Sunday, August 23, 2015

Grant Us Wisdom Grant Us Courage

5At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, ‘Ask what I should give you.’ 6And Solomon said, ‘You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart towards you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. 7And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. 8And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. 9Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?’ 10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this.[I Kings 5-10 NRSV]

The above was read in churches following the Revised Common Lectionary last weekend (August 17, 2015, 12th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B) and it has been poking me all week ever since.

Some scattered thoughts about this story from the Hebrew Scriptures:

It takes humility to ask for wisdom. To ask for it assumes the lack of it. We don't pray enough about wisdom, I think. I worry it's because we think we don't need to.

Maybe "wisdom" isn't a helpful word right now.  It has come to mean "smart," and that isn't necessarily the same thing. In fact, the NRSV doesn't use the word "wisdom" but "understanding." Solomon asks for "an understanding mind." Perhaps we need to remember Solomon's prayer when we are not understanding.

There are a number of things in my personal life that I'm really quite confused about. There's a lot happening on social and political fronts that look like a lot of angry confusion (and some angry clarity, perhaps, but a lot of confusion). We don't know how to talk to each other. We don't know how to negotiate peace between us. I think we need to find the humility to admit we don't understand and ask for it, in our religious and spiritual communities, and in our own personal lives. Solomon's prayer should give us pause, bring us back to some sense that we don't have all the answers.

I'm even feeling confusion about how to talk about this beyond this broad outline. I want to say things about #BlackLivesMatter and the 2016 presidential race and about famous pedophiles and famous adulterers. The daily (hourly?) news gives us something to comment on.

But I admit, I lack a certain amount of understanding about all these things, even as I have very strong feelings about all of them.

One of our hymns last Sunday was a favorite of mine, "God of Grace and God of Glory." It was obviously chosen to go along with the Hebrew scripture reading with it's refrain of "Grant us wisdom, grant us courage."

I'm going to close with an admission that I'm feeling like I am sorely lacking in both. It's time  to pray.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Richard Allen: a Brief Consideration of History

Doctrinally, Allen remained a lifelong Methodist, but after 1815 he was known officially as Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, rather than, say, as African Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church. And that distinction is significant: if the universality of the Christian gospel was as comprehensive as the Methodists proclaimed it to be, if in fact they believed that in "Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, but all are one," then there would be no need for segregated worship facilities. The churches, however, were segregated and black members were denied full participation in ways that reflected the racial attitudes of their social environment. It was to overcome such immediate, humiliating oppression that Allen walked out in protest from white St. George's Methodist Church to organize a separate African denomination, and not because of any doctrinal reservations he had about Methodism. [Segregated Sabbaths by Carol V.R. George, Oxford University Press, 1973; p. 6]

The above quote is quoted in a Church History paper I wrote in 1992 while in seminary. This paper came to mind (and I was miraculously able to find a copy of it in my files) after I read a blog posted on Facebook by a friend. That blog, in turn, linked to this Pew Research report on racial diversity among religious groups. It's a troubling report. My beloved Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (even though I'm currently a member of an Episcopal congregation) is at the bottom of the list with 96% white membership. (The Episcopal Church does slightly better with 90%, but that's not that much better and makes the the recent election of their first Black Presiding Bishop all the more remarkable, but I'm digressing badly.)

I can't tell you what, exactly, was in the Embracing My Shadow blog post that sent me to my archives to find my church history paper from over 20 years ago, but I knew I wanted to get a reminder of what I once knew about the racial divisions within the American church and I remembered the paper.

What I didn't remember was that my paper was more than just a biographical sketch of Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was written out of my interest in a then new push within the ELCA to get 10% of the national membership to be of non-European-descent (by a date I don't recall at this moment, but I'm pretty sure we're well past that deadline and we've obviously failed in that goal).

I had been a voting member at the 1991 Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA, and during discussion of this initiative I remember one distinct voice that haunted me and no doubt led me to research the AME Church for my church history paper at a Lutheran Seminary. An older gentleman, I want to say he gave his age as being over 70, Black, came to the microphone to speak. As I recall, he identified as a life-long Lutheran ad that he loved his church. He was also tired of being counted. I can only guess at what he meant by that now, over 20 years later, but the feeling he left me with was that he wanted to be seen as Lutheran, not a trophy member to be presented as evidence of something we don't want to name so blatantly but really boils down to, "hey, look, we have some Black members, we can't be that racist."

