Reflections on Snyder’s “20 Lessons”

By Bentley Stewart

On November 15, Timothy Snyder, a Yale Historian, posted to his Facebook page “twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.”

I’m going to highlight just four of the pieces of advice and what they mean to me: numbers 3, 4, 6, and 8. I’d love to hear which pieces of advice have resonance for you and how you interpret their meaning for your own life and practice.  

3. Recall professional ethics

This one might be my favorite, because this roots us in our callings. Our professional codes hold us accountable to our roles in participating in advancing the human project. We are not obligated to do all of the work. We are not free from doing any work. 

While I’m no historian, I will make the bold assertion that it is the codes of ethics of the professional guilds that helped Europe transition from the feudalism of the Medieval Ages into the emergence of a (for lack of a better term) “middle-class” during the Renaissance. 

One of the most famous codes comes from antiquity. While the Hippocratic Oath does NOT include the maxim “do no harm,” it has many of the markers of modern codes. It does include instruction for caring for those who cannot pay for services. It has a moral division of labor; they were physicians not surgeons. It also forbids taking sexual advantage of the power imbalance inherent in serving vulnerable populations. 

I am a clergy person, which is a sacred trust between the communities I serve, and by whom I am held accountable, and our shared mission to serve the world. For me to remain in good standing within my ordaining body, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I must adhere to our code of ethics. Additionally, I'm endorsed as a hospital chaplain, meaning there's heightened awareness of and concern for serving vulnerable populations. In addition to the professional codes of ethics for chaplains, I took on additional commitments as an educator of spiritual care providers.

All of these commitments demand that I listen deeply to the suffering of others and amplify the voices of the oppressed and the vulnerable. My profession demands that I speak to powers that are being abused in ways that diminishes the dignity and sacred worth of any of us.

4. When listening to politician, distinguish certain words.

“…the first violence is committed against language itself....“ 

A friend recently visited the Holocaust Museum in DC. He posted this sign to Facebook. He asked for help with translation. Here’s the translation offered:

“The headings of the columns across the top, ‘Political prisoners, career criminals, emigrants, Jehovah Witnesses, homosexuals, a-socials.’

“The title of the sign reads: ‘Identifying Markers for Those in Protective Custody.’ The Nazi word ‘Schutzhaft’ demonstrates that under fascism, the first violence is committed against language itself. The Nazis claimed they were placing inmates into the camps to ‘protect’ them from the German people who were angry for the very existence of Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah Witnesses, etc. Compare the term ‘Alt-right.’"

For a contemporary example, I turn to the euphemistic “new-speak” of the eviction order of Standing Rock by the Army Corps.:

“In his letter to Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II, Colonel John Henderson of the Army Corps stated, “This decision is necessary to protect the general public from the violent confrontations between protestors and law enforcement officials that have occurred in this area.” Let’s be clear about what this means. Our people have been attacked again and again by people I can attest from experience do not look at Natives as human beings. While our people have converged in peace, police from around the Midwest have also converged, to play their role in this moment of colonial and anti-colonial struggle. Morton County police and the police who have travelled from afar to join them have done everything short of killing our Water Protectors, and the only solution to this aggression that officials can produce is to further repress us.

The Army Corps letter also states that officials are worried about “death, illness, or serious injury to inhabitants of encampments due to the harsh North Dakota winter conditions.” Such pretense would be laughable if this situation weren’t so tragic and enraging. The government has proven at every turn — including its approval of this pipeline route — that it has no concern for our well-being or survival. Any claim to the contrary is a spineless PR maneuver, though some will surely latch onto it, so as not to see this shameful moment in US history as President Obama’s swan song.” 

https://transformativespaces.org/2016/11/26/the-day-weve-been-dreading-plans-to-evict-nodapl-water-protectors-made-public/

6. Be kind to our language.

Micah 6:8 describes the duties of being human as “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” 

We are called to be kind. We are not called to be nice. My colleague, Ruth Schulenberg, recently informed me that the etymology of nice is the French for “naïve.” 

Now more than ever, we need the principles of non-violent communication. Assume good intentions until there is good reason to know that is no longer true. Use “I” statements. Avoid starting with “you” statements that often feel accusative and can trigger defensiveness. Rather, distinguish between intent and impact. For example, make observations first before stating your feelings. “I heard you say ‘x.’ Is that a correct summary?” Once you have clarified the speech, “When I hear you say ‘x,’ I feel ‘y.’” 

…. now, PAUSE and breathe. Wait for them to engage. Perhaps they will take ownership of this impact. Perhaps, when confronted with this impact on me, they will revise their initial statement. Important note, when someone confronts me with the impact of my language on them, I need to remember that impact is always more important than intent. If they are not interested in my intent, I have no right to force my explanation of my intent on them. I need to apologize for the impact and commit to doing better next time.  This process is laboriously slow and the advantage of that is it gives us time to breathe, which helps us activate our prefrontal cortex rather than our amygdala’s fight or flight response. 

Another helpful tool is the first mantra of Improv: “yes, and.” Whenever possible, “build” on the offering of your conversation partner, rather than “block” the emerging dialogue.

“Yes, I agree with you about this aspect of ‘x,’ and I’m wondering what you think about this aspect of ‘y.’ Do you think that adds any nuance to the discussion about ‘x?’” 

Another version of this comes from Systems Centered Therapy. “I join you about ‘x’ and I have a difference with you in regards to ‘y.’”

