Thursday, October 26, 2017

Are Gifts of Poor People and Congregations Important to the Church?

As a child, my mother moved my sister and me to Mason City from Des Moines after our father died suddenly of a heart attack. We were suddenly poor. A local Lutheran Church reached out to us, inviting us to worship services, Sunday School, and catechism classes. Members gave us rides to church and often invited us to Sunday dinner. At fall stewardship time, members were asked to bring food to share with the needy in the community. Mother gave my sister and me each a can of soup to take to the church’s offering. At Thanksgiving, I was surprised when our family also received a food basket from the church. I learned at that young age that in the Christian community it is not that some are the givers and others the receivers, but that all have something to offer, and, together, we all are receivers of God’s generosity. Together we are called to reach out to the community to those in need.
          In recent years, my husband and I helped support an inner-city congregation. Courageously and generously that small congregations for years had been serving its neighborhood.  Most of its members were young, in fact, youth!  (Many congregations would give anything to have that percentage of young people!) The youth had been taught to give and all gave almost ten percent of what they had. They were sharing God’s healing love. With the love and nurture of the congregation, many of the young people, were successful in school and beyond. But still, it was clear that this small, lower socio-economic mission congregation would never become totally self-sustaining.  It was closed last year.
          The story of the church is one of community. We are called to share God’s healing love in Christ’s reconciliation through personal and communal servanthood. We are called to mission through the generations. All are in need.  And the neediest have gifts. Not one of us as individuals or as congregations is totally self-sustaining. By the Spirit in the name of the Resurrected Christ we have been called to have all things in common and to use everyone’s gifts. How can we courageously and generously be the body of Christ as servants in the world?
          The essence of the early church, upon which all generations of the church since have been built by the Spirit, was hearing the Word taught and preached, baptism, the breaking of bread, prayers, and generous hearts for caring for each other. And the church grew. The history of the Church is not of individuals but of community. Together God gives us generous hearts to build up the body of Christ.

        “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:44-45) 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Vocation: Why Deliver Mail When All the Homes Have Burned to Ashes?

        Images of tragedy quickly pass through the news cycle, but one image of houses totally incinerated in Santa Rosa, California, remains in my head. We viewed on television the city before and after: homes were totally burned to ashes. All was still. Nothing left. But in one screen image I saw something moving. A U.S. postal truck was driving alone slowly up the street. Why was it going up those streets? It seemed to be making its daily rounds. But there no homes to which to deliver mail. Incredible.  And then more incredible still, I saw the truck stop at a metal mailbox that remained. The carrier put some mail in that box. That was the driver’s job.  Or, in Martin Luther’s terms, that was the carrier’s station, role: to deliver mail.
        How ironic! How horribly ironic. What might that mail carrier have been feeling? How could one even tell which plot of ashes was which? What was the mail carrier’s vocation that day? What was the call to ministry?  Sometimes it is very difficult to discern, particularly in the midst of tragic circumstance.  Some people were incinerated in that ash. But others would be coming back and might need their mail: a pay check, a letter from an insurance company. The U.S. mail service would make other provisions, of course. Many addresses and mailboxes no longer existed. What about the mail carrier’s own house?
        After the tragedies of hurricanes, floods, and fires, Christ lives. As Luther wrote: God’s call lifts us out of our everyday duties but does not take us away from them. Rather, more deeply into them. Through the cross and resurrection, our work becomes calling. In the most tragic, even ironic situations, we need each other to discern our vocations. Christ lives in and through us together. Moving through the ashes, we are never alone. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

My Encounter with a Stranger From Somalia. U.S. Citizenship?

