When the Church Abuses: A Lament

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(Artwork: “Suffer the Children” by Janice Nabors Raiteri)

As I hold in my thoughts yesterday’s report of the grand jury’s investigation into allegations of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in six Pennsylvania dioceses, I am crying out to God with a lament that feels all-consuming.

Three hundred alleged “predator priests” in the dioceses were investigated and named in the report.

More than a thousand victims, according to the report, can be identified through church records, although many officials believe the number of victims to be much higher than what can be officially determined.

I grieve with outrage over the systematic violence that this report illuminates.

My heart breaks over vulnerable souls violated by the very leaders who had been entrusted with their spiritual and physical care.

I weep over shattered lives, devastated faith, and a broken church (of all denominations, since what happens in one part of the Body of Christ happens to the entirety of the body).

I mourn over a woefully fallen institution that has too often overlooked or even protected both perpetrators and patterns of injustice. (Again, I am speaking about the church in all of its denominations, since ecclesiastical abuse is in no way limited to Catholicism.)

Where is God in this agonizing mess?

I believe that God is where God always is.

Right here.

Right here, intimately and restoratively present with the victims, embracing them with the tenderness that they have been unfairly denied, all the while allowing divine tears to commingle with theirs.

Right here, allowing the divine heart to experience every portion of the agony and anguish of unthinkable abuse.

God is right here, graciously, attentively, and beautifully. Always has been. Always will be.

If we trust what the Bible tells us—that Jesus has the supernatural capacity to experience personally the pain of the atrocities perpetrated against “even the least of these”—then we are right to believe that Jesus was there during every abusive moment, cradling the victims in protective arms while screaming out at the perpetrators, “No! These are my beloved children, and I will not allow your violence toward them to be the end of their story!”

I add my voice to the repentance that all the church’s people must express in the aftermath of these revelations. I also implore all those connected to the church’s ministry to commit themselves both to “Safe Sanctuary” standards and practices and to an ever-deepening diligence when it comes to the care that we offer to all people, children and adults.

Lord, have mercy…

…But, please God, let it be the kind of mercy that unsettles us, brings us to our knees, and inspires us to become a better church, where all people of all ages are valued, cherished, and protected.

Lord, have mercy.

Leading With a Towel In Hand

Ethiopian orthodox art, unknown artist

(Artwork: Ethiopian Orthodox Art, unknown artist)

There are plenty of days when it becomes painfully clear to me how inadequate my leadership has been throughout the various seasons of my vocation. As a leader, my clumsiness has often eclipsed my proficiency.

Still, I spend a great deal of time thinking, reading, writing, and praying about leadership, particularly about the leadership practiced in the ministry of the church. I suspect that I am driven by the hope that I might become a better leader tomorrow than I am today.

In recent days, several convictions about leadership have resonated with particular clarity in my thinking. I share the convictions here, not because I am arguing for their absolute rightness, but because I believe that the journey toward good leadership demands the risk of articulating what one believes ABOUT leadership.

Here are some of my personal convictions in that regard, freshly illuminated by the challenges of a new season of ministry.

Healthy leadership is less about having all the right answers and more about a right engagement with the most important questions. When leaders fall into the trap of believing that leadership is primarily about having right and immediate answers, they run the risk of reducing their leadership to a narcissistic autonomy or a desperate pursuit of techniques and rhetoric. Leadership must certainly lead to some good answers. But the deepest answers come, not through authoritarian pronouncement, but through an individual and communal engagement with the pertinent questions. Such an engagement helps leaders to see themselves, not as autonomous oracles, but facilitators of a deeper and more comprehensive discernment.

Healthy leadership never fixates on a destination at the expense of the journey. Destinations are important. Leaders must have a sense of where things are headed. They must envision a bold and imaginative future. It is possible, however, for leaders to become so myopically focused on the desired destination that they begin to overlook or even ignore the relationships, conversations, and circumstances that form the day-to-day pathway upon which good leadership must travel. Granted, journeys are often messy and unpredictable. Timetables may have to change. Extra conversations may have to be scheduled. Adjustments to the course may have to be made. Even the destinations may have to be modified. Even so, paying attention to the nuances of the pathway is nothing less than essential, since healthy leadership finds its most vibrant and urgent expression, not in the arrivals at destinations, but in a dynamic attentiveness to the journey.

