Friday, December 23, 2016

This Is What Hatred Looks Like

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
I John 4:7-8, 20-21

The United States Department of Justice begins their analysis of violence against transgender persons with an alarming paragraph:
“Statistics documenting transgender people's experience of sexual violence indicate shockingly high levels of sexual abuse and assault. One in two transgender individuals are sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lives. Some reports estimate that transgender survivors may experience rates of sexual assault up to 66 percent, often coupled with physical assaults or abuse. This indicates that the majority of transgender individuals are living with the aftermath of trauma and the fear of possible repeat victimization.”
Transgender people are among the most victimized, stigmatized, and marginalized people in our society. They are routinely humiliated and made fun of.

In North Carolina, the legislature has declared (again) that society will be better off if the transgender community is further marginalized.

This is what hatred looks like.

Just a few days ago it looked like Governor elect Roy Cooper and the legislature had brokered a deal that would get rid of the so-called “Bathroom Bill,” technically known as “HB2,” that required persons to use the bathroom corresponding to the gender they were assigned on their  birth certificate. 

HB2 specified that a transgender male (who was registered on his birth certificate as female) would be required to use the women’s bathroom. And a transgender female would be required to use the men’s room.

The deal was that the City of Charlotte would rescind its anti-discrimination ordinance, which had provided protections for LGBT people broadly, and transgender people specifically, and in return the legislature would repeal HB2.

It was at best a Faustian bargain. 

The Charlotte ordinance was an important step in protecting LGBT persons in the absence of a state anti-discrimination rule. It was a good ordinance. HB2, on the other hand, meant encoding discrimination into law.

It was hardly a fair trade. But still. It was a deal.

Governor-elect Cooper responded with restraint. "I'm disappointed for the people of North Carolina,” he said, “for the jobs that people won't have . . . I'm disappointed that we did not remove the stain on our great state."

"The Charlotte city council held up their end of the deal by repealing their ordinance," Cooper observed. "When it came time for Republican legislative leaders to do their job, they failed."

Supporters of the Bathroom Bill were unrepentant. 

"No economic, political or ideological pressure can convince me that what is wrong is right," Lt. Gov. Dan Forest declared. "It will always be wrong for men to have access to women's showers and bathrooms. If HB2 is repealed, there will be nothing on the books to prevent another city or county to take us down this path again."

The Lt. Governor needs to do a little research on gender identity. And while he is at it he might also research the statistics on crimes against transgender people.

In the meantime, maybe the Southern Poverty Law Center should list the North Carolina legislature as a hate group.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Preaching and Pastoring in the Age of Trump

They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush.
Jeremiah 6:14-15a

Russell Moore is the President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. And he is in trouble.

The Evangelical branch of Christianity in the United States was painfully split during the last election. The majority went with Donald Trump, but there were a few dissenters.

Russell Moore was probably the most visible among the critics. He was critical of Mr. Trump and he was critical of those Evangelicals who were willing to give up long held principles in order to support him.

In September of 2015, he published an op-ed piece in the New York Times asking, “Have Evangelicals Who Support Trump Lost Their Values?” 

He began his essay by recounting an episode from the television comedy “The Office,”
“. . . one of the characters, Dwight Schrute, nervously faces the prospect of delivering a speech after winning the title of top salesman of the year for his company, Dunder Mifflin. As a prank, his co-worker preps him for his moment by cribbing a speech from a dictator, coaching him to deliver it by pounding the lectern and waving his arms wildly. Dwight does it, and the audience gives a standing ovation to a manic tirade.”
“Watching a cartoonish TV character deliver authoritarian lines with no principles, just audacity,” he observed, “was hilarious back then, but that was before we saw it happening before our eyes in the race for the United States presidency.”
Moore was willing to give Trump a pass on his newly proclaimed and politically opportunistic affirmation of Evangelical Christianity. What bothered Moore was his personal morality, or lack thereof.
“We should not demand to see the long-form certificate for Mr. Trump’s second birth. We should, though, ask about his personal character and fitness for office. His personal morality is clear, not because of tabloid exposés but because of his own boasts. His attitude toward women is that of a Bronze Age warlord. He tells us in one of his books that he revels in the fact that he gets to sleep with some of the “top women in the world.” He has divorced two wives (so far) for other women.”
It is important to remember that he wrote those words more than a year before that famous tape surfaced in which Mr. Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women. 

A number of Evangelicals who at first shared Moore’s critique eventually came to support Mr. Trump as “the lesser to two evils.” But Russell Moore never wavered. 

