Category Archives: Cultural Trends

Reflections on cultural trends, changes, challenges

I Was Wrong to Post This

A few weeks ago, I found a meme that uses tongue-in-cheek satire to call out typical, racially-tinged things that people say, specifically white people. I knew it would garner some response and debate, but I was nowhere near prepared for the volume and kinds of responses it got! It went on for days on end, too.

The meme I should not have posted…

That meme got under peoples’ skin and opened a huge debate on race, racism, and whether or not people like me play any kind of responsibility for it. I learned a lot about how difficult and painful a conversation this is.

But there was one other lesson folks were trying to tell that I was too stubborn to hear.

This morning, I was having a conversation with one of my pastor colleagues, and I was reflecting on the need for us to address difficult issues like race and racism with a non-anxious, clear, respectful approach. To that, my colleague said, “You know Chris, I need to say this to you as a colleague and friend-“

Uh oh. The classic set up! So I leaned in and listened.

My colleague continued, “You might want to check the sarcasm on some of your posts. They’re not exactly the kind of non-anxious, clear, respectful approach you’re suggesting.” Ouch. Yet I couldn’t deny it. I knew exactly what this colleague was pointing to.

I believe clergy have an obligation to address and not skirt the hard stuff. The gospel of Jesus Christ does indeed shape how we see and how we respond to the issues of our day, in deeply biblical, uniquely Christian ways.

And yes, people will denounce these efforts in all kinds of ways. I do get it. These things are not easy to hear or talk about. It’s whole lot easier to just leave them alone, because there’s peril at every turn. To top it all off, I am not a confrontational person. (Most clergy are not, by the way.) This task is nothing I relish.

Yet that said, there is no room at all for sarcasm, snark, shaming, cynicism, or making light of very serious things. The meme I posted did all of that, and as a result, I pulled myself and the conversation backwards, not forwards.

There is a lot of wisdom in something many of us were told as kids: it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. I would add one more thing. Why we say it matters, too.

So, while I don’t regret addressing the issues of race and racism, I do regret how I did it. It just doesn’t belong. It cheapens our discourse. It unnecessarily raises the temperature in the room.

I was wrong to post that meme. And I sincerely apologize.

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Life As We’ve Known It Is Canceled… And That May Be Okay

Are you still shocked by how drastically our lives have changed in these past few months? I am. For most of us, confined to our homes, our formerly free and bustling lives are at a screeching halt. For lots of others deemed to be “essential workers,” every day is a perilous encounter with an anxious, volatile public. For a rapidly growing number of folks filing for unemployment benefits, life is spent every day on the phone for hours on-end or navigating a hastily constructed government website on the verge of crashing, desperately striving for the means to put food on the table and pay off a growing stack of overdue bills.

As for me, my “all important” planner which used to be chock-full of meetings, appointments, church events, worship services, my son’s Special Olympics games, and lots of other family happenings is now a loose assortment of Zoom meetings and phone appointments. Meanwhile those once-immovable, sacrosanct functions like Sunday morning worship services, Holy Week services, and an all-important annual conference I am required to attend have all been deleted— canceled, indefinitely postponed, or pre-recorded for live streaming. Simply unreal.

Once in a while, I break from home confinement to venture out to the store for groceries or medications. Every trip feels like a special ops strike force mission. I glove up, mask up, and make my way into a store plastered with signs enforcing social distancing, masks, and product rationing. Grabbing up whatever is left on the shelves, I rush to the checkout line, stand on my socially distanced floor marker, and above all else, avoid getting anywhere near those other masked shoppers who are just as eager to stay away from me. The word “surreal” doesn’t begin to describe all this.

Welcome to life in the midst of a once-in-a-century, global health pandemic. Life as we’ve known it is canceled. And when we begin to slowly emerge from this COVID-19 crisis, our lives will look very different. Again, because it’s worth repeating: life as we once knew it has been permanently canceled. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that one day we’ll all “get back to normal,” whatever that was. While it remains to be seen what life on the other side of COVID-19 will look like, perhaps we can take some cues from what’s happening right now to begin to sketch a picture of it.

But before we get to what the future holds, let’s pause a moment to take stock of how we’re feeling right now. How are you feeling? I would imagine it’s some murky stew of loss, anxiety, boredom, thankfulness, bewilderment, hopefulness, disorientation, sadness, anger, frustration, and dread. All of this is understandable. These are all the common feelings of grief.

After all, we are living through a sudden, traumatic death— the death of life as we had known it. Grief and bereavement always follow death, and the feelings I listed above are very much what grieving people move through. (Notice, I did not list stress. Stress is often a socially convenient cover word for the real feelings we have but can’t or won’t acknowledge.)

So what’s next? What lies beyond the shadows of death?

While fully appreciating that we all hold different spiritual beliefs, I’d like to gently offer a Christian paradigm to our current situation. It’s called life-death-resurrection. We live. We die. God raises us from death into a new life that somewhat resembles the old, but has been radically transformed by death and resurrection into something freer, more powerful, more lively, more loving, more purposeful, and no longer confined to the restrictions and limitations of the old.

You don’t need to be a Christian to see this life-death-resurrection pattern everywhere you look. We see it in the pattern of the seasons. We see it when a seed dies and is buried, sprouting into a new plant that yields lots of new seeds (see John 12:33-36). We see life-death-resurrection when a person is transformed by trauma into a new person, recognizable but radiantly different, too.

Yet we Christians take this a giant leap further. We believe that life-death-resurrection is best understood within the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In our Eucharistic celebrations, we call this the Paschal Mystery and “the great mystery of faith”: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. We adore the Christ as the perfect icon and the perpetual, divine flow within every incarnation of life-death-resurrection. This incarnate, resurrected Christ openly calls each of us to share in his own life, death, and resurrection by taking up his cross and following him through life into death and resurrection, which happens partly now and completely fulfilled in the life to come.

But again, even if you don’t embrace Christian faith as I do, I would invite you to see what’s happening in our lives and world as a significant incarnation of life-death-resurrection. The life we lived just a few months ago has died. We’re now living in a Good Friday-Holy Saturday mode of sitting quietly in the tomb of what used to be. We have every reason to hope for an Easter Sunday-like resurrection into a new life of freedom, wisdom, compassion towards suffering, and a greater capacity to absorb and give unconditional love.

So what might resurrection from the COVID-19 crisis look like, assuming that we’ve fully died to the life we used to live, grieved it, and are ready to rise up into something new?

