Thursday, December 3, 2015

There is No Safety

The site of yesterday’s shootings in San Bernardino is forty-five miles from my home. Many years ago I had an office just up the street from the Inland Regional Center. My niece receives services there. My brother and sister-in-law have been at that center several times, but they weren’t there yesterday.

The mass shootings that have taken place in the US this year (355, according to a recent report) are always near where someone lives. It’s when the slaughter takes place in familiar territory that you start looking over your shoulder, wondering if your own neighborhood or workplace is safe, planning on what you might do if a shooter showed up at your office.

Whether the killers are fueled by religious radicalism, by anger at a world that is perceived as unjust, or by plain old insanity, the message we are being given seems clear:

There is no place that is safe.

No place. Not your kid’s school, not your church, not your office, not your favorite cafĂ©. That’s the message.

And we can claim our Second Amendment rights all day long and put a legal firearm in everyone’s hands and the killers will still outshoot us. Before you can fumble in a purse or reach into a briefcase or a shoulder holster, the ones who are armed to the teeth and carrying out a predetermined plan will still slaughter the innocent before they can be taken down.

Maybe we are actually in the midst of World War Three without having the will to name it as such. There don’t seem to be any rules to this war, no identifiable uniforms and no specific profiles. Civilians are not longer collateral damage but instead are the targets. It’s happening all over the world. It sure feels like a World War.

But we in the US are also are war with ourselves. Our level of vitriol and hatred toward those with whom we simply disagree is marking us as a people who increasingly have lost a sense of civility and reason. We are only not being killed by foreign terrorists; we are walking out of the homes where we were born and annihilating school children and worshippers and workers at family planning clinics. We don’t need foreign invaders to convince us that there is no place that is safe. We’re fully capable of crafting our own internal narrative of fear and violence.

I am worried about how our national response to these horrors will shape us as a culture. I am concerned that we will become a people who fear our neighbor, who hate the foreigner, who beat our plowshares into swords and embrace violence as the only proper response to violence. Ours is a powerful nation and we can certainly become that kind of people if we desire.

If that becomes our national character—if it hasn’t already—then the killers will have done their job. Fear and hatred will have ruled the day and our violent responses will invite more violence and more fear and more hatred.

I wish I had an answer to all of this, but I don’t. I can feel the fear creeping into my own life and I fight to push it away. I wonder how I would feel today if my family members had been killed yesterday in San Bernardino. I wonder if fear and anger would have their way with me.

Today, I can only find a lament:

How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Psalm 13:2)

God, help us.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

American Evangelicals: Strategic Withdrawal?

I appreciated Laura Ortberg Turner’s recent article in The Atlantic (“What Happens When the ‘Moral Majority’ Becomes a Minority?”). She identifies a suggestion by some American evangelical leaders that Christians withdraw from the political scene, emulate the Benedictines by engaging for a season in the contemplative life, and then prepare to reemerge in order to change the culture.

It is interesting to me that, after thirty-five years of presence in American culture—a culture that identifies itself as 70% Christian and 25% evangelical—those who are associated with the Moral Majority would think that withdrawal and reengagement would result in changing the people of the United States. I wonder what they might think would be different once evangelical Christians returned to the political scene after a time of isolation. Would God allow the rest of the USA to suffer consequences in the meantime that might parallel the disasters that befell ancient Israel?

A time of rest and contemplation might actually be good for American evangelicals, if that time of contemplation is less of a strategic withdrawal in preparation for a new attack on culture, and more of a humble time of reflection about what it means to follow Jesus into the world that God loves. We could all probably use a time out in order to give thought to our identity.

I am also interested in the way that the term “American evangelical” often suggests a unified body of religious people. There are a number of prominent voices that do not speak for all evangelicals. There are seminaries that consider themselves to be evangelical, and yet differ with one another about certain areas of theology, ethics, and social justice. There is probably a lot less uniformity among evangelicals than many people think.

Roman Catholics are sometimes described as though they are similarly uniform. In reality, the Roman Catholic Church is made up of a number of orders that are expanded by many sub-orders. There are orders that focus on attending to the inward life (like the Benedictines), and those that attend to the active life (like the Franciscans). They would all say that they are Roman Catholics and share a common life of prayer, but that they also express their vocations in a variety of ways.

