About Timothy Brown

A pastor. A writer. A dreamer. Occasionally a beer brewer.

Studying Theology Exposed Me to What God, Is

idolsMysticism put me in touch with God, that golden thread running roughshod through the energy of the cosmos.

Theology didn’t do that.

Theology isn’t the study of God, but rather the unveiling of gods.

And what are our gods?  You know them.  We bow to them daily.

A popular god is money.  Mammon, if you want to use an older term.  It invites you to cherish it, promising you fulfillment, but then continually moves the goalpost.  This god is insatiable, delightful, and cruel.

Another popular god is conformity.  Most churches are built around this god.  Oh, sure, the cross may be front and center, but if you look past the cross to the people in the pew you’ll see their clean shoes and spotless teeth, a thin lacquer covering rotting insides intending to keep up with the Jones’s. You know quickly if you don’t fit in here because you’ll sit in the wrong pew, suggest the wrong hymn at the hymn-sing, clap to that one song, or bring your boyfriend to church and suffer the stares when he doesn’t fit in (and, now, neither do you).

Nationalism is a popular god.  American-Christians (in that order) are found in every congregation.  They complain when you don’t play a patriotic hymn on the Sunday closest to the 4th of July, or when you don’t adequately honor 9/11 somehow.  They’re not interested in singing a song in Spanish, but will insist on having Veterans stand up on Veterans Day.

Community is a god.  A benevolent god, usually, but a god nonetheless.  Community is a god who takes care of the flock, but doesn’t really like any feathers to ruffle in the nest.  Community will encourage people to bow, especially when they have a controversial idea.  Community will send you a casserole if you’re sick, but sometimes will question in hushed voices what you did to deserve the illness.  Community tries to love the followers, but often can’t meet all the needs, and so people will worship for a while, and then stop, if this is their god.

Right Answers is such a popular god that everyone has their own depiction of it!  People usually worship this god in quiet, assuming that everyone else is worshiping this god, too.  Until you show that your depiction isn’t the same as theirs, and then they take their god and leave. People who pride themsleves as “free thinkers” usually are strong adherents to this god, and you’ll know it because, well, they’ll tell you about it…

Some people think Science is a popular god, but Science is not a very good god because Science changes its mind as it gets more details.  This frustrates humans, because they like their gods to be largely immutable (and also largely mute).  When people say their god is Science, what they’re usually referring to is Right Answers (see above).  Interestingly enough, people who trust Science usually don’t equate it as being a god at all because, well, as I said, science doesn’t really work like that.

The Bible is a very popular god, especially among Christians.  But it is a god of mixed-messages, and so is not very reliable when it comes to rule-making and order.  Plus, no one can really agree on what the Bible is or says, so really anyone who bows to this God bows to a tailored version of their own preferences, and that quickly becomes the god of Right Answers (see above).

I know we talk about God as a who, but really we need to talk honestly about gods with the word “what.”

Theology is not the study of God, but of gods, and how we worship them.  Theology exposed me to what god, is.

And, oddly, those who trust their faith is the purest are usually the most pantheistic.

Feel free to add a god that you know…there are thousands.

“Girls Can’t Be Pastors” and Other Lies I Believed from Church

female-pastorI’m, in fits and spurts, working on a larger piece of work that explores and exposes some of the falsehoods I was led to believe as a child, either implicitly or explicitly, through Christian faith formation.  Here’s a short piece for a chapter tentatively titled “Women are ‘Different'” Note: this is not a finished product, nor even a finished portion, just initial thoughts.

Today, on the day when we celebrate 50 years of women’s ordination in the ELCA (and predecessor bodies), I think it’s an appropriate offering.

She sat on a stool up by the blackboard, chalk in hand, religious text-book precariously balanced on her knees.

Every day started with announcements and the invitation from the disembodied principal over the intercom to stand and face the Stars and Stripes and recite the pledge of allegiance, hand over our hearts.  Then, directly after those words, hands remaining on our hearts, we’d pivot just slightly to face the “Christian flag,” with blood-red cross over blue and white background, and recite a pledge there, too:

I pledge allegiance, to the cross
Of our Lord Jesus Christ,
And to the faith,
for which it stands.
One Savior,
King Eternal,
With mercy and grace for all.

We were Americans.  We were Christians. We were American-Christians.

We’d take our seats and, without fail, would start the day with Religion, the foundation of our schooling in that parochial school.

She sat up at the board and we all dutifully turned to the lesson of the day: ministry.

“There are different kinds of ministers,” I remember her saying.  “Some work in schools, like this one, where they teach.  Some work in churches as pastors.  Some are Sunday School teachers and administrators.  There are different kinds of ministers.”

I remember being onboard for this part.

“Men and women can be teachers and administrators, though the Bible is clear that women shouldn’t be over men when it comes to authority,” she said looking out at us.  “And only men can be pastors.  Men aren’t better than women, but women are just…different.”

My eight year-old brain can’t recall all the particularities of the lesson, but I remember being stuck and struck by that phrase: “And only men can be pastors.  Men aren’t better than women, but women are different.”

Don’t you love that little word, “but?”  It’s the word that people use when they want to sound generous but stick to their problematic opinion, right?

Like, “Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not sexist, but…” or the ever-popular, “I’m not a racist, but…”

Don’t cough or you might miss the remark that nullifies their qualifier.

I raised my hand.