I’d like to propose seven things:

  • We would see time very differently. Time would no longer be a commodity to be used up, but a gift to enjoy. For most of us, how we’re spending our time now is remarkably different. Our pace is slower, scattered and less predictable. This dramatic deceleration of pace encourages us to focus more on being than doing. Living in slower motion, operating from a sense of being, we can then become far more aware and present to ourselves, to others, and to God. We could become more engaged, understanding, and empathetic listeners who cultivate healthier relationships.
  • We can live with far less. Disastrous economic upheaval and scarcer resources naturally force people to live frugally, conscientiously, and gratefully. The Builder generation, those who lived through the Great Depression and World War II, learned these lessons well. Perhaps it’s time for us to learn them, too. Living with less and unburdened by the compulsion for more and more has consistently proven to make people happier, balanced, freer, and more generous.
  • We can become emotionally and spiritually mature. In our old pattern of life before COVID-19, most all of us lived as worker-consumers which kept us far too busy, overly stimulated, addicted to all kinds of things, and quite frankly, spiritually and emotionally immature. Too many adults do not emotionally mature much past middle-school development. That may sound harsh, but it’s no exaggeration. I would define a majority of today’s adults as self-absorbed, image-conscious, politically, religiously, and culturally cliquish while hostile to people outside of their cliques, erratic, largely self-unaware, compulsive, and relationally insecure and stunted. Furthermore, we applaud this kind of immaturity in media celebrities, entertainment, in politics, and in the people we elect for public office. We award them with money and votes. Yet now, with most of us confined to our homes with a whole lot more time on our hands and with significant, life-altering challenges we cannot ignore, we can finally dig down deeper within ourselves, and come to grips with the wounds, pains and fears we have been carrying but unable to confront and process. In this healing, we can unearth love and strength we never knew we had. In the midst of all this, we can re-discover and develop a more lasting, significant relationship with God. Through reading, prayer, contemplation and meditation, therapy, and spiritual direction, we can finally grow up to become the mature, happy, and wise people God has created us to be.
  • Health care can become more community-centered. Up until now, health care has been hyper-individualized. We’ve been primarily concerned with our own immediate health and the health of our families. But like anything else, when we move from I/me to us/we, we only become stronger together. Because of our new normal of social distancing, extra sanitation practices, and greater health awareness in general, COVID-19 is inviting our society to better value and protect the health and wellbeing of the whole community, not just our own. The results of this new consciousness in terms of practice, policy, and law could be staggering. We could accelerate the availability and excellence of health care for all of our neighbors, especially if we can take extra measures now to protect primary medical care practices who are suffering.
  • We can make far better use of communication technology. For years now, we’ve been moving at a buggy’s pace towards telecommuting and teleworking which we know would significantly reduce the time and energy resources we consume, while greatly decreasing our impact on an overly-burdened transportation infrastructure and the environment. COVID-19 has quickly completed that shift. Have you seen the pictures of major cities with less smog and emptier roads? There’s no reason we couldn’t continue to vastly shrink our commuter footprint by taking advantage of the telecommunication capacity we have in place now. And if we could lessen our reliance on fossil fuels to do much less traveling, all the better.
  • Public schooling can become both home and classroom-based. In recent decades public schooling has become largely test-driven and teacher-centered, all aimed at meeting national and state education standards. That has left parents and families increasingly sidelined in their children’s education. (If you don’t believe me, ask anyone over the age of 25 to explain Common Core math.) Very suddenly now, we are discovering a new partnership between school administrations, faculty, parents, and families. If students could do more learning at home, if parents could keep a more flexible work schedule by telecommuting, and if public schools could retain parents and families as co-educators through online instruction, imagine the tremendous burden we could lift from cash-strapped school systems, overly crowded school buildings and school transportation systems.
  • Faith communities can become more nimble, authentic, and community-based. Before COVID-19, the name of the game for most faith communities had been “attract people to our religious buildings, consume our religious products, and help us pay for it.” It’s admittedly self-centered and very expensive. Community presence and service has always played second fiddle to our frenzied efforts to attract people to buy up our religious wares. Well, those unholy games are over. COVID-19 has quickly morphed faith communities into nimble, local community and home-based service stations that make use of every bit of available technology and practical strategies to connect to the wider world. More faith communities are responding to the needs of the poor with food drives, financial assistance, and justice work. They are re-framing their new online worship services to be more timely, relevant, honest, and intimately personal amongst a vast, more interactive population than they’ve ever had before. Speaking for the church, we’re finally learning that the church is a people, not a building. (We used to say that before, but only half-heartedly. Now we’re living it.)

I may be wrong about some of these things, or even many of them, but I sure hope not. Let’s put it this way: we have every opportunity to grow into these new ways of life which are right in front of us, unfolding into a significant, life-giving transformation of our old lives. If we can work through the discomfort of the liminal space we’re in now– as in a new, uncertain, painful, messy, and disjointed interim time between old and new– then God can certainly raise us up into a powerful, new life that dwarfs the old by comparison.

In the meantime, let us all give ourselves plenty of time and space to be, to explore, to grieve, to struggle, to learn, to create, to discover, to experiment, to fail, dust ourselves off, and try again, and to dream, not in a nostalgic longing of our old way of life, but in hopeful expectancy of life to become, in the midst of and on the other side of COVID-19.

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Filed under Cultural Quakes, Health and Wellbeing

The Super Bowl Halftime Clash

The Super Bowl is an American cultural phenomenon. It’s a super-hyped event– glitzy, loud, overdone, and completely commercial. When it’s game time, everything else comes to a grinding halt, including church activities. Stores are barren. Emotions are rampant. It’s truly an unofficial American holiday.

No matter who is playing, most of us tune in to watch. The game itself is only part of the spectacle, of course. The commercials and the halftime show are every bit as significant, and my goodness, they certainly were last night.

For years now, the National Football League has found itself in the midst of several volatile culture wars. I don’t need to review them here. (Well okay, I’ll list off the big ones anyway: player safety, drug use, and behavior on and off the field, fights over mascots, patriotism, freedom of expression, race, standing or kneeling during the National Anthem, and… what to do with the Super Bowl halftime show.) The NFL has certainly capitalized on all these controversies. Some would say, “Don’t let a good controversy go to waste,” and the NFL in all its excessive flamboyance hasn’t at all been wasteful with its inherited and self-imposed controversies. Then again, I don’t entirely blame them. Much of what I see in the NFL is a mirror of the state of our country, culturally and politically.

halftimeThat is especially true in the case of last night’s halftime Super Bowl show when so many of us were tuned in and watching the same thing. Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, two superstar Latina artists performed. It was an explosive performance. And our responses to their performance have been even more explosive!

People have tried to describe what happened in the halftime show. But describing what happened is not nearly as important as answering this question: What did you see?

If you didn’t actually watch the halftime show and went by what people said they saw, you might wonder if we were watching the same thing. Trust me, we were.

