Saturday, December 25, 2010

Happy Christmas

In the age of Facebooks and blogs and other social media to call someone “friend” means, what, precisely? An encounter – a chance – that brings a click of a virtual “button” that creates an ephemeral connection across wires and waves of electricity, and leaves a name in a list of hundreds or thousands of other names and changes nothing, really? Is that what it means to be “friends”?
For some of us, that will suffice, and nothing more is needed. For others, “social network” describes but a small part of relationship, and “friend” points to some deeper way of relating across time and distance. To address an utterly open note to “friends” likely names addressees of both extremes and various places along a continuum of friendship.
Wherever you place yourself in relation to we happy few Lederle/Ensigns, may this holiday note find you enjoying a grace-filled season of light and hope, joy and peace. What else are friends for, other than holding one another together in light and hope, joy and peace, no matter the season or circumstance, and it takes friends like you for the living of these days.
2010. Wow. Snowpacalypserecord heat wave … an earthquake. In metro DC, 2010 merits at least an “I survived …” t-shirt. Throw in the lunar eclipse on a beautiful clear winter solstice night and we’re verging on a year of Biblical proportions in our little corner of the world.

Oddly enough, while all of these actually newsworthy things were going on all around us, the Lederle-Ensign household enjoyed no particularly newsworthy moments. It remains true that, like Lake Woebegone, the men here are good looking, the women are strong and, of course, all of the children are above average! And, it’s been, all things considered, a quiet year here in our Lake Woebegone.
The very strong Mom and the good-looking Dad remain happily, gainfully employed, and certainly aware that such is not to be taken for granted in these or any days. The above average kids remain more or less happily engaged in also above average schools, although the kids are only marginally aware that such is also not to be taken for granted. The great blessing of childhood remains being blissfully unaware that such things as decent schools are rare and precious. The journey into adulthood is the growing awareness, and the journey into responsible adulthood is the deepening commitment to make such simple things less rare. The deepest joy of parenting is watching children grow into just such living, and that joy has been the highlight of this year for us.

The closest to newsworthy any of our lives got this year was probably the big news that Hannah became a middle schooler, and that Mom and Dad have officially completed the raising of elementary school children! As with most middle schoolers, Hannah is expanding her horizons considerably. She has started running at school, and joined Dad and Bud in completing a 5-mile Turkey Trot run on Thanksgiving morning. She also ran a 5k with her Girls on the Run group at school. She continues to play her flute, and made the Arlington County 6th grade honors band. The biggest news, though, in Hannah’s life is that her best, best, best friend in the all the world, Josie, is coming home from Tunisia in a few months and will be stateside for an entire school year. We look forward to endless middle school girl sleepovers. Please keep us in your prayers!

Speaking of your prayers, Martin is going to be driving in the new year. Actually, we are looking forward to that a bit. Can you say, “little sister taxi”? Of course, that would mean that Martin can find time between school, orchestra rehearsals, mandolin playing, drawing, and swim team … oh, and girlfriend. Apparently Mom and Dad are not the only ones who find Martin adorable with his long, curly locks, ready grin and exceptionally quick wit. He is half way through his junior year, and has decided that the good looks and quick wit alone may not get him where he wants to go, so he has become a much more focused student this fall. Part of that focus will be a 10-day Spanish immersion experience in Costa Rica in mid-January … which, apart from the language studying part, sounds pretty heavenly just about now. Martin is beginning to think about what comes next, and it’s a whole lot of fun to listen and watch as he ponders and sorts.

Bud, who outside of the family has finally grown into his given name – Dylan – is, as his sister says, “an interesting boy.” More accurately, he has grown from an interesting boy into an interesting young man. He’s on track to graduate from Mary Washington in the spring of 2012 – a full year ahead of his class – and he’s busy making grad school and Peace Corps plans. He and three friends share an on campus apartment in a brand new MW facility that is waaaaayyyy nicer than anything his parents ever lived in through all of our school – full kitchen, marble countertops, oven, microwave, dishwasher, 2 baths. Oh, and each of the guys has a girlfriend who lives in the same building. He is living the good life, and has the good sense and grace to recognize it. He continues to enjoy the academic side of school as well, and is holding down an on campus tech support job and playing on the school’s club ultimate Frisbee team.

It is altogether fitting that the descriptions of our kids’ lives grow longer, richer and fuller year by year, and it is probably no surprise that the descriptions of our own grow increasingly familiar. Cheryl continues to love her work as an education outreach specialist at the Library of Congress and I still love serving the little congregation at Clarendon. She’s been at the library for more than seven years now, and I’ve been at Clarendon for seven and a half. She keeps teaching and I keep preaching, and as often as time and weather permit we’ll sit on our front porch at the end of the day, sip a glass of good wine, watch the sunset, and drink to the rich simplicity of our lives.

There is much to be said for living in the same house long enough to plant a tree and watch it grow taller than the house, though I never thought that I’d be the one saying it. On the other hand, each of us plants seeds everywhere we go, whether we intend to or not. At our best, we tend to them and something beautiful grows. We gave our older kids and our older nieces Kiva dollars to make microloans, and the cards carry this reminder: it is not naïve to believe that you cannot change the world; it is naïve to believe that you don’t. The only question is, will you be intentional about the changes that you make?
It is through the compassion and love of friends that we find the power to make the changes that we want to make in the world. Thank you for being such friends.
David, Cheryl, Bud, Martin and Hannah. Christmas, 2010.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Build Me an Ark

In times of despair and hopelessness folks turn to all kinds of things, but building an ark? Well, not exactly, I suppose, but some Biblical literalists with more money than good sense are planning an ark-based theme park in Kentucky. They have raised a small fraction of their expected costs and are seeking financial aid from the cash-strapped commonwealth of Kentucky.
What is it with ark builders and funding? We regularly drive across I-68 in the panhandle of Maryland, and alongside that road you can find the steel-beamed skeleton of an ark that has been rusting there for years. That project began, so the story goes, with a dream back in 1974.
The historical contexts are certainly not identical, but 1974 was, like today, a time of political turmoil, economic uncertainty, and seemingly endless war. In such moments, curling up in an ark while all of the messiness of the world gets washed away can seem like a fine idea.
I've never had dreams of an ark, but reading this morning that the Unabomber's land -- 1.4 "secluded" acres in western Montana -- is on the market did give me pause to consider the prospects of "getting away from it all."
Alas, I am not a Biblical literalist nor a member of any sect of withdrawal. I still hear Isaiah's call to repair the breach and restore the city's streets to live in, and I hear in that the call to serve where I am with what I've got. Still, a boat would be nice.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Giving Thanks

I don't often post stuff from Sunday mornings on this blog, but this just seems appropriate to this holiday week. I offer it here with the invitation to try is: sit down with pen and paper or keyboard and screen, set a timer for 10 minutes, and just write what you are thankful for. Here's my list, which was offered as a prayer/meditation yesterday morning at Clarendon.
Thanks. How many things can I be thankful for in 10 minutes, while sitting at Busboys sipping mocha?
To begin with: coffee and toast and a friendly waiter in a warm, bright space on a cold, sunny morning. Then, of course, the sunshine, always, because I don’t like the gray.
Thanksgiving interrupted by sneezing brings me to give thanks for generally good health.
Fresh butter … and the cows and the farmers and the land. If thanks for the cows, then thanks, of course, for the rest of the creatures. Surely, then, for the way that creation sustains us with abundant food.
The cooing baby behind me. Thanks for her. And, first of all, of course, thanks for my babies now well on the way to grown up. Thanks so much for their mom, my love.
Ooops. A few crumbs fall. I’m thankful they do not fall in the keyboard of the laptop. So, almost at once, thanks for living in this time of incredible invention and innovation, and thanks for my parents who taught me the good manners – among so many other things – that ensure that I have a napkin in my lap so my jeans don’t get smeared with jelly. Thanks for blue jeans.
That leads down two threads:
Thanks for Levi Strauss, and for his cousin Claude Levi Strauss, the French structuralist philosopher and sociologist of the 20th century whose work was foundational for the deconstructionist Jacques Derrida whose work sparked my own philosophical imagination so many years ago and back in dissertation days.
But more than that, just thanks for blue jeans, and for the gift of a life that allows me to live, mostly, in jeans. Thanks so much for a congregation that allows me to be myself, in my blue jeans, and not to have to pretend that I am something other than what I am. That is to say, thanks for being a people who really get it, and understand that “reverend” is a noun that names a position in the church not an adjective describing the one who holds the position.
Thanks for each of you. Whether you are here for the first time this morning or if you’ve been part of this community for half century or more, thanks for you. Thanks for your faithfulness, your compassion, your kindness to each other and to all of my family, your love, your imagination, your joy, your intelligence, your passion, your generosity with time, talents and treasure, your creativity, your willingness to be honest and to hold me accountable to the best of what we are and who I am and what we can be together, your patience with my inattention to details, and your attention to them, your grace, your willingness to take risks and to bless me when I do so in the public square.
Thanks for that public square and the myriad opportunities it holds for us to serve our sisters and brothers, to witness to justice and peace, to speak truth to power.
Thanks for the gift of voices, and thanks for the courage to use them. Thanks for breath. For the laughter that causes us to lose our breath. Thanks for song, and music, and rhythm and dance.
Thanks for the Lord of the Dance, the one in whom we live and breathe and move and have our being, the one in whom all things come to be, the one to whom we offer this simple word: thanks.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Chasing Tales

