Thursday, February 26, 2009

Christ in the Center

Last Sunday, we sang: "Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, Felt in the days when hope unborn had died; Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet Come to the place for which our fathers sighed? We have come over a way that with tears has been watered; We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered. Out of the gloomy past, til now we stand at last Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast."
The words of James Weldon Johnson still echo; but their power is in their vision. In the midst of the time when black soldiers who had tasted the basic dignity given them in France but denied them in the land of their birth were being lynched in record numbers, Johnson still saw that progress had been made. The path was hard, painful, and marked by the blood of those who had died walking it-- but Johnson directs our eyes not to the path, nor to the cost, but to the destination, "where the white gleam of our bright star is cast."
There is a bright star-- the brightest star in the sky-- that is still guiding us, even through the stormy night of these days of dissension, decline, and depression. We all want to be like the children in Johnson's hymn, coming to the place for which those who went before us sighed. But as I look, I think we are the generation that has sighing to do-- longing for a new and different church, a changed culture and world.
I sigh for Christ in the center of us-- Christ in our hearts and minds, where all those of us who have watched human love fail and die love one another as brothers and sisters from the heart, not with human sympathy, empathy or compassion, but with the love of Christ Himself. I sigh for a day when I will greet everyone who acknowledges Christ's claim on them as family, even if we do not worship the same, we do not look the same.
I sigh for a day when this culture will look at those who follow Jesus Christ and say, "see how they love each other!" I sigh for a day when every man, woman, and child who encounters the Church will experience a radical love, a clear eye, an open hand, a living sacrifice. I sigh for a day when we will argue our disagreements and dissensions on our knees before the cross, with hands and hearts open to God and therefore open to one another.
If my life's blood is only useful for being poured out to mark the path that others behind me will tread, so be it. I want my children's feet to come to the place for which I sigh. The journey will be long and hard-- and its hardness is already pretty well impressed upon me.
I've only ever seen one Broadway show-- but it is my favorite. At the end of Les Miserables, all those who have sacrificed their lives for something, Someone greater than themselves sing behind the veil, and it lifts, and they sing to the audience: "Who will join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me? Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?"
Can we not put Christ so in the center of our lives that we can join in His work-- that we can see the place for which we sigh? Is it not enough to spend a lifetime struggling, suffering, sacrificing to move one step closer? Who will walk that path with me?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Random Conclusions

I have always been impatient; perhaps now is not the time to be drawing conclusions. But I've seen, heard, and read enough to know a few things for certain:
1) We shall have to live with one another, no matter what happens. There is no escape from the conflict over human sexuality. We cannot create hermetically sealed churches and denominations where we do not have to acknowledge one another's existence. Even if we could do this, we are only feeding the secularizing atheism that our intransigence spawned in this culture in the first place. If Christians can't love those who say they are Christians, how can we love the drug addict-- the prostitute-- the sinner looking for love, not knowing they are looking for Christ?
2) We are too proud to stop feeding our anger. Mark Twain said, "temper gets us into trouble, but pride keeps us there." No one wants to be the first to admit they don't actually have all the answers, are not just victimized, but also victimizer. We hang on to our bloody shirts, recounting the wounds inflicted upon us, and will not accept the simple truth that the bloody shirt waved in our faces by the one arguing against us is as real as ours is. Pride keeps us asleep so that the nightmare simply plays on. No one wants to wake up.
3) No side will "win." If anything should have taught us this, the reawakening of the Gnostic heresy after almost 2 millenia should have. One side "won;" the other side buried their texts rather than doing as they were commanded and destroying them. But Gnosticism never totally died because it appeals strongly to human pride and human thought. Even if the church police had burned every copy of the Gospel of Thomas, its basic teachings would still be knocking around the churches of the world. If a conflict 2,000 years old in the church is not solvable by law/violence, how likely is it that this conflict can be erased with the same tools? Those who hope for triumph constantly point to slavery, and say, "see, we passed a law and it stopped. The Bible is wrong-- slavery can be eradicated." And there are more slaves in the world right now than there were in 1860-- when millions in Brazil, the United States, and Russia were still in legal servitude. The fight against slavery will go on as long as there are three human beings on the planet-- slavery is a fundamental expression of human will and human power. No law can perfect the human heart. Those whose hope is in a conclusion will always be disappointed until Christ returns.
4) Since the Garden of Eden, there never has been an era of easy peace. We keep harking back to good old days, when it seemed that conflict wasn't there. But the golden age of the 1950's is the era of Joe McCarthy, of the ramped-up violence of those who tried to nip the Civil Rights movement in the bud. Those years only look peaceful and happy because the 50's were compared to the 30's and 40's-- and almost anything would look peaceful and happy in that comparison. Living out our faith in Christ is a constant daily struggle individually and collectively. It has always been thus, and it always will be.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Being a Minority: Celebrating Being Different

