Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Pres. Obama's Words for Us All

Remarks by the President at Memorial Service for Fallen Dallas Police Officers
Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center
Dallas, Texas
Scripture tells us that in our sufferings there is glory, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.  Sometimes the truths of these words are hard to see.  Right now, those words test us.  Because the people of Dallas, people across the country, are suffering. 
We’re here to honor the memory, and mourn the loss, of five fellow Americans -- to grieve with their loved ones, to support this community, to pray for the wounded, and to try and find some meaning amidst our sorrow. 
For the men and women who protect and serve the people of Dallas, last Thursday began like any other day.  Like most Americans each day, you get up, probably have too quick a breakfast, kiss your family goodbye, and you head to work.  But your work, and the work of police officers across the country, is like no other.  For the moment you put on that uniform, you have answered a call that at any moment, even in the briefest interaction, may put your life in harm’s way.
Lorne Ahrens, he answered that call.  So did his wife, Katrina -- not only because she was the spouse of a police officer, but because she’s a detective on the force.  They have two kids.  And Lorne took them fishing, and used to proudly go to their school in uniform.  And the night before he died, he bought dinner for a homeless man.  And the next night, Katrina had to tell their children that their dad was gone.  “They don’t get it yet,” their grandma said. “They don’t know what to do quite yet.”
Michael Krol answered that call.  His mother said, “He knew the dangers of the job, but he never shied away from his duty.”  He came a thousand miles from his home state of Michigan to be a cop in Dallas, telling his family, “This is something I wanted to do.”  Last year, he brought his girlfriend back to Detroit for Thanksgiving, and it was the last time he’d see his family.
Michael Smith answered that call -- in the Army, and over almost 30 years working for the Dallas Police Association, which gave him the appropriately named “Cops Cop” award.  A man of deep faith, when he was off duty, he could be found at church or playing softball with his two girls.  Today, his girls have lost their dad, for God has called Michael home.
Patrick Zamarripa, he answered that call.  Just 32, a former altar boy who served in the Navy and dreamed of being a cop.  He liked to post videos of himself and his kids on social media.  And on Thursday night, while Patrick went to work, his partner Kristy posted a photo of her and their daughter at a Texas Rangers game, and tagged her partner so that he could see it while on duty.
Brent Thompson answered that call.  He served his country as a Marine.  And years later, as a contractor, he spent time in some of the most dangerous parts of Iraq and Afghanistan.  And then a few years ago, he settled down here in Dallas for a new life of service as a transit cop.  And just about two weeks ago, he married a fellow officer, their whole life together waiting before them.  
Like police officers across the country, these men and their families shared a commitment to something larger than themselves.  They weren’t looking for their names to be up in lights.  They’d tell you the pay was decent but wouldn’t make you rich.  They could have told you about the stress and long shifts, and they’d probably agree with Chief Brown when he said that cops don’t expect to hear the words "thank you" very often, especially from those who need them the most.
No, the reward comes in knowing that our entire way of life in America depends on the rule of law; that the maintenance of that law is a hard and daily labor; that in this country, we don’t have soldiers in the streets or militias setting the rules.  Instead, we have public servants -- police officers -- like the men who were taken away from us.
And that’s what these five were doing last Thursday when they were assigned to protect and keep orderly a peaceful protest in response to the killing of Alton Sterling of Baton Rouge and Philando Castile of Minnesota.  They were upholding the constitutional rights of this country.
For a while, the protest went on without incident.  And despite the fact that police conduct was the subject of the protest, despite the fact that there must have been signs or slogans or chants with which they profoundly disagreed, these men and this department did their jobs like the professionals that they were.  In fact, the police had been part of the protest’s planning.  Dallas PD even posted photos on their Twitter feeds of their own officers standing among the protesters.  Two officers, black and white, smiled next to a man with a sign that read, “No Justice, No Peace.”
And then, around nine o’clock, the gunfire came.  Another community torn apart.  More hearts broken.  More questions about what caused, and what might prevent, another such tragedy.
I know that Americans are struggling right now with what we’ve witnessed over the past week.  First, the shootings in Minnesota and Baton Rouge, and the protests, then the targeting of police by the shooter here -- an act not just of demented violence but of racial hatred.  All of it has left us wounded, and angry, and hurt.  It’s as if the deepest fault lines of our democracy have suddenly been exposed, perhaps even widened.  And although we know that such divisions are not new -- though they have surely been worse in even the recent past -- that offers us little comfort.
Faced with this violence, we wonder if the divides of race in America can ever be bridged.  We wonder if an African-American community that feels unfairly targeted by police, and police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs, can ever understand each other’s experience.  We turn on the TV or surf the Internet, and we can watch positions harden and lines drawn, and people retreat to their respective corners, and politicians calculate how to grab attention or avoid the fallout.  We see all this, and it’s hard not to think sometimes that the center won't hold and that things might get worse.
I understand.  I understand how Americans are feeling.  But, Dallas, I’m here to say we must reject such despair.  I’m here to insist that we are not as divided as we seem.  And I know that because I know America.  I know how far we’ve come against impossible odds.  (Applause.)  I know we’ll make it because of what I’ve experienced in my own life, what I’ve seen of this country and its people -- their goodness and decency --as President of the United States.  And I know it because of what we’ve seen here in Dallas -- how all of you, out of great suffering, have shown us the meaning of perseverance and character, and hope.
When the bullets started flying, the men and women of the Dallas police, they did not flinch and they did not react recklessly.  They showed incredible restraint.  Helped in some cases by protesters, they evacuated the injured, isolated the shooter, and saved more lives than we will ever know.  (Applause.)  We mourn fewer people today because of your brave actions.  (Applause.)  “Everyone was helping each other,” one witness said.  “It wasn’t about black or white.  Everyone was picking each other up and moving them away.”  See, that’s the America I know.
The police helped Shetamia Taylor as she was shot trying to shield her four sons.  She said she wanted her boys to join her to protest the incidents of black men being killed.  She also said to the Dallas PD, “Thank you for being heroes.”  And today, her 12-year old son wants to be a cop when he grows up.  That’s the America I know.  (Applause.) 
In the aftermath of the shooting, we’ve seen Mayor Rawlings and Chief Brown, a white man and a black man with different backgrounds, working not just to restore order and support a shaken city, a shaken department, but working together to unify a city with strength and grace and wisdom.  (Applause.)  And in the process, we've been reminded that the Dallas Police Department has been at the forefront of improving relations between police and the community.  (Applause.)  The murder rate here has fallen.  Complaints of excessive force have been cut by 64 percent.  The Dallas Police Department has been doing it the right way.  (Applause.)  And so, Mayor Rawlings and Chief Brown, on behalf of the American people, thank you for your steady leadership, thank you for your powerful example.  We could not be prouder of you.  (Applause.)     
These men, this department -- this is the America I know.  And today, in this audience, I see people who have protested on behalf of criminal justice reform grieving alongside police officers.  I see people who mourn for the five officers we lost but also weep for the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.  In this audience, I see what’s possible -- (applause) -- I see what's possible when we recognize that we are one American family, all deserving of equal treatment, all deserving of equal respect, all children of God.  That’s the America that I know.
Now, I'm not na├»ve.  I have spoken at too many memorials during the course of this presidency.  I’ve hugged too many families who have lost a loved one to senseless violence.  And I've seen how a spirit of unity, born of tragedy, can gradually dissipate, overtaken by the return to business as usual, by inertia and old habits and expediency.  I see how easily we slip back into our old notions, because they’re comfortable, we’re used to them.  I’ve seen how inadequate words can be in bringing about lasting change.  I’ve seen how inadequate my own words have been.  And so I’m reminded of a passage in *John’s Gospel [First John]:  Let us love not with words or speech, but with actions and in truth.  If we’re to sustain the unity we need to get through these difficult times, if we are to honor these five outstanding officers who we’ve lost, then we will need to act on the truths that we know.  And that’s not easy.  It makes us uncomfortable.  But we’re going to have to be honest with each other and ourselves.
