Wednesday, April 27, 2022

The Call to Repair

In Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair (2021), Duke L. Kwon and Gregory Thompson present the biblical witness to fully and finally to renounce White supremacy.  White supremacy is identified as multi-generational theft: theft of Black identity, history, physical, social, and moral agency through the abduction, chaining, transportation, commodification, forced labor, deprivation, whipping, and hunting of Black bodies. After Reconstruction, the theft included lynchings, shootings, and burnings and the "photographing of these mutilated bodies surrounded by smiling White faces." p. 83. Finally, White supremacy continues to steal from African Americans through extraction of and obstruction to truth, wealth, and power.  

White supremacy was never a "weed in the garden of  American democracy," it was a "native species that grew into and flowered out of every institution that the American founders created, in every region of the nation." p. 63  

The American church's culpability in the thefts of  White supremacy is a large part of the story. There was the creation of a slave catechesis, and the practice of buying and renting the enslaved by churches, sometimes to pay for clergy salaries. p.118-119.

Meaningful repentance begins and continues with the ethic of restitution, argue Kwon and Thompson. We discover this ethic in Zacchaeus' story in Luke 19 and move to the key passages in the Law, such as Exodus 21:33-22:15, Leviticus 6:1-7, Numbers 5:5-8. There is a surprising lack of references to the Prophets. The authors unearth the forgotten wisdom found in Christian church tradition. 

There are three recipients of restitution: original owners, their heirs, and, in the absence of the first two, the poor. In light of the ravages of White supremacy, "[ ] reparations is not less than the logic of restitution, but it is undoubtedly more. We believe that the Bible commands us to return our neighbors' stolen things when we are guilty of their theft, and we believe that the Bible also commands us to restore their stolen things even when we are not." p.161 

The Christian call to restorative, neighbor love is an essential response to the multigenerational, cultural theft of White supremacy. Love is restorative, as in Luke 10:25-37 Church communities are given a possible framework for reflection: churches have "the responsibility to bring our various forms of vocational, relational, and financial power to our Black deliberate and equitable collaboration so that our power is both under the direction of others and used for their good" pp. 201-202. 

There's an impressive breadth of cited sources. We meet a plethora of witnesses, past and present, White and Black, who dedicated themselves to the Christian work of reparations. These include the Quaker teacher John Hepburn, who, in 1715, wrote The American Defense of the Christian Golden Rule; Levi Coffman who housed over 3,000 fugitive slaves as a part of the Underground Railroad We are introduced to Memphis community organizer Anasa Troutman, Clayborn Temple, and the Center of Transforming Communities, a multiethnic, multi neighborhood coalition.

This volume provides a fertile ground for reflection, study, and action. There is a noticeable and refreshing absence of partisan political categories. Reparation is presented as a Christian call to repair Christian theft. Could it be that reparations could be the reason the White Christian church still exists. 

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Jesus, Wisdom, Church

References to wisdom in the New Testament are not insignificant. Wisdom is mentioned over 50 times.* Here are some gleanings from my search. Interestingly, wisdom appears in I Corinthians 17 times, mostly in chapters 1-2, where Paul contrasts the wisdom de jour with the deeper wisdom of God in Jesus Christ. 
  1. The totality of wisdom here, now, and forever, belongs to God. See Revelation 5:12, 7:12
  2. Gospel writers use "wisdom" to mark both Jesus' biography and teaching. This seems much more significant than I had previously thought. See Luke 2:40, 2:52, 11:29-32, Mark 6:2, Matthew 13:54 
  3. Jesus is the wisdom from God. I Corinthians 1:30-31
  4. Wisdom provides followers of Jesus a way out and guidance on what to say and do in threatening circumstances. See Luke 21:15, Acts 6:3
  5. Jesus' way is wise but not easy, clashing with the values and methods of the dominant culture and religious institutions. In light of this, we are counseled to ask God for wisdom. See Matthew 7:13-14, I Corinthians 1:27-31, James 1:5-6.
  6. Wisdom is the self-critical principle, equipping me to discern the spirits- what is good and beneficial, and what is wrong and harmful, in the unquestioned traditions I practice.** See I Corinthians 12:4-11 
  7. Just because religious rituals are used, it is not automatic that the choices and decisions will be wise or even necessary. See Acts 1:24-26.
  8. Wisdom poses the questions of purpose, sustainability, and justice. It is like a woman who is vindicated by her "children." See Luke 7:35.
  9. Just because an institution is religious does not mean that its leaders or members make decisions that are just or wise.*** See Luke 11:42. 
  10. The inaccessibility and mystery of wisdom is continued from the Old Testament. See I Corinthians 13:12.
  11. Part of the wisdom of the righteous is freedom from their own self- righteousness. See Matthew 25: 37-38. 
* 52 times. The NRSV, Oremus Bible Browser.
**I am indebted to Elaine Heath's insights in her book,  God Unbound: Wisdom from Galatians for the Anxious Church. God's wisdom includes discovering the "tradition within the tradition." As an example, prayer itself can be used as cover for hypocrisy and to provide a favorable appearance. See Matthew 6:5-8. 
***Luke 11 compares the greatness of Jesus to the fame of King Solomon's wisdom, which reached to the Queen of Sheba in Africa. The text could refer to to Saba, a port city in Yemen. See Lawrence Goodman's "How Did the Queen of Sheba Come to be Known as Black? in the Jewish Experience, Brandeis University. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Wisdom in Clergy Career Decisions

