Sunday, January 1, 2017
Yes, indeed. Happy New Year! Having said that, I have long puzzled over the significance of January 1. It seems to be an accounting and tax convenience but have little if any real significance. As you might expect from me, The first of Advent seems like the real beginning of the year and the journey through the liturgical calendar which traces the life of Jesus and the Church. As kid, the first day of school in September (definitely not August that seems to have become common) made sense as the beginning of the year. I could make an astronomical case for the winter solstice after which the days lengthen, or an agricultural case for spring equinox to celebrate the new growing season (the Hebrew calendar recognizes a new year with spring planting and another one with fall harvest). I'm not really complaining or expecting any sort of change, just sharing my reflections on the 71st New Year's Day of my life. What were we all celebrating last night - the closing of financial books? We somehow endue each year with a significance that we are usually happy to leave behind and welcome something new. Though we don't really leave the old year behind but have to live with its consequences in the new year, yet perhaps we are celebrating the persistence of hope in the human heart. Isn't that the message of the Hebrew prophets we heard through Advent: hope in God in the face of the most devastating events and circumstances? Isn't that what rises from the Gospel: through Christ hope of being freed from our past sins to live into a gloriously free future? I doubt many in Times Square were thinking about that last night, but it seems so much better to me than partying for partying sake in the vague farewell to one calendar year and hello to the next with no real anchor for hope. Interestingly, the Christian symbol for hope has long been an anchor, which few of us understand today. In the days of sailing ships we could consider small, the anchor was the hope of surviving a storm. Tied to the bow of the ship, it kept the ship facing into the wind so it could ride up and down the waves without being capsized, and when it was doing its job, the anchor was unseen. Our hope in Christ is not seen ("who hopes for what is seen?" Romans 8:24) and faces us into the storms of life (rather than fleeing to a futile imaginary save harbor). So though January 1 seems not to celebrate anything specific (unless you are a tax accountant), it does give us opportunity to affirm and celebrate that Christ had taken us through the storms of the past year and can be depended on to take us through the coming storms.
Tuesday, December 20, 2016
This story tells of an important part of my spiritual formation. It will appear in a book I hope to see in print one day.
As I look back over all my Christmas seasons, my ninth grade holiday is one of my favorite memories. My grandmother handed me some money and asked, “Would you please take the bus downtown and put this money in a Salvation Army kettle and bring back a copy of the War Cry Magazine. I’m not up to going myself this year. You went with me last year, so you know what to do.”
Family stories take on a life and significance of their own. They grow out of real events that are shaped in the retelling to define identity and meaning. Each year as I got older, my grandmother increasingly included me in her December Salvation Army ritual and told me more and more of the story of my grandfather’s life and how they married. I treasure this story, and now that I am a grandfather, I pass it to those who come after me. I have assembled the pieces my grandmother passed to me, knowing full well that she shaped them and that I have shaped them further.
My grandfather, Gustav Ragnar Erikson, grew up in a small fishing village on Marstrand, a Swedish island between the North Sea and the Baltic. Hjaylmar Nimrod Stenberg was his younger friend in the same village. In those days, life on Marstrand did not hold much future for these boys. At 16, Gustav got a job on a sailing ship and never returned to Sweden. A few years later, when Hjaylmar turned 16 he also went to sea and never returned to Sweden.
I was five years old when my grandfather died, but I distinctly remember the nautical tattoos on his forearms. Though she wouldn’t and maybe couldn’t tell me specific stories about my grandfather’s seafaring days, my grandmother definitely gave me the impression that he fit the stereotype of the hard-living, hard-drinking, hard-fighting sailors who manned sailing vessels. His adventures were not limited to the Atlantic, but included sailing around Cape Horn and plying the trade routes between California and Asia.
Once when his ship was in port in Oakland, California, my grandfather decided to stay. What he did and for how long, is a blank in the story until he and some of his friends decided to attend a Salvation Army tent meeting to heckle. They fortified themselves with a visit to a bar first, which apparently left their heckling ineffective.
