Wednesday, July 15, 2015

I'M A MEMBER OF EMANUEL A.M.E. CHURCH

I am a member of Emanuel A.M.E. Church of Charleston, South Carolina.

Me, a fair-skinned northerner and long-time minister of non-creedal, nondenominational churches, I am also a member of the predominantly black southern church, with all its liturgy and ceremony, unfamiliar to people of my simple tradition.

Having sprouted my spiritual roots in a subdued little church nestled in the cold Cascade Mountains, with hymns sung slowly and reverently to the sound of windblown drizzle, I am yet part of that vibrant congregation that meets in Southern swelter to stirring songs of passionate praise, Magnolias and Palmettos swaying in the breeze.

A church that claims God as Father, Christ as Redeemer, the Holy Spirit as Comforter, humankind as our family, a church that cares about the social and spiritual and physical needs of all people, that is my church.

More than that, a church that welcomes the quiet stranger, putting a Bible in his hands, giving him a seat in the sacred circle of study, that is my church. 

A church that loves the outsider despite the twisted confusion of his past, the vileness in his heart, the soiled spirit he brings, a church that sees only a soul in need of a Savior, a church "so nice" it makes even a killer think twicethat is my church. 

A church that forgives through tears, stands strong in sorrow, that honors the wounds of the past by moving forward in hope, a church that is not crushed by grief but pushes through pain, a church that declares justice and love as both legitimate responses to evil and suffering, that is my church.

I am a member of Emanuel A.M.E. Church of Charleston, South Carolina...

...if they would have me.


Monday, July 28, 2014

TRAGIC "DECONSTRUCTION PROJECTS" OF MIDEAST MILITANTS

MOSUL, IRAQ: 
Just days ago, on July 25, militants of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) destroyed the traditional burial site of the biblical prophet Jonah, a holy site to both Christians and Muslims in the region.



The city of Mosul, where the shrine has stood for 800 years, is next to the remains of Nineveh, where the Bible records Jonah’s prophetic ministry after his whale-sized adventure. Unfortunately, many important religious and historical sites have been destroyed or defaced by Muslim extremists in adherence to strict traditions that cannot be found in the Koran, their holiest of books. Below are a few other examples of the destruction of Mideast sacred sites.

MADINA, SAUDI ARABIA:
Jannat Al Baqi, the tomb of Mohammed’s wife (and several other sacred sites) was destroyed for fear that such sites would tempt Muslims into a kind of idolatry of such buildings. Other related structures nearby continue to be removed as Saudi officials declare a need to make room for an increase in annual religious pilgrims.

TIMBUKTU, MALI:
In the summer and autumn of 2012 many centuries-old religious shrines of Sufism were intentionally destroyed by the Muslim extremist group Ansar Dine, which claimed the sites violated Muslim teachings. They also burned many ancient irreplaceable manuscripts. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is working with the Mali government to help restore the historic sites.



BAMWAM VALLEY, AFGHANISTAN:
Two gigantic statues of Buddha, carved from a mountain of sandstone, were completely destroyed. The statues had stood for 1500 years and survived previous attacks, but in March of 2001 Taliban leadership declared them idols and blew them up. I recall learning about the event on radio news, and it was the first time I'd ever heard of the "Taliban" -- the radical Islamists of Afghanistan. Today, in a post-9/11 world, the destruction of the two giant Buddhas certainly seems a haunting foreshadow of the devastation of two other massive twin structures just six months later in New York City.

SEE ALSO:
Huffington Post: "ISIS Destroys Shiite Mosques And Shrines In Iraq." 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

FORGIVENESS AT THE FAIR

It's nearly county fair season in America. People will soon be showing off their prize tomatoes and fattened pigs. Kids will eat too much and get sick on the rides, and folks will run into people they haven't seen in a very long time -- like I did.

I was browsing the art exhibit when I saw him on my right just a few feet away, and I knew I couldn't avoid him. After all, we had some unfinished business.

I turned to say hello. He looked up and gave a courteous nod. He didn't recognize me under my sparse beard and shorter hair, so I gave him my name.

"Oh. Hello, Don." He smiled politely. He still wore the same beige trench coat, looking more at home in the city than our lumbermill town.

"So, Lyle, you're still the juvenile officer here."

"Not for long," he said. "Moving to Olympia in the fall."

"Oh," I said. "Congratulations on the new job." I looked down, searching for my next words.

