From Jesus to St Francis to Jeff Brown — Ministry Where The Action Is

In one of those “small world” stories, I went to a conference with my wife where we had dinner with the chaplain (Rev. Jon Scott) that was there at the birth of my second daughter. While reminiscing about our time in seminary, we got to talking about a mutual friend, Rev. Jeff Brown. Jon asked if I knew what Jeff was doing and I didn’t. I suggested Facebook, and Jon doesn’t do Facebook, so I thought I’d track down Jeff and found him easily enough. I gave him Jon’s information and added Jeff to my “Friends” list and went on with my life.

Then something weird started happening — after the Ferguson chaos, Jeff would appear in a picture with the Vice-President of the United States! Joe Biden is heard on one of the videos that he remembered Jeff from some project with clergy in Boston years ago. A week or so later, Jeff is seen talking to the President of the United States about building bridges between community and police to decrease violence. A guy I know knows the President of the USA! and it’s on my Facebook page!

It turns out that Jeff is hanging out with famous people — he’s a one of a small bunch who were chosen to give TED talks this year — along with, among others, Monica Lewinsky. Jeff’s TED talk came out recently and I heard the story of how a guy I knew went from a guy in a church to a national (albeit not famous publicly) leader. Jeff is the opposite of the Cardasians and what is wrong with our society. Jeff is not famous for being famous and doing nothing. Jeff is not famous while doing something incredibly meaningful.

As Jeff tells the story in his TED talk, he deals with the issues of ego and fame straight out of seminary, but then he settles into his job — the job of doing the work of Jesus in the community where he pastors. Violence escalates in the community where he works — Boston in this case — among teenage gangs and drug dealers and other people most would call “low-life scum” — people from the Wrong Side of The Tracks morally.

What Jeff did is interesting, though. While most pastors (including him at first) would try to build up the Church of Good People, Jeff decides to take a walk into The City of the Apparently Bad People. That’s it. He walked and listened. He met people. Soon he and three other clergy walked at night every weekend. They didn’t do it for fame. They didn’t do it for glory. They did it for understanding and in that understanding came miracles. Boston’s murder rate went down 79% without guns or tanks, without more people ending up in jail, without all the things that happened in Ferguson, New York, and Baltimore.

As Jeff talked, what I thought of was not Jeff, but Jesus…and St. Francis…and Jeff.  Each of them share a way of doing ministry that is outside the church (though Jeff pastored in a local church) and involved undesirables. Jesus is well known for hanging out with and reaching out to sinners, prostitutes, and the political hot-potato of the time, Tax Collectors. We all know what happened to the church under his guidance. It grew world-wide.

St. Francis of Assisi recreated that style of ministry with the truly repugnant — disease ridden, smelly (as he would note) and religiously “unclean” lepers in the 1200’s. Francis ministry had over 4,000 followers within a few years and caught the Pope’s notice more than once. The Catholic Church had a rebirth in the process.

In the late  20th century and early 21st, Rev. Jeffrey L Brown and three colleagues began to hang out with drug dealers and prostitutes and gang members and his/their community is changed radically as well. Maybe we’re doing something wrong in our churches. In each of these cases, instead of growing more of what is already planted to reap later, Jeff — and Francis, and Jesus before him — started to see the seeds of hope that hadn’t been paid attention to in the fields of weeds that the world has become. In doing so, they transformed the lives of those they ministered to and –as a secondary gift —  grew themselves and their communities.

Jeff points out in his TED talk that the drug dealers and criminals wanted to see three things: 1) Did they care enough to keep doing it — was it real love? 2) Were they doing it for the fame? 3) Were they going to get hurt by authority? When the answer to all of those was settled, transformation happened.

The parallels in Jesus’ ministry: 1) When Jesus preached to others, they frequently wanted to know why he was talking to them (see the Woman at the Well); 2) Jesus says, “when you pray, don’t do it in public for everyone to see” — the really  important folks/deity will know what you’re doing 3) The demon-possessed in the community are afraid that Jesus wants to hurt them. Jesus want to remove the demonic from them and they are transformed, not hurt.

In St. Francis’ ministry, 1) I’m sure the lepers were confused by his talking to them. Certainly the Religious People were. 2) Francis prayed all the time, not in the Halls of Power, but in the leper colonies, where no one from the outside world would see him. 3) Francis kissed a leper and the leper disappeared, leaving Francis to understand that the leper was actually an incarnation of God. Not only “not unclean” but truly holy.

