The Church Will Meet Our Expectations. Unfortunately

One thing I gleaned from my 3-month sabbatical experience this summer was an overall, 30,000-foot view of the general population’s expectations of the church. This is by no means a scientific, peer-reviewed, research study of church, it is simply a reporting of this author’s garnering of impressions.

By “church,” I’m talking about Christianity in general. I am in no way referring to any specific congregation, denomination, or theology. Of course, there are many local exceptions to what I’m writing here. This article, however, is my collective experience from a 3-month period of intense and deliberate listening in several countries and U.S. states.

To put it very simply, my overall impression is that people expect very little from the church. At least in ways that will make a difference or change lives in significant ways. For example, when a portion of our culture is experiencing poverty, vulnerability, or marginalization, and though Jesus directly challenged the powers that maintained these experiences, the church is nowhere near the top of the list of places where we consider looking to change that. The church is seen as good at individual acts of charity on a local level, which is commendable, but there is no expectation of addressing the issues that are beneath the need for those acts of charity. In other words, the church is viewed as a good place for handouts to the poor on a case-by-case basis, but not as an entity with the power or vision to address a culture of poverty.

Many people were clear that this has not always been the case. In the southern United States, for instance, there is a wide impression that the church was on the forefront of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. In a time of racially motivated murder, lynching, and division, the church was perceived as an institution that played a major role in improving the lives of Black Americans. This “on the front lines of change” view no longer seems to be the expectation. For some, the church appears to be claiming legitimacy by riding the wave of former civil rights activity; for others, the church seems to have simply retreated into the background. In either case, the expectation of what the church can offer has diminished considerably.

Surprisingly, this low-expectation view of the church is held not only by people outside of the church, but inside as well. My impressions are that those inside the church are also expecting their church to be merciful to individuals in need, but not to address the deeper issues that make mercy necessary. For those of us who claim a baptismal life committed to participation in the reign of God as disciples of Jesus, these expectations seem shockingly low. And the church will meet these expectations. Unfortunately.

I don’t believe this has to be the case. At its core, the power of Christ’s gospel is the power of hope and renewal. Expectations of the church, can, I believe, rise to the level of this call and the gifts we have been given. But to do so we need to address the reasons that expectations are low so we can begin to raise them from within.

I have some suspicions as to why expectations of the church appear to be so minimal. Among them are issues of privilege, individualism, and Christian fundamentalism. In the next few posts on this blog I will attempt to deal with each of these and speculate about ways to overcome them. Tune in. Read on. There is hope for the world. And the church can again reveal it on the front lines. Will that become our expectation? I hope so.

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Is That a Topping Lift or a Boom Vang?

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One serendipitous portion of this sabbatical time has been the opportunity for sailboat lessons. I enrolled in a Denver-based sailing school which entitled me to online resources, theory classes, and on-the-water practical sessions. I’ve completed all course work and all sailing practicals and have passed all the tests. I am now certified with the American Sailing Association in Basic Keelboat Sailing. Who would have thought?

In the first theory class, the instructor told us that learning sailing terminology was equivalent to learning a different language–because it is. Everything on a sailboat and related to sailing has its own words or phrases that don’t make any sense to non-sailors.

Which makes listening all the more important. Not just hearing the words, but listening to what the words mean. When told by Trey, Tibor, or John (my instructors) to “trim the jib to stop the luffing,” or to “bear away to a beam reach,” or the all-important “you’re sailing on the lee, watch out for an accidental jibe!” one needs to not just hear the words, but listen in order to understand. Listening means understanding. Otherwise, it’s not listening at all.

And it’s hard. The sailing world is different than the world I come from, therefore I had to spend the time learning the terminology and culture of sailing. Only then would I actually be able to listen. I could just sluff off all the terminology as nonsense and assert it as jibberish because I don’t understand it. But on a sailboat that would put everyone in potential danger. I had to take the time and effort to understand some basics of the sailing culture before I could listen with genuine understanding.

