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The View from Here

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012 | By Joy Moore
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GC 2012 Has a long way to goJoy Moore

The opportunity to gather every four years with those who fellowship as United Methodists is a great privilege. I am reminded of our vibrant connectionalism as I reconnect with friends and colleagues I have met over the past years at various denominational events. During the morning break, I was able to greet again Bishop Judith Craig, who ordained me in the West Michigan Conference in 1991. The day before I saw one of my former students and learned he has been appointed to be a superintendent. My current students have been surprised to see former pastors from their Field Education placements, or international delegates they met on mission opportunities. It doesn’t take long to meet many within the Methodist family, and the reunion is a glimpse of the reconciliation Jesus offers us.

The opening service of worship illuminated our diversity through its style, participation, and language. From the opening hymn written by Charles Wesley, to new choruses written especially for this gathering, our music ranges from traditional to contemporary. Whether drawn together by a Native American ritual or an African drum, the sounds of United Methodism move across time and continent.

Nevertheless, we still have a long way to go to demonstrate to the world how we love one another. Immediately after Bishop Larry Goodpastor’s sermon about following Jesus, the voting members of General Conference, in tweaking and failed votes to adopt the Rules of Order for these proceedings, exposed our deep mistrust and misgivings about how we will work together. Much of our deliberations quickly move to debate.

So much of the activity at General Conference is reworking, rewriting, and restating the language exchanged among and by United Methodists. As careful as we are to set the rules, we seem careless in our willingness to follow the guidelines once they exist. This is evident in more than ordering our process. The extravagant worship experience bears little resemblance to a service moving from gathering the dispersed members of our community together into the presence of the God who scatters us in service. Very few of our words serve as a reminder of our shared heritage as the people of the God revealed in Jesus Christ empowered by the Spirit. Very little of the time set aside for corporate worship of God, rehearses the story of God’s faithful activity to reconcile the world as demonstrated in the life and ministry of Jesus. Mirroring the culture at large, the service highlights our race, gender, age, ethnicity and culture. We are indeed a diverse assembly. But what is it we share that testifies to our unity, saying the Lord’s prayer notwithstanding.

Unlike the multinational multicultural gathering described as Pentecost in Christian Scripture, our diverse tongues fail to declare the works of God. We express pain, brokenness, and desire. We pledge to be different, we long to be better, but God rarely gets a sentence with a strong verb describing divine justice reconciling the world. If God shows up at all in our litany of prayers and songs, rarely is there a rehearsal of God’s action in a dramatic way that would cause someone to pause in reverence and gratitude. The biblical narrative is insignificant; ancient Israel absent; our hope in what God is doing in Christ to reconcile the world abandoned for Pelagian promises.

Evidently designed by committee, the ordering of worship has the feel of hearing an iPod playlist randomly shuffle from Bach to Beyonce by way of a Burger King commercial. While our efforts to include as many cultural and ethnic expressions is admirable, what is extraordinary about gathering as a community is the common unity of a shared testimony. Our shared testimony seems to be a litany of lament and longing . Where is the Christian witness to the Triune God that testifies to a hope that God transforms us and the world? Where is the testimony to the presence of God’s reconciling power that convinces a watching world that said God still intends justice and truth to prevail? Where is the good news that God’s faithful activity in the world is trust-worthy because of what God has done in the past?

We know so little of the biblical witness to God, most do not recognize that this testimony is even absent in our worship. We speak of the effects of encountering God rather than of God reconciling creation. We ignore the words of Scripture which challenge the people of faith to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before God. God is not sought for being God, but for what we demand be done in the name of God.

In these quadrennial gatherings, much is revealed in the ways we worship. Our words name who and what is important for us; what drives our lives; what we seek and long for. Would that first we humbly seek God. If we believe Jesus promise to be with us always, maybe we can trust the Holy Spirit continues to sustain even the United Methodist Church. That would be a first step toward transformation in the world. Then all these other things will be added. Written by Joy Moore

UMC General Conference website

Joy Moore

Joy Moore

So let it be written, so let it be done.

Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston fans will remember these words repeated throughout Hollywood’s version of the Ten Commandments. For generations, people have believed it important to remember the details of the Exodus. But as the opening to the Fellowship of the Rings reminds us, much that once was, has been forgotten, because no one lives who remember. Long before Cecille B. DeMille directed the screenplay, an accountant echoed that narrative of liberation, choosing a similar tagline – as it is written. And since we’ve now entered the season when tax collectors will alternately seem our best friends and worst enemies, maybe it was appropriate to reconsider the blog of an ancient tax collector.

