Saturday, March 26, 2016

Take and Read: A book for reflection during the Friday Saturday and Sunday of Holy Week

Over the winter, I read a new book for review purposes.  My resulting thoughts on the book will be featured in an upcoming 2016 edition of "Sharing the Practice", the quarterly journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy.  Here I found some insightful perspectives on issues deep within the American psyche and sometimes shared in media reports when enough noise is made about the tragic happening much too often in our midst and with sometimes short-sighted media reporting.
As we move into the sequence of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter, Christians may be quick to skip ahead for the alleluias that await, however, some may prefer the fuller three days (i.e. Triduum).  In the midst of the desolate gap between Cross and Empty Tomb, Christians can take this time to reflect on the heaviness of a broken world where death comes brutally and without much rationale for many people throughout history and in the headlines of the day, if said deaths are deemed newsworthy by mainstream media.  (I am reminded, yet again, of how a terror attack in Europe can sometimes gain great attention, yet quickly, those who seek peace and justice for the greater world will highlight the news stories of other tragedies elsewhere in the world that do not necessarily make it into the 11 o'clock news or even on one's Facebook feed.)

Douglas, Kelly Brown.  Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.  Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2015.

In Kelly Brown Douglas’ new book, readers are plunged into the depths of today’s headlines immersed within the thick sediment of U.S. history and its European legal and cultural biases.  She unravels the threads of today’s justifications for the “not guilty” verdicts too often issued in civil trials after an armed citizen shoots another, with few in power acknowledging the racial motivations or objectification fueling the snap judgments of one party (often an armed white male) at the ready to “stand their ground”, the humanity of the other person (often an unarmed black male) conveniently discarded. 

Written by Episcopal priest and scholar Kelly Brown Douglas with the shooting of Treyvon Martin fresh in mind and read by this reviewer with the names of the many others to be likewise killed by incidents laden with a bias quick to be downplayed when scrutiny and outrage follow, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God is aptly titled.  In US history, African Americans have been treated far longer as chattel property or inferior peoples to be systematically controlled or willfully disenfranchised.   The result is an oppressive continuo of rhetoric, downplaying the inhumanity of cultural and legal values that have embedded and encoded a racial stratification in overt and covert ways.  Such a history where black lives are treated as chattel, let alone lives that matter, Douglas observes, “continues to cheapen black life” (p. 88).   

As a mother, Douglas shares her first-hand fears for her child’s upbringing in this context, becoming a young African American man and the various ways a mundane experience like driving down the street or walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood could rapidly escalate into a similar tragedy if a police officer or private citizen makes a snap judgement where the laws of the land enshrine and valorize violence based on gut feelings or culturally embedded political and racial privilege of one over against another.

The country’s history of Manifest Destiny, American exceptionalism, and racial bias is explored in Douglas’ book, drawing out history perhaps hidden or conveniently left unrepeated, where Supreme Court decisions of the past created an entrenching of racial and social superiority and political decisions by local, State and federal authorities ghettoized entire sections of American citizenry.  Douglas links the Anglo-Saxon roots of our country’s legal tradition to a tradition where “land, life and race” become sacred, yet only for those with the most power and capacity to enforce such privilege.

In the recent decades, theologians have joined in the question of “otherness”, examining the ways in which some human beings justify the treatment of other human beings to meet a theological, economic or social set of values.  Held sacred by some and profaning the human dignity innate in every person, such practices of keeping others “other” raise the question of complicity for the Church, especially as we tend to be more focused on regaining footholds within political establishments than working to dissect their corrupt biases in favor of building a more beloved community.

In the second part of the book, Brown reviews various ways the black church tradition provides theological grounding in the midst of marginalization and oppression.  In her latter chapters, Brown recounts lyrics from the spirituals and biblical narratives as well as the testimony of persons who knew firsthand enslavement and emancipation.  She engages theologians (black liberationist and womanist) who have appropriated this lived history into powerful critique of Church and society, linking the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus with the effort to dismantle subtle practices and outright violent acts of racism in an era too often blithely declared “post-racial”.  

Brown calls for a greater moral framework to guide a future worth pursuing, where memory, identity, participation and imagination (pp. 220-26) can be tools that liberate from a history steeped in exceptionalism that undermines the very notion of a nation seeking liberty for all or the Church too often seduced by its need to be part of the Establishment that it forgets its true grounding.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Somewhere between life and death and Easter

Earlier this week, I visited a congregation in the Adirondacks for a conversation about pastoral transition. As I got out of my car, I looked around at the old graveyard surrounding the church building and snapped a quick photo with my iPhone.  Something about this near twilight time stirred something within me.  Of course, a time for reflection was deferred, as a church meeting awaited, so I hurried inside.

