Ordained Ministry: The First Decade

Laying on of hands. The moment of ordination.Today marks the tenth anniversary of my ordination. I remember the service as if it were yesterday. The afternoon started out sunny and bright. As the service got underway a mighty storm blew in. Nanette, her mom Jean, and my brother Alistair were sitting in the front pew. Liz Meyer Bolton preached the sermon, encouraging me to keep a scrapbook of the high points in ministry for surely, she said, I would need a reminder of what was good about ministry when the low points came. I remember feeling quite overwhelmed as I was presented to the church and took my vows. I knelt as the congregation laid its hands on me, the gravitas of the moment eluding description. Gifts were given. Newly ordained, I stood before the Lord’s Table and, as I raised my hands with the intent to proclaim the Words of Institution for the very first time, with perfect comedic timing a low rumble of thunder rolled over the church. The congregation laughed. I nervously hoped this was not an omen.

My first decade in ministry had its fair share of storms. Called to a ministry of reconciliation in conflicted congregations, I faced some formidable situations and personalities. Seemingly intractable inter-personal or organizational conflicts pushed my faith and learning to their feeblest limits. At times it felt I was preaching to the choir. At times stubborn devotion to perceptions of past glories and rigid obeisance to outdated structures and traditions seemed an impenetrable fortress. I was troubled by the limits so many imposed on their faith, happy to confine it to an hour of worship but not willing to fully extend it to attitudes and deeds “in the world.” The ad hominem attacks, when they came, were fierce and most often directed by those who had to be confronted about unhelpful behaviors. Speaking truth to power has its consequences.

Yet, on that Pentecost 10 years ago, when the service had ended and I was making my way to the reception, a friend rushed to get me. I had to see the rainbow. The sun had come out and, indeed, a beautifully distinct rainbow was painted against the departing storm front. God’s covenant with Noah came to mind, God’s promise that never again would vengeance outweigh love. And this is the truest metaphor for my first decade in ministry. No matter how tough things seemed, how challenging situations were, how many terrible things happened in the world, God’s unconditional love would always surface. It surfaced in the most unlikely of ways, through the most unlikely people, in spite of the most persnickety of moods. But surface it would – time and time again love would be revealed.

Faithfully striving and fervently praying for the heart of a servant leader helped me embody, at least to some faltering degree, the abundant love of God. Drawing on my upbringing, I sought to honor each and every person as a beloved child of the God I have come to know in Christ Jesus – the Holy One whom the scriptures declare to be Love. I’m sure somewhere along the way someone thought I was preaching about love a little too much. But love animates the scriptures, it brings to life in tangible ways God’s heart for peace and justice. Love undergirds the most elemental aspects of life in community. Love is at the heart of the Good News about God’s resurrecting power in Christ Jesus.

As I look back over my first 10 years in ministry, I am grateful for the transformation I have witnessed – in myself, in others, and in the organizations I have served. I am frustrated by my failures, but appreciate lessons learned. I marvel at the people I have served and with whom I have served. I am humbled by the trust so many placed in me simply by virtue of the fact that I am an ordained representative of the Church. The Apostle Paul’s words come to mind: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us this ministry of reconciliation….” (2 Corinthians 5:18)

Having further refined in the fires of conflict my understanding of my call to ministry as one of reconciliation, I am looking forward to starting the next 10 years at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where I will be working toward a PhD in Theology and Peace Studies. All of my professional experience to date – serving in the church, reporting on a nation in transition, and the study of conflict and peace – have brought me to this exciting juncture in my life. I look forward to the many doors this will open for me in academe, the church, and out in the world.

Onward!

Newly Ordained

Chrismation

Negotiator in Chief?

Explaining Donald Trump’s provocative rhetoric, a long-time Republican operative was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “[Trump has] always said privately that he’s learned from negotiations that you start from the far end. If you start in the middle you lose.” This positional bargaining tactic is hardly surprising. It might even be quaint if it wasn’t so destructive or deeply entrenched in the riggings of a win-lose binary that keeps broad swaths of humanity mired in a sycophantic devotion to self-interest.

One has to wonder where Trump has been in our post Getting to Yes world. The work of Roger Fisher and William Uri, among so many since, highlights the promise and effectiveness of principled negotiating – negotiating that rests on mutuality without compromising the need for favorable results. In its most articulate expression, it gets beyond the language of winning and losing (forsaking even the coveted win-win) in favor of creative alternatives that assure mutual benefit and lasting, productive relationships.

