Monday, December 22, 2008

Merry Christmas 2008

Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukah. Cheerful Kwanzaa. For our pagan friends, solstice salutations. It’s bit late for Eid ul-Fitr greetings, but what the heck. For those of you accustomed to our usual late holiday card: an early happy King Day to you, and to all our friends who are Democrats or liberal-leaning Independents a very, very, very happy early Inauguration Day to you!
This year we are either a) going green, b) going cheap, or c) getting realistic. This e-greeting will kill no trees, use no stamps and not require of any of the Lederle-Ensign household the Herculean effort required to boldly go where no one of us has gone before: the post office. To underscore the upside of e-missives even more, this letter has hyper-links for your optional edification or just to see lots of pictures from our lives over the past year or so!
It’s just been that kind of year … or two, as last year’s letter got written but never made it out of my laptop … which was stolen (in March).
The stereotypical annual family holiday letter gets panned, unfairly in my opinion (which should come as no surprise!), for incessant bragging on the successes of the previous year. Well, in our own special twist, our highlights include one high-school dropout and one parent arrested among a slew of more mundane events.
OK. Bud did not actually drop out of high school. His parents pulled him out after seeing one too many progress reports – and we use the term “progress” advisedly – that showed a great gap between promise and performance. As we’ve explained to the Arlington Public Schools, “we gave you one of the smartest kids in the country, according to various standardized tests, and you couldn’t engage him.”
So, believing that it does take villages to raise their own idiots, er, I mean children, we turned to friends, family and the community college system to create what has become a wonderfully rich 18-month experiment in self-directed learning. The path has included studying early childhood development in a hands-on way both through a child care center and as a two- or three-day per week full-time child care provider for the three-year-old son of close friends in Rockville, MD. (The latter experience produced my personal favorite line from the past year when Bud called me at church one afternoon and said, simply, “potty training sucks.”) Bud has also taken numerous classes at Northern Virginia Community College, and has found the college scene much more compelling than high school. It will all culminate, we trust, in Bud receiving his high-school diploma from the Clonlara School in the spring, right on time with his friends at Wakefield. This time next year, we hope to be telling you of his adventures in college.
Martin entered Wakefield as a freshman this fall, and though the first few months have been a bit rocky – the education of boys is not all beer and skittles – he is such a different child from his older brother that we trust the school will do a good job of narrowing the gap between promise and performance this time. We shall see. In the meantime, Martin is swimming like a fast fish and growing like a slender weed. He also fiddles with the orchestra, and fiddles around too much on Facebook. He spent another happy session at Hanover in August and is preparing this month for winter camp right after Christmas. He remains quiet (too quiet) at school and quick-witted at home. (This afternoon’s example: a concept for a new TV show about a cranky veterinarian who only takes the strangest cases: Dog House. It’s still never lupus.) Martin is a gentle, thoughtful, playful, creative, very hairy young man, who has already donated one ponytail to Locks of Love and could produce another one with a few more shaggy months.
Hannah is also a hairy little one, with long, flowing locks she waves with all the sass a nine-year-old girl can muster. She is a strong-willed, independent fourth grader, who loves to read and play with Josie, her best friend of the past five years. Life is going to take a drastic turn for Hannah in 2009, because Josie’s dad is a state department officer heading to Tunisia for two years beginning at the end of the school year. Already we are exploring a trip, because the Atlantic is not wide enough to keep these two girls apart for two whole years.
If we get to go, you can feel happy that your tax dollars are supporting our journey, as Cheryl has been a full-time employee of your federal government since early this year. She continues to love her work in the office of strategic initiatives (sounds way too much like the CIA) at the Library of Congress. Her primary responsibility is educational outreach – helping make the digital resources of the world’s largest library available to kids in classrooms across the country. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it! Well, you’ll be happy to hear that Cheryl remains her humble self, reading, baking the best pizza anywhere, chasing children, putting up with David and knitting like a surgeon on speed … or something.
David, meanwhile, really did get arrested – with 40-some others at the March 9 Christian Peace Witness for Iraq and Olive Branch Interfaith Peace Partnership. We’ll be back at it next month, celebrating the legacy of Dr. King and the hope inspired by the incoming administration. At this point, there are no plans to get arrested again. Speaking of the new administration, if you’re looking for a free place to stay for the inauguration, drop us a line. We’ve still got floor space! Beyond continued work for peace, the ongoing ministry at Clarendon continues to be full of life and energy and love, and we’re looking forward to being part of this vibrant little community of faith for as long as God calls us together.
Metro DC has come to feel like home to us, and we love sharing the sights of this great city with friends. As a result, we get to host lots of folks from the famous to friends and family. Hannah’s room doubles as guest room, and last year she gave up her bedroom to John Bell, Rick Ufford-Chase, Noah Budin and host of other wonderful folks who don’t have web presences to link. As you might guess, we’ve hosted a lot of wonderful conversations, and most of the problems of the world have been solved on our front porch. Alas, the world has little noted the wisdom we have to offer. Ah, well, we’ll welcome you whether or not you’ve got a website or any particular wisdom. So come and see us in ’09 – unless we’re in Tunisia!
Grace and peace,
Bud, Martin, Hannah, Cheryl & David

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Facebook Politics, this time

Seems Facebook has become the site-du-jour for various bits of interesting chatter. This conversation occurred on my friend and colleague, Tim Simpson's page.
Headline: Prop. 8 Sponsors Seek to Nullify 18K Gay Marriages

What kind of person wakes up in the morning and says "I think I'm going to try and invalidate thousands of people's marriages today"? There are reptiles who aren't that cold-blooded. Should we be surprised that the one who has been chosen to argue this Prop H8 case before the CA Supreme Court is Kenneth Starr?
Commenter 1: those marriages should be nullified because they are wrong in God's eyes.
David Ensign: Even if they were wrong in God's eyes -- which many of us do not believe -- what business is it of the state to deny legal rights, responsibilities and privileges based solely on the individuals being part of a broad class to any couple who desire to enter into a binding legal contract pledging their lives and property to one another (and thereby ... Read Morebeing granted tax privileges, partner benefits rights, child-custody rights, and roughly 200 additional rights/responsibilities/benefits that accrue to straight married couples)? Where ever religious communities stand on the issue, this suit seeks to nullify legal status. God's eyes will not be involved -- although I would argue strongly that God's love already is.
Timothy Simpson: That kind of reasoning might work for the Taliban in Afghanistan or the ayatollahs in Iran, but in American jurisprudence, saying that God doesn't like something is a theological, not a legal argument which has its place in a church but not in a courtroom. There are people in America who think that God doesn't like blacks being married to whites but we don't pay attention to such reasoning. If we deny gays the same rights as straights, we have to have different reasons than this. And in this case, to go back AFTER THE FACT and tell people who have adopted or conceived children, who have bought homes, started businesses and done everything else legally and contractually that married couples do everywhere that their marriages are null and void is simply unconscionable. How could Christians do that to the children of such families? Could you imagine the government breaking up your own children's family like that? I certainly can't and can't imagine that this is what God wants.
Facebook is the place to be!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Now That's a Handsome Kid!

