Eugene Peterson and the Age of Shibboleths

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I don’t know when it happened, but I’ve become a walking, talking shibboleth.

A shibboleth is a word or custom that signifies who is in the ingroup and who is in the outgroup.  Think of it as an old fashioned version of virtue signaling.

Now, I didn’t personally become a shibboleth, but the fact that I am gay and in a same sex marriage does make me shibboleth in our neverending culture wars.  How one views same sex marriage either makes your virtuous or a sinner.

This past week, the pastor and author Eugene Peterson was interviewed this past week by journalist Jonathan Merritt.  Peterson is a well-known author and is most known for his version of the Bible, the Message.  During the interview, Merritt asked Peterson about his views on gays and lesbians in the church and if he would perform a same sex marriage.  Here’s what he said (the words of Merritt are in bold):

I wouldn’t have said this 20 years ago, but now I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do. I think that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over. People who disapprove of it, they’ll probably just go to another church. So we’re in a transition and I think it’s a transition for the best, for the good. I don’t think it’s something that you can parade, but it’s not a right or wrong thing as far as I’m concerned.

RNS: A follow-up: If you were pastoring today and a gay couple in your church who were Christians of good faith asked you to perform their same-sex wedding ceremony, is that something you would do?

EP: Yes.

This set off alarm bells among evangelicals who are some of his fans and it caused people to speculate about his motivations. Writing in First Things, Samuel James thought his change of heart was about trying to be accepted by a changing society:

Says Peterson, “I wouldn’t have said this twenty years ago, but now I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do. I think that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over.” Why is the “debate” over? Because the LGBT people Peterson knows are good, spiritual people. How can that knowledge—not the knowledge of doctrine, but the knowledge of human beings—comport with an antiquated definition of chastity and marriage? What use are theological disputations when it comes to looking real gays and lesbians in the face, living with and loving them, and affirming their humanity and worth?

The question for our generation is increasingly not, “Is this doctrine true or false?” Rather, the question is, “Can I live with it out there?”

He continues rather pointedly:

What I wish people like Eugene Peterson would see is that there is no safe corner of the Christian story that is completely intuitive or unfailingly neighborly. Every element of the Gospel can and will grate against our modern sense of “real life.” If the doctrine of marriage is untenable in “real life,” what doctrines are tenable? “Real life” doesn’t teach us to desire the good of our enemies. It teaches us to shame them, on either Puritan scaffolds or progressive college campuses. “Real life” doesn’t support the notion that justice will ultimately prevail. It reinforces our sense that we must kill or be killed. There’s no intersection of Christ and culture that finally finds both running parallel all the way to glory.

Russell Moore wrote a more softer article expressing disapointment, but also seeing that good that Peterson has brought to his life.

His statement was could have cost him literally. Lifeway, the national Christian bookstore chain, was ready to stop selling Peterson’s books in their stores.

The rancor made him retract his words a short time later. He wrote:

“I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything. . . . When put on the spot by this particular interviewer, I said yes in the moment. But on further reflection and prayer, I would like to retract that. That’s not something I would do out of respect to the congregation, the larger church body, and the historic biblical Christian view and teaching on marriage. That said, I would still love such a couple as their pastor. They’d be welcome at my table, along with everybody else.”

He might have been recieved back into the good graces of evangelicals, but now he pissed off progressive Christians who saw him as greedy, feeble-minded or uncaring. Rachel Held Evans apologized to the LGBTQ community for Peterson’s reversal.

Another writer said Peterson was selfish and greedy:

A man who wrote one of the most popular interpretations of the Bible said my son and his peers are equal. So equal that he would perform wedding ceremonies for them. A bookstore chain run by a Christian denomination says it will cost him money. When he realizes it will cost him money, my son’s life does not matter.
Equality does not matter to him. Civil rights does not matter. Bullycide does not matter. Suicidal ideations, increased violence and sexual assault to LGBTQIA youth does not matter. What matters is the bottom line of the bank account.
Now, let’s take a look at who runs this bookstore chain? The SBC was founded in the 1840’s to protect their precious Bible from the threat of abolitionists. That’s right, to them slavery was biblical. More recently the SBC made the news because they had controversy over an issue. That issue? Should they condemn the actions and philosophies of the alt right.

The SBC is the nation’s largest protestant denomination. Historically founded to fight for slavery as a biblical principle. This same group had to discuss the merits of condemning white supremacists. They are also anti LGBTQIA. And they own a chain of bookstores.

This is who Eugene Peterson relies on to sell his Bibles. He needs their money more than he needs the strength of conviction to say my son is equal.

As a gay Christian man in a same sex marriage, I have to call bullshit on both sides.

For conservatives, it seems like people are willing to love and adore a pastor’s teachings- as long as he adheres to their viewpoint. If he doesn’t he is to be treated as if he said Jesus was equal to Bozo the Clown.

