Getting in the Way

I preached this sermon in Dalton this morning based upon Mark 9:38-50.

At this point the gospel story moved inexorably towards Jesus’ crucifixion. Though he saw the foreshadowing of his death, the disciples did not. When Jesus defined discipleship to them, he was clear, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (8:34b) The disciples wanting to know who would be first among them were told, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (9:35b) And then, Jesus lifted a little child into his arms saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (9:37)

Jesus, however, was not specifically referring to children in this instance. Though he had a child in his arms, he made a metaphorical point. Paraphrased it might have been this, “Welcome the most vulnerable people in our midst. Whoever welcomes them welcomes not me, but the One who sent me.” Then, Jesus admonished the disciples not to hinder anyone who desired to follow.

When the disciples reported they saw someone casting out demons in his name, Jesus told them not to stop him. That’s an important point in this story.

How many people who want to follow Jesus get stopped? And what stops them?

Most of the people who come to Cathedral in the Night, the Sunday afternoon worshiping community on the front lawn of St. Joseph’s Church in Pittsfield, don’t attend regular church services. Some of the people I met at Common Ground, the dinner church in Northampton, won’t come to regular church, either. I also talk to people who regularly attend church, but their adult children who are in their 20s and 30s don’t attend even though they went to church as children. I don’t know how many people I meet in my chaplain ministry, whether they are hospice patients and families or veterans, who once went to church but have lapsed.

The answers for each of the groups will probably be different, but we should pause and reflect why. The answers will probably not fall neatly into particular categories. Admittedly, our answers will be speculative. Just as an aside, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America bishop for this synod, Jim Hazelwood, a year or so ago formed a panel of non-church goers to tell their annual meeting attendees why they don’t go to church.
Many people will tell me that they feel disconnected from traditional church. “Worship is boring” is one of the milder reasons. Some reasons are more pointed, “People in church are a bunch of hypocrites. They call themselves Christians, but they don’t act that way.” Other people find that traditional churches fall far short on discipleship. They’re not content to come and worship for an hour a week and then not take action in the community.

Some people have been seriously hurt by the church. While we might immediately think of clergy abuse, it is more often for something less dramatic. Pastors can say some pretty hurtful things when we are too dogmatic, which is why the current pope has become so popular. While he has made practically no changes to church doctrine, he has given the church a more compassionate voice, which has softened its harshness. One example was his response to homosexuality, “Who am I to judge?” He also softened the church around its divorced members by encouraging the church to embrace their spouses and children and that divorced members are not to be excommunicated.

I’m pretty certain that many of the people who come to Cathedral in the Night won’t come into our churches because they would feel embarrassed. Though we would say, “We don’t discriminate. We welcome everyone,” they know differently. Not all of them have dirty and torn clothes. Not all of them smell. Not all of them show clear signs of mental illness. Not all of them are unwashed. Not all of them talk like we do. Not all of them became or are addicted to drugs or alcohol or both. Not all of them have broken with their families. Not all of them have spent time in jail or prison. But almost all of them know that they are not really like us inside the church and that makes them uncomfortable. They have little in common with us. Let’s also admit, their presence will be challenging for us as well.

I remember the first time I went to Cathedral in the Night in Northampton. I went with the senior warden from St. Stephen’s Church and their associate pastor. On the way back the pastor and I asked him, “What did you think about the service?” He replied, “I’ve never worshiped with people on the other side of the wall.”

A few people I spoke with at Common Ground said that they prefer worship where they can talk and ask questions rather than traditional worship. They also like the greater sense of community they have sitting at tables and breaking bread with other people rather than sitting in seeming isolation.

Stumbling blocks. They’re ours. We wonder why people aren’t in church without realizing that many of them who are outside our door or just down the street really want to have a relationship with Jesus. They can’t because they’ve encountered stumbling blocks.
When we step back and look at ourselves critically, we can probably find other stumbling blocks. We might question why we worship on Sunday mornings, especially when the ideal church household of two parents and a couple of children typically has two wage earners working Mondays through Fridays leaving them only Saturday to do errands. Sunday mornings would be their only morning family time. Seriously, I have a colleague who once said to me, “If I weren’t a pastor, I wouldn’t come Sunday mornings either.”

Another stumbling block is not providing an open and safe space for people to ask their deep spiritual questions. I’ve heard from more than a few people as they approached death, “How can God love me when I’ve used drugs?” Or trying to help people sort out the injustice when a young child dies of a disease, especially after people tell the parents “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” or “This was all part of God’s plan.” Or even questions about church doctrine, “Can I be a Christian if I don’t believe in the virgin birth?”

Though we think about handicap accessibility for people in wheelchairs and walkers, how many of our services accommodate people with hearing as well as vision deficits?
Not long ago I questioned how anyone could be an SBNR, Spiritual but Not Religious. What I’ve come to see, especially through my other ministries, is that there are many people who are deeply spiritual, but who confront stumbling blocks when it comes to religion.

Like the man casting out demons, there are many people who want to do the Jesus work and know that we should be servants to all. There are many people who will willingly commit their lives to a cause. And yet many of these people can’t find an easy path into our fellowship.

What I’m asking is for us to take a step back and pause. As we move into a new future, we might want to begin asking ourselves questions and stop taking so much for granted. What has changed in our secular lives that we have yet to translate into our church practices? How can we hear what SBNRs have to say? Where do we go to understand why too many people on the underside of our communities can’t find a home in our churches? What are those deep spiritual questions we’re reluctant to answer ourselves? How are we getting in the way?

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Servant Leadership for Healthier Communities

This is today’s sermon based upon Mark 9:30-37.  I gave it a new title as the original had nothing to do with what I said today.  I begin this sermon with career satisfaction.  I also note that today’s New York Times had an essay on our toxic work world, which was a bit of coincidental timing.

One of my colleagues posted something the other day about clergy being the most satisfying career. I searched the internet to find its source. One published by the National Opinion Research Center also known as NORC found the five most satisfying jobs in descending order were: clergy, physical therapist, firefighter, school principal, and artist. The survey did not count financial compensation. Though I found references to a couple of other surveys, clergy remained the most satisfying occupation while other careers filled in positions two through five.

I’ve had five different careers, not jobs, careers. I can firmly attest that this one is the most satisfying. Here’s my career list in chronological order: urban and regional planner (specializing in labor market analysis), cartographer, systems analyst, IT something or rather, and clergy. I can measure satisfaction in a couple of ways. First, my overall satisfaction measured by how much I loved my work. This career is unsurpassed. Urban planning was a close second, though. Second, the length of time for this career, which is no contest. This is the longest I’ve spent in a career. IT is second, but ranks lowest among my five in overall satisfaction. On the other hand, I have to concede that if it weren’t for my dissatisfaction with IT, I would not have made the career switch to become clergy.
Satisfaction has a direct correlation to the nature of the work performed by clergy, which we call ministry.

