Thursday, July 9, 2015

Symbols Matter
          Sometime around one o’clock eastern daylight savings time this morning the South Carolina House of Representatives voted to remove the Confederate battle flag from Capitol grounds. It is action long overdue. It is tragic that it took political pressure from the tragic shooting at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston and the death of a friend and colleague in the Senate chamber to move the legislature and governor to do what has been so sorely needed to unite the black and white communities in the state.
          As a student at the University of South Carolina I was witness to the occasional protest on the steps of the Capitol building as organizations such as the NAACP tried to get the government to remove the battle flag from atop the capitol dome. In my psychology, social work, and sociology classes I listened to the pain expressed by my fellow classmates, who were every bit the “native” South Carolinian I was but were descended from slaves, when discussing what the flag meant to them. No matter what I thought about the battle flag whether it be history and heritage or hate for a large number of South Carolinians it would always be a symbol of oppression and degradation. While progress was made when the flag was moved from the dome to the Confederate memorial on the Capitol grounds, it would never be a rallying point to unite all South Carolinians; therefore, it needed to be catalogued with other mementos of a confusing past in the Confederate Relic Room and War Museum. What is displayed on the Capitol grounds as official symbols of the state’s communal life should unite not divide. The symbols we choose to tell our story should evoke a sense of community not communities with one or some being dominant over others. Symbols matter, especially symbols which have various and divisive interpretations.
          An obituary from the June 26, 1930 edition of the Dillon (SC) Herald states, “Rev. J. M. Gasque, who had reached his 88th milestone in life’s journey, died at the home of his daughter, Mrs. Annie G. Bethea, at 2:15 o’clock Sunday morning… Mr. Gasque was born in Marion county on October 20th, 1842, and was the last member of a large family. He was also the last surviving member of Co. L. 82nd division of the confederate army. He volunteered for service at the beginning of the war and was taken prisoner at the fall of Fort Fisher in 1864. From there he was transferred to Elmira, N.Y., and was held for some time after the surrender because he refused to sign the oath of allegiance.”
          J. M. Gasque was my great-great grandfather. He and the rest of my family suffered mightily because of the Civil War. Several sons from many different branches of the family died in battle. Honor, prestige, and social standing was lost when much of the family’s accumulated wealth got up and walked away after the ratification of the13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution. (How much is a matter of debate since the oral history came from a grandmother who liked to refer to the Civil War as the “Recent Unpleasantness.”) According to my grandmother J. M. Gasque experienced aches and pains in cold weather because of frostbite from his incarceration in Elmira. He had refused to sign the oath of allegiance which would have sent him home. In spite of the personal cost of the Civil War he apparently was proud of the Confederacy and his service in the Confederate Army, and yet I never experienced a Confederate battle flag in my home or my grandmother’s. It simply was not part of who we were and are as a family.
There were other reminders and symbols of that time not so long ago. My great-great grandmother’s hope chest sat on the floor at the foot of the hand carved sleigh bed that came out of the Gasques’ house. The gouges around the lock were a constant reminder of the pillaging Union soldiers did during Sherman’s march to the sea. The picture of an old “Mamie” hanging on the wall beside the bed was there because it reminded Annie Louise Gasque Montgomery of the woman born into slavery who spent the latter years of her life raising my grandmother. Most importantly for me as a Protestant Christian and pastor there is the well worn leather pocket American Standard Version of the New Testament which belonged to the Rev. J. M. Gasque. My grandmother and my uncle presented it to me on the occasion of my ordination in 2002. The sight of it brought back a flood of memories and stories about how my great-great grandfather in a time when Protestants in the South discriminated against Catholics would often say, “I have nothing against the Catholics. If it weren’t for the nuns at Elmira I wouldn’t be alive today.” That is the heritage passed down from generation to generation in my family not one of hatred and bigotry. The hope chest and the pocket New Testament are symbols not just of what we as a family lost but also what we gained, a love and respect for our neighbor no matter who they might be.
Symbols matter. They are visual representations of our traditions and beliefs. Symbols work best when they unite instead of divide. Symbols have power when they call us to tell our stories and discuss that which unites and divides us. In the Christian tradition our symbols are simple; bread, wine, and water. They speak of grace, humility, and love. They are symbols that draw together instead of spreading apart. What does the Confederate battle flag do? If it does not unite then put it where it belongs in a museum. Thanks to you South Carolina elected officials who have done the right thing and started the process of uniting those whom you serve.

