Monday, September 28, 2009


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

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

Guiding Light

We have no “Guiding Light.”

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

Racism is the Demon

Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him they begged him to leave their neighborhood.
Matthew 8:34

I said they refused Jesus, too, and he said, “You’re not him.”
Bob Dylan

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

Van Jones and Racism: NOT

On Monday I wrote about speaking the truth on racism. I continue to believe that much of the anti-Obama rhetoric is fueled by latent (or overt) racism.

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

Racism and Opposition to the Education Speech

Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
Ephesians 4:15-16

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

On Healthcare: Am I My Brother's Keeper?

Health care is a complicated issue. We can argue for a long time about the details of a solution. But our approach to the problem turns on an ancient question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

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.