Friday, February 29, 2008

Overcoming divisiveness

I mentioned a few weeks ago that my daughters boyfriend come to town and immeidately told me that he had never attended a worship service at a church. I was surprised. "Not even a wedding or funeral?" "No,"he replied, "not in a church." He told me that his family would be making their way to the Lakeside cottage in the summer. He would ask his father as they passed the tall white steeple Connecticut Congregational church: “What happens at a church.” His father would simply say, “We don’t do church!”
My daughter resembles the type of person who attend church in America. She attended worship as a child, got baptized, attended sunday school. Did the Christmas and Easter pageants. Was active in youth group. Hard to remember back to the day she didn’t consider herself a Christian. She was here because she was brought here.
But there are those who resemble her boyfriend. Perhaps they came to faith later in life. They first arrived at church, innocent and uninformed. The bible was confusing. The strange language church people use mystified them. It is as if they entered an alien space.
Some of us have been her so long we feel like insiders. Other of us are still new, fresh, recently arrived and we could be labeled outsiders.
Smaritan woman in John 4:3-42 is an outsider on at least two counts. She is not only a Samaritan, the ethnic group whom faithful Jews regarded as heretics and renegade, her lifestyle was at odds with church teachings. She admits to having been married five times and was not with a live in lover. She was shunned by her community so she had to go get water in the heat of the day when no towns people were around.
Most preaching in American churches is targeted towards insiders. Most preachers are most comfortable with insiders. We are trained to talk to these sort of people and they make up the majoirty of our congregations. The Apostle Paul, the great evangelists to the non-Jewish world were also better with quasi-insiders. His audience was apparently people who believed in the teachings of the Rabbi's and hung around the synagogue. They were people of faith who were looking for a new way to understand who God is. Paul targeted these folks--listened to them. Invited them to dialogue. He worked hard to overcome cultural and social barriers to make them feel welcome --- but they tended to be people with a faith background..although they seemed to be morally on the edge.

One time Paul tried to target the hard core pagan audience. He went to Mars Hill and debated the Greek scholars. Looking at the statues he said, "Athenians I can see you are people of faith. The God's you worship in general find their fullest expression in particular, though Jesus Christ." Paul bombed. He went back to his core audeince and core message, "I preach Jesus Christ—who was crucified and resurrected."
Rick Warren and Joyce Meyers are very good at making the gospel accessible to total outsiders. YOu listen to their preachings and note the cultural references they use. They are great at making the gospel appeal to folks for whom Christ is foreign concept and church is a dirty word.
Jesus appears to have better luck with the outsiders then the insiders. Note that the insiders seek Jesus—Nicodemus is one good example (John 3:1-17) They go to see Jesus and try to figure out him on their terms. Jesus engages them. Many choose to follow him. But Jesus seeks out the outsiders. In fact the gospels are probably prejudiced towards the outsiders. Jesus got into all sorts of trouble for spending time with outsiders…the uniformed, the unfaithful, the uncommitted and those with scandalous personal lives—like the Samaritan woman.
The biggest charge against Jesus was, “this man receives sinners and eats with them.”
Church consultant Bob White likes to tell his gatherings of church leaders about a dream he frequently has. He arrives in heaven. He walks in thankful to share the eternal life he was promised. But to his surprise he doesn't recognize anyone! Where are my friends and colleagues? the place is instead filled with recovering addicts who found Christ. They are excitedly talking about how Christ helped pull them out of life destroying ghetoo and set them on the road to peace and serenity. Bob shakes his head and thinks for a moment. Jesus not only said that "The Son of Man came to seek and to save the Lost.” He did save the lost.
In any church there are both insiders and outsiders. The insiders know a great deal about religion, or at least they think they do. The gospels depict us insiders as being confused by Jesus who we think we have all figured out.
For example the disciple Thomas, told by Jesus that he was going to heaven and would show him the way, complains, "We don't know the way so how can we get there?" Thomas was very close to jesus but he didn’t get it. The older brother in the Prodigal Son does everything right—knows the moral teachings is steadfast—but cannot comprehend how god, his father, could welcome the lost son back into the household. I guess insiders can still miss out on what Jesus is doing and saying to us. We think we know everything about Jesus but we still get surprised by Jesus.
Outsiders, like the woman at the well just presume they don’t know much. And maybe the presumption of innocence and ignorance is the best precondition for knowing.