Interestingly, almost all of the backlash directed against Moore is about his failure to represent the clear majority of Southern Baptists and Evangelicals who voted for Trump. No one is arguing that he is wrong in principle. He has committed the great sin of being out of touch with his constituency.

I have major disagreements with Dr. Moore on everything from marriage equality and abortion to biblical interpretation and theology. But I have always respected his clarity of vision and I understand his dilemma.

These are perilous times for those of us who are pastors. 

We have a responsibility which is unlike any other. We have to say something. It’s part of the job description. 

Not only are we supposed to say something. We are supposed to speak the truth. Not just any truth. We are specifically charged with speaking the truth of the Gospel, regardless of the circumstances. 

It is challenging in the best of times. Jesus called his disciples to take up the cross and follow him. In first century Israel the cross was a symbol of treason and a means of executing those who were guilty of that crime. To stand up for justice and peace and non-violence is to stand against the normalcy of violence and injustice, and to move in a different direction.

Authentic preaching is never easy.

Karl Barth said that we need to have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. In the digital age, of course, we can have both in the same tablet or phone, but that does not make the task any easier.

We are always tempted toward timidity. We want to avoid conflict.
We want to say, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” 

The Gospel is always at odds with the culture. But in a time of great divisiveness, the gap seems even greater. And the divisions are within the church as well as outside of it.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Friday, December 16, 2016

Ayn Rand, Donald Trump and the War on Christian Ethics

Ayn Rand (1905-1982)

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.
Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the LORD said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”
Genesis 4:8-10

Cain assumes that he is asking a rhetorical question.

But he is mistaken.

The question is real and it will be fundamental to the long biblical narrative that follows through the Hebrew Scriptures to the end of the New Testament. Cain poses the question for God, but it is quickly turned back as the question God asks of us. And Jesus will tell his followers that it is the question by which their lives will be judged.

Ayn Rand, on the other hand, sides with Cain.

Her philosophy, which has always had a very strong (though typically brief) following among college freshmen, has recently been adopted and endorsed by a significant group of folks who really ought to know better.

Her basic position is that selfishness is a virtue and altruism is a sin, though as a staunch atheist, she would not call it a sin. It is not just that we are not obligated to help others; we ought not to do it. Our responsibility is to take care of ourselves. Period.

In a recent report in the Washington Post, James Hohmann identifies Donald Trump as an “Ayn Rand-acolyte” and notes that as a connection among several of his recent nominees for key positions in a Trump administration. He describes Rand as “perhaps the leading literary voice in 20th century America for the notion that, in society, there are makers and takers, and that the takers are parasitic moochers who get in the way of the morally-superior innovators.”
“Her books portray the federal government as an evil force, trying to stop hard-working men from accumulating the wealth that she believes they deserve. The author was also an outspoken atheist, something that oozes through in her writing. Rand explained that the essence of ‘objectivism,’ as she called her ideology, is that ‘man exists for his own sake, that the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose, that he must not sacrifice himself to others, nor sacrifice others to himself.’”
Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, has been nominated for Secretary of State. Although they had not previously been acquainted, one of the things Trump and Tillerson found that they have in common, in addition to being billionaires, is that they are both Rand enthusiasts. Tillerson lists “Atlas Shrugged” as his favorite book. It tells the story of John Galt who secretly organizes a strike among the creative class in order to undermine and destroy the bureaucrats who are running the country.

In an interview with Kirsten Powers last spring, the president-elect described himself as a Rand fan and said that he identifies most with Howard Roark, the hero of “The Fountainhead,” an architect who blows up a housing project he designed because his blueprints were not exactly followed by the builders. He told Powers, “It relates to business, beauty, life and inner emotions. That book relates to ... everything.”

Andy Puzder, Trump’s choice for Secretary of Labor, also identifies with the hero from “The Fountainhead.” He wants to automate fast food jobs and is opposed to increasing the minimum wage. He is CEO of CKE Restaurants, which is owned by a private equity fund named for Howard Roark, Roark Capital Group.

Although Rand’s philosophy is explicitly and intentionally anti-Christian, Puzder sees it differently. “There’s no contradiction,” he argues, “between raising my children in the church, and urging them to lead the kind of lives of achievement, integrity and independence that Ayn Rand celebrated in her novels.”

Mike Pompeo, the Kansas congressman and Tea Party member whom Trump has nominated to direct the Central Intelligence Agency, is also a Rand fan. In 2011 he told an interviewer from Human Events, “One of the very first serious books I read when I was growing up was Atlas Shrugged, and it really had an impact on me.”

