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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ancient insights on Today's Racial Conflicts

The recent stories about Police and the deaths of two Black citizens has led me to much reflection. I saw on TV Friday that government employees had walked out of their jobs. Many of them held their arms in the air, an obvious reference to Michael Brown. So what does this have to do with the Ancient insights and the Bible?

The Bible is literature. It is written words. In many cases, those written words are narratives. Certainly the two stories in the news are also narratives (probably multiple narratives). How do narratives function?

The church Fathers say there is a literal, plain, straight forward meaning to narratives. In ancient times, this was viewed as the most basic but perhaps least important. In our own age the literal is held in higher regard (though arguably it shouldn't be). Here is why: The literal has to do with objective facts, the 'event' as a pure, unfiltered, occurrence. When we ask, "What really happened?" this is what we usually mean. The problem is "real" means physical, concrete, "meaning-less" fact. It adopts the (assumed) tools of physical science (I say assumed because actual science is much less that way then most of us think) as the most accurate way to talk about our world.

"What really happened?," however, is not simply objective fact. Unfortunately, much of the literal and factual cannot be known. Experience is always subjective. It is meaningful because people find meaning in the event. Humans are not machines (and even machines measure from an angle or viewpoint which impacts the measurement!). In a real sense, "what really happened?" must include the subjective element. The subjective/objective together comprise the 'experience' of the event, and are, therefore, a deeper "really happened." "What really happened?" also includes "what does it mean?"---and it is that question of meaning that goes deeper than the literal sense of things.

The Fathers know that the moral, the sacramental/mystery, and the spiritual (typological, allegorical, symbolic, etc.) are inherently part of what "really happened." They also know that those are more important than the literal.

Let's consider the "hands up, don't shoot" issue.
The forensics say that Michael Brown was not executed as he knelt on the ground. However, some eye witnesses say he had his hands up in surrender, others say he did not. Some say he was charging at the officer. So what happened?

What if Michael Brown did put his hands up and say "Don't shoot," at one point and then later charged the officer. Is it possible for someone to do that? (I think so) Michael was under duress and we know he was not having a good day based on the store video. Perhaps he began to surrender and then changed his mind and charged (maybe the cop said something to trigger it, who knows why he did it?). If so, both are true. Based on myriad reasons eye witnesses are focusing on and remembering events (the unreliability of eye witnesses is well known) the way they do. No way to avoid that, so facts give way to 'truth' and 'meaning.' What does the shooting mean for us?

Truth and meaning are "spiritual." Michael's tragic death is being experienced and interpreted in different ways by different people. I have written about this a number of times.

Racism is real because prejudice is real. Generalizations occur all the time. It is easy to see it in others, not so much in ourselves. "Cops think all Black young men are criminals!" or "Black males are dangerous and thuggish!" many are heard saying. Those blacks.... Those whites.... Those young men.... Those cops.... Those media..... Those protestors..... Yet we pause to ask ourselves: All of 'them' are the same? You cannot generalize about "us" but we can generalize about "you"?

Clearly, the reality of racism in general and actual racist cops in particular is real. There is personal racism and there is institutional racism. It is one of the manifestations of sin. And racism, real and perceived, has been discovered/projected all over this particular case.

The story of Michael Brown, however, like it or not, is no longer about him alone. He was already a 'sacrament' and 'a type' and that aspect has only grown larger and larger. He represents more than himself. He is a symbol of youth and the Black race. He is a symbol of black people who have been victimized in this country for centuries. He is connected to every injustice from slavery through the civil rights movement to the latest incident of cruelty and death. His story now symbolizes thousands of stories. He taps into the rage, the despair, and all the other experiences, beliefs and feelings of people. There is a mythic element to this narrative which has a life of its own and is bigger than the story of what happened to Michael Brown. So in a real sense, it does not matter, in terms of the narrative, if Michael Brown had his hands up or not. Others have. Others have been gunned down begging for their lives. Other stories are making their presence known in this narrative. When protestors have their hands up it is an expression of that bigger narrative. Arguing data points and facts is missing the meaning of it all.

But that typology cuts both ways. There are others who see from with different assumptions and beliefs. The competing narratives make their presence known in the voices of those folks. Where one person states that police are the most dangerous gang in our city (I heard it) others think police are the thin blue line which saves us from mayhem. The problem is there is no simple objective way of seeing things. Right and wrong are debated. Victim and Perpetrator are also in the eye of the beholder. "Cold blooded murder or justifiable self defense" are swallowed up in a larger debate on justice and fairness. What happened here becomes the symbolic center of what has happened (time and time again) in other places. The desire for "someone" to pay for the crime (even if that someone is a scape goat) is driven by our need for a better world. "What is true" shapes "what must have happened" and that shapes the narrative.