I had lunch today with a group of Presbyterian clergy colleagues. It's a group of good folks that gets together once a month, and I always enjoy breaking bread with them. Today the gathering included three retired pastors and four of us still "laboring in the vineyards." We tend to be more liberal than conservative, but we do come from a different points on the theological spectrum and have a fairly broad variety of church experience.
Still, we can be counted on to wind up most months talking about the crisis of the church in our time. To be sure, we don't usually talk about it in all caps: The Crisis of the Church In Our Time. It's usually more shop talk: combining two worship services for the summer in one congregation; replacing a long-time church musician in another; a sabbatical plan of one colleague; another colleague moving on to a new call.
But in all of those stories the context of crisis bubbles up, and every tale of church life becomes, at some point, a tale about what church is these days and what it isn't.
I'd love to lie and say that we have come up with answers to those questions, but we simply part with hugs and best wishes and head back to our posts to keep on doing what we do.
For me, this afternoon, it's putting the finishing touches on the annual stewardship mailing to the congregation I serve, and then heading off to a Presbytery meeting.
The letter will say, among a lot of other stuff, that the way we spend our time is, of course, the way we spend our lives. But more to the point, the way we spend our money is the way make judgments about what is and is not important in those lives.
I spend so much of my time tending to the institution of the church. I suppose it is indisputably the case that for the past 15 years or so that is the way I have spent my life. Outside of the care and feeding of our children, and the housing of us all, the church has also been the chief beneficiary of our spending, as well.
I wonder about these choices all the time, and never more so than following conversations about the crisis of the church in our time, my time. I told the congregation at Clarendon a few weeks ago that I do not want to spend my time writing funeral dirges for a dying church. I did not mean this congregation, but rather the entire enterprise of church in North America.
Nevertheless, when I look at my calendar and my check ledger it's clear that I cannot tell my own story apart from the story of the church.
None of this is the least bit surprising considering my vocation, but it does mean that I only really have access to the insider's point of view. Crises require more than that limited perspective. And while good church stories are required, they are not enough for the day.
But that's all I'm going to get today, because now it's time to go to that Presbytery meeting. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. What's yours?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Things I Never Thought I'd Hear a Quaker Say

OK, this is not a long list because, well, this is not a category I've ever given a lot of thought to until this morning when I heard a J.E. McNeil, a Quaker attorney who has served for more than a decade as director of the Center on Conscience and War, was speaking about the legal strategy for creating selective conscientious objection in the U.S. Military, and she said,
"The Second Amendment is my favorite amendment to the Constitution."
That's just not something I ever thought I'd hear a Quaker say.
She went on to explain that the thing about Constitutionally protected rights is that just as we are given a positive right to engage in the protected activity we are given the right not to, as well. Therefore, just as I have a right to bear arms, I also have a Constitutionally protected right not to bear arms.
Indeed, as McNeil explained, Madison's original draft of the Bill of Rights explicitly contained that provision in the Second Amendment, but the Congress rejected it because they feared it would interfere with the well-regulated militia. (Incidentally, this small bit of history gives the lie to the contemporary position that the Framers intended the right to bear arms as an individual one, but that's a story for another day ... and another Supreme Court, alas.)
Madison was willing to make the compromise because he believed that the right of conscientious objection would be subsequently enshrined in the law, but more than 200 years later U.S. law still contains no such provisions.
Our troops are called upon to protect our freedoms, we are told so often, including the freedom of conscience, but they have no such freedom of conscience themselves once they sign up. It really shouldn't take a Quaker to point out the irony, and to do so by way of the Second Amendment, well that deserves an irony medal.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Two Americas, at Least

In the speech that famously launched him on his way to the White House, then Sen. Barack Obama proclaimed to the 2004 Democratic National Convention that "there is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America -- there’s the United States of America."
Oh that it were so, or, at least, so clear and simple. But it seems like there are more Americas than most of us can count, and maybe that's why our political life is overly simplistic and our religious life so often bombastic. We all want God to bless our America, but there is always already another America out there wanting to claim that blessing exclusively for itself.
This is not new, of course, but I was reminded of it this morning by some old remarks from Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) that are being replayed now that he would like the job of chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Rep. Shimkus, whose committee has oversight on such things, argued that we don't need to worry about global climate change because God promised Noah never to destroy the earth again.
Shimkus made his case about 18 months ago when he quoted Genesis 8 and concluded, "I believe that is the infallible word of god, and that's the way it is going to be for his creation... The earth will end only when God declares its time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood."
To no one's surprise, secular progressives are once again mocking Shimkus. (See especially the comments to Juan Cole's posting about Shimkus.)
Meanwhile, from reading Politico this week it seems that conservatives would be quite happy with Shimkus chairing the committee.
So on climate change there is a God-fearing America that denies climate change entirely and another America that enjoys mocking the God-fearing part. But while all this goes on as political theater, the green jobs are going to China and the economy is going to hell in a hand basket -- if you believe in hell or hand baskets.
Somehow I get the feeling that the Chinese are laughing all the way to the bank as our own deep cultural divisions keep us from finding common ground on which to solve real problems. Of course, if the global economy slips from recession to depression no one will be laughing.
I just wish that Mr. Shimkus had done some serious Bible study somewhere along the line. A little Breuggemann could go a long way.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Vote for Jesus ... Not Likely

A word of hope for today, from the psalmist:
The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble ...
for the needy shall not always be forgotten,
nor the hope of the poor perish forever.

I wonder if such hope will ever again be part of the political narrative of the nation. Seriously. FDR named "freedom from want," one of the Four Freedoms. LBJ declared War on Poverty in 1964.
But somewhere along the line in my adult lifetime the poor ceased to be a public concern. Politicians, Democrats and Republicans, pledge their undying allegiance to the middle class, but seldom mention anyone else.
As part of the great, if shrinking, American middle class I surely appreciate their concern and support. Seriously -- I'm glad the president's health care reform will allow me to keep my kids insured until they turn 26. That is a great help to millions of middle-class Americans. I'm glad the president made access to college loans easier for us, too. And we did our darnedest to spend the tax cuts lavished our way in recent years. Bully for us and the rest of our class!
The ironic thing, though, is that even as our politicians -- in their rhetoric and attention -- have left the poor behind, those same politicians (in their rhetoric, at least) have more and more embraced God-talk -- except, of course, for the things that Jesus actually said in the Gospels. For example,
"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours in the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry."