"I'm going to college now. It's my second year. I'm studying counseling and Bible." I watched for a sign of approval in his solemn face.

"I'm thinking of doing social work – maybe with teenagers." I shuffled my feet. "Or working as a counselor in a church."

"Oh, really." He raised his eyebrows and nodded.

I didn't want to bring up the past, but I had to. My palms got sweaty. I cleared my throat. "About what I did in high school, Lyle." I looked about cautiously. "You said there'd be some community service. Maybe a fine."

"Yes," he said, ignoring my nervousness.

"Well, it's been three years and nothing's happened. It's just that," I took a deep breath and looked him in the eyes, "for whatever reason you decided not to do anything to me, I just wanted to say thanks. Thank you very much."

Hands still in his pockets, he nodded and said, "Sounds like we made the right decision." He smiled. I wished him well in his new job, clumsily shook his hand, then went to find my parents.

I don't know how much Lyle struggled over his decision to waive the penalty for my teenage crime, but I am grateful he did, especially considering he had no guarantee that I would straighten out my life.

I didn't know Lyle to be a religious man, so it surprises me how much his actions remind me of someone else.

Christ had no guarantee I would take his mercy to heart. Even so, he made the risky and generous decision that canceled my penalty by paying it himself. Believe me, it had nothing to do with worthiness. If spiritual merit were a bank account, my balance would be zero. The apostle Paul said it best:

"While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8; NIV).

Since Jesus offers us such generous mercy, we would do well to accept it, repenting of our blunders and placing our lives in his hands. Then we can spend the rest of our lives giving humble thank-yous to the one who gave it all.

As a grateful receiver of Christ's mercy I want to live in such a way that, when I finally see him, he'll smile, nod his head, and say, "Well done, Don. I knew I made the right decision."

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

THE GLOBAL THREAT OF RADICAL CHRISTIANITY

Last Sunday Christian missionaries from Africa visited our church. Kevin Borror and his young American family work with Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) in the tiny nation of Lesotho, which is entirely enclosed within the nation of South Africa.

Lesotho has the third highest rate of AIDS/HIV in the world with nearly a fourth of their population infected. Kevin, a pilot and plane mechanic, oversees the entire MAF program in Lethoso (with four aircraft), flying doctors and patients out of dirt airstrips to clinics and hospitals, working with at least 35 partner agencies. In the last twelve months they made nearly 3000 flights, delivering over 215,000 pounds of food, medicine, and other cargo.

As I listened to Kevin share about what MAF does in Lesotho, I recalled the aggravating words of a TV talk-show panelist. When someone mentioned the threat of militant Muslims, she could not help but respond by saying, "radical Christianity is just as threatening." It was the first time I had ever sent a letter to a TV network to complain about their TV hosts.

"Radical Christianity is just as threatening."

When those words awkwardly tumbled from her mouth, I tried to think of the "radical" Christians I knew, and I couldn’t think of any that threatened the welfare of the world. I did, however, quickly come up with a list of "radical" Christians that were making a positive difference.

Here are just a few examples:
  1. Clean water for Africa. Some "radical" Christian college students began digging water wells in Africa, providing clean water to communities who would otherwise be devastated by disease and dehydration. They also train rural Africans how to dig and construct more wells. Their efforts have received praise and support from internationally known public figures. More importantly, since 2006 they have helped over 700 communities to have access to clean water. That is the work of "radical Christianity."

  2. Nigerian Christian Hospital began in 1965 with one missionary doctor, and now treats over 20,000 patients each year. They are part of a wider effort (International Health Care Foundation) that serves at least seven different points in Africa and Haiti with medical care, education, career training, and orphaned children.

  3. Samaritan’s Purse is one of the more well-known Christian charities around the world, providing disaster relief, emergency food, medical care throughout the world and in the U.S. They are also known for coordinating "Operation Christmas Child," sending shoeboxes filled with toys, candy, toothbrushes, and school supplies to children the world over.

  4. In our little city, churches and organizations come together to support the Klamath Falls Gospel Mission (KFGM), which feeds, houses, and counsels homeless men, women, and children everyday of the year. They provide work opportunities, substance abuse recovery, life training, and countless other services to people who have fallen between the cracks of our welfare system. This is one of hundreds of such missions around the nation.

