Black History Month Project Update no. 2

If you read my columns in the Carillon Notes, then you know that I’m embarking on a personal project during Black History Month. I’m trying to add Black (or predominantly Black) media to my usual media diet.

Admittedly, I wasn’t as active in my search for media this week as I was last week. Sometimes, life gets in the way, and even good projects get pushed to the side. That said, I do want to highlight a few items that I’ve come across in the last couple of weeks that I think are good:

Enjoy!

Judgment (Sermon for February 10, 2019)

I majored in philosophy. 

Now, before you judge, I majored in philosophy during the philosophy boom of the late 90s, when there was a major philosopher shortage and all of the big philosophy firms were hiring. I had no idea that the philosophy market would collapse right before I graduated.

Either that, or I majored in philosophy because I was in my late teens, and I like big questions, and it was interesting (and maybe even a little romantic).

But regardless of the reason, I majored in philosophy.

And one of the things that philosophers like to do is pretend that people are rational. We imagine that people make decisions based on evidence and logic. And we’re not alone. A lot of people imagine the same thing. Science, economics, law, and other fields are all based on the idea that people are reasonable.

And that’s just not true.

There is a lot of evidence that people aren’t reasonable. But the way that I learned about human irrationality was this: I learned about the fundamental attribution error.

It’s a neat little trick that our brains—that our psychologies—play on us. And it works like this.

When I do something bad, I think about all of the extenuating circumstances that drove me to that choice. I speed because I’m going with the flow of traffic, and I’m late for something very important, and the speed limit is clearly set to low for this road, and everyone should understand that.

But when you do something bad, I don’t think about extenuating circumstances. I attribute your behavior to your character. I make assumptions about the kind of person you are. You speed because you’re a reckless driver with no respect for the other people on the road.

And we all do this. I do it. You do it. That person who cut you off in traffic or didn’t hold a door or responded too curtly to an email does it. We all tell ourselves, “I am a good person who does bad things for good reasons… and other people are jerks.”

We’ve spent a few weeks in Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount.

A couple of weeks ago, when we had our first reading from this sermon, I told you that it isn’t really a sermon. It’s possible—and maybe even probably—that Jesus never said these exact things in this exact order.

But Jesus was a teacher and a preacher. And while there was probably no one who remembered a whole sermon of his, people remembered bits and pieces. People remembered the themes and ideas and phrases and images that Jesus used again and again. And when Matthew was writing his gospel, he put Jesus on a mountain, like Moses on Sinai, and had him say these bits and pieces in this order.

And you can tell that Matthew took a bunch of things that Jesus said and just sort of cobbled them together because of this passage.

It starts with Jesus telling his disciples—and with Matthew telling us—not to judge.

“Do not judge,” he says, “so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get… if you want to take a speck out of your neighbor’s eye, you had better make sure there’s not a log in your own eye, first.”

And there’s something beautiful there. Don’t poke around in other people’s eyes when you can’t see clearly. Get the muck out of your own eyes before you try to help your neighbor with the stuff in theirs. Don’t judge people; get yourself together so that you can help people.

But then Matthew has Jesus turn around and say this:

“Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.”

So Jesus starts by telling us not to judge, and then turns around and tells us to know what is holy and what is valuable… and who the dogs and swine are… and that sounds pretty judgmental to me.

And, I know, it’s Jesus saying this.

Jesus, who is God-become-one-of-us. Jesus, who knows our hearts. Jesus, who we meet in everyone who has need. Jesus, who feeds us at his table.

Jesus, who will come in glory and put some of us on his right and some of us on his left.

Jesus, who will send some of us into the kingdom that God has prepared for us since the foundation of the world, and who will leave some of us in the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Jesus, who will judge with perfect knowledge… and perfect love… and perfect compassion.

There’s a tension here. And we need to face it honestly.

And it begins with this: I do not judge with perfect knowledge and perfect love and perfect compassion. I don’t know all the facts, I don’t love as I should, I can’t walk a mile in your shoes.

I’m not qualified to judge. I’m not qualified to call someone a dog or a pig. And neither are you.

There’s a tension here. And we need to face it honestly. And it begins with that humility.

And then it goes here: it is one thing to judge a thing, or a behavior, or a system, or an institution; it is an entirely different thing to judge a person.

And this is where it get hard.

As Christians, we have to be able to look at things and behaviors and systems and institutions and say, “This is good; and this is bad.”

As your pastor, I need to be able to look at an immigration system that rips children from parents, and places those children with families they don’t know… and say that it is wrong.

I need to be able to look at a system of mass incarceration that holds more than 21% of the world’s prisoners, where race is a major determining factor in whether you end up in jail, where money is a major determining fact in whether you stay there, and where it’s incredibly hard to get our of the system once you’re in it… and say that it is wrong.

