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?

Thursday, May 11, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

But no, that didn’t end it.

She said, “So, that’s a ‘yes?’”

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

“So, that’s a ‘yes?’”

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

“What?”

“This isn’t helping,” I repeated.

“What isn’t helping?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so it goes.

At least he was getting some exercise.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Easter Expectation

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mary.”

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

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

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

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