Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Concussions

Last December Chris Henry, who played for the Cincinnati Bengals, died after he fell out of the back of a truck following an argument with his fiance. As part of a study supported by the NFL, his brain was removed and sent to the Brain Injury Research Institute at West Virginia University.

The researchers there found that Henry had "chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) -- a form of degenerative brain damage caused by multiple hits to the head," which was unrelated to his death. What was even more concerning about this discovery in Henry's brain was the fact that he had never been diagnosed with a concussion during his playing career.

Concussions have been suspected as the leading cause of the brain impairment that many former athletes who have played violent sports have developed, but this finding says that it may be more than just concussions contributing to the problem. All violent hits to the head, whether leading to a concussion or not, cause damage and the cumulative effects may be devistating. Henry's family is now wondering whether the CTE even helped contribute to his death by causing his brain not to function properly leading him to become involved in the situation that led to his death.

Although the NFL, as late as three years ago, was denying any link between concussions and later brain impairment, they are now changing their tune and yesterday released a new poster which will be put in all locker rooms talking about the dangers of concussions.

In particular, it states that "Traumatic brain injury can cause a wide-range of short- or long term changes affecting thinking, sensation, language or emotion. These changes may lead to problems with memory and communication, personality changes, as well as depression and the early onset of dementia. Concussions and conditions resulting from repeated brain injury can change your life and your family's life forever."

Michael Wilbon, who is a columnist for the Washington Post and also works for ESPN, has said that his concern is so great that he will not allow his son, who is two at the moment, to play football because of the long-term ramifications. My brother has stopped watching football because he cannot morally justify watching a sport which does permanent physical damage to its participants as a form of entertainment. I struggle with the same issue, but I like football too much at the moment to take that step.

But I do have serious concerns about the long-term impact it has, and the more information that is discovered the more scarry this reality becomes. So, I applaud the NFL for their change in attitude towards this issue and for making this move. It is a step in the right direction, but it is only a small step. I hope that similar posters are also displayed in every lockerroom in America, especially in high schools.

Everything Changes... Part 3

Dez Bryant, a rookie wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, is receiving widespread news coverage lately, but, depending on whose reporting, maybe not for the right reasons. It has been tradition for NFL rookies to carry the equipment of older players. This is just one of many different "traditions" that rookies must undergo. But, on Monday Bryant refused to carry the pads of fellow wide receiver Roy Williams, which were left for him.

"I feel like I was drafted to play football, not carry another player's pads," Bryant said.

Williams disagreed, as did much of the sports media. "Everyone has to go through it," Williams said. "I had to go through it. It doesn't matter if you're a number one pick or the 7,000 pick, you've still go to do something when you are a rookie. I carried pads. I paid for dinners. I paid for lunches. I did everything I was supposed to do, because I didn't want to be that guy."

Another sports reporter, whom I like, said that people a lot better then Bryant have had to carry shoulder pads and do other things so he should basically just do it and shut up.

My take on this is that this is hazing, a very mild form, but hazing none the less, and as we've all seen hazing can have serious negative consequences. It is William's last line that speaks volumes. Hazing takes place, and is allowed to continue, because no one is willing to step up and be "that guy" and refuse to do it. Everyone wants to belong to the group on the inside that is perpetrating the hazing. And then once you are on the inside you become the perpetrator, if for no other reason than the one that Williams said, "I did it, and so you are going to have to do it too."

Studies have also shown that people will self-justify these sorts of incidents on the back end in order to make them seem necessary and important. Because if they were unnecessary and unimportant then you have to face the realization that their only purpose was to demean, humiliate and degrade you, and who wants to say they intentionally chose to do that for no good reason? And so we justify it, and say it's about building "team", "camaraderie", "tradition" and other catch phrases to make them sound good. But ultimately it's not, it's about demoralizing another person in order to make yourself feel better and more important. And hazings finally stop when when someone is brave enough to stand up and point out how wrong the behavior and activities are, that their only purpose is about power and to show who has it and who doesn't.

Sadly to say, this behavior also takes place in the church, and especially in the ordination process. I have experienced things and have witnessed it for others, which I will not share for my own protection and those of the other victims, that should not have ever taken place but did. Although I have not been told this by the perpetrators, but other elders have said it to me, it happens all to often simply for the reason that those now doing it had it done to them, and so they are simply passing it down the line. When does this stop?

My position, and others in hazing situations are a little different than Bryants, because Roy Williams does not control Bryant's future. My future as a minister rests in the hands of a small group, the vast majority of whom use their power with good judgement and kind hands, but there are some who abuse it. And, they can abuse it with impunity because there is no method of redress or recourse for those of us in the process, and so far no one who is "protected" by being an elder in full connection has stepped forward to publicly address it.

There have been some who work through back channels, but unfortunately until someone steps forward publicly and says "this is ridiculous and it needs to stop," it will never stop. We will continue to have to carry other people's pads, and then some of us will force those behind us to do the same in order to justify our own treatment.

Similar things also happen in the local church. I know one pastor who was hounded by a member of the SPRC because she was not working enough or spending enough time at the church. But, what was really at work was that the SPRC member's husband had also been a minister and routinely put his family and other responsibilities on the back burner in order to work at the church. And so now the woman either had to say that her husband had been wrong in the decisions he had made and that he should have spent more time at home rather than making his ministry his primary concern, or she was going to have to prove that he had made the right decisions by forcing someone else to do the same.

In order to justify our own victimhood, and to put a positive spin on what we went through, we perpetuate negative situations and cause the hurt and the disgrace to continue. So, although my opinion doesn't make a difference in this situation, I say good job Dez Bryant, you have made the right decisions and you have my support.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What's In A Name?

A recent story in the Boston Globe Magazine, Karen Tuttle wrote about her son calling her husband by his first name. This was a new trend, and they figured it would pass, but her husband was still concerned about it because, in his family children did not address adults by their first names. She attributed this concern to his African-American background in which an informality in regards to names was a way that whites could, in her words, "demean and diminish" African-Americans. I certainly cannot discount that, but I also wonder about some generational differences that are taking place.

I recently saw Precious for the first time, and would highly recommend it, but during the commentary the director said something interesting. In one of the early scenes at school, a teacher says "boys, let's settle down," to a group of African-American youth. One of the students responds that he is not a "boy." The director said in shooting this scene he had to explain to the actors why a white man using the term "boy" would be considered derogatory to them. They simply did not have them context or history and so did not understand why they would respond the way the script said or why they would be upset. This, of course, is good to hear that this derogatory language is no longer part of their experience.

But, Tuttle's article got me to wondering about what's in a name and the names we use or prefer to have others call us?

One day during worship I inadvertently told the children to go with someone, and referred to her by her first name. She quickly corrected me that she was Mrs. X. I was a little taken aback with the stridency with which she voiced her dissent, but she is of a different generation then I am in which there are certain expectations about these things. There is another member of the congregation who always refers to me as pastor. She could be my mother, but refuses to call me by my first name out of respect for my position. Even Joel insists on being called Pastor Joel, and almost always uses that term even when writing informally.

I, however, would prefer people to just call me John, and this is true even for the youth. People will either respect me or they won't, and I don't think a title will make much of a difference to that reality. I know this is a generational difference. I want to earn people's respect not have it given to me simply because of the seat I sit in on Sunday morning.

There is also a power issue at play, that I think simply doesn't matter to my generation, for many of the same reasons I just stipulated. If you are competent then you will gain respect, regardless of position, and if you are incompetent then you will not be given respect, again regardless of position. (You will be treated with respect, but simply because that is how you treat people not because of position.) Your position might gain you an initial hearing, but that's as far as it will go. If you can't gain my respect through ability and competence, then position will get you nowhere.

