Friday, August 21, 2015

God's Verdict: Who Was Guilty?

     Another highly publicized court case, another verdict, or lack of one, the news received with delight and relief by some, greeted with frustration and anger by others.  The lawyers did their thing, the jury did the best they could.  Who really was guilty?  Who really was innocent?

     What was God’s verdict?  Who was guilty and who was innocent – in God’s eyes?  God, after all, would know the truth and not be shackled by loopholes or procedure.  God was there, at the crime scene, and God was inside both men’s heads and hearts.

     We would want God to be on our side – and God actually is on our side.  God is also on the other side’s side.  God loves all, not just equally, but beyond our most expansive imagining.  God wills nothing less than the rich flourishing of all people.  What the police cam and forensic evidence can’t show was the crushing sorrow in God’s heart when it all came down.

     God can do what the laws of the land cannot do – and I am sure this is God’s verdict on this controversial trial:  the officer was guilty, and so was the shooting victim.  And so are all of us.  Even if you don’t believe in God, you can perhaps agree that all of us are guilty.  We contribute to, and are simultaneously victims of a society that is afflicted with fear.  We believe that force is the solution to conflict.  We are obsessed with violence.  We do not trust or even know people who are different.  Even the most determined among us are a little bit racist.  There is a problem between the police and people we’ve not worked out yet.  We sigh or get angry about verdicts, wishing our side had emerged on top, all the while forgetting that as long as there are sides, we are all losers.

     The man who was shot was guilty, getting into a mess he could have avoided, reacting in fear or aggressiveness (which are nearly identical), with his own prejudices and faulty judgments, a broken person, a sinner (we’d say in religion).  And so was the officer.  A broken person, a sinner, as prejudiced as any of us, judgments flawed, bedeviled by his own fears.

     Here’s the other thing God knows.  That officer was a precious, wonderful person, made in God’s image, with real innocence, a dreamer, beloved by family, a man who nobly chose a career in public service.  A good little boy still lingers inside the grown man.  If you could get to know him personally, you’d love him.  If you could rewind, he would hope good would have come out of the encounter; he didn’t want anybody to die.

     Same for the deceased.  A beautiful human being, created by God, gifted, much loved, with an innocent kind of goodness and hopes of a good life.  A kindhearted little boy dwelled inside the grown man.  If you knew him well enough, you’d love him.  If you could rewind, he would have wanted a good outcome that night.

     Same for all of us, and our world.  Our world, and life in it, is so beautiful – which is why we grieve its loss, and why we’re protective and look for simple wins and fixes.  We are all so fragile.  God made it that way, so we’d be tender with each other. 

     You know all this is true, because you know yourself.  You make a mess of things, and you’re riddled with fear and you make lousy choices sometimes.  But you’re good, you love and have visions of wonder.  The grinning child in you has never packed up and left.

     We live in a fallen world, where confusion, hurt, loss and injustice happen inevitably.  So much then gets worse because we paint everything black and white, good guys and bad guys, the guilty and the innocent, the blamed and the blamers.  Juries and judges have to do their thing; they can’t say Both are guilty, both are innocent, and so are we.  Trial verdicts miss this every time, and we can’t change that. 

     But we can change ourselves.  We can see as God sees.  What if we all realized and remembered that everybody is broken, and everybody is amazing?  We are family, or we might be.  In every tussle in our family, I find I am right, and I am also so wrong, and in divulging both I can love.  Call me naïve, but I believe we can love.  We might preemptively fend off some crimes, and have fewer trials.  God, we know, would love that.

 

