Tuesday, December 29, 2009
"It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble."
A few days before Christmas, I was listening to an interview with Brian Scalabrine on the radio. Scalabrine is a reserve forward on the Celtics. He plays just a few minutes a game. The announcers often praise him for his hustle, but no one would confuse him with the stars. I turned on the radio when they were already well into the interview, and apparently they had moved from talking about basketball to more seasonal themes. They were asking him if his daughter, who (I’m guessing) is probably three or four years old, was excited about Santa Claus coming with presents.
He surprised his radio hosts by telling them that at the Scalabrine household, they didn’t do Santa Claus. There were two reasons for this, he explained. First, he and his wife did not want to lie to their daughter. And second, they wanted her to understand what Christmas was really about. He explained it without seeming judgmental or self-righteous. It’s just what they do. No big deal. I was impressed
The Santa Claus idea has always been problematic for Christians. The upside is that Santa Claus embodies the spirit of giving, and of generosity. Those are good things. But the downside is that belief in Santa Claus becomes easily confused with belief in God. And Santa Claus introduces a magical element which is actually antithetical to Christian faith. It seems harmless enough for toddlers, but when kids begin to ask questions, they wonder about everything that their parents have taught them to believe.
A friend told me that when he was a child, his Holy Trinity was God and Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. When he stopped believing in the Easter Bunny, he still had God and Santa, but when he could no longer believe “that reindeer really know how to fly,” he thought that God would be the next one to go. Seriously. It was a crisis of faith for him. And I have come to think that teaching kids to believe in Santa Claus can be a barrier to developing a mature Christian faith as they grow.
I don’t think this means that parents have to declare their homes a no Santa zone, as the Scalabrines have done. But it does mean that caution is a good idea. A little Santa goes a long way. We can allow children their fantasy without promoting it. We can downplay the Santa idea without disparaging the traditions of others. And we can make it very clear that Santa has only a minor part in the celebration of the Christmas season.
Friday, December 25, 2009
On one of our local afternoon sports talk shows, host Mike Felger has been complaining that “this is the worst week of the year.” He has said this every day. Often repeating the very same words for emphasis. I don’t know what he is like in person. He cannot be as miserable as his on air persona. It’s just not possible.
In between explaining why Randy Moss is a bum (although he is going to the Hall of Fame) and the Red Sox should trade Jacoby Ellsbury (the most exciting baseball player I have ever seen) and Mike Lowell is useless (he was the World Series MVP in 2007 and he plays hard every day), Felger gives his analysis of life around us. And his view is, “It’s nasty out there.”
The bad news is, I think he is right.
We have lost the Golden Rule.
Even at Christmas, we have lost it. A woman wrote a letter to the editor, telling how she pulled up to the drive up mail box at the Post Office and discovered that she had not put enough postage on her Christmas card. As she looked for a stamp, the woman in the car behind her honked and yelled at her to “Move it!” She went on to say how difficult the Christmas season had been for her this year with illness and death in her family. And she wondered why people couldn’t remember that the person holding them up is a real person who may be dealing with real problems.
Christmas used to be the time when Christians acted like Christians. For a few weeks, or a few days, we were patient and we thought about the other person. For a short time, we gave up a parking space, let slower cars merge on the freeway, and invited strangers to go ahead of us at the supermarket check out line. This annual display (and often it was a display) of kindness was shallow, but it was better than nothing.
The seasonal display of kindness was as phony as Santa Claus at the shopping mall. But there was also something good about it. We were pretending to be the people we knew we ought to be. And that’s not a bad thing.
For a long time, Christmas has taken on a cultural meaning far different from the announcement of Jesus’ birth. Many of us have lamented the shallow sentimentality of the season. Deep existential reflection was replaced with “nice.” But nice is still better than nasty. And now, too often, we just have nasty.
As I reflect on how we have lost our way, I think of the verses that come right after the Golden Rule in Matthew’s Gospel:
13“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
Sunday, December 20, 2009
There may be concerns of race and stereotyping in this film (as with other Disney films) but I take issue with a portion of the review which says: “In a production number that evokes gospel music but with Jesus neatly stripped away, Mama Odie offers up a defiantly American church of the self. Just "dig a little deeper" inside yourself and you'll find what you need to achieve all of your dreams. Sure, there's magic, but it only shows up once you've done everything in your power to get what you desire. Her message is the epitome of works-righteousness, where the only counter to the forces of evil is the good inside the human heart.”
I haven’t seen the movie, but I searched around for some clips and found the song the reviewer was discussing. I hear a different message than she did. Jesus is not "neatly stripped away." I hear him there quite clearly. As a church, Mama Odie's song isn’t always who we are but it is who we should be.
Here is a clip with the song:
Here is what it says …
“Don’t matter what you look like
Don’t matter what you wear,
How many rings you have on your finger,
We don’t care.
Don’t matter where you come from
Don’t even matter what you are…
We get them all in here…
And they all knew what they wanted ..
What they wanted me to do.”
I can hear Jesus singing that. He didn’t care who people were or looked like, it didn’t matter if they were rich or poor. What of today? If we look around is that always true in Christian churches --- even our own?
And they all came wanting something.
The characters in the movie go to the woman to whip up a miracle. Indeed this could be confused with prayer. BUT the genius of it is that Mama Odie doesn’t give them what they want. She shows the misuse of wanting an instant miracle. She says that they first need to find out who they are because they want the wrong things.
The reality is that people come to God because they think they know what they want … what they want God (or a church) to do. Isn't the role of he church to turn those people around and tell them to look at who they are to see what they want is all wrong?
“When you find out who you are,
you find out what you need ….”
Isn't that true of Jesus' message? The power of Jesus was that he knew who he was -- the son of God ... do we know we are children of God so clearly?
God’s response is that we should find out who we are (and whose we are) first then we will find out what we need.
"Prince Froggy is a rich little boy.
You wanna be rich again?
That ain’t gonna make you happy now,
Did it make you happy then?
Money ain’t got no soul.
Money aint’ got no heart. …”
I can hear Jesus here too ... especially in an encounter he had with another young, rich ruler who didn't go away happy. How many churches are filled with people who are fully convinced money ain’t got no soul? It didn’t make him happy then is it “gonna make us happy now?” What have we learned in 2000 years?
“All you need is some self control
make yourself a brand new start.”
Ok that sounds like a little more like Wesley or Paul but still good.
"Your daddy was a lovin’ man ...
Family through and through …
You’re your daddy’s daughter.
What was in him, you’ll find in you.”
Jesus again ... Our Father is a loving God. Loving through and through. You are God's creation, the love of God is found in you. In Jesus that love of the Father was clear ... those who saw him saw the Father.
The female frog was told that at the core of her identity she had a father who loved her. That’s who she is. She can love because she was first the recipient of love.
That’s who we are. We are children of a Father who loves us. God’s love is in us.
How many churches really live out the love (and realize the power that they can do that because they were loved first)… or are they still stuck on what they want God to do?
I find the song catchy (I've listened to it a dozen times while typing this) and as a Christian I hear a lyrical subtext.
When we dig deep enough, after putting aside fear and our own notions about we want God to do and realize that money will not make us happy, we find who we are and whose we are. Then we will know what we need.
Now the writers may not have intended all of that. Actually I’m sure they didn’t intend it. But they weren’t out to tell a Gospel story. The question is, can we use this story to talk about the Gospel with our children?
The reviewer says that the message behind the song is "the epitome of works-righteousness." I disagree. I think it is the epitome of grace. The messages I hear in the song:
(1) Accept everybody no matter what they look like, who they “are” or what they wear.
(2) Happiness cannot be found in money
(3) Before you decide what you want out of life, look deep inside to find out who you are
(4) Love, which is shown to trump magic, is not something we summon or conjure for ourselves but something that is given freely by someone who loved us first.
The reviewer assumes that by turning our gaze inward we are celebrating the human self. In the end I believe that God is the foundation of who we are. If we keep digging deeper I think we will find God there waiting.
The reviewer seems to condemn the notion that “the only counter to the forces of evil is the good inside the human heart” … What’s wrong with that? (as long as we realize that the good in the human heart is from God) It is a message that love is more powerful than magic (another theme that was in the Harry Potter books that Christian “moralists” seemed to miss). Biblically it is the love found in the human heart of Jesus which counters the forces of sin.
I think the song has a very Christian message. I think the reviewer needs to dig a little deeper.
Friday, December 18, 2009
From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
Traditional Scottish Prayer
“The Princess and the Frog,” by Disney, is one of the big movies of the Christmas Season. And from the reviews, it looks like there are lots of reasons to be excited about it. The animation is great, the songs are fun, and the story line is appealing.