The world of winning and losing, winners and losers is by nature unkind and violent. It is unproductive. It leads to power grabs and arms races and pushes the planet ever closer to destruction. So much energy is expended on climbing the ladder – corporate, political, social – that the weakening of the rungs is overlooked. At stake is not just the self, but the soul; not just the individual, but the gossamer web that binds society.

Thomas Paine wrote in his influential The Rights of Man,

The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilised community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. The landholder, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every occupation, prospers by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole. Common interest regulates their concerns, and forms their law; and the laws which common usage ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government.

Mutual dependence and reciprocal interest are the antidote to anarchy and lawlessness. Win-lose modalities support the latter and undermine the former, all the while eroding any semblance of a great chain of connection.

It’s little surprise that Trump’s populist campaign, which follows the path of least resistance with its win-at-all-costs posture, has been so effective in attracting the support of especially white males whose sense of entitlement is rooted in historical privilege. This sense of entitlement comes at great cost to society, which remains fragmented in terms of race, gender, and class (among a host of other prefabricated divisions).

In all fairness, Trump is not alone. Despite varying political agendas and approaches, it is clear that each of the candidates has bought into the dominant narrative of the win-lose dichotomy. It seems a necessity of the current practice of democracy. The Sanders campaign, for all that it claims to present an alternative narrative, does not reflect the level of rhetorical or policy awareness that would bind society more closely together. Across the spectrum of candidates in this awfully long election season, there’s an almost complete dearth of talk about working with opponents or negotiating compromises that would serve the best interests of all the people.

The angry, often bitter rhetoric sown recklessly by the candidates and exploited by the media’s self-interest in ratings that drive advertising revenues is a significant threat to the fabric of society. It belies an arrogance that conquers by dividing rather than painstakingly sowing together the tears and tatters of the great American tapestry envisioned by the Founders.

With the balance of power carefully distributed between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches – and given the specific powers granted the president – the Constitution calls forth not just a commander in chief, but a negotiator in chief. It envisions a reasonable president, Congress, and judiciary working together in service of the more perfect union called for in the Preamble, where justice is established, domestic tranquility ensured, common defense provided, general welfare promoted, and in which the blessings of liberty are secured in the present and for posterity.

This may sound naïve in light of deepening political divisions, but I believe the vision of the Founders may yet become the renewed vision of the nation. It will take principled leaders to guide the nation and principled negotiations to reframe political discourse and shift the status quo toward a more productive footing. The language of mutuality and reciprocity needs to be regained. Common interest, as Payne suggests, needs to regulate concerns and form laws so that society as a whole may be sewn together through good governance and a revived sense of common identity.

Children of an (un)known God

The debacle surrounding a Wheaton College professor’s conviction that Christians and Muslims worship the same God has again raised the invidious compulsions of Christian exclusivism. To be sure, this is far from representative of the broad umbrella of Christian traditions. Dr. Larycia Hawkins’ offending statement invoked Pope Francis, who has unapologetically stated that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Wheaton, an evangelical institution, alleges Dr. Hawkins’ belief contravenes its statement of faith.

I can sympathize with the Wheaton administration’s need to protect a brand based on religious belief and identity. The free practice of religion is rightly protected by law. But freedom of speech is, too, and Dr. Hawkins has every right to voice her beliefs. As tenured faculty she is surely entitled to the privileges and protections she has earned.

It’s unlikely that Hawkins’ statement is the only cause of offense given her spiritual practice in Advent of donning a hijab in solidarity with Muslims, who are increasingly targets of noxious right-wing political rhetoric in the United States. In this climate of a radicalizing right, Wheaton’s administration must surely be under tremendous political pressure not to alienate its conservative-leaning evangelical support base.

It would appear the administration’s condemnation of Hawkins, based on an interpretation of the school’s statement of faith, has more to do with contemporary political trends than a sober reading of theology centered on the teachings of Christ. There’s an apparent failure of recognizing the radical nature of the love Christ taught and demonstrated, especially for the marginalized and outcast. His ethic of loving God and loving neighbor seems to be lost amidst the clamor of vote-seeking fearmongers.

