Come, look. See? Go!

As we are nearing Holy Week, I thought I’d share with you some of my Easter sermons, edited mostly to make them somewhat shorter for your reading here. I’m starting with one I first spoke about 13 years ago: Come, look. See? Go!

Come, look. See? Go! Matthew 28:1-10

Some of you may remember the early school reading books that were popular when I was learning to read. They taught us to read using very simple words. Come, look Jane. See Sally and Spot. See Puff run. Go, Puff, go. I understand these books have not been used in a long time. I was reminded of those early reading books as I read the text for this resurrection Sunday. Because in this text, I see God’s world changing power described by these simple, basic words: Come, look. See? Go! These four basic words that we learned in our pre-reading primers, when used in the context of the greatest story in all history, announce amazing, world changing power. Come, look. See? Go! show us the movement of the two Mary’s, who were, in Matthew’s account, the first witnesses to the resurrected Jesus. Come, look. See? Go!, simple words that provide us with all that we need to understand the great power of that resurrection that is still at work in our world.  Let’s walk with the two Mary’s.

The first thing we see is that the two Mary’s went “to look at” the tomb. In Matthew’s version they were not coming there to anoint Jesus. They were not trying to figure out how to roll away the stone at the entrance of the tomb, as in Mark’s version. They didn’t come because they were planning to do anything to the body of Jesus. They didn’t come looking for a Messiah, because they knew Jesus was dead. The one who they had walked with and talked with, who claimed to be the Son of God, had been killed in an excruciating manner by the religious leaders and the Romans, and had died on that cross and was buried in the tomb, and as far as they were concerned, that was the end of the story.

But they came. They came not because he was the victor that we know him to be, but because of what he meant to them when he lived and walked and talked with them. One of the women was Mary Magdalene. He had healed her by exorcising 7 demons from her. She knew he was dead, now. Still, she came, drawn to his tomb because she knew what he had done for her. Her love for him could not be contaminated by what the world did to him. The other Mary came with her because she had followed Jesus with the other disciples, too. She probably had decided that Jesus he was not the Messiah that he claimed to be, but she knew for sure that he was a great man. She was drawn to his tomb because he was a man who loved the people around him, a man who taught what was right and good, and who had great power that he always used to help others.

You see, they remembered that Jesus taught them that they were to love and care for each other. Jesus taught them the two highest commandments, love God and love each other. Jesus taught that the meek and the poor were blessed. They remembered the Jesus who walked with them and talked with them, and made them feel whole and alive and blessed and wonderful. They loved him for who he was, and that love could not be taken away from them by the evil in the world. They were drawn to come to the tomb by the goodness of Jesus that they knew was true love when he was with them.

We are drawn to come, too, by the goodness of Jesus.  As humans, we are drawn to what is good unless we’ve been warped by the evil in this world. The good helps us know right from wrong. The good gives us a sense of fairness. The good is what makes us cry when we see other people suffer, and laugh when they laugh. The good calls us to both give love and to want love, to help and not hurt others. It is the power of the Holy Spirit that puts cravings in our hearts for something right, true, better than this world has to offer. We come to find some purpose for our being in this world, for some hope for our futures, for joy and for peace. We come, like the two Mary’s, drawn to Jesus even without fully understanding what it may mean for our lives. We are drawn to come, knowing somewhere deep in side of us that good is the right thing to seek. That’s the prevenient Grace of God, whispering into our ears this one simple word that will take us on a life changing journey: Come.

When the Mary’s followed their hearts and came to see the tomb, they found an Angel there sitting on the already rolled away stone, who tells them Jesus is not there. He has arisen. Look, says the angel, at the place where he had been, but is no more. Look, he is not dead. Look, he lives. Look, what you thought was defeat is in fact victory. Look at what Jesus has done.

After we’ve been drawn to the good through the prevenient grace of God, we are called, just like the two Mary’s were called by the angel, to look. When we follow the longing in our hearts for more good in our lives, we are called to look for Jesus, who represents that good. We look for Jesus by studying the stories about his life and teachings that are in our Bible. Not just reading, but studying with people who are trained to share with you the history and context of the stories of the Bible for deeper understanding.

We look for Jesus by talking to people whose lives have been changed by his presence. We look for Jesus in other people who are called to the good just like you. A part of what it means to be in the church is to help each other strengthen our knowledge of Jesus and what that means for our lives. The search for Jesus is a continuing exercise, calling us to study Jesus and at the same time examine our hearts to make sure that we living in ways that are pleasing in Jesus’ sight. When we look, we will begin to see Jesus more clearly, to see his goodness and his righteousness. To feel his love, his mercy and his grace. When we respond to his call to come, when we look at him, we begin to change. When we look, we find that goodness we’ve been longing for and begin to feel the peace and joy that life with God offers to us. Seek, and you will find.

