Monday, August 14, 2017

Reacting to the World (& Seeing God)

The spotlight shined on Charlottesville this weekend. Violence drew the media’s insatiable thirst for sensationalism. A man killed a woman and injured 19 others. Two police officers died when their helicopter crashed. These events are the tip of the iceberg. More people hurt other people. Some people shouted angry and insulting words. In the midst of the chaos, our humanity suffered. It was not a devastating blow. The city will recover. In many ways, it recovered the same day. After the marchers and protesters went home, people returned to normal downtown life.

Social media, digital media, and old media focused on the negative. Friends contacted me to ask about Charlottesville. People rushed to quench the media thirst. And, where was God? People shouted, I was there. Or, they said, I knew someone who was. But, what about God? Was God present during the chaos? Clergy representing the presence of God in the world provided safe space inside a Methodist church. Then, they went home. On Sunday, many churches responded to the events. Ministers spoke of love, unity, and God’s presence in the world. Again, where was God?

When we live in the world, we have the opportunity to see God. We do not need major, catastrophic events to bring us to God. The psalmist writes, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there… If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (139:7-8, 11-12). God was present during the rally/protest. Later, when Emancipation Park grew silent, God was still there. The next day, on the Rivanna Trail, God was present. God is present everywhere.

When we see problems, we can react. False ideologies built on hatred and bigotry erode communities. Addressing hatred requires tact and patience. Addressing hatred with hateful words is unproductive. For example, we prayed for the family and friends of Heather Heyer. She was the woman who died during the protests on Saturday. What would happen if we prayed for the young man accused of killing her? Jesus says to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). His name is James Alex Fields, Jr. He is from Ohio and his mother said she did not know he was a white supremacist. She must be heartbroken. What if we see a murderer as a child of God who cannot, like the psalmist says, escape from God’s presence? Maybe it would help us more actively see God in the world. 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

What I Learned at the Rally/Protest (First Thoughts)

Today, I was near a protest against the alt-right. My participation was minimal. I sat on my bike and watched from a distance. Or, my plan was to watch from a distance, but they kept moving and changing direction. A new group would show up. Protestors filled in. Several times, I found myself caught between the two sides.

My t-shirt said, “Keep Calm and Study.” I wanted to sing, “All we are saying is give peace a chance…” What does the alt-right really believe? What do the protestors believe? I know some of the clergy. They believe in peace and love. But, other protesters shouted profanities and were clearly looking for a confrontation with the alt-right. In a context like the rally/protest in Charlottesville, there is no space for dialogue. It is tense. People yell. They shout slogans. The other side screams back. People scuffle, bunch up, and punch and push each other.

Some people are organized. A protestor had a microphone and seemed to be in charge. He shouted, “Move in!” Then, when the tension seemed ready to boil over, he said, “De-escalators! Come to the front!” De-escalator? That sounds appealing. Who gets that job? I would like to be a de-escalator. Or, maybe not. I was a short distance away when someone started spraying tear gas. I could not see which side. When it started to burn my eyes, I walked my bike through the crowd and away from the noise. 

At one point, someone set off a purple smoke bomb. Someone else yelled, “Everyone back!” Like lemmings running off a cliff, mob mentality kicked in and we all moved back. A lead protestor encouraged people to move back up and told everyone to hold firm.

Different groups of alt-right people marched around. Each group had flags and matching outfits. Helicopters circled overhead. Drones whizzed around. The press took pictures and video. Extra police formed lines. The Virginia State Police were in riot gear. And, there was another group that looked like military police.

What did I learn?

Nothing. The alt-right has a constitutional right to hold their rally. I might not agree with what they say or what they believe in. But, I hold dear the constitution that gives them a right to rally. The protesters have a right to peacefully oppose the alt-right. Unfortunately, protesting gives legitimacy to the rally. My presence contributed to their legitimacy.

The police try to keep the peace. They do not know what different people intend to do in the rally/protest. They do not know what I plan to do, even though I told each one I saw that I was there to pray for them. If no one showed up, the alt-right would have no one to yell at. No protesters would yell at them. My presence contributed to their uncertainty and probably made their job harder.

I am a proponent of dialogue—having a conversation to discuss differences. I went because I wanted to say something against the alt-right, but my presence accomplished nothing. The hate group still hates.

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Friday, August 11, 2017

Keeping Calm in the Face of Confrontation

How do we respond when someone confronts us? Do we bristle? Do we take a defensive position? Do we go on the offensive? Or, do we remain calm and try to plan a thoughtful response?

Consider the following scenarios. Someone says,
“Your dog defecated in my yard!” 
“You should go back where you came from.”
 “Your belief is not biblical.”

Because the words might be a surprise, the hearer has little time to react. This is common in many confrontations. In Charlottesville, confrontation looms. An alt-right hate group is planning a rally for August 12. Other groups are staging counter-protests. Keeping calm in the face of confrontation is timely. I disagree with the alt-right beliefs and modus operandi. I believe in equality and advocate for justice for all people. How should I respond if confronted?

