Tuesday, March 25, 2008

What Do You Want to Do Today? (Hell if I Know)

Easter is done. Well my work in Easter that is.

This Holy Week was busy- I helped lead the Good Friday worship with the Associate Pastor and we did our famous "tag-team" sermons for Palm Sunday and Easter. For a guy without a call, I have been quite busy.

Being busy has helped me not feel so sorry about myself, but I am still asking some questions and trying to see where the answers are. I am wondering how to live out my call in spite of some obvious obstacles.

About a month ago, I was sitting with a subcommittee of the Committee on Ministry of the Minnesota Conference of the United Church of Christ (trying saying that fast three times). I was seeking what is called "Ordained Ministerial Partner Standing" which is a fancy way of saying that I was seeking standing in the UCC. We Disciples have an agreement with the UCC which allows among many things, exchange of pastors. During the meeting (where I was granted standing, by the way), one of the pastors said very matter of factly, "You know that it will be hard for someone who is black and gay to find a call."

He didn't say that to scare me or discourage me, he simply stating the truth: that many UCC congregations aren't ready for a gay and/or black pastor. I understood, but I have to say I was a bit saddened by that.

As I've made my way these last few years, I have discovered that this whole gay thing has scared some people off from even looking at me. That can be a bit trying. I mean, I don't want to be one of those people who never really gets to express their God-given call.

But while I am determining if people can get past the whole gay thing, I also don't know what I want to do.

There is still a part of me that wants to get back to church planting. I have a heart for it and in a way, it's saying "screw you" to all those that don't want to call me. Every so often I wonder if giving up on Community of Grace was such a good idea. What I do know is at the time when we stopped, I was out of gas and angry for reasons I'd rather not rehash. But what if we gave it a go again?

Then there is part of me that would be happy working as a deacon of sorts; being a bridge between church and world. For a long time, I've tried to describe doing something like this, but never had the words until I read about deacons historically.

Then, there is "door number three" where I am working with a UCC pastor who wants to start a young adult ministry. It sounds intriguging and I'd like to see where that goes.

So, I don't know where I am being led. I am thinking that because of my unique situation, I am going to have to carve out a space for me and hopefully find people willing to help me.

It will be interesting to see where this ends up. Hopefully not a dead end.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Way We Were...And Are

Around 1977 or so, my dad and I started going to this barbershop on Detroit Street in my hometown of Flint, Michigan. It was called Eddie and Earl’s Barbershop and it was your typical African American barbershop, if such a thing exists. Black men from all walks of life would come to this shop to get their hair cut, especially for church on Sunday.

While I was waiting my turn and reading copies of Jet and Ebony magazines, I remember seeing a poster that caught my attention. It read: BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL.

Those words were important back then. It was the 70s and the civil rights movement of the 60s was a very recent memory. I remember grown-ups sporting Afros and celebrating Black Pride. My mom bought encyclopedias on Black History to remind me that my people had a proud past. After centuries of being told by this country that we were dirt, Blacks in America starting feeling good about themselves.

It was during that time that black pastors like Jeremiah Wright took the pulpit preaching black liberation. While I’ve had mixed feelings on liberation theology, it was an attempt to see that the words of God were not simply about the “sweet by and by” but about justice here and now. I can imagine his words against a nation that prided itself in being ordained by God were a breath of fresh air to blacks as well as a few liberal whites.

My problems with Rev. Wright’s words are not that he isn’t patriotic enough. Christians place God first, not the flag. What does bother me is that his words reflect a nation that doesn’t exist anymore.

This is not to say that America has licked its racial problem. That will take time to solve and we still have issues (such as people who think hanging a noose is funny). But the fact is, America has changed in many ways. In the 1950s, my Dad couldn’t get a hotel room when he was traveling. He faced overt discrimination growing up in Louisiana. Today, he can stay in a hotel room in Tennessee and get a hot meal at a restaurant.

The America that Wright has preached about is one that seems irredeemably racist. It will always treat blacks as second-class citizens. It is an America without hope.

But the fact is, this society has changed. Overt discrimination is no longer in fashion. Blacks hold high positions in political office. And of course, a black man is running for President. Black America demanded the United States live up to its words and it did - for the most part.

I think that’s what bothers me about Rev. Wright as well as others: it’s as if the achievements of the last 40 years never happened. No, we can’t rest on those laurels, but we shouldn’t ignore them either.