  5. "Night Strike" is a ministry that began in Portland, Oregon in 2003 when several Christians would take food and washing supplies to the homeless under the Burnside Bridge. One of the trademarks of the ministry was washing feet. Several days wearing the same unwashed socks made for painful foot problems. The ministry grew into a broader work called Bridgetown Inc. Each week volunteers serve a hot meal to around 300 people, bringing blankets, sleeping bags, shoes, socks, and cleaning supplies to those who live on the streets of Portland, and sitting down with them, face to face, just being friends. That is "radical Christianity" at work.
All around the globe "radical" Christians are "threatening" the world by caring for children orphaned by AIDS, bringing food and shelter to homeless people, sending doctors and dentists around the world for free healthcare, sending tons of food and medical supplies to disaster victims, building schools and hospitals, building homes for poverty stricken families, and all this is done in the name of the one who taught us to "do to others what you would have them do to you" and to "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 7:12 and 22:39, TNIV).

I'm grateful I live in a world where people from many faiths and backgrounds are helping others, and making powerful differences where it is needed most. You don't have to be "religious" to help. But in a culture where Christians are becoming more maligned and mocked and misrepresented, many can easily (conveniently?) forget what Christians have been doing all along.

This is "radical Christianity," and it rarely makes the evening news. But it’s out there nonetheless, "threatening" the world with hope.
 

Monday, March 17, 2014

INTERNET HATE AND CONSIDERATE CODDLING

I really like the articles in CNN’s Belief Blog, and I’m grateful that the good folks at CNN.com give a space to intelligent discussion about faith.

But the intelligence usually ends with the article. What I mean is that the end of the article marks the beginning of some of the most caustic comments on the web.

Feeling securely masked behind random usernames, internet posters (those who “post” comments) are boldened to post any angry, salacious, inflaming words that come to mind. It is the modern equivalent to the anonymous prank phone calls of yesteryear. Technology has taken that joy away from telephone users (via caller identification), but has given it back in a different shape: internet forums and social media.

The freedom to "flame" robs us of the freedom to discuss.
The strong connection between anonymity and hateful internet comments is the very reason why Youtube.com is now working to get people to use their real names, knowing it will curb much of the online vitriol on their site.

While most internet rabble rousers enjoy posting their digital poison in blissful anonymity, many do not care if their face, name, or even their email address is shown to the world. The digital distance of the internet is enough to give them the courage to say things they would never say to face to face.

This is why “cyberbullying” became a major issue with teens, a poisonous practice with a growing list of fatalities.

The phenomena is so common it has been given a clinical name – Online Disinhibition Effect – and has been the subject of serious academic psychological study for at least a decade.

What does this have to do with faith? 

While the web has given us a fantastic tool to discuss with people worldwide the issues that fascinate us, confuse us, and (yes) divide us, it has also given us a tool to allow the worst within ourselves to digitally vomit venomous messages upon whomever we wish, whenever and wherever we wish. One sad consequence is that, where there was opportunity for thoughtful, open dialogue between those who differ, the openness (and anonymity) of the internet invites just the opposite, forcing any engaging and enlightening dialogue into closed groups, which means they will by nature be less engaging and enlightening as we feel compelled to discuss among like-minded folks just to ensure a friendlier, safer environment.

And that is sad.

A recent post on CNN’s Belief Blog is a well written article about Jesus, written by author and Jesuit priest, James Martin. Sadly, with all the hatred and cynical crudeness habitually left by internet users, I don’t expect James Martin to even attempt to respond to questions or comments on his article.

A couple years ago I made the mistake of trying to dialogue with the hatemongers who left comments on the Belief Blog. I asked why there was such animosity toward those of faith, and the reply given to me was, “because you all have been coddled too long.”

If being “coddled” means respecting others by (at minimum) withholding crass, meanspirited comments about their beliefs, then I’ll take coddling any day. And if that’s how one defines coddling, then lets generously coddle everyone, whether Catholics or Charismatics, Baptists or Buddhists, atheists or agnostics, Mormons or Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Jews.

If “coddling” means treating one another with respect, biting our tongue (or fingers) when tempted to communicate crassness, and talking with kind, civil words, despite our differences, then, by all means, let’s all coddle!

Anyone care to start an internet "coddling movement"?

