The Faith Experience

When Prince died on April 21, I wrote a post on another blog about how Prince made it easier for black kids like me to be gay.  Growing up with the machismo that was such a part of the culture I grew up in during the 70s and 80s, Prince was a godsend.

Speaking of godsends, Prince was in a rare league of artists who would publicly talk about their faith.  He was America’s answer to Bono in that respect.

I can remember listening to “I Would Die 4 U” the first time and excited to hear a song that talked about the atonement, Jesus and grace so easily. Maybe others thought this was a song about how Prince felt about a lover, but the way the lyrics were written, it was hard to see this as a talking about girlfriend.  No, he had his sights set on higher things:

You’re just a sinner I am told
Be your fire when you’re cold
Make you happy when you’re sad
Make you good when you are bad

I’m not a human
I am a dove
I’m your conscious
I am love
All I really need is to know that
You believe

The opening part of his 1981 hit “Controversy” is the Lord’s Prayer, which might seem like an odd way to start this post-disco tune, but since the song is talking about who Prince is (black or white? straight or gay?) his recitation of the prayer Jesus taught is the answer to the question.  He knew who he was and also whose he was.

Even his signature hit, 1984’s “Purple Rain” had some spiritual meanings. A quote from the 1980s talked about what Purple Rain meant:

When there’s blood in the sky – red and blue = purple.. purple rain pertains to the end of the world and being with the one you love and letting your faith/god”guide you through the purple rain

In 2015, Prince covered the song “What If” originally sung by contemporary Christian music artist Nichole Nordeman. It’s a pretty straight up song about Jesus and Prince makes it his own.

What if you’re right
And He was just
Another nice guy

What if you’re right
What if it’s true
They say the cross
Will only make a fool of you
And what if it’s true

What if He takes His place in history
With all the prophets and the kings
Who taught us love and came in peace
But then the story ends, what then

But what if you’re wrong
What if there’s more
What if there’s hope
You never dreamed of hoping for

What if you jump
Just close your eyes
What if the arms that catch you
Catch you by surprise
What if He’s more
Than enough what if it’s love

There were several other songs like “The Cross” or “God” I could talk about. What made Prince so fascinating to me is how his faith was blended into his whole life. Sex, love and God seemed to all intermingle together. His faith sprung from his life, raised Seventh Day Adventist, spending time a local United Methodist Church in Minneapolis and his conversion to Jehovah’s Witness (he attended a local Kingdom Hall in suburban Minneapolis) and his music showed his faith never left him.

It’s hard to believe Prince is gone.  As my husband said last night, you want to believe this is some kind of dream that we will all wake up from.  But it isn’t.

What I can say is that he is finally able to live out the words from his 1984 hit “Let’s Go Crazy:”

Dearly beloved
We are gathered here today
To get through this thing called life

Electric word life
It means forever and that’s a mighty long time
But I’m here to tell you
There’s something else
The after world

A world of never ending happiness
You can always see the sun, day or night

Have fun enjoying the happiness and God, Prince.

Playing Checkers in a Chess World

 

Foiled again.

A few weeks ago, I got a call from a local organization looking for someone like me to interview for an open position.  I was quite excited and hopeful that I might get a new position to supplement my pastoral work and other part time job. They had talked about getting some information to me soon.

This is where I made my big mistake more than once.

When you tell someone with High Functioning Autism that you will do something soon, we expect that you will do this….well, soon.  In job speak, soon could mean later today or it could mean a week from now.  But not knowing the difference, I called back.  A week or two passed and I was still expectant.  I had already checked in a few times and when I last called, I could tell that there was a bit of impatience, which is understandable.  The job had to be posted, they had to wait for resumes and then a committee had to look those resumes over.  I get that now, but my brain was focused on the word soon.  And it has probably become my downfall.

Looking for work with autism can be challenging. In many ways it’s just like meeting new people. Because of our lack of theory of mind, we don’t really know what the other person is thinking.  I can be unsure as to how to respond to people.  Sometimes I don’t respond, and that gives people the belief that I am indifferent.  If I respond to forcefully, I come off as desparate or an irritant.

Also, so of what employers say is not to be taken literally.  If they say they will get back to you in a few days, there’s a good chance that it will be more than a few days.

The interview is no better.  You have to meet someone you’ve never met before and allow them to ask questions that you have to try to answer at that very moment. All the while you wonder what they are thinking and you are wondering if you are saying everything they need to hear.

