Author Henry Brinton on: The dangerous roots of our American obsession with who’s “in” and who’s “out” of our herd

Photo by Stephanie Weil, used with permission.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Welcome back popular author, pastor and columnist Henry Brinton. To learn more about Henry’s work, see the mini-bio at the bottom of this column. To read some of his previous Read the Spirit columns, click on his byline-link at the top of this column.

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By HENRY BRINTON
Contributing Columnist

One hundred years ago, cattle were put on trial in the United States. They were led into courtrooms to be sorted out by judges and juries. The cattle were divided into purebred bulls and scrub bulls.

In one case, the defendant’s name was “Mr. Scrub Bull.” According to Duke Magazine, he was escorted by policemen into a makeshift courtroom in South Carolina in October 1922. He stood on his own four legs in front of a magistrate, while a court officer read the charges. “The defendant works in a very underhand way,” the officer declared, “stealing the profits from every dairyman and butcher who has common cows, robbing the unsuspecting, the careless, and the ignorant alike.”

And what was the charge being leveled at Mr. Scrub Bull?

Genetic impurity.

He was not a purebred bull, an animal believed to produce more food than a scrub bull. This “Court of Bovine Justice” was designed to convince farmers that they should choose only purebred bulls when they were looking for an animal to breed with their cows.

Such trials were strange, for sure. But they were endorsed by the United States Department of Agriculture, and they became quite popular. Across the country, cattle were routinely put on trial in front of crowds that could number in the thousands. The trials had real judges and real lawyers, witnesses and jurors, and verdicts were issued about whether an animal was fit to breed. The judge might conclude that the animal was an “unworthy father,” one whose very existence was “detrimental to the progress and prosperity of the public at large.”

In the end, the convicted bull would be led away, shot, and then used as barbecue meat. The poor scrub bull would be turned into lunch.

These cattle courts were bizarre, no question about it. But they were connected to an even darker movement in American history.

About the same time, a eugenics movement was on the rise, one that aimed to limit the reproduction of people who were deemed unfit. According to Mother Jones Magazine, due to this obsession with eugenics, “more than 60,000 Americans were sterilized in the decades leading up to the Second World War, with many more persecuted under racist immigration laws and marriage restrictions.”

Sixty thousand Americans—all were declared to be scrub bulls, unfit for reproduction.

Clearly, when you talk about purebreds and scrubs, this division involves people as well as animals. And, unfortunately, it is nothing new. For thousands of years, we’ve had a problem with scrub bulls.

Go back to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, when the people of Israel returned to Jerusalem after a time of exile. Ezra the priest rejected marriages between Israelites and foreigners, saying to the people, “You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel … separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives” (Ezra 10:10-11). In other words, separate yourselves from the scrubs!

This concern for purity was found in the New Testament as well. When the apostle Peter was on a journey, he went up on a roof to pray, and there he became hungry. He had a vision of “all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds” (Acts 10:12). Scrub bulls!

Then a voice said, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean” (vv. 13-14). For a religious man like Peter, only purebred food would do.

But then the divine voice offered a game-changing insight: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (v. 15).

Suddenly, all the “Courts of Bovine Justice” were disbanded, and Peter realized that he could have relationships with people beyond the nation of Israel. He met with a God-fearing Gentile named Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, and came to the conclusion that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (vv. 34-35).

Purebreds and scrubs. Suddenly, by the power of God, there was no distinction between the two.

When Political Polarization Becomes a Dangerous Obsession

Unfortunately, we still have a problem with making distinctions. Political polarization is growing in America today, and the problem may be worse than tribalism.

“It’s not just that people only trust or associate with their own side,” says Cynthia Wang, a clinical professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School. “It’s that they’re contemptuous of the other side, whom they see as ‘other’ and less moral—an existential threat. This rise in ‘out-group’ hate is what we find so alarming.”

Looking across the aisle, we are seeing scrub bulls instead of people.

On the local level, I am seeing that immigrants are coming to church, just as they always have. But where previous waves of immigrants were largely European, these new arrivals are coming from non-Western countries with cultures and skin colors more alien to white Americans than that of Europeans.

Sometimes, these newcomers rattle established churches by introducing new worship styles and beliefs. This is not always well received. When I was serving as pastor of a Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, we had an African-style service led by new members of the church from Ghana.

One of the older white members said, “If they want to worship that way, fine with me. But don’t bring it into my sanctuary.”

She saw herself as a purebred, and the newcomers as scrubs. She failed to understand that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

The Power of Hospitality

So, what is the solution to the scrub bull problem?

In a word: Hospitality.

This means sitting down at tables and actually talking with people of different races, cultures, religions, and political perspectives. Instead of posting opinions online, we need to have face-to-face conversations. Hospitality is a practice central to the Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three trace the activity back to the decision of Abraham to welcome three strangers to his tent by the oaks of Mamre. When he did, he discovered that they were, in fact, the LORD (Genesis 18:1-8).

Looking for models? Check out ‘Braver Angels’

Although hospitality has been difficult during the pandemic, table conversations are now resuming.

One successful approach is being offered by the organization Braver Angels, which offers Red-Blue workshops. These workshops bring together a small, evenly divided group of conservatives and liberals to talk, clarify disagreements, move beyond stereotypes, and discover common values. The goal is to get beyond scrub-bull thinking.

