Friday, September 5, 2014

Sam Harris and the Sacred Journey


The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

Psalm 19:1-4

In a recent column in the New York Times, Frank Bruni comments on Sam Harris’s new book, “Waking Up,” which will be published this month by Simon and Schuster.

He focuses on a passage in the middle of the book, where Harris describes an experience that might surprise those who know him as “the country’s most prominent and articulate atheist.”

Harris was in Israel, by the Sea of Galilee, walking where Jesus had walked, and he had what many Christians would describe as a religious experience. Harris writes: “If I were a Christian, I would undoubtedly have interpreted this experience in Christian terms. I might believe that I had glimpsed the oneness of God or been touched by the Holy Spirit.”

It was “an afternoon on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon,” Harris writes. “As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self — an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ — vanished.”

Bruni asks, “Had Harris at last found God? And is ‘Waking Up’ a stop-the-presses admission — an epiphany — that he slumbered and lumbered through the darkness for too long?”

No, Bruni explains, Harris is asking a profound question which is seldom considered, “The question is this: Which comes first, the faith or the feeling of transcendence? Is the former really a rococo attempt to explain and romanticize the latter, rather than a bridge to it? Mightn’t religion be piggybacking on the pre-existing condition of spirituality, a lexicon grafted onto it, a narrative constructed to explain states of consciousness that have nothing to do with any covenant or creed?”

My question for Bruni and Harris is, “Is this a trick question?”

Of course, the experience precedes the description of the experience. How could it be otherwise? And yes, religion is precisely the language we use to describe our experiences of transcendence and wonder. To speak in Christian terms, when we read the Bible, we are reading about how our spiritual ancestors experienced transcendence.

Explaining his position in a phone call with Bruni, Harris said, “You can have spiritual experience and understand the most thrilling changes in human consciousness in a context that’s secular and universal and not freighted with dogma.” Commenting on the conversation, Bruni writes, “It was a kind of discussion that I wish I heard more of, and that people should be able to have with less fear of being looked upon as heathens.”

Harris is right; you can have those conversations outside of a religious frame of reference. But it is also true that the church is a place where those conversations are encouraged and nurtured. We don’t think of our context as secular, of course, but we do reflect on spiritual experience and “the most thrilling changes in human consciousness in a context that’s universal . . . and not freighted with dogma.” At least that’s what we try to do.

The subtitle for Harris’s book is “A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.” Many Americans, Bruni observes, “are looking for a different kind of scripture, for prophets purged of doctrine, for guides across the vast landscape between faithlessness and piety . . . .”

Isn’t that the task of the church, to guide people across the vast landscape between faithlessness and piety? Our goal is not to move people from a place called “faithlessness” to a place called “piety,” but to help each other recognize that the journey itself is sacred. This is true, not only in those high moments, beside the Sea of Galilee, when we walk where Jesus walked, but in everyday life when, as the Psalmist observed, The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day and the Parable of Market Basket

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
I Corinthians 15:58

Paul it taking the long view. In the end, everything matters. Nothing is lost. What we do makes a difference, and it makes a difference forever.

But in the short run, for many workers, their labor does seem to be in vain.

Things have improved. It is not as bad this Labor Day as it was a year ago, but that’s not saying much. A New York Times editorial points out that a year ago economists were estimating that it would take until 2021 to replace the jobs lost or never created since the recession of 2008. At the current rate of job growth the new date would be 2018.

The economy as a whole is growing. But labor is not sharing in that growth. In 2013 the after-tax profits of American corporations, measured as share of the total economy, equaled the record year of 1965. Wages, on the other hand, were at their lowest level since 1948. Productivity has increased dramatically, but wages have remained stagnant, resulting in large gains for corporations, and the wealthiest among us, while low and middle income workers have not benefitted, and have actually seen their wages decline over the past year, when we adjust for inflation.

At the very bottom of the workforce, there is an exception to the overall trend. The lowest 10 percent of workers made a small gain as a result of increases in the minimum wage enacted in thirteen states this year. That modest gain gives us hope that lifting the federal minimum wage might result in broader benefits.

There is no mystery in this. As Elise Gould points out in a research paper written for the Economic Policy Institute, the issue is our economic policy. And we can change it.

We can build our policy around labor, rather than around corporations. And we can change the tone of the national conversation.

Modern corporations do not treat workers as an asset. They are treated as a liability.

This is not only a problem for low wage workers. As an example, consider the widespread strategy of classifying employees as independent contractors, and workers as supervisors, in order to avoid in order to avoid paying the wages and benefits that would otherwise be required. The Times editorial observes that in California and appellate court recently ruled that Fed-Ex drivers are employees, not independent contractors, and therefore eligible for employee benefits. And the Times points out that “Decades of outsourcing government jobs to the private sector has undercut public employment, once a mainstay of middle-class life, even as evidence has mounted that outsourcing often does not save money or improve services.”