The church, my church history professor used to say, was run by "good little boys and girls" who enjoyed following and enforcing rules. At the time, I remember thinking that his comment was a little harsh-- but after 20 years, I'd have to concede that he had a point.

Church can be a lot like high school-- only you never graduate: peer pressure rules all, and leaders are simply those who have the natural or delegated authority to enforce what peer pressure decrees.

Maybe that's why this course of being a minority comes more naturally to me-- I never fit into the mold of my peers. Every minority struggles with this same reality. We are the natural exceptions to the rules-- rule-breakers by our just being who we are. And in a culture where breaking the rules is the worst form of behavior, we easily find ourselves on the outside looking in.

This experience is frighteningly new to the good little boys and girls of conservative/evangelical conviction in the PC(USA). It is rather like the quarterback and the head cheerleader being shunned-- those who have without a thought assumed a position of power are forced to think by such turns of events.

The major mind shift that must occur is to embrace the gift of being different, even if--especially if!-- the majority shuns you. I had a chance to visit a foreign land a couple of months ago at a very prestigious country club north of the Trinity. The co-chair of the PNC that called me to OCPC had been invited, and as usual gave me a chance to go with her. She loves to introduce me as her "other" son, and watch the confusion as people look at me (so caucasion my skin is almost transparent), and look back at her, beautiful and black.

We walked into a group of people I would have rather run away from, and she simply began introducing herself. In each pair of eyes read the words, "who are you and what are you doing here?" And Opal simply smiled and talked normally to them, meeting their unspoken peer pressure with the assurance, "here I am. I am me. I am different, and I'm proud of being different." She didn't ask their permission-- she didn't need it. We weren't there to disrupt anything; we weren't trying to cause a scene. We were just being who we are.

So, conservative/evangelical brothers and sisters, it is our turn to be different. There's no need to make a scene, or respond to the spoken or unspoken peer pressure around us. Just smile, take your place at the table and be who Christ is calling you to be.

It's amazing how liberating it can be, even for good boys and girls, to learn that conformity is just another passing human power. If we just take responsibility for our own discipline and demonstrate a different way of living in the midst of people who do not like it or understand what we are doing, we may have done more for the cause of Christ than all that we have ever preached or taught.

Our real witness to Christ is not what we say or what position we hold. Our real witness is who we are. Christ has made all the difference in my life-- I am not who I was. If that makes me stand out awkwardly, I hope to be able to summon Opal's grace and calmly BE what Christ has made me.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Testing, Testing: Howling is a Given

One of the hardest lessons I have ever had to learn as a pastor is that people will not only not like me, but may hate me when I follow what I believe Christ is calling me to do. We in the pastor's union too often have all the backbone of a chocolate eclair, as Teddy Roosevelt once put it.

There are a couple of things to clarify about yesterday's post: one person said, "I do not agree with your conclusions" because that person stands in the "other camp." I am not drawing conclusions; I am walking out into no-man's land. You can doubt my motives-- but you cannot doubt my action. I am seeking a means to move forward, and stepping out to a place in the middle where I can stand. All I am asking is to see if you can step out to where you can stand, and if we can reach each other across that distance.