The organization was created after the 2016 election, when its founders gathered a group of 10 Donald Trump supporters and 11 Hillary Clinton supporters in South Lebanon, Ohio. They wanted to see if Americans could disagree respectfully and perhaps even find common ground. The first gathering was successful, and the approach was then replicated across the country. A podcast was added in 2018, along with a national convention, all designed to reduce polarization in politics.

And Check out Resetting the Table

Another group, working with faith communities, is called Resetting the Table.

The organization recently facilitated a conversation among nine United Methodist pastors from South Carolina, helping them to talk about flags in the church sanctuary and the separation of church and state. United Methodists are currently polarized around a number of issues, including the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ people.

Rabbi Melissa Weintrab, founding co-director of the group, said to The Washington Post, “Listening to those who disagree with us is part and parcel of what it means to listen for God’s voice. We need to investigate our differences courageously.” Founded eight years ago, the group has now trained 43,000 people in a process that includes speaking, listening, and challenging each other respectfully.

Do these conversations work?

The jury is still out, although participants in a recent Braver Angels workshop in La Grange, Texas, were hopeful. Maxine Coppinger, a real estate agent and Democrat, said to NPR: “Well, I found that we are more alike than we are different and that’s the bottom line for me.”

Chuck Mazac, a broker and Republican, said in the same story about Braver Angels: “I found this very, very helpful, and I’m glad I came, even though I was reticent.”

In The Post story about Resetting the Table, Ron Miller, the online dean for the School of Government at Liberty University also expressed optimism. “The idea of looking at the other side of the issue and interpreting it more generously is a game changer if we apply that as a daily discipline.”

As a pastor, I am always trying to encourage face-to-face conversations in the life of the church. This is especially important when we talk about race or climate change or gender identity, or when we struggle with misunderstandings or controversies in the life of the church. We are living in a time in which people find so many things to be offensive, or inappropriate, or profane. These issues are never handled well through Facebook postings or emails or online messages, where outrage gets rewarded and arguments spiral out of control. Such online forums are no better than the Courts of Bovine Justice from a hundred years ago.

Instead, we need to sit down and have conversations with each other, as Abraham did with the strangers by the oaks of Mamre. When we do, we may find that our conversation partners are not scrub bulls.

In fact, as Abraham discovered—they may actually be holy.

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Care to Learn More?

MORE ABOUT THE EUGENICS MOVEMENT—PBS in 2018 aired an award-winning documentary The Eugenics Crusade. You can rent-to-stream this documentary via Amazon, or purchase a DVD copy. PBS also has a transcript of the episode available online.

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More about Henry

HENRY G. BRINTON is pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia, and has written on religion and culture for The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and Huffington Post.

A frequent speaker at workshops and conferences, he is the author or co-author of books including The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality.

Henry also is an author of cozy mysteries. You can learn more about his debut cozy, City of Peace, in our own earlier coverage of that novel. Then, in 2021, Henry added a second mystery novel, Windows of the Heavens.

Married with two adult children, he enjoys boating on the Potomac River and competing in endurance sports such as marathons.

Henry Brinton: ‘Standing Together’

The FDNY memorial wall is a 56-foot-long bronze wall of cast bas-relief bronze that honors the 343 firefighters who gave their lives in service to the public during the attacks. Commissioned by FDNY and unveiled in 2006 as a memorial to the fallen firefighters, it lists all of the fallen firefighters names, and is installed in the west wall of Engine Company 10–Ladder Company 10 on Greenwich Street between Albany Street and Liberty Street, just across from Ground Zero.

A Reflection on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11

By HENRY G. BRINTON
Contributing Columnist

Some anniversaries are joyful, but not this one.

Twenty years ago, on September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda terrorists took control of four passenger airliners. Two were flown into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. A third was crashed into the Pentagon. And the fourth was heading toward Washington but was driven into a Pennsylvania field when passengers overwhelmed the terrorists.

Almost 3,000 people died, 25,000 were injured, and many others suffered long-term health problems. 9/11 stands as the deadliest terrorist attack in human history.

In response, Americans came together in the face of a common enemy. The motto “United We Stand” appeared everywhere, flags were flown and churches were packed. Muslim organizations quickly condemned that attacks, and President Bush made an appearance at an Islamic Center in Washington. He spoke of the valuable contributions that Muslims made to the United States every day, and called for them to be treated with respect.

September 11 was a day of horror, but it pulled Americans together in a remarkable way.

To be sure, there were many who felt excluded.

A stained glass window at St. Matthew’s German Evangelical Lutheran Church in Charleston, South Carolina, recalls Isaiah’s revelation from God. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

My next-door neighbor, an Iranian teenager who was a member of the Baha’i faith, was terrified of what his classmates would do to him. Turban-wearing Sikhs across the country were falsely accused of being terrorists. Many American Muslims were the victims of anger and bigotry. The slogan “United We Stand” did not include everyone.

Twenty years later, we are having a hard time standing together. Fortunately, the prophet Isaiah—revered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims—has words of guidance for us. The church I serve as pastor, Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia, gathers for worship each week under a verse from the prophet that appears on the wall behind the pulpit, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).