He'd never get elected, that's for sure.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Red State Blues

Been crazy busy for the past couple of weeks, but election day brings a nice break with kids home from school and baking cookies with me. I felt like an all-American mom from the 50s, and my son offered me the jumper he wore to school as Hester Prynne last week to wear under an apron so I'd look the part as well.
Election day 2010 is a depressing circumstance, although by some measures it should not be so. For example, the "Rally to Restore Sanity" over the weekend drew a quarter of a million generally liberal people to the Mall, dwarfing the August gather that joined the neo-John Bircher Glenn Beck. Moreover, the man so many of us worked so hard to elect with such hope and fanfare two years ago has actually delivered on many of his promises: including tax breaks for the middle class; financial system reform; health care reform; the fair pay act; student loan reform; troop drawdown in Iraq; consumer credit protections.
It would seem that progressives would be celebrating two years of significant, well, progress, on many of the issues that concern us. Instead, we have a dispirited electorate marked mainly by inchoate anger directed, by the universal law of elections, at the majority party even while voters says they can't stand the other party.
The Nation's Marc Cooper offers this observation:

This weekend, I am feeling just as strongly that the Dems are doomed on Tuesday. As I did say in the linked post above about the Stewart Rally, I think it was a massive (250,000 strong) manifestation of a Democratic constituency that has no effective leadership, no convincing message, and no ability to counter the crap propaganda coming from the Right. This is a closing weekend marked by an absolute vacuum.
I also fear it is the beginning of a prolonged period of political stasis if not outright decline. I can tell you from my position at a major university, that most young people have already lost faith in the political system and for the most part are ignoring this election.
That is, perhaps, not the wisest thing to do. But I understand the apathy and disillusionment. Democrats have controlled Congress for four years (and some important measures have been taken) but they have, nevertheless, failed to demonstrate any capacity to lead and inspire.

I don't disagree with any of that, but I'm not sure it leads anywhere either. As a description it strikes me as accurate, but it doesn't do much by way of explanation and offers nothing by way of alternative.
There are so many problems with our system it's hard to know where to start. The overwhelming power of money in American politics is corrosive and corrupting on all sides, and the Supreme Court is not helping.
But I wonder if some of the problems are not more basic and even more bipartisan. Take, for example, redistricting. I live in a district whose Congressman, Jim Moran, will hold the seat until he decides to leave it or until he dies. There is nothing unusual in that. More than 90 percent of incumbents who seek reelection win. I think it's true that a representative is more likely to die in office than to lose an election. There are lots of good reasons for this. To begin with, you have to have a lot of support to win in the first place, so there's a broad base to seek reelection. Moreover, incumbents have huge name recognition advantages over most opponents. They also have, almost always, the support of their party and rarely face any primary opposition.
Nothing will or should change any of those basic truths, but as I think about my representative here in the 8th District, for whom I cast another vote this afternoon, I also think about the guy who represents Virginia's 7th District, Eric Cantor. It's a cold hard fact that Northern Virginia is far more liberal than the rest of the state, and certainly more so than Rep. Cantor's carefully drawn stretch of mostly rural countryside that stretches from the Richmond suburbs almost to I-81 in the Shenandoah Valley.
The problem does not lie in conservative parts of states vs. liberal parts. The problem arises when districts are drawn such that no opposition point of view could ever be elected absent a scandal so ridiculous that the people vote out a bum that a party would never remove.
For example, I lived in Dan Rostenkowski's Chicago district when he was indicted on mail fraud charges that eventually led to a 17-month prison sentence. Rostenkowski, who chaired the House Ways and Means Committee, was renominated by the Democratic Party, and with no one else to turn to the voters elected Michael Flanagan, a conservative Republican in the 1994 election. Flanagan's election did not indicate any embrace of conservative positions. Voters were simply fed up with Rostenkowski. In fact, Flanagan served a single two-year term and was turned out in 1996 when Rod Blagojevich was elected.
In a competitively drawn district I can't imagine that Rostenkowski would have ever been nominated again. Moreover, perhaps in a competitively drawn district he would never have risen to such absolute power in the first place. That is not to say he would never have become the powerful chair of a powerful committee, but it is to say that the arrogance of that power would be checked by the political necessity of communicating beyond a completely safe base of support.
It is impossible to hold leaders accountable when their reelection is a given. And when their base is carefully drawn to represent only one political perspective -- whether it's liberal Democrat like me or conservative Republican -- there is never any real contest of ideas much less any necessity of building broad-based coalitions who can work for solutions to specific problems.
Without opposition, political leaders can afford to be arrogant and ignorant of anything but their most narrowly held beliefs -- a dangerous and dispiriting combination. When the system all but guarantees the election and reelection of such politicians it is no wonder so many are so turned off.
When the system as a whole is held captive to incredibly powerful moneyed interests, election day is nothing but the blues whether you're in the Red or Blue tonight.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

This Is What Democracy Looks Like, Pt. 2: Send In the Clowns

Citing President Eisenhower’s famous farewell warning about the emerging power of the military-industrial complex, I noted yesterday, Andrew Bacevich writes about the threat that imperial power poses for American democracy.
Citing the same passage, Quaker activist Chuck Fager, in his booklet Study War Some More, pays special attention to President Eisenhower’s specific inclusion of the spiritual influence of the vast permanent armaments industry among the “grave implications” of the “unwarranted influence” of “the military-industrial complex.”
Fager writes:
[M]uch of American religion, especially Christianity, has adopted the conviction that the United States is God’s chosen instrument to exercise the role of the planetary “sword-bearing” magistrate, charged to “rid the world of evil-doers,” as [President Bush] declared in 2001. Thus these churches, some of the largest in the country, not only support but actively advocate for the projection of American military might around the world, regardless of the cost in blood and treasure, to Americans, but especially to foreigners. This is, they are sure, God’s work.

Such was surely the tenor of the Glen Beck rally in August. Beck famously wanted a military jet flyover to begin his rally, but got instead, a “miracle flyover” of Canadian geese. The military refused his request because the Lincoln Memorial sits under restricted airspace, so, Beck said, God provided the flyover, presumably to help restore honor to America.
In the opening invocation, the Rev. Paul Jehles employed John Winthrop’s city on a hill imagery in inviting God to forgive America and restore the honor lost to her for, among other things, the sin of same-gender marriage. Theologically speaking, it went downhill from there.
Immediately following Pastor Jehles’ prayer, Mr. Beck asked the gathered congregation, “what is it that today America truly believes in?” The answer, offered up to a resounding ovation: the military.
Although the One Nation’s rally was a decidedly more secular affair, the honor of the nation’s military was still front and center from the opening rendition of the Star Spangled Banner to the inclusion of numerous veterans on the program and a classic form of American civil religion was on display. While there was some safe criticism of the war in Iraq and more guarded critique of Afghanistan, no one raised any significant concerns about militarism itself, much less about the empire that depends upon it.
The old guard of African-American Christian civil rights leadership, in the persons of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, was present, and the Rev. Sharpton provided the Old Testament lesson for the day as he lifted up the story of Ezekiel and the valley of the dry bones.
Ezekiel, he said, began the restoration in the valley by connecting the bones together. “If we can get connected,” the Rev. Sharpton said, “blacks connected to whites, Latinos connected to Asians, straights connected to gays, immigrants and all of us who are naturally born here – if we can connect these bones we can make America breathe and make America live as one nation under God.”
As spirited as the aging African-American religious leaders remain, there is a tiredness about the near 70-year-old Jackson these days, and while Sharpton is more than a dozen years younger he is hardly a fresh voice. The theology implicit in the language of Beck’s rally is classic imperial theology, asking, quite literally, for God to bless America. Such theology goes back at least to Constantine. There is nothing new in it at all. At the same time, it is difficult to listen to the Revs. Sharpton and Jackson and imagine that God is doing a new thing there either. Neither spoke out passionately against empire itself.
Sending in the clowns may be the best bet we have even when it comes to what might pass for a contemporary American theological imagination – at least as it’s being articulated in this particular political season.
Indeed, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart just might be rising to the level of prophets in our midst. In an interview with Sojourners several years ago Jim Wallis likened Stewart to the Hebrew prophets who used “humor, satire, and truth-telling to get their message across.”
While Stewart rejected the comparison, saying he has a lot more in common with Borscht Belt social directors than with the prophets, I would say his most Biblical spiritual practice can be found in the hospitality he practices each evening on The Daily Show. Down to his regular gesture of waiting for his guest to be seated before him, Stewart offers a simple generosity of spirit that contrasts sharply with most of the serious talking heads on TV these days. More pointedly, Stewart rarely interrupts or talks over his guests and never engages In shouting matches with them. He offers conversational space even to those with whom he clearly disagrees. While he calls himself a non-observant Jew, I’d argue that he practices the foundational Jewish commitment to hospitality and welcome of strangers on a national platform every night.
Colbert, on the other hand, is an observant Roman Catholic. Both the blowhard conservative character he plays on his show and the man behind the character claim their faith. While the character goes on at hysterical length about the evils of big government, Colbert manages to bring the social justice ethic of Catholic social teaching to the fore in very public forums.
His resent congressional testimony, offered mostly in character, provides a classic case study. After mostly mocking himself and the members of congress holding the hearings on migrant farm laborers, Colbert breaks character to explain his presence before the committee: “I like talking about people who don't have any power...I feel the need to speak for those who can't speak for themselves....We ask them to come and work, and then we ask them to leave again. They suffer, and have no rights."
In the midst of this explanation he quotes Matthew 25, saying: “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, and these seem like the least of my brothers.”
Some voices from Capitol Hill and the mainstream media decried Colbert’s testimony. On the other hand, prior to his appearance before the House committee it would take a dedicated news hound to find news stories about the conditions of migrant workers in America. The least of these simply don’t merit much attention from the press.
From the perspective of Matthew 25 that constitutes a spiritual crisis in the land.
Which brings us back ‘round to President Eisenhower. Most peace activists know well both the phrase, “military-industrial complex” and its source in President Eisenhower’s farewell speech. Many of us are also familiar with his observation that,
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

