Saturday, June 28, 2008

Would I If I Could?

In today’s edition of the Duluth NewsTribune, two dueling editorials were printed addressing the same issue – “Do religious leaders have a free speech right to endorse political candidates from the pulpit?” For the affirmative – Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice. Arguing against – Rev. Barry Lynn , executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Sekulow: The IRS is stifling the free-speech rights of religious leaders in a world where most Americans understand that the intersection of faith and politics is a well-recognized part of this nation’s culture and heritage. The problem: a 54-year-old federal tax law that prevents religious leaders from truly exercising their constitutionally protected free-speech rights when they act in their official capacity as a pastor of head of a religious, tax-exempt organization. He goes on to argue that other non-profit groups are not so constrained, unions, for example. He cites precedent in our history, prior to the passing of this regulation. He argues that the distinction between speech addressing the pressing moral issues of the day, including public policy issues, which is legal, and speech endorsing candidates is neither clear nor helpful.

Lynn: Houses of worship exist to fill spiritual needs and bring people closer to God. But many offer much more: Their soup kitchens provide meals to impoverished families, they give counseling to young couples and they sponsor youth groups, among other endeavors. But one thing churches should never do is act as political brokers. Put simply, handing down a list of candidate endorsements is not the role of our faith communities. Clergy have no business acting like party bosses…. The American people have not asked for, and do not want, their clergy to issue orders on how to behave in the voting booth. Lynn argues that the distinction between addressing issues and endorsing candidates is clear and reasonable, and he believes the current law is serving our country well.

The question that intrigues me most is – would I if I could? It was fascinating for me to discover that this prohibition against clergy and congregations endorsing candidates is only fifty-some years old. I am bothered by some of the ways I have heard about the IRS interpreting this law – congregations which have not named candidates but who have been brought under scrutiny for their public policy discussions and stances. I remember reading about a California congregation under investigation for its strong anti-war stance. I firmly believe that churches need to discuss moral issues and that many public policy questions have a significant moral dimension to them. I am concerned by an overly broad interpretation of the current law. Furthermore, I find Lynn’s language about clergy as party bosses issuing orders untenable. I don’t know what church Lynn attends, but if I were to share with my congregation who I was voting for and why, at best members might receive this as a helpful suggestion – certainly not an order from a political boss. Nevertheless, I am not arguing for a repeal of the current law. I would want to give that much more thought. The question that intrigues me, as I’ve said, is “Would I if I could?”

It’s September and congress has repealed the law prohibiting clergy from endorsing candidates in their official capacity (I could endorse a candidate as a private citizen even now). I am an active voter (more about that in a moment), and have decided who I want to support and among my reasons for supporting this candidate are faith-based moral positions. Should I share my view, my endorsement with my congregation?

I assume many congregations are like mine, with a mix of persons holding a variety of political perspectives. More of the vocal people in my church tend to be politically liberal. However, there are some strong moderates in the mix, and a fewer number of conservative voters. Frankly, there are a whole lot of people I have no idea about when it comes to how they might vote. By endorsing one candidate, I am essentially saying that as an intelligent person, and a person of deep and thoughtful Christian faith, here’s who I think people should vote for. I will respect those who disagree, but the subtle message will be that I don’t think they have considered the relation of their faith to their politics as thoroughly as I have. I risk alienating these people. People who might otherwise be willing to engage in conversation about issues, though we disagree, may find my endorsement of a candidate the final straw. The conversation could end, a conversation that enriches both of us.

I risk alienating these people, and for what? For a particular candidate in a particular election. Politics matters. My doctoral dissertation was on democratic political theory and Christian ethics. Differences in candidates matter. But issues are deeply complex, and no single candidate is going to usher in the reign of God, even if both houses of congress are also of the same political party! The building of a better world takes more than politics and government (though not less). It takes working with all kinds of people, including people with whom we disagree. There are times when we need to take the risk, as clergy, of saying things that will alienate people. Sometimes issues are of such moral importance that we should not remain silent. Awhile back I shared a story about a person who quit attending my church because he was in the military and I questioned what the use of techniques like waterboarding were doing to the soul of our country. I wish he would have stayed around. I know I could have learned from him, but I would not take back what I said - These days I sometimes wonder if we are not making an idol of national security, sacrificing at its altar values that we have long held important for our life as a county, values that are important to Christian faith. What are we willing to sacrifice for security? I am not denigrating concern for national security, only questioning the effects an exclusive concern for it may be having on us. The United States has kept people in prison for years, now, without charges and without trials. We have people debating whether or not simulated drowning is an appropriate interrogation technique. Are we becoming ruthless and heartless? But this is a very different thing from risking alienating people for a candidate in one election (when the next one is just a couple of years away!).