I have absolutely nothing against parish pastors. They are able to shepherd a group of people through the transitions of their lives. They do wonderful work and support The Good People who still have problems, despite being good, living in a messed up world. Egotistic preachers and judgmental holier-than-thou congregations give me fits. The pastors I know are, for the most part, not them.

Being a person or preacher in the Congregation of the Good People is a good place to be and to stay, but as these three leaders show, it is not the only type of ministry out there. Inside the building, people tend to stagnate. Outside of the building people come alive in transformation. Inside of the building, there is loud judgment about those in the world. Outside of the building, quiet love is needed and respect is given to those in the church.

May we do more of this type of ministry and not limit ourselves to what we think is possible, instead doing the impossible through the God who lives within us.





How Evil Becomes Law — Coverture and Other Bad Ideas

In discussing, of all things, gay marriage, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg really messed with my head this week. She made some strange statements about the “evolution of marriage” that I didn’t “get”, until I saw an article which talked about “Head and Master” laws that were still in effect until 1979 in at least one state and it brought me back to the time when I grew up.

I am coming to appreciate that all laws have a political purpose.  After binge-watching “The West Wing” this past year, I came to see the process of laws — which gets chosen for consideration and which don’t, what laws are finally enacted and which aren’t, where compromise falls — all depend on who is in power and what their agenda is, vs. what the agenda of the leaders of the other side is, and finally what we get to emerges.

Each serves a political function of some kind or another in a specific time or place and can become “the way it is”, which can become “the way it always has been”, which later become “obvious” or “natural” to society at large.

Head and master laws are the old way of dealing with men and women legally.  They state that men are legally required to provide for a woman when they get married, because she is nothing without him in the eyes of the law.

In the old days, if a man divorced his wife, she got at least half of what he owned because she had no existence without him in the eyes of the law. She could not enter into a contract and start a business, because she legally didn’t exist. She couldn’t buy a house because because she legally didn’t exist. Because she was helpless, in the eyes of the law, he had to support her.  In my practice, I see cases to this day that are influenced by this type of thinking: The mother is assumed to be the gentle, nurturing one even if she is psychotic or absent or simply less “warm and fuzzy” than the father. It is not justice, in that it is not situation based. It’s not about the specific case in front of the judge, it is about what the law’s bias says is going on. On the other hand, this is why a mother’s murdering her child is sooooo much more horrific than a father’s doing so — because we believe that all women are supposed to be nurturing. If they are not, that’s bad. But if they murder a child, they go against the supposed grain of all of nature.

Men who believe in feminism don’t really exist either, if we believe this — and the law did (and still does in some judges’ minds). If I wanted to stay home and wash dishes and raise the children while my wife works, that simply wasn’t an option under these rules. Yet, in getting two master’s degrees, I never heard of these laws. I just thought they were old ways of thinking. I didn’t know where they came from but they informed my thinking all the time I was growing up.

When Anita Hill called out Clarence Thomas, and the world split between “Men who didn’t get it” and “women who did”, this was a radical concept. I was probably on the wrong side of that line — or told I was when it all came out because, in Man’s World, it was “obvious” that women wanted sex as much as men, and that because they got married, of course, they were sexually receptive to their husband any time he wanted it. Since they were obliged, there was no idea that a husband could rape his own wife.

Even with the new feminism, I/ we would end up at the same place as this legal rule.  Not that I ever owned a woman (don’t be stupid!), but because we were equals.  Since men and women were the same in all ways, all we had to do was look at ourselves to understand what women wanted. Since mechanics all had sexy calendars at work, women must like them, too. Extrapolating this, Anita Hill had no reason to complain when Thomas would bring porn to work or make sexist jokes.

My wife can’t believe that when I grew up there were employment ads that said “help wanted, male” and “help wanted, female”. My daughters don’t believe me when I explain that “there were no gay people” when I was growing up. It was “obvious” to us — where would the parts fit? Ahead of my time in some ways, but not in others, as a liberal man, I got hit by trucks going both ways (from the right for not being a man, and from the left for not understanding women).

