Friday, September 15, 2017

Needing Church on a Bad Day

Between the hurricanes, the earthquake, the fires out west, the announcement of the end of DACA, and all of the programming we were starting at church, I felt like I had so many balls in the air on Sunday morning, that I really needed church. I needed the music, the prayer, and the company. Church happens when we get together to sing, to pray, to laugh, to catch up with each other, and to lift ourselves up with the good news that God’s love is bigger than whatever burdens we’re carrying. That’s what I needed on Sunday, and I got it. So thank you church! 

Some folks think coming to church means showing your best to the world. We get dressed up, put on our smiling faces, try to keep our kids on their best behavior, and come to Sunday morning worship, because that’s what “good” people do. We greet each other with cheerfulness, and when someone asked how we were, we’d say, “Fine! How’re you?”   

But what if you’re really not fine? What if you can’t even fake it? Should you stay home those days? 

Nope. In fact, those are the days you need church the most. 

Church is not a museum for priceless masterpieces, sculpted for perfection, curated so that the experience as you pass through is sophisticated and perfect. On the contrary, church is gathering of real human beings, imperfect people, who don’t have everything figured out. They may be struggling with depression, angry with their family members, or feeling a little lost or hopeless. 

Church is a hospital for those who have been through some stuff. 

When someone at church asks you how you are, you should be able to tell the truth. If you’re feeling lousy, say, “you know what? I’m pretty awful, to be honest.” And if someone says that to you when you ask them how they are, say back to them, “Well thank God you’re here. Come sit with me, and let’s and do church together today.”

Don’t get me wrong—it’s great to have happy, well organized people in church! In fact, we should feel joy and gratitude for our blessings. More to the point, if you’re in a good place on any given Sunday, you can be that person who says, “Well thank God you’re here!” 

Someday in the future, when you’re having a bad Sunday, the person you sat with when they were a wreck, they will have your back. They will sit with you and do church with you when you really need a reminder that we’re in it together, and God’s got our back. 


Life is not a cake walk my friends. It’s more like musical chairs—a bit of a scramble, and sometimes there aren’t enough seats. But we’ve got a place for everyone, and when the music stops, God will meet us in church.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Hate Speech?

On the afternoon of June 19th, I read a Facebook message from Schmaltz Deli, saying they’d been the victims of a hate crime. Someone had painted an antisemitic message on the restaurant in front of their store at Ogden and Naper Blvd. I was upset, and shared my love and support for them in the comment thread. I want Naperville to be a diverse community that affirms people of all faiths and no faith.

And then I found out the text of the alleged hate speech: “Free Gaza.”

To be sure, I don’t know everything about the Israel/Palestine conflict. I know enough to be careful in what can be a volatile, emotional conversation, one in which other people have a much larger stake than I do. However, when I read that, I felt like I had been manipulated, like my goodwill and interfaith commitments had been taken for granted. Is a legitimate political statement, “hate speech”? Would “Free Ireland” spray painted on a British pub be “hate speech”?

Then this weekend, there was a protest at the pride march in Chicago by activists. They were protesting a number of things, but one thing they did was ask those with Israeli pride flags to leave. One of the protesters’ concerns is the “pinkwashing” of Israel’s violations against Palestinians. (They don’t want folks to forget Israel’s occupation and mistreatment of Palestinians because Israel happens to be good with LGBTQ rights.) Opponents of these critics quickly called them anti-semitic for dismissing the Israeli pride flags.

Some people I love might strongly disagree with me. But there has to be a difference between political speech, legitimate political disagreement, and hate speech. 

Spray painting a sidewalk in front of a Jewish deli in Naperville is silly. It’s like spray painting, “No DAPL” on a gas station in Finland. A Finish gas station has as much to do with the Dakota Access Pipeline as a Naperville deli has to do with how the state of Israel treats Palestinians. Protesting the pride march is just as silly. It attacks those most likely to be allies of other oppressed people, when the real people who need to hear the protest are thousands of miles away. But referring to legitimate political expression, albeit out of place or poorly timed, as “hate”, that just raises everyone’s anxiety. It makes genuine dialogue harder, and decreases the chance to build understanding. 


Peacebuilding is hard. It’s the work of a lifetime. So let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot by overreacting to some individuals’ silly choices. 

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.