Our middle one, Martin, getting ready for his orchestra concert this week. And, to keep with the theme of this old blog, what could be a more faithful gesture than loving one's children ... even when they agitate you?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Obama's New Preacher Problem

First it was Jeremiah Wright, now it's Rick Warren. When it comes to preachers, well Obama might better stick with picking Secretaries of State. I wonder where the family will go to church in DC? One thing I do know: I don't want them at my church! Nothing against him or his family -- after all, I canvassed for him, phone banked for him, and voted for him. But I cannot quite imagine the hassle of security and media that would accompany the First Family at worship. Whew! And then, as Revs. Wright and Warren know first hand, one side or another is going to take a whack at you simply for standing next to the president.
I wish Warren luck in his role at the inauguration ... but I'd rather see Jim Wallis.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Facebook Philosophy

A friend of mine (a real one, as distinct from the virtual, facebooky kind) posted on his Facebook page the same Newsweek article I referenced here yesterday. His posting began an exchange that suggests that philosophy is not dead, just distracted on Facebook like the rest of us.
(Oh, and that's my own current Facebook picture.)
First response: Why use arbitrary BS to combat arbitrary BS? Its kinda like when creationists try to use pseudo-logical arguments to discredit logic. Reason to undo reason. The Bible should be having no place whatsoever in lawmaking. It shouldn't even be considered. Not in *any* rational discussion, let alone one pertaining to the legal rights of the individual. Ah, but then I'm just one of those crazy second class atheistic citizens.
Second response: Actually, my personal belief is that lawmaking necessarily involves making value choices, and to the extent that values choices are informed by religious and/or spiritual belief, that's fine. But when debating in the public square, one must attempt to translate value choices in universal terms. Of course, that could just be bullshit I'm spewing.
Third response: The problem for me is, I don't believe any value or moral "judgment" which is based on supernaturally given premises can have any standing or relevance in real life. I don't see how anything can be informed by the unknowable-by-definition. I'm not saying there aren't pieces of fair wisdom in the Bible, or any other religious text/philosophy... but so long as they are ultimately predicated upon supernatural (thus arbitrary) premises... then there is no universality to present. Unless you restructure said piece of wisdom in terms of reason based in reality - two things which *are* in fact universal to the human experience. Though whether or not those things are used or appreciated or respected remains another issue altogether.
Comic relief: My favorite approach/opinion piece as far as the Bible/homosexuality is the Jack Black video on :)
Fourth response: ah, but then don't we have to ask what is meant by "reason," "rationality," and "universal"? On what basis do we make an appeal to such concepts which are themselves constructed in and by the domain of a certain western discourse? If that discourse cannot, itself, be authorized by an appeal to anything outside of itself (and thus, also, quite arbitrary), what then becomes of notions such as the "universal rights of man"? Indeed, what becomes of the concept of "man"? On what basis do we posit something like "rights" of this "man" that must universally be respected? Is not "might makes right" just as rationally justifiable as endowing individuals certain inalienable rights that must be universally respected without recourse to power and violence? ... just feeling a bit deconstructive this evening ... must be the wine.
Fifth response: well, ok. Reason is a process of integrating percepts by way of forming abstractions or concepts via a path forged by logic- which is a process of non-contradictory identification. Rationality is the recognition, acceptance of, and commitment to reason as one's only viable source of knowledge. Its a way of life. This knowledge, derived from our immediate experience of reality(perception) (the reality being the universal tidbit here...the thing that is common to all us folks inhabiting it)...from percepts to concepts and back, is what must necessarily form the basis of our judgments..which are the precursors to our actions...IF it is our goal to survive, let alone thrive in this reality. A reality which is *not* arbitrary... but has very specific and predictable patterns of cause and effect. The concept of arbitrariness is defined as a claim or approach which has no underlying logic, no evidence of any sort, no connection to reality.
So reason, as defined as a process of logic/non-contradictory identification and definition by *essential* characteristics, is the antithesis of arbitrariness. I think observation is the key here. Which only pertains to the natural, and not the supernatural, which is of course..."beyond" the natural. As it turns out, humans beings are not beyond the natural. We are very much held subject to her laws. Faith is the antithesis of observation.That which is "beyond" perception is also ultimately necessarily beyond conception (which does not of course mean you cannot conceive of things which aren't real...but those things are still rooted in conglomerates of percepts and concepts which *are* rooted in reality). Pick a scripture or god, they are not grounded in reality - so they are arbitrary and so have no place in the world of the rational person. Step off a 500 ft cliff and, all other things being equal, any person will effectively achieve the same result.
A god cannot have essential characteristics by which it can be known or defined. A god is, effectively, unknowable by definition. A human being does have essential defining characteristics. Also, some human characteristics are arbitrary because they are not essential to the definition of what it is to be a human being. Being black for example. Or gay. Or Blonde. Or 6'3". Or being religious. Volitional consciousness is, it turns out, an essential characteristic. We make choices, judgements - and more complex than which lever to press to get another pellet. What helps make the volition adaptive and productive? Reason. Reason is another essential characteristic. That ability to integrate those percepts into higher order relationships...concepts...its how we learn from our mistakes, handle novel situations, playfully manipulate popular terms of discussion in an effort to undermine the very idea of rational discourse, by ironically mocking rational discourse.
I'm not sure how a discourse can make an appeal with anything let alone itself, because a discourse is not an entity which makes appeals. A person is. What is a persons recourse to the western discourse of reason and rationality? Each their own senses and minds...and the results of the interactions of those minds via their actions with this reality. Unequivocal results which are quite unconcerned with whether you believe in them or not. I realize I'm going on an on here on what was probably a lighthearted devils advocation... but really... do we really want to tear down and reject the one great gift that god gave us to make us special?
Sixth response: I honestly feel out of my league in this conversation between the philosopher and the pastor-philosopher, but hopefully once I've had time to process everything up here I might respond. Hopefully David will respond with more, as I'm thinking this may be the beginning of what I will call the Cosgrove Forum on Religion and Politics. Take that, Pew Charitable Truss!!
Comic relief, two: That should be Pew Charitable Trust, of course. I wonder if anything can be read into that typo.
Seventh response: Ha. My first thought was actually that you were talkin gangsta. Anywho, upon reread I see I, towards the end of entry 7, subsection 3 paragraph 2 -- when I said that scripture or gods are not rooted in reality - thats not correct. Of course, everything a person can conceive of is ultimately constructed with elements of reality, the question being really whether the abstractions are plausible... whether you can actually trace your new abstraction back to observable percepts. My observation is that gods are generally either unobservable/unknowable by definition - because they are necessarily beyond our nature, and so, our knowing.....OR they are ALL observable...god is everything (in which case I'd ask why not just let everything *be*?). I'm agnostic, myself.
Some folks like to toss about the idea of miracles. I always find it interesting that people are so inspired by evidence, even in matters of what is supposed to be faith. Perhaps its that western civilization peer pressure..
Eight response: Well said ... but at 3:00 a.m.? That's Heidegger-reading time!
Or, better, sleep time ... which option seemed more reasonable or rational to me, and, as Husserl (or was it Mr. Spock) said, "it is rational to seek to be rational." Or, even, "reason has its reasons."
On the other hand, or, maybe, on the hand of the other, following this time Derrida, one might offer as a definition, or a meaning of "reason" or of that which is "reasonable" simply the reasoned and considered wager -- or bet, or leap of faith even -- of a "transaction between these two apparently irreconcilable exigencies of reason, between calculation (that which can be perceived and measured) and the incalculable."
At its worst, "faith" becomes religious and attempts to present itself as reasonable. But, as a devil's advocate (and as one who tries to follow Jesus), I would also point toward a faith without religion, what Derrida, again, once called "another way of keeping within reason, however mad it might appear."

