Saturday, February 25, 2012

What Does It Mean to Be Prophetic?

I stumbled across a post by Methodist blogger Allan Bevere on the prophetic nature of the church.  He ends to post like this:

As I continue to say-- when Christians hear the word "politics" they should not think state; they should think church. For Christians, our politic is church. But that clearly is not what it has been and both the Christian right and the left are guilty of making the church somehow beside the point. Because we have reduced the "political" to partisan politics we have reduced the church to one more social agency and one more culturally acceptable option to choose from-- like the having season tickets for the local sports team and a membership in the zoological society-- though we are actually more excited about going to the ballgame than being an ecclesially based new society.
As Stanley Hauerwas has prophetically said, "in the name of being politically responsible, the church became politically invisible."

Which has led me to ask this question: what does it mean to be prophetic?  The reason I ask is that I think a lot of folks have an idea what it means to be prophetic that I think is a bit wrong.  I will see a pastor who will get up and talk about some of the major issues facing our world and it is billed as "prophetic."  But more often than not, what I hear is more of a political agenda than it is calling the church to present the Kingdom of God.  Since I move around mainline/progressive Christian circles, I tend to hear what sounds like a churchified version of the Democratic party platform, but I'm pretty sure that a lot of what might pass as prophetic in evangelical circles just mirrors the GOP agenda.

So, what does it mean to be prophetic?  What does a prophetic church look like?  I have to think that it's more than a party platform sprinkled with lots of Jesus.  I'd like to know, because what I see passing as prophetic kind of falls short.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Remember You Are Dust...

Ten years ago during Ash Wednesday of 2002, I was a chaplain at Luther Hall in Minneapolis.  Luther Hall was what you would probably call a nursing home, though the people there were at various stages in their lives; some were transitioning from surgery, back to home or to another facility; but some were there for the long haul, or short haul as it might happen.  There were people there who were basically at death's door.  Some died immediately, others had a longer leave taking.

It was during that Ash Wednesday, that I, a seminarian finishing up the last requirement before ordination was helping in the administration of the ashes.  We had a service on that day in the chapel and then the two chaplains and I split up the complex and went room by room to those who couldn't make it to the service.  We had a list of people to go to and visit, and we went room by room to place ashes on their heads. Some of the folks were awake and ready to receive the ashes, and some people were asleep or not just present at this moment.  Over and over again, I said the words that will be said again and again today..."Remember You Are Dust, and to Dust You Shall Return."

I remember thinking how powerful it was to say this to people who in many cases were dying.  Saying those words were not in the abstract for me, they became very real.

Methodist pastor Alan Bevere has noted on how this day is a sober reminder of our mortality.  He notes:

I don't spend much time thinking about my own death, though I know it will come sooner or later. I am well aware of the aging process going on within me and being noticed by me (and others) on the outside. Such aging is a reminder of my own mortality, which I pray will come much later than sooner, only because there is much more in life I want to experience, and because I believe God has not yet finished with me. But I know that there is no guarantee of anything. And in the big picture of things, that's OK.
In one sense my creeping mortality is a blessing. It serves to remind me of what's important. The older I get the things that seemed so trivial when I was younger, are more important. I have a sense of urgency to accomplish things I did not when I was thirty. I am more impatient when it comes to some matters and more patient with others. My aging reminds me of my mortality, and in so doing it also serves as a teacher. There is no age when one is too old to learn. Sadly, there are too many persons who die before they get to experience their creeping mortality; taken away much too early. So, I must remember to be thankful for the experience of aging. Not all get to journey with their mortality into old age.
I'm seven years younger than Alan and I've started to realize that I'm not a young thing anymore.  I see my parents who are in their early 80s and late 70s and see how they move slower and can't do the things they used to anymore.  I am reminded day after day that I am facing my own mortality, my own sense of being limited by time and space.

Sometimes, Ash Wednesday is looked on as a day of being dour and focused on our sin.  That is part of it, but it is so much more than that.  Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are finite persons and yet, we are remembered by God.  For some reason, God wants to be in relationship with us even though in God's view we last as much as a blooming flower.

Ash Wednesday is a dose of realism in our lives.  We are reminded that no matter how much we try to create our monuments to self, we will end up as worm food.  No one gets to escape that.

But it can also be a source of hope.  We are loved by God even though we are mortal.  But we also know that Christ has defeated death and we have a future hope beyond the grave.

So today, we are dust.  We will become dust.  But through the grace of Christ we also have hope beyond the dust. 