 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Race - a Time to Listen

Naively, many Americans thought we figured out the problem of race when the Civil Rights laws were passed, or maybe later when schools were integrated, or maybe more recently when Obama was elected President. But 2015 has been the year we've been befuddled, numbed, exasperated, and driven to the brink of resigned cynicism by the realization that black-white relationships are riddled with pain, confusion, anger, and mistrust.
   It occurs to me that problems creep into all our relationships when we make a few fundamental errors, like (1) I assume I know how you feel, or (2) I presume to know what your life is like without being there myself, or (3) If there is a problem, it must be your fault, or (4) My life, my perspective, my feelings are normal, and yours are the outliers, or (5) I tell you that you should feel differently, or worst of all (6) I simply won't listen. A recipe for disaster in a marriage, among friends or family - and in our country when it comes to race.
   The Bible's persistent project is about getting inside the skin of other people. God did this in Jesus: instead of treating us as distant failures, God lived our life from the inside out. Jesus talks (no, he listens!!) to a Samaritan woman, tax collectors, a thief on the cross, Romans, and all the people nobody else listened to.
   The hardest, most painful book I've read all summer is Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. With searing candor and rising intensity, he shares what it feels like to be black in America. He will make you shudder, tremble, and blush - and then a light bulb pops on every other page or so.
   Coates explores why young street blacks can be loud and rude, why blacks fear the police, what it's like to be viewed with suspicion no matter what you do, how "nobody can be Jackie Robinson every day," how parents tell their children they must be on their guard and be 'twice as good' or they will discredit all blacks - but white parents don't tell this to their children. A friend of his was killed by a plainclothes police officer in a cruel, ridiculous case - and Coates says "he was killed not by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all its fears."
   With every fiber of our being, we white people leap to defend ourselves, to explain why Coates is really wrong, to declare "I'm not racist." But in the Scriptures, listening, not defensive chatter, is the beginning of wisdom. Jesus' brother said "Be quick to listen, slow to speak" (James 1:19). "The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice" (Proverbs 12:15). Paul urges us to "Weep with those who weep" (Romans 12:15). Building relationships and community requires nothing less.
   It's also interesting that Coates doesn't ask the white community to do anything at all.  He's not blaming so much as simply telling what it's like, narrating his tory - and it's hard to deny anybody the right to tell how they experience the world.  When he speaks of "fear" it's white fear, it's black fear, it's everybody's fear.  He does redefine the American "dream," in a way that is haunting and closer to some deep reality than we'd care to admit.
   People want to rush out and do something this week about race. But how do you build trust in a week? I enjoy several friendships with African-American clergy; we trust and love each other. One thing I know for sure: it takes time. I've been at it for 30 years. And something else: it is mine to do more listening than talking, and it is not mine to offer fixes. White people have always taken charge, haven't they? Ours is to listen, try to understand, feel pain, let somebody else lead on this, and then move forward courageously and hopefully together.
   So start now to build relationships that will matter later on, and we'll need them later on. And of course, pray - which can be less of "Lord, hear our prayer," and more "Speak, Lord, your servants are listening."

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Familiarity Breeds Liking


     In college, I signed up for a class called “Social Psychology.”  The professor must have been amazing, for I went to only one lecture before I had to drop-add to make my schedule work – and I remember his subject:  “Familiarity Breeds Liking.”  Yes, we’ve heard familiarity breeds contempt, but statistics and common sense and experience prove that familiarity does breed liking.  You get to know someone, you perceive he’s doing his best, she has struggles like you do, you listen and get beneath the superficial – and you begin to like the other person.  Or maybe even love.

     Most of what bedevils us these days can be chalked up to a simple lack of familiarity with others.  The other day, a white guy explained to me why he owns and cherishes the Confederate flag, and then he ventured an opinion:  “I bet most black people don’t mind this flag at all.”  I asked him if he had actually asked any black people about this, and of course he hadn’t.  I have, and after a few dozen such inquiries, the verdict is unanimous:  this flag means hate, it arouses fear, it wounds.  Interestingly, my friend with the flag is really a fine, ethical person.  He just wasn’t familiar with enough people.

     The ruckus around same-sex marriage is similar.  In many (but not all) churches like mine, this subject is being debated.  When someone says to me, I am opposed to same-sex marriage, the Bible is against it, I’m sorry but it’s just wrong, I ask, Do you know any same-sex couples who wish to be (or are) married?  Have you asked them, What is your life like?  Why do you want to marry?  What does God mean to you and your partner?  Inevitably the answer is No.

     Then I know liberals who are advocates of same-sex marriage, and they generally view their foes as narrow-minded bigots.  I ask them, Do you know any conservatives on this?  Have you asked them Why do you feel the way you feel?  What does God mean to you in all this?  What do you fear, and what are you protecting?  Inevitably the answer is No.  Lacking familiarity, we do not like, and therefore we certainly can’t love.

