Monday, September 25, 2017

The Challenge before Us

We humans are spectacularly adept at switching a problem that confronts us with our own significant shortcomings in love and grace for one that allows us to feel superior and in control. Doing so, I suspect, allows us to continue in habits and patterns that keep us comfortable, but that often fall far short of the love Jesus implores us to show for our neighbors and our enemies.

In the language of people who work with communities and families confronting issues, we call this focusing on technical fixes instead of facing adaptive challenges.

In my observation, it's the moment we realize Uncle John is an alcoholic at Thanksgiving after he drinks far too much - again - and ruins Thanksgiving - again - but instead of facing the issues of addiction, the way a family behaves around alcoholism, and working to heal those wounds, we redo the dining room because new furniture and a paint color will fix everything.

Churches love technical fixes. We grasp for new and exciting programs that will help us grow in numbers, increase our financial stewardship, or build whatever programs we think will return us to the halcyon days of glory instead of asking the hard questions of why our numbers have decreased or other deeply probing questions.

When I work with churches on these issues, I remind them adaptive challenges, the big questions, are almost never ones we can verbalize immediately. We have to be led into them by the Holy Spirit because asking them and discovering the truths about ourselves they hold is almost always scary and painful because we will have to change.

We discover, perhaps, we aren't growing as a church because the demographics around our church have changed, and to welcome our new neighbors means we must confront our own prejudices about "those" people and how they worship. We discover being in a family system of addiction means everyone has played a role in enabling.

These discoveries are never easy, and healing them is never pain-free. They are the truth Jesus speaks about when he invites us to know ourselves.

Watching the uproar over the current President and the NFL has again reminded me how easy we slip into technical fixes instead of confronting huge issues that are challenging.

Some information first. Colin Kaepernick began kneeling at the playing of the National Anthem to call awareness to the issue of police violence against people of color. He did so during President Obama's tenure. He has and continues to work at the community level to help issues of police and community relations, doing so with his own money. And he is currently unemployed, likely because of his protest.

When people, almost exclusively white, began criticizing Kaepernick for his actions, we (since I'm white) ignored the essence of his protest - that throughout history, disproportionately larger numbers of men of color have encounters with the police, despite federal crime statistics that do not support the false belief that people of color commit more crimes. Police departments themselves are responding to this issue, working on inherent bias training with officers, among other things.

Kaepernick was called a son of a bitch for exercising his Constitutional right to kneel, and players and owners in the NFL responded. Again, the responses on Sunday almost overshadowed the original issue of protest. Kaepernick himself never knelt in protest to the current administration.

The technical responses (and any pertinent factual information often ignored to justify technical responses) to this action have included, but are certainly not limited to, the following:
  1. The owners have a right to fire NFL players for not doing their jobs. (Yes, but NFL players are not required to stand for the National Anthem, for which teams were not on the field for until the mid-21st century. Nor is presence for pre-game activities part of "doing their jobs." A cursory reading of the players' agreements from their union will clarify this.)
  2. Kneeling is disrespectful to soliders, even though many soldiers have noted otherwise AND the National Anthem is not solely for the military. It is our National Anthem, for every citizen of this country. Respect for soldiers is a serious issue - with thousands living with severe medical issues without the resources they need for health and healing, many enlisted living at or close to poverty level, and soldiers involved in endless foreign conflicts. That we often glorify their role without supporting them as humans is another deep issue we Americans need to face, but that's another post.
  3. "Millionaire players" should be grateful for a job. (This is the 21st century version of "don't be an uppity Black man" in my opinion, and in many others. This article is very much worth a read for more on this.)
  4. People should protest on their own time and choose a less-offensive/less-violent/less-troubling way. Again, we humans are almost never comfortable with any sort of protest because we are being faced with truths we'd rather ignore. 
  5. Athletes should play the game and stay out of politics. 
And I'm sure you've read others as you've scanned social media.