Healthy leadership grounds itself, not in the maintenance of an institution, but in the transformation of an institution’s culture. There is a great deal of institution-bashing these days. To be fair, however, people tend to bash institutions only in those places where the institution is not serving them or providing the things that they personally want. Healthy leadership is tasked with the responsibility of seeing institutions for what they are—broken but potential-rich instruments that groan for redemption along with the rest of the fallen world. Healthy leaders never become preoccupied with institutional maintenance, as though the institution were an altar at which to kneel. Neither do healthy leaders devote their energy to railing randomly against the institution in which they lead, as though the institution itself were nothing more than an enemy to be conquered. Rather, healthy leaders become channels for transformation through which institutions can be reimagined, reconfigured, and reborn. Healthy leaders help portions of their institutions to die with grace when the time for death has come. Likewise, healthy leaders help their institutions to thrive where their institutions are supporting the priorities of their articulated mission.

Healthy leadership does not validate entitlement but entitles that which is valid. There is a common spirit of entitlement that can lead to deep resentment. It often comes from an inflated sense of the uniqueness of one’s own gifts, viewpoints, or trajectory. It grounds itself in a strong sense of what is owed. Healthy leadership seeks to cultivate an environment in which entitlement gives way to the kind of shared covenantal commitment that subordinates self-determined privileges to grander priorities.

Healthy leadership treats vision, not as the property of a charismatic individual, but as the territory stewarded by a missional community. When vision becomes solely the product of an individual voice, the road to egocentric leadership becomes painfully short. Healthy leadership sees vision as something more complex and organic than this. More specifically, it sees vision as the progeny of a creative community seeking to live more fully into its mission. To be a healthy leader is to be an attentive listener as well as a guiding presence—a relational participant in meaningful conversations who helps the community to name, clarify, and implement the route into its best future.

Healthy leadership breathes most deeply the air of confession and repentance. For leaders to lead in healthy and holistic fashion, authentic repentance must become as natural to them as breathing and every bit as urgent. Good leaders become the voice of repentance for the many offenses perpetrated by the communities they lead. They also become vulnerable enough to name their own brokenness, their own insecurities, and their own failures. Only a spirit of consistent and expansive repentance can keep a leader’s heart appropriately attentive to the hearts of others and appropriately broken over the distortions of his or her own leadership.

Healthy leaders recognize that they are secondary characters in the story of their own leadership. Leaders are important, but they are the supporting cast. The main characters are the people they lead. For leaders who follow Jesus, the most central character of all is a Savior who equips our best leadership and who redeems our worst leadership. Remembering this helps leaders to structure their priorities rightly and to value themselves truthfully. Furthermore, a leader who lives out of a spirit of secondariness can more easily subordinate entitlement to gratitude, egotism to servanthood, and resentment to hope.

Hope-Filled Expectations

blog The Good People

(Artwork: “The Good People” by Laurie Pace)

As a recently-appointed District Superintendent, I have spent the last several months prayerfully discerning what it is that I am expecting of myself as both a leader and a follower in this new season of ministry. I have also been reflecting upon what it is that I might be expecting of the clergy leaders with whom I am privileged to serve—and what they might be expecting of me as their District Superintendent.

The following paragraphs are the result of my contemplation about expectations. I shared these paragraphs recently with the clergy leaders of the district I superintend. I offer them here once again. It is not an exhaustive list of expectations, to be sure. Perhaps many others could or should be added. But this list does reflect some of my deepest priorities.

Please know my heart. This list of expectations is not intended to be heavy-handed or authoritarian. Rather, these expectations are the hope-filled expression of a sinner saved by grace who longs to become more fully what Jesus is calling him to be and to become an encouragement to others. Perhaps some of these expectations will resonate with your spirit. I hope so.

