Monday, April 6, 2015

The Walking Dead and Holy Week

(written on Good Friday 2015)
I will end my Holy Week preaching on Jesus rising from the dead, but I began my Holy Week with a whole lot of dead people coming to life--or at least a sort of life if you call being a human flesh-eating zombie living.  I along with over 15 million other people tuned in to the TV show The Walking Dead last Sunday night.  It turns out there might be a good reason I as a religious person am attracted to a show about zombies--in addition to being attracted to it because it's a really good (if gory) show.
"In their overturning of our understanding of the world, these classic tropes of horror are what I would call theological terrors. They challenge the sacred order by introducing existential chaos. . . Within the Bible, the natural order is routinely shattered, never more famously than during the Easter narrative.
While Jesus hinted at a reversal of the natural order when he reanimated Lazarus, it is the Easter narrative where Scripture downshifts into full horror-movie mode. . .
The natural, sacred, and accepted orders are turned on their collective heads throughout the final days of Holy Week when, after Jesus breathes his last, the light of day ominously and unnaturally transforms into darkness followed by a rock-splitting earthquake, frightening and supernatural imagery echoed in countless apocalyptic horror narratives in contemporary entertainment. . . 
Following this, the gospel of Matthew, predating the zombie craze in popular culture by several thousand years, reads, "The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many." While we don't know whether these revived corpses were muttering "brains" or "shalom," it's safe to say that the sudden reappearance of the dead amid unnatural darkness is, read literally, nothing short of a terrifying turn of events."
It's true, the Gospels, especially Matthew's Gospel, have a mashup of images that would fit nicely into disaster films and horror movies.  Given that all the tropes are there for a big Hollywood blockbuster, why is it that all the Hollywood depictions of Jesus look like my second grader's art class did the special effects?  The stone rolling away from Jesus' tomb in every Jesus movie I've seen looks like a paper mache leftover from a third rate caveman movie!  (In my book, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ doesn't count.  To me, his movie was less a horror movie and more of a snuff film.)

Whether Hollywood ever plays up the horror of Holy Week or not, the prevalence of zombies, demons, vampires and other scary creatures in our culture reveals something deep that people are looking for.  Peacock goes on to make a significant point re: the place of horror movies, zombie TV shows and comics, novels about vampires, etc.  He says:
"While I offer some of these reflections in an ironic spirit, I do think it's important to acknowledge that religion and the horror genre are dueling narratives revolving around the unknown, of what lies beyond human reason and understanding. I would argue that one of the reasons The Walking Dead consistently draws tremendous ratings is that horror entertainment has emerged as another form of religious language. In some sense, due to the need for palatable religious ritual, the ghastly elements of scripture have been buried, only to arise in the sinister form of vampires, zombies, and malevolent elder gods, symbols that enable us to explore the shadow side of the divine." 
Could it be true that as we sanitize the horrific aspects of Holy Week and Easter and in the Bible in general we leave people in search of narratives--however entertaining--that touch on issues of flesh and bone, life and death, mortality and immortality, existence and nihilism, civilization and societal collapse?  
I won't apologize for turning away from a theological point of view that does not emphasize the blood of Jesus Christ.  I continue to believe a Christianity that stresses the blood of Jesus was necessary to appease an angry God is a religion that justifies violence in the name of God and downplays divine mercy.
Yet, the world is a violent place where bad things happen.  People die, sometimes in terrible ways.  Now more than ever in human history technology allows us to bear witness to the barbarity of humanity.  Just think how often every day you hear news about child sexual abuse, homicides and terrorism.  At the same time, our American culture allows many of us the privilege of denying death's ever present reality.  The industrial complexes of medical care, pharmaceutical conglomerates and the funeral industry sanitize the grim reality of our physical existence.  We don't have to deal with death until we are forced to deal with death--either our own or someone else's.
Yes, The Walking Dead is a really good TV show with really good writing, acting and special effects.  It is also really gory and bloody.  Yet within the gore and blood the characters struggle constantly with what they must do to survive and whether or not survival alone justifies all they must do to remain alive.  Is one really alive when one must do inhumane things?  Often the characters on the show bear a striking similarity to the undead whom they fight--a purposeful decision on the part of the show's writers.  
The show is entertaining--absolutely, but does it speak to a deeper human longing?  In the back of our minds, those of us who are privileged enough to turn our thoughts away from survival toward reflection upon what life means have to wonder about just how fragile our human society actually is.  The chaos of a zombie apocalypse is a metaphor for all the small outbreaks of chaos within our lives--all the things we cannot control--all the ways we are unable to overcome our mortality.  
I will continue to set my DVR to record The Walking Dead when it returns in October (and for the spin-off which airs this summer ), but now I'm wondering about what the appeal of the show says about us at this particular time in our culture.  Now, as much as any time, we need a Christianity that does not offer us simplistic answers about existence and meaning.  We  need a religion that helps us take in the suffering and death that is a part of the human condition--what we see when we look upon Jesus on Good Friday--and helps us to embrace the mystery that is Easter.  We need a reason to do more than survive or else we become the zombies.  Despite the internet meme of "Zombie Jesus," the resurrected Jesus of the Gospels is not the same as the zombies of The Walking Dead.  This walking dead man offers hope of something greater than mere survival, greater even than death. 
Horror movies, books and TV shows are appealing, because they allow us a glimpse of the things we are afraid of and want to avoid.  There is pleasure in facing one's fears of death, pain and powerlessness.  By facing such fears one can overcome them.  Isn't it time for a Christianity that acknowledges the horrific realities of our world in order to reveal a God who is greater than our fears?
The angel's words in the empty tomb were, "Do not be afraid."
 Grace and Peace

