MLK and Nathan Bedford Forrest: Walking in Memphis

Last week I was in Memphis for the Southeastern Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy. We had productive time together as we met just up from Beale Street at The Peabody Hotel, famous for its lobby ducks. One thing we didn’t duck was the racial history of Memphis. Bookends to pain are plain to see. The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel is there. So is the statue and burial place of Nathan Bedford Forrest. The Lorraine Motel is where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, and General Nathan Bedford Forrest, former KKK Klansman and Confederate general, was a citizen of Memphis until his death on October 29, 1877 and is buried in a city park. He is depicted on his cavalry horse for all to see. We passed it every day. Picturing the Lorraine Motel and that statue of Forrest was disturbing.

To plenty of people MLK Day is a brief break after Christmas to help us catch our collective breath after a busy Christmas season. In Memphis there is visible evidence that the racial divide in our American experience is still very real. Ours is the ongoing experiment to overcome racism and its main tool: tribalism. Christmas season had http://www.ancestry.com ubiquitous over the airwaves with TV ads and Facebook postings about people discovering their ancestral past through DNA. This may help in verifying some genealogical research, but it promotes tribalism.

You may ask, “What’s wrong with it?” Well, tribalism tends to set one group against another. I had a history professor at Carolina that was a member of the Hitler Youth. He dared to teach us to sing “Deutschland über Alles,” “Germany Above All,” in class. We saw the temptation of tribalism this past Monday with the National Championship football game between Clemson and Alabama. Clemson fans booed Steve Spurrier as a new inductee to the College Football Hall of Fame because he coached at their bitter rival, South Carolina. There were plenty of South Carolina fans pulling for Alabama instead of Clemson for the similar tribalistic reasons. It seems to be a part of human nature to form tribes, and think ours is better than someone else’s.

There is evidence to support that Nathan Bedford Forrest repudiated much, if not all, of his racist tendencies as he dropped out of the KKK and sought racial reconciliation. We also know that Dr. King said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Amen to that!

The United Methodist Church calls this Sunday before MLK Day, “Human Relations Sunday.” Its purpose, according to the UM Book of Discipline, 2016, Par. 263.1, is to occur during Epiphany, a season manifesting God’s light to the world. Human Relations Day “calls the church to recognize the right of all God’s children in realizing their potential as human beings in relationship with one another.” How I wish we, as the church, did this better. The most segregated hour during the week is still from 11 am to 12 Noon on Sundays. This coming Monday we are invited to Second Baptist Church, an African-American congregation in Aiken, for dinner and a movie. The movie, Selma, will be shown followed by a discussion. The time will be from 4-7:30 pm.

My hope is that we will forfeit our tribalism and give our primary allegiance to God. We all need Jesus desperately. No one has a right to feeling smug. “Except for the grace of God, there go I…” levels elitism to a posture of mutual valuing and collaboration. That’s the essence of the work of The United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race of which I am glad to be a member. By the way my DNA testing confirmed family stories and suspicions with a few surprises: Eight percent sub-Saharan African, double digits Native American, a whole bunch of Irish (a shocker for a Scotsman), and plenty of Viking Scandinavian, with a smattering of middle European Jewish. Some would say I’m a mutt. Well, I’m an American who believes more in us being a melting pot than a salad bowl separated into tribes of tomatoes, romaine or iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, and bacon bits.

I like praying, “Our Father who art in heaven,” not “my.” I like singing, “When We all get to heaven. I very much like the TV show, The Story of Us. It’s up to me to spread the tent wider and work for the Book of Revelation’s description of heaven so that it comes true. Rev. 7:9a says, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

This should be our refrain, something to repeat, which is what a refrain does. Refrains, however, for the preacher, vocalist and the actor do more than repeat things. A refrain is the jazz-like ebb and flow of oratory from Shakespeare to Martin Luther King, Jr. that invites us to belong to the play, to own the words. Think of MLK’s phrases, “I have a dream,” until it’s our dream, not just his. Hear his words, “Let freedom ring,” until we all pray for the bells to peal the news that the Jubilee has come.

Walking in Memphis did me some good. Marc Cohn agreed. Give a listen.

 

 

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Me, You, Colin Kaepernick and Commitment

Someone remarked that their church’s attendance was up and down, “up in the mountains or down at the beach.”  Labor Day is that last break before summer’s end, one last respite for teachers, students, and parents, and everyone else who wants a get-a-way. Labor Day is a celebration of how we all shoulder the load in our respective ways to keep the wheels of life in motion. It’s a day to take a break and relax as a reward. God has given us specific gifts that are needed, holiday or not. We should all contribute to the common good, if we will. It takes commitment.

Too often I am a person of divided allegiances. I’m no Colin Kaepernick who will only stand for the National Anthem when he feels that the country has done its part for him or others that have suffered injustice. Certainly, our flag has stood on the side of oppression many times, and I must admit that when I stand at Rotary and pledge allegiance to the flag, I have often hesitated on the line that says, “with liberty and justice for all.” I know full well that justice can sometimes be bought with expensive lawyers that the poor can’t afford. Nevertheless, it’s our flag, and I’ll keep standing for our national anthem and pledge allegiance.

