The Prosperity Gospel in Black and White

prosperityLast winter, I wrote a somewhat contrarian blog post on the Prosperity Gospel.  I never did endorse it, but I was trying to talk about the fact that for those on the lower economic margins that happen to think about money, they are more willing to talk about finances and how this relates to their walk with God.

Something today made me think about the Prosperity Gospel again and I noticed something about most of the critics of it:

They’re all white.

Now, I can only make that statement from what I’ve observed.  Maybe there is an African American pastor railing against the Prosperity Gospel.  But there’s something telling that there seems to not be a person of color who obesses over the Prosperity Gospel in ways that whites do.

I think there is a reason for all of this.  I’m not an economist, I’m just a pastor.  But here are some observations that I’ve noticed:

African Americans and Latinos think about money more, especially those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.  African Americans and to a large extent Latinos tend to be more money insecure than white Americans.  It’s not uncommon for whites to have more in savings and more in terms of wealth that might have been passed down to the next generation.  That is almost never the case when it comes to most persons of color.  Even those who make into the middle class are more insecure because they don’t have wealth built up.  Being African American and married to a white person, I can tell you there are stark differences between our families when it comes to wealth.  So, if you have less, you will be thinking more about how to pay this or that bill which means you think about money a lot.  Now if you are an African American and finances are tight and you hear some preacher talk about prosperity, do you scoff at this?  Probably not.  Why?  Because this pastor understands what you are going through and is preaching a way out- a lifeline.  I think prosperity preaching is bad, but let’s face it; it’s a tempting message for a real reason.

If you are a middle class white person, you are more than likely to have a fair sum of money saved up, or your parents have a good sum that you can borrow.  You also probably have some inheritance of some kind (stock, land, etc.) that you can use.  In short white Americans don’t tend to think so much about money problems.  It’s easy to warn of the dangers of prosperity gospel while you are sitting on financial reserves.

Again, there is a lot that is bad about the Prosperity Gospel.  But that doesn’t mean that prosperity or finances shouldn’t be talked about- especially when money is such a big part of the lives of many persons of color, not because of greed, but because they don’t have much of it and the needs are many.

What’s Missing?

Inverted-Chalice-HectorFor the last few months, I’ve been following a blog called Via Media Methodists.  The purpose of VMM is: 1.”To offer an alternative beyond the current polarization in The United Methodist Church; 2. To raise the level of discourse within The United Methodist Church; and 3. To practice what we preach.”  After a few bit of chatter with one of VMM’s curators, Drew McIntrye, he suggested I write a post about my own tradition.  I wrote the blog post and it now appears on the blog.  Please read it when have the chance.

Fellow Disciples pastor Brian Morse was able to put in a few words what I’ve struggled to define.  He responded to my posting of the article on Facebook this way:

I believe that we Disciples have difficulty discussing theology. I find our conversations to be personality-driven. Methodists have a stronger theological tradition to stand upon, even when critiquing it.

I think he is right and I think it has implications on the mission and ministry taking place in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  What can be done about this?

 

The picture used in this post is called Caliz Invertido (Inverted Chalice) by Hector Hernandez.  Learn more about the significance of the Inverted Chalice by reading this article.

Ferguson and Everything After

image-453673840In the Summer of 1992, my parents and I went on vacation to Toronto and Niagara Falls.  On the day that we were on the Canadian side, we decided to drive over to Niagara Falls, NY to see the American Falls.  This meant crossing the border back into the United States.  As we cross the bridge spanning the two nations, we stopped at border crossing welcoming us back into the United States.  We ended up with a white border guard that decided to annoy us.  He asked questions in a tone that bothered us.  Dad was getting more and more agitated, having never been treated this way at the border before.  I was at the driver’s wheel and the guard had me get out of the car to show him what was in our trunk.  I was bothered and quite scared.  Of course there was nothing in the trunk other than things one would see in a car on vacation.  Once the guard was satisfied, he let us go on our way, but it took us a while to forget how we were treated by this man.

This was one of the few times I felt harassed by the police.  It was hard not to conclude that the rough treatment we got was because we were African American.

It’s been almost two weeks since Michael Brown was shot dead by a policeman named Darren Wilson in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri.  The death of a young African American by a white policeman is bound to set of a fury of feelings on race in America and the events that happened on August 9 have not disappointed us.  As I said in a recent post, there seems to be a lot of similarities to the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman controversy that took place in 2012.  As I said back then, it’s understandable that African Americans would feel this situation deeply-reminding us of some of our past encounters with white Americans.