Recommended Reading 4.3.15 Edition

Each week (more or less) I send out an e-mail to my congregation with my thoughts including stuff I've read over the past week that I want to pass along.  I haven't put my lists up on the blog in a good while so here are some that go back a ways, but if you missed them, they are still worth reading, clicking on, listening to or watching.

Stuff I've Referenced in Sermons
Recommended Reading, Listening and Watching

Friday, April 3, 2015

Therapeutic Gratitude

I'm not a big fan of self-help books.  From my perspective, the self-help industry tends to over-simplify issues that often defy easy answers.  On the other hand, as a minister, I've known many people who have been helped by books, videos, etc. from the self-help section of the bookstore.  I think I'm humble enough and pragmatic enough to celebrate whatever works to help people with their difficulties.  Yet, I still view self-help books with suspicion.
 All that being said, I have been driving around lately listening to a self-help book on CD.  It's called  The Tools: 5 Tools to Help You Find Courage, Creativity and Willpower--and Inspire You to Live Life in Forward Mostion by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels.  I first heard of the book on Marc Maron's podcast which I listen to regularly (the title of the podcast, as I've mentioned before in sermons, is too blue for me to name).  Maron usually interviews comedians, musicians or actors, but this time he was interviewing one of the authors, Phil Stutz.  I was intrigued with what Stutz had to say, because he was so blunt and because his focus of treatment was giving patients tools to deal immediately with the problems that brought them to therapy.  The tools Stutz talked about didn't seem to be quick fixes or over-simplifications but ways to go about changing behavior--changes that could bring a suffering person immediate relief.
 The perspective of the authors runs contrary to many therapists who practice talk therapy and believe in a process of discovering the sources of an individual's current psychological pain in one's past experiences.  Although Stutz and Michel value that approach, what they really wanted to find was a way to give patients immediate relief from unhealthy ways of thinking or acting.  It sounds a lot to me like what I understand to be Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. 
I've benefited greatly from a process-orientated talk therapy approach.  The times I've spent seeing a therapist have given me great benefits in understanding myself and how often my thoughts and behaviors result from unresolved issues in my unconscious.  That being said, I've also benefited from CBT--skipping the discovery process of why a problem exists and focusing on behaviors I can implement to change an unhealthy way of acting or thinking.  In my experience, both approaches yield benefits and I'm suspicious of those who insist on either/or. 
As a minister who often talks with people about their personal struggles, those conversations often involve discussion of spiritual, psychological, emotional and physical problems.  I try to be quick to acknowledge when an issue exceeds my expertise; after all I'm not a medical doctor and I'm not a therapist.  I'm not afraid to make referrals to someone who knows more than I do.  Yet, I often feel the need to make suggestions to people about how to stop unhealthy ways of thinking/acting such as worrying, extreme self-criticism, feelings of guilt and shame, etc. because they are suffering in the present moment.  It's this last need in my work that made me interested in Stutz' and Michel's The Tools.
 When I started listening to the book, I was really surprised about how spiritual the book is.  It's not Christian but it's also not un-Christian.  The authors use language that is overtly spiritual in nature but they also choose to use language that does not match any organized religion.  For example, each of the tools they discuss involves opening oneself to "higher forces of the universe."  In order to overcome self-destructive behavior a person needs to connect with a power above himself or herself.  They state clearly that they don't care whether or not you call these higher forces God, Jesus, the Collective Unconscious or some other religious term; they don't care what you call it just that you make use of it.  Unlike a lot of New Age mumbo jumbo that just involves thinking positive thoughts without any real effort or sacrifice, the tools the authors advocate involve facing one's own mortality, demonstrating love for people one is angry with or even hates, cultivating a pattern of gratitude and other difficult work.  The language they use sounds goofy to me at times-okay a lot of the time--but the tools they describe seem to offer a practical way for someone to change one's unhealthy ways of living--provided that person puts in the effort.  One of the reasons I like the book is that they don't promise any easy or quick fixes, just a way to immediately begin difficult changes.