Come, the angel said to the two Mary’s, look. See what he has done! He is no longer dead, he is alive. Then the angel told them to go and tell the others. And the women ran. Can you imagine how they must have felt at that point? I think they were probably filled with more fear than joy. They went to see the tomb of a dead man who they loved. Instead, they saw the angel and the empty tomb. How were they going to tell that to anyone else? How would they get the others to believe them? Jesus lives ?! They were both excited that it might be true and afraid at at the same time because it seemed so impossible. How will they tell the others? How could this be?

That’s when Jesus showed up. To make sure that they really understood what was happening, to make sure that they could stand up to the challenges and scoffs that they were surely going to receive by the other disciples when they told them that Jesus had arisen from the dead, Jesus decided to come to them himself. Isn’t that just like Jesus? He wanted them to see for themselves, so he came to them.

Can you imagine these two women, already full of fear and joy, looking at Jesus standing there? They fell before his feet, still trying to wrap their minds around the idea that he really was alive. But when they saw him, they got it. Seeing is believing. See, what I have done. See I have risen from the dead. See, the stone is rolled away. See, I really am the Messiah that you knew in your hearts was true when I walked with you and talked with you. See, I have power that you didn’t know that I had. See, I live! Now these two women of faith know for sure, and have no doubt. They know that he lives, because he came to them himself.

Come, look. See? When you begin to look for Jesus, he will find you. When you search for him in your heart, you’ll find that he’s already there. When you begin to understand more about who he is and what he is able to do, you will begin to understand better and better the great power that is his, that same power that he offers to you. When you begin to see. When you begin to get it. When you begin to understand the power of God by seeing
Christ for who he truly is, you will begin to feel the changes happening in your own life.

See how Jesus’ power of forgiveness can overcome that sense of unworthiness that lurks in the dark places, telling you that you’re not worthy of God’s love. Jesus lets you see that God loves you no matter whatyou’ve done in your past. See Jesus’ power to turn your sorrow and sadness into joy just by his presence. See the hope that floods your heart and gives you new possibilities for your life. See his power to defeat the things that continually want to break you down, drawing you to anger, depression, guilt and shame—all designed to kill your spirit. See? Jesus wants you to have a real life, with real joy that will give you life and not take it away. See– with Jesus that all things are possible for your life. There is nothing too big for Jesus to conquer. See? He can roll away all the stones that continually block you from the success you deserve in life.

See that Jesus has conquered even death, so that there is no longer any fear. Jesus, the on who represents the good, has won the victory! Didn’t he promise us that he is waiting for us, that he has gone to prepare a place for us, so that where he is we will be, too. Death has been defeated by the mighty power of love, of God, of Jesus. See? Oh Death, where is your victory! Where is your sting? See, there is no longer anything to fear on this earth, if you only believe. Seeing is believing. Good has won the victory. There is still evil in the world, but the victory has been won for us, because the darkness does not understand and cannot withstand the light! See?

Come, look. See? Go! Go tell the others said the Angel to the women. Go and tell the others said Jesus. Now that you have come, looked and now that you see, I have a job for you to do. Go and tell the others that Jesus lives.

When we see, we will humble ourselves before him, just like the two Mary’s did. We will humble our hearts and through the humbleness allow him to work in us. When we open our hearts to be changed by the power of Jesus’ presence, he will give us our marching orders. And when that happens, we are ready to go.

Just like Jesus needed the Mary’s to go tell the others, Jesus has a message and a job for each and every one of us who are called into his service. Come. Look. See? Go! Tell somebody who Jesus really is. Tell them that Jesus lives in the hearts of all who believe in him. Tell somebody how your life has been changed because of your belief. Go! With excitement and joy. Go! Allow the power of the only one who could defeat death to move you from the living dead to abundant life.

Go! Take the good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for those in prison, help the others who are still blind to see the goodness of God through your words and actions. Go! Speak truth to those in power in high places so they will know right from wrong. Go and help the people Jesus sends you to so they will see your good works and know who Jesus is. Go, be the lights of the world and the salt of the earth, so others will both see and taste the good that is Jesus. Go! all the while giving God the glory and praise that only God deserves. Go! in peace and joy. Go! in power and truth. Go! in love and thanksgiving. Go!

