Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Thinking About Mom

This past January 24, I marked my Mother's posthumous 100th birthday. Remembering can bring clarity as to my own expereriences and motivations. For example, in my young adulthood, I was riveted to completing ordination requirements and making a successful life as a United Methodist clergyperson. 

When I first appeared as a Candidate before the District Committee of Ordained Ministry, I overlooked the fact that my parents and especially my Mother, Judy Endress, was a major player in shaping my vocational call. Such Boards were intimidating- and still so. I was pretty sure that Mom's influence wouldn't have impressed that Board. (1) 

"I'm called to ordained ministry because it would especially please Mom." That admission may have been honest but what the Board really wanted to know was whether or not God was calling me. Reflecting back, I now know that it would have been both wise and acurrate to have given more than a tip of the hat to Mom.

Mom had a laser-like focus on her own life-calling as an R.N. Shortly before she finally retired from teaching childbirth classes at age 85, she told me about the time her church celebrated Labor Day. Each child in the 6th grade class processed down the center aisle dressed in their future life's work. Mom was dressed as a Nurse. She reguarlary mentioned to me that we are stewards of God's blessings and I was to use my blessings to help others. She embodied this advice. 

It would be wise because of longetivity. Mom gave me the idea that a vocation could be a  life-long dedication. Putting all my eggs in one basket. And, as studies in faith develpment have shown, one's faith is more enduring if parents take an active part in a young child's spiritualty. Christian faith and spirituality simply has more of an impact decades after childhood. Moreso with moms than dads. 

So it would have been smart to talk about mom's faith- that my call came out of an enduring faith. And if the Board interviewers discounted that, they would have been overlooking one of the main facets of how a lasting call works. (2)

For me, citing mom as a primary influence would have been acurrate and fair. My Grandmother Hacha was mom's guide in forming Mom's Christian faith, as was her mom, Great Grandmother Gabler. The term "black-belt Methodists" would apply to them all. (3) While many mentors, guides, and supporters crossed my path, Mom was one of my steadfast encouragers throughout my long career, from the very beginning,   

A final word on gratitude. Where would I be without these wonderful saints who showed up with their support, humor, and listening ear? What is the truth of my being here in this place and time? I now can see emerging insights about mysef that were not possible then. 

(1) The UMC requires candidates to appear multiple times before Districts and Conference Boards of Ordained Ministry. With both written and interviews, I worked hard to match the expectations of others. Conferences require a triad that conducts sessions to explore questions in order to better know and understand the candidate.

(2) The 2018 Barna study found that 68 percent of U.S. Christians who grew up with someone who influenced their faith say their mother’s faith impacted them. That was followed by the father (46 percent) and a grandparent (37 percent). That pattern also was found among Christian teens, who are more likely to say they have prayed with or talked about God with their mom in the past month than with their father. See also, National Church Life Study "Parents are Role Models for Faith," 2016: "Some 58% of church attenders aged 15 to 29 nominated their mother, and 46% nominated their father as the person who showed them what faith was about."

I am also indebted to my teacher and mentor, John Westerhoff, whose groundbreaking faith development paradigm of Affiliative- Searching- Owned faith can be outlined as 1) the faith of others (childhood) 2) our faith (adolescence-young adult), and 3) my faith (adulthood). See Westerhoff, Will Our Children Have Faith? Morehouse Publishing House, 2012. The classic first appeared in 1976.

(3) The term is borrowed from The Rev. Dr. Jim Jackson.

   

Thursday, January 19, 2023

An MLK- Informed Sunday School Lesson

We observed MLK Day this past Monday. What is my response now? What’s his message to white church leaders today? 

Jesus remarked how the religious leaders in his day loved to honor their deceased prophets and righteous ones. Jesus' challenge, at least in Matthew places the burden of proof on leaders by asking them, in essence, "Prove to me that you are not descendants of those who martyred prophets?" (1) 

Like any MLK Day where his quotes are extracted to make us feel a little better about my whiteness, social justice prophets are often honored for their words after, not during their lives. Jesus' disciples are called to be descendant of the prophets in their willingness to bear the harsher consequences for speaking and acting faithfully, witnessing to a self-giving love leading to justice and peace. We are blessed when we are threatened and harassed for being faithful, for it shows we are like the prophets who were before us. (2)

Matthew, along with the other Gospels, contain an assumption of anti-Judaism, a reflection of its historical context. That is something I need to reckon with as I claim it as my tradition. Christian missionaries and teachers were presenting their case for why the Jesus way is the true way that leads to a life of faithfulness among leaders (and not one of hypocrisy). 

