upper room daily devotions

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Enter the Song: The Magnificat

(This is last year's sermon for Advent 4B).

When I was a little girl, one of the things that I loved about visiting my grandparents during the holidays is that I had a special job. My cousin and I, the two youngest kids, were tasked with ringing an old flecked green bell to call people to dinner. There were always gobs of people. We had to walk all through the house, out to the porch where people would be in the rocking chairs and swinging on the porch swing, and we would ring that bell, and everyone knew our message. For two kids who were too young to do much more with the family, this made us feel pretty special. We couldn't understand the conversations about politics or religion. We didn't care to listen about people long dead whom we would never know. We were too short to sit at the adult table. What we had was that green bell, flecked and dented from decades of being rung by the youngest members of the family. The tone of that bell was the music that allowed us a special place in the family. The music of that bell heralded something very special - that 40 or so people who saw each other once, maybe twice, a year would be sitting down to break bread as my family has done for generations. Through the clear tone of that bell, we entered into my family's ever evolving story. Now, we could have just as easily walked around and said, "Dinner's ready" or "Come and eat." But the ritual of ringing a bell passed down from youngest child to the next youngest child made the act holy. By touching the metal of the bell, by holding together the wooden handle that always threatened to fall apart, something bigger and more wonderful transpired. That sound was more than a call to dinner; it was a part of my family's unfolding story. And, it was holy.

Throughout Advent this year, I have invited you to enter into a holy story. We began the first week with an invitation to Enter the Challenge of Advent. The second week the good people from Mary's Place asked us to Enter into the Reality of Advent. Last week, I talked about Entering into the Dream of Advent. And, this week, we Enter the Song of Advent. Today Mary sings her soul for us. She pours out her faith. In the face of tremendous challenge, she is willing to enter into a terrifying reality because of the gift of God's mighty dream. And, her spirit is caught up in a song that remains a cornerstone of our faith. For those who pray the hours every day - a daily rhythm of praying with other Christians at prescribed times in a pattern of prayer that has been done for 1500 years (at least) - every day ends with the Magnificat. Almost every day ends with Mary's outpouring of faith, the dream that the Holy Spirit leaves in her. This song ushers us into a week that culminates with Christmas Day when we welcome the babe into the manger, into our world, into the mess of life.

Music touches us and changes us like no other experience. It is deeply personal.

Despite much tradition around Mary, we don't know much about her. She was probably poor, but so was most everyone around her. She is able to travel to her cousin's house. She is able to stand in the presence of an angel and hold her ground. When given an opportunity to respond to the angel's message, she responds with joy and in song. Moreover, the song that bursts from her is a song that challenges the powers and principalities of this world. She doesn't sing a lullaby or a song about domestic life with her child and husband; she sings about a new world where the rich are brought low and the poor are lifted up. She sings a song of justice and love and compassion. She sings a song born from humility at her own station, and she connects her poverty with the poverty of the world. Her song is intimate and personal, and it is grand and political. It is a song that changes everything. Through it we enter into the meaning of the Christmas, which bears us to a new hope for a world in which the poor and humble find dignity, relief, and release. Through Mary's song, we enter into a hope for how the world might be on December 26. Her words will find resonance in the mouth of her most holy and blessed son when he unrolls the scripture from Isaiah and proclaims the purpose of his life and his ministry. He comes to tear us from our sin, our greed, our self-serving. He comes to rip us from the allegiances that hurt and maim and destroy. He comes to shred the worlds that are erected on the backs of the poor and vulnerable. He comes to scatter us in the imagination of our hearts, that we might be born anew and afresh. And, he comes through Mary, who not only gives birth, but who knows that she is giving birth to this new coming. Aren't we all called to be Marys - to be joyful messengers of God's gospel - to give birth again and again because the world needs Jesus to be born oh so many times? All of us are needed to labor and groan our way to a new hope, to the light that warms the coldest hearts and chases the shadows of injustice away.

If Christmas and the Christ it proclaims are about anything, they are about a God who brings life out of places where there should be no life. Christmas is God entering into the finite, crazy, embodied world fully and without protection. Let's listen for Mary's voice and let her lead us through to the promise of Christ who is coming, of Emmanuel - God with Us. Look through the ancillary and peripheral of life. There is Mary who sings for a new world, who sings for her child whose body will bear the fullness of God's grace and love. Look through and sing with her.

This next week promises to be busy for everyone. Stop once and a while and hear Mary's song. Heck, join in with her. Let it carry you as only music can to a new place and a new hope. Stop and hear her words sung so many years ago - words we still yearn to hear and feel and know. Mary's song is a bell that calls us home, that pulls us from our places of comfort and repose, and brings us back to our story, which is ever unfolding. Let us, with her, sing, "Our souls magnify the Lord." May it be so. Amen.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Into Deeper Darkness: Shooting in Newtown

I just wrote this on our church's facebook page: "Just a few hours after we posted a joyful message that 35 of our kids will be singing in worship on Sunday, the nation mourns, once again, over the senseless and brutal deaths of children, this time in Conn. QAUMC mourns with deep sorrow over the deaths of the 20 children in Newtown. We pray for the children who escaped death but not a lifelong scarring. We pray for their families and their community. And, we pray for our nation, which has yet to learn how to talk sensibly about violence, safety, and community."

On The Huffington Post, about the fifth story down is "White House: Today Not the Day for Gun Control," but if one scrolls down just a few stories, Hark!, there is a story on gun control.

It's hard not to politicize situations like this, and, indeed, as we say after every national tragedy, we must find a way to deal with guns in the hands of angry, mentally ill, disenfranchised, broken people. My stand on this would probably surprise many. However, today is not the day for this debate. Today is a day to mourn.

I know many of my liberal friends respond, "If not today, when?" While I understand their point, which recognzies the fickle and transitory nature of American emotional convictions, this is still a heartless position to take. Today children are dead. It is okay to stop the political bickering, to set aside NRA affiliation or opposition, to leave behind language like "fascism," "anarchy," "socialism," and phrases like "trying to destroy America" and let this community, these families, and our nation mourn. Precious souls were lost to this world today. Future moms and dads, singers, teachers, artists, insurance salespeople, burger flippers, check-out clerks.

I know many of my conservative friends are already trotting out the "guns don't kill people, people kill people" trope. Don't. It is equally heartless and quite indefensible. Let it go today. In the days and weeks to come, you may need to hone your arguments. Stay silent on this day.

Even as we as Christians are beginning to turn from the deep darkness of Advent toward the beautiful light of Christmas, we must slow our turn and sit in the deep darkness of this day, recognizing that many will not make this turn at all this year. Many will sit in darkness for a long time to come. Those of us privileged not to be directly affected by these deaths are commissioned with a holy task of holding the light for those who cannot touch it, see it, or experience this year. It is up to us to hold up this light even higher, to sing even louder, to act with more compassion, and to tirelessly and relentlessly seek justice and serve as peacemakers in a world filled with too much tragedy, loss, despair, and violence. If we believe in the Prince of Peace, if we believe that we are to be his body in the world today, we have holy work to do. Let us not bind this work with the strictures of partisanship, but be freed by the gospel to seek God's peace on behalf of those whose hearts are so broken and torn that not only can they not seek it but they cannot even dream of it.

Today, Advent became darker. We mourn. I pledge myself to allow those who need to mourn the space to do it. And, I pledge myself to be a seeker of peace - not just in this season, but in the seasons to come. Blessed be the Prince of Peace, the Light of the World, Hope of hope.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Marriage Equality Finally a Reality in Washington State

Throughout the campaign to pass marriage equality in Washington state, many religious voices were raised in opposition. Both the National Organization for Marriage the the LDS pumped in millions of dollars for its defeat. Their efforts proved ineffective, however, and marriage equality finally became reality. This past week, couples lined up to receive their marriage licenses. Choral groups serenaded those in line. It was a celebratory event that spread throughout the downtown area. Then, on Sunday, couples were finally able to marry. The King County Courthouse opened to hundreds of couples that streamed through line to be married. Two couples were married Sunday evening at a performance of the Seattle Men's Chorus. And, at Seattle First Baptist Church, couples married en masse. During the evening, the Paramount Theater opened for a giant wedding reception with speeches by the governor and other dignitaries, but more importantly, for dancing and celebration. So many have waited so long to do something so normal and so holy; it was time to party.

