2020, God and Flint, Michigan

The year 2020 hasn’t ended yet. Unfortunately, we still have a few days in the year. Very few of us will be looking back fondly on this year of a pandemic with over a quarter of a million dead, tons of canceled events, massive numbers of jobs lost, racial strife, and an incredibly divisive election that did damage to democracy. There was nothing good about the year 2020.

Right?

A few years I was back in my hometown of Flint, Michigan. As I drove down Dort Highway on the east side of town a memory came back to me. The memory was from the 1970s when I was in grade school. Up and down Dort Highway, auto carrier trucks would lumber down the road. The trucking company had it’s main garage on this side of town and you would see truck after truck filled with Buicks and Chevrolets going to all points. That memory came back to me forty years later because as I drove down this road, I realized that those carriers no longer lumbered down the road. They hadn’t driven on that road for years. It was a reminder that things had changed.

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One of the ubiquitous car carriers with Buicks in the early 1970s. Photo by Dan Dosser.

What changed in Flint was the massive downsizing of General Motors over the last 30 years or so. In the late 70s, General Motors had 80,000 employees in the Flint area that worked for them. Today, there are around 8,000.

Such a massive change brought changes in Flint as well. Once well-kept houses were now trashed. Stores closed and people moved away. The city has gone through two periods where they were deep in debt and the state had to come in to help right the ship. One of the times the state intervened led to the now-infamous Flint Water Crisis where the water supply became contaminated with lead. Flint had a population of nearly 200,000 in 1970, shortly after I was born. Today it is around 99,000. The city that I grew up in was prosperous. It wasn’t perfect, but people took care of their homes and life seemed great. That Flint no longer exists. All that’s left are the memories.

I’m a minister, so it’s not a surprise I would go to the Bible to see if there are any parallel situations we could learn from. Turns out there is a powerful example. The Israelites came back from exile and had to face that the good old days were long gone. The book of Ezra focuses on homecoming. The Southern Kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians around 585BC. It was a Babylonian policy to drive the people from the land to another place. So for 50 years, the Israelites had to make a living in a faraway land. During the exile, Babylon fell. In its place, a new empire took over: Persia. It was during the reign of the Persian King Cyrus that it was decided that anyone who wanted to could go back to their homeland and live. Their homeland would be under Persian control, but it would still be home. So, a number of folks decide to make the journey back.

The Israelites return to find Jerusalem in ruins and their temple, the center of Jewish life was destroyed. It was time to rebuild. It took a while, but after a while, the temple was completed. When the people of Israel came together at this momentous occasion, something interesting happened. Among the young who had no memory of Judah and Solomon’s temple, there was excitement. They now were home and had a place to worship God.

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Flint’s 235-acre complex known as Buick City was in operation from 1904 until 1999. The facility was demolished in the early aughts. Public domain.

But the older Israelites were sad. They knew of the splendor of Jerusalem of old. They had memories of the old temple and this wasn’t it. This temple was a bit smaller than the old one. It certainly wasn’t as fancy as Solomon’s temple. For these folk, they could only feel a profound sense of loss. The grandeur of the old temple, with the Ark of the Covenant, was never coming back. The days when Israel was a free and prosperous nation were long gone. They had to live in this new reality, and it paled in comparison to their memories.

Change happens. But just because it happens, doesn’t mean it is always welcomed and it can be quite painful. Change can be bewildering and scary. For those Israelites that had memories of their grand past (which wasn’t all that grand), it was hard to face reality. That’s why 2020 has been so difficult. These days people cling to familiar or live in extreme denial. Everything that we once knew, everything that seemed certain is now no gone. Nostalgia tells us we can go back to what things once were. It gives us a sense of safety and comfort when the world has changed.

But nostalgia is tricking us. We can’t go back. We can only go forward. We can’t regain the past, we can only reach for the future. Easier said than done.

While we can’t go back in time, and neither could those Israelites. When we go back to that festival in the book of Ezra, we find something interesting. The cries of joy and pain were so that no one could tell the difference. The passage never says that the old Israelites were wrong to weep. It just says they weep. They are happy to be back home after decades away and they are hopeful in seeing a rebuilt temple even if it isn’t as grand as the old temple. But in the midst of their joy is a lot of pain. For them, this wasn’t a time that was simply joy or simply pain, it was both. It was bittersweet.

Bittersweet. What better word could define 2020? We’ve lost a lot in 2020. There is nothing wrong in grieving for that which we lost. We mourn because we can’t be near the ones we love. We mourn because we live in a new reality that pales in comparison to the old. The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is one that has changed all of our lives and we are left with a lot of bitterness because we have lost the life we once had and maybe people we loved.

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Volunteers in Minneapolis clean up the ruins of an Arby’s restaurant that was burned down in the riots that followed the killing of George Floyd. Photo by Dennis Sanders.