The man was sitting outside Barnes and Noble, having just removed from a paper sack his newly purchased guide to taking the U.S. Citizenship test book. I, sitting across from him, noticed his slender black face, and his fingers turning the many pages. The book was thick. He was quiet, but I sensed he was overwhelmed.
      It would be an intrusion to interrupt, but something in me compelled me to speak anyway. “I wish you well,” I said. He looked up, smiled, and said, “Thank you.” We were both quiet again. But then I asked, “Where are you from?” “Somalia,” he said, and then added, “There are so many questions in this book. How will I know which ones they will ask me?”
     “You won’t know which ones, but they won’t ask all of them. Don’t let the book overwhelm you.” Not knowing how much of what I was saying he understood, I continued anyway, because his eyes indicated he did. “I suggest you read one or two pages every day. Then you will gain understanding and confidence.” He smiled broadly and replied, “Confidence, yes, confidence.”
     Now we were engaged in conversation—at least as we were able, two strangers, sitting on benches outside of Barnes and Noble. He was waiting for his brother who was still in the store, already a U.S. citizen.  I was waiting for my husband, also still in the store.  The man had been in the U.S. four years. I said I had not been to Somalia, but had been to four countries in Africa, including Kenya. He smiled and said that was near Somalia.  Then he asked where I was from.  I said, “Iowa.”  He knew that was nearby, but asked further, “But where are you from?”  I then realized, that he assumed I, even though a white woman with a midwestern U.S. accent, must be originally an immigrant if I were so positively interested in his becoming a citizen, he being from one of the 6 countries with a Muslim majority population on Trump’s travel ban list.

     Just then his brother came out from the store and the man immediately told him about this woman sitting across telling how to study a little bit of the book every day so that he could become confident to take the citizenship test. He was excited now.  Then my husband came out and introductions were made all around. The conversation was short. We all had places to go, but before he left I asked about any family he might have still in Somalia. His face turned sad.  “My children. . . ”  He was determined to take the citizenship test now, even though it would be hard, but the chances of seeing his children again anytime soon would be harder, and all four of us knew it.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

All Those Boats

“Other boats were with him.” (Mk. 4:35) Day after day seeing all those boats of ordinary citizens in the Texas flood waters, this one sentence from Mark has kept ringing in my head. This is the biblical story of the great windstorm and the waves. We’ve seen the water rising all week. And I see the disciples: “they took Jesus with them in the boat, just as he was.” 
       Who could not be moved this week by all those boats taking people “just as they were,” into their boats to be rescued? They were taking Jesus. And all those other boats were with him. We usually focus on the rest of the story, of Jesus calming the sea and of Jesus identity.  But, for today, I simply see, all those other boats, and Jesus.

Friday, August 25, 2017

When to Not Take Responsibility Alone

In Hillary Clinton's new book, she reflects upon the things she could have done differently to have not lost the 2016 presidential election. She goes further to say the responsibility for that will weigh on her for the rest of her life. Knowing what we know now, all of that responsibility does not rest on her alone. Moreover, often women so quickly "take responsibility" for things.

I know I am socially conditioned to say, "I'm sorry," even when a situation had nothing to do with me. The point is, I see such a contrast between her feeling such a weight of personal responsibility and Trump's propensity to blame any and everyone else for every and anything else.

How quickly, one by one, his blaming and shaming take people down--and out. What Hillary took from him while still smiling and remaining calm, day after day and month after month, was utterly amazing.

What can each of us do now, to resist being either intimidated by or obsessed with his clever bullying and pay close attention to the damage being done every day at deeper levels lest the responsibility remain on all of us for years to come?

We live in the Forgiveness of Christ and therefore are called to be ministers of reconciliation. But that goes beyond just saying, "We want peace among divisions in this country." We must, as Hillary says in her book, dare to turn around and call out a bully to his face. We cannot do this alone. Together we need to pay attention to the issues. We cannot let one person take the fall and the rest of us become spectators. The damage being done to so many each day through policies and presidential executive orders and justice department decisions is huge. We are called to act responsibly together so that we as a whole people do not lose our collective democracy.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

What Can One Person Do?

In the face of overwhelming national and global issues of racism, economic inequality, nuclear war, immigration, individuals are left wondering what their personal vocation can be. A lifelong friend of mine, Phyllis Kester, living in Denver, wrote me recently asking this very question. Here is our exchange of letters:

Dear Norma,

Our household subscribes to the Sunday edition of The New York Times.  So this morning I sat down to immerse myself in my favorite section:  "The Sunday Review" (the editorial section.)  I'm speaking of the Sunday, Aug. 6 edition.

