Saturday, July 23, 2016

Prayer at the Republican National Convention

Pastor Mark Burns
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Matthew 6:5-6

Jesus was not a big fan of public prayer.

Even if we assume that he was talking about personal prayers spoken in public, rather than prayer spoken in the context of a service of worship, public prayer still problematic.

There is always the danger that it becomes performance.

The great preacher Charles Sturgeon liked to tell the story of an article in a Boston newspaper describing a prayer given at a public event as “the finest prayer ever offered to a Boston audience.” In public prayer, one cannot help being aware of the audience and there is always the temptation to play to the audience rather than pray to God.

Prayer at civic events is always problematic, and prayer at political rallies is even more so.

But still, when I looked at my Facebook page on Tuesday morning (July 19), I was stunned to see Diana Butler Bass’s posting of the benediction given by Pastor Mark Burns at the Republican Convention. After reading it, I thought it must be a hoax. But then I googled it and watched the video.

Both liberal and conservative commentators denounced it as “the worst prayer ever.”

Here it is:
“Hello Republicans! I’m Pastor Mark Burns from the great state of South Carolina! I’m going to pray and I’m going to give the benediction. And you know why? Because we are electing a man in Donald Trump who believes in the name of Jesus Christ. And Republicans, we got to be united because our enemy is no other Republicans — but is Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party.
“Let’s pray together. Father God, in the name of Jesus, Lord we’re so thankful for the life of Donald Trump. We’re thankful that you are guiding him, that you are giving him the words to unite this party, this country, that we together can defeat the liberal Democratic Party, to keep us divided and not united. Because we are the United States of America, and we are the conservative party under God.
“To defeat every attack that comes against us, to protect the life of Donald Trump, give him the words, give him the space, give him the power and the authority to be the next President of the United States of America, in Jesus’ name — if you believe it, shout Amen!”
On Thursday morning Burns was interviewed on NPR and given a chance to soften or re-frame what he said in the prayer, but basically, he doubled down. He really does believe that Donald Trump is the one who has been called by God to represent Christian values and principles.

At the close of the interview, Steve Inskeep asked him, “In a few seconds, do Donald Trump's values match your values as a Christian?” And Burns responded with enthusiasm, “Donald Trump, absolutely. There are three major points that Donald Trump is standing on that I support as a Christian. Number one, he supports, you know, the sanctity of marriage.”

“Number one, he supports, you know, the sanctity of marriage.”

Imagine, if you will, what Jon Stewart would do with that line. 

Public prayer is always problematic. But at its best it can remind us of our place in the universe. In Robert Bellah’s famous essay on American Civil Religion, he articulated the importance of believing in principles that transcend nationalism as well as sectarian religious doctrines. Referencing Lincoln as our best theologian, he argued for the idea that it is good for us to remember that we are judged by moral principles beyond our politics and beyond our national self-interest.

On the final night of the convention, the invocation was given by the Rev. Dr. Steven Bailey an Ohio United Methodist. I don’t know whether or not it was the best prayer ever given at a political convention, but it made my proud to be a United Methodist.

Read the full text of Rev. Dr. Steve Bailey’s RNC invocation:

Rev. Dr. Steven Bailey 
"Eternal God, we invite your spirit to come into this room and guide our actions tonight. Our faith traditions are united in recognition that you are the creator of all that is. You move on a scale and in ways we can scarcely comprehend but your grace and love reach through space and time to claim us, guide us, and make us your own.
"We are not here to ask you to bless what we have designed. We are here to ask you to transform us: To Make us better. Make us courageous. Make us tireless in seeking a more just nation for all who live in this land.
"We are united in our discontent for we know that our world can be made better:
 "-We know that it’s not right – that racism continues to wound and destroy the lives of many in this land. From judgments made in response to language or ethnicity, to inadequate schools that fail to serve their students, to incivility received at the grocery store or on college campuses; we know that we will only be a great nation when we are a good nation – when every citizen is fully vested in the promises of citizenship and fully shares in the opportunities of this great land.
"-We know that it’s not right – when lives are destroyed by addiction; when our justice system favors some and punishes others; when children and women are trafficked in the streets; or when people are denigrated because of whom they love.
"-We know that it’s not right – when we stand in the streets and shout insults at each other: When we attack those who risk their lives to protect us: When we harden our hearts to those we call the enemy: When we can no longer find common ground, upon which we can build a better future, forgive us O God.
"-O Eternal God, hope of all who call out to you; work through our leaders who have been entrusted to act on our behalf. Remind us that as we wield great power we also bear great responsibility. And remind us that each of our lives matters – our voice, our example, our values, and our service – may we each be one pivot point where the world swings from what it is to what it can be.
"We may call you by different names, we may pray in different languages, we may come from a multitude of perspectives – but tonight we share this moment in history – as we live together on this fragile planet. Give us grace, give us courage, give us compassion, and give us hope. Amen."