But there is also sweetness in this year that we see as so dark. And it has truly been dark. But there have also been signs of hope in this long year. It’s the people who would clap for first responders. Or the grandmother that lives next door to me that gave up her job so she could be there for her grandchildren as they took part in distance learning. It was the army of volunteers that I saw in Minneapolis with brooms in hand trying to clean up parts of the town that were overcome by rioters in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. It was the communities of faith that had to learn how to pivot and become virtual overnight and still find ways to be church while apart. It was people visiting with friends over Zoom or socially distanced outside in the summer air. It’s the sign of those trucks filled with vaccines for COVID-19 rolling out of those warehouses in Michigan. There is a lot of pain to be found in 2019, but there is also much joy.

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Flint Farmers Market. September 2018. Photo by Dennis Sanders.

I still miss not seeing those auto carriers as they made their way down Dort Highway. I miss what it represents. I miss that old Flint. But that is not the only story about Flint. There is another story of hope that is growing up right alongside this sad story of decline. If you walk down Saginaw Street, the main drag downtown, you will see some change taking place. For a long time, downtown Flint wasn’t a place you really went to unless you had business to do. But as I walked down the street that late summer day, I saw a number of cafes with outdoor seating available. The area seemed to be buzzing with activity. We could walk over to the Flint Farmer’s Market which moved into new digs in downtown. Nearby, the University of Michigan-Flint continues to grow, bringing in students not only from Flint, but from around the world. Another university has bought up property nearby and are working at beautifying the area. This is the new Flint, one centered on what some have called “Eds and Meds” meaning the focus is on education and medicine. This is still a Flint in process. I have no idea what’s coming down the pike for my hometown, but it’s fascinating to see this new Flint come up from the ground. So, even when my heart sinks passing by the old Buick plant where my Dad worked for nearly 40 years and stare at a barren field, there is also a sense of hope because there is something new taking the place of the old. There is still a lot to be done in the city, but it looks like maybe my hometown will have a future, after all. It’s just not the one that most of us who grew up in the old Flint are accustomed to. There is sadness at what has been lost, but a slight sense of wonder about the green shoots starting to appear.

We need to grieve what has been lost in 2020, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have joy as well. Life is many times a mix of happy and sad times. We need to feel them both.

Featured image: The first Chevy Corvettes roll of the line in Flint, Michigan- June 1953. Photo courtesy of Chevrolet.

This essay originally appeared at Medium.

Why I Like Lillian Daniel.

I really like Lillian Daniel.  Really.

Why, you ask?  Because in 2011 she said something that many mainline Christians have been thinking, but were too afraid to say outloud.   In 2011 Daniel wrote an article with the very provocative title: “Spiritual, But Not Religious?  Please Stop Boring Me.”  If you think this was a rant, well, you’re right.  Daniel basically tore into those folks that have been called “Spiritual But Not Religious” or SBNR.  The article went viral and it’s easy to see why.  Here’s what she said reflecting on a visit with a gentleman on an airplane:

On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is “spiritual but not religious.” Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.

Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet?

Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

After this article and a longer one written for the Christian Century, Daniel wrote an entire book on the subject which just came out: When ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ Is Not Enough.”  Her article last year drew some criticism from younger pastors such as Adam Copeland.  Now that the book is out, we are hearing more criticism, this time from Presbyterian minister Landon Whittsit.  He thinks Daniel is just being mean to the SBNRs and only focusing on Church Folk:

Does she truly believe that an SBNR/None is going to read her book? I would be surprised if she did. I doubt that those who are (in her words) “shunning faith” are going to be bothered to obtain a copy. And even if the marketing machine gets the book some press in the media, what does she expect the net result to be? That they will see the error of their ways and come running home to Mother Church? I think not.

I contend that she wrote this book for Church Folk. And, in so doing, she is giving a wink and a nod to those who Tripp Hudgins eloquently calls “religionists.” While ostensibly calling the bluff of the SBNRs/Nones, she is actually shaming the very people she is purporting to want to help.

And this is where my beef with Rev. Daniel truly lies: She is shaming the very people that would benefit from what the Church has to offer. It is one thing to preach this to your own people, whom you know and trust and who know and trust you. It is entirely another thing to go on a media spree of mean.

Whittsit says that Daniel has the SBNRs all wrong and links to an SBNR to prove his point.  Actually, I think he proves Daniel’s point much better, but here is what Rachelle Mee Chapman says about her task in life:

After spending tens of thousands of dollars getting a master’s degree in Theology. After fighting to get ordained as a woman. After 30+ years in the church, and 15 years serving at one particular, belov-ed church. After all of this, I said goodbye to ordained ministry.

The practices of my youth stopped working for me. My beliefs had sprung links. The religion I once wore as my most prized possession started to pinch around the middle. It was sad, and I felt lost.