Jesus began his ministry in Nazareth by reading from the scroll of the prophet, and he went on to quote Isaiah eight times during his ministry—more than any other prophet. Both Isaiah and Jesus were committed to welcoming and including all of God’s children in the community of faith.

Unity remains a goal for us in the United States, and the challenges of 2001 are not behind us. If anything, they are bigger than ever. After 9/11, the danger was al-Qaeda. But today, our greatest threat is domestic terrorism—the people who attacked the Capitol earlier this year were extremists from our own country.

Now, more than ever, we need to respond to the invitation of the prophet Isaiah to “stand up together” (Isaiah 50:8). But how do we do this? How do we overcome polarization and take a united stand?

The first step is to teach the best of our religious traditions. Once again, the prophet Isaiah has some guidance for us: “The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher” (Isaiah 50:4). As servants of God, we are to be teachers of grace and truth and justice. We are to treat others as we want to be treated, and to see everyone as a child of God, made in the image and likeness of God. We are to lift people up, not knock them down. Help them, not hurt them. Love them, not hate them. At the same time, we need to be humbly honest about the failings and limitations of our traditions, realizing that many of our traditions have led to hatred.

Next, we are challenged to cooperate with God.  “The Lord God has opened my ear,” says the servant in Isaiah, “and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward” (Isaiah 50:5). God is calling us into a better future, and our challenge is to follow where God is leading. We are being rebellious when we turn around and follow other voices. Not everyone worked for unity after 9/11, so this anniversary is giving us an opportunity to embrace the challenges we may have missed twenty years ago.

Peter Marty is a Lutheran pastor who is concerned about preaching in a time of deep political polarization. He has noticed that many worshipers are ready to assign a political motive to everything a preacher says. Preachers get in trouble for saying too much or too little about Black Lives Matter, about the Capitol invasion, or about the presidencies of Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

In the face of these challenges, Marty tries to preach sermons that help individuals to “meet God or be met by God.” Yes, he certainly feels called to reflect on cultural and political events, but he tries to do so in a way that offers new insights and fresh perspectives. He is not interested in lining up with partisan political positions.

But there is a problem, according to Marty: “many Christians now interpret faith through the prism of their political ideology.” It’s true for Christians on the right and on the left. And this approach is the opposite of what Isaiah recommends. Our challenge is to let the Lord God open our ears, and not rebel against God when we hear a challenging word. In a world of partisan politics, our goal should be to cooperate with God and move forward in God’s way.

The way of God always involves the building of bridges between people of diverse perspectives. “We are dividing into hostile tribes,” says retired General Jim Mattis. After four decades in the Marine Corps, Mattis knows that our internal divisiveness is often more threatening than our external enemies. Our focus should be on “rediscovering our common ground and finding solutions,” says Mattis.

Twenty years ago, the motto was “United We Stand.”

Today, our challenge is to do a better job of standing together by teaching the best of our religious traditions, cooperating with God and finding common ground.

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A version of this column appears in the preaching journal Homiletics.

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More about Henry

HENRY G. BRINTON is pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia, and has written on religion and culture for The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and Huffington Post.

A frequent speaker at workshops and conferences, he is the author or co-author of books including The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality.—and a new cozy mystery called City of Peace.

Married with two adult children, he enjoys boating on the Potomac River and competing in endurance sports such as marathons.

Henry Brinton—R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it meant to—John Wesley

By HENRY BRINTON
Contributing Columnist

As we approach Election Day 2020, we are not seeing much respect across our political spectrum. This is a big concern to me, because respect is essential to a functioning community and nation.

Notice that I didn’t say “love.” I don’t expect love. It would be crazy for me to expect the supporters of Donald Trump to love Joe Biden, and the fans of Biden to love Trump. Love is a very private, personal, intimate emotion, one that really should be reserved for family members, friends and fellow members of a congregation.

But respect: That’s different. From my training in community organizing, I’ve learned that respect is a public emotion. I can respect someone with a different set of politics. A different education. A different religion. A different job. A different gender identity, race, or cultural background.

A generation ago, President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill respected each other. A Republican and a Democrat. Imagine that. The loss of such respect, among politicians and their supporters, is a big problem for us today. It affects our church, our community, our nation and our world.

Respect in the Bible

In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul demands respect: “If anyone has reason to be confident,” he writes, “I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (3:4-6).

Paul was not only a good Jew, “a Hebrew born of Hebrews,” but he was a superstar of the Jewish faith: He was a zealous Pharisee and a blameless keeper of the law. He was a man of strong convictions, a person of integrity. But then he developed a new passion. He shifted his focus toward knowing Christ, gaining Christ, becoming like Christ, and loving Christ.

John Wesley’s Advice

So, what guidance does this give Christians in a polarized political environment? First, I believe we should do our best to respect people of different religious and political beliefs. We don’t have to agree with them, support them, or endorse their points of view, but we should show them respect.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement around the world, offered some guidance to voters before an election in 1774. He said that, first, they should vote “for the person they judged most worthy.” Second, they should “speak no evil of the person they voted against.” And third, they should “take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.”