Years ago, I taught scuba diving. One of my favorite classes to teach was rescue diving. In rescue diving, one lesson is the “self-rescue.” There are many things that can go wrong underwater and there is a very simple technique for responding. The same technique applies whether fishing line snags one’s dive equipment or a white supremacist confronts you.

Here are the steps:
  1. Stop
  2. Breathe
  3. Think
  4. Act

First, stop what you are doing. If you are swimming near a shipwreck and feel a sudden tug, struggling will make it worse. Stop. If you are walking and a white supremacist says something, ignoring him might embolden him. Stop. By stopping, there is a possibility of shifting the confrontation.

Second, breathe. Our bodies need air to survive. The same principle applies 30m underwater as on the surface. By breathing, we give our bodies a chance to catch up with the circumstances. Breathing provides oxygen to our brains. Our brains need oxygen to function. When they function, they can process information and react.

Third, think. This might seem obvious. But, too often, when a diver feels a tug, before thinking, she struggles to get free. The most common jetsam impeding a diver is monofilament line. It is virtually invisible underwater. Since shipwrecks attract fish, they draw people who like to fish and those who like to dive. Fishing people lose fishing line. It is part of the sport. The lost line ends up wrapped in the rigging of wrecks. Struggling against the line will only make it worse.

Forth, act. If a diver stops, breathes, and then thinks, she might realize the tug was monofilament line. She can carefully feel for the line. Once found, she can assess how much line entrapped her, and she can cut it with her dive knife. Action should follow stopping, breathing, and thinking.

Confrontations can escalate. Following these four steps can help avoid escalation. Deftly handling a confrontation can de-escalate and, possibly, create space for a constructive conversation. With God, all things are possible, even changing a confrontation with a white supremacist into a conversation with a fellow human being.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Protests or Prayer Services? Or, Both?

What is your calling? Some people might feel that God is calling them to protest and get arrested. I do not. Some people feel the divine nudge to civil disobedience. I do not.

I do feel God calling me to proclaim the gospel, stand up for the oppressed, and thoughtfully engage in discourse. Discourse can be about complex theological ideas (e.g. Holy Trinity). Or, it can be about simple notions of right and wrong. For example, there is no biblical basis for a world view based on racism, sexism, or inequality. Verses that appear to support such notions miss what the text is saying about God and humanity.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Unite the Right” is a gathering of extremists on August 12 in Charlottesville, VA. On August 7, the City of Charlottesville moved the rally from Emancipation Park to McIntire Park due to safety concerns. Emancipation Park was formerly Lee Park. The event organizer Jason Kessler stated via a Facebook video that the event will still take place in Emancipation Park. 

What are some Christian responses? A group called Congregate C’ville calls for 1,000 faith leaders to stage an anti-protest. They are providing nonviolent protest training. The Charlottesville Clergy Collective is planning a series of prayer services. One event is University Baptist Church's prayer service on August 8. It is part of a series of events around the city.

These are two different responses. One is the protest. The other is prayer. We could analyze the efficaciousness of each event. Or, we could ask what does God call us to do? Confrontation is biblical (e.g. Jesus cleansing the temple in all four gospels). So is prayer.

Prayer is a conversation with God. Karl Barth calls it “human activity in relation to God” (Dogmatics § 53, p. 87). Paul Tillich says “every serious prayer produces something new in terms of creaturely freedom” (Systematic Theology, vol. 3, p. 191). For Juan Luis Segundo, prayer is “the image of a God who occupies a place in our lives that has not yet been reached by human knowledge and effectiveness” (Teología Abierta, p. 60).

More (most?) theologians have addressed prayer in some form. Prayer is a transcendent encounter. Will it change extremists’ minds by itself? No. But, that is not the purpose of prayer. In prayer, humanity relates to God and experiences something new. Then, we discover creative ways to respond.

Which one, prayer or protest, will change the world? In some ways, they both do. For me, I feel God’s calling to start with prayer. On August 8, I will pray for peace, unity, alt-right extremists, protestors, law enforcement officers, and the future.

Please join me.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Becoming Neighbors

After living in Charlottesville for one week, some places are beginning to become familiar. It is not home quite yet, but I no longer feel like a visitor. Soon, Charlottesville will be ours. We will have our parks, our trails, our shops, our streets, and yes, our home too. Someone will say, “Do you know where this or that is?” I will be delighted to say, “Yes!” As we gather shared experiences, we are becoming neighbors.
Becoming neighbors takes time. It is not as simple as moving into a neighborhood. The Greek plesios means “near or neighboring.” This was the word used in the story of the Good Samaritan in the gospel of Luke. But, a neighbor is more than that, more than being near. Being neighbors means sharing our interests and our lives. It means worshipping together, eating together, playing together, laughing together, and crying together. As we gather shared experiences, my family and I will continue becoming your neighbors.
In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists of listening to them. Just as love of God begins with listening to the Bible, so the beginning of love for our brothers and sisters is learning to listen to them.” In our church, we are all on a journey together. Bonhoeffer’s idea of “listening” relates to his understanding God’s love. We understand God's love through listening to the Bible. Likewise, we become neighbors through listening and sharing experiences with one another. Listening is a key element in becoming neighbors. Each of us can listen and share experiences as fellow sojourners in Christ.
In Luke, Jesus told the man who asked “Who is my neighbor (plesios)?” about an unlikely person (a Samaritan, for crying out loud!) who qualified as a neighbor (Luke 10:29-37). The Samaritan was not simply nearby. Instead, the Samaritan became a neighbor by listening-to and sharing-in another person’s experience. The neighbor walks along with another.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Making Peace with Waiting

My grandmother is 95 years old. She inches closer to the end of her life. But, her journey must go at her pace and nothing else in the world matters to her. I cannot imagine being at that point in my journey. For me, there are schedules, financial constraints, and others’ expectations.

