Friday, March 16, 2018

Urban church, global city: Income inequality


Leading the income inequity workshop

Income Inequality: the Growing Chasm

I'd like to begin with a reading from scripture. My key passage is :

 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.

And the whole passage is:

Luke 16: 19-31

The Rich Man and Lazarus
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.[a] The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.[b] 24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Okay….so what does income inequality feel like?

II. What does it feel like?

1 When I was a grad student and went to baseball games at old Yankee Stadium, the tickets were:
$4 for the most expensive tickets and-$1 for the Bleacher seats.
' When thy built the new stadium in 2008, the lower bleachers were now "Outfield boxes." The cheapest obstructed view seats were now$5- and the seats behind home plate now $2500 We had moved from4 to 1 to 500 to1. Which is about the same as the change in  CEO compensation over the same years. And now there is a concrete moat  around most expensive seats so that no non-wealthy people can enter even when there are empty seats.
2. Airplane restroom. Or how about you're on an airplane and you really have to go  and the closest restroom is two rows ahead and the other one is 30 rows back with a waiting line  of six or more but you are not allowed  to use the closest restroom because it is for first class only...
 3 . Our church wants to build a church owned  residential building with both market rate and affordable units. But the affordable people would have to enter through another door, a so-called "Poor door.” I am so glad we never actually faced that decision.

So now, What images come to your mind?

The workshop members came up with images that came mainly from realms of health care, housing and gentrification 

workshop paticipants hard at work

II. The Reality

From Chuck Collins author  of Born on 3rd Base (in American baseball, almost home…) writes:

Extreme inequality of wealth, income,
and opportunity is warping everything we care
about. It takes away the sense that we’re all in the same boat. It screws up communities. You can see it in the housing market, where wealthy buyers bid up prices, making homes unaffordable from everyone else. It creates economic volatility even
for the rich, which is one reason why the wealthy cling to their wealth. We live in a society where even people who don’t appear to be at risk can lose it all, and the fear of that happening makes them greedy and shortsighted.

Inequality rips communities apart. U.S. Census data show that, over the last four decades, high and
low-income families have become increasingly unlikely to live near one another.  
neighborhoods are becoming rarer. As we divide into affluent and poor enclaves,
people’s sense that they share a common destiny withers, replaced by fear, misunderstanding,
and class and racial antagonisms. Public investments in health infrastructure and social
opportunity often decline.

Political scientists are finding that too much inequality is bad for democracy. It disenfranchises
voters and warps lawmakers’ priorities. A polarized economy creates polarized politics, which
makes it hard to get any movement on climate change, infrastructure repair, healthcare, and an
already weakened social safety net.

PHIL TOM is a Presbyterian Pastor and former Obama administration staff member who now chairs the national Presbyterian urban network. Phil recently wrote:

Our cities are becoming a tale of two cities – one for the low and middle income, the other for the financially well to do.   The absurdity of the New York City’s housing market ...a studio apartment near Grand Central Station for $3,005 a month.[1]  For someone making the minimum wage of $11 in New York City, the yearly payment for the studio apartment of $36,060 would greatly exceed his/her annual income of $22,880.   California is also experiencing a severe affordable housing shortage. “Gentrification is taking more and more once-affordable rental units off the Los Angeles market, and restrictive zoning laws along with high construction costs and anti-development sentiment make new affordable units hard to build. Over the last six years, the rent for a studio apartment in Los Angeles has climbed 92%, according to UCLA law professor emeritus Gary Blasi, so that even people who have jobs can find themselves living on the streets after a rent spike or an unexpected crisis. As Blasi notes: “In America, housing is a commodity. If you can afford it, you have it; if you can’t, you don’t.”[2]  .... A renter earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour would need to work 117 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom rental home at the Fair Market Rent and 94.5 hours per week to afford a one-bedroom. “[4]

Many low and moderate-income residents are being forced to move out of the city due to gentrification and rising housing costs.   These residents are being forced out to the first or second ring suburbs.  Many of these folks not only endure longer commutes for their jobs in the city but also bear the additional costs for transportation.  The longer commuting time also creates additional problems in accessing childcare, transportation and other services.

