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?

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

"Split the Baby" - Seriously?

In an article in the Springfield News-Leader today, Representative Steve Helms is quoted as saying, "I think we split the baby as best we could." Which is apparently his incredibly bizarre and theologically questionable way to say "compromised," I guess.

In the article, Representative Helms lays out some thoughts about tweaking the regulations around predatory lending practices in the state. Among the ideas are
            - Lowering the number of times a loan can be renewed from six to two,
            - Creating conditional extended payment plans,
            - Lowering the total amount of interest and fees that can be charged from 75% of the loan total to 35% of the loan total.
            - Lowering the licensing fee for a payday loan store from $500 to $300.

Helms is quoted as saying that more regulation that this would put lenders out of business, eliminating a much-needed resource for people who need a short-term cash loan.

Of course, Representative Helms is repeating industry talking points, rather than working for the common good. His bill (HB 2657) may seem on the surface to make meaningful changes, but the reality is that such incremental adjustments will have very little impact. As our legislature continues to be influenced by the predatory lending industry, the working poor in our state continue to suffer.

Notably, North Carolina has enacted very strict regulations on short-term lending, capping the interest rate at 36%, for example. Yes, several companies went out of business as a result, namely companies who were preying on the poor and basing their business models on loan rollovers, exorbitant fees and penalties, and triple digit APRs. I am not mourning their loss. And today it is still possible to get a small, short-term loan in North Carolina. The companies that chose to comply with the regulations are in business.

Representative Helms says he wants to "split the baby" on this issue. He means he wants to both make the corporations happy and also protect people from their predatory practices. He is attempting to cite scripture in making this analogy.

Solomon didn’t split the baby, though. Compassion, love, and justice are crying out to save the baby's life. We must cap the rate; lives are depending on it. May our legislature display the wisdom necessary to do what is right.

HB 2657 (Helms' bill) was read on March 1st, got its second reading on the 5th, and was assigned to committee on the 7th. A well-greased machine.

HB 1541 (which I wrote about yesterday) caps the interest rate at 36%. It was prefiled on December 7, read on January 3rd, got its second reading on January 4th, and HAS YET TO BE ASSIGNED TO COMMITTEE.

What's the hold up, I wonder? I suppose it's that HB 1541 doesn't "split the baby," but rather does everything it can to keep the baby alive, and safe from the deadly cycle of the debt trap on which predatory lenders base their profit margins.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Missouri HB 1541 - MOVE IT!!!

This morning I called the office of Missouri House Speaker Todd Richardson - (573)751-4039 - to ask him to please assign HB 1541 to committee. It really needs to happen THIS WEEK, before the Missouri Legislature adjourns for the season.

My call was a follow-up to the email ( I sent last week:

Mr. Speaker,

I am writing today to ask you to please assign HB 1541 to committee as soon as possible. 

As a pastor, I have seen how the exorbitant interest rates of "payday loan" and "title loan" companies can pull families into a cycle of poverty from which it is very difficult to escape. In addition, the companies are by and large out-of-state corporations, and the financial drain to our state is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, as Missouri families send their hard-earned money out of state to pay off these unjust loans.

HB 1541 sets a limit on these interest rates at 36%, which would align our state with the seventeen other states that cap "payday loan" interest rates at this level or lower.

This policy is good for people, good for families, and good for our state. Please send this bill to committee before the upcoming break. Thank you for your time.

Andy Bryan, Pastor
Campbell United Methodist Church
Springfield, Missouri

The injustice of predatory lending is rampant. The oppressive system traps people in poverty. In fact the business models on which such lending companies operates is based on forcing people to renew loans over and over again, or face the legal ramifications of defaulting.

Payday loan companies, title loan companies, used car lots that advertise "automatic credit approval," and on an on and on... Such companies are not just "meeting a need," as their supporters would have you think. It us usury, pure and simple. People of faith used to really, really care about usury. And yet somehow we've drifted away from our focus on that horrific injustice, probably from the fear of being "too political" or some such nonsense.

Missouri House Bill 1541, filed by Republican Representative Lynn Morris, has not yet been assigned to committee, which is the exclusive responsibility of Speaker Richardson. I invite and encourage you to call his office today and ask him to assign this bill to committee so it can proceed. 

HB 1541 makes sense, and brings Missouri in line with seventeen other states with interest rate cap laws on the books. If you have any questions about it, I'd be more than happy to talk with you. 

It's time to move the bill!