My own denomination, heck, even my own congregation, is not of one mind on marriage equality. We will be offering the same kinds of marital support at my church for all couples. If two people support and love one another, live in fidelity, and pledge their troth one to the other, it is my obligation and privilege to stand with them and to offer blessings upon their union. Somewhere along the line, Protestants ceased to recognize marriage as a sacrament. While I understand the reasons for so doing, something was lost. You see, I don't "perform" a wedding or "marry" people. In this sense, marriage is a sacrament. The wedding is an outward sign of an inward grace - how we refer to sacraments. This weekend, there were many outwards signs of much inward grace. And, every church I serve will support grace in all of its forms.

I have been pretty quiet about the weddings taking place across the state - all over my city. But, I have watched them. The photos of joyful children literally hopping up and down with excitement for their two moms or two dads. Families in tears of joy. Couples in shocked disbelief that their state and some of their churches and synagogues were welcoming them in the exact same way as every other couple.

This seems like a problem for the privileged. Marriage equality. In some ways it is. But in many ways it is about basic civil rights. Basic human dignity. Basic spiritual nurture and care. There is nothing superfluous or ancillary about these things.

I know that millions upon millions of people think that marriage equality redefines marriage, perverts family, and harms children. The data don't support these prejudices, as much as fringe research projects are lifted up as proof. I know that many people are "turned off" by gay marriage by what I call the "ick factor." Yet, more and more people are opening their hearts and changing their minds. Even eight years ago, these weddings would have been but a distant dream. Today, they are reality. Let me say that again. Today, these marriages are reality, not only as an inward grace, but in the code of law...at least state law.

By no means is the fight for equal rights over. By no means is the struggle for equal spiritual care and nurture over. Sadly, religious people tend to be further behind on this than other people. However, those who try to paint all religious people with the same brush are wrong. Hundreds of couples will have weddings just as mundane and as sacred as every other couple...in churches...with ugly bridesmaid dresses...with bickering parents...and friends who show up drunk to the rehearsal. What a wonderful thought. Churches and synagogues will welcome people to no fanfare at all. That's really my dream. The celebration that is going on right now is wonderful. History is being made. But, what a day it will be when Adam and Steve can be married just as easily and without any more attention that Adam and Eve. Then we can focus more on their love and less on the political struggle. That's what will support and strengthen these families - the simple opportunity to be families.

Congratulations, history makers. Thank you to all of the civil servants who made this weekend's weddings possible. Blessings to all of the churches that threw open their doors in welcome...and repentance.

One more photo-essay, just because they are all wonderful.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Remembering Thomas Merton (Jan 31, 1915-Dec10,1968)

“What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous...”
-Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton died two months after I was born and yet he has always seemed very near to me. When I first read his autobiography "The Seven Storey Mountain," my life was profoundly affected. I was seventeen years old, and this book left an indelible mark on my soul.

His was a voice of peace amidst war, a voice for the oppressed amidst tyranny, a voice of friendship in a divided world, a voice of raw honesty, a voice of struggle, a voice I could hear. His friendships with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Dalai Lama fascinated me. That he was a Trappist who was a writer was an apparent contradiction that made me smile. His interest in technological advances, anthropology, and culture made him relevant for me in ways that the clearly religious and self-aware pious weren't. Thomas Merton profoundly affected me because he was acutely human. He was a holy man, to be sure, but he was a man.

I give thanks for his life and for how his writings and witness continue to influence other seventeen year olds, all of whom face their own mountains to scale.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

"The Beginning is Near" - A Sermon for Advent 2C

The Beginning is Near.

A photo of this sign was sent to me a week or so ago. It has stuck with me. Of course, we never hear "apocalypticists" herald that The Beginning is Near; they always announce that the end is near. Just to show you how much attention we give to the idea of an apocalypse, I want to show you what I found when I went to the internet to pull off a quick definition of "apocalypse." The following three things came up and, I kid you not, were news headlines. They read:
"Be honest; Apocalypse seems exciting, in a way" (CNN)
"Mayan Apocalypse: spreads as Dec 21 nears" (Telegraph)
and, more simply: "Zombie Apocalypse"

All around us are murmurings of apocalyptic activity. Just yesterday, I treated myself to a spa day and my massage therapist started talking about the Mayan calendar and odd cosmic alignments. I remember not long ago when the country was up in arms about Y2K. And, of course, in our perpetual war on terror, we color coded our safety in such a simplistic and unhelpful way that no one could take it seriously, but it was always there on our tvs glowing orange at us. Whether people are decrying the state of our political affairs, nuclear armament in unstable or despotic countries, or things as fanciful as cosmic alignments and zombies coming to eat our brains, it's easy for us to believe that the end is near. But, what about the beginning? It seems much more difficult to trust or expect in new beginnings.

Our readings from Malachi and Luke are all about beginnings. Endings, too, for sure. But the endings serve only one purpose, to give way for a beginning. You see, I finally made my way through Mayans and Zombies and found a proper definition of apocalypse on the Merriam-Webster website, which says this: "one of the Jewish and Christian writings of 200 b.c. to a.d. 150 marked by pseudonymity, symbolic imagery, and the expectation of an imminent cosmic cataclysm in which God destroys the ruling powers of evil and raises the righteous to life in a messianic kingdom." That's what apocalypse really means. A cosmic ending to injustice and the beginning of a holy and righteous justice. An apocalypse is an an ending/beginning collision.

Luke is not considered apocalyptic writing, but it is tinted with apocalyptic assumptions...and hopes. Right off the bat, Luke does something that none of the other gospels do - it includes three songs that proclaim a coming ending/beginning moment. This is something we need to pay close attention to. When a non psalmist includes a song, something major is happening. In the Exodus, after the Israelites cross through the parted waters, Miriam dances and sings what is possibly one of the oldest hymns in the Bible: “I will sing to the Lord,
for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea."
(Exodus 15)

So, when Luke puts song in the mouths of Mary, Simeon, and Zechariah, we need to pay attention. Mary sings the Magnificat (and we will, too, on Dec 23). Simeon sings what is known as the Nunc Dimittis (or in English "now dismiss"). It is a beautiful song of beginning/ending collision. In his song, Simeon, an old man who has faithfully waited for the Messiah, stands as a representative for all of Israel and, in many ways, the whole world, when he sings at the sight of the infant Jesus: "Lord, now you let your servant go in peace;
Your word has been fulfilled.
My eyes have seen the salvation
You have prepared in the sight of every people,
A light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people, Israel."

What a gorgeous and haunting giving way to God's glory.

Today, we hear Zechariah's song. The angel Gabriel visits Zechariah in his priestly duties and announces that he and his wife will bear forth a son who will be a messenger for the Messiah. Zechariah is struck dumb. His voice is muted until his son is born. There is no way, his rational mind tells him, that he and his wife, advanced in age, could bear forth new life. In many ways, Zechariah is like Sarah in the Old Testament. Beyond child bearing years, Sarah laughs at hearing of her impending pregnancy. Such a beginning is impossible. She is compelled to laughter. Zechariah is pulled into muteness. But, God has different plans for each of these of our ancestors. And, once those plans are put into place, what collisions we have. And, what songs are sung.

Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth both hail from priestly lineage. Yet, they do not bring to us a priest. They give birth to a prophet who heralds the ending of one age and announces the immanent appearance of a new age, which will be known by a man of peace. Zechariah's song is known as the Benedictus, so called for its first word "Blessed." It is no coincidence that his song begins with that word and ends with "peace." This is both blessing and proclamation of hope. In fact, the coming Messiah's role as the Prince of Peace runs throughout Luke in a very special way. He uses the word "peace" more than all of the other gospels combined. Zechariah sings of the approaching Messiah and of the immanent birth of his own son, who will prepare the way for this One of peace. His song situates both of these two births in a long line of God's mighty acts with, through, and on behalf of the Jewish people. He uses the language of the prophets, who heralded their own delivery from oppression and slavery and exile. He places the coming One in the House of David. His song anticipates the very wonder it proclaims. It is a masterpiece of faith.