Monday, July 18, 2016

An Open Letter to the Traditionalists on the Election of Bishop Karen Oliveto

Bishop Karen Oliveto and her wife, Robin Ridenour

Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.
Deuteronomy 5:12-15

Dear Friends,

As I read the commentary by traditionalists on the election of Karen Oliveto, an openly gay clergy person, as a bishop in the United Methodist Church, I have a confession: I don’t get it.

I was going to use the traditional salutation, “Sisters and Brothers in Christ,” but I am trying to move beyond the gender binary.

I generally dislike the genre of the “open letter” because open letters aren’t really letters at all, they are opinion pieces and they are typically snarky while pretending to be sincere. In this case, I am hoping to be more ironic and satirical than snarky, and I make no pretense of sending a sincere letter.

But I am serious.

And I do have a very real question for you (the traditionalists).

It’s not the question about why anyone would think that “traditional” and Christianity would go together in the first place. Wasn’t Jesus always at odds with the traditionalists?

But that’s not my question today.

The question is, “Why do you care so much about same sex relationships?”

I get it that you care about the authority of the Bible. So do I. But why is that part of the Bible so important to you? 

Honestly, I just don’t get it.

Progressive Christians (I don’t like that label. I thought we were just garden variety ordinary Christians, but I guess we are stuck with it) tend to focus on the Sermon on the Mount, and the prophets, social and economic justice, and everything else that Jesus (and Paul) proclaimed as the Kingdom of God on earth. We are focused there because Jesus was focused there, and we are also committed to that agenda because we are concerned about human beings who are marginalized and oppressed.

For some traditionalists (not all) that probably looks like politics. I get that.

But I don’t get the emphasis on same sex relationships.

What about keeping Sabbath? Keeping Sabbath is an order of magnitude more important to the biblical writers than same sex relationships. It is a core principle in Hebrew Scripture, and although much is made of the ways in which Jesus disagreed with some traditionalists on how one ought to keep Sabbath, he consistently kept it. The disciples even kept the Sabbath after Jesus was crucified.

It is interesting, by the way, that in the Exodus version of the commandment it is related to the order of Creation (God rested on the seventh day of Creation), while in Deuteronomy it is related to the notion that even slaves must have a day of rest. In the nineteenth century, Progressives used this as part of the argument against a seven day work week.

Biblically speaking, breaking Sabbath is a major sin. Although we know that the death penalty pronouncements in Leviticus were not meant to be taken literally, Sabbath breaking is punishable by death.

And we know that human beings need Sabbath.

So why isn’t that even a blip on your radar?

Shabbat Shalom,

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Bishop Karen Oliveto and Dixie Brewster

The Rev. Dr. Karen P. Oliveto was elected to the episcopacy on the 17th ballot by the Western Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church (UMC). Her wife, Robin Ridenour, stands with her.

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Luke 15:1-2

Last night the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church elected the Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto to the episcopacy. And they made history by electing the first openly gay bishop in the United Methodist Church.

Dr. Oliveto is currently the Senior Pastor of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, one of the largest United Methodist congregations in the country. 

Before her appointment to Glide, she served as the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and the Director of Contextual Education at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. She also served as pastor at Bethany UMC in San Francisco and at Bloomville UMC in Bloomville, New York. She also served as the Campus Minister at the Ecumenical House Campus Ministry at San Francisco State.

She did her undergraduate work at Drew University, where she also earned a Master of Philosophy and a Ph.D. She earned her Master of Divinity degree at the Pacific School of Religion. And she has been a leader in a number of agencies addressing the needs and hopes of people at the margins of society. She is known as an excellent preacher and a caring pastor.

She is, by every reasonable measure exactly the sort of person we should be electing to lead the church.

Except, of course, for the part about being openly gay. And in a partnered relationship.

Before the Western Jurisdiction delegates had finished celebrating, the delegates in the South Central Jurisdiction voted to ask the Judicial Council (the Methodist equivalent of the Supreme Court) for a declaratory ruling on the legality (in church terms) of the election.

The request, approved by 56% of the delegates, was made by Dixie Brewster (that really is her name), a lay woman from Kansas.

