The Problem with Pulpits Today

lead_720_405<BTW: all of these quotes are paraphrases, not verbatim, and cobbled together from a few like emails>

“We personally like you,” the email said, “but we leave church services more frustrated than anything, and so we’d rather just stay home.”

It was sent after I offered an email saying that I hadn’t seen them in a while, and after hearing bits and pieces of them “being unhappy.”

I mean, it’s OK, people get unhappy with their pastors sometimes.  That’s part of the deal of leadership.

But why were they frustrated?

Because they heard political undertones in my preaching.  Which is strange to me, because I meant them to be political overtones…

Not partisan, mind you.  Partisan tells you what party to vote for; I don’t care what party you affiliate with, if any.  And although I might struggle with your vote, I’m not going to tell you who to vote for…I struggle with my vote, too.  I wasn’t partisan in my preaching.  I am not, to this day, partisan in my preaching.

But political?  Well, yes.  That was there.  Because the Gospel is political.

The Gospel is about God and people, and people in community are political. So if you’re upset, blame the politician, not the pastor…I didn’t make those laws. I didn’t say those de-humanizing things.

Because this was all going on during the so-called “Muslim ban” (which nations are being added to as I write this).  The ban continues.  You forgot about it?  Huh.  Guess who hasn’t: Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, as they try to fight this ban tooth and nail.

And this was all going on as talk of wall construction continued to be shouted about, even as children were being separated at the border, and some dying.  You forgot about it?  Guess who hasn’t: the families affected by this mean-spirited legislation, perpetrated under administrations of both major parties.

And this was all going on as the nastiest, meanest, overtly racist rhetoric (remember Charlottesville?) was being spewed from our nation’s top office.  You forgot about it?  No…who could forget white yuppies with tiki-torches marching without masks through the streets of a Southern city, newly emboldened in their racism because the fish rots from the head.

And if you are a pastor in those waters, and you’re not talking about any that, shame on you.

Seriously.

Do you think Isaiah wanted to say the things he said about the powers that held sway at his time?  No.  But he had to.

Do you think Amos wanted to call from the fringes of society to point to the underclass and the rural poor, showing how they suffered under the foot of the powerful?

No…but he had to.

Do you think Jesus wanted to point out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, call his local ruler a “fox” (or, a “sly liar”), or run toward the danger of Jerusalem rather than live safely, quietly, in Galilee?

No, but he had to.  You have to, pastor.

“Never trust a pastor who tells you how to vote,” the email went on to say, “or a politician who tells you how to pray.”

I think it was an attempt at levity, but all I could do was scratch my head and wonder what was happening in our society.  I’ve heard many politicians, especially recently, tell people how to pray (just Google “prayer in schools” legislation recently brought up in the courts. Again.).

Remember the age of women’s suffrage.  Remember the era of Civil Rights (did we ever leave that era?).  Remember, pastor, and speak.

Pulpits cannot be partisan.  And pastors have a responsibility to bring people along as much as possible when it comes to difficult and divisive issues, listening and leaning in.

You can be partisan on your bumper with that bumper sticker, but not on your stole.  The stole is reserved for God’s mark, alone.

But pastors, remember also, in our baptismal rite, have a responsibility to “work for peace and justice” throughout all the world, as do all baptized persons.  And part of that work is calling out oppression and danger, especially when it is aimed at those who are already disenfranchised.

The email was right: no pastor should tell someone what party to vote for. I never did and never will from the Office.

But the pastor must tell people the truth: votes have consequences, some you may not like, some that go against the ideals of a God who is love.

And if that’s the case, preach. From the Office, from the pulpit, preach.

That’s the problem with pulpits today: people will leave over them. And that’s OK.

It’s sad, but it’s a sign of our times, and you have to preach anyway.

Hi. I’m Pro-Life but Not Anti-Choice

1-1578136179258Hi.

I’m a father of two, and I consider myself pro-life, even though I’m not anti-choice.

And actually, I view access to safe, legal, and rare abortion as part of women’s healthcare…which is about life.  So I see this all as being very consistent.

What I don’t see as consistent is the idea that being “pro-life” strictly means being “anti-choice.”  That’s not pro-life at all.  That’s pro-fetus.  That’s different.