But for parents, there is also reason for caution.
I am typically skeptical of Christian crusades against popular culture. I have never been enthused with the annual objections to Halloween. And I wanted no part of the Harry Potter opposition. (The Harry Potter books present a series of morality plays with themes that are consistent with Christian theology. And the magic is symbolic, pointing to deeper realities and struggles.)
I have not seen the movie, but from the reviews, there are two problems. First there is the voodoo. The characters conjure up dark spirits and spells. For little children (the movie is G rated), one of the difficult things is that that they can confuse this with prayer. And they can confuse magic with faith. Second, the underlying theme, as in so many seemingly “wholesome” popular movies, is the Gospel of success. You can succeed if you believe in yourself. The object of our worship is the self.
It could be worse, of course, in a thousand different ways. In her review in the Christianity Today, Annie Young Frisbie writes:
Sure, this is the message of just about every family film that has come down the pike since the dawn of cinema. But to see it presented in a context that evokes the style of Christianity, Mama Odie's song serves as a stark reminder as to how the American values of self-reliance diverge from the Christian message of humble submission to external grace. Just because something looks and sounds beautiful doesn't make it gospel.
You can read the whole review at:
Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
In the chaotic protests of the late sixties and early seventies, those verses from Romans were frequently quoted by Conservative Christians. The authority of the government, they believed, was ultimately the authority of God.
Not so much lately.
It would be interesting to hear how Conservative Christians interpret those words today. Today it is the Liberals who want to trust the government to regulate markets, manage health care, and generally order our society. And the Conservatives are deeply suspicious of anything the government does.
It is not the first irony to be associated with those verses. The Apostle Paul told his Christian brothers and sisters that they should be subject to the Empire which would execute him almost before the ink was dry. Of course, many argue that Paul wrote those lines in part because he knew that the Empire wanted to crush the church, and he wanted to minimize all unnecessary conflict. The church had already declared that it was loyal to Christ rather than Caesar, and the Kingdom of God rather than the Empire. They had rejected violence and refused to participate in war. They didn’t need any additional evidence of disloyalty.
Today, the Conservatives distrust government more than the Liberals, but everyone seems to agree that the government can’t run anything (except, apparently, the military).
Recently in the course of running errands I waited in line at CVS, at Dave’s Market, at Panera, at MacDonald’s, and at the Post Office. At Dave’s Market, I stood with a single item in a regular line, because the express line was jammed. A helpful cashier came to open an additional line and motioned to me to come over there, but I was nearly run over by a woman with a full shopping cart, who darted in front of me. At CVS and MacDonald’s the shoppers typically try to form a single line that feeds the several open registers, and people frown as someone inevitably ignores the protocol and pushes in front. The lines were all long, but only at the Post Office did I hear complaints directed at the establishment. And I think that reflects our attitude toward government.
So what? People complain about everything. At one level, that’s true. We are complainers. And when we are not complaining about the weather or the economy, we complain about kids today, and parents today, and the payroll for the Yankees.
But I think it does matter. Our distrust of government undermines the effectiveness of government. Trust, of course, must be earned. But it also must be given. That is true in a family and it is also true in a society. If we do not believe that our government is capable of solving some fairly large problems, then we are all in more trouble than we thought.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
The wise are cautious and turn away from evil,
but the fool throws off restraint and is careless.
O how the mighty have fallen!
II Samuel 1:19
Tiger Woods has never entertained the nation as thoroughly on the golf course as he has in the national media over the past two weeks. Everywhere you turn; it’s all Tiger all the time. And with each new revelation, it gets worse. The man who had everything has apparently thrown it all away.
When the story first began to some out, it looked to me like one more example of our cult of celebrity run amuck. Those who had been worshipping at the Temple of the Tiger felt betrayed, but I was mostly amused. I am not a golfer and I have never had much invested in Tiger as an icon. Then, as more details emerged, I felt sorry for his wife. No one, I thought, deserves to be treated like that. No matter how many millions (billions) they have, it’s not enough. And I realized that the story would last long enough to haunt his children in later years.
But it’s not fun anymore.
And I have come to believe that it actually matters.
There are children who will see the story on TV or read about it on the internet, and it will become part of the raw material from which they construct their view of the world. They will hear the jokes about how now every guy REALLY wishes he could live the life of Tiger Woods. It will shape a part of how they understand male-female relationships. This is what rich and famous married men do. And this (wink, wink) is what all married men wish they could do.
Heroes matter. Kids need people they can look up to. In a perfect world, they would all look up to the right people. The adults in their lives would be their heroes. And those adults would be worthy of that adulation.
In the meantime, this is an important and painful reminder. Just because you can hit a golf ball into the next area code doesn’t make you a great human being.
In his semi-apology, Tiger said, “I am not perfect.” In our cult of fame and fortune, that is what passes for a confession.
Friday, December 4, 2009
Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.
John Brown was executed 150 year ago this week, on December 1, 1859. The New York Times remembered that event with two very different essays. One compared him to the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center. The other argued that he was “Freedom’s Martyr” and should be given a posthumous Presidential pardon.
Brown was a martyr and a terrorist. He was a fanatic and a freedom fighter. And he was a devout Christian. In his essay comparing Brown to the terrorists of 9/11, Tony Horwitz calls Brown a “bearded fundamentalist who believed himself chosen by God to destroy the institution of slavery.” Of course, Christian Fundamentalism was not developed as a theological system until many decades later, but Brown did see himself as acting out of deep Christian convictions, and he believed that he was chosen by God to free the slaves.
Brown maintained that he was living out the biblical injunction to, “Remember them that are in bonds.” With hundreds of biblical passages accepting slavery as normal and natural in biblical times, Brown focused on one of the few verses that seem to point in the other direction. Those words are the first phrase of Hebrews 13:3 in the King James Version of the Bible. They are more accurately rendered in the New Revised Standard Version as “those who are in prison.” What this means is that he based his Holy War on a false reading of the text. (One might pause here to ponder the perils of literalism.)
Of course, it wasn’t really the one phrase. Brown, like the other Abolitionists, insisted that though there were many passages seeming to condone slavery, the whole thrust of the Bible was toward freedom. And it was the second part of the verse which reveals more of Brown’s motivation. He really did identify with “those who are being tortured, as though” he himself “were being tortured.”
In the fall of 1861, Julia Ward Howe visited Washington, D.C. and saw a parade of Union troops. On her way back to her hotel, she heard regiments singing “John Brown’s body lies mouldering in his grave, but his soul goes marching on.” She did not care for the lyrics, but the marching tune stuck with her and early the next morning she woke up and wrote the words of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Ironically, the song was not originally about the famous abolitionist. It was first sung to tease a young Massachusetts militia man who shared the same name. Later, the song spread to other regiments who had never heard of the young man from Massachusetts. More verses were added and the Massachusetts man was forgotten.
John Brown leaves a complicated legacy. We cannot condone is fanaticism, but we should not forget the compassion behind his violence.
Friday, November 27, 2009
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 --and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The dispute between Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin and Congressman Patrick Kennedy has gone national. And viral. Don’t you love (or hate) that phrase?
On the day after Thanksgiving, let’s begin with the charge (I did not hear it from the Bishop himself, but it’s in the air) that Mr. Kennedy is a “Cafeteria Catholic.” He helps himself to the church teachings with which he agrees, and ignores the rest. The Bishop said that the Congressman cannot call himself a real Catholic unless he supports the Church’s teachings on abortion.
And that’s where Mr. Kennedy’s original point was lost.
The Congressman criticized the Catholic Church for opposing the health care reform bill. He was disappointed that in their single-minded opposition to abortion, they had focused on some very minor issues within the bill and dismissed the fact that the bill is overwhelmingly in line with Catholic Social teaching.
If we are honest, we recognize that there are a lot of Cafeteria Catholics (and Cafeteria Christians) out there. And abortion is not the only issue where people pick and choose. There are many conservative Catholics who reject the Catholic teachings on torture, war, social justice, capital punishment, and other issues.
Everyone picks and chooses his or her way through Christian (not just Roman Catholic) Social Teachings. And the field of Christian Social Ethics is dedicated to sifting through the biblical witness and the historical teachings of the Christian Church (again, not just RC) to focus on issues that matter most and help us live as faithful disciples. Yesterday’s absolute teachings become tomorrow’s cafeteria. The menu must be re-written for each new generation. The goal for faithful Christians is not to avoid decision making, but to make wise and faithful decisions. We can’t just look for the ideas and positions that appeal to our personal preferences. We need to look at the larger issues. We need to return over and over to Jesus’ teachings. We need to look hard at what we have learned in the past and ask how it applies to the future.