But Progressives don’t fare better. They loved this guy the moment he said his initial statement, but when he retracted, people were swearing to never use the Message Bible and deem him a greedy SOB who doesn’t care LGBTQ persons are dying.

This is why I say I am now a shibboleth. How you look at me and my marriage determines whether a group will love you or condemn you.

Would I have like him to stick to his guns on same sex marriage?  Yes.  Am I dissapointed that he retracted? Yes.  But that’s one flaw in a person that has a lot of good to share.

As gay rights move forward in our society, we aren’t learning to live and let live.  All of the knives are out and we are looking for someone to say anything that is against their views and getting ready to punish that person.

To conservative Christians: what does it say that you seem to be willing to just dump someone because of one paragraph in an interview?  Is it more important that he follow toe the line on this issue than it is to judge his whole character?

And now progressive Christians:  What happened to grace?  What happened to praying for someone like Peterson, for courage and strength?  Are you going to stop reading his books for one stupid loss of nerve?

It feels like people on both sides are playing for keeps and there is very, very little room for love. Peterson stopped being a flesh and blood and imperfect human being and became the latest pawn in the culture wars. As a tweetstorm said this week, “We see people as collections of beliefs and ideas, which makes it easy to avoid seeing the whole person.”

In the real world, I know people who I know think I’m engaged in sin.  And I think they are very wrong.  But I still keep relationship with them because it is important to see them as more than their view on this one issue.  There is a lot that we can agree on beyond sexuality.

No matter if we are evangelicals or mainline Christians, we are called to love one another.  And that means loving people even when we disagree.

Love doesn’t excuse sin, but it should make us look at each other differently. Let’s put down the shibboleths and learn to love one another.

God Mend Thy Every Flaw

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One of the ironic things about me is that two of my favorite holidays are civil and not religious: Independence Day and Thanksgiving.  In the circles that I run in, those two holidays are also the most fraught because of America’s ….complex history when it comes to the treatment of African Americans and Native Americans. As an African American, I get that.  I can’t see America without its darker sides, because to do so would erase my own history.

An article from Reuters talks about how persons of color can see the 4th of Julybout how persons of color can see the 4th of July:

As many in the United States celebrate the Fourth of July holiday, some minorities have mixed feelings about the revelry of fireworks and parades in an atmosphere of tension on several fronts.

How do you celebrate during what some people of color consider troubling times?

Blacks, Latinos and immigrant rights advocates say the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, recent non-convictions of police officers charged in the shootings of black men, and the stepped-up detentions of immigrants and refugees for deportation have them questioning equality and the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the United States.

In light of the recent acquittal in the death of Philando Castile and some of the threatening rhetoric coming from the White House, and well looking at America’s racist history it would be easy for me to say that this day means nothing to me and just accept that this country is not simply flawed but malignant.

But the thing is, I do love this country.  Now as a Christian, my love of country can’t be greater than my love of God, but I do have an affinity for this nation, even with its warts.

As Christians we believe that we are sinners saved by grace.  We are sinners who mess up, but we also seek to live justly.  America is a place where we talk about freedom and liberty and it is also a place where we sometimes don’t grant our fellow Americans either.  But the words in the Declaration of Independence are still true, even though America hasn’t lived up to those words.  Martin Luther King believed in the what the founding fathers said.  He believed them even though those beliefs were not always lived. He believed them so much that he demanded that America start practicing what it believed.  Here’s what he said in his famous “I Have a Dream Speech:”

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

In spite of everything, King believed in America, in its promise. He believed in it enough to call America out to live up to those words.

Fellow Disciples pastor Doug Skinner addressed the paradox that is America in a recent post.  He notes that growing up in the 1950s offered an America with god-like heroes like Washington and Jefferson.  Today, we have gone to the other side and look at America with a cynical view, one where the entire American project is suspect.  Skinner uses a number of writers to show that, echoing Martin Luther, America is both sinner and saint. He starts by sharing a recent television special with the cast from Hamilton.  Hamilton of course, follows founding father Alexander Hamilton during the early days of the nation.  The cast is made up of mostly African Americans and Latinos playing roles of people like Washington and Jefferson.  A question was asked about how to reconcile the greatness of these men while they owned slaves. The answer is interesting:

A while back I watched a PBS special about the Tony award winning Broadway Musical – “Hamilton.”   For some reason I find myself really interested in Broadway Musicals these days.  My favorite part of this particular special were the interviews with the actors, most of them people of color, who play the roles of our Founding Fathers, people who were mostly white, and slave-owners to boot.  At one point in the special, the actors were taken to some of the historical sites where the story that they dance and sing on stage each night actually took place.  At Mount Vernon, George Washington’s Virginia home, standing in what would have been the slave quarters of the Father of our Country, the actors were asked to reflect on their feelings about being there.