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Marriage Equality in Newsweek

In case you missed it, Newsweek's Lisa Miller offers a thoughtful, religiously based case for same-sex marriage.
Coincidentally, I ran across it the day after the December meeting of the board of People of Faith for Equality Virginia, where we planned a marriage action for February 13 -- the day before Valentine's Day.
If you're interested in the February event, give me a ring.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Almost Famous

OK, not really, but I did come close to another Andy Warhol moment this afternoon when a CBS Evening News reporter snagged me coming out of the newly opened Capitol visitors center.
Today was opening day for the center and I happened to be on the Hill to have lunch with my wife. As we were walking back toward her office, we saw camera crews and remembered that the center was open today after six years of work and some $600 million. Cheryl told me that today was a "soft open," one done without a huge amount of publicity so that there would not be huge crowds and it would give staff and security a chance to work out any kinks.
I decided that the afternoon's work could wait an extra 45 minutes and headed on in.
I had no particular expectations, but a great deal of curiosity. We've been reading about cost overruns and construction delays and redesigns ever since we moved to the DC area almost six years ago. We've watched the dig beyond the construction barriers as we've hosted out-of-town guests, visited my wife's office at the Library of Congress, and participated in numerous demonstrations for peace that were centered on the Capitol.
With a withering architectural critique, this morning's Post tempered whatever expectations I may have harbored.
Still, I figured that anything that moved the security line from a makeshift tent on the sidewalk next to Independence Avenue to a permanent location under a roof and safe from DC's fickle weather was a good move.
Indeed, the new arrangement makes it feel far easier to get into the building. You can walk straight up to the entrance, go through security and that's it.
Once in, I was free to roam through exhibits on the history of the Capitol, the founding documents of the republic and several fascinating relics of Capitol history including the table which held Lincoln's second inaugural address, the catafalque that has held the caskets of those who have lain in state in the Rotunda, and a ceremonial cup that was awarded to Rep. Preston Brooks by fellow South Carolinians after Brooks caned Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner following Sumner's impassioned anti-slavery speech in the spring of 1857.
I walked through the exhibits and then straight up the stairs into the Rotunda. I don't know if you can go beyond that point without being in a tour group, but I wasn't interested in going further today.
I recall coming to the Capitol in the early 80s, when you could walk straight up the west steps that overlook the Mall and waltz right in. Such freedom in public space is almost as quaint a relic of past times as the Lincoln table, but the new visitors center at least provides an illusion of such liberty.
Of course, the CBS reporter was not interested in that. The story she came to tell concerned the excessive costs. In fact, she asked me what I thought about that. I said that compared to spending half a billion dollars on sports stadiums, this seemed in line. She asked how I felt about my taxes being spent on this and I said, that amortized over the next 50 to 100 years that people will enjoy this, it doesn't strike me as unreasonable, and that I'd rather have my tax dollars support this than two endless, purposeless war.
That wasn't the story she intended to tell, so I wound up on the cutting room floor (although you can catch a glimpse of me walking up to the entrance in my dashing black leather jacket in the teaser before the story began!).
Perhaps I should have said, "compared to a trillion dollar bailout of a failed financial system and a $25 billion bailout of the auto industry, $600 million spent on making citizen access to the Capitol a bit easier and more pleasant seems like a pretty sound investment."

Friday, November 28, 2008

Pursuing Happiness on Black Friday

I can't say that I wanted to work today, but I can say that I am thankful to have work to do. If, as Wendel Berry put it, "good work done kindly and well" is prayer, then to have work to do is a prerequisite to being able to pray without ceasing, as Paul exhorted.
Black Friday, that grand spasm of American consumerism on the Friday after Thanksgiving, strikes me as a particularly good day to be able to work -- unless you are a retail worker, in which case it must be sheer hell. (Even dangerous, as indicated by the tragic news that a Wal-Mart worker was trampled to death today by early-bird shoppers.)
My work today consisted of finishing a few things for Sunday, getting out a couple of e-mail messages, and putting the final touches on a newsletter for next month -- a perfectly relaxed agenda that took less than half a day.
I spent part of that time in the local coffee shop, doing my small part to stimulate the economy and taking a few quiet moments to reflect on the day's great and central contradiction. Black Friday comes the day after the only authentic American religious holiday and kicks off the season of continued debasement of a singular Christian holiday.
I think Henri Nouwen was spot on when he commented that gratitude is the fundamental response to the world that is common to every authentic religious expression. Thanksgiving invites Americans, thus, to authentic religious expression that can be articulated in the language of any of the world's great religious traditions.
Black Friday, on the other hand, gets to the heart of America's triumphant tradition: consumerism.
It is a day that reminds us that we all have the right to pursue happiness. Like every day dedicated to shopping, Black Friday comes without the reminder that we have only the right to pursue happiness, not the right to catch it.
Many of us will spend the next 364 days in the pursuit of a consuming passion -- the belief that we can buy that happiness the pursuit of which is promised us.
Then on the last Thursday of next November, another year older, we can gather with friends and family, and give thanks for all that makes us genuinely happy -- almost none of it having been bought and paid for during the previous year's consumer orgy.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

We've got family coming to town tomorrow, and odds are good that there will be no more postings here till after the holidays. So count your blessings, give thanks and enjoy the holiday. The weather in the nation's capital is supposed to be quite lovely. I hope it is nice wherever you are, too.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Why I Was There

I attended Presbytery tonight. As often happens, I sat wondering why I was there. What was my calling? Would I better be serving the purposes of the kingdom of God in a meeting in which no meeting happened, in which no relationships were nurtured and in which we did only routine business? Or would such purposes be better served by responding to my calling to be father to my three kids and husband to my wife on the evening before she leaves town for work for a week?
I appreciate the importance of the routine work: an ordination was approved, several new pastoral callings were approved, and a retirement was acknowledged. The necrology from 2008 was lifted up and we recalled all the saints who, having run their race with perseverance, are now at rest with God. Announcements were made of significant events in the lives of the faithful.
But everything that happened could have been accomplished either through virtual means, via committee work, or in one hour of stirring worship, so I wondered, why was I there?
Turns out I was a vote counter on an overture from General Assembly that the General Assembly Council be renamed the General Assembly Mission Council. Unbelievable as it seems, the voice vote on that motion was unclear and someone called for a division of the house. I don’t recall how it turned out, and I doubt that anyone who attended recalls either. Talk about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We took extra time to count the votes on whether or not to change the name of a body whose function will not change at all!
Is it any wonder that there is a group of pastors who want to change the way we do business as a Presbytery?

Monday, November 17, 2008

My Aunt's Last Words

My aunt Ruth died earlier this month after a long battle with cancer. Her memorial service was Saturday and much of the clan gathered to worship and to honor and remember a life lived incredibly well and faithfully.
My uncle shared with us that on election night, as he and my cousin Jo sat in John and Ruth's living room watching the returns, my aunt lay sleeping in the next room. They knew that her death was coming, and John and Jo thought, in fact, that she had slipped into a coma.
But when the newscasters announced that Virginia had, indeed, gone for Obama, John and Jo heard a "whoopee" from the next room. They went in to check on Ruth, and she smiled at them and said, "my vote counted."
A little bit later, as my cousin was talking with her mom, Ruth said, "see what we can accomplish if we all work together." Then she slipped off to sleep and never regained consciousness.
I don't know if Ruth looked at the Obama campaign as a final step on the journey of her life, but I do know that she and my uncle John worked for a more just society throughout their lives. John is a retired Presbyterian pastor whose ministry was primarily in camping. He and Ruth literally wrote the book on Christian camping, and the center that they founded outside of Richmond in 1957 was, from its beginning, a place that welcomed everyone. Begun when Virginia was still practicing "massive resistance" to school desegregation, Camp Hanover was established as an integrated ministry that was intended always to witness to what the psalmist observed: how good and beautiful it is when kindred live together in unity.
That unity came at a cost in those days. While I never spoke with John and Ruth about the opposition, I know my own father wound up on the Klan's enemies list in Alabama during those same years for holding integrated youth gatherings in his work with the YMCA.
Along with thousands of others whose names will not be written large in the history of the United States, they are part of the long work of bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice.
One of Obama's campaign posters said, "Rosa sat, so Martin could stand, so Obama could run, so our children can fly." I like to think that Ruth and John camped along the way so that thousands of young people might understand better what that sitting, standing, running and flying is all about.
In addition to camping, my aunt was an accomplished artist. At her memorial service, at Ginter Park Presbyterian Church near their home in Richmond, a banner that Ruth had constructed graced the sanctuary.
In her reflection, the Rev. Carla Pratt Keyes, the current pastor, told the story behind the banner. It was a story that Robert Fulghum tells about a conversation with philosopher Alexander Papaderos. In response to Fulghum's question, "what is the meaning of life?", Papaderos answered,
"When I was a small child, during the war, we were very poor and we lived in a remote village. One day, on the road, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had been wrecked in that place.
"I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible, so I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine -- in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find.
"I kept the little mirror, and as I went about my growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game. As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child's game but a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of light. But light -- truth, understanding, knowledge -- is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it.
"I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world -- into the black places in the hearts of men -- and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life."
Ruth heard that story and produced a piece of art that suggests mirror fragments falling from the Holy Spirit into outstretched hands of every size and color. Like all good art, the piece resists reduction to any single explanation or to words, but as I reflected on my aunt's final words and the testimony of her art, I thought about being one small part of the many who are holding small mirrors these days, trying to catch the light and reflect it into the darkest places of our world.
So I'm holding a part of my own family in the light these days, and hoping that together we are shining a light of hope into the world as the nation tries to emerge from a long dark season.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Resurrection of Call