We know that the overwhelming majority of police officers do an incredibly hard and dangerous job fairly and professionally.  They are deserving of our respect and not our scorn.  (Applause.)  And when anyone, no matter how good their intentions may be, paints all police as biased or bigoted, we undermine those officers we depend on for our safety.  And as for those who use rhetoric suggesting harm to police, even if they don’t act on it themselves -- well, they not only make the jobs of police officers even more dangerous, but they do a disservice to the very cause of justice that they claim to promote.  (Applause.)  
We also know that centuries of racial discrimination -- of slavery, and subjugation, and Jim Crow -- they didn’t simply vanish with the end of lawful segregation.  They didn’t just stop when Dr. King made a speech, or the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act were signed.  Race relations have improved dramatically in my lifetime.  Those who deny it are dishonoring the struggles that helped us achieve that progress.  (Applause.) 
But we know -- but, America, we know that bias remains.  We know it.  Whether you are black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or of Middle Eastern descent, we have all seen this bigotry in our own lives at some point.  We’ve heard it at times in our own homes.  If we’re honest, perhaps we’ve heard prejudice in our own heads and felt it in our own hearts.  We know that.  And while some suffer far more under racism’s burden, some feel to a far greater extent discrimination’s sting.  Although most of us do our best to guard against it and teach our children better, none of us is entirely innocent.  No institution is entirely immune.  And that includes our police departments.  We know this. 
And so when African Americans from all walks of life, from different communities across the country, voice a growing despair over what they perceive to be unequal treatment; when study after study shows that whites and people of color experience the criminal justice system differently, so that if you’re black you’re more likely to be pulled over or searched or arrested, more likely to get longer sentences, more likely to get the death penalty for the same crime; when mothers and fathers raise their kids right and have “the talk” about how to respond if stopped by a police officer -- “yes, sir,” “no, sir” -- but still fear that something terrible may happen when their child walks out the door, still fear that kids being stupid and not quite doing things right might end in tragedy -- when all this takes place more than 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we cannot simply turn away and dismiss those in peaceful protest as troublemakers or paranoid.  (Applause.)  We can’t simply dismiss it as a symptom of political correctness or reverse racism.  To have your experience denied like that, dismissed by those in authority, dismissed perhaps even by your white friends and coworkers and fellow church members again and again and again -- it hurts.  Surely we can see that, all of us.
We also know what Chief Brown has said is true:  That so much of the tensions between police departments and minority communities that they serve is because we ask the police to do too much and we ask too little of ourselves.  (Applause.)  As a society, we choose to underinvest in decent schools.  We allow poverty to fester so that entire neighborhoods offer no prospect for gainful employment.  (Applause.)  We refuse to fund drug treatment and mental health programs.  (Applause.)  We flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book -- (applause) -- and then we tell the police “you’re a social worker, you’re the parent, you’re the teacher, you’re the drug counselor.”  We tell them to keep those neighborhoods in check at all costs, and do so without causing any political blowback or inconvenience.  Don’t make a mistake that might disturb our own peace of mind.  And then we feign surprise when, periodically, the tensions boil over.
We know these things to be true.  They’ve been true for a long time.  We know it.  Police, you know it.  Protestors, you know it.  You know how dangerous some of the communities where these police officers serve are, and you pretend as if there’s no context.  These things we know to be true.  And if we cannot even talk about these things -- if we cannot talk honestly and openly not just in the comfort of our own circles, but with those who look different than us or bring a different perspective, then we will never break this dangerous cycle.
In the end, it's not about finding policies that work; it’s about forging consensus, and fighting cynicism, and finding the will to make change.
Can we do this?  Can we find the character, as Americans, to open our hearts to each other?  Can we see in each other a common humanity and a shared dignity, and recognize how our different experiences have shaped us?  And it doesn’t make anybody perfectly good or perfectly bad, it just makes us human.  I don’t know.  I confess that sometimes I, too, experience doubt.  I've been to too many of these things.  I've seen too many families go through this.  But then I am reminded of what the Lord tells Ezekiel:  I will give you a new heart, the Lord says, and put a new spirit in you.  I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
That’s what we must pray for, each of us:  a new heart.  Not a heart of stone, but a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens.  That’s what we’ve seen in Dallas these past few days.  That’s what we must sustain.
Because with an open heart, we can learn to stand in each other’s shoes and look at the world through each other’s eyes, so that maybe the police officer sees his own son in that teenager with a hoodie who's kind of goofing off but not dangerous -- and the teenager -- maybe the teenager will see in the police officer the same words and values and authority of his parents. 
With an open heart, we can abandon the overheated rhetoric and the oversimplification that reduces whole categories of our fellow Americans not just to opponents, but to enemies.
With an open heart, those protesting for change will guard against reckless language going forward, look at the model set by the five officers we mourn today, acknowledge the progress brought about by the sincere efforts of police departments like this one in Dallas, and embark on the hard but necessary work of negotiation, the pursuit of reconciliation.
With an open heart, police departments will acknowledge that, just like the rest of us, they are not perfect; that insisting we do better to root out racial bias is not an attack on cops, but an effort to live up to our highest ideals.  (Applause.)  And I understand these protests -- I see them, they can be messy.  Sometimes they can be hijacked by an irresponsible few.  Police can get hurt.  Protestors can get hurt.  They can be frustrating. 
But even those who dislike the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” surely we should be able to hear the pain of Alton Sterling’s family.  (Applause.)  We should -- when we hear a friend describe him by saying that “Whatever he cooked, he cooked enough for everybody,” that should sound familiar to us, that maybe he wasn’t so different than us, so that we can, yes, insist that his life matters.  Just as we should hear the students and coworkers describe their affection for Philando Castile as a gentle soul -- “Mr. Rogers with dreadlocks,” they called him -- and know that his life mattered to a whole lot of people of all races, of all ages, and that we have to do what we can, without putting officers' lives at risk, but do better to prevent another life like his from being lost.
With an open heart, we can worry less about which side has been wronged, and worry more about joining sides to do right.  (Applause.)  Because the vicious killer of these police officers, they won’t be the last person who tries to make us turn on one other.  The killer in Orlando wasn’t, nor was the killer in Charleston.  We know there is evil in this world.  That's why we need police departments.  (Applause.)  But as Americans, we can decide that people like this killer will ultimately fail.  They will not drive us apart.  We can decide to come together and make our country reflect the good inside us, the hopes and simple dreams we share. 
“We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
For all of us, life presents challenges and suffering -- accidents, illnesses, the loss of loved ones.  There are times when we are overwhelmed by sudden calamity, natural or manmade.  All of us, we make mistakes.  And at times we are lost.  And as we get older, we learn we don’t always have control of things -- not even a President does.  But we do have control over how we respond to the world.  We do have control over how we treat one another.
    America does not ask us to be perfect.  Precisely because of our individual imperfections, our founders gave us institutions to guard against tyranny and ensure no one is above the law; a democracy that gives us the space to work through our differences and debate them peacefully, to make things better, even if it doesn’t always happen as fast as we’d like.  America gives us the capacity to change.
Only by working together can we preserve those institutions of family and community, rights and responsibilities, law and self-government that is the hallmark of this nation.  For, it turns out, we do not persevere alone.  Our character is not found in isolation.  Hope does not arise by putting our fellow man down; it is found by lifting others up.  
And that’s what I take away from the lives of these outstanding men.  The pain we feel may not soon pass, but my faith tells me that they did not die in vain.  I believe our sorrow can make us a better country.  I believe our righteous anger can be transformed into more justice and more peace.  Weeping may endure for a night, but I’m convinced joy comes in the morning.   We cannot match the sacrifices made by Officers Zamarripa and Ahrens, Krol, Smith, and Thompson, but surely we can try to match their sense of service.  We cannot match their courage, but we can strive to match their devotion.
May God bless their memory.  May God bless this country that we love. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Orlando Shooting: What Can Churches Do?

