Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Playing Pilate

“Because it’s fun to play a bad guy,” is the superficial answer I give when someone asks me why I wanted to play Pilate. And that is true. It is engaging for me as an actor to portray a “bad guy” in a show. There are more layers of the character to reveal.

But for me, playing Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar is much deeper than that. Ever since I was a kid listening to my parent’s LP, I have been intrigued by how Pilate is portrayed in Superstar. In fact, the Bible itself portrays Pilate as a more complicated figure than he is often given credit for.

And his story, as the early church told it, is similarly complicated. Some early documents indicate he converted to become a follower of Jesus himself. The Coptic tradition considers him to be a martyr. The date and manner of his death are subject to scholarly debate, which is odd for such a notable figure. Augustine believed that Pilate was sincere when he wrote, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (see John 19:19-22). “It could not be torn from his heart that Jesus was the King of the Jews,” Augustine wrote.

So I am working with a lot of “back story” to enter into this character and attempt to convey at least some of that nuance and complexity on stage. And here’s what I’ve got…

Pilate has been appointed to Jerusalem, in the Jewish nation of Judea, to be the head Roman in charge. But he is not the least bit engaged with governing the people. In fact he would rather just isolate himself in his palace and let the temple leaders handle their own business. As long as there’s no trouble, as long as the people stay quiet and continue to pay their taxes, as long as Caesar’s attention is not turned this direction, all is well. No news is good news.

Enter Jesus.

Jesus draws the aloof Pilate into the story against his will, kicking and screaming. The first pull comes when Pilate is haunted by a vision in which Pilate sees Jesus, though he only knows him as a random Galilean. Pilate confronts him, but gets no response, and since Pilate is a man accustomed to people responding, this alone is noteworthy. Suddenly Pilate witnesses Jesus attacked by wild and angry men who disappear into the mist, a puzzling development. The vision shifts into an image of countless people grieving for Jesus, and the deepest cut of all, they seem to be leaving Pilate the blame for his death.

This dream has shaken Pilate, enough that he feels compelled to share it, to talk about it. He has no idea what it means, but he cannot let it go. The most amazing Galilean in his dream has looked directly into his hidden self, and left an imprint that cannot be erased.

And so, when the temple leaders bring Jesus to him, it comes as somewhat of a relief to see that he is a rather ordinary, unfortunate man. Not a king at all. Pilate is actually bemused,  if somewhat annoyed, at this initial encounter with Jesus, and he even connects with him on a personal level, bantering a bit, admiring how cool Jesus is under pressure.

But Pilate gets bored easily, and after all this is just a random smelly Galilean, so Pilate dismisses him - Herod’s race? Herod’s case!

Jesus does not stay long at Herod’s place, however. All too quickly he is dragged back to Pilate, and the point is clear. His role in the drama is limited. “We need him crucified, it’s all you have to do,” say the leaders of the temple.

Pilate resists. First of all, Pilate does not take orders from anyone in Judea. He is naturally inclined to minimize the significance of a demand coming from the temple. And so he initially attempts to laugh it off, to wave it away like a persistent swarm of gnats.

And then there is a moment. The crowd is still, Pilate kneels next to Jesus whose eyes meet his, looking directly into his hidden self, and a phrase from his dream floats through the room. In this moment things begin to change; from here the energy builds relentlessly toward the inevitable conclusion.

Hoping to avoid killing him, Pilate decides to flog Jesus. Many times before, public flogging has been enough. Perhaps that will satisfy the crowd this time, too. But something happens as the punishment is enforced. What begins as a mundane event, chilling in its ordinariness, becomes a disturbing, horrifying, and convicting act of savagery.

Something inside of Pilate cracks.

It is just at this moment, when he is the most vulnerable, the most exposed, that grace comes to Pilate. “You have nothing in your hands,” Jesus tells him. “Everything is fixed and you can’t change it.” Jesus absolves Pilate of blame, removing from his hands the shame and guilt of this atrocity.