It’s also hard to not get over-excited when someone contacts you about a job.  It’s already difficult to find a job, so when someone contacts you, you feel like someone actually wants you.  But job hunting is more of a game of chess, trying to look out several moves ahead to plan the move that might get you the job.  You can’t or shouldn’t get over-excited about a phone call because it is the first move in many moves. But someone with HFA is probably focused at that beginning point and not looking at all at the moves coming up.

Actually, the person with HFA is probably playing checkers instead of chess. As a business blogger noted, one game is rooted in the moment, while the other is based in the future:

Want to know one big difference between a game of checkers and a game of chess? It’s the number five. That’s the average number of moves ahead that a Class A or better chess player will generally be thinking throughout the course of a game. While checkers is primarily played in the moment, chess requires a complex strategy that is often won by thinking ahead.

With this prospective employer, I was playing checkers.  I was living in the moment which is usually where my brain resides.  But in this situation the person on the other side of the phone has to play this as a chess game, having to look at several moves ahead.  This person might have said something that made it seem he was playing checkers, but like all employers he was playing chess.

But that’s hard for someone like me.  What I hear and comprehend is more checkers; bounding and leaping all over the place.  It’s hard to not take the words of someone promising good times ahead start leaping all over the place.  But overeagerness can turn an employer off.  It’s like starting to play checkers on a chessboard.

Like I said earlier, I probably ran this poor person off with my eagerness.  A lesson learned.  I just have start to remember that this is all a chess game and while my brain chemistry isn’t easily programmed to think ahead, I have to  learn.

If this person did show interest in spite of what I did, I will be a happy man.  But in the meantime, I need to bone up on being a better chess player.

The Importance of Dandelions

As I’ve looked back over my work history, there has been one overwhelming feeling that comes up over and over again: shame.

Since I entered the workforce in my 20s, my job history has been one of seemingly disappointing people.  I never met people’s expectations of me.  It wasn’t for lack of trying.  If someone said I did something that was not up to par, I would try to be better.  But the damage was done and I was looked at as incompetent.

When I got my diagnosis of Aspergers in 2008, I was hopeful that now I could find jobs where I would excel.  But in the eight years since knowing I was autistic, I’ve learned that while I changed, employers didn’t.  I learned that sharing my diagnosis didn’t help me at all.  Many folks didn’t understand the diagnosis and still saw some of my quirks as not caring or incompetent or what have you.

Even in the years following my diagnosis, I’ve tried to correct some of autism related problems to better fit in.  Not that it helped.  I think I was still viewed as a disappointment, a failure.

At the same time, I knew I had skills. I was a good communicator. I was okay with a camera.  I was getting better creating websites.  I was surprised I could make graphic designs.  I’ve been leading a church as pastor for almost three years. I had some of the skills needed to be a good employee to someone, but the package wasn’t attractive to employers.

Recently, I was reading fellow Michigander, Ron Fournier, a writer for the Atlantic and National Journal. He has a new book out about his learning to accept and appreciate his son who is autistic.  He shared a quote from Thorkil Sonne, a Danish entrepeneur who wanted to provide a positive work environment for people with autism, people like his son. Sonne used an interesting analogy to describe people who are autistic and their gifts to society:

To most people, the dandelion is nothing more than an annoying weed – something to be rooted out of our lawns and flowerbeds. But what a lot of people don’t know is that, when cultivated, the dandelion is one of the most valuable and useful plants in nature. In many parts of the world, the dandelion is known for its nutritional, healing and medicinal properties. The value of a dandelion is very much dependent on our knowledge and perception of its value.

Most of us don’t want dandelions in our lawns – they don’t fit there. But if you place a dandelion plant in your kitchen garden, and cultivate it, it can turn out to be one of your most valuable plants. Dandelions are used to make beer, wine, salads, and natural medicines. Quite simply, if you choose to cultivate dandelions, you will reap their rewards. So, is a dandelion a weed or an herb? You decide. The same can be said for individuals with autism. The value of what you see depends on your level of understanding and accommodation.

Hearing this made a lightbulb come on. I’m a dandelion.

Part of this sounds like that whole “I’m-a-special-snowflake” crap that has been pushed around these days. But this is exactly how someone with Aspergers or autism can feel. On the downside, they might feel like a weed, a nuisance to the rest of the neurotypical world. It’s how I’ve felt at times.  But the thing is, dandelions have benefits as well.  What might not fit well on a lawn, might make a good wine or a balm.

But I think most employers, even in the nonprofits, tend to go for flowers, people that are “beautiful,” put-together, who know how to make small talk and aren’t moody or plain weird.

Maybe this is why the unemployment rate among those with autism is something like 85 percent. (No, that isn’t made up.)  Our work culture is one that is geared towards efficiency.  We want workers we don’t have to really train, let alone accomodate.  So what happens when you get someone who is autistic and needs to be cultivated and isn’t geared towards being efficient?  They don’t last long in their jobs.

