Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Crisis at the Border Is Also Close to Home

"The New Colossus"
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

                             Emma Lazarus, 1883

Emma Lazarus’ poem is not in the Bible, but it is sacred scripture just the same. For Americans, it is one of our most sacred texts. It stands engraved on a plaque on the Statue of Liberty, greeting those who enter New York harbor with a clear declaration of what America is all about. Children memorize it in grade school and adults treasure those words throughout their lives.

Emma Lazarus was born on July 22, 1849, one hundred and sixty-five years ago this week. She was the fourth of seven children born to Moses Lazarus and Esther Nathan, Sephardic Jews whose families had come to New York from Portugal in colonial times. She was a supporter of Henry George, one of the great reformers of the Social Gospel era and she was deeply committed to the poor and the outcast. She was widely recognized for her poetry, but she died on November 19, 1887, long before her poem was dedicated as part of the Statue of Liberty in 1903.

Last Friday, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick invoked the spirit of Emma Lazarus in his emotional announcement of a plan to provide temporary shelter for up to 1,000 of the children who have come to the United States in the past several months. The Governor made reference to our historic commitment to giving “sanctuary to desperate children for centuries.” He went on to say that he is haunted by our refusal in 1939 to accept a ship filled with Jewish children desperately trying to escape the Nazis. We turned them away and many perished in the Holocaust. Fighting back tears, Patrick made reference to a passage in Deuteronomy, “My faith teaches,” he said, “that if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him but rather love him as yourself.”

In Governor Patrick’s plan, the children would be housed either at Westover Air Base in Chicopee or at Joint Base on Cape Cod. After considering the options, Joint Base, formerly known as Camp Edwards has been selected as the preferred location.

Last night, on Emma Lazarus’ birthday, the Selectmen in the Town of Bourne, my hometown, met to respond to the Governor’s proposal to temporarily house the children on the base, which is largely in the Bourne. George Brennan, reporting for CapeCodonline, writes: “The Board of Selectmen voted unanimously Tuesday night to send a letter to Gov. Deval Patrick opposing the use of Joint Base Cape Cod to house unaccompanied immigrant children, citing the potential financial effects and strain on emergency services.” According to Brennan, those who packed the hearing room were overwhelmingly against housing the children.

Sadly, the Selectmen in Bourne are just a microcosm of America. We see it on the news reports every night. Grown men and women carrying American flags, some with their faces painted in red, white and blue, shouting at scared children, “Go home!” “Not my problem!” “No way, Jose!”

It is ironic that on the birthday of Emma Lazarus, we have decided that we do not want to be the country she believed we were.

When I was a child, growing up in the Bourne school system, no one told me about how badly we had treated immigrants. I grew up with the vision of a lamp beside the golden door and I was proud of that vision. Later, when I learned a very different and more painful history, I was reassured by the belief that even if we had failed in the past to live up to our vision, that vision would call us forward. If we had not always been the country we should have been, we would do better in the future. And I believed that there was a broad consensus among us that, as Martin Luther King said, we would live up to our promise.

Even now, when I am well aware of the human capacity for evil, I am shocked by our response to the children at our borders. In the long term, as citizens of the world, we know (or we should know) that borders are just lines on a map. This is a global issue and it will require a global solution. But in the short term, we need to “welcome the stranger.”

If we were erecting the Statue of Liberty today, would we affix a plaque calling her the “Mother of Exiles”?

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

In a parable about the final judgment, Jesus said that the righteous will ask, "Lord, when did w see you a stranger and welcome you?" And the Lord will answer, "When you welcomed the least of these my sisters and brothers, you welcomed me."

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Three Men I Admire Most

Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.
Matthew 19:13-15

We have a baptism this Sunday.

I did not always look forward to baptisms, but I do now. In fact, I love them. Baptizing infants and children is one of the things I love most about the ministry.

The baptism of youth and adults is important, and there are times when knowing how someone has chosen to be baptized can be incredibly moving. But babies and children are special.

I’m not sure when my attitude toward baptism changed. Maybe I was influenced by being a parent. Maybe it was knowing firsthand the hopes and dreams that parents carried for their children as they brought them to this moment. Maybe it was just about getting older and being more aware of the preciousness of each life. Maybe it was understanding baptism as a profoundly counter-cultural act. Claiming this child for the Kingdom of God as over and against the kingdoms of this world.