This situation could be a time to really have that so-called conversation on race.  But like it was two years ago, everyone seems willing to talk, but no seems willing to listen.

First things first: while there is much to be gained talking about how African American men are immediately seen as threats, or about how law enforcement look at African Americans or about how suburban police forces feel the need to ape the US Army, it’s dangerous to hold Darren Wilson up as public enemy number one.  There is much to talk about, but the actual facts of the case still remain murky.  Maybe Wilson shot Brown in cold blood.  Maybe he shot his gun in the fog of war.  Was Brown doing something that warranted guns being drawn?  The fact is, we don’t have the clear picture yet.  While there might be problems with policing in Ferguson, we don’t know what really happened that Saturday night.  As much as I am tempted to view Brown as innocent and Wilson as guilty, we don’t yet have evidence that proves either way.

Even though the incident is being looked at, that doesn’t mean that some of the greivences that have bubbled up to the surface must be ignored.  African American men in our society have always been looked at with a sense of fear.  I know that’s happened to me.  These days it happening earlier and earlier.  A National Public Radio report from March of this year show black preschoolers were suspended at higher rates that white preschoolers. Some experts call this the “school to prison pipeline” where African American children, especially boys, have run-ins with the law early and frequently.

So where does the church fit in all of this?

I think that the response is mixed.  I think that churches need to be able to be a listening ear and a megaphone about how African American men are viewed in our society.  Sadly, there are still too many people who refuse to understand that while official segregation is gone by the wayside, attitudes still remain.  Related to this, I think the church needs to thoughtfully ask whites what is it about black me that scares them.  Part of the problem is that some people are afraid of black men.  It might be irrational, but I think there needs to be space for that question to be asked and answered, as uncomfortable as it might be.  Maybe when we share we can dispel myths or see what needs to be corrected.

But if the church is going to be an agent of reconciliation, to foster dialogue, we have to be thoughtful when we talk about white privilege and racism.  Most whites don’t see themselves as privileged and having a white liberal Christian chastise his fellow whites, many of who are trying to make ends meet of being privileged, don’t expect that they are going to react with open hearts and minds.  Yes, privilege exists, but pointing this out should lead to solutions not blame. Also, calling whites automatically racist is also not going to work.  White folks think racist and they see some guy who decided ruin his wife’s best bedspread to where while setting fire to a cross.  It’s one thing to say that society still benefits whites, its another to basically say they are the Bull Connor of suburbia.

As the African American pastor of a majority white congregation in the suburbs; I wonder if my odd intersection could lead towards some real conversation about how to heal the divisions between law enforcement and black men.  I don’t know if that’s where God is calling me and I don’t think I’m going to make such a big difference, but then you never know.

I just look forward to the day when incidents such as what happened to Michael Brown will be a distant and unpleasant memory.

Repost: Beyond George Zimmerman (the Ferguson Edition)

I do have something to say about Michael Brown, the police and Ferguson, MO.  But while I’m thinking about what to write, I wanted to share a post I wrote in the days following the verdict acquitting George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin.  Funny how only the names have been changed.

zimmerman

Ever since the verdict from the George Zimmerman case was made known, I’ve been wondering what I wanted to write about this event. I happened to be down the road from Sanford, Florida in Orlando for the 2013 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It was interesting that in the same convention center the NAACP was having its national convention.

I was looking at a post I wrote a year ago about this case and it is fascinating how on target it still is. The words I said back then still make sense:

The recent tragedy concerning Trayvon Martin has a lot of people talking. There’s a lot that one could talk about here: racism, the role of young black males in American society, gun control or lack thereof and so on. I know that it’s common for pastors and even moreso for black pastors to speak out on events like this, but I’m still holding my tounge, unwilling to somehow speak to the moment.

The reason I don’t at this point is because there is so much that is unknown in this case. We have a lot of pieces of what happened between Martin and his alleged shooter, George Zimmerman, but we don’t really have a clear story. While many may think otherwise, the details of this case are still being learned. What seems so obvious might not be…

…we want to try to make the events fit our own templates to further our own agendas. We try to hunt and look for whatever shred of evidence about silly things like Trayvon smoking marijuana and use that to paint him as some crazy thug. We want to use some words said during a 911 call to paint Zimmerman as soon kind of suburban klansman. For some reason, we don’t want to simply wait and see what the facts bear out. No, we already have the “facts” and are ready to fashion stories based on whatever spin we can get from those facts.

