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.

Cuba Libre!

Our policy against Cuba has always been one of those issues that gets me into fits. I start ranting, my head begins to ache, and I get lost in a morass of incomprehensibility, because the policy is incomprehensible.

But yesterday I was liberated from that.

Now if someone can only end the war on drugs; and explain to me how financing stadiums helps cities.

I agree, of course, that the Cuban state has been poisonous; it has also been at war. But no matter how one thinks of Castro’s legacy, the embargo was not successful, and it was only internal American politics that stalled our ability to move forward.

That the Vatican was essential to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations illustrates how the church can use its power well. The church has always had a useful diplomatic role to play; it is different because it does not have an army, and like most organizations with a degree of moral heft, it can be ignored. It also has built up relationships over a longer period of time than most states. Granted, it makes choices the way any other institution makes choices, but because its stakeholders are different, it’s perspective is valuable. Although I disagree with the Vatican on almost everything they say, in particular, about sex, in the role of encouraging people to collaborate and work together, I’m glad to see how it’s doing the work.

I’m ready to book my trip.

In Our Outrage is Our Hope: a Sermon after Eric Garner

In the desert today, we hear about John crying out in the wilderness. He’s angry; he’s outraged. He’s making demands on the people. He’s calling them to get their act together.

I can imagine him shouting to us. He’s yelling at us about our conspicuous consumption; about the Keystone Pipeline; about the Middle East and ISIS.

I can hear him saying, “black lives matter” across the generations.

As I see people raising their hands saying “hands up, don’t shoot,” I recollect Jesus on the cross, arms outstretched imploring that they don’t know what they are about to do.

When I hear the phrase, “I can’t breathe,” I remember when Jesus said, “I thirst.”

I can hear the outrage in the voice of John. It’s because I’m outraged also.

I sympathized with a pastor I heard recently: “Saddened, but not surprised.” Nobody who has been paying attention for the last 35 years can really say they’re surprised.

We’ve sent 4 million young men to prison in an expensive effort to avoid investing in black communities. After a while, it’s hard to be outraged because this sort of violence keeps happening all the time.

All. The. Time.

Perhaps our outrage is pointless. Despair is an alternative. Or even a kind of enlightened cynicism. I can afford it, however. Others can’t.

Let’s go back about fifty years. There was a time when any white person could do pretty much anything to a black person without any impunity. Any white person could withhold wages, sell at a higher price, or commit an act of aggression without any worry about the consequences. And if you were a white person who sought to befriend someone of a different color, you could also be subject to aggression.

Think about that. Not only did black people have to regularly negotiate a system where at any moment they could be fearful for their lives, anyone who wanted to be an ally was also at risk. Diversity was not considered a positive; multiculturalism was a problem to be solved while immigrants became Americanized. Blacks, an inconvenience.

That changed, somewhat. What happened? We outsourced the violence. Yes, our formal public spaces, our commercial context, is freer than it once was. And even though our society remains segregated, the everyday habits of violence have been relocated, although not eliminated, to an extent that the violence we do see is that much more outrageous.

But within the fountain of outrage itself, is the wellspring of hope.

Why hope? Just as John expressed his outrage, our tradition teaches that in the mess, in the conflict, is how the possibility for hope pours in. It becomes a part of the mess, working and responding within the outrage. I sense this because I see more people who have begun to understand the cruelty and the precarity within which many black people live.

And this awakening might be a clue for how we understand “repentance.” The changing of the mind, this turn, is revealed in the realization by many people what the cost of white privilege is, and why the constant barrage of black deaths have become, now, even more outrageous to the public mind.

Let me admit, I can’t stand the term “white privilege.” Yes, it’s real. I can’t stand the term mainly because it’s an emotion one can’t actually have. That’s the point. It’s a position. Having privilege is the ability NOT to feel something. So people who do have this privilege are usually completely unaware. And when it is referenced by people who have it, it’s confused with the mild inconveniences one has throughout the day, like traffic stops, a bad boss, or everyday disappointments, which makes it easy for us to plausibly deny the privilege we do have. It demonstrates the truth one philosopher noted: the slave must always think of what the master thinks, but the master need not ever think about the slave at all.

The video of Eric Garner changed, forced, and magnified the issue; what was known by black people suddenly became impossible to deny. Even people who instinctively side with police officers found themselves at a loss.

Certainly discussions about privilege are remarkably clumsy to make, because it’s trying to make someone feel in a fashion that’s really difficult to have. But I take hope that there are more people who realize that this non-feeling, this privilege of inattention, blinds us to making effective political and institutional changes that will make our republic a better place, and prevent the cost of innocents being discarded.

Let’s recollect: we have tools in our toolbox so that can deepen our understanding of these relationships.

Two related parts of the Benedictine tradition, prayer and listening, strengthen our sense of empathy with other human beings. A prayer life is, in part, about exploring the minds of others, as God does. We fit ourselves into the scriptural story; and we can do this as we hear the stories around us. What is it like to life as someone differently bodied? Are there openings where I can experience it?

We might develop a sense of humility, that underrated virtue, about the stories we hear and tell. It’s alright to enter into a conversation without a sense of what the answers are, to be a little uncomfortable. John’s making a lot of people uncomfortable. He’s also uncomfortable. He’s wearing camel hair and eating locusts.

And as the church we are called, fundamentally, to be a trust building organization. We do not demonize our police forces; we commend them when the need be commended. But holding them accountable is the best way to reestablish trust. I hope one day the police will see how the blind loyalty to each other undermines their work. While there is no single solution, if you carefully look throughout the country, there are valuable experiments, from LA to Utah that are worth testing elsewhere and replicating. Even now in NYC, there’s been a drop in arrests because the government has changed its priorities. There are ways God is working; but it will require our institutions to diminish their own fear of change within their ranks.

What’s happened is along a few other cultural shifts. The institutions that held authority have demonstrated their limits, how they easily succumb to human pride and fear. Who can trust the government since the Gulf of Tonkin led us into war and Watergate covered Nixon’s treason? Who trusts priests after the pedophilia scandals? Can you trust a corporation after Enron? But this is also a source of hope; for as this dissolution continues, we may find places for grace to enter. We must find new ways to organize ourselves when the older institutions fail us. This is, in part, our modern challenge.

But let us hold the outrage as a gift. For the outrage itself is evidence that there is a world worth hoping for.

John’s outrage was, a herald, a call, a warning, a proclamation – for once he had see the world for what it was, once he could see what had not been seen, once understood that a new world awaits, and the prince of peace would soon enter the world. Without that understanding, would he have even been in the desert, telling us of things to come?

On this side of Easter, we say that through our outrage we trust in the world to come; we say that we have not given up on the world, and anticipate God’s entrance. Let His work be unveiled. Come Emmanuel.