But grace, as it often is, is difficult to receive. The shock of it terrifies Pilate, and deepens the fissures in his soul. He struggles to keep himself together, to regain control.

The crowd spots the weakness and intensifies their pressure, leaning on Pilate, pressing him, shouting at him. “Remember Caesar!” they yell, which of course adds a whole new dimension to the torment. If news of this disturbance somehow gets to Caesar’s ears, the consequences get serious for Pilate. The weight is enormous, unrelenting, eroding his resistance, crushing him.

And finally … he breaks.

Pilate shatters into a thousand pieces, his thoughts reduced to a nearly indecipherable shriek. “DIE, if you want to! You innocent puppet…”

And he exits. He has become the broken man, the unfortunate, good for nothing but cluttering up a hallway. He tries to wash his hands of Christ’s great self-destruction, but finds them indelibly stained.

And yet, there was a glance. There was a hint. A seed of grace has been planted deeply in his hidden self. We are left to wonder if it will take root and blossom.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

There Will Be A Church

It could happen this way…

In 2024 there will be three denominations that include the 12 million people who currently comprise the United Methodist denomination.

There will be the Wesleyan Covenant Church (or some such name). They will have a thoroughly Wesleyan theology, though they will emphasize the Scriptural authority part a bit more. They will not allow gay people to get married or ordained, and will be explicit about stating such.

There will be a Progressive Methodist Church (or some such name). They will have a thoroughly Wesleyan theology, though they will emphasize the grace part a bit more. They will allow gay people to get married or ordained, and will be explicit about stating such.

There will be a United Methodist Church (or some such name). They will have a thoroughly Wesleyan theology, and will constantly wrestle with the tensions that inevitably arise when Scripture is read through the lenses of tradition, reason, and experience. They will remove sexual orientation and gender identity as barriers to marriage and ordination, leaving authority to make those decisions in the hands of pastors and Annual Conferences.

The three new denominations will be in “full communion” with one another. This means that they are unified in the essentials of the faith but recognize clear differences of opinion regarding how a holy life is to be lived. We will be able to celebrate Holy Communion together. There will be a way to recognize ordination among the three, though I’m sure there would be extensive discussion as to how that would look. And most importantly, we will share a common commitment to the mission of the Church.

At some point, maybe in 40 years, maybe in 60, these three denominations will merge again.

… or it might not. Who knows really?

What I know for certain is that I am not in the least bit anxious about the future of the church. I believe Jesus when he says that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” I believe in resurrection. I believe in something eternal, something that exists beyond my ability to comprehend it, that will outlive me.

And even if it looks nothing like it looks today, there will be a church.

As long as there are people who need to know they are worthy of the deepest love imaginable, there will be a church to tell them.

As long as there is evil, injustice, and oppression to be resisted in whatever forms they present themselves, there will be a church to resist them.

As long as there are widows, orphans, and immigrants in need of help for their journey, there will be a church to walk alongside them.

As long as there are people who need the transformative power of grace to flip their lives around so they might become the people they are created to be, there will be a church to offer it to them.

As long as God’s mission is unfulfilled, there will be a church working to realize it. Yes, even if it looks not in the least bit like it does today, there will be a church.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Seeking Compromise, Part 2

“You speak of compromise. That is a concept that requires a commitment from all involved. I have yet to hear what progressives are willing to contribute to this compromise you talk of. All I ever hear is that I am to compromise my conscience so that you [would] now [be] free to live by yours.” - anonymous comment on “Enterthe Rainbow,” February 14, 2017

I have a personal policy against responding to anonymous comments, so I hope to learn the identity of this commenter some day, because I really want to respond. If I was going to respond, it might look something like this:

Anonymous Commenter, you indicate that those against marriage equality are being asked to compromise their conscience, and I agree with that. But even more so, they are being asked to compromise their idea of sin, morality, purity, and even obedience to God. This is a very big deal for those opposed to marriage equality, and should not be minimized.

