18 Aug

Ferguson Anniversary: I Was a Chicken

One year after the shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, MO police officer, my family and I traveled to St. Louis for a weekend get-away. We stayed in a well-maintained and comfortable mid-range-cost hotel a short drive from downtown.

flickr user scfiasco

flickr user scfiasco

Friday was a quiet day in the hotel pool. My wife and I, our three children, and one other mother with two children were the only patrons. The other mother was interested largely, in using her smart phone while her children swam.

On Saturday, I took my son and two daughters to the pool and found it quite full of swimmers, mostly pre-adolescent girls clearly enjoying themselves.  Their accompanying adults stood just outside the indoor pool on the patio, able to observe the children at-play.

I noticed that the mother from the prior day was there with her children and that the mother seemed visibly agitated. I saw her speak to her oldest daughter who left the pool area by the side door and I didn’t think anything of it.

Shortly thereafter, the hotel manager, whom I had met upon check-in, came to the pool and spoke with the adults who were with the group of girls. The woman, whom I assumed was a mother of a child or children in the group, grew angrier by the second.

Here are two important details which I left out: the mother from the prior day and her children were white, and the group of girls and the adults with them were bi-racial and black.

The mother from the group of girls, fuming, walked toward the complainant mother and began to yell at her. The complainant mother sat videotaping the confrontation with her smart phone. I sat poolside watching the confrontation, as my own multiracial family swam in the pool.

The mother from the group of girls told the girls to get out of the pool, and they obeyed, quite confused.

The manager returned a short while later and spoke with me, apologizing for the fracas. I told him that I, and my family, was not bothered in the least bit by the group of girls. I asked him, “Why would I be bothered by children playing together?” He thanked me for my calmness, and went to speak with the complainant mother.

I overheard his apologies, and concessions, and offers to the complainant mother of restitution. Why was it at this point that my own anger was activated?

flickr user mahat64

flickr user mahat64

The complainant mother approached me after her conversation. She apologized for my children’s swimming being disrupted by “those people.” I asked her the same question I asked the manager, “Why would I be bothered by children playing together?” She remarked, “That’s a hell of a way for a mother to behave on her kid’s fucking birthday.” She walked away and returned to her chaise lounger.

After I returned to our room with my kids, I told my wife about what had transpired and that the group of girls was celebrating a birthday. “I should have done more,” I told my wife. “I should have stepped in right when the manager first appeared and butted my nose in and offered myself as a mediator.” I told her that I was going to find the mother from the group of girls, and tell the manager, as well, my own perspective of the events.

When I arrived in the lobby, the group of girls and their accompanying adults were being escorted out of the hotel by police officers. I bypassed the officers and ran up to the mother. “I want to tell you that my kids and I were not bothered in the least bit by your girls playing in the pool.” With tears welling up she said, “Thank you. That made my night better.” As I passed the girls on the way back to the lobby, I said the same to them. “My children and I were at the pool and you girls didn’t bother us at all.” An older girl said, “Thank you.”

I learned from the manager that the group of girls and the adults were celebrating the birthday in one room and that 15 occupants surpassed fire code considerably. He said the police were called because the mother from the group of girls had threatened violence toward the complainant mother.

I expressed my sadness at how things transpired. He remarked at my apparently uncommon calmness in the situation. I told him that I am a pastor and am often required to maintain a non-anxious presence in situations of intense emotional interchanges. “If I had a nickel for every conflict in which I have had to remain calm I could buy three of your hotel coffees.”

Why in the name of all that is holy did I not pastorally butt-in to the conflict early on with my non-anxious  presence? Why did I not risk being yelled at? Did I fear that my kids would be made vulnerable or scared if I got involved? Why didn’t I think that acting within the conflict would serve as a model for my kids of a Christ-like response.

I know full well that some of the best work I can do as a white anti-racism ally is to educate other white folks about white privilege and systemic injustice. So, why didn’t I try to educate or at least challenge the complainant mother when she approached me?

I was a chicken. When it came down to it, I did not have the courage or resolve to step in. Next time, Lord, steel my conviction and spur me on.

05 Jul

Dukes of Distraction: Anxious about Racism

General Lee

flickr user cdevers

In the wake of the massacre of nine black church-goers in Charleston, S.C., by twenty-one year-old Dylan Roof, outcry arose to remove the Confederate battle flag flying over South Carolina’s capitol. The Confederate flag has flown there since 1961. Removing the Civil War-era flag requires a two-thirds vote from both chambers of the General Assembly.

Roof saturated himself in white supremacist vitriol, burned the American flag and flew the Confederate battle flag, wore a jacket with the flags of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, and fantasized about a reigniting a civil war.

