Nice; but racist!

20 08 2018

B and w hands

While not born in the south, I was still raised with what is often referred to as a form of “southern gentility.”   From an early age I was taught to always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, keep my elbows off the table, hold the door open for others (especially women!), and stand up when someone new enters a room.  Some believe that cleanliness is next to Godliness; but in my house, politeness reigned!  It was all about the manners — socially prescribed norms that subtly, and not so subtly, communicated one was kind, considerate, and thoughtful.

My wife gave birth to our three children up north — two in York, PA and one in Erie, PA — and they were raised in a similar fashion; so there wasn’t much of a culture shock when we moved to Virginia in 2000.  They were quite familiar with this so called “southern gentility!”  And whether interacting with older members of our church, or speaking with the parents of their friends, they were quick to begin saying ‘Yes sir’, or ‘No Ma’am’.  To this day they are respectful and courteous.

But my kids don’t wear masks.   And while they are far from perfect, one of the things I most appreciate about the three of them, as well as my two daughters-in-law,  is that  . . . what you see is what you get!  There is very little pretense with them, and their manners have never tempted them to exalt of a culture of niceness over a culture of integrity.

“Nice” families abound in America today: in both the south AND the north!  People everywhere raise their children to be kind and courteous, respectful and reverent.  But in too many instances, niceness is their only goal.  And as a result, because instilling manners in our children is all some people strive for, evils like racism will never be appropriately addressed.

In case you haven’t noticed, America is full of nice, racists!

We smile at the Black woman behind us in line at Starbucks, and we make conversation with the Brown man sitting beside us on the Metro, but we’re still be racist.  We are advocates for our teachers, and we speak up on behalf of  nurses, but we’re still  sexist!  We are actively involved in our churches’ AIDS ministry, and volunteer with Planned Parenthood, but we’re still homophobic.

Which is why I think I’ve finally come to realize that there are more important things than being nice.  Because today, while the world, and especially our country, could use an extra dose of niceness; we need so much more!  Christian kindness is good, and compassionate activism is important.  But when it comes to America’s colorism, the call needs to be to so much more than simply learning to be “nice!”  For niceness hasn’t gotten this country anywhere when it comes to white privilege and racial bias.

Austin Channing Brown, in her book “I’m Still Here” writes, “When you believe niceness disproves the presence of racism, it’s easy to start believing bigotry is rare . . . White people desperately want to believe that only the lonely, isolated, ‘Whites only’ club members are racist.  This is why the word ‘racist’ offends ‘nice White people’ so deeply.  It challenges (our) self-identification as good people.”

When so called ‘good’ people discriminate, they cease being good.  And we’ve yet to realize this!  Too many ‘good’ people discriminate — against people of color, against women, against our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, and against countless marginalized people groups that we have chosen to ‘other’!

When ‘nice’ people say that good Americans stand when the national anthem is being played at a football game, their niceness is preventing them from recognizing that there is a large segment of the American population concerned about our nation’s racial bias, and that for them, taking a knee in a public setting is the only safe way for them to make that statement.  And when we choose not to see that, we are revealing our racism.

When we don’t think it’s appropriate or accurate to proclaim “Black lives matter”,  because “Blue lives matter” and really ALL lives matter, and it’s not really nice to leave anyone off the list of lives that matter . . . when we think that way, we are revealing our racism.

When we look at our inner cities, and only see crime and unemployment issues, having separated those issues from patterns of colorism and discrimination, we are revealing our racism.

And when we look at the school-to-prison pipeline in America, and regard it as a discipline problem, or a motivation problem, or lack of parental involvement problem, we are revealing our racism.

We nice people do this all the time.  We are more concerned about opening the door at the grocery store for the Latina woman behind us, than opening for her the doors of opportunity and equity.  We are more concerned about not hurting elderly Aunt Jane’s feelings when she makes a racist joke at the family reunion, than considering what her comments are communicating to her great-nieces and nephews who are present.  And we are more concerned about peace and harmony in our relationships with our neighbors and co-workers, than we are about standing up for what is right, and kind, and faithful, and good!  And whenever we do these things, the mask of niceness blinds us not only to the needs of others, but to the blemished integrity that we are offering the world.