It has become fashionable in recent years for Christians to talk about the “war on Christmas,” and to crusade in favor of saying “Merry Christmas” and against saying “Happy Holidays.” In a world facing the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War (among other crises), the outrage about the “war on Christmas” is at best a distraction. 

Ayn Rand was a second rate philosopher and it might seem that her fans should not be taken seriously. But her war on Christian faith and ethics is real and it is dangerous.

In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge who is both terrified and inspired by the spirits of Christmas to move from a selfish and miserly character who hates Christmas because it celebrates goodwill and caring to become a man who keeps the spirit of Christmas all year round. 

Rand wants us to go in the opposite direction. She invites us to celebrate what she calls the virtue of selfishness.

“Capitalism and altruism are incompatible," she argues. "They are philosophical opposites; they cannot co-exist in the same man or in the same society. Today, the conflict has reached its ultimate climax; the choice is clear-cut: either a new morality of rational self-interest, with its consequence of freedom… or the primordial morality of altruism with its consequences of slavery, etc."
“To love money is to know and love the fact that money is the creation of the best power within you, and your passkey to trade your effort for the effort of the best among men.”

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Advent and the Apocalypse

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

Luke 21:25-26

The Advent texts that speak of the “Second Coming” present imagery that is wildly out of step with the manger scenes and Christmas trees that decorate our homes.

At least that is usually the case.

This year the images of apocalypse seem remarkably relevant. And that is pretty much the heart of the problem.

Honestly, I don’t know what to say. Or where to begin.

We have a President elect who has at best a tangential relationship to the truth. And we have cabinet appointments that are barely believable.

The nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency may not be the worst proposed appointment, but it is bad enough.

In an editorial criticizing the Pruitt nomination, the New York Times writes:
“This is an aggressively bad choice, a poke in the eye to a long history of bipartisan cooperation on environmental issues, to a nation that has come to depend on the agency for healthy air and drinkable water, and to 195 countries that agreed in Paris last year to reduce their emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases in the belief that the United States would show the way. A meeting Monday between Mr. Trump and Al Gore had raised hope among some that the president-elect might reverse his campaign pledge to withdraw the United States from the Paris accord. The Pruitt appointment says otherwise.”

Mr. Pruitt is not just critical of the E.P.A.; he wants to dismantle it. As Oklahoma Attorney General he has joined lawsuits against regulations reducing soot and smog pollution that crosses state lines and he has fought against regulations that provide protections against toxic pollutants from power plants.

Perhaps most troubling, he does not believe in the science of climate change. He is a proponent of the fossil fuel industry and wants to roll back our commitment to reducing greenhouse gasses.

For Christians concerned about the stewardship of planet earth, this is serious stuff.

His disagreements with the E.P.A. are not just about opposing some regulations, though that would be a problem all by itself. The real issue is that he disagrees with the science behind the regulations. And his disagreement with the science is ideological and political rather than scientific.

The bottom line is that an agency built on science will be directed by a person who does not believe in science.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Dad Had It Right

Rev. Edwin A. Trench 1928-2006
But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.  Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.
Romans 5:15,18

Dad died ten years ago today. 

It is perhaps just as well that he did not live to see our recent election. 

He might have mispronounced "misogynist," but he would not have been quiet about electing one to the white house. 

To say that he was outspoken would be an understatement. That's not always an advantage for a pastor. But to his credit, he never counted the cost of his witness in personal terms. 

Those who regularly read this blog know that over the past eighteen months I have written frequently about the issues, but I stopped short of endorsing a candidate. 

There are two major reasons for making that choice. First, I believe that although the gospel is an intensely political document, it transcends partisan politics. And although Jesus, like the Hebrew prophets before him, proclaimed an undeniably political message, we should not identify that message with one party or candidate. And second, I believe that I need to be a pastor to everyone, regardless of their politics. Endorsing a candidate would compromise that relationship.

Dad saw it differently.

For him, it was always about justice. He looked for the practical application of the gospel in contemporary life. And he was never afraid to tell you what he saw. In his mind, he had no choice.

His outspoken witness often got him into trouble, but that never kept him quiet.

His willingness to say what needed to be said was impressive, but his greatest gifts were as a pastor rather than as a prophet.

A few years ago, before a graveside service for a distant member of the church, a woman came over and introduced herself. She told me that she belonged to a neighboring United Methodist church and that she was a Lay Speaker, and a leader in that church. “I remember your father,” she said. He was the pastor in Coventry when I was a teenager.”

