Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Thank God for Janet Yellen

Moses said, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather as much of the manna as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.’” The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.
Exodus 16:16-18

In biblical economics, a core principle is that there should not be a great gulf between those who have the most and those who have the least. The Bible is deeply suspicious of wealth. Jesus told his disciples that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. But Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all rich by ancient standards, and the New Testament tells of disciples who used their resources to help others and support the early church. The biblical ideal is not economic equality, but an economy in which those with the least have enough and those with the most do not have too much.

We can (and should) debate the meaning of “enough” and “too much,” but there can be little doubt that the current widening gap between rich and poor does not fall within acceptable biblical parameters.

Last week, in an historic address at the Conference on Economic Opportunity and Inequality hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen spoke about the widening gap between rich and poor.

She began her remarks by noting that “The distribution of income and wealth in the United States has been widening more or less steadily for several decades, to a greater extent than in most advanced countries.” She went on to make an important declaration followed by several significant observations:

“The extent of and continuing increase in inequality in the United States greatly concern me. The past several decades have seen the most sustained rise in inequality since the 19th century after more than 40 years of narrowing inequality following the Great Depression. By some estimates, income and wealth inequality are near their highest levels in the past hundred years, much higher than the average during that time span and probably higher than for much of American history before then. It is no secret that the past few decades of widening inequality can be summed up as significant income and wealth gains for those at the very top and stagnant living standards for the majority. I think it is appropriate to ask whether this trend is compatible with values rooted in our nation's history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity.”

When the Chair of the Federal Reserve Board says that something (anything) “greatly concern(s) me,” that is important. And the widening gap should concern all of us.

Her suggested solutions are neither radical nor particularly biblical. She is not about to sing with Mary about casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly. She does not suggest that the hungry be filled with good things or that the rich be sent away empty. But she does offer a place to start.

One of her most important insights is that the widening gap between rich and poor is incompatible “with values rooted in our nation's history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity.” Technically, she doesn’t make that as a statement, she poses it as a question, but I’m guessing that is what she thinks.

Her proposed building blocks of opportunity are hardly groundbreaking: early childhood education and support, access to higher education, business ownership, and inheritance. She talks about how budget cuts have decimated the funds available for education and weakened the safety net, but she does not propose a graduated tax to offset the losses and fund those programs. And she does not address the ways in which reductions in the marginal tax rate and other government policies have exacerbated the problem. But it is a beginning.

Naming our demons is an important first step in confronting and defeating them. When Janet Yellen names the demon of increasing inequality, it makes a difference. She is by no means the first person to say that the widening gap in income and wealth inevitably leads to inequality of opportunity and undermines a core common value for us as Americans, but when the Chair of the Federal Reserve Board speaks, people listen.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Problem with Prayer

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Romans 8:26-27

A few weeks ago a friend posted a link to an article titled “Why I Hate Prayer,” by Jim Mulholland, a former pastor who now maintains a web site called “Leaving Your Religion,” which offers “guidance for becoming non-religious.”

I was not surprised that someone hated prayer. The idea is common in both the Hebrew and Greek scriptures. The prophet Amos proclaimed God’s hatred of prayer and worship without justice. And Jesus had harsh words for those who made a show of their prayers.

But I was surprised by the idea that anyone needed help in “leaving your religion.” In my experience, folks seem to make that transition without any help at all. As witness the joke told in one variation or another in every denomination. It begins with the question of how to rid the church of mice and ends with the punchline: “We just confirm (or baptize) them and they never come back again.”

Mulholland hates prayer first because he grieves for those who pray desperately in horrific circumstances and face the pain of unanswered prayers. But his second reason is that the celebration of “answered” prayers can inflict even more pain on those whose prayers have not been answered.

He writes, “Perhaps the more graphic examples of this cruelty happened in one of my last years of ministry. One Sunday, a woman stood to announce that – after several months – her prayers had been answered and she was pregnant. Everyone was excited and happy for her, except for me and one other. As I looked out on the congregation I saw the crestfallen face of a woman who had recently shared with me her long depression over her infertility. It wasn’t enough that she would never have children. Now she had to struggle with why her prayers went unanswered.”

When Christians celebrate “answered prayers” as a sign of faithfulness, they imply that the reason why the prayers of their sisters and brothers have not yielded similar results is because they lacked faith. If we add in the folks who, often innocently, celebrate answers to trivial prayers, for a parking space, or a trip without traffic, or sunshine on a picnic, or the victory of their favorite sports team, it becomes even worse.