It is not a good story, but there is a counter-narrative.

The story of Market Basket might be a modern parable. The family owned chain has been immensely successful over the decades, expanding from a single store to their present total of 71 located in northern Massachusetts, southern Maine and south eastern New Hampshire. Earlier this summer, Arthur S. Demoulas engineered the ouster of his cousin, Arthur T. Demoulas, the long time CEO because he and other family members believed that Arthur T’s pro-worker, pro-consumer approach was limiting their dividends.

Arthur T, as he is known, built the business with his sharp business acumen and an intentional long term investment in his employees. They have generous wages and benefits, including profit sharing even at the lower end of the work ladder. They are also committed to promoting from within. The result is that they have many employees who have been with the company for decades, are very skilled at what they do and very committed to Market Basket and to Arthur T.

After the firing of Arthur T, there was an uprising. The non-union workforce basically went on strike in support of the man they believed had always supported them. As worker after worker repeated, “Arthur T. has always been there for us.” E. J. Dionne described the story in the Washington Post: “. . . eight senior managers organized an employee protest. They were quickly fired. Then all hell broke loose. The lion’s share of the employees at the chain’s 71 stores joined the protest, fully aware that they had no job protection. Market Basket’s customers (there is great affection for the chain) were drawn to the workers’ side.”

Dionne continues, “This worker-consumer alliance bore fruit last week when a $1.5 billion deal was arranged under which Arthur T. assumed control of the company, which has annual revenue of $4.6 billion. That is not the end of the story, of course. The new deal requires a ton of capital and that will affect the chain’s bottom line. It will be a challenge, but Arthur T. and his loyal employees believe they are up to it.

In his address to employees and supporters at a victory rally, Arthur T. told the group, “In this organization, here at Market Basket, everyone is special.” He went on to explain, “You have demonstrated that everyone here has a purpose. You have demonstrated that everyone has meaning. And no one person is better or more important than another. And no one person holds a position of privilege. Whether it’s a full-timer or a part-timer, whether it’s a sacker or a cashier, or a grocery clerk, or a truck driver, or a warehouse selector, a store manager, a supervisor, a customer, a vendor or a CEO, we are all equal. We are all equal and by working together, and only together, do we succeed.”

It is a victory for workers, for consumers, for fair working conditions, for community values, and for a compassionate capitalism that is committed to doing good while doing well. But it is not a universal solution to the problems of laborers and corporations in America. The Market Basket victory was possible only because Arthur T. was able to raise what the Boston Globe called “a boatload of cash” to buy out Arthur S. But even with all the caveats, it is still a ray of hope.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Fierce Urgency of Now

In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

Rev. Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr. August 28, 1963

On this day in 1963, Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered what we now call the “I Have a Dream Speech” to 200,000 peaceful advocates for racial justice.

They were marching, he said, to “demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice,” and to remind the nation of what he called “the fierce urgency of now.”

He talked about pursuing this struggle with discipline and dignity and he talked about solidarity with white people who would share in that struggle. The militancy of the struggle, he argued, “must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”

The tragic shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, and the reactions to it, provide a sad reminder that the dream is not yet a reality.

We have come a long way. The idea of a black man as President of the United States was hard to imagine when Dr. King addressed the crowd in Washington. Our society is more integrated, more open, and less overtly racist. These improvements are real and they are dramatic. The need now is less about new laws, although the gains made by the voting rights laws need to be protected. We cannot minimize our needs in job creation, education, and health care, but in many ways, our greatest need is for new attitudes and new understandings

And we have a long way to go.

If you don’t believe that racism is alive and well, just go on almost any internet site that hosts commentary on the shooting in Ferguson. A web site set up to receive donations to help pay the defense costs for the police officer who shot Michael Brown received so many racist comments, they had to shut it down and start again. For a glimpse of what it looked like before the shutdown, click here. Columnist and Fox News contributor Linda Chavez wrote a column for the New York Post complaining that it was biased to call Michael Brown “an unarmed black teenager.”After all, he was over six feet tall and weighed three hundred pounds. As if large teenagers were no longer teenagers or unarmed.

Racism is the air we breathe. It infects all of us. In a New York Times column titled, “Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist?” Nicholas Kristof reminds us of our latent racism. There are many people, he points out, who are enlightened, who are intellectually opposed to racism, and yet harbor racist stereotypes and prejudices.

Studies have shown that when doctors treat people for a broken leg, they prescribe pain medication more often for white patients than they do for blacks and Hispanics. Black students are suspended by school administrators at a rate that is three times the rate of white students. Although blacks and whites use marijuana at approximately the same rates, blacks are arrested 3.7 times as often.