George Washington became a slave owner when he was just 11 years old and his father died leaving him ten slaves.   When he died 56 years later, George Washington owned 317 slaves.  And he wasn’t unique in this.  At least half of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were slave owners.  Slavery was America’s Original Sin, that and the wholesale extermination of the America’s original residents.

Playing people who were responsible for doing such things on stage, those “Hamilton” actors confessed to being awed by the nobility, heroism, and genius of these historic figures.  But as people of color, they also admitted to feeling deep in their bones the ugliness, the ignorance and the evil to which these historical figures were culpably blind and willing perpetrators.  “So, how do you reconcile this?” the interviewer of the Hamilton cast in this PBS special kept asking the actors who play the parts of Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and Burr.  And their response was simple, direct, and spiritually profound – “They’re both true”  – they said.

Skinner then starts talking in theological terms about how all of us, from people like George Washington to you and me, are sinners:

Instead of lines being drawn that divide us into good and bad categories, Doug Frank argued that what we probably should be drawing instead is a great big circle that takes us all in as sinners, and that positions us all squarely under the umbrella if God’s grace.  And this is precisely what I see Jesus doing in the familiar story of the woman taken in adultery that only the Gospel of John tells  (John 8:1-11).  The Pharisees drew a line.  Jesus drew a circle.  The Pharisees wanted to exclude the sinner. Jesus wanted to forgive the sin.  The Pharisees saw the situation in terms of right or wrong, good or bad, in or out.   Jesus looked at the women, and at her accusers, and what He saw instead was what the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther would much later call – “Simul justus et peccator” – the fact that we human beings are “simultaneously just or righteous, and sinful or pitiful.”  From the perspective of Reformation theology, the cast of “Hamilton” got it exactly right when they looked at the nobility of the ideals of our national founders and at the depravity of their actions as slave owners, and concluded that “they’re both true.” 

This is the kind of realism that needs to characterize the way that we as Christians both think about ourselves and look at others. The Bible harbors no illusions about human nature. It names both our potential for greatness and our capacity for corruption quite clearly.  The trick, it seems to me, is hanging onto these two parts of ourselves as human beings at the same time.

One my favorite patriotic hymns is America the Beautiful. The lyrics were actually a poem written by Katherine Lee Bates for the Congregationalist magazine in 1895. Church organist Samuel Ward add the music was added in 1910. Many artists have sang this song and I tend to believe the best version was by Ray Charles, but that’s just me.

The reason I like this song is because it mixes in the beauty of this nation, but it also seeks help from God to be a better nation than it is. The third verse is the one that I want to share:

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

America is not a perfect country. It hasn’t just made a few mistakes, it has endangered the lives of African Americans and Native Americans. It treated Japanese Americans as traitors because they shared the ethnic heritage of an enemy. Racism is a part of the American experience.

But it is also a nation that believed that everyone was equal even when they weren’t practicing it. That sense of equality has powered people to make America a better place.

I love America because of it’s ideas and because we try to live up to those ideas. We stumble and fall all the time. But I think we are trying to be better, fairer and more equal.

I need to love this flawed republic because I think some of the ideas that those founders believed in are under attack. You can’t challenge those who seek to weaken our cherised values if you don’t care about this country.

America isn’t God and it should not be worshipped. But when I flash my passport after coming in from travelling abroad, I pull it out with pride. I belong to a nation that believes that all of us are endowed by God by certain unalienable rights and this little books proves I am an American, that I believe in these ideas and will keep fighting for them for all who live in this crazy place called the United States of America.

I’ll end with a poem by Langston Hughes that talks about his country and how he belongs will strive for this:

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

I too, am America. I look to God to keep working through me to mend America’s flaws, so that everyone can say that “I, too, am America.

Happy Fourth.

Sermon: That’s Me In the Corner

Galatians 1:13-17; 2:15-21 and Luke 18:9-14
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Losing My Religion Sermon Series
May 21, 2016
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Click here to listen to the audio.

It’s been about two years since our congregation voted to become an Open and Affirming congregation, meaning that we openly welcome Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered persons into the life of our church.  I think that’s a good thing, but over the years even long before our vote, I’ve been wondering about the quality of the pro-inclusion argument.  Whenever I’ve seen people argue in favor of LGBT inclusion, the main thrust goes like this: Jesus hung around undesirable and marginalized people and so should we.  

 

I get what this message is trying to say, but it feels sort of a flippant answer and not really delving into the question.  Too often, people cherry pick Scripture to find some verse on inclusion and maybe throw in that the rest of society is more accepting of gays and so should we.  But the thing is, it really doesn’t answer the deep questions that issues like this bring up.  Who belongs to God?  And why?  How are we accepted by God?

 

In today’s text, Paul is teed off.  Something is taking place that has hurt the Gentiles who came into the faith.  A leading founder of the church was exhibiting a two-faced behavior.  A delegation from Jerusalem is stirring up dissention.  Paul has to say something to put things right.

