Monday, July 27, 2015

Why It's Really All About Scout: On Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchmen

In the hubbub of conversation at the publication of Harper Lee's novel, Go Set a Watchman, a majority of the attention has been on Harper Lee's authorial intentions--did she want the book published or not? Any other attention seems to have been or the racism of Atticus Finch--how could he possibly be one?!

Personally, I think these are not the primary questions, and certainly not the most interesting focus. But I'll return to that in a bit, because first, I need to make a confession.

Here's the confession. I did not read To Kill a Mockingbird in my youth. It was not assigned in any literature class I can remember. As a college English major and a reader of novels, I have always been slightly embarrassed by this lacunae in my reading history. 

So mid-July, on a long family road trip from Northwest Arkansas through Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Mississippi, I listened to Lee's first novel, read by Sissy Spacek.  The novel is a revelation. It is by turns perfect, haunting, devastating, and truer than true. I don't know how I would receive it as a reader now if this were my second time reading it, the first time reading it as a youth, but I do know as an adult reader of fiction, it immediately jumped into that baker's dozen of the best novels I've ever read, alongside Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, and ???

As soon as I finished reading TKaM, I started in on Go Set a Watchmen. One immediately notices that some of the novel does read like a first draft of TKaM. The [Aunt Alexandria] is identical in both novels. Some summary retrospectives are the same. And so on.

But the most noticeable aspect of this novel, from my perspective, is one seldom remarked on at least in the early reviews of the book.

Here's the thing: Both books are all about Scout!

Jean Louise "Scout" Finch is the protagonist and narrator of both novels (although periodically GSaW shifts to limited omniscient). The center of the books, both of them, is Scout's emotional and intellectual response to the world she lives in. In the first novel, everything we know about Atticus Finch, our opinion of him as a father and as a lawyer, our sense of his culture and intellect, is colored by Scout's youth. Scout is in the process of growing up, and her world forces it on her more quickly than many, but nevertheless, we do not get Atticus in total, from his own perspective, we only get Atticus described by way of his daughter.

I don't know why so much of the commentary on GSaW focuses on Atticus. Perhaps pop culture is always more interested in the flat complexity of men than the complex complexity of women. Quite a bit of cultural analysis would likely bear this out, including examples like the Bechdel Test, which shows how infrequently popular movies include two women who speak to each other. 

One could make a rather compelling argument, I believe, that both of Harper Lee's novels are much more about women than they are about race, or if they are about race, they are novels about the female experience of race in particular. Scout, for example, is a perfect narrator to inhabit the middle ground of racial tensions in the novels. She is a tomboy of sorts, continually maladjusted to the societal norms for white southern women. In TKaM, she is allowed space, at least for a time, to exercise her eccentric ways, but only because she is still a child. Over the course of the novel, gender norms are increasingly foisted on her.

And although TKaM includes incredibly winsome and compelling male characters, such as Boo the heroic recluse, summer friend Dill (inspired by Harper Lee's friend and neighbor Truman Capote), and of course Scout's adventuresome brother Jem, ultimately the most complex and challenging characters are the women: Calpurnia, the Finch's African-American servant, surrogate mother to the children and matriarch in the African-American community; Aunt Alexandra, the morally upright ; and Scout herself.

Scout joins us in our disillusionment. If we are disillusioned in this new novel at the revelation that Atticus has bought into racist propaganda, it is only because Scout herself is disillusioned. In a crucial scene, Scout sneaks into the county courthouse on a Sunday afternoon and observes her father and potential fiancee seated on both sides of a speaker spouting vile racist rhetoric. She can't believe her eyes or her ears.

This is when this second novel really does "pop" as a sequel to TKaM. No one can ever forget, having read it, the dramatic court scene in TKaM. There also, Scout sneaks into the courtroom, in that first novel in order to watch her father defend an innocent black man, Tom Robinson, accused of rape. Scout and her brother sit in the balcony, with the "colored folk," in fact right next to the African-American preacher. 

In this novel, Scout is alone in the balcony, peering over the edge at a roomful of Maycomb's men. Her response to her discovery is visceral. She grips the railings so hard they sweat, and when she finally gets away and to an ice cream shop nearby, she vomits in the courtyard, then goes home and takes to bed sick.

