And the #1 Reason Why the 21st Century Church Struggles Is . . .

(. . .  I’ll get to that.)

I wrote yesterday about the problem of greed in our congregations and while I indeed believe that greed destroys our mission as followers of Christ, there is a larger issue destroying our mission and it encompasses greed.

But first, what do you think?

What would you say is the #1 reason why the 21st Century Church is struggling and by “Church” I’m talking about everybody from the Southern Baptists to the progressive formerly “Mainline” denominations to the Roman Catholics to the Orthodox denominations in the United States.  Is our biggest issue:

  • Secularization?
  • A lack of “young people”?
  • Obsolescence?
  • A lack of commitment?

The Rev. Lenny Duncan is an African American pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. (Apparently the Lutherans are even whiter than the Presbyterians.)  He suggests an even bigger issue: White Supremacy.

Duncan has written Dear Church – A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S. that spells our what he (and I) believe is the #1 issue for all predominantly white congregations in the United States.

We must dismantle, destroy, and bury white supremacy. In this nation. In our pews. In our liturgies. As a church, as a people, and as Christians, this is our call in the twenty-first century.

The evil of white supremacy is so entrenched in our culture that we don’t even see it.  We picture KKK members or those guys with the Tiki torches in Charlottesville when someone says “white supremacy.”  But the fallout has settled upon every one of us.  And it shows up everywhere:

  • We congratulate ourselves when people of color join our congregations where we welcome them heartily as long as they sing and pray like we do.
  • We plan mission projects for “the needy” but rarely do we develop deep, lasting relationships that help us understand the perspectives of people Not Like Us white people.
  • We might have Bible studies or book studies that challenge – but not too much.  We don’t want to be too uncomfortable.
  • We use words like “plantation” or “picnic” or “states’ rights” without considering what those words might mean to people of color.
  • We say “that’s just the way things are” when discussing racism or poverty, forgetting that Jesus taught us to pray and work so that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.  
  • We fail to support people of color in seminaries and we fail to support our historically African American congregations as readily as we will support white seminarians and our own white congregations. (The lack of generational wealth in our culture is, of course, a consequence of slavery.)

Duncan writes that “there will be no recognizable Lutheran witness in this country in fifty years if we don’t participate in this work. Period.”

The same could be true for my denomination and for yours.  And this is not about perpetuating our denominational institutions.  This is about living out the message of the Gospel.  This is about following Jesus.

God has blessed the United States with an increasingly diverse population.  Some of our neighbors first came here by choice.  Many of our neighbors came here – historically – in chains.  But God has brought us together and Jesus has a message that requires us to dismantle white supremacy because it is the antithesis of God’s plan for this world.

We white people have had it good.  Even if we grew up poor and broken, it was always better to be white than to be brown or black because this country was made for us.  This is the truth.  The laws, the educational systems, the entertainment industries were all made for us.

White siblings: we have a lifetime of work to do. And if we don’t do it, our churches deserve to die.

We can do better.  We have got to do better.

Note: Here’s a last minute opportunity for some anti-racism training:  Check it out.  And read Lenny Duncan’s new book.

Is Hemp the New Black?

This post could also be called Greed Has Long Term Consequences. Also, I’ve never smoked weed, just to be clear.  Seriously, never.

[Note:  Upon seeing the billboard pictured here in NYC last week, HH said, “Hemp must be The New Black.”]

Apparently industrial hemp is the new everything:

  • You can eat it.
  • You can drink it.
  • You can fuel your car with it.
  • You can build a house with it.
  • You can slather it on your body.
  • You can wear it.
  • You can save the planet with it.

You could smoke industrial hemp but it would only give you a headache.  It’s not the same as smoke-able weed.

So, I don’t know much about hemp but if both ends of the political spectrum are in favor of expanding hemp production in the United States, it sounds like it could be a good idea.  And if industrial hemp is so awesome and it won’t be our gateway drug into opioids, why has it taken so long to embrace it?

