Monday, December 26, 2011

Happy Christmas. War Is Over!

December 24
How many clichés about time could be gathered around Christmas trees or hung from their branches like ornamental clock faces? The halls are decked with memory and expectations as cards stretch out as if hung on a string stretched between the hopes and the fears of all years, and the dream that they might be met tonight.
So a very merry Christmas from our household to yours. May your hopes be realized and your fears be, well, as minimal as possible in such times as these.
The annual year-end stock-taking finds the Lederle-Ensign family well, albeit one dog short of this time last year. Our 14 and a half year old Jack Russell, Norm, is killing mice in the great beyond, an image that raises all kinds of eschatological questions. I mean, if your great joy in life is “killing things” then what would happen to the things you kill in an afterlife? Do mice have as many lives as cats? And do they ever live into an existence in which they are no longer hunted by cats or Norm? On another note, how many Christmas letters do you receive containing speculations about rodent eschatology?
Moving along to the surviving members of the family then …

Hannah continues to stake her claim as the studious member of the family, following in her high-achieving mother’s footsteps even as the slacker men in the family try to keep her grounded. She’s pretty much loving life as a seventh grade girl. While the great changes that come with her age keep us on our toes, she’s living into them with grace. As a friend visiting this week said, “What happened to that little girl who used to live here?” Indeed. While she is becoming a young woman, 2011 was the year that she laid claim to a youthful love that could last a lifetime: baseball. We made it to a half dozen Nats games, and Hannah celebrated the 4th of July lying on her back in the outfield grass of a minor league stadium in Chattanooga watching fireworks and clutching a foul ball that came our way during the game. “This was a good day,” she told me as we watched the peaceful bombs bursting in the warm summer air.

Always precocious, Martin has had senioritis since 8th grade. Finally, at long last, he can have it for real! With graduation looming in spring, he’s been busy with college apps and visits this fall. He seems likely to follow his older brother to Mary Washington, and we’re all quite pleased with that prospect if it turns out that way. In the meanwhile, Martin continues his musical explorations, adding the banjo to his mandolin and violin playing – he could be a one-man bluegrass band if he’d grow a few extra arms. He’s planning to deepen his understanding of the southern folk heritage this winter as he hits the Crooked Road as part of his senior project exploring part of the history of the banjo in America. His Bach-on-the-banjo rendition of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring was a highlight of the Christmas Eve service at Clarendon. Who knew that piece could sound so nice on the banjo? I’m not saying that there’s a connection, but the curly haired musician kid always has a cute girl beside him, and the current love interest (a friend from camp) is a brave enough soul to have accompanied the nattily attired (floral print skirt) Martin to the gender-neutral dance that his school’s Gay-Straight Alliance sponsored (and that Clarendon hosted). The father-son picture from the dance was called “the greatest thing on the internet” by one discerning friend on Facebook. Personally I think it was dad’s tie-dyed clerical shirt, but some disagree.

Down the road in Fredericksburg, Bud continues to have a generally fantastic college experience at Mary Wash. He’s moved off campus for his junior year and is sharing a house with two good friends from Arlington. We gathered with the three young men, all the parents and most of the siblings the Saturday evening after Thanksgiving, and it was immensely gratifying to see what nice, smart young men they’ve become, and to realize that there’s every good chance that they will hold onto this core friendship throughout their lives. They are living the all-American college life, and loving almost all of it. Perhaps the most enjoyable part of it for Bud is his continuing relationship with Monica, a delightful young woman who is a first-generation Chinese-American immigrant. Cue My Big Fat Greek Wedding, as we get set to meet her parents at New Year’s. I want to bake a bunt. In addition to the swirl of academic and social circles, Bud has devoted a huge amount of time and energy to the club level ultimate Frisbee team. We got a chance to watch them in a tournament in Fairfax this fall, and came away impressed by the skill and intensity with which these young men play a game that many of us played at a far lower level years ago. In the classroom, Bud has decided to complete a double major in English and computer science, and it seems possible that he may actually be employable upon graduating in the spring of 2013, though graduate school is also a distinct possibility. His summer internship at the Library of Congress will certainly look good on applications to potential employers or schools.

As you’d guess, he got that internship through his good connections at the Library, where Cheryl continues to love her job of eight years. Happily, albeit sappily (and dully) she reports that the highlight of her year was staying married to me. At the risk of too much happy-sappy, I’d say the same is true for me, as I come toward the midway point of my ninth year at Clarendon. We’re looking forward to celebrating 30 years of mostly blissful married life next spring, and are happily soliciting suggestions for ways to mark the occasion. The year has been filled with small but joyous moments and events: a family ski trip to Pennsylvania last March, time at Camp Hanover in the summer, trips to Chattanooga to visit David’s family in July and to Ohio to Cheryl’s mom’s in August, work trips for Cheryl to Chicago and New Orleans (and lots of pizza and Mel Brooks for the left behind), an early-December 15k run to celebrate my 52nd birthday – hey, you celebrate your way and I’ll celebrate mine!

There were, of course, world events of great import during the year, and we played our very small role in them -- delivering cake to the Occupy Wall St. group in McPherson Square, continuing to advocate for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the church and culture, and trying speak out for, and live into a world more welcoming, just and peaceful. Christmastide '11 we celebrate the long-overdue end of the war in Iraq, with hope that Christmastide '12 may see the end of the decade of war in Afghanistan.
I suppose there is something quietly wonderful to be said for living into comfortable middle age where the passing of a year brings mostly simply gratitude for work and family. As Wendell Berry wrote years ago, “Work done in gratitude,/Kindly, and well, is prayer.”
If that be true, then we’ve passed a year of prayers, and as it comes to a gentle close, we lift up a common prayer for our friends and loved ones, that 2012 find you in good health, in good cheer, keeping faith with the work you have been given to do, and planning a visit to our nation’s capital, where there is always room in our inn for you.
Grace and peace,
Hannah, Martin, Dylan, Cheryl and David
A post-script from the next generation: Martin says, ”our pater familias has way too much time on his hands. Please, help us find him something useful to do with that PhD. “ Hannah says, “our father is a ridiculous man.” Bud says, “I love my father very much.” (OK, Bud was not available for a post-script so I had to guess what he might say.)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Love On the Blog

I broke one of my cardinal rules today, again, and was reminded, again, of how incredibly difficult the law of love really is.
Here's what happened: Following a now forgotten link I found myself on Red Letter Christian, Tony Campolo's blog, reading a thoughtful piece posted by Methodist pastor Morgan Guyton. Guyton wrote about Herman Cain's recent statement aimed at Occupy Wall Street that “If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself."
Guyton compared Cain's remarks with John Wesley's insistence that "If I leave behind me ten pounds [when I die]… you and all mankind bear witness against me, that I have lived and died a thief and a robber." In other words, as Guyton puts it, "if I die rich, blame me.
It comes as little surprise that, in a blog post of a Methodist pastor, the founder of Methodism is going to come out looking better than the founder of Godfather's Pizza. Thus Guyton's post, thoughtful and well stated, brought no real surprises.
Perhaps I was lulled into false hope by the thoughtful prose, or perhaps I had just wanted to put off my own writing for a little while longer. But whether it was the prose or the procrastination, I broke own of my cardinal rules: I read the comments.
Like an alcoholic who can't pass up a drink even though he knows he will regret it later, I regularly read the comments section on religion and politics blogs and then feel like I need to take a shower.
In the comments, the scribes and the Pharisees collide with the Sadducees and the hypocrites, and it turns out that we are they and they are we and, pretty soon, we're all covered with the same slime.
I didn't stick with the comments long enough to confirm, again, Godwin's Law of Nazi Analogies, but I'd be surprised if Hitler didn't turn up soon enough. This time I quit soon after reading that:
Leftists, regardless of whether they put a religious spin on their arguments or not all want the same thing. They don't want the advancement of mankind but the opposite. They want to punish success through redistribution so they don't have to work. They want to constantly agitate for "social change" because by calling everyone racists they can further their own political goals. Leftists like to ignore human nature and advocate completely insane policies that grow the size of go and limit human freedom. The list can go on...