Here’s a sampling of what people observed:

  • A celebration of Hispanic culture, led by two Latina women (a first for a Super Bowl halftime show)
  • A soft porn show
  • Further objectification of women
  • Empowerment of women
  • An anti-Trump demonstration
  • A lewd, disgusting display of sexuality
  • A fantastic dance and music production
  • A totally inappropriate show for families
  • A family celebration empowering young people
  • Entertainment that’s really no worse than anything else on TV

Look again at these descriptions. Why are they so vastly different? Could it be that they say more about the eye of the beholder than the show itself? I think so.

(Quick time out: if you’re tempted right now to write me off as a wishy-washy moral subjectivist, resist that urge. I had a definite, strong moral reaction to what I saw. Just keep reading.)

Our conflicts didn’t stop with our differences over what we saw or didn’t see. It got worse. We then had to navigate through our differences. How do we respond when a passionate perception of ours runs up against someone else’s perception? That’s where we failed so badly.

Let me illustrate.

I watched the halftime show. Admittedly, I knew very little about Shakira and Jennifer Lopez. Their music is just not in my wheelhouse. So right at the beginning of the show, I did a quick search, and I learned that they are both middle-aged Hispanic singers and dancers. No, I’ve not been hiding under a rock! It’s a big world, and I know what I know. (Can you list the entire discography of Rush from memory while rattling off Bible verses and the details of coffee roast profiles? I can. But I digress.)

Once I got more familiar with Shakira and Jennifer Lopez, it all began to click. Aha… yeah, their music and dancing indeed looks culturally Hispanic. Okay. Amazing talent. Still, what in the world am I watching?

The following is a recollection of my various reactions while viewing the show with my wife and son:

Wow… Shakira is a beautiful woman, but gosh, she’s wearing very little. She came out with a red rope which she rubbed across her body. Was that some kind of S&M thing? That’s… unsettling. Where is this going?

Wait a minute. She’s doing a lot of very fast, sexually suggestive pelvic thrusts, like she’s having sex in midair! At one point, the cameras were positioned right under her dress as she was thrusting around. Her crotch was right there, for crying out loud! Hey, stop the bus! Did Jennifer Lopez just rub herself down there? Yeah, I think she did. Several times. What is this?

Some guy was grinding Shakira. More very erotic, sexually suggestive dancing and flailing. Hey, Jennifer Lopez! Wait a minute? Is she pole dancing?? Yes, she’s wrapping her body around a pole. Strippers do that. What the heck is this?

But wow… amazing dancing and choreography. “Born in the USA” with Jennifer Lopez donning a Puerto Rican flag. That was daring!

Kids in cages? What’s that all about?

Wait a minute… Why am I seeing so many bare bottoms… on national TV… with my son watching all this? Why all this blatant sexuality on my TV screen? This is just more-of-the-same flagrant selling of sex and women’s bodies for corporate profit while furthering the objectification of women and women’s bodies as sexual objects. It’s well known that human trafficking is a colossal problem around Super Bowl venues. These women, as talented as they are, are only contributing to this human travesty, all in the name of greed, fame, and power.

And this is 2020?? Yup, it sure is.

Those were my responses. In my gut, they still are. Then on Facebook, I asked the question, “Soft porn halftime show?” I thought it was. Yet I was totally unprepared for the numerous, varied, passionate, and argumentative responses I got. It was like I inadvertently waded into a shark pool. Then I jumped right out of that pool and began to ask myself, Whoah, what did I just get myself into? Did I miss something. Did they?

A little later, I read the posts from friends who clearly saw the halftime show very differently than I did, and they labeled people with my kinds of perceptions as racists, sexists, prudes, policing brown bodies, snowflakes, “white boomers,” and vulgar descriptions I won’t share here.

This is a clash of cultures, pure and simple. And, worse still, we just do not know what to do with our cultural differences.

Within the comments of folks who responded to my “Soft porn halftime show?” post, I saw at least 11 different cultural, ideological and demographic representations:

  • White Christian culture (religious and non-religious)
  • Hispanic culture
  • African-American culture
  • Feminism– representing at least two very different points of view
  • Generation X and older
  • Millennial and younger
  • Married with children
  • Married with no children
  • Single
  • Male
  • Female

To make things even more complicated, people from these various cultures, ideologies and demographic groups did not all agree, but they clearly diverged from the same starting point.

My personal cultural descriptors are male, white Christian, married with children, Generation X with particular feminist leanings. That should explain a lot. Modesty, especially female modesty, is very important to my white Christian culture. As a father with feminist leanings, I taught my daughters to be very careful about how they dress. There is way too much sexual objectification and sexualization of women (my particular feminist leanings). Sexual expression is to be shared between two married people behind closed doors. So be careful about how you present yourselves to others. Be strong, independent, pure, and wise enough to show your beauty, inner and outer, with modesty, respect, and discretion.

Now, is my particular cultural view superior to someone else’s? It has historically been the majority view. But does that make it intrinsically better? That’s a pivotal question. And here is where we get into trouble.

Hispanic culture is far more openly erotic and sensual than my own culture. They might find my culture to be too formal, quiet, reserved and discreet. And there are many feminist voices who see women like Shakira and Jennifer Lopez as empowering. They are choosing what to do with their bodies, the argument goes. They are not at all ashamed of their bodies and are resisting a Western patriarchy that has sought to constrain how women use, show and treat their bodies.

I obviously don’t see things that way at all. But are they wrong? Am I? We’ll probably never agree.

Therefore, the more pertinent observation from last night’s halftime show is our collective failure to navigate through the storms our cultural differences without demeaning, dismissing, or fighting against other cultural perceptions and the people who hold them.

Think about this and be honest. What are we really accomplishing fighting this brutal cultural war of attrition where the unstated goal is to name, ridicule, belittle, blame, and destroy people from different cultural understandings? These arguments almost always end in a stalemate and at the expense of respect and trust.

What if more of us, myself included, could pause, take a breath, step back, and attempt to comprehend our differences and, just as importantly, to mutually discern the reasons why those differences exist? Instead of holding an attitude of suspicion, could more of us approach differences with an attitude of curiosity? Instead of cultural arrogance, could we practice cultural humility? Rather than engaging in fruitless arguments, could we listen, seek to understand and share? Instead of needing to be victoriously right and righteous, can we strive to be empathetic? (It is extremely difficult, if not downright impossible to do both.)

Last night, when I finally calmed down a bit and listened to other folks’ points of view, I (re)learned several things. First, disagreements are often misunderstandings in disguise. Our initial and untested perceptions are often wildly inaccurate. Secondly, I can learn things from other points of view that I didn’t know before. In some cases, that has changed the way I think. In other cases, I’m just as convicted as I was before, but at least I can understand and respect a different way of seeing.