I don’t think the job market was always like this. I think there was a time when companies and groups were interested in investing in the worker. Of course those with autism were locked up in institutions, so the old days weren’t so good. But I think we need to bring back the notion or nurturing workers instead of making them fit some template.

What needs to be done is a radical overhaul of how we see those with autism.  In the profile of Somme, it is noted that employers need to gear themselves to be places that can accomodate autisic workers:

One significant challenge in utilizing individuals with autism is that many employers don’t always see the upside in hiring individuals who can be considered rigid and moody or a have poor communication skills. Because of this, Specialisterne focuses on developing new approaches that allow businesses to tap into the potential of this unique demographic. Sonne believes that innovative employment programs, that focus on individuals with special needs, can turn out some of the most diligent, dependable and productive employees.

 

Sonne’s company Specialisterne, has a unique approach in how they hire and work alongside persons with autism:

Work Design: Traditional approach: Work design derives business needs from stable strategies and plans. Jobs are designed by determining the tasks a given job requires, translating these tasks into job descriptions and then placing individuals into stable organizational roles.

New Approach: Design jobs to maximize potential for particular individuals to create value. Project roles are customized so they “work” for short-term needs but can evolve as needs change.

But while I’m glad for Sonne and Specialisterne, I have to deal with this world, the world where autism is still a puzzle or frustration.

So, at the risk of offending potential and future employers, I will say this: I’m a dandelion. I am rough around the edges. I am not pretty, I am not great at small talk and I will not be easy to get to know. But if you work with me, you will see a creative side that can produce things you never even thought of. If you can see me as more than just a weed to be removed I can help your concern take it to the next level.

But you are going to have to work with me because I am not going to fit into your template. I’ve tried and I can’t. If you what you want is someone you don’t need to train, to just “set it and forget it,” then you are wasting your time with me. But if you want help mold someone to bring out the best in them, well give me a look.

I’m done trying to please people who won’t understand. I’m a dandelion, a person with autism. Either accept this and work with me or don’t. Either way, I’m done playing games.

Sermon: “In the Meantime”

Acts 1:1-14
Second Sunday of Easter
April 3, 2016
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the sermon.

martin-luther-kings-last-speechWhen I was about seven or eight I would start to think about the year 2000 and what life would be like then.  I remember figuring out how old I and my parents would be when we entered the 21st century. I was going to be 30 years old.  Looking from the late 1970s and early 80s, that seemed so long away.  I couldn’t imagine being an adult, especially an adult of such an age.

Of course I am speaking to you on the other side of the year 2000, sixteen years to be exact.  Thirty doesn’t seem so old when you’re 46.  But that doesn’t mean I’m not wondering about the future.  When I opened up my IRA account, I picked one of the date specific accounts.  I picked the 2034 fund which is the year I turn 65.  That seems a long way off, but we’ve played this game before.

When I was a child, and looking at the future, the year 2000 felt like an eternity.  In the meantime, I lived my life. I went to high school in 1983. In 1987, I graduated. I went to college and then moved to Washington, DC  in 1992 for a few years. I moved to Minnesota in 1996 and started seminary in 1997.  I went on my first trip to Europe in 1998 and then China in 1999.  Before I knew it, I was there, the year 2000 was a reality.  While I was waiting for this big date to happen, I still had things to do; to go to school or to work; to meet new friends and loves, to move to new places, to travel around the world.  I didn’t just sit there waiting for this magical date, life had to happen.

In our text today, we see Jesus giving a final talk to his disciples.  He had risen from the dead and now was ending his ministry.  He tells them to stay in Jerusalem until God provides a special gift to them.

Now, you have to wonder if the disciples were a little bit nervous when they heard that.  This is only mere days since the religious leaders and the Roman leadership had arrested Jesus and put him to death.  Would the leaders come after them as well?  They might have been tempted to hit the road and find a safer place.

When Jesus is done talking, one of them asks if he will restore the kingdom of Israel.  This text makes the disciples look like fools, at least at first glance.  Here Jesus was talking about big things, and they are concerned about getting rid of the Romans.

But maybe we are judging the disciples a bit to harshly.  If Jesus was telling them to wait, they had to wonder: wait for what?  Maybe this meant that Jesus was going to do something to remove the Romans.  They were waiting for something, but it was the wrong something. Jesus wasn’t telling them to wait for revolution, but to wait for something else. Instead they were to wait for some power, something that would spread beyond Jerusalem.

