Tag Archive | Christ United Methodist Church

Our Dysfunctional City

A new report from the Department of Justice details Rockford’s continued struggles with a stubborn violent crime problem.

The report — which highlights law enforcement strengths, but also offers an unflinching look at local weaknesses — is the culmination of a year of research by federal officials.

It recommends that the city expand the ways it works with county, state and federal governments — as well as faith-based and community organizations — to reduce gun violence, juvenile crime and drug abuse. Improved relationships between law enforcement and the community also are needed, the DOJ says. The report was unveiled Tuesday afternoon during a presentation and discussion at the Nordlof Center on North Main Street. – Jeff Kolkey, “Report Details Rockford’s Violent Crime Program, Offers Recommendations”, Rockford Register-Star, September 23, 2015

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Sometimes I think my city is a rainforest of dysfunction. The Galápagos Islands have got nothing on Rockford. Because the biodiversity of our crap would make Darwin spin in his grave.

The revolution won’t be televised, Rockford. It won’t be on Facebook or Twitter, either. Does anyone think more community conversations are the answer? Is anyone even listening? – Isaac Guerrero, “Connecting The Dots Of Rockford’s Dysfunction: Just Do It!”, Rockford Register-Star, September 21, 2015

The image Rockford, IL likes to project to the world.

The image Rockford, IL likes to project to the world.

It is just another headline in our paper: “‘Young Teenager’ Shot Dead In Southeast Rockford” We soon learned he was 13-year-old Gaillen Baker. Shot by homeowner Alhona Mack during what police believe was a failed breaking-and-entering robbery, Gaillen was a pretty typical 8th grader. He liked basketball and girls and clothes. For some reason, Mr. Mack believed it necessary that young Gaillen receive the death penalty for a stupid teenage mistake. He makes number 19 in our murder victim tally for 2015. Rockford is, according to one website, the number 2 most dangerous city in the United States with a population less than 200,000.

Those numbers, however, and that ranking, are misleading. Violent crime in our city tends to be restricted to a few neighborhoods in just one or two areas of the city. Underserved by city police, until recently even lacking a supermarket for which families had easy access, these neighborhoods are filled not with bad people bent on crime. They’re filled with families stressed by lack of economic opportunities, lack of access to services to help them, and of course the rising heroin trade and its attendant violence and overdose. I recently heard a man from my church, a life-long Rockford resident, insist that these areas of the city are places “no one should go”.

As the Department of Justice report released yesterday, linked in the first epigraph, makes clear, however, these are precisely the areas of the city where more people need to go: to connect with residents; to hear their needs; to work for them crafting solutions. One of the biggest things I took from reading the story about the DoJ report was the vital need to reach minority youth. A related story also in today’s newspaper notes that a Project Manager has been hired for a new group that’s seeking ways to help reduce crime in the city. Established by Mayor Larry Morrissey, they are seeking ways to coordinate help with city government, police, and private agencies and faith-based support systems. In her story, Georgette Braun notes that parolees are offered a choice of city services and those of Lutheran Social Services. The recidivism rate for those using Lutheran Services is around 17%. For the others, it’s almost 46%. That shows there has been movement in the right direction. Helping to reduce the risk that parolees will become repeat offenders is one great way to help reduce crime.

But it just isn’t enough. As Isaac Guerrero writes in his column, the multiple layers of political and administrative failure stretch from the national to the local level. One of the reasons for the stated poor relationship between Mayor Morrissey and Winnebago County officials is that Morrissey is non-partisan. Without a party apparatus or constituency to back him, relations with the partisan County Board and executive are always bound to be difficult.

Other actions the City Police have taken have not endeared them either to the County or to local residents who are most in need of an effective, connected police presence. Two years ago, in the midst of a hot summer of street violence and murder, the City tried to partner with the Winnebago County Sherriff’s Department to increase police presence around the city. The problem was the plan the city offered the county was that city police would vacate those neighborhoods most at risk for violence. That’s not exactly the best way to gain help or support.

In 2009, two police officers shot and killed Mark Anthony Barmore after pursuing him into the boiler room of a church day care center. The state’s attorney ruled the shooting justified. The city barely avoided a Ferguson, MO-style protest. Despite Mayor Morrissey reaching out almost immediately to minority clergy around the city, there was no follow-through, the police defended the shooting of an unarmed man in a daycare center – a couple missed shots passed through the wall separating the daycare from the furnace room, endangering the small children inside – and the city and police department, by and large, continue to turn a deaf ear to the needs of our most vulnerable neighborhoods.