Thanks be to God.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Ceasar and the Pill, Continued

I didn't mention this in my previous post, but that post grew from something Methodist Pastor Allan Bevere said about the HHS/birth control decision. He explains why he thinks what the Obama Administration did originally (and in its compromise) was so distrubing:

 I have to say as a mainline Methodist, I really appreciate the irony of this. Mainliners have either been quite silent on the HHS ruling or they have basically sided with it. And in so doing they have also unwittingly embraced the assumption that their work for social justice is basically secular in nature-- that the church is  only the church when it is the gathered community inside the building with the steeple on top. Thus, what religious people are doing in feeding the poor, and caring for the sick, and taking care of orphans is not religious per se; it is secular. And if mainliners for social justice reject that assumption, the first amendment now applies to religiously affiliated hospitals, orphanages, etc. and the HHS Conscience Clause in its current form is unconstitutional. Indeed, I would suggest that if the HHS ruling is correct, then for the purposes of statecraft, the language of religious affiliation makes no sense.

Episcopal blogger Frederick Schmidt picks up on this theme in his latest column.

Progressive Christians who are dead sure that the Catholic bishops have conflated church and state should remove the beam in their own eyes before reaching for the microscope to help others. Far too often Protestants have bought the so-called Erastian that the church is subordinate to the state and that faith, therefore, is a private affair. Now we are in danger of taking those notions to their logical, self-destructive conclusion: The only theological vocabulary we have is the vocabulary that the state gives us.

If we go much further down this road, there will be little reason to worry about precedents, because there won't be a church with a distinctive ecclesial voice worth protecting. When that happens, forget the applause. Cue the funeral dirge.

It's been interesting to watch how Progressive Christians reacted to this whole drama.  Sadly very few of them sided with the Catholic bishops.  Before people start accusing me of being anti-woman or something let me explain.  I'm not saying they should have agreed with the Catholic stance on birth control; I am saying Progressive Christians should have sided with the bishops on Religious Liberty grounds.  I remember learning in seminary the importance of the phrase "Jesus is Lord."  Calling a poor Jewish carpenter Lord and not Ceasar was tantamount to treason against the Romans.  "Jesus is Lord" is a reminder that God doesn't take second-place in our lives and is always challenging the powers of this world be they good democracies or bad dictatorships.  The urge by some to ignore the conscience of those who might have an issue paying for birth control is basically saying that Progressives should support Ceasar, at least when Ceasar is a political party they adhere to.

If Progressive Christians are to stand for anything, we have to be willing at times to go against some of our secular allies, because God can't take a back seat.  If we can't stand up with a group we sometimes disagree with for the greater theological good, then we are no more than the Democratic Party at prayer.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Ceasar and the Pill

So, I'm going to treat into the waters of the birth control vs. religious liberty debate that has been going on for a while.  I've been wondering how Christians should handle this issue. Now, I tend think birth control is a good idea.  Teenage pregnancy is not a good thing and well, women should be able to decide when they want children and when they don't.

That said, I was distrubed by the decision by Health and Human Services to mandate that religious institutions with the exception of churches have to cover birth control.  This didn't disturb me because I think birth control is wrong; it bothered me because it harmed religious freedom.  While I think that birth control is a good idea and doesn't clash with my faith, I do know there are others that see birth control in a different light.  I don't agree with their view, but I do believe they have prayerfully come to their decision and it should be respected within reason.

Another view that comes to the fore are those who are Christians and are very much for reproductive rights.  I'm not talking about people like myself that tend to favor reproductive rights but are kind of lukewarm about their beliefs; no, I'm talking about folks who are just as militantly pro-choice as those on the other side are as militantly pro-life.  That side doesn't get as much attention, but they are out there.  Presbyterian Pastor Carol Howard Merritt is an example.  She writes in a recent essay that God is definitely pro-choice:

This week has been dominated by religious voices speaking out against contraception. I suppose that shouldn't be a surprise since Christianity has been controlled by men for over 2,000 years, and there has been a strong belief in both Catholic and Protestant traditions that women were created solely for childbirth. But there are way too many voices, speaking in the name of God, who target health services for women, and especially poor women.

As people of faith, we need to make our voices on behalf of women clear.

I believe in religious freedom. I believe that Muslim women should be allowed to wear a burka if that is her choice. I believe that a Catholic woman should not use contraception if that is her choice. But I resent the loud and constant religious voice that threatens the rights of women.

There is another voice. We aren't hearing it much in this national dialogue, but there are women and men of faith who believe that women are created for more than bearing children. We support contraception and women's healthcare.