In Luke 3, our gospel reading for today, the gospel writer once again wants us to believe that new beginnings will be transpiring here on this earth among us as real people. The reading starts, "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,

3:2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness." These are real people, a real political world, a real religious world. When Jesus comes, it will not be in an abstract way. He comes. Here. A new beginning here. In our mess. In this mess. Among us. That's the Incarnation which we proclaim during this season.

Last week, I invited you not to run away from the darkness of this world or the darkness in your souls. I said that for the season of light to have any impact on us, it must contrast with the shadows of this world. Today, we move from that more abstract image of Light amidst Darkness into the concrete world of the here and now, of what it means for God's hope to be born, for the injustices, wounds, and injuries of one age to pass away and for something else, something better and holy to take their place.

So, I ask you. How much easier is it to believe only in endings. In death. In mortality. In broken political systems? How much easier is it to trust that others are out to hurt, wound, belittle, and dismiss you? It's so much easier to believe that the good things of this world will go away leaving us only with despair. It's easier because the alternative requires something of us while despair does not. With despair, we relinquish our part in the world, our hope, our expectations of goodness and connection and love and reparation. But, with songs like those sung by Mary, Simeon, and Zechariah...with a real apocalypse, we expect change here and now. Changes that will bring a new age of healing and wholeness and love and justice and, as Zechariah sings, peace. To trust in this new beginning requires us to invest in it, to offer ourselves as do Mary, Simeon, Sarah, Zechariah and the soon to be born John the messenger and preparer of the way. If we really expect Jesus to be born on Christmas, for God to break into our world in a cosmic way that upsets the powers and principalities of this world, then we have no choice but to respond and to invest ourselves and to offer all that we have and are for this new age. Such a hope places a claim on us.

As we move inexorable toward Christmas, I invite you to trust not in the Mayan calendar or wars on terror or the zombie apocalypse. I invite you to trust in something much more fanciful and difficult. I invite you to sing with Mary, Simeon, and Zechariah - to labor with John in preparing the way - and to trust that The Beginning is Near. Amen.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Incarnation

"God becomes human
out of love
for humanity.
God does not seek the most perfect
human being
with whom to be united
but takes on human nature
as it is."

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

What happened to love and grace?

Recently, a few people have asked me for advice about how to speak with conservative Christian (fill in the blank - friends, family, students, co-workers...). This can be difficult as religious and political differences can tug at the bonds that hold friends, family, and co-workers together. It can be an awkward position to sit around the Thanksgiving table and hear ad hominem attacks on politicians, other public figures, or even ideas that one supports. At what point should someone speak up? How? Should we just sit quietly and hope for the horror to end? Sometime, sadly, those critiques can turn racist or fanciful in a way that demands a hearing on the facts.

As Christendom dies (well, it's already dead, but many refuse to believe it), it's very difficult for people to acknowledge and accept that Christianity is no longer the de facto ordering of American life. Blue laws are gone, Christmas holiday is now winter break, and yes, some Christmas trees are called holiday trees. It's how thing are. They are not going back. And, if people would awaken to the reality of times gone by, by and large folks might choose to live now anyway. Would we want to live during a time when antibiotics didn't exist? As much as people decry the nation's social net, talk to any senior citizen and ask if he or she would voluntarily give up Social Security. Do women want to lose the vote? Be less educated? Have no protections against rape? What about African Americans? Anyone want to return to Jim Crow laws? People have concocted a past that never happened. "Leave it to Beaver" was a TV show, not a real family. Ask those TV pundits who cry their crocodile tears over the demise of Christianity how often they attend worship, teach Sunday school, or serve on a church committee. Ask them if they give to a church, much less tithe. The loss of Christendom has left the country as a whole in chaos; that part is true. As one hegemony gives way, it leaves us all wondering what will take its place. Something will, but what? A natural response is for people to become more tribal, reactionary, nostalgic, and ideological. This is what we hear in the harsh words of people who call President Obama a Muslim, a Kenyan, a threat to American values. These are the attacks of scared people. What do those of us do who are not scared? How do we respond? What should our posture be?

For those who are Christian or who were raised Christian, it is important to become clear on what Christianity means to him or her. In answering the questions asked of me, I have had to get clear on what being Christian means to me, even more than usual. Fundamentally, what it means. And, how it is that two people who both claim this moniker - "Christian" - can mean such different things.

It seems to me that at the bottom of the many and varied debates about Christianity and culture today, there exists a fundamental (yes, that word again) discrepancy regarding core values. Yes, I say "core values" and not beliefs. I use core values because I think they color the language used to describe one's beliefs. We'll get to that in a minute.

To generalize (hopefully in a more rather than less helpful way): It seems that liberal mainliners focus on two teachings of Jesus: 1) Love God and love neighbor and 2) Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is through these two teachings that they view the other activities of Jesus and, thus, what it means to be a Christian. For example, when Jesus heals people he is demonstrating love of neighbor by restoring them to community. He is loving them. Or, another example, when one of his followers cuts off the ear of one coming to arrest him, Jesus restores the ear and goes peacefully with the soldiers to his accusers. He does to that man as he would have preferred to have been treated; Jesus does not respond to violence with violence. Not once. Not ever. This strain of Christianity tends to focus more on how communal life is ordered in the here and now. It relies upon these two teachings for guidance in public policy and in liturgy. This Christian was once called a social gospel Christian, although many would not claim that label today. Moreover, more and more different "brands" of Christians are falling into this category. You have Evangelicals like the folks at Sojourners, Roman Catholics, and Baptists joining the old mainline Protestants in this pool of Christianity. This kind of Christianity is not limited to one denomination, one seminary, or one leader (Martin Luther, John Wesley). This Christian cares about Jesus' teachings more than anything else. They tend to view the Old Testament as the natural history of Jesus and the Resurrection as a teaching about God's ability to overcome the powers and principalities of this world, even the power of death. The Resurrection is not unlike the virgin birth or the story of Abraham and Sarah. The virgin should not yet be able to bring forth life. The aged Sarah should no longer be able to bring forth life. God is a bringer of life. This is not, as some conservatives would have us believe, a weak myth; it is a strong one. It is a core value that colors how one sees, understands, and interacts with the world. In a way, these folks could claim the title of "pro-life" if it weren't already staked out by another party. This kind of Christianity focuses on the life to come...after this age of injustice is beaten by the God of life, but this coming age takes place on this earth.

A particular strain of conservative Christians would never say that they jettison the teachings of love and neighbor, or do unto others, however, they show preference to other core values. These folks show preference for pleasing God in order to get into heaven. This world is but a dress rehearsal for another world after we die. Pleasing God become paramount. Even those traditions that emphasize that God and only God saves, pleasing God in order to get to heaven becomes a focus. It's an internal conflict that is never challenged...at least not very much. Yes, Christians should do good works here and now. They should feed the poor, tend the sick, and welcome the stranger, but the focus is on the life to come...after this life. These folks tend to favor the teachings of Paul. Through Paul they read the New Testament. Many would argue this is how it should be as Paul wrote before the gospel writers. In the 1800s, a new strain of this type of Christian emerged; it is called "premillenialism." Premillenialists are those who expect Jesus to physically return and reign for 1000 years. Not all conservative Christians are premillenialists. Not all disbelieve evolution, but many do. Very conservative Christianity is a very large and diverse tent. It contains conservative mainline Protestants and pre-millenialists. Many in this group tie their faith to the provability of the Bible - that is, what happened in the Bible is literally true, not true in any other way. Truth = fact. Period. Again, denominationalism has broken down in such a way that one can't point to an Assembly of God person can say, "That's a conservative Christian" in any meaningful way. To find this kind of conservative Christian (note I say "this kind"), one can look to any mainline denomination, to Roman Catholicism (increasingly in positions of extreme power), the Anglican Communion, and so on. Some of these folks think that religious traditions like Advent and liturgical colors and the lectionary are "born of man" and are thus corrupt and should be discarded. Others love liturgy. It is important, despite my generalizations, not to lump everyone in together in the same way that "liberal Christians" are not all of on stripe.