If a nightclub in Orlando is not a safe place for LGBT people to gather, how do we create safe places for us be different together? A hate crime against one person or group is a discriminatory assault against any one and every group. How do we support one another? What will we do and say and be this week and every week?
The head of the NAACP spoke eloquently Sunday about the need for us to stand together against hatred and discrimination of all kinds. Likewise Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), spoke about the connections between homophobia, transphobia, and Islamophobia.

Faisal Alam of the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity in an interview Sunday said that there are those in many religions that call homosexuality a sin. A statement by that group put out Sunday said, “There is no religious justification or precedent in Islam for mass shootings targeting any population, regardless of identity, nor is there justification in American law or values. This tragedy is a reminder of the terrible harm that can result from the wide availability of guns and explosives. The proliferation of guns facilitates acts of violence by individuals whose own values conflict with those of most Muslims and most Americans which hold human life to be sacred. With that in mind, we call for a renewal of the national conversation around strengthening gun control.”

It is true that within many religions, including Christianity, there are segments that make their case against homosexuality and transgender identity. However, even though there are thousands of Christians who are LGBT that does not translate into fear of or hatred of all Methodists, or Baptists, or Lutherans, or Roman Catholics.  It may, however, translate into LGBT people not feeling welcome in some local congregations.

How do we create safe places for us to be different together?  For a person to really be not only tolerated, but welcomed?  Not only welcomed, but understood?  Not only understood, but embraced?  At such a time as this, we may easily grow more fearful.  We may fearfully grow more closed in.  Or we might dare to become insistent activists and more radically inclusive.

First, breaking a record--“The largest mass shooting in American history”--is not a worthy record. We have noted before that we have become almost immune to death by gun violence, calling it “senseless violence,” (it is making sense to the shooter), seeking the details, gluing ourselves to the television for the required number of days of attention. We can change.  We can heed Nihad Awad and Faisal Alam. There is no religious justification in Islam for mass shootings.  Nor is there in Christianity or Judaism, or other major religions.  This is a land of many religions. We need to be a nation where it is safe to be different together.

Second, what can faith communities do? Coincidentally, Saturday night, I was attending a regional church assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Our church body does ordain women and men who are gay and lesbian.  We are open to diversity.  And yet we also need to continue to talk about how we can be even more inclusive, not just welcoming of people who might happen to come on a Sunday, but known in the community as congregations that really are places where all can really feel not only accepted, but embraced and cherished for who they are.

