Thursday, June 14, 2018

"The Pick Up" - Thoughts on Removing Kids from Parents

I drove up to the house that New Year’s Day morning, not knowing what to expect. I had been given the address by the caseworker, and was told they would be waiting for me. It had all been arranged. But still, this was the first time I had done anything like this, and I don’t mind saying, I was scared.

We had gotten the call the day before: two boys, ages five and two, dad was unable to care for them any more because of his developmental disability. Could we take them?

Yes. We have room, we’ll be more than happy to take them.

There were no workers available to get them. Could we do the pick up?

Wait. “Do the pick up?” You mean go over and remove them from their dad’s home? Us? Sure, we had plenty of experience receiving kids into our home who had been removed, but no one had ever asked us to be the actual ones to go and get them.

Yes please, if you could. It would be very helpful.

So we said we would. We’re foster parents; it’s what we do. We take care of kids who need taken care of for a little while. This was a part of the deal. So we said we would.

I drove up to the house, pulled into the driveway, and turned off the engine. I saw a face at the front window, small, pale, eyes wide. With a flick, it vanished, and the curtain swayed shut.

I got out of the van and zipped up my coat against the cold before I walked to the porch. The door opened as I approached. A woman, about 30 years old, eyes red from crying, trying bravely to smile. “Hello,” she said.

“Hello. I’m Andy.”

“Come on in,” she replied.

There was a pile of boxes, suitcases, and backpacks just inside the door. “Here’s their stuff,” she said.

From the back of the house, I heard a child’s voice. “No!”

A man walked into the room, carrying a boy. He didn’t look at me. The boy was struggling in his arms, pushing against his dad’s chest, trying to get down. The man had him in that firm yet gentle grip that one only learns from plenty of experience with wiggly boys.

Another, smaller boy trailed behind.

“Let’s get your stuff, boys,” he said.

The woman started picking up bags, I grabbed a couple of suitcases, and we went outside. The man held on to the squirming boy, and followed. The little one was a shadow.

We put our load of luggage in the back, and then the woman said to the man, “Why don’t you go ahead and put the boys in the car?” This was a really good idea, and I opened the side doors for him. He began to buckle the boys into the car seats while we went back into the house to get the rest of the stuff.

When we got back out to the van, he had calmed the bigger boy down enough to buckle him in, and he was working on the little one, who was quite a bit easier to manage. When he had him secured, he walked back around to the other side of the van.

I watched as he put his hand gently on the boy’s small head, bent over close, and rested his forehead against his son’s. I did not hear what he said; his voice was low and it wasn’t my place to invade that moment. When he stood up, his son again offered a weak, confused, “No!” and began a litany, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” that was spoken slowly, through the tears that were streaming down his face.

When he heard his big brother start up, the two year old joined him, but with less intensity, more like he was sad that his brother was sad than the bitter grief of being separated from his home. He knew, yet he didn’t know.

The man closed the van door and walked quickly back into the house, head down, never once meeting my eyes.

I looked at the woman, who had fresh tears overflowing her eyes. I tried to smile, and said, “I promise you we will take good care of them.” I closed the two year old’s door.

She just nodded at me, unable to say anything.

So I got into the van, started the engine, and drove home.

They cried the entire trip.

Granted, just because I have physically removed children from their parent does not make me an expert on immigration policy. But in light of our work as foster parents, the stories coming from our nation’s southern border are particularly disturbing.

Families seeking refuge in our country are, by many accounts, being forcibly separated from one another and the children are being placed in the care of the state. A high-ranking member of the current administration has referred to this policy as “a tough deterrent.” Another said that if parents don’t want their children taken away, they shouldn’t bring them along.

I find that the arguments in favor of the policy are not even slightly compelling, and in fact are abhorrent to me. To argue that a parent has violated a law and therefore anything that happens to them or to their family is justified is not only a profound oversimplification of the situation, it is flat-out evil. Official U.S. immigration policy now feels like the kind of thing the “bad guy” would do in a movie, and not a very good movie at that.

And yet …  how can I think this when I myself have been the “bad guy?” I am a part of a system that removes children from their homes when it is deemed necessary. In fact, I have been the one doing the actual separating! Can I with clean conscience say that what’s happening is wrong unless it’s happening within the system I’m a part of? What is the distinction?