Now, I think it’s generally true that most students assume their teacher doesn’t like them, especially in these early grades.  But I didn’t have to assume; I knew she didn’t like me.  I knew this because she rolled her eyes every time I raised my hand.

Especially during Religion.

“But Mrs. L,” I said, “I know women pastors.”

She closed her book, sighed, and looked at me.

“I’m sure you know women who call themselves ‘pastor,'” she said, “but God’s word is clear on this: they are not pastors.”

“But…” I began, and she held up her hand.

“You come from a different faith,” she said slowly, as if I had trouble understanding the English language, “and in this class this is what we teach. Women are different.  Girls cannot be pastors.  They can do lots of great things!  They can be teachers, and administrators, and music directors, and can serve God in all sorts of ways!  But only men can be pastors.”

“…we have a women pastor…” I continued.  We did.  She was an intern at our church at that very moment.

“Tim,” she said, “why don’t you go out into the hall?”

That year the hall and I became good friends, and not for no reason.  I was a talker, there was no question about that.  And I was known to get off topic and draw and couldn’t keep my desk clean to save my life, all reasons for which the hall was an apparent remedy.

But sometimes I was sent into the hall, especially during religion class, because I couldn’t believe the things they were telling me.  Or, more rightly, wouldn’t believe them.

At least I didn’t think I did…

Fast-forward to middle school, a different place and time, where I met another woman pastor, an excellent preacher, a gifted theologian.  I found myself not only admiring her, but encouraged by her.

But (see? There it is…), I also found myself saying things like, “Well, I think the pastoral role is generally best suited for a man, but you’re awesome!”

Patriarchy, beloved, is like a thief in the night, stealing those perspectives that make it impotent and replacing them with dead-end thinking and misogynistic memes.

____________________________________________

He stared up at me, grinning from ear to ear.  That’s not the first thing I noticed, though.

No.  The first thing I noticed was how his wife sat by his side, her face downcast, not even looking at me.

“We’re so glad you’re here, pastor,” he said, shaking my hand with vigor. “It’s been years since we’ve been here.  When that woman got here we decided we couldn’t come anymore.”

I took back my hand.

“Because,” he continued, grin never failing, “we believe what the Bible says about women.”

What does the Bible say about women?

The aged prophet Elizabeth has some thoughts, as she speaks into Mary’s heart, “Blessed are you…and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

The warrior Deborah is the only one in the book of Judges with enough guts to go up against Jabin’s army.  And Queen Esther is identified as being made, “for such a time as this.”

We grin so much when we feel like God aligns with our prejudices.

And his wife.  I tried to engage her in the moment, but when she looked up at me all I could see was a vast nothingness in her gaze.  As her husband made her culpable to his disdain for women as religious leaders, I couldn’t catch a feel for her thoughts at all.

He withstood exactly two Sundays of my preaching before leaving in a tersely worded emailed huff.

_____________________________

It’s amazing for me to look back at my youth and realize that, although my particular church never taught me that women can’t or shouldn’t be pastors, Christian culture imparted it upon me, anyway.  My teacher even went so far as to say, “Girls can’t be pastors,” which is either an indication of the age of the students in front of her, or indicative of her thoughts on gender and roles and the diminutive nature of females.

Is this peculiar to American-Christian culture, or Christian culture in general?  I’ve not made heads or tails on it, but the issues feels as connected as those two pledges were to the start of my every-adolescent-day.

And it’s amazing for me to see how many still sit in the pews of congregations belonging to denominations who have ordained women for decades, and still think it’s an aberration of the call, and not the rule.

Just look at a contemporary list of so-called “outstanding preachers,” across denominations.  You’ll be hard-pressed to find one with more than one or two female preachers on there.  And how many women do you know who serve large congregations?  It’s abysmally small, and this is not a result of ratios, my friend.

It’s a result of structure.  I mean, look at that Christian pledge I was forced to recite.  “King eternal,” does not leave much room for the feminine imagination, right?

The statistics are a result of thinking “women are ‘different,'” in all the ways that phrase is unhelpful.

Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if “Jesus of Nazareth” had been “Jean of Nashville.”  What if the Savior had been Jean, or Julie, and identified as female?  Would Jean ever be able to be, as the so-called “Christian pledge” says, “One Savior, Queen eternal?”

Or is the word “King” above less a description of Jesus (I mean, honestly, only Pontius Pilate calls him that, and not in a flattering way), and more a description of us and our propensity to equate male with all things powerful and godly?

Hell, what if God came embodied as a woman, and we all just missed it because we were expecting a man?!

Don’t say such things too loudly in the presence of the faithful, though.  They have a tendency to invite such ideas into the hall…

Down from Their Thrones

statuesGod has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. -Luke 1:52

It was quite the grilling.  Unexpectedly tense.

I was interviewing to be the pastor, and the interviewers were clearly conflicted, not the least bit over me.  In the weeks prior I had taken my Confirmation students to see the movie Selma as part of our curriculum.  There were questions and concern from some of them, though not all of them.

Would I be doing that with their Confirmation students?

“It’s quite possible,” I said, honestly.  “It would depend on what is needful in the moment.”

And then one of them had some pictures printed out, of me at a march in the streets of Chicago over police violence.  Would I be doing that, there?

“It’s possible,” I answered, trying to be honest.

“And Confederate Monuments,” one asked, “would you advocate for vandalizing them?”

I was stunned.  To me this was an odd line of questioning, but was illustrative of the times I guess. Would I, as a pastor, advocate for the destruction of public monuments?

