What’s the message about hate?

A blank sign in front of Ardmore Baptist church. Photo Pete Bannan

At a local rally against racism, speakers encouraged us to contact government leaders and urge them to speak out unequivocally against the hate parading in our streets.

What about our pastors? Shouldn’t we be asking them to do the same? And if they’re not, shouldn’t we be asking them why?

This applies whether you’re a churchgoer or not. The pulpit is a powerful platform that can be used to promote love or hate or indifference. It’s a huge part of this entire discussion.

If you attend a church, pay close attention to what’s being said and how it’s said. If you don’t participate in a faith community, pay attention to the message coming from various clergy, especially those who have a big pulpit because of their ties to the White House.

What are they telling everyone?

One of the many jarring aspects of the Civil Rights movement is how so many white churches endorsed and encouraged hatred. Some clergy condemned the marches for equality, while others tacitly supported white supremacists by refusing to talk about what was happening in the streets just outside their doors.

Some church leaders were segregationists who used cherry-picked Bible verses to try to justify their racism. Others were sympathetic to the Civil Rights movement, but afraid to speak out because they might be ostracized.

Silent behind stained glass

Also, they knew they could become targets of the racists who lynched civil rights leaders and bombed not only black churches but the homes of black clergy. They could be next. They might end up having to carry that cross, too, and they were reluctant to do so.

Some white church leaders settled for addressing hate in muted terms that wouldn’t offend the white supremacists sitting in their pews. In fact, the pastors’ refusal to criticize racism directly was seen as an endorsement from God.

Of course, not all white clergy and churches cowered. A great many had the courage of their faith to stand up and lock arms in the fight for equality. They were willing to pay the price for preaching the gospel that everyone must be treated as an equally beloved child of God.

Many are doing so as well today, but many others are not.

One of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr’s most famous works is his Letter from Birmingham Jail, which was prompted by public opposition from eight white clergymen. The Rev. King was discouraged by the way so many white church leaders refused to join the movement for love and justice.

“I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies,” he wrote. “Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders. All too often many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”

So, what about your faith community?

Has your pastor addressed the events of Charlottesville directly? Did they say that the racism and white supremacy are evil and contrary to everything that Jesus taught and lived?

Pulling a Pilate

Or did they reference the events with a brief, generalized prayer for the nation and move on? Did they talk about Charlottesville as some other place, implying that racism doesn’t need to be addressed right here as well?

Did your pastor pull a Pilate and try to wash their hands of the responsibility for addressing this deep sinfulness in our society? Or did they address it head-on?

Jesus’ God-filled life and teachings are direct, unequivocal, challenging and unpopular, both then and now. He didn’t hesitate to speak up for love and speak out against injustice, even when it cost him many followers.

What about your pastor? Are they speaking up against hate? If they are, make sure that you thank them for their prophetic courage.

If they’re not, this is the perfect time to ask them why.

On the same shelf

Same shelf

Young voices fill the old United Church of Christ building. More than 40 children energetically and noisily move about the basement room that serves as a cafeteria.

It’s another morning at the inner-city church’s summer youth program.

Kids from neighboring families come to the church each morning. Church members and college-age volunteers from AmeriCorps VISTA play with the children, teach them, and remind them that they are loved for who they are.

Then, everyone eats lunch together.

The church’s small kitchen brims with packages of food and all manner of pots, pans and utensils. Shelf space is limited. As you can see from the photo above, the communion cups are stored with the food offered that day.

Food and faith on the same shelf.

That powerful image sticks with me and reminds me that there are two types of religion.

Through us, with us, in us

One type is self-centered and future-oriented. You follow a code of conduct to get some reward when you die. Many Christian churches teach that you don’t get to meet Jesus until you die, and then only if you’ve behaved like a “good Christian.”

And the code-of-conduct for being a “good Christian” varies significantly among denominations and is constantly changing. What was deemed unacceptable yesterday is tolerated today. It’ll change yet again.

Often, these codes of conduct ignore or contradict Jesus’ passionate teachings about how we must treat each other and care for one another, especially for those who are needy, lowly and hurting.

That’s one approach.

Many other faith communities are committed to living the message of incarnation — God feeding, healing and transforming the world through us.

People of incarnation recognize God’s presence through us, with us and in us. They try their best to embody the love, grace, forgiveness, peace and healing that the world so desperately needs.

Through love and love alone

People of incarnation recognize that the kingdom of God isn’t some reward that you get when you die, but a place you can enter now. Your heart is the door. Everyone is invited to enter and enact God’s kingdom through love and love alone.

That part never changes.

The inner-city UCC church has a picture that sums it up. Across the street from the church is its food pantry. There’s a drawing on the wall that shows a line of people waiting to get into such a food pantry.

Waiting in the middle of the line is Jesus.

Churches of incarnation take Jesus seriously when he says he’s right here with us, especially in the poor and the needy. Faith is about recognizing and responding to that presence.

So they respond by feeding the hungry as close family, listening to the troubled and offering help, providing a hug and a moment of hope to someone who’s feeling despair.