A clergy friend wrote his Master’s thesis on how long it took the South to start celebrating July 4th after the Civil War. His research concluded that it took years and years of healing to make it a truly national holiday again. For instance, when the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi surrendered to the Union on July 4, 1863, it took 81 years before it celebrated the Fourth of July again. Truth be told, every national symbol has been treated with contempt at one time or another. The flag has been both burned, and used as an instrument of injustice, but I don’t think that I have the moral rectitude to denigrate it and be ungrateful. For all our faults, there has been much more good that the U.S. has done, and the world is better for it.

That flag represents us all, for good or ill. Think about Native Americans and how poorly they have been treated by the government, yet they are staunchly supportive of the U.S. The Department of Defense has said that if the rest of the population had enlisted in WWII at the same rate as Native Americans there would have been no need of a draft. It is common knowledge that Native Americans, per capita, have served in the U.S. military more than any other ethnic group. That’s been a fact throughout U.S. history, and it’s true even now. Consider that the Native American population of the U.S. is .8% of the entire amount, but the number of American Indians in the military is 1.7%!

Citizenship requires commitment and some people, like Native Peoples, know that better than most. To change the things that are unjust takes being involved. This is especially true in an election year when many people are tempted not to vote for either major party’s candidate. Commitment is a supreme virtue especially when we live in times like ours. It’s not a time to sit down, but to stand up and do the right thing. If you want to change the system, you don’t do it from the sideline, you get involved.

I think, therefore, that Colin Kaepernick can accomplish more by standing and singing the National Anthem than by sitting down. He can push for change from a position of commitment rather than apparent disloyalty. As it has been said, “America: Love it or Leave it.” At his salary he can do a lot to defeat injustice. He has a 6 year $114,000,000 salary with a $12,328,766 signing bonus, $61,000,000 guaranteed no matter what happens, meaning that he has an average annual salary of $19,000,000. Pretty sweet deal.

Commitment needs to be consistent to mean anything. The Sports Section of a local newspaper carried the recent news of former South Carolina QB Connor Shaw’s broken leg while playing a preseason game for the Chicago bears. He is the epitome of consistent commitment. A friend pointed out something askew in the article that came from a fellow player and Carolina alum. Pardon the language, but pick up on the inconsistency. The player said, “It’s a tough break, man. He was having a hell of a camp. He was doing a hell of a job out there … I told him ‘Damn, I hate it for you. Just keep the faith. Just trust in the process with God.’”

Hmmm… expletives mixed with God? I guess we all have consistency problems, not just Colin Kaepernick, but me, too, all of us, maybe! On another football note, a friend sent me this recently, “Just have to share. A friend of mine has two tickets for the 2017 Super Bowl. Box seats plus airfares and hotel accommodation, but he didn’t realize when he bought them that this was going to be on the same day as his wedding – so he can’t go. If you’re interested and want to go instead of him, it’s at St. Peter’s Church in New York City at 5 pm. Her name’s Brenda. She will be the one in the white dress.” Commitment? We all have work to do, don’t we?

Kaepernick Photo

Scruples: Too Many or Not Enough

Scrupulosity is an interesting phenomenon. Some might call it perfectionism or a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder. God bless those folks (I’m not one of them) who use up a bottle of hand-sanitizer every day. They have to physically or mentally touch base with all their possessions or routines ad infinitum in order to bring order out of their personal chaos. They are over-achievers who have high standards, and beg the question in our morally lax culture, “Is it possible to have too many scruples?”

“Scruple” is an old word, “a small piercing stone,” the kind that gets caught in your sandals as you make your way to the beach lugging all the chairs, towels, and suntan lotion for the family. It’s literally a pain to stop, put everything down and shake out the offending pebble. In ancient days people actually put scruples in their sandals as reminders, sort of a “to-do list” to keep them from forgetting something important. A person with scruples, therefore, is a person quite aware that there are things worth remembering, especially when it comes to morality. When I was a child we tied strings around our fingers to remember things. I don’t think we do much of anything to do it today. The absence of these reminders is dangerous, but there must be a balance between being over and under scrupulous.

Sometimes scrupulosity takes remembering your Mother’s admonitions to the max: “Don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t chew, and don’t hang around with those who do.” Being obsessive about scruples leads to a perfectionism that is not forgiving of others and even worse on oneself. It can also lead to the fate of the hyper-religious. Hyper-religious people can take sin so seriously that they become callous to all those sharp little stones and forget that there’s anything wrong. Over-sensitivity can led to insensitivity.

It’s like the Native American story of people’s conscience being shaped like a diamond in their chest. When they do something wrong the diamond turns, and it hurts. However, if they continue to do wrong things and the diamond perpetually turns, pretty soon the edges of our conscience have worn down and our wrong-doing doesn’t hurt anymore. Building a rock pile out of scruples can actually lead us into worse trouble. Those with an over-the-quota number of scruples have little or no tolerance for slackers or sinners. They have set the bar so impossibly high that they become judge and jury on the rest of the world.

Frankly, the swing back and forth between being judgmental or non-judgmental is cultural and religious quicksand. Not having enough scruples is just as dangerous as having too many.  It’s pretty weird that we spend so much of our time sanitizing our hands while we let our minds, bodies, and souls go to pot. Can’t we find a place somewhere between grace and judgment? My wife uses hand sanitizer religiously thanks in no small part to her beloved nurse grandmother and germ phobic mother, but then she kisses me! See the problem?