I need to be able to look at the food we gather for the Referral Center, and the warm clothes we gather around Christmas, and all of the other ways that we help people in this community and beyond, both as individuals and as a church… and say that they are good.

And, I will admit, there are very few times when we can look at something and know for sure that it is wholly good or wholly evil. We rarely get to choose between good and evil. Most of the time, we have to choose between good and better, or between bad and worse. And it’s hard to know which is which.

Well-meaning people, acting in good faith, trying to do the best we can, can disagree about things.

But it is still true: it is one thing to judge a thing, or a behavior, or a system, or an institution; it is an entirely different thing to judge a person.

And that’s where the fundamental attribution error comes in. Because so often, when we look at ourselves and see that we’ve done something we’re not proud of, we say, “I am a good person who did a bad thing.” And sometimes we even add, “For a good reason.”

And so often, when we look at other people and see that they’ve done something we’re not proud of, we say, “That is a bad person. He is a dog. She is swine. I cannot give them what is holy. I cannot give them what is valuable. If I do, they will trample it under foot and maul me. They are a bad person.”

And, let’s be honest, there are whole industries—on television and radio and the internet—who will tell you who the bad people are. There are systems and institutions who will tell you who you should say that about. And it can feel so good to judge people that way.

But we are not Christ. We do not judge with perfect knowledge and perfect love and perfect compassion.

As Christians, we have to be able to look at things and behaviors and systems and institutions and say, “This is good, and this is bad, this is just, and this is unjust; this is merciful, and this is unmerciful; this is compassionate, and this is not compassionate.” Seeing those differences is one of the first steps towards making this world a place of greater justice and mercy and compassion.

And, at the same time, as Christians, we never look at people and say, “They are good, and they are bad.”

Because here’s the thing: Christ, who judges with perfect knowledge and love and compassion, withholds judgment for the sake of redemption.

In perfect knowledge and perfect love and perfect knowledge, with no log in his own eye, Christ sees the divine spark, the image of God, in us, in we who are sinners, and redeems us. That is the promise of our faith.

And if Christ has done that for us, how can we refuse to do that for others? How can we, who are not qualified to judge, look at someone and say, “They are good, and they are bad”?

The answer is easy: we can’t. And the truth is that holy things—holy things like grace—are holy even when dogs have them. And the truth is that dogs like me probably need them more.

I know that’s a tall order. I know how easy it is to judge people. I know how easy it is to say, “I am a good person who does bad things for good reasons… and other people are jerks.” I do it. You do it. We all do it.

But I also believe that we can meet that tall order. By the grace of God, we can do to others as we would have them do to us. We can judge others as we would have them judge us: with love and compassion; with mercy and grace.

We can take those holy things and give them to everyone… even the dogs like them… even the dogs like us.

We can build our houses, we can build our homes, we can build our lives, on the solid foundation fo the grace  of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

Thanks be to God!

Black History Month Project Update no. 1

If you read my columns in the Carillon Notes, then you know that I’m embarking on a personal project during Black History Month. I’m trying to add Black (or predominantly Black) media to my usual media diet.

Because I’m looking to change my media diet, I’m not looking so much for books or articles, even though I have been reading a few articles. That’s because those kinds of media tend to be one-off. Once I’ve read a book, I’ve read that book. And while I might read that book again sometime, it isn’t something that I’ll keep reading day in and day out. Instead of looking for one-off media, I’ve been adding serial media: media that is regularly creating new content and, therefore, media that can be a part of my diet for months, years, or decades to come.

So, here’s what I’ve added so far.

Twitter: I spend a surprising amount of time on Twitter, so the first thing I looked at was my Twitter timeline. It already had some racial diversity, but definitely needed more. So, here’s a list of the Black people who I am now following (who are not politicians). I’ve followed some of these people for a while, so there are some on the list who haven’t posted in a while, but several are fairly new.

@JIJennings, @ReignOfApril, @BigGhostLtd, @Nettaaaaaaaa, @questlove, @BlackGirlNerds, @JamilahLemieux, @Combat_Jack, @brokeymcpoverty, @bomani_jones, @JamilSmith, @eveewing, @FeministaJones, @ProfessorCrunk, @Moore_Darnell, @writer9706, @RevDrBarber, @JoyAnnReid, @deray, @wkamaubell, @PureKwest, @revdrseed, @thephiwa, @pastortraci, @DaBuhuro1, @om3

Podcasts: I also listen to a lot of podcasts, so I looked at what I was listening to. Again, there were already some Black people on the list, but not enough. So, here are the Black (or predominantly Black) podcasts that I’m listening to. I should point out that there are very few podcasts that I listen to every episode of, so it’s not like I’m listening to the whole back catalog. But I am listening to these and they’re in my feed for the future.

Reveal, In Black America, The Nod, Pod Save the People

General News: I also read a lot of news, so I’ve added theGrio and The Root to my regular reading.