A few days later, I returned to this picture and pondered over the image.  The old graveyard may not merit a second glance from some passersby, a place so familiar and part of the local landscape.  Others perhaps drive into the yard so they can wander between the headstones and be among the generations of the dead.

Some folks go to cemeteries to remember loved ones, bearing flowers or perhaps some memento to leave there.  Others avoid such places and shudder at the thought of stepping foot in the midst of such places.  Death is part of life, yet too often, we try our best to pretend that death's sting can be avoided or compartmentalized away.  Death comes for us all, yet most of us hope to get out of death alive, somehow, someway.

Entering into Holy Week, we know that this is a time to remember the last days of Jesus and retrace the fateful week that tells the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Yet, if we can manage it, we try to avoid any talk of the fatal elements.

The Baptists of my upbringing tend to observe Palm Sunday (complete with small children armed with palm fronds to poke at one another).  We may gather for a somber Maundy Thursday (more likely with a jovial potluck dinner preceding any talk of a Last Supper).  And then, we tend to spend the next couple of days planning for Easter Sunday. 

Many Baptists and other Protestants of evangelical/Free Church background tend to skip Good Friday, and there's no great thought given to Holy Saturday, when we are somewhere in the deep valley between Jesus' death and resurrection.  Many Christians will observe the three days of Triduum, feeling the heaviness of the Story's crashing down as Christ breathes his last on the Cross and the Tomb is occupied, not immediately empty.  The stone is rolled over the doorway, and the followers of Jesus are trying their best to hide away.  Death visits even this Story, yet in remembering, retelling and reenacting the Gospel's final chapters, some Christians want to skip over the heaviness for the Sunday festivities that include church and yet much, much more in terms of "fun stuff" (brunch, Egg hunts and even a new bonnet or two).   Indeed, some folks may only associate this time of year with Palm processions and Easter alleluias, collapsing the narrative to the point the pain of the Cross is forgotten just like we want our lives to be lived: away from the pain and finality.  Give us a triumphal word, but don't bother us with the common and frank reality that awaits us all.

In the week ahead, the graveyard is inescapable.  Our names will be there inscribed in a memorial headstone.  It's not an optional part of life.

And as Christians who believe in the greater narrative beyond life and death, we can easily slide into a piety of "sweet bye and bye", giving short shrift to the possibilities of a faith engaged as Jesus lived his own life:  fully and with concern that faith is about engagement and bettering the world even as we talk of future reward.  Too often in our eagerness to talk of God's future, we forget that the pain of the world needs us to live with humility and awareness about the world's lingering at a Good Friday's destruction or Holy Saturday's desolation far more than in the giddy heights of Resurrection Morn.

Preparing to celebrate Easter, the Day of Resurrection, is not just a matter of festivities on a certain day each year (date variable, due to interchurch squabbles long ago--a scandal of the Church missing the point in itself!).  The week that separates Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday is meant to be a journey, each step of the way, not like some liturgical "pick and choose" where the heavier days are abridged or elided altogether. 

We have to be in the midst of the tombstones.  We have to engage the world rather than shrink back from its heaviness or anesthetize/numb ourselves from any call to do something about the unjust circumstances of the global and local contexts we live in. 

God does not mean for us to be mourners and pallbearers constantly, yet in the humility of realizing the fragility and finitude of our own existence, we might just gain some perspective on what it means to be in the here and now as a people carrying on Christianity's past and present witness into the future.

In the week ahead, we cannot just hurry into the church to do the "business" of faith.  It's time to linger at the lonely places.  It's time to gain some perspective so we remember that to dust we all return.  And in the meantime, it's time to live life shaped by the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Take and Read: 2015 Books of the Year