It strikes me that as a church and as individuals we aren’t sure what to do about scruples. We are either too holy and self-flagellate ourselves with a list of sins, or we preach prevenient grace a lot more than sanctifying grace and end up with a mushy goo of over acceptance of sin. Sure we believe that God draws us through pre venio grace, a grace that comes before we ever come to God, but some of us want to theologically and personally stay in this warm fuzzy place and never judge anyone or move toward real change. We’ve given up on transformation. There is no need for justifying grace. We have reduced sanctifying grace into little more than an extension of prevenient grace, except on steroids; i.e., “God loves everybody so let’s do it even more!” Wow, that’s 20th century United Methodism defined.

We missed the step in the three-fold Wesleyan stages of grace that calls for Jesus’ righteousness to supersede our own and entails repentance, humility, and a clinging to Jesus as our only savior. With our focus on prevenient grace we have called everything good as if that stage is our end all of the Christian faith. We have become so pre-loving due to prevenient grace that we forgotten that God has prejudged us and found us all wanting. We need to move beyond a shallow blind acceptance of the way things are, and we need some more sharp rocks in our sandals, standards in our hearts, and values in our society. We cannot keep on accepting things the way they are and sitting back as if this is the way God meant it to be. God wants better for us. God didn’t send Jesus to leave us the way that God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world.

21st century United Methodism is trying to find a way to the middle of grace and judgment. We must not clean the outside of the cup like the Pharisees and leave the heart as-is. We can’t make ourselves perfect no matter how many rocks we put in our shoes, but if we let Jesus rule our hearts then there’s a winning chance that by the sanctifying grace of God we might actually change.

Do you want things to stay the same old way every day in your life? I don’t think so, and neither do I. I also don’t want so many scruples that I become desensitized, callous, and careless in the way I live. Neither do I want to lose all my rocks, marbles, and moral compasses and end up lost forever. We cannot have it, whatever it is, both ways, but there has to be a middle way!

Hand sanitizer pic

Hospitality and Hope

The Coen brothers are sibling film-makers that have done some marvelous work. The movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is one of my absolute favorites with its spin on the Depression-era South and the imaginative use of Homer’s “Odyssey” as its inspiration. The dialogue is classic and includes some of the funniest truths you’ll ever hear. Without spoiling it, the main trio of characters are Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro), and Delmar O’Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson), and they are on the run from the law. Their adventures, after their prison break, are a hoot, and there’s fodder for multiple sermons.

There’s an especially good segment that fits with this coming Sunday’s lectionary text from Acts 16:9-15. The text focuses on Paul’s visit to Philippi in Macedonia and preaching in Europe for the first time. Paul goes down by the river and meets Lydia and other women. Lydia and her whole household get baptized as Christians, and then she invites Paul and his entourage to stay at her house. The connection with the Coen movie is the river and baptism.

In the movie, vocalist Alison Krauss, sings “Down to the River to Pray,” in the background as the white-robed throng wade into the water. The three convicts look on. Delmar’s expression changes and he charges into the water to get baptized. When he comes out of the water he yells to Everett and Pete, “Well that’s it, boys. I’ve been redeemed. My sins have been washed away. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now. C’mon in boys, the water is fine.” Pete takes him up on the invitation. Everett, the semi-brainy one of the trio, has nothing to do with it and replies, “Even if that did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi’s a little more hard-nosed.”

As hard-nosed as some are to forgive, the cleansing waters of baptism are just fine for everybody. That’s what Delmar, Pete and Lydia found out. God’s got enough grace to forgive what anybody might harbor against us. This isn’t to say that if we do the crime, we shouldn’t do the time. There is God’s justice to reckon with, but Jesus has taken God’s own wrath upon Himself and invites us all, “C’mon in boys and girls, the water is fine.” You might already be an almost Christian “God-worshipper” as Lydia is described in Acts 16, or a reprobate like Delmar who robbed a Piggly Wiggly in Yazoo. God is ready and willing to “warsh us clean,” using Delmar’s accent.

This passage has a lot to say about God’s welcome for us and our hospitality towards others in response. After she gets into the water, Lydia invites Paul and his group to stay at her house. Lydia becomes the first European convert to Christianity, and that makes this scene at Philippi a momentous one for most of us. Christianity makes its first foray outside of the Middle East, and, I daresay, since that’s not where most of us are from, this has huge consequences for all Christians. Lydia’s conversion and baptism literally sets the stage for the conversion of the world.

European converts carried the faith from Philippi up the Egnatian Way and the rest is history. Now, we all know that a lot of that history fostered a Christianity propagated by coercion and sword. Nevertheless, Lydia is a primary ancestor for many of us even if the methods were sometimes awful. Lydia’s being down by the river to pray changed her and the world. She experienced the same Jesus that inspired native peoples to forgive atrocities, slaves to forgive cruel masters, and poor people to forgive oppressive policies of institutional inequity. We need that same Jesus all over this world today.

So, the song, “Down to the River to Pray,” is just as important to sing now as ever. As a matter of conjecture, the song, has been attributed to multiple sources in its history. What is known for sure is that all of the groups that it is attributed to were people looking for hope and strength. They sung it as a way to keep the faith in times of darkness. Some have said it is a Negro Spiritual written and sung by African-Americans. Others say that it originated with Native-Americans, and some say it was an old folk song that gave hope to poverty stricken people in Appalachia. One of the first known written forms of the song was in The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion in 1835. Another was in a book titled Slave Songs of the United States published in 1867. Both of those specific dates remind me of Andrew Jackson’s forced removal of American Indians from the East, and the horrors of slavery.