Do you have suggestions? Leave a comment below! Twitter and podcasts are obviously welcome, but I’m also looking for blogs, tv shows, or anything else!

2019 Spring Faith Formation

Believe it or not, spring is coming! And spring faith formation activities are coming with it.

Faith in Motion is a youth program that combines learning about faith and compassion with plenty of physical activity! Each week, participants spend about a half hour learning about a Christian value and how to put it into action in their lives, and about a half an hour playing a game. Click here to learn more and see the schedule.

Young Children’s Church is a time for our younger friends to learn about God with their peers and our helpful volunteers. Pre-K kids through second graders are invited to leave church services after the children’s sermon and participate in learning and activities that is appropriate for their age. Depending on the Sunday, they return either for communion or at the end of the worship service. Click here to learn more and see the schedule.

Learning to Use My Bible is a six week mini-class that teaches basic Bible literacy through a fun hands-on approach. Second through fifth grade youth are invited to leave church services after the children’s sermon and learn about our scriptures. As with Young Children’s Church, depending on the Sunday, they return either for communion or at the end of the worship service. Click here to learn more and see the schedule.

2019 Lenten Program: Searching for Sunday

Please join us for special Lenten programming this year. Pastor Chris will lead a discussion of Rachel Held Evans’ book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. Here’s the back cover copy:

Like millions of her millennial peers, Rachel Held Evans didn’t want to go to church anymore. The hypocrisy, the politics, the gargantuan building budgets, the scandals–church culture seemed so far removed from Jesus. Yet, despite her cynicism and misgivings, something kept drawing her back to Church. And so she set out on a journey to understand Church and to find her place in it.

Centered around seven sacraments, Evans’ quest takes readers through a liturgical year with stories about baptism, communion, confirmation, confession, marriage, vocation, and death that are funny, heartbreaking, and sharply honest.

A memoir about making do and taking risks, about the messiness of community and the power of grace, Searching for Sunday is about overcoming cynicism to find hope and, somewhere in between, Church.

We will meet on Wednesday nights at 6pm, beginning on March 13 and finishing up on April 17.

New Member Classes

Have you been attending First Congregational United Church of Christ for a while? Are you interested in becoming a member of our community?

Pastor Chris will start leading new member classes on Sunday, March 3! The time and number of classes will depend on how many people are interested. If you would like to explore membership at First Congregational, or if you know of someone who might like to, please send a message to Pastor Chris!

Black History Month

This is a reprint of my column from the February 2019 Carillon Notes.

It’s no secret that we’re a pretty white church in a pretty white town, in a pretty white county, in a pretty white state. DeWitt, Clinton county, and Iowa are about 97%, 92%, and 86% white, respectively. While everyone’s experience is a little different, that it’s easy for most of us to go through our days without being in a predominantly Black space… or even having a face-to-face conversation with someone who is Black. And what’s true in our daily lives is also true in our media consumption: I know that a lot of the books and websites I read, podcasts I listen to, and tv and movies I watch are predominantly white.

And that’s a problem. It means that there are stories I’m not hearing; an entire part of the world that I’m not engaging with. That impoverishes my understanding… and means that we’re a little farther from the kingdom of God than we could be.

February is Black History Month. Usually, this is the time when we hear stories about Martin Luther King, Jr., Sojourner Truth, and maybe even the Amistad (or, if you want to be a little edgier, Henrietta Lacks, Kwame Ture, and W.E.B. Du Bois). But I’m going to spend this month doing something a little bit different: I’m going to try to change my present and my future. And I’m going to do that by investing some time and energy in predominantly (or entirely) Black media.

If you want to join me, I’ll be posting what I’m reading and listening to on this website. And, of course, if you have any recommendations, please let me know!

Do Not Worry (Sermon for February 3, 2019)

Way back at the end of November, when we were decorating the church for Christmas, we got the Advent wreath and the Advent candles out.

I wanted to make sure that they were okay, so I lit them. Later, we finished decorating, turned out the lights, locked up the church, and left. And I was sure that I had blown out the candles… but there was a little itchy feeling in the back of my brain: what if I hadn’t blown them out? What if I burned down the church?

I get that feeling—that itchy feeling in the back of my brain—more often than I’d like. I’ve had to backtrack home to make sure that I locked a door or closed the garage door. And I always have, but the itchy feeling won’t go away until I check. It’s not OCD… it’s good old-fashioned irrational worry.

In today’s reading, we are still hearing from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. And Jesus is talking about worry. So I’ve been thinking about worry.

And we are a people—we are a society—that worries.

We worry on a personal level about little things. I worry that I’ve left the garage door open or the front door unlocked.

We worry on a personal level about big things. I worry about accidentally burning down the church or hitting a patch of ice while I’m driving.