The verb minister comes from the medieval French word menistrer meaning to serve, be of service, administer, attend, wait on. The French derives from the Latin word ministrare meaning to serve, attend, wait upon. The noun minister comes from the Old French world menistre meaning servant, valet, member of a household staff, administrator, musician, minstrel. The French word came from the Latin ministri meaning inferior, servant, priest’s assistant. Ministry, the work of the clergy, is a work of service. But it implicitly establishes a social hierarchy in that the work is the work of a servant to someone higher, particularly seen through its Latin origins.

When we ordain someone in the United Church of Christ, the ritual begins by inviting the ordinand to come forward with these words “_______________ servant of God.” And the end is most extraordinary. When I knelt down all the clergy who were my pastors up to that point laid hands upon me. Next, my remaining colleagues. Those who could not directly lay hands on me, lightly touched the shoulders of those who had their hand upon me. Then, everyone was invited to touch the shoulders of those in front of them so that everyone was connected to me either directly or through someone else. A prayer was spoken and though the touch was light, I felt a heaviness, a weight I had never felt before or since settle upon me. It was an ontological moment, meaning a change in the state of being, from ordinand to ordained.

The NORC survey noted that serving others was the distinctive characteristic which made the top five careers most satisfying. I can’t speak for the other careers, but from my perspective that’s what makes ministry so satisfying. But it’s not just that we serve others. Other people in other careers do many of the things clergy do: working with people who are sick, running institutions, and assisting people. Other people teach. Other people write. And almost everyone goes to meetings.

Satisfaction comes because we are servants of God. That ontological moment at ordination shifts our understanding of our purpose. In that moment we come to understand that our purpose is not to serve ourselves, but to serve others. We become servant leaders. Furthermore, we don’t just labor in ministry in service to others. We don’t just serve our community. We are called by God. We serve God.

What we do is ministry, even though it is work. That’s an intentional distinction. The word reflects its ancient roots. That ontological moment changed my entire sense and understanding of myself. It made clear that the weight I felt was the obligation Jesus gave to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” and now rested upon me.

Bear in mind, though, Jesus did not aim his remarks at clergy. He spoke to all of us.

We are all called, not just clergy, to be servant leaders. It’s also not a rank in the pecking order of society, but it is a way we should approach life. God calls upon everyone to be servant leaders because a community cannot be healthy without this framework. Martin Luther made clear that the church is the priesthood of all believers, meaning that the work of ministry is not the exclusive domain of the clergy, but for all people. I would extend Luther’s advice to embrace all people, Christian or not. Furthermore, Luther declared that every legitimate type of work is a calling from God. We cannot have a healthy community if everyone seeks to stand above his or her neighbor or to “win” at the expense of our neighbor.

I’m not saying, though, that we all have to work harder as members of this church or that everyone has to be part of a faith community in order to do ministry. Ministry is the way we understand our lives. It is how we work. It is how we play. It is how we live. Ministry is a way of life. Ministry is an orientation towards life.

How would your life change if you embraced your life as a ministry? Some careers would be easy to see as a ministry. Teaching is one of the ancient practices of the church. Seeing that as ministry is not a huge leap. It might shift, however, from just teaching children to recognizing it as preparing students to work towards making a brighter collective future. Certainly a doctor or someone in a medical field could see that career as a ministry – the career directly correlates to bringing healing and wholeness to a person’s body.

But what about a financial planner? This is a ministry when we understand it not by just helping people maximize their assets, but by helping people reach their financial goals in order for them to have the life they seek. A car mechanic works on a machine which is absolutely essential for many people to use so they can get to work, shop for food, or seek out destinations for pleasure. An artist not only creates and presents beauty to us, but an artist also can help us touch our deepest emotions and truths so we might be better able to comprehend the world in which we live and to open our eyes and ears and hearts to the glory of God’s creation.

I can’t go into every career. But seeing a career as a ministry requires reframing its tasks and responsibilities towards uplifting the greater good. Still, ministry is not just how we frame our careers. We cannot overlook that ministry is a way of life. It’s total. When we understand that living as Jesus asks of every disciple is service to one another, it changes everything about community. We move away from trying to grab everything for ourselves to ensuring that no one is suffering from deprivation and scarcity. We become less self-centered and more generous in spirit and in practice. We can let go of fear, especially fear of the foreigner and stranger, to embrace love. We no longer see people as beneath us, but we come to support them to live in a manner so they can reach their fullest potential. We live not for ourselves, but for everyone around us. We live to create the reign of God on earth which we understand through Jesus’ teachings and ministries.

I don’t know if you read the article in yesterday’s Berkshire Eagle on CHP’s, Community Health Program’s, 40th anniversary. Its director of Family Services, Michelle Derr, came to them as a “pregnant, single, uninsured soon-to-be mom.” Based upon the article CHP, whether intentional or not lived out its program as a ministry. The agency helped her obtain health insurance. Derr describing her experience, “were compassionate, and kind, and supportive. They did not judge me…. And they were with me every step of the way.” That was ministry. Meeting people where they are. Providing compassion without judgment. Being generous in spirit. Letting love dictate how we respond to each other. Ministry is as much about the actions to serve someone as in the manner and spirit with which we serve.

Embracing servant leadership and living our lives as ministry will strengthen community. We want a community where compassion is paramount. We need a community where scarcity and deprivation are no more. We cannot have true community without embracing all people without regard to gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, culture, physical ability, mental ability – in short we can’t be a true community if it does not resemble the celestial feast God sets for us at the end of our days.

Jesus’ instructions to his disciples were a tall order. They haven’t changed for us. They remain necessary for the true peace and true justice for which we all yearn and all deserve.

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Being Present for the Dying

Death is a part of a pastor’s ministry because it is part of life. OK, true, I do some hospice work, which makes death a regularity. This summer, though, was particularly trying. I had two funerals within a week in July. I had three funerals in the last eight days.

As I work very part time as a hospice chaplain I don’t have many patients, although this summer I had one, a ten-year old girl.  Even when a patient dies, we don’t always preside over the funeral.  Many patients have their own clergy.

Two funerals were related to the church.  One died as a current member and another as a former member.  Those I did within a week of each other in July.

Two funerals were for veterans at the shelter.  Both had cancer and were on hospice.  They died within a couple of days of each other.  Both men had a history of drug abuse.  They had family, but due to their addictions their family connections were strained even in love.  I did them a week apart, September 5 and 12.

The fifth funeral was for my ten-year old patient.  I did that one September 5.

I don’t recall having to preside over this many funerals in this short a period.  I also happened to support a couple of other people who died this summer, but did not have to preside over their funerals.