This is her motion for a "Declaratory Decision":

"Bishop, I move that the South Central Jurisdictional Conference request a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council on the following matter:
 "Is the nomination, election, consecration, and/or assignment as a bishop of The United Methodist Church of a person who claims to be a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” or is a spouse in a same-sex marriage lawful under The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church.
"What is the application, meaning and effect of ¶ 304.3, ¶ 310.2d, ¶ 341.6, and ¶ 2702.1 (a), (b), and (d) in regard to the nomination, election, consecration and/or assignment as bishop of a person who claims to be a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” or is a spouse in a same-sex marriage or civil union? 
Further —
• "Does a public record that a nominee for the episcopacy is a spouse in a same-sex marriage disqualify that person from nomination, election, consecration and/or assignment as a bishop in The United Methodist Church?
• "If a jurisdictional conference nominates, elects, consecrates, and/or assigns a person who, by virtue of being legally married or in a civil union under civil law to a same-sex partner, would be subject to a chargeable offense, is the action of the jurisdictional conference null and void?
• "Is it lawful for one or more of the bishops of a jurisdiction to consecrate a person as bishop when the bishop-elect is known by public record to be a spouse in a same-sex marriage or civil union?
• "When a bishop, district superintendent, district committee on ordained ministry, Board of Ordained Ministry, or clergy session becomes aware or is made aware that a clergy person is a spouse in a same sex marriage or civil union of public record, does such information in effect and in fact amount to a self-avowal of the practice of homosexuality as set forth in ¶ 304.3, related footnotes and related Judicial Council Decisions?"
I included the full resolution because it illustrates both the arcane nature of the Discipline and the lengths some will go to in order to prevent the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church.

In the twenty-first century, is this really what the church should be doing? Is this how we bring Good News to a hurting world? In the history books, this little chapter in the life of Methodism will look like the Salem witch trials.

But there is a larger point, which is illustrated in the scripture text (above) from Luke’s Gospel.

In an unintended way, Karen Oliveto and Dixie Brewster provide the perfect illustration for what the United Methodist Church ought to be. We ought to have a place for each of them. They both belong.

Of course, in order for that to work, Dixie Brewster would have to stop trying to exclude Karen Oliveto. But we ought to be a place where diverse opinions can peacefully coexist. And at our best we have been that place.

We sometimes ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?”

We know from the Gospel records, that he would be advocating for those at the margins, for those who are excluded.

But I believe he would also be taking Dixie Brewster out to lunch.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Racism in the Age of Obama

President Obama Addresses the Memorial Service in Dallas

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
I John 3:18

Yesterday morning President Obama spoke at the Dallas Memorial Service for the five police officers killed last week. If you missed the speech, you can watch the whole service here. In his remarks, he cited the verse above and lamented the fact that words, his own words, spoken at so many different occasions of national grief, were not enough.

In a New York Times column this morning, Frank Bruni asks the question, “Has Barack Obama Hurt Race Relations?”

There are people who believe that he has.

More specifically, there are white people who think he has.

They blame him for pointing out the stupidity of arresting Professor Henry Louis Gates at his Cambridge home. They blame him for the observation that if he had a son, that young man would look like Trayvon Martin. And they blame him for talking about the issue of police shootings of black men at the memorial service for five slain police officers. 

His memorial reflection focused first and foremost on the sacrifice of the slain police officers and he applauded the Dallas police force for their role in saving lives when the shooting started, but for his detractors that did not loom as large as his statement that racism is still a problem in America.

A Pew Research study released this spring shows that blacks and whites have very different views of the state of race relations in America. Only 36% of whites believe that racial discrimination is a problem. Among blacks that number is almost double, at 70%. The disparity is not surprising. The people who actually experience racism think it is a bigger problem than the people who only observe it, or perhaps even inflict it.

But it must come as a surprise to many social scientists that both numbers are not higher, since we have reliable research showing that racial discrimination is a problem, even for people who are trying their best to overcome it.

We (white people) are in deep denial on this issue.

Our collective view seems to be that since there are laws against discrimination and we do not personally see ourselves as racists, there is no longer a problem. At least there should no longer be a problem. 

And we have gone even further. Now we label as racist the person who points out the racism. Activists are called race hustlers. Civil rights is called the grievance industry. 

The critics of the President’s view, that though we have come a long way we still have a long way to go, are seemingly unaware that their unrelenting attacks on his views provide incontrovertible evidence that he is correct.

And the racist abuse directed at President Obama is beyond our ability to quantify it. As I was writing this I went looking for examples, but there are too many. Typically the main article is written with subtle racism and then the comments overflow with raw sewage. 

We should be beyond this, but we are not, and we are not about to blame ourselves. We are angry that the black guy in the White House keeps reminding us.