Either way, it’s a song whose origin is born in poverty and pain. Some have declared that its lyrics which speak of going down into the water to pray, wearing a starry crown, and a desire for God to show the way are code language for oppressed people looking for a watery way to cover their tracks and scent, and an encouragement to use the stars as guides to find the way to freedom.

In a sense it’s what the words still mean today. God’s hospitality sets us free and forgives our sins, not by overlooking them, but by washing them away. Jesus is a Redeemer who is the Way, Truth, and Life. God’s hospitality is a model for us. It was for Lydia.

 

Brussels and a Proper Response to Evil

In Brussels sheer evil has once more been visited upon the innocent. We must not yield to the terror of jihadists and forget that democracy most resembles God’s Kingdom of freedom and love. Democracy represents the basic human attribute of choice. Didn’t Jesus, who could have called 10,000 angels to save him, choose to die on a cross to set us free from death’s oppression? Wasn’t it Jesus who chose to say from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” Those Roman soldiers made a choice to follow orders and knew what they were doing. ISIS knew what it was doing and individuals chose to follow. I usually know exactly what I’m doing, too, when I choose to do something wrong.

Easter is God’s answer to our poor choices. It says that evil’s cycle of violence can end if we choose the power of love over the love of power. Jihadists want the West to become as closed minded as they are. The controlled environment that their religious totalitarianism provides is tempting in our freedom-gone-amok world, but at what cost? If God’s will is always done, why would the Lord’s Prayer include the words, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?” The answer is, “Because it isn’t!” and we’re most often the reason. We abuse freedom, but it is foundational to our unique identity as bearers of God’s image. What we need is Easter’s resurrection power to guide our choices, and use our freedom for the common good.

Freedom of choice, however, is a risky business. I daresay that the West’s unfettered embrace of freedom and extreme individualism is what incites fundamentalism that pushes societies toward coercive control. Many of us, like them, would prefer a society where we put a funnel in people’s heads and the result would look something like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” But we can’t do that without lessening freedom, one of the key ways that we reflect God.

Since God’s exists in the three distinct persons of the Trinity, yet is one indivisible God, then we must honor both diversity and unity, too. Freedom isn’t the only way that we are made in God’s image. Responsibility is another, and aren’t we grateful for responsible parents, adults, youth, children, institutions, governments, and more.

The rub for most us is in determining whether or not certain actions responsibly reflect God’s best intentions for humankind, or not. When nothing is out-of-bounds then anarchy results. When structures of common decency become so porous that nothing is either sacred or profane, the pendulum swings toward the radical fundamentalist voices that provide what seem like easy answers in a complex world.

It’s just not that simple. It would help if we made sure that the Ten Commandments weren’t “Ten Suggestions.” It takes hard work to shape civilization’s values. Jesus proved that during the first Holy Week as he stood both before Pilate and endured the cross. He wants us to make those same stands today for good, but I wonder if we have the “want to” to do it. I’m afraid that we’d rather browbeat or bomb our opponents into submission, and, all the while, I can hear Jesus say to Peter in Gethsemane, “Put away your sword, Peter. They that live by the sword shall die by the sword.”

This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be swords, but our faith puts boundaries on the use of power. We are not to take personal revenge or resort to vigilantism. The government is supposed to be the entity that protects and fights for common decency (Romans 13:1-5). Unfortunately, government sometimes is the perpetrator of wrong-doing. It is, therefore, incumbent upon us to elect the best leaders that we can. We must ask ourselves which persons can best stand in the gap and stop the xenophobia that separates countries and foments violence.

There’s a difference between “violence” and “war.” They are not synonymous. The U.S. has only had 11 “declared” wars, but over 125 shooting conflicts/wars in our history, not counting the so-called “Indian Wars,” one against the Apaches that lasted a horrific 46 years. It seems to me that the constitutional rule of law should dictate that we be clear about responses that are lawfully sanctioned by the government. That is democracy in action. It is not a unilateral decision by one person.

Terrorism is violence. What the US has done to Native Americans has been violence. Jim Crow laws and racial profiling by police are violence. The list of abuses of power in inappropriate ways is a long one, 125 versus 11 at the least. This isn’t to say that I prefer Augustinian “Just War” theory, but I do support the notion that there are some wars that have to be fought against evil, injustice, and oppression. I come up pretty empty on that score except for World War II and the Civil War. We shouldn’t answer violence with violence, but with a reasoned response that may opt for a serious governmental action called “war,” always as a last resort when all attempts at diplomacy have failed. For democracy and the rule of law to prevail, we must rise above vengeance and enforce justice.

I admit that I’m no “Dove” when it comes down to it, but I am not a “Hawk” either. Complex issues have layers of truth and untruth. I know that I cannot sit back and let injustice and terrorism win the day, but I also cannot simplistically write off every Muslim. Sure, I sincerely believe that salvation is only found in Jesus, but it is also true that violent crusades do more harm than good. I am caught between legitimate use of force and pacifism. The international debate is how to legitimize our actions before a God who loves all people and wants us to treat one another with mutual responsibility and promote freedom. God’s Easter response to our dilemma demands a new approach. We have a lot of work to do to find that answer. We’ve tried about everything else and it hasn’t worked. God help us!

Peace dove

Human Relations DaySSSS!