I cannot speak for the entirety of my generation, or for those younger, but I find this to be generally true, and so I'm wondering how to reconcile these differences or can I?

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Future of Reading

Two recent items from the newest issue of the Christian Century caught my eye.

The first is entitled "Readers Wanted" and reports that a librarian at the University of Denver says that 47% of the books acquired from 2000-2009 where never checked out. The University of Arizona says they spent $19 million on books over the last decade that have never been used. Both libraries are going to be implementing a new system in which new books will be rented as e-books upon request, and then after demand is shown they may be purchased for the libraries collection.

After writing so much about having to make changes to keep up with changing technology, I can't really say that I am necessarily opposed to this, but I do have some concerns. The first is that, while almost half of the books weren't checked out, more than half were. What is also unknown is how these numbers compare to prior decades. Has there been a real change, or just a perceived one. I certainly know that a lot of research is done on the web today, but does that mean that the books are not needed? Also just because the books are not checked out does not mean they are not used. Which leads me into my second concern.

As someone who studies church history, I am often checking out books that have not been checked out in decades. When I was working on my thesis I would often be the first person checking a book out in the past 75 years, and one of them the library has had for 120 years and I was only the third to check it out. That of course does not mean that others didn't use it in the library, but I was certainly glad the library had it because it would not have been available to me otherwise. I also used Google books, and would not have been able to complete my thesis without them. If you haven't gone tried them you should. Again I was able to gain access to old texts that it would have taken me months to acquire through inter-library loans. Many of the books I used were digitized by libraries out of their collections in order to be more freely available to people who needed them, as well as to preserve them for future generations to use.

We are embarking on a significant change to how books and information are gathered and retained, but I'm not quite ready to say that the way that libraries operate at the moment has fundamentally changed. Even when I was getting books electronically, I was still printing them to read. I have looked at e-book readers and know people who love them, but I'm not quite there yet. Although having a book electronically in order to search them has been a God send on many occasions (again try Google books for this), but I have still gone back to the hard-copy to read the text.

Libraries, to me at least, still serve as the repository for information and they simply must have books that have little interest to most people, because no one else will carry them. If libraries start only being concerned with making sure all their books are popular, then we are in trouble. Most of the books I read cannot be found in normal bookstores, but are often available in libraries. Libraries do need to be concerned about shelving space, and digital books will make a significant difference for this, but when I want to pick up a book on the religious life of American youth I either have to buy it, or check it out of the library. Now there is certainly not much demand for this type of book, but does that mean the library shouldn't have it even if no one checks it out for several years? And if libraries aren't purchasing these books will publishers even publish them anymore?

Which leads into the second blurb entitled "Slow Reading." Apparently there is now a movement encouraging people to slow down their reading by employing two different strategies. The first is to have people read out-loud and the second is to focus on memorization, both of which force people to slow down and focus on the words. Lindsay Waters, an editor for Harvard University Press, said "Instead of rushing by works so fast that we don't even muss our hair, we should tarry, attend to the sensuousness of reading, and allow ourselves to enter the experience of words."

I guess the end gist of this is to go ahead and download that book to your i-pad or kindle, but then read it out loud.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Meadowlark Sang

I borrowed this from the website for First UMC in Westborough:

The man whispered, "God, speak to me!" and a meadowlark sang.
But the man did not hear.

So the man yelled, "God, speak to me!" and the thunder rolled across the sky.
But the man did not listen.

The man looked around and said, "God let me see you," and a star shone brightly.
But the man did not notice.

And the man shouted, "God show me a miracle", and a life was born.
But the man did not know.

So, the man cried out in despair saying, "Touch me, God, and let me know you are here!"
Whereupon God reached down and touched the man.

But the man brushed the butterfly away and walked on.

- Ravinda Kumar Karnani

"Don't miss out on a blessing because it isn't packaged the way you expect."

Friday, July 23, 2010

Everything Changes... Almost

QWERTY. That is a word that you will find in some dictionaries, but not with the definition that should be there. It should say "something that is outdated, outmoded, and holds us back for no sensible reason." Instead, the definition given is "a standard typewriter or computer keyboard."

I just finished Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, which I will write more on later, but he has this to say about the keyboard:

"This book, like probably every other typed document you have ever read, was typed with a QWERTY keyboard, named for the left-most six letters in its upper row. Unbelievable as it may sound now, that keyboard layout was designed in 1873 as a feat of anti-engineering. It employs a whole series of perverse tricks designed to force typists to type as slowly as possible, such as scattering the commonest letters over all the keyboard rows and concentrating them on the left side (where right-handed people have to use their weaker hand). The reason behind all of those seemingly counterproductive features is that the typewriters of 1873 jammed if adjacent keys were struck in quick succession, so that manufacturers had to slow down typists. When improvements in typewriters eliminated the problem of jamming, trails in 1932 with an efficiently laid-out keyboard showed that it would let us double our typing speed and reduce our typing effort by 95 percent. But QWERTY keyboards were solidly entrenched by then. The vested interests of thousands of QWERTY typists, typing teachers, typewriter and computer salespeople, and manufacturers have crushed all moves toward keyboard efficiency for over 60-years." (page 248, emphasis mine)
I knew about needing to layout the keyboard the way it was in order to keep the typewriter from jamming, but I did not know how long ago it was done. I also did not know that changes to allow us to type faster, more efficiently and with less energy expended were recommended as long ago as they were either. The long and short of this that we are using a keyboard that is obsolete and that should have been replaced a long time ago simply because people are too accustomed to it and don't want to make a change. Is that reasonable?

What if the same thing was true of cars (the first model A was sold on this date in 1903), planes, television or even card catalogs, and no improvements were allowed simply because everyone was comfortable with what already existed and didn't want anything new? Now I loved looking in card catalogs because I often found things that I wouldn't have otherwise found, but the same is true to a much greater extent searching for things on-line. So why are we continuing to use this keyboard? (The same might also be said for changing to metric.)

This leads me back to my earlier post, and asking the question, what in the church are we holding onto even though it is obsolete? Do you know why most worship services are held when they are? Because farmers needed time to milk the cows and do other chores around the farm before they could get to church. So worship couldn't be at 8 or even some places at 9, because that would not give them enough time. There are all sorts of these things in which the purpose and necessity have long since passed, but we can't change because change is scary, no one wants to do it differently or learn something different, and after all, "that's the way we've always done it." Those are the seven most deadly words.

Commissioner Gets Tough... Sort Of

Yesterday, MLB comissioner Bud Selig instituted a new policy in which all minor league players will be randomly tested for HGH. That is all minor league players who are not on the 40 man roster of the major league team (which is around 15 minor leaguers). Selig is making this move "to protect the integrity of the game."

I have no problem with this, except to say that the idea that Selig is taking the high ground for integrity is just ridiculous. Minor league players have no collective bargain rights. That means the commissioner can require them to do anything he wants. Make them pee in a cup, no problem, make them take a blood test, no problem. Selig unilaterally instituted steroid testing in the minor leagues, and the players had no say. Of course he did that well after the issue of steroids was already front page news. He could have also instituted a test for HGH at the same time, which was being called for, but he didn't. Instead he waited an additional nine years to do it. I'm glad the step has been made, and baseball is the first professional sport in America to require this test, but please don't gloat about something that you could have and should have done a long time ago.