And what are those in favor of marriage equality being asked to compromise? We are being asked to compromise our sense of justice. But even more so, we are being asked to compromise our idea of human decency, covenant, Biblical interpretation, and yes, even obedience to God. This is a very big deal for those in favor of marriage equality, and that should not be minimized either.

So I really want to say to you, Anonymous Commenter, that if we United Methodists are going to compromise by allowing some sort of local autonomy in which pastors can marry a same-sex couple if they want to but wouldn’t be forced to, then here’s the compromise: You are going to have to let me do something that you believe is immoral and I am going to have to let you do something that I believe is unjust.

To be blunt, you would have to let me marry same-sex couples, an act you believe to be morally wrong, and I would have to allow you to refuse to marry same-sex couples, an act I believe to be unequivocally unjust.

Obviously, this compromise would be a very big deal and should in no way be minimized or watered down to a simple either/or proposition.

So why would we do it? Why would one side compromise morality and the other justice? For what cause would we even consider making these concessions? The only reason we would decide to do so is if we believed that Christian unity is of higher value than either morality or justice.

Some people believe thus, and are working to keep the church united. Some people do not, and are making plans to leave. Obviously I fall into the first group, believing that unity is worth striving for, even if that means seeking a difficult compromise.

Can we be united as one body in the church if I am doing something you believe is immoral and I know that you believe it is and in fact you may even remind me that you think it is immoral every time we are together? Can we be united as one body in the church if you are doing something I believe is unjust and you know that I believe it is and in fact I may even remind you that I think it is unjust every time we are together?

These, my friend, are the million dollar questions with which we would wrestle. But here’s the kicker; we could only wrestle with them if we stay together. And I happen to believe that there is holy value in the wrestling itself, even if it is messy and difficult and doesn’t result in a nice, neat resolution. Indeed, the conversation matters.

So that’s basically what I would say in response to the comment quoted above. But, like I said, I have a rule against responding to anonymous comments.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Seeking Compromise Is Not Divisive

The Bishop of the Mississippi Conference has announced that two large United Methodist congregations are making plans to leave the denomination. There are likely others with similar plans in other places, but these two have been made public this week.

They are planning to leave because “there is a deep concern that any legislative or judicial solution to the denomination's current impasse on human sexuality will sow seeds of deeper division within our Church. They see this division as something that continues and will continue to damage the witness of The United Methodist Church of which they are currently connected,” according to Bishop James Swanson’s statement.

In my opinion, large churches planning to leave the denomination are actually sowing more seeds of division than potential compromise policies on marriage and ordination. That’s kind of the definition of division, isn’t it? Whereas seeking compromise is actually about NOT dividing?

Unless I’m completely wrong, the two congregations who are publicly planning to leave the United Methodist Church have gotten things exactly backwards here. Trying to find a compromise is not divisive, by definition. Saying that you want to leave the denomination is divisive, by definition.

I wish they would just come right out and say why they want to leave. If they don’t want gay people to be married, why not just come right out and say that? If they don’t want gay people to be ordained, why not make that statement out loud? (Though pastor friends in Mississippi tell me that these may not be the only issues at hand here. The situation is probably more complex than just that.)

But why all the hemming and hawing around what is really making them so upset? The time for hemming and hawing has gone. We need to be able to say exactly what needs to be said, with as little ambiguity as possible.

Furthermore, and in disagreement with the statement above, I believe that seeking compromise on marriage and ordination is actually a pretty GOOD witness for the United Methodist Church to be making right now. Having difficult, tense, holy, grace-filled conversations is exactly THE witness that the world needs in our present polarized climate. (As with our nation as a whole, I believe the Methodist church is polarized, not divided.)

In their official statement, one of the churches wrote, "The Orchard has no desire to be a part of these debates. We simply want to help people grow deep in the love of Jesus and branch out to others with that love." I do not see these two ideas as mutually exclusive. One can both love Jesus and have a debate. Being a part of a difficult conversation, and doing so with grace and love and respect, is a PERFECT way to "help people grow deep in the love of Jesus," it seems to me.