We even have a whole industry to help us mitigate our worry. I have car insurance in case I’m in an accident; health insurance in case I get sick or injured; home insurance in case something happens to my house; and a home warranty in case the water heater goes out. I even have that sewer line insurance in case something happens there.

And, of course, we worry on a social level about big things. We have people who tell us to worry: about terrorism and crime and the economy and immigration and a thousand other things. We live in a bubble of worry.

And here’s Jesus, standing on a mountain, preaching to the disciples, telling them—telling us—to stop freaking out.

“Do not worry,” he says, “God feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field. And you’re more valuable than they are. Won’t God take care of you? So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

And he’s serious. And he’s asking us about our faith.

‘Faith’ is a big word. It’s a word with a lot of history. It’s a word with a lot of baggage. But when you strip all of that away, ‘faith’ just means… ‘trust’.

We have faith in our family and friends… we trust them.

We have faith in our schools and workplaces and coworkers… we trust them.

We have faith in our pastor… I hope… we trust him.

And those faiths are important. And those faiths are little.

But there’s also this bigfaith. When you’re down and out, when you’re lost in the wilderness, when no one’s around, when your family and friends are miles away, when you are trapped and desperate… where are you going to turn?

Are you going to build up treasures on earth, thinking that they will protect you in times of trouble? Are you going to put your faith in wealth? Are you going to put your faith in money?

It’s common sense, isn’t it? Feasts are made for laughter; wine gladdens life; and money meets every need (Ecclesiastes 10:19). It’s right there in the Bible.

And I’ll be honest: I’m lucky enough to have money. I serve a church that, in accordance with Conference guidelines, pays me well and provides good benefits. I get to have health and dental and vision and life insurance. I can own a house and pay for home insurance and a home warranty and sewer line insurance. My wife is excellent at budgeting, and makes sure that we can pay all of the bills, and that we have plenty saved for a rainy day.

I am incredibly lucky. I could go through most of my life trusting money to see me through.

But I am wise enough to know that could all go away. I could lose my job. I could get too sick for my health insurance to save me. I could end up underwater on my house. We could spend through our savings. We could face a time of trial that is too great for money to save us. I have seen it happen to others… and I know it could happen to me.

Feasts are made for laughter; wine gladdens life; and money meets every need… until it doesn’t.

When you’re down and out, and in your pocket there’s not one penny, and as for friends, well, you don’t have any… where are you going to turn?

Are you going to build up treasures on earth, thinking that they will protect you in times of trouble? Are you going to put your faith in wealth? Are you going to put your faith in money?

Or are you going to build up treasures in heaven, trusting that the creator of the universe, who feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field, will give us our daily bread and rescue us from evil? Are you going to put your faith in God?

I want to be careful here. I don’t think, in this day and age, that we should give up all that we have. I don’t think, in the winter in Iowa, that we should all sell our houses and empty our bank accounts. I don’t think that Jesus is calling us to homelessness and starvation.

But Jesus is telling us that we cannot serve both God and wealth. We cannot be Christians and lovers of money. We have to choose.

Now, there are some people who will tell you to make your faith in God subservient to your faith in money. They will tell you that the reward for your faithfulness to God is wealth here on earth. They will tell you that, if you give money to their church as a demonstration of your faith, God will put you behind the wheel of a large automobile or in a beautiful house. And those people are wrong.

What I am telling you—and what I believe Christ is telling us—is that we should make our wealth subservient to God. We should ask how we can use what we have to expand the kingdom of God… by feeding the hungry and giving something to drink to the thirsty; by welcoming the stranger and giving clothing to the naked; by caring for the sick and loving the prisoner.

And that…

Way back at the end of November, when we were decorating the church for Christmas, we got the Advent wreath and the Advent candles out.

I wanted to make sure that they were okay, so I lit them. Later, we finished decorating, turned out the lights, locked up the church, and left. And I was sure that I had blown out the candles… but there was a little itchy feeling in the back of my brain: what if I hadn’t blown them out? What if I burned down the church?

And I remembered that, as we were all leaving, Mark had said something about coming back to the church to pick something up or drop something off. So I pulled into a Casey’s parking lot in Eldridge, and I called Mark, and I asked him to make sure that the candles were out when he got back to the church.

And that might not seem like much. But I didn’t have to be worried about that anymore.

And the truth is that when we share what we have—when we share our time and our talent and those treasures that God has entrusted to us here on earth—there is more than enough. And no one needs to worry.

God feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field. And God has given humanity more than enough to go around. Our God is a God of extravagant generosity and infinite abundance. God has simply spread those gifts around in a way that gives us another gift: the chance to share, to give, and to accept gifts.

And when we do that—when a little bit of God’s kingdom has come and a little bit of God’s will is done—then everyone will have enough and more than enough, and debts will be wiped away, and we won’t face times of trial, and evil will shrink away to nothing, and no one will have to worry.

And that is good news.

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