The fourth tool in the book is called "The Grateful Flow" (I told you the language sounds goofy), and it involves overcoming negative thinking through gratitude.  They state that the trigger for using this tool happens whenever you find yourself thinking negative thoughts--we're not talking about a stray critical thought now and then but the kind of negative thinking that builds upon itself and eventually blocks out all positive ones.  When this occurs, they ask patients to immediately think of five things the person is grateful for--not things one should feel grateful for, but five things one is actually grateful for.  These things can be basic like being alive, having the ability to see or even mundane like having coffee with a friend or a good book.  They promise that this simple act of catching yourself before the negative thoughts take over connects one to a higher force.  That higher force they call "The Source" and they describe it as the force in the universe that is giving and has your best interest at heart.  Rather than viewing the universe as inherently hostile or merely indifferent, this way of thinking involves faith that there is some force out there that gave you life and continues to give you things you can be thankful for--provided you become conscious of them.
The terminology is different, but it sounds awfully Christian to me.  While listening to the audio book, the words to the old hymn "Count Your Blessings" kept running through my mind.  The Bible contains plenty of exhortations to thankfulness.  Psalm 95 says, "Let us come into God's presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!"  The Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippian church, "Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God."  I have a number of books on prayer in my office that teach making prayers of thanksgiving an essential part of the spiritual life.  Annie Dillard wrote in  Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, "I think that the dying pray at the last not 'please,' but 'thank you,' as a guest thanks his host at the door."  Rev. John Claypool says, "Truth be told, whenever we face ambiguous situations with things going for us and things going against us, I would suggest that gratitude is the most creative thing we can possibly do because it puts us in touch with the positive energies that are at work in our lives." 
On the one hand, there's a part of me that thinks about the authors' emphasis upon gratitude as less than a novel idea.  Christians, Jews and other religious people have been offering this advice for centuries.  Yet on the other hand, I see overtly religious calls to thanksgiving mainly offered in terms of what one ought to do.  As a Christian, I would say that we creatures should give our Creator thanks, but I think there is real wisdom in acknowledging the therapeutic quality of gratitude.  Orienting one's life towards gratitude does have a powerful transformative effect upon a person's life.  In addition to being something one ought to do, gratitude is something that improves one's life.  The happiest people I know with the greatest sense of inner peace are people who seem to maintain a posture of gratitude for their blessings rather than choosing to dwell on their misfortunes.
Furthermore, gratitude helps a person let go of worrying, which the authors rightly describe as a vain effort to control what cannot be controlled.  Worry is a superstition that has no real power to make things better--only the power to inhibit one from truly living.  Practicing thanksgiving allows one to live out of joy rather than living out of fear.
 In our increasingly secular age, I continually struggle as a minister to translate traditional Christian language into terms non-religious people or more often in my setting people who are jaded and cynical about religion can resonate with.  I'm not sure if the words used in  The Tools fit that bill or not, but I'm not going to argue with anyone who offers people a way to be thankful, love others and live unafraid of death.
 Grace and Peace

