Don’t Forget Flint

 

City-of-Flint-WCRZAs many of you know, my hometown is Flint, Michigan which has been in the news lately because of lead contamination of the water supply.  I’ve been busy helping  my congregation here in Minnesota collect water filters to send to Flint and I’ve written some articles on other blogs about the crisis.

But I wanted to take a moment to talk about the city itself, how people view it and why it needs the church’s attention and help long after the TV trucks and celebrities leave.

Flint is a city that has been on the ropes for a while now, since General Motors contacted its local workforce.  But even though Flint has seen better times, there are signs of hope that want to remind people of. Two years ago, I reflected on what was happening in downtown Flint after years of dormancy:

Flint is the kind of city that can break your heart.

Despite all the sadness, something is happening in my hometown, something wonderful.

I’m currently in town visiting my parents.  My husband Daniel and I walked through downtown and saw a vibrant area.  New restaurants with patios dotted Saginaw Street, the main drag.  A busker played music at the edge of the University of Michigan Flint campus.  Several buildings were are being remodeled for new uses.  The Durant Hotel, that’s sat vacant for nearly 40 years has become apartments.  Lofts are showing up in various buildings downtown.  The Flint Farmer’s Market moved to downtown from a nearby location and a local business person says restaurants are seeing increases in traffic after it’s grand opening.

Something is happening in Flint’s downtown after a decades of nothing happening.  What’s interesting here is that this wasn’t some master plan. It seems to be happening in a piecemeal fashion, a project like the Farmer’s Market here, and art gallery there.  Downtown Flint is becoming a place where people gather and live- and it may hold the key to helping Flint transform from an industrial town to….well, I don’t know what.

I added that Flint still has challenges, but there was some hope:

None of this means everything is fine in Flint.  There are still neighborhoods of blight, African Americans who make up the majority of the population don’t have access to a good  education let alone jobs.  The city is still losing population.

But the seeds of Flint’s revival are taking root.   As I walked through the Farmer’s Market, I encountered a meeting of young people interested in investing in Flint and Genesee County.  Seeing that gave me hope that my hometown will make it.  It won’t be saved by a big employer like GM or by  blingy projects, but it will happen organically with people who live here stepping up and making a difference one by one.

Flint is a city that can break your heart at times.  But this trip reminded me it can also uplift your heart as well.

A commenter left a note on the blog of the former mayor of Saginaw, Michigan that describes the good things happening in the Vehicle City:

How about some good news for Flint? Like: have you been downtown recently? The new lofts, the new businesses, the new restaurants. Back to Bricks that draws about 1/2 million people! U of M ( University of Michigan-Flint) going gangbusters and expanding each year. Look at Kettering University, another school going gangbusters. Look at the School of the Deaf and it’s new campus, look at Powers High School’s new campus. All big and long term investments to the City. Look atDiplomat Pharmacy’s new HQ. Look at the CEO of Diplomat last year donated a couple million $ to U of M Flint. Landaal Packaging, they opened up a tech office downtown. The list goes on. Did you know, if you add up all the college students enrolled in Flint.. (U of M, Kettering, Baker, Mott and others) Flint is a college town. Flint has more colleges students enrolled over all than EMU! Look at the re investment of General Motors. Look at the Mott Foundation that has never left Flint.

Finally, I wrote in late January that the nation should do more than just send water:

While I am thankful to see celebrities like Jimmy Fallon, Mark Whalberg and Diddy donate water bottles to help citizens, Flint needs more than just a bottle of water. The reasons Flint is in this mess is because of loss of tax revenue or loss of jobs.  What we need more than water is investment.  What Flint needs are people like Craigslist founder Craig Newmark to do more than give money for water but find ways to create new startups or support ongoing incubators like Co+Work. We need young people who want to come and live (the housing is cheap!) and start new businesses like the two the cobblers who started Sutorial Boots and Shoes. We need other kinds of manufacturing to help employ the vast unemployed in Flint.

Flint was a great city and it isn’t as much now.  But it does not have to live in its past if people are willing to invest in its future.

So I ask what I’ve asked before: don’t forget Flint.