The implicit and very important question Mr. Kennedy put to the leaders of his church was:
Does the abortion issue always trump everything else? Is that the only absolute issue?
It is a valid question within the context of the Roman Catholic Church, and it would have been interesting to hear a real response from the Bishop.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness;
come into his presence with singing.
Know that the LORD is God.
It is he that made us, and not we ourselves
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the LORD is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. As a child, of course, I liked Christmas better because of the presents. But that changed even before I became an adult. Thanksgiving has all of the enjoyment of the family get together without the added pressure of finding the right gifts.
As a child, I also loved Thanksgiving for the Pilgrims. Growing up just a few miles from Plimoth Plantation, I took special pride in their sacrifice and resolve and faith. When I learned that Thanksgiving had been made a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln, who was (and is) my favorite president, it only added to my reverence for the day.
Over the years, the revisionists have done their best to spoil my reverie, but they have not succeeded. I know that the Pilgrims and Native Americans did not have the idyllic relationship of the Thanksgiving portraits. And I know that the Pilgrims were not without fault, but I am still inspired.
When I opened up the New York Times on line this morning, I went immediately to the op-ed page, as I always do. And I found an article on Thanksgiving, by Elyssa East. The teaser looked promising: “The Thanksgiving holiday has come to mirror our transformation into a nation of gross over-consumption, but it wasn’t intended to be a day of gluttony.” Sadly, I was disappointed. The article does make the basic point advanced in the promotional sentence. She does write about the original meaning of the day and the connection between Thanksgiving and fasting. But she clearly looks down on the primitive beliefs of our Pilgrim ancestors.
East writes, To the Pilgrims and Puritans, the community-wide fast, or “day of public humiliation and prayer,” and the thanksgiving feast, or day of “public thanksgiving and praise,” were equal halves of the same ritual. But the fast was not merely a justification for a community-wide gorging. Both customs were important components of a religious rite that served to pacify an angry God who was believed to punish entire communities for the sins of the few with starvation, “excessive rains from the bottles of heaven,” epidemics, crop infestations, the Indian wars and other hardships.
The fast and the thanksgiving were primitive religious rites to “pacify an angry God.” In her view, they believed this God would starve a whole community in order to punish a few sinners.
Ouch. Perhaps I am overly sensitive, but I take this explicit critique of Pilgrim theology as an implicit critique of modern Christianity. And if I am being overly sensitive in the case of this particular essay, that critique is used repeatedly by the new secularists, like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.
So I want to give at least a partial response.
First, we wouldn’t base a critique of modern medicine on what seventeenth century physicians were doing. The basic goals of health and wholeness have not changed, but we no longer use the same methods to achieve those goals. Our understanding evolves over time. This is true in theology as well as in medicine or science, or history or mathematics.
Second, we should not underestimate the Pilgrims. Thanksgiving for them, as for the Psalmist before them, started with the fundamental understanding that “it is God who made us, and not we ourselves.” Everything comes from God. To recognize this gift, was a source of awe and wonder, which led to thanksgiving. This sense of Providence was not transactional. It did not depend on what they had done, but simply on who God is.
Finally, we need to be careful in our interpretation of the Pilgrims’ apparent belief in “an angry God.” They did believe in what they would have called “the wrath of God.” But we have a hard time understanding that as they did. Like us, they spoke symbolically. The words point beyond themselves. They believed in God, the Creator. But I don’t think they believed that created the world the same way that you and I might build a house, nor do I think they thought that God gets angry the way that you and I get angry. Their understanding of the wrath of God, like the prophets of Israel before them, was that when our behavior runs counter to the purposes of Creation, there are consequences. This is not because “God loses his temper,” (as if God were a big angry man!) it is because of the way the world is.
Abraham Lincoln was very much in tune with this understanding of God’s wrath when he gave his Second Inaugural Address. In that remarkable speech, he began by admitting what no politician would ever admit today, that there was no point in a long address because so much had already been said about the great Civil War which was consuming the nation. But in a few words, he reflected deeply on the topic, and suggested that the war was the inevitable consequence of the sin of slavery. They problem was not God’s anger, but God’s justice. The consequences were built into the universe. He writes:
If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
Lincoln understood our civil religion better than anyone. At the time of our greatest crisis, he brought us back to our foundation.
Beyond the turkey and trimmings, we can give thanks for Lincoln and for the Pilgrims. And with them we can join the Psalmist to “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness endures forever.”
Friday, November 20, 2009
The experience of Jesus upon the cross is not one of a dreamy pantheist who imagines God in easy and magical control of every process of the universe. It was the experience of a spiritual adventurer who saw life as a struggle between love and chaos but who also discovered the love at the center of things which guarantees the victory in every apparent defeat.
That quotation is from an essay that Niebuhr wrote for the Christian Century in 1927. According to an article by Editor John Buchanan, it is attached to a poster sized picture of Niebuhr that hangs in the entry to the Century offices.
It is striking on so many different levels.
I cannot help thinking that we do not spend enough time in quiet contemplation. And that Niebuhr, for all of his famous activism, was much more in tune with a quiet center than most of us are today. Maybe it is just me, but it seems that we are impatient with our questions. We cannot sit with them and wait for answers. We want to know. And we want to know now.
Our world seems sharply divided between those who believe that God really is “in easy and magical control,” and those who believe that God simply is not real. Niebuhr’s vision does not fit into neat categories. God is real, but there is no magic.
He speaks of a struggle between love and chaos. It’s not a struggle between love and hate, or order and chaos, or good and evil. Love and chaos are not normally understood as opposites. But again, Niebuhr does not give us neat categories or easy answers.
Monday, November 9, 2009
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, the Kingdom of God. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
Last Tuesday we found out, sadly, that Maine will discriminate against gay and lesbian persons. Around the country, the cumulative result of all the votes on gay marriage is now thirty-one to nothing. For those of us who care about justice, it is disheartening.
But I am reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr's wise observation that, "Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime." What that means, said Niebuhr, is that "we must be saved by hope."
At the end of the Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech in which he talked about the frustration of the long struggle. His title was, “Our God Is Marching On!” and in spite of the many set backs and the bitter opposition they faced, he spoke with the hope of the prophets. At the conclusion of his address, he asks, “How long?” And this is his answer:
I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, (No sir) because "truth crushed to earth will rise again."
How long? Not long, because "no lie can live forever."
How long? Not long, because "you shall reap what you sow."
How long? Not long:
Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne,
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above his own.
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
How long? Not long, because:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat.
O, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant my feet!
Our God is marching on.
Glory, hallelujah! (Yes, sir) Glory, hallelujah!
Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.
At the center of his wonderfully poetic blend of Bible verses with James Russell Lowell and Julia Ward Howe, is his powerful affirmation of faith, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
King adapted that line from the 19th century Abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker; although most people think it was original with King. In times of frustration, when it seems that we will forever be strangers and exiles, it is a promise worth remembering.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
“Keep awake—for you do not know when the Master will come for you, in the evening, or at mid-night, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, so that you will not be asleep when he comes suddenly. And I say this to all of you: Keep awake.”
There is an old story about a young man going to visit the great abolitionist poet James Russell Lowell when Lowell was an old man. The young man questioned him earnestly about the fight for Abolition; hanging on Lowell’s every word. Finally, he said, “I wish I had been with you then. I wish I could have been part of that great cause.”
The old abolitionist pointed out the window and pulled back the curtain. Below them there were children going to and from their work in the factories. “Look!” said Lowell, “there is your cause! What more do you want?”
Next Tuesday the people of Maine will vote on whether or not they will overturn the legislative approval of same sex marriage. There are Christians on both sides of the issue.
They say that generals are always perfectly prepared to fight the last war. We could say that Christians are always prepared for the last cause.
There are Christians today who talk about how they would have supported the Civil Rights of African Americans a generation ago, even as they oppose the Civil rights of homosexuals today. They say they are appalled that prior to 1967 there were laws prohibiting mixed race marriages, forgetting that at the time the Supreme Court struck down those laws there was overwhelming public support for preventing interracial marriage.
But we don’t get to live in the past. We have to live today.
Hindsight is always 20-20. We know exactly what we should have and would have done about the issues of yesterday. And we believe that we would have stood strongly against the injustices of previous decades and centuries. Today’s injustices seem so much more complicated and ambiguous.
