Friday, July 27, 2018

You deserve a break today...

"You deserve a break today..." This was once the tag line from a McDonald's TV commercial. Breaks are important. When people don't get them--or take them--we become much harder to live with, don't function as well, and physically deteriorate. That's a fact. Workaholics that many of us are, we lie to ourselves and believe that intense schedules, serial tasks, and never-ending meetings show that we are at peak efficiency. Nope. Nope. Nope. Just ask the people around us if that is what they see in us. We usually just run them ragged and strike a debilitating blow to office morale.

In Mark 6, Jesus calls his disciples to "come away." They go off in a boat to the center of the Sea of Galilee to escape the madding crowds. We're talking Jesus here, the Son of God Jesus! The Son of God took frequent breaks in his schedule to pray, meditate, and to "come away." Who are we that we think we are better than Jesus, and that we don't need these refreshing, edifying and restful breaks? Just deceived, I guess. In fact, I'll bet we need more time away than the Savior took. I'm sure you are now realizing that I'm writing this piece just before the two most "busy" weeks of the American vacation season, don't you?

I'm about to take only the second three-week vacation of my working life, and I'm pretty stoked about it. It took me 32 years in ministry before I finally yielded to my wife's requests for a longer vacation period. Last year, we spent the first two weeks in Hawaii, where our daughter and her family had temporarily relocated for her husband's job. The third week we did one of those "stay-cations," enjoying our home and taking a couple of "day trips" to local sights, including one of my favorite places, Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. Upon returning to St. Paul's, I felt much more rested, and at least in my head, my creativity and passion for ministry had been enhanced (I'm not sure that my co-workers didn't think I was just nuts). I certainly felt better. This year we are going to spend a week at a little cottage on a bluff overlooking Cape Cod Bay. The ocean is such a calming influence. Science says that we are drawn to the water because we came from the water. I like that. Mind you, I don't go into the ocean, as there are things there with teeth and tentacles, but walking along the surf at dusk assuredly soothes the spirit.

When Jesus and the boys arrived at the shore after their brief "come away" party, the met, again, the madding crowd with its host of needs, demands, and questions. So it is with the pastor returning to her congregation. But, like Jesus, we love these people, and we just can't deny them our best efforts to sort out their lives, find a lasting redemption, and heal their wounds. Notice, I said our best efforts. Are they getting these if we are not rested up, prayed up, peaceful within our own souls, and yet fully and healthily in touch with our own human frailties and suffering? Nope. Nope. Nope.

So, my friends, you deserve a break today. Don't get up and go away to McDonald's--just get up and go away! And if you can't afford to go away, "come away" by discovering for a time how to focus passionately on something other than your job. Take in an art gallery or a zoo, a science center or a State park. Borrow a bike and ride it. Fish at North Park. Read a book that has absolutely, positively nothing to do with church or Trump or anything else that keeps you up at night. Pray. And not the laundry list intercessory kind, but the put-on-the-symphony-or-the-Beatles kind where you just groove in the score and thank your brains out to God that you are alive, even if it is just for a short season. Love someone. Love them real hard. Just stare at your partner, your children, your grandchildren, or that hound who will stare back at you with its own kind of thankfulness. Paint something--a room, a car, or a picture. Eat something you're not allowed to eat, but just enough that you don't get sick (I'm talking to you diabetics here, not peanut allergy people!). Make a really hot cuppa' joe and sip it on your deck or porch early in the morning and thumb your nose at Starbucks. Sing. Even if you sound like the Keurig at the end of its brewing cycle. Sing. Oh, and sleep. Yes, sleep. Sleep in, sleep soundly, sleep naked, sleep it off, sleep with someone you love, sleep under the stars, sleep in a tent, but sleep. The Son of Man may have had nowhere to lay his head, but thanks be to God, you do. And in the best of worlds, you have someone's shoulder to rest yours on. Taking a break is the beginning of true shalom, dear ones. Make it so.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Summer...