Come, look. See? Go! Jesus lives! Go out and tell somebody, Jesus lives! Show that you know he lives because he lives right there in your heart. Let them see your good works and inspire them to come and look for Him themselves. He will be with you when you go, telling you where to look, helping you to see others as he sees them, everywhere that you go in his name, because He lives!

 

More Puzzling

In last week’s post I reported on a 2010 article I found by Steven Hawkins on The American Prospect website entitled “Education vs. Incarceration.”  Mr. Hawkins drew the connection between increased state spending for prison systems and the failure of inner city schools, and he predicted the school closings and reduction of support for poor children that we are seeing now.  Fast-forward to a May 2013 article in The American Prospect entitled Children of the Great Collapse, by Jared Bernstein, an economist and senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He was formerly chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden and a member of President Barack Obama’s economics team. Dr. Bernstein provides an extensive and informative report elucidating the economic benefits provided by the Obama Administration’s Federal Recovery Act, and how the success of that effort is now being undercut by a mean-spirited (my term) political climate that claims to be based on reducing deficits.

Dr. Bernstein explains: “The bad news is that most of the Recovery Act’s outlays have now been spent, and pressure to reduce deficits leaves other spending on children and families under assault.” He analyzes what this means to the people who need help the most:  “….the data make a solid case that the policies we’ve put in place over the years…..worked well. But when you combine this perhaps under appreciated information with the well-known long-term stagnation of middle- and low-income working families’ incomes, we end up with the anomaly: A lot of folks get some insulation from the downturn but stagnate in the upturn.”

Here is where the puzzle pieces provided by these two articles come together. Dr. Bernstein concludes his report by wrestling with the question “What types of measures might help give families and kids a fighting chance at claiming more of the economy’s growth?”   The two things he suggests that will most likely help are income support for low income families and quality preschool. On preschool, he says “A large body of research shows both how important quality preschool is for later outcomes and how its returns over a lifetime far surpass its costs. In his State of the Union address, the president cited the well-documented finding that $1 of investment in good preschool returns $7 of benefits. These results are particularly strong for kids from less advantaged backgrounds.”

The connection with last week’s article is clear.  Both of these articles ought to help us see that we’re all in this puzzle together. If we help those who need it most, we will find that over time we spend less money and reduce heartbreaks all around. Providing quality preschool funding and early childhood education support will help prevent the dramatic costs we pay for the cycle of broken lives, the crime that touches all of us, our overburdened court systems and the overpopulated prisons and parole systems. When we direct more of our taxpayer dollars to help rather than to punish, we’ll replace the jobs that are lost in the prison industry by the increase of jobs in education and social services. The only ones who stand to lose in this scenario are those who aim to get rich by putting our children in prison. And they are a powerful lobby.

While this part of the puzzle ought to be clear by now to anyone who’s paying attention, what’s more puzzling is why we can’t seem to get anything done about it. Could it be the powerful lobbying? More to say on that next week.

I’m getting tired of ranting about this.  It’s time to take action.  So, for starters, I’m asking all who care about poor children to do something pretty simple:  Call, write, email, text, or twitter your Senators and Congress persons and tell  them you support our President’s initiative to provide preschool support for children. Here’s one of several websites that will give you contact information for Congress: http://www.contactingthecongress.org

That’s easy enough to do.  Let us know when you do it.

 

Inviting Culture Shock

Up until a few years ago I served as Pastor of Irving Park Baptist Church, a small mostly White and aging multicultural congregation on the north side of Chicago.  I love that church.  The people are wonderfully open to trying new things and embracing change.  To be honest, not everybody liked change.  But enough of them were willing to try new things to make change happen– like calling me, an African American woman, as their pastor, and inviting a highly gifted pony-tailed guitarist to serve as their music director.

There is one change this church went through that will always keep them close to my heart.  As with most changes, it was difficult for them at first.  But this effort truly changed the church, I believe for the better. It all had to do with a children’s home down the street from the church.  It’s a home for children who’ve been removed from their families for safety reasons.  Some of these children may eventually return to their families, some are adopted, and some stay at the home until they reach 18 and come out of the foster care system.

The thing about these kids is that most of them are Black.  Irving Park is a predominantly White neighborhood that has recently gentrified and is now also predominantly well to do. Some of the members of Irving Park Baptist say that they can’t afford to live in the neighborhood anymore.  The kids at the home clearly stand out there, and are known to some in the neighborhood as “those” kids from the home, without any further identification other than their skin color.

At my instigation, the church reached out to the home to invite the kids to participate in activities we planned for the neighborhood, like vacation bible school, Martin Luther King Day celebrations and outdoor family fun festivities.  The home didn’t respond for a couple of years, until I finally made contact with one of the counselors who came over to the church to talk with me about the kids. She thought that the kids might be difficult for the church to handle, that they were rough and some had “issues.”