Now part of the reason given for why HGH was not tested for in the past was the unreliability of the test. That is true, although many think it is still unreliable. But the problem is that the Olympic committee has been testing for HGH for years, and they have been going one step further. They have saved the blood samples so that when a reliable test was made that they could then test retroactively and know who was using and remove any prizes they may have won. MLB could have done the same, but they didn't.

This season is being called the year of the pitcher. Whenever anyone asks about the resurgence of pitching the one reason given is that the "hitters are no longer on steroids." There are two problems with this. The first is that in the testing program half of all the players caught using steroids have been pitchers, so that doesn't seem to work. (although a funny cartoon I just saw, asked how many home runs A-Rod might have hit had he not been facing pitchers who were juicing.) The second problem is that testing has been in place for quite a while, which leads to the question why is this happening now? You either have to say this year is an anomaly of some sort, which is all that can be said since one data point does not create a pattern or trend, or you have to say that steroids testing has not been effective if players were still knocking the ball around, until this year.

Another topic of conversation this year has been the spate of injuries plaguing teams. You need look no further than the Red Sox to see this taking place. There has been a lot of conversation about this as well, with lots of speculation of why this is happening, including working out too much, but what has not come up yet is the simple fact that steroids allow players to heal faster. That was really the major reason to take them.

Regardless of what all the pundits say, I do not believe that steroids can make you hit home runs. Instead, they enhance your performance by allowing you to work out harder and longer, and for your muscles to heal much quicker from those workouts allowing you to continue much sooner then you otherwise would. And, when you do get injured they allow you to heal quicker, getting back sooner. That means you remain healthier longer into the season, and the little nagging injuries that would have slowed down your production through the dog days of summer no longer happened. That is why home runs totals went up. Just look at Mickey Mantle. If he had been able to stay healthy he would have blown Ruth's single season home run record away, just like McGwire and Bonds, but come August and September his production always went down because he couldn't stay healthy.

Remember Andy Pettite's claim about why he used? It was so that he could heal quicker, and most of the players who have admitted to using, especially retired players, have said that was the reason they used. So now we are seeing the direct results of no steroids. The nagging little injuries that would not have been an issue 15 years ago are now putting people on the DL because they are not healing as quickly, and the cumulative wear and tear of the season is dragging them down. And we have a lot more data points for this because this has been happening for a number of seasons. Although I doubt that a reporter will go back and try and track DL assignments before and after testing, it would be a great story to do.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Everything Changes

Here is a list of the top ten companies in the Fortune 500 for three selected years:
Since 1955, there have been 2000 companies on the list. As you see, only two companies are found on all three lists and the list from 1955 represents a very different world. Certainly some of those companies from 1955 are still in existence, but if you look at what the companies in 1955 did and compare them to what the companies in 2010 do you see a distinct difference. Microsoft, Dell and Walmart were not even included anywhere on the list in 1990.

Even GE, which still does "electronics", does so in a very different way. They have changed who they are and what they do in order to stay competitive and to move into a new future. The oil companies still have a large presence, but my prediction is that if they do not make significant changes to their primary product that in twenty years they will not be on this list anymore. Companies must adapt and change in order to survive.

This list is about the mainline church as much as it is about the companies. We have to change if we want to survive. But this is not about survival for survival sake, because that just makes us another company. Instead we need to change because we have a message to offer the world, and we need make sure that people can hear and receive that message. "I am all things to all people," Paul said.

In going out beyond Jerusalem, Paul found that he had to change what was important. Would the church exist today if all those who pushed for following Jewish law had won? Fortunately we will never know because Paul's argument won the day, and the traditions that he considered unimportant to the message and stood in the way of people receiving the gospel message were eliminated. We must do the same.

The high point of mainline churches, of which the United Methodist Church is one, in terms of power and membership was 1954. How many of our practices are based more on 1954 than 2010? How much of what we do is based on a reality and a world that simply does not exist anymore? Certainly there are core things that we need to hold onto, GE is not making donuts after all, but there are lots of other things that we hold as being important that aren't and that are holding us back.

We need to take a serious hard look at who we are and what we consider important and decide if it's central to what it means to be a Christian or if its important only because that is what we have always known. I am a church historian, but I don't want to be a part of a church that exists in the past, I want to be a part of a church that is happening right now and blazing a path for Christ into the future. Are we Esmark or are we GE?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Daily Devotions

One of the things that I have the hardest time doing is setting aside time to do my own personal devotions. One of my goals is to read scripture every day. Unfortunately, like some of my other goals, like exercising, this does not always happen.

My mornings are too busy getting the girls ready to go to school to do it. Then I’m busy as soon as I walk into the office and the day flies by, and then I’m picking up the girls from school, making dinner and putting the girls to bed. After the girls are asleep, if I’m not in a meeting at church then I’m trying to get everything else done around the house that I couldn’t do with the girls awake, and then it’s bed in order to do it all over again the next day. I know I am preaching to the choir about how hectic our lives have become. But, as a result, my personal devotions often get left behind.

I tell myself that I don’t have time to do them, but really it’s that I have not made the time. I am too focused on the immediate tasks to focus on some of the bigger picture items in my life. Because of that I do not gather and take in the spiritual energy that I need in my life. I do not give God the time to “restore my soul” as the 23rd Psalm says, and that means I am not functioning as well as I could if I did take the time. Does this sound like your life too?

In order to try and rectify this, I recently signed up to receive daily email devotions from the Upper Room. The Upper Room is operated by the Global Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church. Many of you have been using the Upper Room devotionals that are found at the back of the sanctuary, and the email devotion is the same is in the printed copy. Each day there is a scripture passage (the passages are often longer in the email version than the print copy), a prayer, thought for the day, and then a short reflection on the scripture passage. The reflections are submitted by Upper Room users from throughout the world.

Because the first thing that I do when I come into the office, or when I log on from home, is to read my email, this allows me to make the devotion a part of my work schedule. I am not putting off other things in order to do my devotions, although that really should be my goal. But, by doing it this way, because I have to read and respond to my email anyways, I make it a part of my routine. The first email I read now is my devotion. My goal is to still increase my devotional time, but the longest journeys always start with one step. If think this might help you as well, you can sign up to receive the daily email through the Upper Room website.

In addition, if you have not been in church for the past few weeks, you have missed a new insert that we are trying out which contains daily scripture readings that correspond to the readings covered on Sundays. I have discussed with a couple of people that these readings could also be sent out via email on a daily basis, published on the church’s website, put on the Facebook page, or however you feel it would help you to make them a part of your daily spiritual practice. However, we need a critical mass in order to get this project started. If you are interested in receiving an email with these scripture readings, or if you have an idea for another way the church can assist in your daily devotions, please let me know.

In order to deepen our relationship with God, we need to be doing more than just showing up for one hour of worship each week. Instead, it needs to be something we do each day. If you do not already have a daily spiritual practice, maybe you’ve just needed an invitation. Well here it is….

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Baseball Musings

It’s been a tough week for the Yankees. First Bob Sheppard died. For those unfamiliar, Sheppard was the voice of Yankee stadium from 1951 until 2008. Reggie Jackson called him “the voice of God.” Players knew they had made it when Bob Sheppard announced their name. I was at the last game where he made an appearance.

Then Tuesday we lost George Steinbrenner, the “boss”. Love him or hate him you could not ignore him, or what he did for baseball and sports in general. He is in many ways the face of free agency, because he was the first owner to really understand its potential not only for the team but for his pocketbook. He bought the team for 8.7 million in 1973, and most people value the Yankees at more than 1.5 billion today, and the YES network is valued even higher.

