Saturday, November 18, 2017

"Look Down" - Our Fundamental Connectedness

“Look down, look down, don’t look them in the eye.
Look down, look down, you’re here until you die.”

One of the themes of the musical Les Miserables is this refrain – “Look down.” These are in fact the first words sung, by the prisoners on the chain gang. They are words of caution spoken among them, since to make eye contact with the guards would invite a harsh response. And metaphorically, to “look up” and express any hope for the future was dangerous. Hence:

“I know she’ll wait; I know that she’ll be true.
Look down, look down, they’ve all forgotten you.”

Later, the refrain is sung by the people of Paris.

“Look down and see the beggars at your feet.
Look down and show some mercy if you can.
Look down and see the sweepings of the street.
Look down, look down, upon your fellow man.”

This time around, the words “look down” are spoken by the poorest in the streets as a plea to the people of the upper class, asking them to “look down” with mercy and pity. To “look down” on another person metaphorically is to think they are “less than,” to consider oneself superior to them. And if superior, then disconnected.

Herein lies the ethical problem of arrogance. When one person or group of people think they are inherently superior to another, they are assuming a disconnect that does not in fact exist. The person or group that has self-identified as superior will likely not see it as such, but in fact the separation they assume is mythical.

Because of course, we are not in the slightest bit disconnected from one another. In fact, we are more intimately woven together than we realize. The Bible expresses this truth in many ways, including in the creation story itself. Human beings are connected to one another and to the rest of creation from the very beginning, even receiving divine instruction to watch over the other living creatures in the same manner and with the same care as the Creator would.

In the Christian Scriptures this profoundly interconnected unity is one of the most significant themes. The people are described as individual parts of one body. When one suffers, all suffer. When one rejoices, all rejoice. “You are one in Christ” is not a word of instruction; it is a description of reality. Over and over again, the Christian religion affirms our fundamental connectedness to one another, and to the world around us.

In stark contrast, so much of what we experience in the world encourages us to separate from one another. Backyard decks with six-foot privacy fences have replaced front porches. Fear and suspicion are our initial reactions to strangers, rather than friendly hospitality. Public interactions are defined by video screens and earbuds rather than eye contact, handshakes, and real-time conversations. “Look down” takes on a whole new meaning for people messing around on their phones instead of interacting with the world around them.

Beyond that, the ones we do connect with tend to be very, very similar to our selves, and thus very, very familiar. We live inside of bubbles we have created for ourselves. We only watch news channels we “agree” with. We know which people we can talk with and which we can’t, and know which topics to avoid altogether. We rarely read anything that is dramatically different from our own perspective on life.

We even tend to drive by the same routes to the same places over and over again!

To live isolated lives is incompatible with Christian teaching. Jesus is the ultimate barrier buster (as I've mentioned before) and those of us who follow him are supposed to be the same. Rather than exist in our familiar bubbles, fearful of and reticent to encounter anything outside of our own comfortable echo chambers, Jesus asks his followers to lovingly eliminate the barriers we so expertly place among ourselves.

Simply put, one cannot follow Jesus by “looking down.” We need to look up, look out, make eye contact, be aware of one another, truly see each other. And who knows, maybe we’ll see something new, maybe we’ll learn something, and maybe we’ll make a new friend or two in the process!

If the religion you practice allows you to “look down” on another, I don’t know what it is but it is not Christianity. If the teacher you follow is making you feel superior to another person or another group of people, I don’t know who it is but it is clearly not Jesus. If the group of people you belong to is comprised only of people who are exactly like you in every way, I don’t know what it is but it is definitely not the church.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

"The child's a Keller!" - Thoughts on Portraying Captain Keller in 'The Miracle Worker'

“Nonsense! The child is a Keller! She has the constitution of a goat!”

Thus Captain Arthur Keller introduces himself in the stage production of “The Miracle Worker,” the story of Helen Keller’s introduction to the teacher who illuminated her darkness, Anne Sullivan. I have the honor of portraying the Captain in Springfield Little Theatre’s current production.

This initial line reveals so much about Keller’s character, in just a few short words. In the scene, he has just been told by the family doctor that the doctor thought his daughter Helen may not live through the illness that ultimately took her sight and her hearing.

This is impossible for the Captain to believe. And why? Because “the child is a Keller!” It means something to be a Keller. It means strength. It means courage. It means pride. Being a Keller means overcoming obstacles, refusing to accept defeat, never backing down. Over and over again in the Captain’s relationships, this is evident.

Keller’s wife Kate carries a gentle, compassionate demeanor on a framework as hard as Alabama iron. She is his second wife, and many years younger than he. She balances his gruff bluster with calm composure, and yet is more than a match for his inner strength. She knows exactly how to utilize subtle humor, a tender touch, or a clever expression to defuse his fury at just the right moment. He values her as his wife because she exhibits a very “Keller-esque” strength of character.