Although dying and death are a part of life, they are not activities people relish.  I remember years ago when I first began in ministry, one of my wife’s colleagues at the time asked me how it was going.  I said, “Today, I spent a couple of hours with an elderly couple eating fresh gingerbread and drinking coffee.”  He said, “That sounds pretty good.  I could do that.”  I then said, “But keep in mind that I also have to tend to people who are dying.”  “Oh, yeah, not for me,” he said.

I can’t speak for all my colleagues, just me.  But have you wondered what it’s like for a pastor to deal with dying and death?

Without a doubt, this is a sad task.  It really doesn’t matter how many people I’ve supported as they died, each death makes me pause in my day.  Of course, how well I knew the deceased makes a difference.  Honestly, I feel the loss more acutely when I know the person than when I don’t.  The better I know the deceased and the family, the more compassion I have.

When I can be with the person as he is dying, I seek to give him peace.  I patiently answer deep spiritual questions, such as “what is dying like?”  I sometimes need to quell the anxiety around his life.  I might help the patient review his life to give him some affirmation that his life mattered to his family, friends, and community.

Given the veterans I serve, many of them had troubled lives.  They had addictions. Many were in and out of jail.  Often their connections to family are gone or at best thin.  Many will reflect upon their lives and have a deep fear that they will not find salvation.  I work with them diligently to help them find peace by validating their life and by speaking passionately about God’s love.

I can’t ignore the family or close friends who care for the dying person.  Often I have to help them.  Sometimes they wonder if they did enough (they did).  Sometimes they are angry and I have to figure out the source of the anger.  Particularly when the disease is especially difficult, like ALS, I’m apt to say, “People are telling you God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.  And you’re thinking, ‘That’s a bunch of crap because if God’s giving me this, I don’t want anything to do with God.”  They usually nod in agreement.  (Hint: Because dying is uncomfortable anyway, don’t say stuff that makes you comfortable.  If you’re uncomfortable, imagine them.  Try saying, “I’m sorry,” which is true or “If I can be of help, let me know” and mean it.)  Sometimes family members are at a loss for what to do as death approaches.  I remind them that hearing is the last sense to go, so tell the person you love her and thank her for what she did for you.  I also remind them that it is not always possible to be at bedside when the person dies.  Some people don’t want loved ones to see them take their last breath.

This is difficult work.  It’s tiring, though rewarding.  Some sessions drain me, especially when the dying person had a very troubled life.

When the person dies, I try to meet with family members to help them process the death.  We might talk about funeral plans, but mostly we talk about the person’s life and what would give them comfort.  I ask a lot of questions to prompt them.  I don’t try to fill silences, either.  I try to use our time to put the deceased in past tense for the survivors can move on.  We talk a bit about the grieving process, especially noting that it could take a full 18 months to two years.

Then the funeral or memorial service.  I spend at least a couple of hours preparing the service.  Preparation has gotten easier for me over the years as I have a sizable collection of services from which to draw upon, especially prayers.  But I always write the homily without drawing upon past services.  The deceased was unique.  Her life was special, even if it was hardly a stellar life.  This is deeply reflective work.  I feel the weight of responsibility to put a spiritual and theological framework around the person’s life in order for those present at the service to find comfort and hope for something better for the deceased.  Though those who come to the service will have their own memories of the deceased, I try to help them find meaning about the deceased’s life so they can carry it with them as they begin their extended grief.

When I look at the congregation, I feel the heavy weight of responsibility to carry everyone’s grief for the time we’re together.  I have to do it and hold my composure because the congregation needs to feel that the preacher is strong enough to lead them, even if I’m not sure if I can make it.  When I did the funeral for the 10-year old girl, I worried that I would falter when we sang the one hymn “Hymn of Promise“towards the end of the service.

I’m spent when the service over.  I’m not able to do much afterwards.  I want to seek out a quiet space because I’m reflecting too.  But, usually right after the service I’m with other people, such as mourners or just church staff.  I usually get through the social stuff.  When I’m alone I need a couple of hours.

Sometimes, though, such as the summer I had, the deaths take their toll.  I was tired at the end of July and through August.  I took a couple of weeks off at the end of August for vacation, which was restorative, but upon returning, the 10-year old died and brought everything back.

I cope using deep prayer.  It’s been my saving grace.  I also will use humor.  I’m not alone in using humor to relieve death’s weight.  If you stumbled upon us making jokes, especially about death and dying, you’d think we were unfeeling, but in reality, we need to make jokes (in moderation, of course) to relieve the stress.

Though death is a part of pastoral ministry, it doesn’t mean that it is a clinical task of ministry.  I grieve, too.  Maybe not quite like the family or close friends, but I grieve like a lot of the community.  Each funeral takes a bit of something out of me.  Some funerals, such as for drug addicted veterans or young children, can be exceptionally difficult and draining.

After a funeral, give your pastor some space.  Don’t talk about the latest brouhaha at the church because it rarely comes close to the profundity of death.  If possible, give the pastor some extra time off, especially if the pastor had a few funerals within weeks of each other.  Ask how the pastor is feeling.  Pray for your pastor.

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Busyness is Not Always Good Business

The New York Times recently published a long article on the work practices at Amazon.  It described a work culture which could best be described as horrible.  It reported that people will receive work e-mails at midnight with a text message follow up a little while later demanding why the e-mail was not answered.  It described an internal evaluation system which allows employees to make anonymous comments to supervisors about other employees and a culture which promotes critical comments which too often are destructive rather than constructive.  It also told of a compassion deficit for people who had to care for ailing parents or for employees who suffered a personal loss, such as a miscarriage.

Other media outlets picked up this story.  The Times published Jeff Bezos’ response in which he basically said he doesn’t recognize the company described in the original article and that “anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.”

The paper published comments from current and former Amazon employees as well as people who have had connections with Amazon employees, including family members and at least one tech recruiter.  While some comments contradicted the article’s descriptions, most of them supported it.

Since the article,  the Times published related articles to the workplace independent of Amazon, including software to monitor employees’s work time and today’s competitive work environment.

Maybe because I’m on vacation this week and taking a real break from all my ministries or maybe because I’ve been working in the church too long, these articles have been churning in my mind.

The article on today’s work environment touched on its history.  Our corporate model began at the turn of the 20th Century in the New York law firm Cravath.  They hired a slew of highly competent law school graduates and over time through their work they would prove themselves worthy to receive a partnership. The article noted that the difference in compensation between partnership and the next tier below was dramatic, which created a highly competitive environment.  This environment worked to cull most of the new hires  over time.

People wanted to prove themselves worthy to move into the tier above them, so they worked very hard, which gets me to the software.  The article described apps which can monitor an employee’s whereabouts 24 hours a day.  General Electric uses a smartphone app which the supervisor can give an employee immediate feedback after a presentation.  Other software can monitor what an employee is working on or if the employee is working at all.

