New You, New Year

As always, blogging about blogging, thinking about sharing, sharing about thinking: Another year goes by!

I put a few official dispatches via my church’s monthly newsletters, but of course those words are pastoral in nature. What’s the difference between that and blog thoughts? Hopefully the honesty is the same. But perhaps blogs can be less edited, which is why I think it’s funny that blogs ever became highly-followed… perhaps some people have more coherent thoughts before editing than I do.

Why blog today? I’m thinking about some thoughts that I want to remember, and I thought they might be more fun to put into the digital ether, instead of simply in my journal. After all, I pay about $18 a year for this domain name! Might as well use it. I may convert it to a portal to contact me about spiritual direction, at some point, when I’m officially CERTIFIED.

Best music I enjoyed this year: Cheekface, more Cheekface, Beach Bunny, Bad Bad Hats, Rosie Tucker, Will Beeley, and more Cheekface.

Best book I read this year? Most useful: That preaching book by Andy Stanley. Most spiritual: Soulful Spirituality. Still didn’t get through a novel. Yeesh. (Unless you count comic books.)

Thoughts on pastoring: Glad to have some newish perspectives on pastoring still benefiting my tenure in Cleveland/Boyle: I’m a guest at someone else’s family reunion. I (try to) respond to people like they are children, giving them the grace that I would give kids, explaining things to them in ways that are accessible, relevant, and engaging. I’m cheerful, encouraging, patient, and conscious of how I’m different from them. I tell people what I want from them, and then I release them to do what they want. They certainly do not have to do what I want, but I remain clear about my desires, and they do what they want with that information. This means I need to be in touch with what I want from others: “Is it reasonable? WHY do I want them to do ____?”

I’m also trying to embrace my role as a spiritual direction who is serving as a pastor.

I’m also trying to think of myself as a full-time volunteer at the church. This also helps me maintain a certain emotional distance and a less controlling stance. I’m not responsible for everything. I’m not “in charge.” I’m just a supportive volunteer. Who is in charge? Hopefully Jesus! I’m just his volunteer full-time associate pastor. I’m doing my best, but I’m not responsible for everyone else, because they are adults like me. They aren’t full-time volunteers; they’re part-time, so my expectations should take that into account. It also feels good to think I’m doing this because I want to–out of the goodness of my heart (or the goodness God is doing through me)–not because I have to. Too many pastors complain about their jobs and their parishioners. (I’ve been one of those pastors!) It doesn’t help.

2021 brought lots of fun changes to my life: I joined a Crossfit-style gym called Unrated, in Cleveland, and I’ve gotten stronger. I go to classes three times a week, and now they’ve recently moved even closer to my home. Very convenient.

November 2021 marked a year since I became mostly vegan, especially when I’m choosing/buying my own foods to eat. In 2022, I plan to continue to explore ways I can cultivate a cheap, lazy, low-fat vegan diet, especially when it comes to long-term cooking and meal-planning.

I got into the financial independence / early retirement (FIRE) movement, learning a lot of the basics about financial management, investing wisely, and reducing my tax bill, while living simply and frugally for the sake of achieving financial independence in 12-17 years. Edith will graduate high school is 12.5 years, when I’m 50, and at 55, I should be able to start withdrawing from my 403b. I’d like to be able to visit her as much as possible (not that an adult daughter wants her parents visiting all the time!), but I want the free time to travel with her (and I hope to have the resources to pay her way). With two grandparents who didn’t live past their mid-sixties, I want to use my time wisely.

A plan for financial independence and potential early retirement means making the most of the 12.5 years I’ll continue serving as a full-time pastor, if I cut it that short. It’s nice to imagine that I won’t still be in committee meetings in my sixties! Thankfully, we don’t have a lot of committee meetings at St. Luke or Boyle, and that’s one of the reasons I love pastoring here.

I’ve got more to type, but I’m gonna take a break. If you stumble upon this post, and want to share your own 2021 adventures and 2022 hopes, please comment below.

2021 goals: Run, read 26 books, don’t trifle away time online, eat vegan, no alcohol.

2022 goals: Preach & teach well (try out a new small group); exercise at the gym; play guitar; cook cheap/lazy/low-fat vegan; travel to see friends; spend more time outside.

Peace & Love,

Brad

Testing 123

I’ve kept this domain for a few years now, but I haven’t used it in quite a while.

Is there a need in the world for public musings? Should I share what I know? Is there a need, in me or in others, for thinking-out-loud? I rarely post to Facebook, and never to Instagram or Twitter anymore. I can justify staying on Facebook for the sake of buying advertising for church events. (I use Facebook to find upcoming events, so I assume others do as well.) I have a harder time justifying other public sharing, perhaps because of the vulnerability “stuff”. I’m called to be vulnerable and open, since I do that to some degree in my preaching. (I certainly am not lying from the pulpit.) However, there’s a side of myself that is showing while preaching, and for only a few moments, for the sake of a short lesson. Not all of me is showing. Also, to share myself would probably require more thoughtful reflection before blurting out whatever pops into my head.

