Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A couple of weeks ago, I shared some thoughts about the concept of "empire" and the Christian faith. It generated quite a bit of discussion. Recently, a United Methodist lay woman from Texas, Barbara Wendland has been sharing some reflections on the same subject in her monthly newsletter Connections. It can be found at www.connectionsonline.org. I have also provided a link from my blog. I find Barbara a consistently interesting person to read.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, August 26, 2007

But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way… into Christ.
Ephesians 4:15

I try to be careful when preaching about contemporary social issues. I have a deep commitment to connecting faith and social justice and believe the love which is at the heart of Christian faith entails doing justice. At the same time, how one speaks about the requirements of love and justice matters – speaking the truth in love is an imperative. One of the members of my doctoral dissertation committee in a book he wrote said the following: “Transformational leadership slips into paternalism unless it teaches rather than commands or manipulates.” (William F. May, Beleaguered Rulers, 232). Teaching is important to me. Trained as an ethicist as well as a pastor, I am also deeply aware of the complexities of the issues which surround us, and I have a commitment to honoring those complexities.

With all these cautions and caveats, I nevertheless traverse this ground, as I did today in my sermon. I used a healing story in Luke 13 (vs. 10-17) to say that there comes a time when we need to think deeply about what it means to be a Christian living in the twenty-first century in the United States, and I shared some of my reflections about health care, the environment and our consumption-based economy, and war (focusing on war more generally rather than on our current war). I shared thoughts and raised questions and said that each of these complex topics lends itself to policy proposals, but that I thought such policy discussion occurred best in small groups, not in pontificating from the pulpit.

The sermon seemed well-received, and I greatly appreciated the positive remarks, but one of the remarks I most deeply appreciated came from a retired United Methodist pastor who was visiting from out of town. He told me he really appreciated “how” I said what I said. He told me that he disagreed with some of the things I said, but he nevertheless appreciated how I said it.

That means a lot to me. How we talk about justice matters. Speaking the truth in love matters. My desire to teach, my commitment to honoring complexity as well as honor the connections between faith and justice, my strong belief that Christian social thought and action should be profoundly rooted in Christian faith, can leave others feeling I am too cautious, and perhaps sometimes I am. But when all is said and done, I want to hear that even when people disagree with me, they appreciate how I have said what I have said. That leaves the door open to more conversation, conversation from which both can learn. I am grateful that for today, anyway, I was able to speak in such a way.

With Faith and With Feathers,


From another quarter: Never speak harsh words for they will redound upon you. Angry talk really is painful. The result might crash down on you. The Dhammapada, 133

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Two weeks ago, I went to see the new Michael Moore movie Sicko with my wife and my older daughter. My daughter, who is hoping to attend medical school, had seen the movie already and had found it very engaging.

I remember Michael Moore’s first movie, Roger and Me, a film about Flint, Michigan and the effects the downturn in the U.S. auto industry was having on that community. I liked that movie quite a lot. Though Moore took a few cheap shots, the film was not narrowly political. Instead, it raised significant issues about a community dependent upon one industry for its livelihood and what happens when that industry is in trouble. I have long been interested in basic economic issues and considered writing my doctoral dissertation on Christian faith and economics before writing about Christian faith and political democracy. I was also interested in the film because when I was in the sixth grade my family might have moved to the greater-Detroit area where my dad was going follow his employer, an employer tied to the auto industry. He changed employers and we stayed in Duluth, but Flint might have been my home town. I hope the community is doing well.

Since Roger and Me, Moore has written books and made another movie more political and more partisan in nature. Many would dismiss his work as nothing more than political propaganda, and to be sure, Moore sometimes goes for cheap irony in a way that detracts from what he is trying to say. I did not find his approaching the Guantanamo Bay military detention center with people needing medical care, people who had helped others during the 9-11 crisis, very helpful to the point he was trying to make in Sicko. But his overall point is something we need to pay attention to. Why does the richest country in the world lack a medical system that provides universal access to its citizens?

Currently in the United States, 45 to 50 million people are without medical insurance. Others who have coverage spend a great deal of time and energy arguing with their insurer over coverage issues. Almost every other industrialized country in the world provides better access and most rank higher in measures of quality of health care like infant mortality and life expectancy. Something is broken, something needs to change.

For me, the most powerful part of the film was Michael Moore’s interview with an older Canadian man. When asked why he thought he should be paying for the medical care of others, the man replied that it was just what people did for each other, that we were all in this together. Our country has a wonderful record of innovation, individuality and initiative and we do not want to lose that entirely. At the same time we need to rediscover that sense of community caring, that we are in this together. Our health care system needs to reflect this.