We need to be aware of the mythic/spiritual/allegorical reality of any narrative. We need to be attentive to the "typology" which drives our interpretation. If facts shape the truth, then truth shapes the meaning of facts as well. When we talk about "this" (whatever this event may be) we are tapping into so much more at the same time. Sometimes "this" is less important to us than what "this" symbolizes. Insight into the Michael Brown story will help us understand how all stories, even Biblical ones, come into being and are shaped and reshaped over time. The Ancients understood this in ways that many of us do not, to our own detriment. And understanding this narrative process may give us deeper insight into the construction of Biblical texts, as well.     

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Advent 3 2014

Advent 3

The Gospel reading (John 1:6ff) today is probably the original beginning of the fourth Gospel. If we look at the Gospel of Mark, the similarities are obvious. Most telling is the verb used in each case:  ‘ginomai.’

At a later point, an ancient hymn about “The Word” was woven in by a second contributor resulting in the Gospel we have today. The Gospel now begins with contrasts. The Word is contrasted with John.

The Word (we heard) is with God and the Word is God. The Word is the creator of life and light.

John on the other hand is an ‘anthropos’ (translated as man, but meaning a human being) sent by God to witness to the light...

The contrast between John and Jesus could not be clearer. Both are sent (apostle in Greek) by the Father, but Jesus’ origin is different from John’s.

There is a second contrast as well, the one in our reading today. Listen carefully.

1.    The Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “who are you?

2.   There was a man, sent from God whose name was John.

Both are sent, but they come from different places. One is heaven sent, another comes from the city Jerusalem which is “His (Jesus/God) own people who did not accept Him (Jesus/God).” In the Fourth Gospel, “Jews” is a theological term. Like “world” it has a negative connotation, because it reflects unbelief.

We know his name is John and he is a Witness. They do not know the truth so they ask “who are you?” The expression “in the dark” means to be ignorant. The one who does not believe in Jesus is literally in the Dark. Jesus is the Light and those who believe in Him walk in the light. The blindness of unbelief is darkness.

John is sent by God to testify (martyr) to the Light so that all might believe. The Fourth Gospel is making clear that Jesus was greater than John. In the Fourth Gospel he is not even called the Baptist, he is just John, and his role is a witness. John says that he is not the Messiah, he is not Elijah, he is not the prophet---he is the Voice.

Historically and theologically that is important. It gives us insight into the past. But there is also the need to hear this word and interpret it today. What is God saying to me and you? I think that each of us must see our own story written here; you and I, like John, are humans sent by God to witness and testify.

I am the voice and so are you.

We are sent by God, but we are always at risk to embrace the spiritual “Jerusalem,” the city of doubt and cynicism. The unfaithful harlot who crucifies the Messiah. The tool of the demonic….

You and I are not the Light and we are not the Messiah. In a sense that is what the Garden of Eden is really about, right? I want to be King and rule in God’s place. That is the true meaning of sin: I choose what I want.

There comes a point in time when we have to come to that realization that “I am not the Messiah. I am not the Light. I am darkness in need of light.” It is a moment of clarity: “If I am not the Messiah, then who is?”

The reason the church exists is to point to Jesus. Our primary purpose is to testify to Him so that all will believe.

DO you understand “who you are?”

Do you understand what you have been sent to do?

Are you doing it?

Friday, December 12, 2014

I Can't Breathe

I saw where numerous NBA teams are wearing "I Can't Breathe" shirts. I understand that they want to raise awareness. Certainly if it diminishes the problems of inappropriate police techniques that would be a good thing. You can love the police and still want them to do better.

Of course, systems theory reminds us that there are unintended consequences. The NBA is allowing a precedence which may lead into future conflicts. What if a team wanted to stand against abortion? If they all wore tee shirts declaring it to be murder would the media still applaud? Or if other players agreed with the grand juries and wanted to put the message of Charles Barkley on their shirt ("without the cops we would live in the wild west")? Is free speech okay in that case? And if endorsing causes is okay, can players wear political tee shirts advertising a candidate? I understand how difficult it is to decide what the right thing is, but the people saying "free speech" is at stake here need to be consistent. My guess is the NBA will reign in any attempts to expand the 'rights" of players to break the dress code. Very, very complex issues....