At the United Methodist Church in East Greenwich, we celebrate a lot of baptisms. And one of the things that makes them so special is that almost every one is with a family that really belongs to the church family. These are not folks off the street who wanting to have their child “done.” They take discipleship seriously. It means something.

In spite of my very positive feelings about baptism, I was underwhelmed by an article in the Huffington Post about a new ecumenical agreement between Roman Catholics and Reformed Protestants on the mutual recognition of each other’s baptisms. In the opening paragraph, Jaweed Kaleen writes,

“In a monumental occasion for ecumenical relations, the U.S. Roman Catholic church and a group of Protestant denominations plan to sign a document on Tuesday evening to formally agree to recognize each other's baptisms.” Later, Kaleen explains that, “Currently, the Protestant churches recognize Roman Catholic baptisms, but the Catholic church does not always recognize theirs. The mutual agreement on baptisms, a key sacrament in the churches, has been discussed between denominational leadership for seven years and hinges in part on invoking trinity of the ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ during the baptism.”

Although Kaleem initially says that the agreement “hinges in part” on the traditional Trinitarian formula, he later reports a spokesperson saying that “for our baptisms to be mutually recognized, water and the scriptural Trinitarian formula 'Father, Son, and Holy Spirit' (Matthew 28: 19-20) must be used in the baptismal rite." So, in the end, it comes down to saying the rite (and right) words as we invoke the Trinity.

I know that words matter. That’s why I long ago began using the alternative formulation of “Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.” Initially, I adopted that language because I wanted to be inclusive and I knew that the “Father” language for God evoked male images which were troubling for many women, confusing in their theological implications, and subverted our egalitarian ideals as Christians. That language is not as important now as it was in terms of gender inclusiveness, but it may be even more important in terms of our theological understanding. The “Father” image lends itself too easily to the personification of God as that great old man in the sky. And the Trinity is already problematic enough, without making the relationship among the “three persons” sound at least partially biological.

Words matter because the wrong words can hurt and exclude people. And words matter because they have meaning, and meaning matters. But words are not magical. A liturgy is not an incantation.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Real Problem Behind the Scandal at the VA

Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” 
John 5:2-8

Like most everyone else, I have been watching the unfolding story of delays at Veteran’s Administration hospitals with both anger and frustration.

No one has waited as long as the man beside the pool in Jerusalem. Although that depends on how we count the time. Some veterans have died while waiting to be seen by a physician. If we count the wait times in those instances as eternity, then that would be a lot longer than the thirty-eight years that the man by the pool.

The outrage has focused on the employees who falsified the wait times in order to meet agency expectations and qualify for bonuses. And those folks certainly deserve our opprobrium. But I not could help wondering why no one was asking the obvious question: Why is this happening?

The schedulers were not falsifying wait times because it was easier than making appointments. They weren’t keeping secret lists because it was easier to keep two lists than one. And the long wait times were not caused by the falsified data.

Are doctors leaving at noon to play golf? Are they just spending too long with each patient? Are they routinely coming in late and leaving early? Are they using sick days when they are not sick? Or are there just not enough doctors to see the patients who need care?

The answer was not that hard to find, although I never heard it in any of the major news stories. They just don’t have enough physicians. Curiously, even the news stories that point to the shortage of physicians spend a lot of time going over the scandal of falsified wait times. The story of the doctor shortage is not nearly as titillating as the scandal.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is currently trying to fill about 400 vacancies among its primary care physicians, which last year came to a little over 5,000. But even a full roster would probably not be enough. The department is straining to accommodate the increasing needs of an aging group of Viet Nam era veterans as well as a large influx of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Physicians now have caseloads of about 2,000 patients per year, although department guidelines target the optimum number at 1,200. And they are being pressured to limit follow up visits to no more than two per year for each patient. As one analyst put it, they are overworked and underpaid. Primary care physicians at the VA typically earn between $98,000 and $195,000, while the median income among those in private practice is $221,000.

According to an article by Bruce Japsen in Forbes Magazine, the shortage in the VA is linked to the funding of Medicare. The Medicare health insurance program for the elderly is a major funding source for graduate medical education, known as GME. In 1997, the Balanced Budget Act put a limit on the number of residency positions available to medical school graduates as a means of limiting health care expenses. The shortage in funding has led to a shortage of physicians in the country, which is a significant factor in the shortage at the VA.