Maybe Rev. Wright’s words made sense when Black America was still trying to find its voice, it’s self-esteem. Maybe those words were needed when White America turned a blind eye to its own hate. But I don’t know if they are needed now. To look at what words are needed now, one can only look at the man that has sat in the pews of Rev. Wright’s church: Barack Obama. I don’t always agree with him politically, but his words of hope and unity talk about the best in this country and that together, black and white and everything else, we can tear down the remaining walls of discrimination.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Notes from a Black Pastor

Note: This originally appeared on the blog the Moderate Voice on March 15.

Well, considering that I am an African American pastor, I should say something about the whole affair concerning the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, Barack Obama's church.

I have to state, in the interest of full disclosure, that I am an ordained pastor in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and also have standing in the United Church of Christ, the denomination that Rev. Wright and Trinity belong to.

Now, that I've got that out of the way, when some of the early rumors were swirling about the church, I tended to think this was nothing more than falsehoods. I thought that a church that was trying to "uplift the race" was probably a good thing and even though I don't agree with Sen. Obama's views, I did affirm his spiritual roots at a church that was focused on social justice and helping the least of these.

Now that I have seen and read the sermons Rev. Wright has preached, my views have changed a bit.

Most African American preachers will inject social concerns into their sermons. Because of our experience with slavery and later segregation, we tend to see Christianity in a more prophetic role, where God is on the side of the downtrodden. While I mostly preach in predominately white churches (and I tend to have a more subdued style than most black preachers) I do tend to talk about care for the poor and about the fact that God loves and accepts all regardless of color or sexual orientation. I believe that as Christians we are called to strive for justice and I do try to make that point in my sermons.

That said, the sermons by Rev. Wright go waaaay over the top. He paints an America that I don't recognize and throws in falsehoods and a tinge of anti-Semitism that I believe shames all African American preachers.

There is no way you can explain away Wright's belief that 9/11 was basically "just desserts" on America, especially a few days after the event. Then there is his giving into dark conspiracy theories such as the one where the government gives black people the drugs. Or, his talk of Zionism as white racism.

There is just something wrong about what Rev. Wright is doing. It's not that he isn't patriotic enough as some on the right are yelping: it's that this man seems an inverse of the late Jerry Falwell: a mean-spirited preacher that uses the Bible to further his agenda.

How will this affect Sen. Obama? I don't know. This will probably blow over like so many other stories about slip-ups by surrogates. But then again this might have legs. As some have argued, this is not like John Hagee mouthing off his anti-Arab rants after having endorsed John McCain. McCain doesn't go to his church. (McCain should have denounced those remarks nevertheless.) Obama and his family have been part of Trinity for 20 years. As Shay over at Booker Rising notes: "If you've been going to a pastor's church for 20 years and he married you and baptized your children, you agree with most of what that pastor says."

I don't know if Obama agrees with what his pastor says, but it is going to look that way because of his long ties with Rev. Wright.

As Ross Douthat explains, Obama is going to have to do more than say this is just his "crazy uncle." He notes:

So far, Obama has attempted to laugh off Wright's penchant for inflammatory rhetoric, comparing him to "an old uncle who says things I don't always agree with," and suggesting that this is "what happens when you just cherry-pick statements from a guy who had a 40-year career as a pastor." But as Wright's America-bashing gets more airtime -- and as his Obama-boosting sermons put his church's tax exemption at risk -- Obama may have to go further down the road to explicitly disavowing his pastor. His connection to Wright isn't the equivalent of John McCain's going to Liberty University to make nice with Jerry Falwell. It's the equivalent of John McCain taking his wife and children, most Sundays, to Jerry Falwell's church. And the disconnect between Obama's studied moderation and his congregation's radicalism requires more of an explanation than he's offered so far.

Obama's rhetoric has been one of unity and hope. I take him at his word. But he will have to come to terms with his pastor's extreme views because, if he doesn't, we can expect the GOP to use Rev. Wright's sermon in commercials this fall.

Update: The United Church of Christ, Rev. Wright's and Sen. Obama's denomination has responded to the story, supporting the congregation. In the past, I would have agreed this was a smear, but no longer.