A New District Superintendent’s Expectations of Himself
and the Clergy Leaders With Whom He Serves

 1. An Ever-Deepening Love for God and People

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus identifies the greatest commandment in this fashion: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind…and a second [commandment] is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39)

Clergy are expected to grow in their commitment to physical and emotional health, so that they might be energized and equipped to love God with a whole heart.

Clergy are expected to grow in their commitment to the spiritual disciplines (such as prayer, study of Scripture and meditation upon its revelations, confession and repentance, worship, solitude, community, ministries of social justice, and regular participation in the Lord’s Supper), so that they might be enlivened to love God with a devoted soul.

Clergy are expected to grow in their commitment to the disciplines of lifelong learning, continuing education, and theological engagement, so that they might be prepared to love God with an active mind.

2. A Commitment to Personal Integrity

The word “integrity” is a derivative of a Latin word meaning “intact” or “whole.” People of integrity are people who commit themselves to authenticity, wholeness, and ethical intactness in their relationships, their administration, their self-care, their communication, and their personal conduct. Clergy are expected to commit themselves to living and ministering with the kind of integrity that bears witness to a holistic walk with Christ.

3. Participation in Intentional Community

Communal accountability and collegial nurture are essential portions of our discipleship to Jesus Christ, who once promised to be uniquely present wherever “two or three” were gathered in his name. Clergy are expected to commit themselves to a finding (or developing) and experiencing the kind of intentional community with colleagues that invites mutual prayer, encouragement, and conversation.

4. Tithing and Growth in Generosity

In the church’s ministry, clergy set the tone for generosity and boldness in giving.  It is expected that clergy will teach tithing and growth in giving in the churches they serve. Moreover, it is expected that clergy will model these same disciplines in their personal walk with Christ by growing toward tithing (if tithing is not yet a practiced discipline) and possibly beyond it.

5. Respect for Colleagues in Ministry

An eagerness to tear one another down is antithetical to the spirit of love in which we are called to live. Clergy are expected to encourage and support one another, to pray for one another, and to resist the temptation to speak negatively about colleagues.

6. A Work Ethic That Honors the Urgency of the Gospel

Clergy are expected to be disciplined about their commitment to ministry and the consistency of their conscientiousness, in order that every local church or place of ministry might receive faithful, effective, and fruitful leadership.

7. The Honoring of Sabbath

In the often-frenetic pace of life and ministry, clergy are expected to be Sabbath people, experiencing consistent and intentional time away from work for solitude, time with family, and rest.

8. Participation in District and Conference Ministry

United Methodist clergy are joined by a connectional covenant. District and Conference ministry is an important portion of that covenant. Whenever possible, clergy are expected to support District and Conference ministry with their involvement and participation.

9. A Stubborn and Prayerful Resistance to Cynicism and Chronic Negativity

Nothing corrupts the joy and vibrancy of the church’s ministry faster than the proliferation of cynicism and unrestrained negativity. All too often, even the church’s leadership allows itself to be drawn into this counterproductive spirit, choosing disparagement instead of the recognition of possibilities. Clergy are expected to resist such cynicism and negativity, thereby becoming instruments of prophetic joy and hope.

10. An Unwavering Devotion to Primary Relationships

One’s most important and life-defining relationships are never to be sacrificed upon the altar of one’s ministry. Clergy are expected to give their best time and energy to their deepest friendships and their family relationships, so that their covenantal relationships might always occupy a priority position in their stewardship over their life and ministry.

11. A Christ-honoring Witness in All Areas of Communication, Including Social Media

Clergy are expected to communicate carefully, meaningfully, and graciously in all areas of their lives, so that their communication might reflect their journey of sanctification.

12. A Commitment to Scriptural Holiness, Wesleyan Theology, and Connectional Covenant

Clergy are expected to grow daily in their embodiment of a biblical worldview and in their practice of a distinctively Wesleyan theology that reflects God’s prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace. As United Methodists, we are also joined in a connectional covenant that demands a faithfulness to our polity, our parameters, and our practices.