I’ve already mentioned that I am politically interested and politically active (at least to the extent that I am an informed voter and occasionally write about political issues, including letters to representatives). The first presidential candidate I voted for was neither a Democrat nor a Republican. It was 1980 and I was in college. Ronald Reagan was the Republican candidate that year, and Jimmy Carter the Democratic candidate. There was a strong third candidate that year, Illinois congressman John Anderson – but I didn’t vote for him either. I cast my first presidential vote for Barry Commoner of the Citizen’s Party, a short-lived party that is probably most closely aligned with today’s Green Party. Supposing I was ten years older and in my first appointment as a pastor, and I could endorse a candidate from the pulpit. So I share my passion for Barry Commoner in a place that where those who vote would overwhelmingly vote Democratic or Republican. Would I have alienated many? Would my ability to speak about issues seem suspect – everything filtered through electoral politics? Would my credibility have been damaged? I don’t know, but I don’t think it would have been a risk worth taking.

Would I if I could endorse a presidential candidate? Probably not – but you can count on me making it to the polls in November and in between discussing important issues and working to make the world a little more just and a little more peaceful and a little healthier.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, June 22, 2008

Grandma’s Marathon is a big deal in Duluth, Minnesota. It got its start in the mid-1970s when I was in high school here and it has grown into one of the major summer events in our community. One year in the near future I am going to train and run in this event. The thirty-second marathon was run this past Saturday, June 21.

This year I helped at a water station with the Duluth faith-based organization, CHUM. It is an effort to publicize our work and we use the marathon to raise money for a discretionary fund to help people with food, fuel, utility bills and the like. Helping required getting up at 5 a.m. and being at the station at 6:30. These are not my favorite times of the day, but I admit it was beautiful. I was at the station from 6:30 to about 11 a.m. and so handed water to runners in both the marathon and half marathon. In both cases, when someone reached out their hand for my outstretched, with a hand cradling water, they were reaching for something that they needed and I had to give.

So I was thinking, sometimes evangelism - sharing the good news of God’s transforming love for the world in Jesus Christ in a way that invites others into a new relationship with God in Christ - is a little like handing out water at a marathon. There are thirsty people in the world, people who see hurt, pain, suffering, existential angst (though they might not call it that!) in their lives, or people who feel lost, confused, cast adrift as a lonely person in the utter expanse of the universe (though they may state this differently!), and they reach out a hand looking for refreshment. There is certainly enough hurt and suffering in the world so that we might expect a few people to be looking for some good news, a cup of cold water for their thirsty lives, their parched souls. Hopefully we, as church, are ready and able to share the water of life that we have in Jesus Christ in a way that is good news to thirsty people.

But in prosperous cultures, it is not always so easy for people to see their own thirst. I am nearing the end of a novel I am reading with an interfaith book group which I facilitate. We went for an easier read this summer, and so took on a mystery – The Skull Mantra by Eliot Pattison. It is a story set in Tibet with Tibetan Buddhism as a significant element in the story. At one point, an American mining executive shares with the chief protagonist of the story – an investigator imprisoned in Tibet for crossing a Communist party official in Beijing – that while in Tibet he has heard of eight Buddhist hells, but none quite capture the hell he experiences in America. “The worst one. The one where everyone’s tricked into ignoring their souls by being told they’re already in heaven” (331). In such a situation, the church has often tried to convince people that they are thirsty, that their lives are not what they appear to be. Sometimes that has worked, but often not. The traditional language used for the life that’s missing the mark is the language of sin – but too many in our culture have such an attenuated version of “sin” that it is not often a helpful concept. In all honesty, we have few to blame but ourselves for this. On the one hand “sin” can connotes heinous acts, and to be told one is a sinner suggests an entirely depraved character. Few people see themselves in such light. On the other hand, paradoxically, “sin” has so often been used to describe the mildest forms of behavior – taking a drink of alcohol, dancing, smoking a cigarette, thinking a sexual thought – that it has lost any significant punch.

