Where’s the Joy?

Let’s be really honest here for a minute. We have been running on the fumes of anxiety and anger for quite some time. Maybe it’s the state of US culture—politics of the spectacle, decades of violent conflict without rest, economic disparity, the ravishing of people and livelihood by a global pandemic. Or even the state of the church—story after story of sexual violence perpetrated by respected leaders and covered up by well-meaning bureaucrats, schism and lies, or even power struggles over doctrine and ethics. Or even globally—as business after business ransacks the natural beauty and resources of creation, and natural disaster after disaster wreak havoc on people and communities.

Our emotional response… or maybe I should be more confessional…my emotional response to all of this is constant hum of anxiety and anger.

My good friend José Humphreys just did a video sit down with Work of the People. In one segment, he described Joy as an embodied resistance to the trauma of the world around us. It was a striking turn of phrase and connection of brilliance… and yet when the video finished, I realized I have no frame of reference in my own personal experience to understand fully what he was saying. My conclusion: I don’t have a theological framework that can hold trauma and joy together.

James Cone described this ability to hold trauma and joy as rooted in the Blues and religion as the chief weapons of resistance in the Black church of the south. In his masterful book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone says that “at the juke joints on Friday and Saturday nights and at churches on Sunday mornings and evening week nights blacks affirmed their humanity and fought back against dehumanization.” The gospel did not ignore the complaint and wrestling sung in the blues, rather the two intertwined to make the Good News truly good and not some pious abstraction.

I don’t have a frame of reference for that kind of side-by-side naming of messy life with the hope of God. In fact, I think in many ways the dominant form of Christianity in America—White Christianity in general—does not live in that space between what Cone calls the Blues and the Gospel. Rather, it seems to me that the White Christianity leans on ideas, ideals, and ideology as the language of faith. And yes, even we Brethren do this. While we speak often of incarnation and ethics as core to Brethren Christianity, we need only look at the tag line to see how we translate faith into ideals—peace, simplicity, and community.

My guess is that I am anxious and angry because I hold too tightly to ideals rather than the Blues. Most of my Christian walk has been to learn certain “truths that we hold to be self-evident”— that is peace, service, and community. So when I look around at the state of the Church right now, I see a failure of ideals. And honestly, hope is hard to find. I am so stunned by the lack of common ideals — or a failure to act out of shared ideals that my default reaction is anger.

Ideals and ideologies function well when we have the power to make them real. Ideals fail, however, in the sin-soaked modes of the world. We assume that ideals are the best of ourselves, when the biblical witness points to the constant cycle of faithfulness leading to faithless-ness, from closeness to God to fallenness from God.

I dare say that we might do better to release our idealism— about ourselves and about our church— and practice some of what Otis Moss III in his book Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World calls the Blues Moan and the Gospel Shout. It is a theologically authentic space where we can step away from our ideas and ideals to name and proclaim the complexities of Christ-like living today. In traditional theological terms, we need to live in the space of lament for a while. In lament we name where our expectations of God don’t meet the current realities of our day.

But again, dominant American Christianity doesn’t do well with lament. Power does that to us.

I remember one of my first seminary classes when we were intentionally praying through the Psalms. We got to the laments and the visceral language of anger and enemies was too much for our ideals shaped selves. We did not have a theological frame of reference for the authenticity of those songs because we were so steeped in idealism. Looking back now, I would say we were stunted in our theological ability to hold the complexities—failures and faith—of life. And even then, we could barely make the jump from naming our anger and disappointment to proclaiming our faith in God. Getting us to be ok with the raw complaint was bad enough. Going to the last verses to say Blessed be the name of God was just too far a leap.

I — and I am extending to we— have been socialized into dominance and power to the degree that we think our ideals and ideologies will change the world. That angst and anger right now are the result of the failure of those ideals to change my church, let alone the world. The world is messy, contingent, depressing, and anxiety inducing. Any march forward is eventually pulled back a step or two. Many people in the world live in that space of dissonance and finds ways to resist through the proclamations of Joy. They sing the blues standards and the hymns of praise. They are not fed a diet of thematic worship where joy is contained in one liturgical celebration and sorrow in another. Rather, they bring both anxiety and hope together in one liturgical context so that their own emotional lives- the highs and the lows, their hopes and their disappointments-are held together in the gospel. Can we let go of our ideals to practice lament with its complaint and confession of hope? Can we find space for Joy so that our angst and disappointment do not overwhelm our faith?

So let me ask you now. Where is the joy in the midst of anger and anxiety? If you are like me, where there is a constant buzz of anger or anxiety where is the counter-balance of the resistance of Joy?

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Going to Get Messy

I love the stories of the Christian monks in the Egyptian desert. Sure they are a bit quirky, but really I love how they can be both theologically rigorous and pastorally compassionate.

