Thursday, September 30, 2010

Speaking the Truth, or Not

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knitted 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 4:14-16

When opponents of healthcare reform talked about “death panels,” Representative Alan Grayson set out to prove that not all of the crazy people were opposed to reform. Establishing his own credentials as one who fully embraces craziness, he characterized the Republican health care plan as:

Don’t get sick.
If you do get sick . . .
Die quickly.

Even if we give the congressman the benefit of the doubt for a quirky sense of humor and an attempt at sarcasm, it didn’t exactly advance the debate or clarify the issues. Amazingly, if you go to his reelection web site, you will find that he remains proud of his statement.

Now, he is at it again.

His opponent in the fall election is Daniel Webster (that really is his name). In a political advertisement, Representative Grayson calls Webster “Taliban Dan” and shows a video clip of Mr. Webster telling wives to “submit to their husbands.”

The clip is taken from an address that Mr. Webster gave to a group of couples. He was talking about their need to pray for each other and he suggested that when husbands choose a Bible verse to guide how they look at their wives, they should not choose the verse that says wives should “submit” to their husbands. Instead, they should focus on the related verse which calls upon husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, and to sacrifice for them as Christ sacrificed for the church. In other words, Mr. Webster was saying precisely the opposite of what Representative Grayson claims he said.

The “Taliban Dan” tag would be over the top even without the deceptive editing of Mr. Webster’s speech. We have enough trouble debating serious issues in a thoughtful manner, without lying about what someone is saying.

As the Apostle admonished his friends in Ephesus, we need to speak the truth. And we need to speak the truth in love. Especially when the issues and the differences are important.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Hey, Look at Me!

Jesus said to them, “You are those who want to make yourselves look good in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.”
Luke 16:15

I think I was in Junior High I heard this totally wonderful Bill Cosby record. And, yes, it was a record, and I probably still have it, although our record player ceased to work some time in the previous millennium. It might have been the same record that had the famous “Noah” routine. But that’s not the monologue I’m remembering now.

This one was about a speech by the High School football coach about what to do if they were injured on the field. The most critical thing, for the coach, was that no matter how badly they were hurt; there were certain parts of their bodies that they must not touch. At least on game day with hundreds of parents and children and young girls in the stands watching.

It was hilarious.

I’m guessing that Jonathon Papelbon has never heard that (or any?) Bill Cosby routine. In any case, he did not take it to heart.

Earlier this season, when the Red Sox were still in the pennant race, Papelbon blew a save against the Yankees and gave up a home run to Alex Rodriguez. That was bad enough, but I was surprised to see that as he turned around to follow the flight of the ball, he grabbed himself where Bill Cosby’s coach said an athlete shouldn’t touch.


I assumed that this was a behavior reserved for either A-Rod or the Yankees or (worst case) home runs. I forgot about it. The truth is that because I go to bed early, I don’t that often see the end of a game. By the time Papelbon comes in to close a game, I am either asleep or listening on the radio.

But I saw him this week and it’s possible this grabbing routine takes place after every hit. I haven’t checked the tapes, but this has not been a good year for Pap and there would have been a lot of that. As long as he was striking out people, it was all good. When he strikes someone out, he just pumps his fist.

I do not wish to speak ill of the dead, but people who study popular culture much more assiduously than I do say that it can all be traced to Michael Jackson. Great singer. Loved the Moon Walk. But he was a strange dude. Is this his legacy?

You may ask who cares. Does it make any difference? And compared to certain song lyrics and music videos, it's pretty tame.

I think it does matter. I am not a prude (at least by clergy standards). I have made a career out of irreverence (again, by clergy standards). And some people think I am a fairly tasteless person. But crude and coarse are not good for our common life.

It is part of a larger tendency to call attention to ourselves, not by achieving something or doing something good and right, but just by calling attention. It’s like celebrities who are famous for being famous.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Lady GaGa Gets It Right

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Romans 12:2

The Senate should listen to Lady GaGa. (Did I actually say that out loud?)


Very weird.

I am not a fan of Lady Gaga, whose real name is Stefani Germanotta. Honestly I don’t think I have very heard one of her songs. They don’t play them on “Cat Country” or “Cool 102” or “The Classical Station.”

I doubt that Paul had her in mind when he said that we should not be “conformed to this world.” And I doubt that she thinks of the Epistle to the Romans when she conjures up her latest outrageous statement or wardrobe. But we live in strange times.

Lady GaGa was in Portland (I have a hard time imagining her in Maine) yesterday at a rally in support of starting the process to repeal the military policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which prevents gay men and women from openly serving in the military. The rally was in Maine because supporters of repeal are hoping that Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snow (affectionately known in political circles as “the girls from Maine”) would break ranks with fellow Republicans and vote to start the process of repeal. The vote should come some time this afternoon.

In theory, DADT was supposed to prevent witch-hunts and promote a sort of “live and let live,” let’s just “mind our own business” compromise on homosexuality, but it never really worked that way. In practice it has led to harassment and encouraged discrimination.

The Associated Press reported that Lady GaGa proposed her own substitute for DADT:

She railed against what she called the injustice of having goodhearted gay soldiers booted from military service while straight soldiers who harbor hatred toward gays are allowed to fight for their country. She suggested a new policy should target straight soldiers who are “uncomfortable’’ with gay soldiers in their midst. “Our new law is called ‘If you don’t like it, go home!’ ’’

It sounds odd at first, and it’s hard to take someone seriously who showed up at an awards show in a dress made of meat (I think that’s true), but if the problem is that some members of the military are uncomfortable serving next to homosexuals, then maybe they shouldn’t be serving. When the Armed Forces were fully integrated under President Truman, many white soldiers and sailors threatened to do just that, and the military answer was exactly what Lady proposed.