And so can the vitriol of the comments.
I wound up on Red Letter Christian today in priming the sermon pump for Sunday, when the gospel lectionary passage is Matthew 22:34-46, which begins like this:
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

It seems to me that loving neighbors, even virtual ones, requires us to use more of our minds than the overly quick and easy vilification of those with whom we disagree. Accusing the people occupying Wall Street and those who support them of opposing the advancement of humankind doesn't get us anywhere at all. Neither does accusing those who support Herman Cain of not caring a whit for the poor.
When Jesus spoke of love he spoke of acting toward others in ways that always sought out the best for the other. He spoke of acting with the best interest of the other place before self interest. In placing love of neighbor in the same breath as love of God, Jesus clearly insists that you cannot have one without the other.
At a bare minimum, on sites that bring together people who are trying, from various points of view, to follow the way of Jesus, the law of love ought to trump Godwin's Law.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Dear Chelsea

I got one of those e-blasts from the Democratic Party. You know the ones; they usually go straight into the recycle bin. But the sender ID caught my eye: Chelsea Clinton. That was new and different. So I opened it and was surprised to be asked only for ideas for the Clinton Global Initiative. No money ask; no voter support solicitation. Just ideas.
Naturally, I was suspicious.
But I did write back. Here's what I said.
Wow! A note from the Democrats that didn't ask me for my money or my vote. Maybe y'all are learning something.
I spent several hours this week with the young adults -- Chelsea's cohort -- who are occupying K St. in DC these days. I'm closer to Bill's age than to most of them, and I hope that the grey heads who still wield some much power will wonder around the various occupations across the country these days and simply listen. Listen to a generation that feels left out, powerless, and betrayed by those of us who came before them and left them with broken systems. They went to schools that didn't work well. They've graduated in massive debt into a jobless economy. The see the global climate changing and they witness an American democracy that is completely dysfunctional in the face of all the rest of it.
As a pastor in a Mainline Protestant church, I also know that the systems of faith -- Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and the rest -- have also failed them.
So first: listen. Then listen some more. And when you've finished with that, then listen some more. After all that listening, check your ideological and party lenses, and then listen even more.
I'd go on about listening if I believed for an instant that anybody on the other end of this e-blast was actually listening. Then I'd go on about some actual ideas, but I don't believe you're listening. That's the biggest challenge we face: learning to listen to each other.

PS: feel free to call, if you're up for an actual conversation. But don't ask for my money or my vote because I'm among the tens of thousands of pissed off liberals who don't believe that anyone in the Democratic Party is listening to anyone who doesn't control millions of dollars.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Shifting Practice

I was reading an article the other day about the local footballers, the ones with the incredibly racist team name and, let’s face it, a long history of racist practices as well. The article concerned the team’s practice habits – not the practices of racism, mind you, but the football practices.
I was struck by the routine the author noted, the deeply ingrained habits of off days and on days, of full workout days and study days. I wondered if, given the teams glaring lack of success over the past decade, those routines ever change. If we are what we practice it stands to reason that if a team constantly loses in games then perhaps there is something suspect in its practice habits.
Oh, to be sure, there’s a lot that goes in to making a team – any team in any game, including work teams and worship teams – successful or not. If you have the wrong players on the team then no amount of practice, no matter how perfect, will perfect the team. Moreover, in every game – from football to politics, from work to worship, from the basketball court to the courtroom – random chance and dumb luck loom large.
Practice, then, amounts to a consistent effort to control the things you can control.
What happens when you change practices?
Years ago I was in the regular practice of beginning my day with a reading that was e-mailed to me courtesy of the Bruderhof community. I can’t recall what they named the daily message, but it consisted of a paragraph or so from some text that arose along the fault lines between spiritual practice and political engagement. I came to enjoy the readings and found their provocations an excellent way to begin my day. They became my morning prayer time.
Then the Bruderhof stopped publishing the service. I cast about for another morning prayer practice. I tried the daily lectionary for a while. Having followed it for a long while years ago I anticipated that it would be a good opening for morning prayer, but found that it simply was not speaking a word to me. I discovered the daily e-blast from Sojourners about then, but their afternoon schedule just didn’t work for my morning practice.
(Even as I write that I realize also that some frustrations in the working relationship between Christian Peace Witness and Sojourners no doubt left me a bit closed to what Sojo was sending out, too. Acknowledging that much also prompts the recognition that some folks cannot stand the Bruderhof community and consider it a cult. My own, extremely limited, contact with them in Pennsylvania years ago, on the other hand, was friendly and positive, so I received their daily e-mails with no internal strings attached.)
I tried on various other practices and none of them fit, so I stopped looking.
Somewhere along the way, without thinking about it as a spiritual practice, I discovered that Garrison Keillor would send me a poem every morning. OK, it’s not really Mr. Keillor I’m sure, but whatever. Back about the same time that the Bruderhof was sending me e-mails Mr. Keillor woke me up most mornings with a poem on the radio. Then the station switched formats and when another local public radio station picked up the Writers Almanac they broadcast it at some ungodly early hour when no one should be listening to poetry – or, at least not this someone.
So I was familiar with the almanac and was delighted to discover that I could get it e-mailed to me. Over the course of the past year it has become my practice to begin almost every day with a poem. Some of the poems are complex and provocative. Others are incredibly sad. Some are silly and playful. Some are political and some overtly religious.
But whether playful or profound, all of them are spiritual. That is to say, each of them touches something in my spirit if I am open to being touched on the given morning.
The poem this morning, Changing Genres by Dean Young, prompted all of this with its simple opening line: I was satisfied with haiku until I met you.
Practice shapes us. Changing practices changes the shape of us. I do not know how the new form of practice is reforming me. I do know that I was satisfied with praying in prose until I started receiving a daily dose of poetry.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Before the Deluge

Perhaps I'm coming up from the depths, or the fog of summer is clearing. Don't know, and perhaps will eventually reflect on the long silence of this summer. For now, in the aftermath of an earthquake and before the deluge of Irene, here's a hymn that I wrote when doing storm cleanup after Katrina.

Amidst the Storm

When raging storms push forth a rising tide,
When rain and wind leave nowhere left to hide,
We cling to branches of the tree of life.

Foundations crumble on the shifting sand.
We search for hope across a broken land.
Amidst the raging storm we seek God’s hand.

The homeless wonder through the city’s street.
They seek small shelter from the scorching heat.
Amazing grace would be so cool and sweet.

When on our own we cannot seem to start,
But neighbors are God’s feet and hands and heart
It is as if You’ve made the waters part.

The captives will taste liberty again.
The suffering find a balm for deepest pain.
The blind will see, the voiceless lift the strain:
Alleluia. Amen.

Tune: Engelberg, copyright, D. Ensign, 2006

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

WWJD or Everyday Ethics on Vacation

According to Google Maps, it's 592 miles from Arlington, VA to Chattanooga, TN. According to my backside it's a damn long drive.
The average American family drives 793 miles on its longest vacation drive, or so says a survey by the American Automobile Association. The note on that survey wasn't clear about whether or not that's a round-trip or one-way total. Either way, it's plenty of time sitting in a car to ponder questions such as WWJD: what would Jesus drive?
I'd like to feel all self-righteous about driving a hybrid, but I know I still contribute more than my fair share to the carbon impact on the world. Driving my hybrid puts 3.4 tons of CO2 in the air each year, according to a handy Yahoo calculator. I can't vouch for the calculator's accuracy on tonnage, but it does provide a stark reminder that my everyday choices have consequences.
What would Jesus drive? If you plopped Jesus down in the 21st century in an urban area I think that most days he'd probably leave the driving to others and use public transportation. The man did love a crowd and a teachable moment. I could have ridden the bus this morning, and if I take my incarnational theology with any seriousness I know that I'm a whole lot more likely to encounter Christ on the bus than in my car by myself.
Or on the train. If the Chattanooga Choo Choo still ran perhaps we'd take the train next time down. Of course, like most Americans, I'm going to drive more often than not for more trips than are necessary.
Vacation time raises a host of other everyday ethical considerations: where do all those souvenir t-shirts get made and by whom and under what working conditions? how about all of that fast food? who picks those crops? what do they get paid for their labor? in what conditions were the animals raised whose lives are given over to our bodies in the sacrament of eating?
Most of us are complicit in all kinds of systems or injustice and inequality, and sometimes the most we can do is acknowledge that fact and hope for grace.
But there are a few moral choices we can make everyday that make small differences in the world, and my own vacation experience reminded me of one: we can all hang up and drive! I don't know what Jesus would drive, and I do know that he loved to communicate, but I'm pretty damned sure he would not talk on his divine cell phone while holy rolling behind the wheel of a motor vehicle.
Is "moral choice" too strong?
Using a cell phone while driving, whether it’s hand-held or hands-free, delays a driver's reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent.
It's just like drunk driving. It's life and death. It's a moral choice.
Why did vacation remind me of this? It wasn't actually being cut off in traffic in Knoxville by a guy with his god-forsaken noggin on the phone. It wasn't passing a crash scene and wondering if distracted driving was involved, as it is in hundreds of thousands of accidents each year.
Actually, it was forgetting my cell phone charger and being out-of-touch for an entire week. It was a great reminder that I am simply not all that important in the great scheme of things, and that the world will get on just fine without me being in constant contact. I can hang up and drive and the world will actually be a better place for it. So can you.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Still Waist Deep in the Mig Muddy ...