All of this has left me thinking that corporations view their employees as cogs in a vast machine.  OK, this is not exactly new.  Working for large corporations has been like working as a cog in a vast machine seemingly forever.  Heck, it’s the same for government or any large organization for that matter.

But the infusion of technology into the workplace bothers me, especially technology that can track us and rate us on all of our activities.  It re-enforces the machine culture in which too many employees are cogs, and which Charlie Chaplin captured brilliantly in Modern Times.

Without the technology infusion there was still a human element in the workplace, even in the biggest corporations.  Water cooler conversations were hardly productive from a corporate perspective, but it built a sense of shared community in the workforce.  Software, however, can identify those down times.  Certainly management can allow for some water cooler time, but how much and when?  Those conversations were spontaneous and could last for an imprecise number of minutes.

More nebulous are face to face informal meetings to talk about a problem.  But even those meetings will sometimes drift into non-work topics.  I can see a dialogue something like this:

A:  We’re onto something, but I think we need to tweak this some more.  I have another meeting in ten minutes.  Can we touch base this evening to wrap this up for our morning presentation?

B:  We should, but Tim’s got a basketball game tonight and …

A:  Hey, how’s he doing?  He’s in what grade now?

B:  He’s a junior.  That’s the thing after the game we were going to map out the next college road trip.

A:  Where does he want to go? ….

You can see where this is going.

What about silence?  Silence is more important than we realize.  In today’s world when everything seems to work and move at hyperspeed, silence doesn’t seem to have a place anymore.  People may think of silence as a doing nothing.  But like sleep, silence allows us space and time to process and reflect.

Too often people go from meeting to meeting or leave a meeting and then proceed to answer a slew of voice mails which stacked up during the meeting.  Where is there time to think about what transpired during the meeting?  And that thinking extends beyond the project at hand and even the corporation.  What impact does the meeting’s decision have upon the world itself?  Or expressed differently, what does it really matter that you can order something from Amazon and have it at your door in an hour?

There’s nothing wrong with hard work.  But is it really necessary to use technology to squeeze humanity out of the workplace?  When the organization’s success, generally measured in profits, takes precedent over human life, we’ve reduced every employee to a cog in the corporate machinery.

We’ve placed a premium on efficiency in order to increase productivity.  Efficiency’s tentacles have spread beyond the corporation and have touched many aspects of our lives.  Our time is too precious to go to the store to purchase food and prepare it, so we order it on-line to have a dinner kit shipped to our door with everything pre-cut and pre-mixed to leave us with the feeling that we’ve cooked our dinner.  We order from Amazon because we don’t have time to go to the store and look for whatever we must have.

But what’s so bad if we stop to purchase groceries on our way home from work?  We might stumble across a food item which we never ate before or we might have a brief conversation with the produce manager to learn a new way to prepare a vegetable or we might enjoy a pleasant greeting from the person at the checkout.  If we go to the store, we might run into a friend or neighbor we haven’t seen in awhile.  But living our lives efficiently means we don’t get these moments of serendipity.

Less busyness gives us space to for a mental pause.  We get a chance to reflect upon what just happened or how our day has been going.  We get a chance to think more expansively about what we discussed in the meeting and to wonder about its impact beyond the bottom line.  We also come to value what really matters, our life and the lives of the people we see: family, neighbors, friends, and strangers.

Less busyness means we don’t reduce life to some vast machine without a soul.

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Five Smooth Stones

This is the sermon I preached today, the fourth Sunday after the Pentecost.   I used the David and Goliath story, today’s lectionary reading (1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49), to comment upon Wednesday’s shooting in Charleston.

Wednesday’s shooting in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina horrified this nation. Nine people, including its pastor, were shot dead by Dylann Storm Roof. But let’s not dignify Mr. Roof without dignifying the nine who died: the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Myra Thompson, and the Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr.

By now we know the details. He sat with in Bible study with his victims for an hour before shooting them. He wore a jacket with white supremacy symbols. He didn’t shoot everyone in the room; he left a few to tell others of his horrendous deed.

Let’s call it for what it was. This was a racially motivated attack. It was a hate crime. It was a terrorist attack aimed at black members of a black church, which holds special and historic significance in the black community. Let’s also not say that the shooter was mentally-ill or a loner or a lost soul. He was a racist who intended to kill black people.

And the public wept. Spoken words expressed outrage and sorrow. Politicians said some variation on, “That’s not who we are.” South Carolina’s governor talked a lot about the need to be in prayer and made a point to say that all of its officials will be in prayer. Others saw hope in that people regardless of race came together for prayer vigils or to express collective sorrow.

But this is what people say after tragedies like this. To say otherwise would sound out of synch. But we’ve been saying this too much. It’s said so often that I feel it has become part of the public ritual that plays out across this land to take away the hurt. Yet, after our public ritual, we return to life as normal, and we ignore race and its weight that bears down upon us.

Race in America. It’s real. It’s in our faces. It was the hot discussion around Rachel Dolezal until the shooting bumped it off the front page. Race in America and its repugnant and ugly children, racism and privilege, are our scourges. Race is a problem, even for people who are not racists. Race is a problem, even for people of color, like me. Race is a problem no matter where someone sits on the political spectrum. Race touches practically every aspect of our lives no matter how we identify ourselves racially. Race is not their problem, but our problem, and if we don’t own this problem, it will consume us.

Race is our Goliath. It looms large over us. It taunts us and we can’t confront it. We’re Saul’s army. Like them we dither in the face of this giant. So, we spew platitudes and say the appropriate things and promise that we will do better, and then we go back to our lives.

In the last twelve months we’ve had shootings by police and Islamists. During the same period we saw street violence in Ferguson, MO and Baltimore. The dramatically different perceptions of those events between whites and people of color expose our racial problem. Note that I’m not saying which side was right or that they were justified or unjustified. My point is that our perspectives and the way we interpreted those events tracked closely with race and that’s our problem.

Consider how the media portrays these events. When a crowd of blacks commit violent acts, they are thugs, but their white counterparts are rowdy. When a gunman of color shoots people indiscriminately, he is a terrorists, but a white gunman is a loner or is mentally ill. When Islamists shot two people outside an art exhibition of images depicting Mohammad, it was characterized as a terrorist attack, but Wednesday’s shooting was a hate crime.