And while she told me this, I knew she was challenging me, and the church, to make sure the church would be a safe place to bring these kids, who she loved deeply.  She wanted to make sure they didn’t get hurt.  Like other foster kids, the one thing most of them wanted above all else was to be able to go home to a safe and secure place, to have a loving and healthy family.  The last thing they needed was to be treated like outsiders, like much of the rest of the neighborhood treated them.

So we planned to bring the kids over for a Saturday Fun Fest, just for them.  Several of the women of the church had taught Sunday School for years, some of them had been teachers, many had worked with kids in various capacities, and a couple of them had worked with handicapped children. So they got ready, planning arts and crafts projects and songs to sing, food to eat and a time of bible study.

When the kids arrived about 1/2 hour late, accompanied by their counselors (always), we were shocked.  We had planned for children who we thought would be mostly grade schoolers.  These kids were mostly junior high and high schoolers, and much more mature than we expected.  These kids were not like the children the women were accustomed to working with.  They were from a different culture, a different place, a place that these women did not know.

It was truly culture shock.  One young woman who had planned the arts and crafts said she was surprised that most of the kids were bigger than she was.  So we adapted. I don’t remember how, but we did. We talked together after the experience, and the church wanted to continue to have the monthly Saturday sessions for these kids.

That was a key point in my relationship with the church.  They wanted to try.  They were willing to stretch themselves because they knew that these kids needed more love in their lives, and they wanted to help make that happen.

A group of us worked hard together to make sure that the activities were more age-appropriate.  We planned every minute out with things for them to do.  For a few months it felt like hard work, until we began to get to know the kids better.  After a while, we figured out that they were happy just to come, to be there with us, to “chillax” (for those of you who don’t get that, it means to both chill and relax) away from the home.  We found it more fulfilling to sometimes just to talk with the kids, to listen to their stories, to get to know them as kids, just kids.

And sometimes it didn’t go as planned.  Sometimes one of the the kids would get in trouble with the counselors and that made us all uncomfortable.  Sometimes they didn’t show up, or were late, or we got our signals crossed about something.  But the church kept on inviting them, and they kept on coming.

Over the years, the relationship deepened, and the kids responded to the church in some very positive ways..  More on this next week….

Faith’s X-Ray Vision

Wouldn’t you like to have x-ray vision like Superman?  I mean, you could see through things to find stuff that you lost, and you could avoid people you didn’t want to see without opening your door.  Of course, you would need to be like Superman and not use your super power for any kind of nefarious purpose.  Yeah, right.  Maybe that’s why God didn’t give us that capability.  On the other hand, if we all had x-ray vision, it wouldn’t be such a big deal, would it?

As powerful as Superman’s x-ray vision is, it is not as powerful as God’s vision.  Superman can see through things–God sees into the heart.  When the prophet Samuel was assigned to choose among Jesse’s sons who would be the next King of Israel, Samuel assumed the choice would be Eliab, the handsomest, eldest, and the tallest of the boys.  He would not have chosen David, the youngest and smallest, if God had not whispered in his ear:  “I don’t see mortals the way you see them–I look at their hearts and not on their outward appearance.” (See 1 Samuel 16:1-13)

God’s ability to see into our hearts is even more compelling than Dr. King’s admonition that we are to measure people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.  God sees even beyond the character we show to the world.  God sees through to our hearts, with the authority that only God holds, as the one who knows us completely, and who knows who we were intended to be.

And God wants those of us who believe to see the world through God’s eyes.  God calls us to be ambassadors for Christ in the world, and that means we need to see things as God sees them so we can properly represent God in the world. (See 2 Corinthians 5: 16-21)  Whew!  That’s a pretty tall order.  If our job is to try to see the world around us as God sees it, we have to learn how to see beyond the physical appearance of things. We need to see into the hearts of people and into the hearts of the situations that we face. We have to understand God, somewhat, in order to do that, don’t you think?  And it takes faith. That’s what we are to use, a kind of x-ray vision that comes through faith in God.

When we look at others through faith’s x-ray vision, we don’t see color, race, nationalities, cultures…all those divisions that the world creates among God’s people.  We instead see the beloved children of God, a beautiful rainbow of diversity designed according to God’s amazing creativity. When we look through faith’s x-ray vision, we no longer see different religions, just children who’re struggling in their own different ways and cultures to understand God.

