Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Peace on Earth

Entitling a Christmas homily “Peace on Earth” in 2007 demonstrates either outrageous foolishness or audacious hope, for no matter where on earth you look these days peace is in short supply.
Of course, Gabriel’s announcement to Mary must have seemed outrageous, and the angel’s proclamation to the shepherds must have sounded foolish.
Just as Isaiah’s promise to the exiles that God was about to do a new thing, to create a new heaven and new earth.
Just as Moses’ claim that he was called to set his people free.
Just as Gandhi’s insistence that his people would be free.
Just as King’s dream of freedom and equality.
Just as Mother Theresa’s insistence, through all of her deep personal doubts, that the least of these has dignity and worth and deserves compassion and love.
Just as the insistence, today, that God desires shalom – peace on earth – sounds foolish and naïve in the face of the reality of strife and war.
I cannot help but recall the near-mythical Christmas Eve truce of 1914, when German and British troops called a halt to the nonsense of war for the Stille Nacht – the Silent Night of peace.
Is it too naïve to wonder – on this night – if one night of peace might stretch into a day, and if a single day might not extend to two, and if two … then three, and then another and another and another, and then still more until war is no more and nation shall not lift up sword against nation and neither shall they study war no more, and the angels’ proclamation from that first Christmas Eve becomes a description of our common life: peace on earth and goodwill to all of God’s children.
Sure, I recognize that many will say that this is naïve and unrealistic, and, of course, they would be right.
It is naïve and unrealistic – but so is the conviction that with each child is born anew the hope of the world.
Let down the fences and defenses that the culture builds around hope, and gather close round the manger. Listen for the songs of the angels. Peace on earth is their promise and our calling. It is before us … always before us –
… if we would but open our minds to conceive it, open our hands to receive it, open our hearts to believe it.
Peace on earth; good will to all.
This is our Christmas prayer.
Hope you and yours have a very Merry Christmas. No more from here till next year. Peace.

Monday, December 17, 2007

A Dark and Stormy Night ...

OK, so it was not a dark and stormy night, but it was a cold and windy one when a couple of dozen folks gathered last evening at Lafayette Park to witness to a common desire for peace.
My 16-year-old son, who attended his first peace demonstration in utero during the first Gulf war, graded last night’s witness a 7.5 on a scale of 10. The weather knocked a few points off for him, although it added something for me. He says, “that’s why you have multiple critics.”
He also chided me for “blowing the closing prayer.”
A few dozen tourists had come up while we were standing across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House singing Silent Night, and Bud argued (well and rightly) that they didn’t know why we were there so it was a teachable moment that could have been seized by a prayer that blessed the stones we left on the sidewalk, and all those victims of the war represented by the stones, and, perhaps also the death of civil liberties here so perfectly represented last night by the closure of Pennsylvania Avenue that kept us from crossing to the White House fences due to some vague "security situation."
Instead, I wished folks “peace” and blessed them on their way through the cold and wind.
My colleague, Tara Spuhler, associate pastor at New York Avenue Presbyterian, led the worship last night and she reminded us of the transgenerational responsibilities to pass along the message of peace so that folks of her generation are drawn into movements for peace and justice and empowered there.
I do hope she felt empowered for her words were certainly filled with power, and I was reminded again of my own selfish reasons for continuing the witness. I am filled up by the experience. Last night was not a pleasant one to be out in, and I really did not want to leave the comfort of hearth and home – or couch and cocoa. I’m in the middle of a mild cold, so the couch was, indeed, enticing.
But since I am significantly to blame for this witness, I felt like I had to show up – besides that, I had the stones in the trunk of my car.
But Tara’s words, the wonderful music led by Meade Hannah from Our Lady Queen of Peace, and the opportunity to see a small but committed and ecumenical group of peacemakers refreshed my spirits and brought me closer to the spirit of Advent – the coming of the Prince of Peace.
That spirit, that power, that possibility and promise – that the peacemaker’s time is at hand – is why we witness. For in doing so we lift high that promise and place it in the center of the public square where it shines like an unquenchable flame, demanding attention as the powers and principalities shrink in the face of a fearfulness that they, themselves, unleashed upon the world.
Does the presence of 20 or 30 folks one evening a month standing in the dark in a park across the street from the White House make any difference? In the calculus of public policy probably not at all. But within the broader economy of the commonwealth of the beloved, that kingdom economy ruled by princes of peace and those anointed for the sake of compassion, the balance of power shifts when we witness.
And who knows, perhaps we are only a boffo closing prayer away from peace!
So, by way of do-over, my prayer is that we continue to witness, that we join our voices to the silent witness of the stones, that those in the way of this war find shelter and shalom, that wisdom prevail in places of power, that Advent hope sustain us through the dark winter of war, that the hopes and fears of all the years be met by God-with-us, and that each of you meet the new year full of the love that casts out all fear.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Beautiful Day for Peace

I suppose every day could be a beautiful day for peace, but this is the day that we have been given and it's supposed to be partly cloudy and in the low 40s this afternoon: perfect weather for an Advent witness to the peace that God calls us to make. Hope to see you at Lafayette Park at 5:00 p.m.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Say It Ain't So ...

Actually, I'd more likely say, "why would you expect it to be any other way?" The Mitchell Report on the use of performance enhancing drugs in baseball, released yesterday, confirms what common sense should have told baseball fans for the past decade as aging stars defied the gravity of time to turn in record-shattering performances at ages when they should have been collecting retirement benefits.
It should not have taken a $100-million report to confirm what our eyes and experience were telling us. I'm certainly no professional athlete, but I am a 48-year-old hoopster who had a 30-inch vertical leap ... when I was 30 years old. The past 18 years have been a long, slow decline as muscles age and take longer to recover from running and jumping. Nothing at all unusual about that -- it is a universal experience. Why then the surprise from so many quarters when it is revealed that Roger Clemens' age-defying performances were helped along a bit by chemicals?
Could it be that baseball fans do not want to believe that the good ol' Texas boy (who happens to be white) would engage in the same kind of cheating of which the surly superstar Barry Bonds (who happens to be black) stands similarly accused? That comes as no surprise. What of the role of the players' union? That they are accused of aiding and abetting the steroid era is also no surprise. Nor is the role of the commissioner, nor his refusal yesterday to take any real responsibility. (He should resign if he truly wants to clear the decks for baseball to move forward, but that will never happen.)
The only surprising thing to me in all of this is the repeated defense of the teammates who knew and said nothing because they did not want to be accused of "ratting out another player."
I suppose I'm not so much surprised as I am left wondering. What is it about the truth that is so difficult to acknowledge or articulate? Not saying what is so won't make it not so ... even if you want to say it ain't so. If the truth will set you free, why do so many in baseball seem more bound to the recent past today than they did the day before yesterday? Perhaps you have to claim the truth before it can liberate you. Amidst all the denial, freedom seems a long way off.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

An Agitation for Today

I am wondering, as I read in the Post about "what the Democrats knew and when they knew it" about rendition, torture, etc., if we need to be mindful of that dynamic in pressuring the Congress to act on the occupation? It seems to me that the Dems want to have it both ways -- criticize the president on Iraq while quietly supporting the worst aspects of the general war on terror. It is that general war without end that is the problem -- Iraq is but a symptom. Neither side in Congress has the vision or courage to address it. Moreover, the relative quiet in Iraq pulls energy from the antiwar movement -- unless it can be more clearly cast as a peace movement. As such, as a movement for peace, we cannot pull punches on the war on terror, and the recent revelations about Speaker Pelosi make that all the more clear and crucial.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

