Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Wrong Em-PHA-sis

You can’t see the forest for the trees.  Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.  And my favorite:  why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?  These familiar, bizarre contrasts are about the trap of fixating on one thing when there are much bigger things to worry about.  Sort of like the way we think about fixing whatever is wrong with the church….

Much has been written about all of the ways that that the Mainline church is in trouble.  There is an alternative narrative, however.  In spite of the many leaders who seem to be paralyzed with fear, there is a Spirit, an energy in our midst that directs a few courageous souls to forward-moving action.  In his recent book Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World , UCC General Minister and President John Dorhauer calls these inspired leaders to rise up:  "Who among us has the vision to see beyond the time of grief , beyond the horizons of pain to what lies on the other side?  This is about perceiving."  Transformation begins in perceiving.  

Here are some real world examples of the deception of skewed perception:   

We don’t have enough people in Wednesday night bible study.  Let’s add something to Wednesday night to make more people come out.

Our giving and fundraising does not meet church expenses.  Let’s cut ministry activities and spend down our endowment.

These true-to-life examples represent genuine, troubling concerns of local church life.  The challenges are real, but they are symptoms of the malaise.  We can relieve symptoms but the larger issues elude simple solutions.  Maybe we can get three, four or 10 more people to come to church on Wednesday night, but does that address the greater challenge of faith formation in a post-church, post-religion, over-scheduled, electronic media-focused society?  Cutting ministry activities and using long-term savings may be the only available options for a church to meet current expenses.  But how does that address the larger issue of discerning God’s call to mission and ministry in a changing neighborhood, or grappling with the imminent possibility that a particular congregation may be approaching the end of its useful service to God and community?  Should not the church be accountable to manage its finances to advance mission, whether the church is vibrant and impactful, close to the end of its life cycle, or even when the church is closing and it assets are sold, transferred or otherwise disposed of?  

As people of God we must see with Holy Spirit inspired vision.   It is about seeing every mountain and molehill; perceiving both the forest and every tree.  It is about developing strategies to remove specks, logs, grains of sand, or even boulders from every eye.  Better still, it is about creating an atmosphere in which every eye may see in ultra-high definition.  In these painful and exciting times let us hear God’s words spoken to the ancient prophet:

For I am about to do something new.  See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Trump, The Pope & The UCC

Call me crazy, but Donald Trump, Pope Francis and the United Church of Christ have something in common.  No, this is not the first line of a joke… “So a politician, a Catholic and a Protestant walk into a bar...”

At first I thought it odd that Rolling Stone Magazine would have articles on both Donald Trump and Pope Francis in the same issue.  The article on Trump questioned whether this “surging, renegade billionaire” should be taken seriously in his quixotic run to be President of the United States.   According to the interviewer, the up-close-and-personal Trump lived up to his image as brash, non-listening, and egotistical.  It was not a surprise that he bashed Mexican immigrants, blamed all ills on the “stupid people” who run government today, and promised that he would “make this country feared the whole world over.” 

But this same Trump is hated by Conservatives because he believes taxes should be raised on hedge-fund profits and ultra-high net worth individuals like himself; that middle class taxes should be cut, and that government should spend vastly more on roads, bridges and infrastructure and health care for women, veterans and everyone. 

Pope Francis has deep Catholic roots, but urges Catholic leaders to emphasize God’s love for LGBT people over doctrine (meeting with Kim Davis notwithstanding), overtly sides with poor people, eschews opulence for modest living quarters and compact cars, and has the unmitigated gall to tell members of Congress to treat immigrants the way they their immigrant forbears should have been treated (how’s that for ‘do unto others!).

Many people probably would not admit it, but Pope Francis, Donald Trump and the United Church of Christ do have something in common.  All three break the mold of the tradition.  

Now when it comes to making headlines on a regular basis, making a statement that goes viral on social media, or being wildly popular among several population segments, [music plays]: One of these things is not like the others…

Love him or hate him, Donald Trump’s name is on the lips of sports radio announcers, comedians and preachers on Sunday.  Pope Francis had perhaps a hundred million eyes watching him walk out of his residence in Washington DC.  The UCC has grabbed some media buzz for its leadership in the fight for marriage equality, the Black Lives Matter movement, and other present-day justice issues.  Yet our public image has not attained the broad recognition or the opinion-forcing potency of ‘the Donald’ or the Pope.