 In addition to the American Baptist Minister's Council,  I belong to the ecumenical Academy of Parish Clergy.   Supporting excellence in ministry, the organization encourages its members to write articles and review books of interest in its quarterly journal.   For the past few years, my book reviews have appeared in "Sharing the Practice" as well as via this blog.   At the APC annual conference, the Academy recognizes excellent books for ministry and clergy. The 2016 list, it was just announced!
Read the press release below and then Take and Read!
The Academy of Parish Clergy, Inc. proudly announces that the Book of the Year Award for books published in 2015 is awarded to Bearing the Unbearable: Trauma, Gospel, and Pastoral Care, written by Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger and published by Eerdmans. The Book of the Year Award is given to the best book published for parish ministry in the previous year. In addition, the Reference Book of the Year Award is awarded to The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, written by Fleming Rutledge and published by Eerdmans.
In addition to the Book of the Year and Reference Book of the Year awards, the Academy has selected the following books as the Top Ten Books for Parish Ministry published in 2015. They display an excellence and helpfulness that all Parish ministers are invited to incorporate into their libraries to benefit their ministries.
This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities, written by Matthew Richard Schlimm and published by Baker Academic.
For the Love of All Creatures: The Story of Grace in Genesis, written by William Greenway, published by Eerdmans.
How Odd of God: Chosen for the Curious Vocation of Preaching, written by William Willimon, published by Westminster John Knox Press
Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God, written by Lauren Winner, published by HarperOne.
Paul and the Gift, written by John M.G. Barclay, published by Eerdmans.
Crossover Preaching: Intercultural-Improvisational Homiletics in Conversation with Gardner C. Taylor, written by Jared Alcántara, published by IVP Academic.
A Long Letting Go: Meditations on Losing Someone You Love and A Faithful Farewell: Living Your Last Chapter with Love, both written by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, published by Eerdmans.
Envisioning the Congregation, Practicing the Gospel: A Guide for Pastors and Lay Leaders, written by John W. Stewart, published by Eerdmans.
Grounded: Finding God in the World, written by Diana Butler Bass, published by HarperOne
Called to Witness: Doing Missional Theology, written by Darrell Guder, published by Eerdmans.

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Hopeful Future (Isaiah 55:1-13)

Ghost towns….Towns that once existed but to the modern day visitor, all you find is a collection of weathered old buildings, perhaps a family or two still living in an old home, content to be where they have lived for generations, despite no longer having a local post office or town government.  Back home, the little town of Elk Falls, KS, bills itself as “the world’s largest living ghost town”.  Walking through town, you see “what was”, the old buildings remaining as silent testament to “the good ole days”, yet you wonder whether or not there is any life left in such a place.

In the book of Isaiah, the prophet faces a similar situation.  The latter half of Isaiah (chapters 40-66) deals with the prophet speaking to a people who have lost everything.   The great Jerusalem and the kingdom alike are in ruins.  It was not always like this.  There was a time when the city stood proud and the kingdom was still holding its own, despite its internal corruption and the threat of conflict with neighboring nations.  The prophets called out for the people to repent, yet they were not heeded.  Eventually, the kingdom became vulnerable.  The Babylonians came in, their forces removing much of the populace from Jerusalem, and the city was sacked.

Seventy years later, when those who were hauled off into captivity were gone (or perhaps quite elderly), the prophet Isaiah spoke a word to the conquered peoples: their return to Jerusalem was at hand.  As they arrived home, the returnees stood in the midst of a large city mostly run down.  Jerusalem the proud, Jerusalem the great, now gone to seed.

Isaiah offers a vision of hope to the returnees.   They see the devastation, and they have a hard time believing this place has any good left in it.  Just as the prophet saw the people’s downfall, Isaiah sees a future where the city returns to new life.  It will take hard work and commitment on the people’s part to get there, yet Isaiah sees with something the people do not have readily in hand.  Isaiah’s eyes and heart is attuned to God.  The prophet sees and trusts in God’s future plans for the people, even as the prophet has to be the one teaching them how to learn and relearn what it means to be God’s covenant people.

In the opening verses of Isaiah 55, the people are called to come and take the bread, the wine, and the milk, given freely by God.  To a people who have been through a difficult time, somewhat due to mistakes of their own devising, these opening words sound positively euphoric—and perhaps not in a readily believable way.  These words are hard to take in, the idea that there will be “enough” when you live in a place that is constantly a reminder of how things fall apart.  How can such a good word be true when most of your waking hours are spent toiling away at the difficult task of rebuilding?

A few years ago, a Bulgarian Baptist minister wrote a memoir of his experiences being a pastor during the Communist era in his country.  Religious people did not have it easy, as the government hassled and harassed religious leaders.  Not so long ago, eastern European Christians endured a great deal of hardship for being religious persons.  The book features a cover photo that reflects the stories of determination and courage within.  The cover features an old rusty padlock discarded on the ground.  Despite the rocky soil and weeds around the padlock, somehow a single flower has grown up, actually sprouting somehow through the keyhole of the padlock.