I lament that the conversation would be relatively less vibrant minus the voices who are threatening to leave.

As I have said before, my guess is that the Bishops’ “Commission on a Way Forward” will recommend a compromise position that allows individual pastors and congregations to decide questions of marriage and individual conferences to decide questions of ordination. Some people fear this outcome, because of the difficult conversations that will inevitably result.

And some people are so afraid of it, apparently, that they would rather just leave the denomination altogether.

"It is only when our love grows cold, that we can think of separating from our brethren. And this is certainly the case with any who willingly separate from their Christian brethren. The pretenses for separation may be innumerable, but want of love is always the real cause; otherwise they would still hold the unity of the Spirit in the bound of peace." – John Wesley, Sermon 75, On Schism

Friday, February 03, 2017

Governance as "Reality TV"

I have never liked “reality television.” No judgement against those who do, but I’ve just never gotten into it. And realizing that fact has helped me understand in part why I’m struggling so much with the way the Trump administration is running our country.

They are governing as if it is a “reality” tv show rather than a nation.

I heard the tail-end of an interview on the radio this morning that kind of turned on a light bulb in my mind. So when I got home I went and listened to the whole thing, which you can hear right here. It makes a lot of sense to me. Here are my reflections on Tom Forman’s insights.

First of all, “reality” tv is conflict based. The whole point is to set up conflict, and build the tension in the conflict to an extreme level, thereby drawing people in. Whether it is who is going to be kicked off the island or to whom is the bachelor going to hand the rose, we love the conflict.

Of course, we say that we don’t like conflict. “Why can’t we all just get along?” But we are lying to ourselves. We LOVE conflict. (It’s why we watch sports, too.) We are drawn to conflict like moths to flame. Whether it is to applaud or to cluck our tongues in disappointment is not the point; the point is, conflict grabs our attention and does not allow us to look away.

Secondly, “reality” tv is all about personalities, and personal relationships. “Reality” tv does not deal with complicated topics, nor consult experts in the field. It does not do well with nuance and subtlety. The intricacies of systematic thinking are never on display in “reality” tv shows. It is personality driven, and it pretty much stays right there at that level.

We know our “reality” tv stars’ names, and they are often a part of our daily conversations. And we know who is allying herself or himself with whom, who is stirring up conflict (see above), even who we like and do not like. We make quick judgements about people, all based on what a producer has decided to show us of them.

Thirdly, “reality” tv moves very quickly from one thing to another, and the more unexpected the better. “Reality” tv producers know that our attention spans are terribly short, and have obliged us in their format. These shows take us from one setting to the next in rapid fire succession, leaving no time to dwell in any one scene before transitioning to the next.

And if these transitions are abrupt and surprising, all the better. We love to be shocked. We have a penchant for the outrageous, the appalling. And again, we pretend we don’t, just like with conflict (see above), but it’s true. Everyone loves a good scandal; it gives us something about which to feel superior.

And finally, “reality” tv is a ratings-driven phenomenon. If we didn’t watch it, they wouldn’t make it. The entire point of all the conflict, the big personalities, and the fast-paced surprises, is to get people to watch, which will lead to higher ratings. It’s all about those numbers; counting the size of the audience is the only thing that matters.

Of course it must be noted that “reality” tv is at its core a distraction from real reality. Real reality is not a continuous state of conflict. Real reality deals with nuance and implications and interconnected systems that are complex and difficult to navigate. Real reality has the ability to dwell, to linger, to be deeply present in the moment.

Everything about “reality” tv is designed to distract us from thinking at this deeper level. And why? So that a few people can make a lot of money. That may be cynical, but if it quacks like a duck …

So I have found this framework helpful in ordering my thoughts about the Trump administration. Leaving aside some of the content of his decisions with which I strongly disagree, these first two weeks have been a running “reality” television show. And as I mentioned above, I have never liked “reality television.”