I still think in many ways we are trying to spin this story to serve our own ends. Yes, race is still a problem in America, but we don’t need to make this case into a racial melodrama to make that case. As a church leader, I am a bit wary of touching this case because it isn’t such a clear story. Maria Dixon points that out well in her recent blog post on this:

Many churches and church leaders will hold vigils and offer prayers of the people when the inevitable firestorm of racial angst breaks loose. They will ask for calm, write soothing words about reconciliation–when it is their very ineptness at helping all of us deal honestly with difference that has doomed us to failure. Ok, maybe that’s harsh, but then again maybe it isn’t. You see, most mainline denominations have difficulty with discussing race, even amongst themselves. Substituting quotas and tallies of who is speaking for the really hard discussions of inclusion, difference, and the mandates of Christ, the church–particularly those denominations considered most progressive–fears such discussions. The problem is not with only the lighter hue of the pew. The African American church has lived so long in the world and discourse of struggle that it, unlike the church of South Africa, has yet to be able to fully embrace and cultivate a dialogue of racial reconciliation and renewal. So let’s be clear: There is plenty of blame to go around for why cases like Treyvon’s cause such national handwringing and outrage. It’s like my good friend and mentor, Mark Lawrence McPhail–one of the top scholars on race and rhetoric–writes, that no one has clean hands in this racial system.

There is a part of me that thinks I should rail against racism and how this verdict just shows how American society views black men. But the reality is, we really don’t know if George Zimmerman had a racial intent. From the evidence the jury saw they said no. I don’t think we can use this case as a proxy for our continuing struggle concerning race in America because the lines aren’t so clear.

That doesn’t mean that African Americans are silly to feel the way they have. No matter the age, Africa Americans carry a psychic scar, the result of centuries of actual racism. It’s hard to not think about past tragedies where race was involved: Emmet Till or Medgar Evers. African Americans can make a leap of logic because, well, we’ve been here before.

It also don’t mean that conservatives should be crowing the way they have in the wake of the verdict. As someone who is politically right of center and African American, let me tell you something- if you don’t want black people assuming all Republicans are racists, then maybe you want to show a bit of respect and understanding. African Americans might be wrong in jumping to conclusions, but no one can blame us. We are the ones that have lived with a dark history; one that still rears its ugly head. It would behoove white conservatives to at least sit down and listen to African Americans instead of acting like pompous jerks.

It’s high time that America and the church had a real heart to heart on race. But for that to happen, we have to be willing to be vulnerable to each other. African Americans need to be willing to listen to whites share their fears and concerns. Whites need to allow African Americans to share their frustrations on how they are always treated with suspect. I don’t care who is “priviledged” and who is not. I don’t care who feels oppressed. What I do care to see is for blacks and whites and everyone in between to talk to each other, honestly. The church should be the place where this starts.

I don’t know if George Zimmerman is a racist and at some level I don’t really care. What does matter is how we will move forward, how we will learn to live with each other and accept each other warts and all.

Salvation Will Not Come from Indianapolis

chalicedls

The 2014 Yearbook of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) came out this week and I guess the numbers aren’t good at all.  Two Disciples, Beau Underwood and Derek Penwell gave what I thought were some of the best takes on mainline decline: honest and hopeful.  Things aren’t great in our small family, but we have hope in Christ.  Here’s a sample of what Underwood said which spoke to me (or kicked me in the butt):

Recognizing change will not “come from the top” – For the Disciples the whole concept of “the top” is an idea that lacks meaning. We intentionally vested power within congregations, which has been both a blessing and detriment. In theory, this hands off approach should spur innovation and allow for congregations to learn and share with each other in ways that allow all to thrive. Sadly in practice congregational autonomy is often an excuse for ignoring the sage advice of others, unfaithfully refusing to change, and insisting on doing things “our way” even if it means sapping the life of a congregation’s witness. There are many struggling congregations whose plights were entirely avoidable, but they invited their own death by ignoring the changing realities of their contexts and refusing to seek out or listen to the wisdom of others.