So Mulholland declares emphatically, “If there is a god who answers the prayers of some men, women and children, but ignores the prayers of others, I have no interest in such a god. That god would be source of inequity and not a god of justice. I would hate a god who answered trivial requests while ignoring the pleas of the parents of starving children.”

In a radio sermon preached in 1952, Reinhold Niebuhr said that for many people, believing in God means “that that we have found a way to the ultimate source and end of life that gives us, against all the chances and changes of life, some special security and some special favor.” As an example, he speaks of the prayers “that many a mother with a boy in Korea must pray, ‘A thousand at thy side and 10,000 at thy right hand, let no evil come to my boy.’”

For the mother or father with a child in danger, that is the most natural prayer in the world and it is the deepest desire of our hearts. Yet in the end it is impossible. As Niebuhr explains, “The Christian faith believes that beyond, within and beyond, the tragedies and the contradictions of history we have laid hold upon a loving heart, and the proof of whose love, on the one hand, is the impartiality toward all of his children and, secondly, a mercy which transcends good and evil.”

In a FaithLink article called “Prayer in a Postmodern World,” Alex Joyner begins with a reference to the movie “Gravity.” He describes poignant scenes of the astronauts “floating in space talking into the void in the hope that they will be heard.” The lead characters, played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, are set adrift when flying debris strikes the space shuttle on which they are working. They do not know whether or not anyone can hear them, but hoping that ground control might somehow pick up their transmissions, they tell their story in great detail.

“Later,” writes Joyner, “Bullock’s character intercepts a radio signal from Earth, and though she can’t understand all that is being said, she pleads with the staticky voice to pray for her.” She feels compelled to explain, “I’d pray for myself, but I’ve never prayed. Nobody ever taught me how.”

In Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he tells us that the astronaut is not alone. No one knows how to pray. We don’t know what to say and we don’t know how to say it. Prayer would be impossible if it were not for the intervention of the Spirit of God within us, which prays through us.

In a sermon on this passage, Paul Tillich writes, “This may help us also to understand the most mysterious part of Paul’s description of prayer, namely, that the Spirit "intercedes with sighs too deep for words." Just because every prayer is humanly impossible, just because it brings deeper levels of our being before God than the level of consciousness, something happens in it that cannot be expressed in words. Words, created by and used in our conscious life, are not the essence of prayer. The essence of prayer is the act of God who is working in us and raises our whole being to Himself. The way in which this happens is called by Paul "sighing." Sighing is an expression of the weakness of our creaturely existence. Only in terms of wordless sighs can we approach God, and even these sighs are His work in us.”

Karl Barth said that “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the the disorder of the world.” It is a rebellion against the chaos and an affirmation of the Spirit. The promise of Christian faith is not that God will grant us a special exemption from life’s hardships, or give us a special reward for our virtue, but that at the center of life there is a loving heart, which will be with us now and forever. The gift of prayer is that we open ourselves to that loving heart.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Something Worth Remembering

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
Exodus 20:4-6

Everyone knows the saying about the “sins of the parents being visited upon their children,” and not just children, but grandchildren and great grandchildren.

It’s one of those biblical ideas that has faithful people scratching their heads, and the more secular among us pointing to it as one more place where religion gets it wrong. It seems wrong in spite of the fact that we know it to be true. We know that the bad choices of one generation often affect succeeding generations. We have studied the ways in which the treaties imposed at the end of World War I set in motion the forces that led to World War II. We know about the legacy of slavery.

But the second part of that passage is often overlooked. Righteousness endures to the thousandth generation. In other words, forever.

It is a remarkable concept. When we bend the arc of history away from justice, it is serious, and it makes a difference that may last generations. But when we bend the arc toward justice, that act is never lost. Human beings may forget, but the moral universe is changed forever.

George Shuba died last week in his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, at the age of 89. Shuba played seven seasons for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He had a smooth stroke at the plate and was called Shotgun because of his ability to spray line drives around the outfield. He played in three World Series, including Brooklyn’s only World Championship in 1955.

I knew who George Shuba was from reading about the glory years of the old Dodgers, but I did not know what Paul Harvey liked to call “the rest of the story,” until I read Richard Goldstein’s obituary in the New York Times.

