Sunday, June 11, 2017

We Must Respond to the Call of the Current Situation

 I have been in public ministry for 57 years.  What has been the current call to faith communities in those various decades?

People feel the fear today: global instability, gun violence, economic inequality, inhospitality to refugees. All these challenges amidst lowered church attendance.

People contrast that to the 1940’s and 50’s when churches were building, growing, and full! But the “current” then also included the millions killed in World War II, refugees, and the beginning of the nuclear arms race.

My first call to parish ministry was the fall of 1960, to a 2000-member suburban congregation in Missouri with 800 in education classes, including a parish school.  We started classes for those with intellectual disabilities. However, inclusion of racial diversity was not so easily accepted. People thought Norma Cook was a great minister, but she had “one problem; she liked Negroes.”  

Living in Detroit later in the 1960’s we were part of inner city churches leading in the Civil Rights movement.  I had a seminary master’s degree; my theology was deepened on the streets through community organizing. The challenge was racial inequality. The “current” situation was revolution, called riots, in cities throughout the United States. The nation, and faith communities, were divided further over participation in the Viet Nam war.

In the 1970’s our “current” context moved to New Haven, Ct. where we lived simultaneously in two worlds: the inner city and Yale University Divinity school. I worked on the streets and taught in the classroom. In both places there was need for the Gospel in individual lives and for shaping community.  The feminist movement brought new opportunities for women and men.

“Current” has changed since 1979 when we moved here. Dubuque decided purposely to become more diverse. I’m a native Iowan, but not a native Dubuquer. That term itself is now being revisited. ‘Inclusive Dubuque’ and the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque are two groups addressing the current challenges.

The call now to faith communities, whether struggling with attendance or not, is to work together to face continuing deep issues of global unrest, racism, refugees, nuclear arms escalation, inequality, and the need for stable, credible leadership.  Always current is the unconditional love of a faithful God active in the midst of the world’s greatest needs.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Never Take For Granted a Gentle Hand on Your Shoulder

                Children loved to hear the invitation to gather “in the front” of the sanctuary during worship. They scrambled up the aisles to gather around as I sat on the altar steps. The adults in their pews also were eager to listen in to the Scripture story I was about to tell. As the children pressed in from every side, I suddenly, but quite gently, felt someone’s hands on my shoulder. They were warm, firm, caring . . . and small.  I glanced over to see four-year-old Caroline, standing behind me, listening, and loving me. It was, after all, a place to stand, and to see.  Did she know, could she understand, that she was caring for me?
When was the last time someone put hands on your shoulders? A parent saying, “I’m proud of you!” A teacher saying, “I know you can do it!” It seems we should grow out of the need for such hands. But we don’t.
How often our shoulders tense with worrisome burdens of people depending upon our words, our organizational skills, our “doing.” Being a responsible, dependable adult is a joy. But we also continue to need affirming, empathizing caring hands on our shoulders.
Christians may think of Lent as a time of giving up pleasures, of self-sacrifice, or of not giving in to temptations.  But even such focus on self, rather than on Christ, may be one of three temptations. First is to believe that “I am able; therefore, I only am able.”  The second is, “I am the most able; others will not do the job as well.” Thereby we cut ourselves off from the gifts of the community. The third is, “I must care for everyone.” I try to be the omnipresent parent, the omniscient teacher, and finally omnipotent. But who am I to play God?
We need the suffering servant, Jesus. At the very moment when our belief in ourselves which is self-trust, self-sufficiency, pride, or despair, is exposed, Christ already is there to love and sustain. Sometimes Jesus nourishes in surprising, spontaneous ways and sometimes through ongoing ministering servants in our lives.

The God who made us the capable people we are and gave us all those responsibilities, wants to love and care, guide and fill us with Christ’s servant self. God’s hands are gentle and steadying. Sometimes they may feel like small hands, but they are always big enough. 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

A Private Birth in a Public World

Christians join together on Christmas Eve to mark the birth of Jesus Christ. The Gospel of Luke in the Bible gives the most vivid account. The birth of the Christchild was such a private event meant for the whole public world.

The story begins with the name of the Emperor: Augustus, and the governor: Quirnius, and with people needing to be registered. Then and now we live in a public, political world.  Joseph had to travel from where he lived in Nazareth to Bethlehem, the place of his family heritage. We all come from somewhere and are strangers somewhere else. Bethlehem would turn out to be an unwelcoming place for a private birth. Joseph and very pregnant Mary were outsiders. “No room for these people.” So they had to take refuge where they could find it. Where animals were sheltered the very Son of God was born; where the Creator’s animals ate, the baby was laid in a manger.

 So dark, so quiet, so private. Yet such public implications for this day. No one is a stranger to God. For the homeless, the refugee, the immigrant, the one unwelcome, the one for whom there is no room, the Good News is that no one is abandoned by God. What is our calling for the one who would be left out in the cold?

How would this very private birth be made public for the world? No newspaper reporters. No television cameras. However, in that region, shepherds had a night job—every night. Who else would watch over their sheep? It was dark until a light brighter than a news flood light, a light which could be described only as, “the glory of the Lord” shone around them. They were terrified! An angel said the same word said to Mary nine months before, “Do not be afraid.” We who live today in a public world filled with great fear are terrified much of the time.  The Shepherds did not know what to do with the news of “great joy” that a Savior was born. But they seemed to hear that this news would be for all people. News in a private field for a global world. 

