On Ending Racism

I’m not particularly hopeful that racism, white or otherwise, can be ended. Our sin is too deep.

That said, we could stop shooting black people and stealing their money. We could create more humane institutions that didn’t lock people up, or penalize them for being poor. I’m not much for correcting thoughts or hearts or policing language, but it seems to me that a few changed policies would go a long way to ease the burdens our institutions impose upon black people.

Stop using the police to tax the poor; end the drug war; rebuild schools in those communities.

Those would be good places to start.

Discerning Leaders for the Church

One role of the priest is to strengthen their community. We do this in a variety of ways: we tell the story; offer pastoral care; we coach people through their own journey; we gather the people in praise.

But one aspect of our leadership is to identify individuals who have gifts the church needs to lead as ordained clergy.

I don’t mean finding someone who likes to do mass. Anyone ordained, who might not have any sense of physical presence, the church understands as having the authority over the mass. The mistake, however, is that the church often ordains individuals who only have a sense of self through ordination, and have little coherence outside of the role. Their sense of authority is found only in the collar, and not intrinsically. This leads to all sorts of mischief.

Too often we let individuals discern themselves and wait for people to discern the call. while sometimes this has merit, it also falls upon the ordination committee to say, “actually, no. That’s not a call. You just like to be in charge.”

The priests we need are not simply those who do the work that others do not want to do. The busiest person in church is not necessarily going to be a good pastor. Better to call those individuals who are visibly competent (rather than merely enthusiastic) leaders.

Competence, of course, is subject to interpretation. But I would suggest those who are conscientious, follow through on their assigned tasks, have a visible understanding of spirituality, a curiosity about others, a sense of self, and can relate to the challenges others face, would be good persons to consider.  Likeability, while not the only reason to call someone to the priesthood, is desireable and often underestimated as a virtue.

Certainly there’s no single characteristic to who a leader is, and few have all of them. But any member of the commission on ministry should have some sort of understanding, and reflect upon anyone entering the process – would I have this person as my priest?

Granted, we need all kinds in the clergy. But if we are to build our congregations, it falls to clergy, and reliable, resilient and faithful laity, to identify those who can effectively help the church live into the future, who can share our story, work effectively with others, and lead our communities to become stronger in the world.

A community organizer once said to me, the reason for all these individual meetings is to identify leaders. It’s not therapy. It’s not friendship. It’s finding who has the capacity to take responsibility and bring others along.

Be In the World

Over the years I have have heard people say, “Be in the world but not of the world.”

It’s said often by some groups of Christians about how they’re supposed to engage the varied distracting, pleasurable activities that claim our attention. When we watch Reality TV, we should watching disapprovingly. Or playing poker, disparaging it while simultaneously betting. Or we shouldn’t like going dancing or having a drink, or laugh too loudly at fart jokes. It sounds as if we’re suppose to be like disembodied spirits, floating over the world, unattached, clean, superior.

I hate that sentiment.

The church has always been ambivalent about such a view, even though it’s easy to hear it’s what scripture is saying. But more often, church teaching insists there’s no way not to be of the world. The poet says, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God”: This is our world. It might not be all there is, but the world is not inherently evil. Granted, the plausibility of our institutions being run by Satan has a poetic, even observable quality (there was one wag who said something like he didn’t believe in God, but he couldn’t understand anyone who didn’t believe in the devil), but the church stands in the world, itself of the world, even if it commends a presence that challenges the ordinary system of arrangements we take for granted.

In other words, we say that the world is incarnate, that even in our materiality we experience and live who God is.

It means that within the atoms, the elements, the cells, within our pulsing hearts and meandering minds it is al infused, engaged with God. Within the music in the world, the sounds from our voices, the work at the edge of our fingertips can bring forth what is good, just, and beautiful. Our eyes light up in understanding; and there is the spirit working.

The church also, however, teaches that there is a deep brokenness within the world; and reminds us the lives we have are fragile. Perhaps this fragility is what forces us to attend to what is meaningful.

