Thursday, October 28, 2010

Another View on Bullying

I encountered this article a few weeks back.  I agree with most of it, though I think the "It Gets Better" phenom isn't as pointless as he think it is.  Here's a highlight:

Maybe we shouldn't have too much sympathy for bullies. But at the same time, there are some problems with the current rhetorical climate. For one thing, Heathers, the comic masterpiece about adolescence and suicide that makes a good case for the dangers of a John Hughes morality. Adults like to think that teenagers are innocent creatures, free of sin, and that if we could just remove all pressures on our precious youth, they could frolic in peace. That's one theory! But there are others, too.

As much as we feel like we're doing good by painting a Hitler mustache on bullies, it's not like it's a problem that no one was aware of before. And one that wasn't, at least mildly, improving. There's no evidence that going to these rhetorical extremes will force improvements any more quickly than what people are already doing to fight the problem-whereas there's ample evidence that allowing ourselves to think about social ills with a crisis mentality degrades our ability to embrace the difficult, gradual solutions that most long-standing problems actually require. We paint social conflicts in these terms only because we can't stand the thought that we might not be doing everything we can to make things better for everyone.

Meanwhile, we're telling kids that it gets better. Which means we're pretending that adults are far less terrifying creatures. I've known enough friends who've gotten gay-bashed as adults that I know bullying doesn't stop at graduation, and that seems like a far bigger issue. (Technically speaking, I once got my nose broken for being gay, but that's a story for another time.) It's hard to escape the feeling that things like Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" project, National Coming Out Day, and this nightmare have only been successful because they make straight people such as myself feel better about ourselves, like we are doing something to help the cause of equality, even though we're not really doing anything substantial.
What do you think?

As a side note: I did actually push back against one bully in my life who was also named Jason.  We were in eighth grade and he was messing with me as usual.  I got fed up and pushed him into the lockers.  He looked at me with a stunned look.  We fought a bit and it didn't amount to much, but he never did mess with me again.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Retreads: Donkeys, Elephants and the Body of Christ

The following is a post I wrote back in April of 2009. I recently had an encounter that made me think back to this blog post. I still feel the same way today.

As many of you know, I work full time for the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area as their communications person. It's from here that I can observe another denomination as it makes it way trying to follow God. What has been so interesting is seeing how people in the denomination sort themselves into affinity groups; conservatives joining groups like the Presbyterian Coalition and liberals joining groups like the Covenant Network. In some way, there is very little talking between the two groups. Even the churches are sorted into liberal and convervative churches with very few in the middle.

I could be all smug and say that we Disciples aren't like that, but then I'd be lying which is a bad thing. In fact in many cases, Christians are starting to mirror the wider culture in that we have sorted ourselves into places where we are with other like minded people. That's something that bothers me for several reasons.

One reason is that as mainline Protestant churches become more politically liberal, I find myself more and more of an outlier because my politics tend to skew right of center. In the olden days, I would have been called a Rockefeller Republican, and for the most part I tend to vote Republican with exceptions. But the churches where I have worshipped and worked at tend to skew left of center and tend to be vocal about it, which can make me feel uncomfortable.

But if you think I'm going to flee into the arms of a more conservative church, you would be wrong. Since I am openly gay, and most conservative churches don't like that, I don't think I'm going to be darkening their doors anytime soon. And to be honest the mainline churches do have some good points, if they would just stop making me feel I've just attended an Obama rally.

No, I want to remain in the mainline church because I want to be a witness for true diversity, to really reflect the body of Christ. I hear a lot of talk in the churches about community and diversity, but if everyone around you thinks the same and has a similar lifestyle, I don't know how diverse we really can be. Maybe I'm being an idealist, but I really believe we are called to be an example to the world, and in such a world as ours that is so divided, we need an example of people who might not always get along- well, getting along as sisters and brothers in Christ.