There is so much that needs to get done. Relationships not only need to be repaired; they need to be built. Support systems not only need to be coordinated, they need to be created. Resources need to go where the need is greatest. Rather than implement and coordinate programs through the Mayor’s Office, local and city-wide programs that focus on listening to and responding to the real needs of our most endangered citizens and most vulnerable communities should spring from the people.

For example: There are eight United Methodist Churches in the city. One is located in one of the areas of the city where there has been significant gang activity. Small but mighty, Christ The Carpenter UMC has the knowledge, will, and faith to reach out to its neighbors, offering help for all. What they lack, however, is resources. I am a member at Christ UMC, the largest United Methodist Church not only in the city, but west of the Fox River. We have tremendous resources. We already do so much in our city and can always do more. We have partnered with Christ The Carpenter in the past. If we pooled our resources with the know-how and abilities of Christ The Carpenter on just one project together, reaching out to the neighborhood surrounding that small but vital congregation, we could transform lives, make disciples, and be that one light the darkness of violence, gangs, poverty, and drugs can never overcome.

Yes the city is dysfunctional. The fault for this, however, lies not with the people who only want help. It lies in a city administration and police department that seems determined not to hear what’s needed, not to reestablish good community relations, and only wish to reach down rather than offer a hand out.

Enter In Prayer, Stay In Prayer, Leave In Prayer

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
the beautiful, the beautiful river;
gather with the saints at the river
that flows by the throne of God. – Refrain, “Shall We Gather At The River”, Robert Lowry

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My church, Christ UMC, Rockford, IL. That is Rev. Scott Himel leading worship

My church, Christ UMC, Rockford, IL. That is Rev. Scott Himel leading worship

It is Sunday morning. Millions of Christians around the world have or will gather together this morning to give praise and honor and glory to our God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We shall confess our sins. We shall sing our praises. We shall offer our prayers. We shall gather around the table The LORD sets for us, remembering and hoping that this gathering has been and will be our final gathering place. We shall hear the Word read and proclaimed, the Good News offered to us. We shall hear the commandment to share that Good News in and through our words and lives with the whole world.

It is Sunday morning. It is the time to worship.

For all the nonsense, not only in the United Methodist Church but in all churches however they call themselves, this is the day and the hour we gather before God to sing and pray and be renewed by our God of eternal life. All our strife and name-calling. All the carrying on, the myriad ways division and discord are sewed, threats of schism and denunciations as heretics for this or that ridiculous reason gets set aside as the people of God in all our glorious diversity of languages, traditions, doctrines, and worship styles will allow the Spirit to intercede for us, taking our fumbling words and half-hearted confessions and offerings and make of them something holy, something worthy, acceptable to the Father in the Son.

St. Catherine's Church, Moscow

St. Catherine’s Church, Moscow

One church might have people sitting quietly. Another might feature rousing choruses, people standing and clapping and shouting for joy. Still another might have people move from seated to kneeling to standing. Of course the Russian Orthodox Church continues the ancient tradition of people standing in worship (and please not that gorgeous altar in the photo). The reality of diverse worship styles should humble our need to insist on particular ways in which we as the gathered people of God sing, pray, hear, taste, and confess our lives. Our Sunday realities belie whatever demands we make of others the rest of the week.

We all get so caught up in our own little agendas, I think we forget that the true test of whatever we offer others is how well our words match up to what others are really doing in the real world. I don’t just mean ethical controversies about sex, say, or deep doctrinal differences such as those between the East and West or Protestant and Roman. Even those temptests in tea-pots like whether or not to clap in worship; whether shouting acclamation during sermons is acceptable; whether we dress in suit and tie or shorts and a t-shirt. The reality is these are all part of the worshiping life of Christians around the world, and as we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, on this day most especially, grace should be our first response to those in our midst who might look or act in ways different from “the way we’ve always done it”.

Most of all, Sunday should be the day we set to one side the ridiculous shouting about who’s right and who’s wrong; who’s a heretic and who’s orthodox (however that word is defined); who is really a Christian and who’s just going through the motions. If the doctrine of original sin has any meaning at all; if the need for salvation is as real as we claim it to be; if the reality of constant confession and the intercession of the Spirit even in our holiest of moments is necessary; perhaps we should be just a bit less strident, at least on this day, even to those whose ideas about some things strike us as funny:

englishbibleRight or wrong, these no less than we are children of God, beloved and embraced. Is anyone willing to say that even these blessed Baptist believers exist outside the bounds of the Christian faith? Just how sure are any of us, on this day when we confess our sins; confess our need always for God’s presence; accept the just Word that our sins should require our death but that God has chosen life for us; just how sure are we that the Spirit isn’t hovering over those waters of chaos, that Christ isn’t present because two or three are gathered in the name of the Crucified and Risen One?