I confess to not knowing the source of that second quote. Until tracking it down on the internet recently I had assumed it came in the farewell speech because it sounds as if it would be at home in the company of his warnings about the military-industrial complex that came in his the president’s last official remarks. Not only was I wrong about that, but I was off by two full presidential terms. President Eisenhower actually made his remarks about theft from the hungry and naked – echoing Matthew 25 – in his first official remarks to the nation as president, April 16, 1953, in a speech called “The Chance for Peace.”
I’m not sure what Glenn Beck would make of such remarks coming from the president of the United States. The cynic in me would say, “well, if such remarks came from a president named Obama then Beck would call him a socialist who wants to bring about the downfall of the nation.” Alas, the realist in me knows that Mr. Beck can rest easy: the president named Obama is not about to utter any of the words that came from either end of President Eisenhower’s time in the White House.
It’s time to send in the clowns.
(Hm, the links don't seem to be working in this post. My apologies for some technical glitches.)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

This Is What Democracy Looks Like?

Two wars. The Great Recession. Mid-term elections. The Tea Party. The Obama presidency. It is the perfect storm, and, if nothing else, it pumps money into the local economy as march and rally season descends upon DC as surely as Ringling Brothers brings the elephants to Capitol Hill each spring.
We got a jump start this year with Glen Beck’s “God-bless-America” gathering in August. I’ll confess to skipping that one when discretion proved the better part of avoiding the crowds on yet another in a record-breaking steamy string of 90-plus degree summer afternoons. I gave some thought to going down to the Mall that day, but the crowd of mostly middle-aged and older white folks teaming at the Metro stop dissuaded me.
On the one hand, the left one I suppose, I did make it down to the One Nation rally earlier this month. One could analyze the political content of the spoken messages and of the various messengers, but a few pictures are worth thousands of words. The pictures show the wildly diverse crowd that simply looks more like America than crowd Mr. Beck attracted in August.
Maybe it was the weather. Liberals are known to be wimpy. Just ask any conservative.
On the other hand, speaking out for the rights of immigrants, gays and lesbians, working class folks and union members seems more likely to draw a diverse crowd than does “taking back our country” – which too often seems like code for taking it back from immigrants, gays and lesbians, working class folks and union members.
It will be interesting to see what kind of crowd shows up for Jon Stewart and the Comedy Central crew in a couple of weeks. My guess is that gathering will be much less diverse than the One Nation rally, which would underscore the fact that while we are one nation we remain many peoples.
That simple truth is why the rhythmic chant, “this is what democracy looks like” remains my favorite rally staple. Yet these days, even that song sounds more like a lament for something lost than a declaration of something hoped for.
I just finished J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, a novel that calls every notion of authority into question, including, notably, the authority of democracy itself. One of the novel’s narrative voices offers multiple “strong opinions,” including this little gem:
We do not choose our rulers by the toss of a coin – tossing coins is associated with the low-status activity of gambling – but who would dare to claim that the world would be in a worse state than it is if rulers had from the beginning of time been chosen by the method of the coin?

At about the same time Coetzee was writing those words, Cornel West offered these in Democracy Matters: “Let us not be deceived: the great dramatic battle of the twenty-first century is the dismantling of empire and the deepening of democracy.”
If so, the battle has not yet been joined in any significant way in the United States, that is to say, in the empire itself. And the hour is growing late.
As Andrew Bacevich persuasively argues in Washington Rules, the huge and expanding national security state the props up and projects the American empire around the world fundamentally threatens democracy at home. Citing President Eisenhower’s famous farewell warning about the emerging power of the military-industrial complex, Bacevich writes,
Initiatives undertaken to ensure national security had given rise to new institutions and habits deeply antithetical to traditional American values.
These new forces had yielded unwelcome consequences that Eisenhower himself, whether as general or as president, had neither intended nor anticipated, threatening American democracy.
Bacevich traces the continuing rise of those institutions and habits that reached their logical limits in the preemptive war in Iraq and the entire construct of the global war on terror that continues to be played out in Afghanistan, the border regions of Pakistan, and Iraq today with new fronts being hinted at in Yemen and elsewhere.

The truly curious thing about what passes for democracy in America right now is how widespread the opposition to this is among the vox populi. I would guess that if you could do exit polling from Glen Beck’s rally, the One Nation event, and the Comedy Central court jester-fest, you would find strong sentiment across the board for getting U.S. troops out of both Iraq and Afghanistan. As of last month, according to a CBS/New York Times poll, more than half of Americans think we should not be in Afghanistan at this point, and more than 70 percent believe that Iraq was not worth the cost in lives and dollars.
A coin toss for leadership would give us at least a 50-50 chance of getting out, whereas our purportedly democratic elections provide no chance at ending the ongoing tragedy no matter which party prevails. Getting out now is, as they say, off the table.
Of course, the deep divisions that do exist within the American public touch on far more than just so-called national security concerns. But the fundamental problem, the rot at the core of American democracy, stands firmly in the way of finding real solutions to any pressing issues whether they be hot-button social concerns or widespread economic suffering.
Until we get at the decaying center, all of our rallies – of the right, the left, or the comedic center – will be no more meaningful than when the circus comes to town.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


I've been privileged to spend this week in the company of some enormously talented musicians gathered for the first Songs of Peace and Justice Conference at the Stony Point Center in New York. I'm sure I'll post some thoughts on the experiences shared in that incredible circle of talent, but for the moment, holed up in a cheap hotel somewhere in southern New Jersey where the rain caught up to me and my motorcycle today, I thought I post a silly little bit that I wrote in response to one prompting at Stony Point.
We were talking about the need for confession for grounding movements, and someone pointed out how uncommon authentic public apology is in our culture. We bandied about a phrase most often heard in the guise of an apology: "I'm sorry that you feel that way." So, here's my take (as part of a 20-minute song-writing exercise):

I'm sorry that you feel that way.
You clearly didn't get what I was trying to say.
It's not my fault that you've had a bad day.
I'm sorry that you feel that way.

It's not my fault if the words don't rhyme.
What you clearly didn't offer was abundance of time.
If I used that word that you're forbidden to say,
well I'm sorry that you feel that way.

Now I'm usually known as a sensitive guy.
Some folks say I wouldn't hurt a fly.
So if you're offended then you don't have to stay.
I'm sorry that you feel that way.

I don't care if you don't like my song.
I may not be right, but I'm so sure you're wrong.
If you cannot communicate with the words I say,
then I'm sorry that you feel that way.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Who's Pulling the Strings?