In short, core values that are in conflict with each are concerned with different and competing purposes of Christianity. Is it to "save souls for the afterlife" or is it to "live as Jesus lived"? This fundamental disagreement, I believe, pushes all of the other conflicts in the church universal. It drives what love means. For a conservative, it is more loving to correct, even harshly judge, someone if it will save them from burning eternally in hell. Therefore, "right belief" or orthodoxy becomes more important, more loving, than for a liberal, who tends to be more interested in right action ("orthopraxy") or in the value of belonging. For a liberal, it is more loving to accept and embrace difference, welcome questions, and tend wounds. Both would say they are acting out of a loving stance. One for eternity. One in the here and now.

What is not loving, regardless of these values, is ad hominem attacks. What is not loving is the creeping role of a bastardized karma that has infiltrated Christianity (note the word "bastardized"). The idea that one gets what one deserves is antithetical to Christianity. Oddly, it is the most orthodox and conservative of views to believe that by God's grace we do not receive what we deserve. Within this form of Christianity, which usually preferences "substitutionary atonement," Jesus died in my stead. Or, he is the sacrifice needed to save my soul. Or, he is the scapegoat for humankind's sin. In any of these most conservative theologies (rarely found in liberal Christianity), human beings DO NOT receive what they deserve. Quite the opposite. So, when conservative Christians start talking about payback or retributive justice (giving people what's coming to them), they have left behind (pun intended) one of their core beliefs - atonement theology. Veiled threats and not so veiled wishes for hardship or even death to fall upon one's enemy is not Christian, despite the cherry picking of scripture people use to support their uncharitable remarks and actions. The division within Christianity regarding core values should not be an excuse for hate or violence or their tolerance. There is no grace in the bastardized karma, which says that people receive their just deserts. Sick? You probably deserve it (and I won't pay for your treatment). Hurricane? Gays. Killed in war? Gays (again). People on both the left and the right are guilty of this thinking.

This thinking is most especially clear in this kind of "logic" - the economy is bad, Obama is president, Obama is Muslim (factual error), Obama hates God, you voted for Obama, the country gets what it deserves. Is there such a thing as cause and effect in the world? Yes. If we pollute, then life on this planet changes for the worse. If we elect a person who makes poor decisions on policy, we get bad returns from said policy. But, these are not religious claims. This is simple cause and effect. We needn't call Obama a Muslim if he isn't (he isn't) or a Kenyan (born in Hawaii) or a hater of American values. He may simply see a different path to a better tomorrow that you do. He may be wrong. His policies may be bad. I happen to agree with him more often than I disagree, although I disagree strongly on certain things. It is unnecessary to depict him with a bone in his nose (explicit racism) to vehemently disagree with his policies. It is, frankly, unChristian to do so.

In addition to "logic," people turn to religion to support their non-religious views. Disagree with marriage equality? Why? Because the Bible says so. No. The Bible supports polygamy much more than it supports monogamy. Why? Get to the why of the argument. Because the idea of you having sex with someone of the same sex is icky? Most likely that's the answer. I have found that once people are forced to leave behind weak religious argumentation about marriage the only argument left is the "ick" argument. I actually have a great deal of empathy for this response. Let's deal with it. Not flippantly. Not by saying, "Then don't have sex with someone of the same sex." That's not helpful, either. Let's unpack all of the misogyny, sexism, and ingrained self-loathing embedded in the reaction against marriage equality, but let's discuss the real issue. The objection isn't religion. It isn't. Don't argue with me. I know. It isn't.

In dealing with difference, there are two core Christian values (not just Christian, by the way) that should always take precedence over all others: grace and love. We can vociferously disagree and not strain our relationships if we favor grace and love above all else. Generous love, that is, not corrective love. So, I suppose I have some direction on what love is. Grace and love. Where are they in our discourse? In our religious discourse? In our political discourse?

When family members start saying things that we might consider nonsense, simply ask, "Does this require a response?" If it is devoid of grace and love, the answer is probably "yes." If they are simply espousing things you disagree with, probably "no." But always respond in grace and love. Maybe with humor. Always believing in their better character. If you find that you don't believe in their better character, then it might be time to ask about the health of that relationship. I'm not always the most tactful person; I've been accused many times in my life of being quite the opposite. Yet, I recognize that grace and love can take us a long way. Right and wrong rarely get us very far at all. At the dinner table, over the beer with a friend, at the water cooler with a co-worker, when the uncomfortable moment arises, try to find out their core value, and then respond in grace and love.

*One perfect example of two Christians whose core values in conflict can be found in this exchange:
The President of conservative seminary Asbury wrote this article on marriage equality.
Liberal UMC pastor Sandy Brown wrote this rebuttal.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Sermon Advent 1C "Dark and Light-An Advent Rhythm"

A few days ago, the ceiling light (my only light) in my study burned out. Because I’m too short to reach it, changing it requires me to go to my detached garage, lift the ancient wooden door, scrape around in boxes until I find a replacement, carry in the ladder, climb up, remove the fixture, and change the bulb. Okay, in the scheme of things, not a complicated process, but with work and rain, I simply couldn’t bother, so it’s still burned out.

As Advent begins, I’ve been thinking about light and darkness and justice and righteousness and signs and portents and a baby. It’s a lot . But I keep coming back to my study. Light, for me, has always meant hitting a switch and voila – Light! All my life. I’ve never lived without electricity. Even when I spent time in Congo, although it was sometimes intermittent, the house I stayed in had electricity…even hot water. On the evenings when the power was off, we simply turned to our flashlights and battery powered lights strategically placed all over the house. Switches…and voila…light.

This has not been true for most of human history. By and large, we were active during daylight hours and we were quiet, still, and restful during the night. It was a rhythm that ordered our whole interaction with the world. While today we suffer from what scientists call “light pollution,” this would have been a ridiculous concept even 100 years ago. We are oversaturated with illumination: the light from street lamps, buildings that never go dark, clocks with digital displays, TVs, computers, ereaders like the Nook and Kindle, car headlights, and so on. We are so overstimulated that we don’t know how to stop, slow down, take stock, be still, appreciate the darkness, and get back into the groove, the rhythm that evolution has relied upon in us for safety, rest, and rejuvenation. A few years ago, I lived near I5 and I used to get a little loopy thinking about how the traffic never stopped on the interstate. All night long headlights burned through the darkness and people catapulted their way from one destination to another. Culturally we do not stop. And this culture of limitlessness, of constant movement, it has a cost. Advent can help us pause.
Advent is not just a season of Light. Too much light washes everything out, washing away. No. Advent is a season of light in the midst of darkness. Darkness and light playing off one another. We have to welcome the darkness in order to appreciate the light. It’s important to know and not be bowed by the darkness in our world, in our lives.
As a holy season of preparation like Lent, Advent is a time of prayer and preparation. But, the Latin root of the word for Advent means “to come.” Something is coming; and we are waiting for it. But, waiting, anticipating, resting. These things are not our forte.

In many ways, Advent is a seasonal mirror of the Jewish Sabbath. Jews start their days at sundown. We begin our year (Advent is the start of the Christian calendar) in a season of darkness. During Jewish Sabbath, people are called to worship, reflection, community, and joy. Advent does as well. Jewish Sabbath leads people away from the busy-ness of everyday life back into a rhythm predicated on the belief that we were made for no other purpose than to commune with our God. Advent brings us back to our purpose, too. During this season, more than any other during the church year, we celebrate all of the many titles and roles given to and taken on by Jesus. Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, Light of the World, Word of God, vulnerable child, a baby born into poverty, Emmanuel (God with us), and so on. During our waiting, we anticipate the coming of this complex and wonderful God.  Moreover, we can’t begin to commune with God if we can’t spot God, if we can’t see God, feel God, know God.
Luke’s portents could have been written today: “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.” Whoever says the Bible is irrelevant hasn’t read it. This past week, the UN has been gathered in Qatar to wrangle, once again, over global climate change. Once again, the world had few expectations of this meeting. And, once again, it hardly was covered by the media. Yet, hurricanes continue to intensify, the oceans continue to acidify, the Northern hemisphere is growing warmer with fall and winter becoming delayed by weeks, fresh water is scarce in many places, drought, and climate change driven famine are taking place. There is distress among the nations due to the roaring of the sea and waves. And we are confused. To address climate change with any seriousness would require us to interrupt our patterns of behavior – globally to do so – and to change our rhythms of life. To slow down. To use less. To expect less autonomy. To live differently.