So how are we to share our water with the thirsty? Rather than convince them of their dire need, we might do well to convince them of the quality of the product – forgive this marketing language. What I am trying to say is that our reaching out with good news needs to be matched by lives that are transformed by God’s love in Jesus Christ. Evangelism could emphasize newness of life, renewed hope, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-discipline (Galatians 5), doing justice and loving kindness (Micah 6). The challenge of this kind of evangelism is that it changes us, we who want to share good news. But, hey, that’s not so bad. And frankly, even when the people we are sharing with are dying of thirst, they should be able to see that we have something that genuinely quenches that thirst.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, June 15, 2008

I am sometimes amazed by the confluence of events in life. I am currently reading Tokens of Trust by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is something of a primer in Christian faith, a brief theological and pastoral discussion of the basic creeds of the Christian Church. It is subtitled, “An Introduction to Christian Belief.” I am finding some helpful ideas to ponder. One of Williams’ rich phrases is “responsibility for God’s believability.” Williams says that the Bible offers no argument for the existence of God, only stories of people moved by God’s Spirit. He argues that at our best people of faith take responsibility for God’s believability. It reminds me of a sentence in The United Methodist Book of Discipline: “The people of God, who are the church made visible in the world, must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced.” This is an enormous task and an extreme adventure.

Williams also addresses the difficult issue of suffering. How is it possible for there to be a good God when the world is full of pain and suffering? If the action of God is at the heart of everything, every object, every process, what does that imply about suffering and disaster, about cancers and tsunamis? We need to be clear from the start that we are not going to have an answer to this that allows us to sit back and stop worrying, as if we could say, in response to a tsunami or a landslip, “That’s all perfectly straightforward and no one need have any doubts or misgivings.” If we got to such a stage, we should have become desensitized to the awful immediacy of pain and grief. We should be valuing human lives and human welfare less than we should. There’s something about the very anguish of the questioning that illustrates just how seriously we have learned to take human pain – and that seriousness is the best witness to the difference that faith makes…. No one’s suffering is insignificant…. If God makes a world that is really different from him, a world of interaction and interconnection, this means a world that is capable of change. Different processes flow together, mesh together and make things happen. This is a world in which any event has what is practically an unmeasurable range of causes, factors that have made it fall out this way rather than that…. Would a world with a perpetual safety net really be a world at all, a place with its own integrity and regularity? (39, 41) The questions Williams is addressing are complex and have been with theologians and philosophers for a long time. His responses are not definitive, if any response to such questions can be so characterized, but I found him thought-provoking.

So while I am reading this book, I receive an e-mail from someone sharing some of the deep challenges they have been facing. In this person’s family there has been illness, untimely death, a child struggling, and the person wonders about faith, about the point of all this pain. I did not quote Rowan Williams, but I did respond with some thoughts of my own.

In my own faith, I have come to a place where I don’t believe that everything that happens happens because it is a part of a grand plan from God. I believe that God’s creativity helped make the world the place it is, but that there is genuine freedom in that world and so things happen, and some of these are deeply painful. There is death, and sometimes it is untimely and so hurts even more. There is disease and causes of it are complex. I believe God’s Spirit is a part of the causal mix in the world, but it does not override all other causes. I believe God’s Spirit works better when people are open to that Spirit through love and prayer, but sometimes love and prayer can’t overcome other forces in the world – at least in the short run. So people suffer and people die untimely deaths. And sometimes even my faith asks me, “why?” and sometimes in faith I scream (well, not literally) at God in anger and frustration and pain. But for me, my faith also asks “Given the way the world is, what kind of people does the world need?” I think the world needs people who are kind and gentle, people who are loving and compassionate, people who can be hopeful and generous. I think the world needs people who can be patient and persistent in these qualities. And for me, God, as I know God in Jesus, is that Presence, that Spirit, that helps me be that kind of person, even when I have a hard time doing that. And for me, it is as I pray and worship that I feel more connected to that Presence, and that I also feel some sense that this same God is with me in my hurt and pain and suffering.

And as I finished sending this e-mail off, I was also aware that my oldest daughter is having surgery on Tuesday – surgery related to the broken hip she suffered at age 11. She is having part of the bone from her good leg removed, so her legs are closer to the same length. At some point, she will need a hip replacement, probably in her thirties. Frustrating and painful things happen in life – personally and socially (war, famine, injustice, oppression) and sometimes I feel like crying, screaming, shouting – and that’s o.k. But more than anything, I want to be one of those people who take responsibility for God's believability in the midst of a hurting world.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, June 8, 2008

After last week, in which I wrote about the efforts in Minnesota to overcome poverty by 2020, someone wrote me (and thanks for doing that) to say while I had said a lot about Minnesota, what about global poverty. Excellent question.

Last week’s blog was a response to certain recent events in my life, all of which focused on ending poverty in Minnesota by 2020. I am committed to working on that effort as a person of Christian faith, and I am committed to helping my congregation engage that effort through the local organization, Churches United in Ministry (CHUM), through my denomination, The United Methodist Church, and through the Minnesota Council of Churches. All of these organizations are committed to working with persons from other faith communities (Jewish, Islamic, et. al) and from secular organizations to tackle this issue. But can poverty in Minnesota really be separated from poverty world-wide?