 

The problem here is similar to what we talked about last week.  A group of Jewish Christians have come to Antioch to persist that any Gentile Christian must be circumcised to be part of the faith. In some way they are being pushed by events in Jerusalem.  A nationalist movement is coming to fore in Jerusalem and demanding people follow a strict interpretation of the law.  This group is causing trouble especially with the church which had started welcoming Gentiles.  Peter who was in Antioch, knew what was going on back home. He had made it a habit to eat meals with the Gentile Christians.  Eating a meal with someone is a sign of a close relationship.  When, Peter sees these Jews from Jerusalem urging for purity, Peter decides to stop eating with the Gentiles.  Peter probably believed he was doing this to keep the Jewish Christians back home safe from persecution.  But he did it at the expense of the Gentiles who now made to feel like second-class Christians.

 

Paul is seeing all of this and he is mad and calls Peter out.  He rails against what Peter has done and how it led to other Jews to engage in the same hypocrisy.  This is when Paul goes into sharing what really matters in the faith.

 

Now in the past, this passage has been seen in a very simplistic terms.  Pastors tend to see this as Paul repudiating the Torah and saying that all we need is to just believe in Jesus.  In this view, it sets up Judiaism is the wrong faith and that Christianity is the good faith.  But at this point, the church was still a sect within Judaism. Paul and Peter and others didn’t see themselves as starting a new church, but probably more as reforming Judaism.  Paul’s words in chapter one shows he was a faithful Jew and didn’t see himself as leaving the faith.

 

So Paul isn’t arguing for a new faith, but and expansion of the old faith.  Paul is talking about covenant.  If you can remember way, way back to last September, God establishe a covenant with Abraham and the whole Jewish people.  God and Israel would be in a covenant relationship.  So in this way, the covenant was focused on one specific people, the Jews and these Jews would perform works like circumcision. These works were not done to please God, but were a sign to show that they belong to God.  So when Paul says in chapter 2, verse 16 that righteousness doesn’t come by following the law, but faith in Christ, he is not saying what you think he is saying.  The law was a way to mark you as a Jew.  But Christ’s death on cross means that this mark is no longer needed.  Righteousness was no longer limited to nationality, but was for everyone.  

 

When Paul talks about faith, it is again tempting to believe this is about mental assent.  If you really believe in Jesus, then you’re in.  Believing in Jesus matters, but the real nugget is what Jesus has done, not what we have done.  Yes, we should believe, but it is not about beliving in Jesus as much as it is to realize that God in Christ has already done the work.

 

Paul is talking about freedom.  We are not bound to a covenant that is only for one group, but a covenant for everyone. We are not bound to believe enough in Jesus to be saved, but realize that we are saved by God’s actions through Jesus on the cross.

This is why Galatians is called a book about freedom.  We are freed from the different barriers to be able to live as community who realizes it is free in Christ.

 

So, if I was going to talk about LGBT inclusion today, I would say something like this:  they don’t have to give up their sexuality in order to show they belong to God.  Instead, they are free by faith, not mental assent, but realizing that God has already done the work to make them, to make me belong because of what was done on a cross on a hill a long time ago.  Inclusion in Christian terms is not about trying to be hip or trendy or being on the right side of history.  It is about knowing that we, all of us are free. It is knowing and trusting that God has done the work of inclusion because of the work done on the cross.  This is why we are Open and Affirming.  

 

Our second text from Luke, is the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  You see how the Pharisee comes before God.  He stresses he has done all the things that show that he was a faithful Jew.  Then we see of the Publican or the Tax Collector.  He doesn’t really want to be there.  He doesn’t even look up to heaven and pleads for mercy.  If you remember, tax collectors were not seen as upstanding people because of their work with the Romans and because they could rip people off.  The publican can only rely on the grace of God.  Unlike the Pharisee, he couldn’t talk about all that he had done.  He knew he didn’t have anything that could make him righteous accept the mercy of God.

 

In a few weeks, we will be gathered at Loring Park in Minneapolis with our fellow Disciples churches, First Christian-Minneapolis and Plymouth Creek Christian Church.  We go there not to show how hip or “woke” we are, but to witness to a God that loves all of us, that God became like us and died on a cross for us.  Because of this means everyone is welcome.  I am welcomed, you are welcomed because we place our trust in God and we share that good news with others.  

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: Trouble In Lake Wobegon

“Trouble in Lake Wobegone”
Luke 10:25-37 and Romans 14:1-18
Seventh  Sunday After Pentecost
July 10, 2016
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the Sermon.

 

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The sign says, “I could be next.” The photo was taken by yours truly on July 7, 2016 in front of the Governor’s mansion in St. Paul.

It could have been me.

That is what I thought early Thursday morning, as I groggily woke and checked Facebook.  There were some news reports of a police shooting near St. Paul.  As I became more conscious I started to realize this was big news.  It was another member of the police shooting a black man.