What he accomplished in the Major Leagues was minor, compared to the legacy of one game in the Minor Leagues in 1946. On April 18 of that year Shuba was playing left field for the Montreal Royals. He hit three home runs in that opening game of the season, but that wasn’t what makes the game memorable. In the third inning, Jackie Robinson, playing in his first game organized baseball, hit a three run homer. When he crossed home plate, Shuba, who was waiting on deck as the next hitter, stepped up and shook his hand.

The handshake would have been nothing special if Robinson had been white, but in the hyper sensitive context of Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier, it was a huge moment. And it was captured forever in that iconic Associated Press photo at the top of this post.

After retiring from baseball, George Shuba returned to Youngstown, raised a family, and worked as a postal clerk. When he went to schools in the Youngstown area to talk about racial tolerance, he always carried a copy of that photo with him. His son Michael remembers that when he came home from school with a report of racial bullying, his rather would point to the old photograph and tell him: “Look up at that photo. I want you to remember what that stands for. You treat all people equally.”

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Bigotry and the Bible

We are not competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

II Corinthians 3:5-6; 4:7

Monday night, while I was waiting for the start of the Patriots game, I watched part of the debate among the candidates for Governor of Massachusetts, and I found myself meditating on those verses from Paul’s letter.

When I first encountered those verses it was in the old Revised Standard Version. In that translation, it says that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels.” To me that sounded rather elegant. I did not know what an “earthen vessel” was, but it sounded ancient and sacred. The New Revised Standard Version put my reverie to rest with the more accurate, “clay jars.” Nothing special. Completely ordinary. Maybe less than ordinary. Like tin cans, or plastic bottles.

Paul’s insight was that Christian faith grew not because of the competence of its proponents, but in spite of them. In an earlier letter, he pushed the Christians in Corinth to think about this in terms of their own lives. “Consider your own call,” he wrote. “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” (I Corinthians 1:26-28)

As a pastor and a church leader, I have always found Paul’s insight comforting. And obviously true. I am sometimes amazed by the church’s ability to survive inept leadership.

But as I listened to the gubernatorial debate, I found myself wondering how far Paul’s insight might stretch. We can (and have) survived incompetence. But can we survive mean?

I tuned in as independent candidate Scott Lively was answering a question about the state’s spending to repair its decaying infrastructure.

It took me a few seconds to remember why his name was familiar to me. He is a pastor. And a well-known activist against gay rights. He played a role in helping Uganda to frame its now infamous anti-gay legislation. And he wrote a book called, “The Pink Swastika.” That fact alone tells you almost everything you need to know.

Pastor Lively turned the question about roads and bridges into a question of what he called the declining “moral infrastructure” in the state and went on to speak of the state’s commitment to teaching tolerance as part of children’s education as the promotion of “sexual perversion to children in the public schools.”

The next speaker, Republican Charlie Baker, quickly affirmed the need to repair the state’s roadways and then said he wanted to use the remainder of his time to respond to Lively’s comments, which he called “a veiled reference” to gay people. "As the brother of a gay man who lives and is married in Massachusetts,” Baker declared, “I want you to know that I found that kind of offensive, and I would appreciate you not saying things like that from this point forward.”

Lively responded quickly, "I believe in the Bible, Charlie. I'm sorry that you don't.”

Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate, seconded Baker’s comment and then cited her own record in support of gay rights before addressing the question of infrastructure.

No one addressed Lively’s invocation of the Bible in defense of his bigotry. And that was entirely appropriate. It wasn’t supposed to be a theological debate.

But it worries me that statements like Lively’s so often go unchallenged. This isn’t unchecked righteousness; it is, to use the biblical word, unrighteousness.

In previous generations, Lively’s retort has been employed by supporters of slavery and segregation, and opponents of women’s rights, among others. But in those previous generations, the other side of the debate had a larger proportion of biblically literate Christians who were motivated by the great biblical themes of justice and egalitarianism, rather than focusing on what Paul called “the letter” of the law.

The truth is that Scott Lively believes six biblical passages at the expense of almost everything else. Nobody said that. In fairness, it would not have been appropriate and it would have opened the door to even more outrageous statements from Scott Lively. But it left his statement unchallenged. And for many viewers that statement will sum up what they have heard about Christian faith.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

When the Season Ends

“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. Today, October 2, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped and summer was gone.”

Those words were written by A. Bartlett Giamatti in 1977, before he was President of Yale, or the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. He was a lifelong Red Sox fan and he died before seeing a season that ended in anything but heartbreak. Long time Red Sox announcer Joe Castiglione traditionally reads those words at the close of every season.