See, I’m pro-life because I not only trust environmental science and scientists when they tell us the Earth is warming at an alarming rate, I try to do things and support legislation that will slow, if not reverse, that tide.

I’m pro-life because I’m pro universal healthcare.  If we had universal healthcare, you know what?  There would be fewer abortions.  I’m almost certain there would.  Universal healthcare is pro all life.

I’m pro-life because I’m pro public education.  In fact, I’d love more of my tax dollars to head that way.  An educated public is in my best interest, and yours, even if you don’t have any children.  I want my baristas reading Kant, knowing long division, and well-versed in politics.  You should, too.  It makes for a better society.

I’m pro-life because I’m for a social safety net that helps those who are stuck in cycles of poverty and oppression.  I’m pro-life because I’m pro breaking those cycles at every turn. The biggest farce of the traditional so-called “pro-life” movement is their abandonment of those already born in deference for the fetus.  If you force people to have babies, you should be willing to support those children to adulthood.

I’m pro-life because I’m against the death penalty, in all cases.  You might see a contradiction there between not being against abortions but being against the death penalty, but here’s the thing: I know that the person on death row is a living, breathing, human.  It’s unquestionable.  I do not know that a fetus is…none of us do.  But we do know a living, breathing, post-birth person is, regardless of what they’ve done.

I’m pro-life because I’m anti-war.  I’d love to designate the majority of my tax dollars to education and public safety, and give as little as possible to public defense.  Not because I do not enjoy the merits of a free and well-protected society, and not because I do not respect our people in uniform…I certainly do.  But because I believe we have over-compensated in that arena since the days of Eisenhower, and have left our children and our homeless and our hungry and our lonely to get the scraps of our social love.

And what’s more: those who do fight in our endless wars, which are well funded, in too many ways become homeless and hungry and lonely and sick when they return from war.  We fund them while they’re fighting, and abandon them while they’re mentally and physically and emotionally dying. This is duplicitous on our part, and we can do better.

I’m pro-life because I’m pro-immigration.  I don’t believe in open borders, but I certainly don’t believe in walls, either.  And I don’t believe in family separation, no matter if a Democrat does it, or a Republican enforces it.  Anyone who claims to be “pro-life” but wants to build a wall is playing a game of semantics and lying to themselves.  They are not pro-life; they are pro their “way of life.”  That is very, very different.

I’m pro-life because I’m pro female healthcare.  Women can choose what happens to their bodies.  So few abortions happen because a child “isn’t wanted.”  So many happen because a fetus isn’t viable, or there are other risk factors involved, and though I cannot imagine ever counseling someone to end a pregnancy, I do not think it is my right to tell them they have to continue it. You just walk with them, give them the best information available, and support them.

The choice is too personal, and too difficult, to legislate in the negative, so we must protect the legislation of the positive, of choice.

We need a re-definition of pro-life in this nation, and I say this as thousands gather in the “pro-life” march at this moment.  Our popular definition is far too narrow.

Because here’s the thing: I don’t like that abortions happen, but I understand why they do. I don’t think anyone likes that they happen. I don’t think anyone is “pro-abortion.” I cannot, as a man, relate to having to make the choice, but I can empathize for sure. It’s always tough, always sad, always personal, and, as a medical procedure, should always be legal.

Because sometimes difficult things happen in life, which means difficult choices have to be wrestled with.  And the only way to safely wrestle with them is…well…this way.

It’s about safety and healthcare in the end. It is.

You cannot “protect” the fetus in the womb and abandon it the moment the umbilical cord is cut.  That’s not protection at all.  That’s forced abandonment. That’s pro-fetus.

I think you can be pro-life but not anti-choice.

In fact, I would say that’s the most consistent way to be.

An Advent Playlist

CompilationAdvent is necessary.

Even for those who don’t buy into the metaphysics of this season, the need to practice states of being is supremely human.  We need to practice repentance, so that when we truly need to repent we know how to do it.  We need to practice joy, so that when we really need to be joyful, we know how to do it.  We need to practice zeal, so that when the moment to be zealous comes, we’ll get into the mode quickly.  Lent, Christmas, and Pentecost, respectively, help us do these things.