Two of the in-depth articles resonated powerfully.

The Policies of White Resentment, by Carol Anderson

The Walls We Won't Tear Down,  by Richard  Kahlenberg

For years - I've been drawn to the challenges of institutionalized discrimination.  And for years,  I've been overwhelmed about what one person can do constructively to work for change.  

So I decided to share my questioning mind-heart with you.  What DOES one person do in constructive response?   No doubt you could write a book on the question.

Your loving & head-scratching friend,  Phyllis

Those questions are so important, even more important after Trump’s provocative remarks and Korea’s response, all leading us closer to nuclear war.  Burton and I also saw the movie, “Detroit” this week.  The issues are huge, complex and not getting any easier.  I share your anguish over what to do as one person about institutionalized discrimination and systemic racism and all the isms. 

So I could ask you the same question. "What can one person do?"

I do know that we still have a voice.  We have more power than so many millions.  And, at least for the moment we still have time.  What are your possibilities, Phyllis?  The press is under attack but we still can write letters to the editor that can be printed. There is social media.  I have Twitter and Facebook and blog avenues.

There is the power of one. But I think the power of groups, even small groups is more effective. Tell me what are the possibilities in Denver for you and others, Phyllis?  I think about this here in Iowa.  I/we have only so much energy, so how do we choose where and when to use it?

Personally I have been thinking about pastors and often the gulf between them and their congregations.  A pastor often serves a congregation where people have very different views from one another  How to you preach/minister there effectively?  I may want to spend time and energy listening to such pastors and helping them in their roles. 

I don’t know, Phyllis, but I do know that your questions and mine are the same. I pray God will help us discern our vocations at such a time as this

Dear Norma,

You are kind to respond to my musings-questions.  I appreciate your categories of voice - small groups - place.

For years, I've contributed financially (as a member) to the Southern Poverty Law Center.  I was initially introduced to this essential "small group" by one of my heroines, Barbara Jordan (Texas Rep. to U.S. Congress.)

For years, I've participated as a "citizen lobbyist"-- in person or usually by email or phone.  In the 1980's, I was advocating for Salvadorans & Guatamalans through the U.S. Sanctuary Movement.  In Denver now I'm part of the Colorado Faith Communities for Gun Safety.  

For years, I've written PBS and NPR about specific issues.  In the 1990's, Jim Lehrer actually wrote back.  To my amazement,  he implemented my suggestion for an educational reporter.

Currently, I'm overjoyed at the new dean of St. John's Cathedral.  However, I'm patiently moving at his pace - - - to explore where to "come down together" in unison.

Off the wall - - I have the most amazing, direct, impromptu conversations on the Colfax bus in Denver (the most diverse bus in the city) and with my LYFT drivers.  One of my LYFT drivers was/is a pastor of an African-American church in the Denver area.  We talked intensely for 10 minutes-driving-together about the challenges of church integration in the face of neighborhood segregation. These conversations have the feel (to me) of mountain streams with kayakers in unpredictable interaction.

The power of the arts is not to be underestimated.  We have a poet laureate in Denver who intentionally rides the Colfax bus from beginning-to-end - - as his muse for writing relevant poetry.   My brother-in-law Terry Kester (now in Wilsonville, Oregon) is a life-long theater director/producer.  He has long influenced me about the power of drama to speak to the heart concerning the most knotty (and evil)  of our communal problems.   I recently spent a week in Wilsonville & was awed by a one-man dramatization of Clarence Darrow.  The entire performance focused on Darrow's representation of legal clients who were powerless (financially & culturally.)  Darrow was a one-man Southern Poverty Law Center.

Volunteering at the St. Francis Center for the homeless seems like both a service and critical education in my limited life.  It is also the most remarkable witness of blessings - given & received - among the guests & hosts. 

