Sunday, December 27, 2009

Love and confusion

My most recent book purchase was "Loves Me, Loves Me Not: The Ethics of Unrequited Love" by Laura Smit; I was interested because I'm personally quite acquainted with that extremely painful subject -- mostly on the receiving end. And as I read, I was reminded of some of the horrendous mistakes, not just in commission but in attitude, that I've made over the years in trying (and generally failing) to date.

I haven't read through the entire book, but one thing I see missing: Hope.

As virtually everyone knows, dating is difficult at any age; nearly 30 years ago the then-girlfriend of a fraternity brother nailed it when she called it "depressing." It's not clear to me so far who Smit's target audience is or what she wants it to learn; I hear from her, "When in doubt, don't." That may be fine for persons from their teenage years up to their 30s.

Of course, I'm nearly 50, would like to be married and have peers, including my younger brother, who are grandparents. And part of me today really does feel immature because I don't have the responsibility of a spouse and children, and it's really tough to come to and leave church alone.

But here's the issue: We men are supposed to be the pursuers, the initiators, the leaders; paradoxically, often we don't have much of a clue when a woman is interested or simply naturally kind. And I think that leads to the misunderstandings that often happen when folks get their wires crossed. Such a situation was the catalyst for my leaving my last church (although God was clearly calling me out), and with my last major heartbreak nearly three years ago I was depressed for nearly three weeks!

Going further, I've recently been reminded of God's great love for His children and how we nonetheless often ignore him (and I confess that I'm guilty of such). During that time of admitted self-pity three years ago I got a message from Him, "Now you know how I feel." And the Scripture reminds us that we didn't choose Him; rather, He pursued us. (Indeed, from the time I first heard the Gospel to when I actually received Christ was about eight years.) Now, I realize that the comparison cannot be taken too far because He's divine and we're not; still, we're not supposed to sit on our butts and wait for "her" to show up.

And therein lies the confusion over Smit's thesis. I understand and accept that she has committed herself to singleness. However, building a relationship requires risk; while I think realism is necessary, so is vulnerability. Besides, if your goal is simply "possessing" another person, which is less and less the case with me, you ought not to be in a relationship in the first place.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The final frontier

I have mentioned in other entries that during services on the Sunday after last year's general election, the pastor of my interracial evangelical church had all of us African-Americans stand and then instructed the rest of the congregation lay hands on us, saying that "a spiritual stronghold has been broken."

He did that because he knew he had a politically divided congregation, with most of the whites likely supporting John McCain for president that year, indeed, two weeks previously he preached against such division during the campaign. (This is an evangelical church, after all, and polls indicated that 70 percent of white evangelicals nationally backed the Republican candidate.) By contrast, 95 percent of African-Americans, regardless of faith affiliation, supported Barack Obama.

I've been heartened with the serious efforts that have been made over the past couple of decades toward racial reconciliation among evangelicals -- the Promise Keepers started it all, of course, and some denominations and parachurch groups have made serious strides toward such harmony. However, we have yet to address the ideological differences that still exist, and until that's done we will not achieve it.

Because, bottom line, the issue is one of worldview.

When I became a Christian in 1979, the conservative movement in general and "religious right" in particular was just kicking into gear, with its primary target being government, especially the Feds. The complaint was that it had overstepped its constitutional authority by passing laws and using tax money for purposes it didn't agree with, most notably "Great Society" programs that benefited the poor. More to the point, however, conservatives demonstrated an assumption that authority, whether cultural, social or political, was their right.

African-Americans, on the other hand, historically have had different issues. Most identify with the civil-rights movement, which used the Federal government, including court decisions and legal remedies, to obtain justice (because state and local authorities opposed their efforts). And they -- we -- didn't have the same access to the power structure; thus, it had to be done through moral appeals.

Sadly, in part for that reason, the civil-rights movement eventually pitted one set of Christians against another set of Christians. Martin Luther King Jr., who in 1955 was just a local pastor in Montgomery, Ala., was later denounced as a Communist, and the resentment among white conservatives became so strong toward the national Democratic Party for supporting civil rights that in 1966 the Republican Party, practically non-existent in the South then but already leaning to the right nationally, saw an opening and began running candidates there.

That's the reason that you almost never see African-Americans on Christian TV or hear them on Christian radio; when you do it's in support of the "approved" viewpoint that doesn't accurately reflect the overall views of the black community -- which generally aren't right-wing. I find very interesting that conservatives talk about reaching out to the black community but simply to put a "black face" -- and yes, you can take that as a pun -- on policies and attitudes most blacks just don't accept.

Talk-show blowhard Rush Limbaugh said that, after Obama won that high percentage of the black vote, his color was the primary reason that African-Americans voted for him. Nonsense -- had McCain been black and Obama white, blacks (even evangelicals) would still have voted for Obama, overwhelmingly, or turned out for Hillary Clinton in virtually identical numbers had she won the Democratic nomination. And I'm sure you noticed that the anti-Obama "tea party" movement that got started in April is virtually all-white -- think that's a coincidence? African-Americans just don't have the fear of government that white conservatives do.

For there to be true reconciliation between black and white evangelical Christians, whites have to understand the views and histories of their black brothers and sisters and not believe that they have the last word when it comes to social and political involvement. (For what its worth, African-Americans already understand the conservative view and have rejected it; it's up to the conservatives to find out why.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The 'S-bomb'

About six years ago I was part of a men's small group, the founder of which whose politics were, to be kind, extreme. During one conversation, he called my economic views "socialist."

That effectively ended the relationship, though it continued for six more months.

You see, what he didn't -- and probably still doesn't -- realize is that using that term to describe people who don't agree with his agenda is a form of bigotry, similar to using the N-word on me as an African-American.

In fact, in decades past the insult of choice was "communist," used on such folks as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, whose only crime was trying to influence government to do right by the poor and/or powerless. Using -- or, more accurately, misusing -- that term only stymies debate, subverts justice and causes resentment.

For that reason I suspect that the people who throw "socialism" around so readily aren't really interested in preserving their "freedoms," despite what they say -- what they really want is to maintain their privileged status. After all, they don't see how, to take a current example, expanded health-care benefits will benefit everyone down the road; they only concern is how much it costs them today. However, these same people never give any practical solution to this particular crisis, save "market solutions" that caused the problem in the first place. Nor are they actively involved in advocating for those who don't have.

This is why conservatives have the reputation of being cruel and insensitive -- they're focused on their orthodoxy even when it hurts people.

During the gasoline crisis a couple of years ago, the man I mentioned above sent a mass e-mail containing an opinion piece, "Avoiding the Socialist Temptation," which argued that, even though gas was approaching $4 per gallon, the "market" should set the pace and government involvement would only make things worse. (I learned later, however, that speculators were manipulating the market.)

Anyway, I replied to all with a simple verse from Scripture: Micah 6:8 -- "[God] has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does he require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Still 'partisan'

With the increasing irrelevance of the "religious right" nationally, I had been hoping that evangelical Christians would begin to leave behind political ideology and focus on Kingdom business.

At least here in Pittsburgh, apparently some folks didn't get that memo.

Last week, I walked into a Family Bookstore and saw, up-front, a high number of copies for sale of former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin's new book "Going Rogue."

Last month, one of the local independent mega-churches hosted an appearance by former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, perhaps on a speaking tour. While the former Arkansas governor was formerly a pastor, I seriously doubt that his appearance was spiritual in nature -- the pastor of that church subscribed to the Fox News Channel's phony "war on Christmas" five years ago.

Now, this has nothing to do with my personal views on them, who may be positioning themselves to run for president in 2012 on the Republican ticket -- I have always seen Palin as bad for this country, while Huckabee by contrast seems reasonable. My concern is that, again, we evangelicals are perceived as stooges for the GOP and the secular conservative movement that basically runs the party today -- and then have the nerve to complain about that.

Consider this: If you were a homosexual, walked into a church and heard nothing but condemnation of gays, you wouldn't return. Similarly, if you were a registered Democrat and heard about these, you too would feel uncomfortable because they give the impression that following Jesus meant subscribing to a specific ideological agenda and that, really, you had to switch to be true to Him.

