Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Civil Conversation and the Other

October 16, 2018

I have spent a great amount of time over the last seven years pondering the nature of conversation. The focus of my doctoral work honed in on preaching as conversation, but in order to hone in I had to acquaint myself with the works of those who are thinking and writing about the nature of human conversation. 

The theological philosopher David Tracy, in his book, Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope, wrote, "there is no intellectual, cultural or religious tradition of interpretation that does not ultimately live by the quality of its conversation." What Tracy intends to say here is that what binds together thoughts, culture and religious tradition is the way those are communicated through and between its adherents. We cannot come together without communication and the quality of that communication, in part, determines the success of an enterprise -- such as a faith tradition, a congregation, a nation.

Oftentimes, the inherent biases that lurk in the shadows of our being, because decent society tends to place value on keeping such biases in reserve, so taint our conversations that we can barely converse with one another. So tainted are we that we deny humanity to people with whom we disagree. Our words, which carry the whole of our intentions and meanings, become derogatory and dismissive, sometimes even hateful and evil. We refer to people by stereotypes, assign a characteristic to a group as if all members of a group shared traits in common that are worth debasing. We no longer see the world nor speak to one another as the Us of the human race, but instead as Us and Them, choosing sides to our detriment. Once sides are chosen we assign to the Other the worst qualities we can imagine and frame them in such a way that Other becomes expendable. It's worse than war; it's dehumanization.

The words we use. The way in which we choose to use them. The people to whom we choose not to speak. These qualities speak to who are and what we believe at our core. For me, this is a spiritual illness. The prescription for recovery lies in conversations across the chasm that connect us to one another as God sees us; children of the one human family.

Local columnist and pastor, Paul Prather, wrote in a recent column, "I hope you won’t take me to be an alarmist. I try not to be one. But I’m concerned we’re hurtling headlong toward a permanent breach in our country. Perhaps even a blood bath. I’m not a professional historian. But since I was around 9 years old, I’ve been an avid reader of American history. And the more I listen to the rhetoric of our moment, particularly the bent it’s taken since the 2016 presidential election, the more it reminds me of the 1850s, the years preceding the terrible Civil War, which killed 700,000 Americans and nearly destroyed the nation. Today we’re not divided between North and South. We’re divided between right and left, rural and urban, white and dark, rich and poor, men and women."

Divided. Taking sides. Chasm. Schism. Civil unrest. Shouting at instead of listening to one another. And it isn't just in America. Think of Brexit; Russia; the Phillipines, South America, the African continent, eastern Europe. The trend since World War II has been to divide by ethnicity and origin, by color and gender, by nationality. It's one tribe against another because coalitions and alliances are on the decline as well.

Again, David Tracy -- "there is no intellectual, cultural or religious tradition of interpretation that does not ultimately live by the quality of its conversation."

So, I say, talk to a stranger today. Talk to someone who isn't like you. Ask them about their life and listen. Let someone speak to you and ask you about your life. Talk to people who disagree with you. Don't shout at them or let your implicit bias pre-judge them. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Most all of us are husbands, wives, children, parents, siblings. We have things in common about which we can converse without devolving into heated political rhetoric.

Talk with people. Listen. Seek to understand, then to be understood. And most of all, see every human being through the eyes of faith, as God does, a beloved child of our Creator.

Peace and Love,

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Identifying One's Self

October 9, 2018

I have been listening to "On Being," again. This week I have listened to a podcast featuring Robin Wall Kimmerer. She is a Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York. She is a native of upstate New York and taught for a while at Transylvania University and Centre College. She is the author of, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (2003), and Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants(2013).

Robin Wall Kimmerer

At least as fascinating to me is the way she introduces herself as a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation; of the Bear Clan, adopted into the Eagle. She identifies as a Native American, an indigenous person of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. How one identifies one's self has become an important question to me and my father, and Robin Wall Kimmerer's self-identification gives me pause and cause to think.