Soli Deo gloria

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A One Percent Problem

When my family and I were back in South Carolina visiting with my in-laws I had a chance to hear a curious new phase, “white people problem.” It was used in a conversation between my sister-in-law and her husband. They were lamenting the issues associated with living a bi-coastal life. Her job as an executive with a major mobile telecommunications company required a transfer from Charlotte to Seattle. Since she did not plan on staying longer than the terms of her initial contract they decided to keep their house in an upscale neighborhood and rent a house in the posh suburb of Bellevue (where Bill Gates and many of the Microsoft executives live.) They were trying to decide what to do with the BMW Z4 they had purchased a few years ago as a “play car” and had left in Charlotte since it wasn’t practical for the traveling they do when on the East Coast. After several minutes of back and forth banter about the need for trunk space to haul their stuff between Charlotte, Asheville, Due West, and Savannah they suddenly stopped looked at each other and said, “white people problem!”

It was their catchphrase to describe all the “problems” people who have all they need and most of what they want. “Oh no! The Beemer has a flat. Guess I’ll have to take the Lexus.” (White people problem.) “We’re not sure we can make it to the beach this year we’ve been invited to play in a celebrity Pro-Am tournament that week.” (White people problem.) “The sale on 70 inch HDTVs just ended I guess I’ll have to settle for a 60 inch.” (White people problem.) My wife and I even found ourselves getting into the spirit of the conversation when we were investigating various camps for our children and upon finding one our youngest son might enjoy noted that it started the week after we get back from the Caribbean in June. “Oh no Honey, I’m not sure that’s going to work. He’ll be tired after all that travel and vacation.” We paused a moment, looked at one another, and said, “White people problem.”

While this phrase does describe the pitfalls of life in the American middle class it is problematic in one very profound way. It is wildly inaccurate and is dreadfully politically incorrect. This reality was pointed out to me when in an online discussion about the events of a friend’s day she made the comment that she had to decide whether the family’s beloved pet rabbit really needed $1500 of surgery which she closed with “first world problem.” I replied that our family uses the term “white people problem,” at which time a third person joined in and called us both bigoted and insensitive. I then thought about the two phrases and realized that there are wealthy people of all races, and power and privilege is not the sole domain of those living in the first world. In fact, data supplied by the U.S. Census Bureau states that as of 2010 in the most first world of first world countries 22% of all children under 18 are poor. 12.4% of white non-Hispanics are poor. 38.2% of black people, 35% of Hispanics, and 13.6% of Asians all live in poverty.

In 2011 the median household income in the United States was $50,110 which according to the Global Rich List places the average American household among the top 0.98% of the richest people on Earth. If the world population clock is correct there is are approximately 7.1 billion people on Earth. I have a hunch that 7,029,000,000 people around the world would like to have the problems half of us in the United States face. We don’t have “white people problems” or “first world problems.” We have “1% problems.”

I do not know whether it is the statistics based rhetoric that is dominating all political economic discussion in the U.S. right now (the 2%, the 98%, the 47%) or the looming presence of the Lenten season, but when I realized I am a “one-percenter” I am grossly aware of my personal sinfulness. Jesus spent a lot more time talking about the sin associated with wealth than he did sexual ethics, marital status, or an inalienable right to bear arms. Paul said in his letter to the Romans (a group that were the one-percenters of their day) that all fall short of the glory of God. Maybe our collective obsession with “1% problems” means some of us fall shorter than others. Maybe it’s time to quit worrying about our “1% problems” and start worrying about the “99% problems.”

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Good Guys Wear White, Right?

