Robinhood, Wall Street, and Religion

An unusual thing happened this last week: the masses made their voices heard.

And it didn’t happen through voting, though that is one way this happens more regularly in the world (when voting restrictions don’t keep people away from the polls).

And it didn’t happen in a courtroom.

It happened on Wall Street, and it is so rare there that it actually brought the beast to a little bit of a halt this last week.

If you’re not up to speed, you can find an extended story here. If you want a basic (very basic) version, this is basically what happened:

To make easy money on the market, some entities do some fancy footwork to play the system. It’s set up to be played, by the way, but only if you know the right moves…and usually only the very wealthy can afford (literally) to know the right moves.

Basically, you bet that a stock will fall, so you borrow securities, trade them on the open market, and assume you’ll be able to buy them back at a lower price. You payback what you borrow, and you get to keep the excess.

This last week the market recoiled after a group of small (in terms of Wall Street) investors decided to bet on nostalgia and bought up shares of GameStop, you know, that place in the mall where they sell (and buy back!) video games.

What’s a mall, you ask? It’s that place where the elderly walk in circles and pass by stores no one goes in anymore. But, I digress…

The reason they bought these stocks, though, was because hedgfunds were using GameStop (and other entities like it) to “buy short” as they call it, betting that the stocks would fall and wanting to make some quick cash.

The influx of GameStop buying sent the stock soaring, causing a number of short-buying investors to lose millions. Billions, even.

Seriously.

And it was largely done because a bunch of little investors using no-fee sites like Robinhood, a place where people can trade small amounts just to dabble in the market. In fact, Robinhood even shut down for a bit to stop the blood loss for the billionaire class because this collective buying by small-time investors was working so well at beating the game by playing the game.

It’s all pretty fascinating. Popcorn-eating fascinating.

But what I’m most confused about is not how it happened (I think it should happen more! The market should be risky for everyone, not just the little investor!). I’m more confused about why Robinhood, a site that says it is dedicated to getting small investors in the game, shut down when the billionaire class became imperiled because other users figured out how to play the game better for once.

Isn’t Robinhood supposed to encourage that kind of enagement?

I mean, it’s named ROBINHOOD. You’d think it would be happy to live up to it’s name, right?

Oh, what’s in a name…?

The truth is that Robinhood, and other sites like it, were instrumental in transforming the system, if just for a moment. But, unlike it’s name would suggest, it turns out it wasn’t interested in transformation, but rather in just propping up the system so that nothing changes at all!

And this, Beloved, is where critique of religion comes in because, I have to be honest, religion, too, doesn’t often live up to it’s name.

Religion literally means “connect again.” “Re”-back and “ligio”-ligament, actually means to re-bind or re-connect, and at its core should be invested in life transformation through a connection to the Divine.

But honestly, on both ends of the operation, this is usually not the goal of most religion as it we currently find it.

If you think that’s not true, just talk to the number of pastors frustrated because they can’t get people to invest in a deeper spiritual life through dedicated spiritual practices. They’d rather have their Spring Picnic and Youth Car Wash and

Or, if you think that’s not true, talk to the thousands who never darken the door of a religious building anymore (accept on a tour) because “nothing happened” for them in those walls.

On the participation side and on the facilitation side it seems like religion isn’t really too interested, most days, in living into its name.

You know, kind of like how the elite Wall Street investors and the sites like Robinhood weren’t too interested in transformation, but only in paying lip-service to getting people into investing and embracing risk.

Systems that live for self-preservation are not interested in making a difference in your life, but rather only interested in propping up their own lives.

This is why I think that for every religious institution the question of “should we sell our building” be on the table, every year. The building can become an idol, Beloved, and if it’s not working for the mission, it’s working against it.

This is why I think that most every team of a church should be ad hoc, by and large. Why have a team if there’s no reason to? The Spring Picnic Team should only be convened once it’s clear that there is a good, missional reason to have the Spring Picnic! And, yes, a time to gather and get to know one another is absolutely a great reason for a Spring Picnic, but if all you have are a bunch of Spring Picnics under different names, then, well, you need to reevaluate your purpose.