When we understand that all of this earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, we  no longer see people coming from Mexico as illegal aliens or people trying to take away our jobs.  We instead see a people who are trying to make a living for themselves, and we see that there is plenty of land between these two countries with more than enough resources for all of us.  As Ambassadors for Christ, we understand that there is  a better way to allocate the resources so that all can do well– and we understand that we need to help others see that.

Through faith, we no longer see children who are brutal gang members and who learn evil as fodder for our prison systems, but we see them instead as children who have themselves been brutalized by poverty and strife and abuse, with no one to help them through it.  As Ambassadors for Christ, we understand that there is a way to reach them with the love of God, and we know that if we work at reconciling them to their true natures, we can save them.

Through faith, instead of seeing people with different political agendas as enemies or opponents against whom we must fight because they don’t want the same things we want, we see a people who have different views, some of which may be legitimate.  As Ambassadors for Christ, we take the first step to reconcile, to mend fences and begin real conversations to work for what is best for all.

Through faith, instead of seeing people who are poor as people who don’t know how to take care of themselves, people who are dependent on others and who drain our resources, we see poverty as the problem to address, and not the people.  We see a broken system that protects the haves who want to hang onto what they have and who think they need more than they do. As Ambassadors for Christ,  we know it is our job to help the world understand how to better share the abundantly plentiful natural resources that God has given to all of us.

With faith’s x-ray vision, maybe we can become more like Superman! Or better yet, more like God.

 

 

 

 

Where We Come In

It seems to me that reports about horrible atrocities committed by humans against humans in our country have been peculiarly abundant over the past few months.  Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean the U.S. is not a great place to live compared to many other countries, especially those places where brutal war and corruption are commonplace.  One of the good things to know is that atrocities still make the news here, which means they are not common. So in a round about way these reports help us know that we are pretty well off.

The three recent big ones–the horrible shooting of 20 children and 6 adults in Newtown Connecticut in December, the bombings at the Boston Marathon in April killing 6 people and injuring 264, and the discovery of three young girls held in brutal captivity for over 10 years–are enough to make anyone with a heart shudder and cry. Add to that the numerous other smaller crimes, such as the police officer who was brutally shot down when he walked up to a car that he had pulled over, and the 5 year old who accidentally shot his two year old sister with a “kiddie” gun given to him by his parents. I’m not sure which I consider the most egregious, making a “kiddie” gun or loading it and giving it to a 5 year old …. both are horrific to me.

Doesn’t all this just make you just want to holler! While hollering does help relieve our frustration and anger, it doesn’t do much to help the situation.

One of the things that really touched me was when one of the teachers in Newtown told the children that they had to hide because there was a bad guy out there and they had to wait until the good guys came. She knew the good guys were coming, it was just a matter of time.  She knew that whoever was shooting would not be allowed to continue it without someone stepping up to stop the madness.

That’s the good thing about our country–we will not let the madness continue. And the good guys will come.  Like those policemen who rescued so many of the children in Newtown, like those folks in the Boston bombings who ran to help the injured instead of running away to save themselves, and like Charles Ramsey, who responded to calls of help and broke through the door, ending a decade of abuse for three young women.  The good guys will come.

Most of us who are followers of Christ, no matter what form that following may take, consider ourselves to be the good guys. (I’d like to say all of us, but I can’t be sure of that!)  It doesn’t matter whether we’re Roman Catholics or Non-denominational, whether we’re Episcopal or Pentecostals, whether we’re Baptist or simply believers who are “spiritual but not religious.”  We all consider ourselves to be the good guys.  And if we are, we must wrestle with where we are to come in.  What do we do as the “good guys” to make ourselves known? When do we don our “white hats” (a metaphor I don’t like, but it makes the point), and take actions to deal with such troubling situations?

I know some of us will always help out with a hand out, some will serve as mentors and helpers and others will be kind to anyone who is in trouble. But is this kind of help enough?  When we find ourselves faced with atrocities like the ones we’re seeing too much of lately, we need to ask the harder, deeper questions to determine what in our society might be contributing to the situation.  We need to address the structural causes, such as the need for more research and funding to support mental health; dealing honestly and intentionally with the negative image of our nation and our nation’s predominant faith, Christianity, that is held in the minds of so many people in other countries, especially “third world” nations; and deciding whether our country’s founders intended to protect the “right” of people to keep and carry the kind of  semi-automatic weapons that cause such mass destruction. These are the bigger issues, the foundational issues we need to address if we are to make this country even better than it already is.

