The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. Psalm 118:22-23 NRSV

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Peace in the Middle East

Although I was only 8 years old, I remember well the Camp David Accords, signed when President Jimmy Carter brought together Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel for discussion on mutual recognition and respect. I remember the feeling of physical illness and spiritual trauma I experienced when I thought that there would be an announcement of peace in the Middle East because I remembered the biblical saying that in the day when peace is declared then total destruction is imminent. "For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them." I thought I was doomed, that Jesus would return as soon as the treaty was signed and I, unsaved, would be hell bound. Although this all seems a little ridiculous to me now, I think of it because it was my first up close and personal experience of feeling there were geopolitical implications of the literalist scriptural interpretation to which I had been exposed.

Religious and political pundits have discussed the complicated relationship between evangelicals and Israel. Radical secularists mock the simultaneous concern for Israel's future as God's chosen people and the evangelical theological certainty that all attempts to secure Israel apart from Christ's return are futile. And although I do not support the disdainful treatment of my own theological community, I too see the contradiction in the fact that evangelicals pray for the peace of Jerusalem and while espousing a theological perspective that depends on war.

This week in Annapolis the Bush administration, undoubtedly the administration most beholden to evangelical orthodoxy, has initiated its own legacy-saving effort at bringing Israel and the Palestinians to the table. Secretary Rice and President Bush, having flatly ignored the opportunity 7 years ago to build on the outline for peace proposed by the Clinton administration in its waning days, now have concluded that simply backing Israel while ignoring the Palestinians will not ultimately lead to safety for Israel or to peace in the Middle East. It's only too bad that the US waited until the Fattah party's majority had vanished in favor of the more radical Hamas whom Palestinians democratically elected last year.

What I wish for this nation and especially for the African American church is that we would do the intellectual and historical work that would allow us to seek justice for the exiled and displaced Palestinians, not just security and recognition for Israel. I am aware that many Christians see a spiritual and theological mandate for supporting Israel. But just as I hope that I have matured beyond the far too literal biblical interpretation that left me praying against Carter, Sadat, and Begin's efforts, I hope that we will have the theological, spiritual,and political maturity to support a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli question. Let's pray for the peace of Jewish and Arab Jerusalem.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Guns Do Kill People

When we talk about the tragedy of gun violence in our communities, we often focus on the occasions when bullets maim or kill the shooter's intended targets. But there are many other instances that prove that bullets have no conscience and that maiming and killing arise even when no intention to injure is present. I imagine that most people who read this blog can name multiple incidents when the "wrong" person was shot or the gun went off accidentally. This past week such a tragic circumstance emerged in Duquesne, a suburb or Pittsburgh, and ended the life of Chelsea McAllister.

The story, Police question boy 14, in girl's shooting, as reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is as follows:
Chelsea McAllister's online ID is "jesus i'm yours," a theme on which she performed a liturgical mime dance in the hours before she was fatally shot Tuesday at the home of a youth minister in Duquesne.

The 15-year-old 10th-grader at West Mifflin Area High School was killed instantly by a blast to the head from a 16-gauge sawed off shotgun.

The 14-year-old Penn Hills boy who police said pulled the trigger has not been charged. Police have not identified him.

The 14-year-old and a 15-year-old Penn Hills youth had been with a group of teens that included Chelsea, her sister, Ashley McAllister, 18, and a 15-year-old girl who also attends West Mifflin Area High. They all had been invited to join Chelsea at a youth group service Tuesday night at Grace Community Ministries in the Hill District.

Chelsea had performed with a mime troupe at the church service. Afterward, the five teens were driven by Keith Owens, a youth minister at Petra Ministries in East Hills, to his home in the 200 block of South Sixth Street in Duquesne.

The home of Chelsea and Ashley, a senior at West Mifflin Area High, is around the corner from Mr. Owens' residence.

Mr. Owens, 21, lives about two blocks from the Bethlehem Temple Apostolic Church where Chelsea's grandfather, Bishop Nathan McAllister, is the pastor.