Bear with me; because unlike most of our random tweets and multiple text-messages, these entries have been the favorite of generations of readers. Like choosing FOX News over CNN (or vice-versa), Christians are familiar with Matthew’s version of the beatitudes, the Lord’s prayers, and the golden rule. While some have described this genre we call “a Gospel” as a passion narrative with an extended introduction, to do so ignores it’s fusion of faith and morality. Like the blog left by James, the brother of Jesus, this fusion of gospel and ethics stands over and against those who claim accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior is all that is required. Like Micah wrote, what is required is practicing justice. So let it be written, so let it be done.

But I’ll get back to that.

So we have before us an ancient entry. And contrary to my general practice of avoiding single texts for preaching, I draw your attention to what we call Matthew 26:24

The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to the man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.

(I suspect Judas wished that tweet hadn’t gone viral)

It is always important to remember, Christian Scripture is not first about us. The Bible provides an ordered account of God’s activities of setting things right even though we keep messing things up. If God hasn’t given up on the world, then we can face the problems and difficulties of this moment, because we know what we see now is not the way things will always be. When we pay attention to the revelation made available in Christian scripture, we see what God is doing. And what we see God doing in the Bible, we are supposed to be doing in the world. So let it be written, so let it be done.

Such a commitment may cost you your life. It’s dangerous to walk your talk. Consider Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, or Stephen Biko. Note, Judas isn’t the significant casualty in this narrative. Still, it is not the death, but the life of Jesus that needs to be examined: A life lived to demonstrate God’s words are true. A demonstration punctuated by the willingness to die in order that others might have a more abundant life.

These words of Jesus recorded at the very end of Matthew’s blog stands in direct opposition to the notion of packing your bags and waiting to cash in on that fire insurance policy with its eventual pie-in-the-sky.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

The challenge for the disciples was to be the bridge for someone else to experience justice. When Jesus called the disciples, he didn’t send them out in search of instant conversions. He gave them an example of living before telling. Doing before speaking. Go. Make. Baptize. And teach. This is one way in which Jesus was the incarnation of God. His life was a demonstration of God’s promises given to a chosen people on behalf of every nation. Use words to explain not promise, because God has already made the promise that matter.

This is significant. That which is written, that which we are to do…was already spoken. The only time words create from nothing is when God speaks. Ever since creation, we have only been reporters of what is happening …to what God created good.

But if our practices match God’s promises, we can exercise the right to remain silent. Take note: Matthew has preserved for us not merely a passion narrative, but a record of how Jesus always acted before he spoke. That should be our Christ like behavior. Rather than talk the talk, walk the walk so people look at you and see a glimpse of the glory of God.

This is significant. Today the people of God do good works in order that the world knows God is good.  Ours resume is supporting cast member not center-stage celebrity. We are translators not spokespersons.  We don’t have to mimic Walt Disney to create a world – we’ve been hired as tour guides for those who visit God’s wonderland.

Think about this: God is not asking us to transform the world. God is not asking us to fix the world. God is not telling us to tell the world what to do. Really.

We don’t have to set things right. We merely demonstrate what right looks like. We practice justice.

So since it was written, so let it be done.

The View from Here

Thursday, December 29th, 2011 | By Joy Moore
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Looking Back, Looking Forward.

It’s what we do this time of year. The holidays bring us together with family and friends. We find ourselves cataloging who sent us greeting cards this year, what gifts we gave, who hosted the last Christmas dinner, and whose turn it is to host the SuperBowl party. The children are older, but they seem to already have the latest gadgets. The old folks are …us…when did that happen? Between preparing meals and packing up decorations, we pause to rewind a few photos and find tears welling up in our eyes as we laugh at the clothing we thought so cool and remember the moments we now realize were allowed to pass too quickly.

Time and Life magazines, USAToday and the TVGuide channel will rehearse the best and worst of the past year. The broadcasts will give us permission to demonize those whose political affiliations are different from our own, while raising our concern regarding national security, the global economy, and local eduction. Some will alert us to those who suffer in poverty, before inserting a commercial teasing us to upgrade to digital cable with additional movie channels. Between celebrity meltdowns, sports scandals, and divorce drama, we will be reminded of earthquakes, tsunamis, overthrown dictators,  and market crashes.  We will remember where we were when…and start conversations that recall relatives, friends, neighbors, and teachers who have stepped from this life to life eternal. And we we begin to make promises to ourselves this next year we will be different.