So I did learn. And hopefully, that has made me a more understanding and compassionate neighbor. I am who I am. They are who they are. In the meantime, I’ve had enough of football and halftime shows… until next season!

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On Coming Back to the Mother County

There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.

Nelson Mandela

The Phone Call

My phone rang on a Sunday afternoon after church. It was Sunday April 28, the day it was officially announced that I would be the new Lead Pastor of First Saints Community Church in St. Mary’s County. I looked at my phone and saw that it was John Gatton, a lifelong, born and raised St. Mary’s County resident, about as “County” as anyone can be, a dear man, brother in Christ, and friend.

“Hello?”

“Chris! I just saw the news. Welcome home! I can’t wait to have you back down here.”

And on the conversation went, steeped in typically wonderful St. Mary’s County hospitality. “You know we’re all here for you. You let me know if there’s anything you need. You don’t worry about a thing” I thanked John over and over again, a man whom I once fondly dubbed the Unofficial Mayor of Hollywood, MD. John is a semi-retired barber, the son and father of barbers who have all worked in the same little barber shop on Hollywood Road for three generations. John knows countless numbers of people in the County, and with a phone call can immediately connect his neighbors to just about anything you can imagine. That’s St. Mary’s in a nutshell.

Then all my thoughts began to race back 18 years to the first time I was appointed to St. Mary’s County as the Associate Pastor of Hollywood UMC. It was my very first appointment. And yes, during most of that time I could truthfully say that I lived in California and worked in Hollywood! (Go look it up if you don’t believe me.)

Like most people who end up in the County, I did not go willingly. In fact I dreaded it. There’s a common County folk saying that aptly applied to me, “People hate coming down here. But once they get here, we can’t get rid of ’em!” Well, after three years of serving there, I was appointed to my next church up the road in Upper Marlboro. But the County really didn’t leave me.

About “The County”

St. Mary’s College and City

Compared to the rest of Maryland, St. Mary’s County is a peculiar, beautiful place filled with surprises and anomalies, and yet isolated from literally everywhere else. Recently, one resident described it to me as “The Land Time Forgot”. Most Marylanders have never been here and really don’t have any burning desire to visit, let alone live here. That’s because St. Mary’s County, the southernmost tip of the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, is at least two hours away from the hub of Central Maryland. (If we bother to even think about the County, a lot of us Marylanders mistakenly presume it’s on somewhere on the Eastern Shore!)

Situated on an extreme perimeter of the state, it’s a peninsula, not a place you’d ever travel through to get anywhere else. There are no major cities here, no sports teams, no popular vacation destinations, no must-see, must-do things that Marylanders particularly care about. And yet it has its own distinctive culture (stuffed ham and fried oyster dinners, anyone??) and history that is truly the deep heart and soul of Maryland. Most Marylanders have just forgotten that.

And yet, St. Mary’s is the Mother County of Maryland. In 1634, Leonard Calvert, son and brother of the 1st and 2nd Lords of Baltimore, with about 300 other settlers aboard The Ark and The Dove, landed and settled the colony of Maryland and became its first governor. They quickly established St. Mary’s City, which became the first capital of the Province of Maryland. They made their new home the very first place in the Americas established on religious freedom and tolerance. In fact, one of the honorific titles of St. Mary’s is “The Birthplace of Religious Freedom.”

There are 385 years of history in the County, spanning from the beginning of the American colonies, through the founding of our State and Country, key events of the War of 1812, the Civil War, and the critical supportive roles the County has played in every American war since World War II.

St. Mary’s County is also one of the fastest growing places in Maryland with– as I’ve recently discovered!– one of the most hyper-competetive real estate markets in the State. That’s because St. Mary’s County is home to the Naval Air Station Patuxent River, simply called “PAX” by local folks, which has become the Naval test flight center on the eastern seaboard, bringing in people from all over the world, military and civilian.

Piney Point Lighthouse

Through the years, however, community, tradition, history, maritime and agricultural life, miliary support, faith and family are all hallmarks of the County.

I have to admit, when I left St. Mary’s County 15 years ago, it went largely out of sight and mind from my day to day life. But it never really left my heart. There was a part of me that never left there.

Coming Back

So here I am again. Never, ever, in my wildest imagination did I think I’d find myself back in the Mother County. I think of all that’s happened to me since I was here last. After a divorce and marriage, two new children, three congregations with a couple of years on Conference staff thrown in, and lots of very necessary, often painful seasons of growing up to do, yes, I’m back in the County.

Still, I don’t feel like the same person whom many folks here are glad has returned. (I’m grateful folks have fond memories of me. I’ll take that, at least.) Since announcing my return, I have been quietly dreading the refrain of “Chris is coming back!” I think, “Yes, I’m coming back, but if you’re counting on the 27-year-old kid you once knew, you might be disappointed.”

Meanwhile, folks had been telling me how much the County has changed. There are more people, more stores, more homes, more traffic, etc., etc. Yes, places and people change. But could St. Mary’s County truly change all that much??

In the many times I had to travel down the nearly 2 hours from Annapolis to meet with the new church and hunt for a home before my July 1 start date, I drove around the County to re-acclimate myself. I could definitely see the new stores, the increased traffic, and more homes built. However, the true character and charm of the County I knew back then really hadn’t changed all that much. It was still good ol’ St. Mary’s County.

Perhaps the same is true for me after all. We all grow and change. Hopefully we mature in wisdom and inner strength, too. I think I can say the same for myself. Even then, when all is said and done, I am who I am, and, well, this place is what it is, too.

Returning to the Mother County after what seems like a lifetime ago, I am reminded of that old cliche that is laden with more ironic reality than I can understand: the more things change, the more they stay the same. For me, and for this County I’m loving again, that could not be more true.

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The Abundance of Self-Emptying

More, faster, richer, bigger. Go for the win. Those are the highest aspirations of our Western culture. It’s what drives a capitalist economy in which you and I are most valued, not for who we are, but for how much we buy and consume. And as consumers, we look for prosperity and happiness in the acquisition of material wealth.

That’s the reason why we Western Christians tap-dance around some of Jesus’ central teachings. When he talks about denying ourselves, losing our lives in this world, emptying ourselves, being content with being last and lowly, personally identifying with the marginalized, and bearing our cross, we have a very hard time even imaging what it would look like to embody those principles. I think some of us admire these qualities in the “super saints” we idealize (the St. Francis’s and Mother Theresa’s of the world), but we simply cannot fathom taking on these traits as our primal way of living. It turns out it’s much easier and less costly to idealize than to emulate.