Good religion needs to live into its name, or else it is no better than Robinhood: inviting people in but, once they have been transformed and want to do something differently because of it, shutting them out or down because, well, “that’s not how we do things around here…”

Invest in places that are interested in both being transformed and in helping you transform, Beloved. They are out there, both in the market place and in the halls of religion.

But it doesn’t seem to be the norm.

So make sure they’re living into their name…

Abuse Lingers

I talk with people who have been hurt by religion.

I talk with them quite a bit, actually. It’s part of what I do, and I’m grateful to be a space where people can be brave and safe and admit their doubts, frustrations, fears, and, yes, moments when they’ve been beaten and bruised (both metaphorically and in real life) by religion.

I also talk with folx who have been hurt by what they consider to be hostile political policies these last four years.

And, let’s just get it out of the way, while a less-than-equitable tax code is certainly not fair, and certainly takes advantage of the poor and vulnerable, that’s not the kind of hostility I’m talking about.

What I’m talking about is making fun of a disabled person by the President of the United States.

What I’m talking about is having the phrase “Muslim ban” being thrown around in the halls of power with conviction rather than concern.

What I’m talking about is barring transgender people from serving in the military, and announcing it by Tweet, the way you or I might announce the latest cute thing our kid said into the ether of the world.

What I’m talking about is a President ordering the dispersion of peaceful protestors by MILITARY FORCE so he could take a walk and hold up a Bible for a political headline.

What I’m talking about is the systemic libel of our democratic systems in an attempt to keep and consolidate power.

This is not “snowflake” sort of stuff. These are triggers. They’re abusive behavior.

And the reason I bring it up is because, well, I’ve heard some people tell those who struggle with religion, often due to the coercion or the abuse they felt in those hallowed halls, that they should just “get over it.”

Or that they should “forget about it and move on.”

One of the interesting things about abuse is that, while many of the marks that you can see fade with time, the marks that aren’t visible seem to last.

Imagine waking up every morning not knowing if your spouse was going to hit you or cook you breakfast. Do you think that feeling just immediately leaves when you’re out of that situation?

That crap lingers!

Now replace that “spouse” with the Divine, and instead of breakfast or a slap, it’s a “blessing” or “eternal damnation.” You think that just goes away if you stop going to church?

That crap lingers!

Now replace “the Divine” with the voice from the Oval Office who literally pulls the strings of power in the nation…

…yeah, yeah, save your “separate but equal” lip-service for another blog; I intend to be real. This last administration (much like the Jackson administration they so emulated) has shown that the Executive Branch is the mightiest on the tree when there hasn’t been adequate pruning…

…and imagine that instead of “blessing” and “eternal damnation” it’s replaced by “emboldened privileged existence” and “open season for outright abuse.”

Why do you think racists could march un-hooded through the streets without fear? Why do you think Confederate battle flags and Neo-Nazi flags marched alongside Trump flags when they stormed the Capitol?

Why do you think that hate crimes rose by 20% the last four years?

So, when people say, “He’s out of office, just move on…” to that I say:

THAT CRAP LINGERS!

It lingers.

And abuse that is not addressed, somehow, continues to harm long past its life-expectancy.

And anyone who says, “words are just words” has never sat with a spouse who was continually dressed down and verbally shamed for years. They’ve never stood next to a kid who was mocked for how they look or what religion they practice (or don’t) or how their family is composed.

Words hurt, Beloved. They move people, for good or for ill. Words have power, they change things, and trying to pretend they don’t is like saying that the abuser isn’t at fault because the ones who are hit let the blows land.

I write all this as a way of explaining why it’s still important that we have some sort of discussion…no, not discussion, a “come to Jesus” about what has happened the last four years.

About why we can’t just “move on,” because we have the serious tendency to “move back again” if we just try to move on.

I write this for everyone wondering why it still matters enough to mention. It still matters because, to be honest, I cringe when I turn on the news, even now, because I wonder what other right has eroded, what safeguard has been crushed, what minority group has been scapegoated…

And, no, elections will not fully prevent those things from happening, but we have seen what happens when an election accelerates it!