They believed what they heard and the multitude of heavenly host who appeared praising God: “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace. . . ,“ and they went. They went with haste, and they found Mary, Joseph and the child. And they told. They went back to their vocations, their plain work of taking care of sheep, and they also became the first witnesses in the public world of God’s grace present in human form on earth. What is our calling, whatever our vocation, our work in the world, to see and believe, and to hasten to tell everyone about God’s grace and love for all and for peace in the whole, public world?

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Election: Predatory Power or Partnership?

Power. It’s all about power—and powerlessness. The predatory sexual assaults of Donald Trump are being met by moral outrage. Some, however, separate this behavior from his general outlook on all things, including business, international relations, class and race. 

The point is this: oppressive systems of sexism, racism, classism, ableism, nationalism, militarism and other isms are interrelated.  They are all forms of oppression of the powerful over the powerless.  Oppressive systems do not just cure themselves. The power cycle continues, holding oppressed captive, keeping us from life-giving partnerships.

We have come a long way, of course. We see women and men side by side at the new anchor desk, co-parenting, and sharing work responsibilities.  And yet we know that we continue to live in an atmosphere of rape. We see African Americans leading corporations, as presidents of universities and of this nation, but also as victims of oppression in the criminal justice and economic systems. 

Hurricane Matthew roars through the Caribbean and up the Atlantic coast, causing terrible property damage and some deaths in the United States. Meanwhile hundreds die in Haiti, the poorest nation in this hemisphere. It is dangerous to continuously be among the oppressed. 

In the power cycle, those with power can at first ignore people, groups or nations with little or no power. Hence a Donald Trump seeks to project wealth, size (property, buildings, name on buildings), being a “winner.” Those in power can—at least for a while—ignore small nations, people of other religions, migrants at the borders.  But it is in the ignoring that those who think they are powerful remain the most ignorant. So a political candidate knows not one name of a leader of another nation, while people in small, less powerful nations know substantially more about “great” nations. They need to in order to survive! Note that Trump at the second presidential debate/forum, showed little interest in the people asking the questions.  He cares little about the oppressed people making his ties and shirts in poor nations overseas. 

But when those formerly ignored stand up and say, “Here I am.  I am somebody. I have a name. Look at me,” there is the potential for partnership. Hence Hillary Clinton’s campaign, “Stronger together.”  Hence the United Nations.  Hence all kinds of creative partnerships across socio-economic divides.  However, the powerful may grow threatened. A common response is to trivialize the oppressed trying to be seen: “Isn’t she a cute little thing?”  “That was a nice idea, but let’s go on to the important business at hand.” “Those people will never amount to much. They don’t belong here anyway.”  This is when we hear jokes, a hurtful form of trivializing, followed up by “Can’t you take a joke?”  The response must be, “No, I choose not to, because I am not a joke.”  “We are not a joking matter.”
But what if the trivialized start to claim their power of voice?  What if they start to act like partners?  All sorts of new possibilities arise.  Men start to see women in a new way.  We start to become partners by acting like partners with respect and new knowledge of one another across races, religions, and borders. We learn about and from one another. People with power start to share power and together, we all become more able, more empowered, less dangerous to one another. 

OR, the powerful become threatened. The need to keep the oppressed out or down intensifies. They ridicule, even saying ridiculous things, or threaten.  Afraid they may not be seen as powerful, or famous, or the most important, they bully, demand and demean.  Meanwhile the oppressed may caucus for support and wisdom and strategy. This is needed and helpful on the way from oppression towards justice.  Women gather and realize they are not alone in having been forced to have sex with a powerful, “famous,” man. Groups of people of color, and whole neighborhoods gather in community halls and in the streets and say that their lives matter. Nations bring their causes together to an international body. There is potential, finally, for dialog, and people at the table who were never at the table before, and for talking about deep issues.  This will take providing a safe, healthy, trustworthy environment to be different together.  It will take time and trust.  Working together, beyond conversation.  This will mean changing systems.
So, which will it be?  If the powerful resist, the next stage of the power cycle is “Eliminate.” The powerful dismiss, exclude or annihilate the powerless.  The woman or child who is raped is killed.  The woman sexually harassed, particularly the one who tries to claim her own voice, is fired.  The racial or ethnic group that seeks to no longer be ignored or oppressed, is put down and some are killed.  The group of people at “our” borders who seek to come in whose names and religion we could formerly ignore are excluded by walls and made to pay for their own exclusion.
It’s all about power, and the powerful keeping it at any cost.

Or will we, finally, say, “No!”  to predatory sexual assault and to predatory business practices, to ridiculing religious and racial actions, and “shoot-first” local and “bomb-first” global strategies that keep us from being equal human beings?  At each of these stages there is the potential for partnership, for really seeing each other and for living together in respect, and care. What kind of leadership does that call for? What kind of people does that call us to be?

For more on "The Power Cycle" see Chapter 8 "Transforming Power for Partnership" in Norma Cook Everist and Craig Nessan, Transforming Leadership (Fortress, 2008)

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.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

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.