In an interview a Black leader complained that the TV news only seems to highlight crimes done against white women. I agree with him. I often wonder how one particular girl (out of so many tragedies) becomes the total preoccupation of the news cycles, sometimes for months and years. Obviously, news reporting is connected to ratings, and pretty white girls seem to be more valuable to increase viewership, or the type viewers advertisers are seeking. The media is about making money, and news is not pure...

The words, "I can't breathe" resonate at another level in my parish. We have two parishioners with lung diseases which are slowly suffocating them. One died last week. I am counseling with the other. My mom died that way. It was awful. Reading psalms 56 & 57 yesterday I was thinking about that
have mercy on me O God for my enemies are hounding me...
whenever I am afraid I will put my trust in you...
be merciful to me O God be merciful for I have taken refuge in you...
he will confound those who trample upon me... 

We all share in that experience, in various ways. Overwhelmed and helpless, crying out "I can't breathe!" (literally and figuratively) and waiting for God to deliver us.

Our parish is moving to respond to those who "can't breathe" in inner city Memphis. We are working with a minister and are funding a shelter. The ministry of Jesus, God's response to people crying out, is done in and through humans. A white suburban church funding a black church will not solve every problem, but the people who are saved will think it worthwhile. Pray for God's mercy on this project. Helping people 'up and out' is challenging work. We appreciate the opportunity God has given us to do something positive.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Hope and Salvation

I watched the final episode of a TV program which I have followed for years. It was not the sort of show which was pious or uplifting. Most all of the characters were vicious and criminal, and there were very few who were lights shining in the darkness.

One reason I find it interesting is because I have had a lifelong interest in evil. I spent ten years as a social worker. Rapists and murderers were my clients. Violent people and unsavory folks were my daily companions. I am familiar with the concept that "everyone is a sinner" but I have known personally some folks who have taken it to the next level. The question for me has always been, "How can people become so bad?" I pondered it often.

The general approach to ending a series (rather than being cancelled) is to tie up loose ends. The main characters have to be dealt with, and when the characters are not good people, there is usually a need to bring 'judgment' upon them. The need to have a "fit" end and the challenge is to find a way to write that ending in a satisfactory way.

Amazingly there was some overt Christian/Catholic images present in the last few shows. A woman character who had done much evil listens to "Jesus music" as she drives her car and at another point she calls herself a Christian. (Years ago she mocked the Catholic faith). She visits her father, who apparently is suffering from mental decline and memory loss. She is told that she must wait because he has not returned from his visit to the local Catholic church. He does not recognize her as his daughter, but sees she is distressed and actually tells her, "God forgives." "I hope so," she responded, aware of the pain and suffering she has caused throughout her misspent life. She is killed later at her father's house in a garden. We had learned earlier that  she loved that garden in her childhood, but there is more here: the image of "garden and lost innocence" is Biblical to its core (Adam/Eve) and this woman was a fallen mother figure at many levels. Last night, the main character, her son, met his end. He crashes his motorcycle with his arms outstretched, in an open embrace of death(?); but he also looked like Jesus on the cross. Perhaps more interesting was the presence of a street person who was eating bread and drinking wine and a final seen of a bird eating similar looking bread while the blood of the man enters the frame. Bread/Wine/Body/Blood....

His death was his way of saving his two very young sons from the evil life which had he embraced. "I am a bad man and there is no way to change that," he had declared. This is the true meaning of despair. Hopelessness in the face of sin. He gave up his life in the hope that he can save his sons, but we know that his boy has his ring. It is possible that destiny may other plans for the little fellow who is already deeply scarred by his family's dysfunction.

At Morning Prayer we read from Isaiah 6. In this chapter the ancient prophet shares his vision of God in heaven (which looks remarkably like the earthly temple). It is overwhelming (angels cry out 'holy, holy, holy!') and Isaiah sounds like one who is hopeless when he says, "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" But despair is not the last word. The angel touches his lip with a burning coal and declares "your guilt is taken away and your sin is forgiven." Redemption is always a gift from God and it cannot be earned.

The Gospel today, John 7:53ff, is the well known account of the woman caught in adultery. They drag her before Jesus to trap Him, but His response, "Let the one among you without sin cast the first stone!" is perfectly constructed. He does not deny sin nor the Scriptural demand; He only makes it impossible to enforce it. Then He asks the woman, "Has no one condemned you?" When she replies in the negative, He says, "Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more." [note exhortation not to sin]

Sin is real. Sin is bad. Sin is death. I pondered this as I watched the show last night. What is our hope in the face of sin? How can we escape? The Bible today spoke of God's mercy and forgiveness. All have sinned and no one has hope, unless if the hope rests in God.