Because the big question begging to be asked is, “From what is all this distracting us?” And I’m really afraid of what that answer might be. I’m really afraid that a few people are going to make a whole lot of money as a result of this “reality” tv administration’s policy decisions, and those few people don’t really care all that much about the rest of us. While we are distracted by the noisy sparkly flashes, somebody somewhere is going to be benefitting financially. Now of course, I hope my fear is cynical, misguided, and ultimately wrong. But … you know, “quack quack.”

Fomenting conflict, highlighting personalities over expertise, rapid fire executive orders, and an ongoing obsession with ratings … this has been the first two weeks of President Trump. Perhaps it will eventually slow down, get deeper, become less combative. Perhaps not.

I just don’t see how the nation can keep this up for 3 years and fifty weeks more.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Inaugural Thoughts

I am ambivalent about the idea of boycotting Donald Trump’s inauguration.  On the one hand, I see the point of refusing to “legitimize” his presidency. I respect that perspective and certainly can understand where it comes from.

And on the other hand, I can also understand the argument that boycotting is the same kind of petulant behavior that has characterized Washington D.C. for the past several years, and a different tone needs to be set. By someone – anyone! And that could start with Mr. Trump’s opponents this year.

So I’m not going to judge anyone for attending, nor will I judge anyone for boycotting. You do you. All I can do is make up my own mind.

So I’m not boycotting. (Of course, I’m not attending, but I’ll be watching it.) And the reason I’m not boycotting is because I want to keep my eyes as wide open as possible. I am one of the “we the people” to whom this nation belongs, and I want to be a part of it as fully as I am able.

Like you, I have seen and heard the things Mr. Trump has been doing, both during the campaign and since election day. Like you, I have opinions about all those things. Like many of you, most of those opinions are not favorable.

See, I believe that Donald Trump himself has revealed exactly who he is. I am relying on nothing but his own words and actions to form my opinion of what kind of president he will be. And based on his own words and actions, his own record, his own long and well-documented public history, I cannot see how he will be able to handle the responsibilities of the presidency in an effective way. Frankly, I am afraid that it is going to be a complete disaster.

But with that said, I do not believe that is a reason for me to boycott the inauguration events. In fact, I see that as a reason for me to watch. I prefer to “stay woke” at this point, as the saying goes. And to me, that means not boycotting him, but rather the opposite – scrutinizing him.

The Missouri State University Choir is singing at the inauguration, and many have questioned their presence, indicating that it is an endorsement of Mr. Trump’s presidency. I do not agree. In fact, I think the song they are singing is a pretty profound protest against some of what Mr. Trump stands for.

It is called “Now We Belong,” written by Minnesota poet Michael Dennis Browne.

Here are the voices of every creature,
            Here are the calls of every heart;
Here is the place of strangers’ welcome,
            We who once walked in strangers’ shoes.
Once we were strangers,
            We were welcomed,
Now we belong and believe in this land.

Here are the rivers of many echoes,
            Here are the leaves of every tree;
Within us live the long horizons,
            Winds that stir the sacred stones.
Once we were strangers,
            We were welcomed,
Now we belong and believe in this land.

Keep faith, keep watch,
Take heart, take courage,
Guard mind, guard spirit,
Feed love, feed longing.

Here are the cities where we have gathered,
            Here are the barns where hope is stored;
We are the gleams of every being,
            Filled with the dreams that build the day.
Once we were strangers,
            We were welcomed,
Now we belong and believe in this land.

Keep faith, guard mind,
Take heart, guard spirit,
Take courage, keep watch,
Feed longing, feed love.

- © Michael Dennis Browne

If nothing else, I will watch the inauguration to hear these prophetic words sung in the presence of the most powerful people in the world, ensuring them that the American people will keep watch, we will guard our minds and our spirits, we will keep faith and take courage.