For me, the problem with being “nice” is that I might sacrifice my voice in order to accommodate someone else’s understandings which violate principles I hold dear. 

Theologically, I draw from Martin Buber’s concept “I-Thou.” We long for communication where we are both seen and heard and in return we see and hear the other person. We long for the meeting of two subjects, each honoring the dignity and sacred worth of the other. 

Violent communication is characterized by an “I-it” dynamic. Our conversation partner is dehumanized and becomes a label: a racist, a communist, and on and on. 

“Nice” communication is the sacrifice of my own human dignity and is characterized by an “it-Thou” dynamic. Making you feel comfortable and liking me is more important than risking real relationship by voicing my truth.

The “I-Thou” encounter is messy and fluid; and at its best, can be life-giving and transformative. 

8. Believe in truth.

The author speaks of “facts.” I’m going to differ from Professor Snyder (see point above) and refocus on “truth.” Following Quaker educator and activist, Parker Palmer, I distinguish facts from truth. Again, etymology is useful here. Facts comes from the French “to make.” We make facts based on observations of reality. We are a multi-cultural, pluralistic society. One culture, rooted in the Enlightenment Project, places a premium on objectivity over subjectivity. Many wonderful things have emerged from the Enlightenment project, such as modern medicine which strives for evidenced-based strategies for health and wellness.

In this age of “fake news,” we are learning that the strategy of propagandists is to fabricate facts. Remember, we make facts. Therefore, they are suspect to the biases of the person claiming objectivity. At their best, facts always fall short of objectivity. At their worst and most manipulative, they are fabrications. And yet, always remember to assume good intentions. And, check out assumptions and suspicions.  

“Hey that sounds strange to me. Can you cite the sources from where you learned that?”

Truth is related to the Anglo-Saxon word “troth,” from which we get the word “betrothal.” Truth is about commitments. Truth is about shared reality. Truth is discovered through the inter-subjectivity of “I-Thou” encounters (see above). 

Here are my guiding principles around truth (not an exhaustive list):

  • I am called to honor and respect the dignity and sacred worth of every human.
  • I am called to awaken in your humanity a respect for the humanity of others.
  • No one is beyond redemption.
  • Reconciliation requires both truth-telling and repentance. 
  • Evil is real and pernicious.
  • In every moment, we are given opportunities to collude with, accommodate, or resist evil. 
  • Our fundamental calling is the goodness of collaborating as care-takers of the living interdependent web of creation.

Rev. J. Bentley Stewart is the Director of Student Life for Disciples Seminary Foundation in Northern California. He is an ordained minister with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and has standing in the Northern California/Nevada Region, for whom he serves as one of the anti-racism trainers. He is endorsed as a hospital chaplain by Disciples Home Mission. In his decade of hospital ministry, he specialized in pediatrics, palliative care, clinical ethics, interprofessional communication, and cultural bridging. He holds a B.A. degree from Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL, and a M.Div. degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary. Currently, he is organizing the core team to begin a new Disciples worshiping community in Marin County, gathering-desire, where he resides with his wife, their two sons, and their beloved 95 lb. lapdog, Norman.

Why Does Jesus Have to Be Such a Lousy Role Model?

By Derek Penwell

WWJD? If you read the Gospels, apparently not much that would please the Family Research Council.

Given the pressing social concerns about the “war on Christmas” and the first amendment travesty visited upon America's evangelical wedding cake industry, Jesus’ regard for the poor and oppressed seems laughably myopic.

I mean, if you believe that you’ve been put on this earth to skulk about pointing out everyone else’s sins, Jesus doesn’t set a very good example. Oh sure, he cracks on the self-righteous and the hypocrites, but usually because he feels a moral responsibility to shine a light on the self-satisfied, those who seem way too pleased that they’re “not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like [the] tax-collector” (Luke 18:11).

Interesting that Jesus not only doesn’t feel the need to scour the countryside in search of people to condemn—for fear that surely someone’s ruining the fabric of “traditional society”—but, ironically, he seems to find those who are most publicly religious (that is, the folks who do scour the countryside in search of people to condemn) the folks most in need of a good verbal smack down.[1]

So, if you believe your Christian mission centers on identifying sinners to steer clear of, Jesus is a really crappy role model. If you think that the demands of Christian purity require you to shine a bright light on the those people the church ought to be busy hanging scarlet letters on, then Jesus is bound to be a disappointment to you.

At this point, someone will surely object, “But we’re just calling attention to sinful behavior. We don’t hate the sinners, just the sin. What we’re doing is actually the loving thing to do. We love them; but we have a responsibility to make sure that they change.”

But let’s just be honest—when some group utters “love the sinner/hate the sin,” everybody knows they’re only talking about LGBTQ people. (Frankly, I don’t think being LGBTQ is a sin, and I don’t like the phrase. But if you’re going to wield it against someone you don’t approve of, at least try to be consistent.)

Franklin Graham wouldn’t advocate keeping rich people, for example, from full participation in the life and ministry of the church—in anticipation that they’ll, you know, renounce that which prevents their tricked-out camels from fitting through the eye of the needle.

I’m pretty sure Tony Perkins isn’t launching any campaigns meant to publicize the socially corrosive sin of anger evinced by road-ragers who terrorize rush hour traffic, proudly displaying their “Jesus” fish and their “God is my co-pilot” bumper stickers.