American Heresies, Again

As the revelations about destroyed CIA torture tapes continue to unfold here in the heart of the empire we are being told again, by those in power, that Americans don't torture. "We're not like that," the powerful say -- and, one imagines, they want to believe it.
How are we, really? Many at home and abroad paint with too broad a brush in considering the torturers, the administration that guided their actions and the Democratic leadership that turned a blind eye on it all. While all of them stand complicit, much of the rhetoric of condemnation sounds a bit like Bruce Cockburn's haunting Rocket Launcher, from the 1980s Latin American war experience. Cockburn's words -- "if I had a rocket launcher, some son-of-a-bitch would die" -- stand as a signal expression of a perspective grounded on a fundamental theological error.
The heresy, shared by critics and defenders of American practices in the war on terror, denies both that all of us are created in the image of a loving God and also that all of us are broken.
The truth is, as the Biblical image of humanity makes clear, that each of us is some strange and volatile mixture of the angels of our better natures and our own profound brokenness.
We may not know anything about the spies who tortured or the officials who authorized them. Truth be told, we don't know that much about the President or the House Speaker, either. But about all of us, we do well to recall the words of the psalmist, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51: 3-5). While in the very same moment we must remember also that the psalmist says, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).
All of us, are both of these things: those who transgress, and those who are wonderfully made. And we live, all of us, somewhere east of Eden.
Dr. King said that we must develop the capacity to forgive, for without that we cannot claim the power to love. Forgiveness begins, he said, when we recognize that the evil actions of our enemies do not express all that our enemies are. “This simply means,” he said, “that there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.”
That vision, which seeks as its goal forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration, stands in stark contrast with the notion, given voice by the leader of our nation, that we are engaged in a war to “rid the world of evil.”
Alas, as James Carroll said, “evil, whatever its primal source, resides, like a virus in its niche, in the human self. There is no ridding the world of evil for the simple fact that, shy of history’s end, there is no ridding the self of it.”
Indeed, the notion that this nation, or any nation – no matter how nobly conceived or dedicated – could of its own actions rid the world of evil is perhaps the fundamental heresy upon which so much of our current foreign policy rests.
We cannot rid the world of evil when we so clearly participate in it ourselves. We cannot; any more than we can bring justice to the world by means of an unjust war; any more than we can bring democracy to the world by means of a war that the vast majority of the world’s people oppose. And the further into the morass of this war we go, the more we become like the very thing we hate.
Some 35 years ago, Martin Luther King said that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Lost amidst the news of destroyed videos and secret briefings is the spiraling cost of occupation.
It is not the job of the church to correct the state’s political and military strategies, but it is most certainly our job to correct errors of theology. It is also quite clearly our role to warn of the approach of spiritual death.
For, in this case, the two are so closely related. We lie and deceive ourselves at peril to our souls. We follow the false gods of power and security, and develop theologies of nationalism to honor them, and we wonder how it is that we become the very thing that we hate.
Theology matters. Show me your image of God, and I will show you your image of humanity. From those images of God and humanity grow the strategies of nations. And when those images are skewed by heresies, and those strategies perverted by false premises, from them develop the images that now dominate our news.
The church’s complacency in the midst of this is shattered – or should be – as we realize that amidst the howls of protest rising in response to recent revelations nowhere do we hear the voice of the one who said, “love one another as I have loved you.” Nowhere do we hear the voice of the one who said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). Nowhere do we hear the voice of the one who said, “Be compassionate as your Father in heaven is compassionate” (Luke 6:36).
It seems that in this season, the voice of the Prince of Peace should be heard again.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Theories of Representation

There's a fascinating little story unfolding in a congressional election in Memphis where a white man, Rep. Steve Cohen, replaced Rep. Harold Ford, Jr., when Ford ran for the U.S. Senate. Now Cohen faces Democratic primary opposition from an African-American woman who is, according to some progressive voices, less likely to represent the economic interests of the largely black and quite poor district. Cohen's voting record rated higher than Ford's on the report cards of the Congressional Black Caucus, and his positions on report card issues are consistently more aligned with the CBC than are his opponent's.
There's a strong gay-bashing undercurrent to the race, as well.
All of it makes me wonder about theories of democratic representation. Who can represent whom? Can a white man adequately represent the interests of black folk? Can a straight man adequately represent the interests of gay men? What of the interests of women? Children? Old folks? Muslims? Atheists? Rural folks? What of the interests that cross the lines of interest group politics?
Interesting.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Nightmares and Agitations

For some masochistic reason, as I propped up the ankle, I tuned in the local news.
In DC today it was dominated by the sad story of Sean Taylor, a professional football player for the team my son calls the "racist-skins." Taylor, an All Pro defensive player, was shot in his Miami home in the wee hours of Monday morning and died early this morning.
There is much to be agitated about in a story that draws together the violent world of professional football, the violent worlds of Miami and Washington, the violent world that so many young, African-American men live in, and the violence of America's continuing legacy of racism.
I can't get past the news descriptions that reported Taylor getting out of bed when he heard an intruder in the house and grabbing for the machete that he kept near his bed for protection. What kind of nightmare world is it where some folks have to sleep with machetes near their beds?
As one Post writer pointed out, whether or not most of us live in that world, it seems to attract more than its fair share of young athletes who too often fail to connect the dots of contexts and consequences.
More than a fair share of those young athletes are African-American men. Could there be some slight connection between that factoid and cultural blindness to such things as team names like Redskins, that trace back to America's original sin? There is, after all, a connection between contexts and consequences. Indeed, linguistic contexts have real-world consequences. In other words, words matter.
I don't expect any real reflections on such connections to come out of this sad death, but Taylor's father said he hoped his son's life was not in vain. If it sparks some deeper reflections on race and violence, perhaps his life and his violent death might have some deeper meaning than just another nightmare of a young black man murdered.

Monday, November 26, 2007

a simple twist of fate

I was out running this morning and hit an uneven piece of pavement hidden under fallen leaves. So now I’m sitting in the kitchen with ice on a mildly sprained ankle searching for the metaphor that must be hidden in this minor event. I’m sure it’s there, hidden just like the crack in the roadway, ready to tip the unsuspecting and unbalanced, to stretch the ligaments that bind us together, and to leave one sipping red wine while contemplating the hidden meanings in a single misstep. Oh, to hell with it. I’ll just sip the wine, wait for the other drugs to take effect and go read the comics.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Counting Blessings in Autumn

for teachers who point out abundance
in an Olive Garden world
for friends who offer light in the gathering gloom
-- even if it's only smoldering ash from a summer campfire
for small ones with smiles too big for their faces
for big brown eyes
and for dried tears
for the songs that connect the lines
and give rhythm to the heart
for maples and running water and even grey skies
for the woods in autumn when everything smells of death
for questions that do not demand answers
for memory
and forgetting
for you and me and us, waiting for spring

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Civil Agitation

So, is civility a Christian value or a taming of Christian values?
The louder and coarser the public discourse becomes the more frequent come the calls for a return to civility. A piece in this morning's Post notes that an "elegant woman of patrician bearing" asked John McCain the other day about how he would "beat the bitch." Some folks are jumping on McCain for not chastising the woman about her public rudeness.
Perhaps it's time for the political classes to reread George Washington's rules for civility; although I'm not sure what to make of this one, the beginning of rule #27: "'Tis ill manners to bed one more eminent than yourself ...". (OK, I believe that must have been a typo on the web version, but it's worth considering as a general rule for civility nonetheless!)
Of course, reading George's rules -- typos notwithstanding -- should serve as a reminder that the lack of civility in public political discourse is nothing new under the sun.
Indeed, I suspect that calls for civility are sometimes nothing more than the protests of the privileged and powerful when their privilege and power are called into question. Speaking truth to power sometimes sounds rude.
As Frederick Douglas put it, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress."
Even when one speaks the truth in love, when it is spoken to power on behalf of the powerless, it will be interpreted by some as a breach of civility.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Daily Agitation

An agitation for today: can one be a “policy realist” and call oneself a Christian?
This question popped into my mind riding the Metro home from Capitol Hill this afternoon. I was down there scouting sites for the March 7 Christian Peace Witness for Iraq. I was talking with a police officer on the steps of the Capitol, remembering a time, not that many years ago, when one could simply walk up those steps which today are fenced off and watched over by machine-gun totting guards. I was thinking, “well, I suppose that is the reality of our time.” And then wondering, “are we called to something completely beyond realism?”
I suppose, for the moment, that “Christian” is more readily understood than “policy realist,” although perhaps not.
Policy realist was initially a term of art in Cold War American foreign policy used to describe those who believed in “the need for military power and political will to maintain friendly alliances to contain Soviet expansion” (in the words of James H. Billington writing in Foreign Affairs). University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer says, “Realists basically believe that states are interested in gaining power, either because they’re hardwired that way or because it’s the best way to survive, and they don’t pay much attention at all to values.” Indeed, he argues that “there is not much place for human rights and values in the Realist story.” (Like so much theory from the place, it makes me proud to be a Chicago alum!)
While policy realism as a school of thought may be a relatively recent phenomenon, the idea traces its intellectual roots back to The Prince, where Machiavelli wrote, "It appears to me more proper to go to the truth of the matter than to its imagination...for how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin than his preservation."
The idea of calling oneself a Christian dates back a bit further, although the notion that Christianity consists of intellectual assent to a given proposition about the identity of Jesus – for example, I believe in God the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only son our lord – may be no less modern than Machiavelli. That is to say, Jesus of the gospels seems far less concerned about people having a precise ontological understanding of himself than with whether or not people were willing to follow him on a way that was – whatever else is may have been – utterly committed to nonviolence.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Stones Still Speak

If these were silent, the stones themselves would cry out loud ...