Nowhere in Wheaton’s statement of faith is there mention of other faiths and whether or not they worship the same God. There’s certainly no condemnation of other religions. It’s a positive statement of the evangelical faith the school aspires to and is clearly predicated on the particularity of Jesus Christ. While the statement is open to an exclusivist viewpoint, it also encourages proclamation of “God’s redemptive love to the ends of the earth by word and deed; by caring for all of God’s creation and actively seeking the good of everyone, especially the poor and needy.”

The statement of faith does not condemn Muslims or cast aspersions on their religion. It is merely a statement of beliefs about God that form the underpinnings of evangelical faith.

To in any way imply that it captures fully the essence of the imminent and transcendent Holy One is to build a tower of Babel with the feeble blocks of language. To limit God to a statement of faith or creed would be to lose in an instant the very nature of God, who is uncontainable, wildly free to be whatever God will be. Remember Moses before the burning bush?

It’s no wonder so many people are losing faith in religion. The “dones” and the “nones” are tired of grasping at castles in the sky. An increasing number of active religious across the faiths and traditions are too. Beyond even a generous orthodoxy, the immanence and transcendence of that which is Holy and wholly beyond comprehension is being sought through authentic relationship with the other and in relationship with the world around.

I would encourage anyone who doubts whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God to engage in meaningful conversation with someone of the other faith – not about politics or the Middle East, but about the qualities of God and the spiritual practices that bring the other more truly into relationship with God. Come into the presence of the Divine with such a deep love and respect for the other that for a moment one’s most dearly held beliefs may be suspended in favor of listening deeply and openly to the other. To listen is to love.

In my experience, engaging in interfaith and ecumenical conversations has helped develop my own sense of who I am in relation to the (Un)Knowable One I worship. It has not weakened my belief in the particularity of Jesus the Christ or my Christian faith, but it has opened my heart and spirit to new experiences of the Divine.

Surely in a world as fragmented and violent as ours is the path to peace is through compassionate respect for people who approach and articulate their faith in ways that differ from our own. Let’s not limit God through narrow interpretations of creeds or statements, but strive to love more deeply, live more generously, and counteract fear by engaging the other.

Hunting Fiction in the Beloved Country

As I reflect on the year that has been, I am grateful for yet another fabulous trip to South Africa. One of the highlights this year was the South African Book Fair and Mail & Guardian Literary Festival in Johannesburg. Alighting the Gautrain in the city center and walking the torn-up pavements of Hillbrow before correcting course toward Newtown and the fair was exhilarating.

SA Book FairSeveral prior trips to bookstores had left me empty handed. I was on the hunt for contemporary South African fiction written by black South African authors. Each time a slightly grungy and introverted sales person (bookstore peeps are the same everywhere) pointed me in a possible direction it was invariably to a back corner where a few copies of Sol Plaatjes’ work could be found along with a token of Zakes Mda’s contributions to the literary world.

It’s not that there wasn’t any new South African literature being published. The problem was that I was looking for fiction and eventually in exasperation nonfiction written by black authors amidst a sea of newly published nonfiction works by white authors. Besides some political commentary and Xolala Mangcu’s robust Biko, there was almost nothing that could provide insight into the imaginative future being presupposed by SA’s up and coming black literati.

A few years ago Toni Morrison’s Beloved attuned me to the importance of literary imagination in fostering social transformation. Ms. Morrison says, through the immortal wonder of Baby Suggs, that the only grace you can have is the grace you can imagine. If you cannot see it, you will not have it.

I would love to know what kind of future South African authors are dreaming for the country. If you cannot see it, you will not have it.

My primary question, then, to the publishers, authors, and booksellers at the fair and literary festival was where are my black compatriot fiction authors? I was gratified to learn of Niq Mhlongo, Kgebeti Moele, Phaswane Mpe, Sifiso Mzobe, and Zukiswa Wanner, whose work was highly touted. Not one of their names was mentioned in any bookstore I visisted. In fact, my only resolution for 2016 is to expose as much of their work as possible in this blog and other review forums.

But to a person at the book fair there was the recognition that the publishing industry finds itself in a quandary. South Africans with the resources to purchase books would generally only pick up those by “recognized” authors, or as one publisher’s rep said, authors with recognizable ‘white’ names. There was a lament throughout that distributors and mainstream bookstores were not doing their parts to market black authors in such a way that they become commonly known and read.