But before they could ask for clarification, Jesus is taken up and out of their sight.  It’s then when two young men tells them to stop looking up.  Jesus will return, but you have work to do. You will wait, but things have to be done.

When read the last three verses of our passage, what we learn is that they went back to town and devoted themselves to prayer.  They didn’t just mope in their rented room, but began to prepare for what God had instore for them next. We find that out in chapter 2 when the Holy Spirit is sent in to this Upper Room.  But in the meantime they did things like prayer and choosing a replacement for Judas.

Sometimes much of what happens in a church, at least in America, is focused on the future. If we get more people as members, then we can start doing some things.  If we had more money in the bank, we could have a great choir.  If, if , if, if.  We tend to think that if we have something, then we can really start doing ministry.

God is calling us, like the disciples to wait for his return.  But that doesn’t mean that we drop everything and do nothing, or do the wrong things.  Jesus told his disciples that there was still work for them to do after he left.

They disciples were to be Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the known world.  And on Pentecost, this became true.  They were pushed to witness to Jesus in cities and towns far beyond Israel.  They invited everyone to meet Jesus, even long after he ascended into heaven. Christ would return, but in the meantime they had work to do. They had to be a witness to Jesus, telling them about what he was like and the difference he made in their lives.

Jesus is still calling us to this.  We wait for Christ’s return.  We have no idea when that will happen, but we wait for it.  But in the meantime, we have work to do.  We have people to feed. We have people to help get clean water. We have people who don’t know that God loves them and we seek to tell them.  As church, we are called to be a community of witnesses, people who have seen Christ and know the difference Jesus has made in our own lives.  We are called to be Christ’s witnesses in Mahtomedi and Minnesota, Wisconsin, the United States and around the world.

The slogan that has been used for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has been that we are a movement of wholeness in a fragmented world.  The world we live in is still fragmented but we carry with us Jesus in our hearts and we are to bear witness of Jesus, to give people hope.

On April 3, 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. gave what was going to be his last speech. It’s called “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”  Some have wondered if he sensed he would die soon, but he saw a promised land of racial harmony.  I think he had a sense that he would not see that promised land, but we were to keep working and one day that promise would be a reality. Near the end of his sermon he said the following:

 

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

Unfortunately, we know how this ended.  The next day, April 4, he was assasinated at the young age of 39.  But he knew that God kept, God’s promises and we couldn’t wait for the promised land to arrive; work had to be done.

We wait. We wait for wholeness, we wait for healing.  We wait for God’s return.  But while we wait, let us take in the view, let us see what Christ sees. But in the meantime, we have a job to do, a life to live.  Let’s get to it. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Trumped Up

There have been a myriad of stories about how Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump is winning over evangelicals.  And there have been a lot of pixels given over to talking about how hypocritical evangelicals are.  In the 90s, they wanted to burn Bill Clinton at the stake for adultery, but now they ignore Trump’s many affairs and marriages.

So, are evangelicals really flocking towards Trump?  Well, the picture is not as clear as some would like to think. Earlier this month, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat noted that not every evangelical was jumping on the Trump train:

First, the good news for despairing anti-Trump believers: Despite those polls showing him doing well with evangelicals and Catholics, Trump is not the first choice of most active churchgoers. Indeed, active religiosity is (relatively speaking) one of the bulwarks against Trumpism, and his coalition is strongest among the most secular Republicans, not the most religious…

…Trump is losing the most active believers, but he’s winning in what I’ve previously termed the “Christian penumbra” — the areas of American society (parts of the South very much included) where active religiosity has weakened, but a Christian-ish residue remains.

The inhabitants of this penumbra still identify with Christianity, but they lack the communities, habits and support structures that make the religious path (somewhat) easier to walk. As a result, this Christian-ish landscape seems to produce more social dysfunction, more professional disappointment and more personal disarray than either a thoroughgoing secularism or a fully practiced faith — which makes it ripe territory for Trump’s populist appeal. And his occasional nods to religious faith — like, say, his promise to make store clerks say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” — are well tailored for voters for whom Christian identity is still a talisman even when an active faith is all but gone.

So, the people who are attracted to Trump who might consider themselves Christians are people who don’t normally attend church, you could call them cultural Christians.  As Douthat notes, they have the language of the faith, but they are not connected to the institutions that could offer them help in hard times.  Their faith has the words of Christianity, but without the church.

The importance of this is that it reminds all of us Christians- evangelical or not- of the importance of church going.  I don’t know how it’s being viewed in evangelicalism, but there is at times a sense within progressive/mainline Christianity that going to church is not the main thing.  In fact, we have pushed people out of the churches and into the community, but we’ve done it at the time where people need it the most.