The pastor of another local mega-church noted over the summer that the political breakdown of the suburb where it's located was 53 percent Democratic and 47 percent Republican and that the Church was called to reach all of those people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But when churches and other institutions give the impression that you have to choose sides, especially since the Democratic Party does get some things right, they cause the kind of friction we've seen especially since the 1990s. The Sojourners community in Washington, D.C. sells a bumper sticker, which I have on my car, with the following message: "God is NOT a Republican -- or a Democrat."

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Tiger by the tail

While visiting a local music store a few years ago, I started looking at a used bass clarinet that was for sale. I was checking the brand and price and even considered having a salesperson get it down for me to play it a little bit.

Here's the thing: I already had a bass clarinet, with more range than the one I was eyeing, plus I hadn't paid it off yet. And, get this -- I got it new. Why in the world would I want another one, especially one that was less than what I had? Because -- well, I just wanted it.

I think about in reference to the recent travails of golfer Eldrick "Tiger" Woods, who has been romantically linked to 10 women (not that all of them were legitimately involved with him) but married to a Swedish model who is gorgeous by any standard. Crazy? Perhaps, if you don't understand human nature, which often wants either what it can't have or is inappropriate or superfluous, just because ...

I read today that Woods is taking time from golf to repair his marriage. Good for him. And let's hope that he realizes what he has.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A pep talk -- from an unexpected source

I'm not a fan of Joel Osteen, the TV preacher whose congregation meets in the old Houston Summit. I have heard that his preaching is light and tends to avoid sin -- which, I understand, is key to his appeal. I also come from a tradition (Reformed) where theology is accepted only from "approved" sources.

However, my mother likes him, so when I was visiting her last night we watched one of his broadcasts. And, as I listened to his message, I was reminded of the cliche "A broken clock is right twice a day."

During his message Osteen referred to a woman who a decade ago had given up a child for adoption and who was feeling condemned as a result, and he encouraged her that today she was doing well for herself and shouldn't beat herself up for something she did back then. But here's the rub: He also said that because of the cross of Christ the "accuser" (he actually never mentioned the same Satan, but that's what he meant) had no authority to make that kind of statement.

And I needed to hear that. Without realizing it, I think I've fallen victim to some of the "negative thinking" -- I have had a lot of bad stuff happen to me, made a ton of mistakes and, despite my passionate heart and what some might call a brilliant mind, compared to others have underachieved in my life. That doesn't mean, however, that God can't do anything with me now; if He is sovereign He can do whatever He wants and I need to get in touch with Him. And perhaps I need an attitude change of my own.

So thank you, Joel, for delivering God's word to me.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A tale of three churches

What happens to a church when it focuses on its own traditions and institutional heft to a point where it neglects ministry? Well, lately I've seen the results in three assemblies that I've been a part of -- two no longer exist and the other has been put "on the shelf," so to speak.

My childhood church maintained excellent theology -- and to this day I'm grateful for that -- but did virtually nothing else. It didn't evangelize or reach out to its neighbors; it was seemingly context to let the world go by.

Two-and-a-half years ago it suffered the loss of its building to fire and eventually merged with another church, which actually was on fire (no pun intended) for God. But because this church wasn't quite as conservative theologically about two dozen people left, some trying to start a new church in the old denomination. Interestingly enough, when I interviewed the pastor (who had been in the old church) for a story, he said he noticed that "we had become simple and inner-directed."

Which I knew was true.

Earlier this week I went to the viewing for a fellow musician who had fallen victim to cancer, and that took place in the building of the church whose high school youth group I belonged to (and where I actually became a Christian). But even then the church, which I rarely attended on Sundays, was in a transition period, especially because the neighborhood had become poorer and more African-American, which was resisted. For that and other reasons, attendance began to slip, finally closing for good three years ago. (Another church has it now.)

The church I went to as a young adult, by contrast, still exists. It always focused proudly on its traditions -- classic hymns and choir anthems, the best organist and preaching etc. But by the time I left in 1998, it had lost its spiritual discernment. Some powerful members actually started a whispering campaign against the pastor, which divided the congregation and caused a major exodus -- which hit the newspapers.

Two fairly recent incidents showed me that the church hasn't repented. Even after I left I occasionally visited the Tuesday morning prayer group, and last year one of the women who had opposed the previous pastor was still breathing fire 10 years later about the newspaper story. I have not been back since. Earlier this year I ran into another former congregant who excitedly said, after a new pastor had been installed, "We got our church back!"

But at what expense?

I emailed a pastor who in 1999 was looking for a new challenge in ministry that "the day of church culture is over." A church exists to do the work of God, which it can't do when it focuses inward. An assembly must adapt to the times and move with the Spirit, and if it doesn't He will either take or push it out.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Spiritual warfare

While talking with a couple who visited my church today -- they're both musicians I've worked with in the past -- we got to talking about the anti-Obama campaign waged right now across this country. She actually brought up something I had considered but not said publicly, and I think she's right.

This is not simply a political or ideological fight and, at bottom, not really about President Barack Obama. When you get right down to it, this is spiritual warfare due to a situation where people fear what they consider upcoming cataclysmic change that is completely out of their control because, basically, they have lost their trust in God. And when that happens, well ... people get irrational. When I see all these "tea parties" complaining about overreaching government, hear about Obama being denounced as a Communist or read about pastors praying for his death, I detect more than political posturing; I will even go out on a limb and say that this campaign is the work of the Enemy. If that sounds harsh or presumptuous, did you notice that they never give any alternatives to what they say is "bad government" or considered that the policies they actually subscribe to just didn't work? At this point they're just making accusations -- and keep in mind that the term "Satan" means "accuser."

I'm a student of the civil-rights movement, and similar phony charges were made against Martin Luther King Jr. In fact, much of the opposition to him was based on his use of the Federal government to overturn state and local laws that codified the racial discrimination he was trying to destroy. And in the same way, people became nutty, saying that he was making a mint through his civil-rights work, in league with Moscow or visiting white prostitutes, none of which were true, in order to de-legitimize him. (I wonder what Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck would say if they were on the air back then.)

And therein is the reason I believe this to be spiritual warfare: Before we can deal with sin it has to be exposed and recognized as such, and that's precisely what King did with his nonviolent demonstrations -- he correctly surmised that the racist power structure would act up and thus make a fool of itself. And since God is not the author of lies, hatred or conspiracy, only one other entity can come up with that.

In one section of the book Wild at Heart, John Eldredge mentions that his wife Stasi had been under spiritual oppression, specifically with daily dizzy spells. So, after a time of prayer, they commanded that oppressive spirit to leave her -- but it initially got worse before it finally did, permanently. Eldredge says that such a spirit will not usually leave willingly but, when discovered, put up a fight.

Of course you remember that Bill Clinton in the 1990s was accused of all kinds of things, to a point where there was a new "scandal" every few months. However, the machine that was making all those accusations was exposed right around the time of the impeachment -- it turned out that when Hillary made that complaint about the "vast right-wing conspiracy" she actually had the goods -- and the gossip stopped. Today Obama's enemies have no such cover; they just went right after him without pretense. And that to me is a sign that they're going down. Hard. And very soon, never to rise again.

And that is why, even though things may look crazy today, I'm actually rejoicing in seeing the LORD about to work; after this is over -- or even perhaps beforehand -- we may very well see a spiritual awakening in this country. The Sunday after last year's general election my senior pastor had all us African-Americans stand and the rest of the congregation lay hands on us, saying that "a spiritual stronghold has been broken."

You think for a second that the devil would take that lying down?

None of this is to say, of course, that Obama's actual policies are beyond scrutiny; I certainly don't agree with his stance on, say, legal abortion. And I will not say that the opposition to Obama is based primarily on his race, though it is a factor. But that's the point -- after the rancor ends we can certainly address those differences with clarity and honesty and not with this wild, mostly non-factual charges. I'm looking forward to that day.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Truth and reconciliation

Lately I've been rereading several sections of "A Testament of Hope," a collection of writings and speeches of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who as most of you know has been a major influence on my Christian life. And in the process, I was reminded of an important truth: There can be no reconciliation without truth.

During his day, King was often accused of divisiveness and creating problems that didn't exist -- comments like "Our Negroes were happy until those outsiders came in and started causing trouble!" Unfortunately for them, King's critics were so shut off from reality that they didn't realize that the unjust system that they were defending with their lives actually caused resentment towards them.