This is a post about greed.

Once upon a time in the United States of America all farmers were required to grow hemp and all pharmacists carried medicinal cannabis in their drug stores.  But in 1936 the film Reefer Madness came out as a propaganda project which kicked off an ongoing campaign to make cannabis increasingly illegal.

And then there were the Rockefeller, Dupont, Mellon, and Hearst families. Throughout the early 20th Century and continuing to these days, the Rockefellers controlled oil, the Du Ponts controlled chemicals (including the creation of nylon), the Hearsts owned newspapers (with an emphasis on paper) and Andrew Mellon was both the richest man in the country and Secretary of the Treasury (and an investor in nylon.)

They killed the hemp industry because it competed with the oil and wood pulp industries and their power was no match for hemp farmers.  And now we find ourselves – as a nation and planet – with some environmental issues that could have been avoided if we’d stuck with hemp. (Sources here and here.)

Greed fuels everything bad about our country today, if you ask me.  Even our churches struggle with it.  (Have you ever heard someone refer to the church as “mine” and not as a community identifier?)

Greedy choices made today have long term consequences that impact our communities, our congregations, and our planet.  Greed keeps people poor.  Greed keeps people sick.  Greed separates people from their Creator.

Why is it not one of the Ten Commandments then? (i.e. Thou shalt not be greedy?”)  Actually, greed plays a role in Commandments 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, and 10 – and maybe the other four as well.

One of the reasons organized religion struggles today is because of greed.  (It might be the #1 reason but – for me – it’s a toss up between greed, laziness, and fear.)

So . . . go hemp!  I hope you are The New Black and that you help save our environment.  And I hope – as we sit in meetings today with our congregations, our business partners, our government officials, our community leaders, our school staffs, and our neighbors – we will consider this:

Is greed impacting our decision in any way?  

We can do better with and for each other.

Image of a billboard in NYC at the corner of 53rd and 6th.

“I love what I see when I look at you.”

This is a line – written by Aaron Sorkin – spoken by the character Calpurnia to young Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.  HH and I got to see the play last week in NYC and I remember thinking – when I heard that line – that everybody should hear those words as least once in our lives.

I love what I see when I look at my children.

I love what I see when I look at the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team.

I love what I see when I look at our faithful church leaders.

I love what I see when I look at you.

This line falls in juxtaposition to the line from Ava Duvernay’s title When They See Us.   When the world saw Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, and Raymond Santana we saw rapists.  Some wanted us to see rapists when we saw those young men.  In fact, I believe that some love it when we look at certain people with fear or contempt or disgust.

This is not who God created us to be.

I believe that God loves us when God looks at us.  The truth is that we are ridiculous.  We are selfish.  We are cruel.  We are unlovable.  But God still loves us.  This is not to say that God doesn’t require us to be better humans.

How do we feel when we look at immigrants, refugees, brown people, black people, golden people, white people, elderly people, queer people, people wearing MAGA hats?  Do we generally feel afraid?  Safe?  Disgusted? Judge-y?

I do not love what I see when I look at some of our political leaders or people in detention centers or people who litter or church leaders who refuse to serve those outside their comfort zones.  I love the people (only because I try to see them through the eyes of Jesus) but I don’t love the behavior or the situation or the choices made.

Is this akin to loving the sinner while hating the sin?  Actually, it’s more than that.

When we look at each other what do we feel?  It’s a question that helps me check myself.  If I feel afraid, is that my racism creeping up?  If I feel disgusted, is that my white smugness showing it’s face?  If I feel deep love, is that Jesus in me?

I was in Our Nation’s Capital last week for the Fourth of July and I felt things. There Were Feelings.

There Were Feelings when I watched so many people wearing MAGA hats in that city I love.  There Were Feelings when I saw tourists on the Metro look at sleeping people on the Metro with disdain.