It was then I saw a post from Daniel my husband. It was frieghtening post.  He was already up reading the news and penned a heartfelt post…about me.  He wondered if this morning would be the last we had together.  He wondered if the cops pulled me over for a busted taillight, would I be next.  He wondered what might happen in the last few minutes of my life if I had been shot.  He ends the post saying he dreaded sunrise.

That woke me up.  It also left me helpless.  There was no way I could tell Daniel, that he was worrying over nothing.  As I read more and more about Philando Castile and his work at a local Montessori elementary school, I saw that if someone who seemed to be a good guy could get killed by the police, then there was no way I could tell Daniel that this odds were low that such a thing could happen.  Because they could happen.  Because I am black and because people see me and millions of other black men as a threat even before we open our mouths.

The thing that is so maddening about this is that for all intents and purposes, Philando was a good man.  He had worked for the St. Paul schools as a cafeteria worker.  He became a supervisor two years ago.  He got to know the kids of the primarily white elementary school where he worked.  This wasn’t someone with a questionable record, but someone trying to make a life, a good life. Yes, we are not the nation we were 50 years ago. Yes, we have a black president that was elected twice.  But even despite all of this a good man can get killed just after he honestly told a cop that he had a permit to carry a gun.  He had a constitutional right to carry a gun and did so according to Minnesota statutes.  But when that officer shot four bullets into Philando he made a mockery of those laws, telling us that you have a right to a gun, just as long as your’e white.

As I left for work Thursday morning, hearing the news of what happened in Falcon Heights and another police shooting in Baton Rouge a day earlier, I was fearful of being pulled over and that is a first.  I can remember being a kid in the 1970s and having the police come to school and teach us how to be careful around strangers.  Now, forty years later, I have to be careful around police.

And we haven’t even talked about what happened Thursday evening in Dallas. As protestors were ending a peaceful protest, one that where the police were there to ensure saftey, an angry man started shooting, killing five police officers- the most officers on duty dying at once since 9/11.

It could have been me.  It also has been me.

I’m not going to go into a long story, but there have been times when I was treated differently by the authorities because of the color of my skin.  I could talk about my experience with the American border guard at the US-Canadian border in Niagara Falls.  And I’ve shared my experience at a credit union in Flint where some folks suspect thirteen year old me was going to cause trouble.  I don’t want to be known as the pastor who just talks about race, and I don’t want to make the pulpit a political platform, but you all need to know how African Americans are treated in this society and as a your pastor, I feel I need to let you know and together find out how we as followers of Jesus Christ should respond.

But it’s not just black men suffering, it’s also black women and children.  Did the officer realize he was shooting someone at close range with women and children present?  How many of us saw that video by Philando’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds as she calmly explains to viewers on Facebook how her boyfriend was gun down.  And why did a four-year-old have to witness this horror?

Racial inequality is still a problem 50 years after the civil rights movements.  African Americans still face unequal treatment in employment, in education and in the criminal justice system.  Minnesota has a reputation as a state with a good standard of living, but life for many black Minnesotans is terrible; in some aspects worse than Mississippi. There is trouble in Lake Wobegon.

Our texts today in Romans and Luke have to deal with how we treat others.  In Romans, Paul urges the church in Rome to respect the beliefs of others in the congregation and live lives for that other person and ultimately to God. “Someone who thinks that a day is sacred, thinks that way for the Lord. Those who eat, eat for the Lord, because they thank God. And those who don’t eat, don’t eat for the Lord, and they thank the Lord too. 7 We don’t live for ourselves and we don’t die for ourselves. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to God.”  We don’t live for ourselves, but for God and the other.  We don’t dismiss their way of looking of things, but respect where they are coming from.

In Luke we hear the well known story of the Good Samaritan.  A man is on the highway and beaten up by robbers left for dead.  Two Jewish religious leaders come by and they pass him by, fearful they might become ceremonially unclean.  Finally a third person comes by.  The audience might think he was another Jew, but no, he is a Samaritan, a people not well liked among Jews. The Samaritan comes near, bandages him, brings him to hotel to heal and then gives a substantial amount to the innkeeper to pay for the room and any expenses the injured man should incur. The important aspect of this tale is not who is the neighbor, but who is the neighbor.  

As good neighbors, we are also called to seek out those who are in pain.  The Good Samaritan sought out the injured man.  He sought out the injured man, not simply because it was the right thing to do, but because it was where God was.  We know of God’s love for us because of Christ’s death on the cross.  Where there is pain, God is there and as Christians we must be there as well.  If anyone has seen the images or the video taken by his incredibly calm girlfriend , we see him groaning in pain in his blood-soaked shirt.  As he takes what might have been his last breaths, God is there…and it is where we have to be as well.