One of my favorites is about an monk who kept a woman in his cell. Others in the community realized what was happening and called on a elder to reveal their brother’s sin. When the entourage arrived at the cell, the brother hid the woman in a basket. When the elder walked in, he sat on the basket and told the others to find the woman. When they could not find even a trace, he chastised them for falsely accusing their brother and sent them away. The elder then stood up and let the woman out of the basket, told the brother to be careful, and left.

Much of Christianity today is concerned with theological and ethical purity. In the age of social media it is now common to speak with such dogmatic force that there is little room for the compassion of the elder in the story. In fact, many Christians sound a lot more like the brothers set on condemning their fellow monk.

This desire for purity continues to damage the witness of the church. We are paralyzed from being active in the world as ambassadors of Christ because we are trying to find the perfect community or movement that we can work with. This group doesn’t read the Bible like I do. That group has the wrong view of sexuality. That there group gets funding from the wrong people. This here group has the wrong political philosophy. Even if the work being done is needed and part of the Good News of Christ, the church is wringing its hands.

Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil opens her most recent book with the story of her experience in Ferguson after a police officer killed Michael Brown. A group of church leaders were meeting with the growing group of young activists. However, the activists weren’t interested in what the church people had to say. At one point they texted the ministers about an upcoming protest and closed with the simple question. ‘Are you coming or not?’

McNeil observes that the new generation is not waiting on church leaders to sort out their principals and discern if a movement meets their social ethics or dogmatic theology. They are even skeptical that church folks will put their bodies in the struggle at all. “Are you coming or not?”

In the years since the Black Lives Matter has morphed from a Twitter hashtag into a decentralized international movement comprised of hundreds of individual organizations, the White church has been arguing about whether or not it can show up with the movement. We have heard the dismissive “All Lives matter”, the constant refrain that the movement can’t be supported because it affirms LGBTQ persons, is anti-family, Marxist, or violent. White Christians have rolled out every possible reason from the overtly racist to the political plays from the Cold War for why its not possible to support the biblically and theologically clear assertion that black lives do indeed matter.

McNeil calls on us to be brave and courageous. I simply want to say its going to get messy. The emerging generations of white, black, and brown people assume the church isn’t showing up. And that is precisely why we must stand with folks who are proclaiming the humanity of others, even if we don’t agree with everything they say. Like the desert monks, it is time for us to stop pitting theological and ethical purity against pastoral compassion. In fact, showing up listening and supporting the people in their cries for racial justice might actually mean we can give witness to the faith in Christ that gives us the freedom to join them. 

There are a multitude of organizations working for racial justice. Find one near by, and show up. Listen and follow. There will be things that make us as white people uncomfortable. Like I said, its messy. Say please, and thank you. Say I am sorry when someone tells you have hurt them. Don’t make excuses about your intentions. Cry with those who lead not because they chose to, but because the racial hierarchy in our land has forced them into some of the most painful moments of their lives. It’s going to be messy. But just show up.

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….but the violence

Grammatically, a conjunction brings two clauses together. Rhetorically, “but” brings together the ideas while rejecting the first one. Or, put another way, everything before the “but” is bull. Just imagine if you said to your partner, “I love you, but…” Everything at the end of the sentence would overpower and dismiss the statement of love.

As protests have formed in all 50 states and in countries around the world these past two weeks, I have heard all too clearly from white friends and colleagues that infamous “but.” “I support the protests but the riots and violence…”

Those three letters serve to diminish and negate any affirmation intended in the first clause. When someone does this they say two things, one explicitly and in line with white Christian response to black people raising their voices for centuries, and the other implicit in the silence of speaker.

White Christians chastised Civil Rights leaders repeatedly for causing violence. No matter how many times Martin Luther King Jr or other leaders stated that the movement was nonviolent, white leaders and journalists countered that they were causing violence. One key example of this came in the story of a white student who participated in the Nashville sit-ins named Paul LaPrad. After a visit to Germany in 1958 and seeing the lingering scars of World War II LaPrad returned to the states and changed his draft status to Conscientious Objection. While in Nashville as a student at Fisk, he sat under the leadership of Jim Lawson in nonviolence workshops alongside Diane Nash, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, and Jim Bevel.

When the sit-ins began in the early months of 1961, LaPrad sat at the counters with his black friends from the workshop. He was pulled from the stools and beaten briefly. A photographer captured the moment. When that image was circulated in the press, especially back in LaPrad’s home state of Indiana, his draft board revoked his objector status because he “provoked violence”.

I don’t tell this story to put the spot light on Paul. I say it simply to note that no matter the methods of black leaders, the challenge to the current social order feels like violence. So some meet the nonviolent protest with physical violence and others highlight the violent reaction as signs of the inherent violence of black voices and bodies challenging white norms and laws.

In short, the “but the violence” rhetoric is a time proven strategy of undermining the legitimacy of black voices and bodies rightly proclaiming their grievances and calling for change.

Second, surveillance and cell phone cameras are showing over and over again police violence against protesters and white looters busting windows and setting fires. Saying “but the violence” dismisses the demonstrable fact that violence is being done to the protesters or around them. The “but” fails to attribute violence to the true actors. Some, then, will say that the force of the police is warranted because of protesters throwing things. The question of violence and scale is another conversation. Here, I simply want to note that the rhetorical “but” allows white critics to avoid attributing culpability to persons other than the actual protesters.