I’m wondering about this.  How do we feel when we look at each other?  Not what do we think.  Not what do we see.  But what do we feel?

I wonder if feeling love when we look at each other might be a spiritual discipline to try.  Can I feel compassion and love for someone even when I don’t understand them or I disagree with them or I fear them?

Monday Challenge #1: Try saying these words to someone and mean it.  I love what I see when I look at you.

Monday Challenge #2: Try to be the people God created us to be.

Also the play was very good.

Image of Celia Keenan-Bolger and LaTanya Richardson Jackson in the play To Kill a Mockingbird at the Shubert Theatre in NYC.  They play Scout and Calpurnia, respectively.

We are Great (and We Can Be Better)

After a few days of vacation in NYC and DC, I was chomping at the bit to write about The Fourth of July.  I love this holiday and it’s especially wonderful to celebrate in those cities.

I love our country.  And we can do better. (The US Women’s National Team cannot do any better, but the rest of us can.)

Someone asked me once why I hated the Church so much (because I was always pointing to what needs to change.)  Loving someone or something, and wanting things to be better are not mutually exclusive.

This week my posts will be about being better than we’ve been. Maybe all my posts are about this, but our constant efforts as American citizens must be that we strive for liberty and justice for all.  And as The Church of Jesus Christ we must strive to be faithful disciples.

Go USA!

Vacation Week

It’s Vacation Week for me and my HH.  No posting while we relax.

Have a wonderful week everyone and I’ll be back July 8th.

Rainbow Church

If you “don’t see color” in terms of skin tones you can stop reading here.

This is a post for people who see all the colors, who embrace the rainbow, who find joy in messy configurations of humans.

One of the truths about the Future Church is that it will be as diverse as its community – or it will die.  My own young adult children are constantly looking for community that looks like the world in which they live. That world is not predominantly white.

Maybe you live in an all white or all black or all brown or all golden area.  Or maybe you live in a very diverse area in terms of cultures but you only associate with people who look like you.  It’s an essential spiritual discipline that we branch out a little for the sake of the Gospel.

UPI reported in April that the United States will become a majority-minority country sometime around 2044.  If you are part of a congregation who embraces this reality but you wonder how you can adapt to these demographic changes, here are some questions to talk about with your people:

  • Does your church leadership look like the congregation you hope to be in the coming years?  (The only racial diversity I see in many of our white congregations is found behind the scenes doing building maintenance or childcare.)
  • Do you invite diverse preachers to your pulpit when the regular pastor is on vacation? (Different voices with different life experiences enhance the spiritual lives of our congregation.)
  • How comfortable would your congregation be if you called a pastor of another race? (Especially if your congregation doesn’t look like the neighborhood around it, it makes to sense to call a pastor who looks like/sounds like the community. Or – if you hope to broaden your staff’s – and your congregation’s – perspective, it makes sense to call a pastor who stretches you theologically and demographically.)

These are serious questions to discuss with God’s people in your midst.  Systemic racism (and white supremacy) are in our DNA and it will take very intentional and uncomfortable conversations to move forward.

The rainbow is our future – and in many of our communities the rainbow is our present.  This is cause for rejoicing in that this is the world God created.  This is what the reign of God looks like.

Rainbows also represent LGBTQA+ Pride, and I pray we are also welcoming of those rainbows as well.

Image of a rainbow over a church building in Búðakirkja, Iceland.

Thursdays in Black

I’m pretty sure that Donald Trump is not E. Jean Carroll’s type either.

Only the least educated among us doesn’t yet know that rape is not about sex.  It’s about power.  Rape is a weapon.

It happened in the Bible and it happens today in cars and hotel rooms and refugee camps and alleys and dorm rooms and department store dressing rooms.  75.2% of all rapes are perpetrated by someone the victim knows.

So keep this in mind: most assaults are not the classic movie versions of rape where a stranger with a knife is hiding under your bed or in your closet.