Scout had been raised sideways in a sense, the product of Atticus's chivalrous eccentricities. In the middle of the racist screed spoken in the courthouse, presided over by her father, she remembers a voice from her not so distant past, her father's voice, saying, "Gentleman, if there's one slogan in this world I believe, it is this: equal rights for all, special privileges for none."

So, for all of us who grew to love Atticus and his bravery and uprightness in TKaM, this news, that people change, that sometimes people take a turn for the worse rather than the better, feels like a betrayal, even if it is a betrayal by revealing something we already knew. What is violated is not our knowledge of the world, but rather the last shattered innocence of Scout, an ironic innocence born of her worldly journey to New York.

it is as if, for all her sojourning and cosmopolitan experiences in the big city, it is only by coming home to the parochial and local that she finally comes to know the world in all its disappointing capaciousness. Betrayed by her father, by her fiancee, she races to the one last filial connection, Calpurnia, her surrogate mother, and is then and there, in perhaps the most poigant moment of the whole novel, disappointed by her as well.

Calpurnia's own family member has recently killed a pedestrian in an auto-accident. The promising young African-American driver will now have to go before a court, and Atticus promises to defend him, but two things are different. First, he is guilty rather than innocent. Second, he is going to be defended not by the Atticus of Scout's childhood, but the Atticus of the present. 

So Calpurnia, always so open in her affections with the children in TKaM, willing to let them in on the world of the African-American community, is in this scene guarded in the extreme. It's hard to know if she is angry, or despairing, or afraid. For whatever reason, when Scout goes out to Calpurnia's home to visit and hopefully console her, Calpurnia puts on her "company manners." She speaks to Scout as if she were any white Southern woman. Scout cries, "What are you doing to me?" To which Cal replies, "What are you all doing to us?"

In that moment, Scout realizes she is included in the category she had never considered. She is white. Calpurnia treats her not as her child, but as a white woman. It is movement backwards, rather than forwards. It is sad to the point of weeping.

All the promise of TKaM, of which there was a little, a seed, a hint, is killed by the revelation that racism has become in the Maycomb of the 50s not so readily exercised but just for that reason even more vehement. It has escalated, gone underground, viral, ferile. 

Perhaps the reason so much of the conversation around Harper Lee's new novel has focused either on Atticus or Lee is precisely a kind of distraction or misdirection. If we talk about these things, we can avoid the truths that Lee's new novel reveals. If I were to say what those were, I'd say they are two. First, the truth is our culture still doesn't know how to hear the feminist experience of race well. Second, we do not like to imagine that race relations in our nation can move backwards rather than forwards. We are a nation that believes in progress, after all. How dare Harper Lee's new novel illustrate our own backward leanings to us?

Just today I saw the Pew study of racial diversity by religious group, and peering over the edge of the balcony at the results, I feel just about as sick as Scout did at that meeting. My own denomination sits smack at the bottom, less diverse than almost any other group. I can't look at this list and blame others. I'm completely complicit in it. I have primarily served as pastor at churches that look exactly like the demographics cataloged in it. I grew up in one also. If I am sick, it isn't because of a specific betrayal, but because of a communal drift this chart illustrates. 

Like Scout, it has taken me this long to even begin to see how white I actually am, and how unaware I have been of these implications. Like Scout, it means I'm tempted to flee, or go home, as if both those impulses, to run to the house that no longer exists, or abide in a far away I can't create, were the same impulse.

And in the meantime, I find Scout in both novels a worthwhile companion for this particular kind of Anfechtung, and great pleasure and thankfulness in the opportunity to continue to journey with her.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Best 15 Books About Being a Pastor

There are many great books about pastoral ministry. Memoirs and autobiographies are particularly well-suited to this task. I offer this Top 15 list of books for supervisors and interns to consider reading together during the course of the year. All of them are rich in wisdom, grace, and faith.
1) Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, Reinhold Niebuhr: Notes from Niebuhr's early years as a pastor (1915-1928) in urban Detroit, this book has been formative in the careers of at least two generations of pastors.

2) Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discover, Richard Lischer: Before becoming a professor of homiletics, Lischer was the pastor of a small rural congregation in southern Illinois. Open Secrets details his first three years of ministry, witnessing the joys and challenges that come from transitioning from university to parish life.

3) Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx, Heidi Neumark: Neumark spent nearly 20 years serving a Lutheran congregation in the South Bronx, and this book details that incredible journey of faithful ministry in a challenging urban setting.

4) The Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor: These are Taylor's early reflections on ministry as an Episcopalian priest, followed by 13 sample sermons from her exemplary career as a literate and thoughtful preacher.

5) Wheat That Springest Green, JF Powers: A humorous novel about the making and remaking of a priest.

6) A Pioneer Churchman, J.W.C. Dietrichson in Wisconsin 1844-1850: I'm probably biased, because this is the founding pastor of East Koshkonong Lutheran Church, where I once served, but this travel narrative gives a profound sense of the early immigrant church and the role of the pastor in that context.

7) Under the Unpredictable Planet, Eugene Peterson: Peterson weaves his own story into many of his books, and he has written lots of wonderful books on the pastoral ministry, but this may be the most refreshing, especially for pastors learning to self-differentiate.

8) The Pastor: A Spirituality, Gordon Lathrop: Again, although not strictly a memoir, this book arises out of Lathrop's long wise look at the pastoral ministry from the perspective of liturgy and the catechism.

9) The Country Parson, George Herbert: This is the the classic of the genre, and though it is sometimes difficult and very distant in time and tone, it is worth the time.

10) Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: More a memoir and theological treatise on Christian community than the life of the pastor per se, this book about the underground life of the seminary Bonhoeffer led during the Third Reich is seminal, and worth reading many, many times over.

11) Hannah's Child by Stanley Hauerwas and A Broad Place by Jurgen Moltmann: Two of our greatest living theologians have written wonderful autobiographies, and they help place the work of a a theologian in the context of life in a way that will bear fruit for thoughtful readers who care about theology.

12) The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber: So you are considering being a pastor for the first expedition to a new planet, and pastor to extraterrestrials? This is the book for you.

13) Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry: Ok, this isn't a memoir, it's a novel, and it isn't about a pastor, it's about a barber. But I'm telling you, you might learn more about being a pastor from this book than any other book on the list.

14) Gilead, Marilynne Robinson: This is a novel, but it actually is about a pastor, or more properly, it's letters from an aging pastor to his young son.

15) Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, Will Willimon: This is kind of like the comprehensive handbook for pastors, and the accompanying volume, a reader, is worth acquiring and reading together with Willimon's textbook.
I'm sure many pastors would list others (when I was in seminary, a big one was The Hammer of God by Bo Giertz), and I'd love to hear what they are. In the meantime, I imagine anyone can find at least one book on this list that is worth digging into and living with this next year of ministry and study, and I would love to hear what you learn as you do so!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Lutheran Pastor Reads the Pope's Encyclical: On Care for Our Common Home, Part II

Pope Francis lifts up five inter-connected concerns for the care of our common home. Each of these are also concerns shared by Lutherans, so I offer links to resources on each:

1. Biodiversity:
2. Water:
3. Climate:
4. Social decline:
5. Global inequality: Reformation observances three year focus,

He writes, "It needs to be said that, generally speaking, there is little in the way of clear awareness of problems which especially affect the excluded. Yet they are the majority of the planet's population, billions of people. These days, they are mentioned in international political and economic discussions, but one often has the impress that their problems are brought up as an afterthought, a question which gets added almost out of duty or in a tangential way, if not treated merely as collateral damage.... this is due partly to the fact that many professional, opinion makers, communications media and centers of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development... today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor."

Here once again the pope is offering reasoned argumentation bringing the plight of the earth and the plight of the poor together, over against the powers. He is incredibly repetitive about this, because there is little in the way of clear awareness of problems which especially affect the excluded. When awareness is lacking, you have to say the same thing over and over again to raise awareness.

Notice also that the pope writes to "all people of good will." He is an excellent communicator in a secular context. He speaks from his own confessional position, to all, without compromising his own commitments or denigrating those who do not share his faith. He holds his faith lightly, openly. He is modeling the new evangelization he has called the church to engage.