None of this excuses the VA administrators and staffers who falsified the data and hid the problem. And they should be held accountable. But punishing them will not solve the problem. We need more physicians, and one way or another we will have to pay for them.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

There Is No Unmoved Mover

But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’”And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Exodus 32:11-14

In response to self-righteous right wing Christians, the late film critic Roger Ebert is credited with saying, “The problem with being sure that God is on your side is that you can't change your mind, because God sure isn't going to change His.” It is a clever double put-down. It makes fun of the right wing zealots while simultaneously ridiculing the whole idea of God.

I have no problem with the first part. Self-righteous and rigid biblical literalists have done more harm to Christianity than all of the atheists combined.

But I take issue with the second part of the statement.

As we see in the passage from Exodus, God is quite capable of “changing his mind.” When God declares that because the people of Israel have worshiped a golden calf, God will destroy them and let Moses start over with another group of people that God will create, Moses argues with him. And eventually, his argument prevails. “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”

There are plenty of places in the Bible where God “changes His mind.”

We need to be clear that in Exodus, the Bible is speaking symbolically. God is not a being like other beings, making threats and entering into arguments, and then finally “changing His mind” like a person deciding what pair of shoes to wear. In biblical terms, God is the great “I AM.” God is not a being like other beings. God is not even a Supreme Being. God is, as Paul Tillich said so well, the Ground of Being. God is being itself. As Jesus said, “God is Spirit.”

The Bible is speaking symbolically, but my guess is that Ebert was speaking literally.

The larger point is that the One we meet in the Bible is not the “unmoved mover.” When the people of Israel were freed from captivity in Egypt, “The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night” (Exodus 13:21). It is the nature of God to lead. God is the One who goes before us.

And God is continually “doing a new thing.” We speak of faith as a journey, because it continually calls us to new places and new ways of thinking.

Jesus calls his disciples to “come and follow me.” When we listen to some so-called Christians, they seem to think that what he meant by “follow,” was “Stay where you are. Keep doing what you are doing. Don’t change. Don’t grow. Don’t learn.” It is not surprising that they are treated with scorn. What they don't realize is that in their rigid self-righteousness they totally miss the point of biblical faith.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Schism Is a Bad Idea

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
II Corinthians 5:16-20

If you Google “Schism in the UMC,” you will find plenty of news articles, essays, blog posts, and editorials. Last week the Huffington Post published a report from the Religious News Service (RNS), about a group of 80 United Methodist pastors who are laying the groundwork for what they are calling an “amicable” separation. The Rev. Maxie Dunnam, retired president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky summed up the sentiment of many when he said, “We can no longer talk about schism as something that might happen in the future. Schism has already taken place in our connection.”

After forty years, we can see the present status of the conflict summarized in two related episodes.

Earlier this winter, Frank Schaefer, a former Pennsylvania pastor, was found guilty of violating church law when he officiated at his son’s 2007 wedding. He was given a thirty day suspension and told to come back at the end of that time and report to the Conference Board of Ordained ministry on whether or not he could agree to uphold the whole Discipline. He said that he could not deny the calling he felt to minister to LGBTQ Christians and would not promise to uphold the exclusionary paragraphs in our United Methodist Book of Discipline. The Board of Ministry revoked his orders.

Like many others, I was shocked by that decision on the part of the Board of Ministry. They claimed to have no choice, but they really had many choices. They could have done nothing. They could have deferred a decision. Since service on the Board is voluntary and unpaid, they could have resigned.

The second episode also involved Thomas Ogletree, a United Methodist clergyperson and former dean of Yale Divinity School who officiated at his gay son’s 2012 wedding. In that case, Bishop Martin McLee announced in March that he would drop the case against Ogletree, and he called for an end to church trials for clergy who perform same sex weddings.

Those who identify as “traditionalists” were outraged.

Publicly, what they say about this latest episode is that they are shocked (shocked!) that a Bishop in the United Methodist Church would openly refuse to uphold church law. My guess is that what really troubles them is that they can see the writing on the wall. They know that other bishops will follow Bishop McLee’s lead. Bishop Sally Dyck has already stepped up with a bold statement against schism and in favor of inclusion.