Re-reading my paper, which wasn't that great of a paper, I was a bit surprised that my slant was that Richard Allen left the Methodists not because he wanted to be other than Methodist. Unlike nearly every other schism in the long history of Christan schisms, the break from the white Methodists wasn't over doctrine or church government. Apparently, most of the people who left with Allen were content with the worship and governance forms. They left because the white hierarchy did not live up to the gospel they heard, particularly the promise of "neither Jew nor Greek, neitehr bond nor free."

These divisions still run through our current church life, obviously, but I don't hear the division spoken of in this way, the contrast of the schism between Black and white churches and the schism between, say, the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church.

There's a lot of talk these days about the manifest racism---or more to the point, white supremacy---in the current American culture. I've written about it before and likely will again, but tonight I want us Christians to really think on the segregation of the churches, what we really believe (or don't) about Paul's words about "neither/nor," how we have inherited all kinds of attitudes that make that still an unfulfilled promise.

One true thing I may have said as I discussed the ELCA's desire to convert non-white people to Lutheranism is in this next-to-last-sentence of the paper: "Perhaps the lesson here is to convert Lutherans so that racial bias becomes a thing of the past."

White Christians: Repent. We have a lot of history to turn away from.

Come Holy Spirit and lead us away from the sins that drove our brothers and sisters to form separate churches. Unite us in the love we claim to profess. Amen.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Fear, Humility, Lack, and Sorrow

The only daily devotional reading I've ever managed to keep regularly had been somehow related to the Desert Fathers. For about the last year, I've been using By Way of the Desert, a book of readings from the Abbas, paired (sometimes, I daresay, capriciously) with a verse or three of scripture. It's a good way for me to touch base with my desert heroes, some days revisiting old familiar sayings, other days finding things I'd either forgotten or overlooked before. Today's was the latter:

Euprepius blessed us with this benediction: May fear, humility, lack of food and Godly sorrow be with you.

What kind of blessing is this? Who thinks this is any kind of "good word" (benediction)?

Among ascetics, who practice fasting and hold humility as the highest virtue, it makes a bit more sense, but I'm not really interested in unpacking all that tonight. Not directly.

 The word that leaps out at me is "fear." I'm not even going to try to guess what Eupreprius was talking about some 1,500 years ago (give or take a few decades). I can tell you what I have experienced just this week alone.

I have heard two different women, African American, one I know, one I was with in a writers' workshop this afternoon and only just met, both expressing fear at driving their car, a heightened vigilance at their speed, at their use of turn signals, at  having all proper insurance paperwork and whatnot up-to-date and with them. The driving references are directly related, of course, to the recent (unlawful) arrest and in-custody death of Sandra Bland. If that had been the only incident in recent memory, they might not have felt quite this fearful, but the last year has seen so many high profile incidents of violent death on Black bodies by police officers, well, who can blame them? I'm a little afraid for my black friends and acquaintances, too. Add in the string of burned black churches, the shooting at a black church, and all the resistance to relegating the Confederacy to the history books---if we are to receive fear as a blessing, some cups are running over.

The Abbas probably received this word as a reference to "fear of the Lord" (a tightly packed phrase itself) or maybe even of sin and hell. They likely also received the blessing of humility, want, and sorrow as a way of practicing their faith that kept them mindful of other people's lack and loss and also of their fundamental reliance on God.

What I'm fairly certain of is that fear can only be a blessing if we choose to respect the things beyond our understanding, not if it is sourced in terrorist tactics. Humility is a virtue only if practiced by choice, that to be humbled by oppression is not humility at all. Fasting may bring blessings, starvation only desperation. Godly sorrow, if it does not bring us to empathy and action for others who weep, is not Godly at all and more likely than not results only in crushing a person's spirit.

There are any number of disciplines we might take on to help us in our faith, in deepening our relationship and reliance on God. Demanding any of these disciplines on someone lacking in freedom to do otherwise wrecks relationships of all kinds.

In light of these friends' and acquaintances' expressions of fear for their own safety in this current environment of racial terrorism, I cannot hear Eupreprius' benediction without feeling the need to amend with these words:

 . . . and woe to you if you visit any of these on another human being.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Dickensian

It's the best of times. It's the worst of times.