God is concerned with the health of women. God cares about teenagers who end up in a lifetime of poverty. Jesus healed the bleeding woman two thousand years ago, and I think if he walked the streets today, he just might hand her a packet of pink pills.
I find the last sentence in this quote kind of fascinating, because I think it sums up what I think is so wrong about this debate. We as Christians are missing the boat if we think the question we need to ask is if Jesus would hand out birth control.  As much as I think the pill is a good idea, we are asking the wrong question. 

The issues at hand is how Christians should respond to the Ceasars of this world and a lack of understanding concerning the Other. 

The Church in American society is many ways nothing more than the red-blue divide dressed up in nice church clothes.  We make God a cheerleader for our side instead of learning to discern where God can be found.  We are quick to demonize those who don't share our viewpoints instead of seeing them  as fellow questors in faith.

Then there's the issue of how the Church deals with Ceasar, or the government.  It's interesting how we support or don't support the government based on who is in power.  Conservative Christians are now complaining  about how the Obama Adminstration is dealing with them, bringing up cries of religious liberty.  However, will they do the same thing when a Republican President does something that seems to infringe on liberties?  I doubt it. 

Meanwhile Liberal Christians, who during the Bush years were constantly talking about the how Bush was shredding the Constitution, have no problem telling religious institutions to stuff it and pay for something that goes against their conscience.

We are willing to stand against Ceasar, so long as he is of the other party.

Maybe I'm silly, but I think there has to be a better way to deal with this issue than shouting that God would or would not give out birth control pills.  I'd like believe that Christians would have a way of being in the world that would reflect different values, something that would make people notice.

But as usual, what I'd like to believe is just flat out wrong.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Learning to Love "Bubba"

I was reading an article in the New Yorker today on the white working class in America and how they are falling further and further behind economically and socially.  If you haven't read it, I would urge folks to read George Packer's essay, "Poor, White and Republican."  Packer gives a good description of these folks and what has become their slow, descent into hell:

F.D.R. called him “the forgotten man,” but that was long ago. By 1972, he was a member of the silent majority and had become a Democrat for Nixon (he wore a hard hat with an American-flag sticker). 1980 produced the Reagan Democrat (this time he came from Macomb County, Michigan, and was discovered by the pollster Stan Greenberg). By 1994 he had curdled into the Angry White Male (he elected the Gingrich Congress). In 2008, he was simply the working-class white—by then he was no longer forgotten, and no longer a Democrat of any kind; he was a member of the much-analyzed Republican base. The television godfather of the type, of course, is Archie Bunker, but you can also trace his lineage more darkly through the string of hard-bitten blue-collar movies that begins with “Joe” (Peter Boyle, 1970), goes on to “Falling Down” (Michael Douglas, 1993), “Gran Torino” (Clint Eastwood, 2008), and, in a rural context, “Winter’s Bone” (2010). He’s a descendant of the thirties Everyman played by Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper, except that in the intervening decades he lost his idealism and grew surly, if not violent, consumed with a hatred of hippies, immigrants, blacks, government, and, finally, himself.

The white working class is getting some more attention because of the release of Charles Murray's book "Falling Apart."  As I read this article, I started to wonder about mainline churches and how welcoming they would be to the white working class.  My guess is that most of these folks wouldn't feel that welcome in mainline churches.  In fact, these folks are more and more dropping out of churches as well.

The thing is, I don't think the people who make up most mainline churches, who tend to be from a more professional background don't like these folks very much.  I know this, because I hear how pastors talk about working class whites in meetings with other pastors, and I can tell you they aren't looking at them as some kind of salt of the earth figure.  I've also heard it from people in the pews of mainline churches as well: this kind of contempt for them.

We look down at them because we see them as racist, homophobic, sexist and any other -ist and -ism that you can think of them.  The thing is that working class whites can be all these things, but they are more than that as well.  As Packer notes in his essay, these are people who see very little hope and take it out on everyone for their lot in life.

When we talk about planting new churches to reach young adults, we mostly mean reaching people of the same socio-economic class that we are a part of.  As much as we want to talk about caring about the poor and the workers, I sometimes wonder how accepting we are of those that actually fit this description.  How willing would folks be to accepting a man or woman that you can tell has lived a hard life and whose moral life is kind of a mess? 
My own opinion is that the mainline church has a class issue and we don't know it or at least don't want to acknowledge it.  A good number of the mainline churches I know exhibit the values of the middle and upper middle classes.  We don't have any way to connect culturally with the working class.