The newspaper headlines today mirror the headlines back in those days, except ten-fold.  I eventually took that call, and about two years into my service there a student at a local university, one who had grown up at the church, contacted me.  She had been involved in the toppling of a Confederate monument on campus, “Silent Sam” as he was known.

I was proud.  She wanted to write up a reflection about it for the congregation to see.

And that’s when my pride turned to hesitancy. I remembered that interview, the conflicting viewpoints in the room, the tepid response to my honest answers from a few of them.  Would this be too much?

That student had, after all, been raised in that community, taught in those classrooms, and had come to learn such acts of holy resistance through the scriptures.  But would it be too much?

We never ran the article.  It’s one of my big regrets.

Because, had I listened to the scriptures, had I heard the voice of another young woman, Mary, in the early chapters of Luke, I would have seen the inevitability of the current situation.  “God will cast the mighty down from their thrones,” she sings out.  And these monuments, mighty in size, looming over the public lands entrusted to the people, and looming over the psyche of those on the margins in silent intimidation, they are not just mighty in size, they’re mighty in force.  And while they may appear to be innocuous reminders of a long-gone past, we don’t have to search too hard to find evidence that oppression is not a thing of the past, but a very present reality, and these monuments were erected to ensure that present stays ever-present, in stone and marble and iron.

When I was asked by that member of the interviewers if I would advocate for the toppling of such statues, I hedged my bets and, after a moment of thought necessary to collect myself after such a blind-sided question, I said, “No…those are public property.  But I can see why someone would topple them.”

Because, well, where should we erect a statue of the person who lawfully murdered your grandmother?

I was nervous about saying yes, being too radical.

It is a hard thing to discern when revolution is holy.  It is not easy, and it can be messy.

But we have voices along the way to guide us, like young Mary, and Amos and Micah before her.  Like Jesus himself, who toppled the statues of Mammon in the temple of his day, and continues to knock over the idols I erect for myself of money, work, and prestige.

I know that there are questions about when enough is enough to this toppling.  Must all of our statues who led checkered lives in regards to slavery and oppression be demolished?  Washington and Jefferson, too?  Woodrow Wilson was a known racist.  His portrait as well?

I have come to the conclusion that I’m not the one to answer that question or set those boundaries, as I’m part of the offending party, ally though I try to be.  Instead we need to sit at the feet not of these statues, but of those who cry out in pain and anger at their very presence, to listen and really learn for once.

Literally, for once.

Because we’ve been here before, Beloved.  And I’m hoping that this time will not be like those other times, when it all died down and we once again turned our back on the cries of our sisters and brothers when they told the world how hard it is for them to breathe.

I’ve changed my mind, by the way.

If I were to be asked today if I’d advocate for Confederate monuments to be torn down, I think I’d reply, “It’s a good first step. As soon as possible.”

The Looming Philanthropic Storm

hurricane_florencejpgThere’s a hurricane out there.  It’s name is Michael.

Michael, as it turns out, is the most popular name of a Millennial, at over 1.1 million children graced with that name in the 20-year span that encompasses the Millennial Generation.

But, should Michael not suit your fancy, the hurricane could have also been named Jessica, the most popular feminine name at over 750,000 persons having that namesake born between 1982-2004.

Regardless, it’s looming out there…and all of us in the philanthropic world, from church leaders to non-profit workers, know it, but we rarely speak about it.

What am I talking about?

The ability to amass wealth.  Or, more correctly, the inability to amass wealthy by Millennials.

And it’s not their fault.

Philanthropies survive off of the expendable wealth of donors.  I know you know this, but it’s important to repeat because if you’re not in the world of non-profit budgets, like pastors and non-profit workers are, you don’t often think about it, especially that one, necessary, all-important word: expendable.

Think about this: in 1972, roughly when many of our parents graduated from college, the average price for a home was $27,000.  When I graduated from college the average price of a home was $195,500.

“Yes,” you say, “but Tim, you didn’t count for inflation and adjusted value and…”

OK.  In 1972 that $27,000 was roughly equal to about $118,000 in today’s spending power.  The math is not that hard, and I’m not great at math.

How would I make up that extra $70,000 to purchase a house out of school, like many of my parent’s generation did?

Well, it certainly didn’t come from work.  At least, not for your average Jane or Joe.

The greatest increase in wealth, unsurprisingly, is reserved for the top 1%, and for the last four decades this has remained steadily the case.  What hasn’t remained steady is the rate.  In the last four decades income for the top 1% has grown by over 200%, compared to a growth rate of just 46% for the bottom 90%.

And that middle section between the 1% and the 90%?

That’s the so-called “Middle Class,” slowly shrinking as the top blows through the roof, and the economy continues to drop more into that lower (and overwhelmingly larger) bracket.

Also consider that most families need two cars because they have double incomes now.  But those double incomes?  They don’t have near as much buying power as a double income family of the Boomer Generation.  From 1960-present day, our purchasing power has, as this Pew Research article notes, “barely budged,” even as our checks have gotten larger.

What’s this mean?

It means that our (including myself here because I’m technically on the lower-end of the Millennial landscape) ability to amass meaningful wealth is dismal compared to the previous three generations.  And despite the chance that we might become heirs to some of that, there is another problem to contend with: we’re living longer.

And that long life-span means savings must be used for sustaining the living, not gifting toward charities.  And that makes sense, right?  Can’t fault people for that, right?