Duquesne Police Chief Richard Adams said Mr. Owens had two guns at the residence, a rifle that was kept upstairs and a sawed-off shotgun that had been given to him by a relative.

Mr. Owens told police that he and the teens were in the living room and at least one of the boys wanted to examine the shotgun. He said he unloaded the weapon before allowing the boys to examine it, Chief Adams said. The shotgun, however, still contained a cartridge.

After their short visit, Chelsea and Ashley left to go home. But Chelsea forgot her purse. She walked back up the porch stairs and into the residence. As she entered the living room, the shotgun was discharged, with the shot striking her in the head, police said.

Immediately after the shooting the boy ran into the street screaming that he had shot someone, Chief Adams said.

Inside the residence police found Chelsea's body and the weapon used to kill her.

"We're just upset, wondering why he [Mr. Owens] would show those kids a gun," said Kimberly Thomas, Chelsea and Ashley's aunt.

Why indeed?

Our prayers go out for the comfort of the McAllister family, as well as for the peace and healing of the 14 year old who shot Chelsea and for the youth minister who owned the sawed-off shotgun.

Friday, November 23, 2007

'Tis the Season

Between midnight and 6 a.m., stores and malls came to life ushering in the commercial Christmas season. Over the next few days, the analysis of sales over the Thanksgiving weekend will determine financial prognoses for the retail industry. Markets will rise and fall. But I'm not thinking about that now.

I don't even pretend to be an expert in economics, but I am sure that you can only spend your money once. So today, I am not thinking about Christmas shopping; I am thinking about a long winter and exorbitant heating bills. I am thinking about gas prices going through the roof. I am thinking about new windows for my house, and of the possibility that I'll need a new roof. This doesn't mean that I won't buy presents or even shop for bargains, but my focus is on keeping my money in my pocket for as long as possible. 'Tis the season to be prudent.

The wonderful thing about that is that it leaves me a few moments for reflecting on the other meaning of the Christmas season: preparation for, celebration of, and accountability to the coming of Christ. If I can't get up at 4 a.m. or 6 a.m. for prayer, I certainly would not be caught at the mall.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

I Just Want to Take a Little Time

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the African American Christian tradition is the commitment to giving thanks. Whether in the coalfields of West Virginia or in the center of Philadelphia, nothing gets a Black congregation's attention and amens quicker than expressions of gratitude. Often those who had the fewest material goods or the most infirmities were quickest to declare how much they have to thank the Lord for. In honor of my forebears and the example they have shown, in the words of the classic gospel song, "I just want to take a little time right now to thank the Lord."

For ancestors, especially Leonard and Annabelle, whom I miss especially at holidays.
For family and friends, who love me and whom I love.
For a place of my own, warm in winter and dry during the storms.
For meaningful employment that pays the bills.
For vocational clarity after so many years of ambivalence.
For physical health, emotional stability, and intellectual acuity.
For recognized gifts and undiscovered talents.
For successes and failures.
For spiritual communities and leaders with integrity.
For food to enjoy and for the good sense not to eat too much of it.
For multiple invitations for Thanksgiving dinner.
For homes away from home.
For babies and elders and everyone in between.
For enemies who teach me how to pray and trust.
For laughter that is not mean-spirited.
For golf, even though I do not play well at all.
For a past full of extravagant blessings.
For a present full of contentment.
For a future full of promise.
But most of all, for Jesus who really is a Wonderful Savior.
I just want to say Thank You.

O Magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt God's name together.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

How much is too much?

I am neither gloating about nor lamenting the investigation of 6 televangelists' ministries by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). While I frequently criticize the materialistic mentality that so many television ministers both preach and embody, I am in no way counting on a senate probe to unearth details about financial practices that will reform the behavior of clergy or their congregations. At the same time, I am not buying the "governmental persecution" and First Amendment protection line some have offered in defense of their extravagant lifestyles. What I am doing is using the media focus that has centered on these ministries to raise and discuss the question that is at the base of Grassley's queries and that all who minister need self-critically to consider: How much is too much?