When the Salvation Army people were cleaning up after the tent meeting, they found a young man sleeping off his drunk. The Salvation Army people took my grandfather under their wing and cared for him. One of them was a young woman. I don’t know who pursued whom or how their relationship developed, but they married. My grandmother never indicated that my grandfather walked the sawdust trail at one of those Salvation Army revivals, but he did become a new man. Drinking and fighting adventures were behind him.
This young couple had a son, and they settled in Oakland. Both wife and son died in the 1918 flu epidemic. Alone again, my grandfather sought companionship at the First Swedish Baptist Church of Oakland. There he met Annette Josephine Olson, Nettie to her friends and family, my grandmother. Some of her friends said to her, “Nettie, did you see that young widower in church? Now that your mother is gone, maybe you could marry him.”
My grandmother was the oldest of four sisters. After their father died, their sickly mother required continual care. As the oldest sister, that responsibility fell to my grandmother. Her younger sisters all left home and married. After her mother died, Nettie was available to marry but thought she was probably too old for that to be likely. I never heard much about my grandparents’ courtship, but I do have a single studio photograph of a very simple wedding.
After my grandparents married, they connected with one of my grandmother’s younger sisters Helen Amelia who had married a Swedish immigrant, Hjaylmar Stenberg. My sister and I knew him as Uncle Nick. My mother was born in 1920 and was the only child of either marriage. These two couples either lived together or within a short walk of each other the rest of their lives. They had a couple of stints in Fort Bragg, California, where Uncle Nick had a brother. Most of the time, they lived in Oakland. My mother did not think of herself so much as an only child, but as having four loving parents.
My grandfather died the year I started kindergarten, and my grandmother moved in with us. I’m sure she began her annual pilgrimages to a Salvation Army kettle the first December after my grandfather’s death. I remember my Dad offering to drive her downtown, but she refused and said she wanted to do this herself. I know I was less than 10 the first time she asked me to accompany her for this December ritual. As we rode the bus each year, this story unfolded in bits and pieces, not as a complete narrative.
Occasionally, I would ride the bus with my grandmother to visit the Chapel of the Chimes where my grandfather is interred. In the same side of the chapel are two niches each with a pair of bronze urns that look like antique books. One pair for my grandparents and the other for Aunt Helen and Uncle Nick. At the time, only the urn for my grandfather was occupied. On one of those visits, my grandmother walked with me to the adjacent Mountain View Cemetery. In one of the older sections that no longer received the same level of perpetual care as the active areas, she found the graves of my grandfather’s first wife and son. I was touched by the love and respect my grandmother had for her husband’s first wife and child.
Of course, my grandmother never knew them. As she passed the pieces of this story to me while riding the bus, she explained that making a donation at a Salvation Army kettle every December was her way of thanking this woman she never knew for her husband. When my grandmother was no longer able to ride the bus, even accompanied by a high school grandson, she sent me with bus fare and her donation to find a Salvation Army kettle downtown and bring her a War Cry Magazine. Even after I had my driver’s license I was expected to take the bus and not to include any other errands on this excursion.
In the half-century that has passed since those December bus rides with my grandmother, I have continued to find a Salvation Army kettle and make a donation every year. But there are changes. I no longer ride the bus downtown nor do I restrict the trip to that one purpose. I’ve lived in five different states since then. The function of downtown has been taken over by shopping centers. But Salvation Army kettles are easily accessible, and if the person ringing the bell at the kettle has time and is inclined to chat, I tell my grandparents’ story.
I appreciate the difference the Salvation Army makes in the lives of people who are facing disaster, struggling with homelessness and poverty, and recovering from addictions. Some like my grandfather who may not even be looking for help when they are out of control, but are surprised by a new life because of the Salvation Army. For several years when I was serving a church in New Jersey, I was the volunteer Salvation Army Human Services Secretary for our five townships.But for me, the December ritual at a Salvation Army kettle is personal. Like my grandmother, I pause to pay respect to a woman and a little boy who, in dying, led to the marriage of my grandfather and grandmother and the birth of my mother.
