Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Has the Democratic Party Lost Its Vision?

Over the past few days, facebook friends have posted several dozen Martin Luther King Jr. quotes—they’re all great—but you get to wondering after a while—what relevance do all these quotations have to our current situation?

The evil of legislated segregation has been over for decades, thanks to the work of Dr. King and so many others. Today, people are celebrating the fact that our (biracial) black (/white) president is still heading the nation, a symbol of how far we’ve come and a role model to inspire young African Americans. And people are talking about how there’s still work to be done, but we can press on in hope toward Dr. King’s vision and dream.

 But how are we going to get there unless we start talking about the problems facing black communities today? I am purposely using the term “black communities” rather than “black community,” even though I think there is value in talking about “the black community” in some contexts—because another reality is, there are huge differences between, say, the middle-class suburbs where some black people live and were raised, versus the crime riddled urban wastelands where others struggle to survive.

Although our president is part of “the black community,” he did not grow up in gang-controlled territory. Though he had to deal with the kind of racism that one of only three black kids in an elite private school might face, he had nothing like the experience of adolescent (or even pre-adolescent) boys struggling with the dilemma of whether to join a gang, or else refuse and risk bodily injury or death—and bleak economic prospects. Our black (/white) president did not have to attend an abysmally failing, dangerous public school. Can there be any doubt but that he benefitted immensely from the privileges of his white-American heritage?

Just because we have a black president does not mean he understands or is an advocate for solutions to the worst problems African Americans are facing in this country. I am, frankly, disappointed that his inaugural speech ended up sounding like the same old Democratic hobby horse riding of which I’ve been getting sicker and sicker since the beginning of last year’s campaign. People keep complaining that it offered no vision of a way forward in partnership with Republicans, but I was even more disheartened that it was such a small bundle of hopes limited to issues I consider of only secondary importance.

 Isn’t the Democratic Party supposed to be looking out for the interests of the poor and marginalized? “Struggling middle class families” do not count in my mind. Neither do women or gays. Okay, sure I'm phrasing it that way for shock value, and it's true that there are a few ways public policy could be changed to improve things for certain subsets of those groups—but this is not the same kind of high priority issue as it is to rescue children from criminally bad public schools, or to reduce the incarceration and homicide rates for young people, particularly black and Hispanic males. I'm not saying we should pit the interests of the less-marginalized against those of the substantially oppressed—I mean that if the party is only talking about issues on the scale of "keeping entitlements the way they've always been" and vague aspirations of closing the income gap between men and women (how exactly do you legislate that?) ... they've lost sight of the bigger issues.

I don’t understand why Democrats are so afraid to admit that probably the single worst cause of continued racial inequality in this country is the war on drugs. Gang activity centers around the underground drug economy. Young men who made poor choices during their youth, usually because there were no good choices available, become second-class citizens with felonies on their permanent records. This is one of few instances where public policy (and not just public policy, but federal legislation) is oppressing the poor on a massive scale.

In spite of being black, our (also white) president seems to have no appreciation for the importance of ending the inestimably destructive (and unjust) war on drugs. Instead, he’s gotten lost in politicking, and is not able to lead his party, much less the nation, out of its blindness and hypocrisy.

Friday, January 18, 2013

You Really Expect Me To Turn The Bare Rocks Into Tithing Members?

This is a modified, shortened version of last Sunday's sermon.

Being the pastor of a church with fewer than ten people has been a real test of faith for me (and it’s only been three months now). I wasn’t expecting this, perhaps because I’ve dealt in the past with doubts of a more intellectual sort—“Is faith consistent with a rational worldview? Is ‘God’ nothing more than fantasy born of a habit of psychological dependence?” and that sort of thing. This is a different kind of doubt.

I’ve been thinking of Moses lately, in the desert—when the Israelites were dying of thirst—and God told him, just talk to that rock over there and that’ll fix it. And Moses goes ahead and gathers everyone together, but when the moment comes, he chokes, and instead of talking to the rock, he says to the people, “What am I supposed to do, squeeze water out of this stone?” And he hits it a couple times with his staff and sure enough, it turns into a gushing fountain.