Sometimes we just don’t get along with one another and we don’t know whether to lash out or just eat our anger. We can glad-hand it away and pretend it didn’t happen by seething inwardly, or we can go ballistic. Is there a middle way that is both truthful and therapeutic? In Charleston, SC there were no riots. A middle way was found because the families of the Emanuel Nine spoke the truth of their hurt, but also modeled grace.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave us profound insight in how to live in this middle place: “We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.” Violent co-annihilation may be tempting when we’re dealing with what appears to be an intractable stalemate. This makes me think of North Korea versus the world; Iran and Saudi Arabia; Democrats and Republicans; and pro-this and con-that people that are on opposite sides of a multitude of subjects. Isn’t Dr. King right? Co-annihilation and evisceration doesn’t help. Chaos-promoting language is an oft-used campaign tool that appeals to many people, but it disregards the fact that rhetoric which foments mutually assured destruction ends up causing it. It’s co-annihilation.

The US government thought they could annihilate native people’s ways by creating boarding schools where tribal ways and languages were beaten out of our people. So-called Christian missionaries tried to destroy native spirituality to create “white people” out of a people who had a deeper understanding of God than they could dare imagine. Isn’t it strange that the church has adapted and accepted pagan customs over the centuries just as long as they came from people whose skin looked the same? Annihilation also came to native peoples through outright murder and ghettoization through events like the Sand Creek and Wounded Knee Massacres, or reservation-induced dependency and abject poverty.

January 17 will be Human Relations Day and is the Sunday nearest Dr. King’s birthday. Its purpose is “…to recognize the right of all God’s children in realizing their potential as human beings in relationship with each other. The purpose of this day is to further the development of better human relations.” This is our day to make up for past failures and to embrace something better than nonviolent coexistence. Peaceful coexistence is better than violence, but love is more than tolerance.

In our unresolved conflicts, whether they are between people, countries, or cultures, we must be both truthful and therapeutic. I think that the genius of Dr. King’s statement about a choice between nonviolent coexistence and violent co-annihilation is not in the either-or choice of toleration or destruction. His statement is most prophetic when he says, “This may well be humankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.” Tolerant coexistence isn’t truthful or therapeutic. It puts scabs on wounds that need lancing before any real healing can take place. To choose chaos isn’t really helpful either, though it airs out the truth. The middle way that promotes real healing is what Dr. King called “community.”

How do we work for real community? Thankfully, the United Methodist General Commission on Religion and Race gives us clear tangible guidance. GCORR’s ministry model first promotes the teaching and implementation of Intercultural Competency. Second, it models for us how to have genuine, transparent, uncomfortable, and healing Vital Conversations between persons of disparate cultures and viewpoints. Last, GCORR’s ministry is to foster the creation of lifestyles and operational systems that value Institutional Equity, not just for some, but for everyone. The desire is that all aspects of every society’s structural life is fair to all.

If this ministry model is incorporated into our daily lives then we can have Human Relations Day every day. The questions for me: Will I do my best to learn about people who are different from me? Will I engage in substantive conversations that will promote cross-cultural understanding? Will I do the hard work that ensures that every person has an equal chance to be a reflection of God on earth? I pray that I will do all of this and more. What about you?

MLK

 

“Fear Not,” Charlie Browns of the World

Our Nativity Scenes conflate the differences in Luke and Matthew in wonderful ways. For one, we have the Magi from Matthew mixing with the Shepherds from Luke. There are differences, of course. Matthew has Jesus in a house and Luke has the birth in a stable. Matthew’s genealogy for Jesus goes back to Abraham and Luke’s all the way back to Adam. There are theological reasons for their differences, but, more than that, the differences highlight their primary emphases: Matthew and Luke wanted to present the facts of Jesus’ birth in ways that engaged their audiences.

Matthew’s audience was primarily Jewish, hence the genealogy going back to Abraham, the progenitor of the Jews (Arabs, too, through Ishmael). Matthew quotes the Old Testament more than the other Gospel writers, somewhere around four to one. All this focus on the Jewish people, fulfillment of Jewish prophecies and Scripture, is all very ironic since Matthew was a hated Roman Collaborator and Tax Collector, not a popular guy among his own people. It shows just how much Matthew loved his own people, and shows us how to love those folks this Christmas who get under our skin at family gatherings. But Matthew didn’t give up. He told his Gospel in a way that especially invited the Jewish people to believe in Jesus.

Luke, on the other hand, is a Gentile-focused gospel. His primary audience in his euanggelion are non-Jews. His literal “good message” or evangel reminds us why each Gospel writer is called “Matthew the Evangelist,” “John the Evangelist,” and so on. Each wrote to specific groups of people to best try to win these individuals to Christ. Luke’s shift from “they” to “we” about Paul and his entourage in the Book of Acts (Acts 16:10) is significant. It supports the common scholarly contention that Luke was a non-Jewish convert to Christianity. How wonderful it would be that we could find Gospel-bridges to the “nones” with no faith around us, to present the Good News of Jesus in engaging ways with our culture that welcomes and invites the outsiders to come inside.

So the focus of Luke’s evangelistic/euanggelion/Good News was the Gentiles. He quotes Jesus’ parables about the common lot of the Gentiles of his day. They were the ones most likely to be the least, last, lowest, and lost. In Luke, Jesus tells parables that would uniquely speak to those that were either poor in resources or spirit. Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, therefore, includes poor despised shepherds and a stable rather than a house and wealthy Magi. By the way, Matthew’s use of the Magi, given his heart for his own people, is more about the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy (Genesis 12:1-3) about a Jewish savior of the world than being pro-gentile.