Flint is in the mess it is in partially because of changes to the economy. For city government to function it needs a growing, not declining tax base. What Flint needs is people from around the country that are willing to lend a hand and help the city be more than the failed city that we see in the media. There are a lot of good things happening, but they need help if they are to take root.

I especially say this to progressive/mainline Christians: help Flint. It is more than a tool against conservative ideology; it is a people that need the nation’s help, not only to get water, but to grow. Mainline churches tended to abandon Flint as people left the city in the 80s and 90s, it’s time for them to come back to the city planting new churches and also push for a better and safer Flint.

Don’t forget Flint, dear Church. It needs your help in more ways than just water bottles.

Enough

enoughI’m never sure if you people can sense that I don’t always feel confidence in myself. There are days, more often than not, when I don’t think I’m enough.

This sense of not being up to the task has been around me for as long as I remember.  I don’t always feel like I’m good in…well, anything.  I know that’s not true, but the feeling is there.  I get surprised when someone thinks I can do something well, because for so long, I’ve never thought I was good.

I don’t know where this feeling comes from.  But at some point in my life, I was made to feel that I wasn’t up to the task.

This has had consequences in my life, because I’ve not taken opportunities that I should have, or settled for less.  I’ve kept my distance from people that I would be great friends, because I don’t feel that I’m enough.

Worse yet, is when I’ve tried to do things to get noticed and no one seems to notice.  Again comes the feeling that I’m not enough.

And in one case I’m not enough.  I’m not going to know everything. I will make mistakes.  But what I do know I know I can do well. In the end, the other person has to decide if enough is enough.  Sometimes they will and sometimes they won’t.  What I have to learn is to be around people who see me with all my faults and shortcomings and realize that at the end of the day, I am enough. If they can’t see that, then walk away.

I know that in God’s eyes, I am enough.  But as I make it in this world, it’s hard to not want to show others that you matter, that you are talented, that you are enough.

All I can do is pray and ask God to help me see myself as enough and be around people who see me as enough and can remind me of that.

 

X & Y, By & By

Mark 8:27 – 9:8

algebraDuring my freshman year in high school, I was introduced to Algebra.  Math was always something that took a bit longer for me to comprehend and sitting in Ms. Collier’s class this was no different. I would look at the numbers and got stuck on the whole concept of x and y.  Where did they fit in?  How do you calculate an equation with these letters?

Every piece of homework was like trying to decipher hyrogliphics.  It made no sense.  The result was of course that I didn’t do so well in Algebra.  Actually, I crashed, I got my one and only failing grade in a class.

The next semsester, I was put in a slower Algebra class.  As I started learning these concepts again, it was like the clouds parted and the fog rolled away.  I now understood what x and y meant.  I could do the equations with ease.  That semester I ended up with a letter grade of B.

I don’t know what made the difference.  Maybe it was the teacher. Maybe it just took time for things to sink in.  All I know is that it felt great to finally understand.

The text in Mark spans two chapters and deals with what seem like two unconnected events; Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ and the Transfiguration.  But in some ways, they are intimately connected.  Peter understood that Jesus was the Messiah, the king.  But he and the rest of the disciples didn’t understand what that meant.  They never understood what kind of king Jesus would be.

That’s why Peter was shocked when Jesus starts talking about being arrested and put to death.  Peter knew what a king was, and that is not what should happen to a king.

Then there is the Transfiguration.  Peter along with John and James see this odd event of Jesus brighter than bright, sitting with Moses and Elijah.  Peter was so gobsmaked he started talking about building altars for the three.

It’s easy for us to think that Peter was so dense.  But we are no better than Peter. There is still a lot of this faith we don’t always understand.  What does it mean that Jesus is God’s son? What does it mean that Jesus would die? What does it mean that Jesus would be raised from the dead?  These are questions we are still wrestling with centuries later.

Which is maybe why the voice comes in and tells Peter to listen to Jesus.  Maybe we need to sit with our questions and sit in the moment with Jesus.  In time, the answers will come, the skies will clear and like I did with Algebra over 30 years ago, we will understand.