Whatever is happening at the policy level, real people have been given the task of taking real kids from real parents. Whatever is said at a press conference in front of an audience, a person goes up to another person and takes their child away from them. Whatever may be true at the “macro” level in terms of law or economics or politics, someone has to “do the pick up.”

And it is awful. It hurts. Trust me, I know.

For me, the most important questions to ask have to do with the children. Are they safe? Do they have food, clothing, and shelter? Are they being cared for? Is someone there with them, telling them not to be afraid? Do they know that they matter to someone? Do they realize they are somebody who is worth something?

And is everything being done, with as much urgency as possible, to get them back home again?

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Will You Please Pray With Me?

I say those words - "Will you please pray with me?" - a lot. It is part of the pastor gig. This time, I'm asking you to pray with me in some very particular ways, and for a very important reason.

The reason is the future of the church, our continued faithfulness to our mission, the health and vitality of the body of Christ in the world. Specifically, the future of the United Methodist Church as we work through our policy differences about marriage and ordination of people who are gay.

Our bishops are inviting us to do three things, beginning on June 3 this year -

1) Engage in a weekly Wesleyan 24-hour fast from Thursday after dinner to Friday mid-afternoon.  Those who have health situations causing food fasts to be unadvisable might consider fasting from social media, emails or another daily activity.
2) Pause and pray for our church’s mission and way forward daily for four minutes from 2:23 through 2:26 am or pm in their own time zone OR at another time.  This is because the Special Session of General Conference will be held February 23 through February 26, 2019.
3) Pray using a weekly prayer calendar that will be posted on the website from June 2, 2018 through the end of February 2019. The calendar will list a unique cluster of names each week. The names will balance USA bishops and delegates with Central Conference bishops and delegates. It will also include General Secretaries, Commission on a Way Forward members, the Commission of the General Conference and the staff of the General Conference.

So I am going to attempt the 24-hour fast each week, although when I've tried fasting in the past it has not been as meaningful to me as I know it is for others. Nevertheless, I am going to give it another go.

And I have my alarm already set for 2:23 every afternoon, and when it goes off I will pause and pray on the spot. If you are with me at 2:23 and I seem to kind of "zone out" for a while, you'll know why.

And I'll make a point to visit each day to pray by name for those who are listed there.

I am hopeful and excited to tap into the power of so many people joining in prayer together. The power of God's Holy Spirit is at work in the world, and all I want to do is access it, to touch it, so that I can cooperate with what God is up to. I honestly do not know how the General Conference conversations are going to to, much less how it will turn out. Nobody does. And yet, I am hopeful.

Because see I believe in resurrection, and so I am not afraid. There is a force beyond our understanding, a "grace too powerful to name," a life that is abundant and eternal and transcendent. I am making a choice to rejoice, and embrace the grace  and peace and truth and justice and love that is made known to me in my Lord and Savior and Teacher and Friend, Christ Jesus of Nazareth.

So, will you please pray with me?

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Springfield Swastika Prank

The Springfield police have determined that the swastika spray-painted on the door of an African-American woman’s house was a “prank.” This “prank” also included eggs thrown at the woman’s house and a smashed car windshield, by the way, and similar vandalism at another home on the same street.

Some “prank,” huh?

Okay, so let’s go with that. Let’s assume that it was supposed to be a prank, that the people responsible didn’t mean anything by it, it was a joke, it wasn’t a blatantly racist hate crime. Let’s leave aside that notion for a minute and ask this question:

Does that make it better, or worse?

Some will say, “It was a prank, so it’s all good. No harm done. Moving on."

But I do not share this perspective. In fact, if spray painting a swastika on someone’s door is considered a “prank,” that kind of makes it worse. It means the racism is systematically ingrained, insidious and hidden. And when racism is hidden like that, it’s harder to resist.

Somewhere along the way, the people who vandalized the houses were taught that it is okay to “prank” an acquaintance with a symbol of racist genocide. Somehow in our system, the police are permitted to make a determination that an overt act of racial hatred is a harmless prank. Sometime in our history, we arrived at a point where spray-painted swastikas are no big deal.

