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.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Jackie Robinson of Presidential Politics

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 
Philippians 4:8

When Branch Rickey was looking for a candidate to integrate professional baseball, he needed a gifted athlete, of course, but he also needed a man who could endure the inevitable epithets and slurs without striking back. Jackie Robinson was that remarkable mixture of spectacular ability, fierce competitive spirit and personal grace and dignity.

Barack Obama has been the Jackie Robinson of presidential politics.

Last February, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an opinion piece titled, “I Miss Barack Obama.”

We were still early in the primary season then, but already there were signs that the campaign this year would be marked by what Brooks called “a decline in behavioral standards across the board.” And then he observed that, “Many of the traits of character and leadership that Obama possesses, and that maybe we have taken too much for granted, have suddenly gone missing or are in short supply.”

I launched this blog the week of President Obama’s first inaugural. My first post was about the Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery’s benediction, which I had found very moving. The prayer began with a quotation from James Weldon Johnson’s great hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which has become the Black National Anthem. And it ends with references to the Hebrew Prophets. In between, he called on the nation to reject greed and violence, to embrace inclusion rather than exclusion, and love rather than hate.

But Lowery drew intense criticism for the last paragraph of the prayer, when he called on the nation to work toward that day “when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.”

The blogosphere exploded with righteous indignation that Lowery had declared that white people had never done what was right. Lowery, they declared, was a racist.

It was nonsense, of course, Lowery was taking an old racist rhyme and turning it upside down.

It probably never occurred to him that anyone would take it as a blanket condemnation of white people. It certainly never occurred to me.

But that firestorm over the inaugural benediction set the tone for the avalanche of attacks that would follow President Obama throughout his tenure. The general theme would be that our first African-American President was himself a racist.

Among other things, the attackers declared that he was not born in the United States, that he was a Kenyan, that he was a Muslim, that he was a Marxist, and that he was the worst president in history.

And through it all, he maintained a quiet dignity. He never lashed out. He never made personal attacks. And he never seemed to bear any animosity even toward people who obviously hated him.

Last fall, the poet, environmentalist and theologian Wendell Berry wrote about the racism directed at President Obama by members of congress:
“Some of the President’s congressional enemies—and these may be the most honest of them—have openly insulted him.  But such candor is not necessary.  Elected officials or candidates seeking the support or the votes of racists do not need to question the authenticity of Mr. Obama’s birth certificate or to call him a Muslim, a communist, a nazi, or a traitor.  They need only to stand silently by while such slurs and falsehoods are loudly voiced in public by others.  To the racist constituency, their silence is a message that secures votes.  Their silence declares that no truth or dignity is worth as much as a vote.”
Remarkably, those who have responded to his presidency with racism also accuse him of dividing the country. The contention is that President Obama is responsible for the racism of those who have attacked him. It is enough to make you crazy. But through it all he has maintained a calm dignity.

In his essay, Brooks outlined three great virtues of the Obama presidency:
“The first and most important of these is basic integrity. The Obama administration has been remarkably scandal-free. Think of the way Iran-contra or the Lewinsky scandals swallowed years from Reagan and Clinton.”
  “Second, a sense of basic humanity. Donald Trump has spent much of this campaign vowing to block Muslim immigration. You can only say that if you treat Muslim Americans as an abstraction. President Obama, meanwhile, went to a mosque, looked into people’s eyes and gave a wonderful speech reasserting their place as Americans.”
“Third, a soundness in his decision-making process. Over the years I have spoken to many members of this administration who were disappointed that the president didn’t take their advice. But those disappointed staffers almost always felt that their views had been considered in depth.”
President Obama has made mistakes and miscalculations. Policies are always subject to debate. But his basic character and demeanor have been exemplary. 

We will miss him.

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

Monday, October 10, 2016

Some Comments on that Famous Video

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
John 18:36-38

If you thought that Donald Trump’s lewd comments caught on tape would cost him the endorsement of his evangelical supporters, you would mostly be wrong.

Most of them are still on board.

One of the strange commonplaces of politics and religion in America is that conservative evangelical pastors routinely endorse political candidates and mainline pastors do not. And the conservative evangelicals do not just endorse a candidate. They are not shy about telling us that God has raised up this one or that one on a holy mission. Since they are the only ones speaking, this creates an asymmetrical picture and makes it look as if all Christians are conservative evangelicals.

This is not because mainline pastors do not think that the Gospel has political implications. On the contrary, we are more likely to emphasize the politics of Jesus than the evangelicals.

We recognize that the Bible is a profoundly political book. The prophets proclaim God’s passion for justice as the foundation of the social order. And the message of Jesus is centered on “the good news of the Kingdom of God.” In the Lord’s Prayer, our first petition is, “Thy Kingdom come.” When the early church spoke of Jesus as “Lord,” and “Savior,” and “Son of God,” they knew that all of these terms were used to apply to the Emperor. And they knew that the Empire had killed Jesus because he was a political threat. When early Christians said that Jesus was “Lord,” they were also saying, “and Caesar is not.”