Luke, clearly, wasn’t talking about climate change, but his words are prescient, all the same. Luke, recalling words from a prophet, speaks of international chaos. We see that all around us, too: throughout Africa and the Middle East, but all around us. Even here in the United States, as we debate the fiscal cliff, economic policy, and engage in hyper partisan politics, we are fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the earth.

We experience spiritual darkness, too. Loss of loved ones, economic stress and distress, old and painful psychic wounds, uncertain futures, unknown purpose, our own mortality. Individually, we faint from fear and foreboding.

Then Jesus tells a story, which seems to make little sense. A great storyteller, but sometimes his stories leave us scratching our heads in wonder. Yes, sprouts on trees tell us that life is coming, but what has that to do with the sun, the moon, and the stars, and distress upon the earth. Moreover, this passage comes from the end of the gospel just before the events of Jesus’ final week of life. They move us toward the crucifixion. Why are they read during Advent?

Change. This is a story about change. About endings and beginnings. God’s time is more mystical than chronological. During Advent, we look back at the birth of Jesus but we also look for Christ coming again. Each Advent we declare that this age is ending and a new one is being born. We celebrate not just to arrivals of Jesus (his birth and the second coming) but we remind ourselves that God is born into the world all of the time. We are incarnational people. God is here. In the hyperbolic portents but in the quiet moments, in our struggles, in the poor babies born today, in the margins of society now, not just 2000 years ago, not just in the future. We wait for what is all around us. We celebrate the birth of the not yet. It’s a jumble of mystical wonderful frightening experiences. This is the why the angels must declare again and again, “Fear not!” for this kind of mystical hodge podge is uncontrollable, uncontainable, unpredictable. It is interruptive and disruptive. Change. Everything changes.

Where is the darkness in your soul? Is there a way you can move into your darkness this Advent – embrace it a little? Touch the sorrow. Touch the loss. Touch the fear. And remember, everything changes. There is a light that splits your darkness. A light different from all others. A light emanating from the Light of the World. A light found in the stars. A light that is leading us, sometimes circuitously for sure, but leading us all the same from the stars to the stable, to the side of a God who is born among us, who knows the completeness of the human condition. There is a light of justice that shines wherever there is injustice and oppression. There is another light that calls us back to a rhythm of existence of dependence upon it; it demands that we let go of the artificial lights upon which we rely. Let them go, it says. Let them dim. Let them fall to the ground. They are worthless. There is only one light that shines with truth and mercy, and it cannot be found in the sky or in a lamp.

Go to Christmas by way of a route of rest and justice. Awaiting the change that only our God brings. So, close your eyes and enter that moment of darkness as I leave you with a poem from Wendell Berry called The Peace of Wild Things. It says,

"The Peace of Wild Things"
-Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of the wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.




Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Updates on The Well (Anne Lamott, Alexander McCall Smith, Tony Jones, and others) and Life

John Dominic Crossan
I recently read somewhere that my blog ranks fairly high on a list of United Methodist bloggers. That freaked me out a little bit. If one checks, one would find that I haven't written since September; that's a long l-o-n-g time in the blogosphere. Frankly, this blog is very dusty and must cry tears of loneliness the way it is neglected. But, by the time I write, edit, and send my church newsletter; maintain our church website; update our church facebook page; write on our church twitter feed; and keep up with my own facebook and twitter accounts, I have nothing left to say. Let's not forget the weekly sermon, either. Or the faith and values project I am working on with interfaith partners at Seattle University. When I entered ministry, I was a strong extrovert on the Myers Briggs. No more, friends. I can go for days without wanting to share anything. But, here I am with some updates about ministry, life, thankfulness, and happenings.

Our new ministry at QAUMC called "The Well, a gathering place for conversation" continues to bring provocative and thoughtful people to lead conversations, provide music, and facilitate encounters with the divine. This year our line up has included:
Carrie Newcomer
Luis Rodriguez
Anne Lamott


Tavis Smiley and Cornel West

Tony Jones
  • Wes Howard Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson on Empire and God
  • Cornel West and Tavis Smiley on "The Poverty Manifesto"
  • Robert V Taylor on "A New Way to Be Human"
  • Carrie Newcomer on Spiritual Autobiography and a concert
  • John Dominic Crossan on "The Power of Parable"
  • Kathleen Norris on "Acedia and Me"
  • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove on "The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture"
  • Jennifer Knapp on "Inside/Out Faith: Can You Be Gay and Christian" and a concert
  • Luis Rodriguez on "It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing"
  • Philip Gulley on "The Evolution of Faith: How God is Creating a Better Christianity"
  • Bill Mallonee and Muriah Rose on "Faith, Art, and Cultural Relevance" and a concert
  • Macky Alston with his film "Love Free or Die"
  • Interfaith Forum on Marriage Equality
  • Alexendar McCall Smith on Location, Civility, and Humor
  • Tony Jones on "A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin"
  • Anne Lamott on "Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers"
  • Anne Lamott
This has made life very full, very busy. I am grateful for these wonderful talks, for the beautiful music, for the conversation, and for the time spent with these incredible artists, thinkers, dreamers, and teachers. I am grateful for all of the people who have pitched in and helped move chairs, run sound boards, sold books, welcomed guests, cleaned, and prepped. I am grateful for the people who have ventured in to our get togethers - for their generosity, their questions, their heart-longing aches, their laughter, and their good wishes on another year of conversational experiments. And, I am grateful for the God of love and life who inspired us to start this ministry.

It seems that we in America spend an awful lot of time yelling at, talking past, and misquoting one another. We want to do the exact opposite of that at The Well; we want a safe place to ask hard questions about life, faith, God, community, our world, our politics, and to struggle with the hard problems that face us in our world. We strive to help one another find the right language to talk about our faith and spiritual journeys so that we might better appreciate the struggles and quests of our neighbors.
Katie M Ladd and Alexander McCall Smith
We live in a complex and wounded world. It is also a wonderful world filled with breathtaking diversity. Both of these things are true at the same time.

I am loving this adventure. Thank you to all who have adventured with us. Many blessings on your holiday weekend. Many blessings to you as Advent approaches. We hope you wish us well - that we might find the money to continue into the new year. We have a plan; we just need the tools to make it happen.

All of this and so much more is why I am more absent than present on this blog. I hope to come back soon refreshed and ready to dialogue in this space. Happy Thanksgiving.

Wes Howard Brook and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Restraint and Hate

Recent events that have culminated in the deaths of several people in Benghazi arise from a playbook of every bad thing in religion. No religion is off the hook in this mass of hate-filled acts. As attention moves to assigning "blame" for the deaths of the fallen Libyans and US citizens, the question is, "Who is to blame?" I can answer that. A whole host of people who utilize religion for hate, political ascendency, and intolerance.

The Coptics who produced this film and the hate-monger Terry Jones do not reflect the religion that I claim. Their acts of intentional provocation have no home in a movement of peace. Their hatred does not belong to a movement that follows a man of love. Their intolerance is not born from the gospels of welcome. I leave it to members of Judaism and Islam to respond to the base acts of the members of those faiths. For me, I remain aghast at what people can and will do in the name of God - the same God to whom I have pledged my life. Islam may be right in claiming that there is be one true God, but clearly there are many gods. The people involved in the making of this film and in the killings yesterday do not worship the same God I do. I do not worship their god of hate and violence. Not now. Not ever.