Any serious Christian should understand this. After all, before you can reconcile with God through Jesus Christ you have to recognize that you have made shipwreck of your life -- which can be can be hard to admit when you see things as going well. Consider your first reaction when you're confronted with your sin -- you probably defended yourself because, frankly, the idea that you were wrong is unpalatable.

One of the first worship songs I learned on the Georgia Tech campus 30 years ago was "Come, Let Us Reason Together," based on Isaiah 1:18. However, consider what he wrote before that:

10 Hear the word of the LORD,
you rulers of Sodom;
listen to the law of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
11 "The multitude of your sacrifices —
what are they to me?" says the LORD.
"I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your evil assemblies.
14 Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts
my soul hates.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even if you offer many prayers,
I will not listen.
Your hands are full of blood;
16 wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds
out of my sight!
Stop doing wrong,
17 learn to do right!
Seek justice,
encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless,
plead the case of the widow.
Now, is God being "divisive?" No, He's telling it like it is -- at the risk of offending his audience. And sometimes confrontation is necessary in the process.

Some years ago I made the following analogy to a friend of Armenian heritage. Now, the Armenian people have historically had issues with the Turks, and let's say that the Turks came to the Armenians and said, "We wish to reconcile with you, but we don't want to admit to anything we did wrong, nor will we change our attitudes about you." Ridiculous, right? Yet that's just what some people are proposing because admitting that they were at fault causes them discomfort.

One of the demonstrators protesting the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. in 1957 admitted a few years ago on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to the black students who were trying to enter the school, "We were ignorant." A woman demonstrator said tearfully that she later taught her own children to act differently. Wonderful moments, to be sure -- but which could never happened without confrontation.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The revolution will not be televised

We worship an awesome God in the blue states ...
-- President Barack Obama

Lately I've been rereading the book "The Jesus I Never Knew" by Philip Yancey and noticed something I hadn't before. It's almost a truism that Scripture suggest that God is closest to the poor, but he noted that the poor had an easier time with the Christian faith than the wealthy.

Reason? The poor, in his view, already lead a life of dependency on others -- which would translate into a relationship with God -- more so than wealthier folks.

And that is why, I believe, that any sort of spiritual revival in America will take place not in the halls of Congress or in well-scrubbed churches that focus on "doctrine" or "cultural issues." It likely will happen in ideologically "left-wing" urban centers, among the forgotten, the ignored, the scapegoats -- in short, the kind of people to whom Jesus ministered in His earthly life. And most of those people will not understand the concepts of predestination or be concerned with the fight against gay marriage -- they have more immediate issues. Like survival.

And it is that single-minded focus on God that will give the poor spiritual strength once He gets a hold of them. Not only that, but eventually prophets will emerge from that community that will challenge the status quo -- including the Christian "establishment."

There's precedent for that. Many of the biblical prophets were just that -- ordinary men who nevertheless heard the voice of God and delivered His message of inconvenience to people who didn't want to hear it. (After all, no one wants to hear from "those people" because they remind folks that they share some responsibility for their state of deprivation.)

More recently, the civil-rights movement was sparked by prayer and revival meetings in conservative black churches in the South; God gave its adherents the strength to withstand beatings by police, bombings of churches and incarceration of pastors for a much greater redemptive purpose. However, it's important to note that the movement took place almost exclusively in cities, where the distinction between the "ins" and "out" were, and still are, most pronounced.

Today, even many of us Christians look down on the urban poor and blame them for their state, not realizing that much of that had to do with political decisions out of their control. I wonder just how many of us might change their minds if we spent time with them, especially with fellow believers. You know, we might learn not only compassion but also to become their advocates -- which would please God.

But that kind of life-transforming ministry usually doesn't make headlines. It doesn't raise a lot of money. It rarely gets attention from media or politicians. It only forms bonds among people and reaffirms the line from the classic chorus "They'll Know We are Christians by Our Love." Not by our doctrine or our stances on morality.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The blues

Earlier this week I spent some time clearing out the storage space in my apartment. Among the items I found there, and had hoped to find, was a notebook containing some songs I wrote in the 1980s. That decade represented easily my most creative period.

As well as -- and I don't think that's a coincidence -- my most difficult period.

Those of you who read my blog regularly or know me personally have an idea of what my particular issues were then, so I won't go into them in this entry. I bring this up because it was only then that I began to develop an understanding of "the blues." No, not necessarily the musical style which to this day informs every other style of music that originated in America -- the feeling of loss and desolation common to every person who has walked this earth which such music represents. Suffering, the Bible tells us, is part of life and we ought to accept it as such. In fact Bono, lead singer of the group U2, once said that the Psalms represent ancient Israel's version of "the blues."

That said, the blues -- while accurately expressing the brokenness of life -- always sees a light at the end of that dark, seemingly interminable tunnel; its ultimate message is "I'm down -- but not out." And it is that hope that keeps a person going in the midst of inner (and sometimes outer) turmoil.

Lately I've re-reading the book "Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith." The Rev. Robert Galinas, the author and a "jazz theologian," noted in the chapter on "Singing the Blues" that a certain vocalist he was listening to, while conceding that her performance was pure and pristine, lacked a sense of sorrow. I get that -- only recently have I begun to realize that it was my own pain that gives me the ability to make a saxophone cry.

And it was that sense of pain which gave the lyrics I wrote then the redemptive power they contain even now.

I think that's what's wrong with much of the evangelical church -- it's out of touch with what a pastor-friend calls a "theology of suffering." When you look at these humongous, sterile mega-church buildings; hear a message about "prosperity" or self-esteem; or subscribe to right-wing power politics masquerading as "protecting the culture," don't you notice something missing?

The thing is, the Good News of Jesus Christ has zero meaning without the bad news -- of sin, yes, but also of lack, abandonment and disappointment. After all, who has suffered more than He? Didn't He also have his heart broken, experience betrayal?

But get this -- He rose above all that; thus we're also supposed to. But not by ourselves. That's one reason He gave us His mystical Body, the church, where we can bring our messed-up lives to be redeemed for His glory by ministering to each other. We can't do that properly if we're trying to put up a front, saying that nothing's really wrong.

That's why I'm grateful that God allowed -- no, inspired -- me to write that music 20-some years ago. Not only did I grow my relationship with Him in the process, but He also also used that, as well as the background circumstances, to foster the healing that only He can provide.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Abortion, eugenics and ideology

About a quarter-century ago, I noticed that the car of one of my then-church's sextons sported this bumper sticker: "American abortion -- Hitler would have loved it!"

Not long afterward while playing basketball in the church's Parish Hall, I told him, "Hitler wouldn't have given a damn" -- which I knew to be true. If you don't believe me, here's a quote from the man himself: "The idea that a woman's body belongs to her is absurd."

The issue came up for me during a discussion on "Obamacare" on another blog where one of the other posters accused "Democrats," especially those who support abortion rights -- I don't, by the way -- of supporting the extermination of certain racial groups due to innate "inferiority." When I first heard that years ago it sounded ridiculous -- and, upon examination, it turns out to be.

Rather, it represents yet another campaign from the political right to marginalize those who don't agree with all of its tenets, shifting the blame from its own policies to its opponents. More to the point, this is one situation about which it's just plain lying.

As I mentioned, elective abortion is often linked to the notorious German dictator who caused World War II, but the truth about what he believed, said and did doesn't square with the legend. Hitler had actually banned abortions by "Aryan" women while encouraging or forcing them on those of "darker" hue. One of the reasons Germany conquered other nations was so that "Aryans" could populate them, even going so far as to encourage them to marry women in, say, Scandinavia.

However, the people who hold analogous views today are are on the right, not the left. I got a glimpse of that in the 1980s when Pat Robertson, of course no liberal, said on the "700 Club" that evangelical Christians should increase their birthrate. It's also a concern of white racist groups such as neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and (I believe) the Council of Conservative Citizens.

One long-time anti-abortion target is, of course, Planned Parenthood, whose founder, the late Margaret Sanger, has been painted as a vicious racist and Nazi sympathizer who supported forced abortions.