Listening to the talk about terrorism threats, we instinctively look abroad. We look at dark-skinned people with suspicion. We think that terrorism will come from Al-Qaeda or ISIS, but this past week a survey issued by the Police Executive Research Forum reported that last year police departments around the country found that domestic anti-government extremism was almost twice the threat than groups like Al-Qaeda or similar organizations. The New York Times noted that since 9/11 about 20 Islamist terrorist attacks have occurred in the United States causing 50 fatalities whereas right-wing extremists averaged 337 attacks per year accounting for 254 fatalities.[1] And here’s where I get sick. Some quarters of our media portray right-wing extremists as heroes who stand against encroaching government overreach rather than people who are angry that the president is black. As evidence, consider the increase in the number of anti-government Patriot groups since 2008. The Southern Poverty Law Center counted 149 in 2008 and is currently at 874, which is down from the high in 2012 of 1360.[2]

But let’s not think that race is not some abstract problem which has no bearing here and now in this time and place, especially in this little corner of God’s creation. Take the article this past week in the Berkshire Eagle about Pitt Park. The local NAACP chapter wants the basketball courts fixed in time for the West Side’s Gather In festival at the end of July. The city says it can’t work that fast due to the competitive bidding process, but it could make some temporary patches. It all seems reasonable, except that Pittsfield’s West Side has gotten too little attention from the city for years. It’s been the city’s step-child who isn’t quite loved enough to get even the crumbs which fall from the table. Pitt Park is the stand-in for our racial divide.

I don’t often talk about race from the pulpit as I am today. It comes out from time to time in the way I see contemporary issues, such as proposals for immigration reform which advocate deportation or building a wall, which, I’ll be blunt, I see as racist. But on a whole I don’t make it a defining part of my ministry. Yet, I am fully aware that I am often the only person of color in most of the congregations I visit. Last week at the Massachusetts Conference Annual Meeting Amy saw a vendor who made religious jewelry out of stone. As her birthday is today and she was fairly confident that I hadn’t gotten her anything, she picked out a piece. She then told him that when he saw a Chinese man to tell him this is what she wanted. He found me because I was the only Chinese man among 300 people.

It’s not that our congregations, our association, our Conference, or even our denomination is racist, but the absence of people of color is another example of race as our collective problem.

We’re not even aware that race taints almost every aspect of our lives in this nation. Recently Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute traced the way government housing policies segregated this country’s metropolitan areas.[3] When we use property taxes to fund our schools, academically struggling schools track closely to poor communities where the student body is predominately not white. Our jails and prisons house black men at a rate far exceeding their percentage of the general population. Sociologically, this has decimated family structures in the black community.

The black scholar Cornel West wrote, “To engage in a serious discussion of race in America, we must begin not with the problems of black people but with the flaws of American society – flaws rooted in historic inequalities and longstanding cultural stereotypes. How we set up the terms for discussing racial issues shapes our perception and response to these issues. As long as black people are viewed as a ‘them,’ the burden falls upon blacks to do all the ‘cultural’ and ‘moral’ work necessary for healthy relations. The implication is that only certain Americans can define what it means to be American – and the rest simply ‘fit in.’”[4]

David went to the wadi and chose five smooth stones. Let’s pick up the stones from the wadi through which love runs. Love made them smooth. But these stones are not just any stones. Our stones have names:

  • Compassion – this goes without saying. We have to approach race and each other with open hearts.
  • Empathy – we won’t begin to strike down Goliath unless we have empathy for each other. We cannot begin to close our divide without knowing and understanding the cultural, historical, and sociological contexts of each others’ lives.
  • Courage – We have to have courage to listen to words and perspectives that might hurt us because they overturn what we have always thought about ourselves.
  • Forgiveness – which is not just what we might have personally done or not done, but also to forgive for wounds inflicted in the past, especially the sins of omission.
  • Atonement – we cannot move forward without acknowledging and reconciling the sins inflicted in the past. Furthermore, what steps moving forward must we take to rectify the damage that was incurred?

The Goliath that is race in America will taunt us and diminish us as a people if we do not step forward to take it on. It is far more damaging than any external threat from beyond our borders. We must talk, ideally in settings where whites and people of color can sit together, but even if it is all one race, we must talk.

[1] Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer. The Growing Right-Wing Terror Threat. The New York Times. June 16, 2015.



[4] Cornel West. Race Matters. Vintage Books:New York. 1994 Pages 6

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Memorial Day – A Pastor’s Reflection

I spent this morning at a local Memorial Day ceremony.  The chaplain at the local VFW chapter asked me as one of the local clergy to provide the prayer of invocation and the benediction.  Having served as clergy in small towns, a request from a local veteran’s group for this service is not unusual.  It’s an honor to do it.

If I am not called upon to participate in this local event, I usually attend the one in Pittsfield.  The ritual has a sacred aspect and one that I believe a community should pause long enough to acknowledge.  Memorial Day commemorations are for the community to remember and acknowledge the men and women from the community who went to war and never returned.

It is a solemn occasion.  It also pairs religion and patriotism, which becomes troubling if it moves to nationalism.  Slipping into nationalism is easy because the day often promotes American mythology, wars in which men and women died were fought for freedom, specifically our freedom.  Add to that Anselm’s belief that Jesus’ death on a cross and it elevates death in battle to a noble and righteous sacrifice.  Thus we are freed not only from political oppression, but freed from our sinfulness as a nation as well.

We can’t ignore that this nation was founded in war.  The Revolutionary War was the violent overthrow of English rule over the colonies and the success of that war brought about our birth and freedom as a nation.  A few decades later the War of 1812 solidified it.

The Civil War also contributed to our American mythology.  Both sides could justify the war.  Union soldiers died to preserve the nation.  Even Confederate soldiers died to sustain a cause.

As we advance through our history, though, making a blanket statement that men and women died to preserve our freedom gets more difficult.  Could we say that about Korea or Vietnam?  How did the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan preserve our freedom, even if they were fought in response to a deadly terrorist attack?  And the current drumbeats to become more involved in the conflict with ISIS stretch this blanket statement even further.

Saying reflexively that men and women died for our freedom is a statement which exposes our reluctance to confront our mythology.  Without offering a critical note to our mythology, we perpetuate our justification to project and protect our national values and interests through weapons of violence of destruction.  We don’t encourage exploring non-violent, peaceful alternatives.

I’m not sure how many clergy today will note the contradiction war has with the gospel.  While it would be inappropriate to contradict directly the speakers who readily tell us that men and women died for our freedom, I believe it is a dereliction of our responsibility not to note in our remarks that war is contrary to God’s desires.  Without critical notes, we implicitly offering our blessing to the proceedings and the mythology conveyed through the ritual.

Here are my remarks from this morning:

Prayer of Invocation

O God, we gather this morning to remember and honor your sons and daughters who left home in service to this nation. They responded to the call. They faced evil. They lost their lives. They never saw home again. While their faces may have faded from our memories, we know them by their names etched in these stones. You, however, O God, know them because they are with you for all eternity. Their faces are forever young. Nevertheless, their deaths left wounded and empty hearts among their families, friends, and community. Bind up the wounds and wipe away the tears. Fill the broken hearts with your love and compassion. Help us to be mindful that they will carry their heavy hearts to their graves. Finally, O God, we pray that the world’s political leadership will recognize war’s madness and brutality. Grant that they will take to heart the words of the prophet Isaiah, who wrote, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Open their eyes, their minds, and their hearts to understand that war is the most abhorrent of all options to settle differences and that true peace will only come when we extend to all people your justice, rooted in you steadfast love. Amen.


