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.