The Garden, the bread and wine, the confession of sin and the need for mercy--all were present in that TV show. They are also present in our lives. In the TV show despair and death 'won' over and over again, but it need not be that way in our lives. God says to us, "Choose life." He offers life. There really is hope!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Waiting (Advent 1)

The Advent theme echoes in the words of Jesus in Mark 13. It could not be more clear.
Beware. Keep alert. You do not know the hour!
Keep awake, you do not know the hour!
and what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake!

To be awake is not the passive absence of sleep, it is active and alert. It is anticipatory and it involves our whole person.
 It is the role of the watchman, the lone sentinel on a tower or ship, engaged in the protective work of scanning for threats.

Paul says that we are not lacking in any spiritual gift as we WAIT for the Lord. We are no simply watchmen with flashlights and cell phones. We are armed and dangerous! The enemy dare not rear his head among us for we have EVERY GIFT of the HOLY SPIRIT as we wait and watch for the Lord.

Waiting is a natural part of human existence. All of us have treasured memories of "the big day." Countdowns to the arrival of family or friend. I recall in middle school, living in an apartment outside Philadelphia, the day my Aunt, Uncle and cousins were to arrive. My brother and sister and I would gobble down our breakfast and sprint out the door, my mom's warning "they won't be here until late in the afternoon" a useless sentence. We did not care, we were going to watch and wait, and wait we did, sometimes for seven or eight hours. But when we saw the car the wait melted away. The joy! The joy! A joy which only a child's heart can understand.

Then we grow up and there is another kind of waiting. It is a more anxious waiting, and in its way more intense. Something is wrong with the baby, the parent, the friend, the spouse; we go to the doctor and endure the poking and probing. We wait, and wait. First for a diagnosis, then for a prognosis, then for medicines, then for the outcome. We wait. We hope, we do whatever they tell us, including sitting outside in the freezing cold at three in the morning because the doctor says the croop likes cold dry air. SO we sit and wait, waiting to hear the cough go away, the lump go away, the bleeding to stop.

Which brings us to the third kind of waiting. The final wait. We gather around the bed, our loved one a wasted shell of the person who carried us in his arms, nursed us at her breast, held us close in the night, entertained us or educated us. The breaths are shallow, so shallow. too shallow. we are amazed at how long a person can survive with so little air. Then it stops. It is over. Death.

These are all types of Christian waiting. The joy of the Kingdom. The sometimes painful process of healing/salvation. The required death to enter life. 

If we are not waiting for Jesus, then for whom or what are we waiting. Is it possible that this is the most important question? Not, "do you believe?", but "DO YOU WAIT?"

Isaiah screamed to his God; O that you would tear the heavens apart and come down among us! Isaiah professed, You are our Father, we are the work of you hands.

In the New Testament those words are summed up in one Aramaic expression: maranatha, come Lord

 Who can pray, come Lord
The one who watches, the one who longs, the one who waits. stay awake. wait on the Lord. 

And while you wait live like someone who has received every spiritual gift and use them as the Lord's Watchman!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

What We Want to See, What we Expect to Hear

It was Thanksgiving Day and we were in a family gathering feast. My wife was feeding my youngest, who surveyed the tables stacked with various foods. Suddenly, his eyes grew large and he doddered over to the table with one of his favorite foods, bread. It got me to thinking about the fifteen of us, as we entered that space, our eyes dancing from one thing to the next.... What were we honing in on?

Often we see what we are 'looking for.' We might not even notice something that does not appeal. There is nothing profound about this, it is how things work. 

A couple days ago I went on Facebook. I do not go there much at all. What I saw disturbed me. There were a series of posts by people whom I have known for thirty years or more. While few of those people are part of my daily life any longer, there is no doubt that there is affection and positive regard shared. The posts were expressions of rage about this and that. There was a tendency for certain kinds of comments to come from certain kinds of groups. As they looked at various events, they tended to hone in on those aspects which reinforced their thinking. No surprise, and this tunnel vision is not limited to any particular group.

Like my son, our eyes get big and we are very enthused when we can identify particular events which are examples of what we believe. We need to ask ourselves, "What would I want the truth to be?" and, perhaps, ask ourselves, "Why?"