Many of the jobs created in recent years with our economy growing again are low-wage jobs, temp jobs, and part-time jobs.[5]  Wages have stagnated for low and moderate-income workers.  These factors are increasing the income inequality gap between city residents and creating neighborhood inequality and economic segregation within cities.  “When low-income persons are segregated in high-poverty neighborhoods, they are systematically cut off from public resources in education, housing, and healthcare and simultaneously exposed to higher levels of crime, violence and economic isolation.”[6] 

RON  SIDER of Evangelicals for Social Action writes of a conversation with
Professor Robert D. Putnam.

Putnam is appalled at the radical lack of equality of opportunity in the U.S. today, and he wanted to know if evangelical preachers would dare to say what his pastor said when he was a teenager. Putnam told me that back then, in the midst of Martin Luther King’s great campaign against segregation, his devout Methodist pastor dared to preach that “racism is a sin.”

Professor Putnam asked me, as an evangelical, whether evangelical pastors today would be ready to declare today’s great economic inequality of opportunity a sin. That’s a great question.

So how should we evaluate the extreme inequality in income, wealth and power in the U.S. today?

American economic inequality today is greater than at any time since 1928 — just before the Great Depression.

In 2004, the richest .1 percent had more income than the poorest 120 million. If you divided the total U.S. income among 1,000 people, the richest person (one person!) would have as much income as the poorest 387!

Between 1993 and 2007, more than half of all the increase in income in the U.S. went to the richest 1 percent. Between 2002 and 2007, 66 percent of all increased income went to the richest 1 percent. And in 2009-2010, 93 percent of all the increased income in the U.S. went to the richest 1 percent.

The richest 1 percent of Americans own more than the bottom 90 percent.

Over the last three decades, the average annual income of the richest 1 percent has jumped by $700,000 while the average Joe has actually lost ground.

The poorest 20 percent had less income in 2009 than they did in 1979.

More than 46 million Americans are in poverty.
Today there is much greater inequality and less equality of opportunity in the U.S. than in “aristocratic” Europe.

Making things even worse, some prominent politicians say that our serious budget deficits mean that we must slash effective programs that empower poor people. House Republicans have called for cutting $128 billion from food stamps; cutting Pell grants that help poor kids afford college from $5,500 to $3,000; cutting effective foreign aid that saves the lives of millions around the world. At the same time, they want to give more tax cuts to the richest Americans.


In the US
1% own 20% of pre tax income.  The top    .1% own more than 80% alone. The bottom 50% have less than 20% of the income.  In the "recovery" post 2008, the top 19% got 91% of the growth and the top 1% gained more than 81%more than the bottom 50%. The  US is now  41st out of 141 nations in income equity.

Economy  grew 22% since 1991.
The richest 10% more than 27%
The middle  more than 9% and the bottom less than 5%

Real wages  grew by 5% while investment income, money from money,  grew by more than 30%. Those in danger of falling  into  poverty grew from 12% to 16%. There is a hidden food crisis as rich Munich now has 8 food banks.  10% of the population now owns 60 % of the wealth.

One more reality

A fascinating new study from the Journal of Experimental Psychology roand lets that Three Canadian neuroscientists have suggested that being rich and powerful actually makes you less happy and, even worse, unable to sympathize with the poor. They find that the rich and powerful among us show less brain activity in that region of the brain where human sympathy is excited.

References for above data are found at:,

III. What are our BIBLICAL/Theological resources?

Pope Francis draws ours attention to the story of Zaccheus and the restorative nature of his response.