     Guns:  we have a standoff out there between those who loathe guns and can’t fathom why we can’t get some controls in place or even get rid of weapons entirely.  But they generally only talk among themselves, and do not know or listen to gun owners or members of the NRA.  We may think we know others, but usually all we’ve seen are caricatures:  the worst NRA spokesman is the one we’ve heard, the most naïve gun opponent is the one we’ve heard quoted.  No wonder we never move toward any rational solutions, but only talk past each other with ever intensifying rancor.

     Race is that complication that just won’t go away.  We watch the news, we shudder over Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and naively assume Charlotte could never become another byword for racial strife.  But in this city, we do not know one another, we do not trust one another, and therefore we do not love one another.  Familiarity breeds liking.  I challenged my congregation this past Sunday to make just one friend of a different color.  Our church alone, if we made these five thousand friendships, could alter the equation on race, unity and peace in our city, especially as we get closer to the Kerrick-Ferrell trial. 

     The police have become targets of derision, or at other times support for less than the best reasons.  But do we know policemen, by name?  Do we know their personal stories?  In Charlotte, “Cops and Barbers” is a marvelous initiative whereby we just try to get to know each other.  Our new police chief, Kerr Putney, has a riveting personal story that absolutely would cause you to like and even love – and trust him. 

     Is the solution to our problems more force? Or litigation? Or better policies?  Or is it simply realizing my college professor was right:  Familiarity breeds liking.  If we like each other, and even love, we will figure out how to solve homelessness, inadequate health care, substandard education, and crime, for I won’t let anyone I love sleep under a bridge or not get to the doctor or go to school without lunch or supplies.

     I applaud the removal of the Confederate flag from the capitol in my hometown of Columbia, and some of the other changes in law and policy.  Symbols matter.  But the heart of all the problems whose symbols we struggle to address is terribly simple, entirely solvable, and excruciatingly difficult:  we are not familiar with one another.  Only when we find ways to know the other, only when we get over the childhood rule “Don’t talk to strangers,” only when we listen, find the unlikely friend, and stop chatting only with those who share our bias and ideology will we ever have any constructive change and peace in our society.  Call me naïve, but familiarity really does breed liking, and builds community and therefore love.

 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Love Wins

Friday's Supreme Court decision was cheered by many, and rainbow flags flew everywhere. Others were grieved - and that was just out there in the culture. Within the church, we sensed a similar variance of emotion over the decision.
   The Supreme Court establishes the law of the land - but has no say in what a church will or won't do. People have always gotten married without the church, but we are special stewards of the covenant of marriage; couples with thin or no belief at all are fond of marrying in chapels and sanctuaries.
   We are interested in the legalities of marriage. But our business is sacramental in nature. We think not of legal bonds but divine blessing; we dream of couples who are serious about God, in their lives and relationship; we do what we do best when couples who sense they are being called by God into a lifetime of the vocation that is holy marriage.
   There has been and will be disagreement within the church on whom to marry, and whom not to marry. Friday's decision might have shifted that conversation a smidgeon but didn't resolve anything. So what is a church to do?
   "Love wins" was the victory cry among the "winners" on Friday. But in my sermon on Sunday, I said that in the church, within the Body of Christ, we don't have and don't want winners and losers. When there are "sides," God is saddened.
   So how will we be the church at this turning point in history? My dream is that we will love, that Love really will win. What I mean is that we will recognize that we disagree. And we will love, and listen, stretch and learn, and strive to be holy together. We can show the world that love and reconciliation are real. You don't have to get mad and pack your bags and exit if things don't go your way.
   Mind you, the utter, non-negotiable bedrock of the church isn't the wedding policy. It's our belief in God, our trust in Jesus Christ, our vision of serving God in the real world with passion and immense love. United Methodism's 1996 General Conference's motto was: "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity." We may not even agree 100% on what is a non-essential. But "in all things, charity" bears no exceptions.
   God's people have always had disagreement on various issues. Knowing how to love through disagreement is a cardinal rule of Methodism. John Wesley wrote, "Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without a doubt, we may!"
   And we can. And we will. We will stick together. We will listen, learn, strive to understand, and never flaunt a victory or sob in defeat, especially if the victory or defeat happens outside the church in a court of law. We will respect the prayerful consciences of others. We will do the one thing we are sure Jesus asks of us, and enables us to do. We will love.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Spirituality of How We Come to Church on Easter & Christmas Eve

Lines forming for Easter services at Myers Park last year.