In the bulletins in my home church as a child, “Enter In Prayer. Stay In Prayer. Leave In Prayer” appeared just before the announcement of the Prelude. Few things have been as formative for my faith and worship life as those nine words. It is time to worship, to gather before our God to give honor and glory and praise; to confess our inability so to come based on any merit we have; to be thankful for the grace offered to us in Word, at the Table, and in the Water of our Baptisms. In all the ways we are so different, we are all the same. Let us now worship our God.

The God Of Just One More Thing

A number of those who practised magic collected their books and burned them publicly; when the value of these books was calculated, it was found to come to fifty thousand silver coins. So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.      –        Acts 19:19-20

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New Believers In Ephesus Burn Their Books Of Magic After Hearing St. Paul Preach, painting by Lucio Massari

New Believers In Ephesus Burn Their Books Of Magic After Hearing St. Paul Preach, painting by Lucio Massari

I’m part of a study group at Christ United Methodist Church. We are using a not-yet-published study by Rev. Adam Hamilton, looking at the ministry of St. Paul. This little passage in Acts has always intrigued me. Other translations read “sorcerers” rather than “those who practiced magic”. That, of course, leads to all sorts of silly pictures.

I learned something last night. Divination was common across the Roman Empire. People paid money for incantations for everything from fertility through healthy crops to just having a good day. Hamilton even showed a picture for one, written in Greek, with the instructions that the person should recite it seven times holding both thumbs, and their wish would be granted. No “books”, as presented in the painting (which looks less like ancient Ephesus and more like a Renaissance Italian city), but rather small scrolls these folks would have treasured for their protective and restorative power as well as their monetary value. Even poor families might have one or two they had scrimped and saved to purchase. Now, here they were, perhaps along with a few folks who sold these valuable little pieces of paper, tossing them on a bonfire. A drachma was a days wages, so this is a pretty hefty sum of money that’s going up in smoke.

These folks were willing to do it, however, because they realized not only that these no longer worked in their New Life. They also believed that the Father of Jesus Christ didn’t deal in quick fixes or magic tricks. All the same, I do wonder about us, today. I remember very well when my wife made the distinction for me between healing and curing. How many of us attend churches and during the time of joys and concerns, most of the prayers are for folks with illnesses? How many folks offering up those prayers are looking less for healing – the presence of the Holy Spirit that brings wholeness of body and life, restores relationships, and reminds us of the power of the presence of God in our lives – and curing, such as, say, the magical disappearance of a tumor or even chronic illness? We hear just enough stories about “miracle cures” that we figure it is possible something similar might come our way.

And I am a firm believer these things happen. When we lived in Virginia, I remember clearly a story of a young man with brain cancer, his medical care reduced to tracking the growth of the tumor in his skull and offering palliative care. One week during his regular visit, the doctor did a CT scan and discovered not only had the tumor not grown; it was gone. Not only was the tumor gone, rather than a large empty space vacated by the lethal mass was a perfectly normal, healthy brain . This last is biologically improbable, because our brain tissue does not restore and replace itself. The doctor confessed to the reporter from the Richmond Times-Dispatch he had never seen anything like it and that, barring any other explanation, he was willing to call it a miracle.

Then, of course, there is the pile of crutches, the line of empty wheelchairs, and other such things at Lourdes in France. Young Bernadette saw the Virgin Mary there. Soon, people started to come and some – not all but some – found radical healing there. And that healing continues. It doesn’t happen to everyone, and sometimes it isn’t as complete at others. That it happens and is an ongoing event I cannot deny.

I have no explanation for such things. I dislike the word “miracle” (another one of those words I need to do a post about sometime, but not today). It doesn’t seem right, of course, that this young man experienced this amazing reversal while other people, including other young people, suffer and die. It doesn’t seem quite right that some folks have visited the Grotto at Lourdes and found themselves walking out, while others experience . . . nothing at all. This has never seemed fair to me at all, but I have to acknowledge its reality despite my personal feelings on the matter.