Jerry Falwell Jr. isn't leading the charge against hypocrisy, calling out the white-washed sepulcher lobby who claim to follow Jesus, but who still embrace violence, selfishness, and deceit in their political leaders.

The truth of it is, we’re extremely parochial about the “Biblical” sins by which we’re determined to be aggrieved.

My suspicion is that “love the sinner/hate the sin” language operates practically as a convenient mechanism by which one can appear morally superior to those whose sins most offend one’s particular sensibilities—all for the purposes of public consumption.

But the specificity with which we apply “love the sinner/hate the sin” bothers me. I guess my question would be: Have you actually talked to someone who’s been “loved” to death by all this concern for the particular sin of being LGBTQ? Young people are killing themselves from this kind of “love.”

Yeah, Jesus is a lousy example if what you care about are the sins that vex much of popular Christianity. In fact, not only didn’t Jesus make it his mission to fish about for people to be offended by, he sought out the people that most of the rest of polite society saw as offensive, and then proceeded to go to the bar with them.[2]

So, Jesus is exactly the wrong guy to appeal to as the inspiration for a 21st century version of the personal morality police.

And it’s kind of sad, really. For a large segment of Christianity, Jesus’ lack of moralistic rigor cannot but appear embarrassing.

On the other hand, if you want to pattern your life after a person who befriended the folks who always seem to get picked last in the game of life, Jesus works perfectly as a role model.


  1. See, for example, Matthew 23—a chapter dedicated to calling out religious pretension.  ↩
  2. See Matthew 11:19.  ↩

Not Created for Shame

By Bentley Stewart

“We were not meant to live in shame...” Richard Spencer, white nationalist who popularized the term ‘alt-right.’

I agree.

Let me state that again. I AGREE. We are NOT meant to live in shame.

Notice that I limited Spencer’s quote. There is a very limited amount upon which I can find agreement with him. Even in this limited quote, he and I understand “we” differently.

When he says “we were not meant to live in shame,” he means that white people are not meant to live in shame. His “WE” is white.

I speak as a person of faith. God did not intend for humanity to live in shame. In Genesis 3, God beckons the first human family out of hiding in shame. We are not meant for shame. Humanity, which includes white people, is not meant for shame. Shame robs us of the abundant life that God desires for us and Jesus proclaimed. 

I agree with another thing that Spencer said in this edited clip. Here’s the other comment of Spencer’s with which I (mostly) agree:

“America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity,” Spencer said. “It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.” 

Here’s how I would state it: “America was designed for white people.”   

When I use the term “white supremacy,” this is what I mean. “America was designed for white people.” (Some use the term differently and I have much to learn from those nuances.) 

“White supremacy” is the version of racism that is endemic to the United States. In other places, there are other versions of racism. It is also important to note that white supremacy exists beyond our shores.

Before I explain what I mean that “America was designed for white people,” let me define racism.

One problem is that the term “racism” has become a shaming pejorative. Remember, I profess faith in a God who desires that we leave shame behind. Calling someone a racist does not have a good track record for liberating people from racism. When I am shamed, I have two default responses. Accept the shame and wallow in it or reject the shame by breaking relationship with the messenger. Wallowing in shame is not only miserable for me. Wallowing in shame serves no one. 

My working definition of “racism” is informed by the Reconciliation Ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), my ordaining body. 

Racism = Race Prejudice + Misuse of Institutional Power

We, all of humanity, have prejudices and biases. Don’t believe me? Take a test on implicit biases and prove me wrong. We all have prejudices. It is part of the survival strategy of mammals. In any given moment, we are experiencing too much stimuli to make conscious decisions about all of it. We have prejudices. We pre-judge, in part, to filter our experiences. Without these prejudices, we would be overwhelmed by the number of decisions we would be forced to make in any given moment. Part of what it means to be human is that we have the freedom and responsibility to question our prejudices so that we are not limited by preconceived notions. 

Having prejudices based on appearance is not racism. It is part of what it means to be human. 

Instead of unpacking the phrase “misuse of institutional power,” I will return to Spencer’s quote:  

“America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity,” Spencer said. “It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.” 

European settlers claimed the land that Indigenous Peoples had lived on for generations. Their relationship with the land was forged through generations of loving and learning from the land as they struggled to survive and thrive. The First Nations people were claimed by the land as much, if not more, than they claimed the land. 

This week used to be my favorite holiday. For me, there is no greater spiritual discipline than the corporate practice of gratitude. And, it is becoming harder and harder for me to reconcile my appreciation for this holiday and the genocide it sanitizes. 

Please do not stop reading there. Remember, I do not believe that we were created for shame.

A quick distinction between shame and guilt:

Guilt says I did something bad.

Shame says I am bad.

Guilt is about behavior and shame is about the person.

In order to face the legacies of the displacement and genocide of this land’s indigenous people and the enslavement of people from Africa, we need to confront our historic guilt over this behavior. However, we must not wallow in shame. We were not meant for shame. Shame serves no one. In fact, the insidious pathology of shame allows us to avoid our guilt. If I am a bad person, then all I am capable of is bad. I am incapable of anything good. I am not accountable for my behavior. From the place of shame, I bypass my guilt, which means I forfeit my agency to engage in any new behavior. 

When we use the sickness of shame to bypass our guilt, we then seek ways to self-medicate the shame with all sorts of numbing agents to desensitize ourselves from the pain of one another. If I collude with the lie that there is nothing I can do about how racism oppresses people, then I will strive to maintain willful blindness about racism. 

