Tuesday, July 18, 2017

"I Believe IN ... "

We saw the new Wonder Woman movie last week, and loved every minute of it! Among the most noteworthy moments is when the title character says, “My mother was right about the world; she said they didn’t deserve me …” To which Captain Steve Trevor responds, “Maybe it’s not what you deserve, but what you believe. And I believe this war should end. If you believe the same, then help me stop it.”
            Near the end of the movie, Wonder Woman says, “It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love. Only love will truly save the world.” (A bit cliche, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t meaningful.)
            That got me thinking about what it means to “believe” something, as opposed to “believe in” something. How are those two ideas different? Dictionary definitions of “believe” include “to accept something as true” and “to hold an opinion.”
            But the definition changes a bit when you add the word “in.” To “believe in” can be “to have confidence in the existence of something,” but also can be defined as “to have trust in the goodness, value, or ability of something or someone.”
            And what people of faith say is that we “believe in” God. Which seems to me to mean more than just think God exists. It seems to have more to do with that second definition, to trust in God’s goodness.
            And since it has to do with trust, that must mean that “believing in” God is more about an ongoing relationship than just accepting a list of doctrines as true, or to hold a certain set of opinions.
The historic creeds of the church all begin with the phrase “believe in,” and that should be a poignant reminder that religion is, at its heart, a relationship. The church is not the institution, not the structure, not the doctrines - the church is the living expression of humanity’s relationship with God. This, I believe!

Friday, July 14, 2017

"Dear Provider"

“Dear Provider:

This letter is being sent as notice that the department, as a result of a reduction in appropriations for foster care, adoption, and legal guardianship maintenance services, will be reducing your maintenance amount equal to one-and-a-half percent (1.5%) effective July 1, 2017.


Sincerely,

Procurement Unit
Division of Finance and Administrative Services”

We got two letters from the Missouri Department of Social Services this past week. The one quoted above refers to our adoption subsidy contract with the state.

The second applies to our contract with the state to provide Professional Foster Care, Emergency Foster Care, and Foster Respite Care. The good news in that letter was that our contract had been renewed another year. (Huzzah.) But the second paragraph noted that “the amount appropriated for maintenance services will be decreased by one-and-a-half percent (1.5%).”

Every foster and adoptive family in the state of Missouri got similar letters last week. “Dear Provider: ... ” Our society has deteriorated (regressed?) to the point at which fiscal conservatism has become an accepted reason to make it harder for abused and neglected children to find safe and loving homes. This is life now. Or as John Oliver put it, “This is something, as long as we live in a world where something means anything, and I'm not sure we do anymore.”

This from the State of Missouri, which already had one of the lowest foster care compensation levels in the nation. And by the way, no we are not “doing it for the money.” And by the way, yes we will actually feel this reduction, and have to adjust our household budget as a result.

But rather than demonize Governor Greitens (and if I let my anger govern my reaction, I could, believe me!), I’ll just say that I wish he would have been honest. I understand he’s trying to balance the budget, but it would have been nice for him to be honest about it.

Last month, he said this:  “Our state has 13,000 children in the foster care system. They are, both in law and spirit, Missouri's children. Our kids. We recognize the potential of kids in foster care. We honor hard-working foster parents. And we've got a lot of work to do in Missouri to fight for, work with, and build a better system for our foster families.” Click here. 

I’d like to highlight one particular sentence: “We honor hard-working foster parents.”

Okay, I’m gonna just stop you there, Guv. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot stage an adorable photo op with (what we assume is) a group of foster kids, talk about how you will “fight for” us and “work with” us to take care of foster kids, and then MERE WEEKS LATER send us generic letters ("Dear Provider:") informing us that you are cutting our compensation. Because that’s pretty much the opposite.

The governor has not in fact honored us, and so I am expecting him to issue a public apology for his previous statement. I don’t know the process for an official government retraction, but he needs to do it.

So Governor, here’s a suggestion: “Dear Provider: In order to balance our State budget, we are going to need to cut pay to foster and adoptive families across the state. I realize this does not honor their hard work, and in fact many providers will see this as an insult. However, I think that a balanced budget is more important than fairly compensating them.”

Just be honest with us. Please.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Just No, Just Yes, and Everything In Between

Views on Same-Sex Marriage - A Typology

A - Just no.

B - Yes for state / No for church.

C - Yes for state / No for church (But yes for churches blessing relationships somehow, just not marriage.)

D - Yes for state / Yes for some denominations / No for my denomination.

E - Yes for state / Yes for some congregations, even in my denomination / No for my particular congregation.