In fact, instead of apologizing for writing a "secular" encyclical, he makes the exact opposite apology.
"Why should this document, addressed to all people of good will, include a chapter dealing with the convictions of believers?" 
Pope Francis believes that intense dialogue between science and religion can yield fruitful results. He also believes it is important for him to offer his own faith perspective in the wider context of a conversation for all people of good will, precisely in order to be authentic to who he is, what his faith, within that overall conversation.

If you enter a conversation, you come as yourself. He comes as the pope. So "the gospel of creation" is integral to a wider statement on the care of our common earth, and so it will be that gospel of creation to which we will turn in the next post.

Read the first installment in this series here:

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Lutheran Pastor Reads the Pope's Encyclical: On Care for Our Common Home, Part I

"Many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest" (12-13)
It's hard to write compellingly about Christian faith and the environmental crisis. Christians, who find endlessly interesting things to say about the church, the Trinity, and human being, come up short when analyzing the "book of nature." 


That the pope would author an encyclical on the environment caught at least some prognosticators by surprise, because from their perspective, this is the pope stepping outside his area of expertise. The environment is for scientists to analyze. The pope is to focus on the care of souls.

So the pope's first task in this encyclical is to convince readers that the topic is worth their time, and worth the attention of an encyclical letter. 

He makes this argument well.

First, theologically we are called to consider the environment because "the world cannot be analyzed by isolating only one of its aspects, since 'the book of nature is indivisible,' and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth. It follows that 'the deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human coexistence'" (6, quoting John Paul II).

Second, consideration of the environment has been elevated by many church leaders, not the least of whom are his two predecessors, John Paul and Benedict, but also the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew (who Francis names specifically, anticipating talks in 2020 towards the sharing of full ecclesial communion), and Francis's namesake himself, Saint Francis, perhaps the patron saint of all who care about ecology.
"I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians. He was particularly concerned for God's creation and for the poor and outcast."
This quote brings up two themes central to Pope Francis's theology. He hopes to connect with non-Christians. He is one of Christianity's greatest living evangelists. His previous apostolic exhortation took as its primary theme the call to evangelization.

Francis's focus on evangelization has as its energizing center care for the poor. This is also illustrated in his encyclical on the care of the earth. Repeatedly, when he mentions concern for God's creation, he immediately then mentions the poor. For Francis, there is an "inseparable bond between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace." He is especially appreciative of those who "tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world's poorest."

I wish this specific point were more widely publicized in all the press around this encyclical. To my mind, it is the most focused theological locus in the encyclical. Francis cares about climate change because he cares about our common earth, and he cares about our common earth and how we care for it because poor stewardship of the earth harms those who are poor more than another part of the human population.

So why does our interest in the environmental crisis wane? Why are Christians on average less articulate about ecology and faith than many other aspects of faith? In the next section of the encyclical, the pope begins a close consideration of the science of climate change, beginning with an analysis of what he calls "rapidification." We will turn to this in the next installment.

Monday, July 13, 2015

10 "#Protips" for Enhanced Creativity Through Running

I am a non-competitive runner. I run because it is simple, inexpensive, and sweat-inducing. Over some years of running, I have learned a few things. You can learn lots more about diet and weights and training regimens and races and more by reading around, especially Runner's World magazine.

I have learned as a pastor that the space created by running is perhaps the single best incubator for sermons. Many of the sermons I preach Sunday morning emerge fully formed and outlined while on a run late in the week.

I imagine the creative space cultivated in the running moment might be transferable to other professions. Go on a run with an intentional creative work in mind, and you might end up back at the house frantically scribbling some notes onto paper quickly moistened by the sweat of your forearm. It has happened to me.

So here are 10 "#protips" for enhanced creativity through running. Please allow "preaching" to become a synecdoche for whatever creativity you anticipate running assisting.

Run at whim: Most of the time, when you run, just go run. It doesn't matter how far you go, how fast you run, whether you ran the day before or not. Heck, it can even be a second run on the same day. Just go out and run. Running at whim keeps the joy in running.

Sometimes do fartleks: Yes, that's a real word, one of my favorites in the English language, even though it is borrowed from the Swedes. Basically, it means change the pace of your run while you are running. Spring, then mosey. Run at a race pace, then slow to a crawl. It has the same kind of whimsicality to it as the first pro tip, but benefits the aerobic as well as anaerobic. It also jars the brain into new ways of thinking.