That’s good advice. Vote for the person you judge most worthy. Speak no evil about the opposing candidate. And don’t sharpen your spirit against those that voted on the other side. In other words, show some respect.

Second, I think we should build on this respect as followers of Christ. Respect is good, but it is not enough. We should hold each other accountable, as well.

When We Go Wrong

Over the past generation, there has been a growing awareness of clergy sexual misconduct. Some of this has involved clergy who cross professional boundaries and have sex with church members, and some has involved clergy abusing children and teens. Whenever it happens, it is wrong. The reputation of clergy has taken a hit because of this misconduct. But this does not mean that all pastors are bad. Through appropriate discipline and better training, the chance of clergy sexual misconduct can be reduced.

In recent years, there also has been a growing awareness of police misconduct, especially towards Black men, women and young people. The reputation of police officers has taken a hit because of this misconduct. But this does not mean that all police officers are bad. I have a great deal of respect for law enforcement, and have been friends with a number of officers over the years. But we need to hold law enforcement accountable. Through discipline and training, the chance of police misconduct can be reduced.

I would say that the same holds true for our elected officials. We can respect them and also hold them accountable. To expect them to keep their word and act with integrity is not too high a standard. So write letters, make calls, send emails, and make sure you vote. Don’t speak evil of elected leaders, but do hold them accountable.

Ginsburg and Scalia at the opera.

Love at the Ginsburg Table

Finally, we need to develop personal relationships that move from respect to love. Remember, we should be more than respectable, according to Paul. Respect is good, but it is not enough. Those of us who are Christians should be truly loving, and should allow Jesus to change us.

Eugene Scalia is the U.S. secretary of labor and recently wrote a column about the friendship between his father, Antonin Scalia, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Both served until their deaths as Supreme Court justices. The two could not have been more different: Scalia was a Christian and Ginsburg was a Jew. Scalia was very conservative and Ginsburg was very liberal. But they, and their families, had a very close relationship. In fact, since the 1980s, they usually celebrated New Years together.

At these dinners, Justice Ginsburg’s husband Marty would prepare dinner. Sometimes he would prepare venison or boar that Justice Scalia had shot on a recent hunting trip. The families would drink champagne, listen to opera, and enjoy each other’s company. Scalia and Ginsburg were both New Yorkers and “they liked a lot of the same things,” says Eugene Scalia: “the law, teaching, travel, music and a meal with family and friends.”

They respected each other, and, even more importantly, they loved each other. And this love extended to their spouses. Marty Ginsburg had a “powerful love and dedication to his wife,” says Eugene Scalia. “He was a cherished friend for my mother.”

But this respect and love did not mean that the two justices agreed with each other. Ginsburg was a “pioneering advocate for women’s rights.” Scalia was “a critic of activist courts.” Ginsburg dismissed one of his arguments as “outlandish.” He said that one of her opinions was “politics smuggled into law.”

But they never condemned or ostracized each other. They learned from each other and knew that their debates were part of what makes our democracy great.

Christian Hospitality

In my novel City of Peace, an immigrant couple named Sofia and Youssef Ayad, Coptic Christians from Egypt, invite a Methodist pastor named Harley Camden over for dinner in the Town of Occoquan, Virginia. Harley had suffered the loss of his wife and daughter in a European terrorist attack.

“This food is delicious,” says Harley to Sofia. “Thank you very much. It all seems very healthy.”

“Food is important to us,” Sofia says. “Think of the many times that Jesus sat down to eat with people—even tax collectors and sinners. Christian hospitality is very important to Youssef and me.”

“I do appreciate it,” Harley adds. “Think of how much better the world would be if people actually sat down and ate with each other.”

“No doubt about it,” agrees Youssef. “The Bayatis have become some of our closest friends here in Occoquan, largely because we have shared so many meals. Back in Egypt, Christians and Muslims are getting together less and less, which has caused the animosity and violence to increase. Did you hear about the attack last December in Cairo?”

“No, I missed that,” admits Harley.

“A suicide bomber attacked St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral. More than two dozen worshipers were killed, including a ten-year-old girl.”

“It was horrible,” Sofia says, shaking her head. “The worst attack on Copts in years. The Islamic State claimed responsibility.”

“How did the Copts respond?” asks Harley.

“With increased security, of course,” says Youssef. “But also with prayer—prayers for the victims, and for their attackers.”

Harley is impressed that the Coptic community could respond with prayer for such evildoers. Thinking back over the past year, he hadn’t said a single prayer for the terrorists who killed his wife and daughter. And yet he knows that Jesus commanded his followers to pray for the people who persecuted them.

Yes, we live in a world of liberals and conservatives, supporters of Donald Trump and fans of Joe Biden. There is much that divides us in our fractured and polarized society. But good things happen when we find a way to respect each other and, even better, experience some love—as the Scalias and Ginsburgs did—in shared meals.

Truly, the world would be a better place if people actually sat down and ate with each other.

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Care to learn more?

You’ll enjoy our March cover story about Henry and his new novel.

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More about Henry

HENRY G. BRINTON is pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia, and has written on religion and culture for The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and Huffington Post.

A frequent speaker at workshops and conferences, he is the author or co-author of books including The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality.—and a new cozy mystery called City of Peace.