No!  We should never stop embracing niceness.  But if forced to choose between niceness and being a person of integrity — a person seeking to exhibit the justice, mercy, and compassion of Jesus — the choice should be simple.  Because sometimes, our greatest sin, is the sin of being nice!










Praying for Paul . . . Manafort, that is!

9 08 2018

ManafortThis is not a blog about HOW we pray, but FOR WHOM we pray.

If 30-plus years of ministry have taught me anything, it is that prayer is an intensely personal practice, faithfully carried out in all kinds of ways. So HOW one engages in this spiritual discipline varies with each ‘pray-er’; which is why today, I’m not so much concerned with the mechanics of prayer, as with the focus of our prayers.  And my focus, needs to change!

Every Saturday morning I take a 2-3 mile walk along the Potomac River in Old Town Alexandria. It is therapy for my soul, providing me with opportunities to be still, reflect, and become more mindful of the life that I am living.  I have the privilege of calling one of the most beautiful cities in our country “home,” and I try to take advantage of it whenever I can.  So at least once a week I enjoy the sounds of waves quietly lapping against the shore.  I enjoy the sight of geese gathering on floating logs, and the occasional heron standing in the marsh grass.  And enjoy taking note of the rising and falling tides, smiling every time the river overflows it’s banks, sending water into the streets and parks that hug the the shores of Old Town.

I move quickly and quietly in those pre-dawn hours, eagerly waiting for the sun to rise across the waters in Maryland, with no distractions from the peaceful beauty that surrounds me . . . no distractions, that is, until I get to Oronoco Park!

Oronoco Park is a small piece of green space situated right on the water, with the condominium complex on the western edge that houses one of Paul Manafort’s million dollar homes.  And for me it is a terrible distraction!  Because week after week, his building reminds me how inadequate my prayer life really is.

You see, as I pass, I always seem to hear, perhaps even feel, the Spirit’s urging to pray for Paul and his family.  But I’d really prefer not to!  And this is especially true these days.  As accounts of his trial are reported, I am deeply offended by his privileged arrogance, his reckless financial dealings, and his irresponsible work on behalf of the Presidential Campaign of Donald Trump.  And so the thought of having to say his name in prayer, leaves a nasty taste in my mouth.  The thought of having to devote even one second of my treasured Saturday mornings to this man sickens me; for I regard him not just as MY ‘enemy’, but an enemy of the American people.

Which is what takes me to the focus of my prayer life.

You see, Jesus makes it very clear that I am to pray . . . for my enemies.  And he pushes me, and all of us, to do that; because he knows how very hard it is.

It’s easy for me to pray for my new granddaughter because my love for her is so great.  It’s easy for me to pray for friends and parishioners who are struggling with illness, or grief, or a multitude of personal demons, because I care for those people.  It’s even easy for me to pray for justice: becoming allies with those on the margins of our society, and in the sentiments of Ghandi, “becoming the change I wish to see in the world.”  I love those people, and the causes that lead me to pray for them are ones that must be addressed by any and all who claim to be following Jesus.

But Paul Manafort?  Actually, anyone associated with Donald Trump?  Pray for them?  Really?

Unfortunately, the only theological concept that comes to my mind when I think of such people is karma.  Sometimes, it really is a bitch!  And the darkest corners of my shadow side too often long to witness the events that I have no doubt will eventually lead them to come to this realization on their own!

However because the call of Christ is to pray for my enemies, the focus of my prayer life MUST change. So what should it look like?

You see, for long time now, prayer for me has become less and less about asking God to miraculously intervene in the world, and more and more about my learning to tap into the power God has placed in ME for intervention in the world!  My prayer life no longer includes petitions to the heavens for protection when I travel, nor does it include requests for a parking place when I’m driving on the crowded streets of Washington, DC.  I no longer find such a simplistic approach to this spiritual practice helpful, meaningful, or theologically sound!