But some of us need to be there more than others.  Because the only way these police shootings and other examples of racism will stop is when white Christians, white Americans step up.  This is not simply my problem or Lisa’s problem or my mother’s problem, but it is all of our problems.  I’m not trying to guilt-trip the white members of this congregation, but this is a problem that affects us all and no one can afford to sit on the sidelines.  I don’t know what that means for you, but I implore you to figure out what you can do.  We cannot have a nation where a good chunk of the public is fearful of those who are suppose to keep the peace.  In the vein of the Good Samaritan, white Americans people can’t just go over to the other side of the road, you have to stop and help your sister or brother who is facing threats and more.

This means that there is more to this than being nice to black people.  Being a people of grace means that we must enter into the pain of others, understanding and seeking to remedy the ways African Americans and others have been held back because of who they are.

This week, there was trouble in Lake Woebegone.  We learned that it is not as idyllic as we thought it was.  The mask has been ripped away revealing the ugliness beneath.  But even as we have now seen the darker side of Lake Wobegon, there is also a light of hope.  If you were able to watch the video following the shooting of Philando Castile, you see Diamond Reynolds talking and then at some point a small voice says something.  The voice said, “It’s okay, Mommy. I’m here with you.”  Those were the words of Ms, Reynolds 4 year old daughter, a child barely out of being a toddler and having to grow up way too fast.  But those words are important because it tells us that racial reconciliation is a difficult thing to do and that God is with us in this hard work.  This is not something we do by ourselves, but we do it with God and through God, the one who came to earth as a human to repair the breech between humanity and God.

Things can change to bring wholeness and healing in our fragmented world. May we as the church find ways to bring healing and wholeness.  May work for the day when no one will ever say, “It could have been me.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

An Anxious Time

I’ve been wanting to write something about some problems my own denomination is facing, but I’ve never been able to focus on that.  I think the reason is that my brain is stuffed with anxiety about several issues.  One thing you have to understand about me is that anxiety has long been a part of my daily life.  Past experiences have made me feel anxious about the world around me.  At some moment, when I least expect it, something will happen that will throw me into the unknown.  Most likely than not it is the news that my job has been cut that put makes me anxious about the anxiety.

Since I deal with depression, I think anxiety comes with the package.  It means that I act like a scared animal, ready to leap at the slightest sound of danger.  It is not unusual to feel this sense of freight all the time.  At some point, something or someone will do something that will alter my life.

Mixed in with this is a sense of depression, a feeling that no matter what you do, the reality is you don’t matter.  It’s the feeling of not being wanted or feeling like the last one picked to play softball.  I know those thoughts are false and medication keeps them at bay.  But they are there.

The thing that has been in knots right now is looking for work.  As most of you know, I work very part-time as the pastor of a church and part time as the Office Manager of another church.  Both jobs together isn’t enough to pay the bills, so I look for a third part time position or freelance work or a position that could replace my current weekly job with more hours and pay.  I’ve been basically looking for work since I was laid off two days before Christmas in 2014.  Over the last year, I’ve had several interviews and it seemed like things went well, but in the end, the job didn’t happen.  The worst was having someone call me from a local nonprofit, noticing my ad in a church bulletin board.  From that phone call to an interview, took two months and it took another to tell me that they chose someone else.  It was quite maddening to have to be on hold for three months when you didn’t know if the job was happening or not.  (Please employers, don’t leave someone holding for more than a month.  It’s thoughtless to keep them in limbo.)  The other frustrating thing is trying to talk to other graphic and web designers for pointers and they never bother to respond back.

So, you keep looking and keep sending your resume and keep sending your portfolio in the hopes that someone will at least see budding talent.  But so far, no one seems interested and it leaves you wondering if there is something wrong with you.

Looking for work seems to be a constant in my life.  I hate being laid off because it means that it will probably take 2-3 years to find something close to what I was doing. I chalk it up to being African American; I know it’s going to take longer because I’m not the first thing that comes to people’s mind when they think communications or technology.

This job anxiety also makes it hard to do ministry.  It’s hard for me to focus on church when I feel I have to constantly keep looking for work.  I want to have time to focus on worship planning and outreach, and I’m focusing on tweaking my resume again.

And the job anxiety then leads to anxiety (and shame) about barely being able to keep up my share of the house bills with my husband Daniel.

The anxiety and depression can lead to a feeling of despair.  Not a despair like I’m going to take a bunch of pills, but despair that I have to give up on what I really want and just accept something, anything to pay the bills.  I don’t know how many emails and phone calls I receive about going into sales (something I am terrible at doing) or customer service (which I’ve done and consider something akin to the 10th circle of hell).

I will keep plugging away looking for work.  Something will come about someday.  Until then, I have to remember to take my medication, see my therapist and most importantly, talk (but mostly listen) to God.  It’s the only way I’m going to deal with this time of anxiety.

When Does Grace End?

Social media is abuzz in the recent trial that convicted former Stanford student Brock Turner of the rape of a young woman.  What has everyone talking is the fact that the judge gave Turner a six month sentence and he might get out sooner for good behavior.