Sider recognizes that the traditional evangelical equation is an equivalence between wealth and blessing. He says, on the other hand, that he believes the Bible suggests at least two limits on inequality. For one, the biblical principle of justice demands that each person and family has access to productive resources so that if they act responsibly, the can earn a decent living and be dignified members of society. Whenever the extremes of wealth and poverty make it difficult or prevent some people from having access to adequate productive resources, then that inequality is unjust, wrong, sinful, and must be corrected.

The second limitation on inequality flows from the biblical understanding of sin and power. In our broken world, whenever one group of people acquires excessive unbalanced power, they will almost always use it for their own selfish advantage.

Is it any wonder that when a rich young man came to Jesus asking for spiritual guidance, Jesus said: "If you wish to feel complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven." (Matthew 19:21). The young man "went away grieving," as he had so much property and didn't want to let go of anything.

I chose the “chasm” passage because I believe, like the Old Testament prophets, that the chasm is not a punishment by God but something of our own creation. The exile to Babylon was not an imposed punishment but a natural outcome of the broken bonds of a society that failed to care for
the poor and vulnerable. The widow, orphan and stranger at your gate are woven inextricably through the cycle of the first five books. 
Bible refernces

Workshop participants came up with  Luke 12: 16 and the  story of Joseph and the dream of fat  and lean cows, although someone pointed out how Joseph had manipulated the system to make all the Egyptian working people dependent on pharaoh.
1 Timothy 6: 17-19
The importance of the  concept of sabbaths for ALL including slaves and animals
Acts 2   where all things were held  common

V. So....then what do we do?

How do we "return good for evil" in this reality?  Collins suggests the answer is
Yes, if we don’t try to understand each other’s experiences, we’ll remain separated.
Privilege keeps the wealthy apart from others. I think we all feel this gap, wherever we are on
the economic spectrum

 In Born on Third Base, he a suggests that the wealthy “accompany” the disadvantaged
as they struggle for economic justice in selling papers, standing with hotel workers on strike, etc.
We need to act and then have reflection on our action…our church West Park serves first Sunday dinners to our local homeless shelter. Other churches serve sandwiches or pizza. We serve full dinners…with tablecloths, napkins, glassware, silver ware.. the volunteer who heads the program says, Everyone deserves Sunday dinner. And all can sit down and eat with the guests. “ Feeding programs are for zoos …brothers  and sister break bread together.

Now what are your ideas?
Looking to create empathy


Our focus is on empathy and accompaniment. On solidarity. On never giving up on someone. What we learn just from riding the SBahn.  We can reduce personal consumption. (Upper West Side of  New York congregations did a shared experience of trying to living on food stamps for week…there was a blog...and sharing thoughts with other congregations and sharing the resources of our faith traditions then meeting with advocacy groups to determine what public policy issues to support)

We need to learn and practice non-violet communication and seeing god in the other

We need to  find ways  to extend invitation to the wealthy to participate

One member of the group had adopted refugees as “sons.”

There was a strong desire to carry the conversion on with the larger community context and for common activity beyond individual.

It was clear the conversation had only just begun.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Urban Church,Global City: Transforum Berlin 2018


Friday morning plenary at the Transforum Festival

What does it mean to be a faithful Christian in the city? What does it mean to be church in the city? And in everything, what does it mean to return good for evil? These were the challenges presented at this year's Transforum Berlin 2018, an annual project of "Together for Berlin" and a coalition of other allies.

Gathering at the Josua Gemeinem Church in Spandau were some nearly200 persons prepared to engage in intense exploration from Thursday night through Saturday.
While the offerings were wide and diverse, I will only offer a few "snapshots." Throughout the whole conference, the issue of returning good for evil would be a common through thread.
The conference's commitment to faithful living in our daily lives brought a diverse panel including business people, teachers, children and youth workers, a singer/songwriter from Rwanda and a jazz and soul singer all reflecting on the challenges they have faced and how they have responded with "good."