You probably are wondering why a black, gay guy is so interested in white working class people.  It's a good question of which I have no good answer.  Maybe it's because I grew up working class and there was always an uneasy tension between working class blacks and working class whites.  Maybe it's that coming from Michigan, which has gone through so much as the economy change, you are more sensitive of those who lose good paying jobs and are trying pick up the pieces after the auto plant closed.

While blacks have always relied on the church during challenging times, for whatever reason, working class whites don't have the church to lean on in hard times.  Why is that?  

As Packer notes, the loss of jobs has led to a moral collapse among this group.  He notes:

The white working-class has suffered a moral collapse caused in part by the sorting of society into rich and poor, with the traditional virtues surviving only among the former—not by an economic battering at the hands of globalization, technology, and corporate power. Inequality is a natural state, and people at the bottom of society should either resign themselves to their fate, or else revive themselves through a moral and spiritual reawakening (likely inspired by their betters) that will allow them to rise above the lousy hand dealt them by their brain power.Visit most towns or rural areas where factories are boarded up and all the economic life is confined to strip malls, and you have to acknowledge the force of Murray’s picture. Rampant drug use, high dropout rates, out-of-wedlock births, epidemic obesity, every other working-age person on disability—it’s true even though Charles Murray says it’s true. And the predictable left-right argument over causes and solutions doesn’t help. Is it disappearing jobs, or disappearing values? This isn’t an analytical choice I find very useful. Jobs and values are intertwined: when one starts to go, the other is likely to go with it, and the circle becomes truly vicious. A textile factory moves south of the border, and a town loses its mainstay of employment. Former textile workers scurry to find fast-food and retail positions. The move from blue-collar to service work is brutal, and over time some employees lose the will to stick it out in a hateful job. Their children do even worse. Soon enough there are two or three generations of one family on government help, and kids grow up without a model of the work ethic. When a technology plant opens in the area (with a fifth the number of jobs as the textile factory), few locals are remotely qualified to work there. It’s a dismally familiar story—but is it a story of jobs or values? The obvious answer is both, which is why no one’s five-point solutions or three-word slogan is convincing.

There are policy answers to what's going on here, but there are also spiritual issues going on here. We should be reading this and wondering how we can give them a word of hope?  How to do we let them know that God loves them and cares about them?  How does the church reach out and help them?  How do we stop talking about the poor or the down and out and actually get to know them in all their complexity?

I don't know what is the answer here, but I do think we in the mainline church need to find ways to know these people and welcome them into our churches warts and all.  I think it might be what God would want us to do.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Numbers Game

If you're the pastor of a mainline Protestant congregation, one of the things that you do a lot of is obesess over numbers.


We are always paying attention to the attendance on Sunday mornings during worship.  We wonder how many folks will attend Christmas Eve or Maundy Thursday.  We wonder how many will come to our Bible Study.  We judge the effectivenss of a new church by how many folks become part of the core group by a certain time.

Of course, there's a reason we are so fixated on numbers: we are dealing with declining denominatins and congregations and so we worry all the time about numbers. 

Along with all the worrying is this sense of being haunted by the past.  We look back at the 1950s, as the golden age when our churches were full.  First Christian in Minneapolis had its heyday back in that era.  The church had nearly 2000 members, and the sanctuary was filled at both services.  The Sunday School was bursting with people.  For the Senior Pastor and I, it's hard not to look back and wonder what we are doing wrong and even to have a fleeting thought of going back to that era.

It's only a fleeting thought, though.  I have wondered if that era was as good as we like to think it was and Richard Floyd reminds me that the good ol' days weren't always so good:


Here in New England we have many historic (often downtown) churches that hit their numerical high water mark in both members and dollars somewhere between the late 1950’s and mid 1960’s.

Those numbers without interpretation might lead one to believe that those times of plenty were a golden age of the church, and in the minds of many older members they were.  But to use them as the template for what is normative makes everything that has followed appear to be failure.

A deeper look tells a more complicated story.  There was a boom in church life in the years after World War Two.  I call it a boom and not a revival, because it lacked many of the features of earlier religious awakenings, and that is part of the story of the subsequent decline.

It was a heady time of great optimism. America and its allies had won the war at great cost of people and treasure. There was an atmosphere of thanksgiving that the war was over.  The returning troops settled down, got married and created the great “Baby Boom” of the late forties into the fifties.

But it was not all optimism. The new Cold War with the Soviet Union and the specter of a nuclear exchange put fear into the mix.  And because the religiosity of America stood in stark contrast to the official atheism of the Soviets church-going seemed patriotic.