I dream of that day when people of faith rise up and denounce such acts, not casually with eye rolling or heavy sighs, but robustly and without reservation. I wish that leaders of religions would stop placating the extremists in their communities.

People died. People died not because of war for the gain of territory or natural resources. Their deaths are not a result of the oppressed rising up against their oppressors. They did not die in the protection of art or freedom of speech. Their deaths are quite simply the result of a series of bad decisions and hateful actions made by people who should have known that no other outcome could have been envisioned. Violence begets violence - this time and every time.

Our world has lost the ability to exercise restraint. Well, I don't know if we actually lost this ability, but I sure wish we could learn to exercise it now. In accordance with this wish, I pledge not to defame my neighbor, even if that neighbor is my enemy. I will not excuse the hateful, intolerant, bigoted actions of other Christians. I will use my pulpit and my identity as an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church to forge stronger relationships with other faiths rather than working to undermine them. This may not be much; I cannot stop the increasing violence in Egypt and Libya; I cannot bring back the lives of those who have died; I cannot unmake a film; I can only control my own actions. And I will.


The Atlantic has released a short response that questions the identity of Sam Bacile, even doubting the authenticity of the man. Read this bizarre twist that sheds more darkness on an already opaque picture.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Race, Hate Speech, and Public Discourse

Well, we are at it again. *Sigh*

Two events at the RNC Convention in Tampa have revealed how deeply troubled our country is about race and public discourse. Late last night, Talking Points Memo (TPM) reported that two attendees at the convention were ejected after throwing peanuts at and saying to a CNN camerawoman who is African American, "This is how we feed animals." Today, Yahoo News fired its bureau chief who, unaware that his mic was hot, said that the Romneys were "happy to have a party while black people are drowning," a reference to the rising flood waters of Hurricane Isaac.

These two incidents underscore the heightened, inappropriate, and racially charged language used in our country's public discourse.

I'm not naive enough to believe that public sentiment in the United States is deteriorating - that, somehow, with the election of a bi-racial president, our once serene estate has been torn asunder so that ethnicities and races that once co-existed peacefully and in harmony have become divided and set in opposition. Assuredly, that is not the case.

If anything, incidents like these over the past 24 hours reveal a long standing truth: The United States has never dealt well with divisions between and among people of different races and ethnicities. And, this truth is no more exemplified than in the relationships between "White" and "Black" America.

What is startling is that these incidents of charged racial language are occurring with increased regularity in spheres that have not been relegated to the extremes of American culture. This language is happening on the floor of a major political party's convention. It is coming from the mouths of mainline online news bureau chiefs.

During the Olympics, much was said about Gabby Douglas' hair, which, of course, was covert (or not so covert) commentary on African American hair. Thus, it was a commentary on what is considered normative , that is, conforming to "white people's" expectations. What should have been celebrated a wonderful American moment - a gold medal for the United States - and an achievement within the African American community - the first gold medal in gymnastics for an African American athlete - morphed into discourse about something else altogether.

As racist as the comments about Gabby Douglas' hair might have been, though, nothing I read crept from tasteless mild racism into straight up hate speech. Sadly, there is a difference. Racism is a form of hate, to be sure, but it is only actionable when it becomes an infringement on one's personal liberty rather than an inconvenience one undergoes. Throwing peanuts at a camerawoman while stating unobfuscated racial taunts is actionable. It may not be against the law, but it is a short step from that to illegal and harmful activity. Accusing the Romneys and, I suspect, the whole GOP is not only unwise, it taints one's ability to be taken seriously as a journalist. When Yahoo's bureau chief David Chalian made this remark, he introduced charged racial language into a sphere that is charged enough - a political rally for the political team that is most often seen as subtly or not so subtly by and for the affluent, a code word in our country for "white people." It isn't acceptable. He was fired.

Only days ago, the Spanish magazine "Fuera de Serie" depicted Michelle Obama as a slave, superimposing her head on another image that also included a naked right breast. International furor erupted, but the magazine accomplished its goal - press, attention, clicks online, and advertising dollars made. The magazine may state its intention was to explore how Michelle Obama "seduced" America with the title "Michelle Obama, Granddaughter of a Slave, Lady of America," but the image clearly transgressed even international accepted imagery for such an article. It was salacious and not a work of art. Clearly, the article in "Fuera de Serie" shows that insensitivies to race and ethnicity do not belong solely within the United States, but it is our problem to take on.

Our country faces real problems and we need sincere and serious dialogue to help us heal our wounds. Our aging population will not be supported by the current influx of taxes. Our unemployment levels are not declining sufficiently. Our employed populations are struggling with stagnant income. Social divides on marriage equality, abortion, health care, entitlements, and international politics require that we work among and through our differences to find common solutions. There is no other way. Engaging in intentionally provocative language interrupts our ability to make progress on serious issues. Ignoring racially charged language and pretending that it doesn't exist doesn't help us move forward as a country. Journalists, the entertainment industries, and our politicians have to take their language, imagery, and messaging seriously if we are to begin to address the divisions and problems we face as a country.

What happened at the RNC Convention over the past day is not about the GOP or about Yahoo News; it is about our country as a whole. In two simple incidents the divisions of our country were laid bare. We can look away. We can point and make fun of. Or, we can reach out and begin to finally address the wounds that live in and among us all.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Why the Chick-fil-a Hullabaloo is Overblown. Why I Support the Boycott. Why Politicians Should Monitor Themselves More Closely.

This post is in response to a spirited conversation that I was part of on the interwebz. It seemed to be going nowhere. So, I thought I would try and clarify what I didn't seem to communicate very well in that forum.

I grew up loving Chick-fil-a. Yummy. Tasty. Awesome. After moving to a part of the country devoid of Chik-fil-a, I always looked forward to heading back home where I could depend on some good chicken goodness. Mmmm.... Then, it became a moot point several years ago; I chose a vegetarian diet. All the same, every time I flew back South, the Chick-fil-a signs seems to be a harbinger of the good things from my childhood. Unlike the meat products in other stores, I still salivated at what might be in store at Chick-fil-a, should I ever fall off of the vegetarian wagon.

Then, Chick-fil-a-gate erupted. Surprise. The company that closes on Sunday, plays Christian music, and puts religious signs in their stores...well, it turned out to be a bit conservative socially and politically.

The recent uproar over Chick-fil-a is a bit surprising since accusations of homophobia have been leveled at them for several years, accusations that the company has consistently denied. On their website, Chick-fil-a has this to say, "Chick-fil-A is a family-owned and family-led company serving the communities in which it operates. From the day Truett Cathy started the company, he began applying biblically-based principles to managing his business. For example, we believe that closing on Sundays, operating debt-free and devoting a percentage of our profits back to our communities are what make us a stronger company and Chick-fil-A family.

The Chick-fil-A culture and service tradition in our Restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect –regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender. We will continue this tradition in the over 1,600 Restaurants run by independent Owner/Operators."

Unlike the furor around another Southern food chain Cracker Barrel, Chick-fil-a has no policy of discrimination. Chick-fil-a has not been accused of refusing service or employment to people because of sexual orientation. As their own website says, sexual orientation is not considered when selling their yummy chicken.

However, at the same time, Dan Cathy, the president, COO, and son of the founder of the company, recently gave an interview to the Baptist Press, during which, in addition to many things, he said, "We are very much supportive of the family -- the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that." When pressed to clarify that Chick-fil-a supports a specific understanding of family and marriage, his response was, "Guilty as charged."

Then, on July 7, Dan Cathy appeared on the Ken Coleman show and upped the ante just a bit when he stated, "I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say 'we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage' and I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about."