Witness for peace at Lafayette Park in front of the White House. Sunday, Nov. 18, 5:00 p.m.

A liturgy of peacemaking including the laying of stones at the gates to the White House representing the Iraq War dead. Their voices have been silenced; the stones themselves will bear witness.

The time has come to break silence!!

"Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. ... Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement well and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us."

-- Martin Luther King, Jr. "A Time to Break Silence"

This gathering is being convened by a group of metro-DC area clergy and laity in response to the call to commitment from the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq -- the group that put together the peace witness at the National Cathedral last March. I hope some of you can join us in front of the White House this Sunday, and on the third Sunday of each month until the occupation ends. Peace. See listing.
(If the weather is too nasty to gather in the park we will meet at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. The notice will be posted here Sunday afternoon.)

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Church Politics

I'm on the Bills and Overtures Committee of National Capital Presbytery, and we met last night to consider two overtures that would delete the section of the denomination's constitution that is used to bar the ordination of gay and lesbian candidates for ministry (and other ordained church offices). A friend asked me this morning for my reaction to the meeting, at which the committee decided to offer neither endorsement nor opposition to the proposed overtures. Here's what I told him:
I'm not at all clear on where things are headed within NCP. The conservatives seem to me to be the ones actively organizing right now. They have championed the change in the way we select commissioners to General Assembly. They have made specific pledges to uphold "b" a public litmus test for ordination. They have asked candidates to pledge to live in chastity or fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman, and thus raised Victorian sensibilities to the status of confession.
The call last night was OK -- neither a win nor a loss. I did not think it worth a fight for a small victory of marginal importance in that venue, so I voiced the opinion that sending the overtures to presbytery without comment from B&O seemed a faithful action. I believe that it was. I hope that compromise might be received as a small conciliatory gesture by conservatives who will be angry that anyone has the temerity to introduce an overture to delete "be" in the wake of the Peace, Unity, Purity task force report's call for a moratorium on legislation related to "b." Personally, I think we are seeing within NCP the continued toxic effects of "b" on the life of the church, and we've had a decade to discern that "b" does not further the peace, unity or purity of the church. How much discerning is necessary? When candidates are regularly subjected to inquisitions on the floor of presbytery concerning their sex lives, it's clear that the system is broken.
That said, I'm all for efforts to replicate the relationship building experience that the members of the task force enjoyed in their years together. Progressive and conservative members of that small body build something powerful and important together. But I don't think that is possible on a larger scale as long as "b" is in the constitution because it prohibits in advance the equality necessary for authentic relationships.
I lack the imagination to envision a non-legislative process for moving beyond this point, which is why I will continue, as long as I remain in the church, to stand with those who bring measures to delete "b" from its constitution. Not to put too grand a spin on it, but this is the Martin Luther moment for me -- here I stand, I can do no other.
Of course, conservatives will accuse us of grandstanding when we support another presybtery's overture. I look at consurring with the Hudson River overture as giving witness to our deepest convictions, even when they are not likely to prevail within the polity at this moment. Further, within our polity, such "grandstanding" is the way to have our voice heard at GA. It's only when a presbytery is willing to concur on a proposed overture that it can send someone to the assembly to advocate for it.
This is how we witness within the legislative arena of the church.
As you will have noted by now, I'm rehearsing a bit some of the points that we'll have to raise when arguing this before presbytery when it gets to that point. I'd much appreciate your perspective on all of this.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Great Pumpkin

So, my 13-year-old is fond of posing this "eternal question": who's cooler, Jesus or Bob Marley?
As the pics of our punkin suggest, it's a tough call!
But what is beyond dispute? Just this -- there's nothing in the world cooler than carving Bob Marley's face into a gourd with a power saw! There were pumpkin bits flying all over the porch, and a few young trick-or-treaters were very frightened!
So, you be the judge: who's cooler?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

We Shall Seek Peace

We Shall Seek Peace
Because the Creator of the Universe calls us to beat swords unto plowshares and spears into pruning hooks until nation does not lift up sword against nation,
We shall seek peace and pursue it.
Because preemptive war violates the tenants of just war theory and the charter of the United Nations, and is opposed by leaders of the world’s great religious traditions,
We shall seek peace and pursue it.
Because scripture calls us to seek the peace of the city, to be repairers of the breach and restorers of the city’s streets to live in,
We shall seek peace and pursue it.
Because the occupation of Iraq continues to breed violence and despair, and visit suffering on the most vulnerable Iraqis,
We shall seek peace and pursue it.
Because our faith teaches us to live in solidarity with the poor and the suffering, and to share in God’s boundless compassion and mercy,
We shall seek peace and pursue it.
Because the present war is sowing seeds of terror for future generations, and undermining hope throughout the Middle East, and because any attack on Iran will expand the present war in dangerous and unpredictable ways,
We shall seek peace and pursue it.
Because the Prince of Peace calls us to love neighbor, stranger and even enemy,
We shall seek peace and pursue it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Fidelity and Chastity

The session at Clarendon just passed another overture to the denomination's General Assembly calling for the removal of the so-called "fidelity and chastity" clause of our Book of Order that was put in to deny ordination to gays and lesbians. As the process plays out again, I've been thinking a bit about what fidelity and chastity truly mean, and about how honoring the body is a part of faithful living -- although not a part touched on at all by those who would deny ordination to some classes of people simply on the basis of sexuality.
Truly honoring the body with fidelity and chastity is a profoundly counter-cultural practice, because it reminds us that we are beautifully made in the image of a loving Creator. Honoring the body reminds us that each and every body – no matter age or gender or sexuality or appearance or sickness or health or size or status – each and every body is fearfully and wonderfully made. Honoring the body, then, turns us toward the Creator and away from images and ideologies that would devalue and devour our bodies.
As with so much in Christian practice and theology, we will understand this better if we learn if from those who are poor; in this case, poor in body. I shared a meal some time ago at the L’Arche community in the District. L’Arche is a global movement begun in France about 40 years ago by Jean Vanier. L’Arch communities create homes for people with severe mental and, often, physical disabilities, who live with their helpers in community.
Toward the end of the evening I spent with them, Andrew, a young man who does not speak beyond grunts, took me by the hand and led me around making sure that I had met each member of the community, as we had gathered after dinners in a couple of houses in Adams-Morgan. Andrew has dancing, smiling eyes, and his grip on my hand conveyed an incredibly deep hospitality.
Sometimes, Andrew has trouble walking. He had a bruise on his chin where he had hit his face in a recent fall. I was deeply moved, that evening, by the community director’s simple question: can you imagine what it would be like if falling down were a regular part of your life?
That reminded me that some people know they have a body because it hurts.
A few years back, Jean Vanier spoke at Harvard, and he said,
"Many people know they have a head because they have learned that two and two are four. They know that they have hands because they can cook eggs and do other things. Many know they have a sexuality because they have experienced strong emotions. But what they do not always know is that they have a well deep inside of them. If that well is tapped, springs of life and of tenderness flow forth. It has to be revealed in each person that these waters are there and that they can rise up from each one of us and flow over people, giving them life and a new hope."
I’m still not sure I know what fidelity and chastity really mean, or if the progressive church can really receive any gift from these words that have done such great damage to so many over the past decade in our denomination. But if there is a gift there to be discovered, I believe it has something to do with the way that honoring our embodied selves can tap that well and allow life and tenderness and love and faithfulness and wholeness and holiness to flow in and through our lives and our communities.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Hacked by a damn bunny!

Hm, it seems my 13-year-old has hacked the blog. Pat the Bunny makes regular appearances on my desktop, so it's fitting that s/he should show up here, as well, for your benefit ... or something.
PAT THE BUNNY says HI!
()()
(**)
0( )0

Peace, Peace

Here's a poem for today ...