Church is the place where we are formed to be followers of Jesus.  It is a lifelong learning process, where we learn of the importance to love God and neighbor.  For those on the outer edges of American life, just trying to scrape by, Trump is able to latch on to those last fading embers of Christian faith and inject his own agenda.  But for those who go to church on a regular basis, they know that Trumps’ statements on Mexicans, women, Muslims and whoever else Trump doesn’t like is contrary to what the Bible teaches.

Does that mean that there aren’t evangelicals that go to church every Sunday and are voting for Trump?  Yes. Is that a problem?  Definitely. (Read comments from evangelicals like Russell Moore and  Peter Wehner about the that issue.) But it seems that the real decider on Trump is based on how often the person goes to church.

There are many that want to believe that evangelicals are every kind of evil imaginable. (I will add that there are many who think that mainline/progressive Christians are every kind of evil imaginable as well.)  But the picture is always more complex than we would like it to be.

But while churchgoing evangelicals are not going for Trump, it is important to note that the percentage of church going Christians has been going down.  A recent Vox article shares the numbers:

From 2007 to 2012, there was a 5 percentage point drop in the number of people who said they were Christian, according to a Pew Research study. The number went from 78 percent of Americans to 73 in just five years.

But it’s not just that fewer people are identifying as Christian; it’s that even the people who still identify as such are going to church less frequently — and as we see in the Trump polling, this matters.

Less people going to church means more people falling sway to other gods.

It is having actual communities where people gather and worship God that can be an innoculant against the wiles of Trumpism and any other isms in our world. This is why we need churches; as places where people are formed and also as communities of resistance against the ways of the world.

The Revenge of the Rednecks

Every election year in America is interesting, but 2016 is going to be one for the history books. When real estate mogul Donald Trump started his campaign last summer I was among many that thought it was a joke.  When he started portraying Mexican immigrants as rapists, it seemed his campaign would sputter early.  I thought the same thing after he slandered Senator John McCain for getting captured during Vietnam. Or when said sexist things about Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly.  Or…

You get the idea.  Things that would have sunk more traditional candidates have only made Trump stronger, not weaker.  And many of us are left scratching our heads as to why this man has such strong followers, especially after he has said horrible things such as deporting all 11 million people here illegaly or banning Muslims from entering our country.  Who in the world would support a man that is nothing more than a nationalist that peddles soft core bigotry?

It’s a question many are wondering.  Among churches, there are many that scratch their heads as to why anyone on God’s green earth someone would support someone like Trump. Evangelical leaders are especially troubled . Some go as far as to think that those evangelicals who support Trump aren’t really evangelicals at all.

But since I run with mainline/progressive Protestants, I am interested in what they think. The answer is pretty simple: they think Trumpistas are ignorant racists.  Here is what Tim Suttle has to say:

CNN recently conducted 150 interviews at Trump rallies in 31 cities. The results paint a picture of supporters who are largely white, angry, scared, and united by intense dislike for President Obama. Much of the outrage clusters around issues of race. Hatred toward Obama stems from the sense that he cares more about blacks than whites, and that he is too friendly toward Muslims (along with the Trump-birthers who still think he’s a secret Muslim). Supporters outside Trump rallies chant, “Hey, hey. Ho, ho. All the Muslims have to go!” Backlash against the Black Lives Matter protests fuel many other Trump supporters. Frustration with underemployment or lack of opportunity has been directed toward hispanic immigrants. There is a sense that, as one supporter claimed, “No one’s looking out for the white guy anymore.”

Now Suttle doesn’t say that they are racists and that’s that. He does think they are focused on the wrong enemies.

But mainline and evangelical leaders do tend to lump Trump voters into one box, the box that says these voters are racist, xenophobic, uneducated rabble.

I don’t doubt that a number of Trump supporters are racists and xenophobes.  Anyone who can’t see that is blind.  But that said, I wonder if those of us in the mainline churches are missing something.  Are we not seeing why they might be attracted to Trump? And are we not seeing how we have treated these people and in some way has pushed them to choose a reality TV show star?

Trump has exposed something that we Americans are loathe to talk about and that is class.  As hard as it is to talk about race in America, we like to pretend class doesn’t exist.  But the fact is,it does and it shows itself in how middle and upper income Americans look at low income Americans, especially those who are poor and white. The well educated in American society tend to view the working class, especially the white working class with contempt.  British writer Clive Crook has noticed that coming from class-conscious Britain didn’t prepare him for the way the working class is treated in America:

I’m a British immigrant, and grew up in a northern English working-class town. Taking my regional accent to Oxford University and then the British civil service, I learned a certain amount about my own class consciousness and other people’s snobbery. But in London or Oxford from the 1970s onwards I never witnessed the naked disdain for the working class that much of America’s metropolitan elite finds permissible in 2016.