“He came to visit at our house and he was talking to my mother. And he invited me to come to the youth group. I told him that I didn’t really believe in Jesus, so I didn’t want to come to the youth group.

“My mother was so embarrassed. And she was so angry with me. But your father just smiled. ‘That’s okay,’ he said. ‘You think about it, and if you want to attend, we’d love to have you.’ He didn’t get upset. And he didn’t tell me I was wrong to think that way. I’ll always remember that. 

“And then later I went to the youth group and it was great. But I’ll always remember the way he reacted.”

When the great theologian Karl Barth was asked to sum up his many complex volumes of “Church Dogmatics,” he said, 

Jesu liebt mich, ganz gewiss,
Denn die Bibel sagt mir dies

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

That would also have summarized Dad’s theology, although it sounded much more profound coming from Barth. Dad was not a theologian, but he was a pastor, and he understood the practical application of the faith pastorally as well as politically.

He was convinced that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” And he was convinced that God’s grace, in Christ, extended to everyone, whether they believed it or not. Sadly, Dad’s intuitive response to a questioning teen made a lasting impression in part because it was not what she expected from those who call themselves Christians.

In Paul’s exposition of Christ as the New Adam, his basic assertion is that in Adam we have all sinned and in Christ we have all been justified (forgiven and made right with God).

For two thousand years, the majority interpretation of that passage has been that the first “all” refers to everyone (everyone has sinned) and the second “all” refers only to baptized Christian believers. 

Ironically, this notion that sin is unlimited while grace is restricted, is one more evidence of our tendency to “sin” in our biblical interpretation. So (ironically) it proves the first of Paul’s assertions. We are all self-centered and we want to believe that grace applies only to us and to the people who think like us. We believe in sin, but we have doubts about grace.

Why is that? In traditional language, it’s because we are “sinners.”

But Dad had it right.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Parts of this post were originally published on November 29, 2010.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Thanksgiving and the Kingdom of God in America

The First Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899)

"Politics are never ultimate, never absolute. We can and must fight the good fight for a better republic and a better world. But our hope does not depend on any political outcome. Our faith and our hope derive from Jesus Christ, who survives all nations and all politics."
Robert N. Bellah

I have a special fondness the notion of the Kingdom of God in America. 

First, and in a serious way, because it was (and is) the agenda of Jesus to build the Kingdom of God on earth, and since I am an American Christian, my first responsibility is to build it here. 

But I also enjoy talking about the Kingdom of God because it makes everyone uncomfortable (including me). 

The secular left gets nervous about a theocracy and a religious vision, and the religious left is uncomfortable with the King imagery (I share the discomfort with “King” and I agree that in many ways it would be better to get the King imagery out of it and speak about the Reign of God, but I still think that falls short of the original.). 

The religious right wants religion to be personal rather than social, and they are nervous about the “politicization” of the Gospel, and the political right gets nervous about the Social Gospel and Social Justice.

That’s all good, because we are supposed to be uncomfortable with the Kingdom of God.

We should not look for ways to escape that discomfort. Jesus’ vision calls us into the future. We pray for the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth, and that must mean change. As soon as we are comfortable with the present, we remember again that we are called into the future. We are called to be a pilgrim people.

In a special way, Thanksgiving is central to understanding the Kingdom of God in America.

Robert Bellah was one of the greatest American Sociologists. He rose to national prominence when he wrote an essay on Civil Religion in America. (If you have never read the essay, you can get it on line by clicking here.) 

Bellah explained how Americans had developed a religious sensibility which was rooted in our Judeo-Christian heritage, but also uniquely American. We began with a covenant and a mission. Slavery was our original sin. Lincoln was our central prophet. And though we had a high view of our calling in the world, we were clear that America always stood under the judgment of God.

Thanksgiving is the most important holiday in our American Civil Religion. It was first instituted by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, as a time of national Repentance and Thanksgiving. A national day of repentance would be a tough sell in today’s political climate. 

As Christians, how do we relate to the uncivil tone of our political debate today?

It is a difficult question and there are no easy answers. It is particularly problematic today after a long season political campaigning in which the president-elect distinguished himself by shattering almost every norm of civilized discourse. One of his Republican challengers declared dramatically that “you can’t insult your way to the presidency.” But apparently you can.

We are in uncharted waters.

But as Christians, it is important that we keep perspective and that we focus on long term goals.