And do them well.

Advent, Beloved, is the season where we practice waiting.  It’s so human.  Because we’re all waiting for something.

For birth. For death. For a new job. For the other shoe to drop. For guests to come over. For love to find us. For illness to abate. For a heart to mend.

We wait, and Advent helps us do it well.  Through the themes of light and shadows, unexpected opportunities, a mixed-bag of saint days, and the onset of the Solstice, Advent helps us to train our bodies into a posture of waiting, so that when it happens, we’ll know how to do it with more patience, less anxiety, more expectation, and a sober heart and mind.

To accompany this waiting, I’ve taken on the discipline of finding Advent music to dot the days.  I promised I’d throw out all the music I’ve compiled, and so here is this year’s list.  Some of these are new additions, and some are long-standing, tried and true pieces that have waited with me many times.

But, to capstone your waiting on this Christmas Eve, I give it to you.

Merry Christmas. The wait is over…for now.

Shine by Collective Soul

Dreams by The Cranberries is a good addition.

Dreams dot the Advent/Christmas landscape. Joseph is told of Mary’s pregnancy in a dream (in the Gospel of Matthew), and the Magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod (also in Matthew).

Do yourself a favor and add Joshua Radin’s Winter.

Enya’s Stars and Midnight Blue is a good choice.

An unconventional (and, perhaps, unpopular?) choice would be Bette Midler’s From a Distance.

Yeah, I know, but go with me on this for a second.

If Christmas is radical incarnation and embodiment, then the Advent days of preparation are one where we watch for someone who is coming from far off. So if, as Midler says, “God is watching us from a distance,” at Christmas God begins interacting with us from closer proximity…no longer at a distance.

Advent is the time when we prepare for the one coming “from a distance.”

This, and the themes of peace in the lyrics, make it an appropriate Advent song, if not a good one.

Josh Ritter’s Where the Night Goes. You won’t be disappointed.

His themes of “homecoming” and “memories” fits nicely with the Advent themes of “housewarming.”

Your Advent playlist should include The Christmas Song by Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds.

CCR’s Put a Candle in the Window has long been my Advent go-to.  The themes of traveling, homecoming, and light make it a perfect choice.

Gordon Lightfoot’s Song for a Winter’s Night is the original of this oft-recorded song, and the best in my opinion.  Lightfoot’s voice adds the brooding tone to this beauty.

Cue Brandi Carlile’s A Promise to Keep up next.  Advent is about waiting for promises to be kept, after all.

Joni Mitchell’s River is another oft-recorded song that, again, is best in the original.

Advent has a haunting theme behind all the waiting and all the watching. In ancient days they used to tell ghost stories around the fire at night in these winter months. A good addition to your playlist for the season would be this one by the artist Sting, Hounds of Winter.

To Be With You by Sara Groves is perhaps the most Christmas-y of the Advent tunes I’ve chosen, but the lyrics paint such a pretty picture of the gathered family that it deserves a slot.

Lumineer’s Stubborn Love is great for an Advent playlist.  God shows a stubborn love in the themes of this season.

This year may, indeed, be better than the last…so Counting Crows’ A Long December should be on the list.

To add some funk to your Advent playlist, throw Jamiroquai’s Starchild on there and give it a spin.

And then look up the lyrics and you’ll see why it fits.

Toward the end of December, after the “Ember Days” of the middle of the month, when you’re sure the light will give out, the church starts naming the historic names of The Messiah to make the promise a sort of daily mantra.

On December 17th it begins with O Wisdom. Wisdom is the muse of creation…an inspiring force to change the world.

An Advent song that encompasses this theme might be: You’re the Inspiration by Chicago

On the occasion of O Adonai (My Lord), the 18th of December, a good addition would be the beautiful and enigmatic My Sweet Lord by George Harrison.

On the O Antiphon where we honor O Root of Jesse (Radix Jesse), December 19th, try Iron and Wine’s Tree By the River.

It’s about memories and roots deeply planted that, though long dead, still live on…

On December 20th when we remember the Key of David, Take a listen to the Mumford and Sons song Winter Winds.

