Thursday, March 2, 2017

Ash Wednesday Moment

I have never really figured out Ash Wednesday. As a west coast kid, the only people who did the ash-on-their-foreheads were Catholic, so it wasn't really much of a thing for me. We didn't even have church that day. Now that I'm serving a congregation in the midwest, we participate in an ecumenical evening service with our Methodist neighbors, where we do the traditional ashes-on-the-forehead for everyone at the end of the service. I've come to appreciate consecrating ourselves as fragile and fallible at the beginning of Lent.  

But being Facebook friends with clergy all over the country, my Ash Wednesday is filled with people offering "ashes to go", offering ashes on folks' foreheads in a public place, e.g. as they board the train for work. Colleagues I know and love do it every year, but I confess, I really don't like this practice. It smacks of Christian hegemony and privilege in a pluralistic world--an assumption that people would appreciate such a display of one particular religion's penitential practice. 

Every Wednesday for most of the year, we host homeless guests in our church building for meals and for shelter overnight. As I was leaving after last night's service, still grumbling to myself about spectacle and practice of the whole Ash Wednesday thing, one of our guests, who was having a cigarette outside, stopped me, and asked if I had ashes. I had some in my office, so I went back, got them, got my thumb dirty again, and said to her, "Remember you are as fragile as ashes, and as precious as stardust*," as I made the sign of the cross on her forehead. 

Here I am, a west-cost-raised, rationalistic pastor, who still doesn't totally get Ash Wednesday, let alone why total strangers would appreciate getting ashes from me, and in the last two minutes of my day, a woman who slept on our church floor last night came to me seeking a blessing on her forehead. 

For as much as I sometimes feel like I've got something powerful or witty or thoughtful to say about complex and deep issues, there are so many more times like this in my life--times when I'm left speechless at the wonder and beauty of the mystery in front of me; times when Jesus shows up and keeps me humble.

And all I have to say, is "Wow." Thanks be to God. 

*The traditional words are, "remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return." That's too foreboding for me, so I change it, inspired in part by one of my wonderful mentors, the Rev. Dr. JoAnne Terrell.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

World Series of Racism

It's October. The Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians are about to face each other in the World Series. I'm surrounded by ecstatic Cub fans here in the Chicago suburbs, and have more than a few Cleveland fans in my Facebook feed. I'm a Mariners fan who worked at Fenway while in college, but it's a lot of fun to cheer on the Cubs and see them succeed after so many years of disappointment. 

There's something in the underbelly of this year's World Series though, that is eating at me. Like so much of American life, there's a lot on the surface to get excited about. But you don't have to go too deep to expose something ugly, the racism and classism which are unfortunately as ubiquitous a part of our national experience as our love of sports. 

Cleveland's baseball team is named, "the Indians," of course, which in and of itself isn't great. Some teams with that name have shown a way to work with it. Cleveland's Chief Wahoo mascot however, is embarrassingly racist. The picture of the smiling Native American, reducing hundreds of tribes, and rich cultural traditions to a cartoon stereotype? Come on people. It's the 21st century for crying out loud. It's time to retire Chief Wahoo for good. 

And the Cubs? Nothing wrong with their mascot of course, but the Cubs are not Chicago's only baseball team. 

Chicago is a divided city folks. It's a city divided by race and class. The neighborhoods have changed over the years, but there's still defacto segregation in many of them. Nothing illustrates this clearer than Chicago baseball. On the North Side, it's overwhelmingly white, and Cub fans, and the suburbanites tend to identify with them. Then there's the South Side, overwhelmingly Sox fans, overwhelmingly black and Latinx. There are a few Sox fans in the 'burbs, but it's mostly Cub fans.

The White Sox won the World Series in 2005, but you'd never know it when you hear from national sports commentators about how Chicago has waited so long for a World Series. 

What bothers me is the ways that baseball fandom here allows us to camouflage the city's divisions into a sports rivalry, rather than bring these issues into the open and talk about them as real and important. It's socially acceptable to talk about how the Sox ballpark (which should always be called Comiskey) is in a "dangerous" neighborhood, or it's somehow scarier for suburbanites to go to a Sox game, than to visit the "friendly confines" of Wrigley Field.  (For the record, this isn't scientific, but I've visited both ball parks and enjoy them both. I've only ever seen someone get arrested at Wrigley.) 

Assumptions about race and class are all around us in metro-Chicago. Living as a white person in the 'burbs, it's assumed I would be a Cubs fan. When my wife and I were first moving here, a white person in Washington state asked where we were going to live, quickly adding, "north side, of course," as if there were no other option for middle class white people. I've deliberately avoided picking a side in the Chicago baseball rivalry, because, well, I gotta stay loyal to my Mariners, but I don't like the ways this rivalry further deepens the divisions of an otherwise great city. 

I wish we could talk about the fact that Chicago is a different city for people of color vs. white people--in where they live, in where they work, go to school, and how they interact with the police and other city services. We ought not be able to so casually disregard the differences between North side and South side as if it's nothing more than a baseball rivalry. The divisions in this city are serious, and they are deep. They deserve our thoughtful and focused attention. 

Maybe some common ground can can start the conversation. Can we talk about the sorry state of the Chicago Bears?

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Hey Guys, Can We Talk?

This one's for all the guys out there. 