Christmas Eve & Easter Crowds
     A few days after Christmas Eve, someone from out of town visiting family who’d come to one of our services sent me a frustrated note that said “Your sanctuary isn’t big enough to hold all the people who come.”  Believe me, we know.  It's maybe worse at Easter.
     My first thought is to say Thank God so many people come.  What if we only had one service that was half-full?  People might get diverted and forget about God in June or September.  But on Christmas and Easter, even the thinly churched know it matters to be there.
     And there aren’t as many C&E (Christmas and Easter only!) people as you’d imagine.  Extended families swarm in together – so you get twelve Smiths instead of the usual four.  I love seeing families I know with grandparents, grown siblings and their children, an aunt or cousin on Christmas Eve.
     You can’t believe how diligently our staff and dedicated volunteers work to make things go as smoothly and comfortably as possible.  Many of us work from 11am past midnight on Christmas Eve, a day the rest of you guys get to be home or travelling – and we love it.  We have unpaid volunteers who are with us much or all of that time!  We have chairs arranged and the video feed live; we provide extra bulletins, cider, lots of ushers and other friendly faces to welcome and guide, hand out and collect thousands of candles, sing in amazing choirs.  Instead of one or two services, we start at 1pm and go continuously through midnight. 
     But there isn’t enough room in the inn – and so people show up 15 or even 30 minutes early only to hear the disappointing words We’re full, There’s seating in Jubilee Hall, etc.  Feelings vary.  Some totally understand and even cheerfully stroll over to join the others.  Some are sad, a few express their annoyance.  Easter is even harder.  Twelve hours worth of services wouldn’t make sense. 
     Our options?  We could expand the building – which would cost tens of millions of dollars, and I predict we’d still be more than full.  We can continue to perfect the kinds of things we’re doing.  Any folks who want to help us are welcome!  Extra hands and friendly faces: we never have too many.

A Spirituality of How We Come to Church
      I think there is a spirituality of how we come to church on Christmas Eve and Easter that is worth pondering.  Sometimes it’s a little jarring to sing “Silent Night… All is Calm,” right after there has been stress at the entrance, tension trying to park, resentment over saved seats, and coping with a stranger who seems flat out inconsiderate.  How can we maintain a peaceful, loving, holy equilibrium in the press of the crowd?  Maybe you pray before you come, maybe you breathe deeply while you’re in the thick of things.
     Gratitude is always lovely.  Thank the person collecting your candle.  Thank the choir member filing past you.  Thank the policeman waving you across the dark street.  Thank the maintenance staff cleaning up behind you.
     Our church claims Radical Hospitality as one of our highest values.  What would it mean to exercise Radical Hospitality on Christmas Eve and Easter morning?  At our 3:00 service, the overflow in Jubilee Hall was higher by far than we’d ever had – so all the chairs got full.  A couple of us clergy noticed chairs on the stage, set up for the next service, and started schlepping them down so people could sit.  I got several admiring notes for this: Oh, Dr. Howell even schlepped chairs!  

     I think I want to give every able-bodied person permission to schlep chairs – and perhaps even to yield the chairs they are already sitting in.  I was raised to believe men especially were supposed to be gallant and gentlemanly – so you do things like hold the door, schlep a chair for someone, or even yield your seat.  Many times I have seen an elderly person hobbling, or someone with a walker hunting a seat, and able bodied people just sit.  This makes me sad – for the elderly but also for the able bodied.  There is a joy in yielding, in caring for a stranger, in embracing discomfort so someone else can be comfortable.  After all, that’s the Christmas and Easter message, isn’t it? – that God Almighty left the comforts of heaven to endure discomfort in a manger and then on a cross, all out of love for us strangers.
     When I read about a crowd trampling somebody at a European soccer match, I think of our services and wonder if somebody will be injured.  Can those who are about to enter leave enough space for those trying to exit?  You can’t get in anyhow until the others get out.  Our choir has great difficulty getting to the choir room for a break before the next service.  Can we kindly step aside instead of pressing forward?
     Much frustration arises over the saving of seats.  It’s understandable.  But those of us who’ve thought a lot about it think it’s unfair for one family member to come an hour early and stake out an entire pew for the other 7 who come 3 minutes before the service starts, while people who come 30 minutes ahead of time can’t get a seat at all.  To me, it seems reasonable for a group to come in and save one seat for the driver who dropped them off.  We would prefer that you really need to come and sit in your seat, all of you, not just one – out of consideration for others.