When feminists talked about not “being given away like property” at weddings, I knew it was a tradition to have the bride “given away”, but since she wasn’t actually property (obviously), I just figured it was a stupid argument made by women who just wanted to complain about men. Little did I know, it had been the law of the land for years. And, again, even with two master’s degrees, I had never heard of this concept or the legal precedents that enshrined it.

So, given all of this, this is what we used to believe, what we said was law, even if no body I knew believed it anymore. In Europe, the French, and other countries had rules that were designed to make sure that women were taken care of by marriage, but didn’t exist as soon as they got married. The idea was that “Men when were actually people because they could make decisions and women couldn’t make decisions for themselves, so they “obviously” weren’t legally people. Because of this, when people married, the woman became “covered” by all the privileges her husband had (why should she need her own?). Interestingly, women were believed to willingly into this wedding contract.  Once they did, they belonged to the man. This is why a wife suddenly went by “Mrs. Joe Smith instead of her former first name and her last name”.   A wife couldn’t even commit a crime because she didn’t exist legally.  Who were you going to charge? According to the law, they weren’t there.  Her husband would have to deal with issues as he had power or wealth to do so.  According to an article I read, mortgages were still written (as late as 2005) with the man’s name first because of the remnants of this law.

The English took this “Coverture” law as a good idea and adopted it as their own. When they came to America, they brought it with them, since the British Empire proved that it knew The Right Way To Do Things.  The more free folks here now acknowledged that a woman could marry for love, but the rules still applied. Slowly — very slowly — society changed and the laws changed — Louisiana still had Head and Master Laws (the American version of Coverture) until 1979! As most of us stay away from the court system, no one I knew paid any attention to the change,  We “men” (in 1979, I was 19) didn’t know it was there in the first place, and didn’t note it’s change when it went, but it was a huge change, and I never heard of it until today. In fact, as I type this, my computer’s spell checker doesn’t recognize the word!

We develop, our relationships change, our laws change, but they remain out of date. Why? Because they are put on the books and are never removed. In the past, police in the middle of a union contract negotiation would suddenly give tickets out for not having a horse pole in the front of your house. A horse pole? Yes, the laws of the 1800’s were still on the books, and so it still was illegal to not have a pole to hitch up your horse!

In the same way, the federal government released a report today that said that in parts of St. Louis, the  police’s job — given budget cuts and city needs — was to make up for the loss of income by giving out “predatory” tickets  — speed traps and such, with fines if they weren’t paid. I’m pretty sure that when people asked for tax relief in the early 1980’s, they didn’t think they were voting for police harassment. That style of policing is part of the injustice that came to light with the Michael Brown shooting. It’s been that way probably since then — 35 years now. Couldn’t they revisit the tax code and make it fairer and enough to do the job, so police don’t have to.

Congress, this month or year, will revisit the Patriot Act because anything like 9/11 hasn’t happened for 14 years now. If there was a ever a reason for this law — often signed without a thorough reading, or a reading —  at all, it is clear that we did all kinds of unconscionable things as a country because of it — kidnapping people, putting people in jail without charges, torture, having the government review people’s library borrowing history, and so much more.  If this thing isn’t repealed now or stripped of all it’s immoral clauses, it will stay in effect and future generations will think “that’s the way it is”, then “that’s the way it’s always been”  and those things will be “obviously” the right thing to do.

While I’m on a rant, the last law that I have trouble with at the moment is President Obama’s trade agreement with China which he’s hoping to Fast Track (i.e. “railroad”) through Congress. I understand his desire to be trusted, and in fact I do trust him. Apparently people like Elizabeth Warren said that they hadn’t seen. Obama responded, “Yes, they have seen in. They just can’t talk to the public about it”. Since he said that, I would say that”If you’re doing something you can’t talk about, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it”.

Establishing any -ism: sexism, racism, or nationalism — or inequality, anger or fear — through the law is always a bad idea.  It gives something bad the ability to last forever or be dealt with until it’s repealed, simply because of the authority that the law has. Doing it without thinking or knowing you are doing it isn’t any better. There really is no excuse, even if things seem inefficient.

My friends who are Quakers are excruciatingly slow to make decisions for a group, but they seldom get it wrong when they do. We need to consider the laws we are making. We need to consider whether they are moral, whether they really need to be written, and whether or not they can be reviewed and easily fixed. None of this can be done without actually knowing what you’re voting on. Today’s emergency doesn’t have to be tomorrow’s mistake.