It's almost half over. Well, isn't THAT a depressing thought, especially for those of you who have already taken your vacation? Why is it that we go so nuts over Summer?

1. It goes back to our time as kids, when Summer meant not getting up for school, Monday through Friday. That was an exciting time, wasn't it? I was a nerdy kid, who would do things like go hang out at the public library, reading all kinds of stuff, but mostly books and magazines about science. Or, on Tuesdays, one of my fellow coin-collecting nerd neighbors and I would go on a "penny hunt." What's a penny hunt, you ask? Well, we would take two quarters and descend upon the local branch of Northwest Bank. A sympathetic teller would give us a roll of pennies for our fifty cents, and we would each take a roll to one of those glass-topped coffee tables they had in the "sitting area" where no one ever sat, and spread out the pennies, looking for the specific ones we were collecting. After searching each roll, and replacing any "finds" with an uninteresting replacement, we would re-roll them and ask the teller to exchange it for a fresh roll. We could do this for hours, and the regular stream of customers used to think we were "cute." We weren't cute, we were nerds, but we sure had fun, and added greatly to our collections. I remember one day when my friend found a German coin in a penny roll--you would have thought he had stumbled upon the Hope diamond. Penny hunts died a couple of years later when the banking industry started machine-wrapping the pennies into sleeves you had to crack like an egg to get open, and they didn't want the pennies re-wrapped into the old-fashioned, non-machine rolls. It was just as well, as our junior high years were approaching, and if we were still doing the penny hunts, I'm guessing neither Roger or I would have done too well getting dates.

2. It's the weather, stupid. Sun and gentle rains are wonderful things, especially for those of us who live in Western Pennsylvania, where they are usually an oddity, especially in the other seasons. Did I mention the sun? Walking, running, hiking, driving in a sports car, sitting out on the deck, cooking out--these are just a few of the things the Summer months make much easier and more desirable. Of course, with some of the unfortunate climate change we are seeing, the gentle rains are being replaced from time to time with "500 year" storms, flooding, and landslides, but we still can hope for "moderate" Summer weather. I love driving my Miata through North Park both coming to and going home from work, just to enjoy the park's beauty, and to watch all of the people taking advantage of this local treasure. I keep telling Dara that WE are going to use North Park more when I retire, and she just rolls her eyes, but mark my words, we ARE going there. I might even take up fishing, because it looks so peaceful. Do they make fishing lures without hooks? I think I would just like to cast out and reel in a lure for the shear relaxation of it, but I certainly don't want to catch a fish. I'm not touching one of those things.

3. It's the altered schedule. St. Paul's is an incredibly busy church, and during the "program year," between classes, meetings, and staff meetings, along with all of the "typical" pastoral care duties, the days can get very long. Believe it or not, there are actually less "crises" that seem to happen in people's lives in the Summer, including less elective surgeries, and people are on vacation, which means less counseling appointments. Meetings, other than ones that absolutely must happen, are on hiatus until Fall. Some of our staff gets ramped up for youth mission trips, CAT Camp, and Vacation Bible School, but once those weeks are over, we all start taking vacations, too. While I can't say the pace around here is "relaxed," it is just different, and different is good. For most of you non-church working people, I realize that your work schedule probably isn't much different  in the Summer (unless you are a teacher!), but vacations come into play, and evenings and weekends provide some "getaway" time.

So, that's Summer. As a pastor, I'm always saddened by how the Summer may impact church attendance, but over the years I have learned that, while weekly numbers may be less, people DO come to worship in the Summer. It's just that any given week, a few of "the regulars" are on holiday. St. Paul's offers a "Chapel in the Woods" service in the "green cathedral" in the woods on our property, and this is very popular. (It also boosts our attendance, for you statistics freaks out there.) It works in the Summer, but not so much in October. A couple of years ago, we tried to schedule a "Chapel in the Woods reunion service" in October and got either rained or snowed out. So, it will remain Summer fare.