I left Sicko with a deep sense that we can do better as a country in providing health care for our citizens. I believe we have a moral obligation to try, and for me that moral obligation arises out of my understanding of my Christian faith. The policy particulars need to be debated. We need to try a variety of ways to move toward universal health care access and insurance coverage. I don’t have all the policy answers, just a strong sense of the direction we need to be heading.

Interestingly enough, Michael Moore may have come “full circle.” Corporations like General Motors may soon be leading the charge in encouraging our government to find ways to provide health care for our citizens. The cost of trying to do so company by company is proving too costly, is hampering the ability of companies to hire some of the employees it needs. I am not sure Roger Smith is still around, but if he is, I wonder if Michael Moore has asked him for help in his most recent cause.

I am not beyond irony, either, though I hope it isn’t cheap.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, August 12, 2007

Oh, I didn’t die
I should be satisfied
I survived
That’s good enough for now

 Sky Blue Sky, Wilco

That Wilco song is from their new CD, Sky Blue Sky, a CD I am enjoying a lot right now. It is about making it through a difficult time, and the opening image is of a high school band playing. For many, just surviving high school, relatively unscathed and with some degree of mental health intact, is good enough. Those can be difficult years. For others, the high school years seem to be the best years of their lives.

High school for me was somewhere in between. I did better than just make it through. There were a lot of things I enjoyed about that time in my life. There were also heartaches and pain as I tried to figure out who I was becoming. And there was dating – talk about heartache!

About a week ago I attended my thirtieth high school class reunion. East High Wouldn’t Be Heaven Without the Class of ’77. When I think of our class slogan, I also think of the Willie Nelson song, “Sometimes its heaven and sometimes its hell and sometimes I don’t even know.” That’s more like high school! Anyway, I attended my class reunion. I have not stayed in touch with most people I attended high school with, so going to reunions has meant seeing people again for the first time – so to speak – though I did go to my reunion five years ago.

Sometimes reunions can be like high school itself - sometimes heaven, sometimes hell, and sometimes the goal is just to survive (that’s good enough for now). Well my reunion this year was a lot of fun. I saw people I had not seen in thirty years – the woman who was my “date” for the ninth grade dance, the woman I should have asked to the prom but was so shy by the time I screwed the courage up to do it she had been asked by someone else. Sadly, this second woman is a widow. That’s something I had not expected to encounter at reunions quite yet. I chatted and laughed with people who go back to elementary school with me, and people I was confirmed with. I’ve grown less shy over the years, so starting up conversations has become easier. It was wonderful to see all these people, to share warm handshakes and friendly hugs.

But one of the surprising joys of the reunion was sitting at dinner on Saturday with people I barely remember from high school. My wife and I joined two other couples at dinner. For both, it was their first time at a class reunion, and neither of my class mates in the couples came expecting to see former friends. They were not quite sure why they decided to come to this reunion, but there we all were, and it was delightful. We shared stories about our families and our children, about our jobs and about our weddings. We laughed and ate together – and as I read my Bible, feasting is a prominent image of “heaven,” so this was on the “heaven-side” of high school experiences. Good thing, given our old class slogan.

Being able to sit with people who are different, to share common humanity while sharing food, to listen with respect as you hear the life story of other people and to hear in their story and see in their faces something that connects you – that is one of life’s true joys. It is not a joy most of us experience in high school because we are often too afraid to let our vulnerable humanity show. We are still trying to figure out how we will be human and we stick pretty close to others who seem kind of the same, sometimes shunning those who are different. Unfortunately, some of these tendencies stay with people for a lifetime – fear, clinging to the familiar and shunning the unfamiliar – and a little of that was in evidence at my reunion. Truth be told, we are all tempted to give in to such things from time to time. It is nice when we can get beyond them and simply enjoy the gift that comes from other people, and share the gift that is in one’s own life.

And it’s just five years to the next reunion.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Monday, August 6, 2007

Back in the saddle again.
Gene Autrey?

August 1 I was in Billings, Montana staying with some relatives when I heard the news. A bridge had collapsed along interstate 35W in Minneapolis, near the University of Minnesota and the Mississippi River. At first I thought it was the University Avenue overpass, but then we turned the television on and discovered that the main bridge over the Mississippi had crumbled. Cars were in the river, people were scrambling to help. A school bus could clearly be seen as cameras focused on the bridge – a bridge which only moments before stood high above the mighty Mississippi was now floating in it. Beneath part of the fallen structure a train was also crushed.