Finally, those who invoke violence connected to the protests rarely use “but the violence” in regard to policing or police brutality. Instead, we hear that police brutality is the actions of a “few bad apples.” Set the two sentiments side by side and it is easy to see the difference.

I support the protesters but the violence and looting are just not acceptable.
I don’t condone what the officer did, but it is a just the action of a few bad apples.

In the first sentence, the violence and looting are attributed to the whole. What happens to or around the protesters is an indictment against all the protesters.

In the second sentence, individuals act and should not be seen as indicting the whole.

The difference between those two scenarios should be plain. Police should not be held accountable for the actions of individuals, while protesters on the whole are assumed to all be violent. The problem isn’t the violence. The problem is the framing of white supremacy that undermines black leadership and power, yet affirms institutional violence because it maintains the political and economic status quo. Put another way, the difference between the two scenarios is racism.

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Whiteness and Forgiveness

If you have been strolling through social media land in the last few days one story in particular has caused a range of responses. And, no I am not talking about Washington. I am talking about the trial of Botham Jean’s killer, Amber Guyger. Guyger shot and killed Jean in his own apartment when she entered his apartment thinking it was her own. She had just finished her shift as Dallas police officer.
To be honest, I did not know the trial was underway. I had heard that prosecutors were taking the unusual step of charging her with murder and that she had been fired from the Dallas police department. I finally caught up when videos of her testimony were showing up on my Facebook feed. The still captures from the video showed her scrunched face, red eyes, and running makeup. I don’t doubt her tears. She should cry for what she did, the life she took. Yet, at the same time, I have learned that America’s addiction to White Supremacy feeds on white tears.
So I wasn’t surprised to read that her defense strategy was self-defense. Nor was I surprised when the judge allowed the jury to consider the Castle Doctrine—that one can legally kill when they are in their own home. These are all standard approaches to the questions of violence by whites charged in the killing of black and brown people. Never mind the fact that Guyger was not in her own home, nor was she on duty, and Jean was sitting in his own living room and not threatening her. The judge also instructed the jury that they could consider the lesser charge of manslaughter.
I was stunned, however, when the jury delivered the verdict earlier this week—Guilty, not of manslaughter, but of the primary charge of murder.
In a seesaw of emotion, I was not surprised to see the sentence of ten years with possibility for parole in five.
Then yesterday a video made the rounds of the Brandt Jean—the victim’s brother—giving his impact statement to the court. Both Twitter and Facebook were filled with the image of Jean hugging Guyger and videos clips of his offer of forgiveness.
Like I said, it was a week of seesaw emotions and reactions.
I quickly noticed two general responses to the images of Jean hugging his brother’s murder. On one hand, there was a group highlighting it as a beautiful sign of the power of forgiveness. And on the other, there were skeptics frustrated by yet another sign of the black people doing the forgiving in the face of a system that continues to devalue the lives of people of color. The first group of responses were from white folk and the second from people of color.
Over the last five years I have been on my own journey of understanding the realities of racism in the US. One of the things I have learned from my friend Dr. Drew Hart is to not trust my gut when encountering issues about race. In other words, my instincts and reactions, while my own, are deeply shaped by the wider culture. And that culture has been built on a racial hierarchy that assumes whiteness is normal, objective, and right. In other words, American culture is built on White Supremacy.
Now, I need to step back to define White Supremacy. That phrase has layers of meaning but the dominant one is that White Supremacy is the ideology of bad people who are explicitly racist and more often than not violent. It conjures up mental images of white hoods, burning cross, and skinheads. However, White Supremacy is also descriptive of the social, political, and economic foundations of our culture. It is the system itself, as all of these areas of our shared life have been built on a race hierarchy that puts whiteness at the top. It has been embedded in American culture from the 15th century, and despite hard won efforts to undo its policies and impact, it persists as it every adapts to any such changes.
One particular result of White Supremacy is the dominant idea of white innocence. That is why I was not surprised to read that the judge allowed the self-defense argument and consideration of the Castle Doctrine. Surely, white people don’t just shoot people for no reason (except for the fact that they do). As Robin Diangelo says in her book White Fragility, we assume that white folk are all individuals and as such exempt from the impacts of socialization, especially socialization by White Supremacy. We assume that white folks start not just from the place of innocence, but that we are objective in our understandings of the world and how we see others.
As part of my learning to not trust my gut, I have prioritized the voices of black and brown people when trying to understand what is happening in the news. In reading through the posts about the hug and offer of forgiveness it was so clear to me that my white and black friends were seeing two very different things. On the one hand, white folks were celebrating such a beautiful act of forgiveness, made so plain not in Jean’s words on the stand, but the hug itself. Most of my white pastor friends immediately fixated on the image saying this is exactly what forgiveness looks like, and is possible through the grace of Jesus Christ. On the other, people of color are offering a much more complex assessment. Some named the beauty of the act while highlighting that it is small in the face of the deep and painful effects of White Supremacy in the wider culture. Some push back hard against white folk lifting up Brandt as an example, and challenging us to see how his action is part of the wide pattern of black people having to extend forgiveness to white people over and over again. And still others named explicitly that the symbol of his forgiveness assuages our own white fragility, granting a kind of absolution to our own discomfort with matters of race and the violence of race hierarchies.
So what are white people to do? How should we understand this case, and all its emotional waves?
  1. Seek out people of color to hear their interpretation. Meet them for lunch or coffee and listen. Don’t argue and don’t present another narrative. Just listen. Find black and brown people on social media and read their wise words. Don’t reply. Just soak it in. Don’t stop when you find a person of color who articulates what you already think.
  2. Ask yourself what you are missing. Why do you see this case and Jean’s action so differently from others?
  3. Notice your own reactions, not just to the story itself, but to the insights of people of color. Why are you defensive? Why are you so drawn to the hug and its implied forgiveness?
  4. Pray. Sure, pray for the Jean family. Pray for Guyger. But pray for yourself, that you might see things differently. Pray that you won’t just see these examples of White Supremacy in our culture through white eyes.
  5. Lastly, assess your own understanding of forgiveness. What does forgiveness mean? How can this symbol and story be both a weapon and an invitation?
  6. If you are a white pastor and preaching this Sunday, highlight black and brown voices. Hold space, especially in dominantly white congregations, to truly hear the complexity and struggle of people of color to interpret these events in ways that lead to radical change. Extend the invitation to true repentance and not just cheap grace.
As white people we must begin to see how we expect black and brown people to forgive so easily. We have to acknowledge that our expectations of forgiveness—even framed theologically through the atonement in Jesus Christ—force people of color to do what they may not be able to do, or ready to do. We have to see that a hug and words of forgiveness are not the end goal. Rather, forgiveness in Christian theology is the catalyst for repentance, a literal change of life. This act cannot remain a symbol, something that lets us leave grace in the land of the cheap and easy way out. See that this bit of grace demands a different way of living in this world, not just for Guyger, but for all of us. And we must reassess our theology of forgiveness, understanding that, as Dr. Drew Hart said today on Twitter, forgiveness is not reconciliation. It may indeed invite the longer, and more difficult, work of reconciling white and black people, but in itself the act of forgiveness is not the result but the catalyst. And lastly, that we as white people must submit ourselves to the leadership of people of color. Otherwise, Jean’s prophetic action does nothing to change the current of White Supremacy around us.