That brings me to a Holy Week story from Jesus’ last days. He’s in the Temple courts with his disciples, and Luke tells it like this:

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

Luke 21:1-4

Let me just say right off the bat, preachers just love this passage. Oh my, do we love it. It’s a favorite go-to Bible story to turn to when we’re trying to fill up the offerings plates. Even if you’ve never sat through a “stewardship sermon”, I’m sure you can figure out how we preach from this passage.

“Now, everyone,” says the preacher, “if this poor, poor widow who had nothing else to live on could give her last two cents for the work of the Lord, then really now, what more could you give?”

After a final amen, the sermon is followed by the singing of “Take My Life and Let It Be” which contains this little gem: “Take my silver and my gold, not a mite [the widow’s mite!] would I withhold.”

Isn’t that brilliant?

You might be relieved to know that this typical approach glances off the more significant meaning of Jesus’ teaching.

Let’s look again at the timing of this story of the widow’s offering. Jesus is mere days away from his death. On that day, Jesus would demonstrate once and for all what it means to give up everything he had to live on. He gave away his entire life. Put the story of the widow’s offering in that context, and what more is he trying to say to us?

Jesus and his cross are teaching us a counterintuitive truth about life and abundance: self-emptying always leads to abundant life.

Let’s be clear, this is not abundant life the way our Western capitalist culture defines it. It’s far more profound than that. Abundant life is a pattern of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22). Abundant life is an intimate connection with all created things, subject to subject, enjoying it all for its own sake and inherent beauty. Abundant life is a life without ego, control needs, power-trips, self-centered wants, judgmentalism, and non-forgiveness.

The more we cling to things— to anything, really— as our private possession, the more separate we are from the rest of the world. We must then assume the stance of having things to protect, to compete for, and to differentiate from everyone else’s. It’s very difficult, it not impossible, to love unconditionally within protective, “me versus them” dynamics like these.

While shielded within our self-protective silos, giving of ourselves becomes a metered, tempered and calculated risk assessment based on merit and return instead of an ongoing, unlimited and abundantly gracious outpouring of our very best. Which of these modes do you think most resembles Christ?

Jesus was indiscriminate towards those whom he healed and gave to. He never turned away anyone (if you don’t believe me, look again), never judged anyone’s worthiness, and gave to each whether the recipient was grateful or not. The ultimate expression of this outpouring of unconditional graciousness was his death on the cross.

And just days before, an anonymous poor widow whose name we would never know, whom everyone would have missed save for Jesus, epitomized all of this in a humble act of giving.

So the rest comes down to our response. At every moment we face a choice. Will I consume and protect or will I let go and give? Will I live in full embrace and communion with all things, or will I fence off myself in the name of self-preservation? Will I judge or will I love? Will I live in the “system’s” false understanding of abundance or in Christ’s? Will I give life or withhold it (while losing it eventually anyway)?

Holy Week teaches us some invaluable, timeless human and divine truth about what it means to live, die, surrender, and thrive. We would do well to be students of the One who revealed himself to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6), not merely as a religious precept, but as a total way of living and being. Then we will discover the abundance of self-emptying.

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Christchurch: We Are All Perpetrator and Victim

I woke up this morning, as many of you did, to news of the massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand. At least 49 Muslims were murdered while in prayer at two different Christchurch mosques by a gunman. Christchurch is known for being a peaceful, tolerant town within a nation known for peace and safety. Once I learned that, I immediately thought back to the massacre in Squirrel Hill. There are so many similarities.

A Christchurch, NZ Mosque

Yet I admit, when I heard the news, the usual things began to happen. At first I was numb. Then as I looked harder at the news, I was shocked. Then I began to slip into numbness again. After all, it’s just one more incident in a long succession of ideologically and racially motivated acts of mass terror. What more is there to think and say? It will happen again and again. So, in my instinctual way of handling things, because all this is just too horrific to comprehend, I began to check out.

Checking back in for a bit, I noticed this “incident” was followed by the usual obligatory responses. Outrage. Condemnation. Calls for thoughts and prayers. Gun control debates are coming. My Bishop issued yet another pastoral letter. (I wonder how she can find something new to say each time. Eventually, I’m waiting for her to say, “Click on the link to my last letter.”)

That’s when I came to again.

Maybe it’s time to admit that none of our responses are working. Not a one. No one is healed. No one is protected. More violence is almost guaranteed.

No hearts are truly changed by our public outrages, our pious thoughts and prayers, and our endless debates on mental health, safety and security. All these things are blood-soaked band-aids.

I think we must step back and own what’s happening in a whole new way.

In the face of all this violence, perhaps it’s time for us to humbly and soulfully confess something fundamentally true: each of us is both perpetrator and victim.

It is not enough to simply stand in solidarity with the victims. It’s a good first step, especially when the victims are of a different ideology, religion, or race than we are. But that’s still too easy, and we can get awfully self-righteous while doing something that began as compassion. I know I have.

The harder, perhaps more necessary step, in addition to identifying with the victims, is to name ourselves as the culprits. We may not have pulled the trigger, but we all have done our share in creating the climate that leads to the kind of carnage we have witnessed in Christchurch. If we want healing, this is something we must recognize and change within our basic attitudinal stance towards our neighbors.

It’s the I vs. you, us vs. them, dualistic way of seeing our neighbors in contrast to ourselves. On the one hand, thinking like this is inevitable. In the necessary growth work of self-realization, differentiating ourselves from others is part of the process. It’s the reason why teenage children push away from their parents; it’s their first step towards developing an adult identity away from home.

As we work, play, raise families and make a name and a life for ourselves, the nature of the game is Survivor, and competition to stay on our islands is an unavoidable dynamic. We compete for life, liberty, and happiness. We want to win. We want success. And as we strive for it, we develop this us vs. them way of seeing. From fighting fellow drivers in traffic, arguing a political point, griping about the idiots and despots, and competing for that job we want, it truly is a tribal warfare life we’re told we must live if we want to succeed in the world. It’s pervasive, and for most people, it never stops.

The next, often hidden, necessary step in human maturity is to see the world, not in terms of rules, boxes, groups, classes, good/bad, winners/losers, saved/damned, black/white, red/blue… but in terms of we, as in the interconnectedness and vital necessity of all people and all things.

Practically speaking, what does this mean? As a Christian, it means that I see and recognize Christ in all people. To break that down some more, it means that I endeavor to see that every person is made in God’s image, that each one is very good (because God said we are), and that Christ is at work in each of us to transform us into God’s likeness, no matter our religion or beliefs.