There will be no October baseball in Boston this year. The amazing team that went from last place in 2012 to winning the World Series in 2013 has sunk back to last place. And so I find myself looking back to years past. The 1946 World Series produced one of my favorite Red Sox stories.

In the bottom of the eighth inning of seventh game of the 1946 World Series, the Red Sox and Cardinals were tied 3-3. The game was played in St. Louis, and the Cardinals were at bat. Enos Slaughter was on first base and Harry Walker was at the plate. Walker hit one into the gap in left centerfield. Slaughter, who was known for his speed, was already running. When Red Sox shortstop Johnny Pesky took the throw from the outfield, Slaughter had already rounded third. Pesky turned toward the infield and threw to the plate, but it was too late. Slaughter had scored, the Cardinals had the lead, and the radio announcer screamed, “Pesky held the ball! He held the ball. Johnny Pesky held the ball!”

That one play sent Enos Slaughter to the Hall of Fame and kept Johnny Pesky out. The story was that Slaughter had scored from first base on a single, because Pesky held the ball. It was a career defining moment for both men. And that one play has followed John Pesky for the nearly sixty years since then. Years later, at a football game, after a running back had committed his second fumble, someone in the stands yelled, “Give the ball to Pesky, he’ll hold onto it!” It is part of the legacy of Red Sox Nation, like Bucky Dent’s home run and Bill Buckner’s error (another guy who, except for that one play, would probably be in the Hall of Fame).

The real story, however, is more complicated than the legend and it tells us more about the character of Johnny Pesky than it does about his baseball skills.

The Red Sox had been trailing 3-1 in the top of the inning, when Dom DiMaggio doubled to drive in two runs and tie the score. Unfortunately, Dom pulled a hamstring running to second and had to leave the game. He was replaced by a journeyman outfielder named Leon Culberson. The change was critical, because Dom DiMaggio was the best defensive centerfielder in the American League (yes, Yankee fans, he was better than his more famous brother, Joe). Culberson was a competent player, but not at the same level as DiMaggio, and he could not match Dom’s throwing arm, which was probably the strongest in the league.

When Walker came to bat, with Slaughter on first, DiMaggio motioned frantically to Culberson from the dugout, trying to move him toward left field. Eventually, he took a step or two, but not enough. When the ball was hit, Culberson was slow to react, and threw weakly to Pesky, who had come out into the outfield to take the throw. If you watch films of the game, you’ll see Pesky turn and throw without any hesitation. But since the dominant record of the game etched in the memory of fans came from the radio announcer, that was the image that stuck. And though most people think Slaughter scored from first on a single, Walker’s hit was actually a double.

Slaughter himself said that he never would have tried to score if DiMaggio had been playing center. And when Dom was asked whether he thought he could have thrown Slaughter out, he answered with certainty, “I would have thrown him out—at third!”

Over the years, when Pesky was asked about the play, he would smile and say, “Well, I guess I must have hesitated when I looked in to the infield.” He stuck with that explanation because the alternative would have violated one of Pesky’s core principles: you never blame your teammates. He would rather take the fault himself than blame Culberson for a bad throw.

People who knew him say that Johnny Pesky was a simple guy. He didn’t spend time wondering what should have been or could have been, or why he had to be the one to carry the blame for the loss. He considered himself lucky to have been paid to play a game. And lucky to have been a part of some great teams.

In sports, coaches and commentators will often speak of character when their teams come from behind to win the game in the last minute or the last inning, as if athletic success had an intrinsic moral quality. But when I think of character, I’ll remember Johnny Pesky, smiling at his critics.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

An Alternative Community

Once Jesus was asked when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
Luke 17:20-21

This coming Sunday, September 28, will be the Fifth Sunday in Kingdomtide; at least that’s what it would have been when I was growing up. In the old United Methodist liturgical calendar the Sundays from the end of August to the beginning of Advent were known as the season of “Kingdomtide.” It was a time to reflect on the biblical promise of the Kingdom of God and to ask ourselves what the world would look like if we were serious about building the Kingdom of God on earth.

Jesus preached the “good news of the Kingdom of God.” He announced that God was already at work in the world, and we were invited to live in the new reality that God was creating. The idea of the Kingdom of God begins with Jesus, but it grows out of the experience of the people of Israel. And a primary theological component is the liberation of the Israelites in the Exodus.

For Jesus, this alternative community was a place where the poor were lifted up, where everyone had a place at the table, where love governed both individuals and institutions. It was a place of radical hospitality, egalitarianism, inclusion, mutual concern, self-sacrifice, peace, and social justice. In this biblical vision, everyone has enough and no one has too much.