You know how everyone's losing their minds about the conversation between Donald Trump and Billy Bush? You know how Republicans are falling over themselves to un-endorse Trump, and the GOP is trying to figure out the best way to lose this election? You know how Hillary supporters are pointing and shouting, while also being really happy to see Donald self-destruct? 

I don't want to talk about any of that. 

I want to talk to you about the fact that this conversation is one we have all heard, if not also participated in. I want to talk about the fact that you and I both know guys who talk about women this way, who have done it shamelessly, while being considered the coolest guys in the room. We know that the objectification of women's bodies is something we brag about, something we laugh at, and something we use to make ourselves feel like men. We've heard this conversation in the locker room, in college dorms and frat houses, and you know we've heard it in board rooms. 

You and I know that the problem will not go away if Trump goes away. We know this because the one thing Trump may be telling the truth about is when he said Bill Clinton said similar, or worse, on the golf course. This doesn't surprise us at all. 

What's worse, you know that guys who tried to stop it, who stood up and said, "could you please stop talking about women like they're objects?" You know these are the guys who got laughed at, beat up, ostracized, questioned for their manhood or sexuality. 

Guys - we know this problem is so much worse than Donald Trump. And as Rachel Held Evans said on Facebook yesterday, "Misogyny is not a 'tone' problem, it's a sin problem." It's a sin problem because we are treating our sisters, wives, daughters, and mothers as if they are not human, not beautiful, holy beings, made in God's image. 

Before we send Trump out into the wilderness to take our sins on his back as a scapegoat, let's spend a little time in front of a mirror, a little time in confession, and a lot of time apologizing for creating the world in which a man like Donald Trump can even get to where he is. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Faith is Political

Last week, I was at my fall Bethany Fellows retreat, with 30-odd other young clergy, and we got to meet Sr. Simone Campbell (the nun who started the “Nuns on the Bus” tour). Sr. Simone has been involved in social justice advocacy for nearly 40 years, fighting on behalf of the poor, lobbying in Washington, D.C.. She talked about Paul’s metaphor for the church being the Body of Christ, and how, after some discernment, she has come to see her role in the Body, as the stomach acid. She didn’t go into great depth about this, but one might imagine the Body of Christ (again, we're talking about the Church) needing a little indigestion every now and then as motivation to live a healthier lifestyle. 

The main thing Sr. Simone told us, and what I’ll always remember her saying, was, “faith has political consequences.” 

Wait, what? 

Faith is supposed to be private in our culture, something we keep to ourselves and don’t talk about. 

Political consequences? That would mean we might have to be more open about our faith, to come out of the closet even, as a person of faith. 

Are you sure about that Sister?

Every four years we have, “the most important election in our lifetime”. But this time—this is certainly the most consequential election that I think we’ve seen in a very long time. The consequences of our voting (or not voting as it were) could be significant. But I don’t think Sr. Simone was just talking about elections. I think the idea of faith having political consequences is that all of us need to realize that what we say we believe has an impact on the life we live as citizens in an interdependent world. 

If your faith calls you to be compassionate to refugees, your faith isn’t just depending on you to vote, it’s calling you to pick refugees up at the airport, help them learn English, and help them to get a job. If your faith calls you to be compassionate toward the poor, your faith isn’t just calling on you to vote, it’s calling upon you to look at the economic structures of society that depend upon poor people to stay in debt, or, the systems that deny hardworking people a living wage and affordable housing. If your faith calls you to dismantle white supremacy in our society, your faith isn’t just depending on you to vote, your faith is calling on you to talk to your police departments and demand that they treat all citizens with decency and humanity. It’s calling on you to contact your school districts to make sure that discipline and academic standards are applied with justice, and not favoring white students over black students. 

Faith has political consequences. This does mean you need to vote. But if you believe what you say you believe, about how God’s children are treated in this world, then you can’t stop there. 

What are the political consequences of your faith?

Friday, September 9, 2016

Sitting Out the National Anthem

Since 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to take a seat for the National Anthem a few weeks ago, the internet has been losing its mind. This Sunday, my team, the Seattle Seahawks, are supposedly all sitting or kneeling, or something other than standing reverently, for the National Anthem.  

Throughout our history, liberals and conservatives have occasionally been able to unify and celebrate our nation in spite of our differences of opinion. One way we do this is by honoring our national symbols - the flag, the national anthem, and of course, our military. We may have political disagreements about the conflicts in which our military women and men find themselves engaged, however, what they experience in those engagements is worthy of our honor and respect. We should save our criticisms for the politicians who choose the conflicts, not take out our anger on those who pay the highest prices for them. 

Having the national anthem at sporting events however, has become more than a symbol of unity, it's become a ritual for us, a kind of national ritual, taking the place of a religious ritual. It is nice to be able to transcend religious difference, to have something upon which Christian, Jew, Muslim, non-believer can all come together to celebrate. But when someone choosing not to participate is treated as if they're some kind of secular infidel, this ought to be a wake-up call to us that what is supposed to be a secular experience of national pride has become instead a religious expression with an "orthodox" and "heretical" way of expressing it.

So let's get this straight. First, how one feels about their country is not the same feeling as how they feel about it's military members. Second, loving one's country is not required for citizenship. Thoughts and feelings are not compulsory in this country. We get to disagree with each other. We get to be upset about things our government is doing, and we get to show our disagreement through speech, protest, assemblies, and by sitting down when everyone else is standing up. 

To exercise this freedom is not a heretical denial of patriotism, it is rather, a faithful expression of it.