Sanger, however, actually wrote during WWII: "All the news from Germany is sad [and] horrible and to me more dangerous than any other war going on [anywhere] because it has so many good people who applaud the atrocities [and] claim its right. The sudden antagonism in Germany against the Jews [and] the vitriolic hatred of them is spreading underground here [and] is far more dangerous than the aggressive policy of the Japanese in Manchuria.."

She also wrote, "The campaign for birth control is not merely of eugenic value but is practically identical with the final aims of eugenics.... We are convinced that racial regeneration, like individual regeneration, must come 'from within.' That is, it must be autonomous, self-directive and not imposed from without."

Doesn't sound like she believed in the concept of a "master race," let alone using political means to produce it.

And here's a shocker: In the 1920 book "Woman and the New Race," which came out at a time when abortion had already been illegal for a generation, Sanger wrote, "While there are cases where even the law recognizes an abortion as justifiable if recommended by a physician, I assert that the hundreds of thousands of abortions performed in America each year are a disgrace to civilization." (Keep in mind also that she died in 1966, a little over six years before Roe v. Wade.)

All this forces me to question the motives of people who accuse PP and similar organizations of placing abortion clinics in black neighborhoods for the purpose of racial "genocide." Here in Pittsburgh, PP's office is actually Downtown -- my bus to work goes within a block -- where few people actually live, most of those white. Also, three abortion clinics are located in East Liberty, an impoverished city neighborhood also largely black; however, two of them have been there since at least the early 1980s, when it was "in transition" (and probably long before that).

But as I was saying, the folks who have tended to promote "eugenics" as culture or policy have come from the right. It wasn't "liberals" who fought to preserve slavery. It wasn't "liberals" who implemented Jim Crow laws. It wasn't "liberals" who exploited migrant Asians on the West Coast in the 19th century. It wasn't "liberals" who strategically placed bombs to intimidate (or even kill) civil-rights figures or called Martin Luther King Jr. a Communist. It wasn't "liberals" who displayed signs saying "Hang [Nelson] Mandela" upon his release from a South African prison.

And if you need any more proof, consider that one of PP's largest benefactors is billionaire right-wing financier Richard Mellon Scaife, publisher of the Tribune-Review and best known for funding the "vast right-wing conspiracy" against President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

This kind of mischaracterization may be a reason why the anti-abortion movement hasn't gone anywhere since 1973. If we believe we have "truth" on our side, we'd better get our facts straight.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The cult of Sarah Palin

Ordinarily, the resignation of a governor facing ethics charges would be greeted with yawns and finger-wagging as if to say, "See, he became too big for his britches."

But when Sarah Palin, the former Republican Party vice-presidential candidate, announced last week that she would step down from her post as governor of Alaska effective July 26, it only added to her legend. That is, to her supporters.

And I think that says a lot about them.

Of course, those of us who follow politics are wondering what her next move is -- a run for president? Senator? Political commentary from a conservative perspective? (Only with the last would the former TV reporter have any serious bona fides.)

Anyway, to some people Palin's resignation is just about one woman who wanted the power of the office but not the baggage that came with it. Many have even said, "It's all about her."

But this Palin-worship isn't really about her; rather, it speaks to the delusion under which the political right has always operated (but which is becoming more obvious by the day to us non-conservatives). Palin represents little more than a microcosm of much of the conservative movement in general -- impetuous, arrogant, whiny, paranoid, clueless, classless, juvenile. Folks have actually rallied around a figure that resembles them -- but in a negative sense.

In a way, that shouldn't surprise.

Conservatives have always sought some "magic bullet" that would turn people against their opponents and toward them -- that's been their strategy since Nixon -- because doing things that way is easier than actually defending their proposals and the personalities that espouse them. I can't tell you how many right-wing media outlets tried to slander both Bill and Hillary Clinton, insisting that they had "information" that, if publicized, would "finish them off for good." And when it doesn't happen -- well, the media are "hiding something." All because they refuse to admit that their own agenda today is offensive and impractical and has fallen flat, their candidates are to a man (or woman) fatally flawed and their appeals are now falling on deaf ears.

They got lucky with Reagan, who in their view came in riding on a white horse to save the day from evil liberals and a malevolent press corps; perhaps they believe that they can catch lightning in a bottle once again even though times have changed. It's a lot like a football team trying the same play that no longer works because the defense knows it's coming and how to counter it.

With apologies to Bobby Caldwell, what you won't do, do for hate ...

When Palin was announced as the running mate for John McCain, she was touted as a reformer -- that's since proven dubious -- and a "Washington outsider" (according to Jane Mayer, writing in the New Yorker, an outright lie).

During a recent Facebook discussion, a Palin supporter insisted that the Democratic Party "feared" her. If she wants to believe that ... well, she's entitled her her opinion.

But the demographics don't support her claims, especially long-term. Let us remember that 60 percent of the "youth vote" -- that is, under-30 -- voted Democratic (read: liberal) during the last general election, and people generally don't change their voting habits over a lifetime. A few months ago Sen. Arlen Specter, until then a Republican, switched to the Democratic Party. Reason? His power base in the Philadelphia suburbs, generally under the category of "Rockefeller Republicans," during the Clinton years began trending Democratic because they couldn't abide the right-wing extremism that began to typify the national Republican Party.

All of which leads to the main point: It's Palin, not her critics, who is out of touch with reality. What's more, the same must be said for her worshippers, who will b---- and moan about her treatment at the hands of those not of their party. But as the late Chicago journalist Finley Peter Dunne said, "Politics ain't beanbag." If she can't take the scrutiny, she has no business even running for office. And they thus don't have the right to complain.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

I'm a complementarian

As a child in the 1970s, I was involved in a church that didn't ordain women to the pastorate or as deacons or elders, and the egalitarian in me considered that stance discriminatory and unnecessary.

Today, I attend a church that doesn't ordain woman as pastors or elders (there, deacons are not ordained positions), and now I understand why. If I haven't entirely recanted that stance, I now respect it.

Yes, I've become somewhat of a "complementarian" -- believing today that, when it comes to leadership in the church, it should be predominately (if not exclusively) male.

About a decade ago I did a lot of ballroom dancing with my then-girlfriend, and the first thing I learned in the process is that, in a couple, the man and woman have strictly-defined roles -- which, in this case, means that the man leads. It just works best that way.

I've come to realize that the same works in the rest of life, too. I didn't always believe that -- I mean, does gender really matter when it comes to relationships, especially in the church?

Yes, it does. Over the last two decades I've found that, when I'm in a situation that subscribes to a complementarian outlook, I'm treated with more respect as a man. But when it was more "egalitarian," with no division of labor according to gender, I often found myself ignored.

Why is that? Well, the feminist movement ended up making far more demands of men than of women -- in many cases the respect that women expected from men simply wasn't reciprocated, especially in evangelical circles. Although women claimed to want to be "equal partners" in marriage, they usually still shoot for partners with equal or higher status than they, which in practice means that the pool of available eligible men has shrunk because they have higher status. (Ironically, many of them complain, "Where are all the single men?")

During services at my church, only men are permitted to serve as ushers, collect tithes and offerings or disburse communion elements (the last of which I do regularly and enjoy). Reason: Men seek purpose, while women are more interested in fellowship. That is to say, men need something specific to do in a church, otherwise they would be less interested in remaining; women, on the other hand, are more satisfied just to "hang out."

But that also speaks to the need for us men to act as servants and not simply as "kings" enamored with authority -- just like our LORD. And that too is attractive to women, who whether they want to admit it or not crave somewhat whom they can trust to fulfill his responsibilities. Done right -- that is, with humility -- the "gender division" would be no big deal.

Communion -- it's NOT for 'everybody'

Last week, the Sojourners blog featured a post from a pastor who received a tearful mobile-phone message from a young woman who had been denied communion at her parents' church. Eventually, the "problem" was resolved when she finally was administered the sacrament in an airport chapel.

Here's the problem: The post didn't give any specific reason why this took place -- whether because the woman's parents attended church in a denomination that limited its observance of the LORD's Supper to adherents or she was involved in some gross sin that disqualified her. The post gave the impression that anyone who wants to should be able to take communion, anywhere, anytime.