When my wife and I bought some land in West Virginia and built a house there, many friends in Washington asked why we would ever do that. Jokes about guns, banjo music, in-breeding, people without teeth and so forth often followed. These Washington friends, in case you were wondering, are good people. They’d be offended by crass, cruel jokes about any other group. They deplore prejudice and keep an eye out for unconscious bias. More than a few object to the term, “illegal immigrant.” Yet somehow they feel the white working class has it coming.

But this attitude isn’t just found among the elite Washington set. It is found especially among the mainline/progressive churches.

For all the talk of inclusion, most mainline churches tend to reflect the culture they were born in, that is the middle and upper classes. The people who attend local and national meetings tend to be well-educated folk. When we plant churches, we tend to go after white hipsters and(maybe) persons of color. Working class whites? Forget about it.

Four years ago, I shared that for all the justice and peace talk, mainline Christians had a class problem:

I don’t think the people who make up most mainline churches, who tend to be from a more professional background don’t like these folks very much.  I know this, because I hear how pastors talk about working class whites in meetings with other pastors, and I can tell you they aren’t looking at them as some kind of salt of the earth figure.  I’ve also heard it from people in the pews of mainline churches as well: this kind of contempt for them.
We look down at them because we see them as racist, homophobic, sexist and any other -ist and -ism that you can think of them.  The thing is that working class whites can be all these things, but they are more than that as well.  As Packer notes in his essay, these are people who see very little hope and take it out on everyone for their lot in life.
When we talk about planting new churches to reach young adults, we mostly mean reaching people of the same socio-economic class that we are a part of.  As much as we want to talk about caring about the poor and the workers, I sometimes wonder how accepting we are of those that actually fit this description.  How willing would folks be to accepting a man or woman that you can tell has lived a hard life and whose moral life is kind of a mess?
My own opinion is that the mainline church has a class issue and we don’t know it or at least don’t want to acknowledge it.  A good number of the mainline churches I know exhibit the values of the middle and upper middle classes.  We don’t have any way to connect culturally with the working class.

Which is maybe why Trump has such a following among the white working class. They don’t like him because of his positions on say health care, but that he that he stands up to the upper class. Crook notes:

…contrary to reports, the Trump supporters I’m talking about aren’t fools. They aren’t racists either. They don’t think much would change one way or the other if Trump were elected. The political system has failed them so badly that they think it can’t be repaired and little’s at stake. The election therefore reduces to an opportunity to express disgust. And that’s where Trump’s defects come in: They’re what make him such an effective messenger.

The fact that he’s outrageous is essential. (Ask yourself, what would he be without his outrageousness? Take that away and nothing remains.) Trump delights mainly in offending the people who think they’re superior — the people who radiate contempt for his supporters. The more he offends the superior people, the more his supporters like it. Trump wages war on political correctness. Political correctness requires more than ordinary courtesy: It’s a ritual, like knowing which fork to use, by which superior people recognize each other.

Crook ends up saying that the vote for Trump is a protest over the lack of respect.

Of course, there is also an economic reason for the rise of Trump. Thomas Edsall and Charles Murray have some good analysis at what has happened in the economy that gave us the Donald.  What happened in my hometown of Flint, Michigan is something that happened around the country: we had a massive deindustrialization starting in the 70s that made life challenging for the working class. African Americans and other minorities were hit hard.  However, even during hard times, these groups had one institution that was there for them: the church.  For the white working class, there is nothing to rely on, not even the church.  In both its evangelical and mainline forms, American Protestantism has abandoned the white working class.

An example of this took place in my hometown. I started to notice something happening in Flint, starting in the 1980s and continuing to the present day.  One by one, many of the mainline churches in the city started closing. Part of this is because of the shrinking of the city and the shrinking of mainline denominations.  For African Americans in this majority black city, there was always the black church to help them in the challenging times.  That’s still the case today. Was that the case with working class whites. I don’t know.  I know that evangelical churches have stayed either in the city limits or nearby, but when it came to the church that prided itself in social justice and caring for the least of these, mainline churches were nowhere to be found. Conservative political writer Yuval Levin wrote what is happening in this new lower class in a 2012 article:

The formation of the “new lower class,” meanwhile, amounts to nothing short of a cataclysmic cultural disintegration. Among this group, the family is falling apart—with marriage rates for people between ages 30 and 50 plummeting from 84 percent in 1960 to 48 percent today, and only 37 percent of children living with both of their biological parents. Religious practice and belief are sharply declining: About 4 percent of Americans in Murray’s lower class reported having no religion in the early 1970s; today the proportion is greater than 20 percent. Industriousness is falling, especially among men: The share of lower-class households with a full-time worker dropped from 81 percent to 60 percent in the past half-century, while the number of men claiming to be disabled and unable to work has grown five-fold. Lawfulness has plummeted: Crime rates among this group exploded between 1960 and 1990, and although they have since declined some, much of that decline appears to have been caused by far higher incarceration rates, which hardly constitutes a sustainable solution.