Another important dimension of the challenge faced by fiction writers was explored in the Mail & Guardian. It published an excerpt from Leon de Kok’s new book Losing the Plot: Crime, Reality, and Fiction in Post-Apartheid Writing (Wits University Press), pointing out how nonfiction has increasingly outsold fiction in postapartheid South Africa. He attributes the “real” as opposed to the fictional being accented to the interactive nature of online media as well as existential crises commonly faced due to poverty, inequality, political uneasiness, and violent crime. According to Mr. de Kok,

“several high calibre South African writers, among them Marlene van Niekerk, Antjie Krog and Rian Malan, have observed that postapartheid conditions are such that nonfiction appears to be a far more serviceable mode of writing than fiction.

This stands in contrast to the pre-postapartheid period, when realist fiction in the Gordimer “history from the inside” mode and metafictional fabulation about ethical agency, in the manner of JM Coetzee, rode the crest of the wave in the literary truth game.”

While this excerpt sets in perspective the literary shift in the postapartheid era, it also highlights the continued preeminence of “high calibre” white writers. Don’t get me wrong, these authors have made outsized contributions to literature, both fiction and nonfiction, and have held out a mirror and moral compass to the privileged classes. My concern is the lack of attention given to black authors. Race matters. I trust de Kok’s Losing the Plot addresses this and look forward to reading it.

Venue for the SA Book Fair
Turbine Hall, Book Fair Venue

I also hope to see evidence on my next visit to the beloved country of a push to highlight black South African authors and their works. And I hope to see reclamation of fiction that sets both the present and future in perspective. It would be incredible to begin to visualize a future for South Africa beyond the current events of growing unrest, crime and murder, xenophobia, cynical calls that #zumamustfall, corruption, political cronyism, and white pessimism with its culture of blatant and dog-whistle racism.

It would be wonderful if my intuition that South Africa has a far brighter, uniquely African future ahead of it could be filled in by reading the creative stories of a new generation of authors whose imaginations hold the key to unlocking this future.

If you have responses to this reflection or can point me in the direction of black South African authors and their works, please share by leaving a comment or let me know by sending a message on the contact page of this site.

Challenging the Metaphysics of Violence

IMG_3477This is the first time in eight years that I will not be leading worship services on Christmas Eve or ending my Christmas homily just as the minute and hour hands converge on midnight. Our decision to move to Ohio so that Nanette can pursue her calling as Senior Minister of a large urban congregation meant that I took my leave from the wonderful folks of First Church in Farmington at the end of September. Our parting was sooner than we had imagined and tinged with sadness. Yet this move was a continuation of my preaching on love, mutuality, and equality as I now follow and support my wife and her ministry while preparing myself for new possibilities. I believe it was Saint Francis who said, “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”

Words. I’ve been thinking about the words I would have preached this Christmas Eve were I back in the elevated pulpit of First Church. As I think over the texts that give rise to pretty Christmas card scenes, what stands out to me this year is the potential of a single person to challenge and overcome the metaphysics of violence.

The metaphysics of violence speaks to the apparent ontological claim of violence to absolute authority and being. It gives rise to a theodicy that confines horizons of imagination and agency to an action-reaction framework where the end goal is always victory over an enemy. An enemy is the person who threatens to take away what I have or who I am. Engaging the enemy, real or imagined, binds the hope and destiny of nations to materialist gain rather than the lofty ideals of peace through mutuality, equality, and liberty.

It’s a snare into which political leaders and news agencies perpetually lead all-too-willing populations. It appeals to the lowest common denominator in consumerist societies where rationality and agency are sacrificed on the altar of democratic process to ratify the hegemonic power of the state, thereby ordaining the state to do whatever it takes to protect the interests of citizens and businesses from the terrors that lurk in the darkness of chaos and otherness.

Terror, chaos, and suspicion of the other are the currency of the metaphysics of violence. Terrorism is its most sinister embodiment. Those who employ terrorist methodologies aim to inflict not just sporadic physical harm to victims of attacks, but more comprehensively to spark terror so stark and so pervasive that the imaginative horizons of people and societies are curtailed by existential minutia. In the spiritual quagmire that results anyone and anything that is opposed to or different from me and mine is a threat that needs to be dealt with immediately, decisively, violently.

How easy it is to exploit people in this atmosphere of fear. Shoot to kill. Build a wall. Turn away Muslims. Make the sands of the Middle East glow. Go to war. Shock and awe. Terrorize.

Into the dark night of this terror glows a feint star heralding an alternative spirituality grounded in the metaphysics of self-giving love. From a religious perspective, the Christian narrative of the birth of Jesus and his subsequent life, ministry, death and resurrection offers an antidote to the metaphysics of violence. True to its nature violence threatens always in the shadows of this story. Violence underscores its climax and lies in tatters in its denouement.