Dementia and Sacramental Remembering

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I hear so many tender stories of people caring for a loved one who struggles with dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease.

A parent or grandparent.

A spouse.

A sibling.

A child.

A friend.

Every story is unique, but there are always common threads of sadness and sensitivity, heartbreak and hope.

Such stories remind me of my journey with my own father. Back in 2002, when Dad’s dementia was officially diagnosed, I remember sitting at the piano in our living room—a place I often go when I am confronted with realities that are difficult for me to process. I started playing seemingly random chords. A melody began to form. Then a phrase. “I’ll remember for you when you forget.”

That phrase became a chorus.

That chorus became a song.

That song became my truthful story, even a personal mission statement, in my relationship with Dad until his death in 2011:

I’ll remember for you when you forget
Your noble legacy demands nothing less
Don’t think me burdened by this sign of respect
It’s an honor to remember for you
When you forget

What does one do when a loved one is still here, but different; still with us, but in a way that demands a different kind of communication and attentiveness? What does one do in the gradual grief of surrendering a precious soul to the ravages of dementia?

In a word, one REMEMBERS.

We honor the ones who struggle, not only by blessing them with our attentive and sacrificial caregiving, but also by engaging in the beautiful work of remembering the parts of their story that they might be inclined to forget. We recall significant moments and memories. We recollect the journey and its revelations. We retell the sacred narrative of which his or her life is still a vital part. We remember.

When one experiences forgetfulness in dementia, remembering becomes a sacramental act, the bread and cup of which can be shared frequently and with deep reverence.

In this regard, caring for someone with dementia reminds me of what we call “church.” What is “church,” after all, but a community of chronically forgetful people helping one another to remember what they are most inclined to abandon in their spiritual dementia? What is “church” but a gathering of needy and distorted souls inspiring one another to recall what it means to live by the often countercultural Story of Jesus?

The church is a place of sacramental remembering, which means that the relationship between an attentive caregiver and a person with dementia is perhaps closer to the heart of “church” than either person realizes. In both settings, the rhythms of remembering are as natural as breathing and every bit as urgent.

I recorded the song I wrote for my dad and shared it with him while he was still able to make sense of it.

We wept together.

We prayed with desperate urgency.

We remembered.

Here is the song and its lyrics. May it fall gently upon your heart. And may it help you to remember.

When You Forget (words and music by Eric Park)

What makes a man a man? Is it his ability to remember things
Or is it more a man’s desire to do a thing in the first place
I’m thinking of a man whose memory fails him all too frequently
But I refuse to think that he’s less of a man than he used to be

The memory is just one portion of the person one becomes
And when it fails it doesn’t mean that one’s a failure
I’ll hold your memories as though they were a sacramental bread
And we will break that bread with reverence and frequency

And I’ll remember for you when you forget
Your noble legacy demands nothing less
Don’t think me burdened by this sign of respect
It’s an honor to remember for you when you forget

I see you in the back yard teaching both your sons how to throw a ball
I see you in the living room reading to your daughter
Your 50thanniversary looking at your wife like you did fifty years ago
I see you in a preacher’s robe teaching about the things of God

And I’ll remember for you when you forget
Your noble legacy demands nothing less
Don’t think me burdened by this sign of respect
It’s an honor to remember for you when you forget

With the pure water of your outpoured life
You have filled five hundred thousand cups
We have drawn from the wellspring of your decency
You’re who we want to be when we grow up

What makes a man a man? Is it his ability to remember things
Or is it more a man’s desire to do a thing in the first place
I’m thinking of a man whose memory fails him all too frequently
But I refuse to think that he’s less of a man than he used to be

And I’ll remember for you when you forget
Your noble legacy demands nothing less
Don’t think me burdened by this sign of respect
It’s an honor to remember for you when you forget

Worship Through Weeping

Brian-Micheloe-Doss Jesus Wept

(Artwork: “Jesus Wept” by Brian-Micheloe-Doss)

I think I cry more easily than I used to.