But notice what's missing - any response to the original reason Kaepernick took a knee - that we have a significant problem with racism and racial oppression in this country. Kaepernick focused this systemic issue of racism on police brutality, but he is speaking to an ever-present challenge in our country.

Racism and its first cousin, economic oppression and its evil fruits that we are still ingesting.

That my friends, is the sinister presence of a technical fix in action. They sound semi-reasonable and are lively places of discussion, but this focus will neither help us move forward or even respond to the original wound. Even if any of the reasons for criticism were valid (which most of them aren't), responding to them and fixing them would still leave us with the deeply infected wound in the body of this country - that we have lived, for hundreds of years, with the random construct of race as THE dividing factor. 

Racism impacts our economic policies. It pervades our schools, neighborhoods, prisons, and churches. Our political structure supports racism (and other prejudices) because it was formed in a time where only white male property holders made the decisions. We, like the children and grand-children of alcoholics, carry the wounds of their behaviors and choices of racism in our very bones.

But we also are capable of healing from this wound. We have found our way forward with voting rights and awarenesses that were inconceivable 50 years ago. Our military, once deeply segregated, has changed. Marriage is no longer legally defined through race. We as a country are capable of facing the challenge of equality and justice we ourselves have put into the words of our sacred documents.

And more importantly, WE AS CHRISTIANS are called to this very work. We promise to God to love equally. Even if our country demanded prejudice as a public policy, Christians are called first to God, and God demands love, mercy, and justice. Period. So if you are kneeling to Almighty God, God reminds you of your allegiance to love for all, of God's expectation you will serve all and work for justice to roll down like waters, and expects nothing less of us.

While the National Anthem does indeed represent those who have served in our military, it also represents all the citizens of this country. It sings of freedom to those who marched in Selma. It remembers the sacrifice of four little girls in Birmingham. Its music is not reserved for those who marched to war overseas to fight for freedom; it also plays for those who march for justice and equality on this soil, who did so without guns but with conviction that we can be the America we hope to be, a shining city on a hill.

The challenge before us, especially as people of faith, is not to allow the easy arguments to become the focus, but continually to direct our attention and energy to finding reconciliation in the sins of racism. When we are deeply troubled by an action, instead of grabbing for the fruit of the tree of excuses and blame that the deceiver holds before us, what if we instead explored our responses in the presence of God? 

Do our responses dodge responsibility of love, or do they challenge us to love more? Are we speaking of those we label as enemy in the way we would want to be treated if we held a position that came from deep within us (that whole love our neighbors and our enemies as ourselves does not have an exception clause). What if we were willing to explore the deep source of our own discomfort when prejudice and hate are brought to our attention?

What if we knelt before God in humility as we allow God to show us how we have fallen short in love and grace in our relationships with people of color in this country and courageously worked to create a kingdom of heaven of equality here and now? 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Telling the True Stories

The Bible tells stories.

Inspiring, authentic, and uplifting stories.

Unexpected, surprising, and startling stories.

Messy, ugly, and tragic stories.

Holy Scriptures are accounts and memories of our ancestors of faith. They are narratives, history, songs, prophecy, letters, and gospels, telling the rich, varied, and messy stories of humanity’s relationship with God.

A cursory read through the accounts of the patriarchs reveals men who made courageous choices…and profoundly stupid, even malevolent ones. David essentially rapes Bathsheba, who we never hear consent to sex with a king before he eventually kills her husband to save his own royal skin. Jacob is an entire warning of poor life choices and misdeeds. Jesus’ disciples don’t fair much better. They are often pictured as bumbling and clueless, as well as faithful and devoted.

The unvarnished truth of courage and cowardice, love and hate, faith and doubt, and good and evil embodied in the ancestors of our faith, are honest and authentic. This authenticity reminds us we are far from perfect, capable of great evil, and still loved by God in this dichotomy of extremes. We are the same ones who are part of God’s good creation and the ones who turn away from this holy goodness as stiff-necked people.