This question goes deeper than the salaries and perks offered to the pastor(s) and their families. It is a theological question that speaks to the essence of what and who we believe God is, and what and who God calls us to be and represent. When they brandish their "bling" and flaunt the piece of God's creation they have requisitioned for their use, prosperity preachers demonstrate their allegiance to a God who is defined by what God owns and by the way that God makes them owners. What those of us who dispute this distorted vision of God need to represent is the God who is known by what God gives and by the way God makes givers of us. While I certainly appreciate the material comforts and consider them to be blessings, especially as I remember times of want and moments of concern about how and whether I would be able to make ends meet, I do not want to measure my life by what I have. I want to measure by what I give.

What feels most distorted about the lifestyle of the rich and famous televangelist is that nothing about that lifestyle is actually accessible for the bulk of their membership. What makes their houses, planes, cars, jewels, and $30K toilets most offensive and excessive is that the people whose tithes, offerings, and even purchases make those extravagances possible have not a hope of ever having anything remotely that "fine" for themselves. It's the exclusivity and the elitism that send the wrong theological and social message. No matter how many "kingdom principles" their hearers employ, they will always be separated materially from their pastor.

Some argue that church people want their pastors to represent something that is "above" them, that they delight in knowing that their pastor drives a Bentley and lives in a section of the city that they have never even visited. There is some truth to this perception. But the job of spiritual leaders is to be a part of the mental transformation the reminds people that Fortune 500 CEOs are not our model - Jesus is our model. In one of Paul's finer moments, he tells us what the Jesus model represents:
"For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich." 2 Corinthians 8:9

The beauty of this model, that measures the grace of giving rather than the blessing of owning, is that it creates interdependence and balance in the body of Christ and in the human community.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A Father Who Tried

Philadelphians are all too aware of the escalation of gun violence in our city and of the particular rise in shooting at police officers. A couple weeks ago a section of the city was on lock down for hours, and some areas for days, following the fatal shooting of officer Chuck Cassidy. A couple days ago, two undercover officers were treated and released from the hospital after being shot during a drug raid. The alleged shooter is a sixteen-year-old who will be tried as an adult.

Unfortunately, the involvement of young brothers is an all too familiar element in the drug and gun saga of our major cities. With inadequate education (this young man failed to show up for 10th grade this year) and no sense of purpose for their futures, a segment of our young people turn to and almost revel in a life of criminality.

What separates this case from so many others about which we hear is the heartfelt concern and candor of this young man's father. Both on television and in the press, Willie "James" Taylor has tearfully described his unsuccessful attempts to provide stability and loving discipline for his son, including his efforts to seek intervention from social service agencies before his son's behavior escalated to the felony level for which he is now charged.

The efforts of Mr. Taylor, who is scheduled to preach his initial sermon this Sunday, remind us all of the complexity of issues that contribute to the problem of crime, especially drug-related crimes, in our community. Although it is clear that our communities would benefit from the more active presence of fathers and positive role models, quality time with Dad is no panacea.

The question that Mr. Taylor's son and John Lewis, who confessed to killing Officer Cassidy, both raise for our families and our community is this: How do we combat the aimlessness and wandering that underlie drug activity? Part of the answer is lies in the home. Part of the answer is found at school. Part of the answer is with the government. And part belongs to the church which has an important role in helping people to find their ultimate purpose in life.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Strong and Ambitious? Too Bad for Us

Just when I was recovering from the Baisden show, I read the NY Times OpEd article by Maureen Dowd (article)that cited a Ray Fisman study on speed dating that suggested what many of us suspected, that men (of all races) like smart and ambitious women only if the man does not perceive her to be smarter and/or more ambitious than he. I was so intrigued that I read the Fisman article in Slate. I won't go into all of the gory details. I'll just quote the salient paragraph:
When women were the ones choosing, the more intelligence and ambition the men had, the better. So, yes, the stereotypes appear to be true: We males are a gender of fragile egos in search of a pretty face and are threatened by brains or success that exceeds our own. Women, on the other hand, care more about how men think and perform, and they don't mind being outdone on those scores. from An Economist Goes to a Bar

