Wednesday, July 27, 2016

From Hair(spray) To Eternity

As we end our run of the musical Hairspray I want to thank all those involved in the production, and those who have seen, or will be seeing the performance.

The musical, Hairspray is set in 1962 Baltimore during the Civil Rights movement, and deals with the issue of integration and race relations.  It reflects a time in our nation’s history when Petula Clark (who was white) could spark a heated national controversy by simply touching the arm of Harry Belafonte (who was black) during her 1968 television special!  And while we’ve made some headway in race relations since then, it’s ironic and sad that these issues are still real and painful 50 years later.  People continue to shun or mistreat others over superficial differences.  We still struggle to get along, frequently forgetting that “it’s what’s inside that counts.”

Sadly, the Church has not been immune to these divisions.  As the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., once said: "It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning."  Half a century later this is still the case.   So why can’t Christians (and others) all just get along? And why are churches still largely segregated?  Obviously, not all congregations welcome all people, and if you visit a congregation and get the sense that others aren’t comfortable around you, you probably won’t come back.  But by the same token, if you visit a congregation and you aren’t comfortable around others (who may be fine with you), you also won’t be back. 

We hang out with people who make us comfortable, and we’re most comfortable with people who remind us of ourselves.  Folk naturally want to hang out with other folk of the same age, social strata, race, opinion, and appearance.  And while courts can force schools to integrate, they can’t force churches, or social circles, to do the same. Embracing people who are different from what we’re use to is always stressful and difficult, and that’s why many of us simply avoid doing it.  Yet, in the modern world, embracing people who are different from us is essential, and in the Church it’s a mandate from Jesus Christ!

So if this production of Hairspray can get people talking about these important issues, all while laughing, singing, and working together, than it has done something good.  If it can remind us that people are important because of what’s in their heart, it’s taught us a valuable lesson.  If it brings people together who would otherwise remain strangers, in the audience, cast, and crew, than it’s given us a commonly shared experience we can build on.  And by being part of this event, you’ve been part of something significant as well.  

Jesus spoke much about love.  It was his bottom line.  It should be ours as well.  As the Chorus, and Tracy, sing in “Without Love”:

Without love, Life is like my mother on a diet!
Like a week that's only Mondays; Only ice cream, never sundaes
Like a circle with no center; Like a door marked "do not enter!"

Whoever you are, whatever you’re like, however you look, in whatever way you self-identify, you are loved.  Let’s get to know each other.  And thanks for spending this time with us.

David Rockhill

Friday, July 1, 2016

Abraham’s Dysfunctional Family

It’s a sad and stressful thing to be caught in the middle of a family squabble. Most of us have seen first hand the scars such conflicts leave behind.  And dysfunctional families don’t just make each other miserable; they drag down everyone around them.  Unfortunately, we are currently in the middle of a family fight dating back hundreds, even thousands, of years. 

Historically speaking, the three major world religions that have had the most difficulty getting along all come from the same family and claim Abraham as a common ancestor.  This is why Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (I’m listing them in chronological order) are called the “Abrahamic Religions”.  Jews and Christians trace their linage through Abraham’s son Isaac, and Muslims through Ishmael.

I will refrain from going into detail regarding the times people from one group of Abraham’s family have oppressed or killed people from another group, but no branch of his offspring emerges from the mud of history looking clean

This long-standing lack of harmony is not really a surprise, in light of the sibling rivalry running rampant through the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament).  Abraham’s children, Isaac and Ishmael, were not on the best terms.  In turn, Isaac’s children--Jacob and Esau--also had major conflicts.  And then Jacob’s brood took family feuds to a new level, with their mistreatment of Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph.  They say that family patterns repeat themselves, and this seems to be the case with the conflicted family of Abraham, right down to his present day descendants.  In spite of this, I think there are some things we can learn from Abraham’s ancient offspring, which can be useful to Abraham’s family today.   So I’d like to address all Jews, Christians and Muslims, and lift up three lessons I believe we can all learn from our Spiritual forefather’s family line:  Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers. 

First of all, we need to stop demonizing one another.   God made promises to both of Abraham’s children, Isaac and Ishmael.  Regarding Ishmael, God said to Abraham:  “As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation “ (Genesis 17:20 NRSV  ). Both of Abraham’s children had a destiny, and both children were important to Abraham and God.  Neither was purely good or evil.

So it is today.  It’s no secret that there are good people in each of the three Abrahamic religions, and there are jerks as well.  So we need to resist the temptation to paint each other with broad good and evil brush strokes. 

Secondly, we need to refrain from violence against one another.  Christians and Jews trace their spiritual heritage through Jacob, but in spite of the fact that Jacob was no angel and took advantage of Esau, Esau refused to harm Jacob. When Jacob returned home, afraid of his brother’s wrath, instead of seeking vengeance Esau welcomed his brother with hugs and tears.

The older brothers of Joseph came close to killing him, but they eventually decided against it, selling him into slavery instead.  Ironically, this decision to let him live had the unforeseen consequence of saving their own lives and the lives of their families!  There was no way they could have known the end results of murder or mercy, and thankfully, they let him live.

Even though the descendants of Abraham didn’t get along, (and still don’t), mercy outweighed violence (and still should). 

Third, we need to seek peace.  Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury their father Abraham in the cave of Machpelah.  Esau embraced Jacob, kissing him and weeping when he returned home. Joseph forgave his brothers, and the family was reconciled.  Dysfunction was part of Abraham’s legacy, but so was forgiveness and grace.  It’s that forgiveness and grace that we need more of today.

The Hebrew Scriptures say this:

Do not take revenge nor bear a grudge against the children of your people. You must love your neighbor as [you love] yourself. I am God.
(Leviticus 19:18 The Living Torah)

This sound a lot like this story from the hadith – oral traditions regarding Mohammed:

A Bedouin came to the prophet, grabbed the stirrup of his camel and said: O the messenger of God! Teach me something to go to heaven with it. Prophet said: "As you would have people do to you, do to them; and what you dislike to be done to you, don't do to them. Now let the stirrup go! [This maxim is enough for you; go and act in accordance with it!]" (Kitab al-Kafi, vol. 2, p. 146)

And this in turn sounds a lot like Jesus’ words, spoken almost 600 years earlier:

"In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12 NRSV ).

I think it’s time we all took this idea seriously.