Faith is just that, faith.  We don’t understand everything in our faith.  There are times in both good and bad times, where we just have to sit with this uncomfortable feeling and continue to follow Jesus.

There is an old gospel hymn I remember hearing sitting in the Baptist churches of my youth in Flint, Michigan.  The first verse of “We’ll Understand It Better, By and By,” goes like this:

We are tossed and driven
on the restless sea of time;
somber skies and howling tempests
oft succeed a bright sunshine;
in that land of perfect day,
when the mists are rolled away,
we will understand it better by and by.

Sometimes we don’t understand x and y.  But with God’s help we will, by and by.

Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing

Mark 6: 1-29

When I was in my 20s, I spent eight months working at a non-profit on Central American issues in Washington, DC.  I went one time to a meeting on Capitol Hill in one of the office rooms.  As the meeting went on, a slender woman smartly dressed with dark hair came and sat down next to me.  The woman asked me some questions about the event as she tried to get a good view.  I was a bit annoyed because I thought this woman arrived rather late.  I gave her a rather curt reply to her questions.  She stayed a little longer and then got up from her seat and left.

When the meeting ended, a young woman who worked at another non-profit came up to me rather excited.  “Did you know who you were sitting next to?”  I nodded that I didn’t know. “That was Bianca Jagger!”

I sat next to the former wife of Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger. The Nicaraguan-born former actress was also involved in human rights issues taking place in her native Nicaragua and the rest of Central America, so it would make sense that she would show up to this event.  But I didn’t know any of this.  I just thought she was a pushy well-to-do woman when she was so much more.

Jesus has the opportunity to speak to a hometown audience in Nazareth.  You might think that Jesus would be welcomed in his hometown and that there would be pride at the things they heard about him. But instead of praise and pride, Jesus got rejection.  They townsfolk thought they knew Jesus. They knew he was a carpenter, just like his Dad.  They knew he was Mary’s boy.  They knew his brothers and sisters. They thought they knew him.

And yet they didn’t.  They didn’t see that Jesus was much more than the hometown kid from Nazareth. They didn’t realize that he might be something more.

God and the things are of God are not always so visible.  Sometimes God blends into the scenery, hard to find.  It means that we must keep our eyes- and our hearts- open to what God has to say.

We learn that because the people didn’t believe, Jesus couldn’t perform any miracles there. The people missed out, not because God was punishing them, but because they couldn’t see where God was active.

I pray that I will always be on the lookout for God, waiting to see where and how God will show up. May that be your prayer as well.

And if I ever see Bianca Jagger again, I promise to be a lot nicer.

 

 

The Frustrations and Limitations of An Aspie Pastor

As worship ended today, I felt a bit of frustration.  I sometimes feel like I’ve failed to be a good pastor to my congregation.  I think I’ve done the best that I can, but I also feel at times I’m failing them.

It might be that I’m trying to live up to stories.  Actually, it’s one story: the one where a pastor comes into a dying church and is able to get the turn it around.  Membership grows from say 20 people to 100, it becomes a vital congregation.

So, I look at the story and wonder what I am doing wrong.  I’ve done a lot of the technical stuff that should help with visibility, but the result is that we’ve still had very little growth.

There is another part of the story where the pastor is someone that is involved in the community and is somehow able to get people to come to church or to do something related to church.

This is where we hit a problem.  As someone on the autism spectrum, I can tell you it is pretty hard to meet people in general.  My actions probably make some people nervous.  I’m just not the gregarious guy that everyone wants to be around.

How do you get into the community and meet people when you are on the spectrum?

Sermon: Automatic for the People

Mark 4:1-34
Second Sunday of Epiphany
January 17, 2016
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

 

selfdrivingcarBeing from Michigan, I am a car nut.  I kind of miss not being in Detroit today because it’s time for the annual Detroit Auto Show which because it’s in the Motor City, it is the car show.  Daniel and I have gone for several years in a row, but won’t be attending this year.  Hopefully we will get back there next year.

 

Like I said, I like cars.  I like to drive cars.  If I could have been an auto journalist I would have.  But I would have to learn to drive a manual if I wanted to do that.  Someday I will tell you the story of my one and only attempt to drive stick.  It involved a Ford Taurus SHO and burning rubber in a Missouri Arby’s parking lot, but that will have to wait for another time.