Not her. She breathes in. She breathes out. Over the last few days, her breaths have grown slower. Several days ago, no one expected her to make it through the night. Now, it feels like it is a matter of moments.

Years ago, I moved away but we have always remained close. Mine were the first great-grandchildren. My wife and I visited her when we had our first child. We forgot a pack-n-play. She said, “No problem. He can sleep in a drawer.” What?!? She cleared a drawer and created an impromptu bassinet.

My job brings me close to death. I have the privilege of being with families in the final moments with loved ones. I often find myself in thin space, where the line between heaven and earth seems to blur. Death is one of those thin spaces. And, like others, we cannot control it or capture it. The line blurs and we become aware that we stand on holy ground.

This time it is different. I am one of the loved ones. My grandmother is one of the most precious people in my life. She struggles for breath and I wish for her peaceful rest. The psalmist writes, “For God alone, my soul waits in silence” (62:5).

So, we wait. We wait for the inevitable. We wait for the comfort. We wait for the return to normalcy. We wait for other family members to arrive. We wait for showers, meals, and arrangements. We wait. While we wait, we wait together.

Even while she breathes, loved ones can preserve her memory by loving like she loved. Perhaps, this is the blessing of waiting. Maybe, this is a way to make peace with waiting. “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb… Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed” (Psalm 139:13, 16).



Tuesday, July 18, 2017

No One Steals My Church

Last week, Brett Younger wrote an op-ed on Baptist News Global. A friend suggested I read it. And, I am glad I did. It is a powerful article and addresses some of the great sins of the contemporary church. Kudos to Younger for holding his loved ones to a biblical standard. But, he lays the most egregious sins of the early twenty-first-century church at Donald Trump’s feet. His title is, “Donald Trump stole my old church.”

I cannot concede the church to Trump or anyone else. The church belongs to God. People attend church and miss God’s point every week. No matter how sound the preaching, people miss the point. Every person in every church is a hypocrite. It is a matter of degree.

Younger introduced theological differences in the following subjects:
Gender inequality
Racial inequality
LGBTQ inequality
Interfaith dialogue
Gun ownership
Economic inequality

Younger writes that he used to try and reconcile theological differences. But, in Trump’s America, he can no longer reconcile the different worlds. He concludes, “I have come to the painful realization that God is not the point of my old church. My old church is shaped more by Fox News than Jesus’ Good News.” For churches like the one Younger describes, I agree with his conclusion. There is no justification for racism, homophobia, or misogyny. To his list, I add a need for religious liberty, gun safety, economic justice, and environmental justice.

I diverge from Younger when he writes, “Donald Trump has made it obvious that my old church is not filled with followers of Christ.” This gives the President too much power. He has no sway on my theology. In the church Younger describes, the President brought long-held beliefs to the surface. His statement smacks of the judgmental tone that drives me away from fundamentalists.

Disagreeing with a person’s position is different than disagreeing with the person. If they have an opportunity, some of the most wonderful people in the world say some truly stupid things. Yet, they are part of God’s creation. The world is a mixed collection of blessings and curses. Hans Urs von Balthasar describes God’s revelation as a kaleidoscope. New constellations form again and again with the same elements. The church is where we see this kaleidoscope.

Younger writes, “You cannot follow Jesus and support a tax cut for the rich.”
But you can.
A follower of Jesus can be a rich young ruler who cannot fathom giving away his possessions (Mark 10:17-22). We imagine that the man did not follow Jesus. But, we do not know. Only God knows.

Younger’s statement reminds me of a sermon I once heard. The fundamentalist preacher was doing a series on names of Jesus. The Sunday I heard him, he focused on “born of a virgin.” He said, “You cannot be a Christian if you do not believe in the virgin birth.” I reread the gospels. None of them said what the preacher said. Should I castigate the preacher and correct his heresy? No. Nor should I criticize Younger.

I agree with Younger’s sentiment. Theology matters. Yet, there is more to the church than one person's misogyny, racism, judgmentalism, etc. von Balthasar writes, “The ‘economic’ revelation of the triune God is a single revelation, but it is infinitely rich in aspects.” The church is God at work in the world (economic revelation). There are times when we do not agree with what people in the church say or do. Thus, we remember the church belongs to God.

Younger concluded by quoting Augustine. “The church is a whore, but she is my mother.” Maybe. But, I prefer Juan Luis Segundo’s words. He called the church an “unedited possibility for love.” God can work through fundamentalists, liberals, moderates, or, even, me.