Peace, peace
But there is no peace,
No peace of mind
No peace of heart
No place for this journey of peace
To start
But here
In the way we treat this heart
Your heart, my heart
This moment
The way we tend to this test
A math test
A health test
A cancer screening
A film screening
Of what does or does not
Add up to a whole life
More than what flashes in front of our eyes
Before the screen fades to black
And there is peace

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Church and Nation

Here's an agitation for the day that comes, interestingly enough, from James Carroll in a post yesterday at Common Dreams. The note concerning the origins of the Nicene Creed provides and instructive reminder that the earliest Christian profession of faith, "Christ is Lord," was a direct rejection of the Empire's required loyalty oath, "Caesar is Lord." To be Christian has always been to be engaged in politics, and not just any politics, but one that is profoundly challenging to the notion of empire. It's no wonder it's so difficult to try to be faithful in these parts these days.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Peace Words

I was invited to preach in Cleveland last weekend for Peacemaking Sunday, which got me to wondering “why me? What have I to offer?”
Oh, sure, my personal journey in peacemaking began more than 30 years ago with creating a counter-demonstration to the Armed Forces Day parade in my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee when I was in high school, and, for certain it continued with many hours of study at Kent State’s Center for Peaceful Change as a college student and countless hours since studying the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., and it has included stops along the way in letter writing and public witness against America’s participation in wars in Central America and the Middle East.
Still, I don’t feel like I know much of the art of peacemaking.
In hopes of gaining some deeper understanding, this summer I plowed my way through James Carroll’s, House of War, a massive history of the Pentagon. Living barely a mile away from the place, it holds a certain fascination for me.
Carroll’s father, Joseph Carroll, was the founding director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and held that position through much of the nightmare of Vietnam – a war that divided James, then a radical young Roman Catholic priest, from Joseph, then working in the Pentagon, much as it divided the country.
In House of War, James Carroll reflects on his father’s death, which coincided with the beginning of the first Gulf War in January, 1991. He notes that one night, not too long after his father was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, just down the slope from the Tomb of the Unknown and overlooking the Pentagon, his son was awakened by a nightmare. As father held son, the little boy said he had dreamed of being in China and learning a Chinese word that, when uttered, would make it possible for parents to live forever, but he had forgotten the word.
Carroll writes, “My job in life has been the simple one of saying the word that will establish the reign of peace once and for all. This book was supposed to be that word. … That word … was going to save us all. But by now it is clear again: I can’t remember it either.”
Perhaps in search of that word, I made a pilgrimage a few weeks ago to Joseph Carroll’s gravesite at Arlington. As I walked through the rows upon rows of headstones, my reverie was interrupted more than once by the riffle shots of 21-gun salutes and the mournful notes of taps sounding the burial of young soldiers. The words of Lamentations came to mind as I gazed across the headstones toward the national Mall: “how lonely sits the city that once was full of people” … and of hope.
How can it be, I wondered, that 40 years after Dr. King warned of the spiritual death that awaits any nation that year after year continues to spend more money on weapons and warfare than it does caring for its children and its most vulnerable citizens has a Pentagon budget higher than the defense budgets of all the rest of the nations of the world combined? How can it be that 40 years after King lamented his nation’s place as the world’s greatest purveyor of violence that we continue to believe and, indeed, idolize the myth of redemptive violence?
How can it be that we suffer the collective amnesia that puts such a dense fog between us and any word or words of peace?

Friday, September 28, 2007

Arlington















I know little of the ways of peace
and even less of war's ways
but I do know something --
however geopolitically insignificant --
of the still, small voice
that speaks of life
even here, among the dead
if you come listening for it
and not some martial song
of honor, glory and courage

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Signs of Hope

If you haven't seen it, check out video of the mayor of San Diego as he announces his support for marriage equality. It's a powerful testament to the possibility of change, and to the power of personal stories and connections in leading to change. Here's a Republican elected official from one of the more conservative cities in the country taking a public stand in contradiction not only to the position of his party, but also to the position he had himself staked out in his election campaign. Turns out that love for his daughter was more powerful than the politics.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Power and the Reign of God

A few random reflections prompted by praying in front of the White House ...
The reign of God announces a profoundly different kind of kingdom, not so much about power as it is about covenant fidelity – about steadfast faithfulness, about a Godly power that is concerned not with the acquisition of more power but, instead, concerned first and foremost precisely about the condition of those with no power. Imagine our rulers putting such concerns first – imagine Republicans and Democrats concerned not with who controls the Senate but with how the hungry are to be fed, not with who will win the White House but with how the sick are to be cared for, not with the culture wars of Red and Blue but with how a just and lasting peace can be constructed. This is not to say that there are no important differences between the parties, but it is to call deeply into question their quite similar, and similarly idolatrous, relationships to the question of power.
When, for instance, the psalms sing kingdom praises, they recall also the nature of God and of God’s power, telling us that this God “keeps faith for ever, executes justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, sets the prisoners free, opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down, loves the righteous, watches over the strangers, and upholds the orphan and the widow.”
We are called into relationship with this God. We are called to trust this God before any princes and rulers, any Democrat or Republican, and even and especially against the lure of so many socially constructed idols: militarism, consumerism and every other “ism” that tempts us to put our trust in something less than ultimate, something other than God. And we are called to put first in our lives the same concerns as this God puts first – precisely the concerns that all the false gods ignore or belittle: justice, welcome of strangers, compassion for the outcast and marginalized, shalom for all creation.
It's a different kind of commonwealth that governs the beloved community.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Prayers for Peace

Here's a photo from the White House witness, taken as we gathered at the fence to pray and lay stones. The guards allowed us to leave them there for about 10 minutes -- wouldn't want any long-term reminders of the 4,000 dead Americans and the tens of thousands of dead Iraqis.
We will return to remind them again and again and again.
Meanwhile, the stones themselves will cry out loud.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Kingdom Weather

Ran across this, today, in reading Walter Brueggemann's most recent, Mandate to Difference:
Dominant culture is committed to 24/7 about everything, about work, about play and self-indulgence, about instant availability by cell phone or whatever. There is no space left for the human spirit, and attentiveness to the underneath mystery of human life is totally eroded. No sabbath here!
Well, I think I'll shut down the computer, turn off the e-mail, and go for a walk on this absolutely beautiful autumn afternoon. Even in the midst of the darkness of these days, sun rises call out to us, the birds still sing, autumn flowers bloom and the sky is clear blue. We may make a mess of things, but creation awaits the beloved community with open arms. Sabbath time is essential to peacemaking and the work of justice.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Next War ... and the One After That

The Outlook section of the Sunday Post opened with the most depressing headline imaginable: The Next War. The article beneath it, by former NATO commander Wesley Clark, details military lessons from Iraq and other recent American wars that ought to inform preparations for the next war.
Oh, sure, Clark closes with an almost obligatory final sentence, “The best war is the one that doesn’t have to be fought, and the best military is the one capable and versatile enough to deter the next war in the first place.” But the preceding twenty paragraphs are spent detailing how we need to keep up “skill in hunting and killing our foes” and improve our skills in “concealing and protecting our troops.”
Can one imagine a main stream paper such as the Post giving as much space to preparing for the end of war as they do to preparing for the next war? As long as the powers that be spend time, talent and treasure on preparing for war Plato’s words will remain true: only the dead have seen the end of war.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Stones Themselves

I'm happy to report that no one got arrested this evening, but I believe the days for that may lie ahead. More than 100 folks showed up this evening to witness for peace in front of the White House. It was a spirited gathering, and that spirit is what leads me to believe that the days for disobedience lie ahead.
In any case, here's the text we used this evening, followed by my brief remarks.
Luke 19.35-45 -- Then they brought the colt to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
‘Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!’
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’