They know that public opinion is shifting rapidly. Of course, we don’t base our Christian social ethics on public opinion, but there is something to be said for common wisdom. In our Wesleyan Quadrilateral, we look at Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience as the four categories of exploration that undergird our interpretation of scripture and our ethical decision making. Public opinion is part of our experience.

In a post on the "ChurchLeaders" website, blogger Matt Brown, writes, “There's so much talk lately in the news media and from liberal political groups about ‘being on the right side of history.’ They are saying: one day we will all regret standing for Scriptural values, because everyone else in the nation will agree we were wrong for not agreeing with them.” The real point, he argues, is that Christians need to be “on the right side of eternity.”

At first glance, that doesn’t sound as bad as it is. After all, don’t we want to be on the right side of eternity? And don’t we want to stand for Scriptural values, even if everyone else is on the other side?

Burgess is right to call for theological reflection on the issues, but that is precisely the point that reformers are making. The question is not about whether or not we will embrace “Scriptural values,” the debate is about what those values are.

When Dr. King, channeling the great Abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker, proclaimed that in the struggle for civil rights, we know that we will prevail because “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” he was summing up a fundamental belief of our heritage. The people of Israel believed that God acts in history, in Exodus and Exile and Restoration. When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, he was talking about establishing God’s vision for humanity on earth, in history. When we speak of being on the right side of history, we are making an affirmation of faith. There are times when the arc is so long it may seem flat, but eventually it will bend toward justice. To be on the right side of history as the moral arc bends toward justice is to be on the right side of eternity.

Those who have been working for the full inclusion of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers have been at it for a long time. In the beginning, and for many years, we were in the minority. We did not shy away from “standing for Scriptural values,” even though it was not popular.

Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter, pastors of two of the largest United Methodist congregations in the United States, are charting “A Way Forward” that is far from perfect, but it avoids schism. Their plan is very simple:
  • · Let each local congregation decide for itself where it stands.
  • · Those who favor full inclusion can do so.
  • · Those who want to support equal marriage can do so, and the clergy of those churches can perform same sex weddings (subject, of course, to local laws).
  • · Annual Conferences that want to ordain LGBTQ candidates for ministry can do so.
  • · Those that don’t want to don’t have to.
  • · Churches that do not wish to have a gay pastor can say so.
Apart from the obvious criticism that it looks a lot like congregationalism (oh no!), it would mean that a final resolution to the debate would be postponed for a very long time, and we would remain divided. On the other hand, it would avoid a schism that would permanently split us into separate denominations.

The list of church leaders who have signed on is impressive. In addition to Hamilton and Slaughter, they have a long list of pastors from the usually conservative areas of Texas and Florida, including Rudy Rasmus, who was pastor to President George Bush. They also have Dean Snyder and Ginger Gaines-Cirelli from Foundry UMC in Washington D.C., one of the most progressive and inclusive congregations in the country.

The local and regional option proposed by Hamilton and Slaughter is not perfect, but it might provide a graceful way to back out of our current impasse.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Craven Madness

For God did not give us a craven spirit, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.
II Timothy 1:7

I was not surprised to see that a Facebook “friend” had posted a link to Richard Martinez’s impassioned plea for gun control in the aftermath of his son’s death in the multiple killings in Isla Vista, California last weekend. In a series of interviews, Martinez called out the “gutless politicians” whose unwillingness to implement any meaningful restrictions in the availability of firearms was a major factor in his son’s killing. "Why did Chris die?" he yelled in one interview. "Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA. They talk about gun rights. What about Chris' right to live?"

But I was very surprised to see that someone else had posted a link to an article in The Onion. I love the satire in The Onion, but this seemed in very bad taste. Above a picture of grieving college students was the headline: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” The article is short and it isn’t funny at all:

ISLA VISTA, CA—In the days following a violent rampage in southern California in which a lone attacker killed seven individuals, including himself, and seriously injured over a dozen others, citizens living in the only country where this kind of mass killing routinely occurs reportedly concluded Tuesday that there was no way to prevent the massacre from taking place. “This was a terrible tragedy, but sometimes these things just happen and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them,” said North Carolina resident Samuel Wipper, echoing sentiments expressed by tens of millions of individuals who reside in a nation where over half of the world’s deadliest mass shootings have occurred in the past 50 years and whose citizens are 20 times more likely to die of gun violence than those of other developed nations. “It’s a shame, but what can we do? There really wasn’t anything that was going to keep this guy from snapping and killing a lot of people if that’s what he really wanted.” At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past five years were referring to themselves and their situation as “helpless.”