Married with two adult children, he enjoys boating on the Potomac River and competing in endurance sports such as marathons.

Service of the Longest Night and the challenge of ACEs, Adverse Childhood Experiences

Photo by Rémy Sanchez via Wikimedia Commons.

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By HENRY BRINTON
Contributing Columnist

On Saturday, December 21, my congregation will offer a Service of the Longest Night, sometimes called Blue Christmas in other traditions.

This is “one of the greatest acts of pastoral care in the Advent season,” according to Ministry Matters, and is focused on the pain and hurt that many people feel during the holiday season. Growing in popularity across the country, and sometimes called “Blue Christmas” services, these gatherings are times to acknowledge grief, loss and ACEs: Adverse Childhood Experiences.

ACEs include emotional, physical and sexual abuse, as well as emotional and physical neglect. “ACEs are common, cumulative, and are strongly associated with most of the leading causes of death in the U.S.,” says Rebecca Bryan, DNP, who spoke at a Presbyterian clergy conference I attended in October that focused on spiritual, emotional, financial and vocational health. She points out that ACEs are also associated with “health risk behaviors like smoking, disordered eating and substance abuse.”

Writing in Psychology Today, Teresa Gil says that ACEs go beyond abuse and neglect to include mothers treated violently, mental illness, divorce or separation, substance abuse, and an incarcerated family member.

Gil reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente conducted a study comprising 17,377 middle-class adults with an average age of 57. The study examined the impact of ACEs on physical health and social functioning. In addition, they examined the relationship between ACEs and adult risk-taking behaviors.

What did they find? Adverse childhood experiences are common. One in six of the participants had four or more ACEs, and two-thirds had at least two or more ACEs. Yes, that’s right, two-thirds of the adults surveyed had at least two adverse childhood experiences.

The study also found that the problem of ACEs lasts a lifetime. High numbers of adverse childhood experiences in the first eighteen years of life are linked to poor physical health, mental health, and social functioning.

Adults with numerous ACEs are significantly more likely to behave in ways that place their health at risk. Such risk-taking behavior includes alcohol and drug abuse, cigarette smoking, compulsive eating and having multiple sex partners.

How Do We Hear These Stories?

Click the cover to visit Amazon.

In my novel City of Peace, pastor Harley Camden discovers that his friend Dirk Carter has struggled with the problem of ACEs.

Dirk and Harley were sitting on the third-floor porch of Harley’s house, drinking coffee and looking down on Mill Street. A slight breeze rustled the dark-green leaves of the trees along the street, and the pedestrians doing Saturday morning shopping moved from one patch of shade to another as they progressed from store to store in the bright sunshine.

“Nice view you’ve got from up here,” Dirk said as he took a bite of a cinnamon roll.

As they gazed westward, they saw a woman walking down the street, suspending a child by one arm and spanking her repeatedly. The little girl was shrieking and struggling to break free. “I hate to see a mother do that,” Harley said.

“You’re telling me,” Dirk responded. For a second it looked as though Dirk was going to reprimand the woman over the porch railing, but she stopped berating the child and the little girl began to trudge along, sobbing instead of screaming.

“Reminds me of my own mother,” sighed Dirk, settling back in his chair. “She had a fiery temper and would beat me for minor infractions. One time, when I was probably five or six, I was trying to help her clear the table. I knocked a vase off the table and it shattered on the floor. She slapped me hard and knocked me to the ground.”

“That’s terrible,” said Harley. “That would be considered child abuse today.”

“Well, it was a different time. Made me feel like I had to walk on egg shells all the time. I never knew what would set her off. She really scared me.”

“Where was your dad in all this?”

“He was around, but never intervened. Maybe he was afraid of her temper as well.”

“I bet that made you mad at your father.”

“I’ve never really thought about it,” admitted Dirk. “Mad? I don’t know. Disappointed, yes. He could have stepped in, but he didn’t. I always got the feeling that he expected me to take care of myself.”

“So, if you needed his help, you were showing weakness?”

“Right. He expected me to be a man, and I didn’t want to disappoint him.”

“I guess that makes sense at a certain age,” said Harley. “But not when you are five or six. I think he should have protected you.”

“I guess. But what’s the point of being resentful? I can’t change the past. He’s dead, and has been dead for a long time.”

Harley thought about how the dead continued to grab hold of the living and mess with them, no matter how long they had been in the grave.

What Can We Do When We Hear Such Stories?

I was thinking about Dirk and Harley while learning about ACEs at my Presbyterian conference. And while walking in the woods I found a rugged stone altar. The rough stones of the altar reminded me of the pain of life and the ACEs that continue to shape so many lives. On top of the altar is a stone with the word “hope,” which suggests that healing is always possible.

According to Rebecca Bryan, the treatment of trauma requires a shift from the question “What’s wrong with you?” to the question “What happened to you?”

In her book Light Shines in the Darkness, Lucille Sider speaks honestly about what happened to her over the course of her life. She recounts her sexual abuse as a child and teen, her divorces, and her struggles with mental illness. Through the book she helps the reader to see these challenges with exceptional clarity, and her faith and resilience provide a guiding light to those in similar situations. At one point in the book she learns that the biblical word “blessed” can also mean “mature” or “ripe.”