In his great abolitionist hymn, “Once to Every Man and Nation,” Lowell talks writes about how difficult it is to choose light over darkness when it seems that truth seems to be on the scaffold and wrong seems to be on the throne. The Gospel teaches that “the scaffold sways the future” and God keeps watch in the darkness.
New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast truth.
Eventually, says Lowell, the multitude will “make virtue of the truth they had denied.” Unfortunately, life happens in the present rather than the past. And followers of Christ are given the difficult task of following him today, choosing light over darkness and hope over fear.
I’m praying for the people of Maine to choose light and hope.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?
I should not listen to talk radio. There is something intrinsically toxic about it.
This morning, in the few minutes that it takes me to drive to work, I was listening to Sports talk. It should have been harmless enough. The Celtics won last night in Cleveland. It was the first time they had beaten the Cavaliers in Cleveland since who knows when? And the World Series begins tonight. Good stuff.
But instead, one of the hosts was talking about the news, reading what he said was an “uplifting” story in the morning paper. “This,” he said, “will lift your spirits!” And then he read the following story from the Associated Press:
The mastermind of the 2002 Washington, D.C.-area sniper attacks will die by lethal injection next month, Virginia officials said Tuesday.
John Allen Muhammad declined to choose between lethal injection and electrocution, so under state law the method defaults to lethal injection, Virginia Department of Corrections spokesman Larry Traylor said.
Talk radio is always about entertainment, so there is always an element of acting in the presentation, but he was clearly happy about the news. And he thought that the rest of us should also be happy. And really believed it was uplifting. A triumph of justice and righteousness.
I did not feel uplifted.
It is very difficult to study the teachings of Jesus with any seriousness and think that he would support the death penalty. Biblical support for the death penalty is problematic even if you don’t read beyond Malachi 4:6. Once you get to the Sermon on the Mount, only a highly selective reading of Scripture will yield support for a policy that puts people to death for their crimes.
In spite of the biblical evidence, Christians have debated the death penalty for ages. And history tells us that some (so called) Christians have even used the death penalty to enforce their theological doctrines. But it is impossible to have even a passing encounter with the biblical witness and think that the prospect of putting someone to death should “lift your spirits.”
Of course, the morning sports talk guys don’t advertise themselves as Christians, but my guess is that if asked, that would be their answer.
What troubles me most about he morning sports talkers making light of the death penalty is that it reveals (again) the vast gulf between the teachings of Jesus and our popular culture.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
James gives us a radical perspective on wealth and possessions.
He is appalled by the ways in which members of the church tended to favor the rich and powerful, inviting them to take the best seats, giving them positions of honor and respect. First, he is appalled because this favoritism flies in the face of Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God. How can they say they believe in Jesus, when they contradict his teachings? And then, on a practical level, he is appalled because the rich people they honor and respect are the same ones who are oppressing them. How can you honor the people who are responsible for your suffering?
“The love of money is the source of all kinds of evil, and in their desire to be rich some have wandered away from the faith” (II Timothy 6:10). We don’t just love money and want if for ourselves, we also tend to bow down to the people who have it in ways that are sometimes hard to understand.
In his column in the New York Times, Bob Herbert points to two headlines that ran side by side in the Saturday edition of the Times. One said, “U.S. Deficit Rises to $4.5 Trillion; Biggest Since ’45.” Right next to it, another headline said, “Bailout Helps Revive Banks, Bonuses.” How bizarre that in a time of widespread economic hardship, the richest people are getting richer, in part at least because everyone else is helping them get richer.
The bonuses at Goldman Sachs are planned to average $500,000. What does someone do to earn a half million dollar bonus? Apparently, that is the reward for taking great financial risks (with other people’s money). Meanwhile, the combination of those who are unemployed and those who are underemployed is pushing toward twenty percent. Herbert reports that two-thirds of the income gains between 2002 and 2007 went to the richest 1 percent of Americans.
Would any of this be any different if we took James’ criticism to heart and acted as if we really believed Jesus’ teachings? We might begin to ask different questions about where the money goes and who benefits. And we might begin to look for solutions that benefit the poor rather than the rich.
As James asks, “Do we really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”
Friday, October 9, 2009
The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a shroud.
Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
October 11 is National Coming Out Day.
A few days ago I read a letter to the advice column, “Ask Amy,” from a young man struggling with whether or not he should “come out” to his family. They were open and accepting in general, but he was not certain how they would feel about having a gay man in the family. As he approached National Coming Out Day, he felt pressured to be honest about his identity, yet apprehensive about how his family might react. What should he do?
If I were the young man’s pastor, and he came to me with that question, my first instinct would be to tell him that October 11 is just another day. If a Coming Out Day gives him the opportunity to say what he wants to say, then that’s a good thing. If it pressures him to go beyond where he is comfortable, then it is probably a bad thing. The last thing that gay and lesbian young people need is one more pressure in their lives.
So I have real ambivalence about National Coming Out Day as it relates to the real lives of young people.
On the other hand, the symbolism is incredibly powerful. There are so many ways in which all of us, gay and straight, are living as if we were dead, and we need to hear Jesus call us by name and challenge us to come out of that living death into New Life.
The devotion below is by the Rev. Vernice Thorn, who is co-convener of “The Church Within a Church Movement,” a United Methodist group working for the full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons within the United Methodist Church. I think she does a great job of reflecting on the symbolism of Coming Out as it relates to all of us.
October Devotion - Coming Out to New Life
39Jesus said, 'Take away the stone.' Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, 'Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.' 40Jesus said to her, 'Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?' 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, 'Sovereign God, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.' 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, 'Lazarus, come out!' 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, 'Unbind him, and let him go.'
In our Gospel lesson, Lazarus has died. His sisters are sure that if only Jesus had arrived earlier he could have saved Lazarus. But death has come. Death has won. Or has it? Jesus weeps and tells the sisters to believe and roll the stone away. He prays and says to the dead man, "Come out." Lazarus appears bound but alive.
What a meaningful story on the heels of a powerful justice event weekend hosted in Chicago by Church Within A Church (CWAC). This event had been plagued all year with uncertainty. Our finances were low, our support tentative, at best. Yet God continually calls us to life. God calls us to come out of our fear and to declare who we are. Even with that awareness, "coming out" is complex and never ending. I recall the Extraordinary Ordination. There was plenty of resistance from "church" leaders, who renounced and rebuked us. Nevertheless we choose life, listening to God's call to "come out". When we decided as a board to embrace anti-racism work we lost support. Yet, bound by the status quo, we did not give up, we could hear Jesus saying, "unbind them... let them go."
October 11th is National Coming Out Day. All of us have coming out stories, but I am so grateful to my gay sisters and brothers for providing the context. "Coming out" is a spiritual act. It embraces the truth of scripture that all are created equal and that God names us, each of us, and loves us. The ritual of "coming out" is a public declaration that says I am a child of God not in spite of who I am, but because of the gift of identity that God has blessed me with. It is an embracing of one's deepest and truest self, without shame and without apology. "Coming out" calls us to new life.
Coming out celebrates and empowers us to witness to our truth and to God's inclusive love. In the book Preaching Justice; A Lesbian Perspective, Christine Marie Smith speaks about claiming her truth. She says, "I knew from the time I was quite young that I was different. The early years were absolute silence, isolation and terror. Given the reality of closets for lesbian and gay people, I have been trying to find my voice, my truth, and my community much of my life. I have spent most of those years afraid: afraid of hurting my family, afraid of losing friends and colleagues, afraid of being attacked, afraid of being fired and afraid of losing my ordination. It isn't just the fear that keeps me from my voice, my truth, my life; it is the constant heavy sense that I am alien, strange, marginal. In the past few years, I no longer have feared losing my job and ordination, but even as I move my life into more public arenas as an out lesbian, anxiety, fear and strangeness persist."
On October 11th, I celebrate, "coming out", with my gay sisters and brothers and say thank you. Thank you for throwing open your closet doors and giving me the opportunity, a straight, black woman, to envision that possibility for my own life. As you have claimed your truth, so have I. As you have found your voice, so have I. As you have claimed your true, authentic self, so have I. The power of "coming out" is personal, spiritual, as well as communal. As one person or group finds the courage to "come out", it models a life-giving behavior, thus giving others' permission to do the same.
Come out! Jesus shouts to Lazarus and to us all. The power of life, the power of love is stronger than the grave, is stronger than the closet. Come out!
In Truth and Justice,
Rev. Vernice Thorn
The Church Within A Church Movement
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.”
The names are fictitious, but this is a true story about real people. And it unfolded over the past few days.