Everyone. Me. You. The homeless woman walking down the street. The family crossing the southern border in the cover of night. The co-worker I can’t bring myself to like. A child born in a meth house. Everyone in my neighborhood. Everyone in Christchurch. The white nationalists. The Muslims in prayer. All are in God’s image, all are created very good by God, being transformed by Christ into God’s likeness, in God’s time and way.

That kind of solidarity gives us the freedom to love the perpetrator and the victim because each of us, in our own way, are perpetrators and victims of our world’s violence. We have all contributed to the kind of us vs. them tribalism that feeds the violence in our world. We have suffered from it to varying degrees. And we all have the choice to opt out of the game when we’re mature enough to do it.

So do we simply stop calling out evil and injustice? Of course, not.

That said, if that’s all we do, or even half of what we do, then we’re simply exhaling negativity into the air, ironically enough becoming the kind of badness we hate to see in other people.

For every negative, there must be double or even triple the positive. If we don’t or can’t do that hard work, then we continue to deepen our collective human addiction to all things negative, gloomy, dark and problematic. As they say in the news room, “If if bleeds, it leads.” In an oddly perverse way, we just love bad news.

For me, unconditional, gracious, bridge-building, self-and-other-identifying love is the only remedy to our world’s violence. It sounds so simple and naive to even type those words, but it’s true. Love for the victims. Love for the perpetrators. Seeing God and ourselves just as clearly in the victim as in the perpetrator.

We are all both monster and saint, innocent and guilty, Pilate and Jesus, heavenly and hellish, all wrapped up in a tragically beautiful, divine creation called you and me.

With the most sonorous YES I can sing— just as it was in the beginning, as it is now, and ever shall be to the end, that everyone and everything in creation is all inherently, intrinsically, collectively good, because it is in God, and God is in it. And in some mysterious way I can’t quite comprehend but know to be true, God is all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28).

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The Bible Condemns My Divorce, Second Marriage and Fitness for Ministry

I am a heterosexual male, legally married to one woman. We were married by an ordained pastor in a church. I made a vow to God and to my wife to remain her faithful husband until we are parted by death. Nearly 12 years later, I have honored and kept this vow.

Nevertheless, the Bible clearly condemns my marriage and fitness for ministry as a pastor of Christ’s church. This is something we should all take quite seriously and soberly.

In May of 2006, after a two-year separation from the woman who is now my ex-wife, I filed for and was granted a judgment of divorce. There was no adultery or abuse committed by her or me. In the legal language stated in our divorce decree, the grounds were “irreconcilable differences.”

Some time after that, my (current) wife Blairlee filed for and was granted a judgment of divorce from her now ex-husband. They had been separated for well over 4 years, and the legal grounds for their divorce were similar to my own.

The Bible has some explicit things to say to people like us about our choices, the consequences of our choices, the condition of our lives, and my ministry.

In regards to those serving as priests/clergy,

“ ‘The woman he marries must be a virgin. He must not marry a widow, a divorced woman, or a woman defiled by prostitution, but only a virgin from his own people,’ ‭

Leviticus 21:13-14

As to the harm of divorce,

“The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.”

Malachi 2:16

The above verse from Malachi can also be translated this way:

“For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel…

Malachi 2:16 (NRSV)

As for the grounds of divorce and remarriage, Jesus said,

“But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Matthew 5:32

Yet in another place, Jesus said,

“Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

Mark 10:11-12

Pertaining to a church’s overseer [clergy],

“Now a bishop [overseer] must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher,”

1 Timothy 3:2 (NRSV)

These are just a handful of the 33 times divorce is mentioned in the Bible. While the Bible has a number of things to say about divorce, and at times metaphorically uses divorce to depict God’s relationship with his people, divorce is never cast in a positive light. At worst, divorce is flatly condemned as a God-hated practice and at best offered as a concession to human hard-heartedness (Matthew 19:8).

Yet just a cursory reading of the Bible verses I’ve cited above would lead us to the following conclusions about my life, marriage, and ministry:

  • By divorcing my ex-wife, I have done violence to her while also, by biblical implication, having demonstrated some degree of hate.
  • God hates our divorces.
  • Because my ex-wife did not commit adultery, I have made her a victim of adultery.
  • My wife Blairlee has committed adultery by divorcing her ex-husband, making him a victim of adultery.
  • By marrying my current wife under the grounds of our divorces, we are living in adultery.
  • Since my wife— if I could even call her my wife under these circumstances!— and I are living in adultery, we are not legitimately married in the eyes of God, which means our son Jacob was conceived and born out of biblical wedlock, making him, in the eyes of God, illegitimate.
  • As a pastor, I am expressly forbidden from marrying a divorced woman.
  • As a pastor/overseer of the church, I am only allowed one wife. (I have had two.)

For these reasons, it is clear that the Bible condemns not only my divorce, but the legitimacy of my marriage and my ordination.

Other than the personal anguish from enduring a separation and divorce (which Blairlee and I will never face again), do you know how many consequences I have faced as a result of being divorced and remarried to a divorced woman? Zero consequences.

Let me say it again: the church, specifically the United Methodist Church, has not condemned me for my divorce and remarriage to a divorced woman. My divorce did not disqualify me from being remarried in a United Methodist Church by a United Methodist pastor, and there was no prohibition in place to prevent me from marrying a divorced woman. The church has not barred me from being ordained a Full Elder. No church I have served has ever refused to receive me, a divorced man married to a divorced woman, as their pastor. In fact, I have never been interviewed, questioned, or interrogated over my divorce and remarriage by any Staff Parish Relations Committee, District Superintendent, Bishop, or Board of Ordained Ministry.

There’s one simple reason for all this. While the UMC discourages divorce, calling it “a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness,” there is nothing in our Book of Discipline that forbids me from getting a divorce, remarrying a divorced woman or being ordained, even though, biblically speaking, my divorce and remarriage are clearly “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Where does that leave me?

If we were to fully adhere to clear biblical teaching on divorce and remarriage, then one must conclude that I am unrepentant, living in abject rebellion and sin, deserving to have a millstone tied around my neck and drowned in the depths of the sea (Matthew 18:6). For I am leading others into sin through my sinful example and tacit endorsement of divorce, remarrying a divorced person, and living in adultery… with an illegitimate child, too! In fact, why not condemn and drown the whole United Methodist Church in the depths of the sea for allowing and condoning sin that God has quite emphatically said he hates?

***********

So, to my sisters and brothers who vigorously argue, based on six biblical passages, that the “practice” of homosexuality is a sin, while condemning same-sex marriages and “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from becoming clergy, I ask you to be just as vigorous and as intellectually and morally consistent in your condemnation of my divorce, remarriage, and ordination.

