Thursday, July 20, 2017

Bootstraps


"The large, muscular man was nearly in tears," she said.

In a talk this past Sunday at the Wild Goose Festival, Catholic activist Sister Simone Campbell described a man she met in Indiana. He was always taught that if you work hard enough you will be successful. After all, that's what his parents did and their parents before them. He was indeed working hard and doing everything he could, but he was just barely making ends meet for his family. In a moment of emotional truth, the shame and disappointment he felt in himself came out.

One of my favorite quotes of all time is George Monbiot: "If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in African would be a millionaire."

People are not poor because they don't work hard enough. In fact, many of them work harder than the wealthy--they have to, because their very survival depends on it. Vacations and "down time" are a luxury that the poor simply can not afford. Let's look at Africa: Poverty is extreme, but there is no shortage of brilliant entrepreneurs doing amazing things to keep their families alive. Still, it's not enough. The full weight of a system that works against them is often too much. Millions and millions of people are just barely surviving, despite their best efforts.

Why can't people "pull themselves up by the bootstraps" like their parents did? It's not because people don't work hard enough or develop innovative ideas to cope with their struggles. It's just that the struggles today are so overwhelming.

My Father

My father graduated from high school in the late 1950s. He worked a job or two before getting hired in a factory of a major automotive producer. Still in his teens, he made enough money to support a family on one income. He could reasonably expect all the trappings of a middle class lifestyle: Health care, retirement after 30 years, a lifetime pension after retirement, time off for vacations and enough money to own a home, automobiles and send kids off to college. It was grungy, dirty work, but it was reliable work. He retired in his early 50s.

Nowadays, those jobs are extremely rare, if not altogether nonexistent. Individuals today are often working more than one job to make ends meet. Both spouses have jobs in order to try to achieve the same standard of living that was once easily accessible with one income. Young adults struggle to find adequate work and continue to live with their parents or with other friends in shared living arrangements. Pensions are a distant memory (the system where after you retire your company continues to pay you for the rest of your life), and young people will wonder if they actually existed or were just a figment of someone's imagination. Even people in the skilled trades or others who have spent years earning full college and masters degrees often cannot achieve the same standard of living that entry level workers once enjoyed. Whatever the economic reasons for this, one truth is abundantly clear: Wealth is NOT directly related to one's willingness to work hard!

We love the stories about people who overcome every obstacle and still come out on top. Those are admirable people who inspire us all. Whether through luck or skill, their stories should be celebrated. The problem is when we make that a basic expectation for all people and blame them when they struggle rather than the system that made their success unlikely.

Do people really believe they aren't working hard enough? Like the man described at the beginning of this post, a lot of people probably do take it personally. They see their struggles as a reflection on their own shortcomings. They have been falsely led to blame themselves, when the real culprit is a system that puts too many obstacles in front of hard-working people.

There are plenty of statistics to back this up, but we need only look around us: A family with multiple income-earners, with advanced degrees, working more hours, struggles to achieve what a single breadwinner could earn in previous generation with (and often without) a high school education. Let's quit blaming each other and rework the system so that the system works for--and not against--us!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

4 Tools to See the Biblical Big Picture

They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream - Jeremiah 17.8

Scripture is like a tree. Some parts are the roots, some are the branches and others form the trunk. You will run into problems if you correctly read a line that serves as a leaf but try to present it as if it were the trunk. This is partly what it means when experts advise us to read Scripture within its proper context(s). You could even read your favorite lines word-for-word but end up misunderstanding them if you fail to see where they fit within the whole body. This is, of course, the same mistake the Pharisees made. They were so right--and yet at the same time so very wrong.

I present the following four tools to help us keep the Biblical big picture in view. Whenever we fall into the habit of hyper-analyzing individual passages, it is good to keep the following in mind:

1.  Proportionality: Compare the Numbers

Let's dive right in and talk about a current hot button issue:  Homosexuality. There are, at most, seven Scripture verses that directly address the topic of homosexuality. In contrast, there are thousands of verses addressing poverty, the suffering and the marginalized--hundreds by Jesus himself. There are so many references to poverty in direct, indirect, metaphorical and literal ways that I wasn't even able to find an exhaustive list--perhaps no one thought it was important enough to compile. Maybe there is a list in a dusty book in the back corner of some library, but nothing that is readily available online. But much has been written about those seven verses about homosexuality and you can easily find commentaries on a quick internet search.

Any Christian who takes the Bible seriously has to face the sheer numbers. At some point, the Bible has to start asking you questions:  Why are you obsessed with seven lines about one topic while ignoring hundreds of lines about another topic? What does it mean that Jesus himself references poverty over four hundred times but never once homosexuality? How can homosexuality possibly be THE issue for Christians if they are using the Bible as a guide? The level of emphasis our culture gives it is out of proportion to the level of emphasis Scripture gives it, and we need to wrestle with that.

This article is not intended to argue for or against homosexuality, although I can all but guarantee that if this article gets any comments it will be precisely along those lines. The point here is: Why are we not talking about poverty? Is the focus on other issues a way to distract ourselves from the poor and marginalized?

2. The Bible as Mirror: Who is Really the Subject?

When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
- John 8:7

We all know the story in the Gospel of John Chapter 8.  A mob had formed to try, convict and punish a woman caught in adultery. What they didn't expect was that they would be the ones on trial once Jesus turned the questioning back on them. This is, I believe, what happens to all of when we dare to read Scripture with an open heart and mind.  We may consult Scripture trying to find an answer about how to deal with those people or that group. But we may be surprised to find that Scripture has just as many--if not more--uncomfortable questions to ask of us.