            When linebacker Pete Giftopoulos intercepted a Vinnie Testeverde pass in the end zone with seconds left in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl sealing the victory and national title for the Penn State Nittany Lions, I just knew that it was a case of the good guys once again beating the bad guys. The game was billed as good versus evil and the participants played their parts with extraordinary authenticity. The suit and tie wearing Nittany Lions came into the game as seven points underdogs to the thuggish camouflage wearing University of Miami (Florida) Hurricanes and road off into the Arizona sunset like the white hat wearing heroes of the serial cowboy movies from the 1950’s and 60’s. In spite of my deep Southern roots and partially through my stepmother’s familial connections to the cities of Altoona, Huntington, and Mount Union, I found myself rooting for the gritty, soft spoken boys from the steel mill cities of eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. They were like me and were the image of what my parents hoped I would become. Penn State symbolized the old fashioned values cherished by my family: simplicity, honesty, integrity, and industriousness. Their purity was as evident as the dazzling white of their away uniforms. On that early January evening twenty-five years ago, the good guys were a reflection of their leader, Joe Paterno, and prevailed over the blight of major college football, “The U”. Only a handful of people witnessing that triumph of good guys over bad boys had an inkling of what evil lay beneath the surface of all that was decent and pure about Penn State football.
            Public reaction to the release of the Freeh report has been swift and with a few notable exceptions has been hailed as a tragic but exemplary exploration of the horrific systemic failures at the highest reaches of the Penn State community which allowed a predator to stalk the hallways and locker rooms of Nittany Lions’ athletics unchecked for decades. The grotesque details that have emerge from the report highlight the shocking amount of power that had been accumulated by the football program and its unwillingness to accept and even hostility towards anything that might cast the program and its leader in an unflattering light. (I have not given the report the full reading it deserves since I’m currently on vacation at the beach, but I was moved enough by the recent attempts by select members of the board of trustees, the former president, and the Paterno family to discredit the report’s claims to download it and read the more damning portions.) Even if only ten percent of the Freeh report is accurate then the Penn State community needs to engage in a period of serious self examination reflecting on the proper position of athletics in the educational process of our nation’s young people. In short, the report makes it abundantly clear that football in Beaver Stadium is the tail that wags the dog in University Park. That the board of trustees has delayed a decision on whether to remove the statue of Joe Paterno from the stadium because they refuse to be bullied by the court of public opinion is just one more indication of the total lack of perspective displayed by the Penn State community. Their arguments sound eerily similar to those made by “heritage” groups in my native South Carolina who vehemently oppose the removal of the confederate battle flag from the State house grounds in spite of how the symbol is perceived by the vast majority of people. Some may walk by the statue and see the good done by Coach Paterno during his tenure, but if even one victim of sexual abuse walks by and has to relive the horror then the statue must go. That the board cannot or will not see this is just one more reason the university community needs to enter into a period of reflection and repentance even if this means encountering the “death penalty” for its football program.
            In the Reformed Tradition there is an understanding that some sins are communal in nature. This is why most worshipping communities in the Reformed Tradition include a communal prayer of confession in their intentional encounters with God each week. My own faith tradition the Presbyterian Church USA acknowledges that every individual member of the congregation is not guilty of the sins enumerated each week, but that each person is touched by the sin committed by those in our community. We do not all commit sins of commission but by remaining silent we sin by acts of omission joining with those who have sinned overtly. This calls for us to actively engage in the process of repentance which is much more than just confessing the wrong we have done without addressing the underlying cause of our sinfulness.
The word we translate as repentance is more accurately rendered in English as “the act of turning away from”. For the Penn State community to truly repent for the evil perpetrated in its midst it needs to turn away from the actions that allowed such horrors to continue unobstructed and unreported. They need to turn away from the power, prestige, and money of their football program at least for a little while. They should not wait for the NCAA to decide if it will hand down the dreaded “death penalty”.  They should voluntarily shut the program down, release the current players from any obligations to the university and assist them in finding new homes for their athletic skills, they should honor the contracts they have made with other athletic programs and with the current coaching staff, and they should set up programs to assist victims of childhood sexual abuse all while the stadium remains silent during the autumn football season. That would be an example of true repentance and may lead to a season of grace and healing which is desperately needed in Happy Valley.
            If Penn State University really wants to redeem its tarnished image, the board of trustees may want to follow the example of the University of Chicago who’s Maroons were a major college football power in the early part of twentieth century and a founding member of the Big Ten conference. Fearing the influence of the athletic program, the university leadership abolished the football program in 1939 and withdrew from the Big Ten in 1946. Lest anyone thinks this be a minor thing, the Maroons were coached by the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg and featured Jay Berwanger, the first recipient of what is now the Heisman trophy. It was painful at the time for them to turn away from the acclaim and prestige that a successful football program provided, but sixty-six years later the school is known not for salacious scandal but academic excellence. It is a beacon of knowledge, truth, and light serving as an example not only for the nation but the entire world. If Penn State wants to reform its image, then dying to the old and being born again as something new just might be in its own best interest.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Lost In Transition