But I’m interested in vulnerability. I listened to some Brene Brown audio lectures this year, which were great. I listened to Ram Dass. I read Kenneth Leech’s Soul Friend and more from the Desert Monks. There was a lot of media that had an effect on me this year, perhaps nothing more so than This Naked Mind by Annie Grace.

Listening to so many “You Made It Weird” podcasts have also pushed my mind toward more open sharing. As Pete Holmes (the host, a professional comedian) discovered over time, the more he was honest, the more he connected with people. You can witness his growth over the course of the podcast, if you listen to older ones and the newer ones.

All this is to say that I’m finally going to experiment with some more public reflections, but I hope that such public musings can somehow be dialogical. The podcast format (at least the way Pete hosts) is compelling because you’re going deep in a conversation and being potentially vulnerable, but you’re sharing that with the public without necessarily needing feedback (or approval).

Another thing: As a pastor, I’m interested in modeling for others a thoughtful learning process. I want to model (and just plain be full of) humility. Practice makes perfect. I might as well practice out loud and in public, since my job is essentially to shepherd others. The world will benefit from more humility. Maybe this post is a small step of mine toward practicing humility in public? (But lordy lordy, how puffed up am I to think that I deserve an audience?!) Perhaps I don’t deserve an audience, but it may be worth it to me, and to others, to reflect out loud, so get things “out there” and get some perspective.

We’ll see!

A reflection on the shooting in Dallas, and on the unequal treatment sometimes received by black persons

July 8-11, 2016

“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1)

Dearest God, let my words be a soft answer to this world, so that peace prevails, understanding abounds, and our strife subsides.

———

I was in Wyoming last year, when I heard the news of a gunman opening fire upon a bible study in an African-American Methodist church in Charleston, South Carolina. My wife and I were stunned, and I was reminded that I can never fully know what it is like to be black in America. The shooting in that Charleston church was an act of terrorism, targeting innocent people who wished no harm on that young man.

On the evening before we returned home, I walked out onto the shore of a lake at the foot of the mountains, and I prayed out loud to God. After this trip, we would start trying to have a child, and I wrestled with the realization that our baby would be born into a world with hatred and violence. I asked that God’s will be done, and I promised to do my best, to create a better world, not just for my child, but for all people.

Now, as I wait for my child to be born, I still wake up to hear news of terrorism. This week, an another young man targeted and attacked police officers who wished him no harm. I can hardly comprehend the sad irony: Those murdered policemen were protecting the right of citizens to protest the actions of the few police who use excessive force and make insensitive judgement calls that lead to unnecessary violence. I’ve read that the Dallas police force in particular had made significant strides in improving community relationships.

These mass killings have brought us local versions of the terrorists across the world who I find so difficult to understand: Some people’s minds have become so twisted, so distanced from moral reality, that they take out their anger on innocent lives. Unfortunately, such terrorism is a long-standing human tradition.

But there is another tradition, another threat of violence, that my child will never face—the threat that a powerful white person will not fully value my child’s life, merely because of the color of my child’s skin. I worry about the future safety of the brown-skinned babies I have baptized in my church: Will they be treated like Philando Castile if they are pulled over? Will they be treated like Alton Sterling if they are confronted by the police? Will they be shot if they reach for their license, if they resist arrest? Or will they suffer in a less dramatic way, by having their education neglected or their labor exploited?

I cannot know the inner mind of anyone else, but the pattern of disproportionate violence done by powerful persons to the black community is real, tragic, and part of a long tradition. I certainly believe that the vast majority of police, like the vast majority of people, desire the safety and happiness of all humans. But in the United States, I’ve grown up in a culture that sometimes subtly, and sometimes blatantly, does not place the same value on the lives of black people and black communities as it places on white people like myself. When I was in middle school, I heard and repeated jokes in which the punchline included the deaths of black lives. (Other jokes were disparaging against poor persons and gay persons.) I don’t remember hearing racist comments from my parents, and yet I learned to disrespect black people as a group, even as I was cordial in person. Now, I realize that those jokes were part of a culture that had the power to shape my character and judgement. Even as I profess a love for all people, my culture has the power to instill attitudes into my subconscious. Long after I stopped repeating such jokes, and even after I learned about the struggle for black civil rights, I noticed a fear I had of black men. Like someone who gave up smoking and longs for a cigarette, I know it’s wrong, but the impulse is automatic. I grew up thinking black bodies were “other” and different from me, potentially a threat. I now think of myself as a recovering racist, like sober persons consider themselves recovering alcoholics. (I pray this is not a disrespectful comparison for anyone.) This distorted impulse has not been eliminated from me. And I am still accustomed to—maybe addicted to—the privileges I experience as a straight white male living in the United States. Because of my particular experience, I never grew up with reasons to fear those in authority. I never doubted I could get any job I wanted or achieve any level of worldly success.