The Gospel is intensely political and we cannot read it with any measure of intellectual honestly and pretend otherwise. It is about proclaiming a vision of the Kingdom of God. It is about social and economic justice. But we must also remember, as Bellah points out, that the Kingdom of God can never be identified with any single political group or cause, or country. Instead, it is always the standard by which every political plan is judged.

As Bellah notes, “We can and must fight the good fight for a better republic and a better world.” But we need to be clear that there is a gap between our vision and God’s vision. This does not mean that one idea is as good as another, or that political issues do not matter. It does mean that we should approach political issues with Lincoln’s repentance and humility. 

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

A previous version of this blogpost was originally published on November 23, 2016.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Does the Moral Arc of the Universe Bend Toward Justice?

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever with the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.
                                                                 James Russell Lowell

At the end of the Selma march, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech titled, “Our God Is Marching On.” And at the end of the speech, he wove together a rich poetic tapestry of Bible verses with the poetry of Julia Ward Howe and James Russell Lowell. Then he adapted a phrase from the great abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker and declared that although it had been a long struggle for Civil Rights, in the end they would be victorious because “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

No one doubts the “long” part of that sentence. But especially this week, some of us may have our doubts about whether it is bending toward justice.

I don’t know whether King would see his phrase about the “arc of the moral universe,” as interchangeable with “the moral arc of the universe,” but I prefer the latter.

If we believe in the Kingdom of God, then we believe that the universe itself has a moral arc that bends toward justice.

Jesus told his disciples that the Kingdom of God was already among them although it was not yet fully realized. This is what God is doing in the world. The moral arc is bending toward justice. Jesus called his disciples to join in what God is already doing, to share in bending the moral arc of the universe.

The liturgical season of Kingdomtide ends next Sunday.

That is, if we still celebrated Kingdomtide, it would be ending next Sunday.

In the old 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.

The loss of Kingdomtide is not a metaphor for everything that is wrong with the world, although sometimes it seems to me as if it is. And the loss of a liturgical season does not stop the bending of the arc or the coming of the kingdom. But it is still a loss.

Jesus preached the “good news of the Kingdom of God.” He announced that God was already at work in the world, and we were invited to live in the new reality that God was creating. The idea of the Kingdom of God begins with Jesus, but it grows out of the experience of the people of Israel. And a primary theological component is the liberation of the Israelites in the Exodus.

Although Jesus' teaching about the Kingdom of God occupies the overwhelming majority of his teaching, it has often been ignored by modern Christians.

For Jesus, this alternative community was a place where the poor were lifted up, where everyone had a place at the table, where love governed both individuals and institutions. It was a place of radical hospitality, egalitarianism, inclusion, mutual concern, self-sacrifice, and social justice. In this biblical vision, everyone has enough and no one has too much.

The great abolitionist and social gospel poet James Russell Lowell was a Unitarian. He was also a disciple of Jesus in the best and most inclusive sense of that term. And he was clear that those who follow Jesus must be in it for the long term: 

"Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong.
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own."

In this post election season some of us may feel like truth is on the scaffold. For those who live in the relative security of privileged race and gender, as I do, it is only a metaphor. And to some it may seem like hyperbole.

But to those on the margins, it is a terrifying reality.

At the University of Pennsylvania, African American students themselves unwillingly added to a group email account that invited them to a “daily lynching” and received other racist threats. The FBI eventually traced to students at the University of Oklahoma. In a statement to the students at Penn, University President Amy Gutmann wrote:

"We are absolutely appalled that earlier today Black freshman students at Penn were added to a racist GroupMe account . . . The account itself is totally repugnant: it contains violent, racist and thoroughly disgusting images and messages. This is simply deplorable.”
Similar incidents have been reported around the country.

Luke reports that in a far more perilous time than our own 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; nor 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)

“Against the data,” as Walter Brueggeman would say, Jesus declared that this “Kingdom of God” was already among them. In spite of the Roman occupation, which would go on for centuries. The world did not belong to the emperor; it belonged to God. And God was at work in the world. The disciples were invited to live into the new reality; this alternative community.

This is a vision that transcends partisan politics.

The popular misinterpretation is that when Jesus talked about God's Kingdom, he was talking about heaven.

But he wasn’t.

He was talking about what happens (and doesn’t happen, but ought to happen) on this earth.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

What Has Changed and What Has Not

God is our refuge and strength,
   a very present help in trouble. 
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
   though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; 
though its waters roar and foam,
   though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
Psalm 46:1-3

For many of us, the past few days have been profoundly unsettling.

We were expecting to celebrate the election of the first woman President of the United States and we woke up on Wednesday to find that we had elected a man who is openly and unrepentantly misogynistic. 