I want to share a few words spoken forty years ago by Dr. King in his famous call to break silence concerning Vietnam. King said, “The past is prophetic in that it asserts loudly that wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows. One day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means.”
Those words are just a true today as they were when King spoke them to the Riverside Church in New York. As we stand here in front of the White House, witnessing for the peace we yearn to experience, we do so in the same spirit King invoked.
A few weeks ago, when the call came to continue the witness begun last March at the Cathedral, a few of us got together. As we talked, we shared our mutual disappointment that the voice of the church – so clear and strong in opposition to the war before it began – had become so tamed, so timid, so tepid, as the war drags on.
I think Jesus would long since have turned to the stones to cry out, because we, his followers, have been effectively silenced.
Last March, we broke that silence, and tonight, in places across the nation, we are echoing that silence-shattering call for an end to the war and the occupation.
It’s been a difficult week, and precisely that difficulty makes what we do here tonight all the more important.
Rick Ufford-Chase, the director of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and one of the conveners of the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq, sent out an e-mail a couple of days ago noting the darkness of these days.
He quoted Archbishop Oscar Romero, who, shortly before he was martyred, said, “try not to simply depend on hope, because unfulfilled hope leads to despair, and we have no need of despairing people. Try instead to be faithful.”
We are here tonight, not out of some false hope that our showing up in front of the White House is going to somehow change the policies that emanate from that building. We are not so naïve as that.
But neither are we despairing, because we come here with a deep and profound faith that the God who is Lord of history desires shalom. By our simple witness this evening we give voice to that deep desire for peace.
We do so tonight by taking up the long tradition of using stones to mark and remember, and we do so in the tradition of the prophet, Habakkuk (2:8-11), whose words we heard a few minutes ago. The Lord told Habakkuk to “write the vision; make it plain on tablets.”
Give it voice; make it clear; let the people understand. That’s what we’re doing tonight with these simple stones. So give it voice, make it clear, and let the people understand:
What do we want?
When do we want it?
Our permit is for a prayer liturgy … wouldn’t it be a shame if a rally broke out?
Actually, liturgy means, literally, the work of the people. I submit to you that the work of the people of faith is peacemaking. It’s not always quiet work. Sometimes it sounds like a rally; often it’s messy and noisy; usually it involves breaking silence; always it involves faithfully standing in the public square speaking the truth in love.
But it’s not just the truth in love, it’s that the truth is love.
Just as war is a poor chisel for carving a peaceful tomorrow, hate can never carve a space for love, nor can it ever speak truth.
Tonight, as we carry stones across this park and place them at the gates of power, we do so trusting that love will cast out all fear – even that deep fear casting such a pall over our time.
That trust is the mark of our faithfulness, and, to the extent that we dare to hope, that faith is the ground of our hope. That though the wrong seems oft so strong, the God of love and justice is the ruler yet. That though truth stumbles these days in the public square, ultimately we shall know the truth and it shall set us free from the lies that lead to war. That though the arc of the moral universe seems sometimes so very long, it does bend toward justice and to God’s shalom.
It is our work and our witness to bend it just a little further tonight.
(If you're in the DC area and would like to help continue and expand this witness, please send me a note: revdocdee@verizon.net.)

Friday, September 14, 2007

Permission Granted

After much run-around, we have finally secured permits for the Sunday evening peace witness. I hope this means that none of us will wind up in jail.
You never want to do these things too far in advance! Of course, the rules only stipulate 48 hours in advance notice, and we made our first calls a week in advance for an event that requires no extra security ... unless they're afraid of those who pray for peace. (Well, I suppose the fact that we'll have a bunch of rocks might intimidate -- but we'll begin in confession and remind ourselves that the one without sin can cast the first stone.)
Turns out, in the end, that a typical Washington maneuver was all we needed. When my friend Gene Betit got on the phone with the park police this morning he finally told the till-then uncooperative administrator that if she couldn't get the process moving that perhaps Gene's next call would have to be to his fellow parishioner, Jim Moran. Next thing you know, the approved forms were faxed our way.
What does it say about our democracy that a simple permit to assemble and petition the government is only made available when you happen to go to church with the right people? What does it say when you can only get a permit to gather to pray for peace in front of the White House if you happen to be personal friends with a member of Congress?
Just asking.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Questions & ANSWER

We continue to get the run-around on the permit for the planned peace witness on Sunday evening. The parks police (comically closed due to a power outage on September 11) initially told us that all permits for the entire weekend have been issued to the ANSWER coalition for the major demonstration they are holding on Saturday. A couple of calls to their DC office revealed that they have absolutely nothing planned for Sunday, leaving us wondering why the police won’t issue a permit.
Perhaps it’s because the powers that be understand something that most of us don’t want to grasp: there is genuine power in witnessing. The tools of nonviolence in acts of resistance can become a force more powerful.
That prospect may be threatening to the powers that be; they are sometimes even more threatening – terrifying, in fact – to those of us who would try to employ such tools, for they demand of us a willingness to let go of our own agendas and align ourselves with the long arc of the moral universe as it bends toward justice. Nonviolence requires a certain release of self interest and ego.
So as I look ahead to my own participation in an act of nonviolent witness on Sunday evening, what frightens me most is not the potential encounter with the police so much as the encounter with myself.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Why We Witness

I don’t know how this will turn out, but I do know how it began. I don’t know whether or not the witness some of us have called for September 16 will result in arrests, and I certainly have no coherent thoughts – hopes or fears – about anything like “results” in any larger scale.
But I know it began with an e-mail from the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq last month calling upon those of us who had participated in the March 16 witness and worship at the National Cathedral to initiate a continuous witness for peace beginning precisely six months after that initial liturgy.
When I received the e-mail I did what I suspect most recipients did: I checked the handy “event search” function on peace witness web site. I assumed, living and working within a few miles of the White House, that I’d find a witness in the District and, presuming my schedule allowed, I’d show up.
When nothing turned up from a zip code search, I responded the way most participants in the earlier witness probably would have: I assumed that we hadn’t given enough money when Rick Ufford-Chase, executive director of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, called the offering at the Cathedral in March and so no staff was available to keep the events calendar current. (I thought that was a shame since Rick gave the only offering call that I’ve ever known to draw an ovation from those being asked to part company with their money.)
So I did what, again, I assume most folks would have done: I e-mailed colleagues in the area to ask whether or not anyone was aware of any peace witness on the 16th or if they had any plans to put something together.
I quickly heard back from a number of folks with the same basic message: “no, I’m not aware of anything, but if you wanted to put something together I’d like to hear about it.”
My immediate response was to think, who am I to do that?
Then I heard this persistent, small voice asking, “who are you not to do that? After all,” the voice continued, “this war is begin waged in your name with your tax dollars? Who are you to sit silently when you could speak?”
I could speak mostly because I am blessed to know faithful people who are unafraid and who carry me along when I am too timid and tepid to engage what needs engaging. So I connected with them, and together we imagined a witness that might, in a small way, help in breaking the long silence of the church since the war began.
As we did the work of imagination, we talked about what it means to witness, about trusting that the outcome is in God’s hands and that therefore to witness is to be liberated from crushing concern about results. To witness, thus, is to trust that the arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice and to put one’s hands to the arc and bend a little harder.
That’s what we’ll be doing on the 16th.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Stones Themselves ...

If these were silent, the stones themselves would cry out loud ...

Witness for peace at Lafayette Park in front of the White House. Sunday, Sept. 16, 6:00 p.m.

A liturgy of peacemaking including the laying of more than 4,000 stones at the gates to the White House representing the Iraq War dead. Their voices have been silenced; the stones themselves will bear witness.

The time has come to break silence!!

"Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. ... Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement well and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us."