You might say that the church of Matthew's day is not the church of MLK's day, or even ours, and you would be right in many ways. However, unless I completely disown Jesus' words against the hypocrisy of  all religious big wigs, it's a problem to miss the implication of Jesus' words now- religious institutions and churches and those who run them.

To explore the relationship of Jesus' words then and now, there are two quotes. One is a snippet of the Letter from the leaders of the White churches in Birmingham, addressed to those who were protesting for the desegregation of Birmingham's downtown stores, fair hiring practices, the reopening of public parks, and the creation of a bi-racial committee to oversee the desegregation of Birmingham's public schools.

We urge the public to continue to show restraint should the demonstrations continue, and the law enforcement officials to remain calm and continue to protect our city from violence. We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense. (3)

The next quote is from King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail. As a result of a city ordinance forbidding his protests, King was taken into police custody and jailed overnight. Importantly, his letter is addressed to white churchman (I assume also, the leaders who signed the above letter). 

So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch defender of the status quo. Par from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. (4)

I am a descendent of those white church leaders, preaching caution and the insulting suggestion that socio-economic and racial equity can be accomplished in the same white system (at the time of King, with all white judges and juries) the same system that created and maintained segregation and poverty. I want to ask, whose "sense" is "common" here? 

As a white clergyperson serving in a mainline Protestant denomination, my cultural heritage would place me on the side of those white churchman who tried to construct a carefully worded and dignified note that would not offend whites. I can see it now: my Bishop sends me the official response of the church to the "Negro citizenry."  (Oh, and what about the white citizenry?) I read their Letter (to the protestors). Do I call the Bishop's office expressing my critique of the Letter? I don't think so- not then, not now. 

And Jesus' words of lament against his religious leaders? They are words directed at those, who from their safe place (and protected by their status given to them by their faith if not birth), cast judgment and blame on others who don't happen to have the same privlidge.

As King's Letter mentions, not all white clergy asked for the protests to end, and some joined with him on the front lines: "But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom." So hope persists, even if flooded by other voices.

One thing that hasn't changed: I have a choice to act, to do what is my power to do. What are some faith actions and words that white people and their churches can choose to take?

(1) Matthew 23:29-31
(2) Matthew 5:11-12
(3) Birmingham Campaign | The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute.
(4)  This letter was signed by religious leaders across many faiths: Catholic, Methodist, Jewish, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Episcopalian.  

Friday, January 13, 2023

The Art of Biblical Paradox: Works in Secret or Witness? (5)

The case for witnessing to God's goodness and love with works of piety and kindness is strong throughout Scripture: ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." Matthew 5:14-16

However, in this section of Matthew 5-7, also referred to as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus criticizes those who display their prayer, fasting, and giving, so that they can be seen by others. They are "hypocrites" who already have their reward and it's not from God. I learn that any work of piety or service can serve my ego, not others, not God. Like getting an award for perfect Sunday School attendance, does the recognition defeat the purpose?

Still, the theme of witnessing to God's love through our works of service and justice is a very strong one throughout Scripture. Not unlike Abraham who was called to bless all the nations of the earth, prophets like second Isaiah reiterate that Israel's call is about witnessing to God's faithfulness to the nations.** The covenant comes with the responsibility to bear witness to a light that leads to God. "I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations..." Isaiah 49:6***

Who really knows anyone else's motives? It's hard enough to name my own intentions. The intention is of first importance. So when I display an empty plate to push a fasting program on social media, or a service project to show the world what I have done, or when I stand before the congregation to share how much more I'm pledging this year, or when I'm the designated prayer-giver for civic clubs and football games, etc., the reward goes to my professional and institutional public image. 

Little Jack Horner
Sat in a corner 
Eating his Christmas pie
He stuck in his plum, pulled out a plum
And said, what a proud boy am I!

One church began a community center, providing multiple services for the underserved residents in the area. The programs reached preschoolers and parents, to adults learning job skills. The campus was a strategic match for the many programs it housed each weekday. The number of people and families participating each week was amazing. Its relationship to the sponsoring congregation was well-known by the people that worked there, but also the neighboring households. 