 

One of the biggest developments at Detroit and in the automotive industry in general is the rise of automated or self-driving cars.  These cars are only in the testing stage at this point, but they are more a reality than they were say five years ago.  At this point, more and more cars have some sort of assitive technology that gives the car more control.  We have cars that can sense when you might be drifting into another lane, and cars that can brake themselves if it senses a collision.  

 

While I think some of the assistive tech is a good idea, there’s a part of me that is not crazy about autonmous cars or what others think about these cars.  A number of writers have opined that the most dangerous part of the car is the driver.  They celebrate that fallible humans are written out of the process to ensure a more safe drive.  

 

Maybe I’ve read one too many scifi novels about robots becoming our overlords, but it does seem we are giving power over to a machine, all because we are fallible.

 

I like to be able to drive. I like the sound my car makes when it’s shifting gears.  I love the car’s get up and go and I love how that feels.  An automated car means I don’t drive, I don’t get to derive pleasure from the vehicle, I become passive, letting the car do all the work.  But, the self-driving car seems to be on its way to being a reality, so I guess I have to learn to love my robot overlords.

 

The root of the problem here is that a self driving car means giving up control.  I have to rely on microchips and motherboards to make sure I get from point A to point B.

 

What this has in common with our text today is that in our Christian walk, we are called to allow God to work in the world and trust that God is working things for the better. We have learn that faith is not all about us.

 

in chapter 4 of Mark, Jesus shares several examples of parable that focus around farming such as it was in first century Palestine.  The first story is the most well known: the parable of the sower.  It involves a farmer that scatters seeds hither and yon.  The seeds fall in different types of soils, rocky soil, among the weeds, on a path and finally in good soil.  

 

I’ve said this before, but I need to say it again: I used to hate this parable.  The reason I hated it is because in the churches of my youth, everyone was focused on the second part of the parable, the part where Jesus explains the story to his disciples.  People have taken these verses as proof of what this story was all about.  But the thing with Jesus’ parables is that they were told straight, but told as Emily Dickenson said slant.  Jesus did explain the parable somewhat, but it almost seemed too easy.  Was Jesus trying to say something else?  Was he only sharing part of the meaning?  Look back at the parable.  What do you notice?  If you know anything about farming or even just gardening, you should pay attention to what the farmer is doing.  For the farmer, sowing seed means throwing it anywhere.  I don’t think that’s what a farmer usually does with seed, unless one is really lazy.  I remember one time just throwing grass seed around on bald spot of lawn a few years back.  The results were less than optimal.

 

Why would a farmer throw see around like that?  What was the meaning here?

 

Let’s set that aside for a moment and look at the second farming parable, the Growing Seed.  If the farmer in the first tale is wasteful, this one is just plain dumb.  It seems that the seeds were just planted automatically and the farmer is at a loss to understand how it was planted and how it is growing.  You would think the farmer might want to water the plant, but he just sits aghast at this plant growing.  How in the world did this guy become a farmer?  He ends up harvesting the grain when its ready. At least he knew that.

 

The final tale is about the mustard seed.  Jesus says its a small seed, and indeed, it is.  But once it is planted it becomes a big plant.  What you need to know is that the mustard plant is sort of invasive, it takes over an area, much like kudzu does in the American South.  So God’s kingdom is like kudzu.

 

What do all three stories have in common besides having dumb farmers?  They are all about the kingdom of God and what is common in all three stories is that things happen in spite of human interaction.  The sower isn’t careful where the seed is planted; it is just planted anywhere and everywhere.  The second farmer doesn’t even plant the seed, but it still grows and produces a harvest.  The third tale doesn’t even have people in it- it’s just about this small seed and how it grows everywhere.

 

Parables can have more than one meaning, but one meaning that could come from all three tales is that in God’s kingdom, God is the main actor not us.  In God’s kingdom, life is automatic and we will happen with or without us.

 

That thought is both humbling and freeing.  It’s humbling because it means that all of our hard work for God doesn’t get us a gold star.  It means that God loves us for us, not because we do things that please God.  