I sure hope God takes a vacation. I know the Divine Presence is a 24/7 thing, but maybe one of the reasons we Christians believe in a triune God is so at least one person of the godhead can get away for a brief break. Jesus probably brought this idea back to The Realm from his sojourn on the earth, and when he used to go out on a boat with the disciples to "get away" from the throngs.

Enjoy your Summer, Dear Ones. Stay safe; travel safe; enjoy watching children who revel in this season. Shalom, Yinz!

Friday, July 6, 2018

Vaccines..

Some people are losing their minds over vaccines. These "anti-vaxers," as they are known, have bought into bizarre ideas that certain childhood vaccines cause cancer, autism, or other horrific medical maladies, and are crusading on Facebook and other social media, urging parents to forgo these immunizations. Medical science--REAL medical science, not the "Dr. Bornstein" types--is unanimous in defense of these childhood vaccines that protect children from everything from whooping cough to polio. Why is it that we are so quick to accept these strange "causes" of things we don't understand--or don't want to accept? NO parent wants her or his child to have autism, in an ideal world. But children are born with autism, and this is a fact. It is no fault of the parent(s) they have this condition, which is now understood to be a "spectrum" disorder, meaning the degree of debilitation caused by it can be "rated," with an eye toward prescribing the best therapy, rehabilitation, or coping and life skills for the individual. Vaccines do not cause it, and no, none of the "preservatives" in them do, either. Randomly consulting "Google" for information about such a serious issue often returns as many unhelpful, inciteful, and disturbing "facts" as it does genuine insight.

Why am I writing about this? Possibly because I just had the second half of the new Shingrix vaccine for shingles. When I had part one, something happened to me that has never happened before--I got all of the side-effects they said could happen, and I missed a day and a half of work. For all intents and purposes, I got what acted like the flu. This week, I got part two, and was warned that if I had reactions the first time, there was a better than the Pirates' team batting average they would happen again. I am here to report that, like the Pirates' falling average, I did NOT have the same set of reactions. Other than feeling like I got punched in the left arm by Muhammad Ali, I am able to work, eat, sleep, and write stuff like this blog. I think I'm coherent? Seriously, this Shingrix vaccine is highly recommended for those of us beyond 55 as it is highly effective against shingles, an illness that is horribly painful in the least, and may be highly debilitated by it, at worst. Unfortunately, the vaccine is in short supply right now, which I didn't know. Dara and I were told by our physicians to get it, so we stopped in to our Giant Eagle pharmacy with prescription in hand, and within a week, had part one, and now, eight weeks later, part two. When I got my injection the other day, the pharmacist congratulated me, saying that Dara and I were only the fourth and fifth people receiving the vaccine at our store, and that 75 others were on a waiting list!

It seems strange that something designed to keep you well could make you sick, but side-effects do happen in isolated cases. However, medical studies have not shown any serious side-effects to the necessary childhood immunizations, unless you count the fact that before these anti-vaxers stopped vaccinating their children, we had almost wiped out whooping cough, polio, and small pox. At least the first two are making a comeback because populations of unvaccinated children are cropping up because of this craziness, and this brings great danger to the population of children around them. If you, as a parent, have been even the slightest bit swayed by the anti-laxer arguments, please come home to scientific reason, and for God's sake, have your children vaccinated, if not for their welfare, for that of the others around you.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if science could find a vaccine against conspiracy theories, ignorance brought on by things going "viral" on the Internet (isn't it interesting we use that term?), and hate fueled by vitriolic rhetoric flowing from radio shows, memes, and blogs written by reactionaries and rabble-rousers? If we could be vaccinated such that the only thing our ears could hear would be truth, we might think we'd gone deaf in the current environment of public discourse.