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Those Who Disciple

In one of my first classes of seminary we were given a note card and asked to put down the names of two or three people who have been key in our faith life. It wasn’t a hard task, except for narrowing it down to just a few. The top three names were people in my home congregation that had shown grace, joy, wisdom, and a deep life of faith.

One was a mentor who had taught me to put a roof on a house by giving me a summer job. Yet, it wasn’t just a job. He took the wages he earned on each roof and put it toward a scholarship fund at the church.

Another was a deacon in the congregation who showed amazing self-knowledge, and demonstrated what service meant in so many ways.

The other was a woman who noticed how restless I was one Sunday. After church she asked if I wanted to learn how to light the Christ candle. Every kid in that church went to her for a big bear hug after worship every Sunday. She included me in church, and she showed us all how to be loving and joyful in everything.

The first two men on my list passed away almost twenty years ago. And I learned today that the joyful woman, so ready to embrace everyone, passed away last night.

All the people I named in that seminary class have now passed. And it gives me pause.

Have I lived up to the gifts they gave me so long ago?

Am I passing on those gifts?

My ministry now focuses on discipleship. So I often talk about the process of following Jesus. Yet, that is really only half the equation. The Christian life, while ultimately aimed at following Jesus, involves generations of followers before us. Though I read about who Jesus was and what Jesus taught in the scriptures, it is those around me who have taught me what it actually looks like to follow the Jesus of the Bible. Put another way, being a disciple of Jesus means being discipled by someone else.

For me there a many of those disciplers I should include on my list. Some have passed, and some I see only so often. Yet, each one has in some way reflected a part of Jesus in the flesh.

In these persons I have seen Jesus’ generosity, compassion, joy, and selflessness.

In others I have come to value deep study, love of the church, the beauty of ministry, and the centrality of prayer.

Today I mourn that some of these reflections of Jesus are no longer shining among us. And I feel a the weight of knowing that those of us who have been discipled by them have a great responsibility to mirror a bit more of Jesus in their absence.

I am grateful for the gifts they have given me, for I simply would not be the disciple of Jesus I am today without them.

Godspeed Naomi Robenstine. I patiently wait the resurrection, when I will once again cherish your hug.

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Bye Bye Christendom

I have tried to avoid much commentary on the presidential election. Quite frankly a lot is being said, and some of it quite good. There is, however, one thing hanging on the tip of my tongue after a week.