On December 21st the O Antiphon is “O Dayspring.”

An unconventional, but lyrically fascinating, offering would be Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun.

Seriously, listen to the lyrics. It fits your Advent playlist.

The O Antiphon for the 22nd is O King of Glory.

A good addition to your Advent playlist today would be The Hand Song by Nickel Creek.

A song about love and sacrifice and scars: the marks of a king according to the Messiah account.

Throw on Dear Evan Hansen’s You Will Be Found as the song for the 23rd’s O Antiphon: O Emmanuel.

God with us.

You will be found.

And finally, for Christmas Eve, do yourself a favor and throw on this song by Tracy Chapman which, I think, is a modern rendition of the Magnificat: Talkin’ Bout a Revolution.

“Yes, finally the tables are starting to turn…”

Enjoy, Beloved.

Okayness and Gayness

s-l1000“Hey Mark,” I said outside the church on a bright day.  He had grocery bags in each hand.

Of course, Mark isn’t his real name…

“Hey Pastor Tim,” he said a little sheepishly.  “How are you?”

“Good, good, how’s the new addition to the family?” I said, putting my hands in my pockets.

“Ha.  We’re all tired, but surviving the transition…” he smiled.

Mark and his wife had just welcomed a new child, a son, into the world.  I remember seeing the posts about it on social media.

“I suppose you noticed we haven’t been in church a lot lately…” he went on.

“Well, new babies disrupt schedules.  That’s just true.” I nodded.  Even though I didn’t have children at that point in my life, I knew it was just plain truth. Babies mess up your world in all sorts of ways.

“There is that,” he went on, averting my eyes, “but I’m not sure we’ll be coming anymore. At least not here.” He was honest and frank and seemed embarrassed about it all.

“Okay…” I responded, “is everything alright?”

“Oh yeah,” he said, “but I’m not sure we can raise a kid in this church.”

“Really? Why?” I was genuinely curious.  In the ministry you learn not to take these things personally…well, you try not to.

“It’s not you,” he said, “or anyone.  Everyone here is great.  It’s just, well, we had a boy…” his voice trailing off as if I should know what was implied here.

“Yes…?” I said.  I was hoping he wasn’t meaning what I think he was meaning.

“And, well, your church teaches that it’s okay for people to be gay.  And we don’t want him hearing that. Especially because we have a boy.”  He looked down.

“Wait,” I said, “but what if he is gay?  I mean I’m not sure what having a boy has to do with it, but what if he is a sexual minority of some sort?  Don’t you want him to hear that he’s loved and accepted and alright?”

Mark just looked down.

“It’s just harder because it’s a boy,” he repeated.

I’m not sure how the conversation, or the situation, would have turned out had they had a girl.  I mean, I can’t conceive of how that would make a difference. But I also know that traditional conceptions of masculinity is something still prized in many corners of modern America.

“I mean, I don’t think I have a problem with it, but Sharon…” he said, voice trailing off again.

The conversation was full of lots incomplete sentences, almost like if the sentences were completed, the foolishness of the statement would be too boldfaced to take.  We often avoid saying the thing because to utter the thoughts of our hearts would actually embarress us.

“I’m not sure I understand,” I said.  “I don’t think being open and welcoming is harmful to children.  I think it’s helpful. Necessary, even.”

“I know.  But if he hears it’s okay to be gay, he might become gay,” he said.

“I don’t think the biology works like that, ” I smiled.  I tried to diffuse the obviously uncomfortable situation.

“We’re just not okay with it,” he said finally.  “And we don’t want him to be okay with it. But I hope to see you around the neighborhood.”

“Sure, Mark.  And if you all ever want to talk about this, just let me know.  Happy to keep the conversation going.” 

I waved as he walked away.

 

Herod’s Bargain: Evangelicals are the Herodians in the Trump Era

You read the scriptures, especially the Gospels, and you come across these little sects of religious folk that Jesus keeps running into.

There are the Pharisees, of course. They’re probably the most well known because they’re often the foil for Jesus in these little narrative episodes, especially in John’s Gospel. What we forget, of course, is that Jesus was of the Pharisaic tradition himself…which is probably why he hung out with them so much.