Not a happy feeling. 

To take a biblical phrase out of context, some of us feel like strangers in a strange land.

In a blistering article in the Huffington Post, Sarah Ruiz-Grossman writes, “Dear Fellow White Women: We F**ked This Up.” And she follows that up with a startling statistic: “Exit polls show 53 percent of white women voted for Trump — compared to only 43 percent for Clinton.”
“When the demographic split for the exit polls came out, showing the divide between Trump and Clinton supporters, my eyes immediately jumped to one group: white women. Tell me we came through for our sisters of color, I begged, at least this one time. We didn’t.
“So I am ashamed. I am ashamed of my country. I am ashamed of white people. But more than anyone else, I am ashamed of white women.”
It feels like a seismic shift.

But, in fact, it really isn’t. It may be an uncomfortable look in the mirror, but the country really has not changed.

Hillary Clinton apparently will win the popular vote (and we will probably have a healthy debate about the Electoral College, which disproportionately increases the influence of smaller states and makes votes in swing states more important than votes in Alabama or Rhode Island). But regardless of the final outcome, the margin will be tiny.

Basically, it’s a tie.

And when we look more closely at the numbers, the demographic percentages are almost identical to 2012. Donald Trump did as well among white women in 2016 as Mitt Romney did in 2012. 

There are small shifts among other demographics, but nothing major.

Donald Trump won because his supporters were more enthusiastic (and a lot angrier) than those supporting Hillary Clinton. A higher percentage of his supporters actually went to the polls and voted. To paraphrase a campaign slogan, “Anger Trumps Apathy.” He hit a nerve.

The country did not change and yet our trajectory has shifted. 

We may disengage with other nations on climate change, on trade, and on mutual defense agreements. And then there are those all important Supreme Court appointments.

On the positive side, there is at least the possibility of a bipartisan approach to job creation and infrastructure. And the truth is that presidents are almost never as bad as their opponents fear or as effective as their supporters hope.

Campaigns are won and lost at the extremes, but governance gravitates toward the center.

I am aware, of course, that I can take the long view because I am in a place of privilege. Not everyone has that luxury.

On Wednesday morning I got a call from an African-American woman in our congregation.

"Bill," she said, "I'm scared. He's a racist. What's going to happen to people of color?" She was shocked that he could get elected, and she was especially afraid for her grandsons. "Hillary is not perfect," she said, "but she's not a racist." 

And then she talked about what Clinton had done on behalf of children. "All children," she said. "She didn't care what color they were, she loved them all."

We talked about hope and justice and loving one another.

That is not a phone call I ever expected to get in 2016, but it brought home to me how terrifying this is for those who are vulnerable.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Further Thoughts on A Way Forward for the UMC

So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these people and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”
Acts 5:38-39

In an article published in the online journal um-insght, Diane Degnan reports that the Council of Bishops, meeting in St. Simons Island, Georgia, “expressed their intent to call for a special session of the General Conference in either February or March of 2019 and asked the business manager of the General Conference to move forward with exploring venues and a bid search.”

In a related action, the co-chairs of the “Praying Our Way Forward” initiative, asked the whole church to pray for the Commission on a Way Forward.

 “We want the church and the Commission on a Way Forward to be led by God. This prayer emphasis puts us in a posture where as a church we are asking and listening for God’s leadership,” said Bishop Wallace-Padgett. “Our prayer focus is twofold: We are praying that God will help us to more effectively fulfill the mission of the church.  And we are praying to be one in Christ.”

“To be one in Christ,” is a spiritual way of talking about the unity of the church, Some fear that such unity will only come at the expense of LGBTQ persons. Some of those same people, and others, suspect that a call for unity is really about the preservation of money, property and power.

I will not be praying that we will be “one in Christ.” That is not who we have been in the past, and I do not expect we will achieve that anytime soon. Like John Wesley’s notion that we are “going on to perfection,” it is more about hope than reality. It is not a place we will get to in this lifetime.

But I will be hoping and praying for unity. And by unity I mean connectional unity. I do not expect that we will be of one mind, but I am hoping we can continue to be one church.

And beyond that, though I know that we will not all think alike, I share Wesley’s hope that we may all love alike.

A year ago I did not believe that we would come this close to schism because I fully expected the runaway train of LGBTQ awareness, acceptance and affirmation would move faster than our lumbering bureaucracy. 