Perhaps, you are thinking. Hey, I didn’t do any of that. I didn’t own slaves. Why should I feel guilty? I strive to treat everyone with dignity and respect.

Again, I speak as a person of faith. 

"The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and the fourth generation.” ~ Numbers 14:18

God loves us. God did not create us for shame. And, God loves justice. God loves us so much that God cares about our behavior. God wants us to love as we have been loved. 

The verse above has been used by some to talk about “generational curses” and by others as way to talk about “systemic sin.” Whatever your preferred nomenclature, our country’s original sin is racism. The soil of our land, from sea to shining sea, is soaked in the blood of racism. We still eat the poisonous fruit from this blood-soaked soil.

For this reason, I try to avoid referring to people as “racist.” Again, it is a shaming pejorative. Shame serves no one and God never meant us for shame.

Rather, I say that we live in a country struggling with the insidious systemic evil of racism. We all suffer from how racism misshapes our God-given identities as beings of dignity and sacred worth. God wants to liberate us, ALL of us, white people too, from racism. We are meant for so much more. We are meant for the abundant life of becoming the beloved community.

As a citizen of this nation, I am confronted daily, multiple times a day, with the choice to resist racism or to collude with the powers and principalities. Other citizens, such as Spencer and other white nationalists, have decided to publicly profess their allegiance to this evil. 

The temptation is to think that just because I am not professing white supremacy that I am somehow free from racism. In my analysis, we are all confronted with choices daily that present opportunities to collude with or resist racism. I mess up all the time. I refuse to let my missteps to be the end of my journey towards liberation from racism. 

If you have read this far, I want to thank you. I want to leave you with a word of hope. Before that, I offer an invitation and a practice: begin to examine your known world for the vestiges of racism. Freed from shame, examine the ways in which you resist the powers of racism and the places where you collude with those powers and principalities.  Every morning, ask yourself how will I resist racism today? How will I be an agent of liberation from racism?

From Romans 8: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

The soil of our land is soaked in the blood of racism. Our land was subjected to the evil of racism. Creation itself is rooting for us, the children of God, to be revealed. Our liberation will be discovered in celebrating our interconnectedness and seeking justice for all.

May we seek to be better caretakers of the interconnected web of creation and by the grace of God, when we stumble on our way to becoming the beloved community, may we fall forward towards love and justice. 


Rev. J. Bentley Stewart is the Director of Student Life for Disciples Seminary Foundation in Northern California. He is an ordained minister with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and has standing in the Northern California/Nevada Region, for whom he serves as one of the anti-racism trainers. He is endorsed as a hospital chaplain by Disciples Home Mission. In his decade of hospital ministry, he specialized in pediatrics, palliative care, clinical ethics, interprofessional communication, and cultural bridging. He holds a B.A. degree from Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL, and a M.Div. degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary. Currently, he is organizing the core team to begin a new Disciples worshiping community in Marin County, gathering-desire, where he resides with his wife, their two sons, and their beloved 95 lb. lapdog, Norman. 

 

Why the Church and Its Allies Must Come Together to Fight Oppression Now

By Derek Penwell

In the aftermath of the recent presidential election it is no understatement to say that many people are anxious about what lies ahead. Women and minority groups have understandably begun to organize, so as not to be taken by surprise should they find themselves the targets of harassment, legal intimidation, or violence.

I believe the church has a role to play, along with other religious communities and non-profit justice organizations. As such, I recently reached out to over 200 hundred area clergy, and over 25 different non-profits in the city where I live to gather together, to see how we might offer support to one another as we brace for the worst. Below is the statement I gave about why we need to stand in solidarity with one another now.

In the wake of the presidential election those who are celebrating victory are calling for the country to unify behind the new administration. Such a call for unity, however, rings hollow for many who feel threatened by the aggressively hostile rhetoric of the winning campaign—not to mention the violent acts of some of the President-elect’s supporters. Those threatened by the repeated denigration of women and minority groups rightly wonder how they can be reconciled to the very people who have expressed such antipathy toward their fellow citizens.
But perhaps even more hurtful is the awareness that such large numbers of otherwise good people were willing to overlook the fear and hatred being sown by the candidate and his allies. The feelings of betrayal extend beyond the disappointment at having lost an election to the dawning realization that a significant portion of the country has made peace with the potential victimization of so many of its citizens. Consequently, calls for the country to “come together” sound like a way for those newly empowered to tamp down dissent—a dissent, which is not so much political in nature, as it is moral.
As leaders within the religious and non-profit communities, we’re also aware of the need for unity. However, our belief is that the kind of unity necessary is one predicated on truth and a commitment to the flourishing of all our friends and neighbors, regardless of race, gender, religious affiliation, ethnicity, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender expression, or ability. Moreover, the kind of unity we envision draws its strength not from a desire to consolidate power, but from our deeply rooted values and beliefs about the worth and dignity of all people.
As faith leaders, we can speak pastorally about the fear and dislocation people are experiencing as they anticipate the implications of disquieting policy proposals. We can speak in ways that no one else is capable of speaking about the spiritual nature of our call to protect those who are most vulnerable among us. We are motivated not by any benefit to us, but simply because—across religious traditions—our commitment to caring for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger—which is to say, those who often find themselves alone and without voice—is at the very heart of all of our religious expressions.
As leaders within the non-profit world, we have intimate knowledge of how some of the policies that have been proposed will negatively impact those whom we love and serve. We know the weak points in the system, and where those who will be disadvantaged are most likely to encounter difficulty. And we know that without the concerted effort of all of us who find ourselves at the intersections of justice work, too many people will be left behind, too many will suffer under the boot of oppression.
Whether it is fear of deportation of refugees or the undocumented; or a justice system that disproportionately impacts people of color—leaving them in constant fear of the very authorities charged with protecting them; or the institutionalization of bigotry toward LGBTQ people in housing, employment, and public accommodations; or the coarsening of attitudes toward women that will inevitably continue to underwrite rape culture and an environment hostile to women’s flourishing; or a society that defaults to treating Muslims with suspicion and hatred; or a world in which those with disabilities are systematically disadvantaged—we know what the disastrous possibilities of such a future promise.
But if we come together, if we embrace the unity that finds its strength in our shared commitment to justice for all our neighbors, we can begin to reassure them that they need not live in the fear that they will be abandoned by the very people tasked with advocating on their behalf. And our unity will send a message to those in power that the values and beliefs that bring us meaning and purpose will not allow us to look the other way while our friends and families are torn apart by bigotry and fear.
We’re better than that.

