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

 

 

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Deadheading the Church!

Yesterday afternoon I noticed that our pansy bed looked pretty bleak. Too many of the blooms had disappeared and stared forming bulging seed pods. My mother taught me years ago that unless you pinched off the dead heads then all the pansy’s efforts and energy would go into self-preservation. Pansies want to make seeds to propagate new pansies, but my mother wanted more blooms, not more pansies! If you let the plants spend all of their nutrients in forming seed pods there would be no new flowers.

This is an interesting analogy for my Monday morning thoughts about the United Methodist Church, Pope Benedict’s upcoming resignation, and the church at large. How much of our energy is spent in preserving the institution or producing blooms? I’m headed tomorrow to the General Commission on Religion Race where I serve as a Director and member of the Executive Committee. We have listened carefully to the findings of the United Methodist Church’s Call to Action: that we need younger people, more diverse people, and more people. To accomplish this do we do what we have been doing and preserve a valued history, or do we reach beyond our legislated responsibilities of monitoring the past? This is the crux: monitor the past or resource the future! Will we proactively focus on assisting annual conferences and local churches so that they produce fruitful diversity?

In my Monday morning devotions I usually try to focus on the next Sunday’s Gospel lesson from the lectionary. This coming Sunday’s text is Luke 13:1-9 about the fig tree in the vineyard that is about to be uprooted for lack of fruit. For three years the landowner has been looking for fruit and it hasn’t produced. It has been using up valuable nutrients for the surrounding grapes, too. However, the vineyard worker’s argument for patience won out over the landowner’s desire for figs. The fig tree was given another year’s extension with the proviso that there would be plenty of digging and fertilization to produce figs, or “Up she goes!”

I know that this is a parable with implied meanings that aren’t even close to being literal. Jesus answered the people’s ponderings of why there were sudden deaths in Luke 13:1-5 with this fig tree/vineyard answer. Jesus uses this parable to say that unless we bear fruit we’ll be uprooted and die, too. In other words, his answer sidestepped questions of why sudden tragedies occur and turned philosophical pondering into action. It was as if he were saying, “Everybody is going to die, but is everybody ready? Time is running out on your usefulness!”

But is this all that there is to the parable? My mind has been whirring like a top this morning! I never noticed before that this is a fig tree in a vineyard full of grapes! The vineyard worker knows grapes, not figs. Fig trees don’t get deadheaded or pruned; grapes do. Why would anyone want a fig tree in a vineyard anyway? Was its purpose to provide snacks for the vineyard workers? Am I thinking too literally? Probably, but I never noticed that this was a parable about cross-cultural appointments!

Ah! We’ll I am a District Superintendent and I know the hard work of cross-cultural/multi-cultural appointment making. One of the best ones in our Annual Conference is occurring because we spent a year preparing everything, and it has taken five years of digging and fertilizing to see a great return on our efforts.

We get the results that we work for. If we want flowers instead of ungerminated pansy seeds, we have to deadhead the vampire pods that are sucking the life out of making blooms. In the church we often avoid the difficult tasks of discipleship assuming with false hope that things will turn out okay if we just passively wait things out. That kind of inertia preserves the institution, but doesn’t bear fruit. Oh, we can make excuses about not being planted where we’re supposed to be; i.e., with other fig trees in an orchard tended by someone who understands in ins and outs of fig trees, or we can bloom where we’re planted, even in a vineyard surrounded by grapes that are raisins in the making!

I often think that we would rather preserve the institution; i.e., the fig tree, the vineyard, the pansies, the papacy, and the church than dig around, add effort for change and upset the status quo! We would rather focus on what we know which are grapes than deal with an opportunity to branch out, pun intended, into fig production. God help us if we are so myopic that we miss the fact that this world has more opportunities than we can imagine if we are willing to diversify and broaden our thinking!