We will be different. But not in the magnanimous ways we imagine. Our January diets will be attacked by Valentine’s Day chocolate. Our recommitment to timeliness will be thwarted by an extra-long email that we pause to read or a cellphone call we take while remaining parked at the curb. Our pledge to study more will be forgotten as we accept one more Wii-challlenge or read one more Facebook update. Our efforts to feed the hungry, visit the sick, or support a charity will be forgotten after one Habitat weekend, writing a single check, or one youth sponsored spaghetti dinner. And this time next year, we will make the same promises, with the  same earnestness, and the same short-lived commitments.

If you recognize this pattern, dare I suggest you look back for something different. The best moments and fondest memories rarely were planned, organized, and designed. The pictures that captured the funniest moments were not posed. The most significant changes resulted from our response to things external to our control. Our best efforts in public mirror are habits from home. Who are you? Look back.  A consideration of who you are might impact what you do more that deciding who you want to become.  Looking forward from this vantage point can take a whole lot of pressure off some of our promises, resolutions, and  extreme makeover commitments.

Living with integrity is not always easy in a society that says we need one more device, another outfit, and to switch telephone carriers one more time. Look back at who you are: a daughter or son, a sibling, a spouse; A neighbor, co-worker, friend; the stranger in the grocery line, the person sitting in the restaurant booth, the guest in a hotel. Remember, what it means to be Christian is simply to be like Christ. Humanity was created to be reflections of the the Creator. Our very personhood is the opportunity to be a glimpse of the glory of God right where we are – a home, school, or office. Everything else is consequential.

Joy Moore

Joy Moore

Looking forward, instead of a major overhaul, what if you make one resolution each day for the next year. A single undertaking, that you recommitment to when you awaken each morning for the next year. Make it something that can expand to every aspect of your life, so you can achieve it whether you are driving the kids to school, or standing in a grocery line. Something that requires an authentic expression in every facet of your existence. Make a tangible decision that impacts what movies you will see, and the books you read; what jokes you laugh at, and who they tease; how you spend your money, on what; what meals you prepare, for whom; how often you work late, and why. Each day, for the next year, what if we simply tried to be what we already are and see how God can be glorified through our lives. Instead of being driven by the commercials, what if today our goal is to be a commercial for God.

Joy MooreThe other day I read a Facebook link posted by one of my ‘friends’ who was sharing a biblical resource that claims to do for biblical references what snope.com does for urban legends. I immediately sent a Facebook message to ask a couple of other ‘friends’ their opinion of the site’s information. My colleagues were helpful, but several days later, I realized I was thinking of them more than usual. I think it is because I am not satisfied with our interactions merely being a trade of facts, info, and opinions. I know my day-to-day interactions include these fio exchanges, but they had previously been secondary to a genuine feeling of camaraderie in the hello-how-are-you-isn’t-the-weather-something-something banter. Now my interactions seem to resemble google-dot-com searches from wikipedia content.

It might not be merely the technology that has reduced interactions to this practice. I spent the majority of my life relating to teachers until I started working. And now that my employment is in an academic institution, the teach-me-something expectation is ubiquitous. When I started pre-school, I hardly noticed the substitution of the already familiar exchange of parental wisdom in the home into authoritative specialist exposing me to provocative ideas. The extended school year couple with being together during the better part of each day, these once strangers became my primary informants on practices for building relationships beyond the family.

Even those for whom the public education system has been a failure  have nonetheless developed a functional style of relating with others.  We seek relationships that bolster our own reputations by association or benefit our existence through reciprocal gain. Maybe this is why our society has such a high divorce rate accompanied by serial attempts to establish family. Like being promoted from one level to the next, we abandon existing relationships in pursuit of something more, something better, or something else with each new partnership.

So maybe this is why God’s answer to the inappropriateness of solitary human existence was neither a paid therapist, a seasonal friend, an institution of advanced learning nor an elected government. The original intention for community is family. A rather messy association, which can be abandoned, but not abolished. The genetic connection remains, with its physical resemblances, not to mention the evidence of dispositions acquired through shared patterns of everything from eating rituals to how one values the environment. Heritage, both its legacy and ancestry, provides a framework that links one to a past before laying out ones future.

One must learn to face the flaws of one’s legacy in order to embrace one’s parental promise. You can learn much from a lecturer and avoid direct association with their personal frailties.  But even when you marry into a family, you take on their reputation — both good and bad. No pre-nuptials can erase the branding of a name and affiliation.

