending upon what "people" you are talking about, I'll bet there are a lot of things people misunderstand. Let me see if I can walk us through a few that concern me.

We have as part of our Mission Statement that we are a "welcoming" church, and each week our worship guides list our more formal "Welcome Statement," which we are very public about. This statement lists some specific marginalized groups which have been spurned by many Christian churches-and even some denominations--historically. We list them so that any guests who come here and who may be a member of one of these groups, will know specifically that they are welcome at St. Paul's. All of us, though, fit into one of the groups listed (we all have a family status, an age, a sexual orientation, etc.). Because some churches and "Christians" have disrespected or even shunned persons who are of a "different" group, many persons have developed a strongly negative view of the church and the Christian faith, in general. I fear these folk may tend to lump St. Paul's in with these less-than-welcoming churches. This is one reason why our Welcome Statement is so important, and why we put it--along with our Purpose, Mission, and Vision--on just about every thing we do! We are a welcoming church, and we aim to be an inclusive, diverse church. We want to "draw the circle much bigger," as they say, rather than build walls to shut people out who may be different than we.

St. Paul's is a church in the Wesleyan tradition, which means we have a rich theology of redemption and grace, which necessarily launch us into an ever growing myriad of social justice activities. That's what true "Wesleyan" churches are about, and this is what they do. There are some who are trying to claim the "Wesleyan" label who have a very different and confining definition of what this means, and I fear it projects a very negative witness to a lot of people who could really benefit from a loving, redeeming, and empowering relationship with Jesus. There is a real "civil war" brewing in our United Methodist denomination over the divergent views of Wesleyan Christianity. Unfortunately, this dispute is claiming more "press" than the incredible, life-changing ministry and mission being carried on by the people called United Methodists. I fear the harm this situation is doing could be long-lasting to our church. Our Purpose, Mission, Vision, and Welcome statements put St. Paul's right smack in the middle of what most serious scholars of Wesleyan Christianity would endorse, but the entropy of the "family spat" within Methodism can too easily overshadow what we are really about.

Here's one more "misunderstanding" that I hope we can overcome. Actually, it is not a misunderstanding! Our current reality is that we are a "white" suburban congregation, at present. While we certainly have several families of color and/or ethnic origin other than North American here at St. Paul's, a snapshot of our church on the average Sunday morning is pretty "monochrome." If we are to realize our Vision of becoming an "inclusive, diverse church," we have much work ahead. A good question for us to keep asking until we get an answer is, "Why are we remaining such a white church when the North Hills is becoming more ethnically and racially diverse?" I don't have an easy answer to this question. But thanks to our new Vision, we are compelled to find an answer--and a solution--to this question, with the goal to be a church that fully reflects the growing diversity of our local communities.

And, one final question from the congregation...

What's the best way to comfort someone who is hurting emotionally?

Obviously, there are many reasons why someone may be hurting. As a friend, or even just as a fellow Christian or church goer, the first thing we can do is express our sincere concern. Many people are "hurting" and no one notices. Secondly, talk with them in a supportive, loving way, listening for any cues as to how serious their emotional pain is. If you feel that they are pretty distraught, ask them if it would be OK if you shared their concern with one of the pastors, or maybe even inquire if you could personally take them to meet with a pastor. There are times when a person is in deep anguish, or possibly even on the road to more serious depression, and they may benefit from clinical help. Your pastors are sometimes more able to help determine this and then offer to refer the person to a counselor.

A majority of the time, however, the individual just needs a caring, listening presence. Any person can be "present" to a friend, neighbor, or church member at this point. The most important thing to remember is be a listener, and ask just enough questions to prompt the individual to talk. Do not try to solve the person's problem, and while launching into your own personal story (which may or MAY NOT really parallel their experience) is a strong temptation, resist it for as long as you can. Focus on the other, and try not to get "hooked" into their story to such a degree that you begin opening up your own issues, rather than being a listening ear for theirs. This is actually much harder than it sounds, by the way. The brain is amazing in its ability to connect things, but all of these "circuits" are not necessarily empowering to the person with whom you are trying to help.

Also, remember that St. Paul's has a Stephen Ministry. We have individuals trained through this program, and they are available to be assigned to a care receiver, walking with this individual through their process, whether it is grief, loneliness, or a spiritual "dark night of the soul." Pastor Karen Slusser leads our Stephen Ministers, so if you feel a person to whom you have reached out might benefit from a Stephen Minister, reach out to her.

Grace and peace, Friends!

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...