To begin with, I fully confess to being a Michael Jordan fan. I lived in Chicago through the Jordan years, and I'm a hoops junky. He's the best I ever saw, and the fan in me will brook no comparison to Kobe or LeBron or Magic or Larry or Wilt or anyone else.
That is a fan speaking, and not a student of the game. If I put on that hat then the comparisons might shake out differently. But I won't put on that hat any more than I'll put on the t-shirt I have that Michael wore on a Hanes commercial on whose set, through a complicated set of circumstances, I was a gopher. That shirt is preserved in a sealed plastic bag, just like my memories of Jordan in their rose-colored case.
What brings MJ to mind? Well, the comparisons of Jordan to LeBron James over the past several months raise some fascinating non-basketball issues, and on the non-basketball front I'll happily leap in. Jordan and James are remarkably similar in their global marketing and in the way that they each steadfastly avoid making waves that might stand in the way of making sales.
When asked to support the U.S. Senate candidacy of Harvey B. Gantt in 1990, Jordan famously demurred, saying, "Republicans buy shoes, too." Similarly, when James' Cleveland teammates signed a statement condemning the government of China for its role in the genocide in Darfur, James refused to sign. Speculation on the refusal circled around the role of Chine in the manufacture of athletic shoes, particularly those sold under the Nike label, for whom James -- like Jordan before him -- famously shills.
Despite a few such bumps in his road, James has mostly avoided controversy. Until, that is, the summer, and now the fall, of James' discontent or disconnect. His much derided move from Cleveland to Miami, handled with, well, less than grace and style, left James in a place that Jordan never visited: the bottom of the Q ratings and a station among the least popular half dozen athletes in America.
James resides there alongside Michael Vick (of dog-fighting infamy), Kobe Bryant (sexual assault allegations), and Tiger Woods (more sex problems). Add in a pair of brash football players -- Chad Ochocinco and Terrel Owens -- and you round out the list of the half dozen least popular athletes in America.
Notice anything about that list?
Perhaps you're not a sports fan, so these men's faces do not spring immediately to your mind, but if you saw their faces you'd notice that they're all black.
James had the temerity to suggest that race played a factor in the overwhelmingly emotional and negative reaction to his decision to leave Cleveland, and now he's being attacked from almost all sides again for "playing the race card."
Sportswriter Dave Zirin notes on The Nation blog today that superstar quarterbacks Brett Farve, Ben Roethlisberger, and Tom Brady who are white, have not suffered nearly as much negative backlash despite having a well-documented drug addiction (in Farve's case), sexual assault charges (in Roethlisberger's), and an out-of-wedlock child (Brady).
You don't find their names on the bottom of the Q list, and it's naive or disingenuous to suggest that racial attitudes have nothing to do with the different reactions. We simply hold black and white athletes to different standards, and react differently to their problems. Farve, for example, remains one of the most popular athletes in America, ranking just few Q points down the list from Peyton Manning among active professional football players. His story is often told as one of change and redemption. Perhaps that story will emerge as the dominant narrative about Michael Vick, but that remains an as yet unwritten story at this point.
On the other hand, Jordan remains at the top of the list of most-liked athletes, and you rarely find him on the "negative Q score" list despite his own gambling problems and failed marriage.
Which brings me back to the t-shirt, or, at least, to the commercial. You probably never saw it because it was the worst thing imaginable. The idea was to make Jordan fly. (I pulled the ropes on the rigging apparatus, and can therefore say honestly that I made Michael Jordan fly.) It was a horrible concept to begin with because Jordan was one of the most graceful athletes in the world and never needed the likes of me or a set of ropes and pulleys to achieve beautiful flight all on his own.
The commercial shoot dragged on an hour longer than scheduled, and Jordan was impatient to leave. As a superstar he had conveniently forgotten that he had arrived 90 minutes late to begin with, but, never mind that, he wanted to leave when he wanted to leave.
The problem was, he was attached to ropes and dangling in the air like a puppet, unable to get away.
If James wants to get back in the good graces of the public, perhaps he should reattach himself to the ropes that kept Jordan suspended above the fray.
Oh, there's a price to be paid, for sure, but we seem to like our black athletes best when we can pull the strings.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Welcoming Justice

A few thoughts on hospitality and justice, inspired by reading several stories about hate crimes in the past few days, started off the preaching at Clarendon last week.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me.”
What a crock that is.
Jap. Raghead. Kyke. Nigger. Bitch. Dyke. Faggot. Chink.
Tell me again that names can never hurt. Tell me again that names don’t matter.
These slurs and derogatory names slip into our common language and eventually we don’t even realize it.
“Paddy wagon.” It’s the name of the police van that picks up the drunk Irishmen. I’m Scotch-Irish to the core, and I did not know my heritage was being slurred until I found myself in the back of a police van a couple of years ago after being arrested at a peace witness on Capitol Hill.
We really do violate the image of God in others and in ourselves and sometimes we do it so casually that we are not even aware that we are doing it.
But names matter, and the matter of names and naming is profoundly important for an authentically progressive Christian faith. It is not a matter of political correctness; it is a matter of hospitality and it is a matter of justice.
We talk a whole lot about hospitality, about the welcome of strangers, about honoring the outcast and the marginalized. Hospitality is a core values, and a central practices of Christian spirituality, and it is foundational for justice. Hospitality is less Martha Stewart and more Margaret Sanger; hospitality is first about making the table open to all and then about making it beautiful. Hospitality is about justice.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Poverty of Ideas

We’ve been investing tiny amounts of money through Kiva in microcredit ventures in the developing world. What began as a $25 loan a couple of years ago has grown to a couple of hundred in a half dozen small ventures in places such as Pakistan and Afghanistan and Uganda where a few dollars can make a difference.
One of our loans was just repaid this week so we began looking for another small enterprise to reinvest that $25. We found one young woman with a textiles venture in Eritrea where she is raising two children on her own. The Kiva write up says she makes $44 per week.
I am quite certain that some weeks I have spent that much in coffee shops.
On the other hand, according to, her annual income of $2,200 (I gave her two weeks off in my calculations) puts her in the richest 15 percent of the earth’s population.
The same day that we were playing McRockefeller, the United States Census Bureau released figures indicating that there are more people in the United States living below the federal poverty line than at any time in the past 50 years.
The current federal poverty line is $22,000 for a family of four, or 10 times as much as the young woman in Eritrea who is among the richest 15 percent. The U.S. poverty line puts you just outside the richest 10 percent, and translates into a hourly wage of roughly $11.00.
Comparative poverty is more art than science, although there are helpful measurements. For example, about ten years ago the average American household spent 13.5 percent of its income on food while the average family in rural India spent a bit more than 60 percent of its income to eat. You’d have to do more with numbers than I care to if you want to figure out the percentage the average poor American household spent on food.
In any case, at some point comparative poverty becomes a race to the bottom that cannot be measured in purely economic terms. I don’t have direct experience with developing world poverty, but I’ve spent a lot of time in poor corners of the U.S. in cities and in rural places, and have spent a few years living on the narrow ledge just above the poverty line.
It is almost as easy to romanticize poverty as it is to demonize the poor, but neither attitude comes close to capturing the reality of being poor. Earlier this year economist Carol Graham published a book called Happiness around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires.
Writing in the Post last January, Graham noted some key findings from a decade of studying happiness around the world:
Wherever I look, some simple patterns hold: A stable marriage, good health and enough (but not too much) income are good for happiness. Unemployment, divorce and economic instability are terrible for it. On average, happier people are also healthier, with the causal arrows probably pointing in both directions. Finally, age and happiness have a consistent U-shaped relationship, with the turning point in the mid- to late-40s, when happiness begins to increase, as long as health and domestic partnerships stay sound.
In my own experience, to be sure, there is joy among the poor, just as there is sorrow. That’s just true of life, and being poor does not change that fact. Graham’s research suggests that income level does not much change the balance of joy and sorrow, although in some cases the research actually suggests that those at the higher end of income distribution are more dissatisfied than others. Money, it seems, does not buy happiness.
Graham’s research is not alone in showing greater measures of happiness among the poor in the developing world than among the affluent of the industrial North, but it’s crucial to note that the patterns she found that make for happiness include “enough income.”
Ah, and there’s the rub.
The unsettled state American politics this fall probably has dozens of causes, but one of them is surely the anger and unrest arising from the millions of lives represented in the new poverty statistics. However relatively poor they may be on a global scale, locally speaking they are not real happy just now at least when it comes to the nation’s leadership. In the U.S., we have the November elections – and the football season – to provide a nice escape valve for some of the pressure building within the body politic.
I don’t know what the cost of living is in Eritrea (and this is a blog post not a research project), so I don’t know what percentage of my young entrepreneur’s $2200 annual income it would take to feed a family of three in her village. What I do know is that the vast majority of the world’s population gets by on much less than that, and whether or not they are happy about it will have much to do with the peace and stability of the coming years. Most of those folks don’t get to vote, and they don’t have football season, either.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