F - Yes for state / Yes for all churches, even my particular congregation / No for me.

G - Just yes.

And so one can clearly see that this is not a simple either/or proposition. (And this is really a sketch; I’m sure there are several variations to my A-G list above.)

For any helpful conversation to happen about marriage equality, the parties must first understand one another’s perspective clearly. Reality is much more nuanced than we are often led to believe; it is not as simple as being either “for” it or “against” it.

And adding to the complexity of the situation is the undeniable fact that some people are not very nice when they are discussing their position. And some people think that their position is the only valid position. And as it turns out many people who think their position is the only valid position also happen to be the same people who are not very nice when they are discussing their position.

But the point I really want to make here is this: Not everyone who is “against” same-sex marriage is a hateful homophobic bigot … AND … not everyone who is “for” same-sex marriage is a morally bankrupt atheist hippie. (I’m using hyperbole to emphasize the point.) Certainly such people exist, but they are a tiny (albeit loud) minority.

The truth is, life is complex. People are vibrantly diverse, and it is risky make simplistic either/or assumptions about what an individual thinks about same-sex marriage.

Specific UMC Thoughts:
As my own denomination, the United Methodist Church, seeks away forward when it comes to our official stance on marriage, I hope we can remember this. When a compromise is proposed to the General Conference in February of 2019, it is far from certain whether it will pass. If we can remember how vibrantly diverse we are, it may. If we dig in our heels with “our way or the highway” thinking, it likely will not.

The General Conference deck is stacked for conflict. Our General Conference is designed to force either/or, black-and-white, for or against opposition. And it does what it is designed to do quite well. In 2016, we tried to be different, more conversational and relational. But in order to do so we had to pass a rule that would allow us to, “Rule 44.” And guess what? To pass “Rule 44,” we used the oppositional, either/or system in which we are stuck. So … it didn’t pass and we were right back at it.

The thing is, our congregations aren’t like that. Our congregations are people who are scattered across the spectrum and kind of clumped in the middle of it. And in general our congregations are much more willing to compromise on same-sex marriage than our delegates to General Conference are.

I pray no one will decide to leave our denomination as a result of the upcoming 2019 General Conference meeting, though it is almost certain that some will. (Indeed, some already have.) At the very least, I hope we will be gracious toward those who decide to leave, and refrain from making assumptions about their motivations for doing so.

I have heard my colleagues say, “If we allow same-sex marriages in our congregations it will hurt the mission of the church in my context.” To them I say, “Then don’t do any.”

Now I’m wondering, will those same colleagues hear me when I say, “If we continue to prohibit same-sex marriages in our congregations it will hurt the mission of the church in my context.” What will be their reply to me?

Thursday, May 11, 2017

"So That's a 'Yes?'" or, "How to Push a Foster Dad's Button Without Really Trying"

The “car rider line” at school is not my favorite place to be. Just in general. So I was already kind of grumpy as I picked up the fifth grader at the end of the day.

Then, after the fifth grader was loaded, a teacher leaned into the front passenger window. She stood there, elbows planted on the door, preventing me from moving on, dozens of cars behind me, dozens of kids waiting to be picked up witnessing the exchange, several other teachers watching closely.

She proceeded to describe the fifth grader’s behavior in her class. She’s the art teacher, which is only relevant because she lacks any day-to-day interaction with our fifth grader. That is to say, she doesn’t know him. Now, what he did was not okay, but pretty typical behavior for him. I listened to her, and then at the end of the story she said, “…and I’d like you to talk to him about it.”

“Thank you,” I replied. I thought that would end it, so that we could go home and I could parent the fifth grader appropriately, in the way that would work best for him.

But no, that didn’t end it.

She said, “So, that’s a ‘yes?’”

Now, I have never met this person, she’s obviously never met me, so I was able to utilize a fairly successful filter on what I actually wanted to say to her. Something along the lines of “I’ve parented eighteen children, ma’am. I know what I’m doing. Get your elbows off of my car so we can be on our way. And by the way, mind your own business.” [*Filtered.]

“So, that’s a ‘yes?’”

And what I actually said was, “You need to know that this isn’t helping.”

“What?”

“This isn’t helping,” I repeated.

“What isn’t helping?” she asked.

“This conversation. Shaming him in front of me, in front of the other teachers, in front of his peers. This is going to make it worse.”

“I’m not shaming him. I’m saying you have to talk about it with him. His behavior was unacceptable.”

I may have sighed. “Please, just try to learn the full story here. Talk to the principal please. Get the full story.”