I am not certain of why that is.

Perhaps the accumulation of years has deepened my emotional bandwidth. Or perhaps my experiences of grief and loss have ushered me into the kind of sorrow that never quite leaves, so that the act of crying feels more like a companion than a stranger.

Whatever the reason, my tears flow more easily now than they did when I was in my twenties and thirties. A few months ago, while looking at photos from an old family album, I began to cry. It was spontaneous and unexpected—an honest emotional response to treasured memories and ongoing grief. It felt authentic, even prayerful. It also felt healthy.

About a week after that experience, an acquaintance told me that he did not feel like going to church these days. When I asked why, his response caught me completely off guard.

I am embarrassed by my own emotion…I lost my mom, my dad, and my brother over the last year-and-a-half. Tears come out of nowhere these days. Music makes me cry. Prayer makes me cry. Stories make me cry. Communion makes me cry…I’m afraid that I would just sit there in a church service and wipe away tears. I think it’s off-putting to people. Who wants a weeping mess to be sitting beside them in a pew?

The conversation left me both heartbroken and enlightened. It made me wonder how many people, like this man, see the church, not as a safe and appropriate place for the messiness of human emotion, but as a sanitized environment in which emotions are carefully guarded, images are managed, and the rhythms of tidy politeness are protected. In sanctuaries where a tearful Savior is regularly worshiped and where the brokenness of the human pilgrimage is regularly named, could it be that a portion of the church’s people are so utterly intimidated by the emotional intensity of wordless weeping that they are unintentionally creating barriers against those who feel unpresentable in the rawness of their grief and pain?

In a recent article entitled “Crying In Worship” (which appeared in the June 20 issue of “The Christian Century”), Heidi Haverkamp offers these insights:

Most of us have something to cry about, no matter what time of year it is. So I find myself wishing that people cried in church more often. Why not? We welcome people to wear jeans, to bring their children, to receive communion, to fill out a visitor’s card—why not also welcome people to cry? Most of us could stand to be reminded that we are not alone in carrying grief, worry, and struggle. If we can’t cry in church, what’s the point?

If tears are not the enemy, then why do some in the church act as if they are? I can only speculate. Perhaps the shedding of tears frustrates the all-too-common “fix it” mentality, since tears are normally devoted to pain that cannot be quickly fixed. Perhaps tears are too often interpreted as an expression of weakness instead of a courageous practice of vulnerability. Or perhaps tears are seen as being inappropriately intimate and honest—an unsettling and unwelcome reminder of the nearness of brokenness.

If such thinking has any grounding in the church, and it might, then the church’s people would do well to spend regular time engaging with these Biblical convictions:

  • We follow a Jesus who openly wept over a beloved friend and a beloved city, meaning that Jesus believed that tears were the only appropriate response to some circumstances
  • Christocentric community demands nothing less than a willingness to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), so that followers of Jesus might allow their hearts to connect in the intimacy and profundity of authentic emotion
  • Tears, at their deepest, are prayers without words—the inarticulate cries of a soul that joins creation in “groaning for redemption” (Romans 8:22)

If this is truth, then weeping is not an an obstacle to relationship but rather an invitation to stand upon the sacred ground of relational vulnerability. Weeping is not a reason to stay away from church but rather a sacred opportunity to allow the divine tears of a tender-hearted God to commingle with those of the worshiper.

As Heidi Haverkamp puts it in the article I referenced earlier, “I wonder if this could be a blessing for others…to sit and cry in church when we need to, to be God’s people all together, with all the joys and sorrows, smiles and tears, of human life, before the One who loves us so much.”

Perhaps a Christ-follower will become most authentically human only when he or she stewards emotions, not with a spirit of shame or withdrawal, but with the kind of vulnerability that gives to weeping the space it needs to gasp and to breathe. Perhaps the church will be at its most sacramental only when it believes that the cup of salvation holds a grace that is substantial enough to accommodate the tears of the broken.