I imagined one of our study committees, meeting in a windowless room,  plodding toward some vague compromise only to be interrupted by a messenger who arrived to tell them that in the outside world this had already been settled, that there was no longer anyone out there who cared about anyone else’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Sadly, that did not happen. At least it has not yet happened. But I am still in favor of unity.

To be clear, I do not believe in “unity” as a euphemism for continuing to oppress and exclude our LGBTQIA members, friends, children, siblings, or neighbors. We need to stop the harm.

And I would not be in favor of unity if I did not believe that we are moving inexorably and irreversibly toward full inclusion. I may have underestimated the speed of the change, but I am convinced that we will continue to move toward a more inclusive society and a more inclusive church.

The cynical view has been that the bishops and others in leadership would hold the church together in order to avoid the inevitable conflicts over the division of assets (property, buildings, investments, pensions). I would not minimize the potential conflicts, but that is not what really concerns me. We can do the math and we can figure out a formula. It will be messy and difficult, but it will get done.

My greater concern is when it comes to individual United Methodists in individual local churches.

What do you do if you believe in inclusion and your congregation votes to go with the traditionalists? Of course, you can find another church, but that will not take away the hurt. Or vice versa? What if you are an LGBTQ person and your church votes to go with the traditionalists? If the vote is 90 to 10, the pain may not be that great, but what about the churches that find themselves divided 55-45, or even 65-35?

And how will this look to the rest of the world?

Our mistreatment of LGBTQIA persons has caused pain and even death. And that mistreatment has also compromised our ability to proclaim the Gospel. We have lost credibility in the world. When people see how wrong we are on this issue they wonder if we can ever get anything right.

Our literal and legalistic (and profoundly mistaken) interpretation of a few obscure passages of scripture has caused folks outside the church to discard the whole Gospel. 

Both traditionalists and progressives should be appalled by that.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Finding a Way Forward

Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 3:13-14

On Monday the United Methodist Council of Bishops announced the formation of a special “Commission on a Way Forward” and named the thirty-two members they had appointed.

"After three months of diligent and prayerful discernment, we have selected 8 bishops, 11 laity, 11 elders and 2 deacons to serve on the Commission," said Bishop Bruce R. Ough, president of the Council of Bishops. 

Although I am hopeful that the commission really can find a way forward, there are huge problems.

Ough said the commission "is representative of our theological diversity." That is a good thing and I take him at his word that the Council of Bishops has tried to get a fair representation of the spectrum of theological positions within the UMC. But the underlying problem is not just that we have theological differences, though those differences are real. The greater issue is that some of us can accept those differences and others cannot. 

And the commission has only two self-identified LGBT persons.

The Commission's mission, as mandated by the General Conference this spring, is to "bring together persons deeply committed to the future(s) of The United Methodist Church, with an openness to developing new relationships with each other and exploring the potential future(s) of our denomination in light of General Conference and subsequent annual, jurisdictional and central conference actions." 

The language explicitly states that we may be looking at more than one “future.” The commission is not necessarily looking for a united future. And some of those appointed to the commission have already indicated that they are in favor of schism.

The press release states that, “The 2016 General Conference gave a specific mandate to the Council of Bishops to lead The United Methodist Church in discerning and proposing a way forward through the present impasse related to human sexuality and the consequent questions about unity and covenant.”

There are questions about unity and covenant, but by describing our conflict as “related to human sexuality,” the press release makes it sound as if this were an academic discussion of theological perspectives.

A group of “United Methodist Queer Clergy” responded firmly: 
“We demand that the Special Commission on a way Forward named yesterday speak the truth about its business: it is not talking about ‘the present impasse related to human sexuality;’ rather, it is talking about us, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex children of God, and about whether or not the denomination we serve will continue its 44 year discrimination against us. We feel erased and disappeared in the mission statement of the Commission.”
It is not about theology.

It is not about biblical authority.

It is not about doctrine.

It is about human beings.

Will the United Methodist Church continue to exclude LGBTQ persons from full participation in the life of the church? Will we continue to oppress LGBTQ persons? 

We do not have to agree on theology, biblical authority, or doctrine. We do have to agree that no one will be excluded because of who they are.

I will not presume to speak for others. I clearly cannot speak for my LGBTQ colleagues and friends. But I do not believe that every United Methodist pastor should be required to officiate at same sex weddings, or that every United Methodist church should be willing to accept a gay pastor. 

We need to find a way forward. This will not be the final word. We need to keep our eyes on the prize. 