“So are you going to talk about it with him?” Persistence is not always a virtue.

I said, “Please just trust me. You are making things worse. You need to get the full story.”

Whether it was my words or the impatient glares of the dozens of parents in the cars behind us, I don’t know. But she took her elbows off the car and said, “Oh, I will get the full story.”

“Thank you. I think that will help,” I said and drove away.

The fifth grader in the back seat is our foster son. Let’s call him “David.” 12 years old. Been with us all school year and in less than two weeks is transitioning back home again.

And so because of this impending transition David is currently in the process of sabotaging every positive relationship he has formed over the past year. He is doing this so that when he gets back home again he will be able to talk about how much he hated it, how bad things were, how everyone treated him so poorly. This will in turn allow his home life to appear happy and healthy. (And of course we hope it truly will be.)

So he is sabotaging his relationships … with me, my wife Erin, our son Gabe, every teacher (including Art Teacher), the principal (who has been his biggest fan all year long – she is awesome), people at church, the kid next door that he loves to play with, and on and on. The only relationship he hasn't attempted to dismantle, as far as I can tell, is with our neighbor Rob, who lets him play basketball in his driveway.

He is infecting these relationships with bad feelings. Probably not on purpose, but at a subconscious level, in a way that would provide all kinds of fascinating material for a psychology student’s term paper. Of course we are on to him; we can see exactly what is going on and so we are trying to respond accordingly, with patience and affirmation.

But Art Teacher is clueless. Because she doesn’t know him, doesn’t know his story, doesn’t know what’s going on in his life. I am not upset with Art Teacher for telling us about David’s behavior, you understand. (She should have emailed us.) I am upset because I tried to deal with it in the way that would be most helpful, and she, out of her ignorance, would not allow that to happen.

See, when David is caught doing something inappropriate and you confront him about it, he doubles down on it. He does it more. That is especially true when you confront him about it in front of other people. And it is even worse when the other people are his peers.

He postures and puffs up and acts very “macho,” says ridiculous things like, “Well I’m gonna tell everyone that Santa isn’t real” and “Nobody really likes Michael Jackson.” And yes, that is actually hilarious, but as for addressing the actual behavior in question, it isn’t effective.

And see, I know that about him. And I know what he is going through, how the anxiety and fear about moving back home is subconsciously motivating his destructive attitudes and behaviors. Even knowing that, even knowing him … it’s hard. It hurts. It’s frustrating. It feels like failure.

And so I guess one of the reasons Art Teacher pushed a button in me yesterday is that she just knew that simply “talking with him” about it was going to fix it, and therefore I heard her “So that’s a ‘yes?’” as an indictment of our failure to help David negotiate this difficult season.

When we got home, I asked David about what Art Teacher had said. He postured, puffed up, got defensive, and explained himself to me. And so it goes.

But it was just him and me, so it was manageable. It ended with me telling him, “You are not in charge of how other people act. You are only in charge of yourself, your own choices.”

And he mumbled “I don’t care” and went to play basketball at Rob’s.

And so it goes.

At least he was getting some exercise.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Easter Expectation

We would like to be those two angels sitting in the tomb, safe with our insider information. Smiling at those outside, “Why are you crying?” without sharing what we know, namely that Jesus is alive again.

We would like to be those two disciples, running as fast as possible to the tomb, peeking quickly inside, and then running as fast as possible back home again without even glancing back, to lock the door and take care of ourselves.

The truth is we are more often Mary Magdalene, unsure of what exactly is going on, confused, hurting, tears filling our eyes, with no idea what will happen next.

And yet alert, aware, and strong enough to stay anyway. The thing is, Mary stays. She sticks with it. She stands firm. It’s obvious she expects something, although exactly what she isn’t certain. But of course, there’s a difference between “expectation” and “certainty.”

Expectation means you know that this present moment is not all there is. Expectation is understanding that there is more, even if you aren’t certain what that “more” actually looks like.

Expectation is what compelled Mary Magdalene to stay, in spite of her pain, her grief. And through her tears, in the darkness, she saw … someone. Someone who called her by name.

“Mary.”

And there it was. “Oh. You know me! And yes, I know you. Oh, it’s you.” And just like that, expectation was fulfilled, as she saw Jesus, living and breathing and walking and talking. Jesus.

Easter is all about expectation. And that doesn’t mean that we know exactly what will happen next; it just means we know Jesus. And more importantly, that we are known by him.

And now we carry that expectancy into every moment of every day, and it gives us hope. Life is uncertain, the world is a violent place, there will be struggle, grief, obstacles to overcome. None of that goes away just because it’s Easter.