I once heard Dr. Richard Mouw, former president of Fuller Theological Seminary, wish out loud that we Protestants could see our various denominations in the way that Roman Catholics see their orders. I wish that for evangelicals. I wish that some would, indeed, withdraw from the divisive drama of American political life and seek a fresh identity as the people of God. I wish that others would see their evangelical vocation as humble service to the poor and suffering of the world. I’d like to see others give themselves over to the enrichment of the church, calling people prophetically to live their lives in the way of Jesus.

Maybe that’s already going on. If so, then it might be good for some of the more dominant evangelical voices to withdraw for awhile so that the caricatures attributed to evangelicals would wither and die and people might see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven. Just maybe.

And maybe we could, indeed, redefine “evangelical” so that the term, rather than attributed to a particular block of American voters, would describe a people who continuously proclaim and demonstrate the present reality of the kingdom of God, a kingdom that Jesus said is now upon us. As such, we could become comfortable with that identification being expressed in ways as diverse as the orders of the Roman Catholic Church.

I wonder if that’s what Jesus meant when used the metaphors of “salt” and “light.”

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Manners at the Table

I wrote this chapter (from my book, Shadow Meal: Reflections on Eucharist) in 2009. I thought it might be good to revisit, since we are approaching another election season in the USA.

Manners at the Table

We were fairly informal at the dinner table when I was a kid, yet there were basic manners that were expected when we gathered to eat. My grandmother, however, was of the ancient school that believed a certain level of decorum was mandatory and certain violations were punishable by death or worse.

My grandparents were not rich people. My grandfather had been a poor preacher and then a struggling businessman his entire life. When he died, they were living in a nice, tidy but small mobile home in southern California. While my grandmother had to learn to make do with very little, she saw to it that the little she had was clean, set out properly, and not taken lightly. Maybe the family would have to eat porridge for dinner, but at least the bowls would sit on a lace tablecloth.

My grandmother and her sisters, my aunts, could cook a glorious dinner out of tree branches and moon beams if pressed to the task. On holidays they would join together in someone’s kitchen, gabbing and arguing, flour and baking soda floating through the air, aromas unspeak¬ably rich and savory finding their ways to sniffing noses and hungry bel¬lies. They were the food wizards of a bygone era and I love the memory of those kitchen extravaganzas, although I was always kicked out when caught on one of my early raiding attempts.

When Grandma made a pie, all of time stopped, the moon and stars gaped in wonder and the earth went silent. I should have gone silent, on that summer afternoon in 1962, when I said too much and received too little for my trouble.
My numerous and rambunctious cousins were up from San Diego, and we played in Grandma’s front yard while she prepared her amazing cherry pie, my eternal favorite. When it was time to dish out the portions, I catapulted myself inside the house, leaving my unworthy cousins in my wake. As Grandma dished out the pieces, I recklessly and foolishly uttered words that I have wished for years that I could take back:

“I want the BIGGEST piece.”

Grandma, who I knew loved me dearly, would not put up for a moment with any such selfish demands. There was not a weak bone in her body and her principles were shored up with rebar and steel beams. She did not waver nor did I consider for a moment the possibility of a tantrum or efforts at renegotiation when she replied,

“Then you get the SMALLEST piece.”

And so I did. I wanted to cut my throat and then slaughter my cousins (especially the girl cousins) who would surely mock me when they discovered the insidious consequences of my crime. Violating man-ners anywhere near the table was, for Grandma, an offense not to go unpunished.

Are there manners at the table of Jesus? I suspect that Jesus is fine with a little sloppiness and an occasional belch. I wonder, however, how he feels about our bad mouths when we pull up our chairs and hold out our hands for more? What is his response when we trash talk people down the row or speak against those who are absent altogether? Do our portions change? Do we even notice?

I have this image in my mind of we who return often to the table of Jesus pulling up our chairs, smiling sweetly, and asking for things to be passed our way. Our conversation is normally civil, but suddenly things become different. It is election season, and new permissions seem to be given to the ones calling themselves followers of Jesus. We might be citi¬zens of the kingdom of God, but we’re also Americans, and as Americans we embrace our right to hate and bear false witness as long as it is during an election year and our venom is reserved for the candidates and party we do not prefer.

This is actually more than an image for me, because election years come around often enough for this to be a recurring theme. With the invention of the Internet, I receive scores of messages from my Christian brothers and sisters who tell me why I must fear and hate the candidate they don’t like, a candidate who is very likely the Anti-Christ and/or Satan (depending on what bent eschatology you want to embrace) or just plain evil and stupid. With transmittable videos, I can now receive obviously doctored films of candidates seeming to say things that they aren’t really saying, providing apparent evidence of their dark, evil hearts.