If you incline your ear and listen deeply enough, you may be hearing Scripture whisper back at you:  Why are you looking for rocks to throw against the homosexual community while ignoring the poor? What is going on inside of you that is making it hard for you to hear Jesus' very clear and direct words about the poor? Maybe the Bible isn't teaching you about homosexuality. Maybe it is teaching you about yourself.

[This section is influenced heavily by the short but sweet book Opening the Bible, by Thomas Merton.]

3.  Trajectory: Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

"The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward Jesus."

     - Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission at the 2017 Southern Baptist Convention. Dr. Moore is taking a quote by Theodore Parker which has been used by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. [The original quote ends with "justice" rather than "Jesus," but to a Christian it's not a huge leap to substitute one for the other.]

It has famously been said that you can use Scripture to justify almost anything.This is especially true if you take individual lines out of context. Sometimes the Bible really seems to contradict itself. What is a believer to do?

It is important to look at where the overall direction and momentum of Scripture seem to be pointing us. A relationship with Christ takes us from someplace and moves us toward another place. We are in motion. The Ancient Israelites were a people in motion. Jesus tells us that the Kingdom we are going toward is both here and not here, now and not yet.  But we pray that one day it will be "on earth as it is in heaven."

When reading Scripture, it is important to ask whether a passage refers to the Kingdom "now" or "not yet." just because something is mentioned in the Bible does not mean that it is God's intention for humankind for all times and places.  After all, the Bible has plenty of positive, supportive references to slavery, rape, incest, sexual abuse and the subjugation of women, but we are quite confident that is not where God is calling us today.  Let's not make the same mistake about other verses about other issues.

4. Hiding in Plain Sight

The most devious way to downplay difficult biblical teachings is not to completely ignore them, because that would be too obvious. The most devious way is to give occasional lip service to them--mentioning them but always minimizing them, always qualifying. And NEVER mentioning them with the same frequency or focus as Jesus or the Bible as a whole. This is a variation on #1 above.

A church may hold a canned food drive for the hungry once a year, give an award to someone who cares for the poor, or mention the poor in sermons but always with some qualifiers. We can pat ourselves on the back and reassure ourselves that we've done our duty.  But that level of interest in the poor is nowhere near close to the level of interest that Jesus seemed to have.

It's hard to read the Bible and not come away with the idea that the poor, the sick and the marginalized are the focus over and over and over again. They're on just about every page.  We're not talking about an occasional line here or there.  It's just everywhere.  It's not just what Jesus talks about--he actually says where you find the poor you will also find me (Matthew 25). If we are going to address the issue of homosexuality, back to our first example above, we should do it through the context of reaching out to a marginalized community if we are going to be "biblical" in how we do things.

Conclusion

But we are all afraid of the Bible.  Opening it and reading it are scary. It might challenge us too much.  It might transform us.  So we make sure to put all sorts of brackets around it.  We make sure to tell ourselves what the Bible means before we actually open it., trying to intercept the divine message and make it more palatable before it does any damage and changes us. These four tools are not a guarantee that we won't make mistakes, but they are a good help to step back and see what's really going on when we read a passage.


Friday, July 7, 2017

What's Fundamental to a Fundamentalist?


Do our Holy Books and doctrines point us toward God,
or do we hold them up and block ourselves from seeing God?

"Fundamentalism is not a position as much as a disposition."
Stan Mitchell, Pastor of Gracepointe Church in Franklin, TN

Pastor Mitchell articulates so well something that has been on my mind lately.

The term "fundamentalism" was first coined in relation to the Christian Fundamentalist movements which originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They largely came out of American and British Protestantism. In particular, the series of books called The Fundamentals, published in 1910-1915, gave the movement its name.

Technically speaking, a "fundamentalist" should only refer to a Christian who is part of the specific movements which self-identify as such. Yet, many onlookers have found resonance between the way these movements operate and other religious (and non-religious) movements. People today talk about "Catholic fundamentalists" and "Muslim fundamentalists" and all sorts of other "fundamentalists." How can this be?

I had a pivotal insight when researching the details of Christian fundamentalism for an article. I knew that fundamentalism identified about 5-6 "fundamentals" of belief and doctrine that were non-negotiable, but that was the limit of my knowledge. Doing my due diligence as a writer, I began researching. For that particular article, it made sense to name those half-a-dozen fundamentals.

I was surprised to find out that there was not just one list but several. Yes, there were five points which were tied to The Fundamentals book series, but other groups had their own lists. To a casual onlooker, these lists may seen strikingly similar--all of them include Biblical inerrancy, for example. Some of the other points may have been implied in previous lists but due to a changing cultural landscape, a particular denomination may have felt the need to be affirm them specifically at a later time. But there's no getting around the fact that these lists are simply different from one another.

Here we come back to Pastor Mitchell's quote: It seems like it isn't so important what those fundamentals are, just so long as a group has them.

So what is fundamental to a fundamentalist?  The answer may sound like circular reasoning, but there is a deeper point underneath: What's fundamental to a fundamentalist isn't necessarily a literal interpretation of the Bible or any of the other points--what's fundamental to a fundamentalist is the need to have fundamentals.

This is what Pastor Mitchell means, I believe: It's not so much the position as it is the disposition.

Some people simply need to have several points to rally themselves around in no uncertain terms.  These points distinguish "us" from "them." It's a black-and-white approach to spirituality.  It's tribal. It's rigid. It's exclusionary. This is the "fundamentalism" that can be found across the board in all the world religions, as Pope Francis has said.

