Thursday, October 29, 2009

Will Maine Discriminate?

“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.”
Mark 13:37

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

Sports and the Death Penalty

And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?
Luke 18:8

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

The Rich Get Richer

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet.”
James 2:1-3

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

Coming Out

Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
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.”
John 11:43-44

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

Noah's Story

Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.”
Luke 9:38

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.