Right before you run, review what you are going to meditate on while you run: I read the Scripture I'll be preaching on Sunday multiple times during the week. Right before I head on a run, I read it again. It then becomes the focus meditation of the run. It's amazing what increased endorphins can do for the brain. If the text is there in the mix, you have an amazing faith and brain cocktail mixing.

Sometimes, go all out: Maybe once a week, go on such a strenuous run that you can't think about anything else other than your breath and the lactic acid building up in your muscles. To get into your brain sometimes you have to get out of it.

After the run, write down some notes, maybe: The endorphin boost really assists creativity, but sometimes a run will convince you of how amazing your idea is. Come down off the high, then review the idea. Not all run ideas should make their way to the Sunday sermon. Use your post-run filter.

Run in the heat: This one won't be for everybody, but for my money, running when you can also take a sauna is fantastic. The bigger point here, though, is to figure out when running is fun for you. Do you like the rain? Cool weather? Mornings? Evenings? Figure out what you like, then get out in it.

Leave the headphones at home: I know, people really like to listen to music when they run, so I'm not a legalist on this. However, I have two reasons for leaving headphones at home. First, I like to hear the world around me, like the tree frogs. Second, the music keeps me from the deep focus I need for creative thinking.

Flow in and out of focus: It's okay if you don't think about your creative project the whole time you are running. It's better, actually. Part of creativity is allowing your mind to float off away for a while. Runs allow this, enhance it.

Weave life together: One of the most important steps in this creative zone is to allow other experiences to impinge on the text that is the focus of the meditation. What have people said to you the past week? What have you read? What are you feeling? Allow these things to become part of the hermeneutical work.

Run at whim: Then return to this basic insight, that the point is to get out and have the time and the space. Do it because you love it. Sometimes, this means "Just Do It!" Not every day is a perfect run day. Most aren't. But the routine matters, and it will transform both your body and your mind, and your sermons.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Things I've Learned About My Whiteness This Summer

1. I'm fragile. Because of this, I tend to make discussions of race about me and my feelings. John Metta writes, in a powerful sermon delivered to an all White congregation in White Salmon, Washington: "The entire discussion of race in America centers around the protection of White feelings." He's right. So you can imagine how tired the Black community is of talking about race, since all the white people around them start making it about White feelings.

2. I think it is other peoples' job to teach me how to address or repair racism. As if systemic racism hasn't put enough of the onus on minority communities as it is, when I finally get around to working on my own complicity in racism, one of my first reactions is to try and get minority communities to do some of the work for me of teaching me how to not be racist. Nobody has written about this with greater clarity than Jennifer Harvey in Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation (Prophetic Christianity)

3. I have the privilege to think of myself as an individual rather than part of a group or demographic.

4. I keep asking, "What can I do?" as a way of avoiding actually doing anything.

5. My denomination, and most mainline Protestant denominations, are the worst.

6. I think white means "normal" and I fear the day not-white is the new normal. And since the world isn't actually white, that day is today. So I'm scared all the time.

7. Issues of race are at the heart of my own religious tradition, inextricably woven into the fabric of what we believe about Christ and the cross and the church and our lives.

8. I never existentially fully comprehend the theological focus on Black bodies, because as a white person, I forget that I have a body.

9. It takes daily intentionality to code switch and experience the world from a minority perspective. #blacktwitter

10. When I do "theology" without attending to race, I do "white" theology. Nobody has pointed this out with more clarity than James Cone in The Cross and the Lynching Tree. But you can tell, reading him, that he is exhausted having to be the one to point it out. Why haven't whites done this work? Why haven't I?

* All the hyperlinks in this blog post point to the best things I've read on the web about race, whiteness, and Christianity.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

I do NOT pledge allegiance to ANY flag

#stuffjesussaid #forreal #sodidhisbrother

First, there's the law of Israel, exemplified most clearly in the Decalogue, which prohibits the making of idols or graven images. Exodus 20:3-5: "You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them."

Then, there's the wider orbit of the Old Testament, which witnesses to the human tendency to make idols of all kinds of things, then deny doing so. Luther famously remarked in the Large Catechism, in his explanation of the First Commandment, "A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe from the [whole] heart."