And, Beloved, it lingers. In the soul. In the spirit. In the head. In the heart.

It lingers.

Rachel Just Wants Someone To Cry With Her…I Do, Too.

One of the most haunting and touching collisions of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament happens in the Gospel of Matthew where the writer recounts Herod’s rage over the birth of Christ, and the tragic resulting aftermath.

The story is well-known, of course. Herod goes on a rampage and kills all the young boys three years of age and under throughout Bethlehem. This horrific episode is captured in the Christmas carol, “Lully, Lullay,” an ancient song written for a long-lost nativity play that towns and villages would put on during Christmastide.

This song, with the minor tone and lullaby lyrics, “Lully, Lullay, thou little tiny child/bye bye lully, lullay…” is meant to mimic the quiet song the mothers of Bethlehem sang to their little ones to keep them quiet while soldiers went door to door searching for children to kill.

The writer of Matthew, as he is wont to do, overlays Hebrew Scripture prophecy on the scene, recalling an obscure verse from Jeremiah 31 where Rachel, the seminal matriarch of the Hebrew people is crying over the death and exile of her descendants. “She cries,” the prophet shouts, “and she refuses to be comforted.”

She refuses to be comforted.

This whole scene has always moved me, and does so even more so now that I have my own children. It is striking. It is raw. It is a commentary on political power and political fear. It is a testament to the endearing love of mothers, of all parents, for their babies.

I am currently in a program where I’m learning to effectively coach people who are in the process of dying, or who are grieving over those who have died. We talk a lot about the process of death and grief, about saying goodbye well and remembering well.

And we talk a lot about the fact that the dying and the grieving don’t want our pity, and they don’t need our platitudes. After all, a euphemism or a trite moralism is just another way of saying that you don’t know how to care.

Caring doesn’t mean patching over grief, but about walking into the valley of the shadow of death with someone else so that they don’t have to do it alone, by God.

Being in this course (and, by the way, if you’re in need of someone to walk with you in grief, death, or dying, don’t hesitate to reach out), I was reminded of an old midrash, a tale that I know I heard somewhere but that I can’t now place.

It talks of Rachel, and of her seeing the devastation of her ancestors, her babies, and seeking out someone to cry with her. She goes to the patriarchs, but they will not do it. She goes to the angels, but they can’t grieve with her. She finally goes to God and says, “And you? Will you not grieve with me?” And God, in Divine mercy, weeps with her into the night, not consoling her (she refused to be consoled), but simply weeping alongside her.

And that made all the difference.

Rachel didn’t need someone to make her feel better, and she didn’t need someone to “fix” her…she wasn’t “broken.”

She was grieving. Her heart was broken, and that can’t be fixed in any other way than by walking through that valley and grief, and she needed someone to walk with her, to hear her tell the stories of her babies, of her ancestors, to laugh as she pulled out picture after picture, and to cry as she missed them in the night.

I know why Rachel refused to be consoled. I know why Rachel wanted someone to just cry with her.

I’m thinking these days of all the anger and hurt and grief we’re all experiencing today. The losses of normalcy, those loved ones lost to the pandemic and our collective inaction.

I’m thinking these days of the way we assault one another, of how we refuse to hear other perspectives and so easily fall into the trap of conspiracies and group thought that promises easy outs and secret remedies.

We’re grieving, Beloved. We’re grieving.

And what we need to do is, like Rachel, refuse to be consoled for a bit. We need to just let it out, to cry a bit, to stop hanging our hopes on every tilting windmill and instead sit and just be with it all for a little. damn. while.

I know why Rachel refuses to be consoled.

I’m refusing, too.

On Not Believing Impossible Things and How Religion Doesn’t Help

“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” (Lewis Carroll, _Alice Adventure’s in Wonderland_)

To believe in “impossible things” is quite human, I think. There is a sense of hopefulness, a kind of counter-balance to our fear instincts, that lives strong in our brain chemistry.

But even within the realm of believing in “impossible things” there are some categories. Like, it’s one thing to believe that there is a Divine Being in the universe, and quite another thing to believe that someone gravely ill with little medical probability to recover will, somehow, do so.