At the center of this story is the single personage of Jesus, who stands opposed to empire and oppression, fear and loathing of the other, and violence in all of its many forms.

Jesus taught that peacemakers would be blessed, enemies should be loved, persecutors prayed for, disputes amicably settled, and that vengeance should be left to God alone. In keeping with his Jewish tradition of praying the Shema he advocated absolute love for God and love for neighbor. He gave a new commandment that his disciples love one another as he had loved them – on his knees washing their feet and sacrificing his very life as a scapegoat for the political and theological sins of a world exhausted by the metaphysics of violence.

The term “sacrifice” should be understood with its Latin roots in mind: sacer (meaning sacred or holy) and facio (meaning to do or to make). By sacrificing his life, the babe of Bethlehem grown to be a man sanctified not just himself but a world opened to the possibility of definitive stands against the metaphysics of violence.

IMG_3911Standing against spiritualities that are predicated on violence does not depend on status or vocation. One need not feel like an imposter or eminence grise. It merely takes courage to wage peace by exhibiting self-sacrificing love. The illustrious work of Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malala Yousefzai started with a decision to take a stand against fear, terror, and violence. One could argue that the actions of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden are in this vain, though Snowden’s case would be more compelling were he to return to the United States and justify his actions in a court of law, presuming a fair trial is possible.

The high profile of theese examples notwithstanding, opposing the metaphysics of violence starts simply with a decision to take a stand.

As I ponder the words I might have preached this Christmas were I back in the warm Meetinghouse in Farmington, I think I would point to the story of the babe born in a stable in Bethlehem and encourage my hearers to give serious consideration to the change he heralded. I would ask them to imagine the change they might usher into the world by taking a stand, just as he did, against the metaphysics of violence, a stand based in the metaphysics of God’s self-sacrificing love for all the world.

The Massacre in a Charleston Church

Mass killings are horrendous. I can’t fathom why someone would walk into a school with the intent to murder children and their teachers. I can’t begin to understand how anyone could be motivated to open fire in a movie theater, college classroom, or shopping mall.

This week we’re shocked by yet another mass shooting, this time in the historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The immediate impact of this shooting has affected me more deeply than any other. I’m struck by deep, deep sadness. It’s not just because it was in a church while people were in prayer and study, though somehow this makes it especially contemptible. It’s not just the accumulation of the despair I’ve felt over so many of these events in recent years. It’s that the killer is white and his victims are black: an act of unspeakable terror rooted in the evil of racism.

Racism can’t be explained away by mental illness or white-washed away as solely an act of individual choice, though there certainly was individual choice involved.

Racism is a societal ill, a communal sin for which responsibility rests on the shoulders of every white person. It rests on my shoulders. Racist realities are perpetuated – knowingly and unknowingly – by those of us whose skin color affords us privilege and allows us to turn a blind eye to the plight of others.

I have often seen this in my ministry. Each time I preach or teach in my overwhelmingly white and well-meaning congregation about the need to confront and combat racism I am greeted with the same refrains: “I just don’t see it.” “Don’t you think we’re beyond that now?” “You shouldn’t preach politics.” “Naturally you’re preaching about this because of where you come from.” (I am South African.) Many speak up in support of efforts to challenge and overcome racism, yet mention the “black lives matter” campaign and you’re immediately told “all lives matter.”

Sure, all lives should matter. But the point is that black lives matter; they really, really do. And, on the whole, society does not treat black lives as if they matter as much as white lives. Just a few months ago in Charleston a white police officer gunned down in cold blood Walter Scott, an African American citizen. The officer shot him in the back. Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Trayvon Martin are more than rallying cries. They are victims of societally sanctioned and approved racism that emerges all too often as state-sanctioned violence. The social and economic challenges faced by so many in the African American community stemming from pernicious structural injustices dating back to the days of slavery, the mass incarceration of African American men, the ways my African American friends are more likely than I am to be pulled over by police or followed in department stores (yes, it still happens) point to a system that is bent on exploitation and oppression.

Based on what? Based on a construct.