We who have daughters who go to parties have taught them never to drink from a cup they haven’t poured themselves or from a cup they left sitting on a counter while they turned their backs. 6% of all rapes are perpetrated by more than one person that the victim cannot remember.

And what strikes me as especially ironic is the fact that the person accused by E. Jean Carroll of an assault in the 1990s (and she wasn’t the only one)  famously accused the Exonerated Five of assaulting a stranger in Central Park in 1989.  He called for the death penalty for those boys who had nothing to do with that attack.  But in the meantime he was – allegedly – assaulting acquaintances and perhaps even his spouse.

I like wearing black anyway, but when I wear black on Thursdays, I’m remembering my siblings who have been assaulted and know that many people will never believe us.  Say a little prayer today for women.  Most of the women you know have been assaulted in some minor or huge way.

The World Council of Churches invite us to wear black on Thursdays to be in solidarity with those who have been victims of sexual assault.  

If Bleak Was a Color

Dear graduates, you all come from the Middle East, from Syria, born and raised, but also from Lebanon, where you have lived and studied. Well, neither Syria nor Lebanon figure anywhere among the best countries of the world, nor among the best to raise your children in, nor among the safest countries to live in. It is very likely that they rank somewhere near the very end of such listings.  Dr. Nadim Nassar, Speaker of the 87th Commencement of the Near East School of Theology, Beirut  June 15, 2019

The color of hope is bright.  It’s fresh and cheerful and lighthearted.  I’m currently reading Embracing Hopelessness by Miguel de la Torre (which I strongly recommend) and there are no bright colors.  Dr. de la Torre writes:

Hope, as a middle-class privilege, soothes the conscience of those complicit with oppressive structures, lulling them to do nothing except look forward to a salvific future where every wrong will be righted and every tear wiped away, while numbing themselves to the pain of those oppressed, lest that pain motivate them to take radical action.  Hope is possible when privilege allows for a future.

We who hope have physical evidence that bad days will become good days very shortly, that wounds will be healed in good time, that even though we are crashing, there is a safety net that will embrace us and make us safe again.

Millions of people in the world do not have this.  Their bad days continue to be quite bad.  Their wounds fester and become life threatening.  They crash and then crash again and then crash again – because there is no safety net.

According to Dr. Nassar’s commencement address:

In 2018, last year, and for the second year in a row, Switzerland ranked as the world’s best country, followed by Canada, Sweden, Germany, United Kingdom, Japan, Sweden, Australia, United States, France, Netherlands. Nowhere on the list can any country from the Middle East be found; actually, there is no ranking for them.  There is also such a thing as a research analysis report on the best country to raise children in: Denmark ranks first here, then Sweden, Norway, Finland, Canada… Again, no Middle Eastern country is anywhere in
sight.

As for me, I am 1) enormously privileged and 2) not without hope – especially when I see this photograph of the 2019 graduates of NESSL (and look at all those women) who are hoping against hope that they will be called to serve as pastors of Christian churches in Syria and Lebanon, two extraordinary countries in spite of being crushed for decades.  “Syrian refugee” has become an everyday term for many of our congregations.  But here we see people of hope who believe there is a future for the Church of Jesus in these war ravaged nations.

We who hope cannot forget those who dwell in hopelessness.  In fact, if we choose to put them out of our minds and ourselves dwell in the most selfish kind of hope (i.e. If my people and I are okay, then all is well.) then we might as well admit that we are not Christian.  We are not followers of Jesus.  We are not “good people.”  We are simple people who reinforce oppression and injustice.

So much for a perky Wednesday post.  But bleak is a color too.

Images of the Pantone color Opaque Couche which has been voted one of the ugliest colors ever created and of the 2019 graduating class of the Near East School of Theology in Beirut.

It’s Actually Easy-ish Being Green

There is no official recycling in the building where our Presbytery Office works. And so three of us cheerfully schlep clear recycling bags full of paper and soda cans home to recycle from there on a regular basis.

