Talking to “these people”

What’s the matter with these people?”

“How could they possibly believe such nonsense?”

If you’re like me, you’ve asked some similar questions over the past few months. I’m determined for others to see my point of view and I believe in the importance of vigorous policy debate without the need for personal insults. But I also recognize that if I don’t start to engage people with whom I profoundly disagree there is no chance that I will compel someone to take a different position.

If, and it is a big “if” these days, we are serious about engaging people who see things differently we need to understand their motivations and reasoning. Researchers Robb Willer of Stanford and Matthew Feinberg of the University of Toronto, have documented how progressives and conservatives argue over issues employing a different moral grammar. Progressives tend to find arguments persuasive when they are couched in terms of fairness or justice. Conservatives on the other hand, will often be persuaded by a moral framework that speaks to patriotism, loyalty, and purity. It’s not just a question of my being right and you being wrong. Rather, I can’t possibly hope to convince you using a moral structure that you’ve never found persuasive. No wonder we become so frustrated with each other. It feels like we’re speaking a different language precisely because we are speaking a different (moral) language!

At our Thanksgiving tables, we might find ourselves conversing with family or friends with whom we profoundly disagree. But can we, if we really believe in our values, try to be persuasive in ways that the other will understand? Can I, if I am a progressive, speak about our lack of action to protect our environment because it isn’t just the fair thing to do, but the also the patriotic thing to do? If you believe that America really is supposed to be the land of the free, isn’t it right to argue that any policy that scapegoats refugees is not merely unfair, but it is fundamentally the act of a patriot to stand up for the marginalized? The logic works the other way too, of course. If conservatives want to persuade progressives that lower taxes really are necessary, please don’t start by talking about the purity of bootstrap pulling or it being the American way. You’ll lose the progressives in the room before you finish the sentence. Make a compelling argument about taxes through the lens of justice or fairness.

This isn’t a magic pill. People’s political persuasions, while not fixed, are rooted. But if you really believe that it’s high time you got to know “those people” a little better, it will probably help to speak their language.

The Day After the Election and the New Vindication of Jeremiah Wright

In 2003, Jeremiah Weight preached his most famous sermon.

The transcript of the sermon makes it plain that Wright was describing how governments change, but God does not. Barack Obama, in his bid for the White House, felt the need to distance himself from Wright after the sermon appeared on a loop in the media. Unfortunately people simply could not see their way past the line “God damn America!” The phrase was, naturally, taken completely out of context. (See below)

This morning, the day after America has elected a racist who incited violence at his rallies, assumed that every African-American lived in an inner city which he inter-changed with the term, “hell-hole” and who shows not one iota of understanding how privilege manifests itself, some of us might agree that Jeremiah Wright’s sermon hits home more than ever. His words stand as a reminder of how the world can disappoint us, how God seeks us when the world fails us, and most importantly today- when we are dumbstruck by reality, we are still in this together.

May we work together to fight racism, protect the refugee, and raise each other up in hope and love. Please see the note of theological hope in the midst of lament toward the end. Here’s Dr. Wright:

Where Governments lie, God does not lie. Where Governments change, God does not change. And I’m through now. But let me leave you with one more thing.

Governments fail. The government in this text comprised of Caesar, Cornelius, Pontus Pilot – Pontius Pilate – the Roman government failed. The British government used to rule from east to west. The British government had a Union Jack. She colonised Kenya, Guana, Nigeria, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Hong Kong. Her navies ruled the seven seas all the way down to the tip of Argentina in the Falklands, but the British failed. The Russian government failed. The Japanese government failed. The German government failed. And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them in slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into position of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing “God Bless America.” No, no, no. Not “God Bless America”; God Damn America! That’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God Damn America for treating her citizen as less than human. God Damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!

The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African decent. Think about this, think about this. For every 1 Oprah, a billionaire, you got five million Blacks who are out of work. For every 1 Colin Powell, a millionaire, you got ten million Blacks who cannot read. For every 1 Condileeza Rice, you got one million in prison. For every 1 Tiger Woods, who needs to get beat at the Masters with his cat-blazing hips, playing on a course that discriminates against women; God has this way of bringing you short when you get too big for your cat-blazing britches. For every 1 Tiger Woods, we got ten thousand Black kids who will never see a golf course. The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African decent. But I’m fitting to help you one last time – turn to your neighbor and say “he’s fitting to help us one last time.” Turn back and say “Forgive him for the ‘God Damn’, that’s in the Bible Lord.” Blessings and cursing is in the Bible, it’s in the Bible. But I’m fitting to help you one last time. Let me tell you something.

Where governments fail, God never fails.