U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, envoy to Afghanistan, lobbed a parting shot at the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai over the weekend. According to an NPR report today, Eikenberry told university students in Herat that when Afghan leaders call the United States an occupying force it becomes difficult for him to look the family members of slain U.S. soldiers in the eye and explain to them what their loved one died for.
I'm sure that job is always difficult no matter the circumstances, and I do not envy those who must do it.
On the other hand, what does the ambassador expect from the leaders of a country we've been occupying for almost a decade? Moreover, we're occupying a country with a long and storied history of resisting outsiders.
On top of all that, Karzai is more warlord than president. When you lie down with dirty dogs you're going to get fleas. Reading Eikenberry's comments in the Post this morning -- "I must tell you that I find occasional comments from some of your leaders hurtful and inappropriate" -- I couldn't help thinking that Eikenberry harbors a secret wish to be like Henry Cabot Lodge, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam in the early days of that war. When Lodge got tired of South Vietnamese President Diem he simply green-lighted a coup and had him removed. Ah, the good old days.
Coincidentally, the Post carried a front page story today about the ways that American politicians profit from their incendiary sound bites. Say something outrageous and donors line up to contribute.
It's a lesson that President Karzai obviously understands. His remarks are clearly for the benefit of a domestic audience that has grown weary of Americans bombing their countryside.
Really, what do we expect from Karzai?
Really, what do we expect from the Afghan people?
We can claim the moral high ground all we want. Eikenberry told his audience yesterday that "America has never sought to occupy any nation in the world. We are a good people."
After ten years of war and occupation those words must ring pretty hollow to families whose lives have been destroyed.
Really, what should one tell the survivors -- American or Afghan -- at this point about why their loved ones are still dying a decade on when al Queda is long-gone from Afghanistan, when bin Laden is dead, when the Afghan politicians are making political hay at our expense, when no good purpose is being served by our continued presence?

Friday, June 03, 2011

Bound By More than Loose Connections

I had a lovely dinner last night with a couple whose one-year-old daughter I get to baptize on Pentecost. The family has been worshiping with us at the wee kirk since last fall. Mom joined the church mid-winter. Dad may at some point down the road. He likely would have joined last winter, too, but for a month of out-of-state Air Force training back in January.
None of that is particularly interesting outside of the personal connections, to be sure, but within that simple description lies a tangle of broader connections wound tightly around the challenge of being the church near to the heart of the empire these days.
To untangle this just a bit: a young couple choosing to join a church -- any church -- these days in America is a bit unusual. The cover story of the current issue of Christian Century, "Loose Connections," is all about the rise of American religious participation and the simultaneous decline in Americans claiming a particular religious identity.
We are, as the article points out, no longer the "nation of joiners" that Tocqueville found when he went off to look for America.
I might have explored why this particular couple was choosing to buck the trend, but the conversation followed a slightly different thread into the tangle: the tension between Christian faith and participating in the military-industrial complex of the empire.
We touched on Augustine and Niebuhr, just war and Christian realism, Vietnam and the war on terror. There's plenty of grist for any mill in that list of names and topics, and it struck me somewhere in the midst of the naan that rich conversation over the breaking of bread is the only way we'll ever find common ground. After all, I do a great deal of work with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and Christian Peace Witness, and, from a certain point of view a faithful conversation between airman and peace activist might seem impossible.
From a certain point of view one might anticipate nothing more than the scene from an old Phil Ochs song:
Soldiers, disillusioned, come home from the war
Sarcastic students tell them not to fight no more
And they argue through the night
Black is black and white and white
Walk away both knowing they are right.

But if that is all there is we will never move beyond the loosest of connections. Something more must bind us together, or we wind up loose threads blowing in random winds.
At some point in the conversation on-line discussion came up, and I allowed as how I generally try to avoid any threaded online conversation that deals with anything more controversial than the fate of the Nationals. Godwin's Law is almost as certain as death and taxes, and most on-line discussion forums -- whether conservative or liberal -- leave me feeling like I need to take a shower. I get sucked in occasionally, but mostly I stay away.
Sometimes, though, it follows me. Indeed, some anonymous reader this week left a rude comment (that I deleted) on this blog. Obviously, following Godwin, I'm not surprised by much of what I encounter in comments but this one surprised me because it commented on a comment on something I posted one year ago! It takes more crankiness than I can muster most days to get worked up to rudeness about something from 12 months ago.
If you're still hanging in there with this loose thread you may be wondering just what it has to do with the beginning. Hang in there, this is a big tangled mess!
In another week or so we are going to baptize the baby girl who slept through the last evening. We'll welcome her into the communion of the saints, and to the gathered community at the wee kirk. We'll promise to teach her the good news, help her to follow the way of Jesus, and strengthen her ties to the household of God.
In all of that, we will also welcome her to an institution whose connections seem to be growing looser precisely at the moment when the remarkable communications technologies at our fingertips have given us unprecedented capacities to connect with each other. But, instead of connecting, we call each other Hitler and then retreat ... to what?
Too often, we retreat behind walls and gates and, particularly in this part of the world, the hyper-security of pax Americana.
The church, at its best, offers no such security and builds no such walls. Instead, at our best, we offer a table to which all are welcome, a table at which to break bread and to risk authentic conversation about the most complicated and tangled strands of our broken lives. Something beautiful can be woven out of all of that, if we are willing to risk being honestly vulnerable. With respect, at least, to our own complicity in the violence of the empire it means also holding out our own dirty hands. Fortunately, in addition to the table, we also have a font at which to wash our hands before we break the bread.

Friday, May 27, 2011

What Is Church For?

What is the church for?
I've had a series of rich conversations over the past little while that all come round to some variation on that question. What is the point and purpose of this enterprise that we call the church?
These conversations -- with friends and colleagues both locally and spread a bit further afield, some Presbyterians, some not, some ordained, some not -- have not typically begun with the existential question of "why church"?
Typically the conversations have begun around an aspect or program of the church that needs attention. For example, my Presbytery's camp and conference center is about to be put up for sale and that has occasioned considerable conversation about that type of ministry and program. On a completely other note, the recent change in my denomination's stance on ordaining gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to church office has prompted conversation among progressive friends about what's next for congregations or networks that have worked long and hard to see this change. Elsewhere in the mix, I've had a couple of rich conversations about worship and spirituality.
Somewhere along the line in each of these conversations, in a manner appropriate to the particular focus, someone will ask some variation on this question: what are people looking for?
Perhaps that is the common lament for leaders in shrinking institutions.
We seem to believe that if we just knew exactly, precisely, programmatically what people are looking for then we could supply it, kind of like Ben & Jerry's knows that people are looking for ice cream so they supply it.
It makes sense, in a consumer culture, to assume that if you can identify the point of demand then you can create a supply to meet it. And that does give an answer to the existential question: the church is for supplying whatever it takes to meet the demands of the people under the broad heading of "spiritual products and services."
One could organize a more or less efficient supply side of this equation by drilling down a bit into "spiritual demands" to clarify the nature of those demands. From this perspective, the great challenge to the church lies in perfecting market research and product development in the spiritual marketplace to meet the growing market of the "spiritual but not religious."
That is no doubt true to some extent, and we should get much better at asking such questions. Still, I can't help feeling that there is more there, and that the ways we frame and word the questions are both profoundly important and poorly understood.
Perhaps it is the difference between doing market research and telling parables. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed ... the church is like kudzu.
So, what is church for? Anybody ... Bueller ...?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Finally Comes the Poet

I seem to spend a great deal of my preaching life wrestling with Walter Brueggemann. He's getting on up there in years, so I ought to be able to take him now, but most of the time I still wind up bearing the scars of our encounters. And I've never actually met the man.
At the moment I'm being bounced about by his argument that "obedience follows imagination." More than 20 years ago, in Finally Comes the Poet, Brueggemann wrote:
Our obedience will not venture far beyond or run risks beyond our imagined world. If we wish to have transformed obedience (ie. more faithful, responsive listening), then we must be summoned to an alternative imagination, in order that we may imagine the world and ourselves differently. The link of obedience to imagination suggests that the toughness of ethics depends on poetic, artistic speech as the only speech that can evoke transformed listening. Even concerning ethics, “finally comes the poet”. It is poetic invitation that holds the only chance of changed behavior, a point understood and practiced by Jesus in his parables, which had such ethical bite, but such artistic delicacy.