 

The freeing part is that we don’t have perform.  We don’t have to feel that we have to do God’s work or nothing will happen.  God’s work happens; we can choose to join it or not, but it will happen and it won’t be stopped.

 

This can be humbling for pastors.  We like to think everything is on us, but in reality it isn’t.  It means that churches are places where we are looking for where God is active and joining in.  It means that we tell people where we see God active and point to God.  It makes faith more of an adventure than a chore.

 

As much as I am wary of automated cars, there is a mode of transportation that I use that I am not in control of.  Everytime I board a modern airplane, I am entrusting my safety to the pilots in the cockpit.  As I like to imagine me telling the pilot, their job is to make sure I don’t die.

 

The fact is, I’m actually putting more faith in the airplane’s navigation systems more than I do the pilot.  Most of our modern airlines use autopilot to get from point A to point B with the pilots there to help with the flying and to step in when the autopilot might not work.

 

So it is with us.  We place our trust in God, the farmer that throws God’s love everywhere, no matter how it is recieved.  We place our trust in a God that puts people in our lives and work with God to help them to know Christ.  We place our trust in a God that is constantly growing and drawing people to God even when we haven’t done a thing. Part of discipleship is to trust God, which at times can be a hard thing to for some of us to do, but God is there telling us that God has this.  

 

If I can trust God and look for where God is active in our world, maybe I can accept a self-driving car, provided it doesn’t drive me off a cliff.  

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Listen to the Sermon

Sermon: The Way It Is

Mark 1:21-45
Second Sunday of Christmas
January 3, 2016
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

 

Tamir Rice.

Tamir Rice.

When I was about 13 or so, I went with Mom to the credit union near her place of work, the old AC Sparkplug factory on the eastside of Flint.  This was back in the day when people went to an actual bank to cash their checks.  Mom waited in line to be served and I stood near the back of the lobby off in my own world.  Some time passed when I heard a voice.  It was gentleman (a  security guard) and I can’t remember if he asked what I was doing here or if I needed help.  Before I could answer, my mother, who had finished her business came up and said I was with her.  As we left the credit union, Mom chastised me for not standing still.  I didn’t understand then why Mom was so upset.  It’s only been with age that I came to understand what had went on.  It didn’t really matter what the gentleman with the bank said, the underlying message was basically what was I doing there?  What my mother understood and I did not, was that I was being watched…watched as a threat.  Now, I was rather tall for my age, but that wasn’t the reason I was being watched.  As you can now probably guess, I was being watched because I was black.  I’ve always thought it funny that people might see me as a threat, because if someone knew me, they would see I’m not that scary, especially my 13 year-old self.  But what my parents knew and what I would come to realize is that no matter how gentle I might be, some people might see me as a threat, a danger.

This all came to mind this week after hearing the news of a grand jury deciding to not indict two members of the Cleveland Police after they shot 12 year-old Tamir Rice in November 2014.  Tamir was in a park playing with a toy gun.  The video of the shooting is rather chilling.  A police car roars up near the gazebo where Tamir is playing. The car stops and out jump two policemen who immediately shoot the 12 year-old.  As far as the surveillance video shows us, there was no talking to the child, no asking questions, no assessment of the context.  It was just race to the gazebo and take out a supposed threat.

Me at age 13 in 1983.

Me at age 13 in 1983.

In our text today, we start a journey through the book of Mark.  It is the shortest gospel and it dispenses with the birth story of Jesus and goes straight to his ministry.  Jesus is busy.  He casts out demons and heals the sick.

And then we come to verse 40.  Jesus encounters a man with leprosy.  He was considered unclean according to the religious custom and forced to be on the margins of society.  The man encounters Jesus and asks, if Jesus is willing to make him clean.

Notice the man didn’t say,  please heal me.  Instead he pleads that if Jesus isn’t too busy or is able to squeeze him into his calendar to heal him. Maybe this is a sign that of how outside of the community he felt, he felt so much like a nothing that he couldn’t ask Jesus boldly to be healed.