Friday, November 18, 2016
Twenty plus years ago I was privileged to have an extended conversation with Henri Nouwen about Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:34. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” As I was wrestling with speaking to my then seven year old son, Henri said, “If you want to know what is going on in your heart, listen to what you say when you speak before you think.” This line has become a powerful touchstone for my personal spiritual journey and for my pastoral ministry. I have added: and what you stop yourself from saying if you catch yourself in time.
In the turmoil and exchanged accusations of the past presidential campaign and the aftermath of the election, I have said and heard others say things such as, “I don’t know what is in that person’s heart, but I hear them say …” I would suggest that Jesus’ words do give us a window into the hearts of politicians in the unplanned, spontaneous words they use (say or post on the internet). Often they backtrack on or try to hide these revelations with carefully prepared statements, but I suggest paying attention to the words that come out without much forethought as clues to what is happening in their hearts.
Sunday, November 13, 2016
I do hope that my intentionally provocative title will compel you to read my entire essay before reacting. The essay itself is also intentionally provocative, so I hope you will keep reading past your emotional stop signs. Now that political correctness is being dismissed in popular culture and replaced by disrespect, certainly a serious consideration of race can be undertaken even if it is uncomfortable.
I doubt anyone would question that the people of the US are more aware of racial tensions now than they have been for a long time, perhaps even more than at the height of the civil rights movement. Accusations of promoting race tensions have been hurled at President Obama throughout his eight year administration. Race tensions have become increasingly volatile through this presidential campaign, much of which has been attributed to President-elect Trump. I don’t know how this could be quantified or documented, but I suggest that neither of them is to blame for creating the acute racial hostility currently surging in the country. Rather, I believe they have exposed deeply embedded racism that has been undercover to some degree for some time.
President Obama is, to me, a fascinating case study in how race is perceived. His mother was white, so he is as much white as Black. His father was from Africa and not a descendant of US slaves, so President Obama is not a natural inheritor of African-American culture. Perhaps through Michelle, he was adopted by the African-American community for whom he embodied some of their hopes for equality. I know the claim that opposition to him was about policy and not race, but the racial overtones were inescapable among both white and Black folk, and occasionally overt references slipped out in both directions.
Whatever he intended, many of President-elect Trump’s comments during the campaign were taken by many as permission to express overtly racist sentiments, not directed only at African-Americans, but at Latinos, Middle Easterners, Native Americans, Asians, and Jews. Whether President-elect Trump wanted it or not, his candidacy attracted support from some white supremacist groups. These days since the election have seen a distressing burst of blatant racism, some incidents seeming to attack President-elect Trump’s supporters, and many making direct threats and even physical attacks on African-Americans, Latinos, Jews, and Muslims (or those presumed to be Muslim such as Sikhs and even Middle Eastern Christians). The threatened and enacted violence evokes fear, some even fear for life and limb.
While only a small portion of the US population may espouse the most virulent expressions of racism that have been in the public eye recently, I do believe that racism is present in all of us and woven deeply into the fabric of the society in which we live. No ethnic or social group has a monopoly on racism, nor is any ethnic or social group immune to or exempt from racism. I also am convinced that comparative racism, scoring some groups worse as or better than others only exacerbates that problem. This is because that usually is a device for shifting responsibility away from one’s self and one’s own group onto “the other,” onto someone else. I strongly believe that volatile issues such as racism can only be addressed effectively by taking responsibility for one’s self and allowing others to take responsibility for themselves. Thus, as a 70 year old white man, I need to deal with my own racist attitudes and those in my social circles and allow Black folk, Latino folk, and others deal with their attitudes. Critiquing ourselves creates a safe space in which others can critique themselves. Racism in another group in no way justifies or excuses racism among white folk!
Locating a problem as outside of ourselves only aggravates the problem and interferes with the possibility of progress toward harmony. Thus I am convinced that we inflame racial tensions when:
· We believe racism is worse in another group or groups, so I (we) don’t have to do anything about my racism or the racism of my social circle.