I went for a run this morning in the frost of Stony Point. Up a hill from the conference center is an old cemetery, and my route took me through it. I noticed, in particular, one large headstone with its back to the path I was on. I could see no details of dates of birth or death or even first name, just the all caps word "CALL." I wondered, "was this a request, as in, 'call me when I'm gone'? Or, was it a sign of an untimely demise of a central theological concept? Considering the latter possibility, as I ran I pondered the death of call. But, being part of a resurrection people, I also considered the rebirth of vocation.
Being in the midst of an intense 72 hour consultation on evangelism, I pondered the rebirth of the call to share the good news with a world that so desperately needs to hear a bene diction -- a good word, a word of good news.
It was a fascinating conversation with about 80 or so committed Presbyterian leaders from across the country and from across the spectrum of Presbyterian life and theology.
The conversation was by turns inspiring and frustrating. The inspiration came, as inspiration so often does, from the rich and compelling personal stories shared in groups, in worship, over food and drink. The frustrations arose, as frustrations often do, from the spinning of wheels when we either bogged down in process or couldn't quite get to the heart of the matter of what we variously mean by that slippery word "evangelism."
Nevertheless, despite the slipping and sliding and occasional sense of "stuckness," I think 80 leaders left Stony Point committed to act on what we learned from each other.
Whether or not the word "evangelism" can be restored, perhaps the practice can experience a revitalization if the experience of the past few days announces the resurrection of a common call.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Blogging Out Loud

It's getting late, so nothing I post at this point should be taken with any seriousness!
I spent the afternoon, and will spend all of tomorrow, at a consultation on evangelism at the Stony Point Center in New York. It's been an interesting afternoon and evening. GA Moderator Bruce Reyes Chow is here (and he's podcasting right now and has been twittering all afternoon ... and if I was at all tech savvy I'd understand exactly what all of that means and how it might be used effectively for evangelic outreach!).
Lots of good conversation on the meaning of evangelism, and lots of food for thought, and in the spirit of "blogging out loud," I'm posting a couple of random responses that have not yet achieved the level of even random thoughts.
First, it is helpful to be in the midst of the more evangelical wing of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and to spend a while immersed in that language.
Second, I would rather being singing the songs of the Iona Community than the contemporary evangelical praise music that dominated our worship this evening -- songs that focus exclusively on Jesus on the cross and Jesus on the throne of heaven as if Jesus never had a life.
Third, numbers one and two above lead me to wonder what it is we think we are calling people to when we invite them to faith.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Change in the Air

Fall has long been my favorite time of year. I love the colors. I love walking through the woods and feeling the leaves crunch, listening to the swirl around in the wind, smelling a bit of death and decay. More than any other season, fall reminds me of endings and new beginnings.
So it was with a strong sense of personal decay -- or, at least, middle agedness -- that I took my oldest on a college visit to Mary Washington University.
It was a stunningly beautiful autumn day, and, as has been the case all fall, change was in the air. This time, though, it was personal.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Change We Can Believe In!

Well, not so much. Actually, just got tired of the old format and thought, after almost four years of posting here, that it was time for a change. Hope you find it a bit cleaner and easier to read.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Yes We Can!

Tired, mostly, is my response today to the election yesterday of Barack Obama. Too many late nights in a row watching politics and history unfold.
But mixed with the tiredness is a sense of hope and of pride in being a citizen of the world's oldest democracy.
Yes we can overcome a history of racism -- not in one night, not by the election of one man, but yes, we can overcome.
Listening, today, to responses from people around the world it is clear that the world is looking at us with hope because we have come so far in overcoming our national original sin, and moved one step closer to being a more perfect union.
None of that has anything to do with the issues, the partisan positions or the problems that will come President Obama's way -- and the failures that will no doubt trouble his administration along the way as well.
But it is to say that, a Obama noted, only in America is this story possible.
As I watched it unfold last night, I was particularly moved by an interview with Rep. John Lewis, who recalled standing with Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
The arc of the moral universe is long, and every once in a great while we get to witness it bend a little closer to justice. Last night, all those who have put their hand to the work of bending that arc with respect to race in America saw the arc bend again. Yes we can!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Really, you can't make this up ...

Seems that the good folks at the 700 Club have called for prayers for the economy, so the "faithful" gathered at the bull on Wall Street to pray. Did these people never read the Exodus story? Does the word "idolatry" ring a bell? The prosperity gospel has run amok. "Lord Jesus, protect us from your followers."

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Pastors, Politics, Religion, Questions

I suppose it's only natural that less than a week prior to a significant national election I might have politics on the brain just now, but this story really did sidetrack my sermon writing today.
Seems that the North Carolina U.S. Senate race has taken a particularly nasty turn with a new ad from Sen. Elizabeth Dole (linked here) that suggests that her opponent, Kay Hagan, is, well, godless.
It's an interesting line of attack against a woman who is an elder in the Greensboro First Presbyterian Church where her family has been members for, oh, about 100 years. She's taught Sunday School for years, worked on the congregation's local missions and basically been an all-around good church-going, God-fearing woman.
All of that is, alas, politics as usual these days.
But the story has another twist that got my attention. Hagan's pastor of 17 years has recorded a radio ad for her campaign. He defends her faith and values and endorses her election.
I'm not sure of his present ecclesiastical standing. He may well be honorably retired and not tied to a congregation whose tax-exempt status could be put at risk.
But the whole thing leaves me wondering what I would do if a member of my congregation was running for public office and came under such a scurrilous attack.
What do you think?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

and now, for something completely different ...

Because I am a small "d" democrat and believe that every voice should be heard, here's a different perspective on faith and the upcoming election. Enjoy ... or, at least, endure.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Neighbor, Community, Politics

