March 24, 2021

Make Pain Human, Resist Faux-Gospel, Advocate for Change

Eight dead in Atlanta.

Ten dead in Boulder.

As vaccinations increase and the nation yearns to go back to some semblance of normalcy, it feels as if mass shootings are what comes with the "new normal." I say "feels as if" because this is yet to be seen. And, yet, I do find myself wondering what the the local church could do in response to gun violence. There seems to be two things we ought do in response: make room for lament and choose good news.

Make room lament, make pain human
The first thing we can do is lament. In a hyper-connected world we hear and read about mass shootings nearly immediately after they occur. At the same time we do not collectively have many tools for directing and managing grief. There is a Litany in the Wake of Mass Shootings generated by Bishops Against Gun Violence that continues to be amended each time there is another mass shooting. I was recently struck just by how long this list is. It's appropriately long. As one prays this litany, it forces one to stop, to remember and to hold the loss rather than move on to the next thing. We cannot change unless we sit with how deep the sorrow is in relation to these shootings. Churches can create space to grief, to remember and to make human what become no more than numbers in our public discourse. For something to positively change in our culture, it has to be made human.

Choose good news, not faux good news
In Isaiah 2 the prophet describes taking weapons and fashioning them into farming tools–tools that will care for the land and bring food to the people. What an image! It’s redemptive. It’s creative. It’s redemptive because it repurposes the brutal instrument rather than destroy or demonize it. A cycle is broken, even down to the devices used to perpetrate violence. Not only is the redemptive potential of these tools found, their creative purpose is as well. Their redemption finds them tilling land, creating food–sustenance to those that use the tools and their families. It takes a lot of imagination to come up with ways to shape destruction into creation, hate into love, enemies into friends. But this is what we find described in the biblical passage referenced above. It’s also what we see Jesus embody, announce and instigate in the Gospels. He loves the hated. He turns death into life. He wins by losing. He ends up being everything his mother imagined in her prenatal song. The debate around gun violence lacks imagination. It lacks gospel. For certain, there are those that have concocted a faux-gospel—a good news that fear of others and personal security will bring salvation but let—but let's be clear: that is not the gospel that Jesus came announcing. A counter gospel to that of Jesus always chooses methods of destruction over creation. Be watchful for this. 

There is one other thing we ought to do.

Advocate for change
When you read Luke 10, it is clear that Jesus imagines the evangelistic work he sends his followers out to conduct to be wrapped in an interdependency with those that live in whatever place they do ministry. It carries echoes of the message to God's people in Jeremiah 29 where God's people are instructed to live in a manner that builds towards the flourishing of all in that place—Babylonians and Israelites. The rhetoric around lenient gun laws on both state and national levels focus on personal security. Data does not demonstrate that more guns equates an increase in safety. More guns do not make you or your neighbor safer. According to the Gifford Law Center, states with more stringent gun laws have lower death rates. Not only is this rhetoric dishonest, it doesn't work for the Christian. The Christian should never make decisions based solely on their own well being. We ought to seek the flourishing of others—loving our neighbors as we would love ourselves. The authors of this country's Constitution could not have imagined the kind of killing machines now available in this country (they also had no imagination for the rights of people of color and women—which should tell us something, as well). The allusion that the discussion about access to weapons is somehow a renunciation of the second amendment is ludicrous. Rather, we need to work towards amending laws to match our current context. While mass shootings are horrific, firearm fatalities due to suicide and homicide outnumber mass shootings. Consider the collective grief after every mass shooting and consider the countless numbers left behind after the all too many shootings that do not make headlines. Too many people die in this country due to easy gun access. Safer laws could curb this. It is far-fetched that this country would ever have a complete ban on firearm ownership by citizens. Banning firearms altogether is highly, highly unlikely but we can advocate for changes in laws that will make for safer communities.  Those that decry that the government is going to take your guns away are merely using fear tactics on the feeble-minded. We cannot fall for such tactics and stumble to advocate for safer communities for everyone.

Nick Kristoff has penned a great article on the subject. 

NOTE: This post draws from an earlier post from a few years ago–tragic that we're still talking about this but my opinions have evolved on this subject.

March 17, 2021

St. Patrick's Day

It's St. Patrick's day!  Most may think of wearing green and consuming green food (and beer) on this day but, for those of interested in church planting and Christian mission, there is a lot to be learned from St. Patrick and those early Christians among the Celts. Here are a few things worth considering:

"Civilizing" and "evangelizing" do not have to be synonymous
Patrick and others respected the traditions and culture of those they ministered with and did their best to communicate the good news of God in a manner that related to their context. Rome considered his methods unorthodox, if not heretical. Why? Patrick did not believe that "civilizing" a culture and "evangelizing" a culture were synonymous. He believed that the good news of the Gospel could be discovered within the indigenous culture–the Celts didn't need to become "Roman" in order to follow Jesus. In contrast to the violence of religious colonialism, Patrick's hybridity embodies the process of seeing the gospel take root in a particular culture, contextualized. George G. Hunter III demonstrates this approach in is book, The Celtic Way of Evangelism. Explaining the hybridity that Patrick innovated when working in Ireland and resisted Rome's colonizing methodology, he notes that a visitor from Rome at the time would have noted "a new kind of church, one which broke the Roman imperial mold and was both catholic and barbarian."