In the last few months and years, my city has been in the midst of a growing national conversation about monuments in civic squares memorializing Confederate soldiers. A common refrain I’ve heard from citizens opposed to their relocation or removal is one of rewriting history.

I love the history of my native South. I love its folklore and music. I love the fried food and the rituals of summers on the porch and winters where 45 degrees is way too cold. I love its almost irrational love of college football and the way people who've never met strike up full conversations at the post office. I love the lazy, sing-song accents. I love its story.

But I don’t love our attempts to nuance our story, rewrite it, or completely ignore huge narratives because they don’t show us in our best light. If I don’t love the fallen parts of the South, I don’t really love it. Love is not only about the shiny, pretty parts. Love is also about recognizing the tragic, even immoral aspects and being present to those stories. Love demands I know the full story, not just the parts that make me feel comfortable and proud.

I don’t love the desire to make us as white southerners seem better than we were and that our past of profiting from slavery doesn’t have a direct profit in white privilege today. Faith doesn't ignore the messy, tragic, and evil parts of our story with God. Faith demands we don't ignore the messy, tragic, and evil parts of our story as a people, region, and country, either. 

Civil War statues in military parks and cemeteries tell a story of the deep cost of war in human lives. The fable of the romantic nobility of the Civil War is quickly erased as tens of thousands of candles, each representing a human casualty at Antietam, flicker at night. War is a narrative of tragedy and loss, but it, too is a story we must tell.

We can’t truly argue relocating or removing these statues from pubic grounds is rewriting history if, in the over 150 years since the Civil War, we have made little attempt to tell and to listen to the whole story of our country, including the story of slavery. Can we imagine the story our souls would hear if we lit a candle on the hallowed grounds of slave markets and cotton fields where millions worked and died and by roadside trees where people of of color were lynched? 

I wonder if what we’re really saying when we worry about rewriting history has more to do with finally hearing the fullness of our story. Perhaps removing these statues invites us, even forces us, to read the pages of our history we hoped to forget. These are the pages we’d ripped from the book and hidden under a rug because people don’t like to recognize the evil we have done and the evil done on our behalf, that is still being done. If we read these pages, will we see ourselves in the fullness of who we are and be devastated at the evil we have wrought through our history of racism, white supremacy, prejudice, and hate?

I hope we will. I hope we who are the children of power and privilege follow God into the jarring, painful process as we read and listen to the story of the agonizing, painful words of racism. 

Even in theses words, the love of God is still written. 

Godly love demands I know the full story, as much as I can. And right now, we need to recognize more of our story and listen to even more of it. The narrative of American exceptionalism tempts us to edit out the parts of our history that are painful, messy, and repugnant. Rewriting history rarely removes narratives. Instead, it adds to our human story, often re-discovering parts we would rather not read.

We need the narrative of this country’s full story of slavery instead of relegating it to one room of a plantation tour. The whole tour should talk about slavery, because the plantation would not have existed without it. Slavery and white supremacy should be included in every chapter of school books on American history instead of a few scattered footnotes. We need to read, learn, and inwardly digest this narrative right into present day and its continuing impact on our country. 

We need to write the story of how the church has long been complicit in white supremacy.  I’ve visited hundreds of churches across this nation, and those with historic markers of politicians, veterans, and other notable church members are numerous. I could count on one hand those churches that recognize how slavery and money from slavery built houses of worship or funded their still-existing endowments. The number is increasing, and thanks be to God for church leaders who are writing this history to remember words we have tried repeatedly to erase.

We need to write our story to heal. We cannot heal from the wounds we do not acknowledge. The history we’ve told ourselves for far too long minimizing slavery has allowed the deep wound of racism to fester. Acknowledging this is painful and exacting, and yet, ignoring it has proved neither healing or helpful. 

Relocating or removing statues honoring men who fought to keep people of color enslaved is not erasing their legacy. If only we could, indeed, do that so easily. Instead, these actions recognize something the ancestors of our faith knew deeply - telling the full story, the noble and the horrible aspects, reminds us who we were and who we are. We celebrate the inspiring chapters, and we examine, learn, and begin healing from the ones we’d rather omit as we carefully listen to these stories.