Far more important and interesting, however, are all the ways we continue to practice divination in our own day. Lisa has called it “the god of Just One More Thing”. It’s the idea that, if I just had that little extra in my paycheck; if I just won the lottery; if I just had a better job; if I was just better looking/more popular; if I had Just One More Thing my life would be all I imagine it to be. For me, I know what these shiny little gods are: If I could publish something I’ve written; if I were just recognized in some other way for all the hours of work I put in; if I . . . if I . . . if I.

Recognize a pattern there?

What does the Lord require? To seek justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly alongside God. What does God offer in return? Why, nothing more than life, and that in abundance. When the “if only”‘s start to pile up, it might be an indication that, for all our profession of faith in God, we are actually wishing for magic to happen; should one of those things occur that is on our “if only” list, then like magic our life will be complete!

Or, perhaps, we should take that “if only” list and burn it. Before we do that, perhaps we should name it for what it is: our very own little book of divination. A little incantation we recite to ourselves – perhaps even holding both our thumbs – so that our lives will be “better”.

Divination and sorcery aren’t just things like Wicca or even Black Magic some claim to practice. They are also all the ways we look along, either wistfully or with envy, at how others have things we want, and imagine how much better our lives would be if we had them. Except, of course, those folks in Ephesus 2,000 years ago realized that our God doesn’t truck with that kind of thing. Not really. Oh, sure, there are events, eschatological moments when the power of God breaks through and people who had no hope suddenly have hope handed to them in the form of an unexplainable cure. For the most part, though, part of that whole “salvation” thing is recognizing it is this world God loves, and to this world we are tied in life, ministry, and prayer. Rather than expect magic to happen, we should toss out all those idols of “Just One More Thing” and remember whose we are, to what work we are called, and stop worrying about ourselves so much.

Setting Aside The Idea Of “War” Over Worship

It seems to me that our concern with the music includes, but does not begin from, the way that it is used: in other words, the aesthetic question is primary, as I have suggested in the introduction.  Our concern has to begin from the sounds, because until we cognize the sounds, until we have created an internal representation on the basis of their assimilation, we have no musical entity to care about, or to which to give value.  Once sounds have been produced, nobody is in a position to exclusively determine how they are to be taken (the appropriation by racist skinhead culture of millenarian reggae is a prime example).  This does not mean that the musical text may be considered to arise ex nihilo.  It is produced by groups of musician working in social contexts, but they are not my primary concern.  I am far less interest in uncovering  the circumstances which produced the music that I am in exploring how listeners may respond to it.  As listeners, although we must recognize and exteriorize our grounds for cognizing the text, this does not imply that we will all do it in the same way.  How we do it will depend on the style to which we assign that text, and our competence within that style . . . .  I therefore make no apology for my emphasis throughout being on the sounds themselves, nor for attempting to provide for any interpretation of them a theoretical underpinning that does not assume one particular established musicological theory to be congruent to the music at all points (and thus correct), merely because of apparent surface similarities between he melody, chords or rhythm used used by Schumann (say) and the Beatles.  I shall ‘dram on sociological research to give my analysis proper perspective (Tagg 1982: 40) but, for me, the aesthetic question has primacy. – Alan F. Moore, Rock: The Primary Text, Developing A Musicology of Rock, 2nd Ed., p. 17

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Too many churches either desire to be, or actually believe, they are both as competent and expressive as The Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Too many churches either desire to be, or actually believe, they are both as competent and expressive as The Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Christmas Eve, 2013 found me at my childhood home, attending Christmas Eve services at the United Methodist Church in my hometown.  The sanctuary was packed to overflowing.  The service was not your typical candelight service.  In the midst of it all, the chancel choir – about 10 people – offered selections from Handel’s Messiah.  When the “Hallelujah!” was sung, I stood with the rest of the congregation and sang along.  All the same, I was both sympathetic and sad.  Sympathetic because this small town church choir was certainly attempting to offer musical praise worthy of the moment.  That they just weren’t up to the task, however, is what made me sad.  Handel’s oratorio needs an enormous, talented choir, a suitable orchestra to capture the flavor of the accompaniment, and for all they were game to try, the folks at the Waverly, NY UMC just weren’t up to the task.

 

Last Christmas season, the Rev. Christy Thomas, in one of her “Mystery Worship” pieces that run concurrently in her local Denton, TX newspaper, wrote:

I’m not sure a piece like The Messiah could be composed today.

In defense of this statement, she offers the notion that we in the West, particularly our elites, are far less Biblically literate than were elites (and common people as well) were in the days when Handel composed his mighty work.  While I believe that is true, I offered, in comments, the idea that Handel’s Messiah could not be written today not out of Biblical illiteracy but rather because musical styles have changed, musical tastes have changed, and music itself has changed radically over the centuries.  Any attempt to create something like The Messiah today would run up against multiple barriers, not the least of them being a general inability to accept large musical structures.  Contemporary musical styles and idioms are not able, by and large, to work within parameters set by the needs of something like the original libretto for the oratorio.

