Friday, April 28, 2006
At the meeting, I joined members of the Reconciling Ministries Network, including staffers Troy Plummer and Sue Laurie. Students and faculty from Saint Paul School of Theology, and several local pastors and church folks were there, also. The main reason for the witnessing presence there was the possibility that the Council may decide to reconsider their decisions 1031 and 1032.
The case goes like this, in a nutshell: A pastor in Virginia named Ed Johnson refused to give church membership to a man on the basis of the man’s sexual orientation. As a result, in June Rev. Johnson was placed on involuntary leave by his conference. In October, the Judicial Council reinstated Johnson, and his bishop, Charlene Kammerer reappointed him to the same congregation. Then Bishop Kammerer and the Virginia Board of Ordained Ministry filed separate motions asking the Judicial Council to reconsider. These motions came before the Council this week.
The most remarkable thing about this week happened this morning, when the Judicial Council invited the members of RMN and the other witnesses to celebrate communion together. The service was led by Bishop Fritz Mutti, retired from Kansas, and Dr. Myron McCoy, president of Saint Paul School of Theology. I was not present, but when I arrived later in the morning, those who had been present described it as a wonderful, holy moment. The power of the common loaf and cup was manifest in the ritual, as people who find themselves quite firmly on opposite sides of the spectrum regarding the issue at hand shared together in the sacramental grace of Christ.
All in all, the week was a profound experience for me. I have done protests, vigils, and marches for various things before, but I was particularly struck this time by the gentle relentlessness by which the witnesses carried themselves. There was a calm assurance in the faces of the people there, a strong hopefulness that was inviting and inspiring. We were encouraged all week long to form relationships, both with one another and with members of the Judicial Council, because sexual orientation is not an “issue” to be resolved by a judicial decision or a legislative decree. “Issues” always have faces attached to them, and when the faces become people, and the people become friends, it is far more difficult to simply write someone off as an unrepentant sinner and deny them membership into your church.
One of the neatest elements of our witness was a half dozen doors sent by as many United Methodist congregations in the San Francisco area. These congregations had literally removed a door in their church buildings and painted messages of support and encouragement on them, urging the Council to reconsider the decisions. The doors were painted with bright colors, and filled with the signatures of the congregants. Throughout the week, witnesses in Kansas City held up these doors on behalf of our brothers and sisters in California. (My friend Mandy is going to email me some pictures so that I can post them here.)
The Judicial Council may decide not to reconsider the decisions at all, or to reconsider them at their fall meeting, or they may have gone ahead and reconsidered them this week. Their decisions will be posted on the United Methodist Website, probably early next week.
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Wes continued, “Is Jesus inside of our bodies and controlling us, like whenever we move our arms Jesus is controlling that?”
Hmm … free will, predestination, incarnation – pick your doctrine.
I punted: “Well, what do you think, Wesley?”
“Yeah, I think so. Jesus is inside of us, and he wants us to do good things, so he is probably controlling what we do.”
After a pause, I asked him, “Well, why do you think that people do bad things sometimes?”
Wes did not hesitate, “I think they are like fighting against Jesus, when he wants them to do something they have to fight against him inside and then do something else.”
This is as good an answer to the theodicy question as I have ever heard. Basically, he was saying what Paul said, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” But Wes was not done.
“And then, once they get done fighting Jesus, they just go ahead and do what Jesus wants them to,” he said.
“When are they done fighting?” I asked.
Wesley thought a moment, then said, “I guess they just get all tired out from fighting so much.”
Then, since we had arrived at preschool, Wesley said, “I’ll race you to the door,” and took off across the lawn without waiting for an answer.
Monday, April 24, 2006
But now, at long last, I have some language to put into my rationale. According to Rabbi Marc Gellman, the "God Squad" guy, and a “guilt-ridden carnivore”:
The problem is that animals, though obviously not people, are also obviously not things. Animals are sentient beings and their deaths, particularly in the grotesquery of what is euphemistically called food processing causes them great pain and suffering. That is the nub of the spiritual problem. Animals are God's creations that, unlike plants, suffer when they die just to become food for us.