Presbyterian blogger Michael Kruse
has been doing a series based on the book the Big Sort, by Bill Bishop. In this book (which I have yet to read) Bishop notes that over the last 40 years or so, America has been sorting itself ideologically, with liberals congregating in one place and conservatives in another and really never communicating with each other. In a post today, Kruse focuses on the church and how we tend to segregate. Kruse is focusing on the religious left, but one could say the same of religious conservatives. This is his note on mainline congregations:

Many (mainline churches)now gather around a collection of social justice causes (with politically left solutions), gay inclusion, or being green. I find that many of these congregations and their denominations hold themselves out to be ecumenical and to be seeking diversity, yet the only partners they seek out are those who also share these values and share a similar politically left orientation toward societal transformation. Ironically, embrace of “ecumenism” and “diversity” has become one more social segment around which to create a politically left homogenous community. And not being politically left means (in their eyes) you are opposed to God’s mission of societal transformation.

“Churches were once built around a geographic community, [Martin] Marty said. Now they are constructed around similar lifestyles.” (173) Bishop points to Martin Luther King’s observation that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most racially segregated hour of the week and declares that now it is also the most politically segregated as well. He isn’t suggesting that most people look for a political position held by the congregation but rather they are looking for a church that comports will with their lifestyle; and political views correlate highly with lifestyle factors.

I think Kruse is correct here. I remember back in the 80s when some evangelical churches started bill themselves as "conservative." Now we see mainline congregations using words like "progressive" or "liberal." In short the church has followed politics: with "red" and "blue" churches.

But if churches are no more than extensions of the current red-blue split, then what is our witness in the world? Does the church become nothing more than a cheerleader or chaplain for their respective teams? Are we just enabeling the echo chamber that has been created in American life, where liberals and conservatives can read blogs, watch TV channels and go to church without ever seeing someone with a different outlook on life?

I don't have an answer for this. All I know is that I want to remain in my own creative tension with my liberal parishoners and fellow pastors. Because in the end, I need to hear them and they need to hear me. They are my sisters and brothers and I am theirs.

Maybe in the end the church isn't supposed to be a comfortable club, but a community of creative tension.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Another Way to Grow or This Little Light of Mine

One of the things you hear about when a church is in decline is how to grow the church.

Of course, when people talk about growing the church they mean, to put in crudely, butts in the pews.  Church members and clergy all want to find some magic formula to make people enter the doors of the church and fill the pews again (not to mention, the church coffers).

But over the course of my time at First Christian, I've noticed that another growth is taking place.  It's not as visually impressive as getting more butts in the pews, but I tend to think it's more important: the growth among church members.

I've seen more interest in Christian Education and Mission.  I've seen a willingness to try new things.  I've heard new music that has filled the congregation with energy.

As Bob the Senior Pastor has said, "it's starting to feel like church."

I think that the inward growth of a congregation, it's willingness to listen to God's Spirit is essential in allowing a church to grow numerically.  I mean, who wants to go to a church where nothing's happening?

Maybe the coolest sign of growth is seeing acolytes being used again in worship.  From what I've gathered, the church hasn't had kids coming up and bringing in the light of Christ in a long time.

Deb, the Spiritual Formation Director tells this story best.  This is what she wrote for our church newsletter:
Those of you who have been able to be at worship this fall have surely noticed an addition to our service - acolytes!  Now if these acolytes seem a little younger and a little smaller than you remember them being previously, it is because, well, they are. It has been quite a while since we have had acolytes, but the Art of the Covenant kids have very enthusiastically agreed to help us re-ignite this part of our worship service. This is something that holds meaning for them and that they look forward to.

Since none of the Covenant kids had ever seen what acolytes do (yes, it has been that long since we have had acolytes), I have been walking with them to make sure that all goes well. For example, we found out on the first Sunday that the candles that are normally on the communion table are too tall, so we have been using a Trinity Candle on a lower stand while the Worship Committee looks for other options to use as well. We want this to be an empowering experience for them.