The first, a belief in a Divine Being, is a kind of life-assent to some sort of higher power’s existence. The second is trusting that a miracle (which, by definition, means it doesn’t happen except so rarely it can barely be documented and is taken out of statistical probabilities) will happen.

The first kind of belief is existential.

The second kind of belief is banking on the improbable at best, and impossible when it comes right down to it.

Religion has played fast and loose with these kinds of ideas over the years. As recently as last year the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod reaffirmed the Doctrine of Creation which pushes the idea that, due to the Genesis account, the world was created in six, literal, days.

The President of the denomination, Matthew Harrison, wrote in defense of the affirmation, concluding that he is compelled to believe in the doctrine of creation because, in his words, “I believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior. And I hear in the words of Jesus that He himself believes the creation accounts are historical. (See MATT. 19:3–9.) I hear in the words of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, the voice of my Savior. And both He and the Scriptures bear witness to their absolute inerrancy and infallibility.” (The Lutheran Witness, January 3rd, 2018)

Not only do I find his position theologically lazy, but I find it utterly senseless! As in, it makes absolutely no rational sense. And I get that his big thing is that faith trumps rationality in all things, but that position is dangerous when it comes to matters of science and life and death.

This is but one example of denominations who still hold and teach this “impossible belief” that flies in the face of so many branches of science and so many years of dedicated scholarly inquiry that I can’t even name all the branches, lest I leave any out.

Add to this the idea that there was a world-wide flood and Noah’s ark somehow preserved creation, that there were giants like Goliath in the ancient world, and that Joshua’s horns fell the walls of Jericho…I mean, you can name six impossible things before getting through the first chapter of Genesis if we’re talking literally.

I remember being in a Bible study once and explaining to the class that the particular book we were reading was an example of “Biblical story,” a tale meant to teach the lesson. It contained many truths, but did not actually, factually happen. And I remember a few souls in there widening their eyes in disbelief at my statement. Their dismay was palpable.

The story was an impossible tale, by the way. A great tale, a truthful tale, but not a factual tale. And were it to be read outside of the religious context, it’d clearly be identified in that way.

One person raised their hand, “But,” they said, “if God can do anything, then I’ll just believe it happened, OK?”

“One can certainly take that approach,” I said, “but it opens up the doors for a lot of problems if you do. Because we live in a world of norms, by and large. And if we give God the big ‘anything is possible’ card, then we might start to disregard the norms that govern our world and society, norms like science, witness, and historical precedence.”

I don’t know if that was the right answer. I don’t know that there is one.

But I bring this all up because we are certainly, as a people and as a society, moving away from a culture of fact and truth and increasingly becoming a culture that “believes impossible things” because they’re convenient.

Like, it’s convenient to believe that mask-wearing is all about control and this pandemic virus is a hoax and, if God can do anything, then we don’t need to fear it because God can protect us.

It’s convenient because it let’s you live in a world where you don’t have to take responsibility for the safety of others, let alone yourself, because you can live in your delusion without question.

But it’s also very dangerous.

And I worry, in the deep parts of my heart, that religion that pushes a literal Noah’s ark has enabled this type of thinking.

Blind optimism has allowed people to believe that, contrary to every authority, the 2020 vote was rigged and stolen. Authority is not held in esteem anymore, but rather is subject to desires and wishes, it seems.

I worry that blind optimism pushed by so much religion, with the “pie in the sky” escapism, has laid the neural irrigation ditches for this kind of thinking to be possible.

What culpability does religion have in the impossible thinking going on in our world today?

I’m not sure, but I’m wrestling with it.

Because while I do believe it is possible to have a critically-thinking faith, I also know (from experience) that it’s more difficult. The easy way out, in many ways, is to not think about it at all and take religious texts, doctrines, and dogmas as gospel truth (pun intended).

The critic of that statement would claim that it’s harder because so much of the texts, doctrines, and dogmas fly in the face of scientific discoveries, sociological progress, and philosophical thought.

“Exactly,” is my response. “So why believe it?”