I think I'd buy it if he'd written it in rhyme!
But seriously, I came across this quote while looking for something else on the web and it got me to thinking about something I ran across a while back in a used book store. The internet and used books stores work much the same alchemy for me, and they often seem to have been "organized" by the same folks.

In any case, I just finished William Prochnau's Once Upon a Distant War. Not quite as old (copyright 1995) as the Brueggemann text, Prochnau tells the tale of the young correspondents who covered the early days of America's involvement in Vietnam. Malcolm Browne, David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Peter Arnet, Horst Faas, Charley Mohr and a handful of other young reporters who found themselves drawn deeply into the turmoil of a failing South Vietnamese government and the inept American efforts to respond.
Halberstam (The Best and the Brightest) and Sheehan (A Bright Shining Lie) went on to write two of the most important reflections on the war. Arnet became one of the great television war correspondents and stayed in Hanoi until the bitter end of the American war in 1975. Faas photographs brought the war into American homes, and his efforts as AP photo editor ensured that we saw the most famous images from Vietnam, including the "napalm girl" in 1972.
Prochnau follows the story from the days when there were only a couple of hundred American advisers in Vietnam in 1961 through the fall of the Diem regime a few weeks before Kennedy's assassination in November, 1963.
The reporting of these young men -- especially Halberstam in the New York Times and Sheehan for UPI -- convinced key leaders in the Kennedy Administration that Diem was not capable of leading the South, and helped create that atmosphere which led to the coup that ended Diem's reign and his life.
Prochnau wrote of the coup:
For the correspondents it was a moment of great triumph. Rarely had such a small group of relatively young reporters attained such influence. Perhaps never had so few redefined the rules for the many who followed. They had exposed the government's lies and cast light on its ineptitude, two of the most fundamental functions of their craft.

By odd happenstance, I read both Halberstam's and Sheehan's Vietnam histories about 10 years ago -- during the months after the invasion of Afghanistan when the Bush Administration was turning its eyes toward Iraq. There was, at the time, a great deal of debate about whether or not we were getting ourselves into "another Vietnam."
I was struck at the time not by similarities of circumstance but by similarities of thought. Desert war was not going to be the same as jungle war. The War on Terror was not going to be a replay of the Cold War. Al'queda was not the Viet Cong. Ben Laden was not Ho Chi Minh. And so on and so forth, but the American media was still marching in lockstep with the government's perspective.
The vast majority of the mainstream media reporting of 2001-3 either supported the war and its justifications outright, or failed to ask particularly probing questions about the Bush Administration's aims and strategies, much less the deeper questions that a march to war ought always to raise.
Almost a half century on from the early days of Vietnam it is easy to forget that the young correspondents whose reporting changed the way America viewed that war themselves entered the work entirely supportive of American aims. They were the children of the World War II generation, and they believed the cause in Vietnam was just. In Hanoi they asked a lot of questions about tactics and competence, and their questioning unleashed a torrent of questions in America that came on the heels of the reporters' triumph in November '63.
"But," as Prochnau wrote (in the rest of the paragraph blockquoted above):
it was a triumph to be tempered. It would take others to see and ask the most important questions of all. Could the United States win with any South Vietnamese government? Should the United States win? Did all those well-meaning, can-do, we've-got-the-answer Americans have any business at all in a far-off and alien land among a people in search of their own unique destiny?

Those are not questions that America's war leaders could ask in 1963. Those were not McNamara's questions. Those are not questions that America's war leaders could ask in 2002. Those were not Rumsfeld's questions. We're still not asking those questions well.
We simply lack the imagination.
Finally, comes the poet.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

About Last Night ...

Yesterday the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) took a leap of faith into a future that looks more like the rich garden of God’s good creation. The Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area became the 87th presbytery to affirm a change to the denomination’s constitution that will allow for the ordination of faithful, called and qualified gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender candidates for clergy and other ordained church offices. With the vote last evening, more than one half of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries have voted to affirm a change adopted by last summer’s 219th General Assembly (which, by coincidence or providence, also met in Minneapolis).
My wife and I celebrated the change over dinner with the first openly gay, partnered elder in Virginia, his partner of more than 20 years, and another friend. This dinner by coincidence, or providence, had been arranged by the friend well before we knew that yesterday, May 10-A, would be the day that would see passage of amendment 10-A, as the measure has come to be called.
The dinner had nothing to do with the church’s politics, and everything to do with my congregation’s long-standing, deep commitment to radical hospitality. The soup for dinner, as well as the idea for this gathering, came from a young woman who has been worshipping with us for a few months. She is the victim of what I would call theological abuse or church malpractice. The details of her story belong to her, but I will simply say that when she suffered a debilitating illness as a teenager her fundamentalist pastor told her adoptive parents that the disease was a result of her sinfulness, and her parents threw her out of the house. To say that she is leery of church is a profound understatement.
But she has found a new experience of faith community at Clarendon, and a huge part of that has come in the incredible hospitality and generosity shown by the couple we shared dinner with last night.
Their lives – their whole lives – testify to their deep faithfulness, and they are not alone. Our little church has dozens of deeply faithful people who welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, care for the lost and the least, and also happen to be gay or lesbian or bisexual. A healthy handful of those men and women have been ordained to the office of elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in defiance of the long-standing ban on such ordinations. They have served (and some continue to serve) their terms of office in good faith, “submit[ting] joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life,” as the newly adopted language puts it.
Like many (some straight, some not) these faithful men and women did not live in “fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness,” as the Book of Order has read from the mid-1990s until today’s change (which becomes effective after the final presbytery votes on July 10.) They lived, instead, in fidelity in same-gender relationships – marriages as true as my own to my beloved of 29 years.
As a new day dawns for the Presbyterian Church, my prayer is that the entire church will get to experience the full range of gifts from the full range of our membership. Together we can bring more light to the vast parts of the nation and the world that still dwell in such deep darkness when it comes to the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Together we can witness more fully and faithfully to the love and justice of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Letter to Jim Wallis