Daring to Dream

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Do you consider yourself to be a dreamer? By “dreamer,” I do not mean one who experiences the literal dreams that occur during sleep. Rather, I mean the figurative and creative dreaming that some people seem to be particularly gifted to do when they are awake.

A dreamer is a person with a deeply engaged imagination who pays attention to the often hidden things that other people do not see; who envisions possibilities and potential that other people cannot discern; and who generates ideas that other people often dismiss as unrealistic and untenable. A dreamer is a type of visionary who glimpses reality through a mystical lens that sees beyond what is to what could be.

Based upon that definition, would you consider yourself to be a dreamer?

I do not know if I am a dreamer any longer or not, but I think that I started out as one. I spent a good portion of my childhood dreaming up imaginary scenarios for myself in which to play. Many of those imaginary scenarios were based upon my favorite television shows. One day, I would pretend to be Matt Dillon, the heroic marshal from “Gunsmoke.”  But just when I had my holster and cowboy hat in place, I would pause to read a comic book. Then I would not want to be a cowboy anymore. I would want to be Superman. So I would take off the holster and put on my red cape. But just when I figured out how to make the living room into Metropolis, an episode of “Star Trek” would appear on the television. Then I would not want to be Superman any longer. I would want to be captain James T. Kirk, captain of the Starship Enterprise.

A good portion of my childhood was spent in this playful schizophrenia, moving quickly and effortlessly from one imaginative context to another, one character to another. It was in the midst of one of those imaginative contexts that I came to the dinner table one evening wearing a black vest and a plastic futuristic pistol at my side. My mother said to me, “Who are you supposed to be tonight?”

“Well,” I said, “if you must know, I’m Han Solo, captain of the Millennium Falcon.  It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.”  To which my mother responded, “Eric, how in the world did you become such a dreamer?!”

Children make for good dreamers and sometimes dream more imaginatively than anyone else. Sadly, we tend to grow out of our capacity for imaginative dreaming as we age. Perhaps we quietly allow this to happen because we know all too well that the world can be hard on adult dreamers. Adult dreamers are looked upon as impractical and irrelevant. Sometimes they are treated as a threat because they see things differently than other people. Sometimes we even go so far as to kill our adult dreamers because we want so desperately to be rid of them and their unsettling ideas.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a dreamer. He dreamed of a world of racial equality in which people would be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character. He was killed for that dream.

People like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Corrie Ten Boom were dreamers. During the Second World War, they dared to dream of a Germany that would stand against the evils perpetuated by the Nazi regime. Corrie Ten Boom was imprisoned in a concentration camp for her dream. Bonhoeffer was hanged for his.

In the Old Testament, Joseph was a dreamer. He was a young man who was prone to peculiar visions of an alternative but divinely preferred future into which his family and the people of Israel were moving. But his brothers hated him for his dreaming. They saw his dreaming as an effort on Joseph’s part to claim dominion over them. One day, the brothers ambushed Joseph, threw him into a pit, and then sold him to some travelers who took him as a slave into Egypt.

Joseph’s story reminds us that the human penchant for dismissing dreamers is nothing new. Even in the lineage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, dreamers like Joseph often found themselves violently rejected because people were so utterly threatened by their disruptive ways of seeing the world.

There was another dreamer. His name was Jesus of Nazareth. He dared to dream of a kingdom where prostitutes are valued as much as temple priests; where the face of God can be discerned in the countenances of the poor, the broken, and the marginalized; where rebirth and transformation are doorways into the salvation of God. Where did that dream take him?  It took him to a rugged cross where he bled and died for the sake of the world.

Dreamers often have beautiful and urgent things to say, things that other people will never dare to articulate. But the world can be painfully inhospitable to dreamers. Sometimes we even nail our adult dreamers to a cross in an effort to silence their countercultural voices.

I was once a part of a church that had a dreamer in it. Her name was Olivia. She was notorious for her dreams and visions and her willingness to talk about them amidst a congregation that had grown impatient with her impracticality and her penchant for mystical metaphors. One day at a Bible study, Olivia spoke up. “I had a dream last night,” she said.