On Friday I got an email from my friend Jack, telling me that his son, Noah, was in the hospital. Noah is a young man in his mid-twenties. He has a form of autism and related disabilities, but he lives on his own with sporadic help from a social service agency. Noah receives Social Security Disability Insurance, but he does not have health insurance.
For several weeks Noah had been coughing, but he thought it was a seasonal allergy. Last Thursday he had swelling and pain in his left leg, just below the knee. He put ice on it and took Tylenol, but the pain got worse. On Friday morning, when he came back from the laundry room, he collapsed outside the door of his apartment. The building supervisor found him and called 911. The EMT’s came with an ambulance and brought him to Kent Hospital, in Warwick, Rhode Island.
Noah has blood clots in his lungs and legs. He could easily have died from the clots. But after two days in the Intensive Care Unit, he is recovering in a regular hospital room. After visiting with Noah on Monday afternoon, I met his dad in the hallway.
“I have to tell you,” said Jack, “this experience has taught me there is nothing wrong with our healthcare system. You can’t believe the care he has gotten. The people here have been incredible. And they knew from the beginning that Noah had no health insurance. There was no hesitation. They just took care of him. CAT scans and MRI’s. Blood test after blood test. And they sent some of his blood to the Mayo Clinic to test for a rare genetic disorder. They’ve been amazing.”
Noah still has a long way to go, but his story over the past few days has some lessons about the health care debate.
1. It begins with specific institutions and specific people. Kent is an excellent hospital, and within that excellent institution Noah encountered a series of dedicated and gifted professionals, who treated him with both caring and competence. That personal aspect cannot be overlooked.
2. Our health care system as a whole does well with emergencies. People with acute problems get the care they need, whether they have insurance or not.
3. At least in emergency situations, we already pay for universal health care. Kent may recover some of the costs from state and federal programs, or they may simply absorb them. In either case, those costs are ultimately paid by our society.
4. It’s quite possible that if Noah had been insured the costs would have been much less. If he had seen a physician for the persistent cough, the blood clots might have been discovered without two days in Intensive Care. But the lack of insurance made the cost of a doctor’s visit prohibitive. This is a case where universal health care might have saved money.
5. If Noah were a full time student, in college or graduate school, he would be covered by his father’s health insurance. Because of his disability, he did not go to college and was not eligible for that benefit. We need to provide health insurance for kids in college and we want kids to go to college, but this means that families like Jack and Noah’s subsidize families like mine.
Finally, I want to go back to Kent Hospital. I know that Kent (like many hospitals) has a major operating deficit, and since I know that, I am reasonably certain that the physicians who cared for Noah also know that. And they knew that when they ordered the scans and the tests, they were adding to that deficit. They did it anyway. And (apparently) they did it without hesitation.
Our health care system is in crisis. The costs are rising at an alarming rate. And those costs jeopardize our whole economy. But the problems are with the system and not with the people. At the center of the storm there are good people doing good work, for the good of everyone.
Monday, September 28, 2009
Yesterday (Sunday, September 27, 2009) was the Fifth Sunday in Kingdomtide, or it would have been, if we had not given up on Kingdomtide as a liturgical season.
(After writing that last sentence, I checked on line to find that we are not the only United Methodist Church that continues to celebrate Kingdomtide, but we are a small minority.)
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 the Kingdom of God is the focus of the Synoptic Gospels, and building up the Kingdom of God has been a uniquely Methodist emphasis.
Whatever we call it, we need to do it.
I liked the season, because it reminded me of our focus as the church. We don’t just save souls; we are supposed to transform the world. That’s our prayer and our mission.
Monday, September 21, 2009
The soap opera that began on radio in 1936 and then continued on television recently broadcast its last episode.
I would not have known this if I had not seen the various news stories. As far as I know, I never saw a single episode, although I can’t be absolutely certain that I didn’t watch an episode some afternoon when I was sick and home from school in the fifth grade. But I doubt it.
Still, I like the idea of a Guiding Light.
In the original radio series, it was called “The Guiding Light,” and it involved a minister who left a light on in the window so that people could see that he was at home and ready to listen to their problems.
That’s not how people think of ministers today.
A lot has changed, of course. Years ago pastors more often did their reading and studying in the parsonage. The pastor was a man, and his wife frequently functioned as the unpaid church secretary. People brought their troubles to the pastor in his study, in the parsonage. Now we keep office hours.
But it’s more than that.
In her Saturday column in the New York Times, Gail Collins wrote about Soap Operas in general and “Guiding Light” in particular. It would be hard to imagine a series like that today, she said, and if you could sell such a series today, “the minister in question would probably have to be a vampire.”
That’s partly just pop-culture gone crazy. And I’m sure the statement was intended to be outrageous. But there are probably more than a few people who would find it easier to imagine bringing their troubles to a wise and kindly vampire.
In the middle of the last century, the church was less concerned with doctrine and more concerned with people. Mainstream Christianity was often fuzzy on matters of theology, but clear on practical help. This shouldn’t be romanticized, the church of the 1950’s was segregated (in fact, if not by law), and the people being helped were typically the people who were “like us.” But still, it was more about a guiding light and less about a dividing line.
I would like to think of us as “The Church of the Guiding Light.” Not as a formal name. Not even as a mission statement. But as an informal description. Helping folks find their way ought to be somewhere near the center of our work.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him they begged him to leave their neighborhood.
I said they refused Jesus, too, and he said, “You’re not him.”
They asked Jesus to leave because he had been casting out demons.
The Gospel stories of demons and demon possession are hard for us to understand. The pre-scientific world view of the first century is in many ways very different from our own. But the demon stories leave us with some enduring truths:
1. The demons recognize Jesus. They see the truth in him and they are afraid.
2. He names them and by this naming and identifying, he takes away their power.
3. People get nervous when demons are cast out.
This last point has been apparent in the response to President Jimmy Carter’s recent remarks. He correctly identified the demon of racism, which has possessed our country for so long, and he has been vilified for it. I watched video of Jimmy Carter, his shoulders hunched and his posture bent by age, as the commentator talked about him “intimidating” and bullying those who disagree. When someone has the courage to name the demon, we say that he or she is “playing the race card.” The one who names the oppression is called the oppressor. That is our way of begging Jesus to leave our neighborhood.
Racism does not surprise me. What surprises me and troubles me, is the inability (or unwillingness) of people to call it what it is and cast it out.
Recently the Providence Journal ran an editorial comparing Bob Dylan’s encounter with a police officer in Atlantic City with the Henry Louis Gates incident in Cambridge. If only Professor Gates had been as calm as Bob Dylan, they argue, there would never have been a problem. And that makes sense, because except for a few small details, the circumstances are remarkably similar:
--Bob Dylan was trespassing on someone else’s property, while Professor Gates was in his own home.
--Dylan was wandering in the middle of the night and Gates was coming home in the middle of the day.
--Dylan was dressed like a street person and Gates was dressed like Henry Louis Gates.
--Gates showed his identification, and Dylan had no ID.
--They both got a ride in a police car. Gates was handcuffed, Dylan was not. Gates was taken to the police station to be booked. Dylan was taken to his hotel to see if someone could verify his identity.
--And in the Dylan case, the police officer apologized.
Other than those minor details, the cases were identical.
In an interview with Brian Williams, President Carter said, "I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he's African American.” He has named the demon and there are lots of people who want him to leave the neighborhood.
When President Bill Clinton undertook healthcare reform sixteen years ago, and Hillary Clinton led that effort, there was enough opposition to eventually derail the program. What was different was that the opposition did not have what President Carter called “intensely demonstrated animosity” currently directed toward President Obama. It was not as personal, nor was it as intense. It was on the issues. We expect debate. And we expect that debate to be heated at times. But this goes way beyond lively debate.
Racism is difficult if not impossible to prove. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that the first time a member of the House of Representatives interrupted a Presidential address by shouting, “You lie!”, the President was Black. And the interrupter was a defender of the Confederate Flag. And that he had condemned Strom Thurmond’s Black daughter for smearing the late Senator by publicly saying that he was her father. That could all be coincidence.
Maybe Joe Wilson just had a bad day. And maybe the people carrying signs telling the “Lyin’ African” (juxtaposed with a “lion in Africa”) to go back to Africa are not racists. And maybe the people carrying pictures of the President as a witch doctor would have done the same thing if John Edwards had been elected.
President Carter is not calling it racism because he disagrees with those who criticize the President's policies. He is naming the demon. We need to have the courage to cast it out. Then we can get back to debating the issues.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
But it’s important to separate truth from falsehood.
The resignation of Van Jones as the “Green Jobs Czar” (Why do we call them Czars? It’s a mid-level administrative post.) is unfortunate because he apparently knows a lot about green jobs. But in spite of what Keith Olberman thinks, it’s not because of racism.