But does it open us to God or keep us from God?

In all fairness, every group has to delineate what group membership means--every group has identifying creeds, doctrines, fundamentals or, at the very least, guiding principles for what it means to be part of that particular group. A lot of people don't like rules of creeds, but without them, how to do you identify why your group exists and what it's about? Just having a group-defining list does not automatically make that group a fundamentalist. A fundamentalist is more about rigidity--their list ends with a period rather than an ellipsis.

Modern Evangelical Christians (not to be confused with fundamentalists!) witness to the centrality of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I think they are right. Ours is a living faith. We are in relationship with the Mystery our tradition has come to know as God. And out of that relationship will come beliefs and out of those beliefs will eventually come doctrines. But the most important thing for a Christian is to rally around that living relationship.

Whenever we put doctrines or theological interpretations as the most central, identifying elements, we are at risk of breaking the first and most fundamental (no pun intended) of the Commandments: Putting a false idol in place of the awe and mystery of God. Those doctrines and theological interpretations are going to be flawed, because they are drafted up by humans and written out in clumsy human languages. They may be inspired, but they are all too often the work of human hands. As the mystics say, those doctrines are a finger pointing toward God, but they are not actually God. Big difference. To define ourselves by them is to basically worship the human ego and its own creations.

It is the living relationship with God that is the best axis around which to revolve our lives.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

A Twitter Hashstorm: The Alt-Right Controversy at the Southern Baptist Convention

from: http://www.sbcannualmeeting.net/sbc17/photo/271/
"Southern Baptists overwhelmingly pass a resolution June 14 condemning
the racism of the alt-right movement. Photo by Adam Covington"


The Southern Baptist Convention first rejected then resurrected a resolution against the alt-right and white supremacy. This occurred at their annual meeting held in Phoenix, AZ, a couple weeks ago in June, 2017. Click here for a sequence of events. There are many different ways to understand this process, and it stirred quite a controversy.

An Outsiders Perspective

It was a roller coaster ride of emotions for me. I stand not as a member of the SBC but as a very interested observer from the Catholic Church who cares deeply about race. My colleague (a Roman Catholic priest) and I attended the Convention as representatives of the US Catholic Bishops in Christian friendship.

I spent much of the Convention glued to my Twitter feed, and I'm not typically an avid Twitter user.

News of the proposed resolution against the alt-right and white supremacy broke before the Convention. Twitter was chock full of some of the nastiest, most vile messages against it. Yet, I sensed something was awry. SBC pastors and leaders, as well as most church folks, are some of the most polite people I have ever met. They have a very Southern way of being indirect about grievances and disagreement. While they are also not shy about engaging in debate, what I saw on Twitter did not match the tone or timbre of what I have come to know as the SBC.

I suspect the #sbc17 hashtag was being rigorously trolled by alt-right activists. The vile, pornographic language and level of aggressiveness in the tweets signaled the work of outsiders. The language was so consistent in these tweets, actually, that it could have been the work of just a few (or even a single individual) using continuously new, anonymous accounts making it seems like the outcry was bigger than it really was. 

However, there were also few voices competing with these, before the Convention started. The glaring silence of others in the SBC worried me. Were there no contrary opinions? Were feelings against racism too weak or afraid of the alt-right to speak out? Was the SBC so weary from backlash against repudiating the Confederate Flag last year that it no longer had will to stand up to white supremacy this year? I wondered.

A lot has happened in one year. The campaign of Donald Trump has been associated with a significant increase in violent actions and rhetoric along racial lines. Trump received 81% of the white Evangelical Christian vote--which would soundly describe most SBC members. In the wake of Trump, many in our culture--like myself--were left wondering where do white Evangelicals--like many in the SBC--really stand on racism? Were all the apologies in the past just lip service? Most Americans understand that voters had only a couple choices for president and complex political issues had to be boiled down to a single vote. We get that. But what has been noticeably absent is  white Evangelicals holding Trump accountable since the election. They could be saying to Trump: "Yes, we voted for you, but that was in spite of--and not because of--the racist rhetoric, and we condemn that rhetoric." That outcry has been pretty minimal from the white Evangelical community, which comes across as an endorsement.

When the alt-right resolution failed to be brought to the floor on Day one of the two-day Convention, and when the messengers failed to keep any semblance of it alive after that, Twitter just blew up. It blew up in a way that raised my spirits.

I was so wound up I could barely sleep that night as tweets poured in.

I was so encouraged by the groundswell of support. SBC members simply did not want to leave Phoenix with the world unsure about where their denomination stands on the alt-right and white supremacy. It wasn’t just one Twitter account leading the charge, although there were key leaders in this effort. It was dozens and dozens of formerly silent Twitter accounts erupting all at once. At least one group organized a meeting to draft a new resolution with the resolution's original author, Texas pastor Rev. Dwight McKissic. The Resolutions Committee itself sought to find a way to remedy this. Russell Moore, president of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, had a hand in drafting the revised version.

I was grateful to witness this.  It was a pure blessing to see both the Twitter messages appearing one after the other in rapid succession and being part of conversations in the convention center hallways. Dozens and dozens of pastors and SBC members entered the fray.

It will be hard to walk away from SBC 2017 without at least a shadow of a doubt as to where the membership stands. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary, remarked that the SBC has indeed gotten a "black eye."  