That’s a challenge for all us of, I believe, in whatever communities with which we associate, whatever our beliefs.  We can care about, mourn for, and pray for those “over there in Orlando.” Good.  But even better, is to change our own gathering places, communities and this nation into safe, healthy, trustworthy places to be different together. 

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Burton Everist Chosen for Award and 50th Anniversary of Ordination

Wartburg Seminary is presenting the Living Loehe Award to Pastor Burton Everist for his pastoral, teaching and volunteer service in the church and community at graduation May 15, 2016.

Burton was born in Mason City, Iowa.  At 16 he heard the Gospel, joined the Lutheran Church and then studied to become a pastor.  After completing  his MDiv and STM in New Testament he taught theology at Valparaiso University and  was Assistant to the Director of Lutheran Human Relations Association of America (LHRAA.)  Later he taught at Michigan Lutheran College, Yale Divinity School, and Northeast Iowa Community College.

In seminary Burton chaired the LHRAA St. Louis Chapter, organizing an ecumenical program testing restaurants for racial discrimination.   Following ordination in 1966 he continued civil rights efforts while pastor in Detroit and New Haven, Connecticut.   In Detroit he initiated a Roman Catholic/Lutheran parish dialog.  In New Haven he led renewal of the Yale Divinity Lay School of Religion.

Burton and Norma married in 1962.  When Norma was called to Wartburg Seminary in 1979 Burton took more responsibility caring for Mark, Joel, and Kirk.  Later he became Wartburg Seminary’s Media Director, teaching  Imagination and Theology.  He produced the weekly cable program Welcome to Wartburg.  He helped begin the Churches’ Center for Land and People, and, with Pastor Steven Ullestad, led in establishing the St. Mark Center.

Burton served Grace Lutheran in East Dubuque for fifteen years.   He led the founding of the community’s Kids Zone.  While directing the Emmaus Center for Continuing Education for the Illinois Synods he gathered representatives to establish the Tri-State Forum at WTS.  

He served seventeen pastoral interims in New England, Wisconsin, and Iowa.

In the Northeastern Iowa Synod he was board member of Life Long Learning for Lutherans.

For thirteen years he coauthored with Norma the “Since You Asked” column for The Lutheran. He authored several books, monthly Lectionary Helps and produced videos for the Lutheran World Federation.

In the WTS “Seminary for Everyone” program he teaches The Gospel according to John the Shepherd.  At the 2016 meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature Midwest Region his paper, John: Gospel for the Homeless, was well received. It proposed John’s purpose, “These are written that you may keep trusting Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, and trusting have life in his name” was to proclaim Christ to struggling, persecuted refugee Christians. 

Currently Burton is Chaplain at Luther Manor Communities serving residents, their families, and staff. Click on the blog below for the full Vita of his service to Christ over these many years.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Don't Let Fear Keep You from Love

This is the Fifth Sunday of Easter in Western Christianity, over halfway towards Ascension and Pentecost.  Thinking about an Easter Season is out of synch with the culture. After all, the bunny rabbit candy shelves in stores have long been emptied. Even the on-sale left-overs are gone. But the Easter Season goes on.  These many weeks are needed.

“Do not be afraid,” (Matt. 28:5) the women at the tomb were told.  But they were. They were terrified. “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5) the women were asked. But where else would they have looked?

At the Ascension of Christ, while his followers were watching, they were asked, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (Acts 1:11) The followers of Christ did not just stand there. On Pentecost with the coming of the Holy Spirit, people coming from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem and visitors from as far away as Rome heard in their own languages these first Christians speaking about God’s deeds of power. (Acts 2: l-11)

In between that first Easter and Pentecost Sunday many of us will hear these words: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34)

We need these words because we today live in a season of fear: images of terrorists. “They are coming to get us,” I heard someone say recently. Fear has a power of its own. It can literally petrify. Fear can cause us to retaliate, or blame anyone and everyone, or shoot in circles. To do so is to fall prey to seeking more death among the dead.

Things could have gone that way after the crucifixion of Christ. What if the angel at the tomb had said, “You better be afraid. Jesus is gone. You are left on your own,” instead of “He has been raised . . . he is going ahead of you to Galilee.” (Mark 16:6-7)

What if as Christ ascended he had said, “I’m leaving you to your fears. I’m not going to protect you or guide you anymore. Too bad.” But rather he opened the disciples’ minds to understand about his suffering and ours and about repentance and forgiveness of sins and said, “You are my witnesses.” (Luke 24:47-51)

And on Pentecost, what if those first believers in Christ, bold enough to speak about Christ’s life in the face of death had been misunderstood? Well, by some they were. Some sneered. (Acts 2:13)  But, amazingly, many heard that this man Jesus who was killed, God raised up, having freed from death because he couldn’t be held in death’s power. (Acts 2:22-24) About three thousand people believed and came together in community. (Acts 2:41-42)

Particularly when insidious fear erupts from terrorizing situations and others use that fear to gain advantage, notoriety, and power, building communities—inter-religious communities—where we can trust one another is urgently needed. We need the courage to form communities of love toward one another.

Hearing, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another,” is challenging in the midst of not knowing what comes next. It calls for the difficult work of reconciliation. Christ could not be held in death’s power. Neither can we. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

I Saw My President

I saw my president and his family land at the Cuban airport Sunday night and step off onto Cuban soil. Even the need for umbrellas, because of the driving rain, did not blur my television view.

I saw my president, Barack Obama, last week Wednesday step before the cameras in the Rose Garden at the White House and officially name Merrick Garland as a Supreme Court nominee.

I saw my president and the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, hold a joint news conference at the White House the Thursday before, March 10the.

Three times in eleven days. Almost amazing because most every television broadcast for months and months has begun with words and pictures of potential presidents, not the president we have now. I watched the Obama-Trudeau joint news conference with my granddaughter, Jennaya, age 11, who was at home recovering from surgery. She watched the entire broadcast with great interest. 
Disappointed to see that the evening news covered only 30 seconds (what Obama had to say about a presidential candidate), Jennaya decided to write a story about the entire news conference on what her president and the prime minister had said. She included a sentence: “The whole news conference was a treat considering usually the media is all about Trump!”