Our job as Christians is to try to see the world around us through God’s eyes.  When we do, we will always look for the underlying causes of evil in this world, we will always seek more justice and righteousness and we will always be led by love and grace. And we will  act–we will come in–to deal with the situation.  If we really are the good guys….

 

 

 

Where Deep Calls to Deep

I just finished reading Maya Angelou’s beautiful and thought-provoking poem “A Brave and Startling Truth.”  It touched me deeply. She read it on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco, June 26, 1995,  I am sad to say that I had not read it before…. I found it the other day quite by accident.  I was researching a bit on a concept for a sermon, and searched  the phrase “where we come in,” just to see if there were others who had used this as a title in anything– something I do sometimes just to find out what’s out there.  This phrase is not in her poem at all, but it is closely enough related to the phrase repeated in her poem, “when we come to it,” that Google picked it up.

Her poem took me somewhere deep, a place to which I love to go but don’t seem to get to often enough.  It’s the place I seek when I turn my thoughts to sermon writing; a place that if I haven’t got there, I don’t feel prepared to speak.  It’s the place I hope to help others find when I speak and write.

I remember the first time I found that place, deep within, long before I ever felt the call to ministry. I wrote a couple of notes to myself then because I wanted to remember how I felt. I’ve kept these notes for more than 35 years:

I feel like beautiful feelings

Like writing love music

Conducting a symphony orchestra

Painting a sunset

Singing a sweet sad song

Like crying

Like hugging

Like loving

Like caressing a loved ones’ cheek with mine

Like sharing a warm feeling

Like smiling from deep within.

When it comes it makes me want to

Make earrings out of something

Make poetry out of thoughts

Put some of me down on paper.

 I’m sharing this with you now (although I have second thoughts about the “make earrings” part!)  because this place, deep within, is the place where I believe our inward spirituality connects to God.  Psalm 42:7 describes the feeling:  “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.” Howard Thurman, the great spiritual leader and former Dean of Howard University’s Rankin Chapel, described a moment in his ordination when he felt “the heavens opened and the spirit descended like a dove.” Then he wrote:  “Ever since, when it seems that I am deserted by the voice that called me forth, I know that if I can find my way back to that moment, the clouds will lift and the path before me will once again be clear and beckoning.”  With Head and Heart, p. 58.

We all need to find that deep place within where God’s creative love breaks in on us and refreshes our souls. To me, when I’m not there, I’m just skimming on the surface of life, distracted by the many things around me that always seem to need my attention. We need to escape periodically from our everyday-life-management stuff so that we can tend to our spiritual lives, our inner beings, the deep place in which we find our true selves and hear God’s desires.

Getting there requires space for quiet and peace, personal time not distracted by other needs.  Getting there requires prayer and personal meditation. Some may need direction from spiritual leaders or teachers. Some can get there with a favorite bible verse or song. We all need to get there, whatever it may take, because that is where our direction can be found– not in the things of this world, but in the secret places of our hearts, where deep calls to deep. In that place we are refurbished. That’s where we share the joy of love with the One who created us out of love and for love, and we receive direction on how we are to share that love in the time that has been given to us.

Maya Angelou’s beautiful poem struck me so deeply because she lifts up the great paradox of humanity–our ability to evoke such great harm and so many awful disasters in this world, yet at the same time our ability to share such great, selfless and healing love. In this age of information when we are bombarded by the news of atrocities like those three young girls who were kidnapped and held in brutal captivity for a decade, the lethal bombing in Boston or the children being mowed down in Newtown Connecticut, we need to be reminded that there is also great love being shared.   We need to be reminded of the power of people like Mother Teresa, Hellen Keller, Mahatma Ghandi, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther KIng, Jr.,  and the millions of heroes and sheroes who constantly pour out God’s love for others through their kind actions.

When we come to that “brave and startling” truth that we have the power to fashion this world to be a better place, my prayer is that we will choose love as our creative blueprint. The kind of love that we need in order to fashion the world into a place where God’s kingdom will be seen here, as it is in heaven, is found in that place in our souls where “deep calls to deep.” If you’ve ever been there, you will feel the need to go back. If you’ve never been there, you should work on finding the way.

Would God Call a Woman to be a Pastor?

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This week I’m taking a break from one important issue to address another.  I’ve just returned from a meeting of the American Baptist Women in Ministry Advisory Team–a small, highly talented and inspired national denominational group with a passion for supporting women in ministry. If you’ve read my “writings” page (see link above), you know that gender discrimination in our churches is an important justice issue for me. The mission of American Baptist Churches Women in Ministry (ABWIM) is to educate on behalf of women in ministry, advocate for full recognition of women in ministerial leadership, cultivate and nurture women who are called to ministry and celebrate women’s gifts for ministry.  Check out the ABWIM website for more great information about our organization and our work.

