Thursday, February 25, 2010

Teaching (or not) in Central Falls

He also told them a parable: “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
Luke 6:39-42

Jesus was a teacher.

I think about that when I think about the teachers in Central Falls. The teachers at the High School made the national news this week when they were fired by the Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Frances Gallo.

The High School has been classified as a failure and in many ways it’s hard to argue with that assessment. Less than 50% of the students graduate. As a group they are way behind grade level standards in every category.

On a CNN segment, both the reporter and the host pointed out more than once that most of the students lived in poverty, while the teachers were paid more than the national average. The implications were clear. The overpaid teachers were not helping the poor students.

It’s not easy being a teacher, especially in a place like Central Falls. If the students are failing, then the teachers must be at fault.

When the students in Barrington or East Greenwich, or Wellesley or Weston (MA), or some other affluent community do well on their standardized tests, we nod and tell ourselves that anyone could teach those kids. They are bright and motivated and their parents are always helping. But when the students in Hartford or Providence or Central Falls are failing, then it must be the teacher’s fault.

We are appalled when we see failing schools. And we should be. But there are no simple solutions. Teaching children is not like making widgets. In the widget factory you have to worry about all sorts of labor and logistical problems. But the widgets-in-process will show up every day. They won’t be hungry, or stressed by home situations. They won’t skip the assembly line or talk back or get sick. And they are completely predictable.

The complexity of schools is almost beyond description.

When I was in Manchester, at one of our clergy meetings a woman came and talked to us about the problem of kids wearing gang colors in the High School. Later, when I recounted the meeting to a friend who taught kindergarten, he laughed and said, “Our kids aren’t in gangs, but their parents are.” I confess that had never occurred to me and it put a whole new perspective on parent-teacher conferences.

I have only read the outline of Superintendent Gallo’s plan for “transforming” the High School. It seemed sensible enough, but I have a hard time believing it will really transform the High School.

The truth is that Dr. Gallo doesn’t know what to do. Not really. Not with any certainty. And Education Commissioner Dr. Deborah Gist doesn’t know, either.

They know some things that will help. They have ideas. But there is no simple prescription for success.

Jesus asked why we see so clearly the speck in the eye of a neighbor, but we cannot see the log that blocks our own vision. It’s always easier to blame other people. The administration blames the teachers and the teachers blame the administration.

It is, as Jesus said, like the blind leading the blind. And one of the few things we know with real certainty is that we have fallen into the ditch. There is more than enough blame to go around. But blaming won’t get us out of the ditch. We need to work together.

And while we are removing specks and logs, it might be a good time to remind ourselves that we ought to have broader vision. Those of us who live in other towns need to do more than wring our hands and point our fingers. This isn’t just a problem for Central Falls. This is an issue for the state and the nation. City boundaries and school district lines are arbitrary. Those kids are our kids. Their future is our future.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Tiger's Confession

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
from Psalm 51

Lent is the perfect time for confession. And for preachers everywhere, this was a gift.

If sermons were as popular as golf, there would be an over/under on the number sermons that will talk about Tiger’s confession and his temptations on the First Sunday in Lent. Maybe even odds on how many times the average sermon will mention him.

Most of the commentaries I read (a word from biblical scholarship now applied to our form of sacred text, the video) talked about Tiger’s scripted performance and how this was carefully designed to restore his image for sponsors.

I may be na├»ve, but that’s not what I saw.

I was amazed at how he repeatedly emphasized that he was the only one responsible for his situation. And he was clear that this was not just a “mistake.” His actions were the result of a character flaw. He was selfish. He felt entitled. He thought that the normal rules did not apply to him. He needs to change.

To me it was as remarkable as that continually replayed shot at the Master’s a few years ago. Real confessions are very rare. People often admit “mistakes.” They will even say that they have lost their way. We don’t admit that we are selfish. And most of the time we try to get others to share our blame.