I know that other people know it’s not reasonable to expect that I can just instantly turn my church around, make it grow by leaps and bounds, and bring in enough income to put all our financial concerns to rest. But I also know certain people are really, really hoping that will happen. Some people really, really want it to happen and have faith it can happen—and just like Moses, I have my doubts—and unlike Moses, I have not had a word directly from the mouth of God telling me exactly what to do or what kind of provision God is going to make.

It’s been said that doubt is not the opposite of faith—indifference is. Because if the potential existence of God really makes no difference in your life, there’s no particular reason either to believe or to doubt. But the more you’ve risked on the possibility of God actually doing something to intervene in your life, the more you’re probably going to struggle with doubt. It’s scary to entrust your career (for example), or your reputation, finances, your life’s work, etc. to someone you have never literally seen or heard from. The more you entrust to God, the more anxiety you can expect to feel—i.e. the more faith you have, the more you will have to struggle with doubt.

It’s possible that by the end of 2013 we could have twenty new members. It’s also possible we could have even fewer than are here now. No one knows what’s going to happen. And that’s what causes me anxiety, when I see how much faith other people have that the church is going to grow and I want to shield them from disappointment—or when I imagine that other people think this venture is crazy and I wish God would prove them wrong.

But deeper than all that, I have no doubt that whether the church grows numerically or even shrinks (hah ha, talk about a test of faith), it’s going to grow spiritually.

I’ve also been thinking about how Jesus said the kingdom of God is like seeds that some guy scattered in a field. He doesn’t know how or why it happens and he doesn’t make it happen, but all by itself the seeds sprout and grow and eventually the kernels of wheat are ripe for harvesting.

Sometimes the reassurance God gives us is “too deep for words” and sometimes an image—a seed that sprouts and grows, naturally, at first invisibly, beneath the soil, mysteriously, wondrously grows—an image may be all that we need to remember and keep in mind. Something is growing, whether we can see it or not, whether it’s the type of plant we imagined or something unexpected. I know my doubts are only superficial, some worry about how this is going to end up looking to other people—but the truth that is written on my heart—how could I doubt—that God is, as always, causing something beautiful to grow …

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Something Ugly To Look At (Part 1)

One of the best things about living in Florida is the birds: there are all kinds of birds, most of them quite large compared with the pigeons, sparrows, and occasional hummingbirds one sees around L.A.--such as the flock of wild turkeys that seems to like hanging around the church. There are water birds everywhere, as well as hawks and vultures.

About a month ago I met one of the oddest, ugliest birds I've encountered yet: the wood stork.

I wish I'd had a camera with me. The pictures I've found of it online don't seem to do it justice. The effect in person is more striking--it's one of those so-ugly-it's-endearing kind of faces--almost goofy--really, just odd.

An artist named Vickie Henderson did a nice portrait in watercolor:

I've had a couple previous posts of "Something Beautiful To Look At"--lovely images to put up in my office. This is something ugly-beautiful I'm going to put up. These odd bald birds really make me smile.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Refraining From Poetic Wax ...

Sometimes as I’m preparing a sermon (or a blog post, or to teach a class) my thoughts go off in some mystical/metaphysical direction which I find deeply meaningful, but I almost never try to share it with anyone because it’s hard to put into words and I don’t expect many people to understand what I’m talking about. I’m afraid people will think I’m crazy if, for example, I talk about how our response to the shooting in Connecticut should be shaped by the doctrine of the trinity, or if I try to explain how loving the person different from us is the meaning of “organic”/ is life, possibly is existence. If I just explained it better it would make perfect sense to you, also. But you might not find it very meaningful. And I guess that’s the bigger reason I don’t share my mystical musings: they seem so impractical—kind of—I mean, they’re actually helpful to me in making everyday decisions—but I imagine other people thinking “This has no relevance to anything.” Hm.