Kristof cites another study in which scholars responded to nearly 5,000 help-wanted ads. They sent half of their resumes with stereotypically black sounding names and the other half with white sounding names. It took 50% more mailings to get a response for a black name as for a white name, and a white name gained the applicant an advantage equal to eight years of experience.

In yet another study, scholars found that we unconsciously connect “American” with “white.” In 2008 they questioned a group of California college students and found that they treated then presidential candidate Barack Obama as if he were more foreign than Tony Blair, former British Prime Minister, in spite of the fact that many of the students were supporting Obama for president. The tests also showed that although Americans knew that Lucy Liu is an American actor and Kate Winslet is British, they still thought Liu was more foreign.

Not only do we have a hard time recognizing the reality of our own racism, many of us believe that America is more prejudiced against white people than against black people.

That fact is so bizarre, I was tempted to call this column, “White People Are Crazy.”

According to a study by scholars at Tufts and Harvard, both whites and blacks agree that anti-black racism has decreased over the last sixty years. But the study also shows that whites believe that anti-white racism has increased over that same time period and now is a bigger problem than anti-black racism.

Participants were asked to rate the anti-black racism and the anti-white racism in society on a 10-point scale, with 10 as maximum bias. On average, whites rated anti-white bias as the greater problem by more than a full point. And 11 percent of whites rated anti-white bias as a 10, the maximum rating.

“It’s a pretty surprising finding,” says Tufts Associate Professor Samuel Sommers, Ph.D., “when you think of the wide range of disparities that still exist in society, most of which show black Americans with worse outcomes than whites in areas such as income, home ownership, health, and employment.”

Apparently, even our perceptions of racism are colored by racism.

In his commentary about what he seemed to perceive as an anti-white bias in the coverage of the events in Ferguson, Bill O’Reilly complained, “to the race hustlers, Officer Wilson is already guilty. They have convicted him. Their slogan is ‘no justice, no peace’. I guess that's lynch mob justice because those people will never accept anything other than a conviction of murder in this case. They don't really care what happened. They want Officer Wilson punished.”

No one should be in favor of “lynch mob justice,” but it is useful to put that in historical perspective. On this day in 1955 a 14 year old black teenager by the name of Emmett Till was lynched for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Not figuratively lynched. Brutally tortured and lynched.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Fear and Racism in America

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
Luke 13:34-37



After Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer, students at Howard University posed for a group picture with their hands raised in surrender, just as Michael Brown had reportedly done as the officer shot him to death.

When I saw the pictures of the armored vehicles and heavily armed policemen in Ferguson, Missouri in the days following the shooting, I thought of Jesus mourning over Jerusalem. Is this the best we can do? Not surprisingly, heavily militarized police presence served only to increase the tensions.

Meanwhile, according to CBS news affiliate KMOV , gun shops around the St. Louis area are reporting that gun sales are up as white suburbanites arm themselves in self-defense. "They're just afraid of whats going on and they're coming in to purchase either additional firearms or their first firearm," said Steven King, owner of Metro Shooting in Bridgeton, Mo.”They're buying AR-15s, home defense shotguns, handguns, personal defense handguns something for conceal carry."

So, to review: an unarmed black teenager was shot and white people are buying guns to protect themselves.

Okay, I know that’s unfair. There were riots in Ferguson after the shooting and the folks shopping for guns were afraid because of the riots.

But think about it. Don’t those two basic facts tell us something very important about racism in America? If you are a parent of black children, what do you tell them about trusting police officers? What do you tell them about white people in general?

I am sure that there are lots of people in and near Ferguson who are working across racial lines to bring something good out of this. Governor Jay Nixon acted wisely in assigning a State Police unit to reduce tensions among the protesters, and that effort was successful. The images of white people buying guns are not a fair way to judge all white people (or even those particular white people). Just as the pictures of black people rioting are fair to all those who were peacefully protesting.

We can’t capture something as complicated as race relations in America in such a simple snapshot. But, still. Those two facts, the killing of the unarmed teenager and the buying of guns, say something significant.

When an unarmed black teenager is killed by a policeman, the first reaction of some (many) white people is to be concerned for their own safety. The first reaction is fear.

Think about it. Ponder it in your heart. A white police officer shoots an unarmed black teenager and white people react with fear. We have to do better. We have to work toward real solutions. But first, we have to stop pretending that racism does not exist.

[Note: Shortly after I posted this blog, news reports surfaced claiming that Michael Brown was a suspect in a robbery at a convenience store. In some ways, this makes the story more complicated, and it reminds us that few incidents divide as neatly as we might wish. But this new information does not fundamentally change the issue. It’s still about an unarmed black teenager shot by a white policeman. It’s still about fear and racism. It just reinforces how complicated those issues are.]

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Abortion Ministry of Dr. Willie Parker

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.
Matthew 23:1-4

There is no moral dilemma which makes me more uncomfortable than the question of abortion. The Arab-Israeli conflict is a close second, but abortion is number one. And it has been number one for a long time.