Only Tiger knows whether that was sincere. But it looked that way to me.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Unmoved Mover

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
Genesis 1:1-5

In a recent column in her church newsletter, my colleague Barbara Fast, Pastor of Westminster Unitarian Church, commented on how faith is often found in the ordinary and the everyday. She talked about the spiritual implications of a recent episode of the TV program, “Bones.”

The program is based on the life of a female forensic anthropologist. Bones is a committed atheist. In a recent episode she talked about what happens when her “faith in reason and consequences is shaken.” She said she remembers that 2 + 2 still equals 4. “I put sugar in my coffee and it tastes sweet. The sun comes up because the world turns. These things are beautiful to me. There are mysteries I will never understand, but everywhere I look I see proof for every effect there is a corresponding cause, even if I cannot see it. I find that reassuring. . . . Life is good again. Life is very good.”

Two observations.

First, I find it ironic that she has translated Aristotle’s classic argument for God as the “unmoved mover” into modern informal language. Aristotle argued that since everything is caused by something, the world must itself be caused by something. That first cause, the “unmoved mover,” is what Aristotle calls God. There is more to the argument of course, but those are the “bones” of it.

Second, it is amazing that different people can look at the same phenomena and come to very different conclusions. Bones sees cause and effect and predictable order, and concludes that the world is nothing more than actions and reactions. For centuries, Christians have looked at that same predictable and orderly world and seen it as evidence of God.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Science and Theology and Tucker Carlson

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Matthew 22:36-40

A couple of nights ago, I caught just a portion of a roundtable discussion in which I heard Tucker Carlson proclaim that, “Theology is the enemy of science.”

Did he really say that?

In fact, he did. It was near the end of a discussion of climate change and global warming, in which the participants were generally criticizing scientists for letting their political beliefs get in the way of their analysis. To their credit, the commentators specifically noted that the current weather in Washington has no bearing on whether or not global warming is a reality. This is how he summarized the issue:

. . . today's storm doesn't affect the science. But that's not what is causing doubts. It's the proof, the manipulation of data by some climate scientists have raised doubts sufficient that a real debate can take place.

And that is a victory for all people who believe in free inquiry and the scientific method. We need a debate. Theology is the enemy of science. That's true in every case, including global warming.

Christians have been, and continue to be, on both sides of the debate about climate change. And some on both sides have undoubtedly had their reading of the science influenced by their political beliefs. But that is not my focus right now.

From a theological perspective, I am most concerned about Mr. Carlson’s declaration that theology is always the enemy of science.

Certainly, we need to admit (confess?) that in the United States the conflict has most often been initiated by Fundamentalists and Literalists attacking scientific theories and ideas based on their narrow reading of the Bible. But in more recent years, the secularists have gone on the offensive and have sometimes claimed that religion is inherently opposed to science. Tucker Carlson is just the latest example.

This is simply not true for most Christian and Jewish theologians. In our United Methodist tradition we have been clear in our insistence on a thinking faith. We do not park our minds at the door when we go to worship.

When we approach theological issues we use something called the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” named for John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. The four corners of the Quadrilateral are Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral represents John Wesley’s methodology for theological reflection and ethical decision-making. Simply put, Wesley believed that a sound theological perspective begins with scripture, testing individual texts against the whole of the biblical witness, and then reasoning about the issue, using the tradition of the church as well as every aspect of our experience.

Science plays a part in two quadrants. Reason includes scientific reasoning, as well as common sense and philosophical reasoning. And experience includes the data of science as wells as personal experience and the experience of the community of faith.

For us, science is never the enemy of theology; it is a partner. We believe in free inquiry and in the scientific method. We believe in the pursuit of truth. If we are serious about loving God with our minds, we have to be open to scientific inquiry.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Super Bowl Celebrations

Psalm 100
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.

When Matt Stover came out to attempt a field goal on the Colts’ opening drive, they announced that he was not only the oldest man ever to play in a Super Bowl; he was the oldest player ever to suit up. It was long and he made it. Score one for the old guys.

In the second half he came out for another attempt. This one was also long and this time he missed it. As with every field goal attempt, they replay it and try to tell you why the kicker did or didn’t send it through the uprights. After showing the foot strike the ball, the replay stayed focused on Stover and showed him holding up both arms, pointing to the sky as the kick sailed wide.