I stand in profound appreciation of your engagement with clergy who are with congregations with divergent views.  Such a juxtaposition seems like a fulcrum of "our knottiest problems."

May God guide us indeed on our uncharted journey.

Your loving friend,  Phyllis


Monday, July 17, 2017

Fifty Years After the Detroit Riots

Fifty years ago I wrote this letter about the Detroit riots which had begun on a quiet Sunday morning, July 23, 1967. Our family lived in the heart Detroit then where Burton served as pastor of Gethsemane Lutheran Church. Look back with me as we approach the 50th anniversary this coming Sunday. Excerpts from the letter written after Detroit burned:
     “The word ‘Detroit’ has become a synonym for devastation. We can hardly bare to look at the heart-tugging pictures of the children among ruins or listen to the reports of our ‘All-American City.’ Millions around the country spectate and speculate and do not understand. A burned Detroit is horrible; a burned Detroit without receiving the message people are crying out with their very lives is a tragedy.
     “Sunday night the words of Compline, “fear and terror of the night,’ became real. We smelled the thick smoke, even though the media had guarded news of the riot half a day to avoid panic. We heard one hundred blocks were now engulfed in flame. Then a curfew was imposed on the city. By morning it was 175 square blocks and still spreading.
     “Concordia College in Ann Arbor opened their doors to house ‘refugees,” but going meant leaving others on our block who refused to leave their homes and possessions for fear of looting. Should we go or stay? Going meant my husband need not worry about his 8 ½ month pregnant wife and 4-year-old son so he could move more freely about the neighborhood. We convinced only 5 women with 7 children to leave. I then understood the reluctance of people to leave home in other disasters. We made our way through side streets because the expressway was under gunfire.
      “Being away meant frustration that we could not fight the fires or bandage the broken. We returned in a few days. The riots continued. Being able to say we have been through the biggest riot in American history was not the point. I need to write to you because even more difficult is realizing that the National Guard and the federal troops called in had their guns aimed at us, the people of Detroit. Law enforcement was protecting the stores. There were endless editorials in the days after, blaming the rioters. One man even said that the riot was started so that the federal government would pour money into the area. Thereby this man planted seeds of more hated and division in the hearts of Americans. Such words merely harden the hearts of hardened, self-righteous Americans, making us unable to repent for the sickness we, too, have caused.
     “Let’s try to imagine what may cause looting, what makes it especially tantalizing in a materialistic age. It is not a matter of the “good” and the “bad,” of the “lawful and the “lawless.” The rioters took goods from stores at the price of sweat and blood of store owners. However, we buy items from another country at the expense of work of underpaid people there. We get a ‘good deal.’ We exploit secretly and have our prestige promoted. The price Detroiters paid for one ‘bargain day’ was jail. We have never paid that price for our daily exploitation.
     “The ‘we/they’ continued. Before the ashes were cool, ‘sight-seeing tours’ from the suburbs began. I was sickened to see traffic jams through our burned-out streets, causing the governor to again place a curfew on Detroit.  
     “The U.S. president announced the riots are over and the troops have left, when we still see them on our streets. The real question of justice is in front of us. How we handle these five thousand rioters, many of whom the police admit are innocent, is the challenge before us. Men become more bitter while their families wait in hunger.
     “Another question is whether or not this was a race riot. In the same sentence newscasters say it certainly was not and then use the term ‘race riot.” Whether or not blacks shot at whites or whites shot at blacks or whether they looted and burned together, the riot is a reality, the reality of frustration, resentment, hatred; it’s really a rebellion. Not just a few would start over 1000 fires. It feels hopeless until we remember that God loves the countless homeless, the 5000 in jail, the 37+ dead, the 2000 injured. May God bend all our knees in repentance. May God enable us to build again.
     “What about next month, next year? The patterns of exploitation will resume. Food and clothing and blood donations have poured in. But who will work for new hospitals in the city where poor shed blood every day? Poor people still find themselves unable to get a loan to buy a home, unable to find a place to rent. Unable to find a job and equal educational opportunity. Now that we’ve talked a little and prayed a little and given $5.00, do we understand any better?”