Who we are, and from where we came is a question that gets asked of us a lot over the course of a life. Especially, in these nationalistic times when ethnicity is under direct assault, the question of where does one belong, and who they belong to is important. Perhaps for reasons we might deem wrong, but, important nonetheless, those of Hispanic origin, Mexican, Honduran, Guatemalan are under intense scrutiny. Those from Arab nations, or who practice Islam; wear religious garb are considered suspicious by nature. Those from China are under consideration by the government to be denied student visas. In like fashion in the history of the United States, the Irish were once suspected of treachery, the Japanese were interred and the Native American population was subject to removal from their ancestral lands. African Americans were removed from their homes and enslaved on the shores of the New World.

Who we are and where are from, matters.How we identify ourselves, matters.

I can remember in Mrs. Crum's class in 4th grade when we were studying place and origin, and she asked us what our ancestry was. Some people said, Scottish. Others said, Irish. Many said they were Native American. Growing up in Oklahoma it was very common to identify as Native American. Oklahoma is the place to which many peoples were removed by Andrew Jackson and the Indian Removal Act of 1830. When it came my turn to talk about family origin, I didn't have an answer. I didn't know. 

Later, growing up around my Dad's side of the family, which was large, I came to understand we were Native American, at least in part, and that my ancestors had chosen, for reasons of wanting to fit in and not wanting to be labeled, to not identify themselves as Native American. My great grandfather was named Peter Choctaw Palmer. That has Native American written all over it. In my teen and adult years I identified as part Native American. It made sense, but it also became obvious to me that Native Americans are the only ones who have to prove their ethnicity in order to be recognized as such by the federal government. You have to be on the rolls. I didn't know whether my ancestors were or not, but my father was certain that at one time they had been. 

Dad was terminated from his job past the age of 50 as the company, owned by a French multi-national conglomerate, sought to reorganize. He decided to start his own company with his brother. When he did he decided the time had come to reclaim his identity as a Native American so that he could qualify for minority business ownership. He wrote to Oklahoma City to get his birth certificate, which he had never seen. He talked to family. 

That's when the earth shifted on its axis, and all we thought we knew came crashing down around us. I will make this part of the story short. The man whom my Dad thought was his father was not. His mother married when my Dad was two. No one in the family told him, and everyone but his siblings knew about it. They all died taking the secret to the grave with them.

Who was he? Every piece of information he thought he had to that point came under scrutiny. Turns out his mother was his mother, but all his siblings were half-siblings, and the stories of his identity and his place were lies. When the birth certificate arrived he saw the name of his biological father for the first time. He saw his birth name for the first time. But, the question remained, who was he, and for his children, who are we? Where did we come from? Who are our people? How do we identify?

Dad took the Ancestry DNA test. I did the 23andMe test. No Native American heritage showed up. Both of us showed 65% or above English and Irish. On my mother's side of the family a bit of genealogy has been done. We can trace our people back to Tennessee, and Mississippi. On my paternal grandmother's side, the Palmer side, we can wind our way back a bit to Arkansas, and perhaps to Tennessee and Kentucky. We are still working on that.

In Kentucky, particularly when I lived in Madison County, and now that I serve the church in Clark County, who you are and where you are from matters to people. Bloodlines for people are as important bloodlines for horses. People judge people on their character, yes, but it is often attached to family lineage. How does one find one's place in such a world when one's identity is clouded in falsehoods and the veil of death? And, of course, this is a curse for our family, yes, but so many people don't know who their family is -- and it's a curse for them as well.

Perhaps the DNA will lead us to our people and our place. We will see. I know this. It matters to me. Today I identify as mostly English/Irish and lots of unknown. It's the unknown that haunts my father, and troubles me.


Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Which Translation of the Bible?

October 3

It's October 3 and a Wednesday so,.....
On Wednesdays, we wear pink
Silly, yes.

Now on to the topic of the day. Which Bible translation do I use, should you use, is the best? I am asked these questions often, so today I am going to offer an answer.

Which Bible translation do I use? Several.

My go-to Bible for sermon preparation is the New Revised Standard Version. The NRSV is a sound translation from the Greek to English. It was translated by a panel of scholars who took the Revised Standard Version, which itself was based on good scholarship and updated it. The biggest updates from RSV to NRSV are in relation to gender specific language. For example, let's take a brief look at the word "adelphoi." Translated literally from Greek to English it would be rendered, "brothers." However, the intent of the word is not male specific in every instance. Sometimes it means men and sometimes it means everyone. Where it is gender specific the NRSV renders it as "brothers," but where it means both male and female the NRSV renders it, "brothers and sisters."