As a strong, intelligent, ambitious Black woman with a religious vocation, I am intimately aware that dating is difficult. Fisman's experiments involved speed dating, which is not likely to be the way that I find my Black Man anyway. But there are deeper issues that Baisden, Fisman, and Dowd point to that affect not only the love lives of Black (and other women) but also speak to the possibilities of fulfilling all of those other ambitions, e.g. being a pastor (me) or President (Hillary). Strong women walk the fine line of achieving our goals with strength and ambition and in spite of strength and ambition. We can't win for losing, as my momma would have said.

It's a Shame

This post was catalyzed by my viewing Michael Baisden's show on Monday night. I knew ahead of time that Baisden was problematic, thanks to the incisive blogging analysis of Gina from What about our Daughters.

Still, I tuned in anyway figuring that I would see some Black folks and enjoy some political conversation about something other than church. I expected to hear about Black life, white racism, culture wars or something like that. Instead, I encountered yet another representation of the gender wars that plague all people but that seem to have a peculiar hold on Black folks. Baisden's subject: Are women too strong or are men too weak? Who's the boss? Who wears the pants? The panelists, whose names I did not investigate, can generally be recognized as Brother Dark Ages, Brother Progressive, and Sister Relationship Expert.

I won't go into all of the details about the conversation I heard before I turned off the TV to keep from hitting it with a hammer. I won't talk at length about the informal poll asking brothers whether strong women were "turn offs" or "turn ons," or Baisden's incredulity when brothers answered "turn on." Suffice it to say that even Brother Progressive felt compelled to announce emphatically that he "is and always will be the head of [his] house."

I was, in a word, demoralized. Apparently it really is impossible to shake the problematic, fallacious, and certainly sexist notion that the only time a sister should be in charge is when a brother cannot be found. Strong Black Woman comes to the rescue until a brother shows up to be The Head. Guess it was church politics, after all.

The scariest aspect of the Baisden show was the absence of a brother who would publicly defend his belief in gender equality and shared leadership in the Black family. When Brother Progressive seemed to be going in that direction, he immediately was forced by the scorn of the other men, especially Baisden, to affirm his manhood by positioning himself above his wife. A male friend, who is married, explained to me a few weeks ago that sometimes brothers are almost embarrassed when they are with a woman who is "too" accomplished. That's what I saw in Brother Progressive. Shame.

Here's my question: How will we ever have happy, constructive, mutually uplifting Black love relationships that lead to successful marriages and families if we spend all of our time competing with one another to be the boss? Alternatively, will we really be better off if one of us simply decides always to defer to the good but certainly fallible judgment of the other? Must leadership be so much a game of "Who's on top?" And if really successful relationships are based on sharing power, but Black men are too ashamed to say so, how will younger brothers ever know that it's okay?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Damon Wayans

I am perplexed by the question of how much outrageous talk we should endure in the name of entertainment.

When I began the blog, I asked friends to forward ideas or situations they thought I should address. My friend took me up on this, after watching Damon Wayans peddling his outrageous and insulting ideas on The View. I watched the clip on and heard Wayans declare, in the name of not being hypocritical, that Don Imus was right in dubbing the Rutgers basketball team nappy-headed hos. When the hosts of The View objected, Wayans without originality implied that Black people would find his defense of Imus humorous, although white people would sit at home with a confused look on their faces.

It seems to me that the problem of blatantly offensive and misleading speech in the name of entertainment is inherent in the comedic genre. Of course, there have been comics who resist the urge simply to shock or go for cheap laughs, but usually the edginess that makes comedians funny skirts the boundaries of propriety, offense, and frequently meanness.