Furthermore, I ask you to submit to our 2020 General Conference:

  1. …a petition deeming it a chargeable offense for clergy or laity to divorce, unless it can be absolutely verified that there was sexual immorality or adultery. (Keep in mind, however, that this would still violate the Mark 10:11-12 prohibition on divorce. I’m not sure how you would settle this discrepancy except to prohibit divorce for any reason.)
  2. …a petition deeming it a chargeable offense for clergy to marry people who have been divorced for any reason.
  3. …a petition deeming it a chargeable offense for a clergy person to marry a divorced person.
  4. …a petition that would bar divorced persons from being received as candidates, licensed, recommended, commissioned and ordained as Elders or Deacons, or consecrated as Bishops.
  5. …a petition setting the penalty for violating any of the above restrictions as a year of suspension without pay for first offenses, and a termination of conference membership and revocation of credentials for licensing, ordination, or consecration for second offenses.

If you are not willing to exercise due diligence in submitting these petitions, then I ask that you withdraw your support for maintaining our Book of Discipline’s restrictive language concerning homosexuality.

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#GreaterLoveAnnapolis

268FA8B7-F952-49BB-B0CB-2EC1AE6C4608A week ago today, a man armed with a shotgun walked into the office of the Capital-Gazette newspaper, opened fire and murdered 5 people, wounding two others. This kind of atrocity is unthinkable for a warm, charming town like Annapolis.

Annapolis is my hometown and the place where I now serve as a pastor. Violence like this quite literally- emotionally, spiritually- hits home deep within me.

And it got me to do some soul searching.

For far too long, most people would chalk up our societal challenges as cultural or political struggles. In a way they are. However, on a much deeper level, our problems are spiritual problems. I’ve always known that, but in the last week, I’ve relearned that powerful truth.

Spirituality centers around four main questions: Who are we? Whose are we? What is our purpose? What’s our destination?

To simplify things even more, I believe that spirituality centers on our ability or inability to love and our ability or inability to do good and avoid evil. Increasingly more of us are at a loss for how to do these things. We see our shortcomings, not just in the physical violence some people commit, but in the verbal violence, self-centeredness, and apathy many more of us struggle with.

The answer to our dilemma, quite simply, is love.

Also running in the soundtrack of my thoughts has been a deep desire to connect with people to talk about deep things and to do meaningful life together, but so often barriers like religion (I’m a Christian and a pastor) get in the way. Cultural and political differences throw their weight around, too.

While we cannot whitewash those differences or pretend they don’t exist— they most certainly do!— could there be a common ethic which could form new community for the purpose of inner- and interpersonal change and transformation? Could we learn to recognize and treasure our differences and diversity, all the while sharing in the greatest yearnings of our common humanity?

I firmly believe that the answer is yes– a resounding YES. That yes is the basis of Greater Love Annapolis.

With Greater Love Annapolis, I envision the establishment of a network of neighbors committed to something I call “the ethic of Greater Love”. That ethic is centered on four main principles:

  1. Unconditional Love
  • Living by the Golden Rule: loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, and expressing that love in thoughtful, intentional, practical, and ongoing ways
  • Seeking to build relationships of cooperation and friendship with all of our neighbors, regardless of culture, race, nation of origin, sexuality, economic status, religious or political affiliation
  • Offering our neighbors the gift of deep listening for the purpose of understanding and empathy
  • Striving for forgiveness and reconciliation wherever there are broken relationships
  • Operating out of a profound respect for the dignity and worth of every neighbor, recognizing in them our shared humanity
  1. Personal Integrity
  • Safeguarding ourselves from self-harming behaviors and addictions while actively seeking healing from any of these personal defects
  • Nurturing a spiritual life that leads to personal growth, wisdom, and greater integrity of character
  • Honest dealings with ourselves and others, both publicly and privately
  • Making our lives fully accountable to a network of trusted friends
  1. Humility
  • Considering the dreams, aspirations and welfare of others before ourselves
  • Speaking only that which builds up all of our neighbors, refraining from language that tears down and belittles them
  1. Solidarity with Our Most Vulnerable Neighbors
  • Raising awareness of the attitudes, systems and powers that marginalize and prey upon the most vulnerable members of our community and all those whose voices are not heard.
  • Peaceful, loving, and persistent confrontation of those attitudes, systems, and powers.
  • Establishing new community and systems that protect and empower our most vulnerable neighbors

From here, I anticipate conversations and discussions about what our network would look like and do. I see an organized effort to create community Greater Love Annapolis groups for the purpose of hanging out, conversation, learning, accountability, and planning for advocacy/community organizing. I see a movement of transformed and transforming people of mercy and justice, lived not in tribalism and self-righteous anger, but with loving passion and fearless strength for greater equality, dignity and opportunity for all people.

I see an Annapolis community with a deeply spiritual, shared conscious.
I see awakening and revival, rooted in love.

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
‭‭John‬ ‭15:13‬

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Let Us Eat Cake

709A57AC-3F0B-42D0-974B-EE81608A0480Six years ago, I can’t imagine any of us would have predicted that the Supreme Court of the United States would issue a ruling involving a wedding cake (or lack thereof), but it’s a sign of the times in which we live. And in all times, often the most fundamental Constituitonal issues are decided within the scope of seemingly trivial, mundane, everyday things.

For example, six years ago, David Mullins and Charlie Craig went into Masterpiece Cakeshop in Denver, Colorado to order a cake for their upcoming wedding. Shop owner Jack Phillips refused to make the cake citing his particular Christian belief that does not recognize same-sex marriages. In his view, homosexuality and same-sex relationships are sinful, so he could not apply his craft to contribute to an event he found to be religiously objectionable. From there, complaints were filed with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and suddenly the case became a struggle between religious liberty/freedom of conscious vs. equal treatment/anti-discrimination, a struggle which made its way to Washington, D.C. and into the hall of the United States Supreme Court.

The Court ruled in a stunning 7-2 majority decision that Jack Phillips was in his right to refuse to make the cake, citing the First Amendment and freedom of religion. No governmental agency could compel him to act or produce something that violates his long-established religious beliefs. There was also some heavy consideration given to the fact that the same Colorado Civil Rights Commission which had upheld other cakemakers’ religious freedoms to not produce products that violated their beliefs declined Jack Phillips’ own religious objection, establishing a clear bias and disparity.
Understandably, the reaction has been swift and passionate. Some are celebrating a victory for conservative values and freedom of religion. Others are condeming a decision that upholds bigotry and economic discrimination under the guise of religious belief.