Not really. The challenges we face in alleviating poverty in Minnesota are challenges to the human community world-wide. The escalating cost of food is creating greater numbers of hungry people and making purely monetary definitions of poverty quickly obsolete. The rapid rise in energy costs is having a similar effect, and there seems to be a relationship between food and energy as crops are now being used for fuel. Some of my musings from last week are even more relevant to global poverty than to poverty in the United States. It is perhaps statistically easy to define poverty in the United States, using an income figure. Such an endeavor is more difficult globally. To speak of poverty in a global context is to focus on basic needs, and I suggested last week that this focus makes more sense even in the United States. If someone earns enough to be out of poverty, but has no health insurance, and no means to obtain it within their income, is this something to be celebrated? At best, it should be the quietist of celebrations.

The same spiritual/moral imperative which leads me to care about poverty in Minnesota and make a commitment to efforts to eliminate it by 2020 drives me to care just as deeply about global poverty, and pushes me to find ways to make a difference there, too. Awhile back, I was reading an article in a Buddhist journal in which the author was taking his fellow Buddhists, especially in the West, to task for neglecting to work for the alleviation of human suffering. I know we engage in lofty meditations on kindness and compassion and espouse beautiful ideals of love and peace. But note that we pursue them largely as inward, subjective experiences geared toward personal transformation. Too seldom does it translate into pragmatic programs of effective action realistically designed to diminish the actual sufferings of those battered by natural calamities or societal deprivation…. The special challenge facing Buddhism in our age is to stand up as an advocate to justice in the world, a voice of conscience for those victims of social, economic, and political injustice who cannot stand up and speak for themselves. (Bhikkhu Bodhi, Buddhadharma, Fall 2007)

So what’s a nice Christian boy doing reading this Buddhist stuff? I read it because I find it illuminating to see how other spiritual traditions also struggle with living out faith in our day and time, and I found this article fascinating, fascinating in part because of the complement the writer paid to Christian and Jewish efforts to alleviate suffering. He found it ironic that a spiritual tradition rooted in efforts to alleviate suffering could be so removed from working to end some of the most dramatic suffering of our time.

While it would be nice to sit back and simply accept Bhikkhu Bodhi’s compliments, I am aware that there is so much more to be done. And if Buddhists, out of their concern for alleviating suffering, should be advocates for social justice in the world, a voice for victims of social, economic and political injustice, so should we Christians, we who proclaim that God loves the world. When we fail to connect our rich spiritual traditions with making a difference for those who are poor and on the margins, we suffer a poverty of our own, a spiritual poverty.

As a Christian I want to advocate overcoming spiritual poverty, and would be pleased to work with Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and anyone else who seeks to enrich her spiritual tradition by finding in it not simply a means for personal transformation, but also a call to feed the hungry and to do justice. I also think we will need to overcome a poverty of imagination and vision if we are to alleviate material poverty.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of our day as a human community sharing this one planet is the challenge of creating enough so that basic needs might be met, distributing what we create equitably enough so that those needs are indeed met, and all in such a way that we don’t undermine the long-term stability of our planetary environment. It will take spiritual and imaginative wealth to make progress against this challenge.

God so loved the world, and so should we. And for me, loving the world has something to do with justice and with seeing that the world’s people have enough to eat, a place to sleep and access to some basic services that keep people healthy. The struggle to get there is long and I know I need all the spiritual and imaginative wealth my Christian tradition can give me to keep on.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, June 1, 2008

This past week, I attended the gathering of the Minnesota Conference of The United Methodist Church (usually just called “Annual Conference”). It was great to greet old friends, to worship together, to take care of business and simply to be The United Methodist Church in Minnesota. I serve as our conference parliamentarian, and I enjoy working with Bishop Sally Dyck as she presides over the business sessions of our conference. It is also my privilege to serve as the chairperson of our conference committee on episcopacy, the committee which supports the bishop in her work and serves as a liaison between the bishop and the conference. Bishop Dyck is deeply appreciated here and it was a joy to be able to be the one leading the parade for her.

In addition to spending time with some people I don’t often see, a highlight of the conference for me personally was the conference endorsement of my candidacy for bishop. The support of colleagues who have known me for years means a great deal, and I was overjoyed by their endorsement and by the fact that I had the opportunity to tell them how much it meant to me.

Among the legislation we considered was an item encouraging our congregations to join in statewide efforts to eliminate poverty in Minnesota by 2020. The Minnesota Council of Churches is working toward this goal. Our state legislature has established a commission to end poverty by 2020. Just before Annual Conference, the Duluth-area Churches United in Ministry (CHUM) hosted an event in which Senator John Marty, Representative Carlos Mariani, and Greg Gray from this commission spoke with local clergy and laity about this effort to end poverty in our state. We at First United Methodist Church were delighted to host this event.