The Captain has a son from his first marriage, whose name is James. James is a Keller through and through. He shares his father’s grief, even years after his mother died. Yet her death is a topic they avoid discussing, and as a result their relationship exhibits all the disappointment and pain that have built up over the years. However, Jimmie clearly has the Keller courage, which allows him to eventually stand up to his father and claim his own identity. The play ends before we witness the full resolution of their relationship, but the seeds are planted.

When the “inexperienced, half-blind, Yankee schoolgirl” Anne Sullivan enters his world, Captain Keller is initially the picture of southern hospitality, albeit overtly misogynistic. Anne’s unyielding determination quickly begins to infuriate him, as she refuses to acquiesce to his wishes. However it is precisely this stubbornness that eventually impresses the Captain deeply. They stand toe-to-toe on multiple occasions, and she matches his intensity every time. He sees in her a person who will not surrender, despite the odds, and he cannot help but come to respect her for that.

And then there’s Helen. She is in many ways the most “Keller” of all the Kellers. There is a moment just after she meets Anne Sullivan – Helen is carrying Anne’s suitcase and Anne reaches out to take it for herself. Helen quickly and aggressively slaps Anne’s hand away, thereby insisting that she can carry it on her own. This delights Captain Keller! “That’s my girl,” he thinks as he chuckles to himself. The Captain loves Helen dearly, but struggles to show it. It comes out in the little quiet ways that he spoils her, allowing her to have “the little things that make her happy.” There is always a special relationship between a father and a daughter, and this is true of the Captain’s relationship with Helen as well. He wants nothing more than to connect with her, to share something with her. And yet he is “as sensible to this affliction as anyone,” and has become begrudgingly resigned to the idea that there will always be a separation there, the thought of which is an unending source of anger and frustration for him.

When it comes to the Captain’s relationship with Helen, there is one line in the script that I really do not like. Speaking “to” Helen, I say, “You do not even know that I’m your father.” I understand the playwright’s point here, but I do not agree with the idea behind the line. I actually think there is a deep, unspoken connection between Helen and her father. They are very, very similar, and he admires her very, very much. He may not be equipped to express it well, but nevertheless it is there.

There is, on the flip side, a line the Captain speaks that I really, really love. “We don’t just keep our children safe – they keep us safe.” There is such a profound truth expressed here, one I have pondered deeply as I have worked on this show. A child keeps a parent safe by grounding them, by keeping them focused on what is truly important, by pulling them out of themselves and into the life of another person. A child gives a parent a level of accountability and trust that is hard to get anywhere else. And therefore, when there is a separation between child and parent, whatever that separation might be, it hurts deeply. It is unbearable.

As the Keller family interacts on stage these next two weekends, I hope that audience members will see what it means to be “a Keller.” As Anne Sullivan enters this family system and completely disrupts the entire order, I hope our audience is right there with us, feeling the disruption, the conflict, the anxiety, and ultimately the resolution of that breakthrough moment.

I also hope that we can tell this amazing story of strength and courage as well as we possibly can. It is a unique kind of challenge to tell a true story on stage, and a familiar one besides. Most of our audience will already know this story. I have enjoyed portraying the Captain for that very reason; it has given me a new perspective on and appreciation for the remarkable life of a true American hero, Helen Keller.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Designated Hitter Rule

“The designated hitter rule gives me hope for the future of the United Methodist Church.” - Megan Keller

I mean, this statement is brilliant, right? Come on! In one pithy phrase, Megan has included baseball, ecclesiology, and current events, mixed with a bit of social commentary and an edge of controversy. This is the finest single sentence I have read in a long, long time. Maybe ever!

Here’s what you need to know to appreciate the brilliance of this sentence:

First of all, you need to know that Major League Baseball has two subdivisions, the National League and the American League, and they play by different rules. Namely, the National League allows the disgusting aberration of pitchers batting ... oh er, I mean … the National League game is “more pure” because all the players bat. Whereas the American League allows for teams to utilize a “designated hitter,” whose one job is basically to hit glorious, majestic home runs that make people cheer and make the game more enjoyable for everyone … hm, eep, I mean … the American League has a player whose only role is to hit, and who is “designated” to do so on behalf of the pitcher who uses the time to rest in the dugout.

I am being facetious to make my larger point, obviously. I find it rather amusing, though there are some who take the matter quite seriously. My larger point is that teams in the National League and in the American League are a part of Major League Baseball, despite the fact that they play baseball by different rules.

The second thing you need to know to appreciate the genius of Megan’s sentence is that the United Methodist Church is currently in a bit of a tizzy over allowing gay people to get married and ordained, or not. There’s a Commission working now on a proposal they will then bring to a General Conference meeting in February of 2019, at which point some decision will be made, at which point United Methodists around the world will have to decide what to do next.

Will we come up with some variation on the “designated hitter rule” to apply to the United Methodist Church? Some way to be a part of the same league, even if we may play by slightly different rules? A way for some pastors to marry any and all couples, while some would marry only opposite-gender couples, as they chose? A way for some bishops to ordain people without considering sexual orientation, while others would?