While waiting for this past weekend's Pride Parade to start, I briefly chatted with the rector of our congregation. We were, of course, all high on the Supreme Court's decision to make marriage equality the law of the land, but I couldn't help myself. I noted that the previous two weeks had seen the best and the worst of the United States broadcast loudly across the world. 

I was referring to the horrific shootings at the prayer meeting in Charleston. (The shooter prayed with them for an hour before he did it! Seldom do I use "bad language" with as much conviction as I did when I heard that detail.)

My rector briefly spoke about the ways the Episcopal Church needs to make real confession and repentance of their part in racist America---something she repeated in the next morning's sermon, bringing up how the Episcopal Church was funded in part by slave trade in it's early American years.

We like to think this is something that happened long ago, but it's still playing out. I think the spiritual scars of something like slavery is passed on for a few generations.

Most importantly, it's not going to go away by good white people pretending they're past it, that they "don't see color," that they do their part by not actively oppressing anyone.

I know because I live most of my life trying to pretend all that. It's easy to do. When you're white, privileged, it's easy to pretend that everyone shares your ease in life. It's jarring to be reminded it isn't working.

It isn't working because a 21 year old man is still filled with hate for people of color, enough so to shoot up a church room full of them.

It isn't working because over half a dozen traditionally Black churches have burned down in the last two weeks.

It isn't working because people still defend flying the flag of a slavery nation, there are still people saying things were better before desegregation, there are still people wanting us to believe that slavery "wasn't that bad."

I don't know exactly what to do next, but I know everything done up to now isn't nearly enough. Everything done up to now isn't working.

Celebrating good things is a good thing. Celebrating marriage equality is good, and I do. I believe we should celebrate when we celebrate, without apology or hesitation. There are good things in the world.

AND

And it's time to get serious about repentance. Confession and repentance, but particularly repentance. Confession is not much good if we don't actively turn away from the things we confess. Turning away from all the ways we adhere to the systems of terror and death and oppression and fear . . . this is not accomplished with simple confession and a word of forgiveness!

People mired in their hate are not going to hear this. I won't even pretend to be talking to them.

I'm talking to the good white people out there who get along fine with their Black co-workers and invite the Black kids to their kids birthday parties. I'm talking to the fine white people who really want to move into a post-racial society and think they can do so because they don't experience racism. I'm talking to people who just don't want to make anyone uncomfortable with all this talk about race, least of all themselves.

I'm talking to people like me.

It's going to be hard work. It's so easy to go with the flow of white privilege when you have it. It's so hard to speak up when you see racism in action before your eyes, so easy to pretend that maybe something else is going on, not just that person is getting the raw deal because they have more melanin than I do.

It's the best of times and it is also the very scariest worst of times. We're on a road to some kind of hell and while I endorse celebrating what is good in the world, we need to be careful that we don't party while the fires rise up around us, destroying us before everyone can celebrate.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

NES: The Last Person

[NES---Not Exactly Systematic---is an indefinite and unexpectedly infrequent series of more theological writings within Crumbs at the Feast. I've made a goal of reading heavier theology in 2015, and these entries are a result of those readings.]


Co-equal. Co-eternal. Inseparable, yet distinct. Fully this while also fully that.

Father, Son, Holy Spirit—three yet, one. First Person, Second Person, Third Person of the Trinity. That order.

When I began my readings on the Holy Spirit, I did so with a notion that it was this Third Person that we might most intimately know, might have the most interaction with in our spiritual lives. As I've read, I've started thinking the Holy Spirit has as much claim to being the First as the Third.

The last shall be first, yes?

+ + + + +

"God is Spirit," the Incarnation said. This is John's Jesus, the most self-assured and self-aware Jesus of the canonical gospels. Granted, a developed Trinitarian theology wouldn't emerge for two or three centuries, so we can forgive Jesus for not elaborating on the relationship. We only have from John that the Father sent Jesus, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit, and the Father is Spirit.

It seems to me that you can begin anywhere in that circle and wind up with the same stories. To number the dramatis personae seems futile and, really, unnecessary.

+ + + + +

The Holy Spirit is said to have many attributes. Helper. Comforter, Advocate. My preacher friends often speak of the Spirit as muse, noting her presence or absence in their sermon preparation. Others attribute fortuitous meetings or events to be the working of the Holy Spirit, casting her as a sort of agent of destiny. There's a managerial aspect to the Holy Spirit, distributing talents to everyone, from drawing pictures to engineering to glossalalia. The Holy Spirit is associated with a loss of control, the source of spontaneous praise, prophecy, or other ecstatic expression.