As we leave this hallowed ground we will carry with us our memories of those who rest here under this sheltering sky. Do not forget that they heeded their nation’s call and gave their lives for it. Give comfort to those families who lost sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. Honor the fallen by the lives we lead: giving hope to the hopeless, comforting the afflicted, and pursuing justice for the oppressed so all people will know God’s peace. Amen.

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Can I Turn Off this Campaign Until October 2016?

I haven’t been able to write much lately.  Too much stuff has been happening with my ministries.  On the other hand, there has been a lot of stuff happening in the world too.

The events in the world are really complex.  I have this nagging feeling that something is really wrong and that the something is some grand theory I can’t quite identify.  I can  identify its parts:  globalization of capital, disruptive technology, post-modernism, climate change (and our national leadership’s blindness to it), nationalism, racism, expanding income inequality … you can probably name several more.

The world, or maybe more accurately, life in this country has changed and not necessarily for the good.  Here’s an excerpt from my sermon a couple of weeks ago:

“It seems like we’ve lost a sense of shared responsibility for community. We have community, but it has become sliced economically, racially, demographically, religiously, socially, politically, and whatever other category we can name. I don’t get the feeling that the common good prevails anymore or that we have a shared destiny.

“Then, perhaps, maybe we’ve never had true community. Maybe it was an illusion created by the media in the 1960s and 1970s where families were intact and typically white, except for the Huxtable family. Baltimore is only the latest city to suffer riots. Remember Watts in the 1960s? Boston in the 1970s? Cincinnati in 2001? Though marriage equality has exposed major fault lines between the left and the right today, two generations ago we had the Vietnam War. We’ve had our Kumbaya moments, but our norm has been a nation where whites and people of color typically see the same event through two different lenses.”

Of course, I ended talking about the church’s responsibility to create authentic community:

“…where the values preached are the values lived, where all people are truly welcomed into the community’s fellowship, and where questions about faith and belief are not only accepted, but encouraged.

“Young-old, rich-poor, liberal-conservative, orthodox-progressive, immigrant-native, straight-queer, white-people of color, employed-unemployed, when we all come together, that’s the church. Together we bring our perspectives and by sharing them we come to a common understanding. As Christians we share a living faith rooted in God’s radical, inclusive love. We hold in common a belief that God’s creation is one of abundance so that when shared appropriately no one should know scarcity or deprivation. We have faith in the bread and the cup as the real implements to lasting peace and that wealth is measured not by how much we have, but how much we give away. We value the common good and acknowledge that injustice anywhere frays and rips the fabric of our community no matter its size. We hold fast to the teachings of Jesus and try to live them out as best we can every day of our lives, knowing that we are forgiven by God’s steadfast love when we fall short. We should seek to create this type of community. Then, we can come together to learn and practice to speak and minister together across the divides between us. We will come to respect each other, even when we disagree, and remember that despite our differences we are a stronger community together than we are alone.”

I thought it preached well, but then there weren’t many in church that day and I’m not sure how many spread my message after they left.

What I preached hints at what bugs me about the now-upon-us-way-too-soon 2016 election cycle.  We’ve got serious problems as a nation and the announced candidates, except maybe for Sen. Sanders, aren’t really addressing them.

If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you can probably guess that none of the GOP candidates resonate with me.  They’re not serious about addressing income inequality. They have no plan to replace the Affordable Care Act if the Supreme Court invalidates the federal health exchange (reminds me of the dog that chases cars – it has no idea what to do when it catches it).  They can’t figure out immigration.  Those candidates who are in Congress have a lot of bluster about the debacle in Iraq-Syria, but can’t give the President authorization to pursue the military action (which would be a huge mistake, but that’s another post).  Climate change is a non-starter.  Their positions on marriage equality and women’s reproductive health are absolutely ancient.

Clinton, however, is just as bad.  She’s doing a lot of listening.  That’s a good thing because she’s listening to the people.  She’s going to Chipotle and visiting small businesses so she can listen.  She’s stopping in towns across Iowa to listen.  Did I mention that she is intent upon listening?  What a crock!! She’s been about as close to the nation’s political and policy center as anyone since 1992.  Her husband was President of the United States for eight years.  She’s been a United States Senator and a Secretary of State.  And she is very smart.  She should have some serious ideas by now, but she avoids answering journalists’ questions and she needs a passel of advisers to formulate her positions.

Even when she was coy about running, I never got any inkling why she wanted to be POTUS, except that she “earned” it or it was her turn.  Her listening and not talking tells me she has no vision for this nation or even a passion to make a difference.

I like Bernie Sanders.  Of all the candidates he seems to have a vision for the future, but I await the details how he plans to pay for this vision.  Besides, Bernie Sanders remains an independent, even though he is running as a Democrat.  I’ll give him this, he’s entertaining.

Let’s not overlook the media’s role.  The recent essay by James Fallows in The Atlantic is a case in point.   He observed that the recent favorite question to the candidates, “If you knew then what we know now about Iraq, would you have gone to war?” is as shallow as “Knowing what we know now, would you have bought a ticket on Malaysia Air flight 370?”  But the media is not asking hard questions on any topic. Consider this one which no one asked of any candidate with regards to the recent Amtrak crash – “Please describe your vision for an integrated, comprehensive transportation policy balancing air, highways, and rails.  And how do you see Amtrak’s funding fitting into your scheme?”  (Note the New York Times article on our nation’s funding of rail travel compared to other nations.)

Unless the candidates can say something of substance and can forge a vision to address the elusive unsettled sense of community in this country, I don’t want to hear them.

Maybe what bothers me is that our national leadership is unwilling to acknowledge that we must take some dramatic actions to address issues such as race, immigration, climate change, disruptive technology, global capital, income inequality, and post-modernism if we are to maintain this nation’s exceptionalism.  And as a people, we need to hear this truth telling.  But until that truth telling becomes a reality, please spare me the shallowness of this campaign.

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What’s Next?

This is today’s Easter sermon.  I used Isaiah 25:6-9 and Mark 16:1-8.

Mark’s gospel ends with the three women coming to the tomb to anoint Jesus and then fleeing in terror and amazement and afraid to tell anyone what they saw. The young man said, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” (16:6-7)

Unlike the other gospels in which the risen Christ appeared that day, whether the appearance happened in the presence of the women or later in the day before the two disciples, Jesus did not appear at the end of Mark. Jesus was gone. Like the women, we’re left hanging. Go to Galilee? Tell others? What’s next?

Had they arrived at the tomb and found Jesus’ body, things would have been fine. In sorrow they would have anointed him. His ministry would have become great stories to tell the next generation. It probably would have ended there. However, that his body was missing and the young man reminded them that they will see him in Galilee changed everything.