A Confession from a White Male Progressive Pastor

By Bruce Barkhauer

The day after the election, I noticed that the servers and waitstaff, none of whom appeared to be “from here” (Dallas, TX), were very quiet in the hotel restaurant on the post election morning. They went about their duties politely, but with a countenance of uneasiness.  In the afternoon, as I waited for my plane, people of color and ethnic diversity looked back at me with questioning, almost empty eyes.  

I am a white male, close to sixty, a bit overweight and on whom clothes never hang quite right -  and for all the world to guess, one who looks like he voted to elect Donald Trump President of the United States.  “The Donald,” who by his own words has made these people to feel unwelcome, unworthy, un-American – and somehow un-human.  I wanted to apologize to every single one of them.

A gay couple clung to each other in the terminal as if they would crumble if they dared to let go.  It is hard to speculate what the future will be like for them with an electorate that has handed all the levers of power to people who think they should not be able to love each other or enjoy the same rights and protections that my wife and I do.  I fear for my daughter, who is gay and married to her partner.  I wanted to tell them, all of them, that I have their back and that I am glad that they are a part of the fabric of our country and that they make us better and stronger for all their diversity. In the worst way I wanted to make eye contact with them to assure them they did not need to fear.  I felt unclean, ashamed. I wanted a shower - but this will not wash off.  The privilege afforded by my race and gender is the judge and jury of the sin from which I most often benefit, but did not choose.

The ugly truth is that I cannot promise them that they will be okay and safe from their neighbors or their government. But I will stand with them. I cannot promise that the undocumented will not be deported, that the LGBTQ person will be safe from abuse or that their elected leaders will protect or even care about them if they are. But I will seek to protect them. I cannot promise a place for the refugee family fleeing the terror of war and the broken covenant of a government that will neither protect or provide for them. But I will try to make a place for them.

For women who already suffer from a culture that glorifies their sexuality while denying their right to their own bodies; a society which tells them their contribution in work and creativity is worth less than a man’s labor for the same endeavor; and an pervasive attitude that says they should accept unwanted advances and physical contact as “just the way it is” because boys will be boys - I honestly don’t have a word of encouragement that this will change.  We have elected to our highest office one who by his own behavior expressed these very “values,” and thus we continued to affirm those twisted values to be normative and acceptable. I will name it for what it is and that it is wrong.

For the kid bullied at school, I cannot promise you that your pain and exclusion will stop since we have chosen a bully to sit in the oval office.  But I will stand up for you.

Tears well in my eyes - but they just won’t fully come.  It would be a welcome catharsis. With my shame there is also anger.  Yes, I am angry at those who chose this candidate because in their desperation for a change they could control in our halls of governance, and their fear of a change they could not shape in our world, they accepted the high cost of moral bankruptcy as a fair exchange.  

I am angry with evangelicals who since the 1980s have made “character matters” their mantra but gladly sacrificed it all on the alter of the Supreme Court nominees. It is idolatry of the most subtle sort because it seems so righteous.  

I am angry at the media for making this election about everything but the issues and who found more value in reporting news as entertainment instead of accepting the high calling of journalism.  Without unbiased reporting, fact checking, and public accountability, a democracy cannot flourish and is subject to tyranny. We forget this at our own peril.

I am angry that emails became more important than tax returns. I really do believe where your treasure is that is where your heart can be found.  Money, and what we do with it, reveals character.  That information was kept hidden from us for a reason, and somehow that became acceptable. We should have been asking persistent serious questions and demanding they be answered.  His opponent was figuratively stripped naked and paraded down main street via congressional hearings and federal investigation so that no secrets could have possibly remained.  Every dark corner of her life received the light of sordid exploration.  It revealed her imperfections, which oddly paled in comparison to her opponent’s without anyone noticing.