A friend at church sent me the link to his article, which you can read by clicking here. (It’s pretty short.) In it, Gellman writes that there is a “high Torah” and a “low Torah” in the Bible. The “high Torah” articulates how things are to be in God’s realm. Failing to attain that, we ought to at the very least follow the “low Torah.” It is kind of like having a minimum speed limit on the interstate, “Well if you are not going to drive 65, at least keep it above 45.”
His idea is that the highest law of God gives human beings all kinds of plants to eat, but no animals. But since people desire meat, God gave some other rules to follow in the meantime. Like, don’t eat the meat with the blood still in it, for example.
Rabbi Gellman tells gives this midrash to make his point:
The First Hamburger
Once animals talked just like people. Once every living creature ate only grass and nuts and a few berries when they could find them. No living thing ever thought about killing another living thing to eat it, until the day Noah wanted a hamburger.
One night Noah dreamed of a hamburger, and when he woke up, he wanted one really badly. But Noah wasn't exactly sure how to get a hamburger, so he asked his friend the cow, “I dreamed about a hamburger last night. Do you know where I can get one?”
The cow gave Noah a puzzled look and asked, “What's a hamburger?”
“I don't know exactly,” Noah replied. “All I know is that in my dream the hamburger was something delicious between two buns with lettuce, onions, pickles and some special sauce.”
“Have some more grass and forget about it,” said the cow.
Noah asked the snake, who was the smartest of all the animals, “What's a hamburger and how can I get one?”
The snake whispered in Noah's ear, “To get one you have to make one.”
“I don't know how to make one.” Noah sputtered.
The snake laughed, pointed at the cow who was peacefully munching some grass, and said to Noah, “To make a hamburger, you have to kill that cow, chop up her meat, and fry it in a pan--or flame broil it!”
Noah's mouth opened wide, “But...but...the cow is my friend! She is a living thing just like me! I can't kill her, chop up her meat and fry it in a pan! And what is flame broiling anyway?”
By now the snake was rolling around on the ground laughing, “Kid, if you want a hamburger, that's what you gotta do.”
Well...Noah really wanted a hamburger and so that's what he really did! The first hamburger tasted delicious. But when Noah came again to the fields everything was different. When he walked towards the birds, they flew away. When Noah went over to say hello to the cows and the sheep and the buffalo, they ran away from him. Even the fish swam away when they heard Noah coming.
Noah could not understand what had happened to his friends the animals, and he could not find one single animal that would explain it to him. In fact, since the day Noah ate the first hamburger, no animal has ever talked to a person. They are still too angry.
Eat your veggies, everyone!
Friday, April 21, 2006
A bit more thought about the erosion of culture, from my perspective, drawing from the ideas of President Jimmy Carter:
In his book Our Endangered Values, Carter describes American culture, writing that “our people have been justifiably proud to see America’s power and influence used to preserve peace for ourselves and others, to promote economic and social justice, to raise high the banner of freedom and human rights, to protect the quality of our environment, to alleviate human suffering, to enhance the rule of law, and to cooperate with other peoples to reach these common goals.”
The premise of his book is that all this has been and is being threatened by the rise of conservative fundamentalism in religion and government. These neo-fundamentalists (my term) have some dominant characteristics, according to Carter:
1 - Led mostly by “authoritarian males who consider themselves to be superior to others.”
2 - Generally believe that “the past is better than the present” but are not averse to embracing aspects of the modern world as long as they help the cause.
3 - Distinguish themselves from others by claiming “they are right and that anyone who contradicts them is ignorant or possibly evil.”
4 - Militantly, angrily, and sometimes violently protect their beliefs and agenda.
5 - Define themselves narrowly, isolate themselves, and “view change, cooperation, negotiation, and other efforts to resolve differences as signs of weakness.”