Needless to say, I don't agree with Dan Cathy. His biblical exegesis is as weak as all of those who toss the Bible around to defend "traditional marriage." When pressed to clarify if they mean polygamy, whether raped women have to marry their rapists, whether goats need to be exchanged at a wedding, whether remarriage after the death of a spouse is possible, and whether divorced people can remarry, they cry foul. They claim that these are red herrings, but they are not. They are all examples of biblical marriage. Paul, if one wants to get "New Testamenty" about it, prefers that people not marry at all, and maintains that people should only marry when physical urges can't be contained, i.e. only the weak need apply for a marriage license. In 1 Peter, wives are instructed to obey their husbands. To discuss biblical marriage, one must, in some sense, deal with the diversity of what marriage means in scriptures written over many, many years in different places to different people.

Moreover, there are those who still shout from the rafters that marriages exist for the sake of procreation - that the human race might become extinct if marriage equality becomes normative. Have these people not read world population statistics? We are closing in on 9 billion people on this planet. We are more viral than any other species. There is only 16% more arable land left on the planet, and we are on course to lift our population by another 2 billion within two decades. Population is a specious argument for traditional marriage. Suffice it to say, I find all of the reasons to "defend" marriage from queer folk to be weak, specious, and bigoted.

Does this mean that the founders and corporate executives of a chicken fast food company can't hold these views? No. If they sell good chicken (which they do) and treat customers and employees with respect (which seems to be the case), then they should be left alone. Voicing an opinion, even one with which I deeply disagree, is not a chargeable offense in this country, and it doesn't make one's chicken any less yummy. Using poorly formed exegesis as underpinnings for a moral stance may be embarrassing to me as a Christian - since I get identified with those making such assertions - but there is nothing egregious about it.

So, why the uproar? Why have ten universities erupted in protests? Why have politicians from Boston and Chicago made public denouncements against Chick-fil-a? And, why has this become such a big issue? Well, it has little to do with  free speech (although speech certainly flamed the fire) and much to do with a little talked about charitable organization called WinShape Foundation. You see, Chick-fil-a's principles include giving back to the community. Just as they take the Lord's Day off, operate debt free, and pay fair wages, they believe in giving back to the community. So, founder Truett Cathy and his wife Jeannette started the WinShape Foundation in 1984. The foundation gets its name from its mission - to shape people into winners. The WinShape Foundation also gives money to ministries. On their website, the WinShape Foundation lists seven areas of giving or areas of ministry. One of these areas is called "WinShape Marriage." In addition to running marriage preparation and counseling retreats, WinShape gives money to outside organizations. Their donations are what lay at the core of real frustration with Chick-fil-a. From the Family Research Council to Fellowship of Christian Athletes, WinShape is providing money to a large variety of moderately conservative to extremely conservative Christian organizations, many of which either engage in direct reparative therapy work (e.g., Exodus, received $1000) or lobbying and organizing efforts that labor to defeat marriage equality and disparage marriage equality in the media and throughout culture (Marriage and Family Foundation, received $1.18 million). These donations are especially pernicious.

So, I arrive at my title: Why the Chick-fil-a Hullabaloo is Overblown. Why I Support the Boycott. Why Politicians Should Monitor Themselves More Closely.

Based upon their use of free speech alone, Chick-fil-a falls into a long line of religiously identified organizations that I would not want to patronize. Their belief in fair treatment of both employees and patrons is commendable. However, their speech is not without cost. There is no real "free speech." I would not want to give them my money because I know that young LGBTQI people hearing statements about "God's judgment" become confused and begin to believe they are bad - that they are ontologically corrupted. They harm themselves. They kill themselves. Speech has consequences. So, I keep my dollars to myself. When enough of us, tempted though we may be by tasty chicken, keep our dollars to ourselves in protest of their speech, this is called a boycott. I approve and support the boycott.

Yet, as much as I disapprove of their stance, they also have a right to speak their beliefs. Our governing principles are based upon this belief. Therefore, the politicians castigating Chick-fil-a should be somewhat moderate about their strong pronouncements. They have been elected to protect free speech, even when it is repugnant. Rather than blocking Chick-fil-a stores, progressive politicians ought to speak against the bigotry of Chick-fil-a while also protecting their rights. That is their job as people elected to serve the rule of law.

However, the issue with Chick-fil-a is not just about free speech. It is about the use of money to fund activities that go well beyond uttering beliefs, quoting scripture, or adhering to personal values. The WinShape Foundation is engaged, in little and in big ways, in the political sphere by supporting lobbying and media efforts geared to defeat marriage equality and to maintain a particular religiously defined understanding of normative sexuality. And, it uses money generated by the Chick-fil-a company to fund this activity. Now, we are no longer discussing free speech but civil rights of LGBTQI people. Such use of money, such activity, is open for public scrutiny and objection.

The fact that such activity is overlooked in favor of the Cathys' right to espouse their beliefs simply reveals the extent to which the queer community remains marginalized in this country. For all of those who try to make the furor over Chick-fil-a a case of truncated and squelched free speech, I call your bluff. It is not. It is about political action geared to reduce and constrict the civil rights of fellow Americans, who, for the first time in history, have gained ground toward some semblance of equality - even if full equality remains a distant dream. As one of these Americans, it is my right to use my free speech against Chick-fil-a, to lift a placard, to withhold my money, to lobby my city council, to participate in write in campaigns, and to pressure companies and organizations that dare to do business with Chick-fil-a. As long as Chick-fil-a wants to use their earnings to reduce my civil rights, I will not "tone it down" or play nice or pretend that this is about a Christian's beliefs coming under attack. I am a Christian, too. I live by Christian principles as well. This is not about the oppression of a Christian organization; it is about a Christian organization attempting to oppress me. Chick-fil-a is lobbying for laws that oppress me, that keep me from living with the same protections and privileges as other Americans. This is not about their free speech. This is about my civil rights.

Are there more pressing injustices in the world? Sure. Do I care about them? I sure do. This one happens to affect me directly. And I won't apologize for lifting my voice, making my case, struggling for my civil rights, or defending my position. Another's injustice does not nullify my own.

Go boycott!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

On Civil Civic Discourse - Following Lunch with the Israeli Ambassador to the United States

A couple of months ago, my church was fortunate to host Tavis Smiley and Cornel West for a private lunch with area religious leaders, educators, public sector workers, and not-for-profit leaders. About 130 people who rarely find themselves all in one room were gathered together - deans, professors, homeless people, housing advocates, health care providers, city workers, entrepreneurs, and Muslim, Jewish, and Christians leaders. There was a general sense of, "Wow! It CAN be like this." As an act of reciprocation, the Seattle AJC invited me to an interfaith lunch with Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who was in town for a public event later in the evening. During lunch, straightforward questions were asked about Israel's policies, settlements, Iran, Egypt, nuclear armament, the Wall, and other topics. And, these topics were discussed without the tenor of the discourse fraying into the usual name calling mass of crazy that so very often accompanies difficult conversations. For some, these two lunches have sparked interest in exploring the nature of public discourse in America (at least in the Pacific Northwest) - real, deep, serious, meaningful exploration. Is civil civic discourse possible, especially during an election year? What role does religion play in public discourse? And, can it be a positive influence in our public commons rather than something divisive and polarizing?