Rather, prayer is about my being continually conformed to the image of Christ in the world.  It’s about my being daily changed to reflect the image of Jesus and the heart of God, to those around me.  It’s about a growing mindfulness of the Spirit’s presence, that puts me in a place where I am better able to respond with Light to whatever it is that comes my way!  And whether I like it or not, I need to learn to do this when it involves those I love, AND when it involves my enemies.

When I pray for my Black brothers being wrongly shot by police; I put myself in their shoes, and allow myself to feel and experience a little of what they experience, so that a new perspective will emerge in my life, causing me to alter the way I live.  When I pray for the children who have been separated from their parents along our southern boarder; I strive to become better informed about immigration issues in our country so that I can at the very least, vote into office people who can change the way policies are implemented and enforced.  And when I pray for the people of Palestine, whose oppression is being minimized and marginalized in order to keep the attention of the world focused on the fears and the frustrations of the Israelis; I strive to spend more time with both my Jewish and my Palestinian neighbors, so that unity might be modeled, and then shared with others.

So perhaps this how I am to pray for Paul . . . and the rest of my enemies.  Perhaps I have to put myself in their shoes, and instead of getting angry, try to better understand what has caused them to become the people they are today.  Perhaps, without in any way excusing or condoning their behavior, I have to spend time with, and befriend their followers, and realize that they too are products of a broken world, and work a little harder to show them the transforming love of Jesus.  Perhaps I need to consider that even privilege is a form of oppression that can have disempowering consequences, and thus requires a certain amount of grace.

In two days I will once again take my morning walk along the Potomac, and as I do I will likely become distracted . . .  again . . . not by Paul Manafort’s condo, but by the Holy Spirit.  And she will be calling me to pray for an enemy: for one who offends my self-righteous expressions of dignity and integrity, and who violates my vain sense of Christian faithfulness and obedience.  She will remind me of what a dear colleague in my very first congregation once told me, “that we’re all the same height at the foot of the cross”; and that as James Adams once said, “there is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it ill behooves any of us to find fault with the rest of us.”  And she will push me out of my comfort zone, so that I might learn what it means to have just a little more compassion for ALL people, and not just the ones I like!

So, what will I do?  How will I respond the Spirit’s ‘meddling’ in my life?

Well, I’ll let you know!  But if this Saturday morning you see me stop walking at Oronoco Park, don’t be surprised!  I’ll be praying.  And I’ll be praying for Paul!