I am a “marriage equality” pastor. I have a good friend and colleague down the street who is a “traditional marriage” pastor. We are both United Methodist pastors doing all we can to be faithful to the call of Jesus Christ for ourselves personally and for the churches and the communities we serve. I have the utmost respect for his ministry, and I know that the feeling is mutual.

Can we not come up with some way for us to both be United Methodists? I’d like to be allowed by my denomination to officiate at any wedding ceremony I deem appropriate. I’d like for my friend down the way to be afforded the same opportunity.

People on the extreme left won’t like it because, “Ew, pitchers batting!” People on the extreme right won’t like it because, “Purity of the game!” But I’m pretty sure most of us in the big, diverse middle can figure it out. Most of us can be okay with individual pastors and individual conferences doing ministry in particular ways that suit particular social contexts. I have actually had an email exchange with the pastor friend in question, posing that very idea. We are on the same page.

I don’t know exactly what it would look like. It would probably get confusing every so often. Yes, it would require compromise, which is hard for everyone. But like Megan said, there's a spark of hope here, isn't there?

They figured out how to do it in MLB; surely we can figure it out in the UMC.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Miriam's Revenge - October 8, 2017 Sermon

I love the story of Miriam! Miriam, Moses’s big sister, given the most important babysitting gig of all time, sees her baby brother picked up out of his basket by no less than the princess of Egypt. What does she do?
She is at a definite disadvantage, remember. Her people, the Hebrew people, are slaves in Egypt. They are powerless and subject to the whims of the Pharaoh’s oppressive decrees. The one in force was that every newly born Hebrew boy was to be thrown immediately into the Nile River and drowned.
And there was her brother, floating in his basket on the turbulent river, settled in among the reeds, in open defiance of Pharaoh himself. His very life was a blatant act of protest against an unjust government policy.
And the one who sees him and picks him up, of ALL people it might be, was the daughter of the man who thought of, wrote, and is ultimately responsible for enforcing the decree.
So what does Miriam do?
She redefines the conversation. She reframes the parameters of power.
She. Takes. Charge.
She could have said, “Hey! You can’t do that!”
She could have said, “Hey! That’s my brother!”
Who knows what the results would have been? If that would have changed the outcome at all, or perhaps made matters even worse? People in power tend to dig in their heels when they are challenged directly, even if the challenge makes complete sense. A direct challenge to the princess, in public no less, would not have gone over well. The princess, in her attempt to save face and affirm her control of the situation, would very likely have dismissed Miriam for the powerless, oppressed, enslaved little Hebrew girl that she was.
But lo and behold, the princess was not the one with the power here. True power resides in the ability to frame the conversation in the first place. True power is not winning or losing an argument, it is defining the terms of the argument before it even starts.
Which is exactly what Miriam does.
“How can I turn this situation around so that my baby brother is not only safe, but maybe even gets to come home with me again?” she thought. And inspiration struck. A brilliant idea emerged in her clever mind, and idea that was just crazy enough to work.
But, having the idea is one thing. Implementing it is another. To do so would require a great deal of courage. She would have to take an enormous personal risk in order to pull this off. She would be risking her safety and the safety of her family as well.
Digging deep, she walked up to the princess, who was looking into Moses’s basket and talking with her servants about him. As Miriam approached, she heard the princess say, “He must be one of the Hebrew babies, I suppose.”
This was Miriam’s opening. Looking up boldly into the eyes of the princess, she made an offer. “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to be a nurse for him?” she asked.
Not a challenge, then. Not a confrontation. In one clever question, Miriam redefined the conversation altogether. They were not speaking about what the princess could or could not do; they were not speaking about the particular identity of the as yet unnamed baby; they were not participating in debate and dialogue about the issues of the day.
Miriam deftly and courageously took the princess’s power away from her and used it against her. “You are in charge here,” Miriam’s subtext said. “And I, your humble servant, want to make your life easier by finding a suitable caretaker for your new baby.”
The princess was completely duped by the plan, and agreed … hook, line, and sinker.
Miriam ran home as fast as she was able, grabbed her mother, and returned to the princess.
And then, making the story even more remarkable, the princess not only gives baby Moses back to his mother, thereby allowing him to stay alive, but she actually offered to pay for the child’s care.
So … Moses lives. Moses’s mother gets to raise him. AND she gets paid for it as well.
All because of one clever, courageous girl’s ability to completely redefine the conversation, to reframe the parameters of power, and empowered by God, take charge.