What he wanted most of all was to win, and win he did. The Yankees had the highest winning percentage, the most pennants and the most World Series titles, over those 37 years. Now some will claim that all he did was to buy those titles, but while he did prove the value of bringing in certain players to complete a team, he also proved that you cannot buy a championship. All you need to do is look at the drought without a title from 1979 to 1996, the longest since the Yankees began winning. He thought that all he needed to do was just get the best talent available and he would win, but he didn’t. Instead, it wasn’t until the started rebuilding their farm system, using that system to trade for key pieces and then promoting from within that they started winning again. The drought in this decade was also related to Steinbrenner forgetting this lesson, but when we started bringing up home grown talent again then we won again.

What makes the Yankees unusual is that they are willing to pay to keep the players they have, and they have the money to do it. Some of this is from the market they play in, but most of it is because Steinbrenner did not make money off of revenues from the team. All that money was plowed back into the team. Instead he made money off the Yankee brand, and he was the first to really understand this potential as well. And what no one wants to recognize is that the other teams that the Yankees play, and MLB in general, all benefited from this. In most years the Yankees are in the top three in attendance twice. That is, they are normally number one in home attendance, and usually number three in attendance for those who come to see them on the road. In addition, nationally televised games which include the Yankees routinely draw more than any other team, especially if they are in the World Series.

As a Yankee fan I can never say that I was a fan of Steinbrenner because what he didn’t understand was that I never paid to see him. I paid to see the players. But also as a Yankees fan I loved him because he wanted to win even more than I do, and he was going to try and field the best team possible in order to try and make that happen, and for that I am grateful.

One aspect that is more troublesome, which many people pointed out yesterday, was that this spate of angry/vicious reality television that we currently witness can be blamed on the Boss. The idea that you can yell, scream, berate, treat people rudely and just the total lack of civility that we witness on television and now are witnessing in more and more aspects of our lives, comes from people seeing how Steinbrenner ran his teams. But what makes him different from what we see today, was that after he was done ranting he moved on. There are lots of stories of him firing someone and then the next day being mad because they weren’t in their office. He also reached out and gave assistance to anyone he knew who needed help. He was even one of the major donors to the Jimmy Fund each year, and that was the side that people never heard about. As I said, love him or hate him you can’t ignore what he did for the game and he belongs in the Hall of Fame.

And as long as I’m on the baseball topic, the idea that the All-Star game “counts” is just ridiculous. No matter what Selig wants to say, it is just an exhibition game and last night was the perfect example. In the bottom of the ninth, down by two runs, David Ortiz singled to lead off the inning. In any other circumstance you would pinch run for Ortiz because he should not be on the bases. However, Girardi didn’t have anyone available off the bench to run for him except A-Rod, who he wanted to save for his bat. As a result Ortiz was thrown out at second on a great play in the outfield, and that was basically the ball game.

It’s an exhibition game mister commissioner, and you saying otherwise doesn’t change the reality. The players do not play any harder just because of what you put on it. They all still want to win. So let’s go back to having the game just exactly what it is, an exhibition game. And if you do want to make it a real game, then let’s make it a real game choosing the best players for the team, which would mean that not every time was represented, and have them play the whole game, rather than cycling every player in because when you do that you end up just like we did last night which makes a mockery of saying the game “counts.”

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

To RCL Or Not To RCL, That Is The Question

The RCL is the Revised Common Lectionary, a list of four scripture readings for each week. It was created by a group comprised of 21 denominations in North America, in consultation with the Roman Catholic lectionary. If you go into any lectionary church you will hear the same scripture readings as almost every other lectionary church on that particular Sunday.

There are enormous strengths to the lectionary. The two churches I have been involved with as a preacher have both used the RCL. I consider it a spiritual discipline because it can make me use texts that I otherwise would never touch. You can still skip over some difficult texts, and there are some not included, but they are at least there to be dealt with. I have covered Abraham's banishing of Ishmael and Hagar, and his sacrifice of Isaac, among other more difficult texts because they were in the lectionary. In some ways it can be used as an excuse for those who don't want to hear these things preached about. In August I will be preaching on a text from Jeremiah that I probably never would have ever chosen myself. I was even going to go with two of the other readings that week, but in my third time through that was the one that spoke the loudest, and so that is where I will go.

However, one of the problems I have with the RCL is that sometimes the themes are a little contrived. As one critic said, if one of the gospels was to mention a zebra, and a zebra was also mentioned somewhere in the Hebrew scriptures you can be sure they would be paired together on a Sunday even though the only thing they had in common was the zebra.

They also have a tendency to make the Hebrew scriptures subservient to the gospel texts, as if the only purpose they have is to lift up the New Testament. Since the only Bible Jesus knew was what we call the Old Testament (and I refer to as the Hebrew scriptures) I think when we approach the texts this way we do damage to them.

I also don't like that it skips around in the gospel rather than trying to tell a more linear story. I know that a lot of this has to do with the liturgical year, but I think other accommodations could be made. This skipping may have worked when most people were biblically literate, but they are not any more and so I think I causes confusion.

But my biggest problem is that it limits the building up on themes over time. There are a couple of cases where this is not the case, such is in some of Paul's letters, but for the most part you preach one week on something and the next week you're on to something else.

This does not give you enough time to provide any background information on nearly anything. Again if the people in our pews knew their bibles really well, this information would not be necessary. But I think we assume knowledge that most people simply don't have, although they might be afraid to admit it.

I would love to do a sermon series on Paul, in which the first one or two Sunday provides background on who Paul is, where he traveled, what he did and why he is important, and then do the next few weeks on "everything you know about Paul is wrong" in which I dispel some of the common myths that people have about Paul. Myths I also believed until I really started reading his texts and trying to understand what he had to say.

This last Sunday's readings are another good example. The parable of the Good Samaritan has so much going on it that to limit it to just one week is really hard to do. I could easily get a four week sermon series out of it. Week one would look at who Samaritans were and look at other stories of Samaritans in the scriptures. Week two would look at what the passages that the lawyer quotes are, where they are from and what they meant. Week three would look at the parable itself, because now people have some background to approach it properly. Week four would look at what we do with the parable. Why we try and create enemies or people to hate and how we move beyond that as Christians. This could go even further, because you could look at what a good neighbor world would look like, how we as Christians can forward that vision, what the church can do, etc.

I always feel so constrained in trying to cram too much into my sermons, which is why the are often longer than I would like them to be, but I want to give background, I want to teach, I want to reflect and I want to make it practical. That is often very hard to do in a short time period.

And so I am always left with the puzzle or whether I should use the lectionary or not. How do I take it's strengths and try to eliminate it's weaknesses? Or do I even try.

Monday, July 12, 2010

No Fences

Here is my sermon from yesterday. The passage was the parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37.

“Kill the cockroaches. They cannot escape. Let us hunt them in the forests, lakes, and hills; let us find them in the church; let us wipe them from the face of the earth. Kill them wherever you find them – don’t spare a single one. Kill the very old, kill the babies. If you do not kill you are a coward! If you are a cockroach, there is no escape, we will find you and kill you. Do your duty. Kill them all.”