This is where the passage gets interesting.  In verse 41, we have a few different meanings of Jesus’ response.  Some sources say that Jesus was moved with pity or compassion.  That would make sense.  We see this in other parts of the gospels where Jesus cares for the people and tries to heal them of their illnesses.  But other sources say Jesus was angry or as it says in today’s reading, “incensed.”   That view is harder to square.  Why was Jesus angry?  Who was Jesus angry at?  

The text doesn’t reveal any clues.  I think it goes without saying that Jesus would have compassion on the leper.  Would Jesus be angry as well?

We can’t know for sure, but it is a possibility.  Jesus has shown anger before, so it doesn’t come from nowhere. Jesus might have been angry at how this man was being treated. Maybe Jesus was angry at how religious law kept this man on the outside of his community.  We don’t know, but this view makes us think about the use of anger in the life of the church.

If we are aware of the world around us and we are aware of what God means for God’s creation, we will probably be angry at how the world is.  We will want to work to be agents of God’s love, justice and grace.

If we go back to the news of the past week, people are upset because a 12 year-old who was doing what 12 year-olds like to do was gunned down as a threat, most likely because of the color of his skin. In spite of all the progress that this nation has made in race relations, it should disturb us that this still happens some 50 years after the civil rights movement.

But the church isn’t called to just be angry.  It is also called to be healers.  We might not be able to remove leprosy from people, but we can with God’s help try to bring healing where the world is fractured. The church is called to be where there is hurt and bring healing, just as Jesus did.  The ultimate symbol of identifying with hurt is when Jesus is on the cross, suffering and dying in our stead for the healing of all creation.

Jesus walking among us meant a reveal of the kingdom of God.  It is a place where lepers are healed and welcomed back into community. It’s a place where the sick are healed and the poor are fed. And if we are paying attention, it is a place where young black men aren’t immediately seen as dangerous.

The coming of Christ forever changed the world in ways we can’t imagine. Peter Wehner, a political writer who served in the last three Republican administrations wrote in the New York Times on Christmas Day how Christianity changed how we look at the poor.  He writes:

In his book “A Brief History of Thought,” the secular humanist and French philosopher Luc Ferry writes that in contrast with the Greek understanding of humanity, “Christianity was to introduce the notion that humanity was fundamentally identical, that men were equal in dignity — an unprecedented idea at the time, and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance.”

Indeed, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (blessed are the poor in spirit and the pure in heart, the meek and the merciful), his touching of lepers, and his association with outcasts and sinners were fundamentally at odds with the way the Greek and Roman worlds viewed life, where social status was everything.

“Christianity placed charity at the center of its spiritual life as no pagan cult ever had,” according to the theologian David Bentley Hart, “and raised the care of widows, orphans, the sick, the imprisoned, and the poor to the level of the highest of religious obligations.” Christianity played a key role in ending slavery and segregation. Today Christians are taking the lead against human trafficking and on behalf of unborn life. They maintain countless hospitals, hospices and orphanages around the world.

We moderns assume that compassion for the poor and marginalized is natural and universal. But actually we think in this humanistic manner in large measure because of Christianity. What Christianity did, my friend the Rev. Karel Coppock once told me, is to “transform our way of thinking about the poor and sick and create an entirely different cultural given.”

In 1986, an odd song made it to the top of Billboard’s Top 100 charts.  It’s odd because it was a piano-driven song in a time of synthesizers and big guitars.  The song is “The Way It Is” by Bruce Hornsby and the Range.  The song talked about poverty and racism in 1980s America. The chorus starts by saying “That’s just the way it is, somethings will never change.”  We get the impression that some problems are so complex that nothing will ever really change.  But, the closing of the chorus tells us not to give into despair by answering “But don’t you believe them.”

I am not asking you to join a protest march.  But I do hope in this new year that we who believe in a God who came to earth to be like us and to bring healing, will be a little angry at the state of the world and in the name of Jesus seek to be agents of healing.  That we can someday be a world where a 12 year-old kid in Ohio, or a 13 year-old kid in Michigan won’t be judge a threat by the color of his skin.

That’s just the way it is? In Jesus Christ we say, “But don’t you believe them.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.