It is funny how this list is equally applicable to church people as well as government people. Picture Donald Rumsfeld and then go back and read the list again. To a tee! Now try it with James Dobson. … see what I mean? This fact illuminates the alarming blurring of the boundary between the church and the government in our country. (And by the way, I wonder if this makes things worse for the church or for the government.)
As an American, I want my country to be the way President Carter describes it above – peace, justice, freedom, and all that.
As a Christian, I want my church to be the body of Christ, the cosmic expression of the love and grace of God – unity, acceptance, liberation, and all that.
I have neither one.
In short, I’m not so much worried about immigrants eroding away the American culture; I am worried about my fellow Americans doing so. And so, I would kindly request that all you fundamentalists out there who are ever so subtly stealing away both my country and my church please return them. (I'll start checking area "Lost and Found" booths this weekend.)
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
First, I wrote this:
Myth - Prosperity is inherently good. Truth - In addition to a lot of good, prosperity leads also to greed, envy, ulcers, and a mile-a-minute pace of life that is not conducive good health.
In response, John wrote this:
If you think that wealth is stressful, you ought to try poverty!
He points out that escaping poverty and attaining prosperity is one of the basic motivators for immigration to this country, which makes the case that prosperity is preferable to poverty. And he correctly asserts that having regular meals and electricity is a good thing. And I agree.
But he has missed my point. I know that prosperity leads to a lot of good, and fully agree with John that poverty is not a desirable state of being. My point is that it is a fallacy to believe that prosperity is good in and of itself. I am not comparing prosperity to poverty here. I am holding up prosperity all by itself to judge it on its own. And my assessment is that inherently, by its own merits, prosperity is a neutral phenomenon. It is what we make of our prosperity that makes it good or bad.
Second, I wrote this:
Myth - there is an American culture. Truth - America is now and always has been vibrantly diverse.
In response, John wrote this:
It's hard to define the self because it's the default 'normal'.
This is a wonderful point! John goes on to say, correctly I think, that it is a good idea to step back and look at one’s self and one’s group from different perspectives, and in so doing one can discover one’s culture. And here I am in the “amen corner” on that, too, in total agreement.
But here’s how we get to the myth: When many people say the “American culture,” I think that they mean the Wal-Mart way of life. (Or, if you prefer, the McDonald’s way of life.) This is what passes for culture in our nation – everything cheap and easily accessible, monolithic and monochromatic.
But really, culture is a rich word, with numerous levels of definition. Here is a quick one from dictionary.com:
1. a. The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.
Other definitions also include the idea of transmission to succeeding generations in the definition. The word is related to the word “cultivate,” which implies the encouragement of health and growth.
Culture, therefore, is a big, big concept. It seems to me that many in America have reduced our culture to an individualized striving to gain and maintain as much material wealth as possible, living in a beige suburban sameness, and accessing the world via automated drive through windows, televisions, and computer screens.
So, I do not think that America is devoid of culture, rather I think that in spite of what many Americans seem to think, America does not have a single monolithic culture. And therein lies the myth. John and I agree on this point more than he lets on, I think. He writes, “All nations are complex entities, the US included.” That’s what I’m sayin’!
Finally, I would like to apologize for a perception that I did not mean to propagate in a previous post, the perception that John calls the “Speedy Gonzalez stereotype.” Please, please understand that in no way shape or form was I intending anyone to read that as negatively stereotyping of Latino culture. Stereotyping is wrong and I abhor the practice. With that said, I completely understand how John got the idea that that’s what was happening here. Just to clarify, I am not implying laziness, but rather a completely different approach to life that very well may enhance our American culture, rather than threaten it. (See the aforementioned “greed, envy, ulcers, and a mile-a-minute pace of life that is not conducive good health,” for example.)
Hey, this is fun! I like dialogue, and I think using the blogosphere to exchange ideas and perceptions is a good thing. I especially like it when a person whom I respect but with whom I disagree is able to articulate our differences in a way that leads to ongoing conversation. John does that very well, and I look forward to more.