This is not a fix-- it is not a resolution. It is a means to go forward together. Resolution may not come for generations, just as it will not come quickly or easily across the scarred divisions of race in our country. Someone's got to begin the healing process. It is the task of our time to begin-- my children's children may have the joy of seeing the conclusion, whatever God will ordain that to be.

Another person said, "but the shouters will keep shouting, the litigators keep litigating..." Yes, yes. This work must be begun in the midst of much verbal violence. It is not the first time, nor will it be the last.

My hero is Connie, and all those like her who were willing at 8 years old to walk through a wall of hate to find a new future for themselves. In his book, "The Spiritual Life of Children," Robert Coles lets her tell her story: "I was all alone, and those [segregationist] people were screaming, and suddenly I saw God smiling and I smiled. A woman was standing there [near the school door] and she shouted at me, 'HEY you little nigger, what you smiling at?' I looked right at her face and I said, 'at God.' Then she looked up at the sky, and then she looked at me, and she didn't call me any more names."

Both sides have their yellers-- both sides have their names to call each other. There are segregationists of left and right in this conflict-- those who want to impose their way on the whole. I'm going to walk down the middle toward the future that the Lord has in store for us-- finding that future is the only thing that will make God smile. All I'm looking for is someone who can step toward me close enough that we can hold hands and walk the gauntlet together. Any takers?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Testing, Testing: A Route to Coexistence

I feel called to raise this trial balloon-- let's see if it flies. Evangelicals and Progressives in the PC(USA) are struggling for dominance; if we are to look for a path to coexistence with our differing points of view on human sexuality, I believe that several strands of thought need to weave together:
  • We must accept that we are a minority-- ALL of us, whatever side we take in the current disputes-- inside this culture. The culture and the church are no longer coexistential, if they ever truly were. We follow the Christ the head of the church, not the culture.
  • None of us truly knows what God is up to in this time. We all have our guesses, our timelines, and our storylines that prove that we were right all along. But no one really knows God's timeline or storyline. God is going to have to sort this out in God's own time.
  • We have to start finding ways to move toward each other, instead of doing the easy thing, which is lobbing bombs and rallying "us" to fight "them."

So, a path to coexistence probably has a good chance of being rejected by both Left and Right; it will not necessarily be acceptable culturally. The only people who will find it are people who are willing to look for it; the only way to look for it is to look together, "us" and "them;" and both the looking, and the uncomfortable coexistence, are going to last for an indeterminate amount of time. I am ready to accept these realities, coming from the evangelical side of the PC(USA).

So, with those ground rules, I move toward those who disagree with this idea: let issues of sexuality and ordination be issues of church discipline; and let us make our peace that church discipline will be exercised at different levels in different cases in different places.

What does this mean? It means an acceptance of the people shaped by the culture that we live in, without making undue accomodation to that culture. An example is divorce. We accept that people divorce in this culture, even though Jesus is overtly condemning of the practice. But that acceptance of divorced people into ordained office is done person-by-person, not always with the same results. There are persons who will be ordained despite being divorced, and there will be persons who are not ordained because they are divorced. Decisions are made pastorally by those upon whom the spiritual responsibility of deciding has been placed. In some places, divorce may never be seen as an issue in ordination, while in others, it is always an issue.

But if the Church should declare that a service celebrating divorce shall be offered, that divorce is a gift of God, and that there is no sin in divorce, the issue of divorce has moved from a matter of church discipline into a question of whether divorce is a positive good. If the PC(USA) were to mandate such a change, I-- and I believe a lot of others concerned with following the Scriptures-- would not be able in good conscience to comply.

Let differing bodies exercise their responsibility to discipline and decide as God leads them; let those who disagree with their decisions have a place at the table. Let conscience on both sides be held in peace, and let Jesus Christ the head of the Church judge the work of each in His time, as He will. But for this path to work, issues of sexuality and ordination must remain matters of church discipline.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Living as a Minority: the Future for all Americans

Sometimes I wonder why no one argues with me in the comments on these blogs. I figure that most of the few who read these must think either a) there is nothing much to disagree with here or b) that what is here is so hopelessly wrong/irrelevant that there's no point.

