Monday, January 29, 2018

I Love a Parade!

Author Donald Miller talks about his friend Bob.  Bob’s a lawyer, who also has served in the diplomatic corps, serving in Uganda.  Over the years he has developed a real love for that African country, and has often helped in efforts to improve living conditions in that impoverished land.

Stateside, Bob and his family live in San Diego.  One New Year’s Day some of Bob’s kids complained that they were bored.  So they decided to figure out a way to spice up the day.  They kicked around several ideas, including buying a pony or building a rocket ship.  Leave it to kids to imagine such a thing!  But then one of the children suggested they have a parade.

While at first glance it seemed just as unlikely as the rocket ship, the more they thought about it the more they realized it might work!  It might be a lot of fun.

They decided they’d all make a costume, and get some balloons, and invite the neighbors to join in the fun.  The kids ran up and down the block, inviting their friends and neighbors to join them.  Not on the sidelines, oh no.  This wasn’t a parade for just watching.  No they invited folks to be in the parade.  They’d all march down the street together, with their costumes and balloons, and then they’d finish up at Bob’s and have a barbeque.

Everyone had a ball.  In fact they had so much fun they decided to do it again the following year.  And the next, and the next and the next.  It’s gotten so big now, that literally hundreds participate every year.  Some folks who’ve moved even fly back to San Diego to join in the fun.  One year the neighborhood mailman was the grand marshal—and as he led the parade, he threw envelopes in the air.  They always elect a parade queen—some have come from the local retirement home.  And the queen gives a speech at the brunch they have after the march.  And everybody marches.  Nobody’s left out.  Nobody sits on the curb.   (A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, passim)

But that’s San Diego, that’s New Year’s Day.  What about the rest of the year, and the rest of the world?    For there have always been folks shut out of the parade.  But there have also been drum majors who ahve called a different tune.  When the poor were called unworthy of God’s love, Francis of Assisi took up the baton and made a place for them in the procession.  When women were excluded on the grounds of their gender, when the forces of apartheid in South Africa and racism in America said whites only, folks like Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King offered up a new song for marching.  When women were excluded on the basis of gender, when Irish Catholics were told they need not apply, when the Soviets tried to shut down the church, whenever there has been oppression, whenever there have been folks who’ve tried to keep the people on the curb, there have always been people of faith who have said, “No!  The parade is for one and all!”




Monday, January 22, 2018

It's OK to be White . . . But . . .

In last week's blog post I shared about the course being offered at nearby Florida Gulf Coast University  called "White Racism."  While the first day of classes went smoothly, posters, apparently in response to the course, have been placed around the campus that say, simply, "It's OK to be White."  The creator of the posters appears to have misunderstood both the intent of the course, and some of its philosophical underpinnings.  No one is saying there is anything wrong with being white per se.  It is a factor you can't control.  The color of your skin is determined by things outside of your scope of influence.  It is OK to be white, just as it is OK to be black or brown.

BUT, it is not OK to ignore the reality that in our society, in our culture, certain privileges adhere to being white.  Certain advantages come with being white.  And certain disadvantages come with being a part of a racial minority group.  Yes, many of those privileges, many of those advantages, are rooted in laws and practices that predate those now living--sometimes by decades, even centuries, but the effect of those laws and practices of the past mean the impact of things like slavery and Jim Crow are still being experienced today.

An example might help.  In the first part of the twentieth century, banks engaged in a practice called redlining.  Certain neighborhoods in large cities (and elsewhere) were sometimes literally circled or marked in red, indicating loans could not and should not be made for properties or projects in those areas.  More often than not those redlines coincided with neighborhoods made up largely of persons of color or certain ethnic backgrounds.  The effect of this was fairly straightforward:  no financing, no development, no property improvements, and so on.  Thanks to the Fair Housing Act of 1968 redlining is now illegal, but those neighborhoods that were impacted by these racist actions in the past, are still feeling the years of economic neglect.  And those who live in such neighborhoods, largely members of minority groups, are therefore at a distinct disadvantage.

It is OK to be white.  You are who you are--and your skin color is a part of who you are.  But being white does bring with it such often unspoken advantages, and being black or brown, often unspoken disadvantages.  That's what we need to pay attention too if we are white.  And as people of color work to rectify such matters, we need to be willing to be their allies in the effort.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Chill and Learn: A Few Words about Racism

This weekend we are marking Martin Luther King Day, and more than any other time of the year we are focused on recognizing the reality that our nation's history is often marked by prejudice and bias.  And this year it is at the fore of our conversation even more than in the past.  While we especially recognize the struggles of black folks, and the leadership proivided by Dr. King in the  civil rights movement,  we also pause to consider the many ways prejudice can and does seep into our lives today.  Sometimes it is blatant, and parades with torches or wears sheets and burns crosses.  But other times it is much more subtle, so engrained in our systems, so engrained is our ways of doing business and living life, that we don't even recognize it for what it is.

Hard as it is to hear, it is painfully true.  And it is this ongoing way that we live, often segregated by race, by religion, by gender, by sexual orientation, by ethnicity, that helps to foster continued prejudice and continued bias in our society.  It is no wonder that stereotypes and labels are still alive and well.   And they will only fall away if we are willing to discover one another. 