Sunday, March 2, 2014

THE PRESIDENT AND "MY BROTHER’S KEEPER"

In a recently well-televised speech, President Obama recently made reference to one of the most famous stories in Bible’s book of Genesis (Gen. 4:9), and I wonder if America even knows it. You can read the tragic story about the brothers, Cain and Abel, HERE. 

When I hear the phrase “my brother’s keeper” my mind first goes to the Bible story, and then quickly goes to the song by the late Rich Mullins, who wrote his song “My Brother’s Keeper” while on a Native American reservation. Though Rich has been gone since the tragic accident in 1997, the organization he worked with is still making a difference in the lives of Native American youth. 


I saw some of the President’s speech regarding his “My Brother’s Keeper” plan, and it was encouraging that he included “all the faith communities” as part of the answer for the struggles of young minority males, along with government, business and philanthropic groups. They “all have a responsibility to help,” he said. But when I read the actual text of the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, in the very long list of Task Force members, there was no representative of any faith community listed. In fact, for an initiative that takes it’s name right out of the Bible (a word for word quote), there is surprisingly no mention of faith at all. 

As a president who has made much of his religious faith, this surprised me, but even more so in view of all the countless effective faith-based programs that have already been doing (for decades) exactly what the President is promoting. 

Part of the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative is to research what has been working, and if the President is truly interested (as he says he is) about involving the “faith community,” then it would be wise to see what churches have already been doing for minority youth. A quick internet search can find some terrific programs worth researching, so if the Task Force wants to know what works, here are a few good examples: 

URBAN YOUTH IMPACT (West Palm Beach, FL) is an award-winning Christian-based outreach program for urban youth in West Palm Beach, Florida. They have an after-school academic program, healthy work opportunities, parenting classes, positive social events throughout the year. UYI workers spent over 9,000 hours tutoring students last year, with over 80% improving or achieving grade level. Begun in 1988 by Christian golf pro Joe Hobbs, 93% of all donations go to actual program services for inner city youth, with just a tiny fraction going to fund-raising and administration.

I liked what I read about CALVARY COMMUNITY CHURCH (Hampton, Virginia). Writer Wil LaVeist highlighted the church's mentoring programs for young black men. One year ago, the church began its successful "Man Training" program, a 10-week program to help "boys become men through the training of their minds, bodies and souls." Initially intended for young men in their church, soon they had at least 100 applications for enrollment from families outside the church seeking help for their young men. They began with a "boot camp" that addressed the whole person, mind, body and spirit, relying heavily on male volunteer mentors to be a weekly part of the lives of these young men. LaVeist says that "Moral and spiritual values, respect for authority, academic excellence, camaraderie and being an extension of the family are what the program emphasizes." Like most churches, they have a youth program, however they also have their E.P.I.C. Young Adult Program in which they plug in their young people as soon as they graduate from high school, to help them "utilize their gifts while under the mentorship of young adult leaders" and "providing associations and networking opportunities for them with godly peers and role models."

BRONXCONNECT is part of the Bronx Church Mentoring Outreach program, based in New York City. It “is a faith-based, community-based alternative-to incarceration youth program focused around mentoring services.” They serve young people, ages 12-18, partnering with several local churches and government services, to prevent offending youths from going back into the correctional system, achieving an 83% success rate since the year 2000 when they began to work with the local court system. Their primary work is matching these young with trained mentors for a one-on-one relationship that makes a difference. 

Doug Banister, pastor of the All Souls Church (Knoxville, TN) began serving urban youth by raising money to begin the EMERALD YOUTH SWIM TEAM. He realized that urban youth were being shut out of the active swim sports programs in his area because of a lack of finances and transportation. With the help of dozens of volunteers, they began the first inner city swim team in Knoxville, which currently has about 50 kids. They raised money for swimming gear, rides and meals for urban kids, coordinating efforts of other local teams, churches and even the University of Tennesee swim team. Their work is part of the Emerald Youth Foundation, “a Christian, urban youth ministry that serves more than 1,350 urban young people each year” in the Knoxville area, joining together 21 churches and Christian organizations to raise youth up to “love Jesus Christ and become effective leaders who help renew their communities.” 

As I said, I do appreciate President Obama's initiative, calling upon people and all kinds of organizations to be the "brother's keeper" to at risk youth and families, however churches have been doing this for 2000 years since the Leader of our global Task Force called upon us to feed the hungry, help the sick, and take care of our neighbors in many ways. 

We have been our brother's (and sister's) keeper for a very long time.