Nevertheless, each Gospel writer remembered and shared the parts of Jesus’ history to reach a specific audience, or a general one in John’s case. This is one of the reasons why we can legitimately mix Magi and Shepherds in our crèches though they come from two different Biblical sources. Both make the same point, which is belief in Jesus Christ. That should be the point to us as well, and, in addition, there are lessons to be learned in making the Gospel accessible to all people whomever our hearers.

I, for instance, especially like the shepherds and the Gentile-focus of Luke’s gospel. Frankly, most of the Christians that I know today wouldn’t be Christians if it weren’t for the Lucan emphasis on God’s mission to poor Gentiles. That’s the spiritual and genetic background for most of the worldwide church. Jesus’ family tree in Luke that goes back to Adam emphasizes that Christ is the savior of all humanity, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile. The question is, “Is He my savior?”

I resonate with the lowly shepherds, a despised bunch without rights or legal standing, who found themselves relegated to the outskirts of town, literally marginalized. With my mixed-blood heritage and a father who didn’t get past the eighth grade, it’s Luke’s message that speaks volumes to me. God’s angelic message of Jesus’ birth doesn’t go to the high and mighty, but to the poor and unaccepted. It’s to the shepherds that the message is given, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people…” News for them, news for all – God’s love is not just for some, but for all – spoken to each human heart’s individual need; i.e., “For God so loved the WORLD…that WHOEVER believes in Him shall have eternal life.”

You’re included and so am I. I’ve played a humble shepherd in every Christmas pageant since I was a little boy. I never got promoted to being Joseph or a Wiseman. It was not only type-casting, it was true. I have often felt like a scared second-rate shepherd.

I also resonate with Linus from Peanuts fame who has always needed his security blanket. Maybe you do, too? Don’t we all want security? Haven’t we all sometimes experienced denigration and a lack of acceptance?

I am struck by something on this 50th anniversary of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” when Charlie Brown shouts, “Isn’t there anyone who can explain to me what Christmas is all about?” It’s Linus, carrying his security blanket, who goes to center stage and says, “Lights, please,” before beginning his monologue. Then precisely when Linus quotes appropriately from Luke’s message to the hurting and lost; i.e., the shepherds, something amazing happens. It is exactly when he quotes the angel’s message of “Fear not” to the shepherds that Linus drops his trusty blanket. After that he goes over to Charlie Brown and says, “This is what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” Yep, there’s a message of hope to all of us Charlie Browns who never kick the football, and feel put down just like the shepherds. Jesus’ birth ushers in shalom and a whole bunch of “Fear nots!” that we all need to hear.

Drop whatever security prop you use. Me, too. Linus’ fear subsides and so will ours. This is what I need to hear this Christmas. Listen, “Behold, I bring YOU good news of great joy that will be for ALL the people.”

Rock Your Mocs Week

November is National Native American Heritage Month 2015 in the US. November 8-14 is the worldwide “Rock Your Mocs Week” in which Native Peoples stand together in solidarity by wearing their moccasins. Columbus Day has come and gone, but most indigenous First Peoples of the Americas wish that it was gone forever. The sentiment is captured in the t-shirt that pictures First Peoples with the caption, “Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.” We are glad to be called Christian because Jesus walked in our moccasins, but not so much because Native Theology has been underappreciated, squelched, subverted, and persecuted by so-called “Christian” European theological doctrines and the “Doctrine of Discovery,” a papal bull that formed the basis for a series of US court cases that stole Native lands for non-Native use and ownership.

The Washington Redskins are still named as such. Wouldn’t it offend you if they were called the “Black Skins” or the “White Skins?” “Redskins” is so offensive because it is something Native People don’t call themselves. It is a designation by oppressors against their enemies. The Pilgrims better be glad that the First Peoples that took care of them didn’t use their numerical advantage to their benefit. Thanksgiving is just around the corner and the Pilgrims who numbered around 50 should have been thankful that the American Indians at the celebration, numbering over 90, were peaceful. That peace didn’t last long because the Pilgrims in their strict Calvinism felt they were made in God’s Legal Image and were “called” to subdue the land and the Native Peoples. They broke the peace and have been doing it ever since. I am thankful that Wesleyan theology in the United Methodist Church promotes that we are all made in God’s Moral Image and Social Image. These better reflect both the theology and the principles of First Peoples.

God’s Moral Image denotes that God does right and not wrong, and doesn’t break treaties or steal land. United Methodism’s most distinctive doctrine is based on Matthew 5:48’s injunction, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” United Methodists emphasize that God doesn’t save us through Jesus Christ to leave us the way that God found us, but transforms us for the transformation of the world. First Peoples understand full well the need for rules and respect for elders. We know that society works best when we reflect the Creator’s support of reciprocity; i.e., that one cannot expect to live without consequences and interdependence. Respectful give and take is God’s solemn plan for the way that we should live in the world.

Interdependence is held in common as a core belief of all Native Peoples. This is truly an acceptance of the United Methodist belief that all humans being are made in God’s Social Image. If God exists in the community that we call the Trinity, so should we live in harmony. First Peoples also know that it doesn’t just mean that we should work together as humans, but also in harmony with all of creation: two-leggeds, four-leggeds, and no-leggeds. Conference, which is such a keen word in United Methodist polity, is a distinctly Native value and custom. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we embraced the values of doing what is best for everything and work together for the common good?