My real anger, however, is directed at myself.  I placed my hope in the wrong thing.  In my own progressive optimism, I began to believe that the government of my country could reflect the values of my soul.  Perhaps “Washington” really could support an egalitarian community that saw commonwealth as primary, and thus individuality as a fruit of rather than the goal of liberty.  With gains made in recent years suggesting greater inclusivity, I became both encouraged and lazy.  I also saw the attempts to restrict the voices of minorities as Jim Crow raised its ugly head, but I believed our better angels would win the day because the attempts were so blatant that decent people would never allow it to stand. In my imagination, a new Supreme Court justice would help undo this mess, as I too crafted an idol from an empty chair on the high court. 

I was wrong and I confess it to all who will read these words. The error was placing my hope in something less than God.  As a theologian, I know that putting trust in anything less than the Ultimate will lead to ultimate disappointment. I want this country to reflect my values, but believing that putting someone in the White House or the Statehouse could make that possible was destined to be disaster.  It doesn't mean it is not important, just that is not an end in and of itself.

We do well to remember our own history.  It was the government that killed Jesus and sought to eliminate his movement of “the way.”  When it could not stop Jesus’ movement, the government co-opted it to secure its own hold on power and to preserve its own values.  A motive from which we seemingly have never fully escaped.  Being too close to the seat of power carries great risk.  Distance allows for prophetic perspective. 

Creating a culture of generosity, welcome, justice, grace, and one that affirms the value of every person as a child of God is not the work of government – it is the work of the church.  We can wish that our government could someday be the catalyst that makes this the law in our land - but we cannot place our hope there alone to make it so.  And in the end, the law for all of its benefits, cannot legislate the province which is the human heart.  That is reserved for the work of transformation, which again, only God can do, and do so only with the willing.  

Bringing a compelling word about a better way of being is the only real hope of living up to the values we claim for ourselves as a nation. We need to engage not just in campaigning but in the work of conversion. 


And so we can acknowledge our anger, grief, and sadness at the result of the election.  But despite this crushing blow, we are not without hope.

Hope has always been a slim shimmering light in the darkness of despair, a courageous whisper softly spoken against the din of populist provocation, a tender branch unbroken thoughwhipped by the blustering winds of earthly principalities, and above all a belief that what might be is greater than what now exists. 

This election should serve as a reminder to the Church - you have what the world needs, the change that it longs for but does not recognize. This is not the time to be paralyzed by our grief, or bound up in our anger, but with resolve on our tear stained faces to get to work as stewards of the good news of the Gospel. 

It is up to us welcome to the stranger, create safe spaces for LGBTQ people, to care for the poor, to tend to the needs of the sick, to protect the earth, and by our living in beloved community to leave no doubt that all lives matter.  We can pressure the government to conform, but we cannot worship at its alter nor stand voiceless against its abuses.  The faith we proclaim believes that the cross and resurrection are less about us getting into heaven, and more about getting heaven into us, and through us, into the world.  

I’m embarrassed to be a middle-aged white guy today - but not at all ashamed that I voted for the first women to represent a major party for president.  I am deeply disappointed, but I am not without hope.

What's next?

By Rev. Mindi

I had hoped to be writing a completely different article, and much earlier in the evening. As it is, I'm typing this at 11:19PM PST, with the race all but called. 

What do we do when we feel so defeated and dejected? When a candidate endorsed by the KKK wins an election, the popular vote, among our neighbors, coworkers, and friends?

What do we do when the freedom to marry, to use the freakin' bathroom, is at risk of being taken away for LGBTQ folk? With deportations only to increase and a wall to be built? When the Supreme Court has a slot unfilled going into this new presidency?

We cannot give up. We cannot stop.

Start locally. Look at local referendums and state policies to protect the rights of transgender folks. Know your state representative and senator by name and speak to them often, and not just email--call them. Arrange to visit with them one on one. Go visit them in their congressional office if you are able to. 

Find other organizations and individuals to partner with on local legislation to support public education and healthcare, and services for disabled and senior folks. 

Don't stop working now. Take the day off and breathe. Tomorrow get back to work, because God is not through with us yet.

Mental Health and Ministry

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

At the recent Regional Assembly of the Christian Church in Virginia, there was an Interest Group titled “No, I’m Not Crazy!” Affirming Those with Mental Health Issues.  It was the Interest Group I decided to attend.  Not because I thought I needed to learn how to affirm others, but because I wanted to feel affirmed.  Throughout my adult life, I have waged a battle with depression.  I know the struggle that comes with feeling thoroughly overwhelmed in mind, body and soul by what seems like nearly insurmountable sadness.  I understand what it is like to be nearly paralyzed by the weight of the darkness that engulfs someone suffering from severe depression.  My battle with this form of mental illness has been costly in my life.  I believe it was a contributing factor to the end of my first marriage.  In addition, some colleagues could not understand the depth of my depression and thought I just needed to “snap out of it.”  When I couldn’t do that, they decided I was not someone they should have in their life.  The words I heard was that “I bring them down.”  Also, at one point, I had to take a year away from ministry.  The depression had reached a point that I lost my voice to preach; my own sense of being spiritually lost made it very difficult to lead others in the journey of faith.

                After the workshop, I went up to our Regional Minister, Lee Parker, and told him I was grateful for the church’s willingness to address this important matter.  I also shared with him about my own personal battle with depression, along with a couple of articles I had written about my experience.  He called the next day, after having read the articles, and asked if I would write something for the Virginia Christian about ministry with those who have mental illness.  The question for me became, do I write about my own journey or do I give some practical advice about how to be present with others who are going through this painful experience.  I decided that sharing about my own personal struggle with depression was of primary importance because it would help to pull back the stigma and cover of secrecy that all too often accompanies mental illness.   Out of fear of being judged by others, those suffering from mental illness often try to hide their struggles which can lead to an even deeper private pain and a further sense of isolation.  In my life I have become keenly aware that if I am to overcome this illness I have to be willing to address it head on and I need the support of friends and family who are willing to walk with me.