How embarrassing is that, I thought to myself, he was celebrating because he thought he made it. And he missed! But the announcer quickly explained that this was not a mistake. Stover, he said, is a very spiritual man and he does that after every kick, whether he makes it or not.

What a wonderful witness.

I am not a big fan of pointing to the heavens. It reinforces simplistic theological images of God as “the man upstairs.” And even if I believed that God was micromanaging our affairs, I would still have a hard time believing that God was guiding footballs.

But Matt Stover’s witness is something quite different. It’s not about winning or losing. It’s not about success or failure. It is a blessing to play the game and enjoy the game. It is a blessing to be able to kick the football.

And it’s a blessing to see someone celebrate that.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Sarah Palin and the "R" Word

Can a woman forget her nursing child,
Or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
Yet the LORD will not forget you.
Isaiah 49:15

In part, at least, it is a soap opera masquerading as a news story. We have seen a lot of that lately. But there is a point to this.

The President’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel referred to a plan suggested by a group of dissident Democrats as “F---ing retarded.” And Sarah Palin took him to task for his insensitive remarks. According to the New York Post, she commented on her Facebook page, “Rahm’s slur on all God’s children with cognitive and developmental disabilities – and the people who love them – is unacceptable, and it’s heartbreaking.” She went on to say that the President should fire him.

Not long after that, Rush Limbaugh, apparently unaware of Governor Palin’s remarks, went on a rant about how what the dissident group was doing really was “retarded” and should be so labeled. And he came down hard on the “Political Correctness” of those who object to the labeling.

And then Keith Olberman declared that if she did not wish to reveal herself to be a complete hypocrite, Ms. Palin must denounce Mr. Limbaugh and demand that he should be fired. High drama.

Three points:

Rahm Emanuel was wrong.
Rush Limbaugh was wrong.
And Sarah Palin should get no flak from anyone on this.

I am not a Sarah Palin fan. But in this case, she’s just a mom defending her child. Her littlest one has Down's Syndrome. The slur is personal. It is about her baby. And it is a reminder that beyond all the posturing, politicians are real people, with hurts and hopes and dreams.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

God's Children in Haiti

“Many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers’.”
Matthew 7:22

Not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord!” understands what it means to follow Jesus. And in the end, probably none of us fully and completely understands.

But thankfully, most of us know something about what it is not. So we know that going to Haiti and scooping up children off the street and trying to take them out of the country is probably not what Jesus had in mind when he invited us to follow him.

The story about the “church group” from Idaho that tried to take Haitian children out of the country is troubling on many different levels. It’s troubling because it points again to the desperate poverty and chaos of the country, and it reminds us of how much of that burden is borne by little children. But it’s also troubling because it shows how even with the best of intentions, people of good will can do great harm.

First and most important is the potential or real harm done to the children. This is one more major trauma in their lives. The group claimed to be rescuing orphans, but the Haitian government is convinced that at least some of the children are not orphans. For all of the children, in one way or another, it is a nightmare.

The harm done to what we used to call “the cause of Christ,” is not on the same level. But it is still important. The story in the New York Times describes what happened without making harsh judgments about the group. (You can read the story by using this link: But the comments show that some people take it as one more piece of evidence that Christians are not to be trusted. One person commented that as soon as he heard the story, he knew that they were a group of “religious nuts.”

The father of one of the leaders in the group said, “I can’t at all question where they went and what they did because I’m really convinced it was at God’s direction,” he said. “They were acting in faith. That may sound trivial, but they were acting not only in faith but God’s faith.”

If they were following God’s direction, then how can we question it?

Interestingly, the biblical answer is that we can question it. The Bible has lots of examples in which our ancestors in faith questioned God, not just once, but repeatedly. There is a strong Hebrew tradition of arguing with God. But in our modern context, we can and should question whether that inner voice is really from God.

Saying, “Lord, Lord,” is not enough. It is not even a small fraction of enough