To pour more gasoline on the fire, Turner’s father wrote a letter urging for leniency for what he considered “20 minutes of action.”

Facebook is aflame.  Memes are going around with the young Turner’s photo calling him a rapist, others put him side by side with a poor white man who received a harsher sentence.  The pitchforks are out even among Christians.  Brock Turner is the most hated man on the internet.  There is no love for this person.

Part of the anger is that he ticks off all of boxes of privilege: he’s white, he’s an athlete and he seems well to do.  He is the perfect enemy.

All of this leads me to one question: where does grace end?

Yes, yes among liberal Christians we talk about grace all the time, about the fact that God loves us no matter what.

But we don’t really believe that.  I don’t care if you are a tough-on-crime conservative or a bleeding heart liberal, there are some sins we feel are beyond redemption.

A few months ago, there was talk in my church about a convicted sex offender that would be moving into the area.  People were up in arms and wondered why this person couldn’t live with a relative or something, just not near them where their children and grandchildren play.

These weren’t the kind of folks who were tough on crime, most were liberals.  But the fact is, crimes involving sex can make the meekest person into a fire-breathing zealot waiting to lock them up and throw away the key.

Brock Turner will have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.  His “20 minutes of action” will stick with him.  If you think as most do, that he got off easy, know that he won’t escape what he did ever.  It will follow him when he seeks a place to live, when he applies for a job and so forth.

But this all means that he will be in the public sphere. I don’t know if he ever went to church, but what if he decides to visit a church- supposed he decided to visit YOUR church.  What would you do? What would you say?  Would say yes, as long as there are safeguards? Would you say no, fearful for your daughter?

Where does grace end?

Another question following this: Where does God’s judgement begin?

Does God judge the guilty, those who commit crimes like this?  What is that punishment like?

It’s easy for mainline/progressive Christians to talk about how we should love everybody and that grace is for everyone, but I don’t think we really are good when it comes to living this out.  It’s easy to love someone that is part of your in group.  It is hard to love someone who is someone you wouldn’t like anyway.

Sexual crimes can put our theology of grace to the test.  Where does mercy fit in?  What about justice?  What is justice?  Is justice only for the victim or also for the perpetrator?

Brock Turner is not a sympathetic person.  His excuses, as well as the excuses of those around him are sickening.  But I am wary of how this has become the outrage of the moment on social media, because there are some important issues to deal with here that demand more attention than a few minutes on Facebook.

In our theology Turner is also a child of God.  And that should bother us.  Because, how many of us want to see him forgiven?  His victim has to live with the trauma he cause for the rest of her life.  Why should he be seen as one loved by God?

Maybe this is why the cross is called a scandal.

But we also believe in a God that believes in justice, one that gets angry when justice is denied.  God gets angry.

Can God be graceful and also one that establishes justice?  And what does that mean of God’s people?

I don’t have any easy answers.  In fact, all I have is questions.

Where does grace end?  Where does judgement begin?

I leave you with a snippet from a post from Zach Hunt in response to the martyrdom of 21 Christians by Islamic State:

It’s easy to talk about loving our enemies when their greatest crime is stealing your parking space or voting for the wrong candidate. It’s a lot harder to love enemies who would gleefully broadcast your execution to the world if they only had the chance.

It’s easy to embrace the radical grace of the gospel when you’re sitting in a warm sanctuary filled with well-dressed people who clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and care for the sick. It’s a lot harder to swallow the fact that that same grace extends to cold-hearted criminals who thrive on executing the innocent…

Now, if you’re reading this and you’re angry with me for talking about extending grace and forgiveness to those monsters in the black hoods, believe me I get it. It’s not just rhetoric when I say I recoil at even the possibility that God could forgive, redeem them, and make them my neighbors in heaven.

That sort of grace seems so unjust to me.

And appalling.

So, I struggle.

I struggle with my own sense of justice.

I struggle with the idea that as a Christian, I must leave space for forgiveness even as I rightfully demand accountability for my enemies’ actions.

I struggle to accept the fact that believing in the radical transforming grace of God compels me to believe that grace abounded on that beach in Libya in ways I don’t comprehend or want to accept.

I struggle with the boundless depths of God’s love and forgiveness.

I struggle with the gospel.

Repost: Grace and Race

A post from 2013.

32695-01I sure loves me some Maria Dixon.

Dixon is a Methodist and decided to share he thoughts about the whole Paula Deen affair and decided to take Progressive Christians to task for their selective grace:

When it comes to discussing race, progressives have little tolerance for intolerance–past or present. We throw labels around as easily as the Pharisees threw stones at adulterous women. How dare someone not have OUR enlightened view on the world! How dare they not have been born with the innate view of justice, righteousness, and soul that we have!