Race is a social construct that conveniently feeds into a hierarchy where lighter skin color equates to greater value and darker skin color to lesser value. It touches every aspect of life, personal and social. It feeds into perceptions of intelligence, ability, worthiness, acceptability. It also goes conveniently unacknowledged by most with lighter skin tones, those of us who are more prone to blame the victim than to ask the hard questions that will lead to necessary inner change. Inner change is the route to outer, societal change. And yes, it comes at a cost.

If it is difficult for many whites to acknowledge the ways our skin color leads to privilege, it is even harder to pluck out those attitudes, beliefs, and feelings that lie at the heart of racism. This becomes especially difficult when your perception of self worth is based on notions that benefit you over others, even when they’re based on something as fickle as skin color. And let’s face it, it is incredibly hard to share privilege when you’re afraid of losing what you’ve “worked” for.

In light of the massacre of African American churchgoers in a Charleston church Wednesday night, I hope that the deniers of racism and the cowardly comfortable masses of whites will open our eyes to the very real and present danger of racism. We’re not talking here about a random act of terror. Racism rears its ugly head all the time, and not always as perceptible violence. But make no mistake: it is violent by nature even if the evil of racism is mostly so subtle it goes conveniently unnoticed by those who perpetuate it in unacknowledged ways.

The responsibility to confront and combat racism rests with whites and we collectively bear the responsibility for what happened in Charleston. It’s up to us to start making the necessary shifts to confront and combat racism within ourselves and within our society. In the end, it’s up to me and that leads me to the deep, deep sorrow I feel in this moment.

As a white person I bear part of the responsibility for what happened Wednesday night in Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

A Wildly Inclusive Welcome

Ever since I first visited Hope Church Boston in the summer of 2003 I’ve nurtured a dream for the church: a dream of extravagant welcome and non-judgmental inclusivity. The seeds of this dream were planted at the Sunday evening Jazz service at First Church in Cambridge where I first encountered a truly open Communion table. I found it expressed at Hope in the welcome statement read each Sunday at the beginning of the service. It’s a welcome message I’ve adapted and continue to proclaim at the beginning of worship each week, both as a tip of the hat to the community that ordained me and as a statement of my belief that no one should be excluded from meaningful experiences of the Divine. I recently had the chance to sit down and record it with the help of Nick DiLullo, who is a member of First Church in Farmington and a fabulous videographer.

Overcoming Mental Short-cuts

In recent days I’ve been taken with FBI director James Comey’s statement about lazy mental short-cuts that law enforcement officers sometimes make. Don’t we all just with less-lethal consequences? It gave me a great springboard for a program at the church to challenge assumptions of race, xenophobia, homophobia, and suspicion of people of other religions – especially in our tumultuous world. So here’s my March newsletter article. Feel free to join in, if you are able to.

Beloved friends,

One of the greatest strengths of our congregation is our ability to maintain diverse perspectives while working toward a common goal. This goal is nothing short of mirroring the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth by living ever more deeply into the extravagant love of God we have come to know through Christ Jesus.

Living into this love comes with great joys and, admittedly, great costs.

In recent months, given events at home and abroad, I have been prayerfully mulling how First Church can respond to the racism, xenophobia, homophobia and religious violence that characterize so much of life today. In our own beautiful country we have to face what FBI director James Comey recently called “lazy mental short-cuts” that lead to the killings by law enforcement of unarmed black men. The chokehold and shooting deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown respectively are two high-profile examples.

We need to acknowledge that these lazy mental short-cuts are made all the time by many, if not all, of us when it comes to race. The same is true of our encounters with people of different religions, economic brackets, national origins or immigration status, and people of non-heteronormative sexual orientations.

The primary question we face is how we can combat these lazy mental short-cuts and the attitudes and actions that flow from them?

Our task in combatting these mental short-cuts is compounded by the horrendous killings of Jews, Christians, Kurds, and Muslims in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa by supporters of ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, and Al Qaeda. I believe they have raised the specter of the greatest evil the world has faced since the holocaust. It’s awfully tempting, as a result, to make lazy mental short-cuts.

We need to be on guard. We can’t afford to remain mentally lazy and lump all Muslims or brown skinned Middle Easterners in the same camp. We can’t lump all of Africa in the same basket. We have to break the cycle of superiority that keeps us from valuing people who are different from us.

I therefore invite you to join me in the following activities:
1.) A reading of James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree this Lent.
2.) A series of sacred conversations on race this Eastertide through Pentecost.
3.) A panel discussion by representatives of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths on the questions: i) what is the character of your God and ii) what is the highest religious end you wish to achieve.
4.) Participating in the Moral Monday movement being started in Hartford by our friend Bishop John Selders.
5.) Honest and earnest prayerful searching about diversity and how God is calling us to respond to violence.
(Dates for discussions will be determined.)