Mr. Jones signed a petition which suggested that President Bush knew about or orchestrated the 9/11 attacks as a pretext for going to war. This should have disqualified him from the job in the first place. The 9/11 “Truthers” are as crazy as the “Birthers” and the “Deathers.” We need sanity.
Monday, September 7, 2009
On Tuesday, September 8, President Obama will address students at a school in Virginia and the address will be carried live over the internet to schools all across the country. He will talk about the virtues of learning and why it is important to stay in school.
Seems like a good idea to me.
Among some parents, however, this looks like a sinister plot to indoctrinate our children with socialist ideas. They say the president is overstepping his bounds.
Overstepping his bounds?
This sounds odd to a person who grew up watching “Big Brother Bob Emery” at noon time and joining him in drinking a “toast” of milk to the President of the United States (Eisenhower) while listening to “Hail to the Chief.” The President is the President. And even if you don’t agree with everything that he (or potentially, she) is doing, this is still the President.
But not this time. And not this President. At least not for some of the people. How can this be happening?
Part of it is the polarizing nature of our politics. But let’s be honest, a lot of it is racism.
We don’t want to say that, partly because we don’t want to believe that’s where we are as a country, and partly because we don’t want to offend those who legitimately disagree with the President’s policies.
Let’s be clear, not everyone who opposes the President’s policies is a racist. No one believes that John McCain, or Orrin Hatch, or Michael Steele is a racist. Most of the people who oppose one policy or another (or every policy) are not racists. They just see things differently.
But everyone who is a racist is opposed to the President.
And that is a problem. It is a problem because it distorts the public debate. It is a problem for those who may agree with the President. And it is a problem for those who may disagree. It is an insidious problem because we can’t talk about it without appearing to call everyone on that side of the issues a racist. And the racism infects the public discourse.
We don’t like to think of ourselves as prejudiced.
Not long after the time I was watching Big Brother Bob Emery, I became a fan of the Boston Celtics. Those were the Celtics of Cousy and Russell and Heinsohn and Sanders. After one of the games, the announcer was interviewing Bob Cousy, and he asked him about the two young guards who had just joined the team, Sam and K.C. Jones. “Well,” said Cousy, “personally I’m prejudiced, but I think they’re two of the best young guards in the league.” Actually, he said “pwed-ja-dissed.” And he called them “gods,” not guards. But my young mind reeled. My hero, Bob Cousy admitted on national television that he was prejudiced. I was glad that in spite of his prejudice he could see their talent, but even so, I was deeply disappointed. Of course it was not long before I realized that he meant he was prejudiced in favor of his teammates, not against Black people.
The truth is that we are all prejudiced in one way of another. We have regional prejudices and ethnic prejudices. We are prejudiced according to class, education, and occupation. Most of the time our prejudices are fairly benign and we are sufficiently aware of them to keep them from being harmful.
But the hatred of Obama goes beyond simple prejudice. When the bumper stickers and the signs call on "real Americans" to take back America, we know what they mean by "real."
After President Obama criticized the Cambridge Police Department in the Henry Louis Gates incident, commentator Glenn Beck said that Obama was a racist who had a deep hatred of white people. That’s silly. But it is also racist. Calling Glenn Beck a racist for calling President Obama a racist sounds like something that might happen on the school yard at recess in the fifth grade. But this is serious stuff. To put it more carefully, that is a racist remark made by a person who ought to know better. Perhaps more significantly, it shows us just how close to the surface the racial issues are. If Glenn Beck were just another fifth grader, it wouldn’t matter. But millions of people watch him. And many of them believe that he speaks for them.
If we are to move forward then we will have to speak the truth. We need to deal with the racism and separate it from legitimate disagreements.
One of the great moments in the Presidential campaign last fall was when a woman at a McCain rally said she was afraid of Barack Obama because he wasn’t a “real” American. The Senator dropped his campaign style and spoke calmly and clearly. You don’t need to be afraid of him, said the Senator, he is a good man. We just disagree on some important issues. In that moment, John McCain was speaking the truth in love. We need more moments like that.
Saturday, September 5, 2009
After Cain kills his brother Abel, he hears God calling to him, asking about Abel. And Cain answers with what he assumes is a rhetorical question:
“Am I my brother’s keeper?”
In his mind, that should end the discussion. Obviously, he is not his brother’s keeper. He is sure that Abel is not his responsibility and he is sure that God agrees with him.
But he is wrong. The question is not rhetorical. In fact some of the ancient rabbis argue that Cain’s question is the animating question for the whole Bible. The rest of the Bible, they assert, is an answer to Cain’s question, telling us over and over in a thousand different ways that we are responsible for our sisters and brothers.
“Listen,” says God, “Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”
From the beginning, the biblical narrative tells us that we are responsible for one another, and that God is listening to the victims. If we cannot hear the cries of those who are suffering, then we are simply not listening.
This is where we need to begin with the health care debate. I am my brother’s keeper. It is my responsibility to do something. Of course, I need to do more than something. I need to look for the right something to do. Good intentions are only that. We also need good results. We should have a reasoned discussion about what to do. But Christians can never claim that it is not our problem. My brother’s (or sister’s) problem is my problem.
From the beginning we have had a hard time letting our lives be shaped by biblical faith. Rather than let the Bible shape us, we want to shape the message to match what we already believe. Like Cain, we have a hard time believing something that is so contrary to what suits us. The problem is not that we are evil, but that we are divided. That is what it means to have free will and that is what it means to be responsible. As Paul Tillich observed, there is a part of us that wants to be separate from our sisters and brothers, from God, and even from ourselves. And we want to call that good.
In the health care debate there are many who want to believe that Cain’s question is only rhetorical. We are not responsible for others. That is not surprising. What is disappointing is that many of those who take that approach call themselves Christians.
Monday, August 31, 2009
In our family we were not Kennedy fans in the beginning. My parents and grandparents were Massachusetts Republicans. Leverett Saltonstall and Henry Cabot Lodge. Francis Sargent and Elliott Richardson. Ed Brooke. Joe Martin had a summer home half a mile away.
And within the Kennedy family, Teddy seemed far behind Jack and Bobby. He got his Senate seat because his brother was President.
He was, as everyone knows, a deeply flawed human being. Before Chappaquiddick he was thrown out of Harvard for cheating (although he went back and graduated after two years in the army). And after Chappaquiddick, there was the womanizing and the drinking.
His speech at the Democratic Convention in 1980 was one of the best I have ever heard. Though he was conceding the nomination, he promised that, “The dream will never die.” And it was a good dream, of equality and justice, of lifting up the poor, of peace and community. But after the speech, when he had the chance to embrace President Jimmy Carter and give the clear signal that he was backing his party’s choice, he held back and his reticence helped to elect Ronald Reagan.
I miss his clear voice on issues of social justice. Ironically, Ted Kennedy became the voice of conscience.
On a variety of issues, Ted had no fear of taking up an unpopular cause. He did not need a focus group to tell him what he should say or how he should say it. On everything from gay rights to the minimum wage, he would not waver. It didn’t hurt that he was so popular in Massachusetts, but there are plenty of popular leaders who seem to live in constant terror of losing their popularity.
For Ted, health care was a moral issue. It has been his issue for forty years. It would be good to hear his voice in the national debate.
As I listened to the speakers at his memorial service and then at his funeral mass, it was wonderful to hear the stories of friendships that transcended political boundaries. He respected those with whom he disagreed, and he was willing to work with them to do what needed to be done. In legislative matters, he was willing to take less than perfect in order to do something good. But he maintained his principles. Strategy was flexible. Principle was not. With Ted, everyone knew where he stood.
At his funeral mass, the Gospel lesson was from Matthew, chapter 25. It was Jesus’ description of the final judgment. Ultimately, says Jesus, the question is about what you have done for the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the outcast. As his parish priest said so eloquently, that was Ted’s vision and passion as a legislator.
Jack and Bobby’s little brother left a very large legacy.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Two interesting (amusing) points.
1. You'll notice that Lou Dobbs seems to have trouble with Adam's name. First he calls him "Leonard," impatiently asking "Leonard" to answer the question. I assume he is confusing him with Leonard Hamilton, who is head men's basketball coach at Florida State. Maybe Lou is an FSU fan, or maybe he remembers when Leonard Hamilton was coaching at Miami. Or maybe he's just a basketball fan. Later he calls him "Alexander," for Alexander Hamilton.