Love of enemies and advocacy for them
Patrick was enslaved by the Irish Celtics. After escaping and fleeing the country, he returned to live amidst and evangelize his former captors. Rather than dehumanize, hate or engender fear of those he had a right to dislike, Patrick followed the Jesus tradition of loving those that had dehumanized him.

Start from within the existing community
Rather than start monastic communities secluded, outside of town early Celtic communities started within villages, mixing monks and families together in one community. In other words, their own well-being was wrapped up in well-being of the community they were serving.

Caring for the environment and evangelism can go hand-in-hand
The early Christians in Ireland tended towards seeing God's presence everywhere, not just in church buildings. They articulated a high appreciation for the natural world and the Creators hand within it. In the tradition of Jesus, the ways of God were often explained by using the environment around them as metaphor.

It's never too late
He returned to Ireland in what was considered at that time old age. What dream do you have that you've counted yourself out of? It's never too late. Maybe it's your turn. Right now.

I recommend anyone interested to pick up Hunter's, The Celtic Way of Evangelism for a short overview of the early Christian influence in Ireland.

NOTE: This post is a revised version of a few earlier posts.

March 3, 2021

A Different Approach to Church Planting

I could be wrong but I think it's safe to say that not every mainline Protestant midlevel judicatory body celebrates new faith communities. Many are "circling the wagons" due to decades of decline. Some of the same are deeply threatened by new expressions. This is not the case in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, which I work for and am a member of. Because of how I am connected I am biased but let me tell you something about this collection of faith communities covering about a third of the state.

Every year the congregations and institutions of this Diocese gather for an annual meeting. During that gathering they celebrate new congregations. A grand church bell was fashioned nearly a decade ago that is towed around the Diocese to be ceremonially rung to declare God's good news at work in that place, through the people ringing the bell. Each year, when the bell strikes the response is thunderous applause from a room full of representatives and clergy of thriving, managing and struggling congregations. It's a cultural tradition that says so much about this specific collection of Christians.

But there is more.

While mainline Protestant institutions have not been known in recent decades for their church planting enthusiasm–although, there is lots of evidence that this is changing–other Christian traditions have historically celebrated church planting. Yet, there is something distinct in the approach here that is worth noting. We imagine God's love as always expanding and embracing over exclusion. We value cultural creativity rather than cultural destruction. We invite people into relationship through sharing a message of love and hope as opposed to fear and hatred. This does not mean we are not susceptible to the sins of consumerism and colonialism that are on display throughout the history of Christian mission. We are well aware of them, confess them and are doing our best to go about the great commandment and great commission differently. This is to say, we do not have to "throw the baby out with the bathwater" as they saying goes. We do not have to equate practices of coercion with evangelism and mission. There are ways to go about growth and expansion differently. We need more churches and institutions willing to do this work with this perspective.

Grateful to be a part of one.      

February 25, 2021

Nationalism, Civil Religion and Following Jesus

Last night, I gave a talk (virtually, of course) to kick off a series at an Episcopal congregation in Dallas, TX. I realized after the fact that I had a few of my numbers wrong, so I am sharing this excerpt with corrected data and some additions. You will notice that I am lately a bit of a broken record. There are moments that shape a generation. Columbine. 9/11. Of course, the lives lost are of the greatest tragedy but it is what these moments capture or distill regarding something much larger going on around a culture that make these events so formative. I sense that January 6 may be such a moment so long as the mythmakers do not replace fact with fiction in our collective memory.

On January 6 of this year 2021, hundreds of Americans rushed into our nation’s capitol building destroying property and seeking the Vice President of the United States and members of Congress whom they viewed as obstructions to their cause. They were also waving flags. American flags, confederate flags, but also, Christian flags. Many were documented praying before, during and after their siege of the capitol. They quoted Bible verses and wore apparel evoking Christian idioms.

Most Episcopalians will have likely looked upon what happened on January 6 and said a quiet prayer under their breath that may have carried echoes of those prayers evoked by the religious elites found in the Gospels, “Thank God I am not like those Christians.”

Unfortunately, we are not as different as we would like.

The American civil religion that so many Episcopalians are most comfortable with is merely a domesticated version of the feral Christian Nationalism we observed on January 6. There are differences, yes. White Christian Nationalism utilizes language of fear, hate, and destruction. American civil religion language evokes democracy, justice and inclusion. Yet, what they both seek to acquire–or protect–is the exceptional status within the body politic by colluding religious belief with national identity. In many ways, adherents to American civil religion hold that which White Christian Nationalists covet: wealth and power for white Americans. 