-- Martin Luther King, Jr. "A Time to Break Silence"

This gathering is being convened by a group of metro-DC area clergy and laity in response to the call to commitment from the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq -- the group that put together the peace witness at the National Cathedral last March. I hope some of you can join us in front of the White House on the 16th. Peace. See listing.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Way of Doubt

Since we just marked the 10-year anniversary of the death of Princess Di, I reckon we just marked the same for Mother Theresa. In one of those coincidences of time that almost make believe in "God-the-body-snatcher," two of the most recognizable women of the age died on the same day.
It struck me at the time that so many people so publicly and emotionally mourned the death of a woman they wanted to be like but, by dent of commoner's birth, could not be, while a relative few were so moved by the death of a woman whom they could certainly have been like but, by dent of culture, would never choose to be.
Now, as the loud remembrances of Dianna's death are marked by the publication of check-out line picture books, Mother Theresa is remembered through her own words of deep doubt -- again, an all too human response to her own calling and her own faith.
The way of faith and doubt remains open to us all; the way of royalty -- not so much.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

I Don't Like Poetry

Here's a poem for today:
I don’t like poetry.
Oh, sure, there’s that Billy Collins thing.
It’s pretty good.
And Ted Kooser
He makes me laugh.
And Wendell Berry always makes me
Want to move to the valley and raise alpacas
But still, I don’t like poetry.
And I don’t like Republicans.
Jim, from college, doesn’t count.
Neither does my next-door-neighbor, the mayor,
who I voted for
And my boss from Chicago
Best boss I’ve ever had
She doesn’t count either
I don’t care that Democrats are no different
I still don’t like Republicans.
And I really don’t like Christians.
Sure, mom and dad are elders in the church I grew up in
And some of the folks I went to seminary with …
Yes, I try to follow Jesus, but
I don’t like Christians.
I googled “Christian Republican Poetry.”
Nothing.
Thank God.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

What's Next

I had lunch today with a retired CIA analyst who is deeply troubled by the saber rattling coming out of the White House concerning Iran. In what I guess is typical analyst-speak, he offered about a 51-percent chance of military action against Iran soon. I suppose the detention of Iranians in Iraq doesn't count as military action, so the conclusion of any bet remains to be determined.
We talked about the role of the church in ending the occupation of Iraq, and I suggested that perhaps the most difficult challenge facing people of faith is to act without regard for the results. I don't mean that actions against the occupation ought not aim to be effective, rather that prophetic action measures itself as witness not as accomplishment. It is not that I don't care about the outcome, but I know that the outcome is not in my hands.
The question then becomes, "what is faithful action against this ongoing, unjust war and occupation?" How do we witness to peace amidst war?
While results may not be foremost in mind, it is nevertheless faithful to remind ourselves that September is going to be a crucial month in the American political process regarding Iraq and Iran. It would not be unfaithful to desire, to pray for, to work for results next month.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Are We There Yet?

There was a story in the Post this morning about unexplained smoke that has shut down Metro service a couple of times recently. It seems that no one is quite sure what's causing it. What struck me in the story this morning was the ready assumption that this could be terror related. Obviously, in this city, the threat of terrorist actions is real and constant, but the fear fomented by an administration that sees a terrorist behind every bush, as it were, leaves everyone looking first for terrorists whenever anything remotely out of the ordinary happens.
Dick Cheney's one-percent doctrine -- roughly stated, that if there is a one-percent chance of terrorist activity the United States should respond as if the suspected action was certain -- spills over to infrastructure maintenance. Indeed, it spills over in advance, such that we spend billions on homeland security but, my bet at this point, not nearly enough to prevent some run-of-the-mill electrical glitch that has now shut down the main arteries of the capital city's public transit system.
Are we safe yet?
Fear also explains this additional report in today's news: Americans own 270 million of the world's 875 million known firearms.
Are we safe yet?
The same fear explains a study, now more than 15 years old, that reported that the radius children are allowed to roam outside of their homes had shrunk to a ninth of what it had been 20 years earlier. At that rate, by now most kids must never step outside unaccompanied by an adult.
Are we safe yet?
Somewhere in all of this there is a meditation on fear waiting to be born, but I've got to run now, because I'm currently sitting too close to the Metro station for comfort.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Signs of the Times

So we're trying to get our 16-year-old enrolled at the community college as part of home schooling him. In some ways, our experience with him is a story as old as adolescence itself ... which means about 150 years.
Say what? Sure, parents and children have had their struggles throughout human history, but the distinct stage of adolescene is a relatively new thing, a product of industrialism, the growth of child labor restrictions, and universal compulsory education. We can't just marry off or employ away our teenagers these days.
So we have to struggle with them through school. Perhaps it is a sign of the times -- times of shifting epochs -- that bright, creative kids find public schools such desultory places. Such kids are like the canary in the mine of postmodernity -- they tell us the gases are getting too thick for good health.
So we try to tunnel out, to find fresh air, to recreate space for growing up in a world that seems often a very different place from the one in which we grew up. Hang on. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Hold Lightly

The best advice I’ve received in a good while came from a friend who said, “hold lightly your own agenda.”
I’m trying to follow that advice these days while serving as pastor-in-residence at Camp Hanover. As happens often at such places, the enthusiasm of young staff outpaces their experience and that’s nowhere more evident than in worship that they lead.
It tends to focus on pretty orthodox ideas about Jesus – especially when it comes to understanding the cross. The primary – perhaps the exclusive – way of explaining it reflects the fundamentalist embrace of substitutionary atonement, e.g., Jesus died as an atoning sacrifice to take away the sins of the world.
That theology leads into some places I simply cannot go. A God of love whose entire story in Hebrew scripture is that of leading the faithful away from barbaric forms of sacrificial worship would not traffic in such an exchange. Moreover, the orthodox atonement theology addresses itself to a problem that is not, from what I can see, the major problem that young people bring to camp.
Their problem is not some sense of sinfulness; rather it is one of meaninglessness. That doesn’t have to manifest itself in some mid-20th century existentialist angst. More likely it’s the experience of not knowing what to do with the one life we’ve been given.
The synoptic gospels don’t traffic in atonement theology and neither is that the principle concern of the Johanine community. They are far more concerned with discipleship – with following Jesus to the cross. In some sense, following the common play on the word, the gospels are more concerned with being at one with Jesus than they are with being atoned through him.
Nevertheless, all of that is my own baggage, my own agenda. When I leave myself open to being led by young people who are at a different theological place than I am, I find myself deeply enriched by their leading. When I hold lightly my own agenda I find myself building relationships that open up space for the deeper conversations necessary for bringing into the light some different perspectives on the gospels that are more attuned to – or, perhaps, at one with – the concerns that real people bring to this real place.
And then I am blessed along the way.

Friday, August 03, 2007

No Pain ... No Gain?

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What is the value of experience ... of an experience?
Seems a reasonable question for summer time, that season when folks hit the road. As Kerouac said, "all that road going, all the people dreaming."
But what do we gain from the going? Do we pile up memories in so many mental zip drives or drawers of old photographs?
We privilege experience in most every field of human endeavor believing that it teaches us something, that we gain ... what? Wisdom? Facility? This seems expecially true of experiences of pain and suffering. But what wisdom, what facility, is to be gained through pain?
Two random and apparently disconnected observations prompt the questions:
First, watching a bit of a political debate recently I noticed how military service is a distinctly privileged experience in political discourse. The rhetoric of unrestrained praise for military service always seems to imply that if you have not served the nation in its armed forces then you have not authentically served the nation. Moreover, if you have not served under arms -- especially under fire -- then you are deeply suspect on any question that can be considered a matter of "national security."
This rhetoric serves to marginalize women -- who were barred from such service until the present generation of soldiers -- and anyone who is unmanly enough to imagine that war as a means of addressing international issues may have outlived its usefullness.
Listening to that line of thought bleeding through various comments during the debate I wondered, "would you have to have been in a war to know that war is hell"? I doubt it, but, then again, I am of a suspect group and my doubts are marginal at best to such a debate.
So then I wondered, "what wisdom would one gain from the experience of war"? Certainly war is about suffering and pain and death. Rule number one of war: young men die. What does that fact have to teach those who survive? Does the experience of such pain bring wisdom that is useful for engaging the future in a way that leads a community, a nation, toward "peace and prosperity"?
With those unanswered questions nowhere close to the surface of thought, I was watching a baseball game on TV last night. Andruw Jones was at the plate for the good guys. He took a mighty swing ... and missed. The movement jolted something in his body and left him in obvious, if momentary, pain. The next pitch was delivered and as Jones began his swing it was clear to see that the involuntary memory of pain stopped his body well short of a full cut and he grounded out weekly to shortstop.
What wisdom had he gained by experience? What had his suffering taught him? Was he better able to serve his purposes and his community's -- er, team's -- by virtue of the experience?
To be sure, the fields of play are of a different category and have their own imperatives. But that one at bat raised for me a series of questions about how and what we learn from pain.
If, as in the stories that dominate political discourse, we simply valorize it and reduce it to categories of courage and heroism, then pain and suffering have little to teach us.
But, if we widen the categories through which we come to understand pain, perhaps we can learn something after all. At least enough, perhaps, to avoid swinging for the fences next time around.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Thoughts on the Run