I was stunned. I have been on that bridge dozens of times and was planning on being on it again in about a week’s time. When things like this occur we want to know why. Investigations will be undertaken, fingers will be pointed. There will be some greater understanding of why it happened – technically, scientifically. We may even gain some insight into why it happened from a more social perspective. Were there misjudgments made? Have we invested too little in our infrastructure? Have too many of us become so allergic to taxes and government that we forget that tax dollars pay to keep bridges standing. Not every bridge is headed for some sparsely populated island in Alaska. We may gain some more insight into that part of the “why?” and maybe when fingers get pointed we will have to point some in our own direction.

There is yet another dimension of the “why?” question. We might write it “WHY?” Why do such things happen at all? Why did some live and some die in this tragic accident? Did someone, or Someone, choose this, or allow this? I have good friends, people of deep Christian faith who I respect, who would say that God, if God did not plan this, God allowed it to happen for reasons fathomable to God alone. While such WHY? questions may never be answered definitively, I beg to differ. I don’t know why some things happen, why most walked away from the Mississippi river that day, but some did not, and why it was certain people who did not. Things happen and I don’t think God orchestrates of allows every tragedy that occurs in our lives.

On our way to Billings, we drove through wild fires that had been springing up in western Montana. The ground was extremely dry and lightening ignited fires that raged out of control. We spotted one on a hillside along Interstate 90 (kind of a sad week for interstates I guess) that was threatening some homes. We know why the fires are burning – it is dry and lightening stuck, but perhaps not WHY? On a much, much less significant scale, on July 28 I was sitting outside a bookstore in Kalispell, Montana when I received a call from my mother. She had been at our house and found that the refrigerator we had repaired three days before we left town for Montana did not stay repaired. It had quit working completely! If felt for a few moments like the older woman who was walking past, doing a mall fitness walk, had slugged me in the stomach, knocking the wind right out of me. Aren’t vacations fun!

Things happen. We can and should do all we can to prevent tragedies – take better care of our infrastructure, fight fires with the best of our skill and courage. Even when we do our best, tragedies will happen. In the end, we might find that unfortunately we did about what we could to I-35W, and still it fell that day into the Mississippi – who can say. Things happen, and sometimes there is no good reason why.

In the face of this, three things seem to make a lot of sense. We should learn what we can from all of our experiences. While I don’t believe everything happens for a specific reason, I believe we can learn from most everything that happens, and grow from most of our experiences. I was not terribly thrilled to think about our now melting ice cream or our warm butter or sour milk on July 28. But we had a wedding to attend that afternoon, and there would be a celebration with food and dancing – and we were in the beautiful mountains of Montana and had some more days to spend there. I could let our defrosted refrigerator freeze me up, or I could finally tell myself that sometimes things happen and there is not much that can be done and isn’t it a shame to let dancing and mountains be lost in a fog of anxiety. And hopefully we will learn how to build better interstate bridges and how to care for them more adequately.

We should be compassionate, always compassionate. Large tragedies often bring in their wake enlarged hearts – students and neighbors rushing to the scene of the bridge collapse to offer aid, a golfer in the Twin Cities donating $10,000 of his winnings to the bridge relief effort. But we need not wait for tragedy to be kind and caring and compassionate. The truth about life is that it will end for all of us sometime – for most of us we will quietly breath our last, for some we may find ourselves plunging head long from a bridge. Life will end, and wouldn’t it be better if the last thing you said to your friends, your spouse, your children, your co-worker was something kind and compassionate – or the last thing you did for them was gentle and caring. And for hurting families, there is nothing greater we can offer than our caring and compassion.

Finally, we should cherish life’s good gifts and take fewer things for granted. I have been over that bridge dozens of times, and never really gave it much thought. I thought about every bridge on every highway I drove back home from Montana. There are so many things on which we depend, so many things which enrich our lives in some small way, and we take so much for granted. Our culture seems much more concerned with gratification than with gratitude. We are told that we exist to gratify our needs, and then advertising lets us know we have a lot more needs than we ever imagined. We should take more time to say, “thanks” for life’s simple gifts.

Where I find God in the midst of tragedy is not on the “cause” side of things, but in the “response” side. God reminds me to learn and grow. God encourages me to be kind and compassionate. God nudges me toward gratitude.

With Faith and With Feathers,