Major Michael Almy, who was discharged because of DADT, was asked if it was strange to have Lady GaGa as a spokesperson for a cause he supports, but he turned that around in his answer, “It’s a sad day,” he said, “when Lady GaGa has exercised more leadership on this issue than most of our elected officials in Washington.”

In an editorial this morning, the Portland Press Herald began by observing the obvious: “We are not used to getting our defense policy advice from people with names like Lady Gaga, and we assume that neither are Maine's Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.” Then the editorial went on to say, “Still, we hope the senators paid attention to the pop diva's visit to Portland Monday, because we think the singer is on the right side of the issue when it comes to the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell.”

As William Cowper wrote in a famous hymn that I don’t think I have ever sung,

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;

Friday, September 17, 2010

Glenn Beck and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
Luke 12:51-53

This is only my second blog post in September. And there is a reason for that.

Ever since the Glenn Beck rally on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech, I have wanted to comment but I have worried about just adding to the general hysteria. And yet I couldn’t seem to move on and comment on anything else.

Is it possible to speak about polarizing events and personalities, without just adding to the polarization? And on the other hand, if pastors avoid controversial issues, are they not guilty of abandoning their responsibility to look at the world, as Karl Barth said, with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other?

The religious tone of the event caught many people by surprise, even though Mr. Beck spent a lot of time leading up to the event telling his audience that he was trying to leave room for the Spirit to speak through him.

From a Christian perspective, there is much to criticize in Glenn Beck’s vision of America. Some of what he says is a rejection of central parts of the Gospel (his objection to “Social Justice” is a prime example). But he is right to call for a spiritual renewal in our society.

Many of us get nervous when we hear “politics” and “God” in the same sentence. We are reminded of Holy Wars and Crusades, and we know that few people are more intolerant than those who are certain that God is on their side. The caution is understandable and appropriate. But as Christian citizens we have a unique responsibility to wrestle with these issues, especially in a time when politicians often seem eager to claim God’s support for narrowly partisan issues.

The Bible is a profoundly political book. The prophets proclaim God’s passion for justice as the foundation of the social order. And the message of Jesus is centered on “the good news of the Kingdom of God.” In the Lord’s Prayer, our first petition is, “Thy Kingdom come.”

When the early church spoke of Jesus as “Lord,” and “Savior,” and “Son of God,” they knew that all of these terms were used to apply to the Emperor. And they knew that the Empire had killed Jesus because he was a political threat. When early Christians said that Jesus was “Lord,” they were also saying, “and Caesar is not.”

Jesus invites us, as he invited his first century disciples, to claim our citizenship in the Kingdom of God. In the old United Methodist liturgical calendar the Sundays from the end of August to the beginning of Advent were known as the season of “Kingdomtide.” It was a time to reflect on the biblical promise of the Kingdom of God and to ask ourselves what the world would look like if we were serious about building the Kingdom of God on earth.

Glenn Beck would not agree with my vision of the Kingdom of God, and he wouldn’t agree with John Wesley’s vision or Martin Luther King’s, either. But he is still right when he calls for bringing faith into the public arena.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Grand Design

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
Psalm 19:1-4

Dwight Garner’s New York Times review of Stephen Hawking’s new book, “The Grand Design,” is titled, “Many Kinds of Universes, and None Require God.” To be fair to Mr. Garner, the title of the article was probably not his choice, and it makes the article sound more negative than it really is. His point is that one can do physics without doing theology. It is possible to construct many different theories of how the universe came to be the way it is without invoking the idea of God.

Ironically, “The Grand Design” does not have a Designer.

This, of course, is not a new thought.

What makes it noteworthy is that it appears to represent a shift for Hawking. In his “Brief History of Time,” published in 1988, Garner points out that in that book he included what science writer Timothy Ferris calls “Godmongering.” He ended the book by suggesting that a unified theory of physics could help us to “know the mind of God.”

In his most recent book, Hawking declares that his exploration of the question, “How did the universe begin?” has led him to the conclusion that the creation of our universe and others simply “does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god.”

This, however, goes beyond the assertion that one can do physics without doing theology, and makes a theological statement. And it implies at least two theological assumptions: that God is a “supernatural being,” and that God is outside of the universe. The assumption is that for God to be involved in creation this supernatural being would have to intervene from outside.

But not all theists are supernatural theists. A discipline of “natural theology” has existed for centuries. And not all theists have a concept of God as outside of the universe. One of the classical criticisms of Paul Tillich is that his theology does not adequately distinguish God and the universe.

Garner concludes his review by coming back to Timothy Ferris and what he calls his “excellent book,” “The Whole Shebang,” written in 1997:

“Religious systems are inherently conservative, science inherently progressive,” Mr. Ferris wrote. Religion and science don’t have to be hostile to each other, but we can stop setting them up on blind dates. “This may be an instance,” Mr. Ferris added, “where good walls make good neighbors.”

We can agree, I think, that science is inherently progressive. But religion is not inherently conservative. In fact, from beginning to end, the Bible is about how the people of God have continually been called to move forward. Biblical faith is, like science, inherently progressive. God called Abraham and Sarah to go “to the land that I will show you.” Moses led the People of Israel out of Egypt and into the wilderness. They were tempted, repeatedly, to go back, but faith called them forward. When Jesus announced the Kingdom of God, he wasn’t calling his followers to reclaim some past virtue or glory; he was calling them to join with God in creating a new future. God is always doing “a new thing,” and we are called to be “New Creations.”

For faithful Christians, scientific exploration is always an ally and never the enemy.

As the Psalmist said, “the heavens are telling the glory of God.” If we believe that this really is God’s world, then learning about it is always a good thing.