Recommended Reading 3.27.15 Edition

Each week (more or less) I send out an e-mail to my congregation with my thoughts including stuff I've read over the past week that I want to pass along.  I haven't put my lists up on the blog in a good while so here are some that go back a ways, but if you missed them, they are still worth reading, clicking on, listening to or watching.
Stuff I've Referenced in Sermons
Recommended Reading, Listening and Watching

Friday, March 6, 2015

Community is Difficult--But It's Also Godly

"Of course they matter!"

I turned to look at the older white man in the Subaru who had stopped at the side of the street in front of our church--and who also didn't seem to have any qualms about hollering at a total stranger.

I was hanging up the second banner in front of our church that read "Black Lives Matter Equally."  The first one blew away--I think--because I only secured it with zip ties and we had a really windy day last week.  I can't be sure that someone didn't come and take it down, but I'm choosing to believe the best about our neighborhood.  (In case you don't know about why we chose to hang up the banner, read here.)

Before I could say anything to the stranger, he went on.

"They only matter when they're shot by a white police officer!"

My mind was a little slow in catching on to his point, but I said, "I don't think so."

He went on, "My son told me that when that that guy was shot in Ferguson there were fifteen other blacks that got shot--all by other blacks.  That's the problem."

I gave him a confused wave as he drove off, because I was still trying to understand the point he was making.  I took him to be making the same argument I've heard a lot of white people making; which seems to be: "Black people kill each other all the time and black people don't seem to care or are unable to stop because they are too ignorant or too barbaric to do otherwise.  Black people want to blame the police when the fault is their own.  They bring it on themselves."

If I had been quicker, I could have told him that plenty of black people I know care a whole lot about black-on-black violence AND about police bias against black people. Both problems are bad problems and protesting one of them doesn't mean one doesn't care about the other.  Besides, how can the problem of black-on-black crime be dealt with unless you have police forces that respect people of all races equally?

I also could have asked the man if he had even one black friend.

Alas, his drive-by opinion didn't allow me time to formulate any of those retorts.

I wonder how that man would define community?

On the first Sunday of Lent, I preached about the temptation of Jesus in Mark's Gospel.  Unlike in Matthew and Luke, Mark mentions the temptation only in one verse and it doesn't seem like Jesus struggled very much in Mark's version.  In fact, as you may recall, in Mark Jesus doesn't have any trouble at all with the forces of evil.  Jesus casts out demons like we swat mosquitoes.  Similarly Jesus has no problem with controlling nature either.  He can still storms and heal the sick.  Yet when it comes to people, Mark's Jesus has a lot of problems.  Barely any of them do what he tells them to do.  Jesus can tell everyone and everything what to do except for other people.  

I may not have power over evil forces or over the forces of nature, but I can relate to having problems with other people.  Some days free will seems overrated.  We humans sure make a mess of things, and I wonder if God ever has second thoughts about giving us the freedom to screw things up so badly and to harm one another so deeply.