· When we defend those with whom we most easily identify and critique those with whom we have a hard time identifying.
· We protest that we are not racist or prejudiced or proclaim we have friends who are: Black, white, Latino, Asian (or you fill in the blank).
· We believe the other side must make the first move toward reconciliation. I believe the first one to recognize the problem is responsible to be the first one to begin solving the problem.
· We use misconduct by some on the other side to discredit all we see as part of that group.
· We hold up token members of the other side who express opinions we are comfortable with to discount those with whom we are uncomfortable.
· We distance ourselves from racist attitudes of people of our group by saying, “But that’s not what I think,” without challenging the reality and power of such attitudes in our own social circles.
While am appalled at the overt, virulent racism being expressed so freely in recent days (perhaps being rationalized by the lifting of the presumed expectation of political correctness), I do see a positive possibility. That is, if a veneer of courtesy has kept racist reality pretty much under cover for a generation without dealing with it, perhaps by bringing it out in the open we have an opportunity to make real personal and social changes. With the integration of public schools that followed Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the civil rights movement that produced the Civil Rights Act (1964), I remember people objecting to these legal measures by saying that law can’t change people’s hearts. My sense is that they were right and that race tensions are as bad or worse in 2016 as they were 50-60 years ago, even though considerable progress has been made on the legal front. We are in danger of becoming like the Balkans who descended into ethnic violence when the oppression of totalitarian government was removed. So perhaps we have come to a crossroad at which individually and together we can change our hearts. Theologically, perhaps we can think of the surfacing of rampant racism in our time as a sort of confession, but to bring changes in hearts, and if you will the collective soul of our society, requires going from confession to repentance. I cannot repent for someone else, only for myself. Though I suppose this essay could be thought of as an invitation to repentance.
I have been enriched and privileged to live and serve in multi-ethnic, urban communities most of my life. Growing up in Oakland, CA, a trip to the grocery store meant hearing 3-5 languages most of the time, always Chinese and Spanish. Especially in junior high and high school, the mix of Anglo, Asian, Latino, and African-American students and teachers meant no one was a “majority.” As a college freshman, I had an after school job tutoring algebra for about 20 students at McClymonds High School, with an almost totally Black student body. I rode the bus to and from this job, coming home in the dark as the only white person on the bus. As a pastor, the gracious hospitality of many African-American and Latino colleagues has given me opportunities to serve, fellowship and worship with their congregations, building cherished friendships.
As wonderful as all of that has been for me, it does not exempt me from my own racism. As a junior high and high school student, in my college prep track classes I felt a kinship with the African-American and Latino students as we lagged behind in competing with the Asian and Jewish students whose families vigorously promoted academic performance. In my general classes, I felt intimidated by a few African-American students who seemed belligerent to me, and I am still on guard for these attitudes when I meet an African-American person for the first time. I must admit to an involuntary tightening of my shoulders when I am walking alone and approached by an African-American person. These are just surface symptoms of my own racism that I know has tentacles that reach into the dark recesses of my heart.
I have already indicated that as evil as this current upsurge of expressed racism is, if it prompts honest conversation about race in the US, it could end up having a beneficial effect. I have also already written that this does not come by telling those we perceive as “the other” that they have the problem or must take the initiative. It comes from an honest confrontation with my own racism. We who aspire to trust and follow Jesus may be in a unique position to lead in this effort, as our theology and spiritual experience is predicated on confession and repentance, grace and love. Watered down, generic Judeo-Christian civil religion that is reduced to believing God exists and being good citizens will not cut it. It takes the kind of radical discipleship that transformed Mary Magdalene and Saul of Tarsus.