But the point of talking about looking at life from a minority status is not only relevant for evangelicals in the PC(USA), it is also the future for all Americans, no matter what pidgeon-hole the census puts you in. Within 20 years, there will be no majority culture in the USA; our country will, for the first time in its history, become a marketplace of minority cultures.

And the people who are most unready for this transition are the keepers of Anglo culture-- the mainline and other traditional churches. We are being challenged at the very base of who we believe we are: are we white/gay/black/hispanic Christians, or Christians who happen to be white/gay/black/hispanic? And the whole history of the church in this country condemns us to living out the same hyphenated existence, with Christ on the wrong side (the second-priority side) of the hyphen.

The test of whether Christ is on the right side is what we are willing to give up of our cultural heritage to live for Jesus Christ. Because of Christendom's poisonous compromises, most white Christians still make the same deadly assumptions so many missionaries did in the last centuries: surrender to Christ means that others become like us. It is this toxic majoritarian mindset that is killing us. To become like Jesus means that I, too, just like everybody else He calls, must leave home.

So, what would YOU be willing to give up to follow Jesus Christ with your brothers and sisters who don't look/speak/act like you? Is there any identity that is more important to you than your identity in Christ? Can you let that identity go?

That is the question that is before us-- shall we become once again "the third race" of our apostolic beginnings, neither Jew nor Greek, yet both Jew and Greek-- ONE in Christ Jesus?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Living as a Minority: Trade No One Evil for Evil

Retaliation is always justified in the mind of the retaliator. Insult or injury was given, so insult or injury must be returned. But as Mahatma Ghandi once said, "trading an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." For a minority, though, because we have fewer eyes, we go blind faster. And blind rage is the ultimate prison for the human soul.

I marvel at my heroes and heroines for their self-control in the face of persecution-- for their smiles at hate-filled faces, their kind words spoken into the high-decibel screaming of the culture they were born into. There are a few synthetic strands in their learning and their teaching, and the power of self-control is one of them.

To exert such self-control, one must know who one is; one must be able to stay within the bounds of what one can stand, and one must at the same time not cease to reach out to the offender, no matter how they respond.

The only way for a minority to win at the zero-sum games of worldly power is not to play-- and if one is forced to play, not to play by the world's rules. Jesus Christ taught this first and best (Thoreau, Ghandi, and King were only good students). Asymmetrical response throws off the plan of the aggressor, and forces thought to occur before violence can continue. Self-control defends that silent space/time for the aggressor to fully appreciate the humanity of his/her victim, and the true moral character of the action. Turn the other cheek is not simply a way of giving a new target-- by refraining from retaliation, the person who is the target gains the moral upper hand. To hit again, the aggressor must own the aggression.

This doesn't stop aggression-- Christ was crucified, after all. But in God's time, the blood of the martyrs becomes the seed of a renewed Church.

We are willing to speak for Christ, but we are not willing to bleed for Him. We are willing to give of ourselves in His service, but we are unwilling to give ourselves wholly to His service. Jesus does not need new members of His Church-- He needs witnesses to His glory. The word "martyr" comes from the Greek word, "witness." That is what Jesus Christ is asking us to be.

My heroes and heroines were raised to be witnesses to Jesus Christ. The harsh majority could not strip them of the noble dignity with which He clothed them. Victor Frankl wrote that everything can be taken from a man except one thing: his response to the insult or injury. That cannot be coerced or controlled. There is nothing in being a minority that can strip from us our ability to witness to Jesus Christ.