Now back to the divisiveness theme. We will only overcome division when we give up the deeply held conviction that our group has it all right and the other side has it all wrong. Like Jesus we need to get out on the streets and listen and talk with people who are not part of our social circles and who don't share our beliefs and opinions. We need to shut off the TV or Radio, which as Dead Fred rightly notes---feed us extreme opinions and demonize the other side. What I have seens as a positive is the campaigning styles of Obama and McCain. They both stand up to the extremist elements in their parties and openly condemn the bigoted opinions and reject their polarizing messages. This is what I find an important first step. Both are appealing to the moderate middle and the younger voters who are far differenet than their self righteous "Baby Boomer " parents. The younger voters, and the younger Christians among them, don't like the polarizing appeals to abortion or sexual orientation. For them authenticity is everything and they think poverty is a real moral imperative, care for the earth a moral mandate, acceptance of all racial and ethnic groups a given. My guess is that "Swift Boating" efforts will backfire this year. Of course...I might be dreaming.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Reconciliation is possible

I got an e-mail from a pastor freind who is down in Kenya trying to reconcile the tribal war that is being waged in his Kenyan village. My friend Paul is a brave man. He knows he is risking his life. Several of his tribal members have already been brutally killed. His hometown is almost entirely ethnically cleansed:one tribe holds the center area and the lessor tribes are stuck in the outer slums. Paul fears that unless a deal is reached soon a full fledged Civil War might erupt.Pray for him.
The newly formed "New Baptist Covenant" held a huge gathering in Atlanta a few weeks ago. This group gathered to forge a reunion of the Baptists groups that left the Southern Baptist Convention when the fundamentalists took it over 20 years ago. The 15,000 strong had quite a time. It gave me hope that the warring groups in our Presbyterian denomination can catch the same spirit of reconciliation.
The New Baptist Covenant didn't just show up. It took time to recover from the denominational wars. Hundreds of Baptist moderates had been kicked out of office or fired from their seminary positions or removed from their pulpits. Female pastors had particularly been targeted in the purge. Slowly but surely these people without a church found each other. When they finally had the "numbers" they planned a big event in Atlanta to celebrate.
These moderate Baptists were treated to speeches by two former Presidents and two Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Bill Clinton told the story of his long journey as a Southern Baptist and attempted to pinpoint the crux of the difference between the Southern Baptist Convention and the vision of the New Baptist Covenant. The former president lamented that infighting, political posturing and un-Christian words and deeds have come to identify Baptists. He, and other speakers, called for a way out of the divisiveness.
Author John Grisham (a baptist from Charlottesville, VA) framed the negative message aptly. "For so long, so many Baptists have worked so hard to exclude so many," Grisham offered Baptists three suggestions for seeking unity.
Restore their good name by respecting diversity, staying out of partisan politics, and most importantly, spend as much time on the street as Jesus did.
I believe that the dark and divisive days of the past 25 years are in their death spiral. The world is too small to have every group and tribe divide up and retreat to their segregated spaces. I believe American denominations are devided because our culture is divided. Yet i believe we are beginning to get tired of divisiveness (although people still buy Anne Coulters books and listen to her show) Most people are too wise to believe that one person or one group can see everything with crystal clear vision and have complete knowledge. Bill Clinton (who might have made a great preacher) said that I Corinthians 13:12 is a good place to start any discussion about unity. Here, right before the Apostle Paul launches into his discussion of the qualities and virtues of faith, hope and love, he notes that on this side of heaven no one has complete knowledge. "We see into a mirror dimly...later we will see more clearly" As I get older I have come to realize that I am often wrong about some things I used to be convinced were right. I think (make that hope) I am becoming more humble. Humility that is combined with trust in God's wisdom and power can lead us out of divisive times into a future of unity.
While in California I talked with some folks who came back from Iraq. The real reason the violence is down is not just due to more troops on the ground. The biggest reason is that the communities have already been ethnically cleansed. The remaining religious majority in these neighborhoods now have complete control. Armed armed gaurds control access to these neighborhoods. With no enemy to left to fight, violence is down. You can't call someone to arms if there is no one around to battle.
Maybe the Baptists and the Muslim groups in Iraq have something in common. They will fight and postures and exclude the other side until they get tired of it. then they will discover that endless fighting is too costly and just stop and take stock of their part in these divisive battles. It is just sad that Able Lincoln was right in his second inaugeral address--we humans don't stop fighting until the body count and the resource drain is too high to ignore.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Woman thou art loosed

I am a political junkie. I admit it. Political Science major in college. I read at least 20 books on American political history a year. When the election cycles come around I check the polls on electoral vote .com and I love the Chris Matthew show.

It should be no surprise that I took the rare opportunity to see a real live candidate in Maryland on Sunday night. These appearances are rare because in Maryland the elections usually don't matter because the winners are largely determined by party affiliation or the States Electoral votes are already bright blue. I went to see Hillary Clinton speak at Bowie State. The crowd was polite and well informed. It was predominately female and had fewer African American voters then you would expect around here. There was little fanfare.For pure excitment you have to go see Barak Obama. She spoke without notes for 40 minutes. You left the place thinking that without a doubt she is the best informed candidate of the bunch. She is bright. She doesn't talk over your head. You believe her when she says that she would be ready on day one to get the job done. I was pleasantly surprised.