2. Bishop Jackson's argument against universal care is quite remarkable. He says that a few years ago he had a life-threatening bout with cancer. Because he had good insurance, he had the best care and he was cured. If we had universal coverage, he might not have received the limited expertise of the best doctors. Those who have the resources to pay for the best care should get it.
I have pasted the transcript below.
You can also go to Adam's blog and see the whole video at:
LOU DOBBS: Well, supporters of the president's health care plan are arguing that the government has a moral responsibility to provide health care for all Americans. But does it? That is the subject of tonight's face off debate.Joining me now is Reverend Adam Hamilton. He is a senior pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas. Reverend Hamilton says the government should be providing affordable health care for everyone.Reverend, great to have you with us.
REV. ADAM HAMILTON, UNITED METHODIST CHURCH OF THE RESURRECTION: Thank you very much, it's an honor.DOBBS: And Bishop Harry Jackson who is the senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Washington, D.C. He says that there should be no government intervention in health care whatsoever.Bishop, good to have you with us. We appreciate it.
BISHOP HARRY JACKSON, HOPE CHRISTIAN CHURCH: Good to be with you.DOBBS: Reverend Hamilton, let's begin with you, if I may, as we get this debate started. Why do you believe that the federal government has a moral responsibility to provide health care for everyone?
HAMILTON: I think it has a moral obligation to make accessible, affordable health care to everyone. Not everyone may take advantage of that, but it has an obligation for that. And I think part of the role of government is to offer the safety net needed for the most vulnerable of people in the country. So when I think of the most vulnerable of people, I'm not thinking about people who choose not to work, but people who are the working poor for whom giving up the equivalent of a house payment to be able to provide health insurance for their family is simply not possible.And I have been with people in my congregation who had to choose between making the mortgage payment or deciding to pay for their health insurance, and they choose the mortgage payment, or for people out of work, and certainly right now in this economic crisis, people who have been out of work for some time and their COBRA has run out.And I think we have to ask the question, what happens with these folks.
DOBBS: I'm really asking the basis for your statement that the federal government has a moral obligation.
HAMILTON: I guess the question is --
DOBBS: That's the question. Leonard, that's the question.
HAMILTON: Right. And so what constitutes a moral obligation, though? And a moral obligation is, in my mind, related to justice. So we look in the scriptures and we hear -- from a Christian perspective, we look in the scriptures, we find hundreds of calls for justice.DOBBS: All right.
HAMILTON: And when we think of justice, it's ensuring the rights of those that can't speak up for themselves and don't have access to...
DOBBS: Bishop Jackson, we just heard where Reverend Hamilton is coming from. Your view?
JACKSON: I believe, Lou, that we have a great health care system. A few years ago I was given a 15 percent chance of living, had cancer of the esophagus. And had I been denied or delayed treatment, Lou, I wouldn't be alive today.So one of the problems of this moral morass we're in is if you raise the cost of health care by broadening out all of the people that are going to need to get these services, what you may do is say that you're not going to get to certain people, that people that have urgent situations aren't going to get treated.We're going to be like some of the government that you overlooked or looked over and talked about. Also, I think --
DOBBS: We overlooked a couple, too, but we'll get back to them.
JACKSON: Forgive me for that. But the reality, then, is that my life worth less because I'm worth more in terms of net worth? Do we have the ability to say I'm going to get every homeless person health care even if it means you're going to have other people die?The government is going to have other people figure it out, and I believe historically the church has been the people who have decided that they are going to create hospitals, care for the sick and the needy and the poor, and the government is not known to manage things well, Lou.So I'm concerned that if we change these things, delay, denial means death.And I also want to get, if we get the time, into the issue of paid abortions, which will make it go up by 33 percent.
DOBBS: Let's get into that in just a moment. I want to let Reverend Hamilton respond.
HAMILTON: First of all, Lou, you've been highlighting countries over the last few episodes where they have health coverage available for more people than we have here in the United States, more folks who currently have no health care here.And that's not raised the price of health care insurance. It's actually lowered the price of health care coverage and what's spent per person.I think it's possible for us to maintain our current plan for those of us who are happy with it. I have good health insurance. I'm happy with that.What I'm concerned about, and I know Bishop Jackson has to be concerned with the people in his congregation as well, you know, 15 percent of the population for whom they don't have that access. What about those folks? And the scriptures call on us to speak up for those who can't speak up for themselves.And so I think we have to figure out, somehow we have to solve this problem. However it's solved, it's probably a combination of private and public.
JACKSON: But it doesn't mean endorsing this particular plan. The problem is we're steamrolling a plan that has not been thought out. Its implementation is horrible, and we need to slow our roll, analyze this thing, and do something that is responsible and moral.DOBBS: Let's get to the issue -- I'm sorry.
HAMILTON: I was going to say, to Bishop Jackson's point, we haven't -- I'm not endorsing the current plan either. I'm endorsing the idea behind having accessible health care coverage for everyone.
DOBBS: I think we can all sign up for the idea that it should be something better. From there, there seems to be absolutely no evidence of any kind empirically to support any kind of proposition in any stage of legislation either in the House or in the minds of those in leadership of the Congress or the White House as to what that might be.We have approval and disapproval ratings and the public opinion polls, and we don't even have a plan before us. This is as Bishop Jackson points out.Let me to the point that he raised. And Alexander -- I'm sorry, reverend, what is the morality here of federal funding here for abortion?
HAMILTON: First of all, Alexander was the secretary of the treasury, so maybe --
DOBBS: I did an association.
HAMILTON: But when it comes to abortion, first of all, I also with Bishop Jackson consider myself pro-life. I would not support public funding going to abortion.But everything I'm hearing from both sides is saying that's not going to be a part of this.DOBBS: Do you believe -- let me ask you this as a reverend. Do you really believe what you're hearing from either side on this? I want a real straightforward answer from a Christian good fearing man. Do you really believe what you're hearing from either side?
HAMILTON: I think there are folks who are trying to speak the truth in the midst of it. But there's so much heat and --
DOBBS: Do you go straight to heaven when you equivocate, or do you find yourself a Purgatory or something fancy like that?Bishop Jackson, you get the next one.
JACKSON: OK. Well, I believe that we really need to watch the advocates of this program. It's clearly been politicized.And Lou, it's almost like a sophisticated shell game. Folks are saying we want to do the best for the public, but you don't get to read the details or understand the details. And there are many nuances of this moral approach that we don't understand about.And I go back to the fact that I would not be here, Lou -- I had a 15 percent chance of living only, had the greatest health care in the world. Why do we jeopardize the care from the world's best doctors at a plan we don't even know what it is?
DOBBS: I'm sorry, go ahead, you get the last word.
HAMILTON: I was going to say, Lou, that's wonderful that Mr. Jackson had health insurance coverage so that he could still be here. But what about the people who don't.DOBBS: That's the only outcome we want, I'll guarantee you.
DOBBS: I'm sorry, your point?
HAMILTON: My point is that we would hope that -- what about the 15 percent of the population who don't have access to affordable care? They wouldn't be standing here with Bishop Jackson.
DOBBS: Then it becomes what about the number of people who, as Bishop Jackson is saying, who, under rationing, because there is a limitation to resources, would be denied health care?This becomes a circular argument I think. I understand your moral position, and I think that each of us is sympathetic to it. The moral quandary, obviously we're going to have to explore that. But we've got a lot of government exploration to do and a lot of government issues to overcome.Thank you very much. I hope you both will come back as we discuss this issue in the day and weeks ahead.
HAMILTON: Thank you, Lou.
JACKSON: Thank, Lou.
DOBBS: And Bishop Jackson, we're awful delighted that the result was, as Reverend Hamilton put it, extraordinary positive.JACKSON: Thank you.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Apparently, when it comes to Social Security taxes, the reverse is true. Less is required of those who have more.
An article by Ellen Schultz in the Wall Street Journal points to a largely unnoticed result of the widening wealth gap in the United States. The fact that a lower total percentage of all wages are subject to Social Security taxes has reduced the amount in the fund.
In 2002 executive pay accounted for 28% of all wages. By 2007 that amount had risen to 33% of the total. This means that a lower percentage of total wages are subject to Social Security.
We often hear commentators telling us that Social Security is going bankrupt. We seldom hear them pointing the finger, as the Wall Street Journal does, at executive compensation. Simply put, the wealthiest people are not paying their fair share.
In 1982, 90% of all wages were subject to Social Security. That amount has now shrunk to 83%. This shift results in lost revenue of $115 billion per year. If the Social Security maximum were adjusted to be comparable to 1982 levels, the fund would be solvent for the next 75 years.