We find that these values permeate the Bible. In Genesis 1 the creation poem is a wonderful way to teach interdependence and reciprocity. Day One with the creation of light and darkness corresponds with the two things made on Day Four that have stewardship over the light and darkness: the sun and moon. Day Two gives us the creation of sky and water and Day Five reveals the creation of the birds and fish that have stewardship over the sky and water. Day Three is the creation of land and vegetation, and Day Six has animals and humans as stewards over those. Day Seven’s Sabbath rest for God shows that Creator God has stewardship over everything. It is a beautiful poem of interdependent relationships that should promote harmony and value among all of creation. Native Peoples are not pantheists that believe God is everything, but we are people that are panentheists who believe God is in everything.

Interesting, isn’t it, when Satan tempted Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, he offered Jesus the “kingdoms of the world and their glory (Matthew 4:8).” This presupposes that there is innate glory among the nations, all nations. There’s also glory among all people and all things and we should treat them so. What this means to me, as I celebrate National Native American Heritage Month, is that I need to do everything that I can to appreciate God’s glory and image in everything. If God’s glory is to be unveiled in society, I need to do my part in doing the unveiling.

We need to unveil the glory of God in our churches, schools, arts, entertainment – in every social structure known to humanity. The students of the University of Missouri have taught us a lesson this week, and so have First Peoples. Let’s work together and see God’s glory everywhere. Where it is marred, let’s clean it up. Where it is lacking, let’s recreate it and unveil it. Jesus came to walk in our moccasins to do this very thing, the Incarnation leads to Redemption and to Entire Sanctification!

Mocs Image

Humbled in D.C. by Religion and Race

This past week I was in Washington, D.C. to work with a colleague at the United Methodist General Commission on Religion and Race as we were writing legislation in preparation for the 2016 General Conference. We were incorporating GCORR’s ministry model into its legislative mandates: Intercultural Competency, Institutional Equity, and Vital Conversations about Faith & Race. Too many things in the news demand that we excel at all three.

We finished our work a little early one afternoon so I decided to walk down behind the Capitol and check out some museums. I especially wanted to go to the National Holocaust Museum. I was breath-taken by the solemnity and horror of what I felt and experienced. Walking through the railcar that transported people to death camps was worse than chilling. Seeing the thousands upon thousands of shoes taken from people about to be murdered was overwhelming. Not a soul in the place spoke louder than a whisper, if that. Holocaust survivors were present with tattooed arms. The visit really put my work with the Commission on Religion and Race into perspective. We must say “Never Again!” to all genocide, racism, and murderous atrocities. The Islamic State must be stopped from beheading people. Russia must retreat from Ukraine’s sovereign borders. Christians in Iraq, Nigeria, and China must be protected from persecution.

We must all do our part, wherever we are, to stop heinous acts that take the lives of the unborn, the elderly, the Roma, and not to forget those innocent Hispanic children at our borders or those African-Americans who have been profiled and targeted. Indeed, Ferguson, Missouri is a tragic reminder of the U.S.’ racial history and a microcosm of the genocidal acts that have been perpetuated across the planet. Turks tried to wipe out Armenians in the early 20th century; Nazis tried to kill all the Jews; and the evidence of hatred goes all the way back to Cain killing Abel. We can say “that” would never happen in our community, but sadly it does every time I look over my shoulder and profile the people around me as I get in my car. When does careful vigilance cross the line into profiling?

We don’t want to call it discrimination or racism but we really do cling to what our differences are as human beings. Being unique is cause for celebration most of the time – until you’re the only one who thinks differently or doesn’t look like the majority. What a challenge for the church! We believe and preach Colossians 3:11 and Galatians 3:26-28 that in summary say that, in Christ: skin color, gender, and social status don’t matter – what matters is Jesus! Unfortunately, however, churches are mostly homogeneous like-minded clubs of similar people. Even with the rich diversity of the United Methodist Church, one of the most diverse denominations in the world, we are 92% white in the U.S. and 60% white worldwide. How do we create community when we would rather separate into different ethnicities? It begs the question of whether it is in our DNA to be prejudiced and want to be with own kind.

In D.C. I also went into the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. Talk about mistreated. I was hoping to find a T-Shirt that said, “Fighting Terrorism Since 1492,” but I didn’t. It was a somber place to me. If the majority of this country doesn’t “get it” about the Washington NFL team that has a nickname that American Indians NEVER call themselves, then we’re in serious trouble. I am even more offended by the Cleveland Indians mascot “Chief Wahoo” whose cartoon-like features are blatantly insulting.

 I have other questions in the wake of Ferguson, Missouri.  I wonder why most persons of color assume the police have an agenda of targeting them, and why most persons who are white trust the cops. I’m torn, too. I want to believe that the authorities are just doing their job, aren’t racial profilers, and want to keep the peace. Unfortunately, our experiences differ when it comes to the color of our skins, the neighborhoods we’re from, and the accent of our voices.

People assume Southerners are ignorant because we speak a drawling version of Elizabethan English. Others assume Yankees are rude and impatient with their fast clipped dialects. Why do we assume that Asian kids are better at math, black kids are better at sports like basketball and football, and white kids are football linemen, the occasional tight end, fullback, or quarterback and little else?  Why in the world do we somehow think that Latino/Hispanic persons have a corner on the landscaping market? Are these facts, or are we racists of sorts?