Easter is Coming
     My hope and prayer for the souls of our people would be that Christmas Eve and Easter morning might be times we exercise the virtue of holy hospitality.  It’s not me, me, me, us, us, us, my family, my family, I want the best seat, I want a seat, me, me, me – but we find ways to show kindness to others, to strangers.
     Are you one God might be calling to be swift to give up a seat for someone else?  Are you one who might be a hospitality helper with our current volunteers and staff?  Are you one who goes directly to Jubilee Hall?  Can we live into and exhibit a disposition of love, compassion and peace?  We love it that so many care enough to worship.  Thanks for understanding, for wrestling together with how to make it work – and we all pray for a calm, respectful, joyful celebration come Easter morning, and next Christmas Eve.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Taking Both Sides in the Middle East

(This op-ed appears in The Charlotte Observer, Aug. 6, 2014)

     Is it possible to be friends with those who are enemies with one another? Can you support both sides in an intense conflict? Don’t you have to choose sides?

This seemingly theoretical inquiry has become real for me, and I suspect for many of us, over the past few weeks. I found myself downtown on a Sunday afternoon recently, showing up, as I very much wanted to, at a rally in support of Israel. I learned there was another group in Freedom Park, braving the blazing sun just like the pro-Israel group, but in support of the Palestinians and advocating for peace. I would have liked to join their group too.

I’m no expert on military policy, or security measures, or the best way to fight back if you are oppressed, or attacked. I harbor a few private, amateur opinions like everyone else. But as a theologian, and as someone who dreams of finding a way to love people on both sides, I can only grieve, and never cheer, when rockets are launched and then tanks roll in response – and innocent civilians and even gutsy soldiers die. It must grieve God’s heart, it must be appalling to all people with a shred of compassion in their hearts, when weapons clash and life is lost.

Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Whose fault is this? Blame is the bugaboo of hardened hearts. Ask the little children of divorcing parents, Whose fault is it? The children are not much interested in such a question. They love mom and dad. They want peace in the family.

We want peace in the Middle East, and in all the world’s distressed, agonizing places. Not that Hamas or Netanyahu or anybody else in power will listen, but we still must think and talk out loud about the way to peace, and hope more people join in, and work for peace, demand peace, refuse to settle for anything less than peace.

Too much blame to assign

Peace cannot begin until we stop placing blame – and this is the hardest part of all, not because the blame belongs over there, or over here, but because there is just so much blame all over the place. We live in a broken world. We are fallen people. The enemy is us, the enemy is them, the enemy is all of us, the enemy is a world out of sync with its Creator and one another.

Peace requires us to stop picking sides. Peace begins when we join both sides. Peace goes off-sides, and listens, and understands. Israel and Gaza, like husbands and wives and kids on playgrounds, have their deeply felt reasons, fears and wounds. There has been immense injustice.

Peace can’t happen without forgiveness, and we aren’t skilled at forgiving. Forgiveness is having the right to blame or even inflict punishment, but instead choosing compassion, and frankly, peace.

That day in downtown Charlotte I tried to think about Reconciliation. How do Israelis and Gazans reconcile, especially after so much abominable and evil bloodshed? This is humanly impossible – like so much that bedevils us, be it addiction or rancor or our culture run amok with greed. We need some power beyond ourselves, namely the God whose good name gets trampled in the mud on the world stage. God is invoked on this or the other side, but I wonder if this is what Moses had in mind when he told Jews, Christians, Muslims, and whomever else not to take the Lord’s name in vain. The true God is the God of all people.

