Tuesday, March 29, 2011

One Great Hour of Sharing

Jesus said, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” Matthew 7:24-27

Infrastructure is important.

On April 3rd we will join with United Methodists around the world in “One Great Hour of Sharing.” The gifts we give will support and maintain the foundation of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, and make all of our relief efforts possible.

One Great Hour of Sharing began after World War II, in a time when Protestant churches were growing dramatically, and Protestant denominations were reaching cultural dominance in the United States. It was a time of optimism and institution building. People wanted to belong, and the church was at the center that belonging. We are more fragmented now. We care less about institutions and denominational labels are no longer important. In many ways, those changes are good, but they have made it much more difficult to maintain a world-wide mission.

In 2010 United Methodists gave more than ever before to support mission work around the world, beginning with a huge offering for earthquake relief in Haiti. At the same time, contributions to One Great Hour of Sharing declined by 13%. Money given to One Great Hour of Sharing doesn’t go directly to Haiti or Japan. It goes to support the infrastructure that makes relief in Haiti and Japan possible.

One Great Hour of Sharing pays for the foundation. It pays to maintain field offices and mission networks around the world. It keeps the lights on. And because OGHS keeps the lights on, when we give to special efforts in Haiti or Japan, every dollar (100%) goes directly to relief work.

In our results oriented culture, we want to see a direct connection between what we do and the difference that it makes. If it won’t make a visible difference, then we don’t want to do it. This is true in the concrete infrastructure of our country, in the roads and bridges, and it is true in the administrative infrastructure of relief organizations and churches. We have no patience with the work that must be done behind the scenes.

Infrastructure is a tough sell. People often say, “I don’t want to give money just to keep the lights on,” or “just to keep the building open.” That is understandable. It feels good to know that what we are giving is going to meet a direct need. But without the basic infrastructure, it is impossible to deliver relief efficiently.

Foundations and infrastructure are not exciting. They seldom inspire. But unless they are solid, the house will not survive the storm.

In One Great Hour of Sharing we build, sustain, and expand the foundation for a relief program that is always ready to respond around the world.

Friday, March 25, 2011

One Hundred Years Ago Today

In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor— let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.
For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart, those greedy for gain curse and renounce the LORD.
In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, “God will not seek it out”; all their thoughts are, “There is no God.”
Psalm 10:2-4

One hundred years ago today, just a few minutes before closing time on a Saturday, a fire started, probably in a waist bin, at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, located on the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of a Manhattan factory building. All but one of the exits had been locked to prevent the workers from taking unauthorized breaks.

Louis Waldman, later a New York State Assemblyman, was reading in a nearby library when he heard the fire companies responding. He ran out to join the crowd in the street and remembered the scene this way:

"Word had spread through the East Side, by some magic of terror, that the plant of the Triangle Waist Company was on fire and that several hundred workers were trapped. Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies."
In the New York Times the next day the story included this grim report: “The victims who are now lying at the Morgue waiting for some one to identify them by a tooth or the remains of a burned shoe were mostly girls from 16 to 23 years of age.”

There were 146 victims in all, 129 of them women.

The Times suggested that the fire had been started by one of the machines, but an industry journal claimed that the more likely cause was smoking, which was forbidden in the factory. The industry report noted that the epidemic of factory fires was “fairly saturated with moral hazard.” In other words, the deaths were attributable to the moral failings of the workers.

The factory owners were tried for first and second degree manslaughter, but they were acquitted. The defense attorney asked a key witness, a worker who had escaped the fire, to repeat her testimony several times. After she repeated her answers almost word for word, he argued that this was evidence that she had been told what to say by the prosecutors and had memorized her testimony. Defense attorneys also claimed that the prosecution had not proved that the owners knew that the doors were locked at the specific time of the fire. Two years later, one of the owners was found guilty of illegally locking the doors on another factory and fined twenty dollars for the infraction.

When we look back, we are appalled. But it is only a few years ago that the fire at the Station night club claimed one hundred victims, and the cause of death was once again that exits were blocked, and they were not adequate. At the Station, they wanted to prevent patrons from entering without paying; at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, they wanted to prevent workers from leaving while they were being paid. But in both cases the issue was greed.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Lent and Leviticus

When any of you utter aloud a rash oath for a bad or a good purpose, whatever people utter in an oath, and are unaware of it, when you come to know it, you shall in any of these be guilty. When you realize your guilt in any of these, you shall confess the sin that you have committed. And you shall bring to the LORD, as your penalty for the sin that you have committed, a female from the flock, a sheep or a goat, as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on your behalf for your sin.Leviticus 5:4-6
As we entered the season of Lent our Jewish sisters and brothers entered the Book of Leviticus as their Sabbath Torah portion.