So when Paula Deen’s transcript was leaked to the press last week, the script was already in place. The media would report that she used the “N” word–everybody would gasp–then the outrage would begin. She would be crucified by the New York Times, Facebook pundits, and of course, her fellow chefs. She would be tried by the court of public opinion who would judge her entire life’s work and character by the use of the “N” word in a private conversation. RACIST! we would yell. She would cry. Her business would be destroyed and progressives would declare victory.

Yet, here is the reality: Deen told the truth about her past. Knowing everything: her empire, her contracts, and sponsorships were at stake–she told the truth. She was more honest under oath than at least 3 US Presidents, several dozen Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, and Non-Denominational preachers and countless business leaders. Unlike the Pope, Joe Paterno, or Donald Trump, she acknowledged she hadn’t always gotten it right but that she and her company was committed to doing it better and were doing better.

Dixon isn’t done yet:

Progressives Christians love to talk about grace except when they have to extend it to someone who has offended their political reality. The grace that we proclaim that washes us clean and entitled us to a new life is for everybody as long as they have not offended our politics. A cursory look at the progressive schizophrenic (and hypocritical) view of who deserves grace bears this out. Anthony Weiner shows his weiner to someone other than his wife–Grace abounds. My beloved Bill Clinton gets a handy j in the oval office–Grace abounds. Barney Frank shacks up with a male prostitute–Grace Abounds. President Obama–doesn’t close Gitmo; listens to our conversations; and uses drones to kill civilians–Grace Abounds. A woman uses the N word AND admits it knowing that a great portion of her clientele is African American (I’d say Paula probably has used it more than that)–our verdict: Off with her head, her show, and her ham.

What really angers me is the fact that most of the people really tripping about Deen’s past are from the North. That’s not to say that Southern African Americans are passive about the use of racial slurs but we are also aware of the reality that mindsets don’t all change at the same pace and that if we judged every white southerner over the age of 50 by what they said in the past, we could never buy a car; house, or eat in a Waffle House ever again. Perhaps the reason that much of the civil rights establishment, the men and women who got their heads beat in on the regular, have not condemned Paula Deen is because they know the complexity of the human heart on matters of race. Moreover, they are also aware that someone’s past doesn’t predict their present. Perhaps they remembered that the same George Wallace that stood in the door at the University of Alabama saying that Blacks would never be welcomed, returned in 1985 to the campus to crown and kiss that year’s Black Homecoming Queen, my sorority sister Deidra Chestang at a time when our campus was threatening to boil over in racial turmoil. That kiss silenced the bigots that day and his words begged all of us to embrace a new South. Though we lost that game to Vanderbilt, that kiss symbolized the magnificent change that God’s grace can make in a man’s heart. Many African Americans are standing by Deen, especially those that through the years she has launched into business because they are judging her actions as well as her words.

When I first heard about this, my thoughts were: and this is shocking because….

Like Dixon, I don’t condone the use of the N-word or any racially insenstive word for that matter. But I don’t expect a nearly 70 year old woman from Georgia, who grew up in a very different South where the N-word was used a lot to somehow be a paragon of virtue. She told the truth of a past slip-up. PAST.

Having relatives and friends in various states in the South, I know it’s an odd place to a Northerner. People from South, can be friendly and caring to a fault to a person of a different color and yet still harbor some racial amimosity. To outsiders, it makes no sense. But the South is a place of contradictions and they don’t have a problem living with those oddities.

I remember Mrs. Martin a well-to-do white woman whose husband owned the local paper mill in Pineville, Louisiana. My dad and uncles did a number of jobs for her and whenever we went South, we would visit her. I remember one time she gave us a gift- a figurine of a black kid eating a watermelon and sitting on a bale of cotton. The porcalain figurine had a square hole that contained and acutal piece of cotton.

Now, this gift was offensive. I mean total racist. But she gave it to us, not out of spite, but out of love. So, while it was horrible, I understood the intent. So did my Dad.

The other thing to remember about Deen; she told the truth when asked. So, this is how we treat people who do the right thing? What this is telling people is that when it comes to having a “conversation on race,” it’s best to lie or just say nothing at all. When it comes to race, we expect perfection. Anything short of that makes you nothing more than a Grand Dragon.

Part of the condemnation of Deen has to do with the South. It’s always surprised me how many folks up north really, really hate the South. They see it as a backwards region, filled with stupid racist bumpkins and in their minds, Deen is the exhibit A.

What we seem to forget is that racism didn’t stop at the Mason Dixon line. Here in my adopted state of Minnesota, I learned shortly after I moved here that back in the 1920s, three black men were lynched in Duluth. Mind you, I said Duluth, Minnesota NOT Duluth, Georgia.

If we really care about racial reconciliation, then we have to have some grace for old Southern white women and men who may sometimes say the wrong thing. Not all of them are part of the Klan. Some of them are trying their level best.

Paula Deen said a horrible word a long time ago. I’m dissapointed by that, but I’m not going to judge her. And neither should the court of public opinion if they looked into their own hearts.