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
Okay, so I'm not really arrested, it's a Muscular Dystrophy Association fundraiser. But seriously, if you want to contribute to MDA, just click here and follow the directions. Thanks!
I can't help but feel a tiny little spark of hope at this news. I pray that spark is not quenched, but fear that it might be. Even so, this gesture is remarkable.
"There is no way to peace. Peace is the way." - A.J. Muste
Saturday, April 15, 2006
Real forgiveness probably hurts a lot. It can make you cry. But ultimitately, "Doing the right thing makes you happy."
This is the wisdom of 5 year old Kai Leigh Harriott who was paralyzed from her chest down 3 years ago when Anthony Warren fired a gun at the house where Kai Leigh was sitting on the porch. That bullet shattered Kai Leigh's spine. Warren pleaded guilty yesterday and was sentenced to 13-15 years in prison. It was during these court proceedings that Kai Leigh spoke her words of forgiveness to the man who shot her.
At 5 years old, a lot of what Kai Leigh knows about forgiveness she learned from her mom, who not only spoke gently with Anthony Warren in the courtroom, but actually embraced him. She embraced the man who shot her little girl. How many of us could do that?
And if you watch video of Kai Leigh on the Boston Globe website, you can see something else there, something that comes from within her. She is strong. She is happy. She is not a victim. She is a five year old girl. And she bounces, smiles, and dances with all the energy that a five year old kid is supposed to have, a testimony of the unconquerable vigor of the human spirit, and of the mysterious power of forgiveness to transform lives.
You remember Jesus's response to the soldiers who executed him? He forgave them. That probably hurt. It may have even made him cry a little bit. But still he forgave them. Because it was the right thing to do. This week, a 5 year old girl in Boston understands that better than anyone.
Tuesday, April 11, 2006
I’m becoming far too good at funerals. A lot of practice just lately. I pretty much have the United Methodist liturgy memorized.
“Dying, Christ destroyed our death. Rising, Christ restored our life. Christ will come again in glory…” And so on.
In a Service of Death and Resurrection, “the facts of death and bereavement are honestly faced, and the gospel of resurrection is celebrated in the context of God’s baptismal covenant with us in Christ” (from the UM liturgy). In other words, we cry and laugh at the same time. There is no emotional language to adequately describe that sensation, laughing with tears running down your cheeks, crying with a smile on your face. But that’s what happens at funerals. We cry because of the pain; we laugh because of the love. And vice versa.
This week Christians live out the death and resurrection of Jesus. Death on Friday, resurrection on Sunday. In just three short days, death and resurrection, the whole kit and kaboodle. Wow. Seems so, I don’t know … anticlimactic, doesn’t it?
I had a memorial service today, another on Friday morning. Seems like we’ve been doing about one per week the past two months. That’s a lot of death. Kind of sucks your energy out, you know? More than that, it just kind of sucks. I’m drained.
There is a prayer in the liturgy that says, “Help us to live as those who are prepared to die. And when our days here are accomplished, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying, our life may be in you, and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us from your great love in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
To live as if I am prepared to die…
At a funeral, you tell stories about the person who has died: funny stories, sad stories, ordinary stories mostly. “You remember the time when …” “I love how she always used to …” “One thing about Daddy, he always said that …” Then you laugh together, sharing the memory, sharing the life. And you cry, sharing the pain, sharing the death. And somehow in the midst of that you experience resurrection. Maybe not fully, maybe not crystal clear, but you get a glimpse, anyway.
Maybe that’s what Easter should be, just a group of Jesus’ friends sitting around telling stories about the way he used to feed the hungry and heal the sick, laughing and crying at the same time, glimpsing resurrection.
Friday, April 07, 2006
I just read the Gospel of Judas. (National Geographic has it posted as a .pdf file on their website.) My assessment = it’s ADORABLE!
First of all: Jesus is laughing all the time. He laughs at the disciples when they don’t understand something, he laughs at Judas for trying too hard, he even laughs at the “error of the stars,” which as far as I can tell means something about the destruction of the wicked. His laughter comes easily and gives Jesus kind of a carefree air about him. It’s actually nice, a refreshing picture of a Jesus with emotion.