I would not deny any of these.

For the purposes of this formulation of the Trinity, however, for my little experiment of placing the Holy Spirit as "first person," I submit that the primary attribute of the Holy Spirit is revelation.

+ + + + +

When, as a child, I had an experience of God's omnipresence in my backyard—God in the grass, God in the crepe myrtle and pecan trees, God in the clouds and in all the spaces in between—what words should I use to describe it? Should I say I met the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit?

As I grew and slowed down the confirmation classes with my questions, who should I say was leading me into the pursuit of knowledge and understanding?

Which Person called me into seminary to study theology? Later, who called me into further study of the arts?

The correct question, I suppose, would be the indivisible Triune God, for where one is, three are. But experientially? I cannot say I met a resurrected Jesus who instructed me to meet him in Chicago. A stronger case might be made for the Father, who rears us, instructs us, guides us in the ways that we should go.

Still, experientially, all these instances have the essence of breath. This breath inspired certain actions or paths. My course feels driven by a metaphorical wind in my metaphorical sales, pushing me toward places I didn't always plan or expect.

God is Spirit. Pneuma. Ruach. Wind. Breath.

+ + + + +

What I am getting at is this: Whatever I may think, believe, experience about Jesus or a heavenly Father is not so much from having known them in a direct way. I begin to believe that the Holy Spirit is the starting place for all knowledge and understanding about God. What we know of the God of the Hebrew scriptures, who we must assume is the God Jesus called Father, comes to us via writers who wrote under the inspiration of the Spirit. We may approach Jesus as a man who taught and lived in an exemplary way, but it is the inspiration of the spirit that leads us to see the divine nature of this man from Nazareth. It takes the movement of the Spirit in our lives to inspire us to believe, it takes that inspiration—closely linked to imagination, too—to see the other two figures of the Triune God.

Hence, while the Holy Spirit comes third in our Triune formulations and, indeed, in the narrative of scripture, I begin to see the Spirit as the "person" of first contact with the divine. That anything of God is revealed to us is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is the revelation that inspires our faith and the way we live our lives.

[Next NES---ousia and hypostasis!]


Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter Day 2015

The Reign of God is like a misty, grey Easter morning on which, if you turn your head the right direction, you find there is color that you've been overlooking.


Saturday, April 4, 2015

Things To Do While Waiting For the Resurrection (Holy Saturday 2015]

Have doubts. Think about all the ways this is a huge disappointment, how it doesn't "work" or "play out" the way you expect or hope or think it should.

Make breakfast.

Remember the times you tried to leave all this mythology and superstition behind.

Water the plants.

Try to remember why you returned. Try to make sense of all the ways this has lead to more disappointment and hurt.

Pet the cat. Often. Repeat.

Forget it's a day of sadness and somber reflection and laugh at something inappropriate.

Notice the sink of dishes. Note there's time in the day to get to that later. 

Forget that you want to be pious and reverent and holy.

Notice how bad your toenails look and be embarrassed about letting someone get a close look at them last Thursday.

Feel remorse for acting pious, reverent, and holy.

Play another game or 10 of spider solitaire.

Wonder how you'd be spending the weekend if you'd grown up in a Muslim family.

Eat peanut butter straight from the jar.

Try to put yourself in the place of people who have left the faith, who are not thinking about Jesus today or hardly ever, who seem to live fully functioning lives without religious services of any sort.

Notice that picture in your Facebook feed that causes you to pause and long and lust and shrug it off as you scroll on.

Reason! Science! All lack of spiritual feeling! Contemplate these and all other arguments against the faith to which you seem inextricably tied. 

Be disappointed when you scroll back up and click on the link with the hot photo.

Realize that you're going to get up way early tomorrow for a service that you'd rather was happening tonight, but this is the community you've joined and so you're going to go with that flow.

Shower.

Realize that Jesus is one of the few things for which you will get up so early. (Other things have been surgeries and film shoots. Compare and contrast.)

Decide that after the shower you will go buy a dress shirt that fits so you can dress up for the Resurrected Lord.

Prepare to present yourself, full of doubt and nonsense and lust and cat hair, to the community you call the Body of the Resurrected Lord. Prepare to sing songs. Prepare to watch someone get splashed with water and wonder if they know what they're getting into.

Say a word of thanks.

Among other things.