On Facebook, I can avoid publicly “liking” a link though privately reading it in its entirety. I can end a friendship without ever sharing with the other why. I can bolster my credibility by sharing posts from friends of friends I have never met. And I can rely on the expertise of my many connections when a question arises. But without the face-to-face, daily exchanges in the messy relationships that risk misunderstanding, require apology and responds with forgiveness, functional affinity groups lack the humanizing quality of community.

We need to take care that as we acquire information, we don’t undermine genuine association. The gift of hundreds of virtual friends should only enhance the privilege of family and real friendships that have endured the tests and trials of time. I am grateful for Facebook and the extended relationships it affords. But don’t be surprised if every now and then, I pick up the phone for a long chat. Or better yet, drop by for an unscheduled meal. I guess there is something more than enjoyment to hearing the cadence of your voice when you tell me you are fine, the weather’s unchanged and ask the same of me.

 

I like Oprah. It’s one of the few things I can claim with a whole lot of other folk. Ok, I am an African-American woman…from Chicago; an original subscriber to O Magazine. I do remember when she changed the face of daytime talk shows. Plus, my grandmother didn’t like watching Phil Donahue. (I think you have to watch Donahue to decide you don’t like watching him) Regardless, I like Oprah.

Not a habitual viewer, I never attempted to get tickets to the show. I have watched enough shows to be proven guilty of having television access during the last quarter of a century. Still, I missed most of the grand moments – like Tom Cruise’s jump scene or the opening when Black Eyed Peas got a feeling Chicago could dance. (caught the former through other shows’ recaps, and the latter on youTube)  Like most of the world, I watched her wheel in the wagon of fat and read books on her book club list. Wait, did I say world?

Imagine that. A living African-American female born poor, in the state of Mississippi before the impact of the civil rights movement, is today an international icon. Already a billionaire, Oprah ended her show to take on the networks. Literally, Oprah now has her “own” network. (love that play on words/letters). Oprah is doing to television what Facebook has done to individual expression. (look out Ted Turner) It may still take an African American woman a few more years to reach the Forbes richest 25 status, but Zukerberg, Jobs, and the Tea Party have got to envy her influence.

And here’s the rub: with her network, Oprah’s influence has gone (more?) viral. People who have never met Oprah and people whom she will never remember meeting (like me) are able to be influenced by Oprah in almost every arena imaginable. And, somehow this seems more personal than Turner’s TNT. Times, they are a’changing. Turner took over a billboard agency. He made his money advertising other’s work. Oprah rose to the top precisely because of her personality – so fitting in a Myspace era.  That’s the beauty of having your own talk show. You steer the conversation by the guests you invite and the questions you ask. So OWN is Oprah’s favorites. Like Dr. Phil, Rachel Ray, and her best friend Gail, Oprah is sharing with the world her favorites and soon they become our favs too.

She’s demonstrated pretty good taste, too. I don’t share all her beliefs, but as far as choosing entertainment for the early third millennial audience…girlfriend is spot-on! More versatile than BET, Fox, or HGTV, Oprah and Discovery Communications bring parts of her magazine to life, expand her talk show to 24/7, and entertain, educate, and enlarge our lives beyond the computer screen informational format. And with its accompanying website and blog, we can wave the remote and click the keyboard until our hearts content.

I know. Why pick on Oprah? I’m not. Really. Like I said, I like Oprah.. You see, the influences in our lives today are…well…noteworthy. And you can’t get more noteworthy than Oprah. It’s like talking about the free-market with Wal-Mart as your foil; or fiction through the lens of Harry Potter; or politics via the Democratic Party. They provoke thinking, feeling, responding. And all these random thoughts bring me not to criticize Oprah’s influence, but to take note: she has accomplished something the church needs to consider in this open-source media age.

It’s like Oprah is a thermostat determining the temperature rather than a thermometer registering the temperature. When we disagree with her position, we are delighted with her personality. She’s confessed her wrongs and seems to generally live above reproach. Her actions match the convictions she claims. She encourages those that have to give to others so they can have the things that are her favorite. And she while she talks about our intellectual, emotional, material, social, and physical values, she also speaks about spiritual issues.

It’s interesting that when you encounter Oprah, you get Oprah. From her favorite things to her magazine – it’s all O! I’m not so sure the Christian community has been as consistent on what one encounters when we espouse our faith. I mean, think about the last sermon you heard: what do you remember from it that described what God is doing to set the world right that was demonstrated in Jesus to which the church can bear witness to in the power of the Holy Spirit?

I’m curious as to how the church regains a position as an influence to change culture rather than merely an institution following the culture. I wonder if knowing what we value and fostering habits that encourage those values might be a better means of reaching vitality. I wonder whether our gatherings would be populated if our practices demonstrated the presence of God such that others sought to join in corporate worship of the one revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I question if we understand discipleship, evangelism, and righteous living are not options for a Christian influence. Together they are the evident consequences of being Christian.