One way to "vaccinate" yourself against falling prey to these "diseases" is to be well-read, but while reading responsible news, educated and informed authors and reporters, and by carrying on conversations with reasonable, informed, and non-contentious persons. If someone wants to engage you with one-sided barrages of political or social propaganda with little evidence of its integrity or truth, just walk away. Unfortunately, finding souls who wish to enter into up-building, intelligent dialog about the state of affairs are getting harder to find. A popular conservative talk show host recently asked his audience if they would still support their favorite politician if they chronically lied, and the majority of the audience said they would, "because that's our guy." O, if only we had a vaccine against falsehood...

I did read the other day that there is a disease being carried by some ticks that renders the bite-ee unable to eat red meat without getting sick. THAT is weird. Really weird. But maybe there is hope that some other tick might be out there that renders a person unable to spout lie after lie without going at least temporarily mute. I'm rooting for that tick, wherever you are.

Get your vaccinations, people. Be healthy. Stay Healthy. And get informed. We'll all be the better for it. Shalom!

Monday, July 2, 2018

Antwon Rose...

A couple of weeks ago, another African American teenager was shot by a white cop. We can examine dozens of reasons as to "why" this happened, but the number of such tragic encounters certainly seems to be on the increase. What is going on?

White fathers and mothers don't have to have "the talk" with their teenagers about the specifics of what to do if you are pulled over by the police to assure that you don't get beaten or killed. This is a fact--both that we DON'T have to tell our kids this (other than the typical "respect the police"), and that African American parents DO have to have this talk, which includes specifics like where to put your hands, what to say and what NOT to say, etc. Without "the talk," a black teenager may respond to a law officer the way a typical white teenager might, and that could provoke a bad outcome. I know that some of you reading this won't believe it is true, but please don't deny it until you have personally had a few conversations with African American moms and dads.

A well-known local African American activist was speaking to a group at St. Paul's UMC last year and during his talk about this subject, he asked how many in the audience had ever been pulled over by a cop for a "safety check." No one in the white, suburban group had, and several had no idea what one even was. The activist revealed that it is a regular occurrence for him, especially when he drives out into a white suburb to give a talk. And when he IS stopped for a "safety check," he is often asked to exit his vehicle and put his hands on the roof of the car. Has that ever happened to you during a "safety check?" Have YOU ever been stopped for one? Can you imagine an African American police officer pulling a white professional over in Homewood or the Hill District for a "safety check?" And can you imagine the ruckus such a thing would cause in the white community?

I share this just to point out that the playing field is NOT level, regardless what we white people think. So, Antwon Rose II is in a car pulled over by a single cop, newly sworn in as part of the East Pittsburgh police force. The car is suspected to have been involved in a drive-by shooting in Braddock, PA, and when Officer Michael Rosfeld signaled for the car to pull over, the driver obliged. We know what happened. As the officer was securing the driver, two men bolted from the car and ran. Officer Rosfeld took out his service weapon and shot Antwon Rose II three times, once in the face, once in the arm, and once in the back, and he died. The other suspect was later apprehended.

Officer Rosfeld waffled on why he shot at Rose. At first, he said he thought maybe he had a gun, but during his interview, he said he really didn't see anything in Rose's hand. Rosfeld has been charged with criminal homicide. Why was he so quick to shoot at a fleeing suspect? Typically, one cop would secure the scene and another might pursue the others on foot or begin radioing their direction of travel to other units. Herein lies the first problem.

Rosfeld works for a very small police squad. He was alone in his patrol car. It would make sense that when the suspect's vehicle responded to his lights and siren and pulled over, willingly, Rosfeld would wait in his squad car until a backup officer arrived. Why didn't he? Allegheny County District Attorney Steven Zappala flagged the lack of standards for police training, calling on State legislators to write a bill that provides minimum requirements for ANY candidate to carry a badge, even for a tiny, eight-person police force like East Pittsburgh. I would suggest that such a bill might include reference checks, which would have turned up the fact that the 30-year-old Rosfeld had problems in his previous law enforcement positions, including at least one case where he may have demonstrated that he had racial issues. When it comes to the kind of life and death circumstances that ANY police officer may face, channeling "Barney Fife" is no laughing matter. Also, Zappala flagged East Pittsburgh for having no written policies regarding its police force. This fact could open them to civil action in the Rose case that could immediately bankrupt the borough. Maybe all towns and boroughs that field police should have these?