I've worked on campaigns going back to the 70s, so you'd figure that well before middle age I would have learned something about the value and meaning of retail politics. Well, duh, I learned it again yesterday as I did a bit of door-to-door work for my choice in this election.
The Obama campaign has canvass launch sites spread across Arlington County (which is among the smallest -- by land area -- counties in the United States). The ground game across Northern Virginia is simply huge with Obama canvassers heading out from at least eight sites across the county.
When I got to my launch site yesterday there were 15 people getting their clipboards and preparing to hit the sidewalks at 3:00 on a beautiful fall Sunday afternoon. You can do the math on the likely number of canvassers in Arlington yesterday for three shifts. We probably had personal contacts in more than 1,000 households.
I managed to find people at home in a dozen. Three, in particular, reminded me firsthand of both the importance of neighborhood politics and a deeper and broader sense of neighborhood that ought to prevail in our politics.
I can walk up the hill from my house to the launch site. I have done so each of the past four weekends and asked for a route that doesn't require me to get in my car. This gives me the opportunity to talk to people who really are my neighbors in a traditional sense of the word. When I find someone at home I always mention the street I live on, and that bit of personal information never fails to open up a channel of conversation.
I met a neighbor yesterday who is a Pakistani-American who told me, "I was enthusiastic for Obama until he started talking about invading my country." I admitted that I was not enthusiastic about that stance either, but that I believe Obama is committed strong diplomacy and multilateralism, and that his calm response to the financial crisis gives us a strong sense of the way he will respond to international crises as well.
My neighbor was not convinced, and he told me of his concern for friends and family in Pakistan. We talked for a while longer, and he said he was likely to vote for Obama but that he probably wouldn't really make up his mind until he was standing in the voting booth.
I'd like to be able to tell you that I swung this voter, but, instead, he reminded me that all politics -- even on international issues -- remains local, and his personal connections to friends and family in Pakistan shifted his sense of locality and of responsibility to neighbors. So, I just said to him, "I think the most important work of this campaign begins on Nov. 5, when we have to work hard to hold Sen. Obama accountable and push him to live up to his own highest ideals, especially on issues like this."
As I walked on to the next house I thought about the long hours of work I have done organizing with Christian Peace Witness for Iraq and about our internal conversations about the need for a strong peace witness around the broader war on terror and the ongoing violence in Afghanistan. My neighbor reminded me that the real work does begin on Nov. 5, because the wisdom of the ancient psalmist is right, "Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish."
It will be up to us to put the real breath and life into the Obama presidency, just as we have into the Obama candidacy. So, if you are committed to just and lasting peace, keep organizing, keep pressing, keep talking with neighbors.
I was still thinking about my Pakistani-American neighbor when I knocked on the door of an African-American neighbor. I was looking for an 18-year-old man, a potential first-time voter, and he was home.
In fact, his whole family was there and they gathered around the front porch with me to talk about the election. We talked about the fact that his grandparents' generation lived under Jim Crow laws and fought for the right to vote. I told him that I was born in Alabama and, as an Scots-Irish-American, had probably had my diapers changed in "whites only" public restrooms.
His younger sister, a charming six-year-old with beads in her braids and a gap where one of her front teeth used to be, told me that she had polled her entire family and got 13 votes for Obama. Then I remarked how she was about the same age as Sen. Obama's younger daughter, so maybe when the Obama family moves into the White House she could send the girls a "welcome to the neighborhood" card. I said that clearly she was the head of this household so I gave her the campaign literature and elicited a promise from her that she would make certain that her big brother made it to the polls on election day.
With a solemn look on her face, she promised that she would. Not only is politics local, sometimes it is all in the family.
Of course, the definition of family, kin and neighbor is what's at stake so often in our politics. This is nothing new under the sun. Jesus' parable of the good Samaritan was all about defining neighbor, about moving beyond tribal politics to a broader understanding of community.
The last door I knocked on was a Latino-American family just up the hill from my house. The mom and one daughter were home. Although both were enthusiastic Obama supporters, neither were voters -- the daughter being too young and the mother not yet a United States citizen.
The daughter chided her mom for "not taking the test yet." The mom chuckled and said, "I know, I know. I will soon." I said, "well, we're going to want to reelect Obama in four years, so maybe you can aim to be a citizen for that election."
I told them I lived just down the hill, and the daughter said she was in the same school as my younger son. It was abundantly clear that we share a common stake in the neighborhood, the community, the commonwealth.
I ended the afternoon thinking that maybe, if we all continue to work together for authentic change and if we all continue to talk with our neighbors as often as possible and not just once every four years, then someday we will share a deeper sense of that commonwealth no matter what hyphen happens to fall in our American identity.
The heart of the faith-based community organizing that gave Obama his start is personal relationships. While progressives certainly hold no monopoly on personal relationships, there is a reason why such organizing has a particular power for progressives.
Progressives place a high value on relationship while the corresponding value for many conservatives is purity. That's one of the reasons that same-sex issues, for example, are such a hot button: in the conservative evangelical worldview sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman is not pure, and the question of purity trumps the value of any relationship at question. You can detect the same logic -- absent lousy Biblical interpretation -- in the question of immigration which devolves too quickly to the question of who is a "real" American and who is not, who is in and who is out, who is pure and who is tainted.
But the deeper our relationships with neighbors who don't share the same background and experience and ties of kinship, the more we are forced to call into question our own understanding of what constitutes "purity."
My Pakistani-American neighbor pushes me to remain critical of my own candidate in productive ways. My African-American neighbor reminds me of my own roots and the privileges that come with them, and thus pushes me to remain critical of power structures that enshrine exclusions. My Latino-American neighbor reminds me of the promise of America that I often take for granted, and thus pushes me to remain committed to keeping doors -- and borders -- safely open.
All of these neighbors remind me of the urgency of continuing this work beyond next week. We must find more and creative way to use the remarkable network built by the Obama campaign as a movement that begins come November 5, rather than a project that ends on November 4. As Sen. Kennedy would say, "the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dreams shall never die."

Monday, October 20, 2008

When I Was Hungry ...

This evening was my congregation's monthly night to bag groceries for the Arlington Food Assistance Center. We filled 350 bags with rice, beans, veggies, and soup. The volunteer coordinator at the center told us that they've seen a serious uptick in clients over the past couple of months -- almost 40 percent increase in the number of folks served each week here (from 800 to more than 1,100) in one of the metro area's more affluent inner-ring suburbs.
One of the women bagging with us tonight works for Wachovia. She was telling us of the huge decline in the retirement plans of their 100,000 employees as the financial crisis dropped Wachovia's stock from the $15.00 range to less than a buck over the course of three or four months. Throughout the period employees were reassured via e-mails from management that everything was fine.
It struck me speaking with her that it is somehow perfectly fitting that the Bush era began with Enron and will end with the financial crisis, and throughout it has been the folks who work for a living who have been the victims. Now more and more of them are coming to places like AFAC. They are hungry. Who will feed them?
Oh, it was a beautiful autumn day today with a palpable sense of seasonal change in the air, and I voted.

Friday, October 17, 2008

In Jesus' Name ... oy

Tis the season of robocalls I reckon. Our home phone has been inundated with them this week as the McCain campaign tries to convince Virginians to be afraid of Bill Ayers. Well, I guess actually they want us to be afraid of Barack Obama, but it seems more reasonable, given the tenor of the calls, to be afraid of Ayers.
But that's neither here nor there. The church phone today received a robocall from Gordon Klingenschmitt, a former Navy chaplain who was discharged because he insisted on praying, against Navy regulations, in Jesus' name at events which non-Christian Navy personnel were required to attend.
The ex-chaplain has become a Right-wing gadfly focusing on any instance of perceived violation of the rights of chaplains to force Jesus down the throats of non-Christians. Well, of course, he doesn't see it quite like that.
Now he's pulling together an event in Virginia that, so he said on the robocall, is completely non-political. Interestingly enough, this "nonpartisan" and "non-political" rally will take place in Richmond on the Saturday before an election in which Virginia plays a critical swing-state role, but I'm sure that is mere coincidence.
Somehow I don't think the chaplain's robocall was any less political than the McCain camp's robocall, but I'm just the listener on the end of the line.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Fashion a Statement

Someone passed along a note to me today saying that the blog would be better if it touched more on fashion. So, this one's for you.
John Bell was with us this week as charming house guest and as musical guest for a concert evening. Normally I'd go on at length about his remarkable music or his hysterical stories, or staying up till 1:30 Wednesday evening chatting and drinking wine with him, but this is a fashion column today so I'll focus instead on his remarkable shoes.
His was unmistakable and unmissable standing in front of Union Station Monday afternoon in his typical bright shirt and bright red Dr. Martens. Amazing shoes! In the kingdom of God they wear such shoes, and, in the kingdom of God they come in half sizes.
I've looked at many a Dr. Marten over the years, and tried on quite a few. Alas, my feet fall in a half size range and the Docs have all felt either a bit tight or a bit loose. However, the red ones are such that one might just suffer a bit for fashion. After all, they are the proper dress for the kingdom so some sacrifices must be made.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Sad, Scared ... but Full of Hope