Having the Covenant kids participate in the liturgy of the worship service has given me the opportunity to talk about worship, the Light of Christ, and the Trinity in class. Ask Fletcher some time what the three wicks in the current candle stand for - he can tell you. And I’m willing to bet that Mason can get two out of three.

Assisting these children to carry Christ’s light has been a truly awesome privilege. Seeing the smiles on the faces of the congregation at the start of worship as we return to the narthex has also been a privilege. Starting worship with the Light of Christ and joy on our faces is truly remarkable. May we all carry Christ’s Light as enthusiastically as the Covenant kids do.

It truly is a wonder to see these little ones carrying the Light in and taking it out into the world.

Don't tell me this church ain't growing.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Spiritual Discipline of Giving

A few weeks ago, I stopped by the children's Sunday School class before Sunday worship.  After a few minutes, Mason and his brother Fletcher showed up.  Little Mason was clutching a dollar bill.  Being a little kid, he was running around the room doing various things, but he never let go of that dollar.

In chatting with Mason's teacher, Spiritual Formation Director Deb Murphy, I knew where that dollar was going to go.  In the classroom sits a shoebox wrapped in blue construction paper.  It's the blessing box, and all of the children who attend place money in that box.  After a certain amount of time, Deb gathers the children and they talk about what to do with the money.  In the past they have given money to the Heifer Project to buy animals for people around the world.

Later this year, these kids will work to donate sunglasses to kids at Plaster House, a children's rehabilitation hospital in Tanzania.

As I reviewed all of this, I realized that Deb was teaching these kids a spiritual discipline, the discipline of  giving.

Being a Christian is not simply about what we believe, but it is also about how we live in light of what we believe.  In a recent article in the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, writer Keri Wyatt Kent notes that Jesus gave everything on the cross.  To say we love, but then do nothing to show that loves, really puts our love in question.  Kent quotes another evangelical, writer and social justice activist Shane Claireborne who had this to say about our beliefs and out actions:
"If you ask most people what Christians believe, they can tell you, 'Christians believe that Jesus is God's Son and that Jesus rose from the dead.' But if you ask the average person how Christians live, they are struck silent. We have not shown the world another way of doing life. Christians pretty much live like everybody else, they just sprinkle in a little Jesus along the way."

Giving is a way of showing people how much we love God.  Those kids in Sunday School are learning that being a follower of Jesus is not just about believing certain thing, but it is also about how we live our lives, how we help our fellow sisters and brothers.  Giving also reminds us of the love that God showed us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  When we give, we are reminded of God's love for us.

I think about what First Chirstian has done over the last few months.  We made 10 welcome baskets for the Currie Avenue Partnership.  We made 19 backpacks for Central Lutheran's Restoration Center.  We have gone on a regular basis to Feed My Starving Children to help hungry children around the world.  I've see the Handcrafters make prayer shawls. What I hope you all realize is that this is a way to express our love for God.  This isn't simply about doing good deeds or being a good person, but about realizing what God has done in our lives and expressing our thanks in our holy work helping our sisters and brothers.

I usually end this column with the words, "Go and be church."  Being church means living our lives as followers of Jesus.  Little Mason is learning what it means to follow Jesus and I hope all of us more "mature kids" are learning as well.

Go and be church.

Dennis Sanders

Associate Pastor for Mission and Diversity

First Christian Church, Minneapolis

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Retreads: I Think I Can, I Think I Can...

From my prior blog, originally written in October of 2009.

I've recently noticed something about myself in relation to my having Aspergers. I tend to be someone that can be doggedly persistent about something. Where as others can be focused on something for a while and then give up, I tend to persist...and persist.

For example, whenever I've been without work, I've been dillegent in looking for work. I'm basically running like clockwork.

At church, I've noticed that others don't tend to have much hope the church will continue. Even though there are those that I think want change, because others tend to not be that interested in changing there is a sense that there is no hope and that we should just learn to die well.