In Praise of Moderate Republicans ... Really

This is going to sound like the grumpy lament of a middle-aged man, or, perhaps like a wagon train tale. But I can remember the election, in my home state of Tennessee, of moderate Republican lawmakers and executives. I doubt that my children will have such memories for the moderate Republican is a dying breed.
Why should a life-long liberal lament this fact of contemporary American political life? For one thing, I have always been more of a small "d" democrat than a capital "D" Democrat. While I am an unapologetic liberal, I also know that every perspective is sharpened by the contest of ideas, and I don't believe any person, party or point of view owns a monopoly on ideas for the common good.
I can count on the fingers of one hand the Republican candidates for whom I have voted over the years, but I am always suspicious of concentrated power and that includes power concentrated in the hands of a political party with whom I more often than not agree. Lord Acton was right: power corrupts, as the long list of disgraced public figures from both parties attests.
The best balance to the corrupting influence of power is the force of other power, but when that power arrives as the bow shot of extremists it may seem to balance power but it undermines stability in the system as a whole. An unbalanced system is chaos.
The creation story in Genesis tells us that God brought forth the world from out of chaos, and thus chaos might be seen as the fertile ground for creative growth. The problem arises when the agents of chaos mistake themselves for God, or, at least, as God's messengers.
It is no accident that the most divisive aspects of our politics right now revolve around issues such as the Muslim community center in New York or the threatened Qu'ran burning in Florida or the mosque arson in Tennessee. God is the real Ground Zero of our politics right now.
Unfortunately, our politics has been so thoroughly debased that it is not nearly large enough to cover that ground. Which brings me back 'round to this week's primary results, and, in particular, to the sorry state of the Republican Party in Delaware.
I have no personal stake in that contest. I have never met Mike Castle, but I have long been aware of him. He has always struck me as being like one of those Republicans whose election I can recall from a generation ago in Tennessee -- Howard Baker, Lamar Alexander or Gene Roberts.
Baker and Alexander became nationally known figures. I mostly disagreed with them on the issues, and increasingly so over the years as they drifted with the rest of their party further and further to the right. Nevertheless, when I was coming of age during Watergate I was proud that a Tennessean played a key role in holding President Nixon accountable, and, though I voted for the other guy (Jake Butcher) for governor in my first election (1978) it is clear that Sen. Alexander has done considerably more good for the state than Mr. Butcher, who wound up in prison for massive bank fraud.
Gene Roberts, who was never as well known as Baker or Alexander, became mayor of my home town of Chattanooga in 1982, and served for 15 years. When I was growing up he was our next-door neighbor, though his family had moved to a considerably more upscale neighborhood by the time he was elected mayor. I babysat for his kids, and one of his sons was my baby brother's best friend.
In 1982, Chattanooga was a dying steel town in the throws of the Reagan recession. These days Chattanooga is known as a beautiful, thriving city. When I tell folks that I grew up there, they often remark on what a nice place it is to visit. I inevitably say, "yeah, it's so much nicer since I left!"
That is true by virtually any measure, but it probably doesn't have much to do with my leaving. It does, however, have a great deal to do with Mayor Roberts' leadership.
Why does he come to mind this week? Because I seriously doubt that he could be elected today. He was genuinely moderate, and actively sought to work with folks from across the political and economic spectrum of the city. That willingness to include the people -- the demos -- in decisions is precisely what enabled Chattanooga to move from a city of shuttered steel mills in the 1970s to the thriving and livable city it has become.
The country as a whole seems so much like my hometown was 40 years ago, and we need practical leaders from a lot of perspectives. When one party takes itself off the deep end and purges its ranks of all but one, extreme ideological position, the entire body politic suffers.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Small Is Beautiful?

David Brooks got religion, albeit a tad late. Brooks column yesterday was called "The Gospel of Wealth," and he used it, in part, to praise David Platt's book, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream.
Platt leads a megachurch -- more than 4,000 members -- and has begun to call megachurches into question. Brooks quotes what I imagine is the heart of Platt's critique: “When we gather in our church building to sing and lift up our hands in worship, we may not actually be worshipping the Jesus of the Bible. Instead, we may be worshipping ourselves.”
Brooks observes that the first decade of the new century saw Americans buying "bulbous vehicles like Hummers and Suburbans. The rule was, The Smaller the Woman, the Bigger the Car — so you would see a 90-pound lady in tennis whites driving a 4-ton truck with enough headroom to allow her to drive with her doubles partner perched atop her shoulders."
But that image is too cute by more than half. Brooks seems to conveniently forget Arnold Schwarzenegger buying one of the first Hummers off the GM production line in 1992. Seeing Arnold posing beside his trophy vehicle one might even think that we hop into our four-wheeled behemoths, look down over the road, tune in our satellite radios and worship ourselves on the church of the great American highway.
Brooks is a smart man, and I'm sure he knows that the trends he identifies with the 2000s began well before Y2K. The SUV trend began even before Arnold bought his first Hummer, and as far back as 2000 sociologists were noting that over the previous 50 years the size of the average American family had declined by half while the size of the average American single-family home had more than doubled from a bit smaller than 1,000 square feet to about 2,500 square feet.
The excesses of the materialist American Dream are not a post 9-11 phenomenon, and believing in a golden age of balance does not mean that there ever was such an age. There is a reason that the last generation has been called the Second Gilded Age. Unchecked excess drove the American economy into the ditch in the late 1800s. This is truly nothing new under the sun, even though the SUVs may be only a few decades old.
The same is true of those McMansions in the exurbs with all of the SUVs in their driveways. I don't know if Realtors have the same market research, but vehicle manufacturers had strong opinions about SUV purchasers by the early 2000s. Malcolm Gladwell cites Keith Bradshear's 2004 book, High and Mighty:
According to Bradsher, internal industry market research concluded that S.U.V.s tend to be bought by people who are insecure, vain, self-centered, and self-absorbed, who are frequently nervous about their marriages, and who lack confidence in their driving skills.

Brooks doesn't say, but he could, that lots of those bulbous vehicles find their way from McMansion driveways to the parking decks of suburban megachurches every weekend. I don't know if that is necessarily true of Platt's Brook Hills church but I will note that when I looked it up on Google Maps the first vehicle on the street view was a late-model SUV.
Could it be that the suburban megachurch phenomenon is closely related to the megahouse and megavehicle trends? Does it all reflect a deep-seated insecurity that has been with us a lot longer than the Bush-era paranoia that may, itself, simply be magnifying underlying fearfulness?
It is no surprise that a thoughtful, faithful leader such as Platt appears to be would find something missing in the megachurch setting. Fear is the opposite of faith, and in the midst of so much striving for security fear feels rampant. It's hard to be faithful when everyone around you is so scared.
In the face of this, what might the "small house movement" be telling us about the future of faith? I imagine that most of the houses where Jesus broke bread and received gracious hospitality were closer in size and scale to those of the small house movement than to McMansions, and surely house churches were the norm of an early Christianity that could never have imagined today's megachurches.
So, Mr. Brooks, welcome to the party. Better late than never.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

God Is In the Ipod

Billy Jonas recorded God Is In before the age of the ipod so he didn't include it in the lyrics. (Take a minute and click on it and give it a listen. Lovely and incredibly creative song.)
Now that you're back ... God is in the ipod, or, at least in mine, at least this noontime while I was running four miles.
It remains damn hot here, mid 90s. While I love the sweat-soaked feeling that comes with running in this weather I won't claim that running itself feels very good when you can feel the heat rising off the pavement up through your feet.
But music helps ... unless the songs are about death. The ipod shuffled up Sarah Mclachlan's Hold On, a song about the pending death of a lover. Interestingly, it was a good song to run to today with a rhythm that fit my slow pace. I hadn't heard it for a long time, so I listened to it twice. Naturally, the song and the suffering made me think about death for a moment.
It was a passing thought until the next song came along: Black Peter by the Grateful Dead -- "Just want to have a little peace to die/and a friend or two I love at hand."
By the time that one played I was thinking that dying would feel better than running.
I also thought that I'd like to have a collection of songs about death played as the prelude to my own memorial service. Naturally, I'd like there to be several more decades of music to choose from before anyone has to plan the actual service.
As I considered the possibilities, I quickly concluded that I'd like the songs about death to end with the sanctus from Rutter's requiem. At that point in my run, the ipod shuffled to Rutter. I kid you not. It wasn't the sanctus, but another selection from the same cd.
God is in the ipod shuffle, playing tricks just for fun.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

War Is Over ... War Goes On

With far less fanfare than President Bush's infamous declaration of "Mission Accomplished," President Obama announced something only slightly clearer: the end of combat operations. Given that 50,000 American troops -- presumably well armed and trained in the arts of war -- remain on the ground in Iraq the president's Oval Office speech last night seems like a milestone without much meaning.
Since March of 2003, 4,416 Americans have died in Iraq. Untold tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed. We have spent almost $750 billion.
With 50,000 American troops still in Iraq those costs, in lives and in dollars, will continue to increase.
The president promises that we will have no "boots on the ground" in another 18 months or so. I doubt we will get an iconic "helicopter on the roof" photo opportunity of the end of this war, but I am sure that we will spend just as many years counting the costs of this one and trying to figure out why we were there in the first place.
Meanwhile, the death toll in Afghanistan climbs to 1,269, and the cost approaches $350 billion. When will we ever learn ...