Poverty has been a topic of interest and a concern of mine for many years. I have a passion for the 1960s, and an important part of that decade was Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, a war that was lost, in significant measure, because there was another war demanding the country’s resources and attention. In my reading of the Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity, especially the Israelite prophets, I have become convinced that how we deal with persons in poverty is a significant measure of the success and value of any social arrangement. But this recent confluence of events has pushed me into thinking more deeply about poverty, and to examine more carefully how I can be involved with, and help my congregation join in this significant effort to eradicate poverty in Minnesota by 2020.

A great deal has been, and could be written about poverty, but I share a few of my recent musings. If we are to end poverty, we need to have some idea of what it is we are seeking to eliminate. There are the federal guidelines which define poverty. For a family of four, you are in poverty if you earn less than $21,200. That seems like a ridiculously low figure. So if we in Minnesota bring every family above the poverty line, will we have succeeded? Certainly that would be a worthy goal and call forth a valiant effort, but would that really be a meaningful end to poverty. If you are making $21,200, but have no health insurance, are you out of poverty? If you earn that much but don’t have a safe and secure place to live, is that being out of poverty? While I applaud the goal of bringing every person and family over the federally defined poverty level, I can’t help but doubt that this is really an adequate end to poverty.

As I began to think more deeply about poverty, my mind traveled to the work of one of my intellectual heroes, Abraham Maslow. Maslow’s work has it flaws and I disagree with him in places. Some feminists criticize Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” because of their individualistic focus, and they make a good point. But Maslow is helpful in my thinking about an number of things, including poverty. To read Maslow is to encounter a generous intellect and a caring human being.

Anyway, bringing Maslow into my thinking about poverty pushes me to consider the elimination of poverty more than just bringing the household income of persons and families above the federal guidelines. For Maslow, human needs included physiological, safety, belongingness and love, esteem and self-actualization needs. Maslow did think that physiological and safety needs usually remain front and center as long as they are not met – hence the idea of a hierarchy of needs. I think it might be more helpful to consider the elimination of poverty as meeting basic physiological and safety needs at some adequate level. The word “poverty” has roots in Latin words that mean “giving birth to little.” If human lives lack food, clothing, shelter, health care, a measure of safety and stability, they will, indeed, tend to produce little, or less than what they might were such needs met. Poverty is a more multi-faceted notion than simply annual income – at least that is where my thinking has been going.

Of course, following Maslow even further, one can reasonably speak of poverty in the other areas – love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. By the way, Maslow should not be held guilty of offering the idea that esteem should be bolstered no matter what. “The most stable and therefore most healthy self-esteem is based on deserved respect” (Motivation and Personality, 46. Second Edition). Nor should we accuse Maslow of neglecting the spiritual or transcendent, even if we might not agree with all that he might say about it. Without the transcendent and the transpersonal, we get sick, violent, and nihilistic, or else hopeless and apathetic. We need something “bigger than we are” to be awed by and to commit ourselves to (Toward a Psychology of Being, iv. Second Edition). The Minnesota State legislative commission to end poverty will not be considering poverty in relationships, poverty of esteem and vocation, poverty of spirit – nor should they, at least not directly. It will be challenge enough to end economic poverty, to see basic needs met. It will be challenge enough and it must take priority. As a Christian and a citizen of one of the wealthiest nations that has ever existed, I cannot sit by and watch as thousand scrape by in such a rich land. We can and must do better.

Yet even as I join my efforts with the efforts of others to end poverty, I will also keep in my mind and heart the task of working against these other kinds of poverty – in love, in self-respect, in vocation/actualization, poverty of spirit. And somehow, I don’t think these are all separate. As we help people move out of poverty, I hope we find ways to build community with them, to love them and let them love us. I know they will need to build the kinds of skills that bolster esteem and help them become more those they dream of being. Some will need to overcome the spiritual poverty that is addiction. And as we try and find ways to end poverty, we will need to break free of our own poverty of imagination and spirit – for the way will not be easy. It will call forth our best gifts and efforts and creativity. There will be no room for hopelessness and apathy.

2020 is not that far off, but strange things are happening every day (see P.S.).

With Faith and With Feathers,


P.S. I was introduced to a wonderful song during our opening worship, courtesy of Bishop Dyck – Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Strange Things Happening. Here is a You Tube version of it. No wonder we love our Bishop!

Sister Rosetta Tharpe "Strange Things Happening"