On the contrary -- communion is in fact identified as the "believers' covenant meal," which (depending on your perspective) expands or limits participation. It of course represents a reminder of the then-upcoming death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus Christ, through and by which we believers in Him receive eternal life.

For that reason I won't attend or even visit churches -- two examples are Roman Catholic and Church of Christ -- that hold "closed communion"; folks shouldn't have to jump through any additional hoops to be received as fellow Christians. (In such situations their polity, not Christ, is the issue.)

That said, it's also incorrect to say that anyone is welcome at God's table because the Scripture is clear that He initiates any relationship and that no one comes to faith in Christ on his own. We need to understand that Jesus conducted the Last Supper with His disciples, His most intimate friends -- and that, contrary to the practice of that day, He selected them. (That should give us an idea of His intent.) Once receiving Christ, people should renounce the sin that He brings to mind, which should already be happening if they're being properly instructed in the Scriptures; then and only then are they ready to receive the elements.

From 1 Corinthians 12:

27Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the LORD. 28A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. 29For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the LORD eats and drinks judgment on himself.

Earlier today my church held its monthly observance of the LORD's Supper -- I generally have the privilege of serving as a steward -- and the person who officiates, usually the senior pastor, makes it very clear that only "born-again" followers of Christ were eligible to take it but that all of them were. (In fact, most Protestant churches practice similar "open communion.") But to do so properly, those who participate must understand the full implications as to what they're commemorating lest it degenerate into blasphemy.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

And if I needed any more proof ... the racist legacy of the modern conservative movement

About a decade ago during my last dating relationship, my girlfriend's brainy middle son brought home from church some literature from the "Conservative Chronicle" that he said came from "some think tank." I looked it up on the internet, and when I learned who the editor was, a Southern reactionary named Samuel Francis, I decided I wanted nothing to do with it because it came across as borderline racist. (Needless to say, I refused to attend the church as well, and that would eventually doom the relationship.)

Well, it turns out that there was nothing "borderline" about that publication.

Today I learned that the "think tank" that produced it was the Council of Conservative Citizens, a name not as innocuous as it sounds -- it was formerly known as the White Citizens Council, a staunchly segregationist organization that opposed the civil-rights movement in the 1960s. In effect, it operated as a kinder, gentler Ku Klux Klan minus the sheets and secrecy and apparently hasn't changed its views in all that time. Furthermore, it had at least two right-wing now-former Republican politicians -- Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia and Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi -- speak at gatherings. (Yes, the same Trent Lott who insinuated that he was hankering for segregation in feting the late Sen. Strom Thurmond during his centennial in 2002.)

I find it interesting that the political right likes to call attention to the historic racism of the Democratic Party and, in its arrogance, have openly wondered why African-Americans don't vote Republican. They conveniently overlook the fact that the Southern racists that gave the national Democratic Party that reputation began migrating to the GOP beginning in the 1960s -- of politicians of that era, only the late North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms was never elected as a Democrat -- and completely sold out to the GOP on a national level during the Reagan years. (Recall that even Ronald Reagan himself ran racist campaigns to appeal to them.)

Basically, the political right ought to stop denying its ties to racist groups, present as well as past. I don't think it's any coincidence that race has become less a factor as the political right has fallen from power, because back in that day the right used it has a divide-and-conquer tactic to achieve and maintain power. But instead of marginalizing its opponents, it ended up marginalizing itself. There's a reason Jesus said, "You reap what you sow."

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A different shade of green

It still amazes me just how much opposition to President Barack Obama is being expressed, especially by those who didn't vote for him. You'd think that they would wait and see if and how his economic policies would work before criticizing him -- in many cases, getting personal.

On second thought, perhaps I shouldn't be too surprised. We've seen this before, beginning in 1993 with Bill Clinton, some of whose adversaries were trying to derail him during the campaign.

Anyway, I think I know what's behind it: Envy.

Here's why: With all the bellyaching about what Obama does or doesn't do, rarely if ever do you hear his critics giving any alternatives. Nor can they, because the economic policies they subscribe to are the very same ones that caused the mess that he was elected in part to clean up. It was in that context that radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh declared a few months ago, "I hope he fails."

But that's par for the course, I guess, when you're dealing with a hugely popular political figure who isn't a conservative Republican.

The difference between jealousy and envy is that jealousy results when someone has something you want or is threating to take something you already have; envy, on the other hand, is the result of resentment toward another because of someone's possessions and/or status regardless of whether you can achieve or even want them. That's why the Scriptures describe envy, not necessarily jealousy, as a sin -- it's a form of self-worship and thus idolatry.

That, of course, hasn't stopped the naysayers; you get the impression that they would rather wreck the country than see someone not of their party cause positive change. When conservatives had Clinton impeached, what was their point? Basically, that they were in control for its own sake. It had really nothing to do with his corruption (the allegations were generally manufactured anyway) or his conduct -- the real issue was that, if things worked out, they would be seen as useless.

Which is just where things are going now.

It's one thing if people could actually give specific reasons why Obama's policies will necessarily fail; thing is, they have no authority to do so. They complain about his raising taxes (when he has actually pledged to reduce them on 95 percent of taxpayers). Besides that, if you put more money in the hands of the common people it makes sense that the merchants will eventually get that money back, offsetting a greater tax burden on the wealthy.

But we're talking not about what makes sense -- just "know-nothingism" based on resentment of the "other." And that's getting old. Quickly.

Some thoughts on being a son

When I was growing up, my dad occasionally expressed fear that he was failing as a father. To be truthful, I didn't know how to respond.

As I look back decades later, I think he had every reason to feel that way. For openers, he didn't grow up with his father, whom his mother threw out for infidelity when Dad was 5; had no adult male to show him the ropes; and was probably overwhelmed with the responsibilities. I get that today, as many men, especially in the African-American community, are going through the same thing.

Lately, however, I've caught a number of Charles Stanley's messages on the atmosphere that parents are obliged to create to rear healthy children, which is where my dad did fail. Children need to have a sense of belonging and competence; however, my thoughts, talents and tastes were never accepted, let alone valued, and I was merely expected to conform to the family dynamic. (Which I knew I never could and thus didn't even try.) Though all my gifts and interests were in the arts and communications, as a career I was steered toward math and science -- ostensibly to make a lot of money but ultimately, I suspect, to keep me cooped up at home.

Which leads me to another important point. Last year I ran into a woman that Dad had been involved with after my mother left him -- at the time of his death I was not on speaking terms with him, so I met her only at the first viewing -- and she noted that my mother, brother and I "were all he had."

That was a problem -- perhaps the problem. You see, Dad was using us to determine his identity and give him the security he always lacked. That, of course, was neither our role nor our responsibility because -- well, if he didn't give them to us, where were we supposed to get them?

OK, OK, I'll get out of the self-pity mode. Anyway, I now understand that the most important thing a father can give to his children is a sense of vision, hopefully to make this world just a little bit better than when they came into it. I think that's the problem with many families -- they try to buy a home in the nicest suburb available to raise their kids to go out and make money and start the whole process over again, with no rhyme or reason. Granted, these things aren't bad in themselves, but when that becomes the bottom line ... well, don't you feel a sense of emptiness, that you should be doing more with your life? Even "Christian" families get stuck in that same rut.

As a single man who probably will never have his own children (and thus not engaged in that battle), it's probably easy for me to make those kind of pronouncements. Still, I have an idea of what I would do were I a father -- and, more importantly, what I need to become an effective man. Number one on the list would be to cultivate friendships with older men who have been through the process. (Which I wish Dad would have done.)

Because I may never be a father -- but I will always be a son.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

True compassion

Earlier tonight I attended my regular Tuesday evening recovery meeting and, which I can't tell you just what the meeting was about, I can tell you I heard something of which I needed to be reminded. It was this: Identify with and pray for those who are suffering similarly.

That hit home for me because I've lately been struggling again with self-pity about being single, especially since dating has generally been a disaster because I have never initiated relationships very well. (Why that is, of course, is a subject for another day.) And when you're in that spot it's easy to get caught up in your own situation and believe that it will never end.

At times like those, as I first read in the late Walter Trobisch's book "Love Yourself," it's helpful to remember those who also are struggling. It reminds us that, as one of the Program's slogans reminds us, "You Are Not Alone." And I know full well that I'm not the only single man feeling frustrated because relationships with women haven't worked out, even at my advanced age.