Once again we gather together on a Sunday morning following a mass shooting in our nation. This pattern has become familiar, and that familiarity is unsettling. We ought never to become familiar with violence of the type unleashed in Las Vegas, Nevada last Sunday evening. And yet, here we are again.
And as it happens, this Sunday is “Children’s Sunday” here at Campbell, an annual tradition by which we celebrate the youngest members of our congregation, their work, their faithfulness, and their immeasurable contributions to this congregation’s mission and ministry.
Obviously, this date was chosen for “Children’s Sunday” many weeks ago. I know that there are people here today who would rather we simply talk about how awesome our kids are and how bright the future is and how hopeful we ought to be. I know there are people here today who want to hear that message, because I do. I would rather not have to think about the terror of last Sunday evening in Las Vegas, and the shock, grief, and heartache that it caused.
But not to address it would not be faithful. Some preachers will tell you that God has “laid it on my heart” to say such and so. I have no idea what that actually means, but I do have a sense that I need to say something today. Something important and significant. And if that means that God “laid it on my heart” then I guess that’s that.
What I feel like I need to say today is not so much about the event of last Sunday, as about the days that have followed it. It’s about our “conversation.” The social environment in which we live. Our community. Our nation.
It is simply this: We need to pay attention to who is defining the conversation.
The one who defines the conversation itself is the one with the power. It’s not about who “wins” or “loses” the argument, it’s about who sets the terms of the argument in the first place.

The one who defines the conversation is the one who defines the parameters of power. And that one is rarely a public figure, by the way. Rarely a politician or an athlete or an actor or a TV preacher. People who define the terms of the conversation stay out of sight, under the surface, in the shadows. And they like it there.

I’d like to be very blunt, very honest about something. I suppose I’ll get emails this week about “being too political.” That’s fine - abryan@campbellumc.org - go ahead and send them. I have prayed about this, thought about it, wrestled with it, and here I am. “Too political” or not, you all know me and I’m happy to have a cup of coffee with you this week and talk about it face to face. So here it is.

We are not a “divided” nation. We are a “polarized” nation. It does not seem to me that we are divided, meaning that half of us think one thing and half of us another. It seems to me that we are polarized, meaning that there are relatively small minorities on both “ends” of the spectrum and a large majority in the center. I find this to be true in many issues, and one of those is when it comes to guns.
There is an extreme pole that wants to repeal the second amendment. That is true. Those people exist. And there is an extreme pole that wants any and all guns to be accessible to any and all people. That is also true.
Here’s the thing, if you were to add up the “no guns for no people” group and the “all guns for all people” group, they would be a minority. A significant minority. The vast majority of us are reasonable and rational people that can actually talk about things with one another. Whether it is me, who doesn’t like guns and has never even picked one up let alone fired one, or someone else who collects them, hunts with them, keeps them clean, and stores them safely, both of us could be a part of this reasonable middle group. And both of us would agree that no, we should not repeal the second amendment and also that yes, there should be reasonable limits on what kind and how many guns should be allowed to be owned and used by qualified, licensed, responsible people.
However, if you listen to how the conversation is framed, you would think there are only two possible ways to think about it - either “no guns for no people” or “all guns for all people.” That’s the way our “national conversation” has been discussed. But it is just not true! It isn’t reality!
And so the question is - Who is framing the conversation that way? Maybe that’s where we need to spend some time and energy. Who benefits from keeping us at each other’s throats over issues that aren’t really issues in the first place? That is where the power resides, after all. And they stay hidden, under the surface, in the shadows.
And maybe some different, deeper, and more Christ-like questions are - How can we REFRAME the conversation?
How can we resist getting sucked into fearful, hateful, unhelpful confrontations, elaborately choreographed by someone we will never ever see?
How can we redefine the parameters of power?
How can we take charge of the moment on behalf of today’s babies floating in their baskets, to speak a word to the unjust and oppressive decrees of our day?
For we know that true power resides with God, whose reign is announced and embodied in Jesus, and brought to life in the world by the Holy Spirit.

These are not an easy questions to answer. Doing so required of Miriam not only a great deal of cleverness, but also a amazing and inspiring courage. Miriam was living with three strikes already against her: a Hebrew, a child, and a girl. She is an unlikely hero indeed. But it is her story, her example that we can follow today as well.
For the sake of the children we celebrate today, we have to find a way to reframe the conversation so that it aligns more closely with the priorities of the Reign of God, as described and defined in the Holy Scriptures. Peace. Justice. Hope. Love. And like Miriam’s example of scripture, maybe today’s children have something to teach us about how we might do so.
Children have not yet been taught that the world is polarized. Or divided. Children understand that people see things differently, that people are different from one another. And children actually like it that way! Too much sameness and children get bored, right?
Maybe that is a part of what gave Miriam the cleverness and courage to pull off the greatest babysitting feat of all time! It’s not coincidence that Miriam was down by the river, not her mother. Would her mother have even thought of such a plan? And if she had, would she have had the courage to pull it off?
Maybe we ought to look towards our children for guidance through these turbulent times. Not to put pressure on them as potential saviors of the world, but rather that they might teach us how to reframe our conversations, how to reframe our actions, how to reframe our lives according to God’s own purposes.

And maybe, if we do, maybe just maybe the world will begin to change, for God’s sake. It could happen! After all, as Miriam showed us, never underestimate a clever, courageous child.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

MLB Playoffs, Again

The Major League Baseball playoffs are here again, and again this year I have no real rooting interest. It would be kind of cool for Houston to win it all this year, overcoming hurricane Harvey and all. But other than that, I’ll be rooting once again for the least expensive teams.