I have supported a woman’s right to choose since before Roe v. Wade. I don’t believe that abortion is ever a “good” choice. It is always tragic. We need better sex education and we need free access to contraception as part of universal health care, but when that fails, then I believe the decision should belong to the woman involved. I hope she consults with her partner and with a trusted counselor, but in the end it is her body and it should be up to her.

I believe that abortion should be safe and legal and rare. That last part has to be clarified. I believe that we should provide contraception and sex education so that women rarely face the dilemma of an unwanted pregnancy. There are plenty of people trying to make abortion rare by making it unavailable. By instituting burdensome (and medically unnecessary) regulations at the state level, anti-abortion advocates have shut down clinics so that abortion is already virtually illegal in ten states.

One of those states is Mississippi. And if the anti-abortion advocates are successful, they will soon shut down the last remaining clinic in the state. An article in esquire.com by John H. Richardson profiles one of two physicians who continue to provide abortion services in Mississippi. What caught my attention was the title, THE ABORTION MINISTRY OF DR. WILLIE PARKER. For Dr. Parker, this is not a job, it is a Christian ministry.

Richardson describes a varied and divrse small group of women who are listening to Dr. Parker as he goes over the procedure and answers their questions. Most of them only know that he is willing to help them in a time of desperate need. He writes:

They don't know that he grew up a few hours away in Birmingham, the second youngest son of a single mother who raised six children on food stamps and welfare, so poor that he taught himself to read by a kerosene lamp and went to the bathroom in an outhouse; that he was born again in his teenage years and did a stint as a boy preacher in Baptist churches; that he became the first black student-body president of a mostly white high school, went on to Harvard and a distinguished career as a college professor and obstetrician who delivered thousands of babies and refused to do abortions. They certainly don't know about the "come to Jesus" moment, as he pointedly describes it, when he decided to give up his fancy career to become an abortion provider.

Parker spends a lot of time talking to them. He knows that many of them feel shamed and condemned by those who can only see black and white, and cannot see the gray area where they find themselves. “There's more than one way to understand religion and spirituality and God,” he tells them. “I do have belief in God. That's why I do this work. My belief in God tells me that the most important thing you can do for another human being is help them in their time of need."

Richardson describes the process that led Parker to become an abortion provider:

. . . gradually, the steady stream of women with reproductive issues in his practice focused his mind. He thought about his mother and sisters and the grandmother who died in childbirth and began to read widely in the literature of civil rights and feminism. Eventually he came across the concept of "reproductive justice," developed by black feminists who argued that the best way to raise women out of poverty is to give them control of their reproductive decisions. Finally, he had his "come to Jesus" moment and the bell rang. This would be his civil-rights struggle. He would serve women in their darkest moment of need. "The protesters say they're opposed to abortion because they're Christian," Parker says. "It's hard for them to accept that I do abortions because I'm a Christian." He gave up obstetrics to become a full-time abortionist on the day, five years ago, that George Tiller was murdered in church.

Richardson describes how, after meeting with the women in a group, Parker consults with each one separately. One patient is still in High School. Her mother is with her. He asks the mom to leave for a moment so that he can speak with the young woman privately. He wants to make sure that her mother is not the one pushing her to have an abortion. “Is this your idea to have an abortion?” he asks her. “Do you feel comfortable with your decision?”

Parker believes that the birth rate among teenage girls could be dramatically reduced by making contraception more easily available “without shame.” It’s not just the young women who have abortions who are shamed by the people Parker calls “the Antis,” the shaming is also directed at those who use contraception. "So it seems like if they want to reduce abortion,” says Parker, “the best thing to do would be to support contraception—but they're against contraception, too, because contraception and abortion decouple sexuality from procreation. That's why I think religious preoccupation with abortion is largely about controlling the sexuality of women."

Parker’s faith quest led him to study the work of Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as well as Martin Luther King. He was particularly moved by Bonhoeffer’s insights with regard to how the Gospel calls us to confront evil and injustice. He summarized Bonhoeffer as insisting that “the kind of Christianity that does not radicalize you with regard to human suffering is inauthentic—cheap and easy grace."

Parker’s reflection and study led to what he called his “come to Jesus” moment when he was teaching in Hawaii. Richardson writes:

He was teaching at the university when a fundamentalist administrator began trying to ban abortions in the school clinic, throwing students with an unwanted pregnancy into a panic. One day, he was listening to a sermon by Dr. King on the theme of what made the Good Samaritan good. A member of his own community passed the injured traveler by, King said, because they asked, "What would happen to me if I stopped to help this guy?" The Good Samaritan was good because he reversed the question: "What would happen to this guy if I don't stop to help him?" So Parker looked in his soul and asked himself, "What happens to these women when abortion is not available?"

He knew the answer.

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.