Long story short, when things are going bad for you, when the upper class looks at you as nothing more than stupid racists, when institutions like the church are not to be found, maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that these folk go for a guy that tells them that it’s the fault of Mexicans or Muslims for their plight.

As the 2016 campaign rolls on, I think that mainline churches really need to look at themselves.  How are they reaching out to the down and out? We are good in talking about being with the poor, but the hard reality is that the mainline churches are geared towards the “creative class,” and not towards all people. (Don’t get me started on how mainline churches are really only interested in tokenism among people of color.) We have to ask ourselves if we truly believe these people are people that God loves and seek ways to reach them, not just politically, but spiritually, giving them churches that can help them weather the storms of life. What the white working class needs is the same thing poor African Americans need: dignity.

But this means being real about how mainline churches have given lip service to the poor and working class while making sure their upper class compatroits are doing well. It means setting up churches in areas where the Tex Sample’s “hard living” folk live.

Much of the 2016 election year for Christians has been about either denouncing Donald Trump or outright frustration that Christians, evangelicals especially, are so enamoured with a candidate that is authoritarian and borderline racist.  There has been much written about denouncing Trump and to some extent denouncing his supporters.  There is an important case to be made for that.  Trump is too dangerous to be allowed to occupy the highest office in the land. But I also know that Jesus hung out with a rough crowd that didn’t set will with religious leaders.  If Jesus can do this, then it might mean we have to as well, to reach out and offer hope- not to accept their prejudices, but to meet them where they are and start knitting them into the larger whole.

I end with something I wrote in 2012 about this topic.  It sill carries relevance today:

There are policy answers to what’s going on here, but there are also spiritual issues going on here. We should be reading this and wondering how we can give them a word of hope?  How to do we let them know that God loves them and cares about them?  How does the church reach out and help them?  How do we stop talking about the poor or the down and out and actually get to know them in all their complexity?
I don’t know what is the answer here, but I do think we in the mainline church need to find ways to know these people and welcome them into our churches warts and all.  I think it might be what God would want us to do.

 

 

Sermon: Mr. Congeniality

Mark 12:1-12
Third Sunday in Lent
February 28, 2016
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

 

Ever since I was little, I’ve had an interest in politics, especially during presidential years.  I can remember as a seven year old, sitting in my second grade class and having a mock election.  It was 1976, so the kids were asked to vote between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.  I remember Ford won in our class, he wasn’t so lucky in the real general election.

 

So, I was looking forward to this coming election.  Emphasis on the word, was.  I wish the election were as fun as it was 40 years ago, but this election is not turning out to be fun at all.

 

While I like to follow politics, I don’t like to talk about it at church.  I do that for a number of reasons.  The first is that Jesus is Lord. Our love for Christ must come before being a Democrat or a Republican. I also believe that because we believe God’s table is for everyone, I believe we must be welcoming to all regardless of party affiliation.

 

But I think I have to say something about this election, especially since the Minnesota caucus is two days away.  I’m not here to tell you who to vote for or even what my own party affilation is (though if you look at my Facebook feed, you would know).

 

I have to say something about one particular person, Donald Trump.  As everyone knows he is running for President.  When he started his campaign back in the summer of 2015, most everyone thought his campaign was a joke.  Now in March, on the verge of becoming the presumptive Republican nominee, we are no longer laughing.  

 

It’s been hard to figure out why Mr. Trump seems to be doing so well.  It’s certainly not because of his policies, which are paper thin.  What has been particularly head-scratching is that he has said things that would have sunk the campaigns of other people.  What is troubling is his character. He has made fun Senator John McCain’s imprisionment. He made fun of two persons with disabilities.  He has made sexist comments about a woman journalist.  He has called Mexicans rapists. He has said that he wants to ban Muslims, including Muslims who are Americans, from entering the company. He wants to deport all 12 million illegal immigrants in America.  None of this is something he said when the mikes were on but he didn’t know it, or off the record. No, he has said all of this live, in front of people and news cameras. I haven’t even talked about the fact that white nationalist groups are campaigning for him, including recording robocalls that have been heard in Minnesota. As Max Lucado, a well-known evangelical pastor said this week, Trump lacks decency and that matters in the White House and in life in general.

