Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Backward, Inward, Outward

In his book The New Leadership Literacies, Bob Johansen tells the story of American railroads in the 19th century.  Telegraph companies came to the railroad owners--ambitious people we often refer to as “robber barons” --and asked if they could string telegraph wires along the tracks.  The railroad people thought this would help them keep up with their trains and agreed.  If they had been able to “see beyond the edges” of their business, they could have done this themselves and controlled wired communications.  They could have become AT&T!  Why did they miss this opportunity?   Johansen writes:

“They missed it because they loved trains too much.  Also, their centralized organizational structure made it hard to see to the edges of their own businesses.  Shape-shifting organizations will make this much easier, since there is no center and they grow from the edges.”

I won’t take the time here to discuss “shape-shifting organizations,” but I do suggest that our churches and organizations miss opportunities for ministry and growth for a couple of reasons.

First, we limit the scope of our mission.  It is easy to engage in “mission drift” and move beyond the mission to which we are called, but we can also limit the possibilities of what we might do in fulfilling our mission.  We love what we are already doing too much!  The railroads thought they were in the transportation business, but their mission was also connecting people.  This could be done not just physically for electrically as well.

As churches, we are part of the missio Dei, God’s mission in the world.  Too often we limit ourselves to the methods and techniques with which we are familiar, failing to take advantage of the rich heritage of the Church and possibilities that will stretch us.  There are people out there on the edges of our ministries who might respond to these tested, but unfamiliar means of growth and outreach. There are those who would welcome the church’s stepping outside its self-imposed boundaries and blessing new way of ministry as well.

Second, we don’t listen to those out on the edge.  Our churches have people who are engaged in society every day.  They are medical professionals, educators, business people, factory workers, and service providers.  How often do we ask them to tell us what they are seeing and hearing?  How often do we ask them for ideas about expanding our ministry in the community?

These people are our trailblazers and could be our apostles.  They have fresh knowledge that could inform and empower us to do something new.

The failure to take advantage of all the resources that God has provided limits our Kingdom work.  We need to look backward, inward, and outward to enrich our involvement in the missio Dei.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Murfreesboro Loves

Country Courthouse--Daily
 News Journal photo
Murfreesboro, Tennessee, is a good place to live.  Most Saturdays this time of year, you will find people browsing and purchasing from vendors at the Farmers’ Market around the County Courthouse.  Shops and restaurants on the Square will bustle with business.  The local university will be hosting a high school band competition that brings participants from all over the mid-South.  Children will be getting ready for a visit to a “haunted mansion” to raise money for historic conservation.

None of that will happen today, because White Lives Matter is coming to town.  All the activities mentioned above have been cancelled.  The courthouse square will be cordoned off, protestors and counter-protestors will gather, businesses have boarded their windows, and law enforcement will be out in strength.

Why Murfreesboro?  The city handled school integration in the 60s with little hassle due the cooperation of black and white community leaders.  The area provided resettlement for Laotian refugees in the 70s with great hospitality.  The university hosts students from many nations.  In a typical elementary, middle, or high school, you will see children from many ethnic backgrounds--Hispanic, Asian, and Middle Eastern.  There is an Islamic Center here which was opposed by a verbal minority but the majority of citizens see their Muslim friends as good neighbors.

City Cafe--DNJ Photo
Most of us see these as good things.  This hospitable acceptance of others has fueled significant growth in our city and county.  It has enriched our cultural and civic life.  Evidently, some outsiders see this as an appropriate place to sow anger and hate where there has been little.

Citizens have pushed back but not in hatred or anger.  Signs have popped up saying, “Murfreesboro Loves.” Alternate activities away from the downtown area are planned to show community unity.  Friday night, a community prayer service was held at First Baptist Church on East Main Street, a block from the Courthouse Square.  In that service, pastor Noel Schoonmaker said,

Prayer Service--DNJ Photo
"We express our opposition tonight prayerfully and peacefully.  The cross is a symbol of love, and we send love to immigrants and refugees and other targets of white supremacists. Hateful ideologies are antithetical to the teachings of Christ."

Most of us who live in Murfreesboro agree with these sentiments.  The ideology that one race has supremacy over another is antithetical to the gospel. Although we have sometimes faltered in proclaiming that message, we know that “Jesus loves all the little children of the world.”

On the secular side, equality of every person under law is an ideal that we continue to pursue.  It is good for our country, it is good for our people, and it is good for our city.

Today our city recognizes that we must allow people to express their opinions, even if we don’t like those opinions.  Tomorrow we will continue to love our neighbors and practice community cooperation.