May we have the courage to tell and listen to stories.

Inspiring, authentic, and uplifting stories.

Unexpected, surprising, and startling stories.

Messy, ugly, and tragic stories.

May we have the courage to let these stories challenge us, change us, and heal us. 

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Leave God Out of Our Hate

I am done enabling people to use God to justify hatred. 
I am done allowing faith to be used as a casual part of public life, a shorthand to get elected or to justify various levels of discrimination and hatred. 
I've read the Bible a few times, in a few languages. Are there sections where hatred and violence are central to the story? Yes. 
And yet the prevailing message of the Bible is a story of a loving God, who desires mercy from us, who gets really angry when we sell the righteous for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals, who implores us to remember the outsider and to welcome the refugee, to name a few ways our lack of love has gotten us into heaps of trouble through the eons. 
Jesus sums this all up very nicely for us by telling us SEVERAL TIMES to love one another as Jesus loves us. 
That humanity has managed to get this basic commandment confused is no surprise. After all, avoiding one fruit in the Garden of Eden proved too much for us. 
Loving our neighbor means, quite basically, treating my neighbor as I'd like to be treated. If I want my teenaged son to know he can safely walk in a park in the evening wearing a hoodie and come home without being shot because he was assumed to be a criminal, God's love demands that I want that for African American parents and youth, as well - because they are my neighbors. If I want the opportunity to be measured on my ability to do a job and not judged because of my gender, God's love demands I want the same for women and transgendered people, as well - because they are my neighbors. If I want access to health care when I am sick without the very real possibility of bankruptcy or having to choose to go without because I can't afford treatment, God's love demands I want that for all people, not just for those who can write the check - because they are my neighbors.
You get the idea.
God's love demands I do more than talk a good game. The Prophets and Jesus call out people over and over who pray lovely prayers, but do nothing. Love is indeed an action verb. Our love is proven in our thoughts, words, and deeds. Complacency is not love. 
For too long in American society, God has been used as justification not to love. Oh, we try to arrange love on the stinking pile of hate we excrete by saying things like, "Love the sinner, hate the sin," or "But the Bible says..." but in essence, we decide who we want to hate, who we want to exclude and demean, and who we don't like, then we find a way to justify it all with God.
If you don't like Kentucky, Louisville, Alabama or Auburn or people who speak a different language or men who eat sushi or women who love women or people of different ethnicities and races, that's on you. God is not part of hate.
Hatred is an individual choice. Hatred is our choice, our decision. Don't sling our hatred at God's feet, acting like we'd love whomever we hate except for the fact that the Bible says so. God did not hand down a list of people God created and loves and say, "Yeah, I know I said love your neighbor over and over and even gave examples, but here's a list of people you can be jerks to."
When Jesus talks about knowing ourselves, he's asking us to own our hatred and prejudice. We have to explore why we hate. We have to confess our hatred. We have to admit we may even enjoy not loving our neighbor. But we don't get to blame God for our choice to hate and demean and exclude. 
God invites us to recognize we all need to work harder to love. This love thing that God asks us to do is some major work. It's not a weekend project with a You Tube video. Love is a life-long commitment that needs God's help. But let's be clear, if the Bible is a guiding force in our lives, the prevailing message is one of loving God and loving our neighbor. If you're using God's word to hate, you're doing this wrong. 
So again, I am done standing silently while people justify their hatred and discrimination using God. 
If you are a politician and you mentioned how much you love Jesus in your political ads, I will write you letters and come to your office to remind you exactly what Jesus says about loving our neighbor when your votes render to Caesar and not to God.  
If you use the Bible to justify your hatred, I will ask you to cite chapter and verse then ask how that meshes with Jesus' commandment to love and then wonder why you need God to hate all the same people you hate.
And when I look at a fellow child of God with contempt, I will drop to my knees and ask forgiveness and ask for the courage to explore the roots of my hatred.
Christianity is not a casual tool to be used to hurt others while exalting ourselves. It does not allow those of us who confess the faith of Jesus to stand silently while God is used as a weapon to wound and kill the souls of others or the shackle them in shame and despair. Jesus expects us to love in thought, word, and deed and recognize love as a liberating force for all of us, not just a select few.
I am done enabling people to use God to justify hatred.
I hope other Christians are done, too.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

To Church or Not to Church: That Is the Wedding

So you’re getting married!