That well defines the Episcopal Church.

Nine out of ten Episcopalians are white and only 4% of the Episcopal Church is black. We have closer proximity to power and privilege than we would like to admit. More presidents have been Episcopalian than any other denomination. Thirty-five percent of Episcopal Church members make six figures or more annually in a country where the median annual household income is below sixty-nine thousand dollars a year. Of the sixty-three hundred plus congregations that make up the Episcopal Church, a little less than a third of our 1.6 million members regularly show up on Sundays and yet we still gave over 1.3 billion dollars in plate and pledge in the previous year.

We are white, we are well connected and we are wealthy.

You may say that we have greater concerns today than wrestling with white privilege. Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic which we have now been facing for a year is of great concern! Let me for a moment, then, reflect with you on what history may teach us of moments like this.

The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 took somewhere between a half million to eight hundred and fifty thousand lives. During the Spanish Flu, the archives of the Episcopal Church state, “[t]he severe impact of the 1918 influenza was little recognized in formal commentary”. And, yet, what documentation we do have is often related to the opening or closing of buildings for worship during the pandemic. Sound familiar? Can you guess what I found in the archives of the Spanish Flu’s impact on Episcopalians in the state of Texas during that time? Only the postponement of the consecration of Bishop Quinn … by a week.

Considering our collective wealth and whiteness, is it safe to say that our privilege insulated us from the impact felt by the pandemic of 1918? If current evidence of the COVID-19 pandemic is any indication, yes. Of the half a million Americans that have died during the current pandemic, the COVID-19 death rate of people of color is double or more than that of white people in the U.S. Privilege did not in 1918, nor does it now in 2021, inoculate us from disease but it does distance us from its ravages.

The impact of the Spanish Flu may not have been felt immediately in the Episcopal Church but a symptom of the Church’s response may be observable only a few short years later. In September 1925, attendance and income of the Episcopal Church had declined low enough that it caught the attention of the public and made headlines in the Washington Post. Could it be that the apathy and ambivalence of the privileged for the poor caught up with the denomination that was (and remains) made up mostly of the white privileged class? Time will tell.

The antidote for the Church is not Christian Nationalism or American civil religion–both are merely the trappings of religion draped over power and privilege. Neither of these appropriately wrestle with the two pivotal directives Jesus provided Christians in the Gospels: the great commandment and the great commission. 

Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 22 and what constitutes eternal life in chapter 10 of Luke’s Gospel. In both cases, the conversation operates around the ancient command to love God with every fiber of one’s being and to care for one’s neighbor as one would care for one's self. When pressed on the definition of neighbor, Jesus's definition of “neighbor” is wrapped up in the stranger–the outsider.

What we call the great commission is shared at the end of Jesus’s earthly ministry. In chapter 28 of Matthew’s Gospel and the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. In the Acts retelling of Jesus commissioning, he effectively tells his friends to start in their town and then move throughout the county. But then, the next location on Jesus's list would have stopped his friends in their tracks: Samaria.  It would seem to be no mistake that Jesus includes Samaria purposefully to demonstrate that God’s mission will always include those we assume are beyond God’s reach. The follow Jesus is to collude the church and the other, not the church and the state (I know that's cheesy but it says succinctly what I'm getting at). Meaning that our fate is linked up with the fate of others. If our faith is fashioned around the hate and exclusion of others or the destruction of God's creation … well, you're doing it wrong.

As long as we look to the center, rather than to the margins we will miss the mark of what it is to follow Jesus. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has often said, “The Church is always renewed from the edges rather than the center.” Williams is right. Jonathan M. Daniels demonstrated to us what this looks like during the Civil Rights Movement. Will this work require the decentering of ourselves? Yes. It may not require our lives as it did Daniels's but it will require sacrifices. And I'm convinced the work of following Jesus will always demonstrate traits that counter what we have seen exhibited by Christian Nationalism. In an era when there are those set on planting new churches that exhibit nothing short of hate, fear, destruction and exclusion. We now–as much as we have ever before–need those that will nurture communities that foster the way of Jesus through love, hope, creativity and expansion.

February 15, 2021

A long overdue edition of my newsletter went out.

My newsletter just went out again. It's been a while so this one is long! As I wrote in this edition:

It’s my birthday this month. I decided to celebrate by venturing back into the interwebs a bit more. This newsletter is the start. It’s a long one. In the words of Samuel L. Jackson in the 1993 film Jurassic Park, “Hold onto your butts.

You can subscribe here and get it next time it goes out. I intend to be more frequent with this moving forward. And I shared quite a bit in the latest.

I hope you subscribe!