Or if we cannot invoke the power of God, I wonder if we can invoke the shattered, shriveled hearts of mothers who have lost sons, husbands, fathers, friends, daughters and sisters. Ask them the way to peace. Some would raise a fist demanding more war. But most would plead for an end to the fighting.

And then we might turn to the wisest among us, not the political ideologues, but the aged who have thought deeply, and have befriended those on both sides. Get at why everyone is so angry. How did we get into such a mess? The humble sage knows there is no perfect solution. Only the naïve hunt for neat fixes. We live with the mess, we right what wrongs we can – and then we live on, and refuse to continue to kill. This “we” is elusive, but our bargain with the universe is that we will finally choose life over death, for ourselves but also for others.

I love the people of Israel. I love the people of Gaza. I love Jews and Muslims here in Charlotte, friends who have enriched my life, and deepened my faith in God and in the future of a very broken humanity. Maybe, just maybe, peace can begin in my heart, in our friendships and families here, and become some kind of contagion that leaps around the world, and maybe in a few years we’ll have that peace declared impossible by the cynics, but believed in passionately by those who dare to dream. I see dreamers who are broken but still hopeful on both sides, and so I can and will support both sides – and so then there are no longer sides. I believe it is so in God’s heart.

Monday, May 26, 2014

My Plea to Us United Methodists to Stay Together

     When I read the statement from eighty of my brothers and sisters in United Methodist Ministry declaring their belief that it is best if we surrender trying to stick together and figure out how to have an “amicable breakup,” I was not surprised.  And yet seeing it in print grieved me deeply.  I’ve invested much of my time, energy and passion into this church I love in general, and in particular on the issue that divides us.

     I could make my case against the looming divorce, or even the way we talk about our differences.  On both ‘sides’ (and the very concept of ‘sides’ in the Body of Christ grieves our Lord) we have those who strive to be holy and live out the Scriptures as best they know how; and on both ‘sides’ we have a lot of rancor, people who mirror the secular culture’s wars and platitudes more than they point to anything genuinely Christian or Methodist.

     I could ask for a reasonable explanation of the idea that, because you break the covenant, I withdraw? I could ask all of us, myself included, about our selective adherence to the Discipline, not to mention the literal commandments in Scripture. 

     I could reiterate my gloomy prediction that the split will not be win-win, but lose-lose.  Each congregation would be asked (I suppose), Will we be Progressive? or Traditionalist? Let’s say the vote in my parish is 2,137 for one, 1,792 for the other, with hundreds more abstaining.  What happens to the 1,792?  Don’t we in this way guarantee the most rapid shrinkage of membership imaginable, far more catastrophic than our current steady leakage?

     I could ask why, since we disagree on a great many things, this is the line in the sand? ...and we’d keep debating for a few more minutes, or decades.

     So, here’s my deepest, gut reason for resisting a breakup.  I do not wish to be in ministry, or to be a United Methodist, without any of the many wonderful friends I have made over many years.  I have longtime friends among the 80 proposing the breakup, and I have longtime friends among those who’d prefer to split but from the opposite side of the aisle.  I have grown to love progressives and traditionalists.  I’ve been loved by them, and I’ve been inspired by them.  I admire the faithful on both sides, and find strength, challenge, and hope in our differences.

     In my family, we have pretty ferocious disagreements about a great many things:  politics, religion, whether to cheer for UNC or Duke, personal habits.  We are covenanted as a family – but there is a lot of noncompliance, from my children, my wife, my cousins, my parents, and even from me.  But we love.  We don’t divorce.  We are a family.

     Thomas Merton, when asked about his views on whether those who believe differently are saved or not, answered, “I will have more joy in heaven and in God if you are also there to share it with me.”  At a personal level, I’m a little selfish.  I want the most joy, and I need all of us in the family for that joy.  I will never, ever look back and say “Whew, thank God we had that amicable split-up, and I don't have to deal with those wrong people any longer.”  I’ll lose too many who are beloved to me, and to God.

     God wants us to be holy.  God wants us to embody the Scriptures.  And holiness in those Scriptures tells me we keep our promises, and love.  I want to be right on every issue.  But love and personal commitments trump in over being right more than we're willing to admit.  I wonder if that's the holiness test before us today.  Let’s find the way to stay together – because I love so many of you, and need the joy.