“Okay, Olivia, tell us about your dream.” (That was what I said out loud, but what I really thought was this: “Olivia, we only have a half hour left in this Bible study, and we don’t have time to waste on your nonsensical dreams, which I am certain have nothing at all to do with the subject matter of our study!”)

“Well,” she said, “in the dream, hundreds of children of all different colors and races were standing outside our church building, pounding on the doors to get inside. But inside the church, all of us were dancing to music that was so loud that we couldn’t hear the pounding. The children were pounding on the doors to get inside, and we weren’t listening to their cries.”

“When I woke up after the dream,” Olivia said, “my pillow was wet with tears.”

“Uh, okay, Olivia. Um, thanks for that.” (Thinking to myself, “Can I please get back to my lesson plan now?”)

In my mind, I had already dismissed Olivia. As quickly as Joseph’s brothers had dismissed him in the Old Testament, so had I dismissed Olivia because her dreams and visions were an inconvenience to me.

The very next day, two youth in the community committed suicide independently. One was 19 the other was 17. Both of them were alienated from their family, and neither one of them had a connection to a church. As soon as I heard the news, I thought about Olivia’s dream—a dream about children pounding on the doors of the church, crying to get inside and not being heard.

I thought to myself in that moment, “It is time for me to listen to the dreamer more attentively, because she is seeing the things of God.”

On the Fiftieth Anniversary of Dr. King’s Assassination

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It happened fifty years ago. April 4, 1968.

Half a century has passed.

As a fifty-two year old, I was alive when it happened, but I do not remember the event. My mother told me that she held me protectively in her arms as she listened to the horrifying news reports.

At 6:01 p.m. on Thursday evening, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated outside of his hotel room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

We cannot hide ourselves from the violence of what transpired that evening. The single bullet, fired from a Remington Model 760 rifle, entered through Dr. King’s lower right cheek, about an inch to the right of his mouth. The bullet cut a sickeningly destructive path, fracturing Dr. King’s jaw and then traveling downward, severing his jugular and breaking several vertebrae before finally coming to rest in the right part of his back.

Dr. King was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Memphis, where medical professionals opened his chest and did all they could to revive his heart. He was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m.

He was thirty-nine.

The day before his assassination, Dr. King made his final speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis. Toward the end of the speech, Dr. King offered these important words, as prophetic as they are poignant:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Last night, during a visit to a Jazz club in New Orleans, I experienced a group of racially diverse musicians entertaining an equally diverse crowd.

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The front man and the bass player were black. The pianist was Asian American. The drummer was white. The appreciative crowd included a variety of races and ethnicities, all of whom were experiencing what felt like a sacramental engagement with a music that seemed otherworldly in its virtuosity. At some point during the music, I thought about what remains one of the most racially segregated experiences in American culture—the Sunday morning worship hour. Tears formed in my eyes as I began to connect the dots. An assassination fifty years ago. A church that still fails to incarnate the beloved community that Jesus envisions. A jazz club in New Orleans, offering a musical communion that the church has yet to celebrate fully.

Not very long ago, I recently heard a pastor offer what I think is a popular viewpoint concerning the issue of racism. I asked him for permission to share that viewpoint in this blog post and assured him that I would not use his name so that his privacy would be protected. He gave to me his permission.

Here is the pastor’s viewpoint, shared in a conversation among clergy colleagues:

I don’t know why we keep making racism such an issue. Most of us have been delivered from racism.  But when we keep making racism a point of focus (like we are in our annual conference and other places in the church), all we’re doing is beating a dead horse and highlighting a hugely negative thing that doesn’t deserve to be highlighted.

Days after my conversation with that pastor, I heard the following comment made by a United Methodist church member, who also permitted me to share her comment:

People have told me that they don’t want a colored pastor at our church. They’ve told me that they would leave if that kind of thing ever happened. Truth be told, I might leave too. I guess I just wouldn’t be comfortable with that kind of thing. I would feel like I couldn’t relate to my own pastor.