Our Lent will last for six weeks, but the reading of Leviticus will go on for three months.

I am not fond of Lent, but I feel like we get the better deal.

Our traditional Lenten observance often centers around giving up something, like dessert or chocolate. Modern observances have suggested taking on something, like a service commitment or a Bible Study. But this ritual of doing and not doing has often seemed shallow to me, and I have had a hard time appreciating its meaning. For me, observing Lent is a lot like reading Leviticus.

In a commentary on the first Torah portion, chapters 1-5, Rabbi Abigail Treu writes: “Reading Leviticus, it is clear that the reality of the people who generated the text is radically different from our own. It is a book that reads as ancient, obsolete, and irrelevant. In fact, one recent popular edition of the Bible left it out altogether.” For those seeking deep meaning in the biblical text, Leviticus is not an easy read.

We love the stories of Genesis and Exodus. We can identify with the characters and we can imagine ourselves in the stories. We are amazed and inspired. From Abraham and Sarah setting out on a journey into what God describes as “the land that I will show you,” to Jacob wrestling with God, to Moses at the burning bush, confronting a God’s presence in eternal being, “I am that I am.” The stories invite us to ask questions and explore the meaning of life.

Then the biblical narrative enters the strange world of Leviticus, and we encounter a seemingly endless list of strange commandments with little connection to our lives. In Leviticus we find lists of things that must be done, and other things that must not be done, with very little explanation.

But in her commentary, Rabbi Treu made an observation that helps us better understand the importance of Leviticus as well as the experience of Lent. "It is in Leviticus that we come to understand that stories can shape the heart, but ritual shapes our days."
Stories can shape the heart, but ritual shapes our days.

Faithful living requires more than inspiration. We also need to learn how to live and in the most practical and concrete sense we need to learn what to do on a daily basis.

The idea of animal sacrifice is repulsive to us, and it should be. But the idea of sin offering and guilt offering, and the idea that when a sin is committed by one person against another person the first concern must be to restore the broken covenant, these are important concepts. Punishing the guilty is not as important as making restitution to the one who has been injured. Restoring the covenant is an important practice.

Throughout the legal code of Leviticus the text speaks of persons who commit an offense by mistake. The repeated phrase is, “anyone who sins unintentionally in doing any one of the things that by the LORD’s commandments ought not to be done.” If you read the actual offenses listed, in many cases it seems hard to believe that anyone could commit those offenses by mistake. But the code applies this judgment of “unintentional” retroactively. If one confesses a sin, then the very act of confession makes the sin unintentional. Restitution must still be made. The one who suffered must still be made whole. But the intention behind the act is forgiven and forgotten.

The purpose of that strange ancient list of offerings and sacrifices is to make the wounded whole, to let go of the past and embrace the future. In this season of Lent, when Christians give up things and take on things, it is useful to remember that in our rituals we are shaping our days so that they will be open to the insights and inspirations that can shape our hearts.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Lent and Equal Marriage

Law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.
Romans 5:20

It was in many ways the perfect Lenten experience.

Last night I spent almost six hours at the Rhode Island State House attending the State Senate hearing on Marriage Equality.

When it was finally my turn to testify, I spoke briefly (but passionately, I hope) about how I believe that God is always calling us forward as Abraham and Sarah were called to leave home and journey toward "the land that I will show you." We are working toward the Kingdom of God and we are impatient with the present because we look for a future that will be more just. And I believe that Marriage Equality is part of a more just future.

While I waited and watched, I had a lot of time to reflect and meditate. (A good Lenten discipline.)

As a Christian it is painful to hear the Bible (and Jesus!) misused to promote an unholy trinity of tradition, fear and ignorance. One woman lamented the fact that until her testimony, no one had mentioned “the sin of sodomy.” She assured us that a same sex couple cannot really teach children about sin because their lives are immersed in sin. She told us that “it grieves our Lord and Savior, and his Blessed Mother in heaven.”

The Bible has over 30,000 verses, and there are, in fact, six brief passages that condemn homosexuality. None of them are in the Gospels. Oddly, they only condemn male homosexuality. Each of the passages is problematic in one way or another. And not one of them is addressed toward a faithful, committed, monogamous same sex relationship. But listening to some of these folks one would think that everything from Genesis to Revelation was written just to condemn homosexuality.