Both in sailing and beyond, it’s hard to listen to someone who lives in a different culture with different experiences. They express things about which I have no background. They use words differently with altered meanings. Their perspective on life has a different starting place. Upon hearing someone whose culture is different than mine, I have a couple of choices. I can write off what is said as nonsensical because it doesn’t resonate with my world view, or I can take the time to learn something about their culture and experiences to better understand.

Listening involves the latter. When we can begin to understand that someone else’s point of view, based on their own life experiences, includes different terminology and comes from a different cultural perspective, we can then begin to listen with understanding. That means I have to acknowledge that their experiences may not be anything I can relate to. The culture from which they come may start from a completely different place than anything I imagine. And to authentically listen to them I have to acknowledge that their language, their perspective, their world view, even if different than mine, is still valid and true.

By the way, the photo above is a J22 on a starboard tack on a close haul (or beating) point of sail. And to answer the question posed in the title of this post, a Topping Lift holds the boom level when the mainsail is lowered while a Boom Vang keeps the boom from rising while reaching and running. Just saying.

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“We Honor the Truth; We Do Not Fear It”

Bush.GHW.LibraryA trip to Houston, TX provided the opportunity to visit the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station, TX. President Bush was a self-made successful businessperson who valued his family. He enjoyed taking risks and pushing himself, which led to his career as a fighter pilot in WWII as well as an oil business entrepreneur. It was these same values and priorities which drove him into public service in politics, providing him the opportunity to serve in several prominent government positions including Congress, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Director of Central Intelligence, U.S. Envoy to China, Vice President, and ultimately as the 41st President of the United States.

This (poorly photographed) placard in this presidential library depicts a statement he made soon after being appointed by President Gerald Ford as Director of Central Intelligence. Several intelligence agencies were under investigation at the time for illegal and unethical activities. As its new director, George Bush was able to restore credibility to these agencies by his commitment (as noted in the placard) to Truth.

This is a value that is certainly worth listening to. In today’s culture of “alternative facts” and the bizarre acceptance of “opinion as fact,” President George H. W. Bush’s fearlessness in honoring Truth (I love his emphasis of truth with a capital “T”) is commendable.

Hearing Truth can be quite difficult. Truth can challenge our assumptions, counter our assertions, and expose our narrowness. Truth exists outside of our beliefs, our pre-conceived notions, and our commited priorities. Truth is Truth.

In a sabbatical time intentionally spent in listening, Truth emerges. My own awareness of what is True has been challenged, and some things I suspected as Truth have been confirmed. It is my intention to live up the this statement by President Bush, “We honor the Truth; we do not fear it.”

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The Cost of Compassion

CatonsvilleThis sign, posted on the grounds of the Public Library in Catonsville, MD (a western suburb of Baltimore), was placed in May of this year. It notes an illegal act of civil disobedience resulting in the destruction of federal property that occurred nearby 50 years ago.

And it is a sign that gives me inspiration and pride.

To me, this sign commemorates compassion over policy, conviction over power, people over politics. One of the slogans spoken during this protest involving the burning of 1-A draft records stolen from the Selective Service Office located across the street at the time was “Burn Paper, Not Children,” prioritizing the victims of the war over the politics.

And two of the nine involved in this protest were my relatives, my Uncle Tom Melville and my Aunt Margarita Bradford Melville. Their voices of ethics and morality have been part of my family history for well over 50 years, and have helped shape many of my own perspectives and priorities.

Their story involves time as missionaries in Guatemala in the late 1950s and 1960s, where the voices of the impoverished peasants in the mountain regions struck a deep chord of compassion in them. Listening to these oppressed people, and recognizing the injustice that was foundational in their culture, they stood with them during a revolution in Guatemala. This triggered a response from the Guatemalan government, the US government, and the Roman Catholic Church. Each of these institutions condemned their stance and took action against them. Tom and Marge’s commitment to listen and to act with compassion resulted in their expulsion from Guatemala, excommunication from the Catholic Church, and threats from terrorist groups.

Yet their persistence in living with the priority of compassion continued to cost them. Their action in Catonsville in 1968 resulted in a court conviction and time in federal prison. They have been vilified, ridiculed, and scorned by many. Yet they have been models of “the cost of compassion” for me and many others.