After reading again Alan Moore’s “Introduction” and much of the first chapter of Rock: The Primary Text, I have come to see that so much of our discussion about music in church – what has come to be called “the worship wars” – lacks the kind of understanding of what Moore calls “the aesthetic dimension,” i.e., the sounds qua musical sounds to make our discussions about music in worship anything other than people stating personal preferences and appealing to (theological and historical) authority, tradition, and other non-reasons rather than paying attention to how the sounds we hear might well work in particular ways.

This past Sunday, while my wife and I were serving as greeters for the 11:00 a.m. service at Christ UMC, an acquaintance came out and mentioned the chancel choir that sings at the 9:30 service had performed Vivaldi’s Gloria oratorio.  I smiled and noted how nice that was, while inside I was wondering why in heaven’s name such a feat was even attempted.  Yet, it is part of our particular idiocy regarding music in church that we continue to separate “traditional” from “contemporary” music, as if a performance of Vivaldi were part of our United Methodist heritage.  Such an act, it seems to me, has little to do with the music itself.  It is, rather, an expression both of class and personal preference without regard to how the music itself might or might not be meaningful.

None of which is to say that there is anything intrinsically wrong with performing Gloria, or The Messiah, or any other piece of music from the Western orchestral tradition.  It is, rather, to say that our clergy and music leaders aren’t learned enough about questions of musicology to ask such pertinent questions as whether a particular piece of music has any meaning for listeners beyond satisfying a quirky sense of superiority among (largely) educated and (predominantly) white North American Christians.  It might be the case that some, perhaps, among the listeners had a spiritually meaningful experience because the music itself was meaningful.  I would continue to insist, however, that most listeners – and in churches, musicians, ministers or leaders of corporate music and worship, and clergy – are less attentive to matters of musical style and meaning than they are to statements of personal preference without reference to the sounds themselves.

Part of the reason for the title of this post is to insist that, rather than continue our stale and irrelevant dualisms – “traditional” versus “contemporary” – it might be the case we need to stop, take a step back, and about matters of style, the music itself and how that music as a human construct following particular harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, and timbral rules, serves as a vehicle for meaning.  Only then, it seems to me, should we then take the next step and ask about matters of personal or corporate taste, based not so much in simple “like” or “dislike” categories as much as they might be in a real understanding of the working of music as music.

Theology and musicology have to work together to move us through this particular impasse that bifurcates our congregations, drives some people out of some churches, and cannot be satisfactorily ended precisely because no one is talking about the music as a conveyer of meaning.  I am not suggesting at all that I have any such competence.  I do believe, however, there are resources available for some people, at least, to begin such a discussion.  Only then might our discussions over worship and music be served well, and perhaps become fruitful for clergy and laity alike.

Theology In The Key Of Life

The chorus of New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens [RIP], Harris, Dennett, etc.) continues to argue that religion either will or should go away with advances in modernity and science.  And yet, the exact opposite is happening.  There is a message here for all of us, religious and nonreligious: to understand the world around us, we had best understand our religious neighbors on their own terms, lest we are fated to be ignorant of our world and one of its indefatigable factors.  This has been true since Time‘s infamous cover, and will, in all probability, remain true in this new year – despite what the cultured despisers happen to feel about it. – Rev. Drew McIntyre, “God Is Winning in 2015: The Continued Failure Of Secularization”, Uniting Grace/pastormack.wordpress.com, January 1, 2015

There are times I just get stumped for a subject about which to write.  That’s when I go searching for something someone else wrote that sparks something.  Sometimes it grabs me right away, and I’m all, “Yes!  Let’s go!”.  Other times, however, it takes a while for the subject to ferment, so that if nothing else I have the opportunity to say something positive, rather than just tell another blogger, “You’re wrong!”.  Lord knows I detested that kind of thing enough before.  So, it’s best to have something to say that makes it clear there is an alternative view.

The latter is the case with Rev. Drew McIntyre’s Cassandra-like post, part of which is posted above.  Referencing a Time magazine cover from fifty years ago, discussing a now pretty-much-defunct theological school and its possible social impact hardly qualifies as drawing in readers.  Furthermore, merely noting a book stating that religion continues to be a factor in human life hardly disqualifies “secularization” as a phenomenon.  Indeed, part of one paragraph from one book that seems to be confused about Death of God theology, about secularization, and about the role of religion in politics here in the US and abroad only seems to be telling people who want to keep their rose-tinted glasses that they don’t have to throw them away.