Another panel brought us a member of parliament who had actually won an election in a hotbed of new right wing activism. He shared with us the effects of ongoing personal attacks and his efforts to engage opponents personally. Singer Jean Paul Samputu
Jean Paul speaks of forgiveness
told the story of meeting and forgiving the man who had nursed his parents. His powerful testimony concluded with the statement "we become what we cannot forgive" and led to an impromptu duet with singer Sarah Kaiser.

We heard about the Micah Initiative and doing good for all creation reminding us that God waited until ALL creation was done before proclaiming it very good. (All we rated was a good.)That in every generation it is our reaction more than our actions that define us as Christians. And from the forgiveness campaign that forgiveness is more for the one who forgives. And the importance of the message of acceptance just as you are.

A wide array of interactive workshops covered practical areas like start ups and healthy city families and maintaining faith in hostile or indifferent secular contexts. And of "respect in mission" in Berlin's multicultural multi faith reality. And the importance of community in facing evil with good. And many more including my own workshop on Income Inequity and its effect on our common life.
Leading the workshop on Inequity

My goal was to explore the experience of what it feel like, what the objective reality is, Biblical and theological resources and empathy as a means towards beginning to invite others to wrestle with inequity. There was a real passion in the group to move beyond personal to communal actions and for ways to engage the political dimension of the issue.

There was a clear conscious effort to make visible a vision of a church where there is "neither Jew nor Greek..." with presentations from many cultures including Africa and an Indonesian youth choir. There was also a clear intent to demonstrate the importance of arts and creativity in the life of the church in the city. Over and over intentional valuing of diversity and inclusion made itself clear, not the least by the offering of multilingual simultaneous translation.

My friend Uli from the Fellowship of Reconciliation
To some degree, the Christians of Transforum operate under the societal religious radar of Berlin with its (still) recognized landeskirche and a (still) strong Catholic minority. Under the general rubric of "free" churches, they range from "church plantings" intended to create new churches in traditional evangelical model to Pentecostals to house churches and intentional communities freed from the worrisome brick and mortar. As a rule, they are deeply committed to serving the communities where they live as engaged neighbors with special skills to offer.

There are of course the accompanying tensions of individual salvation versus prophetic engagement in the society around us, Christian triumphalism versus engaged solidarity with other faith groups. (Together for Berlin is an active participant in Berlin's Alinsky style Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) faith based community organization. The most challenging question of all has to do with the, for the most part, the current non-interaction between the historic Evangelishe churches and their evangelical neighbors. A serious conversation about oneness in Christ is essential  to begin. In the meantime, some of the most creative and boundary pushing work on urban ministry is clearly coming  from the circle of churches responsible for Transforum. Understanding our ministry in the urban church in the global city requires the best of all of us. Thanks for the opportunity to participate.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Third Sunday in Lent: Commandments for Life


After church Sunday dinner

After a week in Florida, I'm back with my friends at Beverley Church in Brooklyn. Here's this week’s reflection. 

SO it is the third Sunday of Lent.

So I'm just back from Florida. The other day I was sitting on my friend's patio, having a conversation. It was 78' and sunny in Florida. And I looked and noticed it was 36' with mixed rain and snow in New York City. Mmmmm. Well, at least the sun was shining yesterday.

I was staying with a rabbi friend and on Friday night, I helped him do his service. After the service, we sat and talked awhile. He's got a pretty hard and fast rule about never putting politics into his sermons. That things are so hard for  most of us out there, that we all need jut san hour's peace once a week. A time to be together praising God  and feeling the healing wings of God embracing us and resting in the peace of the Lord. 

My tradition and experience takes me to a somewhat different place, but I profoundly respect where he's coming from on that point and I always want to make sure that when  we're together, we experience some of that peace and renewal. And I expect  our conversation will go on for  as long as we're friends because there are so many angles  to that conversation.