At times I felt like I had fallen into the Bible Study from hell.

“But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”

There were wonderful grace-filled stories told by parents about their gay children and by children about their gay parents. Partners told of their struggles to build a life together. A neuro-scientist talked clinically about studies of sexuality and the brain, and then introduced his brother, who is a pediatrician and cannot marry his partner.

Altogether it presented a very vivid illustration of Paul’s argument about law and grace in Romans. The more the tradionalists invoked the Law (Natural and Religious), the more “the trespass multiplied” by them against their sisters and brothers. The Law was used as a club; in the apparent belief that if they could pound home their point with sufficient force, then they could make homosexuality go away.

They are against Same Sex Marriage because they are against homosexuality, and they are against homosexuality, at least in part, because they do not believe that the Bible is a living Word. It is a dead letter. As Paul argued in his second letter to Corinth, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” The dead letter of the Law can be used to wound, but it cannot heal and it cannot bring life.

We need to remind ourselves that we are called to be “ministers of a new covenant, not of letter, but of sprit: for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (II Corinthians 3:6)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Prayer at Cranston West

When you come before God, find a quiet, secluded place so you won't be tempted to role-play. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense God’s grace.

Matthew 6:6 (The Message)

That verse from the Sermon on the Mount is part of the traditional Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday and it is a good commentary the prayer controversy in Cranston.

Last night the Cranston School Committee voted 4-3 to keep the prayer on the wall of the auditorium of Cranston West High School. Most of the people in the large crowd attending the meeting applauded the decision. They called on Committee members to “do the right thing.” And urged them, “not to ruin our way of life.”

This is the prayer that has been on the wall for almost fifty years:

"Our Heavenly Father,
Grant us each day the desire to do our best,
To grow mentally and morally as well as physically,
To be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers,
To be honest with ourselves as well as with others,
Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win,
Teach us the value of true friendship,
Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West.

The prayer seems harmless enough. But it should come down.

As generic prayers go, it is better than most. And it is a credit to the students who originally wrote it. But it should not be on the wall of the auditorium.

I know this in part because Christopher Young and Karen Russo want it to stay, and believe that everyone who disagrees with them will suffer eternal damnation. I trust Rhode Island’s favorite fun couple to point out the wrong side of almost every issue, though I am touched by their concern (and it is sincere) for saving souls.

For me, this is not primarily about the constitutional issue of separation of Church and State. I will let others argue about that.

This is about how Christians should interact with the world. We should be open and tolerant and accepting of others who do not share our faith. We don’t need the school committee or the town or the state to put a prayer on the wall of the high school. We need prayer in our hearts.

We need to spend time before God. We need to “just be there as simply and honestly as we can manage.” We need to “let the focus shift from us to God.” We need to “begin to sense God’s grace.”

Martin Marty, a church historian at the University of Chicago for many years, often commented on the irony of “Christians” who seldom bothered to say grace at home complaining bitterly about the lack of prayer in public schools. Forcing prayer on children and youth in school isn’t about faith; it’s about control and conformity.

Jessica Ahlquist, a sophomore from Cranston West, talked about how she felt that as an atheist she was being discriminated against. She said that it was wrong “for a majority to say that you can take away a minority right.” She said it was un-American.

It’s also un-Christian.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Sex and Basketball at BYU

“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. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
Matthew 7:13-14

As I ate my bagel at Panera this morning, the man at the next table was engaged in a loud and animated conversation. He gestured with his hands and waved his arms. It was even more entertaining because he was sitting alone, talking into the earpiece of his cell phone, which was not visible most of the time.

And across from him at the next table a man hunched over and talked in low tones into his cell phone. The only thing I heard was, “Next time, make sure he talks to me first.” He said it twice, looking worried and annoyed.

When I left, the animated talker was still going strong, excitedly describing the scene outside, where a tractor-trailer came close to crushing a car because the driver of the car did not want to wait for the truck to complete a wide turn.

The world, I thought to myself, is pretty crazy.

Then I got in my car just in time to hear one of the sports radio guys say, “Wouldn’t you want your daughter to go there? Wouldn’t you be happy to have your daughter go there? I mean, you can be sure they don’t have a ‘vagina club’ . . .” And I knew what was coming next, “. . . like Wesleyan.” It’s always good to have folks talk about my alma mater.

But the subject wasn’t Wesleyan. That was just for contrast. The subject was BYU.