Wouldn’t the Roman Catholic Church do well to address its male-only priesthood? Will the Roman Catholic Church use this critical time as an opportunity for change, or spend its energy preserving the institution? There are huge questions that the United Methodist Church must answer, too. Can we solve spiritual problems with structural solutions? How do we profess to have open hearts, doors, and minds yet find ourselves fractured by both liberal and literal fundamentalism that leaves no room for compromise? Are we arguing among ourselves more than we’re making disciples? Every general church agency, every local church and every Christian has a question to answer: What are we here for – to produce more pansies/new churches, or to produce more new blooms/disciples? What do you think the answer is, deadhead or not?

fig tree

Birthing Babies and Lent

Lent is the get-ready season for Christians, in more ways than one. It’s a season for needed spiritual reflection about every facet of our lives. On this Wednesday “Hump Day” of the week I am reminded of just how important Lenten season is. I got to the office at a little after 6:30 am this morning and had a wonderful time of lectio divina praying the Scripture and listening to God, then… Well, let’s just say it’s been busy: a conference call with the Executive Committee of the General Commission on Religion and Race; the landline phone ringing while being on my cell; and vice versa with clergy wanting to put their name in the hat at the last second about moving, churches saying they want their pastor to stay in one instance and go in another. Another DS called and wanted a clarification about something in the Book of Discipline. Another just called about a Cabinet Policy about Clergy Housing. There were four or five unexpected drop-in people – all good, papers to sign, “How are you doing?” kind of stuff. A typical day in the life of a District Superintendent.

It is never boring! There were two instances of me trying to be the ringmaster of a three-ring circus trying to schedule important meetings with all the interested parties. There were two calls from pastors worried about some family issues so we prayed over the phone. A clergy friend called offering baseball tickets which I‘ve learned is something to ask Cindy about later. Anyway, you guessed it, my Quiet Time with the Lord ran out about 9:30 this morning, so here I am typing because there’s finally a lull, but second shift is coming. Some of you have asked how I can write a weekly blog. My answer is that I have to. It’s a part of my spiritual discipline, electronic journaling, if you will.

I need to use every means of grace there is to get ready for the unexpected, to handle the tyranny of the urgent with a Holy Spirit imbued calmness. I bet you do, too. There, of course, is the blessing of God-guided boundaries, and the knowledge that God doesn’t put on us more than we can bear. Even better is the blessed hope that God will give us strength for whatever befalls us each and every day. Therefore, all the more reason to spend a Holy Lent in preparation, not just for our day-to-day dilemmas, but also for the emotional barrage of Holy Week. Ready or not, here it comes!

I should know about getting ready. Some of you know the story of our children’s births, and some of you don’t. All three were born in the small but beautiful hamlet of Cheraw, South Carolina, and they were born in three different locations. That’s pretty hard to do in small-town South Carolina, but it happened. Cindy went into labor with Narcie and I called her doctor whose office was an hour away. We had taken the hospital tour, and done the child-birth classes in that fair city. He asked me if I had timed the contractions and I had. They were three minutes apart! He said that was mostly impossible with a first child so he suggested she might have indigestion or something like it. He said we could go to the local hospital so they could check her, and call him back if we needed to.

Well, the local hospital didn’t have a doctor on site. A local General Practitioner, Dr. Jim Thrailkill, was called in. Seventeen minutes after our arrival, and just a few minutes after Dr. Jim got there, we had a baby girl! Whew! The quick delivery was great for Cindy, but it didn’t go over that well with her mother. Her goal in life was to be present for her grandchildren’s birth, then she missed it. Two years later we were expecting our second child. We went back to Florence, SC for the pre-natal doctor’s visits and the hospital tour, but we took the childbirth classes at the tech school across from the parsonage in Cheraw.

After the midwife/instructor heard the story of Narcie’s quick birth, she decided that I should read an emergency childbirth book. I finished it a few weeks before the due date and the next day I came in from doing some pastoral visits. Narcie was two years old and asleep in her room. Cindy was in the bathroom and promptly said, “I think this is it!” It was February 25, 1982.

Good thing I finished reading that emergency childbirth book! I dutifully called the doctor an hour away, and the friend who was going to watch Narcie while we went to the hospital. The friend got there and, “Boom!” both the baby and the book kicked in and I got on the delivery end of things and the baby was already coming. Thank you, Jesus, for that book and what it said about turning and dipping a baby’s shoulders. Thank you, Jesus, for prompting me to finish reading it the night before! I delivered Josh wrapped him in a towel, suctioned out his nose and mouth with an ear bulb syringe that had been sitting in the medicine cabinet ever since Narcie’s birth. Josh cried. I called the Cheraw Rescue Squad and went outside and got thoroughly sick. They cut the cord on the bathroom floor, and Cindy’s mother got another phone call saying that she had missed another birth.