Still, those of religious faith are called to take a particular stance while in it. I wonder if part of that stance through a formation of having a practice of going more deeply, a daily spiritual practice of reflection.

One characteristic of God, we say, is that God knows our minds and hearts. She shares and resonates; but our mistake is to think that God ONLY sits where we sit, and only inhabits our own minds.   It gives us the tool of understanding how another person sees the world. In the early community that surrounded the Gospel we read last week, it is assumed that within our community we must learn to see and hear how others think, search how they feel, recognize what they love.

Some might say this is the broadening of perspective; the ability to be attuned to your surroundings; understanding how the world impacts us, and how we impact others. The process we offer is like so: times of stillness, of fellowship, and encouragement. We are not overcome by own need to be seen, but allow others to do so.

Perhaps it is this: not to deny the world, to be distracted from it, but to be in the world. To be in the world. To be in the world. That is how we stand, our feet planted, our lives rooted, on and within the deep being of love.

Wealth and Responsibility: reflections on today’s daily office

From Today’s Daily office:

Deuteronomy 8

12 When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15 who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, 16 and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. 17 Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” 18 But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.

And from the first letter of James:

Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing. 26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

In our conversations about wealth, I hear some who say that the wealth is theirs. They earned it, and they worked hard. Their participation in the public should not be mandated, but voluntary. And we see how the public wastes.

The gospel critiques this. It does not say that abundance or wealth is bad. It implicitly approves: we multiply our wealth – and that is a gift. But the risk is apparent: as we make more, we place ourselves upon the throne that God would inhabit. We delude ourselves into thinking we are independent, when the truth is the opposite. The most wealthy are, truly, the most dependent upon our entire system perpetuating.

The scriptures assert: as we have built our wealth, we must not forget that we were once slaves. We once resisted. We created idols. And we forgot that we were once poor, and had to rely upon the generosity of others. Remember how wealth easily disfigures our ability to connect and empathize. It need not be so, but this is why we challenge the powerful have a healthy appreciation for public institutions, and the willingness to share leadership and power.

We hear, of course, of powerful “self-made” men who forget all the work that came before them. But the scriptures offer a correction. Remember that modern inventions rely upon the previous inventions and protections and contributions of others who were not properly compensated. We rely upon the work of others to make our lives bearable. But the entitled forget that the value of their labor is not purely their own. Others must help, must buy, must see and approve. The scriptures do not deny income inequality when it is simply a matter of one person working harder than another. But no person works 50,000 times as hard as another person, and it is the wealthier person who is dependent upon all the relationships that brought money into their hands than the truly poor. They see money as an efficient tool rather than as the symbol it is: the accumulation of trust, or debt, or sin, that is in their hands.

The gospel then says, through James, that our role is simply this: not merely to talk about God, or about Jesus, but to care. In a world of entitlement, we declare our humility; in a world of contempt, we offer kindness. The gospel says repeatedly, that no matter what, people count. Each person matters, no matter what they have in their account. Not one person is expendable. At heart, that is why we challenge a system that measures human beings through the sign value of money. We are more than that.

Decluttering as a Lenten Discipline

I’ve got a lot of stuff.

Some I’ve inherited. The books, tools, and furniture from my parents. Photos, film reels, and old board games. Cooking utensils such as beautiful Sabatier-K that still cuts vegetables cleanly and easily. It was the first real cooking knife my mother had bought.

Then there’s clothes, some of which I can’t wear anymore as they seem to have diminished over time. I’m not sure how fabric does that, but it’s how it is. Books from college, and notes from divinity school.  Lots of stuff.

In the old testament, sin could be defined as a “burden,” and I wonder if much of the stuff represents the burdens I’ve carried along the way. Or even, given the many things I’ve bought on a credit card, that the stuff represents another, later definition of sin, my debts.

Recently, a book about tidying has become quite popular: it’s method is to declutter any specific category of stuff, like books, clothes, glasses, all at once. She discerns what to toss and what to keep by asking: does this thing bring joy? The consequence is that we become surrounded by objects that make us happy.