I don’t expect such discipleship in the halls of government or other corridors of power. These voices seem to come from the edge much of the time. One of my spiritual heroes is John Woolman (1720-1772). If you want to learn about that kind of discipleship, I highly recommend reading his Journal. I’ve cited him a number of times in my writing. I learned about him and read his Journal several years before I even imagined living in his home town, Mt. Holly, NJ. In the 17 years I lived and served there I walked by the Friends Meeting House where he worshipped at least once a week. With an apparent gentle fortitude he vigorously opposed slavery and racial injustice. He supported the rights and dignity of the Native People. He advocated economic justice for the poor. He sought to nourish marriage and family life and limit the damage of alcohol abuse. He opposed all violence and war. He is treated as something of an historical celebrity in Mt. Holly today, but during his life he was an annoying thorn in the flesh to people of power, prestige, position and wealth.
However, John Woolman’s Journal is not a self-congratulatory inventory of his accomplishments or exposition of his advocacy of personal and social righteousness. Rather, he wrote of his deep introspection and conversation with God through Scripture and Jesus Christ. Not expecting publication, he bared his soul and gives those who take the trouble to read real insight into his own journey of confession and repentance, grace and love. He explored how God kept revealing to him his inadequacies and gave him grace as he acknowledged them. His journal does not read like the manifesto of a social justice firebrand, but as a humble disciple of Jesus stumbling along his journey depending on God.
I suggest to you that just as John Woolman was a model for addressing the racism of his day, his example would serve us well in our day. When we honestly acknowledge our own culpability, we become available for God to use as an instrument of reconciliation, healing, and harmony. However, if we persist in putting the burden of racial reconciliation on “the others” instead of ourselves, we only fuel the perverse desires for race war such as Dylann Roof and Micah Johnson espoused. To draw on one of my favorite lines from Shakespeare (Julius Caesar), “The fault, dear Brutus, in not in our stars but in ourselves.” Racism is us, not them!
Wednesday, November 9, 2016
People say a lot of silly things during political campaigns, including threatening to leave the country if their candidate doesn't win. Some made such statements about both Clinton and Trump, but now we are hearing cries for those who said they'd leave if Trump won to leave. Of course, that misses the point that such statements are really expressions of strong emotion rather than literal intention. Having said that, I believe God has sent me as a citizen of Christ's Kingdom/Reign to be a resident alien in the US. Therefore, I'm not going anywhere regardless of who wins or loses, but I will continue to live here with my total priority on following Jesus, encouraging others on the journey with him, and inviting others to join us. I know that the US (and every human entity) is temporal while Christ's Kingdom/Reign is eternal, and will be there long after the US has passed from human history. Before the election I wrote this about that perspective.
Monday, November 7, 2016
I am not posting this to promote Northway Christian Church (with whom Candy and I have been members since retiring as pastor of Central Christian Church), though any who would like to participate are welcome. Rather, I am posting this as an important reminder of the centrality of Jesus despite our other differences. If you have such a service to participate in, wonderful! If not I suggest a half hour of meditating on Philippians 2:1-11 before turning on the TV to get election results. You might even call or visit a Christian friend who you know voted differently than you did and pray together for the unity of Christ's people and the future of the country before turning on the TV.
Wednesday, October 19, 2016
I learned that anger is a secondary emotion (thanks to training for pastoral counseling, and parent and marriage communication). Anger is preceded and triggered by another emotion, which must be addressed in order to deal with the anger. As I have observed the extraordinary anger in this election cycle, I have pondered what emotions might be triggering it and have concluded that very often it is fear (from both left and right).
In my pastoral career I have often passed on as a life axiom that when we make decisions based on fear, we almost always make the wrong choice. 1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear,” which suggests to me that the opposite of fear is not courage but love. A mother does not run into traffic to snatch her child from in front of a speeding car because she is brave but because she loves the child. So to keep from making a bad decision based on fear, I have long suggested to people they consider how to decide based on love.
Through this election season, I have purposely refrained from indicating for whom I am voting or recommending any candidate. Rather, I have tried to wrestle with how what I have gained from Scripture over the years informs the way I do my thinking and pass that on with a hope it will help others think more biblically and deeply. So I’m still not going to endorse a candidate, but I will suggest that when you sense fear in the choices you must make, consider how love can supplant fear as you decide how you will vote.