When Caleb was born fifteen months later we decided to skip going to Florence. We hadn’t made it yet anyway! Cindy simply looked funny one afternoon so we headed to the new hospital. The old one had been turned into a nursing home. Dr. Essman was waiting on us, and Caleb took a whole hour! Since Cindy’s folks lived an hour and a half away, they still didn’t make it! All three of our children were born in little Cheraw, SC – one in the old hospital/nursing home, one in the parsonage bathroom, and one in Chesterfield General, one baby each for my three churches where they were each baptized in descending order of size. I was glad I had three churches instead of four!

The moral of the story: Just like Lent, it’s good to be prepared! I’ll be spending some extra time with the Lord in the morning! I won’t be birthing babies, but I’ll be preparing for New Birth!

Human Relations Day!

This past Fall I went to Washington, D.C. as a new member of the United Methodist General Commission on Religion and Race. As part of our introductory meeting to GCORR we toured Washington and spent some time of solace and reflection at the new memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was a powerful moment, even more so as we also stopped and walked at the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

I am honored to be a part of GCORR’s mission to reach more diverse people. This Sunday is Human Relations Day, Par. 263.1 in the 2012 Book of Discipline. It is one of our denomination’s 6 special Sundays with a church-wide offering, and the offerings are designated to help improve human relations. It’s no wonder that the day designated as Human Relations Day is scheduled to be on the Sunday before the observance of Dr. King’s birthday. Of course, it can be on any Sunday, but how appropriate it is to honor the work and ministry of such a healer of festered wounds and champion for a world that looks like the Kingdom of Heaven.

Studies of human DNA suggest that we have common origins. Some say we all came from an “Eve” source in Africa that migrated some 10,000 fold into Europe’s hinterlands and intermarried with other hominid life forms. Others say that we have a common ancestor of unknown origin but share Neanderthal attributes. Either way, the similarity in our DNA doesn’t diminish our individual uniqueness.

God loves diversity. Look at the myriad colors of birds, the duck-billed platypus, and the multitude of human personality and biological differences for evidence. An old Russian proverb says it well, “If I try to be like someone else, who will be like me?” We need to treasure our uniqueness, even those aspects of uniqueness that don’t always fit in. I saw this illustrated in a cartoon that showed the foreman of a jury at the door of the jury room giving the lunch order to the bailiff. You know the jury is in for a long time when you hear the order: “Eleven cheeseburgers and one hot dog. Eleven coffees and one hot chocolate. Eleven fruit pies and one bagel.” As much as we share in common, we all have different tastes.

A waitress was taking orders from a couple and their young son. She was one of the class of veteran waitresses who never show outright disrespect to their customers, but who frequently make it quite evident by their level stare that they fear no mortal, not even parents. She jotted on her order pad deliberately and silently as the father and mother gave their selections, down to what was to be substituted for what and which dressing changed to what sauce. When she finally turned to the boy, he began his order with a kind of fearful desperation.

“I want a hot dog…” he started to say. And both parents barked at once. “No hot dog!” Then the mother continued, “Bring him the Lyonnais potatoes and the beef, both vegetables, and a hard roll and…” The waitress wasn’t even listening to the mother. She said directly to the youngster, “What do you want on your hot dog?” He flashed an amazed smile. “Ketchup, lots of ketchup, and – and bring a glass of milk.”

“Coming up,” she said as she turned from the table, leaving behind her the stunned silence of utter parental dismay. The boy watched her go before he turned to his father and mother with astonished elation to say, “You know what? She thinks I’m real! She thinks I’m real!”

God feels the same way about each of us. None of us are overlooked or ignored. Each one of us is special and unique to God. We are real to God! That is an epiphany that you might need to hear today. The prophets and Jesus preached it, so did Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Let’s all do what we can to celebrate Human Relations Day!