I hope this is the last nail in the coffin for American Christendom.

I believe that religious leaders who openly supported a candidate finally drove that nail home. Neither candidate presented a campaign that aligned with any tradition I know of. Trump’s obvious disdain for immigrants, women, the disabled, and blacks, let alone his serial philandering should have been enough. But Clinton had her own problems. I didn’t once hear my progressive peace church friends call out her hawkish approach to international affairs nor her neo-liberal economic policies that created much of the income disparity we see today. (To be fair, I have rarely heard those critiques of Obama who has deported more immigrants than any other president and has turned drone warfare into the newest tool in American Imperialism.) Instead, our religious leaders stepped up behind the nominee of both parties ignoring such glaring inconsistencies. In a way, American Christianity has finally become more identified with the Democratic and Republican parties than it has with the teachings of Jesus. And in so doing, the church has fallen lock step in line with the vision of the American Experiment. It has given up its social vision for humanity to the political mechanisms set in place over two hundred years ago.

After the great wars in Europe, sparked by the fissures of the Reformation, the Founding Fathers sought a path for the new nation that would shift the church from its once significant place in social unity. Having witnessed horrific violence in the name of religion, the early American leadership turned to the new theories of social contract, put forth by Enlightenment philosophers, to design a government that would mediate between the differences naturally a part of every human community. Before the Constitution, religion was literally the binding practices for any society. And in Christendom Europe this was even more the case, such that as new forms of Christianity began to slip the singular bond of the Roman church, violence erupted. Princes and clergy aligned, later in what was called the Peace of Westphalia, to secure local sovereignty. So when the Founding Fathers set to form a new experiment, they did so intentionally breaking the link between Church and governance.

Fast forward two hundred years and the mediating role of the Church in society was nearly replaced by the government. Instead of presenting a holistic social vision based on the teachings of Jesus, the church gave over much of the binding work of a mediating institution to the government. However, in the late twentieth century, particularly with the Eisenhower presidency, politicians began to court religious leaders to legitimize the usurping
role of the government. By the start of the twenty-first century blocks of Christianity were solidly within the camps of one political party or another. Pollsters and politicians alike began categorizing voting blocks, like the evangelical parts of the church, as solely beholden to one party.

Now, in this election these voting blocks followed through with their quest to find their views legitimized by the only mediating institution left in the country. And they did so proclaiming the betrayal of their values by their deafening silence about the inconsistencies in their own candidate.

It is my hope and prayer that in the postmortem review of the 2016 election that Christian leaders will finally see their own duplicity in the quest to keep their party in power. And in so doing, we all will see that the politicians who count on us to vote in particular blocks do so only feigning moral clarity, and are just as interested in political power over others.

When we finally see that, we will come to terms with the glaring contradiction to the example of Christ himself, who sought not power over others but a kind of power that willingly took the servants towel.

It is my prayer, then, that the American Church will finally stop seeking legitimacy from the political process, cease trying to enforce a moral vision for the country through political power, and return to being the church. We will reach out to the marginalized, refusing the racist and classist hierarchy of American culture. We will care for the immigrants as scripture commands regarding the stranger in the land, rejecting the fear mongering of politicians and pundits. We will care for our neighbors, even those most different from us, contrary to the elitism of our capitalist economy that teaches us to see them as people to be out done or threats to our economic security. We will open our homes, share our wealth, and protect the most vulnerbale in the compassionate spirit of Christ, contrary to the divisive nature of our political structures. And we will do all of this, not because we want to enforce a kind of moral vision on the country, but because it is simply our civic duty not as Americans, but as citizens of heaven.

So if you are relieved by outcome of the election, or if you are disheartened, take a moment to consider how your own values were compromised in the casting of your vote. Consider how politicians have co-opted the church for their own gain. And consider how the church has increasingly become irrelevant to an entire generation of young people who see right through the power games and recognize that the church has become just as obsessed with power over others as the worst of politicians. And then, consider how we might all return to the valuable mission of God in the world, where all peoples are made one again in the only true mediating presence of Jesus. And finally, may we let go of Christendom and return to being the church.


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A Rule of Life?

I recently ran across a devotional/planning calendar called Sacred Ordinary Days. There are a lot of these kinds of planners on the market, but what I was immediately attracted to was that this calendar/tool is based on the liturgical year. It’s a big book, to be honest, and has pages for months, weeks, and days. On the weekly pages it lists the Revised Common Lectionary readings and on the daily pages it lists the Book of Common Prayer readings for Daily Prayer. Though I often work with scripture, I was drawn back to the idea that I would be reading texts with others and it would not just be limited to the scriptures I am working with. (If you want to check it out, go to http://www.sacredordinarydays.com)

In the opening pages the calendar designer invites the user to create a Rule of Life. This is not a new idea. In fact, spiritual directors often coach their directees to do something very similar. More than that, religious communities have often created a rule for their life together.