But that's a universal. At the funeral of a churchmate and co-worker who died in January of ALS, I relayed the story of this woman asking about another colleague who had also attended our church who was facing cancer. (Unfortunately, he had died the month before.) And he too had prayed for other people rather than focus upon his own fate. In fact, I'm convinced that when we focus upon others our own troubles lift.

So before you hit the sack tonight, pray for someone else who may be troubled. And I hope I can take my own advice.

Monday, May 25, 2009

How the anti-abortion movement cooperates with the culture

Over the weekend and while visiting another blog, one of the other posters accused me of selling out to the prevailing culture because I didn't take a stronger, more militant anti-abortion stance. While I do oppose legal abortion, I responded that the movement has itself sold out in that way.

That post reminded me why, despite my belief that abortion is morally wrong and should be made illegal, I've never been involved. Far from transforming the culture, the movement has generally been transformed by it -- and thus has become generally ineffective. The reason is that it has focused like a laser beam on only that, ignoring other issues surrounding the sanctity of human life, and thus cannot reconcile its stated goals with its tactics.

I was actually stunned to learn why the "religious right" even adopted the issue of abortion in the first place -- as moral cover for its more nefarious goals: It started in response to the Carter Administration's siccing the Internal Revenue Service on private Christian academies in the South that had sprung up the decade before in response to court-ordered desegregation in public schools.

Anyway, the movement became more active in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan as president, the assumption being that he would appoint U.S. Supreme Court justices that would overturn Roe v. Wade. It got to the point where fighting abortion seemed to be the only function of the evangelical church, with people getting "saved" and almost immediately sent out on protests. Eventually, as time came and went and no serious challenges to Roe were being made, some people decided that more radical action was needed -- enter the so-called ministry called Operation Rescue.

All that, however, went by the board when Bill Clinton became president, and by this time battle fatigue set in.

The first problem is that the Scripture never tells us to "take over" the culture; while in this country we have the right to vote and demonstrate, that doesn't mean that we Christians should demand to have our voices heard and threaten those who don't toe our line. Rather, the Christian faith is by definition counter-cultural -- we do things differently and for different reasons, chief of which is the reality that, unless a person actually knows God, he or she simply cannot consistently obey Biblical principles. We should do what we do because we answer to a different King, not because we want to make this world into a monastery -- eventually, the "world" will rebel.

So what does this have to to with abortion? Plenty. First, we believers should protect, nurture and treasure each other and thus not leave people vulnerable to sexual activity in the first place. Then, we should clearly promote the sanctity of all of life -- minorities, the aged, the indigent -- by arguing and working for just treatment for everyone. (And that doesn't raise money or outrage -- which is the point.) It's not simply about changing laws; it's about subverting culture so that God will be glorified.

Decades ago I had a brief correspondence with a staff member of a major ministry that, like others in those days, was obsessed with ending legal abortion. She asked me about how I could stand before God in the judgment and justify "[letting] those babies die." I responded, "I'd rather hear that question than 'Why did you not reflect Me?'"

That's the bottom line. Because if we continue to allow the culture to determine our response we end up playing their game by their rules -- and we will eventually lose. Best rather to seek God for His will and operating out of His unlimited resources.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Some thoughts on black masculinity, part 3

In the 1990s, an ideology called "compassionate conservatism" became widely talked about in Christian circles, especially in dealing with the urban crisis. The idea was to provide churches with the means to do ministry, hopefully in the process to get enough people "saved" and discipled so that the 'hood would get cleaned up and we "wouldn't have to worry about them anymore."

Nice, in theory -- but, for reasons I've already mentioned, it can't work.

Mere "salvation" does not fill the hole in people's souls as the result of a lack of warmth, nurturing and validation. A man with several children by different mothers all of a sudden isn't going to be able to raise any of them properly just because he becomes a "mature" Christian, nor will any of those children necessarily grow up to be strong people in their own right. Religion in this case can be -- indeed, often has been -- yet another addictive substance (read: idolatry) if deeper emotional issues aren't addressed. There's a saying that if you have trouble relating to your earthly father you'll also have trouble relating to your Heavenly Father.

Boys especially need a knowledge of who they are and what they're about, a sense of belonging and a belief that they can achieve. But, because it's often dominated by women, the institutional church today often cannot do that properly -- often the focus is on behavior, usually enforced in a negative fashion, which can be stifling. (No wonder why men regardless of race or class often leave the church.)

Above all, males need something to do and to work for. Years ago I used to question the idea of reserving certain church leadership roles for men -- until I saw the results up close. In my current and childhood denominations only men are ordained as pastors and elders, and in my current church only men serve as ushers, offering collectors and communion stewards (I do the last regularly -- and love it). Basically, boys need to be given not only responsibility but also the tools to exercise it.

And this is why racial justice is so vitally important. Black men especially need to know that, if they work hard and keep their nose clean, they will be not only rewarded but also respected -- with money, promotions and the authority that goes along with them.

I don't think it's any coincidence that the civil-rights movement did more for black men than anything in history -- they came up with it; they strategized; they marched; they were tested in battle -- and today we laud folks like Martin Luther King Jr. as heroes. John Eldredge's "The Way of the Wild Heart" mentions that young Christian men need "epic Christianity"; the movement became that for me.

Basically, black men especially need a sense of dignity and destiny, and Christianity can do that only if it recognizes that.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Some thoughts on black masculinity, part 2

In a previous entry I referred to "fatherlessness" -- that is, not so much not having a literal father around but a lack of established older men around to show boys just how to grow and become centered in their masculinity. One of the major consequences is the high number of illegitimate births in the African-American community, now at around 70 percent nationwide. Most people probably think it's because black males are naturally oversexed and simply looking for an easy lay, which is certainly stressed in parts of hip-hop culture, including what are known as the demeaning "b-" and "h-words" in referring to women -- if that were addressed things might change.

But, upon thinking about it, I'm not sure that such adolescents really want or intend to become playboys or abusers. Rather, many of these boys, without realizing it, have embarked on a fruitless search not for so much sex but intimacy and validation. Work with me here...

As I mentioned before, that lack of guidance starts early with no strong male in the home -- and that leads to something that probably most people don't consider: Boys don't see how a healthy relationship between a man and a woman actually works. Therefore, they don't learn to treat women or girls like queens and princesses. (Remember, this goes back many generations, before the 1960s.)

Let's remember, however, that these boys already have a hole in their soul due to a lack of not only validation from a father or other strong male but also appropriate nurturing, so guess how they often try to fill it?

Often, with girls. Of course, that leads to many boys getting their sexual education from the street.

You see where I'm going with this -- sex in this context represents not so much sport but a salve to, at least in theory, wash away the inner pain they often don't even recognize. Trouble is, of course, that they're so needy themselves they don't have what it takes to satisfy a woman's heart. If she turns up pregnant they may "try to do the right thing" but in many cases, seeing correctly that they're defective, she breaks off the relationship believing that she and the child are actually better off without them. (One reason why simply marrying the child's mother doesn't solve the problem is that the emptiness will still be there after the wedding; about two decades ago I worked with a woman who had two children out of wedlock but refused to marry their father because "I don't want to raise three children.") Repeat numerous times and you have the present situation.

Anyway, this lack of confidence in their own masculinity has other results, too. Most obvious is the violence that often goes on in the street -- members of my own congregation have been shot, some to death, because of someone trying to "be a man" by imposing his will on others, and that doesn't always have to do with dealing drugs. And then, not discussed as often, are secret homosexual relationships between black men (colloquially called being "on the down low") that also can come from not being affirmed by Dad or some other man.

So what to do? I'll give answers -- as well as ask some other pertinent questions -- in an upcoming post.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Some thoughts on black masculinity, part 1

Most of you know that over the past few years I've become a big fan of "Wild at Heart" author John Eldredge, quoting him regularly on this blog. A few months ago I began to realize why: Inadvertently, he placed a finger on much of what ails the African-American community -- namely, that lack of "initiated" men. Part of that has to do with the lack of "fathers" who take boys and younger men under their wing and teach them how to become true men.