Some American Baptist churches have been supporting women’s ordination and full recognition for women’s leadership in our churches for many years. Others, not so much.  While ABC-USA has been supportive of women for many years, I am sad to report that women comprise only about 10% of the pastors in ABC local churches.

Baptist tradition historically gives high importance to individual religious liberty and freedom (local autonomy) of the local churches.  Many people don’t understand that because the most vocal of the baptist groups in the United States, the Southern Baptists, exercise more control over member’s beliefs and churches than is consistent with baptist tradition.  If you’d like to learn more about American Baptists, the ABC-USA website has a good short history. So, as baptists, we who celebrate the freedom of individual belief must deal with the intolerance of women’s gifts in our churches not by command or coercion, but by education and compelling persuasion.

It is also sad that the basis for this discrimination against women is generated by how the bible is interpreted.  I love the bible.  It is my source of strength, renewal, faith, and hope.  Without the biblical witness sharing who our God is and what God calls us to do, I don’t know how I would have come to love God so much.  It hurts my heart to see so many being misled by a human interpretation of the biblical word that is inconsistent, in my viewpoint, to the great love that God and Jesus share with women.

Having grown up in a church that did not discriminate against women (African Methodist Episcopal), when I felt God’s call to ministry, I had no clue that any person would try to tell me that my call was not true. Before I was called, I had joined a baptist church that thankfully was supportive of women’s calls.  So it took me a while to realize how deep was the prejudice against women, especially in the African American baptist churches.  Because that prejudice is biblically based, I had to dig deep into my understanding of the bible to be able to respond to it.  You’ll see some of that research in the article referred to on my “writings” page.  The ABWIM website offers more information on biblical support for women’s leadership in our churches.

So, because you’re reading my blog I’m hoping that you support women in ministry.  If you do, then what our team wants you to do is to sign on.  We’ve created a letter of support on which we hope to get 10,000 signatures in support of women’s ministry.  We’re doing this to encourage those who are unsure to seek further information.  All you have to do is to click on this link, sign on, and tell somebody else to do the same.

“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…”  Acts 2: 17.

The Victims of Poverty

I remember thinking, when my first grandchild was born, about how new babies bring with them so much new love into the world.  I felt that same love for my children and many other babies as well, but for some reason it was that first grandchild, over whom we profusely “ooh-ed and ah-ed,” who really connected me to the thought that this is one way God brings more love into the world. The thing about babies is that they are so beautiful and yet so very vulnerable.  What a great responsibility it is to care for a fragile, tiny being who cannot survive without our help!  It’s hard enough for a family with sufficient monetary means to raise a child, but for parents who struggle to make it in life, raising a child successfully becomes much more difficult.

As our society advances further into the information age, or digital age, as some call it, workers must compete more and more for professional jobs (engineers, doctors, teachers, etc.) or settle for low wage service jobs. And in the competition of a globalized economy, the wages for service jobs are no longer sufficient for raising a family. Many families are already left behind as the market has shifted from industrialization to information.  Education is the key for their children to compete successfully, but studies have shown that children born into poverty will need twice as much financial support to successfully compete with children born into more affluent families. That’s support these families can’t provide.

Often when I talk about the need for schools to provide stronger support systems for poor children, the response I get is that the family needs to do more.  I agree that families should be involved in their children’s education–they should help the children with their homework and participate in school activities and work alongside the teachers to help their children succeed.  But too often they just don’t, or they won’t, for reasons that run the gamut from never having had that role model in their own lives, to working more than one job to bring the food into the house, to having some kind of health problem or being caught up in drugs or some form of addiction that disables them.  These are the children whose parents either will not or can not help them succeed, no matter how much they may love them.

The result is that children who do not receive the additional support are likely to  drop out of school.  And they will end up in jail. Nowhere is this seen more blatantly than in the lives of black boys born in inner-city poverty stricken neighborhoods. The Schott Foundation for Public Education publishes data on the outcomes for Black males in public education, called “The Urgency of Now.”  They report that in 2009-10 the national graduation rate for Black male students was 52%. This sadly low number is a new high, and for the first time was more than half.  These numbers include a higher graduation rate for black students who are in more affluent high schools, which indicates that: “…Black males, on average, perform better in places and spaces where they are not relegated to under-resourced districts or schools. When provided similar opportunities they are more likely to produce similar or better outcomes as their White male peers.” You can access their latest report here:  http://blackboysreport.org/national-summary/preface

Tavis Smiley produced an excellent documentary, recently broadcast on PBS, on the problems many of our inner city black boys face, entitled “Too Important to Fail.”  These children come from impoverished families and broken school systems, where “zero tolerance” and juvenile detention feeds too many of them into the prison system.  He interviews several educators who have dedicated their lives to helping black boys succeed, as well as several of the boys.