If we want the world to be excited about what we believe, perhaps it is not enough to break the mold of tradition. Maybe the UCC needs to be more radically UCC than it ever has before.  Few living movements possess the combination of God-loving faith, justice-seeking advocacy, and human diversity of the United Church of Christ.  No, we should not ratchet up the buffoonery, be louder, or cantankerous.  The world is hungry for transformation that is rooted in deep spirituality.  It is time that we assert the UCC brand of progressive Christianity with greater intensity than ever before.

 Go big or go home.  

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Divesting: What's Love Got to Do with It?

For four decades Christians investors have used divestment to end apartheid, combat child labor, protect the environment, and bring about a host of advances in economic, civil and human rights.  In its 2013 General Synod the United Church of Christ joined the Episcopalians, the Methodists, the Ethical Humanists, and the Presbyterians and embraced a fossil fuel-free investment policy.  In 2014, the Presbyterians divested $21 million from three Israeli companies as a demonstration of their moral incongruity with investing in companies that profit from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. At its 30th General Synod in July 2015, mirroring the Presbyterian’s rationale, the United Church of Christ (UCC) voted to divest from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. We have seen the enemy of a just world, and we have battled it with the justice of punishment of profit-seeking persons who do bad things (because after all, corporations are people too!).

I support and applaud the recent divestment decisions of the UCC, other mainline Christian investors, and those of the broader faith community. Divestment has been perhaps the most effective strategy in bringing about corporate social responsibility.  But in the words of the prophet Tina Turner, What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Ardent supporters of Israel are consistent in marking any disagreement with Israeli governmental policy as anti-Semitic.  Not surprisingly, pro-Israelis quickly labeled as “anti-Israel” the divestment measures designed to help alleviate Palestinian suffering.  Christians who seek justice for Palestinians are accused of taking the side of people who seek to destroy Israel.  They are counted among Israel’s enemy camp; at odds with God’s Chosen People.  

The overuse of divestment as a tactic enables such zero-sum game logic.   As effective as it has been, divestment is essentially reactive, negative and unloving.  It is reactive because divestment is a punitive response to corporate misbehavior.  It is negative because it takes away investment with the intention of causing economic suffering of the corporation without regard to the effect of jobs lost, or the economic impact of decreased profitability of a company.  Divestment is unloving because even though its ultimate aim is the greater good of society, it achieves this greater good by doing harm.  Divestment is steeped in a theology of punishing all financial sin until it is no more. 

After 40 years, can we now use our imaginations to achieve the same objectives through more mission-focused tactics?  When the Presbyterians announced the $21 million divestment from three Israeli companies, not a single news outlet raised the question, “Where are you going to invest the $21 million?” There was no announcement of a proactive investment to advance the Presbyterians’ mission and goals.  Indeed, the UCC was pleased to announce that a year after the Synod resolution, the church had invested $20 million in fossil fuel free investments.  Is our Christian witness so tepid that we are proud to just NOT sin?  Imagine if our in-vestment was as bodacious as our di-vestment?

 Instead of leading with judgement and punishment, churches can invest proactively, positioning our investments to demonstrate love and justice.  Churches can deploy their assets for mission and speak with a bold, public voice about our well-doing.  Churches can invest to make an impact for Christ.  God calls us to use our money to spread love.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Not A Hate Crime. Terrorism & Assassination

It was planned.  He chose the largest African American church in the heart of a vibrant downtown. He had a getaway car.  He entered the sanctuary during a scheduled prayer service.  He sat.  Long enough to see each of his victims.  Long enough perhaps, to be sure that the pastor, State Senator Clementa Pinckney, a man known as the conscious of state government, was indeed there, leading the prayer and bible study.  And then when he felt that the moment was right, he shot and killed nine praying souls.

After his unthinkable act, he accosted one of the prayer participants that he had not shot and told her that he would let her live so that she can tell what happened.  Then he walked calmly out of the sanctuary, out of the church, into a waiting vehicle, and drove away.