Yes, the SBC stumbled and fell here. It may be hard to wash all the dirt off.  But the stumble created a moment that allowed the SBC to mobilize to make it right.  That movement was pure blessing to watch. I am not a voting member, but as a fellow Christian who cares deeply about what happens here, my heart was with the SBC every step of the way. I am optimistic about the health of the SBC after this.


My assessment: Those who want to put racism behind them are sincere and passionate. There is also a gap between SBC leadership and the membership as well as a generational gap among pastors. When the SBC messengers voted last year to repudiate the Confederate Flag, once person spoke on the Convention floor that it was a fine resolution for pastors but it may be difficult to explain to churchgoers back home. A lot of people want to believe that the SBC has put its racist past behind it, but its rank-and-file membership seems divided as to the necessity of these resolutions and the relevance of symbols like the Confederate Flag.

Some members of the SBC were upset with the headlines coming out the Convention. Those headlines may--or may not--have been unfair. Still, I would urge the SBC not to spend a lot of energy feeling like victims of sensationalistic journalists trying to exploit a controversy for juicy headlines. The hesitation of the SBC over this issue opens real wounds and makes real people wonder where the SBC really stands.  I saw African-American pastors and families shed tears on the Convention floor in shock over what they thought would be a routine denouncement of racism that was instead killed in committee--at a time when our nation cannot afford to be neutral on race.  These are sincere questions that deserve answers.

While I believe SBC senior leaders are sincere in wanting to put racism behind them, they may be guilty of tone deafness here. They underestimated what message it would send by avoiding this topic. Case in point: Alt-right groups were initially declaring this a victory for white supremacy. Perhaps SBC leaders simply wanted to avoid a difficult topic, but sometimes the best way to attract controversy is by attempting to avoid it. Still, those fighting passionately for racial equality and reconciliation are an impressive bunch, and they give the SBC a bright future.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Is Healthcare a Right or Privilege? Wrong Question.


The question comes up all the time: Is healthcare a right or a privilege? Pope Francis has even weighed in.

I don't think this is the right question.

When people ask whether healthcare is a right or privilege, they are basically asking whether healthcare is either an act of charity or a luxury. And then if it is an act of charity, they ask whether others are entitled to that charity or not. Furthermore, this question implies that the benefits of healthcare go directly to individuals and not to society as a whole.

Sometimes the questions we ask have more power than the answers. A question can frame the debate and imply assumptions about the topic. Without realizing it, most of us answer the question only within the categories that the question gives. The way questions are asked can exert a powerful control over us if we are not aware.

Once asked, the discussion quickly gets derailed in debating the nature of charity itself and whether anyone is entitled to it. These are hot-button issues in US culture that usually promise nothing but gridlock.

I'll use an event from my life to illustrate another way to look at this issue.

My Story

Several years ago, I helped establish the Columbus Catholic Worker (CCW), a center for charity and justice efforts. It was a wonderful experience feeding the hungry, providing clothing to the less fortunate, teaching ESL and offering hospitality to immigrants. Ministry was blossoming in a part of town that was thirsty for Christian love in action. The organization was growing and putting down roots. While it took a village to birth these efforts, the CCW eventually fell under my care and direction. I loved it and felt God's grace pulsing through it.

Today, the doors to this organization are closed. A multitude of reasons converged to bring it to that point, but an often unnamed reason lurking in the background was healthcare. Because of a cancer diagnosis, I needed a "regular" job that came with health coverage. It might have taken several years before the CCW could have grown large enough to offer a salary with health benefits, if ever. I was okay with that. I could live lean for a while. I could wade through and wait out other problems. But I could not wait for health coverage. This organization could have served all of Columbus for many years. It was already having a positive impact on many people. It could have been my life's work. It took a lot of effort from a lot of people to start it, and it's not something that can be re-started so easily. It was hard to walk away from it. 

While I have no regrets about where my life is today, this story illustrates an important point:

I am a citizen who had ideas and energy. I was willing to try out new ideas and take risks. The same could be said of my friends and partners who worked beside me in this ministry. The CCW benefited not just me but dozens of individuals and (dare I say) the whole city. But this work is no longer being done. 

Just imagine how many other people have to scale back--people with ideas, new inventions, innovations and business ideas. They have to limit how much they share these gifts because they are squandering their time and energy securing health coverage. 

We all suffer when we make it difficult for our neighbors to share their gifts.

Americans often live in a Hollywood fantasy that celebrates--and even expects--that others overcome every bit of adversity and still come out on top. After all, it happens in the movies and sometimes in the history books. It does work for some people, and those people deserve to be celebrated. The problem with those stories is that they don't reflect a fair expectation. In real life, real obstacles take a real toll on real people. It's not because people don't have the character, skills or faith to overcome them. Rather, it's just simple math: Someone who runs with a 50 lb weight strapped to his back is not going to run as far or as fast as if he did not have that weight. Yes, the weight may build extra strength and character and force innovation, but it may also come with significant delays, setbacks and failures in the meantime. If someone has a great business idea, I would rather she begin when  she is 25 years old rather than 45. She will bring more wisdom at age 45, but she will also lose 20 years of experience during which she could have been refining her craft rather than working side jobs in an unrelated field.

Everyone loves a good story where people pull themselves up by the bootstraps, fight all the monsters and win.  But it is pure insanity to make the lives of our neighbors as difficult as possible as a game to see who is able to turn that into a heroic quest and win. We are all too quick to assume that if a business venture fails, that it "wasn't meant to be" or that the people just did not work hard enough or have a good enough idea. It could simply be that an environment that is unfriendly to new ideas and ventures is going to result in, well . . . fewer ideas and ventures.