Jesus rose from the dead. He slipped death’s shackles. The men probably didn’t tell the women what Jesus said to them as they went from supper to the Mount of Olives just days before, “You will all become deserters; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” (Mark 14:27b-28) Thus, the young man’s words were a sort of challenge to the women, “Will you follow Jesus or stay here?”

Their fear was not due to timidity, but awe. What Jesus said came true. He spoke on three different occasions to his disciples that he would die and rise after three days. It was too fantastic to believe then. But with his body gone and the young man’s words, the women saw that it was true.

What else would be true? All that he taught and all that they witnessed … could there be any other explanation other than what he said would be true?

Going to Galilee, then, became more than traveling north of Jerusalem to return to the place of his ministry of the preceding three years. Going to Galilee meant continuing the work and ministry he began. The healings, the teachings, the advocacy on behalf of those who had no power or voice, all that had to continue and Jesus was waiting for them to resume and assume it. Mark’s ending, though we might think of it as ambiguous, did not give a simple, pat, “neatly tied in a bow” ending to the Jesus story like the other gospels. Rather, the ending told the women, told the readers, and tells us that making visible the risen Christ is our responsibility. Jesus lives in and through the work we do.

We are the body of Christ, not just as a synonym for the church, but as the incarnation of Jesus today. We are Jesus’ hands and feet. We are Jesus’ voice. People need Jesus. The world needs Jesus. They could be unchurched or the spiritual but not religious. They could be people without a place to lay their heads at night. They could be people who have dim hopes at best. They could be people who struggle to have a full evening meal. They could be people of other faiths. They could be the rich and the powerful as much as they could be the poor and oppressed. The world needs Jesus, not to make people Christians, but to manifest love in all of its dimensions. The world needs Jesus to bear witness to justice in order to bring about shalom. People encounter Jesus when they are fully accepted for who they are. People without voice or without power will know Jesus when those who can speak and those who have power will use their voice and their power on behalf of those without. People without dignity will find Jesus when they are no longer invisible while standing in broad daylight. People who have more than they could possibly use in ten lifetimes need Jesus, too, so they might know generosity and thus, live more richly than if they hoarded their wealth.

Jesus is not just the man who rose after three days in the tomb. Jesus offers hope to all in this world without it. Jesus says that all are loved by God and that all should receive mercy and compassion. Jesus reminds the world that justice and peace rooted in God’s steadfast love is for all people and that the health and well-being of our common good trumps our own personal desires and agendas.

Jesus’ ministry in Galilee was not about providing charity to people in need, but being relational with them. He shamed the mighty so they would stop exploiting the weak. He included women because they had as much to offer as men. He healed the lame so they might serve others. The unspoken aspect of his teachings was that we are in community together and though we must take care of each other, especially the poor, the widow, and the orphan, we do it out of love in order to bring us together, not to maintain our separate spheres of existence.

Jesus did not seek to create a church or a religion, but to create the beloved community desired by God for all of us no matter if we were rich or poor, man or woman, straight or queer, young or old, powerful or powerless. Jesus sought to bring about the gathered community Isaiah described, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.” (60:3-5) The community, our community, would be all people for all people. The strength and richness of our community come not from all of us in uniformity, but united in our diversity.

The reality Jesus proclaimed in his ministry was that all are welcome and all have a place at God’s table where a feast of rich foods filled with marrow and well aged wines strained clear is set for all. And that feast extends beyond the table. It goes into the world and touches all people with grace, love, and compassion. It means that no one should ever know scarcity or deprivation and all will have their daily bread.

But Mark’s resurrection account was not just for the women that morning. It is for every one of us, too. That Jesus was not in the tomb is not just a story, but a powerful witness that continues to this moment and will continue to resonate as long as there is injustice in the world. His prophecies were true, not just that he would die and be raised up in three days, but that we all are worthy of God’s love and grace and that true justice is fundamental in order to create the beloved community. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr spoke these words at the Riverside Church exactly one year before he died, “On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will only be an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

On Good Friday evening I went to the Lichtenstein Gallery in Pittsfield to see the opening of a photography show by Nick DeCandia entitled “Take Another Look.” It will run through April 25, and I recommend it. The images capture the magnitude and reality of food insecurity in Pittsfield. Many faces. Many worn with struggles. Many photos were taken at November’s massive turkey distribution at South Congregational Church. Though the food distribution was a successful collaboration of many organizations throughout the city, we should not ignore that in the richest nation in the history of the world, these images show people begging for their food. And though the community might congratulate itself for its generous support, we cannot leave it at that for if we do, then we have accepted begging as a way to address food insecurity.

Jesus sought to restructure the edifice of first century Palestine. He died for that effort. His resurrection became hope’s light in that darkness and implicitly proclaimed that life always overcomes death. The young man challenged the women to continue his ministry. That challenge remains for us today. What’s next? Are we prepared to go to Galilee? Are we the body of Christ incarnate?

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Open and Hidden

This was the sermon I preached this morning based upon John 3:14-21.  Having spent last Wednesday in a training session on trauma-centered care, trauma really stuck in my mind.  Plus, working with homeless veterans makes a deep impression, too.

Preached on March 15, 2015 in Dalton, MA

That we are awash in heroin here in Berkshire County is no secret. Even though Alan Chartock wrote about it in yesterday’s Berkshire Eagle,[1] we’ve known this for a long time. Most of the men I see in the county jail are there for some sort of drug charge.

All the men who come into the program at Soldier On were homeless. Soldier On is a transitional shelter, although we have a nine-bed emergency shelter as well. While many homeless people are veterans, we have many homeless people in our community who never served in the military.

Though our homeless situation is better than it was a year ago, we still have a sizeable homeless population. You don’t have to look very hard to see them during the day. They sit at the Intermodal Center or the library. They sometimes go to the emergency room at night. A Pittsfield police officer told me last year that there’s a man who actually commits enough of a crime at the beginning of winter to get himself incarcerated long enough to be released in the spring so he can take advantage of “three squares and a cot.”

These problems are open and aren’t hard to see if we open our eyes. We see them literally or we read about them in the paper. As for the latter, a week doesn’t go by without some sort news story about some drug-related arrest or event or a break-in or a robbery. I also sense that over the last several years we’ve seen an increase in news reports of shooting and other gun violence.

I believe the visibility of drugs, homelessness, crime adds to our anxiety and sense that things aren’t right. The problems are too big for any one of us to tackle. Even if we work together as a church, we have an implicit sense that the difference we make will not end any one of these problems. In the end, we know we have to work together as a community, including people who are not part of any faith community.

I believe there are many people who want to see a difference and are working towards improving our community. They’re also realistic enough to know that they might have to be content with small gains rather than solving an entire problem. They know that change cannot happen overnight as these problems took a long time to grow to their present size and that maybe satisfaction comes from reducing the rate of growth in these problems.