It's been a strange week here in Lake Woebegone. Markets crashing. More than enough anxiety to go around in the lives of so many folks.
We had a credit card canceled last week. We had never used it, and the reason given for its cancellation was "lack of use." I know card companies do that, but the timing struck me as interesting, then I heard a commentator on NPR say that card companies were shedding as many accounts as they can, and that having a card canceled by the company is never a good thing for one's credit score. Ah well, one can hope that this is the only nick we get beyond the huge losses on those retirement savings. The quarterly statement arrived today; I'm not planning on opening it.
And in the midst of all this, today, right here in "communist" Arlington (oh, that's what Joe McCain, John's brother, said about our community last week), I saw a car with a bumper sticker that said "Obama bin Laden '08."
I have always considered myself a small 'd' democrat. I believe in hearing lots of voices from lots of communities in the body politic, so the past week of presidential politics has been deeply sad. I am also a Southerner, so when I hear hatred aimed at an African-American leader I get scared, too.
But I heard an older man preach a few weeks back about the way America pulled together in his youth during the Great Depression. I certainly hope that we are not going as far down the economic road as that.
At the same time, we do have resources as a people that we can tap into. That sermon reminded me. Then yesterday, I came across this post from David LaMotte, a man whose music inspires me. As David puts it, "it is the job of Christians to stand with all persecuted people when they are persecuted unfairly, as some Christians stood with Jews in southern France during the holocaust (told beautifully in the book “Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed”) Read what Jesus had to say in the Sermon on the Mount. These are our instructions, and Obama in [Dreams of My Father] is talking about unfair persecution of a religion within our country. Friends, if we’ve stopped believing in religious freedom, we have ceased to be America. If we will only stand up to defend people who agree with us, we have nothing left to be proud of."
Right after I read David's blog, I caught Sarah Vowell's Blog of the Nation on the Puritans. Her commentary led me to look up John Winthrop's sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity," in which he holds the New World up as a city on a hill.
He wrote the piece during the 1630 crossing of the Atlantic as the Puritans came to America to found that city, and lay claim to their share of its promise. The Puritans' vision surely foundered on the shoals of reality and their own excesses -- including Winthrop's -- but Winthrop's advice to those voyagers rings true today as the nation struggles in the rough water of a battered economy and a diminished politics.
"Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace."

Friday, October 03, 2008

I Buried an Obama Voter Yesterday

I buried an Obama voter yesterday morning at Arlington National Cemetery. Now I have to find at least two new ones here in Virginia to honor the one we lost.
Well, actually it's more accurate to say that I officiated at the commital service and, later in the afternoon, at the memorial service for a 95-year-old woman who lived one of the richest and fullest lives I could imagine. Her name was Sally, and for the sake of her family's privacy, I'll leave it at that.
When she died last month, I remember thinking, "the only two things that Sally would be disappointed about in death are not seeing what comes next in the lives of her great grandchildren and not living long enough to see George W. Bush leave the White House."
She could not stand George Bush!
That last time I visited with her, early this summer, we got to talking politics. This was just after Obama had sewn up the Democratic nomination, and she was so excited by that development. She reflected back on all the remarkable change that she had witnessed over 95 years in this country, and found renewed hope and excitement at the prospect of casting a vote for Obama this fall.
She was born on a farm in South Dakota prior to World War I, when travel was literally horse powered. Married to an Air Force officer, she traveled the world and had the broad-minded vision of one who was well traveled and thoughtful.
Though I didn't say this during the memorial service, as I think about her life I cannot help but compare her to Sarah Palin. Both women of the Great Plains and upper Midwest, the young governor does not hold up well in comparison to the 95-year-old farm girl.
Sally was, for more than 50 years, a member of the congregation that I now serve. She came close to leaving it twice, that I am aware of.
First, about 15 years ago, when the church welcomed into leadership its first out gay elder (or member of the church board). Sally did not consider leaving because the congregation elected a gay elder, she considered leaving because some folks in the congregation were up in arms over it. She thought, "where is the mercy in them?" and "the man is clearly right for the job and his partner is lovely."
That first gay elder and his partner of more than 20 years were at the service yesterday.
The second time she considered leaving was when I told her, a few years back, that both Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice were members of Presbyterian churches. She was deeply committed to peace, having served in the Red Cross during World War II, and she could not tolerate the War in Iraq and those who dragged us into it. In the end, she just said, "well, they are not Clarendon Presbyterians!"
She was a passionate believer in equality and in peace. Sarah Palin could have learned a thing or two from her.
When Barack Obama takes office in January, I will go to Sally's grave and lay a flower and a copy of Post.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Saving Jesus

So we've begun saving Jesus at Clarendon. We've tossed him a life-ring of conversation and a rope of discussion. Lots of fun. You should join us.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Coolest Thing About My Church

Yesterday at worship during the prayers of the people a man (who I'll call 'Joe' for the sake of a bit of privacy) prayed for a bit of peace and comfort. His wife, who serves on our session -- Presbyterian-speak for church board -- was with her father who was dying. In addition to that heavy burden, they had lost their 17-year-old dog earlier in the week. They'd also had a couple of family 'highs' -- birth of a grandchild -- in recent weeks so it had been an emotional roller coaster for the past month or so. He was in tears as he prayed aloud.
As powerful as such moments are, they are, to be sure, nothing particularly out of the ordinary in a small church. Except for this: Joe is Jewish.
We say, every Sunday, that Clarendon Presbyterian Church is a house of prayer for all of God's children. And we mean it. Without exception.
We are clear and unapologetic in proclaiming the good news of Jesus. We pray in Jesus' name. But we trust that God hears everybody's prayers. We know that we do not have hold of all there is of God in our Christian confession and are enriched by the faiths of others. We hear Jesus' words, that his father's house has lots of rooms.
And we trust that there is one for Joe -- not because he comes to church, but because he seeks God and anybody who knocks at the door of God's house is going to find a welcome. So in our little wing of the house, we don't have a litmus test of creed or confession for joining the fellowship, offering prayers, serving the least of these, and finding a little peace in the presence of a loving God.
Will Joe ever "find Jesus"? That question holds little interest for me. Frankly, I think it is the wrong question.
Joe is a sojourner, walking a path in fear and trembling -- as Paul put it -- toward the light of life and love that shines in the darkness. Some will only always interpret that light as Jesus.
On the other hand, if light can be both particle and wave, perhaps the metaphor can be expanded, as well. After all, long before Jesus, God told Moses: I will be who I damn well please.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Changing My Name to ... Fannie Mae

I'll grant that snarky songs don't make for good policy, but still this old Tom Paxson song, performed here by Arlo Guthrie, has been running through my mind this week. Oh to be born with the right name!
At the end of the day, it's better to laugh and sing than to sit quietly and stew. As Emma Goldman said, "if I can't dance I don't want to be part of your revolution." So, stop checking the polls and listening to the spinmeisters bloviate on Bush's speech, and put your favorite tunes on for a while.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sing Out Against the Darkness

John Bell is coming to town next month and will be doing an evening of songs at my church. I sent out an e-mail blast to invite folks around the area, and one of my good Unitarian friends sent back this note:
"I believe that Emma Goldman said, 'If I can't dance at your revolution, I'm not coming.' If we allow ourselves to feed fears, bathe in despair, and join the chorus of those who know-all, see-all, and realize that all is futility, we do not serve our communities or even ourselves."
Indeed! Sometimes -- often, in fact -- singing is the best response to the darkness of the present moment.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Proving We’re Presbyterian … and Killing Ourselves

I spent the day at a meeting of National Capital Presbytery, and witnessed one of those moments when we prove to ourselves that we are, indeed, Presbyterian. An item of new business was introduced by an ad hoc group of pastors coming from various points along the theological/political spectrum of the church. They recommended that Presbytery suspend its normal mode of operating for one year and use our regularly scheduled meeting times to pursue a discernment model of decision making as a fresh approach to dealing with the issues that have divided the church for decades.
After wrangling about whether or not to refer the question to Presbytery’s council – and wrangling over whether or not to call the question on that referral – we proved our Presbyterian mettle by simply referring the question to the next meeting! While we were in the midst of voting on closing discussion – and confusion reigned over what, exactly, we were voting on – I leaned over to a colleague and said, “this is exactly why we need to try something different; this way of doing business simply doesn’t work for the issues we’re facing.” He said, “get up and say that right now.” I said, “I can’t. It would be out of order.”
The irony of the moment was not lost on us, and it would have been quite funny if it were not quite sad, instead.
The larger, and not unrelated, irony of the day came in the preaching. We were reminded of the deep importance of Sabbath keeping. The irony lay in this: we met at the Presbytery’s beautiful new camp and conference center on a stunningly gorgeous early autumn day … and we spent the entire day, except for a too brief lunch on the porch, indoors. We might as well have met in the fellowship hall of a church in town. At least we would have been honoring creation by not wasting so much gas.
I've spent enough years assisting in outdoor ministries to understand this: it is never worth the trouble of going to a camp if you are not going to use the space.
If we were gathering in a discernment mode, we might go to such a place and spend the morning in silence, free to walk around the hundreds of acres of woods and rolling meadows – to truly celebrate and enjoy creation and praise the Creator. Sabbath time, as Jesus knew and as the preacher reminded us, was created for us. But it is not empty time, worthless time, wasted time. It is time spent refocusing on what is of ultimate concern, on living into our chief purpose: to glorify God and enjoy God forever.
In such joy and praise we discern our callings. Perhaps if Presbytery spent more time in that time we might find new ways of moving forward.
In the meanwhile, we'll meet next time in a fellowship hall and we'll wrangle over something, and we probably won't bring anybody any closer to clarity on that chief purpose.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Prayers for Peace