Many returning troops went to college on the GI bill and made their way into a rising middle class that fueled a housing boom.

These demographic and cultural factors grew churches.  Many new churches were built, new additions were added, and Sunday Schools were bursting at the seams with the young boomers.

Although there was some robust theology in the academy (the Niebuhrs, Karl Barth, and Paul Tillich come to mind) that theology hadn’t made its way to the congregations.  The life of the church was largely a pretty generic Culture Protestantism which identified itself with the American way of life.  There were Catholic and Jewish versions of this identity as Will Herberg described in his important book of the time Protestant, Catholic, Jew.

This (necessarily) simplistic sketch sets the stage for what happened in the 1960’s.  The Boomers grew up and out of the church.  Their mostly inadequate Christian education had not prepared them for the profound cultural changes that took place during this time.  The Civil Rights movement, the war in Vietnam, and the rise of the Boomer counter-culture all called into question the moral legitimacy of established authority, including the church.



What Floyd notes is that the theological blandness of the 1950s didn't prepare the children of that era for the challenges they would face a decade later. So, when the winds of change blew, they blew out of the church. The era of the full church wasn't necessarily the era of dedicated disciples.


I know that I need to tread carefully here, our older members have a far more fond view of that era than I do and we shouldn't dismiss their memories.  But I also think there was a downside to that era as well.


Floyd does note that the 1950s high-water mark was more of a boom, than a revival, which I think could also be interpreted as an asterisk rather than the norm.  I don't think First Christian will ever get back to the membership levels it had in 1955.  I think the congregation will grow in the coming years, but it will never grow in the way it once did. 

But while First won't ever get back to the fifties, there is growth take place in how the people see themselves.  A few years ago, the church was waiting to die.  These days, there seems to be a happiness among the folk, a sense of things coming back to life.  Numbers-wise we have grown slowly, but in the hearts of the people, in how they worship and live as disciples, well, I think that's has us bursting at the seams.

That's better than any big number in my book.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Sunday Sermon: February 12, 2012

“I’ve Got Work To Do”

Mark 1:40-45 and I Corinthians 9:24-27

February 12, 2012 (Sixth Sunday of Epiphany)

First Christian Church

Minneapolis, MN



One of the things you probably don’t know about me is that I play the piano.  Not well, but I can play a few notes.  I started playing when I was 11 and my first teacher was J. Ellsworth Jackson.  Mr. Jackson was a good teacher was able to get his students to do wonderful things.  I didn’t just learn how to play the notes on the page, I also learned the  science behind the notes.  Once a month, Mr. Jackson would gather a few students and we would learn music theory.  The little bit of music that I know, I credit to Mr. Jackson.


Mr. Jackson was a good teacher, but he was a mean man.


Mr. Jackson expected you to practice in the week between lessons. Somehow, someway, he would know if you didn’t practice much and he wasn’t afraid to tell little kids off.  There was more than one practice where I went through sheer hell with Mr. Jackson.  He knew I didn’t do my job and he would tore into me, talking about how my parents were sacrificing their time and money and that I was throwing it away.  You would leave that time feeling bad, but also determined to make the next week better- not because I didn’t want to let my parents down as much as it was I didn’t want to have to go through that horrible experience again.


As much as I hated Mr. Jackson, he was trying to help me understand that learning the piano was work.  It meant practicing everyday to become a good musician.  The only way to be good was to practice, practice, practice.


Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is probably the earliest usage of a sport analogy in the church.  Paul is talking about running a race and training our bodies and working for an everlasting prize.    


Paul is in the midst of writing about how the Corinthians Christians should live and preach the good news of Jesus.  Paul is urging his fellow followers to be disciplined in their faith in way that builds up their faith and allows them to share the good news with others.  Verses 19-23, which we read last week, talks about how Paul talks about Jesus within the context he is in.  If he is with Jews, he becomes like a Jew.  If he is with those under the law, he becomes like one under the law.  He is sensitive to the culture around him and uses the touchstone of that context to preach the gospel.


But for any of that to happen, you have to be prepared.  That’s where today’s verse comes in.  Paul is telling the Christians in Corinth that they have to practice their faith in a way that is like training for a sporting event....or a concert to the musicians among us.


So how does one practice being a Christ follower?


We do that from learning the spiritual practices.  We spend time in devotions and prayer.   We do what are doing right now, gathering together with other Christians to worship with God, experiencing the holy and seeing how God is working in each other’s lives.  Each practice is an encounter with Jesus, which allows us to share the Good News with those outside of the walls of the church.