I’m sure there are a variety of answers to the where and how and when we got here questions, but there can only be one response: resistance. That is, if we are to take our baptism promises seriously. In baptism, United Methodists promise “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves,” and that includes forms that are systemic, hidden and ingrained in our culture.

You can hide racism in an astonishing number of ways, it turns out. And there it lurks, justified and excused, festering until an opportunity to erupt presents itself. And it always does.

Resistance to systemic racism means that, no matter what the intentions of the people in question, we are called to condemn their hateful act. By the technicalities of the law it may not be a “hate crime” as our system defines a “hate crime,” but that makes it no less reprehensible. It is abhorrent, evil, and antithetical to the very identity of God.

My friend Susan Schmalzbauer put it so well when she said, “A swastika is not a whoopee cushion.” No matter what the Springfield Police report says, this was no prank.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

A Truthful Frame

The United Methodist Church is at a significant crossroads.

Recap: Our bishops are meeting this week to receive the report of the “Commission on a Way Forward.” That report will present a plan for the denomination regarding marriage of same-sex couples and ordination of people who are gay. The bishops will then present something (it may be that plan or it may be something altogether different) to the special session of the General Conference in February of 2019, to be held in St. Louis, Missouri. The General Conference will then vote on what the bishops present, which then becomes the official policy of the UMC. And after that … well, who really knows, tbh?

One thing I am hoping is that the conversation is being framed truthfully. One of the reasons our denomination has felt “stuck” around these questions for so long is that many of the people having the conversation are not working within a truthful framework. Hence, we talk around and around each other, and no progress is made. Let me elucidate.

Historically this conversation has been framed as one of polar opposition, with no room for a middle way. Specifically, one was either obedient to God or disobedient to God. One was either faithful to the Bible or had rejected the Bible. And when the conversation is framed that way, it is unproductive, not to mention dishonest.

See, when one group frames the conversation and puts themselves in the categories of “obedient” and “faithful,” placing the other group in the categories of “disobedient” and “unfaithful,” it is obvious that the conversation is going pretty much nowhere. Because of course nobody in the church wants to be labelled “disobedient” and “unfaithful,” especially in dialogue with others in the church.

However, this framework is not truthful; it does not reflect reality. It’s just false.

In the church, those who favor marriage equality as well as those who favor traditional marriage are doing so from an honest and heartfelt attempt to be obedient to God and faithful to the Bible. We come out in very different places, yes. But those differences are to be expected, arising as they do from very different life experiences in very different settings.

Look, no matter what your personal interpretations may be, you are making interpretations. In the dishonest framing of the conversation there exists an unwillingness to admit even that an interpretation is being made. One often hears, “No, this is not an interpretation. This is what the Bible actually says!” Such absolute certainty is not now nor has it ever been compatible with Christian teaching. We all make interpretations, as Christians everywhere always have.

If (and it’s a big “if”) we can get past the untruthful framing of the conversation and actually be able to say that someone who sees things differently than us is not being “disobedient” and “unfaithful,” we may be able to figure something out here. We may be able to actually craft an official denominational position that allows for contextual ministry to advance the mission of the church in healthy and hopeful ways.

Those who are clinging to the “you just can’t” position and those who are clinging to the “you just have to” position need to come to the middle on this one, where the rest of us are, where real life happens, where the mission of the church comes to life. We need to end up with a “you can but you don’t have to” position as a denomination if we want to stay focused on the mission, and actually start addressing some of the more pressing challenges that we as a church face in the 21st century and beyond.

Finally I need to say this – I am not na├»ve. I understand that there will be people who will still frame the conversation with the false dichotomy I’ve described. I guarantee there will be General Conference delegates who stand up on the floor in St. Louis next February and say things like, “I’m being faithful to the Bible and obedient to God here – and you are not!”

But maybe just maybe there will be more of us who are willing to stand up and say something different, to say something from a different framework. As a delegate, if given the opportunity, I will do my best to do so. That’s one of the ways I am trying to be obedient to God and faithful to the Bible, actually.