I was thinking how one of the things  I say about the job of being a pastor is that we are to help with the ongoing  exegesis of the lived lives of the people of God. That is, we're supposed to help you all make sense of what's going on around you theologically and spiritually. And man, I have no idea as to how to even begin to keep up with what's going on around us now. There's just too much every day. 

So I wanted to get into the 10 commandments today. And the thought struck me that once you move beyond one person, you're into politics.  I guess it's all in how you define the term. And by the way, I'm still amazed at Billy Graham lying in state in the capitol rotunda. Its very clear that for all of his public eschewing of politics, he was a very political person. Even as far as  giving to Nixon a bombing plan for Vietnam that if carried out would have killed over a million people. Although it is true that the focus of his public preaching was individual salvation...what it takes to get me into heaven. 

And that's a good entree into the Ten Commandments (and if you're older than a certain age, how do you even say that and not think about Charlton Heston?) Because the 10 commandments are not a personal guide book to get you into heaven. They have a very different purpose.A political purpose if you will. 

Note they're from Exodus. From the part of the Bible story where the Hebrew people exit from Egypt and then have to spend 40 years in the desert learning how we live together as a community.. before entering the  promised land. These commandments are at the base of that. 

(Those who  want to put them in our courthouses have the right instincts, as to their basic importance.   They are the root of our legal justice system. But living in an inclusive society is more complicated. Besides ...are you aware there are protestant, jewish and catholic ways of dividing the commandments? )

The first sounds like its simply religious. But inspiring our friends  in the Confessing Church in the writing of the Barmen Declaration in the midst of Nazi Germany and the so-called 'German Christian" movement. 

We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans." On the contrary, the Declaration proclaims that the Church "is solely Christ's property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance." (8.17) Rejecting domestication of the Word in the Church, the Declaration points to the inalienable lordship of Jesus Christ by the Spirit and to the external character of church unity which "can come only from the Word of God in faith through the Holy Spirit. Thus alone is the Church renewed" (8.01).
But by claiming primary allegiance to Christ in Nazi Germany, they were making a profoundly (and dangerous) political statement as well.  All authority in Christ, which leaves no room for Hitler. 

We could do a sermon about each of these.  The first four seem to  about our relationships with God and the last five with each other with a day of rest in between..which makes it central...even for slaves and animals...this was the inspiration of the 40 hour week, the end of Child labor, Sunday school...if only we could get back to a sense of sabbath...

And have we ever had more of a need for a commandment about truth?

But here's the main point I want to make about the commandments. The first pretty much says it all. We shall have no other Gods before us...and every one of the other commandments is about giving something else god like importance in our lives before God. Every time we break a commandment, we are placing another concern before God. 

Maybe as a Lenten discipline this week, you could ask yourself at the end of each day what commandments did you break today? Or simply think about  when we made something else more important than God. Or reflect on a commandment a day. And think about metaphors. Remember Jimmy Carter's "Adultery of the spirit?"

Our God will be faithful to the 1000th generation. Thanks be to God!

I had promised the people that I would play for them today.  So following communion, as the offering was being collected, I played my setting of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind."And like I did last Friday at Sarasota, the last time through I stopped and said,
"I've been watching these high school children from South Florida blow us away and you know what? Maybe its too east to say the answer is blowin in the wind.  Maybe we need to sing the answer is the answer my friend is not blowin' in the wind, the answer is in our in hands.  And that's exactly what we did.

And when it was over, went downstairs for dinner. And conversation.  We broke bread together.

First Reading Exodus 20:1-17

1Then God spoke all these words:

2I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me.

4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

8Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9For six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

12Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

13You shall not murder.

14You shall not commit adultery.

15You shall not steal.

16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Alone in Berlin: a story of resistance


In the days in which we are living, stories about resistance are much needed.  To that end, Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada proves a valuable resource.  Inspired by a true story, Alone in Berlin was first published in 1947 as part of a denazification cultural rehabilitation in East Germany, remained unpublished in English until 2009. After TV versions in both East and  Germany in the '70's, it became a major film in 2017 bringing attention back to the story again. 