We have turned the American melting pot into a salad bowl where we do our best to keep the tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and lettuce separated. With that kind of attitude we don’t need to wonder why Ferguson, Missouri happened, Wounded Knee, or the Holocaust. Look at the facts and know that out of nearly 3 million people incarcerated in the U.S. 38% are African-American and that 1 in 3 African-American males will be imprisoned at some point in their lives. What makes these stats even more disturbing is that African-Americans only make up 13% of the U.S. population. Why is there such a high rate of incarceration? Is it due to a lack of opportunity? Are African-Americans somehow ill-equipped by nature or nurture to break the cycle of poverty? Is it because of the lack of a male presence in families? Is it institutional racism?

By the way Hispanics are 17% of the U.S. population and 21% of the prison population. Asians are around 5% of the U.S. population and 2.5% of that of prisons. Whites comprise 78% of the population and 35% of prison inmates. What are we to make of all this when thinking about Ferguson, Missouri and the museums on Constitution Avenue in D.C.? Have you ever heard of the phrase “white privilege?”

Privileged or not, the U.S. is made up of all kinds of people from all kinds of places and I am not ignorant of the fact that there are millions of white people who are poor and marginalized, too.  The bottom-line for me is that we must take individual and corporate responsibility for the ways that we treat people. We must look critically at systemic causes of poverty, discrimination, and racism. There is no easy answer to any of the questions raised. We live in a complex world where people learn early to discriminate between themselves and others. Maybe God had it right in becoming flesh in Jesus, a Jew from the Middle East – not African, not European, Not Asian – from right in the middle of all humankind. Jesus ably represents all of us, and gave us the words to combat racism and genocide in Matthew 7:12, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Holocaust Museum

 

 

Remembering Daddy on Father’s Day 2014

As Father’s Day approaches my Dad’s life vividly floods my mind. He and Mother were a great team. As I actively try this morning to recall them both I spent more time listening to what my Daddy said and watching what Mother did. It was not that both traits weren’t important but their individual strengths leaned toward doing for my Mother and saying for Daddy. They weren’t deficient in either skill. Mother was a doer without fanfare that helped people, cut the grass, and made sure her three sons’ needs were met. Daddy was a professional talker, literally, whose proverbs and talks can be replayed at a moment’s notice. 

He was an auctioneer that graduated in 1939 from Reppert School of Auctioneering in Decatur, Indiana at the top of his class. His primary vocation was in the stockyard business, owning 5 at one time: Wilkes County Stockyard in Washington, Georgia; Thomson Stockyard in Thomson, Georgia; Saluda County Stockyard in Saluda, SC; Lugoff Stockyard in Lugoff, SC, and the original one in Edgefield, SC. He was very successful to say the least as a communicator and as a people-connector. His gift of gab served him well both professionally and personally. He turned many an enemy into a friend through active and effective communication. 

He and Mother were keen examples of Christian character. They loved people and proved it in ways that went above and beyond what I witnessed in others. Together they made a decision to adopt a mentally-impaired African-American. Frank Arthur became a part of the family before I did since I was born when my parents were in their early 40’s. Daddy taught me how to shave by shaving Frank. They both taught me compassion for the hurting through meeting Frank’s needs. They showed that love can conquer injustice when you put a real face (Frank’s) to it.

A fond memory that sticks in my mind this morning is walking up the 17 steps past their bedroom to my upstairs abode and overhearing their last verbal check-in as they were preparing for sleep. I heard love expressed; days unpacked and analyzed; concerns voiced; hopes and dreams visualized and planned. I heard their character embodied in those stolen moments. Then when I got upstairs to my room there would always and every night be a three-fold knock on the wall below me. My Daddy could have been just checking to see if I was really in bed, but in my heart of hearts I knew there was more, so much more. Those knocks were Daddy’s way of saying what he said to me countless times during the day, on the phone, or in a letter: “I love you!” Every night I knocked back, tap-tap-tap – “I love you!” 

Daddy’s affection was real, palpable, genuine and even when he got angry and verbalized it, his love always spoke louder. Oh, how he and Mother loved us and each other. They were married 56 years when she died seven years before his own death. The depth of his loss was exhibited in his inability to live in our home place without her. He moved to be closer to my middle brother which was, interestingly, the same thing that his father did after my grandmother died. We have been blessed all along our family tree with parents that loved each other to the grave and beyond.

In our theological enterprise that we call eschatology or the study of the final things; i.e., death, heaven, judgment, the end of the world – there is an acknowledgement that there is no end to love, the circle is unbroken, and as we confess in the Apostles’ Creed we do believe in the Communion of Saints – that mystical but very real interconnection between the saints militant who are alive on earth and the saints deceased but more alive than ever in the church triumphant.

On days like Father’s Day I can literally feel those saints’ presence. I can hear Daddy’s voice. My reminiscences become real. I am inspired to say things that my children not only need to hear but will hopefully treasure some day. On this Father’s Day 2014 I remember my father, Ralph Thomas McClendon, and am grateful to Almighty God for a wonderful Daddy. 

God bless us all to become fathers and mothers to the parentless in this often loveless and unloved world. There are people watching and listening, or as Daddy used to say, “Small pots have big ears.” Let us give them something to hang onto, to remember, and to celebrate.

Daddy & Microphone in Hand
Daddy & Microphone in Hand