Here are the opening day payrolls (I know, different from the playoff rosters), according to CBS sports …

New York Yankees    $201,539,699
Boston Red Sox          $199,805,178
Cleveland Indians       $124,861,165
Houston Astros           $124,343,900
Minnesota Twins         $108,077,500

AL Total:                      $758,627,442

Los Angeles Dodgers $242,065,828
Chicago Cubs              $172,189,880
Washington Nationals $167,846,918
Colorado Rockies       $130,963,571
Arizona Diamondbacks $93,257,600

NL Total:                     $806,323,797

TOTAL:                        $1,564,951,239

So I’m looking for Arizona versus Minnesota in the series, and Arizona wins it all!

If you are keeping score at home, that is over ONE and a HALF BILLION DOLLARS that ten MLB teams spent on their payrolls this year.

The gap between the Dodgers’ and Diamondbacks’ payrolls, $148,808,228, would be the fifteenth highest payroll in the league. (Just between the Cardinals and the Royals, by the way.) That’s the GAP BETWEEN the two teams, just to be clear.

Fun fact: Clayton Kershaw’s individual salary this year is higher than the entire San Diego Padres active player roster.

Yes, I do this little exercise every year that I’m not rooting for a particular team, and yes, every year I am so conflicted. I love baseball; I am appalled at how much money is spent on it. Both of those statements are true.

Imagine if those one and half billion dollars were invested somewhere else. It boggles the mind.

Meanwhile, Go D-backs!

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Reclaim the Rules: God's Priorities (Post 3 of 3)

I am not naive. Thus, I don’t think fixing the world’s problems is an easy peasy “Reclaim the Rules” and voila! ...everybody’s happy. But I do believe that focusing on the “General Rules” of Methodism would help the church remember what is important and renew a commitment to God’s priorities, rather than our own.

In that vein, it is interesting to note that the most read post in this series of posts (by FAR) was Post 1.5 which mentioned Donald Trump’s visit to Springfield and asked if a Christian would be following the General Rules by protesting. (Whose priorities, now?) Post 1 and Post 2 were apparently far too non-controversial for a whole lot of people to read, it seems. (Not discounting that they may have just been boring, poorly written, and nobody liked them, of course.)

Where is our focus? Where are our priorities? Where are God's priorities? How can we align our priorities with God's? How is it possible for us to (first) do no harm and (second) do good in the world when everything seems so messed up, so topsy-turvy?

Well, that is where Rule #3 comes in. In Wesleyan language, that rule says we are to continue to evidence our desire of salvation by “attending upon all the ordinances of God.” … pause for effect … Yeah, right. What the heck does that mean?

It isn’t as complicated as it sounds. Ordinances are “the practices that [keep] the relationship between God and humans vital, alive, and growing,” as Bishop Rueben Job puts it in “Three Simple Rules.” And it turns out that these ordinances are the basic practices of Christian discipleship - worship, prayer, Bible study, Holy Communion, fasting, and works of mercy, service, and justice.

In other words, doing the stuff that followers of Jesus have been doing since forever. Doing the stuff that churches are supposed to be doing. Simply: being church.

Bishop Job has rephrased the third rule. His wording is, “Stay in love with God.” He calls staying in love with God the “primary issue of a faithful life.”
“For from such a life of love for God will flow the goodness and love of God to the world. It can be no other way. One who is deeply in love will be constantly formed and transformed by that relationship. And such a transformed life will be a natural channel of God’s goodness, power, and presence in the world.” (p. 57-58)
Of course, it needs to be said that there are people who claim to have a wonderful relationship with God and yet are not a part of a church. The whole “I love Jesus but not the church” idea is a valid one, and shared by many. I do not begrudge anyone this approach, nor do I think it somehow “invalid.”

All I know is, I need the church in my own Christian discipleship. There’s no way I could ever follow Jesus on my own. My faith is not strong enough to attempt to follow Jesus without the church. And the “ordinances of God” are, for me, best practiced in community, where support, encouragement, and accountability can be exercised in covenant love and grace.

Worship. Prayer. Study. Service. Generosity. Hospitality. Also known as the “ordinances of God.” Also known as the practices of discipleship. You know, "stuff churches do."

And more fundamentally, they are the practices that keep a person connected to God and deepen that connection over time. At Campbell we talk about how the “pattern of discipleship” becomes more and more deeply imprinted on you as you engage its practices. And as that pattern is imprinted upon us, we are becoming more and more Christlike.

If you love a person, you want to do things with them. You have coffee, you go bowling, you go to a baseball game, you go to a concert, you sit and talk, etc. If you love God, the “things” you do together are the practices of Christian discipleship.

Reclaiming these ancient rules isn’t going to automatically make the world look just like God wants it to look. There would still be evil, injustice, and oppression in a variety of forms. People would still be prone to wander, prone to sin, prone to succumb to worldly temptations. And so it goes.