However, it's not a simple matter of black men doing so now -- because the problem goes deeper than is obvious. Since slavery, the masculinity of (especially) black men has been feared, denigrated, exaggerated to a point where, I think, few Americans know how to relate to us in a healthy manner. Simply put, part of the issue is one of America's original sins -- racism.

You see, we suffer with the reputation of being great athletes and sex machines (and, sadly, sexual predators) that lack hearts or brains; shady, listless characters who would rather hustle than work; jolly characters without a care in the world despite constant degradation; or, conversely, consistently angry at the world. From King Kong (which, when it was released, had racist overtones) to Step'n' Fetchit, we're not seen as men worthy of love and respect from the greater community. A few decades of that and you'd also feel lost, hopeless and useless.

And it would be foolish for me to believe that I haven't been affected. Because I see now that I have.

That brokenness existed in my "family of origin," with my own father. When Dad was five his mother, whom I believe now was mentally ill, threw his father out for marital infidelity and, I think, harbored a lifelong resentment toward men as a result. Of course, that would be hard for a boy whose masculinity was under assault from almost the time he was born, and without anyone to "show him the way" he never, ever found his groove. He could thus not raise his own sons properly, with a sense of vision and purpose, and my brother and I both suffer even to this day.

Going further, however, Dad displayed a deep resentment toward the white race. I understand the historic racism that has affected the black community not long after the first African stepped on these shores; however, he allowed his hopelessness to color his view of the world -- which has caused me no end of problems. And I'm sure there are hundreds of thousands of stories like mine.

So what does this have to do with anything? Well, because of such historic racism black men often couldn't get and education or decent jobs so that they could not only raise families properly but also become respected members of the community; or often fail to approach their potential. They were often told that they had limitations they could not overcome. "Jim Crow" laws in the South affected primarily men, who were conditioned to live in fear for their lives. (That doesn't do any favors.)

All this led directly to the "fatherlessness" that is endemic especially in the black community. Not having a sense of who and what they are, black men often have trouble raising children, especially sons, in the right way because they haven't themselves been taught or nurtured appropriately. (And since this has been a problem for centuries, it's unfair to blame the "Great Society" for breaking up black families -- they were fragile as it was.)

I'll delve into some of the other issues in other posts.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Single men in the church -- what single women can do

Thirty years ago, during my senior year in high school, a newspaper reported a very touching story about two high school basketball teams that had developed somewhat of a bond while participating in the Pennsylvania state playoffs. The girls' team from Indiana Area ended up being paired with the boys from Valley, so the girls began writing notes of encouragement to the boys. As both teams went deeper in the tournament, the girls eventually became the boys' biggest cheerleaders outside of their district. The girls lost in the semifinals, but the boys ended up taking the championship. (I don't know if any relationships started from that, but I'm sure the boys appreciated the support.)

I was reminded of that story upon reading "Where have all the single Christian men gone?", yet another article, this one on's "Christian Singles Today" page, about the major gender gap in the church, especially among singles. Please excuse my cynicism, but I sometimes wonder why many of these women want men in the church -- so that the pool of marriageable men can increase? Which leads to my point: Rather than bellyache about the dearth of single men, it seems to me that they can and should reach out to the guys who are already there.

Anyway, I have some observations on the singles "gender gap" in the church. Others have stated more eloquently and with more hard evidence than I that the church often comes across as a "girls' club" and that the Gospel is often cloaked in feminine language, often turning away men. That may be true, but I think part of the gap also has to do with the unrealistic expectations Christian women have of men.

I began to notice this in the campus ministry I was a part of in the 1980s. Much of the leadership fell to a number of physical therapy students, almost all of them attractive, spirtually mature -- and female. Gradually I realized that they (possibly without realizing it) had become fairly unapproachable, especially when it came to men, because of their status. In that fellowship women chased the strong guys and ignored the "weaker" ones.

Another thing to consider: Most of the strong Christian men I knew especially in those days grew up with godly fathers in solid marriages, which probably most of us "converts" who comprise the majority of never-married Christian men simply cannot appreciate. My own trouble in relating to other men at that point had to do with their relative unavailability -- until I was in my mid-20s I honestly did not know any spiritually mature yet unattached men. At that point it doesn't really matter how well you know and can apply the Scriptures, because people still need relationships. This is where the women can lend a hand.

Of course men should have their primary formative and discipling relationships with other men, but any man will tell you that gets dull after a while. You see, a note, phone call or any unsolicited attention from a woman can really make a man's day.

For that reason I think we also ought to encourage dating among Christian singles, not primarily to find a spouse or because they may find each other attractive but simply to learn how to relate to the other gender in more appropriate ways. Remember, at some point a man may become a husband and need to take responsibility for the well-being of his spouse and any children, and that can be done effectively only with practice. Back in the 1990s a then-future, now-former girlfriend of mine got involved in a church -- that turned out to be a cult -- in which one of the unspoken "rules" was that singles were supposed to go out on dates every Saturday. With all the institutional dysfunction in that church, nevertheless it got that one right.

My advice to single women who don't want to be: Don't just hope and pray that God will bring the "right man" into your life. While you're waiting for him, employ Jesus's "do unto others" priniciple and find a way to build up that single brother sitting right next to you. You'll both be blessed in the process.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Specter conumdrum

The political world was rocked today with the news that Arlen Specter, U.S. Senator representing Pennsylvania, had decided to switch from the Republican to the Democratic Party, possibly giving the Democrats a filibuster-proof margin. Most people probably believe that he did so to save his political hide because he had virtually no chance of being re-elected as a Republican or even an independent.

That may be true, but here's the real reason: His power base has shifted.

Although Pennsylvania has a reputation as a "swing state," in fact its voting habits tend to be quite static, with Philly and Pittsburgh (and Pittsburgh's inner-ring suburbs) staunchly Democratic/liberal and much of the rest of the state heavily Republican/conservative; that being the case, whoever won southeastern Pennsylvania, the only true swing region, would win a tight statewide race. Specter, a former district attorney in Philadelphia, was and still is very, very popular in that part of the state; however, the suburbs around that city, generally Republican when he was first elected 30 years ago, nevertheless always leaned ideologically more liberal and began during the Clinton years to trend Democratic.

Specter had to notice this. Since that region of the state has seen an marked increase in Democratic registration and because of the state's closed primary system, many of his former supporters simply could not vote for him in next year's primary election unless he switched. And with former GOP congressman Pat Toomey and former gubernatorial candidate Peg Luksik, both staunch conservatives popular with that wing of the party, already seeking the Republican nomination, Specter's GOP goose was certainly cooked.

Curiously, however, that represents a major-league problem for the Republicans, national as well as state. Because the electorate has seen an upswing in Democratic registration -- due largely to disgust with unyielding conservative ideology -- Republican candidates face serious obstacles in winning elections anywhere outside the South. Trouble is, the party is generally oblivious to the reality that a lot of people hate what they stand for.

Which, to be truthful, is establishing the conservatives, who dominate the GOP, as a permanent semi-aristocracy in it only for the power but not the responsibility of running the government properly.

But there's also a bit of hypocrisy in Republicans' chastising of Specter for switching parties -- after all, more than a few Democrats, most notably in the South, became Republicans primarily because of Ronald Reagan (or perhaps more accurately, his supporters in their respective electorates).

Bottom line, as things stand now Arlen Specter is the odds-on favorite to retain his seat because if the two Republicans now in the race refuse to moderate their rhetoric -- and I have no reason to believe they will -- the winner will be clobbered next November. Besides, Specter has plenty of cash on hand to fund a campaign, certainly enough to dwarf the war chest of any Democrat who might consider running against him. The Republican Party would do well to understand that politics is the art of compromise; if they don't they'll continue to be on the outside looking in. Specter switched parties because he understood that.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Pitt vs. Penn State -- it never was all that

When this former basketball player was growing up in Pittsburgh, I learned the history of high school hoops and especially its great players. (I won't mention any of their names here because they won't mean anything to most of you.) Up until the 1980s the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic, originally pitting the best players in Pennsylvania against the best of the rest of the country, was played here at what is now the Mellon Arena; I knew two guys, one of which was a junior-high teammate, who played in it. When it came to college they went to the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne University, some schools in Philadelphia and even others across the country.

But one place none of them attended: Penn State. And that's why I think the "rivalry" between the two schools has been overhyped.