Those two viewpoints help to illuminate the painful complexity of the issue of race in the church. Racism is as real as it ever was, but we are tired of hearing about it. A pastor’s racial identity is still important enough to cause a parishioner to leave a church, but the last thing that we want to hear is someone highlighting the issue of racism. We prefer to comfort ourselves with the manufactured belief that we have been completely delivered from our history, our prejudice, and our dehumanizing presuppositions.

When contemplating this issue, my concern has to do with the simplistic way in which many of us define racism. I suppose that the American Heritage Dictionary’s definition of racism—“any form of discrimination based on race”—can be utilized as a bare minimum. But the kind of racism operative in the church is often far more elaborate and insidious than one-on-one discrimination. It is an institutional racism, often perpetuated by the structures and processes that many within the denomination are reluctant to change or even acknowledge. These structures and processes are often undergirded by an ethos of what might be called “white privilege” which, in its essence, is a desire to preserve the status quo because of the way in which the status quo guards and protects the privileges of the race in power.

Some have suggested that white privilege is nothing but an artificial social construct, created to further an agenda. My experience has led me to believe that this perspective is dreadfully misguided.

When I was first a United Methodist District Superintendent, I introduced a pastor of color to a Staff-Parish Relations Committee as part of a new pastoral appointment. The conversation covered many important topics that night. The topic that received the most time, however (over half an hour, in fact), was how the congregation was going to respond to a person of color in the pulpit.

As I drove home that night, the essence of white privilege became painfully clear to me. As a white male pastor in Western Pennsylvania, I will never have to experience my race or gender being discussed as part of a pastoral in-take. I will never have to hear people consider the possibility that my race might inspire some people to leave the church. Granted, they might eventually leave the church for some other reason—my preaching style, or my temperament, or my interpersonal skills. But I will never have to overcome initial prejudices that are based upon my racial identity. I have the privilege of not having to deal with such prejudices, and this privilege is decidedly white.

When one begins to take seriously a racism undergirded by institutional inequities and white privilege, one is compelled to move beyond defensive rhetoric like this:

“Hey, those black folks are just as racist as I am!”

Or this:

“Black people need to stop playing the race card in every situation, because nobody wants to hear that anymore. After all, I never owned any slaves. It’s time to get over the past.”

The danger of this kind of rhetoric is that it overlooks or, at the very least, oversimplifies the complex and institutional dynamics of racism. Moreover, such rhetoric often causes one to ignore completely the most crippling racism of all—specifically, the kind of racism that can only be generated and perpetuated by people in power.

I have no easy answers in the midst of all of this. But this much is certain: The current emphasis on dismantling racism in the United Methodist Church is, first and foremost, one of the many necessary consequences of both the sin of racism and the fervency with which that sin has been perpetuated. The aftermath of this particular sin is an environment in which Christ-followers will have no choice but to be creatively and prayerfully patient with the messy tensions that often exist related to this issue: tensions over how to create ethnically and culturally diverse communities of faith; tensions over the fact that there are so few ethnic minority clergy in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference; tensions between those who see racism as an ongoing problem and those who simply want people of color to “get over it;” tensions over what it means to have a church that makes tangible its belief that “red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight.”

These tensions are not going away any time soon, nor should they. They are tensions emerging from the unsettling presence of a Holy Spirit who stubbornly refuses to allow a church to settle for being less than what it has been called by its Savior to be.

Personally, in my life and ministry, I want to guard against the desire to oversimplify these tensions.  I want to live into an ever-deepening sensitivity to the sin of racism and all of its manifestations. Even more importantly, I want to lead by repentance. I want to name and confess all the different ways in which I have perpetuated the kind of racist presuppositions and patterns of behavior that have simultaneously fractured human community and broken the heart of God.

On the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s death, I am grateful that the bullet that ended his too-short life could not kill his urgent and still-unfolding dream. I hold that dream deeply in my soul, all the while praying for the courage to become one of the instruments through which a dream might be more vibrantly realized. As Dr. King once said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Unsettle me, Lord Jesus, that I might never be inclined to accommodate a hurtful and unjust silence.