Magpie Girl helped me find my way. While I was living in Copenhagen, eight black magpies nested on the rooftops outside my studio window. The cawed and they cried. They were bright eyed. They were not silent. “Eight for a wish…” says the old nursery rhyme, eight for a wish. And I was wishing. For a new way. For a new home. For a new tribe.

I gather the people who are creating a new way, and I give them a place to call home.

Listen friends, what I want to tell you is this:

  • I believe you can write your own creed.

  • I believe that art + spirituality are good bedfellows.

  • I believe the institution doesn’t get to call the shots.

  • I believe you deserve a spirituality that fits. One that is authentic to who you are today, rooted in the best parts of your heritage, and creative enough to grow with you.

  • I believe you don’t have to bite your tongue, my bright-eyed magpie, because you have a voice. (And the world needs you to sing from the rooftops.)

Okay.

There is so much wrong with this that I don’t know where to begin.  I could probably write a series of posts on this, but I will leave it at this: what I read seemed to be proof of Daniel’s criticism, that some of these SBNRs are repackaging hyperindividualism as some kind of grand mysterious faith.  No, it’s not.  You just went to the WalMart of spirituality and borrowed from a few different faiths (the parts that make sense to you, of course) and then made it sound like it was all your own doing.  Please.

I don’t get why some pastors are so enthralled with the SBNRs.  I’m all for engaging those who are seeking something larger them themselves, but I am not interested or willing to engage someone who is only interested in their own words.  In a post from 2011, I share my own frustrations with SBNRs:

In my encounters with folk, I’ve met people who will tell me their interest in church.  They might include that they have been excluded for some reason, more often than not, sexual orientation.  They seem interested in being part of this faith community or at least a faith community.  But when it comes down to it, they never delve any further and seldom come back.  In my earlier days I might think this was the soley the congregation’s fault, but now I think some people are just lazy when it comes to faith.  I’m more than willing to present a tolerant and inclusive faith.  As a gay man, I want to show that yes, we are part of the church and that we are loved by God.  But I am not interested in playing games or in trying to make the church fit someone’s shallow faith.  Following Jesus is a challenge and not for the faint of heart.

On the other side, I’ve met people in church who are not perfect, whose lives are falling apart and who come and encounter Jesus and be the church.  They may not have all the answers, but they have a sturdy faith.

As a pastor, I want to be open to those who are interested in following Christ.  Christ did welcome all, but he had no patience for excuses.  When a potential follower wanted to follow Christ, but said he would come after he buried his father, Jesus told him to let the dead bury their own dead.  Not nice, but Jesus was serious.  He didn’t have time for niceties.

This has probably made me sound like the most bigoted pastor around and that’s not my intent.  I want to welcome all as Christ did, but I don’t have time for games anymore.  I’m too old for that.

I get that God can be found in places other than the church.  I get that the church has done some terrible things.  I get all that.  But God can also be found in a church.  God can be found in the imperfect people who make up that church and who care for each other and those outside of the walls of the church because they learned about how Jesus cared for others.  I see God in those same people when tragedy strikes.  When a wife dies in a car accident.  When they get a diagnosis of cancer.  When their month old baby dies.  I see their faith in action in those dark times and I can tell you it ain’t no faith in sunsets.

For some strange reason, Jesus entrusted the church to people.  He entrusted it to us.  As flawed and even hurtful as the church can be, it can also be a place of warmth and healing.  We see God at work in and through these fragile, broken people, the ones that have a faith that is ancient and able to withstand the storms of life.

As I said in 2011, I want to present those who have felt left out by the church with the love of Jesus.  What I won’t do is tolerate those who are so wrapped up in themselves that they can’t think straight.

And if someone starts talking about seeing God in sunsets in the airplane seat next to me, I’m asking to be moved.

About That Interview…

Some of you might have noticed that there is an article in the most recent Christian Century with a Disciples pastor in Minneapolis by the name of Dennis Sanders.  I haven’t said much about it, but I wanted to provide some background to the article.

Steve Thorngate, the editor sent me an email over the summer asking if I would take part in the magazine’s series on ministry in the 21st century.  So began a number of emails back and forth, with Steve asking some really good questions and I trying to answer them as best as I could.

I do want to say thanks to Steve for being patient as I tried to answer his questions and for giving me the chance to think about my ministry.  There are a lot of good people that have been interviewed for the series.  I don’t know if I’m at the caliber of the other ministers, but I am glad to tell my story and the story of the wonderful church that I’m honored to serve.

Wow, People Do Read my Blog!

It turns out that I had one of the most popular posts on Christian Century’s Network Blogs in 2011!  I just happened to stumble on it.  The post was about the church as a social network and why it needs to be more than that.  You can read the post by going here.