“Against the data,” as Walter Brueggeman would say, Jesus declared that this “Kingdom of God” was already among them. In spite of the Roman occupation. The world did not belong to the emperor, it belonged to God. And God was at work in the world. The disciples were invited to live into the new reality; this alternative community.

Although Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God occupies the overwhelming majority of his teaching, it has been largely ignored by modern Christians. The popular misinterpretation is that when he talked about Gods’ Kingdom, he was talking about heaven. But he wasn’t. He was talking about happens (and doesn’t happen, but ought to happen) on this earth.

Like the Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom of God, the liturgical season of Kingdomtide just never caught on. Initially, it seemed to have a lot going for it, not the least of which is that stretching out Pentecost, and counting the Sundays after Pentecost, is pretty boring. It also made sense because the fall lectionary texts emphasize building up the Kingdom of God. But it was doomed by the combined weight of liturgical purity and the concern (which I share) for looking beyond exclusively masculine terms for God. God is not a King.

But whatever we call it, we need to do it.

Kingdomtide reminds us who we are supposed to be as the church. We are supposed to be transforming lives and making disciples. But the goal is not just to make disciples; the goal is to make disciples who will transform the world.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Spanking and Christian Parenting

Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12:7-11

My fifth grade teacher was new to our school. And we thought he was pretty cool. This may have been partly because he was a guy, but more because he was young. He seemed to be much more “with it.” One day, in the course of a discussion of something I can’t remember, he asked us if our parents spanked us. He asked for a show of hands. The class was small. I think there were twelve of us. And of the twelve, only two of us were not routinely spanked for our various misdeeds. I was one and Faith Small was the other. My parents did not believe in spanking. I’m not sure about Faith’s parents because as far as I know she never did anything wrong.

The point of the teacher’s inquiry was to tell us he thought that spanking was good for us and that Faith and I would someday suffer from this woeful lack of punishment. I think it was the only time I was ever publicly chastised for my parents’ failings. It was embarrassing.

In an article on CNN’s Belief Blog, Matthew Paul Turner makes an important connection, obvious to many of us, but not much discussed in the cable and network commentary. Adrian Peterson’s child abuse grew out of his understanding of the duty of Christian parents to physically discipline their children. (For the record, it’s worth pointing out that my parents’ objection to spanking was also directly connected to their faith.)

“Today,” writes Turner, “the most notable proponents of spanking are American evangelicals. They not only preach the gospel of corporal punishment, they also impart messages that lay the foundations for abuses against children and the protection of such abuse by our legal system.”

He argues that, “For decades, American evangelicals have fiercely fought any legal or cultural limits on parents’ ‘rights’ to discipline their children. We hear the echoes of this line of thought in the argument that what Adrian Peterson did to his son is a private matter. His lawyer spoke of it as the act of a “loving father.”

Chip Ingram offers a guide to biblical spanking on the Focus on the Family web site. To be fair, Ingram makes clear that the point of spanking is “to sting, to provide a painful deterrent to misbe­havior, not to injure.” Then he gives specific instructions:

“When you spank, use a wooden spoon or some other appropri­ately sized paddle and flick your wrist. That's all the force you need. It ought to hurt — an especially difficult goal for mothers to accept — and it's okay if it produces a few tears and sniffles. If it doesn't hurt, it isn't really discipline, and ultimately it isn't very loving because it will not be effective in modifying the child's behavior.

“Have the child lean over his bed and make sure you apply the discipline with a quick flick of the wrist to the fatty tissue of the buttocks, where a sting can occur without doing any damage to the body. You want to be calm, in control, and focused as you firmly spank your child, being very careful to respect his body.”

Ingram is not advocating the sort of beating that Peterson allegedly inflicted on his four year-old son. He cautions that, “A parent who reaches back and swings hard is acting out of anger and frustration, not out of love and desire for the child's welfare. That's unbiblical by anyone's definition.”

Even with Ingram’s cautionary language, I find his description chilling. “Have the child lean over his bed.” (Of course, it’s “his” bed because Focus on the Family makes no attempt to use inclusive language—not because they think little girls shouldn’t be spanked.) And direct the blow “to the fatty tissue of the buttocks, where a sting can occur without doing any damage.”

So the intention is to inflict pain without leaving any marks or “doing any damage.” That doesn’t sound like a loving way to parent a child.