The conversation matters, and that includes how the conversation is framed to begin with. May we frame our conversations truthfully, graciously, respectfully, and most importantly, may we frame them with love.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Blue Is Just a Color

Blue Is Just a Color - by David Cornelison

They don't deserve this aching numbness, limping through this world
With heartache all around them that kills their very soul,
And hands that should bring healing sometimes bring them pain,
And words that should bring comfort just beat them down again.

Blue is just a color if our hands stay by our sides,
If our words don't lead to actions, if we just leave them to die,
If the teachings of our master, of the one whom we call king,
Just lie in dust when uttered and don't really mean a thing.

And a child looks up to heaven and cries out to you, Lord,
But instead of love the bombs fall down and announce the start of war,
And we here in our castles never see the ways that we,
From actions tied to greed and hate, fill the land with misery.

Blue is just a color if our deeds don't match our words,
If the things of life that call to us can make us take the sword,
If the teaching of our master, from his words that spoke of peace,
Are somehow twisted into words that praise atrocities.

And looking at the TV to see the sights that call us all
To watch each other and laugh at those who fall.
And holding up for mocking all the ones who don't fit in,
We like to know that we could throw the rock that doesn't sin.

And blue is just a color if we only stand and stare,
If we say that we can't get involved, it's too hard, we just don't dare,
If the teachings of our master, of the one who comforts all
Are parsed through until all of us have some we get to gall.

How can those who know such anguish find a way to get to you,
Praying up to heaven when they don't know what to do?
But you still have a message of hope amidst the gloom
And tell them all these words of love that come to them from you.

"Child, I know your sadness; I felt it once before -
When those I loved betrayed me and sold me for their score.
The spat on me, they knocked me down, they nailed me to a tree,
And then I paid a heavy price and called it Calvary."

Love should be the color we mean when we say "blue;"
The words we choose and use so well that help us be like you,
And the teachings of our master, of the one whom we call Lord,
Can shape our lives and help us all be his hands while in the world.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Easter Momentum

Momentum. Mass times velocity. A measure of how much motion something has. The property that makes it more difficult to stop a moving object.

Basketball commentators talk about how momentum can have such an enormous impact on a game. When one team has momentum every shot they put up seems to go in, and anything the other team tries to do to stop them seems ineffective.

Churches have momentum, as well. A church in motion is a wonderful thing to be a part of, and Easter is certainly a season that can provide that momentum. When the energy of the Spirit is flowing freely within, among, and through the people of the church, it’s hard to stop it!
Easter Sunday launches us into a season that lasts fifty days, taking us right up to Pentecost Sunday. Our resurrection celebration is not a culmination, it is a transition. It moves us from one season (Lent) into another (Easter). And with that launch into the Easter Season, we feel the momentum of new life.

On Easter Sunday, I challenged everyone to think about how we “greet every moment.” In the resurrection, we intentionally shift our perspective so that every moment is greeted with joy, hopefulness, and grace. The way that we “greet” every day, every task, and every conversation has an undeniable impact on the outcome of each.

That's not to be "Pollyannish" about life. There's no denying that there are difficult days, there is pain and anger, there is grief and sorrow, there is fear and anxiety. I don't mean that we can just eliminate all of that with a more positive outlook on life. That's naive.

I'm simply pointing out that one of the qualities of momentum is the kind of "self-fulfilling" aspect of it. Back to the basketball metaphor - when one player is "feeling it," her or his confidence is contagious; the entire team starts to feel it as well, and shots start falling for everyone. Why does that happen? The players certainly don't get magically more skilled. Rather, they start "greeting" their own opportunities to score with the same level of confidence as their teammate has. And the entire team starts feeling the momentum.

I think churches can do the same thing. One person (or one group of people) can be "feeling it" in a church, and that energy and passion spreads quickly to others, until soon the entire congregation is renewed. It can all start by changing how we are "greeting" every moment. And guess what? YOU could be that person!

In so doing, you would be feeding the momentum of Easter: the “mass” of our gifts and graces times the “velocity” of the Holy Spirit all around us. Easter is a launching pad for churches, and it starts with the greeting.

So let’s go, church! Keep up the momentum! Christ is alive, and so are we!

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Your Own Personal Jesus?