One of the most impressive aspects of this whole endeavor was the fact the fact that the congregation's name was not anywhere on the exterior of the building. This was intentional.***

What is my default? Am I even aware of it? When it's to prove how spiritual, wealthy, or creative I am, Jesus' words on anonymous giving fade away. When all the excitement and adulation evaporate (which it does) my resources are exhausted. In the words of Jesus, I have already received my reward, the limited applause of others. The cycle leads to what John Claypool called, in his experience, "bone-weariness." ****

Churches require that I do all I can to enhance public image, true. But running off the excitement of the next big thing- the spectacular and impressive- cannot teach or nurture a spirituality of patience, endurance, and love.    

*See Matthew 6:5-6
**The nations can also be translated gentiles.
***See also Ezekiel 36:22-23
****This provides an example of "servant evangelism," where the focus is on valuable, useful services offered at low or no charge. Insofar as training has long term impact on economic futures, these can also be considered doing justice.These acts of kindness are given freely, in the name of Christ or the church. Community-wide service projects involving many congregations also fit this category. 
*****See Claypool, Opening Blind Eyes. This book was written while Claypool was yet a Southern Baptist. A brief but powerfully honest spiritual memoir, it has made an indelible mark on my ministry.


Friday, January 6, 2023

The Art of Biblical Paradox: Is God Loving or Punitive? (4)

The dialectic of God's love and punishment is not really resolved in Scripture. For sure the New Testament's final book, Revelation, juxtaposes the two sides in the following passages:

Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.  Revelation 21:7-8

And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Revelation 21: 23-27

The New Testament upholds the Old Covenant in that the people called by God are given responsibilities with God's covenant. It assumes that there are two parties in the marriage and consequences for unfaith. What does that say about the God who first offers covenant, and about us?

Being made in God's image means that I am capable of covenant. The consequences of unfaith come as a result of my choosing. Free will, a part of being made in God's image, allows me to choose faith, or not. Before sin is an act, it is a state of mind.  Are there not ways of choosing that best nurture my relationship to self, God and others? *

Those who affirm covenant with God bear the most responsibility, for sure. Much is required from whom much is given. Consider that Jesus' sharpest words are for those who claim that they have the first seats at the table of God's covenant, those who think they are called to judge who is blessed and who is cursed. **

Still, why would anyone choose to be close friends with someone who might throw you into a lake of fire (even temporarily, for the sake of purgation), or who slams the door on people whose names are not on the list? Even if it is a matter of emphasis, the juxtaposition of blessings and curses runs throughout the biblical whole. It is there for all to see, whether believer or not. It doesn't seem safe or reasonable. My mind  looks for a resolution where there is none.

It would be honest to say that there is not a satisfying solution in Scripture or theology, but rather, in the continued walk with God. Scripture says many things and so does theology and yes, I need to see the consequences of my faith or unfaith on myself and others.***But is the meaning and purpose of my life to please a God with anger issues? Or, is being reminded that God judges my every step keeping me from a deeper communion with God?  

Wisdom, the fruit of spiritual direction stresses that, in order to be in a loving friendship with God, I come to know God whose name is Love.  It's about re-discovering my blessedness not my wretchedness. God is love for everybody if God is love for anyone. God parents me with redirection and encouragement in the life of Jesus Christ in the Gospels, the discernment of the Holy Spirit, and the wisdom of my fellow companions in Christ, past and present, the cloud of witnesses**** 

*This is at least implied in Jesus teaching, to "love God, and your neighbor as yourself.." See Matthew 22: 34-40.

**See Matthew 21:31-32: Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him." Also Luke 37:42-52

***The teaching of limited atonement posits that Jesus died as an act of appeasing God's honor that humanity had sullied. God wants us dead, but Jesus died instead and God's honor is restored. Further, atonement is only possible for those who believe. I realize that this is a passing reference, just like what I heard from a clergy leader who told the congregation that God's forgiveness was there "for those who believe." What about those who struggle to believe or want to believe but cannot? 

**** ‘Tis Love! ‘tis Love that wrestled me! I hear thy whisper in my heart. The morning breaks, the shadows flee, pure, universal Love thou art. To me, to all, thy mercies move—thy nature and thy name is Love. Charles Wesley, Come Thou Traveler Unknown.


Thinking About Mom

This past January 24, I marked my Mother's posthumous 100th birthday. Remembering can bring clarity as to my own expereriences and motiv...