It’s believed because it’s convenient to do so, and immediately beneficial: you don’t have to wrestle out the truth because it’s given to you.

But our world is not one to give gifts like that. Truth has never been served on a silver platter, but rather wrestled out, verified, re-verified, put to the test, and eventually come out on top.

A religious system that encourages wrestling is sorely needed in this world today, but I fear it may be too late. As the pockets of society that embrace science and those that reject it retreat to their different corners, we’re forced to look at the wasteland gap in-between us all and wonder how the ways we’ve taught faith, spoken about “truth,” and pushed impossible beliefs has led to this in America.

You Are a Family

painting by Sheli Paez: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/family-sheli-paez.html

“Well, if we decide to start a family, then we’ll talk about it…”

I hear this sometimes from couples preparing to get married.  I understand what they’re saying.  Our culture doesn’t really have a good grasp on how to adequately use words to describe life situations.

Usually when they say that, I gently stop them and say, “I want to be very clear with you about what I think is going on here.  The minute that you two say ‘I do,’ you’ve created a family.”

In fact, in just deciding to be together, despite the fact that the State doesn’t recognize it legally, I’d argue that by that decision alone, they’ve created a “family.”

You don’t have to have children to have a family.

You don’t have to have dogs or cats or rabbits to have a family (I am not a fan of “fur-baby”).

You two: you are a family.

When you decide where you go on vacation, you make a family decision.

When you decide how to spend your money, where to eat out, and how you’ll schedule your bedtime routine (yes…adults have bedtime routines), you’re talking about family decisions.

When we talk about “family planning,” we’re not talking about starting a family, we’re talking about adding to a family.

This notion, many times rooted in a long-forgotten-but-always-present past of needing kids to “work the farm” or “carry on the family name” needs to go the way of the dodo in these days.

It’s time.

It’s time to get rid of this stereotypical idea that family = “have kids.”

I saw Kevin Nealon at a comedy club in Denver a few years ago.  He was hilarious.  He spoke about being an “older father,” as his son is 6 and he’s, well, much much older than 20.

But he backtracked and talked about his divorce with his first wife.  When he was going through it people would say, “Oh man, that’s terrible.  You don’t have any kids, do you?  No?  Good.  That’d make it worse…”

To which he quipped, “That’s kind of like asking someone who got their legs blown off, ‘Were you wearing nice shoes?  Oh, good…that’d make it worse…'”

We somehow have cheapened “families” to mean “people with kids.”

You don’t need kids to be a family.

In fact, I’d say you can be a family of one, even.  Our family has had more than one member join by decision or circumstance.  “Uncles” and “aunts” and “grandparents” of all kinds.  And not in some sort of honorific way, but in a real, tangible way.

And listen, there is certainly no religious reason, at least not any Christian reason, to have kids.  Let’s just say that we’ve already fulfilled, as a species, the idea of “be fruitful and multiply.”  

In fact, we may have over done it a bit.  

Louder for the folks in the back: don’t let religion pressure you into having children.

There are legal reasons that the State doesn’t recognize just any-old-relationship as “family.”  That’s not what I’m talking about here…although, it appears from the headlines that some of that notion, even, may soon be back under attack.

There are many good reasons to decide not to have children.

There are many heartbreaking reasons some people can’t have children.

There are many good reasons to decide not to partner with someone, legally or otherwise.

And there are many reasons people aren’t partner at all (or anymore)!

All of the above does not negate the reality that “family” doesn’t mean “with kids.”

Families come in all sorts of constructions. They always have (despite what historical convention tells you), and they always will. And we need a society that not only catches up to this reality, but rhetoric that acknowledges it, too.

You are a family, Beloved.

 

 

 

Life on Mute

“I never want to Zoom again,” a colleague said to me the other day.

Zoom. Teams. Go To Meeting.

Pick any medium you like. The general consensus after six months of a pandemic is that online meetings are about as annoying these days as in person meetings were before the plague. Except, for a number of physiological and psychological reasons, virtual meetings somehow feel more taxing…as if we ever thought that could be possible.

And, as a parent, Zoom School is…well…a practice in education and patience across all sides of the screen.