Last week I attended a conference in Dallas optimistically titled Next Church 2012. In hindsight, I find the name humorous and a tad ironic since the conversation acknowledged that we are in an age of transition moving towards something new but without a clear vision of what that may be. The name, Next Church, and the associated workshops seemed to imply that those who organized the conference had a clear vision of what might be coming next. I guess I went hoping to gain insight into what the future holds for the PCUSA in general and the congregation where I am pastor in particular. I certainly do not want to be left behind if the church is headed towards some new and exciting future. While there was not a moment of divine revelation with angels singing “Alleluia,” I did come away with a sense that all gathered were united in an understanding that something new and different is on the horizon.

One of the best questions asked during one of the workshops was how is church a noun and how is it a verb? My experience in the church makes me believe that when the general question of what is church is asked the answer assumes bricks and mortar. We have been conditioned to think in terms of buildings, structures, and institutions, the nouns of the church. However, if we begin to think in terms of mission and ministry church becomes a verb. During periods of shifting paradigms this distinction is what often gets lost in translation or lost in transition. Often when faced with the challenges of a culture shift we seek to find ways to improve the old models rather than creatively imagine a new way of doing things. We keep trying to improve our old mousetrap even though it hasn’t caught mice in years. To be something new or next we sometimes have to quit refining the old and come up with the radically different. As Stacy Johnson, professor of systematic theology at Princeton Seminary put it, to be a new church we have to stop reinterpreting the devotions of old and come up with our own new devotions (paraphrased).

I believe we are on the cusp of some radical re-conceptualization of how church exists in the western world particularly in the United States. Historically and culturally it feels like the conditions are ripe for a new reformation of the church. I believe the church is moving away from structures and institutions to personal and communal connections. Reformation has often been defined as moving back towards an apostolic understanding of church. In this way I think we will see church growth move away from monolithic brick and mortar edifices back to house churches. For the PCUSA, I think the connectional church is going to be less defined by polity and bureaucracy and more by dynamic relationships.

I am not advocating throwing the baby out with the bath water, but when it’s time to change we need ensure that all we have is the baby and not the rubber ducky, the non-skid stickers, the layette, the tear free shampoo, and the diaper rash ointment that tend to be the objects of our concern. What this means, however, is somebody will have to give up his or her turn to be in charge. People conditioned by the status quo are rarely good change agents, and once we get into a position where we can make a difference we have been so indoctrinated by the system that we are ineffective at reformation. Which brings up a larger question, who is going to be the person willing to sacrifice so that transformation can occur? We in the church forget that “success” in Christian terms is defined by the cross. Something has to die so that it can be reborn in new and glorious ways. Here’s hoping and praying the church of now is willing to die to itself so that it can be reborn as the Next Church.          

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Turn Out the Lights

Willie Nelson once recorded a song which I believe is most appropriate for this morning, Somewhere down New Orleans way the streets are being swept, the beads are going back into storage, and hurricanes and beignets have been replaced by water and bread. Gone are the outlandish costumes and wild makeup schemes featuring the ubiquitous colors of green, purple, and gold. In their place we see simple frocks and violent slashes of black on foreheads. McDonald’s is toning down its marketing of the Big Mac and trying to entice hungry customers with offers of the Filet o’ Fish. Yes friends, it is Ash Wednesday, the Lenten season is upon us, and the Christian world is moving beyond the festivities of Mardi Gras as it focuses on six weeks of reflection, repentance, and a hope for redemption. For many Christians, the emphasis of the Lenten season will be austerity and piety as they seek to become aware of their need for salvation by fasting. Many have spent the last few days trying to decide what they would “give up” for the liturgical season.  