Hope, a plate of food, and an experience of God. All coming from the same shelf.

Grace in aisle three

Food

We found the aisle with lentils — aisle three, as it turned out — and surveyed the many choices. Which type would a Muslim most likely use to break the Ramadan fast?

Clayton and I didn’t know. We’re not Muslim. We’d never done this kind of shopping before.

Clayton is the interfaith liaison for our church, which has a close relationship with the local Islamic center. Last fall, we partnered with them on a winter clothing drive for refugee families settling in the area.

Now the Islamic center was having a food drive for needy families, many of them refugees. Clayton mentioned the food drive at the end of our church service last Sunday, and people grabbed donation envelopes and stuffed cash into them.

In the blink of an eye, we collected $200. Now, we just had to buy the food. We found a halal market near the mosque and went with a general list of things that we found online – lentils, flour, dates, cooking oil and so forth.

But which ones? Which types? How much? We didn’t know. After a few moments of indecision, we went to the checkout register and asked the manager for help.

We told the man what we were doing. He smiled. He dropped everything he was doing and threw himself into the project. He went to the back of the store and pulled out a box of cooking oil, which would be easier for us to carry. He rounded up bags of flour and packages of lentils.

Yeah. Amazing grace.

While other customers waited patiently, the manager filled several carts with food items worth more than the $200 we’d given him. And then he helped us push the carts to the car for loading.

On the way, he paused, took out his wallet, grabbed a $50 bill and handed it to us.

“This is a personal donation for your church,” he said.

Standing there in the parking lot, all of us blinked back tears.

Yeah. Amazing grace.

There are so many loud and shrill voices in various religions today, ones filled with fear and self-righteousness and arrogance and judgement and hatred -– the very things that faith tells us to avoid. Those voices try to divide us and diminish us. They twist religion into the opposite of what it’s meant to be, hoping to advance their personal agendas.

And then, there are all those other people – most people, I like to believe. The ones who actually get it. The ones filled with a spirit that makes them try as best they can to love one another as equally beautiful and beloved children of God.

They understand that every act of love, no matter how small, is an encounter with the God who makes all people beloved and all things blessed. Such moments are holy and sacred, transforming and inspiring.

Like the one just now in the parking lot.

With our boxes and bags of food loaded in the trunk, we headed to the nearby mosque. Just a week earlier, the mosque had been picketed by an anti-Muslim group toting signs that were hateful and hurtful.

The Muslims responded by setting up a table and offering the protesters food and drink. Here’s a photo, courtesy of The Journal-News of Hamilton.

Table

When our church heard about the protests, we prayed for the Islamic community and emailed the imam a note of support and admiration for their act of kindness. The imam wrote back, suggesting we get together for lunch sometime soon.

“Thank you so much for your appreciated prayers and support!” the imam wrote. “Please continue to spread the message of kindness, respect, loving thy neighbor, and harmony.”

This week, refugees will break their Ramadan fast with lentils and dates donated by a local church. On Sunday, the donation basket at our church will include a $50 bill from a Muslim store manager who spreads the message of kindness, respect, harmony and love.

Another shared, sacred moment for everyone. Blessed by a few more tears, no doubt.

Away from the abyss

church1

I came across the picture above on the internet. Something about it resonated with me, the way people were falling out of the church and into an abyss.

I held onto the picture, planning to write about how we need to be careful of where we worship because some places lead us not to a higher plane of love and compassion but into the abyss of hatred and self-righteousness.

I worked up an indignation over how so many “Christians” reject anyone who experiences God outside of their tiny theological boxes. How they want legal consent to hatefully shun others in Jesus’ name. How they insist we should turn away refugees – let them die over there, it’s too dangerous to save them over here.

And I just want to say: WTF? What’s That Faith?

A couple of things I saw while driving around recently also got under my skin. First, I came upon a pickup truck toting a trailer that berated everyone on the road who didn’t share their beliefs. On the truck bed was a videoboard playing gruesome scenes of crucifixion. You also notice a U.S. flag, an Israeli flag and a POW flag. Whatever.

church2

A week later, I pulled up behind an SUV with this bumper sticker:

church3

Jesus loves me more? Really??? What in God’s name is going on here? I totally get it why so many people call themselves spiritual but not religious these days.

Oh, and I haven’t even started on the white, evangelical “values voters” who decided to become disciples of someone who has lived an entire lifetime mocking and repudiating their values. The ones who heard him say that he’s the only one who can save them, and they were like: We’re good with that!

Out with the old savior, in with the new.

As you can tell, I’d worked myself into a nice, judgmental mood for an into-the-abyss blog.

And then, I had a come-to-Jesus moment.

A man who is friends with someone in my UCC church contacted me. He said he wanted to talk about God. We met at a Starbucks. He comes from a deeply fundamentalist background. I sensed that he was anxious.

WTF? What’s That Faith?

He started quoting scriptures about judgment and punishment, and I just wanted to get up and leave. But then it occurred to me why he was doing what he was doing. He’s terrified that his friend is going to hell because she belongs to a church that believes God actually loves us.

Fear. I sensed a deep fear in his tone.