Virtual meetings are here to stay, I think.

Like healthcare, once people are given something (like the opportunity to work from home), gathering them back into the office on the regular will be more difficult.

I suspect the same will be true for the religious practices of the world, too, for better and for worse.

I heard a pastor say the other day that they had a small regathering of the faithful, and that the people who showed (around 20 or so) were “simply giddy” to be back in person. And I’m sure they were!

But what about the folks who didn’t show?

My hunch is that many people will go to their congregations through St. Youtube of the Screens with more regularity.

I don’t say that with any sort of judgment or even sadness. I’m just saying it…it’s how things have been forced to move, and it’ll be hard to go back. New metrics and ways of measuring ministry will have to be formed to account for this kind of virtual participation, especially as it appears that in-person gatherings on a large scale will not be possible for some time. And even when it becomes possible, church is not very embodied when we can’t touch one another, touch the sacraments, and sing.

It’s just not.

One of the peculiar things that the pandemic has forced everyone to experience, in one way or another, is the pesky problem of the “mute button.”

Oh, the dreaded mute!

Nothing is more annoying than a person beginning a long speech or a response, only to realize they were on mute. The frustrated participants waiting for their words say with alternating humor and exhaustion, “You’re on mute…you’re on mute…”

The mute button is instructive for us, though, and I think we should take this opportunity to think about it a bit. Let’s not let this crisis go to waste!

What voices in our world regularly operate on mute?

BIPOC? LGBTQIA+? Native American? Women, especially women trying to climb a corporate ladder?

What about children? Those for whom English is a second language? Religious minorities? People who don’t practice any religion? The very elderly?

The difference is that these voices have been “muted by the host” throughout history because it has been thought that their commentary wasn’t germane to the conversation. Or, more to the point, whether it was germane or not, it wasn’t wanted.

In fact, many of these populations have also had their cameras disabled, made largely invisible in large conversations. Or we shove them into breakout-rooms of their own so that we can largely ignore their input.

And now there are fears that other sections of humanity, who have often been the hosts of these large-scale life meetings throughout the world are being put on mute: white men, the cis-gendered, and in the United States, Christians. These fears largely stem from the realization that, well, other people would like to host meetings once in a while and have been prevented from doing just that and even barred from doing just that and, like any good host, dominating voices sometimes do need to be put on mute so others can be heard!

Our political and cultural schisms at the moment are all about the mute button, Beloved.

The problem, of course, is that for all intents and purposes, all of history, all of life, has been one big Zoom meeting, even though we haven’t had language for it until just recently.

Virtual meetings are designed to mirror the way culture has designed our common life: some are muted, some are hosts. You get engaged in them and you soon realize how undemocratic they are…and, by extension, how undemocratic most of life is.

Oh, sure…we talk a good democratic game, but the functions embedded in virtual meetings are too familiar to not see the similarities.

Some are on camera, some are kept from being seen.

If you have a question, use the “chat function,” and we’ll see if we get to it…

Maybe this is why Zoom is so exhausting: it’s just our normal operating procedure without any pretense, mirrors, or charades.

But in this moment, we actually have an opportunity.

We have an opportunity to un-mute some of the voices history has long muted.

It’s happening on the streets, but now it can happen in our virtual meetings, too.

Now it can happen in our virtual church services, too.

Now the audience is captive, Beloved, and elevating those voices so that they have a chance to speak is one of the ways this crisis can steer us toward progress rather than stall us all.

Who is on mute in our world?

In your virtual gatherings, who is perpetually on mute and who forgets to put themselves on mute? How can we use this opportunity to shift the power dynamics in such a way that we come out of this plague having heard new things, seen new faces, and gained new understanding, even from the (dis)comfort of our own homes?

When we speak out about the muted voices of the world, some will get uncomfortable. Some will not like the suggestion that they mute themselves so others can be heard over the noise of history they’re adding, consciously or unconsciously, to the conversation.

But seize the opportunity nonetheless.

Because for too long some voices have been on mute in this world, and now is a time they can be heard, by God.