Monday, August 30, 2010

Remembering Katrina

The fifth anniversary of Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast got me thinking back to the brief time I spent there that fall in the early days of the clean up effort. Here's something I posted then. Alas, five years on, our theological discourse remains in greater disrepair than does the Gulf Coast, what with mosques burning and Glen Beck's preaching.

Katrina Diaries: Theological Storms

Rita swirls out in the Gulf, bringing sporadic rain and a steady breeze with sweet relief from stifling heat and humidity. No amount of wind can clear the air of the bad theology that clings to the aftermath of Katrina. The other day I heard a radio preacher talking about the judgment of God on the voodoo-welcoming people of New Orleans.
Never mind that a god so narrow minded as to wipe out people seeking various ways to the divine does not deserve praise and worship. A god who discounts as collateral damage the hundreds of people who probably shared the radio evangelist’s faith doesn’t even deserve respect. A jealous and angry god is one thing – perhaps even a Biblical thing – but a god with such lousy aim is worthless. A god who unleashes flood waters on poor people trapped in New Orleans by a system that forgot to evacuate them is not the God of Moses who parted the waters for a people escaping a system that enslaved them.
I met some folks today at a church that sits right on the coast in Biloxi among a row of houses built just after the Civil War. The homes on either side of the church were destroyed, but the church itself escaped with nothing more than a flooded basement and a few damaged doors. One of the people I met there said, “God must have been watching out for his house.”
Less than two blocks away, 30 people died when the motel they were in collapsed. Here’s a god with pin-point precision but confused priorities. A god too busy watching over a temple of bricks and mortar to protect the flesh and blood next door is not the God made known in Jesus Christ, the suffering servant.
But when you wander through streets that look like a war zone, it’s hard not to wonder who and where God is in all of this.
Desmond Tutu has written, “The God we worship is the Exodus God, the great liberator God who leads us out of all kinds of bondage. Do you remember what God told Moses? [God] said, ‘I have seen the suffering of My people. I have heard their cry. I know their suffering and am come down to deliver them.’ Our God is a God who knows. Our God is a God who sees. Our God is a God who hears. Our God is a God who comes down to deliver. But the way that God delivers us is by using us as […] partners, by calling on Moses, on you and me.”
Ah, and therein lies the rub. Lousy theology lets us off the hook. It is fatalistic rather than faithful. If spirit is wind and fire – pnuema and ruah – then surely God can speak to us through the ferocious winds of Katrina and Rita, and surely part of the message is simply this: “here I am; where are you? Here I am, come and join me.”

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Really Dumb Things ...

The Pew Research Center's August 19 poll is getting a lot of attention because it reveals that one in five Americans believe that President Obama is a Muslim, and only a third identify him as Christian. Newsweek is running a piece on line called Dumb Things Americans Believe that leads with the Obama/Muslim opinion.
Of course, one in five Americans also believe in witches. As an astute friend is fond of saying, around election time, "never underestimate the random stupidity factor in American politics."
Never underestimate the power of the noise machine, either. Almost 40 percent of Americans believe that the recently enacted health care insurance reform legislation creates panels that will make end-of-life decisions. Never mind that it is demonstrably false, the idea is out there and it has taken hold.
The noise machine is not confined to right wing delusions. A poll taken last September revealed that a quarter of Democrats believe that President Bush had something to do with the attacks of September 11.
Random stupidity is just that: random and stupid.
Not all of the dumb things Americans believe are foisted upon us by political interests. The Newsweek piece refers to a Gallup poll from 1999 showing that 20 percent of Americans believe the sun revolves around the earth. One wonders about the overlap in this polls.
Clearly, there's a lot of just plain ignorance. Almost half of Americans don't know which of the Abrahamic faiths is the oldest, though one would think that identification might be a clue.
The same poll that found significant ignorance about Obama's faith also found that more than half of Americans think churches should stay out of political matters while 43 percent believe churches should express themselves on social and political issues.
Every time I see such poll results I grieve that we have such narrowly constrained perspectives on both our politics and our faith communities.
That narrow understanding of these critical spheres of life has something to do with some of the really dumb things Americans believe that were not asked about in any of the polls that Newsweek referenced.
Though the Founders would not have recognized them, we now hold some "truths" to be so self-evident that we don't even bother to ask about them in our polling, and they have everything to do with impoverished national political and spiritual life.
Questions, for example, about the nature of empire, the unquestioned dominance of our military-industrial complex, the equally unquestioned place of corporate rule in our politics, economy and media. The blind faith that we put in these institutions tops my list of really dumb things most Americans believe. I'm not holding my breath waiting for a Newsweek piece on them.

Friday, August 20, 2010

on the same bus now

If there are words there I am going to read them. I can't help myself. So I caught a headline from the execrable Washington Times this morning. The woman seated in front of me on the bus was highlighting an article headed, "Muslims, not Americans, Intolerant."
Being a tolerant American, I suppressed the urge to scream.
I wondered if the woman reading was using her red pen to underline points she agreed with, new pieces of information, or the logical fallacies that the piece surely contained beginning with its headline.
Oh, sure, I could be leaping to conclusions about the content. I wasn't rude enough -- or close enough -- to read the body type over her shoulder. I suppose it is possible that the article was merely reporting an opinion survey in which non-American Muslims and non-Muslim Americans were asked, "are you tolerant? and the Americans claimed more tolerance. Possible. I suppose.
But given that the on-line version of the Times today carries three opinion pieces opposing the proposed Islamic community center two blocks from the Trade Center site it seems likely that the article in print was one of those. Perhaps it was the piece that says President Obama is "a cultural Muslim who is promoting an anti-American, pro-Islamic agenda" -- whatever that means. Maybe it was the piece that concludes, "if the mosque is built, the terrorists win." Or maybe it was the one written by Ted Nugent. Ted Nugent? Really? Nugent calls Muslims, "voodoo nut jobs" practicing "voodoo religion." Ever the tolerant American, Nugent does allow that "Not all Muslims are religious whacks who deserve a bullet."
What can one say about Mr. Nugent? Ignorance and hate with a nice backbeat?
On the other hand, the only difference between his vile drivel and the other two is that he doesn't hold anything back. After all, this is a guy who recorded, "Out of Control."
It's clear who, in the opinions of Nugent and his fellow travelers at the Times, should be in control: white, American, Christians.
Letting go of the controlling power of politeness, Nugent has given voice to what so many opponents of the community center don't quite say, but what the headline writer captured perfectly: Muslims are not Americans.
I'm sure that would come as quite a surprise to the four to six million Muslims who are Americans, but why let the facts get in the way of an intolerant screed?
It may even have come as a surprise to my fellow travelers on the bus, where I could look beyond the Asian-American woman who was reading the paper to a Latina woman with her three young children, an African-American woman who appeared to be on her way to work, a snappily dressed young man who looked vaguely Indian, a young African-American man, and two other Caucasians. One of them, a young woman, was wearing a head scarf which, on this 90+ degree day seemed more likely to be a religious statement than a fashion one.
I don't know which ones of us were the tolerant Americans and which the intolerant Muslims. It's just so hard to tell these days when we're all riding the same bus.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Getting Over Ourselves