Soon, it seemed like the headlines were filled with politicians distancing themselves from the Confederate flag (some, albeit, ambiguously) and retailers were whipping Confederate-flag emblazoned products off the shelves.

One of the latest Confederate flag-bans comes from television channel TV Land’s announcement that it would pull reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard television show because of the Confederate flag-topped stunt car, the General Lee. Warner Bros., the holder of Dukes of Hazzard licensing, will stop selling General Lee merchandise. Perhaps not surprisingly, DVD and download sales for “The Dukes of Hazzard” have soared.

Here’s the thing, taking down the Confederate flag flown on public, governmental grounds in South Carolina’s capitol is important and must be done.

Axing Confederate-flag merchandise and impounding the General Lee will not stop systemic racism in America. Those are perilous distractions.

I’m going to indict myself along with all other well-meaning white folks when I say that in the face of discomfort at examining our own role in systemic racism, we rush to find ways to bind our anxieties, to DO SOMETHING, to prove that WE are not racist. We want to ban everything. We sign online petitions. We boycott companies and organizations.

And none of it makes a substantial difference.

We well-meaning white folks have to sit with the discomfort. It ought to haunt us and keep us awake at night. And then we need to jar other white people out of comfortable numbness and begin the hard work of self-examination in order to name our role in perpetuating white supremacy.

Take some time and read these articles and posts…

11 Things White People Can Do to Be Real Anti-Racist Allies: Here’s what it means to do the challenging work of fighting white supremacy

12 Ways to Be a White Ally to Black People

White Anti-Racism: Living the Legacy

Becoming Trustworthy White Allies

04 Jul

Could you survive homelessness?

flickr user rosieobeirne

flickr user rosieobeirne

In many cities, homeless folks are herded out of the public eye so that urban centers can be cleansed of discomfort for the comfortable masses. Here’s a hint: if you desire to meet the homeless, find the public library.

Apart from hipsters seeking a book deal, people most often don’t seek to be homeless. For those who are thrust into homelessness, one is not handed a manual for how to survive.

When I have worked with people experiencing homelessness, I have learned that the things I take for granted can be the hardest to obtain or maintain without a home and employment.

What are those things? Here is a list of nine struggles… Read More

29 May

Why your church library is more important than ever

church library

flickr user gabbard

Why is your church library gathering dust? My guess is that the shelves are filled with old, out-dated books, or books which people can find at their local library, the nearest bookseller, or purchase online. Perhaps there are titles like 79 Ways to Reach Youth in 1979, or Gaddafi: Revelation’s Beast Revealed, or The Fax Machine: Ministry’s Newest Tool. Maybe your Christian romance section is overflowing with the latest Amish pulp love-sagas.

The key to a successful church library is specialization.

There are three categories of print materials which are essential for a church library:

  • Bible reference materials: your congregation needs access to proven print material to aid them in deepening their understanding of Scripture. These materials include varied translations of the Bible, Bible commentaries, atlases of the Bible, Bible dictionaries, and more.
  • Christian Faith: timeless devotional materials based on books or passages of Scripture and not simply the latest fad or trend, books on prayer and devotional practices, stories of faithful people from the past and today, and children’s books which embody faithful virtues.
  • Church History: it is important for Christians to know from whence they have come. This category of materials should include history of the Early Church, and histories which explain how your particular Christian tradition or denomination came to be. For example, Christians ought to know about the origin of baptism, and communion.

Take an inventory of your church library and discard books which have not been checked out at all, or were last checked out more than ten years ago. Tap church folks as library stewards. If your church creates a yearly budget or spending plan, get a line item in there for library purchases however modest. Feature new books with reviews by church members.

Ditch the rigid categorization of the Dewey Decimal System and group books that are topically related by assigning them Dewey numbers from the same category. For example, books sharing the common topic of how faith relates to the conflict between Israel and Palestine shouldn’t go in the geography category, but perhaps Christian faith and social or political issues.

You can revitalize your church library starting today!

adoption fundraiser

21 Apr

[SATIRE] The Greatest Children’s Sermon Never Told

worms and cinnamonAt Easter, Christians talk about resurrection, of course, as we celebrate the Risen Jesus.

The phoenix is a mythical bird which symbolizes rising from the dead.

The apocryphal book of 3rd Baruch–a Jewish apocalypse written around 130 AD–reveals a surprising result from the bodily processes of this resurrecting avian:

3rd Baruch: “And I said, Lord, what is this bird, and what is his name? And the angel said to me,  His name is called Phoenix. (And I said), And what does he eat? And he said to me, The manna of heaven and the dew of earth. And I said, Does the bird excrete? And he said to me, He excretes a worm, and the excrement of the worm is cinnamon, which kings and princes use.”