In the last election, I received so many of these kinds of things that I finally snapped, wrote a response to the propaganda I had received, and hit REPLY TOALL. I never heard back from even one of the forty million recipients, but at least the emails quit coming for a while.

It isn’t that I object to their preference for a particular candidate. I object to speaking, writing and forwarding things that foster hatred, slan¬der and the bearing of false witness. While I support the debates about important issues, I am hurt when I see and hear remarks (and video clips) that show how we Christians don’t mind playing by the rules of negative ad-speak when it suits us.

I wonder why, during these election years, I never receive any mes¬sages encouraging us to pray for our future leaders. Never got one. Not a one.

I seem to recall that Israel got in some pretty deep trouble by playing politics by the rules of the world. Everyone else in the neighborhood had a king, so the Israelites wanted a king. Other nations had big armies, so Israel built an army. The surrounding culture had more interesting and sexually active gods, so Israel co-opted a few just for good measure. In the end, they lost at that game because that wasn’t what they were made for. They were made to be God’s people and, as such, to bring blessing to all the families of the earth through their worship, devotion, and unique way of living under the shadow of Yahweh’s wings.

What are we Christians made for? Is it to hate, slander and bear false witness in the name of Jesus? Election year or not, I sure hope we’re made for something better than that. In fact, I’m pretty confident that we are.

I know that this kind of bad behavior comes at other times also, but election years are like Mardi Gras: Normally sane and sober people take advantage of the opportunity to run around like drunken, crazy people (actually, many of them are drunk and crazy) and then pretend to return to business as usual the next day. I just wonder why we Christians don’t question our own behavior during these times. It is interesting that in the United States, our presidential election season ends just prior to Advent. We should think about the irony of that. Welcoming Jesus into the world right after we spew election year sewage should bother us just a bit.

Could the worst manners at the table of Jesus be despising someone that Jesus loves rather than putting our elbows on the table?

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Social Media, Perception, and Lack of Critical Analysis

In a social media-saturated culture we are offered any number of stories and photos insisting that certain events or images are indisputably true. Take, for example, the following pair of photographs:

The captions suggest that there is something lacking in the 2015 photo. Is it simply the lack of American flags? Or is it something deeper, something more sinister—like a lack of patriotism in the current US president and the people who rally around him? Hmmmm . . .

There is clearly a lack of American flags in the lower photograph. That photo, however, has been cropped. When you search around and find a more expansive shot of the same scene, you get this:

There are, indeed, flags present. Instead of being waved in victory in the crowd, they are proudly displayed at the front of the buildings along the street. The first photograph is a celebration; the second is a memorial. Both have flags.

Only two things would keep people from making this discovery:

1. A desire that the dark, sinister version of the story would be true; and/or
2. A lack of critical analysis.

We see this kind of thing all the time on social media. I’ve recently seen social media threads expressing dismay over the dismissal of employees at Christian organizations in three different states. The comments that follow the stories are overwhelmingly supportive of the seemingly wronged employees and offer harsh criticisms of the offending organizations.

From what I can tell, the comments come from people who are bright and well-educated. But the streams of comments appear to lack two important elements:

1. A voice at the conversation table by someone who expresses an alternative view.
2. Any sense of critical analysis

Consequently, the story ends up offering only one side, and that side may or not be accurate. We could be looking at a cropped picture, but it’s difficult for us to tell.

Which is why the lack of critical analysis is so alarming to me.

I’m struggling to understand how these intelligent people would read an account of conflict on the Internet and offer unbridled support without making some attempt to understand the larger picture. As I’ve looked over these threads of discussion, I have not been able to find anyone speaking who suggests that there might be a more to consider before making a judgment on the situation. I’m troubled by that. I’m troubled at the absence of healthy, well-intended critical analysis.

I’d hate to be arrested for a crime, and then sent to trial, only to discover that the judge and jury have decided to only allow the prosecutor to speak, giving the defender no opportunity to make a case on my behalf. But in our social media world, we get to do that all the time.

And the whole world listens in.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

What Emanuel AME Church has to teach us about the way forward

Now that same-sex marriage is woven into the national legal fabric of the US, Christians and their communities of faith are considering how to respond. Some are angry, decrying the imminent demise of the nation; others are celebrating this progressive move.