Answering the question “What happened to you?” is the first step in healing from trauma and moving from horror to hope. “Empowering patients to see the connections of their whole lives may well enable deep healing,” says Bryan. “I believe Jesus came in a body for a reason—to teach us to listen to our bodies. The way back — the way to healing, to breaking through the hard, protective crust we’ve formed so we can rediscover who God created us to be—is by listening to our bodies.”

When individuals are encouraged to tell their stories and listen to their bodies, connections are made between ACEs and health risk behaviors. Such understandings can set the stage for healing, and lead to a “ripeness” that might not be achieved any other way.

My church will offer a Service of the Longest Night again this year with the hope that light will begin to shine in the lives of those who are struggling, in and around our congregation.

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CARE TO LEARN MORE?

You’ll enjoy our March cover story about Henry and his new novel.

You’ll also want to learn about two related resources we publish:

LIGHT SHINES IN THE DARKNESS

BY LUCILLE SIDER—Clinical psychologist and clergywoman Lucille F. Sider adds her voice to the chorus of women in the #WhyIDidntReport and #MeToo movements with her new book, Light Shines in the Darkness: My Healing Journey through Sexual Abuse and Depression.

This is Lucille’s story of resilience and hope as a survivor of sexual abuse. She explains the challenges of finding her way out of a fear-based spirituality into one that is full of grace, hope and forgiveness. The unique richness of her book is that she wrote it to spark healing discussion, which is why she also has included a complete study guide that’s perfect for use in small groups.

GUIDE FOR GRIEF

BY ROGER MURCHISON—Here’s a valuable resource for families drawn to a Darkest Night or Blue Christmas service: Guide for Grief: Help in surviving the stages of grief and bereavement after a loss, by the noted Christian grief counselor Roger Murchison. He wrote this book, drawing on his many years of experience, because so many people are terrified of admitting that we are aging, let alone dying. Many families get stuck in patterns of grief and suffer as friends move on with life.

From his years of pastoral experience and study, he shares recommendations from both scripture and the latest research into loss and bereavement. This guide’s perspective is Christian, but all families will benefit from these well-tested principles. Each chapter ends with an inspiring prayer that readers can use in the journey we all will take through grief to wholeness.

 

MORE ABOUT HENRY

HENRY G. BRINTON is pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia, and has written on religion and culture for The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and Huffington Post.

A frequent speaker at workshops and conferences, he is the author or co-author of books including The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality.—and a new cozy mystery called City of Peace.

Married with two adult children, he enjoys boating on the Potomac River and competing in endurance sports such as marathons.

Henry Brinton: When a story is better than a sermon …

Victorian townhouses along the river in Occoquan, Virginia, home of Harley Camden, protagonist of the novel City of Peace.

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By HENRY BRINTON
Contributing Columnist

About 10 years ago, an imam walked into my office at Fairfax Presbyterian Church with a Christmas present. He was the leader of the nearby Turkish mosque, a man with a big smile and a warm spirit.

Margaret Johnson, a member of the Ezher Bloom Mosque in Chantilly, Virginia, interviews Henry Brinton about the interfaith themes in his novel City of Peace in April 2019.

He and I became friends and went on to lead two clergy trips to Turkey, a country with a rich history of interfaith relations. When the rulers of Spain expelled its Jews in 1492, Turkey welcomed them. And while there have been interfaith conflicts over the years, Jews, Christians and Muslims have lived together in peace through much of Turkish history. Back in the US, members of the mosque have helped us to feed the homeless on cold winter nights, and we have celebrated the end of Ramadan together under a tent in our church parking lot.

I often preach about the importance of interfaith cooperation, but I find that sermons have their limits. People naturally push back against sermons—a common expression is, “Don’t preach at me.” And interfaith events can be easily declined by those who don’t want to leave the comfort of their religious traditions.

Now I’m trying a new vehicle for interfaith dialogue: the novel.

Not that this story-telling approach is original to me. Jesus didn’t give lectures on heaven, but taught through parables such as, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground” (Mark 4:26). And Jewish rabbis continued this approach through midrash aggadah, an approach to biblical interpretation that centers on the story or characters of the biblical law.

In line with this tradition, I am delivering a message about the need for deeper interfaith relations, especially in a time of Muslim bans and terrorist threats, through my novel City of Peace. In it, a Methodist pastor named Harley Camden is sent to Occoquan, Virginia. Soon after his arrival, he is asked—as the only clergy in town—to visit a prisoner named Muhammad Bayati, an Iraqi immigrant accused of murdering his daughter.

After introducing himself, Harley tells Muhammad that he has recently lost his own daughter and wife. Looking Muhammad in the eyes to gauge his reaction, he says, “They were killed by terrorists at the Brussels airport.”

Muhammad’s eyes well up, which is not the reaction Harley expects. “I was informed of your loss,” he says. “You have my sympathy.” Harley thanks him but feels a little off balance.

“You may know that the Qur’an says that whoever kills a person unjustly, it is as though he has killed all mankind,” says Muhammad. “I condemn the killers of your wife and daughter.”

The two men go on to talk about justice, God, and even Jesus—a prophet for Muhammad and the messiah for Harley. Then Harley says, “Our Bible says that God is love.”