Second thing: it is very, very Gnostic. Jesus is always telling Judas that he is going to tell him all the secret stuff he needs to know. The document itself is filled with obscure, even bizarre cosmology, talking about some twelve aeons of the twelve luminaries and the six heavens for each aeon, which makes like seventy-two heavens for the seventy-two luminaries, and then each of them’s got some five firmaments up in their house, which totals three hundred sixty firmaments, word. (See, I told you it was adorable!)
Third thing: there is a lot of stuff missing, such that it is very difficult to read at times. For example, Judas asks Jesus at one place if the human spirit dies. Seems like a pretty important question! Jesus’ answer is, “This is why God ordered Michael to give the spirits of people to them as a loan, so that they might offer service, but the Great One ordered Gabriel to grant spirits to the great generation with no ruler over it – that is, the spirit and the soul. Therefore, the [rest] of the souls [—one line missing—].” …Gaa! I mean, come on! You just get to the “therefore” and it is gone?!?! What a TEASE! At one point, we actually get this helpful note: “About 17 lines missing.” (Isn’t that just too cute!)
Fourth thing: naturally, Judas looks a whole lot better in this one that he does in the others, say, the Gospel of John, for instance. You almost get the idea that somebody, a couple centuries into it, said, “I’m sick and tired of my main man Judas getting such a bad rap. I’m gonna do something about that!” But the author goes a little overboard, and makes Judas seem like a Rabbi’s pet. I kept waiting for the scene where Judas brings Jesus a nice, shiny, red apple. (No wonder the other disciples didn’t like him!)
Fifth thing: there truly are some beautiful moments that are worth reading. You will not be corrupted by reading it, just confused. But you should read it for the sake of the three or four wonderful, poetic moments of clarity. And it also helps us get a glimpse into the variety of expressions early Christianity took, and as such is a tool for understanding Christian history a little bit better.
The Gospel of Judas is not scripture, it is a document of heresy, but it shouldn’t shake the foundations of anybody’s faith too awful much. It is hard to read because of the confusing Gnostic references and the gaps in the text itself. But read it, and tell me if you don’t just want to pinch its little cheeks and tell it how adorable it is!
Wednesday, April 05, 2006
Yes, the Royals lost (and they lost again today) – nothing new there. Yes, there were the usual inebriated jackasses – nothing new there. Yes, there was a young woman in the right field stands flashing her breasts at anyone in the crowd in exchange for a drink of their beer – somebody remind me what dignity means, again? Yes, there was an enormous crowd and it took us forever to get into and out of the stadium – that will only happen on opening day, guaranteed.
But in spite of all that stuff, I am sure that I witnessed a little bit of the reign of God on earth. Now, this is a metaphor, and all metaphors are limited, and this particular metaphor may be more limited than most, but nonetheless there it was. It all started when my son had to go potty.
“Dad, I gotta go potty,” said Wes. He never plans ahead, but waits until the last possible moment to consider his pottying options.
“Okay, let’s go,” I replied, and we made our way out of our aisle, trying not to step on our neighbors’ feet as we passed (“Dad, I really gotta go!”), up the steps (“It’s a ‘mergency!”), and out into the concession area (“DAD, HURRY!”) … where we found a line of about fifty men backed up coming out of the Men’s bathroom door. Damn.
And here is where the grace of God was made manifest. Apparently, the sight of a five year old boy who really, really needs to go to the bathroom, face contorted in the effort, hands clutching his … jeans … in hopes of preventing an overflow, is enough to make even fifty beery men feel enough of a twinge of compassion to give up their place in line and allow someone else’s need to come before their own. Every man in the line – young, old, white, black, Hispanic, rich, poor, Christian, Jew, Muslim, atheist, whatever – every single one gave up his own place to allow Wes and me to go into the bathroom first. It was a truly universal moment.