And most of all, we will love. We belong, we believe, we are not going anywhere. And we will love one another with the fiercest, most powerful love ever witnessed. A love that ensures eyes wide open, ears listening closely, and voices that will not be stilled, until peace and justice are the norm and not just the ideal.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Trump and the "Malevolent Spirit" of the Nation

Donald Trump himself isn’t the problem.

Please don’t jump to any conclusions about what I mean by that. Jumping to conclusions about what other people mean is actually one of the symptoms of the problem. So please refrain from doing so.

Donald Trump himself isn’t the problem. But Donald Trump sure enough unleashed it.

Kathleen Parker said it as well as anyone, which doesn’t surprise me, since they don’t give Pulitzer Prizes to just any schmuck. In her December 29, 2016 column, she said that “Donald Trump’s election has released a malevolent spirit upon the land.” I’ve been rolling that phrase around in my noodle all morning.

Now, Donald Trump has revealed enough about himself at this point that there can be very little doubt as to the content of his character. Me expressing my opinions about these revelations will do little to advance the conversation. Rather, the larger point I am trying to make is that, in and of himself, Donald Trump is not the problem. To say as much is to give him far too much credit.

This election “has released a malevolent spirit upon the land.” The more I think about it, the more sense that makes. Thank you, Kathleen Parker, for so deftly putting words around my thoughts!

This election has turned people against one another in a way that has rarely been seen. The hateful actions and public tirades that have been recorded and shared online speak for themselves. I’d actually like to mention a different manifestation of the malevolence that Donald Trump has released.

It is a malevolence among friends and within families. And I thought for a while about whether “malevolence” was too strong of a word, but decided to stick with it.  This malevolent spirit is a huge part of “the problem,” at least as I see it. Families avoid speaking, friends argue bitterly, social media explodes with vitriol and antagonism.

It breaks my heart to hear from friends who have been compelled to break off long-held relationships. I grieve when people share with me how they have made to feel devalued by people they love. I get angry when some of the people who voted for Trump cannot seem to honor the anger, pain, and fear of those who are expressing it in response to his election. I lament when unfair assumptions are made about people one has known for a long time, assumptions that frequently lead to poor communication, unhelpful arguments, and hurt feelings.

But even if, somehow or other, Donald Trump poofed out of existence this very moment, this malevolence would be present still. I believe it is out of his control. I don’t even know if he wants to control it, as long as he is the beneficiary. Malevolence has been unleashed, and no small effort will be required to confront it.

And make no mistake, my faith encourages ... no actually my faith REQUIRES me to do so. I am a follower of Jesus, whose work was centered on announcing the presence of the Kingdom of God, confronting evil in the world, healing and feeding, and offering an alternative way to live.

I believe that Jesus was born to embody the love of God in the world, and I believe that good news is intended for everyone. All the people. No exceptions or exclusions. Yes my Democratic friends, Jesus was born to demonstrate just how much God loves Donald Trump and Steve Bannon and all of everyone everywhere.Yes my Republican friends, Jesus was born to demonstrate how much God loves Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and all of everyone everywhere. Yes, even me. Yes, even us.

And so as disciples of Jesus, as Christians, as people who desire to live as God intends us to live, we have to confront the malevolent spirit permeating our world. We have name it, draw it up to the light, and annihilate it. And then we have to offer an alternative way of being, a replacement for the malevolence that will solidify its destruction once and for all.

That alternative way is called “love,” by the way. Love, and everything that comes along with it. Things like hope. And forgiveness. And justice, and peace, and grace, and compassion.

It may well be that we are a divided nation. But it isn’t “right” and “left” anymore. It is those who are feeding the malevolent spirit present in our nation and those who are working to defeat it. Donald Trump fed it throughout the campaign, and has continued to do so even after winning the electoral college. It remains to be seen if he will continue to feed the malevolent spirit that he released even after his inauguration. Frankly, I will not be surprised if he does.

As for me, I pledge to do all that I can to defeat it. As a follower of Jesus, I don’t see how I can do anything less.