Monday, January 16, 2012

Today's reading

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day I found it a rich day for thinking on difficult issues. A friend of mine asked me to stop by her home to look at a manuscript. She told me that a poet friend had shared it with her, for her comment. She asked him if she could share it with a few others. I was one of those who was given permission to view it.

I arrived at her home thinking I was going to pick up the manuscript and take it with me. But instead she pointed me to a chair and said "I've prepared the place for you to read." The lamp stood over my shoulder as I settled in. It is a collection of poems about the child abuse suffered by the poet at the hands of his childhood priest. He has never publicly spoken of these things.

I was struck right away by the directness of these writings. I would not call them poems. To me, poems rely on metaphor. These were not primarily metaphorical writings. They were quite good. They were stunning and startling in their directness. They were incredibly painful.

In one of the pieces - in just 12 lines he invites you to join he and two other boys as they count the Sunday morning offering. The priest calls one of the other boys into his office. They know what is happening to the other boy in the room. Because they have both been that boy. But they are children - they don't know what to do. So they keep silent and keep counting. And as they do they hear the chair squeaking behind the closed door. And when the author goes home, he hears the chairs squeak in his home - and his shame and guilt and fear are home with him as well.

In the introduction (written by a well known Catholic priest) the priest asks how it is that Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) could have been so public and so aggressive in his pursuit of theologians whose writing and thought he disagreed with (often publicly silencing them, like Leonardo Boff) back in the 1980's and 1990's - but remain so quiet at the tidal wave of child abusers in the ranks of the priesthood.

It made me think about how aware I have been from the beginning of my entrance into the professional ministry of the United Methodist Church how we had our own troubles with clergy acting inappropriately (mostly I knew about inappropriate encounters of male clergy with female laity and male clergy with female clergy). In hardly any of the cases I knew about was anyone removed from the professional ministry. Instead they were often moved to another parish - and nothing was told to the people of the new parish of anything that had happened with this clergy in his previous appointment. We do not have much room to throw stones.

But it also got me thinking of how many decades in the Methodist Church (prior to 1968) the denomination had treated African-Americans and women as second class citizens, officially, in the church and how the time was spent mostly during those crises in taking on ideological/theological battles while treating our sisters and brothers very badly - in many cases ignoring the issues that divided us - or arguing that we couldn't do anything about them because it would be too divisive. Wesley's own arguments in this regard around slavery and the push back he got from his fledgling movement can certainly be seen played out again and again down through the centuries since he first wrote on this issue and continues to be played out in the battle within our denomination regarding homosexuality today.

I am fairly certain that in another couple of decades we will again, as a denomination, have to be putting together a service of repentance and reconciliation on this issue. I just wish that for once we could beat the rush. But that's probably too much to ask.

It is a little surprising to me still (and I'm embarrassed to admit this, because it marks my immaturity) that I still get surprised that we, as a denomination, spend our time fighting less significant battles while literally people are dying from poverty, young people grow up without recognizing that the people and the communities around them see and recognize their blessedness. More than 8 times since Saturday I have had conversations with people in and around the life of our parish that revolve around poor health care decisions that people have had to make because they don't have health insurance and cannot afford the health care decision that might actually make them better. And I'm not talking just among the poor. It is truly embarrassing this obsession we have with sexuality - among people of faith - who have handled the issue of sexual abuse and inappropriate behavior so very, very badly. It appears we have no shame.

I'm tired of seeing young people who die from violence in our communities, because we did not find more ways to celebrate who they are and what they have to contribute to our common life.

We had a funeral at Broadway in the week leading up to Christmas. The church was packed. Even more than on Christmas Eve. Because of a young man who had been shot and killed while visiting a relative and sitting in front of his relative's house. That our denomination here in Indiana is so much more obsessed with numbers and our reporting on those numbers than we are with the flesh and blood people around us...just causes me to weep.

And so much of the day I grappled with it. And then later in the day I talked with a member of our congregation. He was part of meal the day before that had been pulled together by some folks in our congregation. There were people in our congregation who were there (some who live close by and some who don't) there were people in our neighborhood who were at this meal (some who come to worship at Broadway and some who don't) and all were there to celebrate a young man, a literal neighbor to our church, who worships at another church. At the meal people were invited to go around the table and offer a word of thanksgiving and celebration for what they see in this young man. This young man who received a letter from his first high school (he is at his second one - he is a junior) saying (literally) that he would never achieve anything - that he would never be able to drive a car, or get a job at McDonalds and the school would be happy to go ahead and give him his "certificate of completion" (this was in his freshman year!) - because it would be a waste of time for both the school and him to continue. The meal was occasioned in part because this young man had won a scholarship at Broadway to invest in some area of gift or talent in his life. The people at the table gave him their blessings (to remind him of the blessings that fill his life). His grandmother was there. His aunt. His younger brother. Friends from the church who had been involved with him. A tutor from the school next door to where he goes to school who lends a hand with his homework. After they all spoke, he spoke - he thanked them all for being there...and he talked about how surprised he was to hear these words - to hear these words of celebration and thanksgiving (shame on us - that he was surprised by this). The report I got was that as he expressed his gratitude - and his growing awareness of his gifts as witnessed to by those gathered at table with him, the tears flowed. At the end of the meal the young man was asked to name what kind of support he could use from those gathered around. And then everyone went around again and told what they would offer to him. Beautiful. The one who reported to me told me that several people around the table said "I need to do this with all the young people I know." And what I thought was "what's stopping you?" and "why just the young people you know?"

A day that began in pain and frustration - gave way to hope for me. Hope that while so many of our leaders are spending their time fiddling and in fiddle battles with others - there are people on the ground, reaching out and bearing witness to God's goodness all around us. I hope we can play a small part in shining our light on that goodness. And that it may increase. That's what I'm working on. That's what I'm thinking about this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.