Based on the story of Otto and Elise Hampel, alone tells of how an ordinary German working class couple, the Quangels, comes to the point of initiating their own resistance following the death of their son at the front. (And the suicide of a viciously bullied neighbor.) The Quangels begin writing anti-Hitler postcards and dropping them around the city.

There are several striking things bout the book.  First Fallada (born Rudolph Wilhelm Adolph Ditzen) presents a striking picture of what life was like in Nazi Germany through the eyes of common people. In an understated, matter of fact tone, we get a feel  for what day to day was like.  Through the interconnected relationships of families and neighbors, it is helpful to be reminded that in most times, most people spend most of their  energy just trying to get by. Whoever happens to be fuhrer or (President) is simply what has to be be dealt with. For most, true ideological analysis and commitment is a luxury.  It also makes clear that in these kind of regimes, self serving behavior becomes common  and corruption permeates everything. Paranoid perspective on the part of governments allows people to use the security apparatus for self advancement and the settling  of personal scores.  These kind of systems  attract people of like character.

Step by step the tension tightens until finally the Quangels are taken in and begin the journey through the Gestapo and "Peoples' Court" to their inevitable execution. At one point, Otto Quangel discovers  that most of his postcards were almost immediately turned into the police.  Very few seen multiple times or perhaps even read. 

When questioned by  his interrogator he responded, " You see it doesn't matter if one man fights or ten thousand; if the one man sees he has no option but to fight, then he will fight whether he has others on his side or 
not...." Later, when he questions what good did our resistance do?, his cell mate, a symphony conductor, responds, "Well, it will have helped us to feel that we behaved decently till the end. And much more it will have  helped people everywhere..nothing in this world happens in vain, and since we are fighting for justice against brutality, we are bound to prevail in the end." These words help Otto preserve is dignity an decency to the end. At one point, the gestapo interrogator  realizes that Quangel is the better man and sees his own moral emptiness.        

In these times, it's important  to remember that  "effectiveness" and "visible results" are not always helpful criteria. In his afterward, Geoff Wilkes that we defeat the regime in both ideal and metaphysical terms by preserving our own moral integrity both as individuals and as representatives of what a  better society could be.  As opposed to Hannah Arendt's comments on Eichmann and the banality of evil, Wilkes says that Fallada "comprehends and honours the banality of good."

So in thee days, we should figure out our personal version of the Quangel (Hampel)'s postcards. And maintain our own decency, no matter what.                                         

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Oscar short films 2018: How we live now


My friend Beppe and I have a tradition every year during the Oscar run up time of going to the  Independent Film Center to see the Oscar nominated  Live Action Short Films. Freed from the need to produce massive box office revenue or fill feature length running time seems to open up creativity and allows the filmmaker to simply tell their story as seems natural. The five films every year always come from a variety  of countries with a broad spectrum of film style. 

This year had a surprising difference.....for of the five films dealt with social issues in striking ways, perhaps a commentary on how we are living now.  The one comedy, "The Eleven O'Clock" a well written clever comedy asking us o figure out which character is a psychiatrist and which is a patient who believes that he is a psychiatrist. There's plenty familiar to laugh at for one who's ever been through the therapy experience.

The first film is "De Kalb Elementary" (U.S.) Watching a film begin with a would be shooter taking out an assault rifle in an elementary school is almost unwatchable during the week that we once again faced a public school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The sad reality, any time this film would be seen would have the same tragic context. Part of what makes the film so disturbing is that director Reed Van Dyke's story proceeds with the knowledge that we know how this story will almost always end in our experience. He further disturbs us by taking us into an empathy for the clearly deeply troubled potential shooter. Tara Riggs as the administrator keeps us completely rapt as she tries to connect with the young man with the gun.