Certainly not.  But it’s all a recipe for a calamitous future for non-profits and organizations who live off of the generosity of others.  Because while indicators point to Millennials being much more generous than previous generations, we frankly have less we’re able to give.

And I have to imagine that some of that generosity comes from the stark realization that, well, we’re just not going to be able to amass the wealth our grandparents and parents had/have, and so we might as well give more away.

Now, it is true that we’re more choosy about where our gifts go; we want to see a tangible difference in the lives of whatever we give toward, whether it be humans, animals, or the planet.  But that’s also part of this whole dilemma, because Millennials are not willing to prop up institutions that have, heretofore, not been able to make good on their promises of better life quality, security, and wholeness…which means that the little wealth we do have, we spread deep and narrow, excluding many historic non-profits from contention (for better and worse).

The non-profit sector has exploded, rising by about 10% in the last 10 years alone. When you compare that to the modest 2-3% growth in the for-profit sector, you’ll see the issue. Rising competition in a sea of shrinking assets means, well, a hurricane of chaos in the not-so-distant future.

So, what can we do?

Well, I think we can be innovative.  Cottage industries attached to non-profits are not a bad idea.  These industries take some of the burden off of pure fundraising, and provide some stability…if the industry is done well and moderately successful.

We can also imagine a situation where large institutions, like the church, take a hard look at sustainability and make the decisions necessary to tackle the problem rather than just wait until the hurricane hits.  Darwinism looks like cannibalism when it hits the church…and I think it’s largely true across non-profits that serve a similar population.

And on the political front, we can vote for meaningful change.  Increased wages for common workers.  We can lobby to make industry changes, getting rid of the notion that everyone must have a Master’s degree to be qualified for work that, in years past, barely needed an Associate’s Degree.  Wonderful teachers and nurses were sent into their fields with Associate’s in year’s past, staving off crippling debt and providing real good to those they served.

And what is with everyone having to have an MBA these days?

Want to talk about an unsustainable rise in cost?  Look at college and higher education.  Yet another reason why my generation has no wealth: we’re paying it back to institutions we needed to attend to be ensured jobs that paid us enough to make good money which we now cannot save!

This Sisyphean cycle is not only unsustainable for the individual, but it will eventually cripple institutions set up for doing good.

You know, it’s funny, I was having a conversation one time with a doctor, an M.D.  Not a friend, just an acquaintance.  They paid over half a million in student loans by the end of their training, and at 50 years old, had just paid it off, mostly because of their generous salary.

But we were talking and they noted that the CEO of the Red Cross made six figures, and “how terrible for the head of a non-profit to make so much.”

I said, “That non-profit is not only huge, but does a huge amount of good in the world.  It takes a skilled leader to head up that kind of organization.  Look at the CEO of Amazon and the billions (at the time) he makes.  You think he’s more deserving than the CEO of an international aid organization that does so much good?”

“Yes,” the doctor said, taking a sip, “because he earned it and that’s not a non-profit.”

I downed my drink and walked away.  I can’t understand that kind of logic, a kind that buys into the false narrative of meritocracy.

But unfortunately, despite the generosity we see from this generation, a meritocracy may be all we’re left with as non-profits fall victim to a poorer and poorer population…which will require more non-profits to fill in the gaps, but funded by who and how?

Organizations that are making a difference, doing real good now, are facing down a hurricane just off-shore.  It’s slow moving…but picking up speed.

But there’s no evacuation route, and nowhere to hide.

So, what will we do about it?

 

 

Hugs and Hand Grenades

download“Do you need a hug?” my five year old asked as I sat on the couch staring at the TV.

He must have seen it on my face.  The President had just finished his Rose Garden address and, as if watching a split screen of dual realities, before the final words of his horrifying speech the pops of smoke grenades and screams of tear gas victims rang out.

Holding shields and charging the peaceful protest, the public park was cleared to make way for the President.

He was going for a stroll.

Having been sequestered in a bunker last night (welcome to our world, Mr. President), he now wanted to show strength…he feared being seen as weak.

And flanked by the Attorney General and his security advisors, he walked.

To where?

An empty church left vacant by both the pandemic that still plagues our land and the fire that raged last night in its basement, mirroring the rage in so many hearts at the reality that the plague of racism still has no vaccine.

I mean, that’s the truth, right?  We’ll get a vaccine for Covid-19.  But to extinguish racism and white supremacy we need a collective heart transplant, and unfortunately elective surgery is still not happening in many places…

Well, and most aren’t electing to have such a transplant, anyway.

On a friend’s social media feed she posted that we need to teach our white babies not to shoot or harm black and brown babies.  Immediately the feed was pounced on by well-meaning but fragile folks who reminded her that “no one should shoot or harm anyone” and “that’s what we need to teach.”

Ok. But we need to start with our white babies…because, well, read the headlines.

Read history.

And so he walked from the Rose Garden after a speech that could be generously described as taken from the papers of an aspiring dictator, and strolled to stand in front of a vacant church.

And there he held aloft a Bible which was, I kid you not, upside-down. At least, upside-down for him, making it not only unreadable for him, but also no more than a prop of some sort.  It was backward for everyone…but both backward and upside down for him.

And just stood there.

Backward and, for him, upside-down.

I mean, I’m not one to think that symbolism is everything; it was obviously a mistake.  Who holds up a book backward?  What reader reads a book upside-down?

But, who knows? Maybe the book just refused to cooperate.