John’s gospel this morning is the tail end of a conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus. Following Jesus is coming into the light. Light cleanses. Jesus cleanses. Darkness, however, or not being in the light keeps the evil from light’s cleansing power. Without exposing the deeds that contribute to our suffering, we can never be free of them.

We see the heroin problem and the homeless problem, but what we don’t really see is what’s underneath. Our drug problem, our homeless problem, and our crime problem didn’t spring up from nothing. Their roots have been kept in the dark without the benefit of the cleansing light.

I recently learned that when we face danger or a very stressful situation, we viscerally react by fighting, fleeing, or freezing until our brain and our body can settle down. It’s a form of protection, a survival instinct. Trauma, however, comes when stress overwhelms our visceral response to leave us feeling fearful, helpless, vulnerable, or out of control. We lost our sense of protection. We go into a state of permanent alert.

There are three types of trauma. There is acute trauma, a single event, such as an auto accident or a natural disaster. There is chronic trauma, a layered and continuous trauma. Think of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Many experienced a series of traumas: first the storm, then the flooding, then evacuations, and then the crowded Superdome. Chronic trauma could also be homelessness or abuse and neglect. Finally, there is complex trauma which happens in early childhood development as the brain develops. This type has a long-term impact on all aspects of development. Children subjected to complex trauma seek to survive rather than thrive. Factors contributing to complex trauma include, but are not limited to: poverty, single-parent households, having an incarcerated parent, child abuse, abandonment, presence of substance abuse, or violence in the household.

We typically can get through an acute trauma. It might change some things for us. For instance back in 1988 when I lived in Brooklyn I was burglarized three times in two months. Even though shortly after the last burglary I moved up here, it haunted me such that when we’d leave home for a weekend, I’d hold my breath from the moment we turned the corner onto our street until we got into our driveway. But complex trauma hard wires the brain such that when these children become adults they are more prone using high risk behaviors as a coping mechanism. These behaviors could include: eating disorders, smoking, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, propensity to violence, and re-victimization.

In my work with homeless veterans I have come to see that many of them had a childhood that could be characterized as complex trauma. Let’s keep in mind that not everyone who is homeless or uses drugs or commits crimes suffered complex trauma. Let’s also remember that not everyone who had a childhood with complex trauma will be homeless, use drugs, or commit a crime. Still, we cannot overlook the factors contributing to complex trauma are roots to the community problems upon which we shine the light.

I raise this because we’re seeing increased childhood poverty in our community. The Berkshire Eagle the other day had a front page article in which Pittsfield school Superintendent McCandless made clear that we cannot ignore the impact of poverty on academic performance.[2] I recently spoke with a teacher in this school district who noted that the percentage of children receiving free and reduced lunch is 30%. McCandless made a point to say that we need to shift our focus from unfunded mandates and standardized test to addressing poverty among our children. Today more than 50% of our nation’s students live in low income families with Pittsfield at more than 60% and climbing.

Nationally, more than 20% of our children live beneath the poverty line, which makes the percentage of children living in low income households around 45% (discrepancy between 50% and 45% is that some children in low income households are not students).[3] Our childhood poverty rate, however, has been at least 20% for more than a decade. Imagine for a moment what we would do if a foreign nation pushed 20% of our children into poverty. And yet, we accept this of ourselves. That we are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world and that we have accepted this as normal is unconscionable and our collective sin.

We won’t, however, make any headway to bring down this statistic unless we shine a cleansing light upon it. The problems that are in the light, drug use, homelessness, and crime, will stubbornly remain if we keep child poverty and the other factors which make childhood traumatic for many of our children in the dark.

What can we do? This is traumatic in and of itself. We can protect ourselves by looking past it as though it is not happening. Or we can begin to address this collectively beginning here in Dalton, even though we know we don’t have enough resources to turn this around even in a couple of years. Still, if we think about the children in this community, especially those who are in at-risk situations, even if we can shine a light on their situation and help address it, it could make a difference in that child’s adult life and may keep it from self-perpetuating to a generation yet unborn. “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’” (Mat. 19:14) Even if we can keep one or two children from becoming an adult prone to drug abuse, homelessness, or criminal activity, that’s progress, even though it is small and slow.

I recently had a conversation with Adam Hinds, Pittsfield’s coordinator for youth programs to stem the rise in gang violence. We both know our community’s reality, and this applies to Dalton as well. Our children will grow up and leave for other places. I said that the best thing we can do is instill in them the real values of community so that wherever they settle they will be good, upstanding, righteous members of their community. And when people ask them, “Where did you learn this,” they can say, “Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where I grew up.” Our children from Dalton should be able to say, “Dalton, Massachusetts, where I grew up.”

What Jesus said is not just salvation after we die. Salvation can be in this world, too. Can we and will we shine a light on the lives of children at risk? Do we have the courage and will to bring those things that hide in the dark into the light and free those children from an adulthood of pain and suffering?

[1] Alan Chartock. Road to Heroin Addiction has Numerous On-Ramps. Berkshire Eagle. March 14, 2015. Page B1

[2] Jim Therrien. Pittsfield Superintendent McCandless Describes Dire School Budget Options. The Berkshire Eagle. March 13, 2015. Page A1


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Communion Prayer for Holy Week

I’ve started to plan Holy Week worship.  (OK, I try to stay a step ahead of the game.)  We’ll do communion on Maundy Thursday.  Given its connection to Passover, I wrote a communion prayer based upon the Seder prayer, daiyenu, a prayer offered to remember what God did for Israel.

You’re welcome to use this for your communion (just be sure to attribute it to me saying something to the effect, “Used with permission by the author, the Rev. Quentin Chin.”)

If God created this world with plants and living things for our nourishment and had not made a new covenant with Noah, it would have been enough.

If God made a new covenant with Noah and had not brought Israel out of Egypt and sustained Israel on manna and quail for forty years, it would have been enough.

If God brought Israel out of Egypt and sustained Israel on manna and quail for forty years and did not give us the Law that we might live in community with one another, it would have been enough.

If God gave us the Law that we might live in community with one another and had not led Israel into the land flowing with milk and honey, it would have been enough.

If God led Israel into the land flowing with milk and honey and had not built the Temple, it would have been enough.

If God had built the Temple and then restored Israel after its exile to Babylon so Zion could be a light to all nations, it would have been enough.

If God restored Israel after its exile to Babylon so Zion can be a light to all nations and had not come to us as a baby named Jesus who grew to bind up the wounds of the world, it would have been enough.

If God came to us as a baby named Jesus who grew to bind up the wounds of the world and had not died on a cross to rise again, it would have been enough.

And yet, O God, you did this to remind us that life always overcomes death and that out of death new life emerges. For this O God, we are eternally grateful.

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