Baltimore – A Rush to Judgement?


I wish everyone would shut up for a minute.

But probably not for the reason you think.

    I waited a long time to write anything about the riots in Ferguson, Missouri because I wanted to try to understand the issues.   
    But this time, after watching and listening to media outlets talk about what is happening in Baltimore I don’t want to wait.  I am posting now, not because I think I understand what is happening, but because I am convinced that almost no one does.
Every media outlet, every reporter, every politician, and a great many bystanders have taken sides.
    Just like the Ferguson case, and the Travon Martin case, and so many others, everyone seems to be absolutely certain that they know exactly what is happening and why.
Everyone is rushing to judgement.
    They judge the police.  They judge Freddie Gray.  They judge the mayor.  They judge the President.  They judge the protestors, the rioters (those are vastly different groups), they judge the victims of the violence, and people are even judging the parents of the people in the streets. 
    Christians are often accused of being judgmental, but this is ridiculous.  Everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike seems to think that they know so much about what is happening hundreds of miles away in Baltimore that they can stand in judgement of people they’ve never met and who they know almost nothing about.
I wish everyone would all shut up and listen for a change.
As I watch and listen to the reporting from Baltimore, all I seem to find is more questions.
What exactly happened in police custody that led to the death of Freddie Gray?
Did Mr. Gray really have surgery on his spine only weeks before his arrest?
Did that matter?
Did the mayor tell the police to allow the mayhem to continue when it might have been stopped much earlier?
I could ask questions all day but it seems clear that, so far, there aren’t very many answers.
    And without answers, all the self-proclaimed experts (left, right and center) should slow down their rush to judgement until they actually have some facts.  Right now there are too many things that we just don’t know.   
Instead of rushing to judgement, why don’t we listen instead?
We all want justice.
    But we should be careful to find the facts so that there can be justice for everyone.  There needs to be justice for the police, the demonstrators, the rioters, the politicians, and especially for the victims.
Investigating, finding, and sorting through the facts are all things that will take time.
While we wait, instead of judging everyone, why don’t we do something helpful?
    Why don’t we try to find ways to help those who lost homes, jobs, and businesses?  Can our politicians and academics find ways to reduce poverty and joblessness instead of just pointing fingers at each other?  Why not volunteer with some charity or aid group to clean up and rebuild Baltimore?  We should all take the time to listen and understand people with whom we disagree.
    Instead of pretending that we know exactly what is going on and who is to blame, our time would be better spent trying to fix the problem and help Baltimore heal.  And while we’re doing that, we should talk less and listen more.
Instead of judging, try donating.
And if you are so inclined, I’m sure that everyone involved could use your prayers.

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Methodists vs. Catholics? (Part 2)

Question: Methodists vs. Catholics? (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a two part series answering two separate but similar questions, “What is so different about the Catholic Church?” and, “Why is there so much tension between the Methodist and the Catholic Church?”

Part one can be found here: Methodist vs. Catholics? (Part 1)