Today is the International Day of Prayers for Peace. Here's one that we used this morning in worship, and again this afternoon at the Lafayette Park Peace Witness. It comes from the Philippines.
Grant us peace that will
BREAK our silence in the midst of violence
then prophetic voices shall resonate
Grant us peace that will
PULL US DOWN from the steeple of our pride
then we’ll learn to wash each other’s feet
Grant us peace that will
EMPTY us of hate and intolerance
then we’ll turn guns into guitars and sing
Grant us peace that will
SHUT our mouths up when we speak too much
then we’ll learn to listen and understand what others are saying
Grant us peace that will
DISTURB us in our apathy
then we’ll dance together under the sun
Grant us peace that will
BURN our lethargic hearts
then we’ll endure burning and let love and justice glow

Friday, September 12, 2008

Responding to Michael Gerson

I sent this to the Washington Post today after reading one of their op ed pieces.
I love Michael Gerson. Only a former Bush speechwriter could so artfully speak out of both sides of his mouth at the same time. In an essay ostensibly taking liberals to task for mocking the religious beliefs of evangelicals he mocks Episcopalians! I suppose it must be simply a matter of whose ox – or sacred cow – is getting gored. Still, Gerson’s two-faced tactics bother me less than the fact that he simply ignores the ideas at stake in looking carefully at the theology proclaimed by Sarah Palin’s church and, indeed, by the governor herself. Her church has called same-sex relationships an illness that can be cured by God, and Gov. Palin has not denounced that idea. As pastor of a congregation that insists that God loves all of us, including gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual people, that idea bothers me a lot. Gov. Palin has also insisted that America’s founders intended to create a Christian nation. Never mind that most historians doubt that or that the founders themselves were deeply divided on questions of faith, as a pastor of congregation with the deeply held, Biblical conviction that God’s house has many rooms open to folks of many faiths, and as an American who believes that our religious diversity is one of the nation’s great strengths, Gov. Palin’s idea scares me. I am a Presbyterian, and we often call ourselves “God’s frozen people.” I would love it if our worship was a bit more lively like the “whoop and holler” congregations Gerson describes or the African-American church tradition that has shaped Sen. Obama’s faith convictions. But it is not merely a question of style or cultural differences. Ideas matter. Proclaiming that the end times are very near, and that Alaska has been chosen by God as a place of refuge from the coming deluge, surely has implications for the way one views public policy, international relations and the role of government in general. So as the campaign moves on these next 55 days or so, let us all pay attention to the ideas voiced by the various candidates, their advisors and their spiritual guides and move beyond mocking the styles in which those ideas are expressed.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Coffee Talk: God & Epistemology

I was at my favorite coffee shop this morning solving all the problems of the world with a colleague when the young man at the table next to us chimed in with a couple of comments on our problem-solving skills. We were talking about music and shared with him James McMurtry's CHENEY'S TOY (which you can find at McMurtry's MySpace page but which will not link here for some reason).
None of which is particularly interesting (except for the song, which is a biting anti-war piece). But as our conversation continued and we introduced ourselves as pastors to this young senate staffer the talk turned more compelling.
I invited him to visit us at Clarendon and he politely declined saying that he was not religious. Indeed, he said, "there isn't a place for God in my epistemology."
It was an intelligent, respectful way to decline an invite to church. I was getting ready to leave before the threatening storm so I couldn't follow up, but I hope to run into him again. I'd like to ask him about both his epistemology and his idea of God.
How does God fit into the way we comprehend the world around us? What difference does it make if such comprehension does not include God? What difference does it make in the way we comprehend the world if we understand God differently? That is to say, in terms that are particularly pressing in our present context, does a conservative, evangelic Christian understanding of God lead to a different comprehension, understanding, or knowledge of the world that a post-modern Christian understanding of God? (This is a blog, not an encyclopedia article, so I’m not diving into definitions.) Moreover, would a secularist’s understanding of God lead to a still different understanding of the world?
Or, perhaps, there is no difference between the secularist’s understanding of God and the conservative, evangelical Christian understanding of God. If that is the case, then they are seeing themselves in the mirror and it’s no wonder there is such a gulf between them.
I don’t know, but I hope the young man takes me up on the invitation; his voice would add something important and compelling to the conversation.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Getting Ready for the Wind

Hanna is on her way tonight, so we've pulled in the flag, brought in the Obama sign, battened the hatches.
As the storm, which is not expected to do much more than bring a lot of rain and 35 mph wind our way, heads up the coast I can't help thinking about the times I have traveled to coastal areas to participate in clean-up efforts following previous storms. So I'm thinking about those in harm's way.
At the same time, I cannot help feeling a certain awe at the power of the weather, and an appreciation for its frightening beauty. Even the satellite images are striking.
If worship begins in awe and wonder, consider this a hymn to the God of the storm.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Who Is She? And What is She Running For?

Like many Americans, I'm trying to learn a bit about Gov. Palin beyond the stories about her pregnant daughter. I ran across this video of her preaching that has me scratching my head just a bit. I am wondering what others make of it.
You would have guessed, rightly, that I have many concerns about her policy positions because I am a progressive and she is a conservative. But I also know that the coming of the kingdom is not the exclusive province of either conservatives or progressives. The best judgments we can usually make are after-the-fact assessments of what works and what doesn't.
But I am more concerned about her theology than her policy. It is certainly not Reformed (at least as contemporary Presbyterians -- PC(U.S.A.) -- understand that tradition), and seems much more apocalyptic than anything you would hear in mainline Protestantism. Indeed, I would suggest that she is a theocrat's dream candidate.
Of course, she will be running for vice president not pastor-in-chief. Then again, that may be just the problem. She said last summer that she really doesn't know exactly what the vice president does. Maybe she remains unclear.
I am not making any partisan claims or arguments here. I'm not questioning her fitness to be vice president, her experience or her judgment. I'm just raising a theological concern, which seems appropriate for one whose job is wrestling with just such concerns.
I guess what I really want is some job clarification for Gov. Palin.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Just When You Thought It Was Safe ...

He's back!
After a month off line resting and rehabbing one wing, I'm sufficiently healed to hammer away at the keyboard relatively pain free.
It's been an interesting month. Losing the use of an arm for a while teaches you a lot -- like, there's a reason we have two of these standard issue on most models. Try tying your shoes with one hand. It's a skill that I did not master.
So, I learned a lot about receiving help and asking for it.
One afternoon during the short week I was able to spend at Camp Hanover, I was sitting beside the pool dangling my feet in and wishing that I could dive in to swim. When it was time to leave, I was pulling my socks on and a little boy whom I had not yet met came over. He stopped right in front of me, looked up and said, "do you need help tying your shoes?"
Oh, man, did I ever.
It's probably as close as I will ever come to having my feet washed in a nonliturgical setting. Submitting to helplessness is never easy; at least not in our culture. But when Christ comes in the guise of a cute 10-year-old it's a bit easier.
I am happy to be back tying my own shoes now, but also finding it much easier to ask for help when I need it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Even Jerry Falwell Recanted

For some reason, as I consider the shootings Sunday morning at the Unitarian church in Knoxville, I keep thinking back to the late Jerry Falwell, and his remarks after September 11, 2001 when he blamed liberals for the terror attacks. I don’t want to sound like Jerry Falwell, but I can’t help wondering if he bears some responsibility for the Knoxville shootings which apparently were motivated in part by the shooters hatred of liberals.