This isn’t the first time that churches in the US have had to deal with changes in legal requirements that relate to marriage. Up until the 1970’s there had to be some provable violation of the bonds of marriage for a divorce to be granted. Since the creation of no-fault divorce, however, the process has been streamlined and made easier for everyone (except, of course, the children).

This was a challenge for people of faith, who trusted the authority of that part of the wedding ceremony that proclaimed,

“What God has joined together, let no one separate.” (A quote from Jesus, to be clear)

The State made a ruling on divorce, and churches had to live with it. How did many churches respond? Many realized that marginalizing or excluding divorced people from their fellowships was not the way of Jesus. Divorce recovery ministries sprang up. There was even a growing acceptance of those who divorced and remarried. Most didn’t do a particularly good job of exploring the theology of it all, but there was still a response that resulted in acts of ministry.

Now the State has made a ruling on marriage, and churches have to live with that as well.

So, now what?

I think that the good people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, have helped us with the way forward.

After nine worshippers were gunned down in their church, the members of Emanuel probably recognized that the rest of the world would sympathize with them if they called for retributive justice—the death of the perpetrator that might somehow set things rights. They might have called for a violent response from their community.

Instead, they sent the world a message. They said, in effect,

“In times of pain, sorrow, and grief, we begin with worship, and then we forgive. That’s how we do it.” And the world, including the media, marveled.

And now, the Supreme Court has laid claim to a time-honored tradition for religious folks of all kinds: Marriage. And, as a majority, the citizens of our nation are on board with that change. The times, indeed, are a-changin’.

So, my Christian brothers and sisters, how do we do it?

Do we spew vitriol on the Internet, drawing lines and investing ourselves in the polarized screaming matches that have too long characterized people in our society? Do we simply embrace the decision of the court and cheer for what we’ve thought was right all along?

Or, do we stop, take a breath, and consider who we are. We who follow Jesus are not called to be ideologues that live or die based on the rulings of the Court or the preferences of our culture. We are called to be God’s people for the sake and blessing of the world.

The most appropriate response to the drama of this week is, I believe, to come together in worship. I think the noble people at Emanuel AME have shown us the power of such a response. Regardless of our views about the Court’s decision, we should intentionally and vulnerably place ourselves in a posture that demonstrates the lordship of Jesus Christ and recognizes that the church in America is a church in exile.

And then we open our eyes and ears and ask ourselves: What does the ministry of Jesus look like in this time and place? In challenging times, how is the love of God made known? I’m pretty sure it won’t be made known in political posturing and venomous denunciations.

So, how will we do it? The world is watching.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Supreme Court and Same-Sex Marriage

The Facebook posts regarding the Supreme Court’s decision to declare the legality of same-sex marriage across the US have been predictably interesting. Like many others, I’ve been thinking about this topic for quite some time, and I am going to weigh in with my own observation and recommendations, at least for those who operate in the realm of the Christian community.

For a very long time, clergy have officiated at weddings in a dual representative capacity. On the one hand, they represent the Christian church; on the other hand they represent the State (as in , The Government). We often provide evidence of this dual representation by closing the ceremony with words like these:

“By the power invested in me by the church of Jesus Christ and the State of XXX, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

Whether those words are spoken exactly that way or not, the dual agency is real.

I’ve officiated at quite a few weddings, all in the state of California. It is humbling to me that when I say the words that declare the marriage of the two people standing before me, it has the power of law. Upon my word, at that moment in time, those people are married to each other. The Church and State both back me on this.

This is a powerful reality because I sign the marriage license sometime later in the day, mail it off a few days later, and the County Recorder enters it into some computer within the following weeks. Nevertheless, those folks were married the second I said they were married. The Church and State both grant me that authority.

Church and State in the US have had this complicit relationship for many years and everyone’s been pretty much okay about it.

Until now.

We religious folks have long believed that marriage is our business. That is, we see marriage as a sacred bond and, therefore, part of our turf. Up until recently, Church and State have been in agreement about what constitutes a marriage (we have had some conflict with the State about what constitutes a divorce, but we somehow got comfortable with that one).

As of this morning, the Federal government has sent all religious people—regardless of their views on same-sex marriage—this message:

“We own marriage. You do not.”

And, apparently, they are right.

So maybe this is an opportunity for Christian leaders to reflect in some new ways about our relationship with the State and with the culture at large. Perhaps we’ve been complicit with the State when it suits us, but have expressed outrage when the State reveals its true character as the dominant power structure in the US.