Some might say that President Obama may be able to do more during these final months of his presidency without being under the constant eye of the people of the United States. But I, for one, would like to see him. And hear him and learn from him.

Some commentators have been calling Obama a lame duck president since the day after he won the election for his second term in office. (Only now do reporters use that term in the more accurate narrow sense to refer to the days after November 2016 before the inauguration of the next president in January 2017—raising the possibility of the Republicans in the Senate confirming Judge Garland’s nomination at the last minute.)  As for Obama? No lame duck is he!

Of course he has not been able to accomplish all he or we would have hoped. However, Barack Obama has been leading consistently in a way that has made it a joy for me to not only watch but also to be engaged in this participatory democracy. The words he used to describe Judge Garland might well be words to describe President Obama himself: a man of “decency, modesty, integrity, even-handedness and excellence.”

Young Jennaya’s news story on watching President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau address reporters’ questions together said: “Reporters from both countries asked questions. They spoke in both French and English. Children in Canada learn both languages. The men spoke of friendly relationships between the two countries and the importance of a strong partnership. There is a long border between the United States and Canada. They talked about the importance of working together on Climate Change issues and being leaders in the world on this use. They stressed being good neighbors with each other and helping countries in the world all be good neighbors.”

My husband and I watched President Obama land in Cuba. (Burton and I had been married less than two months when the Cuban Missile Crisis in the fall of 1962 made us extraordinarily fearful for two weeks if we would wake up the next morning.) We are not unaware of the work it takes to have good neighborly relationships, particularly with huge power differentials. There are risks. There always are risks. Human rights. Embargos. My responsibility as a columnist and as a professor is to dig deep, to critique, and to help people understand issues. But for now, I give thanks that President Obama is my—our—president. He has been ignored, ridiculed, derided, vilified, and threatened. However, every time I have heard him speak, in news conferences, speeches, or when giving words of comfort to families of victims of gun violence, I have been appreciative and inspired.

In spite of what he has and will endure, he is a man of diligence, collaboration, and reconciliation. I have seen that.  I want to see him more.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Four, Three, Two Days to Iowa

To Iowa? That sounds like travel not time. We know what the media means. Or do we? I live in Iowa. So, a few things I would like to say “on the way to Iowa” from one who is already here: Misconceptions about Iowa; Curiosity about a Caucus; Disbelief about Participatory Democracy; and Even the children, Especially the children.

First, people in Iowa do not use hay bales for chairs. Iowa is not totally flat. (We live in hilly Dubuque, on the bluffs of the Mississippi.) You don’t drive through miles of corn at this time of year. We are covered with snow.  Iowa is an urban as well as a rural state.  Most important, Iowans are diverse in religion (no, not all Evangelicals), ethnicity, race, age, occupations, sexual orientation, and more. Iowans are well educated and informed.  Iowans, both rural and urban, have a global perspective. And Iowans take their responsibility of being the first-in-the nation caucus state very seriously. 

Second, my friends from Michigan to North Carolina to Australia are curious about the Iowa Caucus. They ask, “What really goes on there?” So I try to explain, “Where do you vote?” One responds, “At the high school about 2 miles from my home.” I go on, “Imagine that everyone who votes there all day long comes together at, 7:00 p.m.  Imagine that instead of going into a private voting booth, you all sit together in the auditorium and talk to each other in a civil way.  You have a conversation about important issues. You listen to one another.” (No, people do not wave banners and shout at each other, and senselessly follow the loudest leader.) It’s well organized and orderly. My friend is incredulous. Anyone can attend.  The caucus is open to the public and the press.  You can register as a Republican or Democrat that night, but that does not obligate you to vote that party ticket in November. Observers who are not eligible to vote because of age or residency in another state or country, watch and learn.  It’s fascinating.

Third, Caucus night is about participatory democracy. When international students from the seminary where I teach observed 4 and 8 years ago, they were amazed that people could express their political views in public without fear of losing their jobs, or worse.  That is still true here, and I trust it will continue, even with the proliferation of gun violence in our society. The first amendment is as important as the second. We need people of all faith traditions to participate: institutional separation and functional interaction. Faith leaders should not tell people how to vote but encourage people to vote and be engaged in working for good government for the welfare of all.

Participatory democracy is about much more than casting a vote for a candidate, although that is what will be reported in the news, even before caucus-goers enter the building from the parking lot. It is about being a participant rather than a spectator. Republicans begin with a straw poll and then in precincts build a party platform and choose delegates.  Democrats begin with preference groups, test for numeric viability, realign, count, and then discuss issues. They choose delegates to the county and state conventions, “regardless of race, sex, age, color, creed, national origin, religion, ethnic identity, sexual orientation, gender identity, or economic status.”
Fourth, even children in Iowa are informed participants. Eight years ago when our granddaughter, Jennaya, was 3 ½, and reporters were swarming all over Iowa, a Washington correspondent in an ice cream shop, possibly running out of adults to interview, asked Jennaya, whom she was for.  Jennaya spoke right up, “I like Hillary, but I think I’m going for Barack Obanga.” She has followed the political process ever since.  Iowa schools provide opportunity to discuss government and the political process and take straw polls.

Our son, Joel Everist, sent a picture this morning, of Jennaya, now 11 and her brother, Jackson, 9, with Bill Clinton, who spoke in Mason City, Iowa, last night. Joel told how Jennaya and Jackson suffer from diseases with no cure. “We thank the Clintons and President Obama for their work to ensure access to healthcare throughout their lifelong battles. We stand with Hillary Clinton who stands to protect, continue, and improve healthcare coverage for all. The future must be inclusive, not exclusive.”  Jennaya texted to me, “Bill Clinton talked about how Hillary says ‘What can I do to help?’” What that must mean to Jennaya who faces surgery next month!