In this country, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. People get angry because a dime of their tax money might benefit someone else. What they don't realize is that when their neighbors are better off, so are they. It's a safer, healthier, smarter, more advanced country we are building. It is a more competitive nation in the world market. Consider my story and multiply it by a thousand. Think of all the businesses, church ministry efforts, nonprofit organizations and other new ventures that are not happening because people either need to either get health coverage or are crippled under medical debt.

If I want to start a business, I don't have to go out and cut trees down to build a road to transport my goods and services. I don't have to build water or sewer lines. I don't have to train employees in basic math, reading or problem solving skills, because we have public education. The only thing missing is that I can't expect the people I hire are healthy enough to work. It is one glaring piece that is missing.

Universal health care means that our country can be more competitive as people take less time off work due to illness, that communicable diseases are treated before they can spread, and that a major obstacle is removed for my fellow citizens who want the space to innovate. 

To me, it's not a "right" or a "privilege" that I can leave my house and take my car on any road I want. I don't think you are mooching off the government because you drive on the freeway or public city roads. It's just common sense that roads are open and available to all, including businesses. I don't spend any time at all upset that my tax dollars might pay for a road to a remote town in Montana or California that I myself will probably never use. For the same reason, I would not be upset at all that my tax dollars would pay for my neighbors to get the healthcare they need to stay alive, healthy and productive (in that order).

It would be so complicated if roads were only for certain people. Imagine if you bought a "road plan' where you could only use certain roads and had to drive extra miles across the city to use the roads in your "plan." Yet we do that with our complicated medical plans that exclude us from so much.

Charity is great. I wish we could make the decision on healthcare based solely on humanitarian reasons and not take into account whether it makes our neighbor more productive. But this is not going to melt the ice in this discussion in this country. Whether healthcare is a right or privilege is not the only question when we go to the voting booth. Providing universal healthcare is simply what a smart country does that wants to stay competitive and advance as a civilization. Like public roads and public education, it provides a basic infrastructure so that we can all share our God-given gifts more broadly and without reservation. It's the next logical step in the growth of a healthy society.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Love Affair Doesn’t End With a Few Apologies: The SBC and Racism



Imagine the worst of the worst happens: You cheat on your spouse.

Thankfully, you are fully willing to end the extramarital affair and repair the damage. Both you and your spouse want to put it completely behind you.

You confess your transgressions and give an extremely sincere and tearful apology.

This apology is wonderful, important and absolutely necessary—but there is no way you could possibly pretend that it is going to fix everything. One apology is crucial, but it is only the first step on a long journey of reconciliation.

From this point on, it’s not enough to simply be faithful—you will have to go out of your way to demonstrate that you are faithful beyond any reasonable doubt. Trust is hard to build, but it is even harder to rebuild. Wounds take time to heal. They need love, tenderness and patience. You have to prove to your spouse that you are sincere and that your heart is in the marriage.  

For example, you generally wouldn’t spend time alone with another single person and certainly not your former love affair. You may have absolutely no intention of anything beyond friendship, but why would you put your spouse in that position? Old wounds can be triggered. Your spouse could be at home anxious experiencing PTSD, going through a series of mental exercises trying to relax with the situation. You are the one who transgressed; therefore you are the one who should go out of your way to reassure your spouse. Don't put your spouse in that position.

You are going to have to prove yourself over and over—perhaps daily. But that’s okay because you love your spouse. People screw up. Repair and reconciliation are both possible. You may even grow stronger in your marriage. Trust may always be at least a little bit fragile, but major healing is possible. However, healing is going to be impeded if you drag your feet over having to "apologize too much" and complain that your spouse "just can't get over it already."

This analogy fits the Southern Baptist Convention and it’s longtime love affair with racism.

The SBC and racism have a long history. The denomination formed in 1845 when it split from other Baptists over its pro-slavery stance. Later, many of its members were deeply embedded in Jim Crow segregation and were often on the side resisting the Civil Rights struggles of the 20th century. 

The SBC has done much in recent years to leave racism in the past. Public apologies and resolutions have been forthcoming denouncing racism and all its trappings. Milestones include the 1995 apology for its complicity in slavery, the enthusiastic election of an African-American president, Fred Luter, in 2012, and the 2016 repudiation of the Confederate Flag. So this year, when a resolution was proposed to denounce the recent resurgence of white supremacy and the alt-right movement in US culture, it seemed like the stage was set for a routinebut deepeningcommitment by the SBC to distance itself from racism in all its forms.

However, that is not how it played out at the Convention this week. The mostly white Resolutions Committee first rejected it from even being brought to a vote. The reasons given were technicalities over topical redundancy and awkward verbiage, but it was all too easy to wonder if there was not another backstory to consider. Voices from the floor tried to resurrect the resolution, but these attempts failed to achieve the needed 2/3 majority. Alt-right groups on Twitter celebrated this as a victory for white supremacy.

Let's consider what this would look like going back to the extramarital affair analogy:

Your spouse admits to some friends that there had been an affair, but tells them it is over and you are healing the marriage. Your spouse asks: “Honey, tell the people that you don’t spend any time with your former mistress anymore.”

A simple "of course not" is all that would be expected to pass through your lips, but to everyone’s amazement, your response is “well . . . it’s complicated . . .”

The trust that had been slowing getting repaired is suddenly put into jeopardy.  What do you mean, ‘it’s complicated?!’

For a denomination whose very origins are steeped in pro-slavery ideology, who members include those who lived and breathed Jim Crow, even two or three apologies will not be sufficient. 