The Birth of a Grand Daughter

1 08 2018
img_1189In twelve hours, my life changed.  Everyone said that would happen: friends, neighbors, church members: even complete strangers told me that there was nothing like it in the world.  But their words fell on deaf ears!  I listened politely to their grandiose grand-parenting stories, but then quickly wrote them off as overly exaggerated experiences – like a first kiss or a trip to the Grand Canyon.
And then it happened!  Two weeks earlier than expected, something inside me opened, and exposed feelings that I was not even aware were there.  A side of me that I didn’t know existed began to emerge, and my life changed.
As an ‘off-the-chart” NF in the world of Myers-Briggs, I have always felt things deeply. My marriage, the birth of my own three children, all kinds of spiritual ‘thin spaces’, and countless sunrises on the Potomac and sunsets on the Currituck Sound – they have all touched me. But on July 15, 2018, the “touch” was different!
Late Sunday afternoon, our son warned my wife and me that our daughter-in-law was having contractions that were about 7 minutes apart.  But the due date was still weeks away and so we attributed his nervous excitement to that of a soon-to-be, first-time father.  We were going to spend the evening at a concert in the city, and so that’s what we did . . . until we got his one-word text: “Leave!”
They had told us they wanted us in the hospital as close to delivery as possible, which actually surprised us.  When our kids were born we wanted to be alone, at least for the first few days.  So their request came as a pleasant surprise.  They said they’d call when labor began so that we could hop in the car and begin the 4 1/2 hour drive south.  And we didn’t question their desire.  Not once!
Everything happened very fast!  My daughter-in-law’s blood pressure was unusually high and so within an hour of our departure she had an emergency c-section.  And frankly, I was fine with that.  The thought of her being in labor for hours still frightens me; and frankly I wouldn’t mind if everyone in my family gave birth in this manner.  I know, I know!  Women have been pushing out babies since the beginning of time.  But that process — which I recently heard a woman compare to putting a watermelon into a balloon — still scares me.  I remember what my wife went through, and so a little slice of the flesh sounds so much easier.  And at least in this instance, that was the case.  The surgery went smoothly, and before my wife and I knew it, we were grandparents.
The birthing unit was unusually quiet when we arrived, and when we walked into the room, our son was holding the most beautiful baby I had ever seen.  Isla Marie Melone was 7 pounds, 11 ounces, and 20 1/2 inches long.  She had a beautiful head of dark black hair, and was peacefully sleeping in the arms of our first born.  It was a picture I will never forget.  And for the next several days, all four grandparents took turns holding and swooning, usually doing little more than staring into the face of this tiny miracle that was irrevocably changing all of our lives.  Even today, two weeks later, I still find myself just staring at her . . . amazed! . . . in awe! . . . and feeling things I don’t think I’ve ever felt before!
Needless to say, I’m still trying to figure our what’s going on.  Why such emotion?  Why such indescribable joy? Why such an intense affection?
I dearly love my wife and kids, but the love I have for each of them is distinct and unique.  One isn’t better or worse, stronger or weaker.  “Love is love is love” . . . as the saying goes.  But that doesn’t mean that love doesn’t vary depending upon the people involved.  So I’m not surprised that this new love for my new granddaughter is distinct.  But it is very different from anything I’ve ever experienced before.
Further, like so many things in life, love doesn’t exist in an economy of scarcity, but in an economy of abundance.  I learned this after our oldest was born.  I distinctly remember talking to my wife about my fears of having a second child because I wasn’t sure I had any more love left in me, and didn’t know how I was going to be able to love anyone else.  The thought of dividing it up among more people had me convinced that the amount given to all the people in my life would be diminished.  But she assured me that wasn’t how love worked!  Love just keeps coming: and I saw that after both son #2, and then after our daughter 3 years later.  Love grows, and multiplies, and expands, taking on new shapes and forms.  I witnessed that again when my two daughters-in-law came into our family; and that’s what appears to be happening now.  The love in my life is growing yet again; and I get that.  But this time, it is happening so fast, and so suddenly, that it has startled me.  It has caught me by surprise; and the feelings are extremely unfamiliar, and so strong that they scare me.
You see, I’m not a . . . baby kinda’ guy!  I never have been.  I like kids when they start talking, and develop a personality.  I like it when they can tell me why they’re crying, so I can fix whatever is wrong.  I like it when they can respond to the world around them . . . when they do more than . . . “pee and poop.”  (. . . two words that I hate and heard way too much of while in the hospital. . . )  I like it when we can get up early, and while everyone else is still sleeping sneak out of the house and go get warm donuts together; when we can walk along the beach and pick up shells together; when I can tuck them into bed we can read “The Giving Tree” and “Goodnight Moon” together.
So no, I’ve never been a ‘baby’ person.  But this baby is different.  And I can’t figure out why!  I know that it’s my son’s child, and that it’s my first grandchild; but as significant as those factors are, they don’t explain the intensity of my feelings.
So what’s going on?  This just isn’t how I normally operate. What is happening?
Could it be, that perhaps I just need to stop asking all these questions? Could it be that I just need to stop being my normal self, always trying to think things through and figure things out? Could it be, that like the freshly fallen snow, or a beautiful song, I just need to stop trying to analyze this . . . and simply allow myself to feel . . . to remain immersed in this unexpected joy that has come into my life.
Maybe I just need to accept this miracle that makes me smile whenever I think about her.  Maybe, all I need to do right now is keep opening my heart to the love that this little girl is bringing into my world, and allow it to merge with all the other love that makes my family as special as it is.  Maybe, I just need to stop worrying about trying to explain it, define it, and understand it; so that I can rest in it, hold it, sit with it . . . so that I can more fully experience it, and just enjoy it.