However, people who have been nurtured in the protestant or evangelical traditions often look upon the practices with a skeptical eye. For centuries, Protestants and Evangelicals have been warned against any religious practice that smacks of the papacy. The idea of setting aside specific times of the year to focus on the spiritual discipline of fasting was seen as redundant since it should have been part of the regular practice of one’s faith. Being marked with ashes as a sign of penitence was too akin to disobeying Jesus’ command to avoid extravagant displays of suffering during fasting. We Protestants have been warned about the sins of wearing of faith on our sleeve lest it be a mile wide and an inch deep. Besides who needs a season of fasting and repentance when the ultra-orthodox fundamentalist followers of Calvin, the Puritans, raised austerity to an almost idolatrous level. Thanks to them, we of the post-modern world harbor the notion that John Calvin would have sucked the fun out of everything, hence Lent just is not necessary.

The problem with that notion is Calvin continually called on the faithful to rejoice and be glad in the day God has made. His was a theology that emphasized gratitude for the many gifts from the fount of every blessing. Calvin did not have anything against people having fun and enjoying life, he just wanted them to be more aware of the world around them and their place in it under the sovereignty of God. Moderation in all things good judiciously avoiding idolatry would be a better way of characterizing Calvin’s approach to daily faithful living.

So where does that leave us modern or post-modern Protestant disciples when it comes to the cultural phenomenon that is the celebration of Lent? Rather than “giving up” something as a sign of our devotion maybe it would be better to take on a new discipline. A dear friend and colleague told me that he will be riding around with five rolls of quarters in his car which he will give to anyone asking for money. For the season of Lent, he will not inquire about need. He will not roll up his window and assume the steely straight ahead stare. He will just give up some of what he has in an attempt to see the world more clearly. Coffee, chocolate, alcohol, or Facebook will not be some perverse idol worshipped by its absence. No, a discipline will be taken on which will open eyes to the sin that has been committed thus reflecting a truer sense of the meaning of the Lenten season. As for me, having been exposed to the sin of sloth which often binds me, I will be writing in my blog every day during the season. With that practice hopefully I will see the world and its brokenness more clearly as I join with its groaning anticipation of ultimate redemption.

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

At the Intersection of Church Street and Congress Avenue

Two recent conversations with faithful persons affiliated with my congregation have me pondering the dividing line between Church and State. Neither conversation touched on hot-button topics like abortion, gays in the military, prayer in school, or the death penalty. Neither conversation involved discussions on the faith of various elected or public officials and celebrities. Rather the conversation was about the appropriateness of having any political discussion within the Church. One dialog partner was intensely wary of any discussion involving the politics occurring within the Church while the other was adamantly opposed to it going so far as to say, "Politics do not belong in the Church of Jesus Christ."

I hate to disappoint these good people, but as long as people are gathered together in community politics will exist. One of the definitions Merriam-Webster gives for the word politics is "the total complex of relations between people living in society." Simple put we cannot avoid discussions of politics within the Church because by its very nature the Church is a political entity. The Church is a complex of human relationships which interact within a given society. There are going to be discussions, disagreements, negotiations, and resolutions pertaining to various issues in Church and State, whether we like it or not, simply because we are human and that is how we operate.

This is not to say that a particular church or pastor should be endorsing or demonizing individuals or political parties from the pulpits entrusted to them by God, at least in the American context. Aside from the tax laws which make such actions illegal, I don't believe it to be biblical. Very rarely do we see Jesus endorsing or attacking individual public figures. What we can find in scripture is a description of how systems and structures are corrupted by people seeking power. If Jesus were a one man 527 political action committee, his advertisements would not be skirting the line between political endorsement and issues ad. As I read the Bible Jesus is much more concerned with systemic issues including poverty, healthcare, welfare, the judicial system, and the ruling class, and his sermons reflect it. The Sermon on the Mount was not just some nice homily on the virtues of faith but was a critique of the politics of the time. Many of the Gospel's beloved parables are thinly veiled political commentary criticizing the aristocracy dominant status quo. When Jesus called on his disciples to pick up their crosses and follow him it meant that they would have to engage in political protest just as he did. Jesus was not crucified because he preached a message of love and grace; crucifixion was a common way to get rid of political dissidents. Jesus was crucified because the message he preached threatened the power structures and politics of his day. For the Church to not engage in political rhetoric would therefore be irresponsible, cowardly, and faithless.