The Pharisees believed in a mass resurrection of the dead when the Messiah arrived, and awaited the Messiah fervently.

There were smaller subgroups within the Pharisees: those who followed Rabbi Shammai, who believed all the laws had to be followed to a jot and tittle, and those who followed Hillel (Jesus’ tradition), who claimed you could follow all the necessary laws while standing on one foot. And other small divisions in the Pharisees; too many dogmatic points to enumerate, but you get the picture.

Then there are the Sadducees, another sect that was at odds with the Pharisees. They didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead, and this was one of their big beefs with Jesus. It’s why they asked him, “In the resurrection, whose wife is the woman who was married multiple times?”

They didn’t ask out of curiosity, but with a wink and a smile.

Jesus tells them it’s a stupid question…

And then there is this other group, the Herodians. The Herodians are the religious people close to Herod. They are largely wealthy, or attracted to wealth, and are largely powerful, or attracted to power.

They abandoned their religious convictions for the sake of political expediency and power consolidation at every turn. Herod, the puppet king of Rome, was known as a ruthless ruler, betraying his religion in order to be in bed with power.

And here’s the thing: Herod knew Rome was using him to keep control, and Rome knew Herod didn’t care about Rome at all, but just was using Rome to keep power.

And here’s my point: modern conservative evangelicals (and their leaders like Graham, Falwell, and…name one), are the Herodians of the modern age.

They know Trump isn’t a Christian; no more a Christian than Caesar was a Jew. But they don’t care; he gets them what they want: power and appointments.

Likewise, Trump couldn’t care less about evangelical principles (really? He once read from “Two Corinthians”…the man has never cracked a Bible), but uses them to get control.

And here’s the dirty, emperor-has-no-clothes truth: they both know they are using each other, and don’t care.

They don’t care!

Their deceit is whispered behind doors, but it’s plain as day, and the rest of the world suffers over this Herod’s Bargain. Power is gained as ethics, principles, and morals are sacrificed like a lamb on the altar of the world’s stage.

When we read these Gospel stories, it’s important to find yourself there. I’m usually with the doubters and the skeptics. But the modern evangelical?

Well, read Mark 3:6.

Why I See It As Part of My Job As a Pastor to March in the Teacher Rally in Raleigh

downloadOmar was smart.

He never really got good marks, but he was smart.  And he never studied, but had he studied, those marks would have reflected that brain more fully.

I remember when Omar walked into class one day, head down.  His usual smirk was gone.  His eyes were red.

We started instruction, but he wasn’t into it.  As I gave the class an assignment, I invited Omar out into the hall with me.  We stepped out, I shut the door, and he started crying into my shoulder.  It was unlike him.  My quiet class clown, my jokester, my star basketball player.

His friend had been shot and killed ten hours ago.  Chicago alleys, turf warfare, all of it could get dangerous, and it didn’t matter your age.

He cried. I hugged him. He wiped his eyes.  And we went on to Algebra.

And then, a few weeks later, I remember when Omar didn’t walk into class that one morning.

Because he had been shot ten hours earlier.  His leg, shattered.

I went to go see him in the hospital. I brought McDonald’s. As he ate it I spoke to his mom in broken Spanish, and she to me in broken English. She was afraid to be in the hospital long because she was not a legal resident.  He had to heal, and she knew that, but she also had to sell tamales every morning, and how would they pay for the hospital bill?

They wouldn’t, of course.  No insurance, and tamales wouldn’t cover it.  Family would cobble together some funds, but it’d be a bill hanging over their heads.

In my classroom that year I also delivered a turkey to Section 8 housing.  I pulled up in my car, with a frozen turkey in the backseat.  My student, who lived there, was riding shotgun.

“Mr. Brown,” he said as we started to get out of the car, “when we walk in don’t say anything to anyone, OK?”

“Ok,” I said.  We walked up to the tall building, with people hanging around outside.  They called names at me, carrying the turkey and the bag, and to my student.  But I kept my eyes forward, keeping my promise.

Up the stairs, the elevator was broken, to the fourth floor.