That is what was broadcast on the radio stations in Rwanda during one of the worst atrocities in human history. From the beginning of April 1994 until the middle of July of the same year, the Hutu majority of Rwanda went on a rampage. In just three months, at least 800,000 people were killed. That’s more than 260,000 a month, more than 8600 a day. It’s nearly impossible to know how many were killed, because the government not only systematically killed them, but they also eliminated all trace of their existence destroying birth records, baptismal records, medical records, school records, anything which could prove that they had once existed were also destroyed. This was outright genocide, but it was not done with guns or poison gas. It was accomplished primarily with clubs and machetes. 800,000 people were literally cut to pieces by their friends and neighbors, which is what made this crime against humanity so startling. The killings were not limited to just a few people, as in other genocides. A few people cannot murder that many in so short a period of time with just clubs and knives.

Instead nearly the entire Hutu population was involved, because if you did not participate you risked your own life by being considered a Tutsi sympathizer. Survivors’ reports tell of the Hutus who were sheltering them from being killed going off during the day with the killing squads and coming back in the afternoon covered in blood and acting as if nothing had happened. What is clear from the stories of perpetrators and survivors is the total dehumanization of a group of people which took place in Rwanda, and indeed takes place in all atrocities of this sort. The victims were no longer humans, they were cockroaches, and so there was nothing wrong in killing them. Could this or any other atrocity ever really take place if we were to truly answer the question, who is my neighbor?

The story of the Good Samaritan is one of the best known stories in the bible. We now apply that name to anyone who helps someone in need. But because it is so popular, it is also probably one of the most clich├ęd and least understood stories. Whenever I cover this parable in bible studies, people quickly talk about Good Samaritan laws and the dangers of helping those in needs because of potential litigation, and in the end the Good Samaritan becomes this touchy feely happy go lucky guy that we all admire. As a result we miss the truly radical and confrontational nature of this story. The Samaritans and the Jews hated each other. The Samaritans were a group of people who occupied the lands formerly held by the northern tribes of Israel. The Jews said that the Samaritans were a group who were brought by the Assyrians after they had destroyed the tribes of the northern kingdom and the Jews there were taken into exile. They were foreigners who usurped the land. The Samaritans, however, claim that they were the remnant of those tribes. But regardless of where they came from, the real differences and animosities came over religion.

The Samaritans, who still exist today, are also monotheists and have their own copies of the first five books of the bible, the Pentateuch, which differ from the Jewish books. They worshipped and had their own temple on Mt. Gerizim, which had been destroyed by the Jews around 128 BCE, and they said that they were the true keepers of the law. They claimed that the religion practiced by the Jews had been corrupted during the Jewish exile in the Babylon, and that the Samaritans were the ones following the laws as handed down by Moses. As you might imagine, the Jews disagreed with this assessment and said that the Samaritans were the ones who were wrong. Jews and the Samaritans simply did not like each other, and this was not limited to just a small group, this was felt across the board. Some of you may remember back to a sermon pastor Joel preached last fall about Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman in which Jesus calls her a word which is the English equivalent of saying she is a female dog. But, as you also might remember, the Samaritan woman has a faithful response and changes Jesus’ answer. But that story just serves to illustrate that Jews and Samaritans did not like each other, and if you miss that, then you miss the point of this story. So let’s make it a little more modern.

A certain man is on a trip, when he is beaten, stripped and left for dead. Now by chance David Ortiz was passing by, but when he saw the man, he passed by without doing anything. So likewise, Tom Brady was also walking by, but he too passed the man without doing anything. But Alex Rodriguez, or maybe Kobe Bryant, came near and had pity on him and stopped and helped him and made sure he was taken care of. Does that help you too see it in a different way? But really, even that is too tame. Instead let’s say that a certain man is on a trip, when he is beaten, stripped and left for dead. Now by chance Mother Theresa was passing by, but when she saw the man, she passed by without doing anything. Likewise, Martin Luther King, Jr, when he came to the place also passed by without doing anything. But, a member of Al Qaeda came near, and when he saw him, had pity on him, and went to him bandaged his wounds, took care of him, took him to a doctor to be seen and promised the doctor to pay whatever it cost to get the man healthy again. How would you feel then if I was to ask you who was the better neighbor, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr. or a member of Al Qaeda? Is that shocking or upsetting? Is it a sort of a kick in the gut or a slap in the face? That is what it would have been like for the people who first heard Jesus tell this parable. Notice that the lawyer cannot even bring himself to say the Samaritan to answer Jesus’ question about who was the neighbor. Instead he can only say, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Now one of the reasons often given why the priest and the Levite passed by was because of their concerns over remaining ritually pure, and so they couldn’t stop. In other words they put their purity laws over showing compassion to the man. However, most Jewish commentators, and those who have studied 1st century Jewish practices have discounted this reasoning, saying that becoming ritually pure again would be required when they went to the Temple even if they did not stop to help the man, so this could not be a reason. In addition, Jewish law stipulated that they would have been required to stop and assist in burying the body to make sure it was buried by sunset, and that this would have trumped the purity laws. So that simply leaves us with the fact that they saw the man, they ignored him and kept going. The Samaritan, however, we are told was moved with pity, and whatever animosity he may have had for Jews was overwhelmed by his need to take care of the man, to be neighbor.

In 1944, Bob Levine was a 19 year old assigned to the 90th infantry division, when he found himself on d-day surrounded by German soldiers, his leg wounded from a grenade. As he and his fellow soldiers were being led away as prisoners of war, Bob was again hit, this time by allied shelling, and his already wounded leg was shattered. Next thing Bob knew he was lying on a kitchen table turned operating table, with a German doctor standing above him holding Bob’s dog tags and asking in English what the H stood for. The H, of course, identified Bob as Jewish, as a Hebrew. Bob said nothing but thought that he would never live to see his 20th birthday with a German doctor operating on a Jewish American soldier. But, when the anesthesia wore off, he found himself moved again, this time lying in a pile of straw in a barn, with a portion of his leg removed. The doctor, who had been redeployed right after the surgery, also knew that in order to save Bob he had to remove more than just his leg and so he removed Bob’s dog tags so that he would not be identified to the other German soldiers. The doctor did leave Bob with a note explaining what he had done and why he had to remove a portion of his leg, and as a result of the actions of this doctor Bob survived the war. “My story should be shared as much as possible,” Bob said recently, “because people have no idea what war is or what ‘enemy’ means.”

What must I do to inherit eternal life? the lawyer asks Jesus. The lawyer is an expert on the law, and so Jesus turns to him and says what do you read there and so the lawyer quotes first from the Book of Deuteronomy: “You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” although the fourth statement about the mind is not in the original, and then he quotes from the book of Leviticus “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Notice that he does not quote from the ten commandments. In fact, when this story is told in Matthew and Mark, the man asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is, and these are the answers given. But the lawyer wants to know, who is our neighbor?

Laws set boundaries. They establish what is acceptable and what is not, they say who is good and who is bad, and so the lawyer wants to know that his boundaries are okay. He wants to be told that the people he is excluding, the people that his society is excluding are okay to be excluded, but that, of course is not what Jesus tells him. Instead, Jesus says that everyone is neighbor. The Jew is neighbor to the Samaritan and the Samaritan is neighbor to the Jew. To believe that the one person in the story that everyone hates is the one who turns out to be the good one is just unbelievable and totally shatters everyone’s understanding of the kingdom of God, and hopefully it continues to shatter our understanding even today.