May 10, 2011
Dear Jim,
As a long-time Sojo reader, subscriber, and fan, and as a friend who has worked with your interns and worshipped with your community, I write with deep respect and great fondness, but also with deep disappointment in calling you on Sojourners’ rejection of the “Believe Out Loud” ad. More than calling you on this decision, I feel that I am calling you back to your own organizational commitment to “confront and dismantle discriminatory behavior wherever it may be manifest.”
It is a grace-filled coincidence that I write you on this May 10, the date when my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will finally affirm its own welcome to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community by lifting our long-standing ban on ordaining otherwise qualified, called queer folk.
I know you have a deep, long-standing commitment to justice. I have heard you speak eloquently about your own crystallization of consciousness concerning racial justice in America and, in particular, in the evangelic branch of the church. I know also of your evangelical commitment to scriptural authority.
I have heard you speak powerfully about economic justice, and know that your convictions there are rooted and grounded in scripture. I have heard you tell the story of the Bible from which your seminary classmate cut out all references to the poor to underscore God’s abiding concern for economic justice. You called it, “a Bible full of holes.”
It occurs to me that if you took from the Bible every reference to the word “homosexual” you would still have an intact Bible. Indeed, the word “homosexual” did not exist when scripture was written. Even if you removed all of the verses that conservatives use to condemn same-gender relationships you would have to search pretty carefully to find the handful of holes.
But if you tried the same experiment with reference to welcome to the outcast, love for the stranger, compassion for the least of these you would have another Bible full of holes.
In a week that may also see final passage in Uganda of a bill that could impose the death penalty on those found “guilty” of being gay or lesbian, who is the outcast, the stranger, the least of these in whose lives we are called to see Christ?
As Christians we share an incarnational theology. We understand that in Jesus the truth was made flesh in the world, and thus we understand truth through a relationship with Christ. If we take Matthew 25 seriously, we also understand that part of our relationship with Christ is bound up in our relationships with one another, and, in particular, in our relationships with those who are hungry, who are imprisoned, who are marginalized by systems and cultures and institutions, even and especially the church.
Toward that end, all I can do is offer testimony. I am a witness here, and my understanding of what it means to try to be a faithful follower of Jesus has been shaped in part by my relationships with people of faith who happen to have a different sexual orientation than I have – people in whom I have seen Christ.
Thus I invite you, for the sake of your own faith journey, to come and worship with us at Clarendon. The trip over on a Sunday morning won’t take you more than 25 minutes. Don’t let the Potomac stand in your way; at Clarendon we are dedicated to bridging every divide. You’ll find a gracious welcome from this community where we truly believe that each and every one of us is a creature made in the image and likeness of a loving Creator.
Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Dancing In the Street

A fine season I pick to return to the blog: a bit of Easter, a vote on 10-A, oh, and then the death of Osama bin Laden.
The interwebs were all abuzz yesterday, and social media machine in full flux first with the news of bin Laden's killing, then with reaction, and then with reaction to the reaction.
Perhaps this falls into the category of "reaction to the reaction to the reaction." It's going to get pretty meta in here real soon.
My own reaction to the initial news was rather muted, in the way of reactions to news that comes to you as you are making one final trip to the bathroom before going to bed for the night. Our 17-year-old, who watched the Facebook status avalanche just before 11:00 p.m., told me.
I think I said, "hm, was it diabetes or did we kill him?"
He didn't know yet. I went to bed.
Sleep is a good first response to ambivalence, and the news was certainly not something that I was going to get worked up over at this point. Thus I was initially somewhat surprised to tune in to the remarkable conversations that were taking place yesterday on Facebook, and, I'm sure, in all kinds of other venues.
Obviously, this is a big deal, but the emotional pitch strikes me as completely at odds with the utter disregard most of the American public has at this point for the fact that we are still engaged in two wars that bin Laden launched. If we care so little for the wars at this point, how could be care so much about the demise of the man who spurred them on ten years ago?
Personally, I still can't get that worked up about the end of bin Laden, because I fear that his life is all that has ended of the terror wars of our time.
Don't get me wrong. I didn't encounter anyone who was unhappy that bin Laden had been found, nor, come to think of it, anyone who was particularly unhappy that he was dead. I certainly include myself in those camps, and would put it this way, personally: I'm glad they found him, and I'm not sad that he's dead.
On the other hand, I certainly did not feel compelled to dance a jig when I heard the news, nor even sing, "ding, dong the witch is dead." Although, to be honest, any serious pop culture fan had to have had that song run across the internal screen at least once. Admit it.
I know I did, and it's not just because middle child and I had just that afternoon been talking about how they made the tornado effects for the Wizard of Oz. Bin Laden has been the wicked witch to the west for a decade, the bearded boogie man of countless terror fantasy/nightmares.
I'm not proud of the fact that the movie ditty flitted through, but I'm not particularly upset over it either. There is a struggle within many of us between the thirst for something that balances the scales of justice in the simple terms of an eye for an eye, and the recognition that such logic leaves a whole lot of blindness in the world.
There is embedded in that logic the myth of redemptive violence, the classic American myth, and one that I just don't grasp. Is it that the cleansing fire of violence redeems what has come before? Is it the pax -- not true shalom, but rather a momentary lull -- that comes after the violence that redeems the violence?
In the midst of it all, the realist part of my brain recognizes that bin Laden was not likely ever to be taken alive. He had long declared his intention to die a martyr to his own twisted cause, and the notion of police knocking on his door with an invitation to "come out with your hands up," is absurd. If disease did not kill him, his life was bound to end in violence.
But I cannot escape the irony of his death at the hands of the American Empire arriving on the second Sunday of the season of Eastertide, when Christians celebrate the great "yes" of God over and against the violent "no" of the cross of the Roman Empire.
I found myself wondering yesterday, if Facebook had existed in Jesus' time would there have been a great virtual gnashing of teeth among the good citizens of the empire concerning the way it dealt with its enemies such as Jesus? Would there have been celebration among them that another threat to the pax had been removed? Would there have been concern about the propriety of such dancing? Was it simply business as usual, move along, nothing to see here?
To be clear, there was nothing of Jesus in Osama bin Laden, but there is much of Rome in us.
I don't care about bin Laden. I'll not mourn his death, but I will continue to mourn our collective, violent response to all of the death and destruction that he rained down from the skies ten years ago. I do not believe that his death will bring an end to any of it, but I continue to believe that there remains before us a better, ultimately more realistic path to real peace that is paved by nonviolence. Bin Laden's end, in the end, was a long, but fairly simple task of tracking down one bad guy and shooting him. What remains now, as surely as it did ten years ago, is the far more complicated yet far more urgent task of creating the just social order that will not give rise to another generation of bin Ladens.
When that order dawns it will be news worthy of dancing in the streets.

My two cents on 10-A

National Capital Presbytery met Saturday to vote on proposed changes to the denomination's constitution, including the amendment known as 10-A, which would remove the categorical barrier to the ordination of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender candidates for church office. Here's the brief statement I made during the debate.
When we talk about this I always hear so much fear about what will happen if we change the Book of Order.
At Clarendon we have been living into the spirit of the language before us today for the past 15 years. We’ve been quite open about this, ordaining, we believe, the first openly gay, partnered elder in Virginia in the mid-90s.
What happened? A few people left the church, and a great many more have since joined, and we’ve moved right on baptizing babies, confirming young people, observing the sacraments, proclaiming the gospel, comforting the sick and the grieving, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, working for justice, making peace, inviting people into lives of faithful discipleship.
That first gay elder would be here today to vote except that he and his partner of more than 20 years had to go to Florida today to attend the funeral of the neighbor of an elderly cousin for whom they had cared – keeping her finances, arranging her housing, visiting her countless time, going to church with her at her Presbyterian congregation in Florida – during the last decade or so of her 95 years.
I mention that circumstance simply to underscore what most of us have come to know well: that there are countless faithful, compassionate and profoundly gifted Presbyterian men and women in our midst who happen to be gay or lesbian.
It is far past time to acknowledge this simple fact, and to make the way be clear to the ordained service of these men and women who are called to such service. I urge you to vote to approve 10-A.
The amendment passed NCP on a 204-80 vote (with three abstentions), and now stands three presbyteries short of being affirmed. Change is slow, but it is a-coming.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Going Postal, Gone