This past week a course being offered at Florida Gulf Coast University, our local campus of the Florida public university system, gained national attention due, perhaps in part, to it's somewhat provocative title, "White Racism."  It is being taught by Assistant Professor of Sociology, Ted Thornhill.  According to the course description, the class will  "interrogate the concept of race [and] examine racist ideologies, laws, policies, and practices that have operated for hundreds of years to maintain white racial domination."   Thornhill reports receiving some forty-six pages of e-mails  calling him by racial slurs, wishing cancer on him and his family, even making death threats.  The university was so concerned about his safety, and the safety of his students, that they posted two security guards at the doors of the classroom on the first day of classes.  Fortunately, things went smoothly, and the class was held without incident.  One student told a local reporter, "It was pretty cool.  Everybody was chill.  We are here to learn."  (News-Press, 1-10-18, 18A) 

Whether you think you agree with the underlying premise of the course or not, whether you think the course title is unnecessarily provocative or simply an expression of reality, whether you think it's fair to speak about the prejudices of one group without discussing the prejudices of another, the reality is the issues themselves need to be discussed.  And most of us would do well to be like that student, and be willing to simply chill and learn.  Learn about the issues, learn about other people.  We need to be willing to come and see.  For friends, it is as true now  as when your mother said in years gone by, "Don't judge a book--or a course--or a person--or an African country--or a Caribbean island--by its cover."


Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Where's Jesus? Some Thoughts After Epiphany

One of the most enduring traditions in the Connecticut church I served before coming here, was called the Angel Breakfast.  Every year, a couple of weeks before Christmas, the members of the Board of Christian Education would turn the social hall into a little bit of heaven.  Golden stars were hung from the ceiling, tables were covered with white linens and decorated with shining candles and sprays of gold, and at the front of the room, the stage was festooned with puffy clouds and rays of starlight.

All the children in third grade and under were invited to come with their parents on Sunday morning before worship for a special breakfast.  Carols were sung, sometimes there would be a craft, and the highlight of the event was a visit by a band of angels.

The angels, of course, were make believe, young folks in middle and high school dressed in white robes with golden haloes.  Originally it was all girls, but the celestial ceiling was finally broken in 2005 by some brave young men who rose to the challenge.  Their role in the festivities was to stand watch on either side of the curtain as the girl angels first sang, and then descended down the stage steps and out into the audience.

The loveliest part of the whole affair came when the angels spread out and, one-by-one, whispered a special message into each child's ear telling them Christmas was on the way. 

One year one of the Dads told me how his youngest child Jane was spellbound by the event.  She was just three at the time, and was very pleased when the angel whispered in her ear, "Jesus is coming!"

As things would happen, just as the angel left their table, Jane needed to go to the bathroom.  So Dad took her by the hand, and out they went to the restroom down the hall.

A few minutes later when they came back into the social hall, Jane stood at the door, surveyed the whole scene, and then, looking up at her Dad asked, "So where's Jesus?  Where is he?"
Jane's question turns out to be the same as the one asked by the Magi, the wisemen,  in the familiar story from Matthew. 

I've thought about that question a lot over the years, and while
I don't know about you, but when I reconsidered the whole story--not just the sweetness and light of the beloved carol about three kings and  gifts, but the whole story--I suddenly came to realize, it contains an answer to Jane and the Magi's question.  Where's Jesus?  Right in the middle of this story of brave strangers,  a vicious ruler, political intrigue, untold violence and refugees far from home.  "Where's Jesus?"  Right in the middle of life--everyday life.  Life at its best, when it calls forth the courage and persistence of folks like the magi.  And life at its worst, when it flares up in the scheming and menace of the Herods of this world. For  Jesus can be found wherever life takes us.  The places we want to go, and the places we try desperately to avoid.  But we will miss seeing Jesus unless, like the Magi, we are looking for him.  For he can, and does, show up in the most unexpected places, and is at work in the most unexpected people.  Not just two-thousand years ago, but in our own time as well.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A Word for Worrywarts

I have been using an Advent/Christmas devotional this year based on the writings of Dietrich Bonheoffer.  Bonheoffer was a German Lutheran pastor who participated in an assassination attempt against Hitler and eventually paid for it with his life.  He was executed just weeks before the end of the Second World War.

The letters and other things he wrote while in prison were collected and published posthumously as Letters and Papers from Prison.  Despite the very uncertain conditions that he had to deal with at that time, Bonheoffer was able to keep a measure of serenity because of his strong faith.  In one of those writings he offered up a few thoughts on Matthew 6:34b, the last part of Jesus' oft-quoted teaching about worry:  "Today's trouble is enough for today."  Reflecting on that passage, Bonheoffer wrote:  "Worry is always directed toward tomorrow . . . .It is precisely the securing of tomorrow that makes me insecure today. . . . Only those who place tomorrow in God's hands and receive what they need today are truly secure."  (191)

Powerful words--from an exceptionally credible source!  Words that ring as true today as they did over sixty years ago.  It is, in a way, simply another way of saying, live in the moment in the now.  But it is also more than that.  For we are reminded to turn over our concerns to God, the only source of true security.  Lasting security. 

Bigger armies won't guarantee us security.  Bigger bank accounts won't assure us of a safe future.  Our only lasting security comes in and through God.

Maybe this year--today--we can learn to place our tomorrows in God's hands, so that we have time to truly live today.