That's a pretty apt description of how we treat the flag, most days, in our culture. If you don't believe me, just go to a baseball game, or the start of public school, or a funeral with military rites.

Then there is Jesus himself, who says, ""But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one. " (Matthew 5:34-37)

To back him up, Jesus' brother teaches much the same thing in his letter: "Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation" (James 5:12).

Now, I do strive to be subject to the governing authorities. This is recommended in Romans 13:1 and Titus 3:1. It's a pragmatic recommendation. Minority religious groups are best served by quietly obeying the law as much as possible. It does remind me that early Christians had to think carefully about how they would act when they were in public near any type of police authority.

Jasper Johns, Flag, Museum of Modern Art, New York

It's also a kingdoms doctrine recommendation. Authority is given by God to earthly authorities, and so we are to obey them, be subject to them, as "God-given." 

Except that of course there are limits to this subjection. We're celebrating the limits to it today, July 4th, Independence Day, the day representatives of the United States "absolved themselves of allegiance" to the British Crown, never mind that the British Crown, and most of the rest of the world, would have considered such a declaration of independence a violation of the biblical witness and divine command to be subject to governing authorities.

Returning to the present case, I have for quite some time now become convinced that Jesus' teaching, "Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or "No, No'" is one of the central and most disjunctive statements in the Sermon on the Mount. It's quite apposite, for what Jesus is up to in that Sermon is a theology of the cross, calling things what they truly are, rather than calling the good bad or the bad good. He's reforming how his listeners thought about pledges. He's conforming them to his own practice and faith.

When I mention that I don't pledge allegiance to the flag, many people I know think I am calling my bad action good. What I'm actually trying to do is call a thing what it is. I'm trying to avoid idolatry. It's not easy, most days.

The truth is, I like the flag. I like flags. Many of them are quite beautiful. One of my favorite pieces of art, ever, is the Jasper John's flag. Including one of his odder versions, the White Flag

I just don't pledge allegiance to the flag, anymore than I pledge allegiance to a quilt, or the paintings of Mark Rothko.

Finally, if we take the biblical witness as example, there's precious little if any pledging of allegiance to nations of any type going in Scripture. Our allegiance, if we have allegiance, is to God (Isaiah 19:18). There's a fair bit more swearing than allegiancing in Scripture, I'll admit that. But never, as far as I can tell, to things like flags. That's just not done.

And there is pledging. But in the Old Testament witness, it's rather complicated, and something over time that simply falls apart. There are instructions in the Pentateuch on how to properly make a pledge to the neighbor. But by the time of Proverbs, you have, Prov. 17.18, "It is senseless to give a pledge, to become surety for a neighbor. " After that, pledges wain, and by the time of Jesus, you have the radically new teaching, "Let your Yes be yes."

Now of course, we do have that whole debate about the pledge including the words "under God," which is supposed to help situate our allegiance-swearing in a better theological position. But it doesn't. It's still pledging allegiance to a flag. 

I think in general we're better off without the pledging of allegiances of any type. As Jesus teaches, simply let your yes be yes, and your no be no. Empty promises, or promises elevated to sentimental religious fervor, introduce complications. We have truly gotten off course when not only the nation, but Christians who now think this is a Christian nation, believe that pledging allegiance to the flag is a particularly Christian thing to do. It's not. Quite the opposite.

We can see the complicating nature of all of this at work in our current conversations about the Confederate flag. What does that flag mean, anyway, and how much allegiance is properly still given it, if any? Once you've pledged your allegiance to it, made it holy, considered it a place in which to hold trust and heritage, how can you let go, without feeling a deep sense of, for lack of a better term, religious betrayal?

I've recently been reading Greil Marcus's Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music: Sixth Edition. In an early chapter on The Band (in which he gives indication of how deeply The Band exemplifies so much of American culture in their lyrics and biography), Marcus reports a final interview he has with Dominique, Robbie Robertson's wife, while they are in Woodstock. He ends the chapter with these words.
America is a dangerous place, and to find community demands as much as any of us can give. But if America is dangerous, its little utopias, asking nothing, promising safety, are usually worse. 'Look at this,' Dominique said, taking in her house, the trees, the mountains. 'It's beautiful. It's everything people ought to want, and I hate it.' Then she grinned. 'This country life is killin' me,' she sang, turning a song we both had heard too many times on its head. 'I gotta find my way back to the city, and get some corruption in my lungs.'
I'll fully admit that my discomfort with pledging allegiance to the flag risks the creation of a little utopia. Perhaps I should go back into the city, and get some corruption in my lungs. But on these patriotic days, I just can't get it out of my head, that perhaps more Christians should consider that Yes, Yes invitation of Jesus, and stop their hand before it tragically covers their heart.