To label the assassination of an elected official and prominent pastor along with eight of his parishioners, a suspected hate crime is a gross injustice.  This is an act of domestic terrorism. Except for order of magnitude, this is no different from the bombing of the Boston marathon, or the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, or the bombing of a church and four little girls.  It was not just racially motivated, but politically motivated because it was a violent, twisted manifestation of the devaluation of African American lives, and the delegitimization of African American political leadership that is a linchpin of right wing politics. And it took place at a church, a sacred place, a symbol of American religious freedom, a beacon of truth and light for centuries.

What makes the killings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC terrorism and not a hate crime?  It was terrorism because of the intended impact.  This depraved individual (and it is not yet determined if he acted alone) did not simply act on supposed racial animus.  To kill his victims was not his only objective. He did not just pick a random group of black people and shoot.  This killer wanted to make a statement.  He wanted the deaths of his victims to have maximum media impact.  He wanted to send a message that was much bigger than hate.  A message that African Americans do not deserve the constitutional right of freedom of religion.  A message that African Americans are not supposed to become strong leaders who aspire to serve in elected office, who stand with other clergy against the killing of black men like Walter Scott in North Charleston. This killer wanted to strike terror in the hearts of African Americans, that even if you pray in church, your black lives do not matter.

The killer struck a terrorist’s blow, but the reign of terror will not succeed.  Christians, progressive politicians and activists, people of good will everywhere; we stand against the demonic forces that seek to kill, steal and destroy the freedoms that are the birthright of all Americans.  We stand against the forces of hatred and terror that seek to eviscerate African American humanity.  You kill us and we grow stronger.   We work together toward the day when God will let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Faith & Works Bring New Life


In 2013, Louisville officials delivered an ultimatum to St. Peter’s United Church of Christ: repair your spectacular, though dilapidated, turn-of-the-century German Evangelical church building -- or we will close it down.

Pastor Jamesetta Ferguson, Senior Pastor of St. Peter’s, and her leadership team had spent years patching up the building for a growing 165-member congregation in the local Russell community. Beecher Terrace, a 760-unit public housing development built in 1941, is directly across the street from St Peter’s.  Beecher gained national recognition in 2014 when PBS’ Frontline reported that one of every six residents spends time in prison each year.

St. Peter’s is an anchor in a neighborhood plagued with poverty and violence. The church serves over 1,000 local residents through 12-step meetings, food and clothes distribution, child abuse prevention education, volunteerism, Summer Enrichment Programs and employment, on-site childcare, nutritional and exercise programs. Recently, the church founded Molo Village, a Community Development Corporation which envisions the church as a shelter, a place of transformation, a place where families care for each other as they are nurtured and taught through education, community service and healthy living.

In 2013, with rehabilitation no longer a choice, Pastor Ferguson turned to the Church Building & Loan Fund’s Partners In Vision (PIV) program. PIV was created to assist congregations make the most of their undeveloped resources – in many cases, land or property – and help them bring to life projects that are sustainable, innovative and mission-driven.  Help also came from master architect Hal Kovert, founding partner at Kovert Hawkins Architects, which has served southern Indiana and northern Kentucky since 1985.

When Hal, a member of St. Marks UCC in New Albany, learned of the challenges facing St. Peter’s, he provided pro-bono architecture services throughout the project. “St. Peters serves a different membership than the one I grew up in. I have empathy for people who want to make improvements and accomplish more, but for some reason are getting stuck.” Hal’s work, financing from the Church Building and Loan Fund, and PIV consultant services enabled St. Peter’s to move to a leased, temporary space while it works with PIV to plan for bold, transformative partnership and ministry opportunities on the original church site.

St. Peter’s timing couldn’t be better. The city of Louisville recently decided to turn Beecher Terrace into a mixed-income community funded in part through the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development. The city has asked St. Peter’s to not only rebuild its church building, but help create a new way of life in Russell. St. Peter’s and Molo Village are working with Partners In Vision consultants, AIM Development Group, to develop part of its vacant land into a new mixed-use building that will serve local residents.

Hal’s contribution has given a new lease on life to St. Peter’s and the neighborhood it serves.  His generosity exemplifies stewardship and is an example of how UCC volunteers can extend their giving beyond tithing and impact the broader network of churches and communities.