We passed by man after man, saying, “Sorry, he really has to go” and “Excuse me, we have a real emergency here” and “Do you mind, he’s about to blow” and stuff like that. Not a single complaint, not a single ugly remark, not a single grouchy protest came our way. All the way up the line, through the door, and to the row of urinals we wove through the crowd. And (pause for dramatic effect) … we made it!
As silly as it sounds, I was actually moved by the gesture. The fifty men in the line, as different as they were, were in that moment united in their compassion for one suffering child. Each one could relate to the situation, I am sure, and so each one displayed a bit of empathy – EVERY one of them. I would understand if three or four had shouted out “HEY!” or “Watch it, buddy!” or something. But no one did. Not a single man.
It was a glimpse of God’s reign on earth because the diversity of that line of fifty men was absolutely united in this gesture of compassion to a stranger. They came together as one in order to help a fellow traveler reach the journey’s end. Yes, it is an insignificant, silly little story. But the church would do well to take a lesson here. That which divides us is not as powerful as that which unites us. And when all is said and done, the powerful force of unity in the cause of serving a neighbor is indeed a glimpse of the fulfillment of God's desire for creation.
Tuesday, April 04, 2006
What is “the American culture?”
One of the sub-issues in the larger immigration issues is the argument that immigrants from south of the border are eroding the American culture (meaning, for sake of brevity, the United States’ culture). The argument is: we should exclude immigrants in order to prevent the “subversion of the American culture by massive numbers of Mexican immigrants, who have surplanted (sic) our culture for theirs in large parts of the country with no apparent plans of assimilating. I support this position because I believe that American culture is, for various reasons, worth defending,” writes John from Locusts & Honey.
I am not sure what exactly this entity called the “American culture” is. One thing is certain; it is not as monochromatic as many seem to think. We are an enormous, diverse nation of people of all walks of life, all ages, all races, all nations including those native to this country, all economic classes. We have soul bands and symphonies; sprawling suburbs and crowded cities and tiny little towns; cat people and dog people; Star Wars fans and Star Trek fans; NPR and WWF; etc. etc. Will the real “American culture” please stand up?
It seems to me that identifying the American culture might mean pointing to some of the principles that undergird the milieu I hint at above. Freedom is right up there. Individuality. The pursuit of happiness, and all that jazz. Are these things “culture?” I’m not sure.
Whatever “American culture” is, I think it is clear that one of its most noticeable aspects is its frantic pace. Fast food restaurants, microwave ovens, garage door openers – so much of what we do as a nation is designed to make things happen faster. We are impatient when our computer takes too long to boot up. Our attention spans have been shortened by years of Sesame Street and MTV. Recently I played an online computer game that involves playing four different simple games at the same time on the same screen.
Maybe the United States of America could use a siesta. Maybe an influx of Latino culture would be good for us, in that it would slow us down a little bit. I am definitely over-generalizing here, and running the risk of stereotyping, but there is an observable distinction between the pace of life in North America and the pace of life in Central and South America. I have traveled south of our border three times, to Mexico, Guatemala, and Brazil, and each time there was a palpable lessening of intensity and a more relaxed approach to life in general.
Traveling by boat on the Amazon River to visit a village in the forest, our seminary group had nothing to do but swing on our hammocks and watch the river for 24 hours straight. That, for me, symbolizes the slower pace of life exhibited by our neighbors to the south. Things happen slower, with more intentionality. We have the rat race, rush-rush-rush, gotta meet the deadline kind of life. As opposed to: spend an hour in conversation with a friend, linger over lunch, close your eyes in the afternoon, dinner after dark, and what doesn’t get done today will wait until tomorrow.
Passion for life, devotion to family, the rhythm of the tango, hospitality toward strangers, hand-made corn tortillas hot right off the griddle - these things are good, and not to be feared! In other words, far from being a negative thing, maybe the influence of Hispanic culture in the United States would “erode” some of what is bad here, one example of which is our frantic pace of life. I mean, who couldn’t use a siesta now and then?