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    Since there were already hundreds of Methodist lay preachers in the colonies, John Wesley begged his bishop to ordain some of them so that the members of the church could have access to communion. 
The bishop refused.
    Eventually, John Wesley took it upon himself to ordain Thomas Coke as a bishop (even though he technically did not have that authority), who then travelled to the colonies and ordained Francis Asbury.  In this way, the Methodist Church was born.  No one intended for the Methodist movement to become a church, but it did.  As a result, the Methodist Church structure, belief and doctrine are similar to the Church of England (which today is known as the Episcopal Church in the United States).  We are not a congregational organization, but an ecclesiastical one, which means we have a hierarchy where pastors answer to a bishop. 
    Because of the way that our church has separated from the Catholic Church, our structures and beliefs, although quite different, are also sometimes strikingly similar.  Even so, there was a lot of bad blood between the reformers (like Martin Luther) and the Popes.  Remember that in that era, the Pope controlled the Holy Roman Emperor who, in turn, controlled the Army. 
    In those days, there was no separation of church and state.  For generations, anyone who even hinted at problems within the church could be arrested, their property seized, they could be tortured or even put to death for believing anything different than what they were told.  Nations who chose (actually their kings chose) to become Protestant, were attacked by the Empire’s Army.  For hundreds of years, wears were fought between Catholics and Protestants.  In the 30 Years War (1618-1648), part of Germany fought against other parts of Germany with support thrown in from the kings of France and Spain, as well as from the Empire.  During that time, 25-40% of the entire German population was killed.
    There was also much bloodshed in England.  Although Catholics and Protestants often got along with one another, their rulers were not so kind.  As England’s Kings and Queens changed from Catholic to Protestant and back again, everyone, including the priests, were forced to convert.  Those who did not, were forced from their homes or worse.  There was much bloodshed on all sides.
    In any case, by the time of John Wesley, there were bad feelings between the Church of England and the Catholic Church.  This is evident in John Wesley’s writings as well as Catholic writings of the time.  But today, 200 years later, those bad feelings have faded and Catholics and Protestants get along quite well (particularly here in the United States).  Technically, according to some Catholic doctrine, anyone who is not a part of the “official” church of Saint Peter is going to hell.  For our part, we deny several key Catholic doctrines and emphasize that salvation if through grace alone where the Catholic Church believes that both grace and works are required.
    Despite our differences, we there are a great many similarities.  We have a similar structure (although we do not have any “rank” higher than bishop and we do not have a Pope).  We have bishops who are in charge of particular geographical areas, and we have one set of rules that govern all of our churches. 
    Today the “bad blood’ that once existed isn’t what it used to be.  Most of us have both Catholics and Protestants mixed among our families and our friends and many Catholics and Protestants are married to one another.  I had a professor in seminary that did his doctoral studies in a Catholic University.  There have even been times that modern theologians, now having the benefit of being a few hundred years distant, suggest that Protestants might reconsider some of the Catholic teachings that were thrown out during the Reformation.  Recently, the Pope has invited evangelical leaders to be his guests in Rome to discuss how we might work together. 
    During my last pastorate, I became friends with Monsignor Mark Froelich who was the local parish priest.  He and I were the only people in town who were members of both the Kiwanis and the Rotary clubs and so we had lunch together twice each week (and it didn’t hurt that he was a Cleveland Indians fan).  I think we are finding that our differences may now be less than they were when our churches split during the Reformation.
    In the end when we consider what the differences are between the Methodist Church and the Catholic Church, the answer is both, “A lot” and, “Not much.”

 

Part One of this series can be found here: Methodist vs. Catholics? (Part 1)

 Note: I asked our youth to write down any questions that they had about faith, the church, or life in general.  This is a part of that series.

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Other questions and answers in this series can be found here: Ask the Pastor

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Ten (or more) Lessons from Ferguson


    Recently I read an article by Jeremy Smith, in United Methodist Insight, in which he wondered why more  clergy did not speak out on the events of Ferguson, Missouri.  In the article, Smith insists that when we don’t speak out about injustice, we make it seem that we aren’t responsible for things that happen far away from us.  In his words, “When I don’t speak up, I help turn the response into a pocket and not a whole garment of the human experience crying out for justice. “  He’s right of course, but I have a hard time speaking out about events like those in Ferguson because I am so personally ignorant, confused and conflicted by them.
    I’m a white guy and I grew up with the privileges that come with that.  Our family was far from wealthy, but I haven’t suffered from the subtle or overt discrimination that my non-white friends did.  I have not been pulled over by the police for “Driving While Black.”  I have no idea what that must be like. 
    I know that because I am white I do not fully appreciate all of the issues in play in the mess that is Ferguson, MO nor do I feel the impact of those events personally, as people of color undoubtedly do.  I know that anything I say about these events will lack understanding.   But Jeremy Smith is right, keeping silent allows injustice to continue and so I feel like I have to say something. 
    As followers of Jesus Christ we are called to stand against injustice, and there has been plenty on every side.  Not long ago, a colleague of mine posted a link to an article (to which I will not provide a link) that was so filled with hatred of hate and racism that it became hateful and racist itself.  In opposing racism, it named anyone who disagreed, for any reason, or for any principle, as a racist.  That sort of language is unhelpful and it doesn’t help any of us to think clearly.

    So here are ten lessons that we can learn from the mess that is sorting itself out (and will be for years) in Ferguson, MO:

1)      There is never an excuse to hate someone whose skin is a different color, simply because their skin is different color.  It isn’t okay to hate someone because they are black but neither is it okay to hate someone because they are not.
2)      In a town that has a population with a majority of African Americans, it is inconceivable that the police department can’t find African American recruits or that the imbalance should be so substantial.  As I understand it, the federal government is investigating this disparity, and they should.
3)      When there is injustice it should be okay to protest that injustice. Peacefully.