Said otherwise, perhaps the best way to celebrate the peculiar kind of independence native to our nature is to actually exercise it.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Why Do I Feel So Spiritually Out-of-Sync?

There is a peculiar spiritual malaise that afflicts at various times. It is the sense of being “out of sync.” Pastors hear of it often. It’s the feeling grieving families have at the holidays. Holidays are supposed to be joyous, celebratory, festive. But a holiday is, for those grieving, a glaring reminder of loss. Christmas. Mother’s Day. On these days, many of us feel especially out of sync with our own faith communities.

It goes beyond holidays, though. Most of us, at some level or another, cultivate an avatar we put on as we gather with our faith communities. We take a shower, break out our Sunday finest, put on that happy smile. This is sustainable over the short term. It isn’t too much of a burden to “fake it” for a Sunday or two. If doubts, grief, tensions linger longer, the burden of living out of sync becomes more dramatic. Those living with long-term illness, caring for life partners, struggling with faith, find the perdurance of out-of-syncness almost unbearable.

It is, in my experience, one of the most frequent reasons individuals or families disaffiliate from religious community. It’s not that they stop believing. It’s just that they can’t sustain an avatar, a face, that allows them to function in socially acceptable ways among those with whom they feel out of sync. As difficult as it is, if faith communities wish to embrace those who are out-of-sync, to create safe space for them, they probably will have to work on not subliminally communicating expectations that make those struggling feel unwelcome. If you are going to say Come as you are! you need to work on meaning it. It likely starts by simply saying, clearly, “If you feel out of sync, that’s okay. It might even be a very normal feeling to have."

Here we are now, just a week after some of the most momentous historical events of our decade. Many of them have helped me feel more in sync in my own country than ever before. As a pastor, I’m thrilled more and more people will have guaranteed health coverage. I rejoice with my LGBTQ friends who now have the same guarantees to marry as I do. Pope Francis raised our collective awareness of how our care of the earth is a form of neighbor love. And we are now engaging in perhaps the most serious and potentially productive conversation about racism we have had in our nation since the civil rights era.

This does, however, mean I feel out of sync, and to an increased degree, with those who differ from me in their views on these matters. Christians who do not support same-gender marriage feel particularly out of sync with a pastor who does.

Those of us unaware of, or unwilling to admit, our own racial bias, unable to even comprehend the difference between overt racism, and systemic racism, struggle to be in sync with our brothers and sisters in minority communities who have lived under the fire of racist micro-agressions their whole lives.

First attempts at listening to one another often only exacerbate rather than ameliorate the sense of being out of sync. When we first start to listen to one another, if we are out of sync, the out-of-syncness feels even more dramatic, because we have for the first time begun to chart the cartography of our difference, the space between us.

I think this is why we avoid listening to each other. We’d rather not know how out of sync we actually are.

However, if we keep listening, keep talking, especially if we tell others that, although it is not their responsibility to teach us, that if they make us uncomfortable, we value it, because it helps us learn from them, we can begin to be more in sync than heretofore. I need to hear from my African-American brothers and sisters, and be open to their challenge, if we are ever going to get to a place where white Christians and African-American Christians can share common experience, beloved community, in our nation.

I do worry. I worry that our recent discourse reifies polarities rather than contributes to communicative rationality. Taking down or raising flags communicates something, but does it really open space for conversation. Are we engaging in discourse in the public sphere, are we creating communities, that will do more than pay lip service? Can we actually change hearts and minds?

I’ve been loving that great line of Abraham Lincoln’s, a sentence we could keep at the forefront of our discourse in these out of sync times: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds.” Increased charity and tempering of malice, all while continuing our firmness in the right, these could go as far as anything to assist us in being more spiritually in sync, one with another.