"The Silent Child"(UK) takes us into the world of a deaf child and her tutor and poignantly and painfully makes the case for the necessity of sign language as the most appropriate means of communication for deaf students and how our educational system fails our students by not providing interpreters. Watching Maisie Sly as Libby blossom then retreat again into isolation is profoundly moving.

I should have picked up immediately what "My Nephew Emmet" was all about. It's sense of place is immediately established and the tone and cinematography is reminiscent of last year's "Moonlight." When I realized we were into the Emmet Till story, my heart sank. I knew where we were headed. We are thrust into a world ...and forced to experience the sense of powerlessness .... where whites impose their cruel and violent will on African Americans. We never see what happens to Emmet. Only the face of his uncle who knows what will happen. This is an important film to watch and wrestle with when you realize that this is the "Great" that our current President wants to return us to.

Finally, the joint German-Kenyan film "Watu Wote: All of Us" takes us to the border of Somalia and Kenya as a gang of Al Sha-baab rebels who take over  a passenger bus and try to separate the Christians from the Muslims. the Muslim passengers immediately move to protect the Christians and challenge the rebels understanding of the Quran  and what being a faithful Muslim means. In a time of rampant Islamophobia, this film makes a dramatic witness as to what shared humanity is all about. It's moving to realize  that the film is based on a true story. 

That's where we live now. How we live now. No escape in these short films, but inspiration for theological reflection. Take your church group, your book club or just some friends. See the films. Have a conversation. It's where we are. How we live. "All of us."

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

First Sunday in Lent: Spring training


Ready for chirch...

On the first Sunday of Lent, I come to Good Shepherd Faith Church in the shadows of Lincoln Center. Here is my reflection:

I was going to start today with some words about one of my favorite  things:  spring training.  But I can't do that. i have to start by saying  something about the shooting at  Parkland in south Florida. My first reaction was, oh this again. Sadly showing how common this has become...but I don't know...those Parkland students are amazing...they're calling us out...and we're hearing from teachers...they're talking about a national walkout on April's way past time for us to confront this reality....way past....and it is  truly shameful....there is simply no excuse to allow the power of guns in our society to continue...this  is that classic moment...Reinhold Niebuhr always said we needed to preach with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other...

OK....last week it was that first sign of spring: "Pitchers and catchers report..." And tomorrow the position players report...spring training....Last year I got to go for the first of those bucket list own personal retirement gift to myself...I hope to get down again next's kind of a magical time...snow up here...down there?  Palm trees, sun and's a time when anything seems possible...maybe a first look at Giancarlo Stanton...maybe Russell Wilson gets in the's all about getting into shape...getting ready....

So what does that have to do with Lent and Jesus and...?'s the first Sunday in Lent...when I was growing up, as a Presbyterian in a majority Catholic culture, we always looked at Lent with suspicion. The whole idea of " giving something up for Lent"  was especially suspect..creeping started on Ash Wednesday, which always left me feeling very lonely as all my classmates wold disappear,  and then return with Ash crosses on their foreheads..(later at West Park, I came to appreciate the cultural significance of Ash Wednesday..I loved the day a bus driver raced in from the nearby bus stop to receive ashes and then  raced back out again to his bus...) This year we all began at West was at Yale I enjoyed the blessed Henri Nouwen ( who taught us about the Wounded Healer) distributing ashes....

So let's take a look at Jesus...

In Mark,look how fast it goes from baptism to temptation....and also note that this " the Spirit immediately drove him out to the desert..."  It is the same spirit that just descended on him in baptism, that just declared him "...the Son, the Beloved..." that Spirit drives him to the desert....and you have to read everything else from that..