The NRSV is not the most literal translation then, but it does get to the heart of the meaning. And it is very readable by all ages in Britain and the United States. I prefer to use the Harper-Collins Study Bible and the New Oxford Annotated Bible. At times I will refer to the Jewish Annotated New Testament written by Dr. Amy-Jill Levine.

When I am studying and I want the most literal Greek to English translation I use the New American Standard Bible or NASB. Sentence structure in Greek differs from English, but the NASB renders its translations as literally as possible. That means it does not always read smoothly. However, if literal is what you want, then the NASB delivers.

I may also use Eugene Peterson's The Message translation when preparing sermons. It is not literal from the Greek to the English. It's intent is to get to the modern, colloquial meaning of a text. Thus, it reads very well and sometimes it speaks to us in America in a common or friendly voice that can open up the meaning of a text.

Sometimes I may refer to the New International Version or NIV. It is the preferred translation of the Evangelical churches in America. It is reliably accurate in translation and readable too. Like the RSV and the NRSV, the NIV is a very good Bible from which to work.

I do NOT use the King James Version, Paraphrased Bibles, or Zondervan Study Bibles, or Chicken Soup Bibles, or the Men's Bible, etc. Specialty Bibles, in my eyes are just another way for publishers to separate you from your money.

Which translation should you use? I suggest the NRSV, the RSV or the NIV.

They are fairly easy to read and their translations are based on solid scholarship. If you are going to engage in serious study I would highly recommend the Harper-Collins or the New Oxford Annotated versions.Or, if you want a really modern and common language Bible I would suggest The Message or Today's English Version TEV. The Good News Bible, published by the American Bible Society is a really good Bible. It isn't meant for study. It doesn't adhere literally to the Greek, but it is understandable by every kind of English reader.

What is the Best Translation? The answers vary.
Want extremely literal -- NASB
Want close to Greek and readable -- RSV, NIV, NRSV
Want easy to understand -- The Message, Good News Version

Whatever version you purchase, make sure to open it and read it. Daily.

Peace and Love,

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Finding Your Faith

September 25

Grace meets you where you are, but doesn't intend to leave you there.

When I was in high school I played and lettered on the high school golf team. I was the 5th man of the 5 man rotation. Sometimes I got to play 4, but mostly I was a 5. I enjoyed playing golf a lot. That's probably due in some way to my natural aptitude. While I wasn't really ever a good golfer, I was a better golfer than just about anything else I was doing in my young life. I had some success at it, and that success boosted my self-esteem, and so I continued to play.

What I didn't do was work at it very hard.

When I had developed a certain level of skill I kind of plateaued. I played well enough to make the team, and that was good enough. I was offered a scholarship to play golf in college and I jumped at it. In college I worked at my game a little more, because the competition was greater, and I developed more skills. Still, I wasn't the hardest worker. Succeeding at a high level requires a high level of work, and I just couldn't force myself to stand on the range and hit golf balls for two hours every single day. I reached a peak and stayed about there.

The development of faith, a spiritual life, and biblical study skills require the same commitment and work that becoming an outstanding golfer require. For most of us though, we develop our faith and our spiritual disciplines to a certain level, and then we plateau and just live there. We get comfortable enough with the Bible. We go to church regularly enough. We find our comfort level, and there we stay until the day the Lord calls us home.

Finding one's faith, when one has become plateaued requires a commitment and some movement. First, we have to come to a decision that we are not satisfied with things as they currently are. Grace meets us where we are, but it doesn't intend to leave us there. That moment of deciding to practice faith in a deeper way could come through the mentoring of another person, through reading something that finally sends the water over the dam, by a difficult health moment. The decision to move is a big one. What to do next?

Second, we look for trusted sources to help us pursue our spiritual quest. Again, this could be a mentor, or a pastor, or a book. We look for trusted sources because in a world where everything is possible, there are every possible ways of looking at scripture, faith, and becoming the person God is calling us to be. We need, as Dr. Paul Jones of Transylvania University calls it, an accurate "crap detector." One way to work toward that, in my estimation, is to assume always that God tends towards creativity and love. If you are being taught otherwise, time to stop and look for a different source.