Jerry is not alone, of course, and bears no direct responsibility, but I am wondering who demonized liberals over the past 30 years so much that a desperate, unstable, bitter man might choose to take out his frustrations on a congregations of strangers known to him only by the epithet, “liberal”?

I think back to one of the signature moments of the 2004 presidential debates when George Bush responded to one of John Kerry’s positions by saying, “there’s a word for that: it’s called liberalism.” He spat out the last word as if it he’d been sucking on lemons.

When powerful people cast such aspersions so often that a word becomes like a scarlet letter, how surprised should we be that the targets of the words become, eventually, the targets of more lethal weapons?

Of course, liberal leaders over the past 30 years bear a burden as well for failing to counter the verbal attacks with strong defense of a governing philosophy that gave us social security, Medicare, Medicaid, voting rights and fair housing laws among other accomplishments. Too often, in the face of a mainstream media machine that happily plays along with the conservative noise machine, liberal leaders have been too timid to respond.

Meanwhile that media machine seeks the lowest common denominator and reports political discourse as if it were a sporting event. Campaigns become horse races and issues become political footballs. Never mind that there are real losers when health care systems fail to cover tens of millions of Americans or when U.S. military might is brought to bear or when gays and lesbians are denied basic civil rights. Rather than serious conversation about real solutions to genuine problems, political discourse is reduced to sound bites.

Eventually, partisans on both sides get lost in the media miasma that they helped create and all of politics becomes nothing more than scoring points. So the nation is divided into red and blue as if we were girding for another civil war, never mind that we are often talking about the slimmest of margins at the polls and differences among neighbors at the street level.

When the rhetoric is hijacked by fierce and angry partisans, it becomes all too simple to demonize any supporter of a candidate or position with which you disagree. Most folks confine their shouting to the echo chamber of left- or right-wing web sites. You do not have to scroll through too many entries in the comments sections of such sites to uncover seething anger.

In that uncivil discourse Dubya is still stealing elections and Obama is a Muslim. It doesn’t have to be that way. I’m an Obama supporter. The woman who cuts my hair doesn’t trust Obama, but I trust her with sharp implements next to my throat. We can talk with each other about political differences without calling each other names. We don’t have to lose sight of our common humanity, and of our common deep self interest as Americans: to enjoy the unalienable rights with which all of us have been endowed.

The divides between left and right are properly differences over the political paths and strategies we believe will best secure those rights to ourselves and our posterity. Those distinctions are significant and where we fall on that spectrum says a good deal about how we conceive of the “all” of “all men are created equal” or the “we” of “we the people.” The balance between the individual and the collective is worthy of continuing political contest.

But when we fight, instead, over who is in and who is out of “all” or “we,” the differences in strategies of finding the most auspicious balance become deep divides that throw the entire polis out of balance altogether. Historically, that’s the point when conservative demagogues demonize some as outsiders whether they be racial minorities, women, sexual minorities, immigrants. Those on the political left have historically been those arguing for broadening the definition of “all” or “we” to include those marginalized outsiders.

That’s what the Unitarian congregation in Knoxville has been doing for years.

It is not a Rodney King moment. It is not time to plead that we all just get along. It is, rather, time to insist that those who would erect walls around we the people to keep out those who have not yet found their place cease their fulminations against those of us who want to tear down such walls.

You can argue about the proper role of walls and the timing of putting them up or tearing them down. You can argue about the proper path for including previous outsiders into the commonwheel. You can certainly argue about the most fair and efficient means of providing public service to all of us.

However, calling those who disagree with you unpatriotic, ungodly or un-American not only deepens and hardens our differences, but it also invites violence. Even Jerry Falwell recanted.

Monday, July 28, 2008

A Stylish Sling

Away for a while ...

Your somewhat faithful occasional blogger is going dark for a while following shoulder surgery scheduled early Wednesday morning. When my arm gets out of its sling, then I'll be back. Meanwhile, pray and act for peace.

Kingdom Economics

Yesterday morning during the talk-back time after the sermon, someone brought up a section of the scripture that I had not touched on. After a series of sayings about the kingdom of God, Jesus says, "So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
Before I could open my mouth to respond, John spoke up. John is a mid-50s man who in most contexts is probably considered developmentally disabled. I would label him that if I'd just met him and didn't know him. But over the course of the five years I have been lucky enough to be his pastor I have come to deeply appreciate that he is, truly, differently abled. He has a knack for speaking profound truth quite simply.
Yesterday morning he said something to the effect of, "you know, there's too much of that all around us right now. I try to focus on what's good."
He went on to name some of the good. For him it is always family, food and classical music.
As I listened to him, I knew that he had put the truth far more eloquently than I was prepared to as I was spinning theological reflections through my mind. They amounted to the same thing: that if the kingdom of God is near, among us, as Jesus put it, then surely so is hell precisely what we make of it here and now. We don't need the angels to separate the evil from the righteous, we do it ourselves all the time. Indeed, we do it within ourselves, living divided lives as the better angels of our natures contest with alienation in our souls.
John spoke it much more clearly, and it was a kingdom moment. For in the broader culture and economy surely he is considered among the least of these, not worth much to the ledger's bottom line. But in the kingdom economy, plain wisdom is a pearl of great value.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

July Witness

Last Sunday evening down at Lafayette Park, my friend Noah Budin sang what I’ve long considered a kind of hoary old folk song: Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream.

Last night I had the strangest dream

I'd ever dreamed before

I dreamed the world had all agreed

To put an end to war

As Noah sang, a crowd of tourists gathered to watch and listen to our small band of folks who had come together in front of the White House to pray for peace. I don’t know what the tourists thought. Some may have thought, “bunch of naïve fools,” others may have thought, “nice voice,” still others may have thought, “right on,” and some may have thought, “cool, protesters, now my DC tourist experience is complete.”

To a great extent, it does not matter what others think of the dream and visions that we give voice to as we witness for peace. God calls us to witness to a vision of a commonwealth of belovedness marked by compassion, justice and peace. God calls us to dream kingdom dreams.

So we will continue the witness. Placing one small stone at a time until we change the landscape. We gather again on August 17 at 6:00 p.m.

In the meantime, here’s a poem that Noah wrote inspired by our witness.

Stone In My Pocket

And if I feel you’ve left me bare and wasted

In the presence of the absence of your love

And the signs you send are hard, obscure and hidden

I may need to look no further than my hands

And when I heard him speak that day I realized

One can’t move a mountain using words alone

Nor can hearts be changed by might and power

But gestures small and subtle kindle flames

I closed my hand around

A piece of quartz no bigger than my thumb

It came 400 miles just to find me

But I dismissed it, put it in my pocket. Gone.

And the next day when I found it I just kept it

And the next day after that and then the next

And I thought of Lafayette Park and people praying

Where that stone was witness there to hymns of peace

It was laid upon the fence as a reminder

Of the shards of broken souls and wounded hearts

Of the shreds of fabric crashing through the windows

Of a shattered nation, tired, scorched, engulfed

Now it goes where I go

At times it jabs my thigh and leaves a mark

But I can live with that small and spare discomfort

For I wrestle with the damage every day

And here’s the thing about a piece of quartz

It just may be the oldest stone on earth

And it’s found in every land around the globe

And if you listen you can hear it softly weep

This one I keep to remind me of the present

Was here long before the planet knew our names

And it will remain long after earthly flesh has faded

And sometimes signs are hidden in plain sight

So when I feel you’ve left me bare and standing

In the presence of the absence of your love

I may need to look no further than my pocket

And hear the crying of that stone. Our job’s not done.

© Noah Budin 2008