I was out for a run this morning -- before the 95+ degree heat rolled in -- and I came upon a stone marker that I must have run or driven past scores of times but never noticed. It marks the western corner of the original District of Columbia, whose confines include what is now Arlington, VA.
I've often wondered why my house is in Arlington instead of DC. A century and a half ago, my neighborhood was forest, as was much of Arlington. When the Virginia part of the original federal district was ceded back to the Commonwealth the move was part of the politics of slavery. Alexandria, then a significant port, had a booming slave trade and represented additional pro-slavery votes in the Virginia legislature.
I'm sure these days, with the most progressive voices in Virginia resounding from what was once federal territory, the downstate conservatives would be perfectly happy to see us return to the District -- except, of course, for the billions of dollars in taxes that drain south.
The politics of any given moment give way to the passage of time and leave behind easily missed markers of stone or memory. It is easy from the present vantage to see both the moral blindness of Virginians in the time of Lee and the economic blindness of the District fathers who so easily ceded the forest and swamp land back to Virginia.
Such blindness strikes every age. As I ran past the marker this morning I wondered what moral blindspots plague our time. What are we missing that is as obviously wrong as slavery, as obviously stupid as giving away Arlington?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Section Bleed

You know the day is off to a bad start when you open the paper to an entertainment section only to find news. It's certainly not unusual in this tabloid era to find an addicted or otherwise addled celebrity's police blotter taking up the column inches once reserved for movie or theater reviews, and it's been a generation since you could open the sports section without finding stories about off-field misadventures of athletes, coaches and fans.
But this month marks a new lowpoint. First there's the ongoing steroids-shadowed home run record chase of Barry Bonds. Then the background noise of more performance-enhancing drug use by riders on the Tour de France. By themselves, those stories are old news.
But when an NFL quarterback is indicted for trafficking in dog fights and an NBA ref is the target of a federal investigation of gambling and fixing games -- all in the span of 10 days -- well, all I can say is "thanks be for Harry Potter!"
I want my summer back!
Of course, I suppose that's what fans of the 1919 Chicago "Black" Sox said after their heroes were accused of throwing the World Series. Boys will be boys ... even the boys of summer.
All of which is to say, Calvin was right on two scores: human beings are totally depraved; and if you don't have grass stains on your knees at the end of the day you ought to seriously reexamine your life.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Tending

I haven't done much blogging of late -- been traveling some and tending my own garden a good bit. Indeed, I've been thinking that I ought to share both some photos and some reflections on such tending. Then this evening, as I was out watering said garden, a fire engine and rescue vehicle pulled up our quiet street. This is not particularly unusual, as we live just down the hill from a station and they sometimes run the trucks up our way -- perhaps for practice.
But this time they stopped right in front of our house. I was pretty sure nothing was on fire, but having the fire department stop in front of the house does give one pause. They were here to tend to a neighbor across the street -- a middle-aged man in poor health with diabetes and kidney issues.
We met him some months after we moved in four years ago, but only after many months of scornfully referring to him as "boat man" because he kept a big-butt boat parked in the street and drive a honking SUV. In our environmentally concerned, liberal superiority we scorned and mocked him.
Then one day he approached me and said, "you have dogs."
It sounded like an accusation and I was instantly defensive anticipating some complaint about barking.
Instead, "boat man" held out a bag of dog biscuits and told me that his aging dog has been diagnosed, like him, with kidney disease and could no longer eat the biscuits. He wanted to know if our dogs would like them.
A few weeks later he knocked on our dooor. I answered, surprised to see him. He said, "you're a preacher, right."
Again, having just been in the news a great deal, I was defensive and anticipated an attack on my liberal views.
Instead, "boat man" -- whose name I now knew -- told me that his father was in the hospital dying and, though he was estranged from his dad and from any faith community, he thought his father would like to have the Roman Catholic last rights administered so he thought I might be able to help him find a priest.
These days I tend the garden, which is in the front yard, in large part so that I can be connected with my neighbors, so that I don't dismiss the ones I don't well know, so that I might be open to the grace that happens when the boat man becomes a neighbor instead of a stranger.
Now he's in the hospital and we will tend to him as best we can.
Meanwhile, Cheryl is across the street engaged in a long conversation with the extremely conservative man who lives just up the street from us. And it all makes me wonder, which of these is my neighbor?

Friday, July 20, 2007

Whither the Progressive Church (question or answer)

For most Americans, Christianity has become synonymous with a particular legalistic, conservative, evangelical movement whose vocal, media-savvy leaders are quick to condemn anyone who sees the world differently than they do.
Gays and other sexual minorities? An abomination. Women? Remain silent and “gracefully submissive,” in the words of the Southern Baptist Convention. Jews? In need of salvation. Feminists, lesbians, the ACLU, People for the American Way? Responsible for September 11, according to Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell.
At a meeting of conservative Presbyterians a while back, one speaker said that liberals were like bugs devouring the foundation of the church. He called for stomping as the appropriate response to such an infestation. I’m not sure, but I believe they broke into a spontaneous version of “Guide My Feet” at that point!
In the face of such attacks from some conservatives and such widespread ignorance from the population as a whole, we have to ask: is there a future for progressive Christianity?
As for me, I firmly believe and have dedicated my own life to the conviction that God is calling forth a progressive, inclusive, engaged, diverse church upon which to build the beloved community. Now this future remains to be worked out in our living together as church.
Yes, there is a future. But whether it is a future of exile, decline, death and memorial stones or a future of foundation stones and building together and vibrant worship and call and response … remains to be worked out in our living together as church.
Just a thought from summer vacationland.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Don't Just Do Something; Sit There

I was sitting in the coffee shop one afternoon last week reading Karl Barth’s Prayer, when the barrista put on a CD with Paul Simon’s old standard, The Sound of Silence. It struck me as the perfect – and most perfectly ironic – soundtrack for my meditations, for whatever else we might think of prayer, it often sounds to us like nothing more than the sound of silence.

We can read Barth for the great neo-orthodox theologian’s commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, and even appreciate his simple yet profound conclusion that “wherever there is the grace of God, [humans] pray.” And yet we can still experience nothing but an unspeaking silence in prayer.

In the same way, we can follow Henri Nouwen and note the two times that Jesus invites his closest friends, Peter, James and John, to join him in the solitude of prayer – once on the mountaintop of transfiguration and then in the garden of betrayal. With Nouwen we can acknowledge that Christian prayer invites participation both in power and in weakness. In other words, in Anne Lamott’s words, prayer says “thank you” to God for the grace evident in creation and in our lives and it says “help me” to the God of the cross – speaking from our weakness and brokenness to a God who knows weakness and brokenness.

We can even begin to understand some of this, and yet still experience nothing but cold, empty silence, for like the disciples, all too often we just don’t know how to pray. I take some encouragement here from the simple fact that it took a long time for the disciples to come to this understanding themselves, and to ask Jesus for guidance. We’re not alone in our confusion here.

In our foundering, silence becomes an enveloping darkness whose only end is desolation and we are reduced to the nihilism that haunts Simon’s song. The silence of prayer invites us to listen for something else, but it is profoundly difficult.

It is difficult, in part, because prayer is radically countercultural. I don’t just mean that the call to prayer is an invitation to participate in a mystery that resists reduction to the modern scientific worldview, although that’s also true.

As James Washington puts it in the introduction to his moving collection of prayers from African American traditions,

“The denial of the reality of God has become fashionable among the affluent. Such secularity often belittles folk thought as if learning how to read and write in the halls of academe is a guarantor of our supposedly greater wisdom. But one need only observe the stars on a clear evening to register the unimaginativeness of such cynicism. Indeed, stargazing, a favorite pastime of those, such as unmolested children, who still cherish wonder and curiosity, offers awesome, transporting access to the utter beauty and terrifying grandeur of the universe. Such stargazing is pleasurable precisely because it defies the banal interests of our utilitarian age.

Prayer is an attempt to count the stars of our souls. Under its sacred canopy, an oratory of hope echoes the vast but immediate distances between who we are and who we want to be,” or, I would add, who God wants us to be.

More than that, though, prayer calls us to inaction. In the midst of a culture whose motto might well be, “don’t just sit there, do something,” the call to prayer says, “don’t just do something, sit there.”

In a culture that demands action, prayer demands inaction. In a culture that prizes individualism, independence, speaking out and utility above all else, prayer insists on community, interdependence, silence and a certain uselessness. As Nouwen puts it, “Being useless and silent in the presence of our God belongs to the core of all prayer.”