The issue is that our address doesn’t include regular recycling pick-up and/or it’s available but nobody wants to pay for it.  Not sure.

Congregations are known for eating and drinking and – more time than not – I sip coffee in styrofoam cups while standing in church social halls picturing this in my mind. Styrofoam is not only not biodegradable, but it breaks into little bits and is really hard to clean up.  (Once a refridgerator box full of styrofoam popcorn used for packing blew open before the sanitation crew could pick it on my street and – believe me – it was a huge mess trying to pick up countless beads of Polystyrene blowing in windy Chicagoland.)  Single use plastics – whether they are clamshell containers or plastic straws are a problem for the environment and have been for a long, long time.  Surely we could find lots of real mugs and wash them for the love of God – literally.

Since environmental issues are only going to become more prevalent, congregations need to be on the forefront of being green.  Most denominations will help your church become more responsible: Presbyterians.  Roman Catholics. United Methodists. Lutherans. United Church of Christian. Reformed Church in America, Episcopalians, Unitarians, and free range Christians all have resources.

If we have any interest in serving the needs and interests of our youngest generations, this is one way we can make a statement that we are concerned about their future.  Or we can continue to use styrofoam cups (and toxic fertilizers and environmentally damaging building materials and more fossil fuels than we need.)

And this isn’t about getting popular with the young people.  This is about listening to the Creator.

Note: This would be a helpful and holy summer project for someone to take on in your congregation.  It starts with recycling bins.

I Don’t Look Good in Yellow

I once wore a very pale yellow bridesmaid dress in a spring wedding and it was not a good look for me.  In fact, I was fairly invisible walking down the aisle because the paleness of my dress emphasized the paleness of my skin.  Yellow is not my color.

Someone named Becky G. researched why yellow is considered the color of cowardice here and – whatever the deeper meaning of the color yellow might be  I prefer bold colors.  Give me hot pinks and blues and greens.  They bring out my eyes.

I would like to think of myself as a bold person, but I confess before you and God that I’ve often been more afraid of my parishioners than God.  I am a coward on most days.  (I seriously remember where boldness got Jesus.)

Many of our pastors are only bold when we know our congregations already believe what we are proclaiming from the pulpit.  Some say that it’s best to “preach purple” when we know that our pews are filled with a variety of political persuasions.  The Bible is an equal opportunity offender and there’s already something to offend everybody in Scripture.  But I find that preaching purple rarely pushes God’s people to be bold in faith.  God is calling disciples – and not just professional preachers – to speak up.

What does Scripture tell us about how to treat “the least of these” whether they are children at the southern border of the United States or homeless veterans living under a bridge or elderly people living in isolation in rural America.

But we don’t wish to offend.  We especially don’t wish to offend the people who pay our salaries.  We don’t want to offend co-workers or family members or even those who live under the same roof with us.

The world is not okay and I’m challenging myself – and you – to be bold at least one time this week in the way we speak and in the way we live.

  • There are children living in terrible conditions at the southern border of our country.  This is not fake news.
  • There are millions of people who are not benefiting from the same economy that’s making wealthy people wealthier.
  • There is mind-boggling opioid abuse in small towns in my state and in yours.
  • There is universal bad behavior in the form of verbal bullying and words that break apart rather than build up.

If it helps to consider being bold because it’s patriotic so be it.  It’s patriotic to lift up the Declaration of Independence which says:  we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all (people) are created equal. It’s patriotic to work for an economy to benefit all Americans, for example.

But – beyond patriotism and politics – for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, it’s faithful to lift up Scripture which tells us that all human beings are created in the image of God. It faithful to work for an economy to benefit all God’s children, for example.

Are we willing to be bold out there and speak up when our leaders, our congregations, and our country are being cowardly?  If yellow is the color of caution and timidity, none of us look good in that color – at least in the reign of God.

Image source.