Amy Jill Levine, is a New Testament scholar who is also Jewish, which should also shatter our expectations, says “we should think of ourselves as the person in the ditch and then ask ‘is there anyone about whom we’d rather die than acknowledge, ‘she offered help’ or ‘he showed compassion’?’ More, is there any group whose members might rather die than help us? If so, then we know how to find the modern equivalent for the Samaritan. To recognize the shock and possibility of the parable in practical, political and pastoral terms…”

To love one’s neighbor as oneself meant, and still means, rejecting societal standards of who belongs and who doesn’t, of who is okay and who is not, of who is acceptable and who is not, it is to live in the most direct terms into the kingdom of God, it is in fact to see the world as God sees the world – a world without distinction, without borders and without boundaries. As God’s people, as children of God, we are to love without regard and to act through that love to the entire world. It may be one of the hardest things we are called to do for it is just as radical and difficult in our day as it was when Jesus first said it. But Methodists have understood this radical call from our earliest beginnings because we are called to personal holiness, loving God, and we are called to social holiness, loving neighbor. You cannot have one without the other, both are necessary.

The old saying is that good fences make good neighbors, but we know deep down that that’s not true. This came home to me recently during a trip to Plymouth Plantation, where the Indian village is completely open, but as soon you go the English settlement what is the first thing you see? It’s the large stockade fence separating them from the outside and everything that it represents. But mainly it’s about fear, which is almost entirely the only reason why any fence is constructed. Sometimes there are good reasons for fences. When we moved into the parsonage we asked the trustees to put up a fence in the backyard in order to keep the girls away from the pond. A good reason, but it was still a reason driven by fear.

When we let fear dominate our lives and we construct fences, both literally and figuratively to keep out the other, when we construct boundaries and constraints, when we create insiders and outsiders, then we have violated God’s understanding of neighbor. Every act of genocide from the holocaust to Rwanda would never have happened if we all saw the other as neighbor. Wars would never take place if we all saw the other as neighbor. Every act of social injustice would never take place if we only saw the other as neighbor.

Anytime that we try and put restrictions on whom we will love and whom we will not, we have violated God’s message. Anytime that we say that I know God does not love that person then we have missed the gospel message entirely. Anytime that we limit people and try to make them less than human we have violated God’s commandments. Anytime that we see anyone as being excluded from God’s kingdom then we have violated God’s love. God calls us to live lives open to God’s love, which means to live lives without fences or boundaries, to live lives without fear. That is the 1st message delivered after all by the angels about the coming Christ child, “fear not.”

We are to love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength and all mind, that is the vertical, and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, that is the horizontal. That is how we live cross centered lives. You cannot love God without loving neighbor, and you cannot love neighbor without loving God. How do we inherit eternal life? we live cross centered lives. Go and do likewise. Amen.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Who Do We Focus On?

Here is an interesting article from the Alban Intitute on who is the primary focus of congregations. This matches with my prior discussion of phrases that need to go away.

One caveat I have is that I do not like his use of the word "customers," because that means that we have something to sell and that we are there to serve peoples needs and wants. I know that is not what he means by the word, as he illustrates in the third paragraph in talking about "desires," and so he should have found a different word. There is no doubt that people today "church shop" and when they are unhappy with their current church they leave to go somewhere else, especially if the church doesn't "offer what I need." This is something that we must work with, but we should not accommodate to it. We are not Macy's and we are not selling Christ like he's a can a green beans. What we are called to be as church, and as Christians, is more important than that, which I do think the author is correct about. As Methodists we are called to make disciples for the transformation of the world. That is not something we can do sitting by ourselves in our pews.

Funding for Today and Tomorrow
by Dan Hotchkiss

Congregations almost always say they want to grow, but I've come to doubt that many really do. The more accurately people picture how a congregation changes when it grows from family-sized to pastoral, program, corporate and beyond, the more clearly they see that growth means losing the worshiping community they know and love and trading it in for one where they will feel—at least initially—like strangers.

Ministries of service to others pose similar challenges. Like outreach to potential members, serious service to the needy requires donors and volunteers who understand that the church or synagogue exists for others at least as much as it exists to serve its members. Casual generosity will support casual service—sustained social responsibility requires a revolution in most congregations' understanding of their purpose.

This can make it hard to raise funds for growth or service. We like to have it both ways: believing that we live for others, while at budget time demanding that the congregation focus its resources almost exclusively on satisfying the desires (excuse me, "needs") of current members.
The trouble with current members, though, is that in the long run they're all dead. A congregation that intends to thrive for more than a generation needs to have a plan to meet the needs of people who have not yet crossed the threshold. In a congregation where "serving the members' needs" is primary, it is difficult to gain support for real outreach.

This has long been so but is more so today because of increased physical and theological mobility: it is a rare congregation that realistically expects many of its children to grow up and join it as adults. New members, even those who grew up in a congregation, need to be welcomed with the expectation they will be quite different from the current membership. Even to survive, a church or synagogue needs to look outward more than was necessary even a short time ago.
While this is in part a new reality for congregations, it is not new for other nonprofits. Nonprofit boards and executives manage tensions between two main groups: those the organization serves and those who pay its bills. If congregations are different, it is mainly in how much the two groups overlap, making it harder to manage the tension by encouraging the donors to suppose they are the only beneficiaries.

Imagine for a moment that your congregation were another kind of charity: a health clinic, for example, or an art museum. From your perch as director of development or head of staff, you would see several more or less distinct groups of stakeholders: board members, donors, clinic clients or art lovers, staff, volunteers, and so on.

One group is different from the rest: clients for the clinic, art lovers for the museum. These are people for whose sake the charity exists in the first place. If clients are not cared for, the clinic fails despite a comfortable balance sheet. If art lovers do not learn and grow and become more numerous, the museum fails, though its galas may be the poshest and most popular in town.
As a well-trained, up-to-date nonprofit manager, you realize you need two plans: one for the people whose well-being is at the center of the organization's mission and another for the people whose support is necessary for success. Management consultant Peter Drucker called the first group "primary customers": people whose lives will change as a result of the organization’s work. The latter he calls "secondary customers": people whose support it needs in order to succeed. Both are important, but not equally important; secondary customers are important because of what they make it possible to do for primary customers.

Some people may be both primary and secondary customers (a donor who visits the museum, for example, or a doctor who becomes a patient), but the groups have different needs and wishes and they compete for resources. A local YMCA board member complained to me, "We just approved a capital campaign to build a fancy, high-end health club. I don’t doubt we'll turn a profit on it, but at some point I hope we’ll think about how, as a YMCA, it might be good to start some sort of program for young men!"

Some things we do in order to raise money (the health club) may also happen to produce the life changes called for by the mission (healthy minds in healthy bodies), but succeeding with both primary and secondary customers is rarely easy. Nonetheless, we have to do it.

Who, then, are a congregation's primary customers? The member families, certainly—their lives have been transformed to some degree by their exposure to sacred traditions, inspiring examples, and spiritual practices, and the work is never done. As they move from one life stage to another and encounter new temptations, losses, and epiphanies, members learn how to be faithful in new circumstances. Members are primary customers to the extent that the mission calls for their lives to be transformed through the congregation's work.

But if all goes well, only a minority of primary customers are current members. Some never will be. The beneficiaries of social outreach programs and activities—for instance, people fed at a soup kitchen—have their lives changed, if only for a day, though they may not register that the hand holding the ladle had anything to do with a community of faith. When a synagogue publicly denounces hate crimes against Muslims, it makes life better for people low on the Membership Committee's prospect list.

Our mission is to transform the lives of our primary customers, but our revenue comes from our secondary customers. This is as true for congregations as for art museums, clinics, colleges, and the Wikipedia Foundation. How can we formulate two development plans and be one institution?
One way is to appeal to secondary customers as if they were primary. We do this when we ask people to compare their gifts to what they spend on Starbucks coffee, private school tuition, or summer vacation. We do it when we enthuse about how beautiful and comfortable and splendid our new building will be for us. We do it when we call part of a member's contribution "dues" or "fees for service." This plan, used also by the Y that built a health club, does not require donors to understand that the congregation has a purpose beyond serving them.