Reality is bigger than our capacity to capture in words. The narratives we construct are necessarily truncated (and therefore inaccurate). We edit out details, sometimes very important details. By definition we can not see what we are blind to. 

Segmented truth can also be a partial lie. Reality is complex and difficult. We are not always clear on what "just, fair and loving" looks like for everyone. Power and demands for "me/us" are impacted by what we see and hear, and what we see and hear is twisted.

Maybe that is why Jesus came as a slave to die on a cross? Maybe we can only be freed from ourselves when we die to ourselves?


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Questions after Ferguson

I was surprised to hear that officer Wilson was in an apartment with a sick child just prior to the altercation. No one interviewed them, but would it not have been interesting to hear how they experienced him? 

I was shocked to read today that the mother (Leslie McSpadden) and step father (Louis Head) of Michael Brown have been accused of assault and theft--a recent conflict with Michael Brown's paternal grandmother. The grandmother was selling tee shirts calling for justice for Michael Brown. In a court this sort of thing can not be admitted as evidence, but is it something which fills out the picture a bit more?

It seems that there are two related but separate questions. 
1. Did Wilson follow correct procedures, in other words, is this shooting legal?
2. Are the policies and procedures for police just and proper?

Here is what I mean. It is currently legal to abort a child, however, for many of us it is immoral. Currently, thank God, infanticide is not legal. So a person who aborts an unborn child is not brought up on charges, but the same person who smothered the same child in the nursery would be up on murder charges. Some of us wonder about the justification for police shooting and killing people, but that is a question of policy. Wilson is legally responsible to follow the law.

Am I the only one who finds an incongruity between the treatment of the dozens and dozens of Black people, who are seen weeping on television and asking "how am I going to make a living? how am I going to feed my babies?" and the so called victims of racism and police abuse? Why are there not activists lined up to provide safety and cover for Black people who had nothing to do with the shooting? We have heard that "Black people matter," yet it seems not enough to let their business and source of income for their family remain unharmed. Justice is for everyone.
It seems that the Grand Jury has decided, based on eye witness testimony and scientific evidence, that Michael Brown's behavior escalated the situation to the point that Officer Wilson was justified in drawing and discharging his weapon.
I do not know if Wilson should have killed Brown, my preference is that he hadn't. Any death of a young man is sad. I do not know what Brown's state of mind was, perhaps feeling depressed, perhaps tired of life long racism and persecution by police, perhaps just in a grumpy mood for unrelated reasons. Maybe he was not a real smart kid, maybe his testosterone was up and he wanted to assert himself. Maybe Brown was anti-social and had limited coping skills, with aggressive tendencies. I do not know.

I do know that all people do things which are uncharacteristic. The recent reports on one of my favorite celebrities, Bill Cosby, remind us that we do not always know "the real story." Priests are privy to many dark secrets as people admit to thoughts, words and deeds which are sinful. Michael could have been basically a good kid who had a bad day, or a not so good kid who over reached with Officer Wilson.

What we do know is
if Michael Brown had not stolen from the store (and assaulted someone) he would not have been in the confrontation which cost his life...
if Michael Brown had not walked down the middle of the street (an act of aggression), got in a verbal confrontation, refused to comply with the officer then the confrontation would not have been escalated...
if Michael Brown had not struck the officer and reached for his gun, the escalation to a deadly  encounter would not have happened...
if Michael Brown did charge the officer, then that decision led directly to his death...
if officer Wilson had simply driven off after the initial confrontation, Michael Brown would not have died.
if officer Wilson had refused to shoot the young man and engaged in a hand to hand struggle (with a huge young man) it is likely Wilson would have been beaten, but Brown would not have been shot.
I cannot see how the latter two options can be reasonable to expect.
105 officers died in the line of duty, 42 of them were shot. It seems there is no public record of how many times police shoot people, though it seems to be many times that many. I have no doubt that the Police can be abusive and that some shootings are wrong.

But cops encounter dangerous people constantly. They meet institutional hostility in reaction to institutional racism. There are also a huge number of criminals--many of them vicious and evil. Cops are the ones who enter a room where young children are shot up, little girls and old women are brutalized and raped, gang destroy lives of innocent people. Every day cops see the worst of it.

I have a solution, repent and convert and embrace the values of Jesus. But the real world is under the dominion of another king, the Dark Lord of Lies. We need to pray and we need to do the right thing, that is all that we have control of. Someday there is a Judge who will reveal all truth. Brown will meet him. Wilson will meet him. So will you and I.