Third, we need to put in the work; the practice. We need to get ourselves out to the driving range of spiritual development and hit a bucket of balls every single day. Read the Bible. Read trusted sources. Meet with people who are looking to deepen their spiritual lives. Attend worship MORE REGULARLY. Practice. Practice. Practice.

Or you can just stay where you are. Remote control in hand. In the recliner. Comfortable with the faith you have, watching reruns.

Grace meets you where you are, but it doesn't intend to leave you there.

If you start the process of growth and skill development in faith and you have a little success, good! It will add a little wind to your sails, so keep going. Practice is what brings us closer to the Perfect.

Peace and Love,

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Why I Choose to Say, "I Am Grateful."

September 18

My post last week was about why I don't use the phrase, "I'm blessed." The post elicited a strong reaction from a couple readers. This week I am going to write about the phrase I prefer to use, "I am grateful."

When I say I am grateful I am communicating that events, people, thoughts, actions that have taken place have caused me to react with thanks; with appreciation for what is being recognized. I'm grateful doesn't imply that God has shown me any particular favor while allowing others to appear disfavored. If you read the post last week you know that is important to me.

Over the past week Hurricane Florence has wreaked havoc on North Carolina. People have died. More than 30 at the last count I heard this morning. It's likely there will still be fatalities from Florence, though the worst has passed. Pat Robertson of the CBN Network prayed on television a week and a half ago that Florence would steer away and do no damage to the United States. After the hurricane made landfall he claimed his prayers had succeeded because Florence didn't hit Virginia where the CBN headquarters are. Successful prayers, for my thinking, would have been no more hurricanes that killed anyone anywhere at any time. I wonder if those in North Carolina would agree with Mr. Robertson's assessment of the efficacy of his prayers. I wonder if the people in China who are still enduring Typhoon Mangkhut would agree.

It's this kind of privileged position that gives me great pause with the words I choose. In listening to an On Being podcast with Krista Tippett, Eugene Peterson said, "We cannot be too careful about the words we use; we start out using them and they end up using us.” This gets to the heart of why I am so cautious with language, and why I am much more comfortable saying, "I'm grateful," than, "I'm blessed."

Gratefulness is not just a feeling. It is a way of being in the world. That is, it is an outlook, a state of living in gratitude for all things that come our way from the worst to the best. It is possible to say that I am grateful for the sufferings of this world because much is to be learned from such strife. It is wholly strange to say, all the things I have suffered are evidence that I am blessed. Well, that's my opinion.

Even though the reality is that there are rough patches along my pathway; people I have hurt, things I wish I had not done, people that have hurt me, etc., i choose to be grateful. I choose to see in life the goodness God intends. I choose to believe that God created all that we see and experience, and even that which is beyond our experience, in love and with the idea that all things would work together for good -- eventually. The arc of the universe is long and it tends toward goodness. I choose to be grateful.

Scripture tells us that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. Scripture did not speak this into existence. Scripture here simply makes an observation on how it sees human life unfold. I choose to use the phrase, "I'm grateful," even when the rain is falling. 

I am not pollyana-ish about this. I don't see the world through rose-colored glasses. Not at all. Hearing the news of the tragic death of a 4 year old child at a UK football game this week is stark enough reminder that some days stink. Accidents happen. Innocent lives are lost. Perhaps my being able to say, "I'm grateful," is privilege in action. Some would surely say that as a white male living a relatively wealthy life I have the space to be grateful. That may well be true, but I would rather use my privilege to be grateful than to claim any partiality from God, or to be cynical. I am grateful.

Peace and Love,

Monday, September 10, 2018

Why I Don't Say, "I'm Blessed."