Nothing will stop me from declaring His praise, from preaching repentance as preparation for His coming Kingdom, or from loving every person as He has loved me. No one ever will stop me, as long as there is breath in my body.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Living as a Minority: Reach Out and Live, Pull In and Die

Health in all living things is a balance, where our immune system can push back with equal force against the creatures that would destroy or compromise our ability to function. The same is true in groups of people: health is a balance between the group's ability to reach beyond itself to the larger world, and its need to maintain its own cohesion. Groups grow when they can spend more time reaching out than on internal cohesion; they shrink and die when they spend more time on internal cohesion than they do in communication with the rest of the world.

The fact that these posts are incoherent to someone who does not know the struggles of the PC(USA) I think pretty clearly demonstrates where all our energy has gone these last 40 years. It is no accident that there are half as many of us as there were 40 years ago. We have so lost the ability to cohere that we have not even noticed that the world has changed. We are a 21 st century Rip Van Winkle, tripping over a beard that we're not used to being there, angry that the people whose names we are calling are gone, the customs of dress and conversation make us feel as if we are strangers in the land of our birth.

We conservative/evangelicals in and beyond the PC(USA) seem the most incensed and uncomprehending. We react in fear and anger to the world's bewildering ability to dismiss and belittle us, to walk its own path and ignore what we say. The temptation is to pull in behind strong walls, to rigidly enforce conformity within, and to expel and shoot those who look like/sound like they are from without. Groups, like individuals, have a survival instinct. Minority survival instinct is to pull in and defend the perimeter. Better to be safe than sorry.

But there is no future in safety. The walls built for safety harden into a shell that cannot be penetrated, and the Gospel meant for the whole world becomes the idiosyncratic cultural tic of a group of people whose oddity makes them incomprehensible to the vast majority of the world. Minorities walled off from the majority simply become new variations on the Amish theme.

To be African-American in America is to live with the tension implied in the hyphenated word. It is to be part of what easily can become two entirely separate worlds: a cultural world which, at 10-15% of the population, is and will always be a minority, while also being among those who by simple seniority (the average African-American family has been here almost 200 years longer than the average European-American family) have the deepest claims to the identity of the whole.

To reach out to the majority requires a confidence in common identity that enables the group to know what can be compromised, and what cannot. It requires a courage that masters the fears that never truly subside: fear of the group's death, its loss of identity-- that mixing will dilute it into oblivion.

The strength of these fears is the real reason why, as Martin Luther King, Jr. preached in his last regular Sunday sermon at the National Cathedral, that "11:00 on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America." It takes an intense courage and a deep faith to trust enough in the love of Christ to give up one's identity to culture and pick up one's identity in Christ.

I stand in awe of my heroes and heroines here at OCPC, who were willing to challenge us to meet them in the middle; I give thanks to my fellow Anglo faithful, who were willing to let go of what was the native cultural inheritance of this part of the Body of Christ to meet them in the middle. My hope and prayer is that somehow, we can do the same thing with the cultural/theological conflicts that beset us now. But both sides must be willing to reach out, recognizing that relationship requires both to lose in order to love.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Living as a Minority: Know Your Boundaries

One of the hardest realities of being a minority is that the majority has a thousand ways to hurt you, and you have but two or three ways to defend yourself. The most important defense that must be continually deployed is to know where your pain threshold is, and to withdraw when it gets hit. Minorities end up on the fringes of the majority because that is where there is enough freedom and enough space to be able to heal up from the wounds that are all too often mindlessly inflicted.

When we were in construction phase in 2004, one of the last subcontractors I had to deal with came to put in a condenser unit. He was no more than 25, with red hair and an aggressive attitude in dealing with people he didn't know. His conversational tic was that he called all men he ran into "young man" when he encountered them.

Now, at 40 years old, I wasn't wild about being called "young man." But I wanted the job done, so I just smiled and went on with showing him what he was dealing with. We were in the kitchen, looking at the main breaker panels in the storage room, and Crumpton walked in to tell me something. Our subcontractor looked at him and said, "Hello, young man--" and Crumpton spun around on his heel and walked very quickly out the door.