Muhammad cocks his head slightly and replies, “That is different from our understanding. We have many names for God, but love is not among them.” He knows that “All-Compassionate” is one of the 99 names for God, but so is “The Distressor.” In Islam, none of these attributes of God is identical to God’s essence.

“For Christians, love is at the core of who God is,” explains Harley. “God reveals his love by sending Jesus. And the response we are supposed to make is to love one another.”

“I would agree with that,” says Muhammad. “Loving God does require that we love the people around us.” Harley begins to see that he and Muhammad have much in common, and that he is wrong to be prejudiced against someone with a commitment to love of God and neighbor.

This, then, is a portion of my parable, my midrash aggadah. Church members who have little interest in interfaith relations are attracted to the whodunnit aspect of the story, and are learning about Muslim attitudes through Muhammad, a multidimensional and sympathetic character. Readers identify better with Harley, a flawed and grieving man, than they do with a minister in robes.

But a story is no guarantee of interfaith harmony. When I presented City of Peace to members of the Turkish mosque, one woman complained that I had slighted Islam by saying love was absent from the names it gave God. But after a long discussion between two imams, one said, “On this point, Pastor Brinton is correct.” Whew. I was relieved.

Novels can ignite important conversations about matters of faith and morality, and they can get people talking outside the walls of the church. Such conversations can lead to new visions for our life together, and draw people together around values that are common to diverse faiths and cultures.

I don’t plan on giving up the pulpit, but I am glad to have discovered a less preachy way of preaching.

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Care to learn more?

You’ll enjoy our March cover story about Henry and his new novel.

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More about Henry

HENRY G. BRINTON is pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia, and has written on religion and culture for The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and Huffington Post.

A frequent speaker at workshops and conferences, he is the author or co-author of books including The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality.—and a new cozy mystery called City of Peace.

Married with two adult children, he enjoys boating on the Potomac River and competing in endurance sports such as marathons.

Dinner Churches Put Shared Meals at the Center of Worship and Congregational Life

EDITOR’S NOTE: The most common question our writers have been asked, whenever they make appearances in congregations is, “How can we grow?” Most Americans now are well aware of the nearly 1 in 4 Americans who tell pollsters they have no religious affiliation. Weekly attendance remains popular for millions of Americans, and some congregations are booming—but, overall, weekend attendance is declining.

This week, we are pleased to share some good news about a creative trend.

By HENRY BRINTON
Contributing Columnist

A dinner church in Florida.

This spring, people of faith have been gathering around tables.

In April, Christians had Communion on Maundy Thursday, remembering that Jesus broke bread at the Last Supper and said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). Jews had Seders in their homes as a part of Passover, eating symbolic foods as they remembered the Exodus from Egypt. And in May, Muslims are fasting for Ramadan and then breaking their fasts with family members and friends at festive iftars at the end of each day.

In all of these observances, people are practicing their faith by eating at a table.

The Dinner Church Movement

While shared meals have been part of the religious practice of numerous groups for thousands of years, they are being given a new focus in Christianity through the “dinner church” movement—churches that have a shared meal at the center of congregational life.

These communities of faith are discovering the truth of an observation made by Harley Camden, the fictional Methodist minister in my new mystery novel City of Peace, who says, “Think of how much better the world would be if people actually sat down and ate with each other.”

Harley Camden is imaginary, but Methodist dinner churches are not. In the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, a dinner-church initiative called “Fresh Expressions” is gaining ground across the state. With a focus on simple meals and conversations around tables, the conference will launch 55 new dinner churches by September 2019, offering meals in venues ranging from community centers to public school cafeterias to outdoor parks. (Here’s a column from Florida United Methodist Bishop Ken Carter going into more detail about how this program sprang up in his state.)

‘We Will Feast: Rethinking Dinner, Worship …’

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

“Fresh Expressions” is part of a larger movement that has been studied by Kendall Vanderslice in a book Eerdmans is releasing this week called We Will Feast: Rethinking Dinner, Worship, and the Community of God.

To write the book, she spent a year visiting dinner churches across the country, and discovered that in all of these congregations, relationships deepened as people ate, prayed and talked together. From Saint Lydia’s in Brooklyn to Garden Church in San Pedro, California, she found that dinner churches satisfy two basic human needs: To be nourished by food and to find companionship with one another.

To the book, Vanderslice brought experience in the restaurant industry and expertise as a baker, combined with a study of food at Boston University and theology at Duke University. She discovered:

  • At Potluck Church in Kentucky, every participant brings something to the table, and a former mayor worships alongside people who struggle to pay their monthly rent.
  • In Seattle, Community Dinners are held throughout the city, meals in which feasting with friends is combined with feeding the hungry.
  • When Church in a Pub offers worship in Lansing, Michigan, restaurant servers take orders while the pastor offers Communion.

In all of these congregations, stomachs are filled and Jesus is believed to be present at the table.

A Future of Food and Faith?

Will dinner churches become the new model for churches everywhere?

The model is likely to spread, but dinner-based congregations certainly won’t replace existing churches. Think of this as one of many creative models churchgoers are sharing across the grassroots. Barbara Brown Taylor just closed her new book, Holy Envy, with a vivid description of a congregation that meets in a public park.