This sign posted in Catonsville, MD is a reminder to me that compassion takes courage. Listening bears a cost. And still that is what we are called upon to do.

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Lincoln, Listening, and Power

Washington, D.C. is a city built for power. The massive buildings exude dominance and can be a bit intimidating. Which, I suppose, was likely the intention.

Lincoln.mem.bldgAt the far end of the long Reflecting Pool on the west side of the city is one building that, from a distance looks as overpowering as the rest. Yet its very presence indicates that there has been within this city a commitment to integrity, compassion, and sacrifice for the sake of others. The Lincoln Memorial honors the 16th President of the U.S., who in a context of division over the issue of slavery, took a committed—if controversial—stand on behalf of oppressed, enslaved Americans. His commitment to take the side of those with no rights put our country into a civil war, almost divided it, and eventually cost Abraham Lincoln his life.

Like most elementary school students, I knew all this. Yet visiting this memorial for the first time was a powerful experience for me. I’m more aware than ever of a lack of integrity and compassion among us. Rather than looking to stand with those with little or no power, we’ve taken to accepting a culture that ignores these—or worse—blames them for their marginalization.

More than 150 years later, African Americans are no longer institutionally enslaved, yet continue to struggle for equality. The dominance of power among those of European ancestry, particularly males of European ancestry, is so deeply ingrained into our culture that it can be difficult for many white people to recognize. Yet the voices of African Americans continue to tell us it this hard truth.Lincoln.mem

Abraham Lincoln listened to these powerless voices and, what’s more, believed them. He recognized that those voices which have historically been smothered into silence must be heard if justice is to be obtained. This listening must be intentional, and can be difficult.

This in and of itself can be counter-intuitive for many whites because it is actually counter-cultural. Without realizing it, we of European ancestry give more credence to the voices of those in power. It comes naturally because it has always been “normal” for whites in this country. Now, just as much at then, we need to trust the voices of those who may be outside of white/male power structures. For there to be justice, there has to be the difficult work of hearing the hard truths spoken by people of color, by women, by children, by the poor.

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. is memorial not just to the man, but to his values. When we make the effort to hear the voices that have been hushed, and when we take what these voices are saying at face value, the world changes. Justice is lifted up. Freedom for all becomes more than a bumper sticker. We begin by listening—and believing—the cries of those who are telling us that injustice is still very present among us.

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A Voice of Integrity

This sign is toward the end of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta, GA. Many had a hard time with President Carter’s policies and attempted solutions, but no one can question his integrity and honesty. Voices like his are voices to which we need to listen: authentic, value-driven, and courageous.

His library has something positive to say about each prior President’s contribution to America as well as the world. He lived (and continues to live) principles of peace, justice, and honesty. His is a necessary voice for our world, one speaking for those pushed down and shoved aside. A voice worth hearing; a voice to respect.

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The Voice of Martin Luther King Still Rings True

Atlanta is a large city with all of the benefits and detriments accompanying the honor. Yet part of the history of this major American metropolitan area includes a significant piece of the US civil rights movement.

I visited the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Park in Atlanta which focuses on the life and contribution of the man as well as his wife, Coretta Scott King. Since Atlanta is the birthplace of this civil rights giant, the park, the graves, the birthplace, as well as the baptismal church of MLK are preserved and glorified. With good reason.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was, if nothing else, a man of extraordinary courage. He incarnated aspects of the gospel of Christ in ways that few others have been able to do. He heard (not to mention lived) the stories of those who were the intended recipients of God’s good news and put that good news into action. He spoke bravely of freedom, of justice, of God’s love for all people—white and black. And he lifted up a movement where that justice could be glimpsed by those who sought to see it.

What moved me the most was his absolute commitment to non-violence. Inspired by Gandhi and Jesus, he demanded peace in the face of violence and passivity in the face of aggression. Some have tried to paint his non-violent approach as weak, but in reality it is anything but. There are consequences to facing violence with non-violence. Those can include beatings, imprisonment, or even death. Yet MLK demanded that any who would follow him in demanding justice for themselves and others be willing to face these possibilities.