These are a few things I have learned in my journey.  Though there will always be some people “who just don’t get it” there are others who will have an understanding and compassionate response - some of them precisely because it is their battle as well.   I need to surround myself with such people when the darkness is deep.  In my last period of a depressed state, it was the companionship of some former church members, a couple of friends from my seminary days, the presence of my children, and the tenacious love of my sister that brought light to me.  Though loneliness was a struggle during that time, I was never completely alone.  They walked with me and in their presence I felt the presence of God.  For that I am grateful.  I have also learned that with my form of depression the complex relationship between genetics and environment is not clear.  Both play a role in my illness.  So both medicines and talk therapy are vitally important in helping me maintain a sense of well-being.  In addition, one reason I am able to face my illness directly, is because I will not allow it to become the defining characteristic of who I am.  Though my depression has gripped me fiercely at times, I live an abundantly fulfilled life.  I love to laugh and spend time with my children.  I enjoy exercise and running road races.  I love the work I do as pastor.  Congregational leadership has again become life giving to me.  Reading the book, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Greatness, allowed me to see that my own battle with depression does not by any means disqualify me from leadership.  In fact, for my life as a pastor, it has helped me to become a more compassionate and understanding person.   And though I lost some relationships because of my struggles, the door has opened for other relationships to begin.  Again, I am grateful.

I will not live in fear and silence when it comes to the fact that I have a form of mental illness.  As some people’s journey consists of diabetes or Crohn’s disease or cancer and they must undergo medical treatment and receive various kinds of support, so does my illness require the same. I also hope that my willingness to share openly about my situation will help to show others who have similar battles that they are not alone.  They need not fear what others might think or believe that they should not ask for help.  The journey toward wholeness and well-being is a journey all human beings are on.  It can, at times, be a difficult journey, but it is one that can lead to a full life if embraced with a courageous and honest spirit, an abiding faith and a community of support. 

 

A Story of Forgiveness: A Chapter From The Relationship With My Father

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

The only story any of us can truly tell is our own . . . and yet all our stories are part of another’s story. The chapters of our lives are chapters in the lives of others as well. This is my story of how I learned about forgiveness.  It involves the story of my father and his father also.  My grandfather died two years before I was born. I tell it so it might become part of your story.  Most of us have a chapter or two from our lives that involve forgiveness.  Or at least we should. Maybe this will help you write yours.

My father was an alcoholic.  During the years that I and my siblings were at home, Dad drank on a regular and excessive basis.  The alcohol was a true demon for him.  It brought out anger, cruelty and bitterness.  There were many a night that our home was filled with voices yelling and threats being made.  Once, when I was seven years old, I remember my teenage brother and my Dad screaming at each other and a butcher knife being held in my brother’s hand. I buried my child’s head in the couch.  I do not remember how it all was resolved. I do remember the sound of the yelling, the smell of the liquor, the rage in the eyes, the hot air as I cried into the couch, and the knife.

We were all hesitant to have friends over because we didn’t know what kind of shape Dad would be in.  If it was not a good day for Dad, it was not a good day for anyone.  There were nights after work when he didn’t come home, nights when his entire paycheck was lost on drink and losing at the pool table.   It was only many years later that I realized how hard all this was for my mom.

As you can imagine, Dad’s alcoholism affected our family in numerous ways – the efforts to keep it hidden from others, the inability of our family to ever deal with it directly or in a healthy way, the guilt and shame that comes to nearly everyone who lives in a house where unaddressed addiction is a dominant member of the family.  Four of us grew up in that home where indeed love and faith were present, but also deep human brokenness that evidenced itself through drunken anger and cruelty.  Each of us have had to deal with it in our own way. 

I know I had a deep sense of anger at my father for many years, and some of those years we barely spoke.  I spent many hours in a therapist’s office dealing with the dynamics of my family and the shame, guilt and depression that arose in my life, at least in part, because of those dynamics.  But there came a precise moment when I began to understand things differently and see my father in a new way.  It was not a moment that came from the wise counsel offered in a therapist’s office.  It was a moment that came at our family’s kitchen table and the words that changed things were spoken by Dad.

It was the summer of 1989.  It was an especially difficult year for my family that involved divorce, tragic death, and bouts with severe depression.  The moment came on a warm July evening.  Late one night, I found Dad crying at the kitchen table.  His forehead held in the palm of his hands.  We started talking about all that was happening in our family and in the midst of the conversation, Dad said to me – what prompted it I do not remember -  “When I came back from the war my father told me he wished I had been killed so he could have gotten the government money.”  Then Dad just cried, and cried and cried.  I sat there completely stunned as he got up from the table and headed back to his bedroom.  Dad’s tears that night were about all that was happening to our family, but they were also about the painful and horrible words spoken to him more than forty years earlier.