Kanye’s Mental Illness Does Not Disqualify Him from the Presidency

First: I’m not going to vote for Kanye West for President of the United States.

He’s sexist. He’s vain. He’s got no real plans for, well, anything. He’s a bigot.

I’m not going to vote for him.

But it’s not because he has a mental illness.

If Kanye is elected President, he will not be the first President to have mental illness.

In 2019 it was reported that almost half of American adults experience mental illness in their lifetime. Some mental illness is profound and requires life-long treatment. Some mental illness is episodic, and requires intermittent treatment. Some mental illness is triggered by environment mixed with brain chemistry, and some by brain chemistry alone.

Mental illness is personal, but not unique. It’s individual, and yet experienced by so many in our communities.

Mental illness is not something to be ashamed of, either. Lord knows I’ve buried too many people who were too sick and yet too afraid to seek treatment because, well, what would people think?

I think people want to help…but don’t understand it. And are afraid of it.

Mental health is physical health, Beloved. We wouldn’t shame someone who lost an arm or a leg in the journey of life, right? And if we did, well, shame on you. You don’t get to be enlightened by my company.

But if we wouldn’t shame someone who had a physical illness or disability, why would we shame someone who is struggling with a brain chemistry that is so mysterious, so difficult to understand, and yet so pervasive?

I get it: Kanye is easy to dislike. He’s brash, loud, ill-tempered, vain, and often ill-informed.

I dislike most of what comes out of his mouth that isn’t on a CD and auto-tuned (he’s not a great singer, can we agree on that?!).

He’s also damn brilliant, a husband, a son, grieving his mother, and trying to figure out how to reconcile all of the above (and more! I don’t even know the man).

He’s living with mental illness.

But he’s not “crazy.” He’s not “nuts.”

He’s a jerk, but that has nothing to do with his illness.

The stigma. The shame. The hurt. The heartache. The exhilaration. The high. The deep descent into the pit. The rebound. The confidence. The braggadocio. The productivity. The creativity. The insomnia…

And that, Beloved, is one week in a rough patch for many of our spouses, friends, children, parents…and maybe, you.

He’s dealing with what many deal with, he’s just doing it on a stage that’s 100x brighter and 1000x more public than you and I act on.

He’s not nuts, he’s a human living with an illness. And he’s very human in public, which most of us don’t have to be…a luxury for us.

And he doesn’t need our pity. And he doesn’t need our snickering. And, yes, we can take him seriously as he is, but seriously with wide eyes that see the whole story, not the story of the moment.

Mental illness is never just about the moment, but about the whole story, Beloved.

And we must absolutely stop this chatter about his many “isms” being attributed to his mental illness. People who don’t deal with mental illness are prejudice. People who don’t live with mental illness are misogynistic and are assholes and are idiots and are all sorts of things.

Mental illness does not make someone a bigot or prejudice or any of that nonsense.

Unrelated. I’ll say it louder for you in the back: UNRELATED.

My point is: don’t vote for Kanye West if you don’t think he’ll make a good President of the United States. But don’t cross him off your ballots because he’s living with mental illness.

We’ve elected plenty of Presidents who live with, wrestle with (or don’t), and thrive with mental illnesses of all sorts. We have! Statistically it’s certainly more than probable, I’d put money on it.

Look, I pray none of you ever get to peek inside my brain. You’d be amazed and scared of what you find there. I’m sure the same could be said if I were to take a gander in yours.

Mental illness isn’t something to be ashamed of, just like having any illness isn’t something to be ashamed of. He didn’t ask for this. Lord, who asks for this?

He’s just trying to live with it. And yes, it’s very public. And yes, it can be alarming. And yes, it can even be amusing to the untrained ear and eye.

But it’s not amusing, it’s an illness, Beloved.

Don’t vote for him because he’s an asshole. Don’t vote for him because he’s prejudice, because he’s misogynistic, or because he’s…whatever your reason.

But it shouldn’t be about the illness.

Mental illness is just that: an illness.

And it doesn’t disqualify him from anything: not the Presidency, not life and the pursuit of happiness, not dignity, not brilliance, and certainly not respect or love.

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.