As a final note, I have never written a research paper for my blog before, so I’m sorry that it’s so long. I thought it was important to be thorough. I hope it wasn’t boring.



References for this article can be found at:

Click to access ZaherWMS.pdf

Our Marvel-ous Universe: God As Playwrite, Director, and Occasional Actor

I have just come back from seeing “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” (a movie based on Marvel comics characters), written and directed by Joss Whedon. At the end of the movie (as all Marvel movies), there’s a little clip at the end — after the credits — which sets up some other movie or some background drama. At the end of this one (spoiler alert!) there’s a blue man who puts on a glove and says, “Fine, I’ll have to do it myself”.

My wife went to see the movie earlier in the day, and she texted me “What’s the infinity gauntlet and who’s the blue guy”, to which I replied “I’m not exactly sure”. Now, having seen the movie, I can tell you that the answer to those questions, lies in a pretty little-known movie callled “Guardians of the Galaxy”, which is, in some ways, a satire of comic books and comic book movies.

Holding all of this together is writer and director Joss Whedon, who came up with the original concept of, wrote the original movie script for, and eight TV seasons of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. If all of this seems silly, watch a few episodes of “Buffy” and you’ll see how brilliant a writer Whedon is. Using mythical backgrounds — vampires, werewolves and the like — he tells incredibly human stories about the effects of violence on people, rape, life and death, as well as romance, music, and so on.

The thing that I have always admired about Joss’ work is that he creates these incredibly complex, incredibly long story “arcs”. Apparently the Buffy staff of writers would create a whole long story — often an entire season — and this story arc would play in the background, as subplot to each of the episodes (each with their own story) and they would become clearer as the season progressed, culminating with some final  “so that’s where that was leading to” “aha” moment.

It occurred to me after the short clip at the end of the movie, that God is sort of like that — creating a story and a timeline, with what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the arc of the moral universe” that “is long, but it bends toward justice”..

While the comic book world sees “justice” as some kind of superhero thing that looks like vengeance against costumed bad guys, God goes for a more mysterious, more complex justice, unraveling this storyline using a holy story and weaving in satire, humor, drama, bringing in “extras” as well as “stars”, and hiding the underpinnings of history — “God’s plan for the world” — in little places where we might not think to look.  God writes the story, and directs it with human actors, and every once in awhile, when God can’t find the perfect person for a part, does a cameo to further the story.

In this latest Avengers movie, Captain America says something that struck me as odd. As our heroes come to fight the Bad Guy and his minions, Cap says, “we came here to fight. These civilians didn’t. Get them out of there”, which quietly corrects an earlier, unjust moral conflict that led to evil happening. He says it like it’s obvious, and maybe it is, for Cap.  Later, as a city prepares to fall from the sky, he says he won’t go until every single resident of the town caught up in this situation is safe, and every one — every single one — of the robots created by The Bad Guy is destroyed.

I don’t know where Whedon came up with the line, but it, too, is like the way God operates. The song, “His eye is on the sparrow”, is based on a quote by Jesus in the gospel of Matthew:  “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father”. In short, even those things that are considered of very little value to humans, God notices and attempts to protect. We are caught in this battle between the Ultimate Good and the Ultimate Evil, and God wants us out of the way so that the The Big Boys can fight. When it seems like the world is falling apart at the seams, God goes back for every single one of us because we are important to the story that God is trying to tell, that God has written at the beginning of time, and has really long story arcs that lead us to justice and — in the process — overcoming every single one of those who are led by Evil.

It is not just the immediate episode that we see in our daily news that is important. It is that little nugget of wisdom that completes the picture. It is the odd one out, the child who was saved as an extra in what we think of as our movie, that changes history. It is the millions of experiences people that people have that lead up to a Martin Luther King and progress in justice. We may bring our own unique vision to the character (and further God encourages us to), but God is telling the story and directing the action.

As incredible a storyteller as Joss Whedon is (and he is amazingly good at all the parts of telling a story), God is a better screenwriter, producer, director, who sometimes does a walk-on part to get the story just right. May we see our parts and play them. Regardless of how up the task we think we are, God knows what God is doing.