It makes you question who is Satan in all this? ( Matthew 4: 1-11 is  so much more detailed in his story of temptation in the desert..) it's almost like he's working for God....there no Manichean heresy here two powers struggling against one's almost like Satan is a drill sergeant..Jose Saramago, that great Portuguese novelist, in his the Gospel according to Jesus Christ, places this story in the middle of Genesseret..pages of the suffering that will follow after Jesus..and Satan is  willing to give up come back if there could only be another way..and God responds there is no other's like Satan is getting Jesus ready....spring training...if you're gonna get baptized,  embark on a mission, you've got to be can almost hear Satan at the end of this story in Matthew saying, "He's good to go...." So done right, Lent is our Spring Training (and this year the regular baseball season season begins  Easter weekend...)

And so we have questions:

What is your calling?
What does it mean to wrestle with demons?  What are your demons?
What is wrestling with Satan?
For Jesus  this wrestling follows baptism. In our tradition, Lent was a time of  preparation for baptism. it precedes.... 
What is Satan for us?
In the Jewish tradition, Satan is like the prosecuting attorney, that accusing voice, the voice that says we'll never make it , we're no good, that power that won't allow  us to forgive ourselves, to believe it is real...Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber says the church's most important task is preaching the forgiveness of sins because so few of us believe it...

What are our temptations? My friend Steven Phelps says we are all criminals....
Remember...all Jesus' temptations are good things...but they are short cuts...and one thing I experienced in ministry...short cuts never work, they're just not possible....

So we've got Lent....remember those New year's resolutions? How many broken already? Well Lent is another chance...
Lent is not a giving up but a taking on...a spiritual discipline
Our Lent
Our spring training 
Time to get ready.....

As is the custom at Good Shepherd Faith, a lively discussion followed...and beautiful music by the former football player, now opera singer tenor Ta'u Papua (

Lent has begun.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Susan Stack, Rest in peace


Thank you, Susan....

Late last night I learned that shortly after noon yesterday, my friend Susan Stack had died a few short  weeks after her 65th birthday following a year long struggle with a rare and aggressive form of cancer. In her own desire to maintain control over as much of her life as she could, Susan kept her medical situation (mainly) to herself and resisted hospitalization as long as she could. Susan maintained her fierce hold on life to the end.

For over 30 years of her life, Susan served the Presbyterian Church (USA) in the ministry of the Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association.  She was one of the church's last connections back to the church's old national offices at 475 Riverside Drive, New York City, leaving a city she loved to move to Louisville so she could continue to serve. Through a changing cast of Executive Directors over those 30 years, Susan always fought to keep PHEWA true to its founding vision, and the legacy of the director with whom she first served, Rod Martin.

During those years, as the person on the other end of the phone, Susan was in many ways a true "first responder" to needs ...and crises..of those who called into PHEWA's office. For countless people across the country, Susan was the voice, the ears, and the heart, of the ministry she served.  And thereby, for many, of the church they loved. For many, Susan was the human embodiment of what it meant to be a concerned, caring and responsive Presbyterian Church. Whether it was connecting someone to another who could give the advice needed or helping someone bring a new justice issue or concern to General Assembly, Susan more than any of us was that church.

Susan gave up her opportunity for early retirement in the hopes that she could continue to serve her crunch. Sadly, that was not to be. When Susan left, the church, perhaps without fully realizing it, lost the greatest...and most irreplaceable...relationship based resource bank that could ever be held in one person.

Susan loved her cats. And the Mayan Cafe. And whatever team Tubby Smith was coaching. And there are people she was committed to, whose lives were enriched by Susan, in ways no one ever knew about. Yes, she could be obstinate and prickly. But she was, in the words of her PHEWA colleagues, fierce and passionate. Especially for justice. And she had literally made the church the center of her life, a singular commitment beyond most of us. And yes, there was pain when she felt that she may not have been loved to the same extent she loved. 

Behind her desk at the Presbyterian Center, she kept photos of PHEWA families and their children, as part of her extended family. She also kept a gallery of photos representing those she called "the saints of the church," the faithful witnesses who inspired her to keep going on. Today she has clearly joined that number. Susan has joined the saints.

Thank you Susan.