I set aside blogging for Lent, and am going to pick it back up. The practices that we engage, if they are alive for us, change over time. There's nothing unusual in that. Living things change or they die.
Which brings me to a wistful coincidence. I me Bob Woodward two weeks ago; and I canceled my subscription to the Washington Post one week ago.
I met Mr. Woodward at a fundraiser for the River School, on whose board a friend serves. I thanked him for his reporting, and mentioned that I'd been reading his work since I was a young adolescent pouring over microfiche in the basement of the old Chattanooga public library. He struck me, in person, as the consummate reporter: asking endless questions about where I grew up, where I live now, what I do for a living. It was easy to see how he gets people to tell him things that are supposed to remain unsaid.
Of course, he is far removed from the days that he camped out on people's front steps at night trying to get them to spill the beans about Watergate. (Although he did mention that 8:17 p.m. is the best time to knock on a door.) These days he lives at the center of the Washington media establishment, and has been accused often of being no more than a stenographer for the political powers that be. Joan Didion called his writing style "political pornography."
Listening to his "reporter's war stories" a couple of weeks ago, it struck me that Didion missed the mark a bit. Woodward is not so much letting his readers get an intimate look at the private thoughts of political actors so much as he is letting those actors offer unblessed confessions.
We all want to tell our stories, whether they happen at the center of great events or way over on the edge of the empire or beyond. Woodward serves as a kind of secular priest who listens to the stories with no promise that his confessional booth is bound by a sacramental seal. That he's planning to tell the world doesn't matter. People just want to tell their own stories in their own words, and Woodward has provided a blank page for the telling for forty years.
I am neither a passionate fan nor critic of his work, but I do find the Woodward phenomenon interesting, and he does, in person at least, tell a good tale.
But I do not have to pay the Post to read it, nor get the ink on my own fingers. It's all -- or almost all -- available on-line, which is why I finally joined the ranks of digital news consumers.
There is some sadness in this for me. I've been a daily paper reader (and, as an adult, usually a subscriber) for almost 40 years. But the Post delivered to my driveway in recent years is a far cry from the one that I read as a visitor to DC a quarter century ago, and even from the one we first subscribed to upon moving to the metro area almost eight years ago.
For all of the obvious reasons, the print version of the Post has shrunk considerably. It don't think the daily Post of 2011 is much larger than the Chattanooga Times daily of my youth.
Woodward spoke briefly of efforts to strike a deal with Google that would, presumably, have helped the Post's bottom line, but he did not go into any details about his views on the future of news other than to say that the deal with Google fizzled.
One can, of course, see the dim outlines of the future of news, but nothing is clear beyond the looming death of the daily print edition.
When I told Woodward I am a Presbyterian pastor, he said something kind about the calling, and we traded a few light lines about Calvin, depravity, and grace.
I left thinking that we're not in dissimilar boats: we're both called to listen to other people's stories, to bear them, in some sense; and we both work for institutions in the midst of huge transformations with uncertain futures.
But he's obviously way better at finishing his books!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Why I Won’t Run for Jim Webb’s Seat

Well, to begin with, nobody is asking me to do so and most who know me would be horrified at the though, but the scenario crossed my mind during a conversation yesterday about the possibility that Jesus was serious when he said that thing about loving enemies.
So, to begin again, I have neither the political profile to raise the $20 million it would cost to run a campaign, nor is that $20 million just lying around the house. But that's not why I won't run.
Sure, I have no experience in elected office, nor have I ever sought an office. Moreover, I haven’t spent years laboring away in the process for either major party, nor have I spent time serving on the staff of any office holder. But that's not why I won't run.
On top of those very good reasons, there’s no groundswell of public support clamoring for my participation in the process.
But none of that has stopped plenty of millionaires from ponying up for the experience. (Oh, right – I don’t have the millions.)
But even if I had the millions to create a campaign, I’d never run because I could never be taken seriously.
It’s not that I’m a pastor. There have been dozens of clergy persons who have been elected to the House and Senate over the years including the Roman Catholic priest, Fr. Robert Drinan, who was elected to Congress in 1970 as an outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam , the Rev. John Danforth, an Episcopal priest who served in the Senate for 20 years, and the Rev. William Hudnut III, a Presbyterian pastor who served in Congress in the early 70s and then was four-term mayor of Indianapolis. We Presbyterians are particular attached to the public witness of the Rev. John Witherspoon, who was the only active clergy person to sign the Declaration of Independence.
But even if I did not have clergy baggage to carry, I’d never run because I could never be taken seriously.
I do have some relevant experience, having spent 10 years working for the Council of State Governments, for whom I served as a senior policy manager and editor of numerous state policy publications. I actually am more than reasonably well informed on the issues of the day, and once upon a time wrote extensively on issues ranging from agriculture policy to ethics and campaign finance reform.
But despite having at least a decent understanding of the issues, I’d never run because I could never be taken seriously.
There are dozens of other good reasons why I, like all but about a dozen of 7.8 million* Virginians won’t be seeking the U.S. Senate seat that Jim Webb is vacating at the end of his term in the office. But non of them are the reason I won't run.
I won't run because I’d never be taken seriously. I'd never be taken seriously because if I ran for office I would have to confess that I seek to abolish war.
Imagine a candidate for major public office – or any public office, for that matter – stating that he or she seeks the office in part to pursue the end of war as a legitimate expression of national policy and power. One might get elected in certain small precincts to offices which don’t actually have anything to do with expressions of national policy and power -- mayor of Berkeley, perhaps, or of Woodstock. But gaining admission to the world’s most exclusive club while promising to seek the abolition of war? Impossible.
Even if one had all of the other necessary and desirable attributes that I am clearly lacking, and even if one had all of the money that I am also clearly lacking, not one of the 50 states would send you to the United States Senate.
We are a long, long way from the day when it will be possible to speak of the abolition of war in sophisticated circles and be taken at all seriously.
Of course, there was a time when the same thing would have been said about anyone who dared dream of the abolition of slavery.
Slavery, after all, was once broadly viewed as the perfectly natural order of the world. It was ordained by God and blessed by the Bible, and it had been practiced from the beginning of history. It was human nature. It was, plain and simple, the way things are, the way things had always been, and the way things would always be.
All of which is taken to be unalterably true of war today.
Sure, slavery still exists in the world, but nowhere is it legally practiced. Nowhere is it considered legitimate. War, of course, is not only legal and considered legitimate, it is still broadly celebrated. Our warriors are lionized, and often, as with Sen. Webb, elected to high office. War is the way things are, the way things have always been.
I dare to dream of a future otherwise.
Oh, go ahead and call me naïve. As we say where I grew up, I’ve been called worse by better.
All I know is that the abolitionists of slavery were right and all of those who called them naïve dreamers wound up on the wrong side of history.
The path to the end of slavery was long and difficult, and it included the tumult of war. The path to the end of war will be every bit as long and difficult, but its outlines reach out before us.
Martin Luther King loved to say that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. He borrowed the phrase from an abolitionist. Bending that arc today remains the chief task of those who would create a foundation of justice on which to build a world without war.
*OK, not all of those other 7.8 million people who live in the state are eligible to run. I’d guess that at least a million or two of them are either not 30 years old or haven’t been a U.S. citizen for at least nine years.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