This plan is popular because it works. So long as leaders do not confuse cultivating donors with fulfilling charitable purposes, it is a necessary part of any gift development strategy.
Another way to bridge the gap is to transform primary customers into secondary ones—which we do when we teach stewardship to members, who eventually understand that the congregation does not exist for them alone but has a precious gift to give to others through their gifts of time and treasure.

Members are both primary and secondary customers. They legitimately expect the congregation to serve them; at the same time, they know—or need to learn—that the mission is to transform the lives of people who have yet to cross the threshold.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Politics in the Pulpit

Where do politics and the pulpit meet, or should they? Here is my reflection from Sunday's July 4th worship service:

Politics in the Pulpit
By Rev. John W. Nash
Galatians 6:7-16

Today is one of those holiday’s that is tough on many ministers. Since we believe in a God whose grace falls on all people, how do we try and combine the secular national celebration with the sacred? This is not an easy question even when the answers appear to be simple. So, for example, I’m sure than many people expected to sing at least one patriotic song during the worship today, but again that’s troublesome for me and for many others, and it’s not as if these hymns are also not without controversy. In 1966 when the Methodist church was creating a new hymnal, there was a lot of debate whether the Battle Hymn of the Republic should be included. The southern churches objected because they said it was a northern song created in opposition to the southern cause during the civil war, which it was. You can see this especially if you look at verse 4 which says “so he (meaning Jesus) dies to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” So, the southern churches saw this as an imposition of the beliefs of the northern churches onto them.

One of the other issues with the 4th of July is the Methodist relationship to the day. Some of you who have taken my class on Methodist history are aware that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, opposed the revolution. He even published a pamphlet, although largely plagiarized, entitled A Calm Address to our American Colonies, in which he expressed his opposition to the colonists' claims of freedom. Wesley was the first theologian and church leader of any significance to come out in opposition to slavery, and he said that the colonists could not make claims about freedom when they simultaneously refused to free their own slaves. As you might imagine this did not make Wesley or Methodists popular people in America. In fact, of the ministers who were sent over by Wesley, all of them except two either returned to England or fled to English controlled territories.

One of those ministers was Martin Rodda, who was arrested and presented to George Washington after circulating royalist propaganda. When Washington asked who he was, Rodda told him that he was one of Mr. Wesley’s preachers. Washington is reported to have replied, “Mr. Wesley, I know; I respect Mr. Wesley; but Mr. Wesley I presume, never sent you to America to interfere with political matters. Mr. Wesley sent you to America to preach the gospel to the people. Now go you and mind your own proper work: preach the Gospel and leave politics to me and my brethren.” I’m sure that’s the position that some of you have as well, and it’s also one I struggle with, and really is the topic of this sermon. What is the place of politics in the pulpit?

Nowadays it seems that we can’t escape the merging of politics and religion, but, again, it’s an area I struggle with, but should I? The Methodist church has been involved in many political issues since its earliest founding. As I just mentioned, Wesley was the first major religious figure to come out in opposition to slavery, and that was the position of the early Methodist movement in both England and America. But for Wesley it was not political, it was moral. In fact it might be argued that the church’s eventual split into northern and southern denominations over this issue might be because it stopped being a moral issue and started being political, which means that it was something everyone could have a difference of opinion on, although I don’t think that’s the best definition of the difference between the two.

In addition, in 1908, the Methodist church created a Social Creed. This document has continued to change and evolve over time, and is now called the Social Principles. It contains what the official policy of the church is on many social issues. Does that mean that I should be preaching on these issues and telling you what the church’s position is on things, as is done in some churches? There are obvious problems with that position, which is simply a matter of consistency. There are two things in the social principles which are said to be incompatible to Christian teaching. Does anyone want to guess what those two things are? War and homosexuality. Now if I was to come in here and give a sermon on homosexuality being incompatible with Christian teachings, not only would I be going against the reconciling statement of this congregation, but I would also be sure to offend a lot of people and make others happy. On the flip side if I was to come in and give a sermon on war being incompatible with Christian teaching, you can also be sure that I would offend a lot of people and make others happy. Ironically, the way it would probably work out is that those who were offended on the first would be happy with the second, and vice versa.

Now I don’t think that not offending people is a good enough reason not to talk about these things. In fact, if Pastor Joel and I don’t make you squirm in your seat and leave you upset with something we had to say at least one Sunday a year then we are not doing our job, because the simple fact is the scriptures contain some very difficult commands to uphold and to carry out and often these come into direct conflict with other things that we hold dear, such as the love of our country.

Bishop Minerva Carcano, who is the bishop for Arizona, is the point person for the council of bishops on the issue of immigration and has been long before the recent events which have taken place in my home state. After giving a speech on immigration reform several years ago in Washington DC, when she returned to her office Bishop Carcano reported that she had received literally thousands of faxes in opposition to what she had said. She and her staff read each one because she respected the people’s right to have their voices heard, but she said each fax contained the same line, so she knew the fax campaign had been orchestrated by someone. Each fax said, “What kind of American are you?”

Her response was that she was a proud America, that America has give4n her opportunities that she would not have had in other places like the ability to become the first Hispanic female bishop in the Church. But, she said she did not see the church’s responsibility to be assisting in and upholding the American government. Instead, she said, it is the church’s responsibility to announce and establish the kingdom of God. That is what we are called to do and to be as a church, and when American policy supports that end then we also support it, but when it is opposed to the message of the kingdom of God then we must also oppose it. Now Bishop Carcano is one of the truly prophetic voices in this denomination, but bishops have a little more prerogative to say such things then do pastors in local congregations, and so I again return to my quandary, what is the role of politics in the pulpit?

Much as we might like to, unfortunately, I don’t think it is a question we can escape, because as Bishop Carcano said we called to announce and establish the kingdom of God and that is inherently a political position. Part of the problem is that we have lost the radical political nature of Jesus’ message with the passage of time, but in the 1st century to proclaim Jesus as Lord was to make a political statement because it was to claim allegiance to Christ and not to the emperor. To talk about the kingdom of God in the 1st century was to make a political statement, because the Romans did not refer to themselves as an empire, as we do. Instead, they called themselves the kingdom of Rome. So to claim allegiance to another kingdom and to say that you were working on bringing that kingdom into existence was to make a political statement. To challenge the priests and the scribes was to make a political statement. To claim that Samaritans and other gentiles were God’s children and part of the God’s plan was to make a political statement. All of these things challenged and provoked the powers that be, which is the reason that Jesus was executed as an enemy of the state. The gospel message was inherently political, but is the same true today?

Bishop Gaspar Domingos, who is from Angola, was the guest preacher at Annual Conference. He reported that in Angola, 60% of the population has no access to clean running water. In addition, there are only 2 doctors per 25,000 people. Compare that to the 575 per 25,000 people in the US. In the US, the infant mortality rate, which is still significantly high when compared to other industrialized nations, is 6.37 per 1000 births. In Angola, their infant mortality rate is 184.5 per 1000 births, and in addition only ¼ of all children born make it to the age of 5. 750 out of every 1000 children born never see their fifth birthday. I think I would be negligent in my duties as a minister in proclaiming the gospel and preaching about the kingdom if I did not talk about that and say that we, as the church, should do something about it. But to me this is moral not political. And most of you would probably agree with me, but that’s thousands of miles away and so it’s probably easier to be dispassionate about it. So let’s go closer to home, and since I’ve already talked about Bishop Carcano let’s discuss immigration reform.