4)       Protests about injustice should not devolve into riots in which property is destroyed and innocents are put in the hospital, and worse.
5)      It’s not okay to use injustice as an excuse to cause injustice.
6)      It’s not okay to hurt someone who is on your side, just because they are the wrong color.
7)      It’s not okay (nor is it helpful) to destroy the businesses that have supported an abused community to make the point that the community has been abused.
8)      To say that it’s NOT okay doesn’t go far enough, it is flat out wrong, offensive, and even criminal, for the police department to try to disperse a riot by showing up dressed and equipped for a war.  Uniforms and weapons of war have no place on our streets.  I have no idea why anyone thought that showing up with M-16’s and armored personnel carriers was going to bring peace.
9)      While it is important, even necessary, for the media to have access to the story and for the story to get a wide distribution, there is a point at which the media becomesthe story.  From several stories that I read, from several very different media outlets, a point was reached when most citizens had gone home and rioters appeared, many from out of town, simply because the media was there.  I don’t know how we could, and we probably can’t and shouldn’t place restrictions on media access, but when the media’s presence makes the violence worse, something needs to be done.  Perhaps the media outlets themselves can agree on some sort of code of conduct, or organize a media pool as is often done in wartime, to share stories and prevent an area from being mobbed by reporters.
10)   As to who is guilty in the original event that triggered this mess, I have to admit that the conflicting reports in the media make me unsure.  A young man is dead and shouldn’t be.  I don’t know who is at fault, but I am sure that a careful investigation is needed.  I am also sure that the Ferguson Police are not the ones who should do the investigating.  In Ohio, it is standard procedure for accusations against social workers to be investigated by a neighboring (outside) social service agency.  Perhaps police departments ought to do the same with any officer involved shooting.
    Ultimately, there is plenty of fault to go around.  Ferguson may not be a “Perfect Storm” where everything went wrong, but a whole lot still went wrong.  The police got it wrong, the protestors got it wrong, the media got it wrong, and probably a few others as well.  But in every case, we, the people of God, the church, need to find a way to fight against injustice. 
All injustice. 
    We need to speak up against institutional racism.  We need to speak out against a police force that is preparing and equipping to fight a war against its own citizens.  We need to speak out against rioters who overshadow legitimate protestors and also against a media machine that makes problems worse instead of better.
    As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to be salt and light to the world.  We are called to stand against injustice.  We are supposed to be doing all we can to make things better.
    The events of Ferguson, MO make it clear that no matter where we live, regardless of our race, we have a LOT of work to do.

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Top Ten 2011 Blog Posts


    I know I’m a year late, but as I began to assemble the top ten blog posts of 2012, I realized that there were a few from 2011 that still had value and might well be worth a second look.  Here they are, more or less in order of popularity.
1) God Will Destroy the Fat Cats – November 29, 2011 – A Blog about God’s desire to destroy the rich, well, not really… but sort of.
2) Laws of Man and God – Are guns evil? Part 1 – February 9, 2011 – Part 1 of 4 – The first in a series that I wrote after the shooting of Gabriel Giffords.  Not really pro-gun or anti gun, just asking a lot of questions and thinking out loud.    The first two installments made the year’s top ten, but while part 3 was moderately popular, almost no one made it to part 4.  My lesson?  Even broken into pieces, this was just too long.
3) Happy Birthday Mr. Shea! – February 2, 2011 – A tribute to George Beverly Shea           on his 102nd birthday.  
4) Laws of Man and God – Are guns evil? Part 2– February 10, 2011 – Part 2 of 4
5) Living Together, No Harm No Foul? – April 27, 2011 – Is living together normal, healthy, moral and responsible?  I’m sure you can find lots of people who think it’s a good idea, but, well, no. 
6) Seeing God in the World Around You – March 25, 2011 – A man I never met, weeps during my talk, wondering how I knew so much about his life.  I didn’t.  But God did.
7) 20/20 Blindness – March 31, 2011 – A blind man is thrown out of a restaurant because of his guide dog.  Apparently, humans are just as blind today as the Pharisees that Jesus knew.            
8) Christmas in January – January 4, 2011- I explain why our family still leaves our Christmas decorations us until the first week in January.  Not everyone celebrates Christmas on December 25th you know.
9) Too Busy for God? – May 25, 2011 – Do you plans for the summer, or for the New Year, include church.  If church is important to you, don’t allow it to happen by accident.