What has changed is that our lives have been infused with expectation, and we know that our present reality isn’t the end of the story. Easter assures us that, no matter how bad things are, expectation will be fulfilled. If we stick with it like Mary did, we will see Jesus.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Hidden From Your Eyes

This is a picture of a pew in St. George’s Coptic Church in Tanta, Egypt.

I do not want to look at it. I cannot stop looking at it.

I’d rather it was hidden from our eyes.

There is blood on this pew because a Daesh terrorist detonated a bomb in this sanctuary during worship, killing 27 people and wounding 78 more. (A few hours later another Daesh terrorist detonated another bomb at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, Egypt, killing 17 more people and wounding another 48.)

It was Palm Sunday.

It was the day on which the Bible says Jesus said these words: “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.’”

I wish I could stop looking at this picture. There is a smear on the back of the pew, apparently made by someone’s fingers in the drips of blood running down. Had those fingers been moments earlier waving a palm branch?

Hosanna, indeed.

We waved palm branches on Sunday, too. Young and old alike sang familiar songs from pews not that much different from the ones in this picture. As we did, our kids paraded around those pews a few times, holding their branches over their heads, smiling at the grown-ups smiling back at them, caught up in the joyful energy of the moment.

And then, you know, we went home and ate lunch.

I suppose I’ll never really understand what motivates violence like this, how such hatred and fear of the other takes root in the human heart, corrupting us, eroding us, minimizing us.

A sensible explanation is hidden from my eyes. Hatred warps the human soul. Violence only ever causes more violence. Fear distorts truth, casting instead a shadow of grotesque and horrifying false reality.

It’s the Palm Sunday juxtaposition that won’t let me go this time. Save us! From halfway around the world, a picture of a bloody church pew. A phrase from Jesus Christ Superstar that says “To conquer death, you only have to die.” A so-called “triumphant” entry, deeply misunderstood then as well as today. A cheering crowd of people who know not what they do. Waving palms, breaking bread, driving nails.

What has changed?

We’re just stuck here. Stuck between Palm Sunday and the cross. Cheers and lament. In between “Hosanna” and “Crucify.” The next big thing is already old news. That which is in plain sight is simultaneously hidden from our eyes. Spiritual déjà vu.

If I didn’t know better, I would say that it feels like we need a resurrection.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

There Is More Than One Way

The other day my friend Valerie asked me, “Can I come to your church?”
I replied, “Yes! Of course!”
And then her face lit up and she said, “I never realized there was another way to do it!”

The “it” she was referring to was the sacrament of Holy Communion. We had just had pre-opening night Communion on stage together with many of the cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” It was a wonderful, holy moment. And it was different from what she had experienced before.

Valerie had grown up in one particular tradition, and thought that there was pretty much only that one way that “counted.” And of course it is deeper than just how you do Holy Communion. The antecedent of the pronoun “it” in Valerie’s statement truly refers to the church in general. Her observation is profound, and the church needs to listen hard.

Yes, there is more than one way to do church.

How many people grew up being told that there is only one way to do it? Or how many were told, “Well, there may be other ways, but there’s only one right way?” Or how many of us grew up maybe not being told that explicitly, but at least were never encouraged to seek other ways of being in relationship with God?

I believe that people long for meaning. And some stuff that is very meaningful to me is not going to be the slightest bit meaningful to you, and vice versa. And that’s okay. It’s not that my way is “right” and yours is “wrong,” it’s just that my way is meaningful to me and yours is meaningful to you. Unless, of course, someone’s way does harm to another - then that’s not okay. That way is wrong and it needs to be challenged.

When it comes to our relationship with the divine, our religion, who am I to say that the meaning you have discovered in your way is not right, just because it doesn’t work for me?

Is not God capable of relating to people in whatever way God chooses? Or would I dare to suggest a limit on God’s capacity to interact with the world? (Spoiler: No, I would not.)

And so listen up, Church. Listen to my friend Valerie. She wants to know that there are other ways to do it. She wants to discover her own unique relationship with God, not be told what it has to look like. She wants a relationship with God that means something to her, not necessarily the one any of the rest of us would find meaningful. And of course, she’s not the only one.

So, we have to quit insisting that one, narrowly defined, rigidly constructed way of being the church is the only way to do it. Our systems and structures have to be flexible enough to offer connection and community for a diverse collection of people, such that each one of us finds opportunities to encounter God in our midst.

There is more than one way to encounter God. There is more than one way to follow Jesus.

There is more than one way to be the Church.