In a Christian community torn apart by theological debates, these fresh ideas are opening new doorways to new spaces where the faithful can gather. Dinner-church services offer the possibility that the Body of Christ can be unified through the sharing of bread.

Churches across the country can benefit from gathering people around tables to be nourished in body and spirit, in meals that help people to grow stronger as individuals and as a community.

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More about Henry

HENRY G. BRINTON is pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia, and has written on religion and culture for The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and Huffington Post.

A frequent speaker at workshops and conferences, he is the author or co-author of books including The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality.—and a new cozy mystery called City of Peace.

Married with two adult children, he enjoys boating on the Potomac River and competing in endurance sports such as marathons.

Seeking True Christmas Spirit? Consider Diving Deeper This Year

By HENRY G. BRINTON
ReadTheSpirit Contributing Columnist

Hold on! Just a minute! I gotta check …
Facebook.
Twitter.
Instagram.
YouTube.
Pinterest.
Wikipedia.
Snapchat.

Now take another minute! Did you ever think: Our daily social media fixes are really weapons of mass distraction?

Has this ever happened to you? Be honest. You are cooking something on the stove when you hear a ping from your smartphone. You say, “Okay, while that’s cooking, I’ll go see what that notification is about.” You look. “Oh, no, that high school classmate is totally wrong!  I have to reply.” Or: “Ha, that cat picture is so silly!” Or: “What a cool video!” Or, “Wow! This Wikipedia article has a lot of cool information.”

Meanwhile, in the kitchen: Five-alarm fire.

Journalist Shankar Vedantam, who you’ve probably heard on National Public Radio, knows that most of us react to the beeps and buzzes of our phones with great urgency—like parents responding to a baby’s cry. But now, research is showing that we really should make an effort to avoid such distractions. When we become lost in this digital media, we lose our ability to focus.

In his Hidden Brain Podcast, Vedantam profiles Cal Newport, a computer scientist at Georgetown University and author of a book called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Newport believes that we underestimate the problems created by constant interruptions, and he insists that the situation is “more urgent than people realize.”

Here’s the danger: When we let emails or Facebook messages guide our workday, we are weakening our ability to do the most challenging kind of work—what Newport calls “deep work.” This is work that requires sustained attention: Writing a report, solving an engineering problem, or doing significant research.

So, what should we do about it? 

Newport recommends that we set aside long portions of the day to focus on deeper thinking. This means no social media, limited email, and strict limits on appointments. The result is a life that is richer and more human than a life of automatically responding to emails and clicking on websites, which is what many of us end up doing all day.

As we enter the hectic holiday season, our distractions are going to increase with the addition of activities such as parties, concerts, shopping trips, travel to see family and friends, and the giving and receiving of gifts. These activities may be wonderful—but there also is a cost to a jam-packed holiday season. We are distracted us from the deep work that is at the heart of this spiritually significant season.

It is important, I believe, for each of us to carve out time for reflection during this busy time of the year.

Practical Ideas: One Page at a Time

Keeping a journal is one way to practice deep work. Making the time to write a single page each day about the significance of your experiences can lead to discoveries about your relationships with God and the people around you. Shirley Showalter is a Mennonite scholar and author who is an expert in memoir, and her website has a blog called “Magical Memoir Moments” that offers a series of meditations and reflections on life and spirituality. Her short entries are excellent examples of the kind of deep work that can be done through journaling, and her website invites us all to “discover the power of writing your story.”

Slowing down long enough to experience art can also be beneficial. Many religious traditions understand God to be the creator of all that is, and God’s creative work can be reflected in music or visual art that is made by human beings—people who are “co-creators with God” in bringing something out of nothing. My church will begin the Advent season with a sing-a-long performance of Handel’s Messiah, which inspires deep thought about the significance of the coming of Jesus Christ.

Taking the time to serve others can also help us to go deep, especially if service includes the opportunity to develop relationships with people in need. Yes, there are certainly many charities asking for donations at the end of the year, but the making of an online contribution does little to slow us down and enrich our lives. More significant are those efforts that connect us with our neighbors, such as the hypothermia prevention program that my congregation will be offering for a week in December, as part of an interfaith effort that continues through the winter. We will be providing food and shelter to our homeless neighbors on cold winter nights, but even more importantly we will have an opportunity to sit down with our guests each evening, have conversation, and make a human connection.

In her new book White Picket Fences, Amy Julia Becker writes about the transformative power of organizing her day around intentional practices of writing, reflecting and intentionally spending lots of time with people who are in need. In the process, Amy describes how she has learned to do what I would describe as “the deep work” of faith, family and community.

You know what she discovers as she makes the necessary “sacrifices”?

In the end, she writes: “We are giving ourselves to people we otherwise never would have met. But it doesn’t feel like sacrifice. It feels like what we want to do.”

May you dare to discover such freedom during this hectic final month of 2018!

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More about Henry

HENRY G. BRINTON is pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia, and has written on religion and culture for The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and Huffington Post.

A frequent speaker at workshops and conferences, he is the author or co-author of five books including The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality.

Married with two adult children, he enjoys boating on the Potomac River and competing in endurance sports such as marathons, triathlons and century bike rides, one of which landed him in the hospital for 11 days.