The issue is timely. The campaign and election of Donald Trump has been associated with a surge of racist rhetoric and violence in the USA. 81% of white Evangelical Christianssuch as those in the SBCvoted for Trump. This would have been an ideal time for the SBC to make it clear that whatever support its members may have for Trump is in spite ofand not because ofthe association with racism. 

The official story may very well be true. This resolution may simply have gotten tangled up in parliamentary procedure and rules of order. But to play games with technicalities with such a sensitive issues, especially given your past history, only lends credence to what so many may have already been suspectingthat perhaps this rodeo with racism is not quite over.

African-Americans have been lured by the promise of racial reconciliation many times and places only to find the door slammed in their faces yet again. It’s hard to open up and attempt to trust again.

Some people ask:  Why yet another resolution?  Why can’t we just let this go? We repudiated the Confederate Flag last year, why go through that again?

Those aren't the questions of people bending over backwards to make sure there is no doubt about where they stand on this crucial issue. 

It’s going to take time and sincerity. White people are going to have to prove themselves on this issue over and over again. 

If all you want to do is spit out a quick apology and then go back to doing whatever you have always been doing, perhaps you weren’t as sincere about reconciliation as you’d like to believe. Reconciliation means that things are going to be different going forward. It means not just your words but your actions will to be different, and this needs to be demonstrated consistently over time.

***

As a Roman Catholic attending the SBC as an outside observer, I was personally moved by how members resolved this issue.  A groundswell of support arose to make certain that the convention did not close without righting this wrong. A resolution against white supremacy and the alt-right movement did ultimately pass a day later, and it was nearly unanimous. I will be writing more about this in the future. I was immeasurably blessed to witness the movement of the Holy Spirit in the SBC in this.

This post is meant to address thoseboth inside and outside the SBCwho are still not convinced about what all the fuss was about. I hope the analogy of an extramarital affair helps to put it in perspective.

As Southern Baptist Jared C. Wilson writes on Twitter:  How long do we keep repenting for the same ol’ sins? Until they’re all gone.

And that’s it, brothers and sisters. It is ultimately not the job of the white community to decide when enough has been done to treat this wound.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Why Do Americans Keep Saying "We Can't"?


Why do we keep telling ourselves that we can't do things?

I keep hearing it over and over again: We can't have . . . Universal health care. Public education that includes college. Higher minimum wage. Sustainable energy. Humane immigration reform. Safe harboring of refugees.

We can't. We can't. We can't.

Every doomsday scenario is predicted by these naysayers:  The economy will be ruined, taxes will go through the roof, terrorists will destroy this country and the poor will be worse off than ever before! It echoes like a chorus of lions, tigers and bears, oh my! If you believe all the hype, death panels will decide who gets to live and zombies will eat our brains out.

There are a lot of things that are difficult. There is much we haven't yet figured out how to do. But if we value something--and if we want to do it--we should set it as our goal and work towards it. We should at least try our best before coming to the conclusion that it can't be done. 

In his May 25, 1961, address to Congress, President John F. Kennedy said:

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."

President Kennedy gives us an example that we should model today. It is empowering to name a goal and make a commitment to it. On July 16, 1969, the first human being stepped foot onto the moon. Had JFK not made a public commitment to this goal AND then put resources behind it, it is unlikely that it ever would have been achieved. This is what leadership looks like. 

We can apply Kennedy's words to our current national debate on health care, poverty, immigration reform, environmental sustainability and any number of other issues: We should say what we want to do, set a timeline, then focus our attention and resources to achieve that goal. I'm sure many people said Kennedy was ridiculous and that travel to the moon was impossible. Those are the same kinds of folk who today say that universal health care is impossible and that environmental sustainability can never be achieved.

Some of these challenges may be difficult, but most Americans like to believe they are good at doing difficult things. We went from horse & buggies to cars, airplanes and a-man-on-the-moon in a few decades while also fighting two world wars and pulling out of a great economic depression. In light of all that history, it's more than a little embarrassing when our first response today is "we can't."

The problem standing in the way is not a lack of technology. The real crisis is a lack of vision. We can figure out the nuts & bolts of a problem. What we need first is to have the courage to name our goal and make a commitment to it with specific numbers and dates.

When I'm faced with a problem, I don't waste my time whining and moping around saying "it can't be done" without even attempting to put a plan together. Yet, that is exactly what Americans are doing. We should be embarrassed that we have allowed ourselves to be lulled into thinking we can't do so many things that are, in fact, very do-able.

We know they are very achievable because most of these have, in fact, been done before. Other nations around the world are far head of us in transitioning to renewable energy and have long ago settled the universal health care debate. We know it is possible to significantly reduce, if not downright eliminate, poverty: Over a century ago, the vast majority of our citizens wallowed in industrial revolution-era sweatshops, but their descendants enjoyed a middle class lifestyle. Dramatic change in a short span of time is very possible, even though many people said it could never be done.

There will always be naysayers. People who have power and money tend to be conservative by the simple fact that they like things the way they are now. They are hesitant--if not downright hostile-- towards change, simply because they are doing well now. Their power and money gives them a big soapbox with a huge megaphone to project their message. They want us to believe that change is impossible. It's our job not to fall for it.

Let's save "we can't" for things like time travel, light sabers and crisscrossing galaxies at the speed of light. But who knows, maybe some day in the future those will be possible, too. These other challenges are, in fact, very much achievable.



Friday, May 26, 2017

Is Pope Francis Against a Personal Relationship with Jesus Christ?