The wedding industrial complex in America has lots of things for you and your beloved, your family, and your friends to do regarding the wedding. Most of them are, by and large, not necessary for the wedding or the marriage, but perhaps they are fun and somewhat traditional. You really don’t need wedding attendants in gowns, flowers or rings, or gifts for those who attend or even a reception. But if they are important to your celebration of this day, enjoy!

The ceremony, the actual wedding liturgy, is necessary for the wedding. But just how complex and intricate does it need to be, and how should it reflect the grace and hope of the couple?

For those who are part of a traditional faith community, you have a few thousand years of help with all things wedding ceremony. Celebrating a wedding for active members of a congregation within the traditions of that community is a part of our life of faith. Marriage is one of the works of the people of faith - one of many that mark our lives together. Celebrating this covenant of marriage between two people in the church is a profound moment.

But what about couples who aren’t part of a traditional faith community, who are “spiritual but not religious,” or who don't have one particular expression of spirituality? Well, you have a few thousand years of help, too (don't get me started on just how much of our modern idea of church weddings comes from ancient pagan customs). That notwithstanding, I very much recognize the declining number of citizens actively engaged with a traditional faith community is inevitably leading to fewer traditional “church” weddings. And here’s the thing, I think anyone who wants to mark this significant moment in their lives should have a ceremony that embodies their thanksgiving, their hope, and their love.

Over the decades, the work of the people to celebrate the expression of love between two people and their hopes for their lives together hasn’t changed all that much over thousands of years. Ancient wedding rituals and our modern incarnations, no matter how original we think they may be, still contain within them a celebration of the mystery of love and hope for a new incarnation of life together.

So wherever you are in your life of spirituality, I offer some insight I’ve gotten from years of helping couples have a meaningful day to help you with your wedding.

1. Remember that this is one day in your life. That truth stands regardless of traditional faith or non-traditional faith. The wedding is not the most important day of your life; it is a day marking a transition. Important? Yes, but from insight of married couples, they frequently say the wedding was a moment, not the moment. As you plan this day  of celebration, remember its context - a moment, not the moment. 

2. Decide what wedding liturgy is important to you. Liturgy is a word that has roots meaning the work of the people. Liturgies reflect the joy, grief, concern, and hope of the gathered community across the human experience. They can be sacred, secular, or both. Weddings fall into the both category. They hold within them the sacredness of joy for the new couple and hope for their lives together and the secular aspects of the law of our land. If you are both members of a religious community, then getting married within the traditions of that community makes sense, complete with the liturgy of the work of the people reflected in eons of the work of love in scripture, music, and prayer. However, if neither of you are active members, consider what is important to you. 

With all couples, I ask them to consider some questions when planning their ceremony (because in the Episcopal church, as in other traditions, there are options, lots of options). These questions include:  What words matter to you as you describe your relationship? What memories are important to share with those gathered so they can join the celebration? What hopes do you have for your lives together? What vows do you want to make to each other and with the community gathered? How can the community help you live out those vows? Those are a few of the questions that can help create the ceremony that is truly the work of the people being married.