Not funny, but precisely to the point.

Why are we unable to do anything? Why are we so addicted to guns? And I know that three of the seven victims were killed with a knife, so we could also ask why we are so addicted to violence. But guns are the common denominator in mass killings over the years.

As comedian John Oliver once "One failed attempt at a shoe bomb and we all take off our shoes at the airport. Thirty-one school shootings since Columbine and no change in our regulation of guns."

After 9/11 we made drastic changes in airport security. Basically, we search everyone. We won’t allow anything more deadly than a paperclip carried on an airplane. We limit shampoo bottles to 3.4 ounces. We won’t let anyone park anywhere near the boarding areas. We tolerate restrictions that once would have seemed bizarre. And we do all of this to prevent another tragedy.

The total death toll on 9/11 was 2,996. The number still looks horrific. Even one death is too many.

But more than 30,000 people die each year in America from firearms. We have lost approximately 400,000 lives to firearms since 9/11. This is madness. To borrow the word shared by Mr. Martinez and the Apostle Paul, this is a craven madness.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Losers and Winners and Cancelling Honors Night at Cole Middle School

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
Philippians 4:8-9

In his weekly monologue on Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor always closes his report on the news from the fictional Minnesota village of Lake Wobegon by describing it as a place “where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

In my little town of East Greenwich, you can argue about how strong the women are and whether the men are good looking, but you can’t argue about the kids, they really are above average.

That’s not just my opinion, it’s a fact. At least according to the standardized test scores. Students at the Archie R. Middle School, just a stone’s throw from my front door, scored twenty points higher than the state averages, in every grade, in math and reading and science. You can look it up.

So it was a little startling to see Cole singled out as a prime example of why American schools are failing. The problem in our schools can be traced to the “idiotic,” “ridiculous,” “socialist,” “stupid,” “progressive,” “pathetic,” decision by the folks at the Archie R. Cole Middle School to cancel their annual awards night.

Alexis Meyer and Dan Seger, the Principal and Assistant Principal at Cole, sent a letter to parents last Friday, explaining that the traditional “Honors Night” would be discontinued. They went on to say, “Members of the school community have long expressed concerns related to the exclusive nature of Honors Night. Therefore, we have made the collective decision to recognize students during team- based recognition ceremonies and graduation. This will afford us the opportunity to celebrate the individual and collective successes of all students and their effort, progress, and excellence.”

My initial reaction to the Cole decision was negative. Why should we have a problem with celebrating the best and the brightest? Shouldn’t we reward academic excellence?

But then social media and the blogosphere immediately lit up with a tsunami of negative commentary.

Reading the comments on a news story can often be disheartening and sometimes it is appalling. But it can also be wonderfully clarifying. One of the recurring themes in the commentary on the decision to cancel honors night was that teachers and administrators are people who could not succeed in “the real world.” They are, to put it bluntly, “losers.” Another theme was that in life there are winners and losers, and there is no such thing as collective excellence. Excellence is by its very nature exclusive and individual.

Oh. My. Goodness. Time to rethink my assumptions.

In the first place, anyone who calls someone else a “loser” is, by definition “a loser” (Matthew 5:22).

In the second place, didn’t Bill Belichick build a whole coaching philosophy around the concept of collective excellence? (Those of us with very long memories may want to give original credit to Red Auerbach or Vince Lombardi.)

But in a broader context, why are we so obsessed with winners and losers? Excellence is not necessarily exclusive. The quest for excellence is not a zero sum game.

And why do we have such a low view of educators?

I was pondering all of this when I discovered this morning that Cole will reinstate their honors night. Our long national nightmare is over. Sanity has been restored.

If you read the letter carefully, you will see that they still plan to make some changes. The celebration will be at night, as in the past, rather than during the school day. And it will be called “Honors Night.” But it looks like they will still introduce some team honors, as well. Sounds good to me!