The theology behind almost every one of our ecclesial disputes is Christological. Simply put, church conflicts cannot be resolved when we make Jesus into an abstract idea, rather than a living, breathing, incarnate reality.

It is my belief that almost every disagreement within the church arises because each of us has created a particular Jesus, one who sees the world much like we do, and in doing so our “own personal Jesus” has become an idea, rather than the embodied presence of God. We love our idea of Jesus, especially because that idea always corresponds to our own way of thinking in the first place.

Why is this a problem? Well, here are a few thoughts:

There is no room for an abstract idea of Jesus to challenge your thinking. The real flesh and blood Jesus challenges human ideas all the time.

There is no way for an abstract idea of Jesus to empathize with suffering. The real flesh and blood Jesus suffers alongside people, meeting pain head-on.

It is not possible for an abstract idea of Jesus to relate to diverse human experiences. The real flesh and blood Jesus can talk with fishermen, tax collectors, lepers, disciples, prostitutes, centurions, children, grown-ups, the rich, the poor, the Jews, the Samaritans … and on and on.

In other words, when we reduce Jesus to an abstract idea, we lose the essence of who he is. When we impoverish our Christology to the point of abstraction, we make Jesus into no more than a weapon to wield against those with whom we disagree. And that’s just not okay.

The dispute du jour in the United Methodist Church is whether or not same-sex couples should be allowed to be married and whether or not gay people should be allowed to be ordained. (Yes, for you non-UMC people, we are still debating these questions - *sigh* - What can I say? Navel-gazing amuses us.)

The denomination is polarized over the questions, with one pole saying “You just can’t” and one pole saying “You have to,” and I can’t help but think that the theological gap between their positions is and impoverished Christology. Each has created a version of Jesus that fits their own viewpoint, and appeals to that abstract idea of Jesus in their discussions on the issues.

So each pole cites Scripture, each pole emphasizes the mission of the church, each pole laments becoming a “dead sect” instead of a vital, vibrant church. People from each pole, in other words, have created faith-based frameworks that use very similar language from which to make their case. Each pole has created a Jesus who sees things like they do, and appeal to him as their source of authority.

And now each pole is unable to vary from their positions, lest they be considered unfaithful. There is no compromise for those on the poles, because to do so would be to admit that they might be wrong, which would mean that the Jesus they created might be wrong, which of course we could never say – Jesus can’t be “wrong,” can he?

In the meantime, there are a lot of people in the center of the dispute du jour, who would say “You can but you don’t have to” about marriage and ordination of people who are gay.

In this large “center” of the church there are people who are more ready for the real live Jesus to challenge their perspective and to change their minds. There are people who have experienced how the real live Jesus suffers alongside people instead of callously dismissing them. There are people who are open to how the real live Jesus might relate to people differently in different situations, even situations that are very different from their own.

I honestly do not know what exactly is going to happen over the next year or so in the United Methodist Church. Will the majority of us in the “You can but you don’t have to” center of the denomination be able to fashion a workable compromise? If we do, will the poles then split off and become their own thing? And then if they do that, will the hard work of the compromise prove to be a waste of resources and energy, if they were just going to split off anyway? There is so much speculation and guessing going on in the denomination right now, but the truth is that nobody knows anything for sure.

What I do know for sure is that Jesus is Jesus, and the heart of this dispute (and many others) is our inability or our unwillingness to allow him to be so. Rather, we insist on creating a personal Lord and Savior who sees the world exactly like we do, and then we use that version of Jesus to attack one another.

We’re coming up to Palm Sunday, when we remember how a whole crowd of people created their own personal Jesus, a Jesus who was going to conquer the Romans and drive them out of Israel, a Jesus who saw the world very much as they did. As they marched into Jerusalem with this abstract idea of Jesus, they shouted his praises and waved victorious branches in the air.

But then, Jesus was Jesus. Jesus refused to be an abstract idea. Jesus had no intention of conforming to human expectations. And even though he told them several times that it was going to happen, his followers were nevertheless stunned when he was killed.

This season, what might happen if all of us followers of Jesus who think we know him so well would empty out our Jesus bottles, so to speak, and allow him to do what he does? What might happen if we surrendered our preconceived notions of Jesus, started with a clean slate, and just let Jesus be Jesus?