The Imus comment and the Wayans reprise are not simply matters of free speech or of (the lack of)taste. We who listen judge them to decide when attempts to be funny are just too mean or too false or too stupid to laugh at. And even when we laugh, out of nervousness or amusement, we have the right to consider whether our own laughter represents some baser emotion that we prefer not to indulge. And, yes, we even have the right to be so weary of seeing and hearing ourselves demeaned that we protest and refuse to take it anymore.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Fugitive Safe Surrender 2

According to the United States Marshal's office, the most recent Fugitive Safe Surrender, held at Bible Way Church in Washington, D.C., was a success as more than 500 persons turned themselves in, including 240 on the last day of the operation.
Conceived of by Peter J. Elliott, United States Marshal for the Northern District of Ohio,after the death of Cleveland Police Officer Wayne Leon at the hands of a wanted fugitive, Fugitive Safe Surrender is a powerful new initiative that encourages persons wanted for felony or misdemeanor crimes to voluntarily surrender to the law in a faith-based location. The program now has been adopted as a national USMS-sponsored initiative.

The Marshal's report continues:
Preliminary results showed that 530 individuals surrendered over the program’s three days, and that 53 of those were wanted for felony crimes. However, fewer than three percent of all those who participated in the program were arrested. For those few, charges included domestic violence, escape from jail, and felony assault. Sixty-four of the people who appeared at the church found that they had no active warrants against them, further illustrating the benefit of the program.

Last week the City of Philadelphia was on edge as a fugitive, now identified as John Lewis was at large, following the fatal shooting of police officer Chuck Cassidy. Lewis was apprehended in a homeless shelter in Miami after days of intense police activity in the the Oak Lane section of Philadelphia and because of tips encouraged by the $150K reward.

In addition to my concern about an armed, frightened killer at large, before Lewis was caught, I sympathized with his family and friends who worried that he would not live to face trial. While most of those who surrendered in D.C. were not wanted for felonies, that program gave me hope for more humane and frankly less dangerous means of bringing even those wanted for felonies to justice.

There is so little good news when it comes to law enforcement, especially as it relates to African Americans. Let's hear it again for the US Marshal's office and enlightened experiment in fugitive surrender.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

A Revival for Our Time

I spent the last two days in Atlanta where I was privileged to be a part of a revival at Ebenezer Baptist Church. This revival had all of the usual elements: singing (Helen Baylor, Dottie Peoples, and choirs), preaching (yours truly), prayer and praise (at least half of those assembled). But this revival had more: voter registration, feeding the homeless, scholarly discussion (Dr. Obery Hendricks discussing The Politics of Jesus). It was themed "Victory in the Village" and had at its core a concern for the holistic needs of a community in crisis.

While I was in Atlanta, breaking news announced that six prominent "mega ministries" are under Senate investigation. Yet again, the images of ministerial opulence that include half-million dollar cars, multi-million dollar estates, jet planes, and prosperity preaching dominated the media coverage of Christian life. I was embarrassed, though no longer surprised, since we have come to take these distortions of the gospel for granted. And I might say especially in Atlanta.

But I am thankful that conspicuous consumption is not the only story. Ebenezer is not the only church bearing witness. God still has prophets who have not bowed the knee the god of this world. Jesus still has some followers. I hope that my efforts contributed to the transformation of a few more.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Fugitive Safe Surrender

Just when I had given up hope for any good news to emerge either from the District of Columbia or the Black church, I happened to be listening the NPR's All Things Considered and heard the story of Bible Way Church and its role in a program called Fugitive Safe Surrender.

Safe Surrender permits fugitives accused of nonviolent offenses to turn themselves in to federal marshals in the safety of the Bible Way Church facilities. It is a win-win situation which conserves law enforcement money and personnel as well as giving people who made a mistake in fleeing the opportunity to turn themselves in without making their legal predicament worse. Although it does not offer amnesty, it does portend leniency in sentencing, and some of those who have surrendered actually leave on the same day with a clean slate.

There is a lot of bad news in the church world today, thousands of reasons to suspect that many church leaders have completely lost touch with reality. I am delighted to see Bible Way continuing its historical commitment to holistic transformation and social justice. I hope some other people are listening and watching too.