The scriptures have been known to do that.  Too often they don’t cooperate with what I want them to do and say, either, in the end.

It’s like the book was an unwilling participant.

Wait, no. As someone well-versed in the stories of that bound volume, let me be clearer: it was an unwilling participant.

Because the scriptures are always unwilling to participate in oppression.

When the military is used against civilians, it should be in order to protect their Constitutional rights.  Historically, that’s what it has been used for.

Eisenhower did this in Arkansas over school integration.

Kennedy did the same in Alabama.

And sure, in times of riot the Guard has been mobilized in an effort to control the situation.  Notably this happened after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in the 60’s, and the military came to Chicago, Washington, and Baltimore as outrage spilled out of the homes and onto the streets…understandably so.

But even in those cases the military at least gave the appearance of using force to quell a situation that was bubbling over (and again I say that the bubbling over was UNDERSTANDABLE).

But today the military was used against peacefully protesting civilians so that the President could take a walk to a vacant church and get his picture holding up a backwards Bible.

So, yes Alistair, I need a hug for multiple reasons.

Because today the rights of those people were hijacked.

Because today the military was forced to do something that, arguably, is unconstitutional.

Because today the scriptures that I have dedicated my life to studying were used in a publicity stunt.

Because today a church building, a sanctuary, was used to provide the backdrop for someone who has made it part of their political platform to deny sanctuary to immigrants.

Today Christianity was once again used as a prop in the ongoing narrative of white supremacy and oppression in the United States.  It, along with our current pandemic, is a plague upon the land. What is it with this penchant for prop-holding that politicians do with our scriptures and creeds, turning them upside-down for their own political agendas?

So yeah, I could use a hug.

In the battle between hugs and hand grenades, I still contend that hugs will overcome.

But today was not that day…so bring on the hugs, because we’ve had enough of the political, and literal, hand grenades for June 2020.

Already.

 

On Anger Getting the Best of Me (An Apology) and Keeping it Compassionate

67784A few days ago I let anger get the best of me.  It’s not pretty when that happens, especially publicly.

It was on a social media post, something I never encourage and usually try to discourage…but anger got the best of me.

In a season of great frustration: pandemic, politics, the politicization of a pandemic…well, there are tons of reasons.  No excuses, mind you.  Just plenty of reasons.

It felt bad. In the clear light of the morning, I took down the whole post and exchange.  I had to.  None of us were at our best in that moment.

Part of what kills me about the current state of politics is the seeming disconnect between what our vote, our support for a candidate, seems to say about us…and it’s something I struggle with.

Because the candidate I will vote for (and Lord, I pray he has a good, solid, exciting running mate) has an accusation of sexual assault against him, which he denies.  And he recently made a careless remark about race (which, while not racist, was certainly careless…and for which he apologized for).  And, while I don’t expect anyone to be perfect, I mean…c’mon.

The more laughable/sad part of it all is the supposed outrage by the other side that he’d say something like that, but their deafening silence when their candidate has done far worse.

But I don’t like “whataboutisms,” and there’s no excuse for the above.

In a normal voting year, I would not be voting for him.  This is frustrating for me.

But I don’t see this as a normal voting year.  Because the current occupant of the White House not only has an accusation of sexual misconduct against him, but has 24 such accusations.  And this all comes after a weekend where he (once again) re-Tweeted posts calling another politician a “skank,” fat-shaming another female politician, and disparaging mental-illness.

On top of that he has continually made racist or misogynistic remarks, not to mention supporting policies that continue to keep the marginalized on the margins (low unemployment numbers for African Americans are empty when the jobs are not living-wage jobs…that’s all gone now, anyway).  Did you forget the “Muslim ban?”  Did you forget how he remarked on Hillary Clinton’s backside?  Or his disparaging comments about the appearance of Carly Fiorina?  Have you forgotten how he made fun of a physically disabled reporter in front of thousands who cheered?

Do you laugh at that kind of thing?  If you do, I don’t want to know…

On top of that, we’re nearing 100,000 dead in this pandemic, and will soon surpass our dead from World War I, and the delayed response from this administration still does not have anyone taking any sort of blame.

And on top of that, I see a politician continually manipulating my religion for his benefit…even though he doesn’t even practice my religion, though he claims to.

And on top of that he has cruelly suggested putting alligators in a moat across the Southern border, or “shooting to maim” people who cross the border, or even punishing women who have an abortion somehow…it almost seems like cruelty is the point.

And on top of all of that, he hasn’t even adhered to the fiscal responsibility the party he leads has repeatedly championed, unmasking that responsibility for the clanging gong that it is: a political ploy without conviction.

But what frustrates me the most, and what made me the most angry the other night, is that I’m having a difficult time divorcing a vote for him from the support of his rhetoric, his racism, his fat-shaming, his misogyny, his bald-face lying, his inability to accept responsibility (that “The Buck Stops Here” sign Truman championed found its way to the trash), and his constant politicization of everything (do you even wear a mask?).

For me it’s a spiritual issue.  In our spirits, how can we support with our vote, with our rally, a candidate who exemplifies our basest inclinations?

I’m having a hard time not seeing the people who vote for him as racist and misogynistic and absolutely OK with being lied to and manipulated.

It’s just true.  And it makes me angry.

It makes me angry that I’m having a hard time divorcing him from those who vote for him.  It makes me angry, and makes me afraid: are his supporters like him? Deep down inside, do they think those things?