Now, they could just be realistic. However, in my view, I tend to think that if there are some people that want change, then you just keep at it and ignore those who don't want to change.

In the whole conversation, I've been the one that seems to be the one that wants to damn all the naysayers and keep trying. I want to believe that God is not done with First Christian and that if we are just open to what God is saying, a miracle will happen. Even the Senior Pastor based on the evidence is not hopeful the church will survive.

Maybe they are all correct and I'm all wet.

When I was leading Community of Grace, I held on to that project with all my stregnth. I did finally give up and closed the ministry, but I still look back and think I didn't try hard enough.

I'm hardly an Pollyana. But I think because my Aspie brain is so focused, I can't really see other options. Of course that can be a bad thing. Sometimes you have to see other options and understand that what we want and hope for might not come true.

But I also think it has a good side. As I journey within mainline Protestantism, I tend to see a lot of what I would call defeatism. We look backward at the past and long for the "good 'ol days" when the pews were full. We look at our small flock and think there is no hope.

But what if the church saw things like someone with Aspergers? What if we were single-focused on doing God's will in our particular setting? What if we believed all those stories told to us about how God took all those "uncool" people like Gideon and performed a mighty deed?

My brain is wired in a way that I'm a doer. I might not be the best person socially, but I can do the work required. I really do believe with faith in God and hard work, there are still good days ahead for First Christian.

Maybe I'm an idiot, but I don't think God is done with First Christian in Minneapolis. I have to believe that God is just waiting for us to know that we still have much to give to the service of God's kingdom.

I think we can, I think we can...

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Being Jewish, Being Autistic

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, who blogs at Journeys with Autism, has a very good post linking the misperceptions people have with being Jewish and being autistic. The whole thing is worth a read, but this part struck me:

In the larger, mainly Christian culture in which I’ve lived my life, the view seems to be that the Jews of the “Old Testament” were all about strict justice, and that the Christians of the “New Testament” were all about love. (I put the names of the books in quotation marks because I don’t see one as being old and outmoded and the other as having superseded it; I see them both as valid traditions in their own right.)

The Jewish God, the critique goes, is only a God of judgment, a God of punishment, a God who lacks forgiveness, and we are just like our God: cold, judgmental, merciless. The Christian God, on the other hand, is a God of love and forgiveness. When I was growing up, without much of a Jewish education, I actually believed all of this. I believed it until I was in my late thirties, and I asked a rabbi whether there was anything in Judaism to help me heal my broken heart. His reply? “Yes. Our people brought the truth to the world that there is a God who loves us and cares about our lives.” I nearly fainted. When I began to study and practice Judaism in adulthood, I was startled to find that we are instructed to love our neighbors, to love our enemies, to love mercy, and to make right the wrongs of the world.

And what did I believe about autistic people until I found out that I actually am one? I believed that autistic people don’t have empathy, the very basis of loving relationships. The lack-of- empathy trope has been at the core of autism theory for a number of years, and it’s appalling how many people still believe it. Of course, they don’t appear to have met any of the autistic people I know, nor do they seem to have much empathy for the pain and suffering this canard causes autistic people on a daily basis.

Christians and Jews interpret what we Christians might call the "Old Testament" a bit differently than our Jewish friends. That's why we are different faiths.

That said, Christianity began as a sect within Judaism and all of the Old Testament stories we learn as kids are the stories our Jewish sisters and brothers also learned. If we look a little more deeply, we see that the God in those old stories is the same loving God that we Christians know.

But of course, I was trained in a seminary that honored this history of the Bible and our own Jewish roots. I've also met a few Jews that has helped me understand their faith. As Rachel notes, a lot of Christians have never met a Jew and that's where the mispreceptions come in.

The same thing with being autistic. I don't think many folks have met someone that is autistic and...well, a lot of wrong ideas come from that.

I wish at times folks would be more curious about differences and willing to learn instead of making up their minds about a person before they know them.