Pope Francis has come under fire for his comments which seem to suggest that he is against a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

His phrase, from his May 25, 2014, Weekly General Audience, can sound very antagonistic to Evangelical Christians at first:

Pope Francis described as "dangerous" the temptation to believe that one can have "a personal, direct, immediate relationship with Jesus Christ without communion with and the mediation of the church."

I was alerted to this by a comment on the Facebook page John 17:21 Evangelicals and Catholics, which I moderate. More than any other pope, Francis has earned a strong reputation for working together and praying with Evangelical Christians. I was naturally surprised to hear that he said something so potentially off-putting to that segment of the Christian community.

While I am no expert on what the Pope is thinking or feeling, I feel the need to address this. "Personal relationship with Jesus" is an extremely important phrase to many Evangelical Christians.  In addition, telling Christians that their relationship with Christ must be mediated through the Church no doubt inflames a lot of old wounds from the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers reassured us that we can go to Christ directly and that no human or institution can get in the way.

The pope actually clarified what he meant, but like so many things on the internet, one line gets taken out of context and the explanation gets forgotten. It is good to discuss what he means, though, as there is some great food for thought into how Catholics and Evangelicals think about their faith. I also recommend clicking the pope's address above and hearing in his own words what he's describing.

Like some many things that get lost, a key concept here is "only." The Pope is not suggesting that we cannot or should not have a direct, personal, intimate relationship with Jesus. In fact, his writings tell us how important it is to have that relationship. He urges all people to accept the invitation of Christ into that very relationship. But he is saying that this shouldn't be our only approach to Christian discipleship.

He is saying that we cannot do this alone. Other human beings, their writings and the church have all helped to midwife this relationship for us. Even if you have that direct relationship with Jesus, it is probably another human being who told you that this was possible. You may have read about others having that relationship. Perhaps a preacher invited you in a sermon. It is likely that your parents or a neighbor modeled what this relationship looks like. And then once you have that relationship, it is your duty to witness to this to others. Every believer is part of a community as both receiver and giver of blessings.

The Reformers are right that no human being or institution can get in the way of our own direct contact with God through Jesus Christ. But Francis is reminding us that every single one of us has also benefited from the witness, the words and the actions of fellow believers who helped us in that relationship with Christ. And then we must help others. Bottom line: It does us no good to pretend that individuals are in isolation from others.

We pray "Our Father," not "My Father," as one website pointed out. The Christian life is lived out in community, and it would be wrong to believe we are isolated human beings completely divorced from our relationships with our fellow human beings. A personal relationship is not dangerous or harmful by itself--what is dangerous is believing that our fellow human beings have no role to play in our Christian journey. It's no different than a person claiming they are a "self-made millionaire." That is a slap in the face to everyone who mentored, taught and assisted that person in making those millions.

Here are some of my own favorite words of Pope Francis.  These are from the first major doucment that he wrote after becoming pope, the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium--The Joy of the Gospel:

I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”. The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. Now is the time to say to Jesus: “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace”. How good it feels to come back to him whenever we are lost! Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. Christ, who told us to forgive one another “seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22) has given us his example: he has forgiven us seventy times seven. Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew. Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus, let us never give up, come what will. May nothing inspire more than his life, which impels us onwards!



Wednesday, May 24, 2017

It's Time to Quit Blaming Smartphones


To be human is to be social -- Aristotle

Hardly a day goes by when I do not encounter at least one article bemoaning the "tragedy" brought upon us by smart phones and social media. If you believe the hype, today's youth are going to hell in a hand basket, lured by the incessant clicking and swiping of their ever-evolving digital devices. We are losing our very ability to interact with the people around us, these doomsday prophets warn.

And I get it--we are subjecting ourselves (especially our youth) to a profound social experiment. It's hard to say definitively what impact growing up immersed in digital device use is going to have, but preliminary studies seem to indicate that they do affect our socialization and even our very brain chemistry. Social media contributes to a polarized society where it's all too easy to interact only with those with whom we already agree.

But we can also be led to the implied conclusion that somehow everything was just fine before the digital age. We can be led to the faulty conclusion that kids were living in a robust, vibrant social utopia where they played outside with other kids and where everyone sat on front porches singing, playing games and listening to grandma's tales of yesteryear--and then along came smartphones and social media and all that was gone.

Except... that's not how I experienced history at all.

I grew up Gen X. I grew up in a world of shocking, mind-numbing social isolation. You can't blame digital devices, because they only existed in science fiction movies at the time. The World War II generation and baby boomers may have grown up in small country towns and tight-knit city neighborhoods, but virtually none of that made it to my generation. I grew up longing for it, and so did many of my peers. Many people of my generation have labored intensely to discover and rediscover community through travel, intentional living situations and all sorts of other social experiments. The need is huge. In fact, community was one of the reasons I initially got involved in Christian ministry--it seemed to promise stronger community connections than anything else in the secular world.

The World War II folks and baby boomers gave us the radio and television. They gave us air conditioning and climate control, which afforded us the ability to live locked in our own homes and automobiles, sealed off from the rest of the world. They gave us suburban sprawl, where kids could only interact with other kids if their parents drove them in a car to meet them at pre-appointed times. They gave us neighborhoods that entirely depended on cars and where kids rarely played together outside on pesticide-laden lawns. Older folks ran to the suburbs, away from the nosy drama of those tight-knit families and neighborhoods, thankful for the closeness they had growing up but anxious for some privacy. But my generation did not benefit from the closeness they ran from.