When God says it, it’s done. God never fails. When God wills it, you better get out the way. ‘Cause God never fails. When God fixes it, oh believe me, it’s fixed. God never fails. Somebody right now, you think you can’t make it, but I want you to know you are more than a conqueror, through Christ you can do all things, through Christ who strengthens you. To the world, it looked like God has failed in God’s plan of salvation when the saviour that was sent by God was put to death on a Friday afternoon. It looked like God failed. But hallelujah, on Sunday morning the angels in Heaven were singing, “God never fails.” You can’t put down what God raises up. God never fails. You can’t keep down what God wants up. God never fails. If God can get a three-day Jesus up out of a grave, what’s going on in your life that in anyway can’t match what God has already done? He’ll abides with you, he’ll reside in you, and he’ll preside over your problems if you take them to Him and leave them with Him. Don’t take them back – turn to your neighbor and say “stop taking your problems back.” Should we always bring our problems to the altar and then do we just them right on back to our seats? Turn and say “Stop taking them back!” God never fails. Turn and tell them “God never fails!” God never fails!

God never fails.

Tomorrow, They’ll Be Here

Over the past few months, some members of my congregation have wondered how to respond to the massive upheaval of humanity occurring in Europe.  It has been made plain to us that the best way to help a Syrian family is to clear a spot in the refugee “pipeline” by helping a family, any refugee family, from any part of the world.

Tomorrow, a family will arrive at JFK, having journeyed overnight from Johannesburg. They have lived for several years in Pretoria after fleeing Somalia. They have endured a number of the same difficulties as those who have fled Syria.

Tomorrow, this family will move to New Jersey, whose governor is one of many to make it clear that certain refugees are not welcome here. Not even orphaned children. Mr. Christie may well be aware that our family will likely be practicing Muslims. They will likely bear the scars of oppression and violence. They are already pawns in our unloving, unfaithful, uncharitable public political discourse.

Tomorrow, we’ll take the family to a well furnished apartment in our community. The refrigerator will be full of groceries. We’ll help get children registered for school and assist the adults in finding employment. We’re setting the family up with ESL tutors, will help the family with doctor visits, transportation, and other needs. The members of our congregation have done this in concert with the families of our Nursery School and the help of many others. As a community, we’ve pulled together. Frankly, we’re more likely to continue to do so, the more our governor tries to appease voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. We want to make it plain tomorrow: Chris Christie does not speak for us.

Tomorrow, our faith is made manifest in our response to one family. It is a faith born out of the belief that we are called to act rather than merely speak. We are called to love rather than speak of love. Our love may have already been scorned by our Governor and ultimately, it may be spurned by the family. But, that should not stop us from acting.

Tomorrow, the crisis in Syria will likely still be largely unintelligible for most of us. The only way I can begin to make sense of it is in this way: There’s a family somewhere in the world seeking refuge. They either are or have been in great danger.  The family could hail from Syria, but they could be from another war-torn part of the world. I must ask once again: What can I do?

Tomorrow, they’ll be here. I pray that tomorrow, we will do as God calls us to do.

Boy George and the Quest for “Christian”

A recent road trip took me through Pennsylvania. As I put Allentown in the rear-view mirror, I decided to go retro and turn on the radio. To my delight, I heard a tune I hadn’t heard in years: “Karma Chameleon” by Culture Club.

A smile, a few taps on the steering wheel, and a gentle hum.

A good day became a great day. How could my day not be fantastic after hearing this?

A few moments later and my mind traveled back about thirty years. I grew up in England in the 1980s, and my family and I religiously watched “Top of the Pops,” a Top 40, half-hour, weekly TV show.

“What a poofter!”

“What a weirdo!”

“Bloody hell! What’s he up to?”

Not surprisingly, I heard all of those things when Boy George appeared on television. People I love said some of those things. Those same people were undoubtedly shocked by the seeming brazenness of this man in makeup, singing gently and freely about love and relationships, heartache, and being true to yourself. As a seven year old, I was shocked too.

Culture Club and Boy George didn’t hang around in my consciousness for long. (They broke up, and I went through an extremely predictable Michael Jackson phase.)

But 30 years after words like “poofter” and “weirdo” filled my living room, I still remember them clearly.

Sometimes, even when you’re seven, you know deep down that some of the things adults have to say are complete and utter nonsense.

Boy George is a man who battled with many addiction demons. His relationships were lived in a public way and were not always harmonious.

But he’s a hero to many for his willingness to be true to himself, his identity, and his music, even as others belittled his appearance and music. Yet, he’s also a hero to me for offering the following quote in 2007:

“People have this idea of Boy George now, particularly the media: that I’m tragic, f****d up. I mean, I’m all those things, but I’m also lots of other things. Yes, I’ve had my dark periods, but that isn’t all I am.”

“I mean, I’m all those things, but I’m also lots of other things.”

What a line!

As a pastor, I find great blessing in hearing, “I’m tragic, I’m f****d up…but I’m also lots of other things.”

In fact, my experience as a pastor has only helped me appreciate the complexities of humanity.

People cheat.

People lie.

People say ridiculous things about celebrities on TV.

Those same people love, laugh, and pray.

You likely know this already.

It is incumbent upon me, a guy who wakes up each day still trying to figure out what on earth my identity as a “Christian” is, to also take Boy George’s wisdom out into the world.