3. Make sure your officiant is legal and is familiar with the legal requirements for a marriage.  If your officiant is your congregation’s rabbi, priest, or pastor, you’re good. If you use a professional wedding officiant, s/he is likely registered, as well. If you would like to have a friend or family member be your officiant, this will take some effort. Yes, I realize there are online instant ordinations, but not all of those ordinations are legal in all jurisdictions to officiate at a wedding. States, counties/parishes, and municipalities all have varied rules and regulations. Some require an officiant to be registered and licensed, and these usually require fees. Almost all jurisdictions require the marriage to be performed by a licensed officiant with two adult witnesses, along with appropriate signatures and the wedding license returned within the limits prescribed by law. This is a long way of saying, no, not just anyone can officiate at your wedding and yes, you’ll need to make some inquiries to make sure all is legal. Some states have some interesting requirements for the adult witnesses (and no state allows them to be intoxicated when they sign the marriage licenses). If you’d like a family member or close friend to officiate, make sure you follow all the steps required by law.

4. And be realistic about what your officiant will do. If you choose to have a friend officiate your wedding, expecting that person to offer pre-marital counseling, coordinate all things wedding, or be able to write and preach a wedding sermon might not be realistic. Those are expectations based on traditional religious weddings with ordained people who may have decades of experience with weddings. If you take a non-traditional route, embrace the differences. If you’d like some kind of premarital counseling, meet with a couples’ therapist for several sessions for some insight about how marriage will change your relationship. Hire a wedding coordinator to handle the details of the ceremony, and remember you don’t really need a sermon at your wedding or have the officiant read a meaningful poem or other writing instead. 

4.  You don’t actually need to say vows. Contrary to what’s out there on the internet about planning your wedding, the laws of our country don’t require the couple to say vows. They require a licensed officiant and usually two witness to be present as the couple declares themselves or is pronounced married. Yep, that’s it. If you want a religious ceremony, the vows are part of sacred covenant between the parties, God, and the community.  However, if a traditional religious ceremony isn’t what you want as a couple, then you have creative freedom for a ceremony that reflects you. Write your own vows, or have a symbolic act instead of written vows or omit the vows altogether. 

5. Consider a wedding planner. If you get married in a church, most have a wedding planner or consultant to help with cuing the music, getting the wedding party lined up, and other details. The clergy also keep all this in order, as well. But if you are using a friend or family member as your officiant, my experience is you’ll save yourself some stress by hiring a wedding consultant who is trained to take care of the details. 

6. Know what faith communities can and can’t do regarding weddings. Before a couple decides they can’t have a “church” wedding because they are interfaith or same sex or aren’t sure they believe in Jesus Christ, double check. Many faith communities regularly celebrate interfaith weddings, same-sex weddings, or ceremonies that reflect the beliefs of the couple that might not be purely Christian or other traditional faith. My own Episcopal faith requires one member be a baptized Christian (which means interfaith weddings are welcomed), and one of the most remarkable weddings I officiated was an interfaith Episcopal-Hindu wedding. Many denominations celebrate same-sex weddings. Some churches require membership; others don’t. So ask questions before making assumptions.

7. But remember not having a traditional “church” wedding is also okay if that is a more accurate reflection of your beliefs. So if you’d like to create a ceremony not from a traditional religious wedding, do that. While there are many models (an internet search will yield an overwhelming amount of results for possible wedding ceremonies), this is one I’ve shared when I get emails or phone calls from people looking to have a not-church wedding and feeling a bit overwhelmed by writing the ceremony:
  • Gathering statements - why we’re here today
  • Declaration of intention of couple to be married and declaration of support of community 
  • Readings and/or music meaningful to the couple
  • Vows or other action representing their promises to each other (including rings)
  • Signing of the marriage license and wedding promises
  • Prayers/hopes/blessings from the gathered community
  • Announcement of the marriage and kiss

8. Remember this is a celebration of love - a love between two people and love far bigger than any of us. In my Christian tradition, the sacrament of marriage is one expression of God’s love for us, made visible in the relationship between two people and the vows they make. We pray their love will be a witness to this broken and hurting world that love does indeed win in its many incarnations. May your wedding remind those who celebrate it with you of the strength of love in a world that so desperately needs to remember this. Maybe the heart of planning a wedding is to remember it isn’t, in the end, all about us, but a confession of the belief that love wins and hope does spring eternal.