And, if I’m honest, it makes me angry that now I will cast a vote for someone who has been accused of sexual assault, too, because he is the lesser of two evils (unless he chooses an awesome running mate, which could turn a sad vote into a glad vote).

That anger got the best of me the other night…and I regret that.

I’m sorry for that.

Instead of just letting it hang out there, I thought it might be good to give you a glimpse into what’s going on behind the scenes in my heart and mind.  I think it might be important to put out there that I’m not sure how to divorce the candidate’s rhetoric from the voter’s vote, you know?

Like, if my friends and family members who vote for the current President are as racist and misogynistic and willing to laugh at Tweets and comments that tear people down…well, I don’t want to know that about them, you know?

It makes me angry to think that they’re someone who would do that, because frankly, I don’t want my kids around that.  Hell, I don’t want to be around that.

That’s not what my family is about.

And maybe you feel stuck, too, right?  Maybe you feel like you’re stuck between two bad choices, and Trump is the least-bad of the choices.  I can understand that feeling, I have the mirror of it, and would welcome that conversation.

But the gleeful support?  The cheering and goading on of the terribleness? The re-posting of the heartlessness?

Some people say that he’s “raw and real.”  Mike Rowe feels raw and real to me.  Hell, Joe Biden feels raw and real to me.

Our current president feels “rude and manipulative” to me.

Are you rude and manipulative?

Do you laugh at racist jokes?

Do you allow your children to pick on other children?  Then why would you allow, with your vote, your president to do that to other people?

This is where I’m coming up short, and it makes me frustrated.  It feels like a vote for him is a vote of support for the racism he espouses (would you ever call a White Nationalist a “good person?”), and for the misogyny he exudes, and for the heartless proposals he’s put forward…and I don’t want to think of you as blatantly racist, sexist, and heartless.

I don’t want to…but I’m having a hard time not doing that because, well, we’ve seen four years of it, and you want to sign on for four more?

Maybe the damage is done…

But, I have to say that, I feel like I’m being manipulated in all of this, too.  Clear-eyed, I see it now.  The mantra “Keep them angry” has been running through my head.  It’s a mantra that an operative used to describe the tactics of our day that push out the vote by the Right, but it certainly could be applied to the Left, too.

And anger always gets the best of us.

There’s certainly a ton of reasons to be angry, and good ones, too.  But I’m deciding to go in a different direction.

I’m deciding, today, to “Keep it compassionate.”  Compassion for the people being demonized, demoralized, and degraded will spur my vote this year.

Compassion even for those folks who might vote for the other side, because I have a desire to break the anger-spell driving the divisive politics of our day.

By the way, I don’t see compassion as weak.  In fact, I think it’s about the strongest thing you can be because, well, it’s easier to give into the anger, honestly.

I’m still frustrated that I don’t have a better ticket to vote for (Yet!  That running mate could do it!), but I won’t let the anger get the best of me…or, at least I’ll try not to.

But I do want to ask, absolutely without a shred of rhetorical questioning: how do you separate the vote from horribleness?  How do you separate the vote from the cruelty?  Is a vote for a candidate a vote for their words, beliefs, and ideas, too?

I know it’s not always a vote for their actions…we all make mistakes.  But what if there’s not only no remorse, but indeed a doubling-down?

I don’t know what to do with that, because a vote for that feels like rubber stamping, or even agreement with, those ideas.

And we can’t just say “it’s about the policies,” because as I point out above, the policies seem to be laced with that vitriol, too.

But even in this case, then, I’m going to go with compassion.  The kind of compassion that says, “God, they know not what they do.”

I’m still angry at the injustice…but that’s on all sides. No one is not guilty of that.

But when I enter the booth this year, I’ll be “Keeping it compassionate.”

On Essentialism

786C82F7-7A2F-438A-9CCC-D0A703E5B4E8Dearly Beloved,

We are gathered here today not to bury the Church, but rather to bury our illusions of what the church was.

We may have thought of the church as our safe space.

We may have thought of it as our sanctuary, a shelter from the storms of life.

We may have thought of it as our reliable friend, companion, and guide through the storms.

Surely it is all of this. Yes.

Yes.

But it has also been our training ground for discipleship. Slowly, but unyieldingly, you have repeated in word and deed, through hymn and creed, that you are about your neighbor and the tough work of loving your enemy into friendship.

You may have thought that it was just practice. A weekly ritual (monthly? can we be honest?), but it has not been.

Slowly but surely your swords have been molded into ploughshears…and if they haven’t, you’ve been attending a political rally, not a church.

Slowly but surely  you have prepared for the moment when the church would be pushed into exile, whether by pandemic or politics, and your sensibilities have been honed to detect the bs from the psa.

Do you see? Have you not heard?

Individual rights do not Trump (word used on purpose) communal responsibility.

We have been prepared for a moment like this since our last national crisis. Will we shirk back into kowtowing to the political winds because it is expedient?

Or will we trust the Gospel?

Will we imagine we are like Target and Walmart and Kroger’s?

Or will we admit we are not them, and are often against the profiteering they stand for?

Will you, Beloved, stand up for your baptismal vows? Or kneel before the calls of so-called liberty that bear no resemblance to your freedom in Christ?

This is the question.

Stay home. Trust science. Keep the faith. The faith that says being last actually means you’re first. The faith that says the meek inherit the earth.

The faith that says we are dying to live for our neighbor.