But imagine what a difference would be made if each of us committed to do our utmost to first of all do no harm and secondly do all the good we can do. And imagine if we were able to accomplish that by thirdly staying connected to and deepening our connection with our loving and gracious creator God, who calls us into relationship with the divine and with our neighbors around the world. 

Imagine if we all would sincerely try to shift our priorities so that they aligned more closely with God's. I can't help but think that would at least begin to make a dent.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Reclaim the Rules: "Do Gooder" (Post 2 of 3)

I have often wondered why the word “do-gooder” is often spoken with such bitterness. What could possibly be wrong with someone who does good stuff all the time?

Of course, the word means more than that. A “do-gooder” is a term for a person who means well but may be naive in their expectations or maybe actually ends up doing more harm than good, more getting in the way of a solution than actually helping.

Nevertheless, we cannot fault a “do-gooder” for their intentions. Scripture tells us to “not grow weary in doing what is right,” and John Wesley picked up that theme with General Rule #2, which is quite simply “Do Good.”

In a sermon titled, The Law Established Through Faith, he said, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Neither is love content with barely working no evil to our neighbour. It continually incites us to do good: as we have time, and opportunity, to do good in every possible kind, and in every possible degree to all men.”

His intention was that help would be offered to those in need, both physically and spiritually. He made that crystal clear in his direction to give food, give clothing, and care for the sick and those in prison, in addition to “instructing, reproving, or exhorting” those around us.

In other words, love incites us to be a do-gooder! In the best possible meaning of the term, of course, which may be something like “helping people who need help in a way that is actually helpful to them.”

But the idea of “goodness” is subjective, it seems. What one person considers a “good” action may not be considered “good” by another. It is yet one more trait we lose as we age, the certainty of the “good guy” and the corresponding “bad guy.” An eight year old playing with action figures harbors no moral ambiguity.

Despite its subjective nature, there are tests by which goodness can be assessed. In “Three Simple Rules,” Bishop Job wrote, “Every act and every word must pass through the love and will of God and there be measured to discover if its purpose does indeed bring good and goodness to all it touches.” The love of God, and the will of God are two powerful checks on the relative goodness of an action or a word.

Of course, the most obvious filter to run an act through is Rule Number One itself – “Do No Harm.” If the action or the word (or the inaction or the silence) actually does harm, then obviously it is not doing good, and another option ought to be selected.

So let’s be a bunch of do-gooders! Let’s do good things for God’s sake, making the world a more loving and gracious place, helping people in need in the way they themselves have identified, and sharing all of those collective “good deeds” and “random acts of kindness” that people do every single day.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Reclaim the Rules: Staying Silent (Post 1.5 of 3)

President Donald Trump is coming to Springfield, Missouri tomorrow, August 30. There are people of faith who are planning to protest his presence. So I’ve been thinking about protest as it relates to John Wesley’s General Rule #1, Do no harm.

Is protesting “doing harm” and therefore to be avoided? Is there some intrinsic quality to protesting that makes it automatically harmful? I mean, protests can turn violent, right? And violence is never a viable long term solution, as history has proven again and again. So should a person of faith protest at all?

Here it is helpful for me to listen closely to the words of Bishop Rueben Job in his prophetic book, “Three Simple Rules.” He makes a point to mention how one’s silence can “add injury to another of God’s children or to any part of God’s creation” (p. 31). In other words, staying silent when harm is being done is, in fact, doing harm to another.

I am also reminded of Martin Luther King’s powerful quote, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” What was true in his day is certainly true in our present times.

Sinful silence is also a part of the liturgy of the church, as in the World Methodist Social Affirmation, which says, “We confess our sin, individual and collective, by silence or action…” There is a familiar prayer of confession that reads, “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”

Thus it is clear to me that people of faith should not stay silent in the presence of injustice. To do so would be sinful, a clear “sin of omission.” And many people of faith believe wholeheartedly that many of the policies, priorities, and stated goals of the current administration are unjust. And so, to refrain from speaking would be to allow the harm being done to continue, something “left undone,” a sin by silence.

So protesting, if it is truly speaking out against injustice, seems to me to be a faithful act in which a follower of Jesus may very well feel called to engage. And rightly so.

Now let me make things more complicated. A while back, a group from Westboro Baptist Church was going to be in Springfield doing their abhorrent, hateful, and decidedly non-Christian thing. At that time, I advocated for people to not protest their presence, as that would only feed their voracious attention-seeking appetite. How is this week different?

It is different, in my humble opinion, because Westboro is a tiny fringe group and Donald Trump is the President of the United States. To protest Westboro is to metaphorically add fuel to an ember. To protest the President is to throw a few buckets of water onto an already raging fire.

Rule number one is still, “Do no harm.” But following rule number one is not passive. If our silence contributes to the harm being done, then following rule number one would compel us to speak, to protest, to make our voices heard. Yes of course, to do so peacefully, non-violently, but with strength and with clarity, boldly and without fear.

I don’t know what will happen in Springfield tomorrow. I hope people gather, hold signs, chant, sing together, even link arms and march through the streets. I just pray that no harm is done. There’s already enough of that happening. In fact, that’s exactly why so many people of faith will be there in the first place. Because Rule Number One is “Do no harm.”