The leper that we meet in the gospel is in need of healing.  Jesus is moved by the man’s sad state and heals him.  Jesus told the man not to tell anyone about the healing,  but to show himself to the priest who could declare the man clean.  If someone healed you of a terrible disease, would you NOT tell anyone?  Of course not!  Instead, the man blabbed to anyone he could meet.  He had an encounter of the holy and just had to share it with others. 


We don’t do anything to earn our salvation.  Reading the Bible or praying is not going to earn us brownie points in God’s eyes.  But while we don’t become free through our own merit, following Christ is always a work in process.  We will continue to meet together, share the Lord’s Supper, and pray because we want to continue to have the encounter with the creator of the universe.


Paul also says something else here.  Paul talks about running the race and getting a prize in the end.  We run with a goal.  When I was practicing piano way back when, it was always with one thing in mind: the Spring Recital.  Paul says their is a method to our madness and we “work out our salvation” for a goal in mind.  What’s that goal?  Paul could be talking about the great hereafter- a time and place where God’s creation is made whole again.  Paul could be talking about how we are working towards God’s kingdom, the life after this one where there will be no more crying and no more dying. 


So we work towards that which has not yet happened.  But we also work towards healing now.  The healing of the world is only a taste of what is to come, but it’s a pretty good taste.  When we touch the holy, we want to serve God, not to get on God’s good side, but because we love God.  We want show others of God’s love.  When we say we welcome people to God’s table, especially those who have been long excluded from the Table such as LGBT persons, we do it because of God’s love in us, which we know through our daily practices.  When we feed people, as we do through Feed My Starving Children or Groveland Foodshelf, we do it from our relationship with Jesus.  These acts of faith are bringing healing now and set the state for the healing that is to come.


After a few years with Mr. Jackson, went to another piano teacher.  They were much easier to be with, but they didn’t push practicing as much, which meant I didn’t practice as much.  I wonder what things would have been like if I remained with Mr. Jackson....if only I had practice more.


Practice doesn’t make us perfect.  But it does make us more faithful.  And that makes all the difference in the and in the world to come.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


Monday, February 06, 2012

Autism As A Dial, Not a Switch

A recent op-ed by psychiatrist Paul Steinberg about Asperger's Syndrome is getting a lot of attention with in autism circles, most of it negative.  Steinberg is a little wary of the Asperger diagnosis, saying that it is not "true" autism.  He notes:


Considered to be at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, Asperger syndrome has become more loosely defined in the past 20 years, by both the mental health profession and by lay people, and in many instances is now synonymous with social and interpersonal disabilities. But people with social disabilities are not necessarily autistic, and giving them diagnoses on the autism spectrum often does a real disservice. An expert task force appointed by the American Psychiatric Association is now looking into the possibility of changing the way we diagnose Asperger. True autism reflects major problems with receptive language (the ability to comprehend sounds and words) and with expressive language. Pitch and tone of voice in autism are off-kilter. Language delays are common, and syntactic development is compromised; in addition, there can be repetitive motor movements.

For Steinberg, Aspergers or high-functioning autism is not really autism because, these folks can talk. For him classic autism is the version we have been most familiar with, the kid who can't talk or do much of anything except live in their own world. Language is the key factor that separate the "real" autism from the "fake" one. When talking about Aspergers, he sees people who can talk, but who have a "social disability" something that might be an issue, but is not autism.

Of course, I beg to differ.  Steinberg uses a pretty narrow definition, limiting it to language and not to the larger issue that affects anyone of the spectrum, and that is communication problems.  People who are autistic have issues communicating exactly to others.  Some who are higher functioning might learn those skills later, but it is still not inate, which causes a whole bunch of issues for people.

What Steinberg is doing is that he is failing to separate the cultural phenomenon that is Aspergers from real, live people who have it.  He talks about "South Park" and how some people are claiming this or that historical figure had Aspergers and sums up that clearly it has to be the illness du jour that people are dreaming up to make the odd somewhat fashionable.

But there's another side to all of this, the side that deals with real people.  I've heard enough stories to know that a lot of folks with Aspergers are not fashionalble or cute, they are real people who live real lives and the face real struggles because of their autism.

And that includes me.

Before my diagnosis, I really wondered what was wrong with me, I stumbled in and out of jobs, and relationships with me were challenging.  I'm not saying it's all roses and gumdrops now, but life has become a lot better knowing why I acted so oddly to others.  I knew where my limits were and tried harder to smooth over the rough edges.  Aspergers wasn't cute or trendy in my life; it was barrier and at times dragged me down.  I'm not saying that it was all bad, but being even "a little autistic" means that you struggle with things that are so much more easier to others.