His grandmother there, smiled widely.  She was so grateful for the Christmas gift. We sat and chatted, and then my student walked me out, gave me a hug, and I left.

The next time I’d see her was at her funeral, a few months later.  She was the only caretaker for my student, and so I attended the funeral, hugged his shoulder as he cried down the aisle, and a little while later he went to live with other family, elsewhere.

I’m not a professional teacher anymore, but tomorrow the teachers in Raleigh will be marching downtown.  They’ll be marching for better wages, more funding, smaller classes.  They’ll be coming in from around the state.

Someone asked me if I’d ever consider teaching in North Carolina, using my Masters in Education again.  “Not in North Carolina,” I said.  “I loved the classroom, but I can’t teach here.”

No longevity pay anymore.  Starting salaries, even with Masters degrees, are some of the poorest in the nation.

But even though I’m not a teacher anymore, I will be marching with them tomorrow.  And even though I’ll be taking a comp day to do so, I still see myself as “on the clock.”  It’s part of my job as a pastor, I think.

Because the classrooms of America are not just places of instruction.  They are places where social work happens.  Parenting happens.  Unofficial aunts and uncles sit behind those desks. Grief counselors lead children through stages of loss, all while being judged on whether or not their kids are performing on standardized tests.

And tell me who makes those standards?  If they haven’t had a kid cry on their shoulder because their friend was shot, or if they haven’t brought McDonald’s to a kid in the hospital and spoken in broken language to a family who doesn’t know what they’re going to do with that massive bill, then they’re unqualified to tell on-the-ground teachers what the standards are and what their pay should be.  If they haven’t delivered a turkey to Section 8 housing, and wondered at night what would happen to that kid now that his grandmother was dead, then they aren’t qualified to comment.

Even if you don’t have kids in school, or kids at all, you should be out on the street tomorrow.  Even if you’re not a teacher, you should be out on the street tomorrow.  Because we all have an investment in an educated society, in teachers compensated well, in a nation that actually cares about real education.

I may not be in the office tomorrow, but I’ll be on the clock.  Join me.

Every Easter I Wonder How Churches Who Don’t Ordain Women Get Around the Resurrection Account

resurrection-womenEvery Easter I have this ominous feeling that my colleagues in churches who don’t ordain women are skipping part of the resurrection story.

They have to be.  They must be. There’s no way that they can be reading the Gospel account and still not see the need to ordain women into the pastoral office.

Because here’s the truth of the resurrection story: women are the first to proclaim the resurrection.

They are the first ones entrusted with it.

They are the first preachers to those scared disciples in that upper room.

So how can they defend not ordaining women, especially on Easter, when on Easter they hear the women are entrusted with the sacred news first?

I really wonder.

Is it because of Paul’s letters, where he tells women to sit down in church (and he only writes that once, by the way)? Are we to believe that Paul has more authority than the risen Jesus?

Really?!

If we hold Paul’s letters as equal to the example of Jesus in the scripture, we need to honestly re-think our identity as “Christians,” and perhaps just fess up that we’re “Paulians.”

I mean, except for the rampant misogyny of the ancient world, it’s a wonder that women weren’t the first and only pastors of the church!  They were the only ones who stuck around through life, death, and resurrection.

And that rampant ancient misogyny still shows itself today, of course.

And you know it does.

Because there are tons of churches who will read the Easter text and not get a whiff of irony in it all as their all-male clergy dominate the roster.  Oh, sure, they’ll lift up the role women play in the world. As “helpers.”  As “good and faithful.” And at least good enough to teach Sunday school.

To the little children.  Not the older children. Or adults.  Women can’t have authority over men. 

And just when do men become men, by the way?  I’m a man. But I can’t really tell you when it happened…

And trust me, teaching Sunday school? That is no small thing.

But if that’s the extent of what women are empowered to do, it’s also not large enough.  Not large enough when the Gospel witness clearly shows, in all four Gospels, that the women are the first to know (and in most of the Gospels to tell) the resurrection good news to the scared and hiding men.

Perhaps this Easter some denominations will be raised from their ban on women clergy into the resurrection life of full participation.

You never know.  Crazier things have happened…like people being raised from the dead.