The next day, I asked my mom if Dad had ever shared that with her.  She said no.  None of my siblings had heard it either.  It had lived painfully within him for all those decades.  He kept it a secret within himself.  Like many young men in that time, Dad came home a hero from WWII.  A chest full of medals including two bronze stars.  But when he got home his father said, “I wish you were dead, so I could have the money.” In that moment at the kitchen table I learned why there was a whiskey bottle in the garage, and why that drink released such bitterness and anger in my father.   It is simply true, hurting people often hurt others.  Learning of my father’s own emotional pain, brought on by the words spoken to him by his own father, helped me to understand Dad differently.  It helped me to forgive him in a way that all the hours of counseling never made possible.  And I think it helped Dad to speak of his pain, because it was about that time that he quit drinking and for the last twelve years of his life, he never touched a drop of alcohol again. 

As we live the stories that are our lives and our chapters become interwoven with the chapters of others, there are often aspects of someone else’s story that we do not know.  Maybe things they have buried so deeply that they themselves do not talk about them, but those things still affect how they live.   A note to this story is to tell you, that I bear no ill will toward my grandfather for what he said to my father.  Chilling words whose impact was profound on my family.  As I said, my grandfather died two years before I was born.  All I can do is wonder about what terrible thing happened in his life that caused him to say such a horrible thing to his son.

As you encounter people whose ways are painful to others, there is likely a story that you do not know.  It doesn’t excuse their behavior.  It doesn’t make their behavior okay.  But knowing that there might be a story that you are unaware of, it can help you to understand.  It helps you to be slow to your own anger.  It can help you to break the cycle of blame and guilt and infliction of hurt that we continue in too many of relationships.  It helps you to have grace. Understanding that you don’t know all the chapters of anyone’s story, well, it can help you to forgive.

Forgiveness has the power to free both the one forgiven and the one who forgives.  I came to love my father deeply and knew his great love for me and for all of his family.  I came to have deep admiration for the courage he showed in his victory over the demons that haunted him for so many years.  After he stopped drinking, the kind and gentle man that we had seen glimpses of over the years, shined through beautifully.  We spent many hours after that fishing together and laughing and telling stories to one another.  But we never mentioned again that night at the kitchen table and what was said there or forty years before. I think we both knew nothing else needed to be said about that night.  That chapter in our lives had the end that it needed to have.

So much of what I understand about grace, forgiveness and love are not the result of study in a seminary classroom or from the works of the great theologians. They are lessons learned from the brokenness and the healing, often painful, of our lives.  I suppose it is the only way we really learn.                 

You're Not Alone: Finding Friends in Ministry

By Rev. Mindi

I graduated from seminary fourteen years ago, with ninety credits and one unit of CPE under my belt. Though I had loved my Biblical Studies courses more than anything, I made sure I took the more practical courses: Church Administration, Stewardship, and of course, Pastoral Ministry Ethics. I figured those would be the courses that would help me in my day-to-day ministry.

Until I came to a church that didn’t want to talk about money or stewardship.

Until I came to a church that had too large of a governing structure for its body.

Until I came to a church that had no internal governing structure for its body.

Until I came to a church that had unhealthy power dynamics within the staff and within the lay leadership.

Until I came to a church that was barely surviving.

You get the picture. In the variety of calls I have served, I have encountered situations that “they didn’t teach me about that in Seminary.”

And even though I am an outgoing person and have immediately sought out clergy groups, sometimes it is hard to relate to other clergy who have had a different experience in ministry. I find it hard at times to relate to clergy in which they were always paid a full time salary with benefits, or were always able to attend continuing education events and their regional and national governing bodies. We all know that relationships are the key to ministry, and if who you know matters, how can you move to a new call when no one at the regional or national level knows who you are because you have never been able to afford to attend? Or how can you compete with pastors who have D.Min’s or other credentials when your continuing education budget is small?

Ministry can be lonely, even when you have colleagues.

Sometimes, you have to build what you envision. “Built it, and they will come.”

A few years ago we began a great local “younger” clergy group. We are small. We can fit around a dining room table. We gather once a month for lunch and to check in with one another. We bless one another when they leave a call, or transition to something new. We honor one another by listening and not judging. We pray for one another when we are going through difficult times. We have built a beautiful support network that I could not minister without.

I also joined another clergy group, with clergy of different ages, but also different cultural and language backgrounds. Many of these colleagues I have been able to relate to in my experience of finding time for ministry while working another job. I have also had a good listening ear from my recently retired colleagues in this group, who get that ministry has changed from when they entered and that those of us in our early years of ministry need more support than ever.

But perhaps the greatest support network I have been part of is UNCO. The UnConference (and yes, I keep blogging about this here, and here, and here) began a few years ago as a “built it, and they will come” event that brings together clergy and church leaders without a keynote speaker. We share our ideas and our concerns in ministry and form breakout sessions based on those topics. All those things I didn’t learn in seminary? I’ve learned more from UNCO than any other continuing education conference. And, it’s affordable! It’s under $500!

Ministry gets awfully lonely at times, and sometimes we feel we are going it alone into uncharted territory, especially as the traditional church wanes and something new is birthing. What is coming forth? What is our role? UNCO is helping us to figure that out for each of us, and I always receive encouragement and support, and even enthusiasm as I return to my ministry setting. And the support continues, through Facebook, Twitter, and Google Hangouts. Sometimes we even pick up the phone and call the old fashioned way, across time zones and denominations.

UNCO West is October 24-26 at San Francisco Theological Seminary. The cost is $350 per person including meals and room for 3 days and 2 nights. There is KidUnco (the BEST!) and there is still space available. Register now!