As for me, I’ve made the argument multiple times that the kind of biblical theology espoused by fellow Christians like Jack Phillips is a poor, shallow reading of the Bible that does incredible harm to people. I predict that the days of the church shutting its doors on the full inclusion of LGBTQ people will come to an end within my lifetime. When that finally happens, the church and the whole world will be so much better served with the good news of Jesus that affirms grace and redemptive love for all people. Period. No if’s, and’s, but’s, or fancy qualifiers.

In the meantime, however, there are Christians like Jack Phillips, and as much as I reject his reading of the Bible, he has every right to believe it and to do nothing that violates his conscious. That is the definition of religious freedom.

America was established to be a liberally generous nation, but we are living in quite illiberal times. People want freedom, but they don’t tolerate the freedoms of those whose speech and actions offend their their convictions and sensibilities. In a related though slightly tangential way, we’re seeing this same struggle playing out in the NFL with football players who have refused to stand for the National Anthem.

Timeout!

Let me stop right here and state as emphatically as I can that by no means am I placing Jack Phillips’ conservative views on same-sex marriage and black football players’ protest against racial injustice on the same moral plane. Not at all. But that’s not the point.

The point is that these are Americans exercising their freedom of conscious, freedoms which are deeply American and enshrined within our founding documents. (The NFL as an employer recently made its decisions, and we’ll see how well they play out economically, politically, and legally.)

For now though, we live in a three way tension between cultural tribalism (warring social and political tribes highly intolerant of views or people outside of their tightly defined ideological parameters), the ongoing struggle for civil rights, and religious freedom.

I think it is an absolute travesty that religious freedom and civil rights should ever be in tension with each other, as in the case of a wedding cake. But tragically that is the case.

I also firmly reject cultural tribalism. I will rejoice when we can find an end to this kind of destructive behavior.

For now, however, it is incumbent upon us to uphold both religious freedom for people like Jack Phillips and the struggle for civil rights for our neighbors of any minority group. We need both things, even if when they are at odds with each other. The moment our government denies any kind of religious freedom by dictating thought and behavior which violate one’s religious convictions, we’re living under tyranny. And just as important, it is the role of our government to protect the civil rights of all Americans, including our LGBTQ neighbors. Otherwise, we’re living with injustice.

Here’s the strange stew we find ourselves in. Gay and lesbian people have a protected right to marry. And as terrible as one’s religious beliefs may be, one can refuse to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple. Both are Constitutionally just. There’s always another cake store, and as our culture continues to shift towards the full inclusion of LGBTQ people, the Jack Phillips’ of the world will find themselves increasingly on the cultural and economic outs.

For today, we can all eat our cake. Our cake’s batter is made of good religion and bad religion, freedom of religion or no religion, freedom from government sanctioned religion, civil rights and the struggle for civil rights. The icing on this strange cake is our individual freedom to put our money into the businesses and organizations which match our values. Granted, it’s a peculiar cake recipe, and some are having a hard time stomaching it, but like it or not, this cake is oddly, painfully, and wonderfully American.

Hopefully over time, we can build upon and in some cases drastically improve the recipe!

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The NFL Has Outlawed Conscientious Patriotism

626307AC-2B2C-49B7-BD56-B230736C3B66To stand or to kneel, or to do anything else quiet and unassuming during the playing of the American National Anthem…

The decision has been made. The NFL has mandated all players to stand for the Anthem or to remain in the locker room until its conclusion. This is the NFL’s “solution” to a raging controversy swirling around issues of free-speech, employee rights, and how freely a player can express himself. And note: this change was made without any consultation with the players.
Let’s get one thing straight. The NFL’s decision has nothing to do with honoring America or patriotism. It is about protecting its bottom line. The NFL’s real bottom line is not America. It’s not patriotism. Too many people got upset at kneeling players, and the league lost eyeballs and dollars. So it’s all about money, pure and simple.

Now before anyone starts howling that I’m some kind of un-American anti-capitalist liberal commie…(I’m certainly not a liberal. I belive in free markets, which means I’m not a Communist.) I am a proud American. I express my pride by standing to pledge allegiance to the flag. I stand and sing the National Anthem. I do both with my hand over my heart. It’s an honor to do it. I’m proud of our military, our Constitution, and all the other American institutions that make us the greatest nation in the world.

My proud patriotism also extends to protect the Constitutionally guaranteed freedom of conscience for all my fellow Americans, and that includes their right to stand or not stand for the National Anthem. I don’t have to like their refusal to participate, but I will do anything to protect their freedom of refusal. That’s one of the greatest things about America. For civilians like me, I have the choice. To make a personal choice and to respect the freedoms of others to make their choices is true, proud Americanism.

But to say it again, the NFL’s decision is not about patriotism or Americanism.

To protect its profits, the NFL is mandating its employees to follow a new rule that may very well violate many players’ conscience. Granted, the NFL believes it gives these players an out. Players who refuse to stand for the National Anthem can stay in the locker room, after all. But that’s akin to, “Do what I say or leave the room.” It is a backhanded, implicit form of penalizing and silencing that will create just as much division as before while also inviting scorn and shame upon players who are following their deeply held convictions. That is unjust, and therefore inhumane.

Now someone might say, “C’mon, Chris, these guys are being paid millions of dollars. They just need to shut up, suck it up, follow the rules or get another job.” Let’s clear up a few red herrings here. First, it’s not a matter of how much someone gets paid. Whether someone earns $50,000 or $5,000,000 a year, employees are still thinking, conscientious human beings, many of whom compete hard and sacrifice much to get the jobs they have. Simply leaving one job to get another is much easier said than done and says nothing to respect an employee’s sense of conscientiousness and justice.

“Still,” you might say, “this is a business, not a social club. Players are paid to play, not to express their views on the field.” Okay, then. In that case, the NFL must be consistent and ban all forms of personal expression on the field, including any form of celebration and religious expression such as gathering to pray before the game starts, crossing themselves, pointing to heaven, and kneeling after a good play. (No kneeling, right??) And while they’re at it, the NFL should mandate players to cover up all those tattoos. Aren’t those personal forms of expression? But, for various other reasons, those expressions don’t seem to offend the majority, and so they’re still allowed… for now.

Meanwhile, this newly enacted form of disparity created by the NFL still remains. Players can express certain personal things on the field, but not other things. Those other things— well, they hurt the NFL’s revenue stream. So the NFL, in effect, outlawed some players’ expressions of faithful patriotism and speech. In so doing, it has proved that money trumps any form of patriotism, conscience, or a player’s dignity.

The NFL is certainly within their right to do all of the above. It is a business who hires employees to do a job and follow its rules. So the question we must all ask ourselves is: how much can I support an organization who increasingly treats their players like indentured gladiators and less like principled human beings, all for the sake of money? That’s something I’m wrestling with now.

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