He kept going, hoping that if he repeated his Bible verses enough times, he might convert me and then God might accept me and not eternally torture me. He was worried about me, too.

I was touched. And I felt so sad for this kind, caring, anxious man.

It reminded me of something Nadia Bolz-Weber said during her reflection on the parable of the prodigal son – you know, the story of how no matter what we do wrong, we get love and hugs and a party in the end.

Nadia tells how an 82-year-old woman posted a heartbreaking message on her public Facebook page saying that she was afraid of dying because she thought God was angry at her and was going to torture her.

This poor woman’s “religion” had made her terrified of God.

“She’d been so condemned by the bogus reward-and-punishment system of false religion that at the end of her life rather than her faith being a source of comfort for her, it was a source of torment for her,” Nadia says.

How horrible!

I felt the same way sitting in Starbucks across the table from a good man who has been taught that the most God-like people in his life weren’t good enough for God because they didn’t attend his church. He’d been told that God hates most everything about all of us but will grudgingly accept those who get baptized into his denomination. All the others — we get eternally waterboarded.

Can you imagine the anxiety it produced in him? Poor man! I felt so sorry for him.

This poor man!

In that moment, all my indignation – OK, some of my indignation – melted. I saw not a self-righteous person but, instead, a victim who’d been beaten up by his “religion” and left bleeding by the side of the spiritual road.

He didn’t need theological debate. Instead, he needed someone to offer compassion and reassurance and love and healing and peace and hope – all the things that his religion was denying him.

In other words, he needed what religion is supposed to do. It’s supposed to lead us upward to a higher place, directing us to love. Away from the abyss.

I really hope he finds his way up and out. He deserves that grace. As do we all.

___

A link to Nadia’s reflection: http://wp.production.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/files/2016/03/2016-03-06_NBW_HFASS_Podcast_64kbps.mp3

The many firsts and daily I-dos

balloons

A couple in our church hosted an anniversary party at their home last month. Everybody brought food and drink to celebrate relationships and give couples a chance to renew their vows if they wished.

It’s a tricky thing.

These kinds of gatherings can leave single and divorced people with mixed feelings. How do you balance both? I had to try to find a way because I was giving the reflection about love.

Eventually it occurred to me: Love is never limited to a couple. It never grows in a vacuum. It involves all of the people in our lives who love us and help us grow. Love is always a group project.

And so we went with it.

We talked about the little, everyday moments that build upon each other and form our relationships. If you’re a couple, you certainly know those moments. You’ve had so many of them.

For instance, the first time you met. Did you look at the other person and think, “Hmm, who is this person?” Or did you barely notice them?

Do you remember your first date? Were you nervous? Was it wonderful? A disaster? A little of both?

How about the first time that you held hands, how they just felt like they were a perfect fit.

The first time you stayed up deep into the night talking without realizing it was so late. You just had so much to say to each other.

How about the first time you snuggled in each other’s arms and thought: There’s no place I’d rather be than right here, right now, with this person.

Or the first time you thought: This person is really remarkable. And more than a little weird, too.

The first time you had an argument over something ridiculously silly and it went on for, oh, two days because neither one of you wanted to lose the silly argument.

Do you remember the first time you thought that this relationship isn’t going to work out because you are so different in some ways. And then the first time you realized that this relationship is actually the answer to so many prayers.

How about the first time that you realized that you wanted this person to be a part of your life going forward, and that feeling scared you because you’d never felt that way before.

What about the first time you said: I do.

I’m not taking about the wedding I-dos. I’m talking about the daily I-dos, the ones you’ve been saying to each other right from the start:

You seem like an interesting person. Do you want to get some coffee sometime? I do.

That coffee thing went well. Do you think you’d like to go on an actual date? I do.

Do you want to see that new movie that just came out? I do. (Even though I hate those kinds of movies.)

I’ve had a horrible day. Do you think you could make some time for me tonight? Of course I do.

I’ve had a wonderful day. Do you want to celebrate with me? Absolutely, I do.

Do you realize that when I’m with you, I like the person that I am? That you bring out the best in me? Yeah, I do. And you do the same for me.

Do you realize that annoying little habit of yours really drives me up the wall? Yes, I do. But do you also realize that I’m working hard to try to do it less?

Do you know that I love you? I do. And I love you back.

Do you want to keep doing this remarkable thing we have together for as long as we can? I do.

And then come the vows, which get renewed every day in many ways. You say “I do” to cherishing this person. You appreciate the joy and laughter they bring into your day, as well as the challenges and struggles. You try to love each other as deeply as you can, in as many ways as you can, for as long as you can. You look forward to the many “firsts” yet to come. And you are thankful that so many people want to be part of that adventure with you, every step of the way.

And those many other people in your life say “I do” to you, too. It’s a group project.

After we did the the I dos at the party, we thanked the Creator of life and love for the many people who help us become better lovers – lovers of each other and lovers of life. We asked for the grace and the courage to continue saying “I do” to each other.

And then we went outside and released 36 helium-filled balloons into the gray sky, adding a little color and love to the world. We did it all together.