My belief is that God gave us free will, because real relationships must be free and God really wants real relationships with us.  In fact, as I stated in my sermon, it is in God's very nature to create community.  Part of the reason I hold on to the idea of the Trinity, even though I pastor a church full of agnostics, Unitarians and people who just like to disagree with historic Christian doctrine on principle, is because it helps explain the question of free will and why God created us in the first place.  God--whether you want to use the historic and sexist language of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) or not--having one essence but three beings IS community.  Community is God.  The divine community just overflows and creates more community.  Relationship creates more relationships.

The problem with relationships, however, is that ones that are truly free are also at times really difficult.  If you see yourself as a part of a community that includes but goes beyond your own family, friendships and neighborhood, then you have to do the hard work of caring about the well-being of others who are not like you at all.  Community means that the mistreatment of black people by law enforcement should matter to other people, even white people who may understand little to nothing of the black experience.  

Furthermore, if you really see yourself as a part of a divine community that is meant to embrace all people, then you have to see a connection between yourself and people with whom you may disagree--say, people who feel free to shout bigoted opinions out their car windows.

If I had to do it over again and was quicker witted--and better in touch with God's community, maybe I could have offered the stranger in front of our church something other than a confused wave or a clever comeback.  Maybe the better thing would have been to invite him to come to our church, share in worship, experience a faith community trying to see itself as connected to God's wider community and maybe dare to join in himself.

I know that outcome was probably unlikely, but if it is true that God is community and calls all of us into community with one another and with God, then perhaps such unlikely outcomes are possible.        

Grace and Peace


Recommended Reading 3-5-15 Edition

Each week (more or less) I send out an e-mail to my congregation with my thoughts including stuff I've read over the past week that I want to pass along.  I haven't put my lists up on the blog in a good while so here are some that go back a ways, but if you missed them, they are still worth reading, clicking on, listening to or watching.

Stuff I've Referenced in Sermons
Recommended Reading/Listening

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

What Will I Say When I'm Asked About the Banner?