Are immigration issues moral or political? God says to the people of Israel, “you were once a stranger in a strange land,” and so they are told that they are to welcome the stranger as they would welcome God. In the story of Joseph and his brothers we are told that because of a famine in their country that the ancient Israelites went to Egypt for better economic opportunities. Sound familiar? And we are followers of Jesus Christ, who was himself an illegal immigrant having been taken by Joseph and Mary to escape Herod’s command to have all the young males killed and so they fled into Egypt. Good thing Egypt didn’t have strict immigration control. And so we hear these things, but where does that leave us? I’m sure that even in talking about this issue has upset some of you and you feel that I am abusing my power, and maybe so, but here’s where I run into my quandary. As I said, for me this is a moral question not a political one, but I know that many will not agree with that position or what I have to say and so I struggle. When is it right to provide a prophetic voice calling us to live out our ideals? When is it right to call us to account to announce and establish the kingdom of God? When do I give voice to the voiceless? And when do I remain silent?

Adam Hamilton, who is the senior pastor at the largest United Methodist church in the country, once preached a sermon and said that he believed the church needed to be welcoming and affirming of gay, lesbian and transgendered people, and he lost 800 members of the church. That was not a message they wanted to hear. Now don’t get me wrong, liberals are just as guilty of being upset when something contradicts them as conservatives are. We all want to believe that we believe the right things, otherwise why would we believe it? No one wants to think they are wrong, especially about something as important as our faith. And so all too often, and again this is true across the spectrum of beliefs, we start with where we are and what we believe and work backward to give us our conception of who and what God is, instead of starting with who God is and then working forward to create our theology. The result is that we end of creating God in our image, rather than being created in the image of God.

I’m sure we’ve all heard of churches preaching strict political messages, even telling their members whom they should be voting for, which I believe is totally inappropriate. But I would also agree with the Rev. Reggie Joiner, who is a conservative evangelical, who said, “When the church is doing what it is designed to do, there are, finally, social implications.” If it was not the for the role of the church in announcing and establishing the kingdom of God on the issues of slavery, civil rights and the environment, among many social issues, were would we be today? That all happened because someone like John Wesley and Martin Luther King, Jr., were willing to stand up in their pulpit and say this is not right and we need to do something about it. But I remain troubled by the potentialities of what this means because if you don’t like what I say you have several options. One is that you can sit in your pew stewing waiting for the bishop to move me to another church, or you can leave, but that is not what I want.

I don’t want a congregation that only agrees with me. Unfortunately that’s what all too many of our churches have become and that’s wrong. If all the liberals go to one group of churches and all the conservatives go to another group and all the moderates are in still a third group and each Sunday during worship we only hear things that we agree with then we are not hearing the word of God and we are being stifled not only in our faith but also in our relationship with God. If the church is broken up into liberal, conservative and moderate then we are lost. If preachers are only preaching to the choir, so to speak, then we might as well shut the doors, because we cannot be effective, we cannot be the church if we are only hearing things that comfort us or with which we already agree. Jesus certainly had words of assurance but he also had words of challenge, and often harsh words.

We as a body of Christ need to be strong enough to have differences of opinion, to be able to express them openly and honestly, to truly listen to each other and sometimes to just be able to agree to disagree and still respect the other person. If we in the church cannot engage in principled and open disagreement then why would we ever be surprised that it is not being done in the rest of the society? If we in the church cannot agree to get along regardless of where we stand, how can we ever possibly begin to move forward to a more civil engagement in the rest of our lives? But, we also must be willing to hear things that we don’t want to hear and be willing to change as a result. And I have to say I am just as guilty of ignoring this last one as anyone.

I recently began reading a book and at the beginning the author named James Dobson as one of his heroes. James Dobson, for those of you unfamiliar with him is the founder and head of Focus on the Family. Now I have lots of problems with what Mr. Dobson has to say, and I do not believe that he is focusing on my family or those of my closest friends, and so reading his praise of Dobson almost put the book down. But I stopped myself and kept reading remembering that just because I may not agree with everything he has to say does not mean that I cannot get something out of it. And so I kept reading and I have been all the better for it.

In the end, I am still not sure what the correct answer is, or even if there is one. But, I do know there are times when I will be called to make statements from the pulpit consequences be damned. I do not yet have any guidelines for when that will be. All I can do is trust in God in providing me with the answers. But I also trust in God’s grace and God’s spirit to move amongst each of us so that we can truly hear God’s word and do what God is calling us to do. In know that all of us must be occasionally challenged in our faith, otherwise we grow complacent and our faith becomes about us and not about God. We as the church are also called to announce and establish the kingdom of God and sometimes that must mean that we are political, even if we don’t see it that way.

But, what I am also reminded of is that on Communion Sundays, when together we participate in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup that we remember not only Christ’s mighty acts on our behalf, but that we are also re-membered as the body of Christ. That we overcome all those things which divide and separate us and we are reunited at the table as one, as the body of Christ and that as long as we can break bread together that there is nothing which can separate us. And as Benjamin Franklin said to the continental congress when debating the issue of separation from England, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Amen.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Ways To Get Information

In 1792 during the first General Conference in the Methodist church, James O'Kelly and several other ministers walked out of the meeting and left the church after the conference voted down two of their motions for reform in the church. Among those who left was William McKendree. Francis Asbury, one of the two bishops at the time, went down to Virginia and met with McKendree and asked him to ride with him for a while, which McKendree agreed to do.

Now O'Kelly had only had bad things to say about Asbury, and McKendree, who had never spent time with Asbury like O'Kelly had had no way to judge if they were true of not. But, he did like and trust O'Kelly and so he assumed they were true. In spending time with Asbury, however, what he found was different. McKendree ended up returning to the Methodist church because he became disillusioned with O’Kelly when he found that everything he had been telling him about Asbury and his leadership was not true. Instead of finding the tyrant he had heard about, McKendree was “astonished at the Bishop’s sweet simplicity and uncommon familiarity.” McKendree went on to become the first American born bishop, and the last "itinerating" bishop in the denomination.

I though of that story recently when reading The Looming Tower, which I highly recommend, and the story of the information provided to us by Abu Jandal. Jandal was Bin Laden's chief bodyguard. When he was being interrogated by the FBI, led by Ali Soufan the agent in charge, rather than being treated cruelly or being tortured, he was instead treated with respect. When Soufan saw that Jandal was not any of the sweets that were available, Soufan discovered that Jandal was diabetic. So Soufan made sugar free wafers available. This struck Jandal as being so different than anything he had heard about.

Everything he had been told about America and Americans was that we were terrible tyrants, much like everything that McKendree had heard about Asbury. But instead, in his first real interactions with Americans he found that they were not at all like what he had been told, and so he ended up changing his beliefs and became a major source of information to the FBI on Al Qaeda.

Compare that to those who are tortured, humiliated or otherwise treated cruelly. Are we helping ourselves or hurting ourselves? It seems that we are simply reinforcing everything that they have been told about who we are, that our rhetoric is simply that rhetoric and that we do not actually uphold any of the ideals that we claim to have. That we are, in short, hypocrites. Could we have gotten the same information out of Jandal that we did through other means? Possibly, but not likely. But what we would have also have done was to reinforced his opinions about us and further put him into the enemy camp. Instead he became a friend and provided invaluable assistance.

Perhaps we should be holding up Jandal and McKendree as examples of the right way to win people over and get information rather than the ways of Jack Bauer.