Here is a bit of the information he provides:

  • We begin to lose students in school around the 3rd Grade, when they move from learning to read to reading to learn. If children don’t master reading by the 1st grade, they will have less than a 20% chance of graduating high school.
  • The children are victims of societal problems that they have no control over, such as drugs and violence in their neighborhoods and lack of health care, and the schools must provide social services to bring stability in their lives if they are to succeed.
  • Extracurricular activities that keep the children off the streets are extremely important.
  • The children need teachers who care, and show it, and who fully expect the children to succeed.
  • They need curricula and teachers they can relate to.
  • They need role models, because, as one of the children in juvenile detention put it, “Without a role model, you just keep on doing what you’re doing.”
  • For some of these children, prison is what’s normal in their neighborhood.

You can see the show online at:  http://www.pbs.org/wnet/tavissmiley/

If “prison is what’s normal” for these children, then they are achieving what is expected of them.  I would hope that we would expect so much more.  Yet, states are less willing to spend more money on schools, while spending more and more money on prison systems. When school budgets drop, services for students are dismissed first. The saddest thing about this is that investing in the children while they are small is clearly much more economical for states than putting and keeping our young men in prison.

The Church needs to use her prophetic voice to speak the truth about this to those in power, in order to save these children’s lives.

I’d love your comments!  Next week:  Whose making money by putting our children in prison?

A Stellar Model for Action

When my husband Bill and I were based in Chicago, we became involved with the Community Renewal Society, a faith-based organization that focuses on race and poverty issues.  CRS is a stellar model of churches organizing for social action.

Here’s how their website, www.communityrenewalsociety.org, describes what  they do: “Community Renewal Society works to empower individuals, community-based organizations and congregations to advocate for social and economic justice. Through its pioneering efforts, Community Renewal Society moves civic and religious leaders to take action on issues of racism and poverty.”

CRS publishes two newsmagazines that help to research and identify issues of concern, providing fodder for community action.  Catalyst Chicago focuses on public education, and The Chicago Reporter focuses on race and poverty issues. The CRS Civic Action Network provides advocacy training and organizes individuals from an ecumenical group of over 50 churches to take action.

Bill worked with a group that sought equality in nursing home care for homes located in the poor and primarily African American south side of Chicago. The Chicago Reporter found that nursing homes owned by one company provided higher quality services for the homes it ran in predominantly white neighborhoods than for those it ran in predominantly black neighborhoods. With publicity, that campaign was successful.

Both Bill and I worked with a group that challenged the Illinois General Assembly to provide adequate funding for the public school system.  At that time, Illinois was the 4th richest state in the United States, but it ranked next to last among the states in the amount of state funding provided for public schools.  Public school financing in Illinois is predominantly based on real estate taxes, resulting in a large disparity in the amount of money available for public schools among the rich and poor neighborhoods.  Studies show that children from poor and broken families need twice as much funding for their educational support than do the children from families with better resources. Illinois’ system provides the opposite.

We also advocated for the Chicago Public School system to stop expelling minority boys from school at a much higher rate than other children. An investigative report showed that the CPS policy on expelling children related directly to the number of children who ended up in the correctional system–i.e., that’s where the “poverty to prison” pipeline begins, and also where, with some effort, I believe it could be ended.

What fond memories I have of some of the elders of our congregation getting on a bus with people from all over the city to go down to the State Capitol in Springfield and advocate for equality in nursing home care.  How great it felt to participate in a rally outside of the Illinois Capitol building and find out that the legislators really were paying attention.  How inspired I was when we gathered hands in the rotunda of the Capitol Building to sing hymns and pray, and some of the lobbyists and legislators joined with us. How invigorating to converse on topics of importance with state Senators and Representatives, even though sometimes it seemed like we were talking to brick walls.

Too many of our young people today think that church is not relevant.  Seeing churches in action and making a difference in the society may be just what they need to become more involved.  I applaud the Community Renewal Society and the young people who work there.  I especially appreciate the lead organizer, Alex Wiesendanger, for his superb leadership and organizing efforts, and I offer my sincere gratitude for the leadership of Rev. Dr. Calvin Morris, who retired last year as the Executive Director.

If some of you have had similar experiences with faith-based community groups, I’d love to hear about them.