Update, Part Deux: Sen. Obama released a statement on Rev. Wright's comments. Hopefully, his handling of this situation along with Rev. Wright leaving the campaign, will allow this to blow over. Good for the Senator.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Sunday Sermon- March 16, 2007

“It's Sunday, But Friday's Coming.”
Matthew 21:1-11
March 16, 2008 (Palm Sunday)
Lake Harriet Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

A little over nine years ago, I was on one of the most life-changing trips of my life. I was in my second year of seminary and decided to use the January-term to take part in one of the cross-cultural experiences all seminary students had to take. I decided to do the one in Honk Kong/China. It was led by Paul Martinson a professor at Luther Seminary, who happened to be born in China to Lutheran Missionaries. We spent two weeks in Hong Kong, learning about life in the city, especially after the changeover from British territory to a part of China. But far more interesting was the week we spent in Mainland China. We flew from Hong Kong to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province in Western China. Our objective during this part of the trip was to see Chinese Christianity in action, especially in the small villages that we an hour's drive from Kunming.

We were greeted by the villagers as if we were movie stars. They gave us the royal treatment, the best food and a place of honor at the local church service. For many, this was the first time they had seen Christians from the outside world and they were excited to see us.

I remember one such greeting. We got out of our bus and had to walk a short distance to the village. We could see from the distance that the town had pulled out all the stops. The townsfolk lined the streets and there was a banner welcoming us. There was loud cheering as we walked down the Main Street. It was a joyous day to meet fellow Christians from the other side of the world.

My time in China was exciting, but it had an underside. Throughout the trip we were escorted by officials from the State. As my professor said, it was deemed “for our protection,” but he and we all knew that was not true. The officials were friendly, but their job was to make sure we and the people were met were kept in line. It was a powerful reminder that we were not in a free society like America, but one where the State kept a wary eye on its citizens.

Today is Palm Sunday. This is the day we remember Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We read that Jesus asks his disciples to acquire donkey and then the make their way into the city. People begin laying down their cloaks, and spreading palm branches and shouting, “Hosanna!” to the passing Savior.

Sometimes it's easy to see this day as a day when we celebrate Jesus as the King. We just sang the tune “All Glory Laud, and Honor” this huge celebratory hymn. As I was preparing for this sermon, I was told over and over again, that this was an example of Jesus as a different kind of King: one that would not rule like Herod or Pilate, but would rule by giving up his life.

This is all true. But like my travels in China, there are shadows underneath all the happiness.
In our culture, I think it is easy to not really focus on the gathering dark that is coming. In the churches that I grew up in, we went from Palm Sunday to Easter, without really having time to pause and reflect the betrayal and sorrow of Maundy Thursday, and the grief of Good Friday. Sure, there were services on Good Friday, but they were done in the knowledge that Easter was around the corner and everything would be okay.

But everything is not okay. It will be in the end, but right now, we don't have that hope.

Jesus comes in to town and the people shout “Hosanna!” That word means, God save us. They weren't simply shouting for joy, but were crying for help. They wanted Jesus to save them from the Romans, from their lives of poverty. They wanted to see Herod overthrown and Pilate run out of town. But Jesus would dash their hopes. Herod and Pilate would work with the religious leaders to bring Jesus down. He couldn't save them, at least not in the way they were hoping.

In some traditions, this day is called Sunday of the Passion. They decide to tell the entire story of Holy Week, sans Easter. Some churches do this because they know people will not be able to attend some of the various church services during the week, so they want to tell the whole story ending with the crucifixion. People are left with Jesus dead on a cross. All hope is gone. We are left to feel as the disciples and the friends of Jesus must have felt: alone and shocked; saddened and angry.

Palm Sunday is a reminder of how our perceptions of God come crashing down and we are left with a dead God on a cross. We are left like the disciples, in a state of shock; feeling that there is no hope.

We have all felt that way at sometime: when a loved one unexpectedly dies; when you find out you have cancer, when a beloved child causes you untold grief. We wonder where God is in our lives and get mad that God is not acting in the way we want God to.

The evangelical pastor, Tony Campolo, has a saying “It's Friday, but Sunday's coming.” That phrase is a phrase of hope. We all have Good Friday moments in our lives, but we are to take hope that Sunday, the day of resurrection, is on the way. As important as that is, we also need to sometimes live with a contrasting phrase: “It's Sunday, but Friday's coming.” Disappointment is on the way. God will fail us. We will lose hope. I'm not saying all this to say life is hopeless, but to remind us that we will face dark times in our life and we need to be aware of them and live in those moments.

If there is any hope in this coming week, it is that Jesus has experienced the same disappointment and fear that we have. Jesus cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” from the cross. He feels abandonment from God and from his friends. Jesus is disappointed by God. The One that freed the Israelites from the Pharaoh's grip could not save God's own son. Jesus knows how we feel.