    In reality, there was a three or four way tie for tenth place.  Instead of picking one of those, or using all of them, I jump to the blog that comes after the tie because, even though it was read less often, it had more comments than any other blog of the year.  That’s worth something mentioning, I think.

10) A New Digital Divide – Who wins, who loses? – January 19, 2011 – As we become an increasingly technological society, we cannot allow ourselves to forget the people who are being left behind.
Honorable Mention) The Nightmare of Democracy? – February 14, 2011 – I include this, a blog that was written at the very beginning of what we now call the Arab Spring.  In it, I worried that the revolution in Egypt might not be such a great thing.  In the two years since, attacks on Coptic Christians and on the Coptic Church have increased and the government has shown little interest in preventing it.  Events are still unfolding in the Middle East and as they do, out brothers and sisters in Christ will continue to be in need of our prayers.

God Will Destroy the Fat Cats – A word about the Occupy Wall Street movement

    As I prepare sermons each week, I download and read the scriptures called out in the Common Lectionary, a three year plan that walks us through most major teachings in the Bible.  I don’t always use every selection but as I was reading these scriptures recently I was struck by a passage in Ezekiel that would, on the surface, seem to be a rallying place for the Occupy Wall Street movement and I was, frankly, surprised that it had not already been used to proclaim that GOD WILL DESTROY THE FAT CATS’.  On the surface, this  seems to be the message but that didn’t seem quite right, and it bothered me.  Before we go any farther, here is Ezekiel 34:16 (NIV)

 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.
    God says that he will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak but he will destroy the strong and the sleek. Many translations declare that God will destroy the strong and the fat.  That certainly sounds like a condemnation of the Wall Street bankers, politicians in Washington, and most other ‘fat cats’ but, as I noted earlier, something about that bothered me and it didn’t take too long to figure out why.  The Bible is full of sheep/shepherd imagery. God, kings and church leaders are often compared to shepherds and the people of God are likened to sheep under God’s care.  This imagery is common because it was (and still is) a good picture of how we relate to God and most people who read the story understand how sheep (and shepherds) act.  The problem that I have with this particular passage is that destroying strong sheep and fat sheep is not what shepherds would normally do.  Most responsible shepherds want strong sheep and fat sheep.  Breeding for these characteristics improves the flock as a whole and makes it both stronger and more valuable.  It would be irresponsible for any shepherd to destroy his best breeding stock, so what is it that Ezekiel is trying to tell us?
    As is often the case, the key to interpreting this is found not simply in reading to find what seems to agree with your cause, but in reading more of the passage to put things in context.  Knowing the analogy, that a good and wise shepherd would not normally destroy his best breeding stock is a good start and ignites our curiosity to look deeper.  If we keep reading from Ezekiel we discover these verses as well:
18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? 19Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?
And this:
See, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, 22 I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. 
    If we read what comes prior to verse 16, we discover that the entire section is a condemnation upon the leaders of God’s people, the shepherds who have neglected their duty to God and have scattered the sheep.  It is these fat sheep that God condemns.  Unlike some in the Occupy movement, God does not declare that wealth equates with evil, that all rick and powerful people are bad, or that they should be destroyed.  God’s proclamation is that wealth and power are given along with a responsibility to care for those that have been entrusted to you.  God condemns Israel’s leaders because they have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost and they have ruled harshly and brutally while enriching themselves.
Simply put, the strong and the fat are not condemned because they are strong and fat, but because they used their strength to abuse the weak instead of using it to care for them.  

    In my ministry I have had the good fortune to meet several people who have significant wealth, but many of them are also kind, compassionate and generous followers of Jesus Christ who treat their employees well and who use their wealth to care for others as well as the church.  In these words of Ezekiel we do not find a broad condemnation of everyone with wealth and power, but only those who do not use what they have been given in a responsible way.  This is not a condemnation of wealth and power, but a caution to all of us who lead others, whether as pastors, doctors, lawyers, employers, shop foremen, teachers, committee chairpersons or any other position of responsibility. God does not intend to destroy the ‘fat cats’ but he will do whatever he needs to do to protect his flock.  

    All of God’s people are expected to heal the sick, strengthen the weak, bind the wounds of the injured, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and to lead with tenderness and compassion.  If we fail to do that, then we are in serious trouble regardless of our relative wealth or power.