@ # Revolution

My 20-year-old son asked me this week if I'd been following events from Egypt. I said that I'd been reading some of the news reports but that, in truth, I'd followed the news from Tunisia more closely.
We have good friends living in Tunis so we've seen regular updates on Facebook, including photographs our friends took from their front yard of neighbors pushing an SUV down the block. Turns out the vehicle belonged to a member of the hated security forces, and the man knew it would be a target of looters so he'd parked it blocks away from his own home. Of course, our friends' neighbors knew the same thing and they didn't want the thing in flames on their block either.
The path of great events turns on thousands of small moments such as that one, but most of those never make it into official news reports. Thus following the events through the virtual eyes of a friend is far more immediate and, frankly, more fun and interesting. So, I told our son, I know more about what's happened and is happening in Tunisia than in Egypt at the moment.
He's been following the news from Egypt fairly closely, though, and finding these first "internet-driven revolutions" particularly fascinating. In fact, he told me, he's been designing a two-person video game based on the events in Egypt. One of the key powers in the game belongs to the person playing the role of the state: the power to pull the plug on the internet.
Our son's response to these global events struck me as perfectly and profoundly suited to his generation of Americans. There's revolution in the streets? Let's make a video game out of it.
I noted this to him and he chuckled. He's joined me for more than his fair share of demonstrations over the years. In fact, he participated in his first anti-war march in utero in Chicago in the days immediately prior to the first invasion American invasion of Iraq in January, 1991. He's been to prayer vigils, peace witnesses and protest marches often during the ten years of the war on terror.
When asked why there are not mass marches in the street in America today, he notes all of the ones he's been in. And then notes the cold, hard fact that we're still engaged in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq despite the hundreds of thousands of people who have turned out for demonstrations over all of those years.
Protest doesn't work, he says, in a refrain that is repeated a million times over among Americans of all ages these days whenever the spectre of taking it to the streets arises.
At the same time, the majority of Americans do not trust the nation's foundational democratic institutions. Only about a third of Americans place much trust in Congress, according to a Gallup poll last fall. The same poll showed that about 50 percent trust the executive branch. The judiciary fares a bit better, at 66 percent.
If government earns no trust and gets less respect, does business fare better? It depends upon what level of business. Americans don't trust big business any more than they trust Congress, according to Gallup research. Small business is far more trusted. Apparently, master Yoda was wrong: size does matter.
Despite such dismal numbers, even big business and Congress score better than American media. According to a Pew survey, less than 30 percent of Americans trust that news organizations will get the facts straight in reporting the news.
We trust Facebook more than we trust Fox News ... or ABC, CBS, CNN, and so on, at least, according to a Reuters report. But I didn't see that on Facebook, so it might not be true.
So, what's the connection between taking it to the streets -- or not -- and our general mistrust of large organizations and, more to the point, of democratic institutions and news organizations?
While there is certainly a strong case to be made that our relative affluence plays a significant role, the last three years have seen widespread economic anxiety and the financial and housing crises have harmed tens of millions of Americans.
Although there have been in the past year a few large demonstrations in the U.S. from the political Right and Left, the ones here in the seat of power have felt less like transformative political action and more like reality TV, tired political theater or court jesters in action.
In each case, a large crowd showed up for a Saturday event, enjoyed a show, left a large mess on the National Mall, and went home more or less happy. Nothing more than weekend traffic in DC was disrupted. Some ginned up emotions were released. (OK, some real anger resulted from Metro's failure to have enough trains running for the Stewart-Colbert event and tens of thousands -- including yours truly and family -- got stranded on platforms and missed the whole thing.) But nothing was changed, and, in truth, no one came expecting anything to change.
And by the Monday following, it was back to business as usual. Back to your lives, citizens, there is nothing to see here.
But in Tunis and Cairo there is no going back to business as usual. Crowds keep turning out, and not just on Saturdays. One government has already fallen, a second seems likely to go at any moment, and the wave is spreading into other Arab states.
Meanwhile, we continue to be engaged in wars in which the majority has long ago lost confidence and no longer supports, but antiwar demonstrations draw dozens not thousands, and college campuses are as quiet as midwinter snow. In fact, you can tweet up a snowball fight in Washington and draw more people than you can to a demonstration in front of the White House. It must still be true, as Paul Simon sung, that we can gather all the news we need from the weather report.
Millions of American families continue to struggle with unemployment and it may be an entire decade before the jobs picture returns to what it was before the crash. The crash cost retirees, collectively, billions of dollars as pension funds took major stock losses and hits from recession-caused early withdrawals.
One would think that the net effect of all of these losses coupled with record profits on Wall Street would be a lot of anger, but if there's anger out there it's only showing up in foreign media and on blogs.
Clearly, the challenges we face are huge, which brings me back around to the game my son is working on. He said it was pretty simple to design losing scenarios that would occur in the game when choices that the players could make led to unsustainable levels of violence. He was finding it much more difficult to design scenarios for victory.
War is hell. Times are hard. How do we win this game? I don't know, but if you're looking for signs of change that might point toward some answers, don't look here. The revolution will not be televised, but you can follow it on Facebook or Twitter at #revolution.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Trouble With Icons

We’ve put “the Dream” back on the shelf for another year, and we can let Martin Luther King, Jr. rest in peace again at least until this August, when the huge, official monument to him will be dedicated along the edge of the Tidal Basin in D.C., facing across the water at the slave holding President Jefferson. I can’t quite imagine that this was what King had in mind when he spoke of the sons of formers slaves and the sons of former slave holders sitting across from one another.
Of course, there’s a great deal that King probably never dreamed of that has happened to his image and memory. That’s what happens when you become an icon.
During this year’s King Day remembrances alone, Dr. King’s memory has been brought to the defense of the Defense Department and to the offense of homophobia.
DoD general counsel Jeh C. Johnson, in a speech last Saturday, said, “I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our nation’s military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack.”
At a King Day event outside of Chicago, David E. Smith, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, laid claim to King’s legacy on behalf of those who oppose equal rights protections for sexual minorities.
"Martin Luther King was first a minister of God," said Smith. As such, Smith argued, King wouldn’t have supported “immorality.”
Reading these stories brought to mind John Calvin’s attacks on iconography. Calvin hated icons, and he called some who defended images of God and of the saints “raving madmen.” “What, indeed, I beg you, did those paltry little images mean? Solely that images are not suited to represent God’s mysteries” (Institutes 1.11.3).
For Calvin, the problem with icons was that they could not begin to represent mysteries that are fundamentally beyond human comprehension. No icon adequately represents the mysteries of God. For Calvin, only Jesus the Christ could suffice, and him known through scripture alone.
For those of us steeped in the tradition of Calvin, the problem with icons is their silence. Mary, the bearer of God, stares silently at us from her image. She ponders things silently in her heart, even now. This question would probably be perceived far differently by those who have learned to listen to the language of icons. To the Orthodox faithful, Mary speaks.
Dr. King has become our American icon, if not an American Idol. His image is being carved in stone, at this very moment. One imagines quite easily that by this time next year there will be public gatherings on King Day at the King Memorial, and it is not difficult to imagine all kinds of words being put into the mouth of stone in the face that will stare out silently over Washington.
Ironically, King has become an icon precisely because of his speech. Though he is remembered too often for a single speech, he made thousands of speeches in his preaching life, and many, if not most, of them were recorded. The icon still speaks in a language that most of us still understand not yet a half century removed.
Some things have not changed much. During this 50th anniversary year of Dwight Eisenhower’s famous farewell address decrying the power of the military-industrial complex, the United States remains precisely what King called it in April of 1967: “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”
In that same speech – indeed, in almost the same breath – King noted that the Nobel Peace Prize awarded him carried with it responsibilities that superseded the security of any one nation, even his own. Moreover, he went on, his calling to Christian ministry demanded concern even for those deemed enemies of his nation.
“To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I'm speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men -- for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the One who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this One? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?”
How difficult is it, honestly, to substitute Iraqi, Afghani, Talibani and even bin Laden, for Vietcong, Castro and Mao? In this case, the man seems to speak before the silence of the icon, no matter what words lawyers for the Defense Department would put in the stone mouth.
But, with the same commitment to honesty, we must acknowledge that a half century presents a context foreign in many ways to the one King addressed. It is easy enough to say that King, who knew well that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” would have championed the cause of sexual minorities. After all, King’s close advisor, Bayard Rustin, architect of the March on Washington, was a gay man. After all, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, spoke eloquently on behalf of gays and lesbians. It seems obvious that King would have embraced the cause as well. It seems. But that is all, because the man was silent on the subject and the icon does not speak.
That is the problem with icons. It’s what always bothered me about the once ubiquitous W.W.J.D. bracelets. What would Jesus do? Who knows? He’s not here to do it. W.W.M.S. What would Martin say? Who knows? He’s not here to say it.
For good Reformed Protestants, though, those must be the wrong questions, because we do not speak – or hear – the language of icons. Thus we cannot be faithful, as we understand faithfulness, by lifting up an icon … and bringing it down on an opponent’s head. That is to say, invoking King to win an argument is no more helpful than citing scripture in the same context. It’s really not that different than following Godwin’s Lawreductio ad Hitlerum in any on-line discussion – but with a nicer conversation killer.
The far more difficult path comes in trying to learn the art of listening for the voice of the saint in the icon, and then living out his wisdom in a context that would be foreign to him. That is to say, if you believe, as I do, that King – following Jesus – would extend love, welcome, and embrace to his GLBT neighbor, then go and do likewise. If you believe that King – following Jesus – would oppose the ongoing wars of our nation, then go and do likewise.
In the meanwhile, let the icon rest in peace … at least until August.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Reflections on the Rampage