There’s a larger point, however, and it has little to do with whether or not “God is winning” this year or any year.  So many of our discussions about our churches, our theology, our practice of ministry, our mission work, our evangelization all seem to be couched in terms of a contest.  Who wins, who loses, who’s in, who’s out, who’s right, who’s wrong.  We spend far too little time talking about what our churches are doing, good and bad, in all these areas.  We spend far too little time talking about all the ways God is using our churches to do the work the churches are called to do.  Far too many people worry about the intellectual status of theology in the academy, say, or the importance of correct doctrine.  When was the last time you read a post praising a local church’s knitting, quilting, or sewing ministry?  Christ UMC, Rockford has a quilters group.  Each year, the fruit of their labor is blessed and given to those for whom these might be the only warmth on a cold night.  Do such ministries change the world?  How can we possibly answer such a question one way or another?  They certainly fulfill a ministry of the church: I saw you naked and I clothed you.

Whether or not God “wins” or secularization “wins” is about as meaningless, even stupid, a subject about which to write as whether or not Roman Catholicism is really “Christian”.  In the midst of our increasingly secular society, the church continues its work, its arguments, its ministry, its mission, its worship, because that is what we are called to do.  Just being the church, no matter how small, is a witness to the power of God – perhaps perfectly embodied in those small churches that carry on despite all that is against them – in a world that no longer believes such a thing has any meaning.  Furthermore, it may well be that the secularists, the atheists, and the rest of the naysayers are right.  Not only may God be dead; it might well be the millions who gather in homes, in basements, basilicas and the corner church each week are as delusional as those who oppose us claim.  The only proof we have, after all, of the efficacy of God’s power in our life is our continued work in and for the world.  Everything else – doctrine, mission, theology, evangelization – is nothing but straw, no matter the importance some place upon it.  Whatever the motivations of those who attend worship, who partake in the Sacraments, who give so that others may be fed and clothed, visited and remembered as the beloved child of God the churches claim them to be – this work will continue regardless of who wins and who loses.

Theology for me has always been about life.  This blog and its predecessors aren’t merely academic discussions of various abstruse bits of religious ephemera.  On the contrary, living the calling of the Christian life is the most serious, most important, most life-affirming and death-defying act I can imagine.  Human lives, millions of them, here and abroad, are at stake each and every day.  We have to make sure we get it right, of course, because the consequences are more than “heresy” or “false doctrine”.  The penalty for getting this whole Christian thing wrong is that people, beloved people, end up dead, believing their lives are of no worth not only to themselves but to God.

Leelah Alcorn, who committed suicide in part because her parents and their church considered her gender dysphoria an illness.

Leelah Alcorn, who committed suicide in part because her parents and their church considered her gender dysphoria an illness.

Alcorn (pictured above in photos posted on lazerprincess.tumblr.com) detailed her troubling relationship with her conservative Christian parents, who sent her to Christian therapists unable to properly help her sort through her depression, and refused to give her consent to begin transitioning when she turned 16. In her note, Alcorn urged parents not to say the kind of things Alcorn claims her own did: “Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people, don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.”

Alcorn’s parents eventually took her out of school (she came out as gay to her classmates, thinking it would be easier than to come out as trans), and banned her from social media, which left her without any sort of support group for five months. – Jon Blistein, “Trans Teen Pens Heartbreaking Suicide Note,” rollingstone.com, December 30, 2014

Ours has to be a theology that affirms the infinite worth of all God’s children.  Ours has to be a theology that does more than declares God a winner.  Our theology, no matter how difficult or troubling, has to rip off those rose-colored glasses and see the world in the bright array of colors, some we might not even be able to name, yet all in need of the Good News that God’s love for this world and all that is in it is so great, God even took human hatred, our brokenness from God and one another, even death, up into the life of God and in the flash of the morning light on Easter redeemed all of it.  Even Leelah, who never heard anything but hate in the name of God, rests now in the loving arms of the God of Jesus Christ.  Her pain, of course, is over.  The rest of us, however, have so much to do to ensure that there are no more Leelah Alcorn’s in this world.