The only alternative was to tear that young man a new hole. There are a few boundaries you don't cross with my heroes, especially. Don't ever even get close to calling any of them "boy." It is too painful and angering to live with the memory of being diminished for so long, that anyone who gets near that wound will set off an explosion of anger that is not containable.

Crumpton not only left the kitchen, he left the building. He knew that he needed time and space to recover, because a boundary had been mindlessly violated. When he returned, no discussion was had; he just went on with what he had to do, and he stayed away from the real young man who was now outside the kitchen working.

Living as a minority means that self-care is the most essential component of self-control-- we have to know what we cannot tolerate, and push back from it before we explode. The majority is not responsible to care for us; they will not, human beings being what we are. We must care for ourselves enough to be able to set and keep boundaries that enable us to be constructive when we can, and absent when we cannot.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Living as a Minority: You Must Know Who You Are

We are not that far removed from a world that believed that dark skin meant few brain cells. The residual effects of that prejudice still linger, but in nothing like the strength they held in the Anglo community 50 years ago.

It was in that world that so many of my heroes and heroines here at OCPC grew up. They are the generation that made Barack Obama's life possible. And everywhere, they were a minority, surrounded not by an indifferent, but a hostile majority.

And each of them tells a similar story of what they internalized in the midst of real persecution, and emotional and physical intimidation and violence: you cannot let white people tell you who you are. You have to know who you are so deeply, so strongly, that no person however important, powerful, or intimidating, can change it. You must know who you are no matter how many people deny it, no matter what facts they have to prove it.

Every one of my heroes knows who they are. In the world I grew up in, knowing who you were was a minor obstacle: it meant that you weren't pliant enough to fit into the environment. Majoritarian thinking is always asking, "what does everybody else think/feel/want?" This is death for the minority; the majority always believes it is right/beautiful/normal/appropriate. The minority must be the exception to their rules.

To be an exception, and to be an exception for a lifetime, one must be exceptional. One must be willing to be a living infraction of the rules, and one must be able to do that with grace. That grace is receiving from an internal source all the approval one needs to be able to face the world and look the majority in the eye.

Do you know that Christ holds you in the palm of Your hand? Do you know that your name is written down in the Book of Life? Does Jesus walk with you? Listen to the heart conversation inside my heroes and heroines, and in everyone of them, it is the triumphant and certain YES! to those questions that is the essential spine of their lives. It doesn't matter what the majority says-- it doesn't matter what the majority does. It doesn't matter what the majority wants. I know who and Whose I am, and therefore I know what I'm supposed to do-- and I know what I want. And that's all I need.

Never, never, never compromise yourself. Never give anyone or anything any inroad to who you are. No one but Jesus has the right to say.

Living as a Minority

The hue and cry of anguish in this time for those of us who are evangelical inside the PC(USA) is that the world is coming to an end. And, in a way, it is. The facts are simple: ordination of Ministers of Word and Sacrament who are openly homosexual is a fact in a few presbyteries across the country. Candidates have been approved in others, and ordinations have been restored on the basis of "scrupling" sexual standards of behavior.

This is not something that will happen if 08B passes-- this is happening already, and it has the approval of General Assembly without the vote of the presbyteries. Western North Carolina has massively reversed course, and other presbyteries with thin margins in 2001 may do the same. If the world is defined as the place where evangelical positions hold the high ground, then that world truly is coming to an end in the PC(USA). Being an evangelical now in the PC(USA) means that one must embrace minority status, or leave.

There are some amazing gifts that come with being the pastor of OCPC. One of the best is this: when I came into the office today, I was explaining all this, and my beloved older brother Crumpton had the patience to listen. Crumpton rose in the world through the only institution that would let him rise: the U.S. Army. He and his family were the second neighbors who crossed a lot of barriers to open the doors of OCPC to African-Americans in 1975.

Crumpton looked at me and said, "some of us know all about being a minority. It's not the end of the world." So, for Black History Month, I'm going to let them do the teaching. We who hold to the faith as handed down from the saints have much to learn about being a minority from them.