It's Sunday. But Friday is coming.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Finding Home

A while back, I got an email from someone. He had mentioned that I had expressed an interest in house churches and he was also interested. In the end, we realized we weren't interested in the same things. Tim, who I now consider a friend, had grown up in the Lutheran church and wanted to try a "liberal" house church. I can understand, so I am hoping he can get this thing off the ground. One of the sticking points is that he wants to have a big worship service every once in a while and I wanted something more regular.

I mean, I never seem to meet people around here who have a passion for new churches and people whose passion is worship. I seem to meet people who don't have that same passion that I have. Maybe God is telling me something; maybe it's time to put this new church thing aside.

But the other thing is do I have to give up my love for worship? That's been something I've loved since I was a little kid. I feel that I meet a lot of people in some settings that don't have that as their passion. And I can't seem to find a faith community where I feel free design and create worship opportunities. The best thing that I loved about Community of Grace was being able to create and participate in worship experiences. Now that Community of Grace is gone, I don't have the opportunity. I mean, I have helped in planning on occasion, but not at the level that I once did.

I don't know if I will ever find a place where I can be at home and use the gifts God gave me. I want to believe that something big will happen that will provide direction in my call, but what if it doesn't? There are times that I wonder if God is playing a big trick on me. I don't think it's true, but I do wonder if God is up there looking down at me and saying "sucker."

Okay, that's a bit harsh. But it's frustrating to have this desire to ministry and not finding a place and in some cases not even feeling wanted. That's another story.

Cheerful thoughts on a Thursday....

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Audacity of Hope?

Fellow blogger Bruce Reyes-Chow is running for Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA). He has a fascinating post about four shifts that his denomination needs to take. I won't go into all of them, but I will highlight number 4:

Towards engagement driven by hope and optimism and away from reactions based on suspicion and scarcity. We can no longer operate as if new life and hope are not realities. I believe that too many of us only know how to feel useful if we are in a climate of fear and desperation. Too many of us only know how to play the role of malcontent and/or gatekeeper and do not know how to operate within a climate of hope. In fact, when we are really unhealthy, we may even create negativity and chaos when it is not there, simply so we can come in and operate in a more comfortable setting. How many times have folks tried to move things forward only to run into walls of negativity and fear? Now this is not simply a stage-of-life issue, but a reality that we, especially the church, must deal with. Jesus did not come to bring despair, but hope. If we the church, of all institutions, cannot live into that idea, we might as well pack it in and go home. Movements of hope do not demand ease and smooth sailing, but a common understanding that through the struggle and communal hard work, there is new life ahead.

While Bruce was talking about his Presbyterian Church, he could have been talking about my own denomination, the Disciples of Christ. I don't know what has happened, but at least around these parts, it's as if people took some hopeless pills. People are constantly tearing each other down, talking trash that such and such church will close, that these churches have no mission and how we should just give up and just join the United Church of Christ. It's all negative and you wonder if they really believe in a God at all.

Maybe it's a mainline malaise. Maybe we have become so used to loss that we tend to think venture inward, fearful of the future and tearing down anyone who has the audacity to believe things can change for the better.

But I have to believe I serve a God that has done the impossible; a God that has taken the weak things of this world to shame the strong. David defeated Goliath. Gideon and his small army defeated the mighty Midianites. And the Messiah came from a backwater town.

It's hard to be a cheerleader, especially me (there is a reason I call this blog "Oscar"). But you know, I do believe in hope. As Jim Wallis once said:

Hope is a decision you make. Hope means believing in spite of the evidence and then waiting for the evidence to change.

Yeah, churches are losing members and budgets are getting smaller. But we serve a powerful God. Do I have start yelling, "Yes, we can?"

Any resemblance to a certain candidate is purely intentional.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Worshipping Accross the Ages

My fellow Disciple blogger, Danny Bradfield, asked me recently about worship with different generations. His concern is with having different worship services that attract different generations. He wanted to know my opinion.

Well, I like worshipping with different generations. We have people who are in their 90s to people in their teens. I like this mix. I like trying to learn from those several decades older than me.

I know that some people want different services to reach out to younger ages, but I worry that making a "hipper" worship service will leave out the wisdom of the older folks. And I think the older people have something to learn from us young ones. I guess I would rather have blended worship that appeals to different generations, than in trying to separate the tatooed set from the "blue hairs."

Maybe in the end, a community of God should try to strive towards diversity, not just in color, but in age as well.