What Dr. Steinberg fails to note is that autism is a dail, a spectrum where some are "mildly affected" and others are "profoundly affected."  It's a range, not a switch that turns on or off. 

I wish that Dr. Steinberg would have spent time with some of us who do have Aspergers.  Maybe he would see that we aren't trendy fashionistas faking autism, but real people, who really, really struggle in life, and who are glad to know we aren't crazy, we aren't alone and we can take what has limited us and use it make us soar.



Sunday, February 05, 2012

Planned Parenthod vs. Susan G. Komen: Same S*%!, Different Day

I'm not going to get into the specifics of the whole Komen controversy because its been done ad nausem.  But I do have one question: where should the Church be in all this?

The whole mess concerning the two groups was one more annoying incident in the culture wars.  Each side, including many a Christian, took their usual sides in this forever battle.  We slunged mud at the other side with equal ferocity, all in the name of being on the side of right, of course.

But how should followers of Jesus respond?  How do we handle issues in ways that aren't aping what we seeing the wider culture?  Why are we so quick to turn even an issue that everyone agrees is a major problem: breast cancer, into war of words?  Why are people so willing to paint everything as black and white and not try to see another viewpoint or veiwpoints?

What is sorely missing in the life of the church today, no matter what side you are on, is how to think theologically and engage culture.  What we tend to do is hold on to our positions, convinced they are God's instead of sitting down and trying to discern things.  Instead of trying to find God's will, we have already decided we know God's will and need to tell those other guy how stupid and evil they are.

The Church, liberal and conservatives, have acted like asses in the last few days.  When it comes to showing a "more excellent way" of being in the world.  We fall short.

Epic. Fail.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Talking Back to the Strawman

As much as I love following and engaging in politics, I've have come to the opinion that politics is nasty business; especially for Christians and especially in these highly polarized times.

The diversity of political opinion as well as healthy debate are hallmarks of a democratic society.  My mom talks about growing up in her native Puerto Rico and hearing her adult relatives chatting about politics.  The opinion of the group spanned the ideological spectrum, from conservatives to socialist.  I do wonder at times, if the talk got heated, but I think that at the end of the day, people still cared for each other because they were family.

But like everything in the world, politics can have a dark side.  One of its more darker passions is the ability to demonize opponents.  That's something that has become increasingly common in American life these days.  Both left and right have jumped into the fray, and so have Christians.  Conservative Christians have long been tempted to demonize their opponents, and now it looks like Liberal Christians are joining in.

A week or so ago, fellow Disciples of Christ pastor Christian Piatt penned a blog post entitled "GOP Nostalgia is a Symptom of Privilege."  While I think that some of what he describes is a problem among conservatives, much of what Piatt wrote was hyperbolic stereotyping that just added more fuel to the partisan fire, not less.  Piatt creates a strawman that filled with every stereotype of Republicans to knock down which paints every Republican in the same brush.

Here's a sample of what Piatt has to say:

There’s an awful lot of talk in the political forum lately about restoring America to some nostalgic state of yesteryear, when supposedly everything was better. If we could only get back there, everything would be all right again.

I guess that depends on who you ask, doesn’t it?
Author Melissa Harris-Perry recently appeared on “The Colbert Report” to speak about her new book, “Sister Citizen,” which examines a number of stereotypes of African-American women. As he often does, Colbert teed up a common conservative talking point about “going back to he good old days.” Perry’s response kept ringing in my head for days afterward.

She said that there is no time in American History you would want to go back to as a black girl.

The point is simple but compelling. Those in the position of privilege to write history are the ones whose story is most prominently told. So when we talk about going back to some better time, it’s with the lens of that same privilege that we’re looking back.

The fact is that, unless you’re a white, Christian, straight male, there’s little to look back to and say “yeah, I was better off back then.”
After rightly or wrongly trashing some of the GOP presidential candidates, he then says what's behind the desire for traditional values:

What underlies this sort of nostalgic talk is privilege. The longing is to go back to a time or place when their particular way of viewing the world was considered “normal,’ and all others were not. There is some selective memory at work even in these cases, however, since most who call for the return to ways of the past would readily call for exceptions in the case of blatant racism and (for some at least) sexism.