Attending to the Little Deaths

IrishWake_iStock_48838408I was running today, listening to a podcast where they were discussing one of my favorite Buddhist authors, Pema Chodron, and her book When Things Fall Apart.  It is not an exaggeration to say that Chodron’s book has changed my life, and saved many parts of me over and over again.

As the discussion unfolded using the book as a map, the host and guest noted that Chodron’s notion of the Buddhist maras, or “evils,” includes the “fear of death.”  And the guest went on to say, “And that doesn’t just mean the big death. That’s also all the other little deaths.”

And I stopped running.

I stopped running, put my hands on my knees and sighed a big sigh. I just decided to be for a brief moment, huffing and puffing, sweat cascading down my face.  I took a second to honor a little death right then and there: the death of my routine.

Yes, you might think it’s a small thing, but I hadn’t honored it yet.  I have deluded myself, using the drugs of “one day” and “soon” to shove my grief aside, but I have to come to grips with the fact that my routine, the one I knew, is dead.  I have been afraid to honor it because, well, that would mean I’d have to admit it is really dead.

It is.

And for me this is no small thing.  I live and die by the calendar and the clock. For as flexible as my schedule is, I make it inflexible purposefully because I need fences to organize my life.  It’s ironic, really: I don’t like fences when it comes to my thoughts, beliefs, or ideas, but I need them when it comes to my daily rituals.

We must have roots somewhere if we want to grow, right?

And it got me to thinking that all around us, in our homes, in our workplaces (or lack thereof), in our civic engagements (or lack thereof), in our patterns and practices, there are a thousand little deaths at this moment, and so many of us are just “waiting it out.”

But, Beloved, this is a Wake, not a pause.  This is a Wake.

The Wake, especially in my Irish heritage, was where you sat up all night with the body of the deceased, usually laid out on your kitchen table, and you drank, and played cards, and made a ruckus, trying to rouse the dead person from their prone position just in case they might still be alive.  Everyone likes a party, right?  And so if they were “mostly dead” and not “fully dead,” they’d rise to join.

They’d wake.

Well, in March we thought maybe our routines were just “mostly dead.”  But now, in May…well, my friends…it’s time to start organizing the funeral.

We need to honor these little deaths.  We need to stop pretending that things can go back to the way they were.  I mean, even if we wanted them to, and I’m not sure we really do because, let’s be very honest: the system wasn’t working very well for many, right?

But even if we wanted them to, they can’t.  We’ve seen too much.

We’ve seen how quickly the elderly have become expendable.  We’ve seen how fragile our “robust economy” actually was.  We’ve seen how grocery store clerks belong in the same sentence as fire fighters, nurses, and doctors, and we’ve noticed how glaringly other so-called “important professions” are missing from the term “essential worker.”  We’ve seen how our political system and our politicians, with some notable exceptions, will politicize a pandemic.

We’re not waiting out this virus, Beloved.  It’s killing things.  People, yes, but also our illusions, and we have the choice to numb ourselves with platitudes, or we can do the hard thing and no longer shelter our lives from the pain it is causing.

We must honor the little deaths, even if we do so in little ways.

It is freeing for me to say, with such frequency, “I don’t know.”  I say it all the time with my kids now.  My partner and I say it to one another regularly, especially when we talk about things happening in the summer months and next fall.

I don’t know when we’ll get to go to grandma and grandpa’s house again.  I don’t know if we’ll be at our nephew’s graduation party.  I don’t know when we’ll resume swimming lessons.  I don’t know if we’ll keep our jobs.

I just don’t know.

One of the little deaths I’m having to grieve now in this Wake is the death of so much certainty I thought I had, so many plans we had already made.  Like my ancestors at an Irish wake, I raise a glass to that certainty saying, “Cheers.  You had a nice run, old pal.”

Because it’s gone, and in many ways that’s both OK and so not OK, but either way it’s just damn true.

We must attend to the little deaths, Beloved.  We must free ourselves to grieve, to tell stories of what was, and be present in the waiting for what will be.

What Does the Church Look Like Without Communal Singing?

silent-and-semi-silent-vowels-in-japanese-devoicingHow can I keep…from singing? the old, old song asks.

Well, turns out you keep from singing because it might infect the alto section…and Lord knows no song is complete without the alto section.

If you don’t believe me, just ask an alto.

The very idea that communal song will be put on hold for a while, even after churches can gather in person again, breaks my heart.

Music is at the heart of what makes worship a thing.

Music is, some would say, what makes a church service tolerable.  And if the music is good?  Well, that can make a tolerable church service enjoyable, even.

Music was always the fallback for a pastor who gripped a sub-par sermon in their hands.  “Well,” they would think, “at least they’ll see Christ in the liturgy…”

The loss of communal singing in church will be great, indeed.  Where else, save for the bar, do we sing communally anymore?  Gone are the glee clubs.  Gone is classroom singing.  As the Fine Arts disappear from school curriculum in deference to STEM courses, gone is the peculiar mathematics and social intelligence that communal singing, both the learning and the doing, offer humanity.

And, sure, I’ve seen many the stoic pew-sitter stand obediently during a hymn and never move their lips.  But that is the exception, in my experience, not the rule.  It’s not that some have chosen not to sing in church, it’s that now we must choose not to fill the void those lyrical objectors create.

What will we do?