I have been on the road most of the last six weeks. Interestingly enough, I've managed to be out of internet range most of that time. Six weeks of mostly off line time gets one quickly in touch with one's connectivity addictions.
How long can you go without checking e-mail? Facebook? Your favorite web sites or blogs?
How long can you go without coffee? Chocolate?
I didn't suffer any shakes, but I was certainly well aware of a desire to "check in."
I was also well aware that my checking in or not had little, if any, impact on anyone else. The world will get along just fine without me.
The first step on the road to letting go of our own idolatries probably lies in recognizing that, for most of us, the most important idol is the one who looks back at us from the mirror ... and then in acknowledging that even that one is not essential to the rest of the world.
None of that is to say that we are not important to our families and communities, and that a very few of us are even important beyond those contexts. But none of us is essential. The world will go on without us. It got on just fine before us, and it will keep on just fine long after we're gone.
Coincidentally, perhaps, at a gathering this evening discussing some verses from Luke 6, we concluded that perhaps one of the lesser known of Jesus' beatitudes was, "blessed are those who get over themselves ...." We didn't quite come up with the second part, "for they shall ...."
As for me, I've not gotten over my six weeks in the non-wired wilderness and shall return to the indispensable blogging!
Here are a few pictures from the sojourn.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

General Assembly

A quick slide show from GA, set to David Lamott's wonderful song, "Hope." Thanks, David.
General Assembly

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Burger King of Kings ...

I left Minneapolis for a week of vacation down in Tennessee, out of the frying pan of GA into the fire of July in the hazy, hot and humid southeast. It was all good, and the best (or, something) had to be this church sign of Jesus that brought the car to a screeching halt for a photo op. There's just not much better than roadside religious Americana. The kids call this one "camel Jesus" for some reason. Judge for yourselves.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Blogging the Assembly

Late last night the Assembly voted to commend to congregations and presbyteries a study report on same-gender marriage. Following that vote, GA voted to let that action be the Assembly's response to a series of overtures that proposed changes in the definition of marriage in our directory of worship, and one that would have clarified pastoral rights and responsibilities in relation to same-gender marriages in jurisdictions where such marriages are legal.
The final vote on that proposal came sometime after 11:00, and it passed by about 40 votes. I think some of the commissioners were just too tired to keep debating into the night. I was certainly tired by that point.
The argument that carried the day, it seemed, was that the study document provides an opportunity for the entire church to enter a season of study and discernment about marriage.
So we move ahead. I have deep doubts about the prospects for conversation. It has been our experience over the years that, absent a proposal requiring a vote, the church simply ignores difficult issues until the next GA.
The question is not going away because the people whose lives are most deeply wounded by the church's inaction are not going away.
So, on the whole, GA was a mixed bag.
If nothing else, this Assembly provided one great line. During the marriage and civil union committee's hearings Tuesday afternoon one conservative advocate lamented that over the past half dozen years or so GA has become "a big gay party."
That's one of the best descriptions of the joyous people of God I've seen in a while, so here's my motto for the 220th GA: Pittsburgh 2012 -- The Next Big GAy Party!

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Blogging the Assembly

I don't know what it is with me and laptops these days. Mine has blown some video function again, and since yesterday the screen presents everything as if it's a film negative. Incredibly annoying, and it reduces the world (the on-line world, in any case) to a pale and mostly monochromatic version of itself -- kind of the like the Presbyterian Church, come to think of it.
But a couple of things happened today that offer hope of a more colorful and diverse communion. The one that will get all the attention is the vote this afternoon to open ordination to called and qualified gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. Along with thousands of others, I've worked for a long time and countless hours on that goal, and today is another step on the long road to equality and justice.
Not many will pay much attention to one other item. GA voted down a recommendation to allow for the creation of linguistic presbyteries. Some in the Korean-American church sought the change, but it struck many as a Trojan horse in which theological purity was the real issue. Saying "no" to the proposal makes it more likely that the Korean-American Presbyterian congregations within the denomination will continue to be more fully integrated into the larger church and thus the larger church will continue to be shaped and informed by its Korean sisters and brothers as well as the other way around.
There is a great deal of fearfulness that surrounds these votes: fear of change, fear of the other, fear that the changes will bring about the end of the PC(U.S.A.).
I am afraid that the "changes" my laptop is undergoing may be fatal this time. But the church is much sturdier, and it will endure. I hope that soon both the church and my screen look brighter and much more colorful.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Blogging the Assembly, Day 3

I am just too tired to think about much, though Jay Leno is on right now in the background and he seems to have just hosted a wedding on Latenight. How romantic ... and spiritual.
Well, the committee on civil unions and marriage at GA today endorsed a change to the church's definition of marriage from "one man and one woman" to "two people." It probably won't get us on Leno, but it will open a lot of doors that had been closed.
The committee that deals with ordination issues recommended a rewrite of G.60106b -- the section of our Book of Order that bars ordination of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender church officers. The revised language removes all such categorical barriers.
It was a good day at GA. But now it's almost tomorrow, so I'm crashing.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Blogging the Assembly, Day 2

I heard this story today: in March of 2003, on the eve of the American invasion of Iraq, the session of a Presbyterian church in Iowa was meeting. The pastor asked elders to share their thoughts on the simple question, “what would Jesus do?” As they went around the circle, one elder became increasingly agitated. When it was his turn to speak he said, “if you’re asking me if Jesus would drive a tank into Bagdad, then my answer is no. But Jesus would be wrong!”
That story underscores for me one face of the faithlessness that plagues our nation. We really do not believe in the power of Jesus Christ to transform lives. We really do not trust in the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit to have real power in the real world to bring us even one hour closer to the reign of God’s shalom.
I saw this car yesterday just covered with bumper stickers. One in particular caught my eye. It read, “atheism is the cure to religious terrorism.” Needless to say, I found the sentiment off putting, atheism being its own peculiar brand of religious intolerance.
And I thought, no, for us Christians, the nonviolent way of Jesus is the cure – the only effective response to the violence of terrorism and every other form of violence from the personal and local to the regional or global.
In the Confession of 1967, our Presbyterian forebears spoke a prophetic word calling the church to commend to the nations the way of nonviolence. As the Confession states, “The church, in its own life, is called to practice the forgiveness of enemies and to commend to the nations as practical politics the search for cooperation and peace […] even at risk to national security.”
A lot has changed in the 43 years since that confession, but the timeless charge to be ambassadors for Christ in his ministry of reconciliation has only grown more urgent in a world awash in violence. Just yesterday there was another suicide bombing in Baghdad and a bomb scare that briefly closed New York’s Kennedy Airport. Day before yesterday there was a murder about 8 or 10 blocks from I am right now – the 25th murder this year in Minneapolis.
I can’t help but hear Jesus saying, “enough of this. Put away your swords.”
If we are to be the body of Christ in the world, then it must be us who says, “enough of this. Put away your swords. And your guns. And your bombs.”
To say that with power and authenticity we must learn to live it in our own lives. It is not enough merely to say – or even to sing – we ain’t gonna study war no more, we must also begin to study the nonviolent way of Jesus, and to listen, anew, for Christ’s call to us to be peacemakers.
Our church, through an overture that is under consideration here this week, is inviting the whole church into just such study and discernment. We want to have a conversation similar to that which the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity invited us into a few years back; this time around the practice of nonviolence and its implications for our common life, including asking ourselves challenging questions about our own theology of war and our participation in it.
My church sits less than two miles from the Pentagon, and some of our members are connected to the defense establishment one way or another. We also live and work in Metro DC, often called the murder capital of the world. So this is very real to us.
We do not wish to see the creation of a limited study group that would bring to some future assembly a position paper to be voted up or down and then placed on a shelf to gather kudos and dust. Rather, we encourage the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program to work in consultation with the Presbyterian Peacemaking Fellowship to find or develop low-cost and no-cost ways to engage and facilitate a conversation across the church.
Both programs are already beginning to use social networking and other electronic means to disseminate information, and we believe that is but the first of many possible steps that can be taken.
As our Constitution reminds us, the mission of the church in any generation is to be found in "sharing with Christ in the establishing of his just, peaceable, and loving rule in the world" [G-3.0300c(3)(e)]. We believe GA action endorsing our overture can be a crucial step in fulfilling that mission.
We shall see.