I wonder if this gives us a bit of a strategy for thinking about decluttering and refocusing during Lent. Concentrating on what brings us joy. But let us not be vague or ethereal about the question, look at the concrete, specific, everyday objects that we use, without shame or sentimentality. Don’t start, she suggests, with the sentimental: begin with clothes, books, and other things that will not stoke nostalgic feelings. Perhaps by laughing off all the excess stuff we have in our lives, we can begin to live more lightly, unburdened, liberated.

Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu

Two police officers were murdered Saturday at 2:45pm.

This crime highlights the connection between the escalation between cops and the communities they serve,with the ubiquity of guns. When the people are armed, the police can’t easily distinguish between the ones who are dangerous and those who aren’t.

Further, there is another dimension worth examining. The killer had just engaged in an act of domestic violence; it’s a crime that is particularly dangerous for both the partner and the police as well. It seems clear that what we should do is find ways to get communities and cops to work together to get guns off the street; and identify those individuals who are likely to purchase a gun and use it on a partner or a police officer. I wonder if preventing domestic violence should be central to what the police do – I suspect it will be even more useful than the broken windows theory. Track it and see what’s revealed.

Pat Lynch, however, isn’t helping the problem. I suspect, however, his rhetoric has more to do with upcoming contract negotiations than with the issues at hand. But the mayor isn’t responsible. the murderer is. If anything, there’s been an outpouring of support from many of the people who have been protesting against the cops. Lynch’s rhetoric is inexcusable.

Yes, there are some who chant “fuck the police” at marches. At best it’s in poor taste, and worst incendiary. But speech is exactly what the police are supposed to protect. The best test of that rule is when you hear speech you don’t like. That’s when we need protection the most.

Leaving my house today, I ran into a cop who had helped me a few months ago. He was walking his puppy, a beautiful German Shepherd. I said, “Tough times. Terrible tragedy.” He said, “It’s demoralizing.” He blamed the media. And then he said, “they should just release all the grand jury tapes. Then they would all know.”

It was a sentiment members in my parish had shared. Without transparency, trust becomes impossible to build. Although there will always be those who really hate the police, even poor, black communities want police presence. Small steps toward openness might go a long way. People might still see different things, but the intensity of the response would be diminished.

And now, let us turn our eyes toward the NRA.

Torture and Christians

I am one of those Christians who believe that torture is outside the realm of Christian behavior. It distinguishes the legitimate actions of the state and the church, and the church must have no part in it.

So I was initially surprised when reading about a poll that indicates that Christians, overall, supported torture in greater numbers than the unreligious. But on the other hand it makes sense.

For those of us who see secularity, as a logical outgrowth of the Christian tradition, this should be seen as a success. This view holds that Christianity has pervaded the culture so thoroughly that we expect the state to uphold the integrity of the body. Our expectations of the behavior of the state are now different than how a pagan state had viewed torture. I do worry that this hold is shaky – more of the elites in this country are now formed by The Fountainhead rather than the Sermon on the Mount. But that non-religious people do not support torture should be comforting. There is no intrinsic reason why they should have inculcated such views.

But over the last 40 years, as liberal protestantism has diminished, Christians by and large have become captivated by the Republican party. They are its foot soldiers. So it might be that what is really happening is a defense of the Bush-Cheney years, a way of reconfirming one’s previous position. It takes too much psychic energy to admit one is wrong and change one’s mind. In short, Christians who support torture do so because their political allegiances form how they are religious.  They are politically captive.

The benefit of knowing Christ means that we realize we can afford to be wrong, to be transformed, to change, while also remembering we are still worthy of love and respect even though, and perhaps because of, the mistakes we make. A faithful Christian must be able to take the risk of being willing to change one’s mind and conform with Christ, not with the needs of the imperial state.

The purpose of torture has always been, primarily, to silence dissent, invoke fear, and force conformity. After 9/11 the administration instructed the CIA to conduct these exercises, creating conflict within the organization. Those responsible for ordering these practices should be held for war crimes.