A few Sundays ago during our church's annual business meeting, we approved a budget, agreed upon some goals for our church in the near future and debated putting a banner in our church building's front yard reading "Black Lives Matter."  It was a civil and respectful conversation and in the end we voted to display a banner that reads "Black Lives Matter Equally."  The vote wasn't entirely unanimous.  I think some who voted against it wanted to keep it reading "Black Lives Matter," since that's what protesters of police brutality across the country have said.  Some others may have voted against it for other reasons I don't know.  Yet, to my knowledge everyone walked out feeling that his or her voice was heard and the discussion was worthwhile for our church.
Based on what people told me, everyone agreed that black lives do matter and that racism continues to pervade our culture, including our criminal justice system and law enforcement.  The chief concern I heard--a valid one in my opinion--is that the debate over the slogan in the media has been framed--like it or not--in such a way that many people hear "black lives matter" as saying "police lives don't matter."  I think that is a completely false understanding of what protesters have been saying--other than the few who are violent extremists and who do not represent the overwhelming majority of people protesting police brutality towards black people.  Yet, no matter what I think there is a media industry that chooses to propagate either/or controversies.  
So, we debated whether our banner should read "All Lives Matter" or "Black Lives Matter and so do Police Lives" or other variations.  We settled on adding the word "equally" to the "Black Lives Matter" slogan.  I'm not sure if that defies misinterpretation--no matter what you try to communicate, some will choose to misinterpret your message and others will misunderstand it.  I believe, however, that our congregation voted to display the banner, because not saying anything about the deaths of black people is unacceptable.  We are a largely white church that claims to be a "Peace With Justice" church, so we cannot be quiet if we wish to live out our identity.
I will be surprised if we don't get a negative reaction from some people.  I expect some church members who have neighbors who know what church they go to may get questions as well.  When UCC churches in New York hung banners they received hostile phone calls and other harassment.  I hope we won't get such a response, but we are in a largely white area of KC, so I have to prepare for such a possibility.  
Both here and at my previous church, I've received threatening phone calls and nasty letters when I or the church has been public about supporting LGBT equality.  On those occasions, I took a certain pride in knowing we were getting under the skin of some homophobic people.  I always feel like you aren't following Jesus unless you are making at least a few folks mad because you are standing up for oppressed people.  If we get negative blowback from this banner, I will most likely take similar pride in threatening some folks' white privilege.
When I'm asked by people who actually are willing to engage in a real conversation, here is what I'm going to say:
1.  Our church believes all lives matter, but based upon what's happening in our culture right now it seems as if black lives matter less than white ones.  Every day across our country new names are added to the list of young black men (and sometimes women) killed by police officers.  The frequency of these shootings of black men seem to be in contrast to how white men are treated.  For example, in August a black man with an air rifle at a Walmart was shot and killed by police, but in December two white men who shot pellet guns at each other and customers in a Walmart were arrested without incident. Recently, a white man in north KC chased his wife out of their house with a rifle then shot her and was pointing his gun at neighbors.  Police showed up just before he killed his wife.  Despite orders to put down his gun, he raised it at officers.  They shot him but not fatally.  If he had been black, would he have survived that encounter?
2.  Racism is not something that we as a country ended fifty years ago during the Civil Rights Era; it remains today.  Despite living in the "Age of Obama" our nation's long history of oppression towards African Americans did not just disappear.  As Ta-Nehisi Coates says in his excellent article "The Case for Reparations:"
"Two hundred fifty years of slavery.  Ninety years of Jim Crow.  Sixty years of separate but equal.  Thirty-Five years of racist housing policy.  Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America can never be whole."
3.  All lives do matter, at least to any person who claims to be moral, but saying those words does not make them a reality.  Scholar Judith Butler puts it this way:
"When we are taking about racism, and anti-black racism in the United States, we have to remember that under slavery black lives were considered only a fraction of a human life, so the prevailing way of valuing lives assumed that some lives mattered more, were more human, more worthy, more deserving of life and freedom, where freedom meant minimally the freedom to move and thrive without being subjected to coercive force. But when and where did black lives ever really get free of coercive force? One reason the chant "Black Lives Matter" is so important is that it states the obvious but the obvious has not yet been historically realized. So it is a statement of outrage and a demand for equality, for the right to live free of constraint, but also a chant that links the history of slavery, of debt peonage, segregation, and a prison system geared toward the containment, neutralization and degradation of black lives, but also a police system that more and more easily and often can take away a black life in a flash all because some officer perceives a threat."
4.  No, our church does NOT believe all police are racists.  A very small percentage of police today would meet a textbook definition of racist.  Our society asks police to do dangerous and horribly difficult jobs in exchange for little if any thanks.  Our church is grateful for the job police do for our community.  Yet, police officers are human and are raised in the same culture we are raised in--one that remains permeated with racism.  Sure, we've come a long way since the days of Bull Connor sicking dogs on children in 1963 Birmingham, but racist stereotypes remain a reality in our culture.  Every white person who is honest will admit to racist attitudes, and when put in a situation where instinct overcomes reason people with racist attitudes may very well act upon them--even police officers.
5.  Hanging this banner is about more than police brutality towards African Americans.  Sadly, Missouri once again leads the nation in its rate of black homicides.  Many of those deaths are happening within a few miles from our church building.  By saying black lives matter equally, we are also speaking out against poor schools, poverty, a culture of violence, crime, a gun industry that profits from criminal demand for handguns and so many more factors that feed the number of black people dying in our city.
6.  We are a largely white church in an historically white part of our city--an area that until such practices were outlawed excluded African Americans.  A banner does not erase history nor does it make up for past racism, but it is a start.  It is an expression of solidarity with African Americans and a positive statement that their lives do matter despite evidence to the contrary.  Hopefully our banner will be matched with our actions and relationships that live out that solidarity.
Grace and Peace