However, I do believe we have to be careful in how we approach the intersection of Church and State. Many good people of faith have differing political views, and in today's climate of partisan "expert" talking heads conducting staged shouting matches to score political points, we need to model a more excellent way. We need to approach those with whom we disagree with grace and dignity focusing on issues not personality. We need to let our understanding of scripture guide our political stances. Most importantly we need to remain open to the movement of God's Holy Spirit which may be calling us to do a new thing whether we like it or not.

I believe the concerns of the people with whom I had the conversations which served as the inspiration for this article are valid. I believe they are afraid that by talking politics in the Church we open ourselves to the dangers of conflict and schism. There is enough of that in everyday life that it should not exist within the Church. But we who are redeemed by the grace of God alone should be courageous enough to face those fears knowing that in doing so we model the kingdom of which we have had a small foretaste. If we cannot have serious legitimate discussions about politics in the Church, where can we? If we cannot be an example for the world of how such discussions can occur then why do we bother to gather? If we cannot disagree and wrestle with one another with love, grace, and mercy then what are we really saying to the world about who we are?

Soli Deo gloria

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Personal Heresies

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) has a problem. This Saturday he is scheduled to deliver the commencement address to the graduates, faculty, administration, and guests of the Catholic University of America. As a practicing Roman Catholic one would expect that he might receive a cordial and warm reception. If only that were the case, at least from his perspective. On Tuesday, Mr. Boehner received a hand delivered letter (to read the body of the letter go to from a group of professors at the university denouncing the budget he shepherded through the House of Representatives which makes draconian cuts to many social service programs benefitting the most poor and vulnerable in the United States. To their credit this group of professors and students did not ask the university administration to withdraw Mr. Boehner's invitation to speak, nor did they ask him to step aside. They were, as a group, courteous and respectful acknowledging that is appropriate in a university setting to present and debate differing ideologies and opinions. The problem for Mr. Boehner is the professors make the accusation that by submitting the current budget as a practicing Roman Catholic he is failing to follow some of the church's most ancient and deeply held doctrines specifically the preferential option for the poor.

This is not the first time Mr. Boehner's actions in violation of church doctrine have landed him on the front page. His well publicized affairs nearly derailed his political career. However, I take heart in the fact that Church leaders have decided to use his actions against "the least of these" as the basis of their critique on his faithfulness and not sexual misconduct. Jesus spent far more time speaking about issues of wealth and oppression than he did human sexual behavior, and it is high time the Church did as well. Mr. Boehner's support of a budget which places the wholeness and well-being of women and children at greater risk borders on heresy. Not only is he violating well established Church doctrine but he is ignoring the biblical commandment to "feed my sheep."

While Mr. Boehner's actions are lamentable, we who are striving to be faithful disciples should not be smug in our condemnation of them. The vast majority of us have a one time or another committed our own personal acts of heresy failing to live up to the faith that we proclaim. A former professor of mine, Dr. Cindy Rigby, once said to my study group that we all have our personal canon, those books and texts of the Bible that we follow over and against the totality of scripture. We are human and we tend to follow the Word we like. We seek comfort over conviction. We desire blessing and ignore rebuke. We sin on a regular basis and forget that we are in need of repentence.

I hope the letter from the Catholic professors serves as a clarion call for repentence to Mr. Boehner. It is disgraceful that he supports tax cuts for wealthy corporations while placing the burden of correcting a budget deficit on the backs of those who can least afford it. I also hope that the letter serves the greater Church as a call to return to relevence as voice speaking truth to power. As we who are in the PCUSA begin to emerge from decades of internal bickering over human sexuality and ordination standards let us now turn to the issues that matter the most to our Lord and Savior the care and welfare of his children.

To God alone be the glory.