Brigham Young University basketball star Brandon Davies has been suspended from the basketball team for breaking the honor code. He had sex with his girl-friend and that violates the honor code requirement to “live a chaste and virtuous life.”

The reaction has been interesting. In general, the sports folk seem to say, “HOW COULD THEY DO THIS? WHAT ARE THEY THINKING?” One guy said it just plain “creeps me out.”

There are lots of seasons in which people take little notice of BYU basketball. But not this year. Until Davies was suspended, they had a legitimate chance at a number one seed in the NCAA tournament, and a good shot at getting to the Final Four. A national championship was not out of the question. I watched the game against San Diego State, and they were impressive. And they were fun to watch. They have a guard, Jimmer Fredette (that really is his name), who leads the country in scoring. He is the best shooter to play at BYU since Danny Ainge.

And now it’s all gone.

For sports commentators, this defies reason. “Can you imagine,” asked one incredulous talk-show host, “they would rather maintain the purity of their religious ideals, than go the final four?”

How can religion be more important than sports? Is nothing sacred? When you think about it, what is more sacred in America than sex and sports? As one commentator put it, on most college teams that kind of disclosure would get Brandon Davies a round of high fives, not a dismissal.

Do not misunderstand. I am not lining up on the side of total abstinence before marriage. On the other hand, I’m also not comfortable with casual promiscuity. And then there is the issue of how the BYU officials found out. How does Davies’ girl-friend feel about all of this becoming public? Isn’t the embarrassment inflicted on the girl-friend actually a greater sin than having pre-marital sex?

But the thing that strikes me most is the way in which the punishment is seen as so extreme. Is basketball really that important?

We can argue about whether sexual abstinence, even in a committed relationship, is an important aspect of faithful living. Personally, I don’t think it is. But at some point and in some way we have to agree that faithful living is important. Even more important than basketball.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
John 3:16-17
The sixteenth verse of the third chapter of John’s Gospel is one of the best loved verses in the Bible. And for good reason. It declares God’s unlimited love for the world and promises that everyone who gives his or her heart to Jesus will have eternal life, now and forever.

But that verse is also one of the most controversial and divisive verses in the Bible. For many Christians, what it means is that those who believe in Jesus are saved, and go to heaven, while those who don’t believe in Jesus are lost, and go to hell.

The uncomfortably common paraphrase would read something like this, “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that those who did not believe in him would go to hell.”

Of course if you phrase it that way, almost no one would own it. But for many Christians the idea that someone is going to hell is at the core of their beliefs.

In my Christmas Eve sermon last December I shared my belief that God’s grace is unlimited, that no one is left out, and that in the end we all go to God. As I spoke, a whole row at the back of the church emptied out. A young woman stood up, looking very unhappy, and then motioned for her companions to follow her. Maybe she was just taken with a sudden and urgent need for the rest room, but they didn’t come back and my guess is that she was not about to have her Christmas Eve spoiled by some preacher telling her that God loves everyone.

Over the weekend, Rob Bell, the Evangelical mega-church pastor who wrote “Velvet Elvis,” came under a strong attack because his new book apparently denies that God will condemn anyone to eternal damnation. The book is called, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, and it is due for publication later this month.

Bell is being called a heretic. The critics say that in traditional Christian theology heaven and hell are real places. And they say that though there are many issues that divide Catholics and Protestants; this is not one of them. The traditionalist critics believe that God loves everyone, but that those who do not believe in Jesus as their personal savior are condemned to hell.

The same critics have come after Brian McLaren for the same reasons.

Rob Bell’s position is not really new. We would have to search long and hard for a theologian who really believed in the “lake of fire.” Maybe Jonathan Edwards?

Rick Warren, the Mega-Church Pastor who wrote The Purpose Driven Life, says that he believes in hell. But for Warren, hell is being separated from God. What he believes is that we choose to be near to God or separated from God, and that choice determines our destiny. It’s a long way from the eternal fire.

People want to believe in hell because they want others to be punished. The love of judgment (when applied to others!) is part of our sinful nature. Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” And the truth is that we love that image.

But if we look at the whole of scripture and if we really consider the life and teachings of Jesus, then the idea of a literal hell simply will not bear close examination. As Rob Bell asks in a promotional video for his book, “Does anyone really believe that Mahatma Gandhi is burning in hell?”

The reality of our lives is that we are sinners, just as Jonathan Edwards said, and we are in the hands of God, but the more theologically accurate title for our life story would be, “Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God.”