To call for a return to the good old days is, in some ways, a marginalization of those for whom history has meant progress. For the majority of Americans today, turning back the clock means losing ground, acceding power or opportunity and returning to a time of greater imbalance and division.
Piatt makes some good points, some that I have made.  I think at times social conservatives look back at the past selectively, avoiding the more ugly bits.  But the fact is, we all have selective memories of the past.  For example, many on the left want to go back to an economy that we had in the 1950s, even though things weren't that great back then either.

What bothers me, is that Piatt seems to be saying that any Republican candidate or rank and file member is someone that doesn't like anyone who isn't white and male.  It's an old trope made by folks who frankly learn about Republicans only by what they see on the news.  They never have actually met a Republican who is a lot more complex than the strawman he creates.

As a Republican who is gay and is also African American, I can say that while there are problems that need to be addressed, I've met Republicans who are gay, women, black, female and Latino.  They aren't all "bubbas" who drive around with Confederate Flags bumper stickers.  (and even the "bubbas" aren't such a stereotype.)

But this kind of trash talk is troublesome not simply because it disses Republicans.  I have a bigger problem in that Piatt's post is a sign something that is happening more and more in society: Christians engaging in the same kind of smashmouth politics so popular in the wider culture. Christians on the left and the right mimic what is going on in the society; the only difference is that we flavor our ideological snarkiness with God-talk.

Frederick Schmidt thinks that it's time we stop yelling and start listening:

Are we listening to ourselves, friends?

Can we hear that our language is indistinguishable from the political hue and cry going on around us?

Do we notice that a third voice—a God-given perspective—is completely missing from a conversation where voices left and right have all the representation that they need?

Are we so hungry for relevance that we are willing to allow ourselves to be used as an instrument of party politics?

Have we forgotten that our communities include people who subscribe to both political parties?

Do we really believe that there are no Republicans who care about people?

Do we really believe that there are no Democrats who are not closet communists?

Do we really want to risk our relationships with people who belong to one party or the other, in the name of venting our emotions in public?

Can we be sure that we haven't already alienated some of those people?

Do we really believe that by labeling and libeling people that we illuminate the truth?

This is not prophetic speech. It is not speaking truth to power. It is not persuasive. And it does not make the church more relevant to the political process. In fact, it makes it possible to dismiss Christians as a subset of political opinion left and right  -- people with quaint motives for being involved—but little to add to the debate.

As I've said before, we Disciples do something every Sunday in our worship- we have communion.  In our heritage, there was a strong belief that there be no fences around the communion table.  I've worked to make sure that my fellow gay sisters and brothers have a place at the Table.  But the table also needs to be a place where our ideologies are set aside.  The Table needs to be a place where we can disagree, and yet be church to each other and provide an example to a world full of divisions.

Can the church be that place where we can show a new way of being community that transcends the left-right axis?

Sometimes I wonder.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Look, It's the Mythical Black Aspergian!

John Elder Robison wrote two articles for Psychology Today three years ago where he mused why he never say any black, male Aspergians or persons with Aspergers Syndrome.

Well, as many of you know, I'm black. I'm male. And I have Aspergers. Which I guess means that I'm right up there with unicorns and the Loch Ness Monster.

Robison does ask some good questions about why there are so few male African Americans with autism out there. Of course, we do exist and I have met others black guys with Aspergers out there. But I think he is correct that we aren't out there in the same way that other groups are.

My only guess is that like with so many things, black males tend to be somewhat invisible in our society if they aren't in sports or in jail. I'm also gay and I can tell you that being male and black and gay kinda pushes you off to the margins.

Does racism have anything to do with this? Maybe. Sometimes what can be seen as quirky in white males can be seen a threatening when it's done by a black man. But it also could be that black males with Aspergers have had to learn how to "act normal" in order to make it in society. Robison wonders about this as well:

To paraphrase what several people wrote: It's hard enough being black, let alone being black and different. I think that may well be true. I suspect some black Aspergians learned how to fit in - just as I did - because they were not offered the "gentler special needs accommodations" afforded to middle class white kids.

It is this second group that interests me. If it's true that a good many young black Aspergians manage to blend in, wouldn't the rest of us benefit from knowing how they did it? I think so. I suspect they learned many of the same techniques that I and other middle aged Aspergians had to figure out, because there was no Asperger diagnosis when we grew up and it was sink-or-swim in the social pool for us, with no special accommodation.

So, what do we do? Well, probably one thing is that educators might need to be more aware that the black kid in their class that's disruptive might not be a bad egg but instead has Aspergers or has ADHD or something. Other than that, I don't know. What I do know is that we need to learn to be more aware of African American Males who might be autistic and find ways to get them help before they end up in jail.