Recently, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno signed for a home-and-home series for his school to play Rutgers University in New Jersey, stoking the anger of Pitt fans because Paterno decided long ago not to renew the rivalry in football. Paterno has given all these excuses -- "we need more home games, we need to recruit in other areas" -- but won't come clean on the real impetus for his refusal to play Pitt.

And men's basketball was at the heart of it.

In the early 1980s, when Paterno also was serving as State's athletic director, he applied for membership in the young but already-successful Big East Conference, then-basketball driven. The hope was to get State on TV and play top teams on a consistent basis, thus making it more attractive to potential recruits.

You see, State's main campus, which literally is in the geographic center of Pennsylvania and very rural, has a reputation, deserved or not, of being inhospitable to African-Americans; according to the College Board, in the late 1970s only 3 percent of State students were minorities. As a result, it has a hard time recruiting not only in Pittsburgh but also in Philadelphia, where most of the good players are, and the program has always languished in relative obscurity with very few fans outside of its immediate locale.

Trouble was, the conference -- all of whose members even today are in major television markets or steeped in basketball tradition -- didn't see State as a good fit because it fit neither category, so a majority of schools said no.

Paterno then came up with the idea of an Eastern all-sports conference that would include State, Pitt, West Virginia University, Rutgers, Temple -- and Boston College and Syracuse, two charter Big East members and the only ones at the time with Division I football programs. The conference didn't like that, so it successfully courted Pitt, which of course is in a major TV market, and in the process collapsing Paterno's plans.

Paterno has had it in for Pitt ever since. After he got State into the Big Ten in 1993, he announed that there was "no room for Pitt" on the football schedule. (The two schools last played in 2000.)

In the nearly nine years since the schools last played football it finally hit me, who grew up a Penn State fan but attended Pitt and now a Pitt basketball season ticket-holder, that the rivalry was never that strong in the first place. You see, a good college rivalry -- say, Michigan-Ohio State, Georgia-Georgia Tech, Southern California-UCLA, Texas-Texas A&M -- should include grudge matches in every sport; that's what makes them compelling. Having also attended Georgia Tech, I saw up close that even a game of tiddlywinks with UGa would draw a crowd. (And to this day I root for whomever Georgia plays.)

But Pitt's primary men's basketball rival has always been Duquesne, and you can't simply build history over a period of just a few years; as I mentioned, State's basketball program has always been an afterthought because few players came from the Pittsburgh area. (It cancelled its own series with Pitt because the last five games weren't competitive, Pitt winning each game handily.) Other sports also don't generate the fan interest.

In December 2004 I made my one and only visit to State College for the basketball game. I was able to buy a ticket at the gate (the attendant, seeing me wearing Pitt gear, said, "Enjoy the game -- but not too much"), and when I got into the Bryce Jordan Center (which is as nice as, if not nicer than, the Petersen Events Center) I noticed thousands of fans disguised as empty seats. And even today, while Pitt is now fielding top-20 teams in an always-sold out arena and went to the Elite Eight, State is still struggling to get players and establish a fan base -- and this despite winning the National Invitation Tournament last month.

So maybe trying to rekindle this rivalry is not worth the hassle. Pitt has something going with West Virginia, which is closer anyway, even a catchy nickname ("the Backyard Brawl"). Besides, due to Big Ten rules, any football game against Penn State would have to come very early in the season. Yes, Pitt vs. Penn State football does have a history -- and that's apparently where it will remain. And probably should.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Moving toward -- ?

In an early chapter of his book The Way of the Wild Heart, John Eldredge describes several ways that men react to their fathers. One sample, which closely correlates to mine, was the following: "An evil man. May God deliver me from his legacy."

At a 12-Step recovery meeting I attended earlier tonight, I realized something: I've spent much of the past four decades running from my father. (Never mind that he's been dead for over 15 years.)

In retrospect, that started early. He derided Martin Luther King Jr. because of his commitment to the Christian faith; I became not only a Christian myself but also an admirer of King and supporter of his attitude of nonviolence. He resented the white race; meanwhile, most of my friends are -- and almost all of my dating partners have been -- white. He wanted me to study engineering; when that didn't work out I turned to writing, which displeased him.

But even my conversion, nearly 30 years ago, and subsequent discipleship were driven in large part by not wanting to be like him. I received Christ as Savior and LORD the day after he informed my brother and me that my mother had threatened to leave -- and I knew why. Just over four years later, when she made good on that threat and I moved out with her, I went into counseling and entered 12-step recovery because of a specific situation that showed me that, even though I was a believer, I had not changed sufficiently to be able to live effectively on life's terms. (The Program, based on Alcoholics Anonymous, has actually helped me to be a better Christian.)

Basically, I understood how not to live. But -- what's the alternative?

I think that illustrates one of the problems with the way Christianity is "sold" in this country -- primarily as a way to avoid eternal punishment. While that is certainly a fringe benefit of "salvation," I'm no longer convinced that doing so represents God's intent. He created ancient Israel to separate a people for Himself to live by His law in order to glorify Himself and bless the rest of the world; He sent his Son Jesus for the same ultimate purpose. In other words, His intention was always positive.

That's the challenge that I -- and every serious Christian -- face. When Paul instructs believers to "crucify the flesh," he was referring to the process of suffocation that eventually brought death to a physical body. That said, the "flesh" has to be replaced with something else rather than just killed. Which is why spiritual discipline is so important.

I'm not sure what that means exactly in my present state. I know only that a "negative" view won't help me personally, let alone help to establish the Kingdom of God as far as I have influence. May I -- and we -- live more positively.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Misguided activism

This month marks the 25th anniversary of a pivotal moment that helped to determine my views on activism. More accurately, it showed me how not to go about it.

On Easter Sunday 1984 two groups of pro-labor activists -- the lay Network to Save the Mon/Ohio Valley and the Denominational Ministry Strategy, comprising pastors -- disrupted the later service at Shadyside Presbyterian Church, a prominent congregation I had joined just weeks before. When I arrived there a little late a tall, heavyset man dressed in flannel shirt, workboots and jeans was shouting at the congregation amid the singing. The offficiating pastor allowed him to deliver his message, which was full of invective toward members of the congregation who were involved in upper management of steel companies that were shutting down operations, putting many of those men out of work. Many of us greeted them afterwards, a close woman friend taking me by the elbow as we made our way forward.

That wasn't the end of it, however. Over the next couple of years the groups, among other things, placed dead fish in safe deposit boxes in certain bank branches, insulted the pastor the church later called (as if he had anything to do with it) and bombed with skunk oil attendees of a post-Christmas pageant reception in the fellowship hall. I'm sure that, to many of my church fellow members, it felt like a constant siege. The activists were certainly committed to the cause -- one of the Lutheran pastors affiliated with the DMS, who ended up going to jail, had his ministerial credentials revoked.

But the groups' ultimate demand, to take the church's entire endowment, then about $6 million, showed their real colors. The message: "You owe us." In other words, they cared only about getting what they wanted no matter how it affected other people -- just what they were accusing the execs of. Well, they didn't get a penny from the church and the effort eventually petered out largely because of justifiably bad press.

Since then I've witnessed other similar demonstrations, specifically the anti-abortion Operation Rescue in 1988 during which two people I personally know were arrested for blockading abortion clinics. Civil-rights marches were still also taking place for reasons I don't even remember right now. And so on, and so on ...

Amazingly, all these groups claimed the "nonviolent" mantra of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom I've studied for years. I saw immediately, however, that there was no connection between them.

King would never had insulted the other side, much as he personally would have liked to, because he knew full well that the opposition was trying to draw him into a tit-for-tat that would have sabotaged any moral authority he had. He also even invited his enemies to join them, witness conversations he had with jailers in Birmingham, Ala. who were complaining about the very same "system" that had imprisoned him.

That spirit of gentle confrontation didn't exist in the Network/DMS; their goal from the start was to humiliate the "enemy." Instead, the campaign against SPC became the church's finest hour, as its leadership consistently conducted itself with grace and humility. Indeed, I'm sure that some of the people reading this have all but forgotten about those demonstrations.

And that's the point. There's a way to confront perceived injustices -- with communication and relationship, not just making demands.