You can read the full article by following this link:
Thursday, August 13, 2009
According to the news reports, what links them together is hypocrisy. Coach Pitino, described as a devout Roman Catholic, had drunken sex with a woman who later tried to blackmail him. Governor Sanford, described as a devout Evangelical Christian, had an extramarital affair. And Big Papi, who told the media during Spring Training that guys who use steroids are ruining baseball and should be banned for a year, turned up on a 2003 list of those who tested positive for performance enhancing drugs.
Each is a sad story in it's own way. Even if you don't like Pitino or Sanford (EVERYBODY likes Big Papi), you have to feel for their wives and children. And David Ortiz was one of the guys you really wanted to believe was doing it the right way.
What the stories have in common, is the emphasis on hypocrisy.
Let's be honest. Most of us love this stuff. Gossip is always good, but it is even better if the object of the report is himself (or herself) a finger-pointing, self-righteous Puritan.
But the emphasis on "hypocrisy" says more about us than it does about them.
Rick Pitino has a friend who is a priest and often leads the team in prayer before a game. We'll assume that the prayer is for good sportsmanship and safety, rather than victory, and count it as a good thing. It doesn't become a bad thing because the coach cheated on his wife. We would like people to be less complex, but they aren't.
Governor Sanford is against equal rights for Gays and Lesbians. I think he is wrong on that. But he isn't more wrong because he had an affair. He is wrong twice, but they are really separate issues.
Most of us (I think) are aware of at least some of the brokenness (sin, estrangement, failings) in our own lives. And we take a perverse pleasure in telling ourselves, "I may have my faults, but at least I am not a bad as so and so." If the person we name once had a high standing, then it is even better.
But the comparisons are false in the sense that our own lives do not get better because someone else's got worse. It is as if we thought that life was graded on a curve. If the smart kid at the front of the class only got a "78," then my "C" suddenly became an "A." But it doesn't work that way. All of us depend on God's grace, and each of us is responsible for our own lives.
Jesus asked, "Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your neighbor's eye." (Matthew 7:3-5) Somehow we feel as if finding the speck in a neighbor's eye makes the log in our own eyes smaller, but it doesn't.
Monday, August 10, 2009
These two contradictory narratives, of peace through violence, and peace through justice, are on my mind as I contemplate “Victory Day,” a holiday commemorating the American victory over Japan that ended World War II, which is observed only in Rhode Island.
Yesterday in worship we sang, “I Will Call Upon the Lord.” It is one of my favorite contemporary Christian hymns. It is upbeat and hopeful. The tune is easy to sing. It is a happy song.
I will call upon the Lord
who is worthy to be praised.
So shall I be saved from my enemies. . .
The Lord liveth and blessed by the Rock;
and let the God of my salvation be exalted
He trains my hands for war,
so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
You have given me the shield of your salvation,
and your help has made me great.
You have made me stride freely, and my feet do not slip;
I pursued my enemies and destroyed them,
and did not turn back until they were consumed.
I consumed them; I struck them down,
so that they did not rise;
they fell under my feet.
For you girded me with strength for the battle;
you made my assailants sink under me.
You made my enemies turn their backs to me,
those who hated me, and I destroyed them.
They looked, but there was no one to save them;
they cried to the Lord, but he did not answer them.
I beat them fine like the dust of the earth,
I crushed them and stamped them down like the mire of the streets.
II Samuel 22:35-43
There was no one to save them.
Is that, as we say after the reading of scripture, “the Word of the Lord”? I do not believe that it is. It is part of the Bible. It is even an important part of the Bible. It says something everlastingly significant. But it is not the word we are called to live.
We are called to live in the counter-narrative, which runs throughout the Hebrew Scriptures on a parallel course, and comes to life in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This counter-narrative proclaims the Kingdom of God as a radical alternative to the normalcy of violence we find in the kingdoms and empires of this world.
During World War II, Harry Emerson Fosdick was a prophetic voice for the Kingdom of God. In February of 1944 he preached a sermon called, “Righteousness First.” Based on Jesus’ commandment to “seek first the Kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness,” Fosdick argued for the importance of winning the peace after we win the war. Near the end of the sermon, he references the repeated calls to “support our boys” in the war. We should and must support them, he argues, but we need to support more than the winning of the war, we need to support the highest ideals of Christ’s teaching.
“They will win the war, --at what cost!—but we along with them must win the peace, and at that point we run again into the everlasting truth of Jesus’ law: we cannot put party first, or economic self-interest first, or absolute national sovereignty first, or imperialistic greed first, or racial prejudice first. If we do, we shall be rightly damned forever in the estimation of our offspring. We must put righteousness first.”
Only a just and lasting peace can justify the horror of war and bring real victory.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
“War is essentially the denial of everything Christ stood for.”
Harry Emerson Fosdick
This morning I am contemplating Hiroshima and meditating on a book by Harry Emerson Fosdick.
One of our summer traditions is going to the Fourth of July Parade in Bath, Maine. The parade, which is the largest in the State of Maine, is the centerpiece of “Bath Heritage Days,” a festive occasion of craft fares, displays and sales. We always go to the library book sale, and this year I found a wonderful little book of sermons by Harry Emerson Fosdick.
Fosdick looks better and better to me as the years go by. When I was in seminary, I thought he was a theological and intellectual lightweight. In my estimation, opposing Fundamentalism was obvious. And liberal theology was a captive of its culture. But now, when I re-read “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” I am struck by its relevance for our time. Fosdick’s liberal theology, which seemed so pale and lifeless when I was in seminary, now looks both profound and prophetic. Truthfully, I held those negative opinions based almost entirely on what other people had said or written. My opinion changed as I began to read Fosdick for myself.
Still, I was put off by the title of the book, “A Great Time to Be Alive.” I assumed that it would be a sugary recitation of happy insights from the 1950’s. Optimism pretending to be faith. I bought it because I have a small collection of Fosdick books, but I did not expect much.
In fact, it is a collection of sermons written and preached during the Second World War. He talks about the challenges facing the Christian Church in a time of war. The book was published in the summer of 1944, shortly after the Normandy invasion, when the outcome of the war was not yet certain. Fosdick had the courage, in that perilous time, to declare that war is always at odds with Christian teaching. It may be necessary, but it is never good. “Whether one thinks of what our enemies have done to us—of Warsaw, Lidice, Rotterdam, Coventry—or what we have done to them—‘We literally drop liquid fire on these cities,’ says one expert in air warfare, ‘and literally roast the populations do death.’”
He assumes that we will win the war. Hitler will be defeated and Imperial Japan will be vanquished, but the real challenge will be to win the peace, to create a world which is worthy of the human lives lost in war. “Many Americans,” he writes, “would love to save the world if only they could save it without changing their isolationism, without changing their ideas of absolute national sovereignty, without changing their racial prejudices and their economic ideas to fit the new interdependent world.” Sadly, those words are still relevant. We still want to save the world without giving up anything.
In many ways, we did “win the peace.” The Marshall Plan was an incredible effort to rebuild the nations we had defeated, and it led to decades of post-war prosperity. We have made great strides in race relations. And the United Nations, for all its shortcomings, is still at the center of maintaining peace in the world. In other ways, we are still struggling to recognize the ties that bind us together and embrace the interdependence of God’s world.
For a stark pictorial remembrance of Hiroshima, use the following link:
Tomorrow, August 6th, marks 64 years since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan by the United States at the end of World War II. Targeted for military reasons and for its terrain (flat for easier assessment of the aftermath), Hiroshima was home to approximately 250,000 people at the time of the bombing. The U.S. B-29 Superfortress bomber "Enola Gay" took off from Tinian Island very early on the morning of August 6th, carrying a single 4,000 kg (8,900 lb) uranium bomb codenamed "Little Boy". At 8:15 am, Little Boy was dropped from 9,400 m (31,000 ft) above the city, freefalling for 57 seconds while a complicated series of fuse triggers looked for a target height of 600 m (2,000 ft) above the ground. At the moment of detonation, a small explosive initiated a super-critical mass in 64 kg (141 lbs) of uranium. Of that 64 kg, only .7 kg (1.5 lbs) underwent fission, and of that mass, only 600 milligrams was converted into energy - an explosive energy that seared everything within a few miles, flattened the city below with a massive shockwave, set off a raging firestorm and bathed every living thing in deadly radiation. Nearly 70,000 people are believed to have been killed immediately, with possibly another 70,000 survivors dying of injuries and radiation exposure by 1950. Today, Hiroshima houses a Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum near ground zero, promoting a hope to end the existence of all nuclear weapons.
Boston Globe 8/5/09