That is theology in the key of life.  It is our churches living out the Gospel in all sorts of ways, never once looking cross-eyed at those whose lives are different, because God’s overabundant, indeed prodigal, love keeps expressing itself in such a wondrous variety.  People like Leelah Alcorn, rather than being sick or sinful, are a beloved expression of God’s desire for the world to be as fecund as possible.  Until and unless we are willing to speak and live and act that Gospel; until we as the churches of Jesus Christ, and even more especially those who consider themselves “leaders”, set aside this combative, contested view of who is winning and losing, our churches will continue to slide down the slope to irrelevance, and people like Leelah will take their own lives because they will never hear the simple words: “I love you, and God loves you, too.”

That is theology in the key of life.  That is what I always try to do.  Everything else, well, it may or may not be important, but it isn’t what I’m called to do.  And I believe we in the churches, whatever we call ourselves, had best be about living it out.  This is our hope because this is our faith: That ours is a God of life – an abundant life here, an eternal life before God when the New Creation is born.

Not All Black And White

Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them.  But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.  And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence. – Matthew 19:13-15 (KJV)

This Image Is So Wrong On So Many Levels

This Image Is So Wrong On So Many Levels

Christ United Methodist Church had its annual Charge Conference last night.  For those not United Methodist, it’s an annual event, a combination of all-church business meeting and celebration of past ministries.  It also looks to possible futures, everything from dispensing with debt to ministries to the community.  My wife, as District Superintendent, chaired the meeting, and led the discussion of what ministry to children in Rockford might look like.  The verse above from St. Matthew’s Gospel was the opening.  I’ve always preferred the Authorized Version, as with the birth narrative in St. Luke’s Gospel.  That word, “suffer”, has such different connotations than it did when used 500 years ago.

We began our discussion of children and ministry with the usual dewy-eyed vision of children being energetic and fun, full of laughter and hugs, questions and honest statements than can cut through our adult preference for ambivalence and equivocation.  Then we took a look at some statistics from one of the local elementary schools here in the City of Rockford.  Three-quarters of the student body receive either reduced or free lunch.  Nearly half, 46%, do not speak English as their primary language.  The majority, almost 58%, are Hispanic, but there is an ever-increasing number of students who fit none of our traditional racial or ethnic categories, with 23 students – out of a total student body of 457 – who speak, variously, Arabic, Turk, Burmese, Albanian, Korean, Vietnamese, Lao, and Farsi.  Among the published needs for the student body are proper clothing; enough school supplies; a supportive environment, either at home or home-like to support academics; increased efforts to involve parents in the children’s education.

The question then became: How do we do ministry in a situation that looks like that?  The answers were general – listen, accept, try and see and understand the world through their eyes and the eyes of their families – and usually good.  Yet, there is a stumbling block, at least for me, for Christ UMC to be in ministry in a situation such as the above.  We are overwhelmingly, almost startlingly, white.  To call us as a congregation upper-middle class would probably be correct enough.  This isn’t about “race” in our traditional sense;  7.7% of the student body is African-American (half the national population percentage).  Five-and-a-half percent is “Asian”, which apparently covers those newcomers from southeast Asia, southern Asia, the Philippines, as well as other Asian countries.  Being “white” no longer refers to a binary racial context; increasingly, it refers to a socio-cultural reality in a spectrum of social, cultural, and economic realities, some of which are so unfamiliar as to be unrecognizable.

Race is not and never has been about skin color.  Rather, skin color is a marker for a whole set of assumptions, matters of social privilege or limit, and cultural milieu that people take for granted, or need to learn, or with which they’re forced to reckon as strange.  To say that Christ UMC is “White” is not to describe the skin color of the majority of its members.  Rather, it is to say what needs to be said about the social and cultural background, assumptions, economic status, and privileges that the majority of our members enjoy, often without thought.

I wish I had spoken up.  I wish I had made clear that the first step to any ministry outside our comfort zone is to look inside and examine all those things that would create barriers for effective ministry.  We need to stop seeing people as the “Other”, as some “them” for whom we are doing something.  Rather, we need first to realize how much our whiteness can create walls that no amount of earnest desire or fervent religious spirit (as opposed to the Holy Spirit) can overcome.  The space our building occupies, its location within the city, its size, matters of accessibility and transportation – these are all things about which we should speak, candidly.  We cannot do ministry if we assume people will come to us, especially where we are as we are.

This is not to say ministry from Christ to those in need of our presence in their lives is impossible.  It only means that matters of race, of communication, of poverty and privilege, of ministry for and ministry with our fellow Rockfordians is far more complicated, and becoming increasingly so, than a simplistic understanding of race might indicate.  I believe we can do it; I believe we should do it.  I also believe that it will be, or would be, far more effective if we began the process with a searching, honest inventory of our own lives, of who we are as a congregation, and call out those things that might prevent us from being the Body of Christ for children such as these.  We are told not to hinder them, after all.  We can only do that if we know what might well be a hindrance without our being aware of it.