Well, we won’t stop music, that’s for sure.  In fact, one of the beautiful things about the liturgy lies in its repetition.  I only need to hear the introduction to Setting Four of This is the Feast and the song of my heart begins intoning, even if only in my mind, “This is the feast of victory for our God…

To be honest, one of the reasons the liturgy is repeated week after week is just for this reason: so your heart knows how to sing when your lips, for whatever reason, be it tragedy or overwhelming joy, cannot stir.  The liturgy is kind of like your familiar road home that you take, and though your mind drifts as you drive it, you arrive safely back in your garage before you know it because your body knows the way.

Your soul has memorized it.

That does not, of course, replace communal singing, but it is a bit of comfort, Beloved.

No, we will not abandon music, but we will do what communities have done since we first began purposeful gatherings: we will ask someone to sing on our behalf.

After all, what is a pastor but the person called by the community to lead them through the parts, sometimes offering them on the community’s behalf?  Who is the cantor but the person commissioned by the assembly to encourage song, arrange song and, if need be, sing for the silent community?  And, like the elected representatives currently fulfilling (or not) their duties in our government on our behalf, these people will take on the role of speaking for the community, singing for the community, until it can again.

This has happened in small ways, always.

I remember our musician playing an especially emotional rendition of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” one Sunday morning and, when his voice gave out as the tears choked him, the whole community started singing the song for him.  It was more than beautiful.

This will be that, but in reverse.

And I remember a particularly troublesome bout of laryngitis that afflicted me one Christmas Eve, leaving me no voice for my favorite Christmas hymns, as I had to save it all for the sermon. On that O holy night the community sang for me.

This will be that, but in reverse.

And surely wise leaders will take the opportunity to safely incorporate soloists, distanced duets, and whatnot for those gathered.

Crisis is the mother of ingenuity.

What will it look like?  I don’t know yet…but you can’t stop the music, Beloved. It dances inside you. It lives in the heart of our spirituality.  The Christian Celts claimed God sung creation into being and, as Jesus said, if this virus silences the disciples, the very rocks themselves will ring out in song, vibrating with the energy of sun they’ve absorbed every day of their existence.

The crickets chirp the soprano line. The wind rushes through the trees as an able tenor (which are hard to find!). The opening petals of the flowers and their almost imperceptible cracking will replace the bass pedals of the organ if they have to…though they won’t.

They won’t, because we’ll find a way.

It will be sad, it will be difficult, but it will be done.

You will sing for me, and I for you, until we can sing together.

 

Justice is on Trial

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The cross Arbery’s mother set up. Photo credit: Richard Fausset/The New York Times

“What have you done?!” the Lord asked. “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10)

That question, “What have you done?” cuts both ways in America. It always has, if we’re honest.

If you think for one damn minute we live in a post-racial society in the (dis)United States, explain to me why we still see Confederate flags at Reopen Michigan rallies.

Explain to me how a man in a KKK hood in California shops for produce in compliance to the face mask ordinance.

Explain to me how this pandemic has, in its very spread, cut itself along racial lines…doesn’t that make you scratch your head?  Doesn’t that make your heart hurt?  Doesn’t that objectively indicate that there is disparity in our system, forcing the spread of disease in communities of color?

Explain to me how a man can go jogging in a neighborhood of moss-hung trees and modest ranch houses and, just because of the color of his skin, is stopped and accosted by white residents armed with weapons.

No, not just accosted…hunted.  They saw him running and, like seeing an animal they wanted to get, grabbed their guns, hopped in their pick-up, and gave chase.

And if you think this is an isolated incident, need I say the name Trayvon Martin?

Need I say the name Alton Sterling?

Sandra Bland?

We may have outlawed lynching, but it took two months to get an arrest in Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, with the prosecutor originally advising that no charges be brought because the murderers acted “in self defense.”

Apparently being black in a predominantly white neighborhood is threatening.

Actually, the above statement is exactly correct in my personal experience.

Not too long ago someone visiting my house looked out our window and, seeing a person of color in the cul-de-sac casually said, “Someone’s in the wrong neighborhood…”

The person is our neighbor. I mean, literally they are our neighbor, but this person who shows up weekly in a house of worship should also understand that word in a different way.  Did not Jesus say “love your neighbor” and, when pressed on the issue, gave a wide-sweeping definition of that word that undoubtedly included those who don’t look like you?

Let’s face it: most Christians have deified their prejudices, their political policies, and their bankrupt morality, not God.

The question, “What have you done?” weighs on me though.  Because when that person made that casual remark in my home I just said, as casually, “Oh, that’s Mr. X. They live in that house,” pointing down the road.

What I should have said was, “Yes. Apparently you are in the wrong neighborhood if you think we talk like that.  Apparently you are in the wrong neighborhood if you think this family puts up with that.  This isn’t the house, or the neighborhood, for that.”

Combating racism starts at the level of the heart, the head, and the mouth.  So many white people gather at Arbery’s grave not to cheer a miscarriage of justice, nor to protest it, but rather just to go home shaking their heads, preferring guilt to responsibility.

Be responsible.  We are responsible, in all the ways that word can be used, for this mess.

Justice is on trial, Beloved.

And for Christians, this issue needs to be personal.  Not only because our past is complicit in the problem, but even more so because we claim (emphasis on that word) to worship a God who fell victim to a miscarriage of justice.

The story of Jesus is one of a loving God going walking in the wrong neighborhood, a neighborhood that preferred violence to peace, preferred division over unity, preferred vengeance over service.

So, the question I’m asking myself, and I’m asking you: what have you done?!