So, come to the real Iowa!  Especially the children, but all of us need not to passively be led by the most outrageous angry rhetoric, but to think carefully and participate actively in building an inclusive democracy.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Child’s Silent Call for Trustworthy Action

Recently while approaching a store escalator, I noticed a woman with a girl, about 4, in front of me. The woman with her stepped on, but then the child quickly slipped her hand out from the woman’s grasp and stood still. I saw a look of dread on the child’s face and observed she was not going to get on, even as the woman’s body began to go up the escalator.

In that instant I could have stayed with the child while her mother rode up and then came back down the other side. But the child would have lost sight of the one in whose care she was.  Would the child start to cry? Scream? Should I pick her up?  I saw the woman look as though she would try to walk back down the moving stairs—a dangerous decision because she was already going rapidly upward.

Usually a child should not go with a stranger, nor should a stranger approach a child, but this time it seemed different. This minute called for trust and action. So I reached out my hand to the girl and she reached back and took my hand. I held it and said, “Let’s get on. It will be fine.”  She and I took a step together. And up we went.  I talked, quietly, calmly. “We’re safe. See your—your—mother?” (The woman nodded back—she was the girl’s mother—I would not have wanted to be wrong about that and frighten the child even more.) “She is right there in front of us.  She is going up.  We are going up right behind her. She is safe. We are safe.”

I just kept talking.  I did not overly promise, saying such things as “Aren’t we having fun?”  Simply, “We’re going up.” The girl did not look at me.  Her eyes were fixed on her mother and her mother’s eyes were fixed on her. A trusting bond. The mother did not say anything. It was as if she knew the girl’s hand was safe in mine, and the very best thing was to simply remain quiet and calm, although she was an unreachable distance beyond.  I then said, “Your mother is almost at the top. Very soon we will be at the top. Here we are. All is well.”  I put the girl’s hand back into her mother’s hand and she said, “Thank you,” and away they went.

But I saw them around the corner of the counter and they both waved back with smiles.

How do we place not only our children but each other at any age in each other’s care responsibly?  What is a call to ministry in the midst of a fearful culture?

Knowing God is our Good Shepherd, how do we become shepherds? Knowing we have a trustworthy God, how do we take a hand, take steps together, and build trust? 
Everist's latest book is “Seventy Images of Grace in the Epistles That Make All the Difference in Daily Life.”

Friday, December 4, 2015

When Mass Shootings Become Typical, What Do We Believe?

“This was not a typical mass shooting day,” he said. The words struck my heart as the newscaster described the variation in what had become a ritual in his reporting. It was early Thursday morning, the day after the deadly attack in San Bernardino. “Only a couple of other times among the 160 mass murders in the past few years has it been more than a solitary shooter.” The newscaster was describing his Wednesday and what his Thursday would no doubt be.  These days had come to be typical--normal. The only thing new was the number.

I, too, had a typical day ahead, of teaching. As a professor at Wartburg Theological Seminary, I lead class conversation on the beliefs of Lutheran Christians, one denomination in our pluralistic culture.  I could advise students to turn the TV off so they have time to study. However, they need to read not only Scripture but also the daily news.

By evening, we learned through the news, whether by television, computer or other electronic device, that there were two shooters, not three, and they were Muslim. They had a whole arsenal of guns. How and where had this U.S.-born man been radicalized? Was this a work-place grievance or an act of terrorism or a blend?

After each mass shooting, neighbors’ responses to reporters’ questions routinely are, “I can’t believe it could happen in a neighborhood (town) (country) like ours.” This time, a San Bernardino woman interviewed said she didn’t feel safe at all, adding, “I don’t know, I just don’ know . . .” Her certainty had been shaken. But lest ours be as well, the program switched quickly to an ad showing a family on a pleasant beach around a bonfire. The father said, “My parents worked hard so we could enjoy the simple pleasures of life, and now I’m doing the same thing for my family.” An insurance company would “help you protect what you love and grow your future.”

A feel-good, “God’s-loves-us-best” “American Dream Christianity” is not and dare not be the national religion of the United States. However, we do have a history of a civil religion, being a “chosen people” in a “promised land” and “American Exceptionalism.” It has its own Holy Days, Shrines, Holy Writ, Hymns, Symbols, Saints and Martyrs, Priests, Pastors and Prophets, its Rituals, Gods, Creeds and Mission. The USA has not so much felt it needed a Redeemer as to be a Redeemer—a leader—nation to the world.  Repentance is missing from the myth of origin; also missing are the true stories of all, particularly African slaves and the more than 550 distinct Native American tribes already here when America was “discovered.”

With a belief system of exceptionalism and being God’s special chosen people, it is not strange that people deny that “we” could be capable of violence, and that “our kind” would intentionally kill. We are not “monsters” or “savages.” “Those people” are. And so we fear, while we add to our typical week the ritual of watching another shooting, seeing the chase scene, creating a shrine of candles and flowers, holding a public memorial service with holy writ and hymns.  Pastors of all types, including community leaders care for the grieving.  And we add to the number of martyrs, hundreds (thousands more killed by guns in all kinds of incidents).  Mass shootings do not fit the belief system about ourselves. Will we continue to blame the stranger and the “other”?  

Watch how we talk about the victims. After the Planned Parenthood clinic shooting in Colorado, we heard “body parts,” “anti-Obama,” and “abortion industry,” even though the two victims were not at the clinic having an abortion. We rightly heard the story of the heroism and family of the policeman killed. Absent were human-interest stories of the two other victims, for days referred to merely as “civilians.”  Understandably there are privacy concerns and privacy laws for medical patients.  But one received the impression those who go to Planned Parenthood for any reason, and are killed, are not only victims but villains, particularly because following the Colorado shootings, Congress voted to defund Planned Parenthood.  Of course there was no parallel vote to defund county health departments.  If people who serve at or need the medical services of Planned Parenthood are constantly under threat of violence and nearly ½ the county health services people attending a holiday party were killed or injured, as Harry Reid said on the floor of the Senate, “If we do not act we will be complicit in our inaction.”

When violence becomes typical, what do we believe? We need to add to our ritual of grief and communal care a mission of being change-agents in a country in great need of change.