The next day I saw the cover of the Post and i was angry. They showed a picture of her and the Governor (and I was in the background next to Barbara Engh and Andrea)pointing to someone in the crowd. The picture was awful. Where they found it i will never know. She smiled or talked from a serious tone all night. Where did they find that snear and why did they print it on the front page? Incidentally, there was a smiling picture of Barak Obama on the front page as well. Coincidence?

I shared my outrage with some women at the Munchin Luncheon. They said that the Post has a history of misogyny. Margaret Thatcher, the grand women who served with distinction as Prime Minister of England in the Reagan years, always appeared with unflattering pcitures. One person who saw her in person was shocked at how attractive she looked. Years of Post coverage had convinced her Margaret was a tough, soar, old maid.

Woman, and many men, who read the bible have often thought that the Apostle paul was hostile to women. I don't think he was but i do think male commentators have taken Paul words out of context and used them to control and diminish women. Women are still not accepted as equal members in many churches in America. I find it embarrasing that Ms. Clinton is the first women who has ever been a serious candidate for the Presidency. Nancy Pelosi became the first Speaker of the House just over a year ago. I can't tell you how many patronizing e-mail jokes I get denouncing her. Heads up to people who send them. I am passing them on to my wife.
Expect a comment.

So much for the rant. I have a strong professional woman for a wife and a formidable sister. I also have two daughters that I have raised to compete and succeed. I long for the day when women get fair coverage in the Post when they seek national political leadership. I was disgusted that they spent so much money prosecuting Martha Stewart when all the high level male misconduct goes unprosectued on Wall Street. Sexism is alive and well in America.

Friday, February 8, 2008

No practice, no progress

Soon after Congress passed the Bill raising fuel economy standards for cars and truck I came across an article in the Washington Post by Warren Brown. Brown noted that the energy problem facing the US is best summarized by one question: is it possible to get consumers to accept changes that require some degree of sacrifice without asking them to sacrifice anything? For an example he cited the 2008 Auto show. Here the automakers unveiled several new cars that promised better fuel economy.
“We are shielding consumers from the truth,” said a GM executive. "The truth is we can’t have effective fuel conservation policy without giving up something—size, power. Consumers have no intention of giving up anything for energy conservation."
Michael Jackson, chairman of retail group that "America needs to get serious...getting serious means asking consumers and everyone involved in the energy development and consumption cycle to accept some degree of sacrifice. Gain without pain is not possible. We need to stop suggesting it is."
Drug maker are advertising pills that they say will enable you to eat almost anything and have no heartburn. Go ahead--eat irresponsibly. Health officials are worried about the cost of obesity. One solution is gastric bypass surgery. The cost is high. $30K. The question is who pays for it. If it is the only way in the long run people to control their weight, and obese people get diabetes which is extremely costly to treat, maybe surgery will be the high cost of saving money on health care.

Christian spirituality normally involves a measure of suffering. Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. He was famished. Later when he is facing the cross he goes to the Garden of Gethsemane and asks God if there is some way to accomplish his mission without going through the horrible pain of the cross. Is there, he asks, some other way to avoid the fate that lay before him. No. “Not my will but they will be done.”
Those who follow Jesus are called to live a way of life that calls us to live in the ways of the new world God is creating instead of the old world around us. Suffering may take the form of actual persecution. Even in the tolerant modern Western world people can suffer discrimination because of their commitment to Jesus Christ. People tell me of the hostile environment for Christians at work. They are told to keep their beliefs and convictions to themselves.

Suffering comes in many forms: illness, bereavement, moral dilemmas, poverty, tragedy, accident and death. A pastor friend of mine, Paul Machori, will be heading back to Kenya this week. Paul is placing himself in the middle of tribal warfare in his home village. He believes the only way to stop the ehtnic violence is for people of faith being willing to stand tall and even suffer death. Someone has to stand tall and suffer in order for others to see the folly of their ways.
Nobody reading the Nwe Testament or the Christian literature of the first 3 centuries could have accused the early Christians of painting too rosy a picture of what life would be like for those who follow Jesus. But the point here is that it is precisely when we are suffering that we can confidently expect the sprite to be with us.
Jesus was led by the spirit into the dessert and he overcame all temptation. He prepared himself and he stod corageously against the wiles of the Devil.
Americans it seems don’t want to sacrifice for a common goal. It is okay for someone else to sacrifice so they don’t have to. Our people decided to fight a War in Iraq while at the same time giving massive tax cuts. The sacrifices of the war are being bore solely by the military families...and of course our grandchildren who will have to pay for the debt we are racking up.

Back to the American automakers and the false myth they are producing that we can have superior fuel economy without sacrificing comfort, power and performance. There is this firm conviction that technology will solve all our problems. don't make tough choices. Don't tell people they need to change. Technology will solve the problems. Innocation will cure all that ails us.
A man bought a car with GPS. Being technologically challenged, he excitedly asked the machine. How do I get to Carnegie hall? The GPS instantly replied, “Practice, practice. Practice."