At our recent Annual Conference for the Church of the Brethren, I realized just how much we expect structures and beliefs to hold us together. In church-y language, we expect polity and policy to hold us together as a denomination. But even the most casual of observers would tell you, polity is often not strong enough to hold such a diverse community together. This is, in part, due to the fact that we as a denomination have very little common practice. The lowest common denominator is that we gather for worship on Sunday mornings. And yet, even then the practices of worship vary so much from congregation to congregation that we cannot even find touch points for our common life.

So I began wondering what a Rule of Life would look like for the Brethren. Could we construct a set of common practices that would ground a geographically dispersed people that spans several cultural and theological communities?

In the not so distant past it has been asserted that we need a set of core values or beliefs to keep us together. However, this idea often runs into two major problems. First, many see such a doctrinal core as too creedal. For a non-creedal tradition such a distillation of beliefs is often too divisive to do much good. Second, such an approach ignores the simple fact that values and beliefs emerge out of habits that themselves emerge from regular practice.

In the early centuries of the Middle Ages, Benedict of Nursia understood this beliefs from habits aspect of the Christian life. He composed a Rule for his community that established clear practices that were intended to form a certain kind of person. Of course, in the process he also interpreted these practices so that the monks who followed the Rule could understand what was intended– humility, stability, and prayer. Soon after, Pope Gregory understood the unifying effect of Benedict’s Rule and established it as the Rule for the western monks. It became the common practices of monasteries across Europe. And not long after that, monks formed by the shared life established by the Rule took on key leadership and began reforming the church structures. To this day, several monastic communities follow the Rule, and have found in it’s classical wisdom an impulse for renewal.

So, can we imagine a common Rule of Life for this people called the Brethren?

Here are a couple of key practices I have begun to sketch out.

1) Grounded in Scripture– those who submit to this Rule covenant to engage in a daily and weekly rhythm of studying and praying the scriptures. While many do this as part of their devotional practice, followers of the Rule would commit to study the texts outlined in the Revised Common Lectionary. What is more, they commit to praying the scriptures outlined in the Book of Common Prayer for Daily prayer.

2) Rooted in Worship- Followers of the Rule commit to regular participation in worship with a congregation. Two parts of this are key. First, it is to be a practice of corporate worship, and not something one does individually. Second, while the practices of worship may vary, the common thread between all these communities will be the use of the Revised Common Lectionary. Here, the wider church will be reading the same scriptures regardless of where the congregations are rooted. What is more, followers of the Rule will have been reading these same texts throughout the week, and will find a common, public proclamation of scriptures they have been reading privately during the week.

3) Reaching the surrounding community- Followers of the Rule will find or make regular opportunities to minister in their local community. Such practices of service are easy to find through other community organizations, but the key is to participate monthly, if not weekly. I would want to see this involve others, even if they are not practitioners of the Rule. For compassion and service are things not done well in isolation.

4) Shared meals- Followers of the Rule will have monthly common meals with others. These are not just social gatherings, but an intentional practice of sharing– sharing food, sharing prayers, and accountability. Key questions should emerge in the practice of sharing a meal in this manner, questions Brethren long ago asked one another before the Lord’s Supper or Love Feast. “How are you with God? How are you in love and community with your sisters and brothers?” We should include also a question about how or if people are keeping with the Rule.

This is by no means a fixed assertion, but a making public my own desire to find a Rule of Life. But at the same time, I do not want such a Rule to be something of my own creation. I am too Anabaptist to assume that others do not have something to offer or challenge.

So what say ye?


Filed under Discipleship, NuDunkers

Our Moral Calculus

I have been thinking a lot about privilege, race, economics, and our culture. Some of my thoughts emerge when I catch up on the news, and others come as I read the important work by others more intelligent that I.

However, the news of the recent sentencing of a young white man for the sexual assault of a young woman was the final straw. The conviction carried the minimum sentence of 2-3 years, but the judge gave him six months in the county jail. While I am sure that any time in jail is enough for any person to see the violence of their actions, in this case the rape of a woman, it is all too plain that as a young white college man he was given the benefit of the doubt. And as has been all too plain, that same benefit is not awarded women, blacks, latinos, or sexual minorities.

The struggle for equality in our time is one that in some ways builds on the advances for minorities in the last century while at the same time eclipsing those achievments. For instance, it is all too common to hear a white man say plainly “I am not racist.” Such a statement is probably true (though even saying as much is a recognition that racism is implied), but that very self-perception is based on the idea that racists are easy to identify– or that they participate in explicit and personal actions of hate based on race. Today, however, we are confronted by the myriad of ways racism, misogyny, and fear of sexual minorities is shaped in us by cultural practices that work below our subconscious.

Compare one of the young black men shot on the street by police. Their communities try to rehumanize these young men, saying just what the dad of the young white rapist did– namely that they are good kids, who made a poor decision. White pundits often discredit such stories by saying that the young men were on drugs, but in the case of the white man who was intoxicated it was just a youthful indiscretion. Just because the rapist is a white college student, he looks like he has so much potential. And even the minimum sentence took into account his lack of a criminal record, but still treated the severity of the crime. Because he was white and looked to have potential, he was granted a dramatically lenient six months.