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Struggle Goes On

Dr. John Perkins and the author
There are some battles that must be fought continuously.  We often succumb to the idea that once certain victories are won, an issue is settled.  More than once, I have heard people say, “We have dealt with the idea of women being pastors; let’s move on.”  This is far from true as churches that seek to exercise their autonomy, deciding that the best qualified person to be their pastor is a woman, are disfellowshipped from the larger community of faith.

This is true of racism as well.  We have come a long way to be sure.  The sports heroes of one of my grandsons are African Americans like Odell Beckham, Jr., of the New York Giants; Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors; and Olympian Jesse Owens. My children and grandchildren don’t see race as a barrier, but racism is embedded in our society.  White supremacy is resurgent, white privilege is an uncomfortable fact, and institutional racism is a reality.

I recently attended the Urban Missional Institute Symposium at Central Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas.  The two speakers represented both the success of past efforts in achieving civil rights but also the unfinished task of overcoming racism.

Dr. John Perkins, civil rights activist and author of Let Justice Roll Down, is a hero of the movement of the 50s and 60s.  He has invested his life in seeking racial justice, rooting his efforts in the Christian faith and using legal and economic means to further the cause.  At 87, he realizes that the struggle goes on. 
We are not where we need to be.  His is still a powerful voice for justice.

Dr. Drew G. I. Hart
Dr. Drew G. I. Hart, professor of religion at Messiah College, a social activist, and author of Trouble I've Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racismbrought the insight of a younger generation to the conversation, emphasizing the need to change perspectives and values that sustain white privilege and institutional racism.  His keen and clear insights challenge the status quo.

Complacency threatens the successes of the past. An older generation tires of the struggle and must renew its focus.  A new generation awakens to realize that the fight goes on and becomes more engaged.  We cannot rest on our laurels but must address the challenges that continue to emerge.


Saturday, October 21, 2017

Marshall: A Review

Thurgood Marshall was a civil rights icon.  As founder of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, he argued 32 cases before the U. S. Supreme Court and won all but three. The most notable may have been Brown v. Board of Education which threw out the “separate but equal” approach to public education. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed him as the first African American to sit on the Supreme Court.

Rather than attempt to tell Marshall’s life story, the film Marshall selects one case in which he was involved In 1941 when he was hopping across the country by train to defend African-Americans.  In this case he works with local attorney Sam Friedman to defend a man accused of raping his employer’s wife.

Although this is in some ways a standard court room drama, the film summarizes the challenge of finding justice for African Americans as well as the prejudice against Jews while America was fighting the Nazis and Jews in Europe were being sent to death camps.  Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) fights for individual rights on the home front alongside Friedman (Josh Gad), a rather reluctant advocate.

Young Marshall is depicted as  brash, brilliant, and driven.  In this snapshot that summarizes a long and illustrious career, Boseman embodies what made Marshall such a pivotal figure in the civil rights struggle.  He is tenacious, unbending, and a bit self-righteous but these are the qualities  that  made him successful.  Although often playing for the quick laugh, Friedman (Gad) reminds the audience that the fight for equality was (and is) not only for blacks but  for every citizen, regardless of race, color, or creed.

In addition to the search for justice, the primary ethical theme here is the nature for truth and what leads us to lie.  Both accuser and accused have separate stories driven by their own fears and needs.  The courtroom drama peels away the lies and discloses the fears of each while uncovering the truth.

As the leaders of the civil rights movement pass from the scene, films like Marshall remind us of the courage of those who led and those who stood with them.  It is also a reminder that the fight for justice  continues.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Struggle, Discomfort, and Growth

A recent news report explained that a school district in Mississippi had removed Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird from a middle school reading list because the book's language "makes people uncomfortable."  I am offended by this on two levels.  First, this is one of my favorite books.  The book and film that came from it both challenged my prejudices and gave me hope for a better society.  Second, we need to read things that make us uncomfortable.  If we only read those who agree with us, we stagnate.  Listening to others’ ideas and experiences help us to grow.

As my friend John Tyler posted on Facebook in response to this report:

“If I followed this ‘thinking’ at home, I'd pull all my Bibles from the shelves. Most of what Jesus says, as reported on the Bible's pages, makes me uncomfortable.

Learning, growing, and adopting new perspectives and behaviors can be painful experiences.  Very often, change and pain go together.  Whether we are mastering content material for an examination, exercising to improve our health, or confronting prejudice and injustice, we will experience discomfort, confusion, and some pain.

After Jacob wrestled with God, God gave him the name Israel (Genesis 32:28; 35:10).  The name can be translated “he struggles with God,” "triumphant with God," or "who prevails with God".  This describes the journey not only of the man but the people who journeyed with God.  The nation of Israel often struggled with God and did not always win.  God continued to walk with them in the learning process, however, even in Exile.

If we fail to struggle, perhaps our goals are too limited.  A bit of discomfort is a small price to pay to become the people that God has called us to be.