 

David Brooks, the conservative columnist notes that the rise of Trump is because of the rise of anti-politics, a sense that the other side is not just wrong, but evil. The other side is not acknowledged. Political writer Eliot Cohen says that a major reason for Trump is moral rot. For him, it’s one thing to be a jerk in private, but in public there is supposed to be a certain way to act, with respect. He notes that President Franklin Roosevelt named a finished large dam after the person he beat in the 1932 general election Republican President Herbert Hoover.  Considering how much Trump loves to put his name everywhere, I’m pretty sure he would not do the same thing.

 

So what does this have to do with today’s text?  Jesus tells a story of a man who plants a vineyards and then rents it out to tenants.  He goes away for a while.  After a while, it’s time to collect the rent, so he sends one of his servants.  The tenants decide at this point that they don’t want to pay rent and beat him up.  The landlord sends another servant and he is beaten up.  He sends a third and that one was killed.  This goes on for a while- the landlord sends a servant to collect the rent and the tenants either injure the servant or outright kill him.

 

Finally, the owner decides to send his only son.  His son was the sole heir to this land.  This point was not lost on the tenants.  As they see the son coming from a distance, they see this as a chance to get the land.  In that day, if an owner has no heirs, the land can go to the tenants.  The tenants had wanted the land all to themselves and this was their chance.  

 

When the landowner’s son arrives, the seize him, kill him and in a sign of ultimate disrespect, they throw his body outside of the vineyard.  

 

The landlord hears of this and is enranged.  Jesus says that the next thing that happens is that the owner will send people to come and punish the tenants and when I say punish, I mean kill. Judgement came to the tenants.

 

The problem with tenants is there sense of not thinking of others.  As I said, Trump is a sign of a culture go awry.  We are a society where we view those who are different with fear and contempt.  Where liberals and conservatives were able to compromise, they now look at each other with hatred and think life would be better without the other.

 

The workers thought that because they worked on the land, they had a right to the land an the owner had no right.  They were willing to do whatever it takes to prove that point, even if it meant killing the landlords son.

 

This parable was meant as a warning to the religious leaders of Jesus time.  They were the type of people that took pride in their following of the law, not caring much for how other were or were not able to follow along.  Jesus, predicting his death, knew that these leaders would reject him and would seek his death.  This parable itself is a take on a older text from Isaiah 5 called the Song of the Vineyard where the writer likens Israel to a vineyard that grows rotten grapes.  The gardener was so upset he decided to let the garden grow wild, to be left to its own devices.  The vineyeard was Israel and it wasn’t following the ways of God so God was ready to give them up to face the consequences of their actions, which happened in due time.

 

We live in a time where civility is nearly gone.  We seek to be with like-minded people and not encounter anyone who has a different view.  Our college kids want safe spaces where they don’t have to hear different opinions.

 

We shouldn’t be surprised that someone like Trump has appeared; we have prepared the ground for his seeds to germinate and grow.

 

This is the time for the church to be counted. We need to be a witness for character, because that matters- in our church and in our world.  We should expect our leaders to be people of care for others.  For the most part, most of our recent Presidents: Ford, Carter, Regan, the elder Bush, Clinton, the younger Bush and Obama have all governed with decency and honor.  You might have disagreed with their policies, but they were people who worked with a respect for the office and for the people they were sent to govern.  As followers of Jesus, we should speak out when there are people who seek to lead from a position of hatred, meaness and selfishness.  None of these are godly virtues; they are the characteristics of the tenants, people who thought only of themsleves, only in having more and saw others as being in the way of what they want.

 

As we walk through our Lenten series Purple Reign, we are reminded that the king that we serve, Jesus Christ, was one that treated others with respect, especially those that are forgotten.  He crossed political and social boundaries to share his message.  He gave up his life to save the lives of others.  These are the values, the aspects of character that we should be looking for in leaders.

 

The parable ends with the tenants facing judgement.  This is not something we should look forward with glee.  The God we serve is one that shows love even to those who don’t deserve it.  But flagrant violations of virtues cannot go unchallenged.  The tenants came to a point where they had to face the consequences.

 

This Tuesday, I will go to my caucus. And I will vote against Trump.  If he becomes the Republican nominee, I will not support him. I can’t tell you how you should vote.  I won’t tell you how to vote.  But as you go to your caucus, be mindful that we are called to care for others. I pray that you will not act like the tenants.

 

Dear church, it is time to be a witness for Christ.  Thanks be to God. Amen.