Love conquers all. And love cannot occupy the same space as violence. Martin Luther King, Jr. heard this from Jesus. I hear it from both of them.

The gospel cannot exist outside of a context. In the American 1960s the context revealed injustice in our laws, our voting, and our very attitudes. The gospel of Christ, put forth and lived by Martin Luther King, Jr., called out the evil of the injustice of racism. Today, the gospel of Christ calls out these same, as well as other, evils and wrongdoings. Those who are disciples of Christ today are part of the context of this present time and are, therefore, called to reveal the gospel of justice, love, and equality for all people in whatever way that looks like today.

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Hope in Birmingham

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This is one of the signs of welcome and inclusivity at First Church (United Methodist) in the very heart of downtown Birmingham, AL.

In a city that is rising above decades of exclusion and separation under any number of customs, laws, and intimidation, this shouldn’t be surprising. Inclusion is for all, according to First Church’s website.

I’m glad to see the courageous spirit of standing up for those pushed aside and pushed down is still alive in Birmingham.

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“Hey, Everybody, Meet Boss-Man”

I took a walking tour of New Orleans’ French Quarter this morning, a truly unique and vibrant neighborhood within a unique and vibrant city. Stephen was our tour guide, and, because rain was forecast, it was a small group of eight who chanced the weather.

Stephen obviously loved the French Quarter. Like every tour guide, he was knowledgeable and interesting. But there was more than just that for him. He was not just telling us about the neighborhood, he was sharing his world. This was his home, and he was not only proud of it, he was very much a part of it.

He took us through the entire French Quarter, doling out interesting tidbits (e.g., most of the buildings are actually Spanish), and pointing out the best gelato places. His standards for restaurants are “local, tasty, and cheap,” and he made sure we knew which places he favored. He was an excellent guide.

What made him really stand out for me was that he knew every doorman, every street worker, and even every homeless person we encountered. By name. At one point, he was trying to tell us a story about the “Good Friday Fire” which burned much of the area sometime (probably) in the 1800s, when a homeless man started shouting at him. “Hey, man, give me back my hat! I got a hot date tonight!” Stephen stopped his story, looked at the man, and shouted back, “You’re already looking good, Boss-Man!” Then they both laughed. Stephen turned back to us and said, “Hey everybody, meet Boss-Man.” Boss-Man waved and did a little dance in the street.

It was like this for much of the tour. Sanitation workers, the homeless, street cleaners, shop owners, Stephen knew them all–they were all his neighbors, his friends. He even told us which of the homeless shelters he gives money to, adding that he sometimes goes and eats there with these, his neighbors. “And the food’s not bad,” he further informed us.

When my congregation talks about “Strengthening Relationships” in our neighborhood, Stephen can be the inspiration, the tour guide, if you will. In our neighborhood, I’d love it if we all knew our neighbors well enough to say, “Hey, everybody, meet Boss-man.”

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“I’m Bewildered, Too”

I had nothing to lose. It was my last night in Jackson, and I was still confused. I had developed a decent rapport with the server at the restaurant, and so I took a risk and asked if she would answer a question for me. “Sure, if I can.”

“OK,” I ventured. “I find Mississippi somewhat bewildering.” Swallowing hard, I continued. “This state has the highest percentage of Black people in the country, and yet . . . ” I faltered.

“And yet we’re the reddest of the red states?” she suggested.

“Well, maybe. It’s just that there have been really brutal aspects of history regarding race here, yet there have also been astonishingly bold stands on civil rights and human rights.”

“I don’t get it, either,” she replied. “I’m bewildered, too. With all the Black civil rights heroes that have come from Mississippi, I don’t understand why there hasn’t been more change.” She paused, looked around, leaned a little closer, and spoke very quietly, “For instance, in this hotel, virtually all of the service employees are Black, but every person in management is white. I have no idea why it’s still that way.”

An order was up and she had to go and take care of another table. She didn’t get back to my table before I left.

I do believe there is change bubbling up in Mississippi and it’s close to surfacing. But for now, the server and I will have to continue to seek more understanding and, hopefully, live in ways that may bring a little bit of change.

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