And that’s why we have cinnamon rolls on Easter morning.

Thanks be to God.


07 Apr

A beloved child so far away

God is not a pragmatist. I am a pragmatist. So when God spurs me on to something which seems to lack sensibility or practicality, I have learned to pay attention. Faithfulness often requires me to choose the seemingly ridiculous.

Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem God’s Grandeur says of the world that it is “charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” I have often borrowed this idea of “shook foil” to describe those occasions when people, places or circumstances, and God’s Spirit seem to come together in a more-than-coincidental kind of way.

Coming into alignment with God’s work often becomes clear when internal stirrings are paralleled by external confirmation of some kind. Now I’m not talking about walking up to someone and saying, “I think God wants me to [fill in the blank]. Do you think I should?” Rather, I am speaking of a kind of quiet attentiveness in which one remains watchful for unprompted confirmation.

Some will say that judging seeming coincidences as having cosmic significance is rather subjective. I suppose that is why it’s called faith. Read More

24 Mar

More than we might ask for

“Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.” Ephesians 3:20 (NLT)

flickr gullevek

flickr gullevek

Ephesians 3:20 is often trotted out like an “abundance formula,” in other words: we ask and God gives us more than we asked for. It is as if one asks God for $5 (with the secret, fingers-crossed) hope that God might give you $500.

I think a better interpretation focuses on the accomplishment beyond, perhaps in spite of, what we think is possible.

What if God’s mighty power stands ready to accomplish something for which we did not ask or imagine? Read More

27 Feb

Life of a Pastor: Are You Some Kind of Clown?

clown postcard flickr postaletrice

Flickr postaletrice

“How you doin’? Need a coupon?” the old fellow asked me as we waited in line at Harbor Freight.

He introduced himself as Theodore Benedict Pinafore; maybe that wasn’t it exactly, but it was equally grandiose and most certainly began with Theodore.

“Well, salutations!” I replied.

“That’s not my real name,” Not-Theodore explained. “I used to be a clown.”

Theodore—we’ll call him for simplicity’s sake—wore a brown leather bomber jacket with a lamb’s wool collar, a fur-lined bomber hat, and I could see just inside the jacket a crazy-quilt, button-front shirt.

“One time a lady asked me what my real name was,” Theodore said, “and I told her Dennis the Menace. She didn’t ask any more questions after that.” Read More

18 Oct

Children and Bullying: The Social Economy and Third-Way Choices

Child's shoes on a sidewalk

“crocscircles,” photo by celinet, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license

There’s nothing like spending an entire year of your childhood perched on the edge of a sidewalk to put the damper on the boundless enthusiasm of youth.

This particular sidewalk, right outside the hall door from my third-grade classroom and at the edge of school property, represented for me the boundary between the forces of order and the forces of chaos.

I was a victim of bullying.

Now, Carl—not his real name, but the name I’ll use for him—Carl was my bully and stood out in my mind as a Neanderthal. He stood a full head-and-a-half above our third-grade peers, thick-framed with untamed, long hair. Carl, for reasons he never shared, picked me for his target that year. I lived only two blocks away from the school, but Carl would catch me after about a block, day-after-day, to knock me down and shake the contents of my backpack out on the ground.  It’s not like I gave Carl a run for his money.  I was a scrawny, asthmatic kid.  It got to the point where I would anticipate Carl’s arrival and throw myself down and empty my backpack myself to save him the trouble. Read More

17 Jun

Ten Ways to Include Kids in Worship

ten ways to include kids in worshipI always thought it was cool as a child to get to leave the “boring” adult worship for children’s church. We had fruit punch and snacks and got to move around and hear Bible stories presented with flannel-graph visuals! Let’s face it, sitting through a stereotypical Protestant worship service can seem to a child like an eternity in timeout. Maybe the singing is enjoyable, but then you have to listen to an adult talk about the Bible to other adults for a whole twenty minutes (if you’re lucky)! And yet, there was always for me an air of mystery surrounding the rituals of worship. Growing up in a baptist tradition only people (mostly adults, rarely youngsters) who had been baptized upon confession of faith could take communion. Baptism was also the gateway to membership, and only members got to vote on congregational matters. After aging-out of children’s church I began staying in “big church”; tasked with a set of minimum expectations: sit still, be quiet, bow your head with your eyes closed during prayer. I continued to be fascinated by questions of how and why we did things, yet felt more often than not that I was somehow a lesser observer.

Young people are suffering from an increasing scarcity of adult relationships and it is having a detrimental impact on their development. Finding ways to incorporate children into worship as part of an intergenerational whole is important. That incorporation, however, must be more meaningful than simply enforcing minimum expectations.

Here are Ten Ways to Include Kids in Worship

Read More