September 11

Social media is the instrument of general proclamation about one's life -- if one wants to proclaim something. Social media is the 100,000 watt radio giant that bleeds into the frequencies of other stations if you want to broadcast something about your life. Some people choose to broadcast themselves. Thoughts about why that's the case will wait for another blog post. The reason I start with social media for this post is because that's where I so often see people proclaim, "I am blessed." 
Now, I don't get too judgy about things because I don't want to invite people to get too judgy with me. I have spoken too many hurtful words to others, failed to do what I should have done too often, and been less than I should have been enough that I have no ground from which I can stand in order to judge others. So, if you want to say, "I'm blessed," I am not going to challenge you. But as for me, it's not a phrase I want to use.

Here's why.

For me this goes back to reworking the destruction of July 31, 1976. It was on that day my cousin, Jeff Dallas, and I were on his motorcycle. A car pulled out in front of us. Not ironically, a Mustang. We slammed into the side of the car, at least that's what I am told. I had a head injury and do not remember any of the event. My cousin was killed. I was in the hospital for a few days. Head injury, deep gashes in my leg and a broken claviclein my estimation, relatively unhurt.

In the days and years that followed there was much change in the trajectory of my life. Some people of religious devotion were of great comfort to me. Some people of religious devotion were not helpful to me. Some of those would say, "God took your cousin for a reason." Others might opine, "God has a purpose for you. You are blessed to still be alive."

Processing my survivor's guilt, my PTSD, and where I was headed after the wreck, was a big job for me. It still is. As a 17 year old, it was overwhelming in a lot of ways. But the idea that God essentially killed my cousin was repugnant to me. And this became a baseline thought: God doesn't intentionally take anyone's life. If that is the case then God doesn't intentionally save anyone's life from death either because that would show preference. It would mean that God chooses life for some and death for others. That idea is repugnant to me.

Some people use this phrase, "I am blessed," after a wreck. "We were unharmed. We are blessed." Others might say, "God had HIS hand upon us," even in the face of someone else perishing in that wreck. "God saved us for a purpose." It all means that God chose not to bless someone else, to allow someone else to die, and that you are more special to God because God chose you to live.

You see, that's why I can't bring myself to say that phrase. I am not more special. I am not more worthy of blessing. It makes God preferential, and my God by nature cannot show preference in that manner. It changes the nature of God.

Again, I am not going to challenge you if you use that phrase, but now you have knowledge about why I can't.

Peace and Love,
In loving memory. 
Jeffrey Scott Dallas 
9.5.1957 - 7.31.1976

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

FCC Sabbatical 2018: Stories I Can't Wait to Tell Rev. Jerry


Our Children's Ministry Coordinator at First Christian Church is Shawna Mitchell. She is also a fourth grade teacher at Shearer Elementary. During the sabbatical this summer she shouldered a heavy load of programming, some of which I would normally bear. For her September Newsletter Column she wrote, "Sabbatical 2018: Stories I Can't Wait to Tell Rev. Jerry." I share it with you in its entirety.

* Getting goosebumps when a child leads the whole congregation in collective worship.

* Exciting shrieks from a preschooler at the bowling alley when a single pin falls.

* Book clubs and mushroom dip and Key Lime Pie and bear hugs.

* Summer-long game of tag running Sunday to Sunday to Sunday.

* Summertime, poolside, friend time and family time.

* Breathing and stretching and remembering and forgiving.

* Children on a doorstep. Shut-ins at the door. Cookies in between.

* Camp songs on the tongue. Naps on the way home.

* Tie Dyes and Church Vans and golf parties and being stuck in small parking lots.

* Youth room slime, water slides and petting on a starfish.

* Paint parties and fireflies. Night outs and fellowships.

* Children's books donations, and cleaned up spaces.

* Leading. Expanding. Growing.

* Praying, listening, seeking, finding.

* We missed him, but I think we also found a part of ourselves along the way......
    ........What tales of sabbatical will you tell?

Shawna Mitchell

Here are some photos from the FCC Sabbatical>

First Christian Church has been active while I was away. A sabbatical for me was intended to be a sabbatical for them also, and it looks like that has proved to be. I am looking forward to hearing the stories, and being asked about mine.

I am grateful for First Christian Church and the kinds and types of people who make FCC what it is. Their kindness to me is quite humbling. Their faithfulness is striking. Their joy is blossoming. Lots of experiences. Lots of discoveries. Lots of stories.

Peace and Love,