Monday, August 28, 2017

Reclaim the Rules: First, Do No Harm (Post 1 of 3)

The first rule is to do no harm.

John Wesley created three “General Rules” for Methodists to follow, listed and defined in our denominational resources for generations. And the first of those is simply, “Do no harm.”

As the late Bishop Rueben Job puts it, “To do no harm means that I will be on guard so that all my actions and even my silence will not add injury to another of God’s children or to any part of God’s creation.”

Seems easy enough, right? It’s really just a variation of something my mom always said to me growing up: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Perhaps you also heard that one at some point in your life?

Medical professionals are familiar with the concept as a part of the Hippocratic Oath. It is essentially the idea of “Ahimsa” in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, notably practiced by Mohandas Gandhi in the Indian independence movement, the idea known as “non-violence.” Similar principles guided the 1960s civil rights protests in the United States.

Rule number one says, “Hey look. At the very least don’t make things any worse than they already are.” Of course, rule one is not in and of itself a sufficient guide for living. Not many dreams are realized by just trying to not make things worse. That’s why there are two more rules to talk about after this one.

But “do no harm” is a pretty good starting point, isn’t it?

Galatians 5 names our tendency to “bite and devour” each other. The passage contrasts this tendency with Christ’s call to “love and serve” each other. Not only “serve,” the text actually says that we should become “slaves to one another.” In one of the fundamental paradoxes of Christianity, we are told that we are “called to freedom” and at the same time bound inextricably to one another in love.

A part of that binding together includes support, encouragement, and accountability in our Christian discipleship. In other words, we need others to reflect back to us what they see in our lives, and point out where our words, our silence, our actions, and even our attitudes are causing harm to another person or any part of God’s creation.

The reason John Wesley created the “General Rules” in the first place was so that we “should continue to evidence [our] desire for salvation.” This is clearly of more significance than just being nice to each other, which is not a uniquely Christian concept. For a follower of Jesus, Wesley believed that “doing no harm” actually has salvific significance.

When he looked at the Anglican church in the 1730s, Wesley saw people in need of spiritual renewal. He saw a faith that was utterly disconnected from life, with no application of love or grace or peace or justice in the day-to-day interactions of the people. Thus began the Methodist movement.

I believe that the kind of spiritual renewal Wesley began in his time is desperately needed again today. And maybe now more than ever. The polarization of our society has produced a heavy blanket of anxiety and fear that many people are feeling, myself included. What better time to recommit to Wesley’s rules, starting with the first one - “Do no harm.”

Bishop Job’s words in the introduction to “Three Simple Rules,” written in 2007 yet astonishingly on point for 2017, have been rolling around in my mind all week long. I can’t say it any better than he does:
“Most of us never imagined we would be living in such a divided world. People...who lived through the Second World War were convinced that our world would be drawn together in harmony, peace, and plenty. The sacrifices made were so enormous that it seemed certain that we would never again permit our world to become so divided. But here we are in a world where divisions are growing deeper nearly every day. We had this naive expectation that we would just get better as we became educated and shared more of the world’s riches. It looked like a natural and easy path to follow. Forgetting the struggles and sacrifices of the past may have led to a complacency that took community too lightly, individualism too seriously, and neglected our call to faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
That last sentence is prophetic. May God forgive us our complacency. May we renew our commitment to community. May we confess the sin of self-centered individualism. May we remember again and again our call to faithfulness to none other than the Gospel proclaimed in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Love Takes a Stand

“Love is not neutral. It takes a stand. It is the commitment to the attainment of the conditions of peace for everyone involved in a situation.” This idea, quoted from the book A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson, has been haunting me all week.

I’ve also been working on a silly little parable of sorts. If you will indulge me…

Imagine that Person A and Person B are looking at a duck.

“Would you look at that chicken!” says A.

“That’s not a chicken. That’s a duck,” replies B.

To which A responds, “Hey man, I just have a different perspective than you do. Why are you oppressing me?”

In this little illustration, there are not two sides to the argument. Person A is wrong. And when B points out that A is wrong, B is not oppressing A.

Now insert Person C into the silly little parable. What should C say?

C could say, “I’m going to remain neutral here. I mean, can’t you two just agree to disagree? Try to see both sides. Everyone is entitled to their own perspective.” Etc. Etc.

Or they could say, “Actually A, that is quite clearly a duck.”

So … of course the silly parable changes a bit when the topic is white supremacy.

Person A says, “Non-white people are inferior and should be eliminated.”

“That’s not true. People are equal regardless of race,” replies B.

“Hey man,” says A, “I just have a different perspective than you.”

And then imagine that YOU are Person C. So, what are you going to say?

Love is not neutral.

For me, saying “Can’t we just get along” is not an option here. No, we can’t just get along. I refuse to “agree to disagree” with a racist.

The truth is, you are NOT entitled to your own perspective if your perspective is that of a white supremacist. You are simply wrong. There isn’t any room for compromise on this issue.