What’s Your Song?

To you, O Lord, I call;
my rock, do not refuse to hear me,
for if you are silent to me,
I shall be like those who go down to the Pit.
Hear the voice of my supplication,
as I cry to you for help,
as I lift up my hands
towards your most holy sanctuary.

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Blessed be the Lord,
for he has heard the sound of my pleadings.
The Lord is my strength and my shield;
in him my heart trusts;
so I am helped, and my heart exults,
and with my song I give thanks to him. – Psalm 28:1-2, 6-7, emphasis added

Yesterday, Christ UMC’s sermon series on the Psalms ended with a discussion of Psalms of Praise.  Psalm 28, in particular, offers a Psalm of petition and praise, ending with the declaration that, having one’s prayer heard by God, the Psalmist shall sing “my” song as thanksgiving for deliverance.

So, what’s your song?  And why?

Here’s the story of mine, and I’m guessing some might find it an odd choice, but that’s OK.  It’s my song, and there are good reasons for it.

In the summer of 1990, I was staying with my brother in Gaithersburg, MD just prior to beginning my time at Wesley Theological Seminary.  The thing is, my life was more than a mess.  Pretty much everything toward which I’d been working and moving in my life up to that point was in ruins.  I think my father’s description of what I was doing – escaping – is correct.  I had left behind everything I knew and understood for a strange place, with little to no understanding of whether or not going to Seminary was the right choice for me or just an excuse to get away from the wreckage I’d left behind.

Those two months with my brother were an odd time.  It was a hiatus.  In many ways that very short period of time stands out in stark relief, as compared to years of time that seem to have passed in some kind of haze or daze.  Alone much of the time with my thoughts, I certainly had enough mental energy for guilt, to consider the people I’d left behind, the people I had hurt, and the way I’d found it easy to run even though I wasn’t even sure where I was going: a new place, knowing no one, not knowing for sure if what I was doing was the right thing for me to do.  To say I was confused would be an understatement.  I was lost, outside anything I knew, and all I could see in front of me was an enormous black hole filled with unknowns.

Unbelievably, I found myself inundated with “light rock”.  For some reason, the only music that gave me comfort, that spoke to me, that soothed me, was the kind of thing that, under normal circumstances, I would ignore almost completely.  Anita Baker, Gloria Estefan, that kind of thing.  There was a DC light rock station that had a request and dedication show late at night, and I learned to imitate the soothing way the male DJ would read the requests and announce the songs.  In this morass of what I can only call crap (well, not Anita Baker; I still love the way she sings and shut up if that bothers you) a song hit me like a ton of bricks.

Believe it or not, it was Taylor Dayne’s “Shelter”.  The very first time I heard it, I believed in some visceral way that I cannot describe or explain that this song wasn’t just another mass produced nonsensical hit.  It was, in fact, God speaking to me.  In the midst of all my confusion and fear, I’m sure you can understand I spent a whole lot of time praying.  Sure, the song’s about a woman promising a man comfort – including sexual comfort – yet I never heard it that way.  I always – and still – hear God speaking to me, God assuring me of comfort, God assuring me that “everything will be all right”, because God will see me through the night.  The fact that – let’s face it – Taylor Dayne was a beautiful, sexy woman certainly added an odd dimension to hearing God sing to me through this song.  Yet, what could be more comforting than the arms of a beautiful woman, wrapping around you, while you wondered if it is possible even to get through a night?

When I entered Wesley, I found . . . home.  I found a group of people I came to admire and love.  I entered an environment where I was challenged intellectually and religiously.  I found my wife, and my future.  That for which I had prayed, and the assurance I heard in that song – it was all there, right there from the very beginning, my first day on campus right up until Lisa and I moved to Jarratt, VA four years later.  Whenever I think of being saved from the pit, and offering to God my song, this is always the one that comes to mind.

I sometimes wish I could get in touch with Ms. Dayne and let her know how her song really did help me make it through the night, how I found shelter in her words, and how when I entered a new phase of my life, her song had been as much a prophetic promise to me as an immediate comfort to me.

Call me crazy, I know.  I don’t care.  This is my song, and it soothed me, it saved me, and best of all it prepared me for the best that was yet to come.

I’ll ask again: So what’s your song?  Why?