I cannot think of anything more radically opposed to contemporary American culture than suggesting that we seek to become useless, that we practice uselessness. Indeed, I cannot think of a definition of prayer more at odds with contemporary American understanding – or, better, misunderstanding – of prayer itself. For even in those places where prayer is accepted, it really is not often opposed to the crushing orthodoxy of rationalist pragmatism.

Instead, prayer is generally understood as yet another tool in the utility belt of life. When the tools of modernity fail – whether they are medical, financial, psycho-therapeutic, social-scientific or military-industrial – when the tools of modernity fail, we turn to a tool from the premodern world precisely for its presumed utility here and now.

The bumper-sticker, “life is hard – pray harder,” reflects this understanding of prayer. According to such a perspective, we pray in order that we might triumph over life, that we might conquer life’s challenges.

From such perspective, God plays two major yet shrinking roles in our world: placing stumbling blocks or tests before us and giving us assistance in overcoming them. These roles are major because they concern some of the most striking events of our lives – natural disasters, premature deaths, recovery from illness – yet they are shrinking because they concern only events which cannot yet easily be explained by rationalist pragmatism which, of course, gains deeper and deeper knowledge and understanding of such events every day and thus further delimits the scope of what belongs to God, in that world view.

What we really seek in prayer, in this understanding, is control. Thus, according to such a perspective, we pray in order that our will might be exercised upon creation.

I just don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he invited his disciples into a practice of prayer that says, “Abba, your will be done here and now in our midst as if the household of belovedness were already realized among us.”

Such a practice of prayer does not seek to give voice to our will, but rather seeks silence in order to listen for and allow God’s will to speak to and through our lives.

You see, the way we pray reflects deeply the way we imagine God. Theology matters.

Jesus clearly calls us into a deep and personal relationship with the God of abundant and steadfast grace and love, from whom one can anticipate gifts sufficient to the needs of the day. The prayer also invites us to participate in jubilee – in the forgiveness of sins and debts, and, moreover, invites us to live into the household of God in which human relations are no longer determined by economic standing and power. In this community of belovedness, all things and all people are made new.

The God made known to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is not a God who capriciously places stumbling blocks before us to make life more challenging. God is not the author of our pain and suffering. God does not bring us to the time of trial.

And yet, we do suffer. We do face times of trial and even persecution.

And sometimes, in the midst of such darkness, prayer yields only sounds of silence.

What then?

What then, when we want a divine puppet master who will pull all the right strings to deliver us from evil, from illness, from loneliness, from suffering, from death? What then, when we want a prayer that will direct the puppet master to deliver us not necessarily from evil but from the vicissitudes of embodied life? What then, when we want a prayer that conforms God to our will?

Against those all too human desires, the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples works instead to form and shape us according to God’s will. More than the Lord’s Prayer, perhaps these words should be known as the Disciples’ Prayer, for this prayer casts a vision of the Beloved Community into which we are called to live and work and die following Jesus more closely day by day. These words work to create in us an open and yearning place for God’s Spirit to dwell and work. Remember Jesus’ words? “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

This is a Pentecost prayer – it opens our hearts to the Spirit of the living God and creates new space for the wind of God to work within our lives.

Still, I want to ask, right with the disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray.” God, I want to know, what happens when I am enveloped by silence and it falls as a darkness that no light will penetrate, as a veil that no wind will remove, as a coldness that fire itself cannot warm? In other words, how can I open myself to the working words of prayer? How can I find a silence that speaks to me even as I find words to say, “thank you” or “help me” or “thy will be done in my life, here and now, as it is in your beloved community”?

If we are to make prayer a central practice of our common life, it must also be a central practice of our individual lives. For that to happen, for prayer to become a practice of our lives that shapes and forms us as disciples, we need to find some answers to the disciples’ question: how do we pray?

Karl Barth, Prayer (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962) 24.

Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out (New York: Doubleday, 1975) 150.

Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies (New York: Anchor, 1999) 82. Actually, Lamott says, “Here are the two best prayers I know: ‘Help me, help me, help me,’ and ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”

James Melvin Washington, Conversations with God (New York: HarperCollins, 1994) xxx.

Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out, 136.

See Sharon H. Ringe, Luke (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995) 162-165.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Theology Matters

Martin King said that we must develop the capacity to forgive, for without that we cannot claim the power to love. Forgiveness begins, he said, when we recognize that the evil actions of our enemies do not express all that our enemies are. “This simply means,” he said, “that there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.”
That vision, which seeks as its goal forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration, sets a standard most of us don't care to aim for. After all, it demands that we consider the humanity of those we oppose. It stands in stark contrast with the notion, given voice by the leader of our nation, that we are engaged in a war to “rid the world of evil.” Of course, at the same time, it demands that, even in opposing that leader, I look for what is good in him.
At the very least, it that standard demands that opposition focus on policies and not on persons. Predictably enough, the policy of waging war to rid the world of evil has unleashed the worst in those who pursue the policy in the first place. One does not have to wage an attack on personalities to see the necessity of steadfast opposition to such policy and its makers.
U.S. Army soldiers examine the wreckage from a car bomb attack that injured a woman in the Harithiyah neighborhood of western Baghdad, Iraq Monday, July 9, 2007. Attacks in Baghdad killed 13 people Monday as prominent Shiite and Sunni politicians called on Iraqi civilians to take up arms to defend themselves after a weekend of violence. (AP Photo / Khalid Mohammed )
As James Carroll noted a few years back, “evil, whatever its primal source, resides, like a virus in its niche, in the human self. There is no ridding the world of evil for the simple fact that, shy of history’s end, there is no ridding the self of it.”
Indeed, the notion that this nation, or any nation – no matter how nobly conceived or dedicated – could of its own actions rid the world of evil is perhaps the fundamental heresy upon which so much of our current foreign policy rests.
We cannot rid the world of evil when we so clearly participate in it ourselves. We cannot; any more than we can bring justice to the world by means of an unjust war; any more than we can bring democracy to the world by means of a war that the vast majority of the world’s people oppose. No surge of troops will change this fundamental reality. And the further into the morass of this war we go, the more we become like the very thing we hate.

/

Some 35 years ago, Martin Luther King said that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

I've lost track of just how much we're spending on the war now, but it's too much. The release of Sicko this month stands as a vivid reminder of what is lost in spending priorities weighted toward war.
It is not the job of the church to correct the state’s political and military strategies, but it is most certainly our job to correct errors of theology. It is also quite clearly our role to warn of the approach of spiritual death.
In this case, the two are so closely related. We lie and deceive ourselves at peril to our souls. We follow the false gods of power and security, and develop theologies of nationalism to honor them, and we wonder how it is that we become the very thing that we hate.
Theology matters. Show me your image of God, and I will show you your image of humanity. From those images of God and humanity grow the strategies of nations. And when those images are skewed by heresies, and those strategies perverted by false premises, from them develop the images of death that dominate the news in days of endless war.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Curious Signs

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So I was riding my bike through a neighborhood near my house and I noticed dozens of yard signs calling for the impeachment of President Bush. I thought, "well, I live in Arlington: inside the Beltway, liberal enclave."
But then I thought back to the impeachment of President Clinton, and where I lived then. During the drive to impeach Clinton, I lived in central Kentucky -- where the only thing "Blue" is the grass. By the time the process was underway in Congress we had moved to Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania -- a rock-ribbed Republican suburb of Pittsburgh where registered Republicans in outnumbered Democrats about 9-1 in the precinct where we lived.
Throughout that period in the late 90s I cannot recall seeing a single yard sign calling for Clinton's impeachment. It could be that we lived then in a "yard service" neighborhood where the proper folks simply did not stoop so low as to put a tacky sign in the yard. Who knows? In any case, we were not then surrounded by "friends of Bill." I certainly heard a great deal of political opposition to Clinton's policies and disgust at his personal behavior, but even in the conservative places where we lived you rarely heard calls for impeachment that did not come from right-wing talk radio.
But these days, I see ordinary folks calling for removing the president and vice president, and see poll numbers suggesting that it's not just in my neighborhood.
Yet nobody in the mainstream media wants to mention it, and nobody among the political elite wants to touch it. I'm just asking, isn't that curious?