I have served on United Methodist church staffs and specialized-extension ministry for almost all of my career.* The only time I did not was pastoring a rural church in North Carolina while a student in divinity school. I was unprepared and mostly unaware of my lack of  readiness. My only experience of church had been my home church, a multi-staff, suburban parish in northeast Ohio, where I also served during my college summers. 

I was a first time pastor, newly married, living in a defunct mill town, while commuting about 18 hours a week and taking a full load of classes at divinity school (my choice, to graduate on time). Once I was ticketed for having out of state plates. The trouper threatened to impound my car. Early on, a concerned lay leader and mill manager asked if I was going to start a labor union.  The DS just asked me to focus on caring for and shepherding the people. 

However, this was also a time when I gained a rare and hard-won wisdom about myself and my true calling. The experience was irreplaceable. The interaction between the classroom and the parish absolutely accelerated my learning. There were some accomplishments amidst the sojourn- interracial and interchurch gatherings, resource people provided leadership for marriage enrichment and stress management. A retired pastor and his wife became wonderful, supportive friends to us. 

Here's a list of considerations that have proven helpful to me:

  1. Have I made an effort to truly know and make known my gifts and talents? Now, Discover Your Gifts is an  excellent guide.** This assessment has assisted me in developing God-given gifts further, and in making weaknesses less glaring.
  2. Clarity about my gifts is my best guide. Is there a chance for a good fit between the church under consideration, its mission and gifts, and my proven abilities? 
  3. Does my path include a specialization or a particular area of expertise, such as serving on a church staff?  What are the benefits and shortcomings of specialized ministry? Do the advantages outweigh the limitations?  
  4. Have I considered my family an asset, a gift? What are their thoughts? They are the people who are most affected and will be there long after any others have moved on. 
  5. In addition to family, who comprises my support system? A mentor, a friend, a spiritual director? 
  6. Under what conditions do I make a first-refusal? What are the consequences? An unwritten rule is that a first refusal will net less compensation in a future move to another church.  
  7. I may need more than a 15 minute hard sell and 24 hours to think and pray. Is my decision sustainable? Does it make for peace within?
  8. It's my responsibility to do an accurate inventory of the prospective position. This is becomes more important if I am restricted from discussions with a prospective church.
  9. Gift-based appointments are often heralded in word, but, in reality, this is the ideal. Many in-time factors are at work among scores of clergy and churches in a wide geographical area. These factors are not my responsibility. 
* Governance of the United Methodist Church is assumed. 
**See Now, Discover Your Strengths, Clifton and Buckingham, 2001. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Wisdom 's Third Way- Using Shared Praxis

Thomas Groome's masterpiece, Christian Religious Education: Sharing Our Story and Vision, since its publication in 1980, has shaped the educational ministry of Catholic and Protestant churches alike. *

Originally designed for educational groups, shared praxis can be a method informing spiritual direction and making personal faith decisions. It can also can provide an outline for sermon planning and preparation. A hallmark of shared praxis is that it engages me in a process of self-critical reflection.** If I am never asked to think critically, then there is little hope of seeing or choosing a third way.

Shared praxis invites me to reflect on the whole of my life, here and now. What is my unexamined bias? My blind spot? My racial, socio-economic, educational, and religious assumption? What is my sense of wisdom and how does it function to reinforce or correct what I've always thought? Fully engaging Scripture and Christian tradition is basic to Shared Praxis. The assumption is that honest reflection on The Christian Story creates dissonance that leads to faithful action.    

Springing out of reflection on my life and exploration of the Christian Story, what's next? Is there a decision to be made, an action to take? Is there a new way forward? Is it time to wait and for how long? 

Shared praxis requires honesty, openness to reason, patience, and gentleness. Seeking the wisdom of the third way moves me beyond either- or thinking. Its gifts are clarity and faithfulness to what I know to be true of myself- and the shared Christian faith. 

*Thomas Groome, Christian Religious Education: Sharing Our Story and Vision, 1980. More information is available from his Boston College webpage. 