Friday, September 4, 2015

What if We Turned Things Around?

Repentance means to turn around. The reluctance of refusal to face divisive racial issues needs to be turned around. The domination of one political candidate who at first was amusing but now shapes the national conversation needs to be turned around.  What if we did turn things around?
What if we decided to probe into Donald Trump’s emails and see what kind of ethical and moral breaches he had made over the years in his business dealings?

What if we heard every speech live of the candidate who truly has consistently had the largest turn-outs? Bernie Sanders. What if the news media interviewed the people of Wisconsin to see why they worked so hard to gain a recall election of their governor, Scott Walker?

What if for one month we neither heard nor saw Donald Trump on TV (unless he paid for ads) nor any candidate or political reporter was asked questions about him? What if, instead, each candidate in turn, was asked about policy, covered in speeches given and events attended?  I know, I know, viewer ratings would go down. But how about encouraging each to say the most radical thing they could about care for poor people, care for the earth, and care for the refugees of the world?  

What if we the people were not so comfortably satisfied being spectators laughing and cheering and venting our rage while neglecting being co-operative workers in a participatory democracy? This government of the people, by the people, for the people takes hard work.  Government is not “them” but “us.”  What if town-hall meetings were covered by the press, town-hall meetings where locally selected leaders were chosen to set a trustworthy environment where all the people were encouraged and empowered to speak and work on real issues together.  I guess they would all be called, “activists.”  Maybe that would look and sound like an Iowa Caucus.

What if religious leaders were not relegated to the private sphere and people did not separate their “Sunday faith” from their faith at work in daily life all week long.  What if the voices of the full range of religious leaders, not just the religious right, were sought out and heard.  Oh, that’s what has been happening for the past year. When people gathered to remember and commemorate the 10th anniversary of Katrina in New Orleans, in the midst of speakers and music, was 10-15 minutes devoted to prayers led by Roman Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Vietnamese leaders and more. In Charleston and Baltimore and Ferguson and many other places religious leaders have spoken and worked in public to create communities not just of peace, but of justice. And they were interviewed by the press!

More needs to be turned around. We live in a deeply divided and dangerous time. Which direction will we turn things? The question is posed now at least once a week if not every day. When a person of color is shot will Caucasians simply retreat further into white enclaves? When a police officer is killed, will the “Black Lives Matter” movement be blamed?  When people are shot in their houses of worship, will we be advised to all bring guns with us when we gather to pray?

There is a time to turn, turn, turn.  There is a time to gather and listen to each other, a time for respect, a time for truth, a time to repent, a time to finally put down our guns. Surely that seems impossible.  We’ve gone too far to turn back now. Guns are everywhere. But so was drunk driving, and smoking and . . . 

I am tempted to believe we can’t—won’t—turn around. But we can because we have to. Only one person on her block used to recycle her plastics and bottles. Two people in a community after 9/11 started a group to have inter-faith dialog. One person in my neighborhood after the “riots” (revolutions) of the 60’s said “I ought to shoot you,” but he didn’t and we talked.  Twenty people in your school . . .  A hundred people in your city . . . What if we dared to turn things around? God has in Jesus Christ and God can through us today.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Burning of Black Churches

The burning of black church, a long smoldering phenomenon, sparked news stories in the summer of 1996 and then, flames quickly doused by a fire-retardant mixture of guilt and self-interest, the public once again falsely assumed that the fire of racism was controlled if not out.  This nation’s inability to include and maintain a healthy diversity threatens to intensify as we arm ourselves against one another though gun, bomb and torch. The real significance of burnings should be determined by those whose churches have recently burned. The members of each faith community in this country need to take note of an attack on any faith community.
“The church stands as a symbol of black pride and self-sufficiency,” said Rose Sanders, a black lawyer in Selma, Alabama. “Burning one is as close as you can come to a lynching without killing somebody.” Meanwhile investigators often dismiss the idea of deliberate arson due to a climate of white supremacy. Others hold to the belief that the fires are a mere coincidence. From January 1995 through June 1996 more than 60 African-American and multi-racial churches, most in the southeast, were burned.
Whites often fail to recognize the significance of the black church, tending to believe there is nothing racial about the fires today. The attack on black churches is an attack on the heart of the black community, its political, social, educational and spiritual center. Whites, motivated by genuine care sometimes raise money to help rebuild burned black churches. If they are able to find a conspiracy by a few on the radical fringe they can exonerate themselves from the racism that still smolders. But racism is a problem much greater than arson. Rebuilding structures does not dismantle racism. Simply sending money does not include African-Americans in the ecclesiology of a nation which believes it has the soul of a church.
Once again the black church is the target of violence.  Dominant whites still exclude African-Americans from full participation in the community of the nation and exclude themselves from the black church. A conspiracy theory is not new either. Vincent Harding, African-American historian, noted that near the end of the Detroit rebellion of 1967 Lyndon Johnson made a special address to the nation. He was frightened and so was all of America. Johnson suspected that a black revolutionary conspiracy was at work. Harding wrote, “The nation was frightened, confused . . . . In spite of what Lyndon Johnson suspected, there was no organized, national black revolutionary movement.” The conspiracy theory is a way to isolate the issue and relegate the problem to a few. Racism is more insidious than that and the African American struggle for freedom is more powerful.
Although 1996 investigations found no organized conspiracies, it was no coincidence that the fire at New Liberty Baptist church in Tyler, Alabama, was set just two days before thousands gathered to commemorate the Selma demonstrations that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Studs Terkel wrote in his 1992 book, Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel about the American Obsessions, that race obsesses everybody, even those who think they are not obsessed. An obsession rules us, as a god might; the original sin of racism remains a powerful obsession. Racism is real. It goes beyond prejudice and discrimination and even transcends bigotry, largely because it arises from outlooks and assumptions of which we are largely unaware.
Many Anglo-Americans believe that for at least the last generation blacks have been given more than a fair chance and at least equal opportunity if not outright advantages. Moreover, few feel obliged to ponder how membership in the majority race gives them powers and privileges. Albert ("Pete") Pero said that we must go beyond the fact that some people don’t want to be bothered by multiculturality. We must move beyond the attitude that somebody “played the race card. This isn’t a game of cards." He went on to say that, "God created all these people and that the Spirit sparks a fire of love . . . so you don’t have to burn the guy who seems to be creeping up on you."
The Black Church is a sign of hope and at least an implicit challenge to the belief system of white privilege in the United States. Will black churches be hope or threat to a nation which has come to doubt its own role in being a redeemer nation to the world?
Most important, we must come together locally in houses of faith and in the network of faith communities and talk, and listen, and dialog, no matter how difficult.  People of color know a great deal about white Americans—they must in order to function in this country. Whites remain remarkably unaware of the lives, feelings and hardships of people of color. The latter are weary of educating white people. On the way toward trust, we need to listen, not judge, debate or defend, but simply listen and see what the flames signify.
[The above are direct words from an article I published in 1997 in Currents in Theology and Mission after the rash of burnings of black churches. I write them again today—no update necessary.]