So here’s what I’m thinking. Consider these words of Jesus:

“ . . . if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” (Matthew 5:40)

I know this text is addressing the issue of retaliation, but perhaps we can allow it to inform our thinking on the issue of marriage. The State has taken our coat—the definition of marriage—as its own. Maybe its time for us to hand the State our cloak as well—that is, our role as agents of the State in the performance of marriages.

In other words, maybe we need to get out of the marriage business.

The State already owns that business. People have long been able to go the courthouse, pay for a license, and have a court deputy perform a brief ceremony, resulting in a legal marriage. It’s quicker, easier, and a lot less expensive than a big, fancy church wedding with a reception.

Maybe it’s time for us to look at what a train wreck marriage has been over the years in this country, and rethink what we do to solemnify and bless this union that we have traditionally referred to as “marriage.” Maybe we need to revisit the concepts of covenant and faithfulness and reframe them under the lordship of Jesus Christ, and let the State do its job of deciding who gets married and who doesn’t.

We can be for or against this Supreme Court decision, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. Religious groups in general and Christians in particular don’t own marriage. That coat has been taken.

It might be time for us to weave a new cloak.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Opening Chapter of The Haunts of Violence

Chapter Zero

When he heard the sound of raindrops tapping against the living room window he knew it wasn’t rain but rather the clicking and scraping of fingernails, torn and bloody, arching from fingers that should have seen the grave long ago. He rolled off the couch where he had been sleeping and stumbled into his tiny kitchen, careful to keep his throbbing eyes trained to the floor. The clicking against the window ceased.

He picked up a tumbler from the cluttered sink and rinsed it out with tap water, then filled it half way. The water tasted flat and lifeless and he spit it into the sink, the steel wool feeling in his mouth unabated. He opened a cupboard and cracked the seal on a fresh bottle of Scotch. The amber liquid splashed into the tumbler and paused at one finger, then settled at two. He held the drink under his nose, inhaling from habit into olfactory senses deadened long ago by alcohol. The Scotch burned his tongue with familiar fire.

The weight of the bottle felt promising in his hand as he carried it toward his perch on the couch. He stopped abruptly when he saw the figure sitting there, first appearing as his ex-wife, then becoming a former colleague and, finally, transforming into an ape of comic proportions before disappearing. The space remained empty. He made his way to the other side of the couch and sat down heavily, drops of Scotch fleeing the glass and spattering unnoticed across the front of his soiled t-shirt.

He was not dead yet, and he wondered why not. He had been alone for a year and his drunken slide toward death remained at bay. He thought he had shut himself off from all that had come before, all that had been lost, the disasters that had driven him to this place, but the memories returned, rehearsing and re-enacting the comic nightmare that was the story of his life. He drained his glass and poured again.

Something shifted in the bedroom. He listened as a body fell from the bed and crumpled to the floor. It crawled—no, lurched—toward the door but he refused to look. He squeezed his eyes shut and gritted his teeth, raggedly whispering stop, stop, stop. The thing reached the doorway and then made no more sounds. He opened his eyes and turned to see nothing.

The drink burned again, his stomach tightening at the fresh introduction of alcohol. He wished again for dreamless sleep, but instead the video began its replay in his head. He closed his eyes, sat back, and let the story roll.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Where Will God Go?

Years ago a woman approached me after our weekly church service. Since I was her pastor, she wanted to tell me something she had experienced in order to hear my perspective.

She said that, as a young teenager, she had experienced various forms of abuse, both within her family and at church. One day she made a firm decision about her life, a decision she carefully explained to God.

“God,” she said, “I want you to know that I am going to start drinking and partying and doing all kinds of things that I don’t think you’re going to like.”

She told me that she heard words in her head—tender words that she believed were from God—saying, “All right. I’ll go with you.”

During her years of self-destructive behavior—right up through her time in rehab—she never doubted that God had been with her all the time. She had no illusions about God’s approval or endorsement of her behavior. She believed that she had broken God’s heart, but that he still remained quietly with her.

I had to really think about this one. It was an important question: In our worst circumstances, when we have chosen paths of pain and dehumanization, does God abandon us or wait patiently alongside us, grieving over our self-inflicted choices?

I think that the biblical history of Israel has something to say about this. What do you think?

[My most recent novel, The Haunts of Violence, was inspired by the conversation I had with that woman]