“Christian.” It gets more and more difficult to define that term.

But isn’t it still, even after all this time, merely a descriptor of an imitator of Jesus? Someone who regards mercy as a virtue?

Someone who refuses to see people as only tragic and f****d up? Someone who thinks that the world is worth trying to redeem?

*This piece was first published on http://www.newsacred.org, the national blog of the United Church of Christ.

I’d Rather Do a Funeral: God’s Business

“What do you do for a living?”

I have been asked that question dozens of times. But once, when I was at a party, I was asked, “So Dave, what’s your business?”

Of course, I began to say something about working in the church in town, which is largely what I do. I wish I had that moment back.

I moved to a new position this summer after spending more than nine years at a congregation in Colorado. Folks there would chuckle sometimes when I’d insist that the best part of my role was officiating at memorial services.

“I’d do a memorial service over a wedding any day” became a mantra. It doesn’t matter whether a bride or groom-to-be is the friendliest, kindest soul on the planet, I’d rather be at a funeral.

A funeral that doesn’t seem to go quite right? A funeral that celebrates the life of someone that has died in tragic circumstances? A funeral that’s for someone that I know well? I’d rather be there.

I vaguely recall Daniel Berrigan saying many years ago that it was his calling to help people die well. That was his business.

At my current congregation, the minister for visitation attends Board meetings in order to offer her monthly report, which goes something like: “My ministry continues; I listen, I pray, we share tender moments together, we listen for God.” That is her business.

My third memorial service here was for a long-time member. His son offered a stirring eulogy, telling many superb stories that captured his father’s spirit. Towards the end of his eulogy, he began to do what I prefer those who are eulogizing not to do; he began to preach.

Now, it’s not that I’m opposed to anyone and everyone saying a few good words for God; it’s just that there have been a number of memorial services where I have preached. Shortly thereafter, a family member has stood and questioned the location of the immortal soul of their dearly departed sibling or cousin, likely offering something that is the opposite of what I had just shared.

“It’s a shame that Bill didn’t know Jesus, but it’s not too late for the rest of you.”

So, yes—a few good words for God are great at memorials until maybe they aren’t.

In any case, the gentleman that began to preach here recently at his father’s service took a different tack. He said, “I thank God for death. Death is a gift. Without it nothing would ever have changed. We’d all be amoebas without death. Our ancestors would have not had the capacity to grapple with the idea of a Creator without death. We would not have language and we would not have the same senses that we do now without death.”

I sat listening to this gentleman’s fine oratory and wondered to what degree it would be appropriate to shout out an “Amen” during his Father’s funeral (that tends not to happen in our context).

But, it occurred to me later, that this is an element of the discussion regarding the teaching of evolution that goes missing; a theological element actually. To deny evolution is to deny a great gift that God gives. We see it in the rot of leaves under our feet each fall. The forest would not be there without the falling of those precious leaves. To fall and eventually physically degrade is their business.

Now, as I gaze out of my office window, I see an old and glorious beech tree. It looks healthy enough to me, but it has a bleeding canker disease. It will eventually need to come down. It’s a reminder that in this era, an era where the shiny thing is usually regarded as the better thing, that one of the cornerstones of parish life is not only to help people lead lives that are worth living, but also to help people die as well as possible. That is our business.

Someday soon I will receive a phone call. It will be time to visit someone who is nearing the end of this journey. I won’t want to go. Initially, when I receive these types of calls, I wonder if someone else might go or if I will have anything to say or if I’ll be in the way when I get to where I’m going. In that moment, selfishly, I’d rather be enjoying another part of my life.

Isn’t it always the way? The thing that you don’t want to do, but you know you must do, that is your business. Why?

Because you know you’re going to need God’s Spirit to carry you through. And that, it seems, is God’s business

New Sacred

www.newsacred.org is a national blog of the United Church of Christ featuring a group of eclectic writers who will address contemporary issues through the lens of Progressive Christianity. I have been asked to be a featured writer for “New Sacred.” The blog will launch on September 1st and my first piece for the site will appear at some point during the month. I will then contribute at least one piece per month thereafter. It’s an exciting new venture for the denomination and I’m very happy to be a part of it.

I will, in all likelihood, put my material for the national blog on this site as well, but the contributors have been asked to delay release on personal websites for 24 hours. I will seek to honor that and add some other pieces here too if I can get myself to write more and for the pure pleasure of it. Starting a new position has caused my writing discipline to suffer and so participating in New Sacred will be good; having an editor and deadlines is probably helpful for me!

In the meantime, thanks for supporting me and my writing thus far. It’s a great and very weird journey sometimes!

 

Dave

Once, Not So Long Ago…

…Children played here with toys. An adult used an elliptical machine. And then, the stuff was gone thanks to a crew of 7 that hauled, groaned, winced, shoved, pushed, pulled, and carried. Norman, Bob, Jeff, Carla, Craig, Tom, Rebecca, and Pat- we couldn’t have done it without you. We are so very grateful.

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