Of course, such training and written policies would not have stopped this shooting if it was racially motivated. One has to wonder if Rosfeld would have begun shooting at the two fleeing men if they looked like his brother? Legally, there is no way to prove that race played a part in this tragedy, but that is PRECISELY the problem! Racism is insidious. A white woman clutching her purse tightly to her side just because a black man is walking down the street past her isn't a crime, but neither is a black man walking down the street past you a crime. But if that black man is walking past you down the street in Ingomar, Allison Park, or Franklin Park, does this not cause some to question? That is racism. I have spoken to suburban police officers who have confided in me that they have been called by residents to report "a black man driving a car on my street" or a "black teenager hanging out in our neighborhood." This is racism. Might racism--in this case, fear of the other, or ignorance of the other--have played a role in Michael Rosfeld pulling out his gun and shooting Antwon Rose II for the "crime" of running from a cop (see paragraph two above)?

I'm amazed how there are still people in our highly educated, "professional" congregation in the North Hills who bristle and write letters of complaint if one of our pastors cites "white privilege" in a sermon. White privilege is a sociological and psychological fact. Case in point: we don't have to have "the talk" with our kids when they reach driving age, do we? Statistics show that their chances of being beaten or shot by police is very, very low. Not so much among black teenagers, including ones who were excellent students like Antwon Rose II, who it appears was in the wrong place at the wrong time. When I bought my house, I found zero resistance to the process of choosing a neighborhood, arranging for financing, purchasing the house and moving in. Talk to a few African Americans and see what their experience has been in this regard. (Or, for that matter, talk to a Muslim co-worker who may have a Ph.D. but is dark-skinned or speaks with an accent.) White privilege IS a "thing," pure and simple, and it may even "infect" the field of law enforcement, from time to time.

Regardless of the outcome of the Antwon Rose II case, we, as an enlightened society, must work to embrace diversity and human understanding. I don't know if white people can ever get over our racism, as it is so ingrained in us. I do know that as one who desires to overcome it in myself, it is a constant battle. And any white person who says they have overcome it, doesn't understand it at all, nor does that one understand the societal and institutional roots it has that run very, very deep. One of the most racist statement I hear from white people goes something like this: "Personally, I don't see color--I don't care if people are black, white, purple or green..." What that statement says is, "I don't understand racial and ethnic differences, and I don't care to," or "I have very few relationships with people who don't look like me, other than at a very superficial level." This statement is also very self-centered. Even IF a person really believes they "don't see color," are they not refusing to acknowledge the difficulties persons of color experience while trying to do the "normal" things that we all do like renting or buying homes, buying a car, shopping, or driving through a white neighborhood without arousing suspicion?

As a Christian pastor who struggles to actually "be" Christian, and to love others according to the teachings of Jesus, it is discouraging to see how far I and my congregation have to go, even after 2,000 years of Christian influence and almost 70 years of civil rights "progress" in the U.S. And then I think about some of my colleagues out in the rural parishes where a sermon on white privilege would most likely provoke letters to the Bishop and Superintendent. However, we are people of hope, and people of prayer.

Tonight (July 2) we're having a forum at St. Paul's on the issues of family separations in immigration, and the upheaval in our community over the Antwon Rose II shooting. I'm pitching the idea that responsible people of faith should be all about IPA (beer people will like this) in these justice issues: Inform, Pray, and Act. Standing by and waiting for someone else to do it may just get us ALL killed.

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...