We certainly need leadership from the General and Regional Church because this church is strongest when every manifestation is working together. But given the challenges we face, any time those leaders spend on projects or initiatives that are not directly or indirectly related to revitalizing struggling congregations, supporting thriving churches, and starting new communities of worship is a waste we cannot afford. There are luxuries we should no longer indulge because they represent little more than re-arranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship when our leaders need to be bailing water, patching holes, and guiding us to safe harbor.

But blaming denominational leaders for our struggles is an exercise in avoidance. It is far too simple an answer that denies any responsibility we have for changing our behaviors and contributing to solutions. The bottom line is that change has to start in our churches. We need pastors and lay leaders focused on strengthening their communities, preaching the Gospel, and serving God’s people in our contemporary context. There is no panacea that will be emanating from Indianapolis and to expect one is foolish.

And now Penwell:

1. Responding in fear is fine. Saying “Fear not! God can bring life out of death” isn’t saying that you shouldn’t ever be afraid. Fear is an instinctual reaction to stimuli in the environment. You can’t stop the initial irresistible urge to respond in fear any more than you can force your salivary glands not to start cranking out spit when you walk past a Krispy Kreme, and you get a whiff of that fresh batch of deep fried goodness that’s just come out, with all the gooey (What is that stuff? It’s not really frosting, is it? Icing?) slathered all over … Sorry, where was I? Oh yeah, fear.

2. Living with fear is an affront to the gospel. Saying “Fear not! God can bring life out of death” is calling for a more permanent orientation to your environment. It says that while I can’t resist the instinctual fear of the moment, I will not live there. I will not let the fear define my embrace of the present or my hope for the future.

 

Read their blog posts, especially if you are a Disciple.  I think they have started a good and honest discussion about the Disciples and where God can lead us.

Sermon: Swimming in the Deep End

I Kings 19:1-18 and Matthew 14:22-33
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 10, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the Podcast.

YMCA

A postcard of the YMCA in Flint, MI. I took swimming lessons here in the 1970s.

I’ve shared some stories in the past of my taking swimming lessons when I was growing up.  I would take lessons sometimes at the local YMCA and at the YWCA which was just down the street.  Most of the time we took lessons, we practiced in the shallow end.  Being seven or eight meant that the shallow end was already a challenge.  But at least I could touch the bottom of the pool.

What scared me was trying to swim in the deep end.  I can remember treading water out towards the middle of the pool feeling the pool’s floor slipping away from me.  At some point, I couldn’t touch anything other than the water that was surrounding me.  It felt like I was like an acrobat; working without a net.

Then there would come that day when we would work at the deep end, learning how to dive into a pool.  I would make my dive, scared that I wouldn’t be able to get to poolside fast.

But I was able to do my dives on the deep end. Albeit with me probably bawling up a storm.

As much as I hated swimming in the deep end, I had to learn this skill.  I had to learn this because the reality is that we will spend a good majority of our time in waters that can be very deep.  We have to stop clinging to the pool floor and step out in faith.  You have to believe that the skills you have learned will keep you afloat will be enough. Read More…

Sermon: “Fit For A Dog”

“Fit for a Dog”
Matthew 15: 10-28
August 17, 2008
Lake Harriet Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

aDog1During my freshman and sophomore years in high school, I was on the cross country team. I enjoyed distance running, but I wasn’t the best at it. God might have graced me with perserverance, but God didn’t give me the gift of swiftness. In many of the smaller meets, I was usually bringing up the rear.

One day during my freshman year, we my high school had a meeting with another high school in the suburbs. We went out to a local golf course to run the race. As usual, I was in last place, steady running along the rolling hills of the golf course.

At some point, I started hearing voices. At first I think I thought it was someone cheering me on, despite being last. But the voices weren’t friendly, instead they were very menacing voices. At the edge of a cul de sac were several youths, maybe at the most a few years old than I was. They were hurling racial slurs at me, calling me names that I can’t say in a family setting.

I was shocked by the slurs, but kept on running. It made no sense to let them get to me, so I kept the legs pumping, while they kept heaping insult upon insult. At some point, another member of my high school’s cross country team, who also was African American, ran to my aid. He had already finished the race and swiftly ran to confront the teens. From what I was told, all he did was simply look at them, which must have been enough to call off their racial slurs. Read More…

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