The language that we use profoundly shapes not only the obvious message, but it conveys a meta-message. When we heard words -- "progressive," "conservative," "elite," "religious," "Christian," "Zionist," "God," "believe," "FOX news watcher," "MSNBC follower," "Islamicist," "radical," "socialist," etc -- we create associations with meaning that go far beyond the literal meaning of the word. Take "Christian," for example. The word literally means "little Christ" and has been used for two thousand years to describe a follower of Jesus. However, in American culture today, the word tends to lean toward the following caricatures:
  1.  An Evangelical (probably Southern) who doesn't "believe" in evolution, global warming, gun control, peace, love, grace, intellectual pursuits, homosexual equality, abortion, education, a common good, diversity, tolerance, inclusion, or science. This person probably does "believe" in an exclusionary Christology, a jingoistic nationalism, patriotism, truncating personal liberties if they contradict evangelical values, a strong military, no new taxes, limited government except as that government enforces evangelical beliefs, the moral authority of the GOP, tea party leanings, racism, homophobia, white supremacy, and the power of faith over science.
  2. A Roman Catholic, who in addition to sharing most of the traits listed for the Evangelical, covers up for pedophiles and is a misogynist.  
  3. A prophet of the prosperity gospel seen as a new brand of snake oil salesman/person, who uses Christian language to teach personal and financial gain. This prophet most likely serves a megachurch, is wealthy, fleeces its congregants, and sells programs for self improvment.
When someone upsets these caricatures (e.g. Cornel West, Helen Prejan, Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, Martin Luther King, Jr.), their Christian identity is subsumed within a more tolerable humanism, or they are simply ignored (Diana Butler Bass, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Otis Moss III, mainline bishops and adjudicatory leaders). The problem, of course, is that our whole common good suffers when we reduce our public discourse to caricature paintings brushed with hyperbole. Take poverty, for example, "the poor" are neither good nor bad; they are poor. But, today's rhetoric focuses on the worth or morality of the poor person, arguing alternately that poor people are agentless victims, aka the "honorable poor," or they are lazy, sinful, layabouts draining life out of society. Are there good poor people? Sure. Are there bad poor people? Sure. They are people, after all, and people are, to varying degrees, good and bad. Venerating and castigating poor people moves us nowhere toward a process of addressing poverty in any real and significant way. These arguments are red herrings that hijack public discourse and turn it into a shouting match between two polarized  positions. There can be no commons in such a model.

I wonder how we might better frame conversation so that actual discourse can take place. I wonder what would be entailed for us to stop listening to the rhetoric of caricature and hyperbole in order to engage in serious and deliberate inquiry. Can this be done while still wrestling with the deep and difficult issues that face us as a nation, people, and planet?

I think so. At least, I hope so. The first casualty required in order to begin changing the framework of public discourse has to be the charged language used to convey meta-messages that arrest dialogue rather than promoting it. At least, a reasonable understanding of language and meaning is needed in order to step into the serious work of communication.

Words like "structuralism," "phenomenology," "poststructuralism," and "semiology" are not found in everyday parlance nor should they be, but their importance in helping us understand our world, how we attach to meaning, how we create meaning, and how meaning acts in our lives should be part of our consciousness, especially if we intend on earnest public discourse. Every person who has an opinion about the news, the world, politics, and religion need not be intimate with the works of Jacques Derrida and GWF Hegel, but those framing our public dialogue should be conversant with their ideas, e.g. "diffĂ©rance," and "Hegel's dialectic."

We are living during a time of deep change in how we connect with and even create meaning. The institutions and ideas that we have taken for granted are unraveling and reconsituting themselves in unknown ways becoming unknown things. Times like these are always fraught with tension and discord. There are even people today who question the value of a public commons, of public discourse. I, however, believe that the public commons is a moral and social good, something to be protected by all of us, whether we use the complicated jargon of the academy or whether somehow we simply know deep down that shouting matches, caricatures, and hyperbole do nothing to enhance life for any of us, much less all of us. Simply put, there's nothing neighborly about certain kinds of behavior. Can't we at least aspire to simple neighborliness? 

I'm hoping for a better conversation this election year. And, I'm willing to work toward a better public discourse. And, I'm looking for conversation partners...

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Toward a Culture of Trust

This title is an unusual title - as far as titles go these days. We are much more accustomed to titles about broken trust written in tasteless puns, titles flavored with a spice of sarcasm. I enjoy the sarcastic jab as much as the next person, but I think that it belies our real yearning for trust.

Today Diana Butler Bass spoke to United Methodists in the Pacific Northwest. In her presentations, she talked about the "terrible decade" - the decade from which we are emerging. In 2001, the terrorist attacks on American soil shook not only our country but the whole world. Six months later, accounts of clergy abuse began to rattle the foundation of the Roman Catholic Church, a challenge which Diana Butler Bass ranks more significant than the Reformation. Then, in 2004, the Religious Right's campaign to become the deciding factor in an American presidential campaign came to fruition, in effect changing both American politics and evangelical Christianity in the United States. And, the Episcopal Church elected an out gay bishop. Taken together, these events show how religion has become synonymous with violence, broken trust/abuse, single party politics, and "inelegant" decisions and processes.

I know that these events writ large are echoed all throughout our culture. All around us lay the detritus left behind by broken trust and a shaken confidence in the institutions which used to serve as society's bedrock.

Tonight I had occasion to hear some folks talking about broken trust in the church. Not an unusual topic, for sure. Frequently, when someone asks what I do and I tell them that I am a pastor, I hear, "I don't believe in religion. It's full of hypocrites." What is unusual about tonight's conversation is that it took place among clergy - clergy who struggle with trusting the very institution and set of relationships to which they have entrusted their lives, their families, their finances, their...everything.

This is something I've struggled with as well. Clergy aren't exempt from struggling with one another or the church. As a matter of fact, our proximity to the workings of church makes us more sensitive to its failings. We love the church, and it is very upsetting when it fails to embody the grace, love, compassion, and justice of Jesus.

One of the wonderful things about being United Methodist clergy is that I belong to an order. Despite this identity, few Methodists, including clergy, understand what this means. To me, it means something very profound. I have pledged my life to men and women all around the world. I promise to pray for them, to work with them, to be held accountable by them...for life. I entered into this order aware that I would need to submit to the leadership of others even when their leadership falls short. I entered this order as a way to prioritize my life. Belonging to an order is an act of trust in a trust challenged world. It is counter-intuitive to trust people one doesn't know; it is sometimes even more challenging to trust those whom one does know. It is this challenge which I think can lead us toward a culture of trust that extends beyond our clerical life and into our greater society, a society which is crying out for a way to connect, believe, love, and trust.

I don't think we arrive at a culture of trust through study, better exegesis, more statements of faith, or correct theology. We arrive at a culture of trust through the act of trusting and being trustworthy. Trust is by definition relational. It is not ideological. It is not theoretical. It is practical; that is, it is found in praxis. And, it is relational. One does not trust on one's one.

The church could have a wonderful word of hope for our culture if we could find our way out of the terrible decade by showing the world that we know something about trust. After all, being followers of Jesus, living as disciples of Jesus, and extending ourself as the body of Christ in the world - these are all about trust and relationship. We have too frequently focused on institutional preservation, correct theology, dogma and doctrine to the detriment of trust and relationship. I wonder how we might be different if we started each day praying earnestly for one another, offering ourselves humbly in service to one another, and seeking the best for one another. This would go a long way in building trust. Just putting the other before ourselves - what Jesus said to do - this would help us forgive a little more easily when disappointed, would help us ask for forgiveness, would help us want the best for one another, would help us think beyond ourselves, would help us resist the lure of cynicism.

I feel privileged to be part of an order - a set aside relational structure, bound for life with an odd assortment of people who give themselves, like I do, to a silly vision of a trustworthy world. When I pray the hours every day, I hold my brother and sister Elders in my heart. I do not take this relationship lightly or for granted. It is a deep joy to live in this ongoing experiment of trust.

For the times I fail to be trustworthy, I seek forgiveness. For the times I cannot forgive, I ask for grace. For the times I can model trustworthiness, I give thanks. For the moments in which we live in mutual trust, I praise God.

Our world wants to think that trust is possible. I also think that it seems an impossible dream. Until the rest of the world can believe (another word for "trust") in this dream, let those of us privileged to be part of trusting relationships hold that dream before the world, modeling as best we can what it means to move toward a culture of trust.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Prayer for Trinity Sunday

Holy God, like a potter, you reached into the mud and shaped a new form - us. As a mother, you loved and nurtured us into your people. With your holy imagination, you dreamed up mountains and clouds, rabbits, kangaroos, and creatures in the sea. With the power of your Word, you spoke your imagination into being. In the fullness of time, your holy expression - your Word and Wisdom - came to us as a peasant healer, who by his example and through his life showed us what being your children can look like. When he left us, he breathed into us your Breath, the same Breath that hovered over chaos at the beginning of time. And by his Breath, he never really left. You are the most Perfect One, the Ground of Being, the Perfect Relationship. We praise you, and we seek to see this world as you do, to tend its broken places, and to labor as you do to heal the brokenness found in your most precious creation. We pray in the name of the Triune God. Amen.

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