THIS is the world that existed when smartphones and social media arrived. It was a world hungry--dare I say, desperate--for community. Most kids from most countries around the world would be absolutely shocked to realize the level of social isolation that most American children experience. To compound matters, if a kid has any kind of shyness or social awkwardness, you have a recipe for a walking solitary confinement. Many American kids live in a quiet misery of profound isolation.

It is hard for most Americans to realize how socially isolated we are. Most Americans have gotten used to it, and many have found ways to cope, but there is nothing even remotely normal or healthy about it. In another country, a walk to the town market might involve lots of conversations and interactions along the way. In America, we are locked in the isolation chambers known as automobiles with the windows rolled up. After work and school, Americans lock themselves in their homes, often without even cracking a window, glued to their televisions but divorced from human contact. It's bad enough to live like this as an adult, but it's horrific to grow up this way.

Suddenly, the digital age happens. Into a world starving for social interaction, digital devices opened a door. Suddenly, that kid locked in his suburban bedroom all alone could now chat it up with his schools friends or anyone else in the world. You can play games, share information, find a date, have long conversations and discover the world. Family members displaced around the country and globe due to a heavily globalized job market can now stay in touch and be part of each other's daily lives. Instead of just passively watching a TV, smart phones and social media allow us a chance to at least interact with others. These devices may not be perfect, but they are better than the radio and television by the sheer fact that they are interactive rather than passive.

Smartphones and social media did not create the problem. They are a response to a problem that existed long before them. If you don't like it that your kid has his nose buried in his smart phone, instead of taking away the phone, you might want to make sure there are other options in his life for social interaction.

The irony is bitter:  Older generations glued to their television sets complaining about the younger generations interacting with others on their smartphones. If I had to pick, I'd say the younger folks are improving upon what was handed down to them. Let's cut them some slack!

***

This is art of an ongoing series on the use of social media in ministry and it's impact on culture.
Other installments can be found by clicking the tag of "Social Media"

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Pope Who Prioritizes

(CNS photo/Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters) From ncronline:
"Pope Francis opens the Holy Door to inaugurate the Jubilee Year
of Mercy in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Dec 8."

There has been a lot of debate as to whether Pope Francis is changing Catholic doctrine or not. Early in his papacy, his approach was categorized as a "change in tone," and that phrase has stuck remarkably well. It's an often unquestioned subtitle to Francis' papacy.

“Change of tone” is a politically shrewd phrase. It has the word “change,” which excites liberals. But it also suggests that the change might be more along the lines of style and not substance, which is an attempt to reassure conservatives. Francis dances in the space between.

That phrase is helpful, but I have never found it wholly satisfactory.

I believe the papacy of Pope Francis has been, among many things, an attempt to put first things first and second things second: Francis is the pope who prioritizes.

Pope Francis affirms the centrality of a joyful, living relationship with Jesus Christ in Evangelii Gaudium. He holds up the primacy of conscience in navigating grey areas in Amoris Laetitia. Francis raises up care for creation to its rightful place in Laudato Si. He not only erases all doubt that environmental issues are merely a secondary matter but actually holds up an integral human ecology as an overarching paradigm encompassing other life issues. Throughout his papacy, Francis has asserted Catholic values of life and family while avoiding getting entrenched in the culture wars quagmire.

In a likewise fashion, I believe Francis instituted the Year of Mercy in part to search for the appropriate balance between the necessary rules of the institution and the role of love. This is to put the practices of the Church more in line with a Gospel vision. We Catholics know how to focus on rules. We don’t do as well of a job navigating in the territory of mercy. That should alarm us, given the centrality that Jesus himself gives it.

Matthew 22:40 reminds us that how the doctrines are arranged and prioritized matters immensely. When introducing the Greatest Commandment to love God and one another, Jesus adds that, "all the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matthew 22:40). This often glossed over line provides a stunning vision if we pause to consider it. This requires more than just a change in tone or even of emphasis.

Imagine that our religious laws, customs and moral codes are like Christmas
 ornaments.  Mercy is the tree on which they all hang.  The tree not only displays them, but it helps them rise to the dignity they are meant for. The tree helps them all make sense.  Some ornaments may look good sitting by themselves on a mantle, but most of them do not function well without the tree. Without the tree they could all just as easily sit in some dusty box in an attic somewhere.

The ornaments themselves do not really make sense, nor do they serve much of a purpose, without the tree on which to hang.  This is, I believe, what the Jesus is saying in the Gospel of Matthew.  Love and mercy is the structure on which the rules and regulations of the Church hang.  Without it, they don’t make much sense. 

We may get all the rules right but if we put them in the wrong order of emphasis, or without a corresponding love, we can get it wrong.

Anyone who has spent any time immersed in the struggles of what it means to be “church” knows that there is a place for rules. Love them or hate them, they aren’t going away entirely. But how they are applied and administered can be where the error lies. Mercy has to be held in balance with the rules of the institution.

Whereas Pope Benedict XVI may have had a knack for speaking to the letter of the law, Pope Francis has the calling to speak to the infrastructure of that law, especially as it relates to mercy. As Francis puts the house in order, he has called us into a whole Church conversation about the parts of our faith and tradition that have not seen the light of day in accordance with their due and the signs of the times. These include the role of conscience, the care for our common home and mercy. 


It’s not just a kinder, gentler application of the same thing. 

It’s a vastly reordered, radically restructured system that puts Jesus first, that takes the words of Jesus seriously, that takes the Gospel seriously, and which reorders all our rules, regulations and codes in light of those fundamental truths.  It also raise mercy to its rightful place as the overarching theme, as it is the structure on which all law and prophets hang.