This is not always going to be easy. We may come into conflict. The mere suggestion of this course of action may well be distressing you. But it’s something we need to do in a spirit of living more fully into God’s extravagant love. How else will we and the world be transformed? How else will First Church truly live into our great mission of mirroring the Kingdom of God here on earth.

I believe we can do this and invite you to participate with me.

Grace and Peace,

Steven

Losing Faith in Religion

So here’s my dilemma: given the rash of religiously inspired violence over the past few months (not to mention, decades and centuries), I’m increasingly suspicious of religion. My vocation as a Christian minister in the progressive theological tradition of the United Church of Christ values deeply other faiths and traditions and those schools of thought and meaning-making that shun religious faith altogether. I am able to hold a/theism without feeling threatened. Science I see as complimentary to religion. Literary criticism and socio-historical readings add to the experience of holy texts. I carry an awareness of the ways religious leaders and institutions have snuffed out the Holy One they hold at their core, and also the ways they’ve responded in marvelous life-giving ways.

There can be little doubt that religion has the capacity to inspire great good in the world. We see it all the time in acts of kindness, justice, peace, love, compassion, and sacrifice that are inspired by religious belief. Such acts aren’t unique to religion, but they’re often inspired by the intuition that lies at the heart of religion: that holiness or divinity exists beyond the human self that seems to call out the very best in the believer.

Sadly, the opposite is horrifyingly true as well.

There can be little doubt that religion has the capacity to inspire great evil in the world. We see it all the time in acts of terror, injustice, violence, hatred, abuse, and self-aggrandizement. Such acts aren’t unique to religion, but they’re often inspired by the intuition that lies at the heart of religion: that holiness or divinity exists beyond the human self that seems to call out the very worst in the believer.

The outcome of religious belief depends on a broad range of individual and communal interpretations of religious traditions and on theological notions pertaining to the character of the deity at the center of the faith, the reason for the religious community’s existence (its ultimate purpose), and the specific ends it is encouraged to seek. Interpretations of religion no doubt stem from a combination of factors, including culture, socio-political dynamics, economic class, education, geographical location, social pressures, and perceptions of history.

Given the increasing intensity of religious violence in the world and the heinous acts being committed in the name of religion – the horrendous evils committed by ISIS, Boko Haram, and Al Shabaab; the attacks in Sydney, Paris, and Denmark; the Anders Behring Breivik attack in Sweden; the killing last week of three Muslim students in North Carolina (though no confirmed as religiously motivated crime); sectarian violence in nations around the world; the war in Gaza last summer; and so many small attacks that barely or never make the news – I am led to question the usefulness of religion. I can see why many people today (comedian Bill Maher comes to mind) completely recoil from and often attack religion. People who claim to be religious have a lot to answer for. No religious tradition is off the hook.

I don’t know what the answer is to religion, and I fear a world without religion. Perhaps the only way forward is for religious people of goodwill and good conscience to stand up more vocally and with greater fervor against the violence and harm being done in the name of their religions. The great challenge in this would have to be that the means of protest would of necessity have to be consistent with the desired end. The only problem is that I don’t think religious people can ever truly agree on the desired end. It’s impossible within traditions, let alone across religions.

Advent Prayer

Creating God, break in!
As we watch and wait for you this Advent, break in:
Break in where there is sickness and suffering
Break in where there is grieving and mourning
Break in where there is depression and distress
Break in where there is doubt and confusion
Break in where there is hunger and poverty
Break in where there is violence and war
Break in where there is destruction and death
As we watch and wait for you this Advent, break in.

Redeeming God, break in!
As we watch and wait for you this Advent, break in:
Break in where the powerful hold power
Break in where the rich hold on
Break in where the homeless sleep
Break in where the hungry starve
Break in where the workers serve
Break in where the faithful worship
Break in where the people dream
As we watch and wait for you this Advent, break in.

Sustaining God, break in!
As we watch and wait for you this Advent, break in:
Break in where there is love and joy
Break in where there is celebration and praise
Break in where there is friendship and family
Break in where there is peace and love
Break in where there is kindness and mercy
Break in where there is certainty and accomplishment
As we watch and wait for you this Advent.

In the name of your great breaking in, break in. Amen