For all of us white men, who are “not racist” or not prone to misogyny, or “not homophobic” we finally have to realize just how much leeway we are granted simply because of our skin color and gender. Not only are we innocent until proven guilty (a luxury many blacks, latinos, LGBT persons are granted in name only), but we are even given the future benefit of the doubt when we are indeed guilty.

We must come to terms, as a society, that we in fact do make a moral calculus that is based on race, gender, and sexual identity. And that calculus, as Drew Hart has named it, is a hierarchical one. White men on top, and the rest fall out somewhere below.

When we employ this calculus, we overlook that sexual predators are more likely to be white straight men preying on children in church than they are transgendered persons lurking in bathrooms. We conveniently omit the fact that the so-called black-on-black crime rates are statistically the same as white-on-white crime. And because white men have such potential in our culture, the accounts of women who have been sexually assaulted are attempts to falsely discredit men until a jury finds enough proof to the contrary. And even then, as we have seen this week, even the testimony of the victim, bravely read in court at the sentencing, is not enough to actually enforce the law.

This hierarchical moral calculus, despite our overt assertions to the contrary, instills in us a subconscious story that allows these things to continue. And while we may not be racists, we allow these cultural factors to cloud our judgment, and the same is true in regards to women and many others.

This, to me, seems the heart of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7. Many today latch onto Jesus’ words about judging others, but the remainder of the passage are striking. If we are ready to point out the sins of another, the speck of dust in their eye, we must first remove the plank in our own. For those of us who have significant cultural privilege, that plank in our eye is huge. And we have grown so accustomed to seeing the world in those terms, adjusting our perceptions to account for our skewed and fallen vision of the world, we barely notice just how privileged we are. And truthfully, it may not be out of our own doing. As the classical tradition regarding the Fall says so plainly, when humanity sinned against God it did not just affect individuals, it was cosmological. The ramifications of our separation from God are not our personal doing, but are true nonetheless. Sanctification, becoming like Jesus, is the one remedy and it takes work. And at times, like the camel passing through the eye of a needle, is a painful struggle. But just because it is painful does not mean we should cower in the face of significant transformations.

We must change.

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The Church is Dead, Long Live the Church

The church is dead. Or at least every marker we would hold up as a sign of life is in decline. Membership is down across the board, and worship attendance is but of fraction of what it once was. Budgets are in decline as congregations and denominations struggle to find ways to support their ministries and leaders.

On top of that, nearly every denomination is fighting within itself. Leaders and laity a like are asking not “if we split” but talking about “when we split.”

Of course, this is not news. Even if saying it so bluntly causes you to gasp, we have known that the church is dead for some time, and known it deep in our bones. Each year the anxiety builds towards budgeting season, and every pastoral transition brings a whole new season of “visioning.” Lay leaders are hard to come by, and those who do say “yes” seem to be the same ones year in and year out. Words like change, relevance, adaptation, and even mission fill board minutes and sermon manuscripts in nearly every congregation. When sociological research confirms again and again that the US is growing less religious each year, church leaders scramble to find new and attractive ways to stem the tides.

Denominational statistics confirm what many know from social research, namely that our members are aging. Membership numbers across the board are in decline, and have been for some time. Of course the subsequent financial decline is following. Congregations are often faced with mounting costs— property, utilities, and staff salaries—and must choose between keeping the lights on or keeping the pastor at full time or continuing important ministries and allocations. Institutional systems constructed with financial windfalls fueled by the baby boom and peak numbers of church attendance now find themselves struggling to maintain staff, program, and property. In the last decade nearly every mainline denomination has undergone significant restructuring in order to responsibly meet the new financial realities.

All the while church leaders, both evangelical and mainline, seem flustered by the emerging realities, especially the growing marginalization of the church in general. The new normal is a constant state of anxious panic.

In cultures governed by monarchies every change of leadership was a microcosm of panic. Each time a king or queen died, there was a moment of possible anarchy as the power changed hands. Lodging the succession of the crown in family lineages was one way to keep that window of transition as small as possible. A phrase quickly emerged to help the people stem the moment of anxiety. When the monarch died, it would be proclaimed around the realm “the king is dead, long live the king.” Though there were sure to be changes as a result of the transition, the lines of continuity were well in place. The people need not panic, or act from their anxiety.

To be honest, we have very little that assures us as the church of any continuity. The modern structures of church life like denominations, congregations, and even church buildings no longer provide us with the sense of security and continuity they once did. More simply, the ways of “being church” are dead or dying.

So we panic. We act from our anxiety, as if the future of the faith depends on our ability to shore things up, or change things to meet the times.