Love takes a stand.

Okay, but wait. The Bible says not to repay evil for evil. St. Francis prayed that “Where there is hatred let me sow love.” Jesus says that peacemakers are blessed. Doesn’t that imply neutrality? Doesn’t that mean we need to respect all sides of a disagreement? Doesn’t that mean Christians should remain “above the fray,” so to speak?

Actually, no. Not as I understand the Gospel. Not as I understand Jesus. Not as I understand the work of the church.

Every United Methodist has promised, upon becoming a member of a congregation, “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression” in the world. Every parent who brings a child for baptism makes the very same promise. Every time we renew that promise, we say it again.

The decision to resist evil revokes one’s neutrality.

Neutrality in the presence of evil is no better than indifference. And as my colleague Rev. Geoff Posegate said recently, “There are times when indifference and silence are in fact acts of violence.”

Jesus was not neutral in his life and ministry. Neither should his followers be. White supremacy is not a "different perspective" with which we should seek a respectful compromise. White supremacy is evil, and it needs to be named, resisted, and utterly destroyed.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

"Sin" & "The Church Today"

I attended an event recently at which several things were said that hurt and offended me. Most of these things began with the speaker saying, “This may not be politically correct, but …”

(Here’s a tip. When speaking to a group, and you feel like you have to start with “This may not be politically correct, but…,” you maybe shouldn’t say it. But never mind, that’s just a tangent to what I really want to write about.)

One of the things this speaker wasn’t “politically correct” about was a pointed criticism of “the church today.” (Another tangent: he never really defined what he meant by “the church today,” but I took him to mean, “Any church that doesn’t do things the way I think things should be done.” But again, a tangent, so here’s the point … )

He said, “This may not be politically correct, but I’m gonna say it anyway. ‘The church today’ doesn’t talk about sin.” Furthermore, he indicated that he believes that is why “the church today” isn’t doing very well in terms of numbers. Because we don’t talk about sin.

He then proceeded to get specific.

Now of course, he didn’t get specific with a long list of actions he thought were sins; he got specific with one. Just one. One singular action he thought was a sin and he thought needed to be highlighted at this particular event. Can you guess which action he picked? Out of ALL the possible acts that might be considered sins, which one do you think he felt led to name out loud?

If you guessed “predatory lending” … thanks for playing, but no.

His sin of choice was homosexuality. “If anyone tells you that gay marriage and homosexuality is (sic) not a sin, they are lying.” That’s a direct quote.

It took all of the gracious hospitality I could muster not to stand up and walk out. And while speaking with others who were there, I heard similar reactions. Bear in mind, this event had nothing whatsoever to do with human sexuality, marriage equality, or any related issues. His comment was random, a non sequitur, and bizarre. (Tangent 3: Does anybody know why, when naming specific “sinful” actions, so many Christians zero in on homosexuality, when there are so many others from which they might choose?)

Okay, so here’s the thing. This is what I believe about “the church today” as it pertains to sin…

It is far too easy to think of a “sin” merely as an action that God doesn’t like, or breaking one of God’s rules. And most of the time, when a Christian talks about sin like that, I have noticed that they are listing actions of someone else, which of course makes it even easier.

Much more difficult is thinking of sin as an existential separation from God that we are totally unable to reconcile through our own efforts. See, if sin is merely an action contrary to what God wants, then it’s in OUR control to fix it; just stop doing the action. Easy peasy.

But there’s absolutely nothing in our control when it comes to sin. Nothing. Total depravity. And we don’t like that very much. Generally speaking, people would much rather be in control of a situation than not.

And what does this have to do with “the church today?” Well, obviously it is not easy, popular, or attractive to say “nothing is really in your control.” And since churches really want people to be there, we tend to avoid things that are not easy, popular, or attractive.

However, it is easy, popular, and attractive to tell people they are in control, even when it comes to correcting a sinful life. And so there are some churches who will say that all you have to do is stop doing the things that God doesn’t want you to do. That keeps everything nicely under your control, and keeps God conveniently out of your way, at least until you die, at which point God will either let you into heaven or not. Thinking of sin this way reduces God’s role to Heaven’s bouncer, and I’m not at all comfortable with that.

Please do not misunderstand me. I do think we need to get specific when it comes to the evil, injustice, and oppression that exist in the world today. I think we need to name it, drag it into the light, and work to overcome it with every ounce of our strength. It’s not the specificity to which I object.

I object to the public naming of someone else’s sexual orientation as sinful, and calling anyone who disagrees a liar. I object to minimizing sin to just a list of actions that break divine rules. I object to thinking of God merely as a divine bouncer, and salvation as just a Get Into Heaven Free card.

And I object to the false characterization I heard regarding the problems of “the church today,” when what the speaker actually meant seemed to be, “Some Christians do not think of sin the same way I do.”

“Those who do not think about their own sins make up for it by thinking incessantly about the sins of others,” wrote C.S. Lewis. And being “politically correct” really has nothing to do with it.

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?