The prophet Isaiah echoes this same sort of belief.  He offers up a vision of abundance as he has come to believe this is God’s last word.  If there is any way to understand the devastation of the past and the uncertainty of the present, Isaiah does not give up on the future turning out the same way.  He lives with a sense of abiding trust that the people’s future is in God’s hands and that God shall not leave them cast aside.  Even in the midst of perilous circumstance, there is hope.

If you ever visit Elk Falls, KS, you will find that its locals have made the best out of the situation.  Those who remain in the town developed a plan to attract tourism, which is fairly audacious considering the town is on a less traveled road.  The town’s quiet was a selling point for a number of artists looking for a place to live and set up their studios. The town of Elk Falls, population hovering around 100, has become a novelty tourist stop, where folks can find a little, off the way place to stop and look around.  And, if you’re lucky, you might hit the time of year when they offer their “outhouse tour”.

The story of Elk Falls is one of determination.  They may not have many amenities like a larger town or city, but they have learned how to live a different sort of life.  Elk Falls may not be what the town leaders thought it would look like a century or even fifty years ago, but the town is holding on with a sense of hope, allowing that hope to sustain them.

When I read Isaiah, I find the book keeps gaining in its hopeful vision of the future.  While the people have much to learn, let alone rebuild, the people are given these words of hope.  At first, they may not know what to do with the prophet’s words, but that’s part of the lesson to be learned.  Opening their hearts and minds to these words will start working down their fears and frustrations.   The city is never beyond repair, and the people’s future is never beyond hope.

Isaiah’s vision, however, has a much broader scope than that of Israel’s return from Exile and restoration as a nation.  In the midst of proclaiming hope for the people and their homeland, Isaiah offers a vision for all who thirst, who hunger and who seek the better path.  As Israel is summoned back from captivity, their return is just one part of a wider hope.  In the prophetic literature, a new thread of hope arises up:  the hope restoring Israel shall not be for Israel alone.  The latter chapters of Isaiah begin to resound with a far more inclusive hope:  Israel shall be the place where the nations, far more than Israel herself could imagine, will gather alongside. Those who seek the Lord will be known for their faithfulness, not their nationalities or political prominence.  This remnant gathered back in Jerusalem will be the light to the nations.

Wandering through Elk Falls, you might think there is nothing left in this town. The locals have to travel a few miles for groceries.  The post office is still there, however, with the talks of downsizing the US Postal Service, small towns like Elk Falls might not retain one in the coming years.  The county census figures are declining to the point school districts are looking at ways to consolidate with fewer students.  The phone book covers a very large area of southeast Kansas, yet the white and yellow pages combined do not make for a hefty phone book.  What good will is this talk of “tourism” and “hope” in the long run?

For Isaiah’s reader, one might voice similar doubt.  Israel rebuilt Jerusalem, yet eventually, the city would fall, the nation would fall, and the people would be scattered again.  Even in our modern era, as Israel has its own nation once more, there is a keen awareness of the fragility of peace between Israel and its neighbors and the headlines note the violence there, as Palestinians and Israelis struggle over land, politics, and control.  Does Isaiah’s hopeful word still matter?

Reading Isaiah and related texts in the Bible is a matter of choice for the reader. Despite being filled with stories of tragedy, wrongdoing, and other tales of a sin-fractured world, the Bible speaks of hope.  Living in the world, still fraught with complication and heart-ache, the reader must decide if hope is optimism loose of its tether to reality or a word so powerful that it gives us a sense of trust that the future will turn out all right.  Isaiah’s prophetic ministry was for a given moment, a word to the people needing encouragement to rebuild.  As a reader, knowing the realities of Israel’s history, I find it remarkable that they kept these texts, trusting that even as Isaiah’s generation became a distant memory, the next generations would read these texts as a witness and keep these words as sacred text, meant to be read and wrestled with.

Something powerful is found between the lines of prophecy.  It is a hope tethered to a people seeking and failing to be in covenant with God.  These are words that sustain, as if milk or wine or bread nourishes.  These are words that give life and help us overcome those things that lead us away from God’s pathway.  Hope shall overcome all of our troubles.  Hope is indeed a glimpse of that last word that God alone shall speak.

Our story is part of a wider Story that has been going on for millennia.  Isaiah told part of it to a world in need of hope.  And now, we join with others, within and beyond the Church, telling of a hope that abides.