Some of you may have grown up like me. We developed an impulsive fear and skepticism to black persons who were strangers to us, or to the black community in general. Because of this impulse among us, it appears that black persons are often treated with less deference and respect than a white person would be. (We can see this in data showing that black persons receive harsher sentences for the same crimes as white persons.) It doesn’t have to be conscious behavior. Having habits of learned racism doesn’t make me the same as someone in an organized hate-group like the KKK. But subconscious racism can be as damaging as explicit hatred. I believe it is often subconscious impulses of fear and distorted prejudice that we see expressed in the harsher, sometimes deadly, treatment received by black men and women when they come into contact with police (no matter the race of the police officers).

Once I came to grips with my own learned racism and impulsive assumptions, I began to examine myself more closely. I’ve tried to notice and slowly eliminate my faulty ideas and irrational feelings. I’ve been patient with myself (though surely not as patient as the many black people in my life who have journeyed with me and pointed out insensitive remarks I didn’t notice).

As a spiritual director, I wish for mature disciples of Jesus to be as kind and considerate as possible. Any thoughtful, compassionate Christian can both support a movement to draw attention to the unequal treatment black citizens sometimes receive and support the work of police, who risk their lives to increase the safety of our communities. We can be tempted to take sides, to demonize some “other” group. Such division is a mistake. Any reasonable person can simultaneously support the value of African-Americans and law enforcement officers. A reasonable person can also disagree with particular tactics taken by the police or by Black Lives Matter, without withdrawing all of our support for their basic, good intentions. I can support someone without approving of every action they take. (Every good parent and spouse knows this.)

But fear confuses us. Terror knocks us off our feet, making it hard to thinking clearly and compassionately. Our animal instinct tempts us to retreat into an us-versus-them mentality. We forget how to bring people together, how to foster understanding and listening relationships. We automatically know how to fight and blame. Sanctification takes a lot of work. Compassion takes a lot of sacrifice—the death of our ego and self-satisfaction.

So, here’s my attempt to make sense of things, my attempt at a “soft answer” that turns away from wrath and toward the compassionate understanding God desires for us:

In one space, I see terrorism: The army veteran who murdered those five police officers in Dallas is most like the young man who murdered the nine Christians in Charleston. While race is a factor, what I see most clearly is a demented mind—a mind deformed and deluded into thinking that violence is the answer to a problem. A similar situation is at work in the middle east: While religion is a factor, a terrorist has become essentially insane, losing connection to a moral reality.

In another space, I see disproportionate force being used against black persons, especially against black men. The violence done is not terrorism, at least not as I’ve defined it above, but it causes some people to live in fear.

But there is good news: An awareness of a problem can help us address the problem. For me, awareness of my own explicit and impulsive prejudice has helped me to eliminate racist words, judgements, and actions from my life. By listening to the black people in my life, reading the wisdom of African-American leaders, and learning about social patterns that place black persons at a disadvantage, I’ve been a more informed pastor, who can try to do my part in making world a safer, supportive, and encouraging people for all of God’s children.

I pray my words are not divisive. My hope is to be honest, kind, and thoughtful. As a pastor, I feel it’s my duty to discern what God’s best wisdom might be in this day and age (and to share that discernment with others). As a Christian, I hope to trust in Jesus enough that I might follow his example, love all people, and serve those who are socially marginalized.

What’s next? Depending on who you are, your next steps may be different. If you want to learn more data about social patterns that place black persons at a disadvantage, I recommend reading some of the recent columns by Nicholas Kristoff: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/03/opinion/sunday/when-whites-just-dont-get-it-part-6.html

If you’re white, you might ask your black friends, family members, or fellow church members what they think about the situations in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas. How do these incidents make them feel? Listen closely, without assuming they represent all black voices. There’s plenty of diverse opinions in the black community, just like in the white community.

“Sow the seeds of peace and justice” is a bumper sticker I’ve had for years. But how? We begin by listening closely and remembering that most people have good intentions (and that includes most politicians!). Before we speak, let us ask ourselves if our words are respectful and kind. We can foster peace if we can examine our own actions, asking if there’s something we can do better and if there’s someone we can love more graciously.

God is calling us, like a Good Shepherd, to draw closer and follow the path of Jesus to a more holy land. Amen.

Grace and peace to you all,

Pastor Brad