As Bill Coffin said in the closing paragraph of his autobiography, "I am hopeful. By this, I mean that hope, as opposed to cynicism and despair, is the sole precondition for a new and better life. Realism demands pessimism. But hope demands that we take a dark view of the present only because we hold a bright view of the future, and hope arouses, as nothing else can arouse, a passion for the possible."

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

A Golden Anniversary for the Golden Boy

Bobby Orr scores the game winning goal in overtime
on a pass from Derek Sanderson
to win the 1970 Stanley Cup.
Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers.
They are like trees planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
Psalm 1:1, 3

Robert Gordon Orr played his first game for the Boston Bruins fifty years ago this week.

When it comes to sports heroes I cannot escape a completely unrealistic naiveté. I want to cheer for the athletes who are both good and great.

Not surprisingly, I am often disappointed.

I still haven’t fully recovered from the Lance Armstrong scandal. And Tyler Hamilton, for heaven’s sake.

Joe Paterno.

The list of disappointments is long.

But there are some great names on the other list, the coincidence of goodness and greatness.

Al Kaline, and Roberto Clemente, and Stan Musial.

Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, K.C. Jones. Actually, I could include most of the old Celtics teams. Tenley Albright. And most of the UCONN women’s basketball teams.

But “Number Four, Bobby Orr!” has a special place on that list.

His knees gave out after just twelve seasons, but over that span he was simply amazing. He revolutionized the game. His end to end rushes were astonishing. You did not have to know anything about hockey to know that you were watching greatness. He was a defenseman who could outskate and outscore the forwards. When he was killing a penalty, he was always a threat to score because when they were short a man he had more ice to skate.

He was not only the best hockey player who ever played, he was one of the most dominant players in any sport. He won the Norris Trophy as the League’s best defenseman eight times. In 1970 he won the Norris Trophy, the Hart Trophy (Most Valuable Player), the Art Ross Trophy (scoring), the Conn Smythe Trophy (MVP of the playoffs), and the Stanley Cup.

Three years ago, on Bobby Orr’s sixty-fifth birthday, Bob Hohler wrote a story for the Boston Globe talking about the quiet way that Orr has gone about doing good.

Among the many stories that Hohler recounts, these are just snippets:

“When social studies teacher Christa McAuliffe died aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, Orr learned that members of her family were Bruins fans and he quietly traveled to Concord, NH., to visit.
"When former Bruin Ace Bailey died aboard a hijacked airliner that struck the World Trade Center in New York during the 2001 terrorist attacks, Orr turned up the next morning at the door of Bailey’s widow, Katherine.”
“‘Bobby will always have a place in my heart,’ she said.
“When Orr learned last year that James Gordon, a hockey player at Hingham High School, was fighting testicular cancer, he called Gordon’s mother, Terry, and asked to visit.
“Orr chatted for several hours with James, his family, and friends, spending much of the time holding Terry’s daughter, Jenna, who has Down syndrome.
“Orr posed for pictures with everyone in the house. He later mailed them autographed photos with personal messages, having remembered the name of each family member and friend as if he had known them for years.
“Terry Gordon, still in awe months later, said, ‘Who does that?’’’

Decades ago he rescued teammate Derek Sanderson from drugs and booze and took him to detox.

Hohler reports that Sanderson relapsed over and over and Orr picked him up every time and paid for his treatment. Eventually he was able to help Sanderson begin a new life as a financial adviser. “He helped save me,’’ said Sanderson, who has been sober since 1980. “Bobby knew it wasn’t going to be an easy process, and he never gave up. He was always there.’’

Among all of the almost too good to be true stories about Bobby Orr, one of the best is told by Robin Young, who now works for NPR.

She sat next to Orr on a flight to Martha’s Vineyard where he was participating in a charity event hosted by Celtics great John Havlicek. The plane encountered extreme turbulence and mechanical problems and they shared an intense moment together.

The next night as Young left her hotel to go out for a walk, Orr surprised her by heading out with her.

She thought, “Oh, God, what’s going on here?”

“I always thought of Bobby as a gentleman, happily married, the golden boy,” she said. “I’m thinking, ‘Please don’t disappoint me.’ ”

They walked down a narrow lane to the harbor. It was a beautiful evening. The water, Young said, was shimmering in the night, and she was afraid that Orr would make a pass at her.

As they stood uncomfortably, Young suggested that they should go back to the hotel and Orr agreed.

When they got back to the hotel, Orr said, “Listen, Robin, you’re a young, lovely woman. Please tell me you’re not going to walk alone by yourself again after dark. Good night.’ ’’

Young says the experience taught her a lesson. “Bobby really is the golden boy.”

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.