       That letter was written fifty years ago. Today, do we understand any better?

Friday, June 30, 2017

One Woman's Persistent Voice Can Finally Be Heard

I Don't usually print what's in the news, but I this time I do, because it's important. In a time when many of us feel helpless and perhaps hopeless, Representative Barbara Lee from California simply kept on using her persistent voice yesterday, and, she was heard! Much work remains to be done. Impossible? Perhaps. But absolutely necessary, So, here's what happened yesterday, receiving little news reporting:

 September 14, 2001, Rep. Barbara Lee, who represents Oakland and Berkeley, stood up in the House of Representatives to cast the lone vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force, a measure that paved the way for the war in Afghanistan.

Nearly 16 years later, a House of Representatives panel voted on Thursday for Lee’s amendment to repeal that authorization, which has been cited as justification for a vast array of American military actions in at least a dozen countries over three administrations.
In a move that surprised many on Capitol Hill, the GOP-controlled House Appropriations Committee approved Lee’s amendment to the annual defense appropriations bill with a voice vote. If signed into law by President Trump, it would repeal the 2001 authorization eight months after Lee’s amendment passes. A new vote in Congress would be required to continue military action against the Islamic State or other terrorist groups.
“Today was a remarkable victory, I think, for the American people,” Lee said in an interview with the Mercury News and the East Bay Times. “I’ve been working day and night for many, many years with Democrats and Republicans to get to this point. It’s been quite a journey.”
Thursday’s vote was a sign that there’s a bipartisan desire to revisit the sweeping powers given to the president to wage the war on terror. When the amendment passed, her fellow committee members broke into applause. Several of her colleagues then publicly congratulated Lee, who has proposed a form of the amendment every congressional session since 2001.

But it’s still just a first step, with a long legislative process ahead, Lee said. Procedural maneuvers could even remove the amendment from the spending bill when it goes for debate before the full House, the Associated Press reported.

The 60-word Authorization for Use of Military Force, written as bodies were still being pulled from the rubble of Ground Zero, authorized the president to use force against nations, groups or people involved in the 9/11 attacks “in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States.” It’s been used to justify at least 37 different military actions since 2001, a Congressional Research Service report found.

“Any administration can rely on this blank check to wage endless war,” Lee told her colleagues before Thursday’s vote. “Many of us can also agree that a robust debate and vote is necessary, long overdue, and must take place.”
Only one member of Congress, Kay Granger, R-Texas, argued against Lee’s amendment at the committee hearing, saying it “would tie the hands of the U.S.”

“It cripples our ability to conduct counterterrorism operations against terrorists who pose a threat to the United States,” Granger said.
But other Republicans commended Lee. “She has raised an important point — I think she’s done it repeatedly and effectively, and I think the Congress ought to listen to what she has to say and we ought to debate this issue,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma.
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Maryland, said Lee had changed his mind on the amendment. “I was going to vote no, but … I’m going to be with you on this, and your tenacity has come through,” he said.
When Lee walked into the committee room this morning, she said, she wasn’t sure whether her amendment would pass. She credited statements in support from Republican members of Congress, including several former military veterans, as having a big effect on the debate.
The broad support in the committee for Lee’s bill doesn’t mean it will be embraced by the full House or the Senate, said Monica Hakimi, a law professor at the University of Michigan who’s studied the authorization for the use of force.
“I could very easily imagine a situation where various members of the military testify to Congress that even the possibility of a drastic change” in the authorization would be a huge disruption, Hakimi said. That could slow any drive toward repeal.
Nonetheless, Thursday’s committee vote is a major milestone for Lee, one of the strongest anti-war voices in Congress. After her lone vote in 2001, she faced condemnation from politicians of every stripe, a deluge of angry phone calls from around the country, and even enough death threats to merit around-the-clock protection from the Capitol Police.

“I’m pleased that more members of Congress are seeing what I saw then,” Lee said. “We need to rein this in and have Congress included — it’s our constitutional responsibility.”

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.