** See Christian Religious Education, Chapter Nine: Shared Christian Praxis.    The five steps in Shared Praxis are:

  1. Naming Present Action
  2. Reflection on Present Action: Sharing Stories and Vision 
  3. Presentation of the Christian Story and Vision
  4. Reflection on and interacting with the Christian Story and Vision
  5. Making Decisions and Choosing Personal/Communal Faith Response.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Wisdom as Questioner: Clearness Committee

'Where then does wisdom come from? And where is the place of understanding? Job 28: 12

‘God understands the way to it, and he knows its place.  And he said to humankind, “Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.”'  Job: 28:28

Job 28 is intriguing. There is an aspect of wisdom that is unknown, inaccessible, and mysterious.  Job 28  appears in the middle of the Book of Job, and functions as an intermission in the poetic drama. There's no reference to Job or Job's famously unhelpful friends. Only God knows the way to wisdom. Wisdom, for humans, is the fear of the Lord, understood as the awe or respect of God leading to obedience.

Seeking the truth has a way of exposing the naivete I have about God, people, and myself. Wisdom can serve as a self-critical principle, challenging our cherished beliefs and unquestioned practices. Can you imagine wisdom making us less aware, less reflective, less free, and more fragmented? 

A preference for seeing myself in a positive light or being in the right, is a tenacious enemy of clarity. I am sometimes blinded by neglecting to ask questions of myself, such as--why would I take this course of action?  

In Parker Palmer's book, Let Your Life Speak, he discusses how a clearness committee equipped him with a vocational decision.* From the Quaker tradition, a clearness committee is composed of a small group who can be trusted to ask challenging questions throughout the session. They must refrain from giving advice. Only the one being questioned may respond. One of the hallmarks of this approach is the discerning and uncovering one's true motivation and intention.  

In this instance. a college presidency was offered to Palmer. The job was his if he wanted it. During the course of the clearness meeting, the group continued to ask, "why?" Why did Palmer want to be president of this college? The truth did not emerge immediately. The question of "why" had to be asked several times. There were periods of silence. Finally, in a moment of clarity, the answer came to him. The truth was uncovered. Palmer was embarrassed to speak the honest truth: Palmer was interested in the job because he most wanted his photo and name in publication. He wanted a public announcement of his new status. 

A clearness committee may not be right for everyone. I have greatly benefitted from spiritual direction. A third party such Spiritual Director who is trained in asking questions and listening, can offer great support on the journey to clarity. They too are engaged in this ancient practice; they are supervised, and observe confidentiality. Together, both Director and Directee listen to the Holy Spirit.*** 

1. Who are the people I can engage with an understanding to ask non-leading, advice-free questions for my benefit? 
2. In discernment, how can my faith assist me in discovering a third way? 
3. How can my true intentions and motivations be uncovered? How can seeing them assist in making wise, sustaining decisions.

*Find more information on Parker Palmer and his book at Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation
**Clearness Committee information is available from the Friends General Conference.
***Spiritual Directors International is a good place to explore spiritual direction and to look for a spiritual director.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Seeking Action Born of Wisdom

Wisdom is God's gift, but the way of wisdom is chosen. We are created in the image and likeness of God. Wisdom, the queen of the virtues throughout the books of Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job, is highly prized throughout Scripture. When the Apocrypha is included, wisdom appears in the text of the Bible almost 400 times.*

Consider the Epistle of James a New Testament version of wisdom. From its beginning, we are encouraged to ask God for wisdom. And here is the description of that wisdom: "Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of  partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace." James 3:13-14, 18 NRSV

Without the capacity to learn and grow, life is dull, futile and even dangerous. Without a capacity to learn, how do I know about the wrongs of the past, or, take action to right them? But with wisdom, there is clarity.

God's wisdom can uncover overlooked, but significant aspects of my life. The way may not be easy to see, but it is there. I need to have the eyes of my faith opened to what I cannot see. The One who knows me also knows my limits and my gifts, what can be sustained and what cannot. My true gifts and values often provide the best guide.

Wisdom often calls me to seek out a new way. It may be a "third way," another option between two choices. Adding a third way is more inclusive of various factors. It gets me out of either-or thinking. A third way may be the resolution to refrain from the decision-making process for a time. This may come as a result of being too confused or depleted to make a sustainable decision immediately. 

The experience of spiritual direction is very beneficial in Christian discernment. It encourages me to go deeper in my  communion with God and my life with others. Its gifts and blessings encourage me to look beyond the temporary; they are meant for the long journey. 

More questions to consider in my discernment process: 

1. Ask for God's help in claiming-reclaiming your true values and gifts.

2. Is the decision an emergency? Must it be made immediately- or not?

3. What option can I sustain (not just live with)? 

4. What would a third way look like?

5. Who is most- and less- affected in this decision? 

6. What will work for deeper peace within? 

7. Which decision makes me freer and more open to the future?  

*When the Greek- written Apocrypha is included. See also Oremus Bible Browser. In most Protestant churches, the Apocrypha is considered secondary, and separated from the list of canonical writings. In Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican Bibles, these books are recognized as Holy Scripture.

For further reading, consider Pope Francis, Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, 2020. Especially helpful are Part I: A Time to See and Part 2: A Time to Choose.

The Call to Repair

In Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair  (2021),  Duke L. Kwon and Gregory Thompson present the biblical witness to fully...