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 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.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who certainly understood the political implications of the Gospel better than most, never endorsed a political candidate.

In the famous scene from John’s Gospel excerpted above, Pilate asks Jesus whether or not he is a king, and Jesus responds with one of the best known verses in the Bible. In the older, and more familiar, King James Version, it is translated as “My kingdom is not of this world.”

That is often taken to mean that Jesus is concerned with “heaven” rather than with any earthly kingdom. But if that were the case, then he would not have told his followers to pray for the kingdom of God to come on earth. Jesus was telling Pilate that his kingdom was not like other kingdoms. It was not built on violence and oppression; it was built on non-violent justice.

Unfortunately, that is not a concept easily reduced to a bumper sticker or a sound-bite, and it is not surprising that when mainline pastors do venture into the political arena we are often misunderstood.

After the release of the famous Donald Trump video, Bishop John Schol, who is the United Methodist Bishop of the Greater New Jersey area, posted the following statement on Facebook: 

“Because of my role, I do not comment on political elections and candidates. But this is not a political commentary. It is a faith comment, a comment about the human condition. The recent revelation of Donald Trump’s view of women as sex objects goes against the Scriptures and who God created us as female and male. While we know there are men everywhere who think and talk about women in this way, these comments should never go unchecked whether in private conversation or public conversation. The world needs people everywhere to denounce such comments and call for just treatment of women everywhere. When these comments go unchecked, they give permission for the physical, sexual and emotional abuse of women. The world needs all of us to be better and do better.”
He received many positive responses, but he also received a huge amount of pushback.

Some comments criticized him for making a political statement. Others criticized him for taking sides, or for focusing on words rather than actions. And still others thought he should balance his criticism of Trump by criticizing Hillary Clinton for . . . something.

First, a criticism of Mr. Trump should not be interpreted as an endorsement of Secretary Clinton.

Second, it’s not just about what Mr. Trump said on the video; it’s about what he said he did. He said that he committed sexual assaults on numerous women.

Finally, we need to move beyond our obsessive need for a false equivalency. The video is lewd. And if you want more lewd comments from Mr. Trump, you can listen to what he said about his daughter on Howard Stern’s radio program. 

Some things are just wrong. 

All by themselves.

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

Friday, October 7, 2016

Donald Trump, Mitt Romney, and the Forty-Seven Percent

When Mitt Romney spoke about the "forty-seven percent," 
I doubt that he had Donald Trump in mind.
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
James 2:1-4

We tend to favor the rich.

And we have always favored the rich.

The biblical witness, on the other hand, consistently presents an alternative vision. From the Torah through the prophets, to Jesus and the early church, the Bible argues against our bias.

The poor, says the Bible, are blessed by God precisely because they are not blessed by us.

Four years ago Mitt Romney translated our bias into political language when he made his famous observation about the forty-seven percent of Americans who paid no income tax and would vote for President Obama because they were dependent on government. This was his analysis:
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, he starts off with a huge number.
“These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. So he’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean, that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people.
“I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not.”
Romney made two claims in his analysis. First he claimed that the 47 percent who pay no income tax are “dependent upon government.” And second, he claimed that because they are dependent on the government they will vote for the politicians, like President Obama, who support the programs on which they depend.

Both claims are mistaken.

About half of those who pay no income tax are working people whose incomes are so low (typically below $27,000) that they do not owe any income tax. They do pay other taxes (Social Security, Medicare, excise taxes, property taxes, and sales taxes), but they do not pay income tax. Some receive government benefits and others do not. Others who pay no income tax are seniors on Social Security and those whose deductions and credits eliminate their tax liability.

The forty-seven percent do not vote as a block. Nearly half of them typically vote for Republican candidates. The ten states with the highest percentage of individuals and families owing no federal income tax all traditionally vote Republican, and conversely all of the ten states with the lowest percentage of those with no tax liability typically vote Democratic.

Apparently, Donald Trump is one of the estimated 7,000 families and individuals making more than a million dollars per year and not paying any federal income tax. In Mr. Trump’s case it is possible that he has not paid income tax in nearly two decades.

What is most striking in this is that our reaction to a rich person paying no taxes is so very different from what we think when a poor person is doing the same thing. The rich person, we think, is smart. The poor person is characterized as a freeloader.

A friend who works in a very lucrative field and is very good at what he does observed that, “It’s amazing; when you’re rich everybody wants to give you stuff.”

Sometimes the free stuff is given in the hope that the rich person will buy an expensive car or house or boat. Other times the free stuff comes along because rich people are friends with other rich people who give them the use of a yacht or a summer home.

When a poor person gets something for free, we worry that they will become “dependent.” When a rich person gets something for free we somehow think they have earned it.

At some point, if we are Christians we need to ask ourselves the biblical question, “Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?"

Thank you for reading this post. Comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media.