The church is dead, long live the church. That is now my new motto. As a historian I can point to any age and name the ways the church was different from the age before. And yet, when I step back and look at the longer trajectory of history, the church continued on. That was, for instance, the brilliance of the Reformation. Amidst the dramatic cultural, political, economic, and religious change, leaders like Luther were able to root the continuity of the faith through the scriptures. While everything around them was in turmoil, there was at least one line that could be drawn back in time to the first Christians. As the religious loyalties of the princes shifted, and thus the official religion of the territory changed with him, the people could still find their roots of the faith in the scripture.

I am finding myself asking not “what needs to change” but rather “what keeps us rooted in the long history of the church.” In other words— The church is dead, long live the church.

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War and the Stories We Tell

I would rather call it Armistice Day, truth be told. I’ve got nothing against veterans. I simply want us to celebrate the coming of peace, even through the horrors of war, rather than celebrate the fighting. I wonder if we called it Armistice Day our “thank you” to vets and troops might not sound so hollow and trite. I wonder if we as civilians might have a better sense of what these men and women have done, what the nation has asked them to do, and what it all has done to them. Today we have heard the stories of vets today, and some have even told the lesser known stories of Conscientious Objectors.

I have been an objector to war for about as long as I have had to think about it. I am a child of the first Gulf War. I can remember the press conferences shown on school televisions where the generals commented on the videos of smart bombs crashing into buildings and bridges. “Here you are about to see the luckiest guy in Iraq,” one general said as a car moved across a bridge that was dust seconds later. I even found myself in debates about the merits of war and the Christian response on the bus rides home.

We are told that today’s army is a professional one. My father’s generation is the last one to see a true draft. Since then all our combat has been carried on the shoulders of those who supposedly choose to fight. Even when I signed up for selective service there was no place to signal my objection to war, no box to check, no line on which I could make my case. Yet I signed up anyway, putting the letters CO in the upper corner in the unlikely event of a draft. It was meaningless really. Two letters out of place would not really signal anything if my number did come up. I know of others who refused to sign up altogether. I calculated the risk, thinking a draft would never come in my lifetime. And so far, several wars later, my calculations have proven true.

And yet, I just spent my late nights writing the story of a soldier. My wife’s grandfather served as in a tank destroyer battalion as a gunner in the last years of World War II. He crossed into France less than six months after the horrific battles of D-Day, and joined the push east towards Berlin. He witnessed the V-2 rockets pulse overhead, saw the trees shatter in the snowy Hurtgen Forest during the Battle of the Buldge, endured shelling and hid from snipers, and even met the Russians as they neared Berlin. After peace came to Europe he stood guard over German Prisoners of War on their way to Nuremberg.

I poured over After Action Reports that calculated the progress of war in map coordinates, shells fired, and the nameless tallies of the wounded. I read unit histories that recounted the decisions of combat and the movement of troops. And I learned the names of the young men of his unit awarded stars for valor and of men killed. Honestly, I tried to tell a war story as a labor of love. I wanted to find out what this gentle and loving man experienced as a soldier in the second great war. And I wanted to do it as an objector.

When I talked to Fritz and asked about his military days I never sensed a spark of pride. It was simply what he did. He seemed never to want thanks or praise. He had fired that large gun on the destroyer, and seen his friends wounded. His story never seemed to be one of glory, just truth. Even the few hand written pages of his service are matter of fact, no details beyond the dates and places. I told a similar story, as a historian, without judgement so that those of us who love him as a milk truck driver, loving father and grandfather, might not lose his story to the passing of time and his memory.

In his book “The Things they Carried,” Vietnam veteran Tim O”Brien says that “in a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes a cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, expect maybe ‘Oh.’” (84)

That is how I feel after hearing the war stories of Fritz and the Conscientious Objectors. It is true, I can only say “Oh.” For many on either side of the decision to fight these stories are a rally cry. Through their celebratory moralizing these story tellers try to stir in their hearing a similar passion, for either peace or war. I find no such moral in either story. In fact, I mourn either kind. For there are many whose conscience knows no choice. Some men fought and some others served in other ways. Neither seem to have had the same luxury of choice as I did when I wrote those two simple letters on my selective service card. They did what they thought they had to do when nations fought nations. I don’t know if Fritz would have chosen otherwise had he known the stories of war objectors, just as I don’t know if those objectors would have chosen otherwise if they hadn’t heard of other options. Yet I am not sure if they really had a choice to begin with. All they could do was follow their conscience and pray they came out on the other side when the fighting stopped.

Today, we appear to have a choice. Some serve in other ways while others join up. Yet, it seems that there are still no options. Nations still war against nations, and the threats to life and prosperity still remain. And in it all fear runs deep.

I have three sons who I pray will choose not fight, even when there seems no other option. I pray they too will write those two meaningless letters on their selective service registration. Yet I want them to hear the stories of both kinds of heroes that had no choice— those who objected to fighting and those who fought. For in hearing the moral-less stories of war and alternative service, I want them to choose to conquer with love, and the towel that dries feet, rather than sword. I want them to build rather than destroy. And yet, I know they have no real choice. I want them to ask for another story.

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