I’m just saying.

 

Last month was Black History Month. Along with invitations from several African American communities, I was given the opportunity to speak at Bethel Seminary in San Diego. They invited me as the Black History Month speaker. I used to be better at accepting that invitation and then presenting the gospel in sermon. But with my current title of Associate Dean for Black Church Studies at the Divinity School at Duke University, I am torn between which message is appropriate to deliver.

While the gospel is always and anywhere a timely message, it may be another year before some will look straight on at the devastating reality born of racism. Still, I find it hard to expect that the mere reporting of historical practices of apartheid and segregation, oppression and discrimination, or exclusion and inequality will result in changed behavior. If so, the world would already be a very different place. Books line the shelves. The list of contributors is long: Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Benjamin Mays, Richard Wright, Martin Luther King,  Malcolm X, John Hope Franklin, Maya Angelou, Nell Irvin Painter, Nikki Giovanni, Valerie Bridgeman, John Perkins, William Pannell, Thomas C. Holt, Henry Louis Gates, and Cornel West. And that’s only the names of those African Americans most would recognize. So many other scholars have provided a record of the wrongs, hopes, and possibilities on the topic of Black History. It’s not that the information is unavailable.

It may be the difficulty of trying to process the onerous information. How does one receive a history that rehearses repeated actions and attitudes of oppression and discrimination? Should the audience nod in agreement with the descriptions that indeed are horrific or shake their heads in dispute at the proposal they participate in such behaviors? Denial on the part of the listener suggests deceitfulness on the part of the presenter. Now both hearer and speaker take positions of defensiveness, each trying to maintain a semblance of dignity born of integrity. Feelings of antagonism give rise to the very division between so-called racial groups that the event seeks to dismantle. It is difficult to recognize the habits and practices I do without thinking are in fact perpetuating the very reality I think is wrong.

Or maybe, the problem is an unwillingness to acknowledge the institutional structures that enable continued division and misunderstanding across racial lines. Can we recognize the difficulty of supporting an economic system based on privately owned businesses when hurdles abound for African Americans whose access to financial backing and prime real estate was only insured less than 50 years ago? By then White America already owned and controlled the majority of this country’s wealth. As well-established businesses struggle in the failing economy, the harder hit will of course effect less established minority businesses. It is difficult to see that the very way we do things, the very way we’ve always done things, may in fact be wrong.

Can we acknowledge that most of our images of racial difference continue to actually characterize economic and intellectual difference? The projected Black culture continues to suggest aborted education, broken English, and deficit economics define the African American experience. Portrayals of affluence within the African American community seems limited to entertainers and sports celebrities. Condoleezza Rice’s status as an African American hero is criticized because of ideological differences and the disrespect of President Barak Obama too often suggests blatant racism as well as partisan politics. We don’t seem to know how to describe racial diversity within cultural sameness and won’t describe cultural difference without drawing attention to racial identity.

And there’s the rub. The very fact that I choose to speak of race in this blog, highlights the problem. I could have kept silent by writing only the paragraph below. But in order to truly wrestle with what we believe about the power of God to transform the world, I wanted to present a real conundrum. I use race because as a Christian, now living in the south, I am convinced that the most insidious effects of sin in our culture can be made evident in the practices of racism. Just as sin pervades human nature, racism permeates our culture. As an African American, living in the 21st century, I experience the effects of exclusion in the past as inequality in the present. And my experience of racism has been the least of all compared to most.

So I begin again.

While it may be another year before some will look straight on at the devastating reality born of racism, the gospel is always and anywhere a timely message. I remain convinced that the transformation of this world will result only when the followers of Christ practice a radical Christianity of repentance, reconciliation, and justice.

That change will come only when the presence of the Holy Spirit enables us to admit that injustice exists in the way we legislate healthcare, grant citizenship, imprison lawbreakers, employ personnel, and educate youth. That change will come only by knowing the intention of God for his people to love their neighbors (and so-called enemies). That change will come only when we practice community as a living example of holiness. That change will come only when we in the church realize our practices of good are not civil or even moral responsibilities but demonstrations of what the world will look like when God’s kingdom comes on earth. And to admit that, to know that, to practice that, to realize that requires a scriptural imagination born of familiarity with the biblical revelation that in Christ God is actively reconciling this world to himself.

I guess that’s why I think it is always appropriate to teach and preach the revelation of God in Scripture.