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Father's Day Card: Jennaya and Her Grandfather

Colorful Father’s Day cards convey all sorts of messages this weekend to dads, grandfathers, godfathers, mentors and more, men in our lives who have guided us and given their love. One special hand-made card touched my heart this year. No baseball glove or fishing rod. No Teddy bear or generic sentiment. This one had a special purpose that greeting card companies could not provide.

Our ten-year-old granddaughter, Jennaya, sat down and quickly took her colored pencils. She drew a picture of herself and her grandfather, my husband, Burton, side-by-side but with a line in between. On one side was her grandfather lying on his bed in a local cancer center receiving his daily 8-week treatment.  Above him was the word, “Radiation.” On her side she drew herself lying in her bed at the University Children’s Hospital in Iowa City, attached to a machine. Above her was the word “Remicade,” the medicine infused into her body for 4 ½ hours at a time every few weeks for her Crohn’s disease.  (Jennaya remembered to put a series of dots under each word representing the Braille she had noticed in hospital corridors beneath words.) Both grandfather and granddaughter had big smiles on their faces. Jennaya composed this message, written in red letters: “If you can do it, I can do it, and if I can do it, you can do it!  Happy Father’s Day. Jennaya.”

Mutual support. Unconditional love. Trust.

Dorothee Soelle wrote in her book, The Strength of the Weak, that Christ did not want to be strong except through the solidarity of the weak. Who is weak?  Who is strong?  Father’s can share their weaknesses, too. Christ understands, “For he was crucified in weakness so that we might be strong by the power of God (2 Cor 13:4). Whatever age, we can care for and support one another. We need each other in the body of Christ to give one another courage. Jennaya and her grandfather know that and do that for one another.
One more thing: Relationships themselves can be transformed. Many of the New Testament Epistles are addressed to, “My brothers and sisters in Christ” with the greeting, “Grace and Peace to you.” No matter what the nature of our human relationships, we are transformed into brothers and sisters, across generations, across the miles, around the world, connected in order to love and support one another this weekend and every week in times of health or sickness.   What a gift!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Many Men Still Fear Women with Public Power

If we learned that racism was not over with the election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States, we will learn that sexism is surely not over with the possible election of the first woman as president of the United States.

Political commentators have noted that Republican candidate Carly Fiorina can go after Hillary in a way that the male candidates cannot. There are still vestiges of an ethic of men not beating up on a woman, even though they do it all the time; it’s simply called “domestic” not public abuse. There’s something about watching a woman going after a woman. “Let’s watch a cat fight,” people say.

Quite frankly, there has always been something to be gained in a male-dominated world by keeping women divided against women.  Old/young; married/single; lesbian/straight; fat/thin; pretty/ugly; working/non-working—whatever that means; all women work. Women candidates, such as Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina, for example, will present a sharp contrast in policy, principles and personal leadership style, but we need to be watchful that they are not pitted against one another “to see women fight.”

Women taking their full place in public life is an unfinished revolution. We have celebrated women’s accomplishments. And yet, as with any great social change, remnants of longing for the past linger. Fear of loss of male power and domination remain in some quarters. One sees and hears it, in blatant statements or small, off-hand remarks.  Recently while traveling, my husband and I stopped at a convenience store. At the counter a stranger remarked to us about his wife standing beside him, “She always gets what she wants.”  Why did he feel he needed to say that to us? There’s something there, unfinished, for him, and for thousands of other men, who cannot rejoice, even years after the modern feminist movement began.  It’s reminiscent of a question we early feminists often heard, “What else do they want?”

The issue is still about power—and elusive partnership. Another man said to me last week in speaking about Hillary Clinton, “How old is she? She probably won’t have the energy to serve a full term.”  Not enough power!  While others have long said Hillary has too much power.  There’s always something wrong with a “public woman.” Too weak.  Too strong.  Too quiet.  Too loud.  Too . . .  I even heard a committee interviewing a candidate for a leadership position say that she was “Too happy.”  To find something wrong with every woman indicates a continuing deep reluctance to trust women in leadership for fear they will change everything and usurp power from men. 

Of all the women with whom I have worked in the past five decades, willing and able to serve as leaders in the public sphere, not a one of them has had as her goal to take away power from men.  Their goals have always been full partnership of women and men. And we have achieved amazing new models of women and men working together as true partners in so many fields.  The feminist revolution has been a revolution for men, too.  The transformation of society has meant a transformation of power itself.

And yet. . .   And yet, systemic sexism remains.  The barriers may be different today than in the 1950’s and 1960’s, sometimes more subtle, sometime just differently blatant.  How important for women and men to recognize them. 

In regard to the resurgence of racism, we say, “We need to start a conversation.”  Not only a conversation, but a listening to the deep fears that remain, and a determination to eradicate racial violence.  During this presidential election campaign we will see a re-emergence of systemic sexism, sexism that may have only gone partially underground. (I totally dislike the term, “being politically correct,” a sure sign that someone has not been transformed, but only feels they must pretend to be.) Rape continues.  Sexual discrimination continues. Fear of women fully using their gifts continues.  We have work to do.  Together.