Every time someone commits a rampage killing my mind turns back to the Friday after Easter, 2000. We lived in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh, and our sons were in elementary school. With our infant daughter in tow, we picked the boys up after school and were advised to go directly home because there were police reports of a shooting in the area.
At home just a few minutes later the phone rang, and it was the senior pastor at the church where I was an associate pastor. He informed me that he was at the home of church members whose 34-year-old son had been arrested following a shooting spree that left five people dead and another grievously wounded. Over the course of the next several hours the story unfolded.
Richard Baumhammers, who had grown up in the church, graduated from Mt. Lebanon High School, and Kent State University (my alma mater) and gone on to finish law school, had gone on a shooting rampage targeting victims by their race, religion or ethnicity. Killed in the shootings were Anita Gordon, Baumhammers' 63-year-old neighbor; Ji-Ye Sun, 34, of Churchill; Anil Thukar, 31, of Bihar, India; Thao Q. Pham, 27, of Castle Shannon; and Garry Lee, 22, of Aliquippa. Sandip Patel, 32, of Plum, paralyzed by his wounds, died of complications from pneumonia Feb. 3, 2007.
In the church world, the Sunday after Easter is widely known as "low Sunday," and less affectionately known as "associate pastor Sunday." Clearly the sermon that I had written was not going to preach on that particular Sunday in that particular church.
I don't remember much about that Sunday at this point. We sang "A Balm in Gilead," and I may have called the sermon that. I quoted a scene from Elie Wiesel's Holocaust memoir, Night, in which one prisoner turns to another, after witnessing the execution of a child, and asks, "where is your God now?" There was a reporter from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on hand. It turned out that he was Jewish, and the Night reference was what struck him.
I recall reading his article in Monday's paper and thinking, of all the things I said, he quotes me quoting someone else? A preacher's ego would ask that question, expecting that his precious words would be remembered forever. I don't recall a single thing that I said at this point and I am certain no one else does either.
Which is a long way of getting to a provisional point: none of the back and forth of pundits and politicians and preachers in the aftermath of last week's tragic shooting in Arizona amounts to a hill of beans. None of it will be remembered ten months from now, much less ten years from now. The calls for civility will fade, the arguments about guns will continue and rarely be marked by civility, and someone else will pull the trigger in a crowded store or classroom or workplace.
And we will be searching again for some meaning to make of the violence. We are trapped in a cycle, and there is no simple way out.
But the dead will still be dead, the families still devastated, and, chances are quite good, the young man who caused all of this destruction will be no better understood than he is today. Given that he committed these killings in Arizona, where there have been 24 executions since 1976, rather than Pennsylvania, where there have been three, there's a reasonable chance that he will be dead, too.
I'll never meet Jared Lee Loughner, the 22-year-old accused of firing 31 rounds from a single magazine of his Glock into the crowd last weekend in Tuscon. I did, however, spend a number of hours with Richard Baumhammers.
For about a year after he went on the rampage, I served as Richard's "religious adviser" while he was confined at the Allegheny County jail awaiting trial on five counts of murder. I did not see him until after he had spent several months in a secure mental health facility where they got his medications straight, so when I first met him he was perfectly lucid. He was, in fact, quite lawyerly as he laid out a perfectly rational argument for his actions.
Perfectly rational, that is, if you believed, as he clearly did, that the government was poisoning him, that the barista at the Starbucks was telling him to "kill a Jew," that the traffic pulling onto Banksville Road as he drove down it in the early morning was not merely behind him but was, in fact, following him, that his phone lines were tapped and his e-mail hacked and his right wing political agenda at risk of government takeover.
He described each of these "events" and more as he explained how he decided to do what he did. Government agents, disguised as businessmen and women in plain clothes, walked past him on the sidewalk in downtown Pittsburgh, and from secret compartments in their jackets they shot invisible poison darts into him to weaken him. His mail was filled with government messages imploring him to shoot black people. Government agents at Starbucks told him to kill Jews.
At first he planned only to develop a web site to garner support for his political agenda: returning America to its rightful leaders, white people, and getting rid of "third worlders," immigrants, blacks and Jews. If I remember correctly, there was some gold standard economics involved as well. He hoped to use the web site to launch a political career. Looking back now, I think he imagined himself as a Glenn Beck figure, though that was before Beck rose to prominence.
I don't recall how many times I met Richard, or how many hours I spent talking with him -- probably fewer than ten. I do recall how completely real and reasonable all of this seemed to him, and how crazy it sounded as I listened and watched an obviously intelligent man tell it. In his memory, those "events" were just a real as I was sitting across from him in the jail. I'd guess that they still are, and that his memory of them is more real to him than any memory he might still have of me. I have no qualifications to make any mental health diagnosis, but I know crazy when I see it.
Knowing him raised questions that continue to haunt me, and that come back to me each time someone in America goes on a killing spree:
What does in mean to be "responsible" when you cannot be rational?
How does society hold someone accountable when they have done horrible things, but when they are also clearly seriously, desperately ill and their ability to make rational decisions is so clearly impaired by their illness?
What is the meaning of "justice" in such cases?
What role in the decision-making process of a mentally ill person does the cultural context play?

Last year a judge in Pennsylvania indefinitely delayed the execution of Richard Baumhammers. The judge noted that he was "loathe" to enter the order, but that the law left him no choice. He said, "Part of our problem (with the criminal justice system) is that there seems to be no finality to it."
A bigger part of the problem in such a case is that there is no justice in it, either. Killing Richard Baumhammers will not bring back those that he killed, and, to a great extent, it will simply finish the one thing that Richard himself chickened out on nearly 11 years ago: his own death.
I am quite certain that he intended to commit "suicide by cop." He told me that when he imagined the killings that he committed, (and he had a more or less "reasonable" plan for that afternoon) that he imagined getting out of his Jeep, aiming his weapon over the heads of the police who would inevitably stop him and firing. But when the actual moment arrived he was too scared to do it, so he left the gun on the seat of his truck and surrendered quietly. To die now by lethal injection would simply be the fulfillment of Richard's one desire that made real sense: to put an end to an incredibly sad and meaningless life.
If justice involves balance how does it apply to someone who is fundamentally unbalanced? Where does one life taken for another leave the rest of us, in whose names, the life of someone like Richard Baumhammers or Jared Lee Loughner is taken?
Looking back across a decade so violent that an act like Richard's would probably not even make the front page of out-of-town papers today unless someone otherwise famous is involved, I'm left feeling that we are no closer to most of the changes that could be made to lessen the likelihood of such tragedies.
We remain in love with our guns and enthralled to a theology of redemptive violence. You do not have to read far down the comment threads in any post about the Arizona shootings to find someone suggesting that if only more people in that crowd had been carrying their own Glocks then everything would have turned out just fine. The same threads will also carry variations on "fry the fiend" as if the death sentence carried out somehow redeems us all. Violence will either save us or redeem us, and justice will flow from the barrel of our guns. Whatever comfort such justice provides is surely cold.
Intervention holds little that feels warmer. The stigma that surrounds serious mental illness remains a huge barrier to help for those who suffer such illnesses and to support for their families. I don't know what stories will be uncovered about the mental health history of Jared Lee Loughner, but I do know that Richard Baumhammers' mental illness was well known to his family. He had been in treatment and for years had prescriptions for antipsychotic medications that he was not taking in the spring of 2000 because he did not like the way they made him feel, he did not trust the doctors, and he did not think that he was sick. None of it was simple. None of it was easy. And there was precious little in the way of community support. Even though Richard had been in treatment, it was clear to me that the shame his family felt about his illness had consigned it to a deep dark closet where it lurked like a monster waiting to get out.
The politics of both of those unchanged realities remain incredibly difficult terrain. Public support for mental health services is, like everything else in local, state or federal budgets, constrained by current fiscal realities, and such support never tops the priorities list even when public coffers are flush. As for guns, any utterance of the phrase "gun control" immediately sends the American body politic into two separate, walled compounds between which no discourse is possible, and worthy efforts to reduce gun violence outside the construct of "gun control" are in their infancy.
We all want to make sense out of these spasms of violence. We'd like to be able to place blame, and thus make ourselves feel more secure in the hope that, if blame can be fixed then we can get to the root of the problem and solve it. But meaning itself is one of the victims of violence. In the absence of deep understanding we grasp for easy explanations, and find what comfort we can in them so that we can move beyond this moment and live our lives.
Perhaps what we need most is to not move on, to dwell in the darkness and pain long enough that we come to real understandings that lead to authentic healing. Perhaps we need to remain right here, with the seriously mentally ill until we can find compassion, with the victims of gun violence until we can find solidarity with their suffering, with our political opponents until we can see ourselves in their passion. It is far too soon to move on when we have not yet learned enough to recognize the present moment for what it is.
Richard Baumhammers remains on death row in Pennsylvania, confined to a 6.5- by 13-foot cell for 22 hours each day. We are all in that same cell.