Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Summer Olympics are over for another four years. We will remember the stories of Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson, Walsh and May-Treanor, and Dara Torres (who at age 41 was a marvel to everyone – I guess at age 49 the Olympics are now officially out of reach for me – another dream shattered!!). There are countless other stories, of course. There is the story of the U.S. men’s volleyball team winning the gold medal after the coach’s father-in-law was killed in a random act of violence in Beijing. Turns out that the father-in-law, Todd Bachman, was a good friend of someone in my church – small world sometimes.

One story that did not make quite as much noise, but nevertheless made The New Yorker (one of many magazines to which I subscribe) was the story of U.S. marathoner Ryan Hall (August 11 and 18 issue). Hall was a bright hope for a marathon medal this year, and may be in the future (he finished tenth in Beijing). The New Yorker story was fascinating in sharing some of the history of distance running in The United States. I also found one small section of the story intriguing. It seems that Ryan Hall is a devout Christian, and that this created some initial discomfort among his Stanford University running mates. One of those teammates was quoted in the article. Most of us weren’t religious. I’m not religious at all, and I felt threatened. What’s this guy going to do? Is he going to try and convert me? Is he judging me? It was partly my problem, of course. He’s one of the few Christians I know who aren’t judgmental.

Judgmental – it is a word that one hears often, too often, when religion is discussed. It is a word one hears often when Christians are mentioned. According to A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner, “judgmental” can relate to making a judgment, but most often is used of “judging when uncalled for.”

O.k., but who determines when making a judgment is uncalled for? Sometimes the problem is not with the Christian, but, as admitted by the student above, the problem is with the person calling someone else “judgmental. While these are valid points, they can become an easy escape from a vitally important matter – the association in the minds of many between Christian faith and being judgmental. Another helpful term in this discussion, for me, is the term “moralistic.” When I teach my course on religious perspectives on health care ethics, I introduce the term “moralistic” to my students. I define “moralism” as: (1) the extension of the label “moral” to areas that don’t seem to apply, and (2) the rigid or inflexible application of moral rules. I tell my students that the danger in being “moralistic” is that the term “moral” loses its ability to call forth meaningful reflection. Being moralistic is to use the term moral when or in ways that it is uncalled for. Christians are frequently criticized for being judgmental and moralistic. While these assessments are not always valid, while the problem is sometimes with the person making the assessment, there is enough truth here to merit concern among Christians who don’t live their faith judgmentally or moralistically. I once heard a preacher in a United Methodist Church say that while he did not want to be a “narrow person” he would be as narrow as the Bible led him to be. Narrow, judgmental, moralistic – is that really central to Christian faith? I would like to think not.

Where does this judgmental, moralistic version of Christian faith come from? Delwin Brown in his recent book What Does a Progressive Christian Believe? argues that conservative Christianity in the United States has taken two primary tracks – one emphasizing right action and one emphasizing right belief. The “right action” conservative Christians, prior to the Civil War, focused on both personal and social holiness, and led opposition to slavery, promoted the rights of women, and struggled against poverty. He goes on to write: In the immense social strife after that war… their concerns turned sharply inward and private. By the 1870s evangelicalism was no longer preaching “social holiness.” Now the focus was on personal piety, which increasingly became trivialized as abstinence from card-playing, smoking, drinking, dancing and other “sins of the flesh.” (8)

Judging such actions, in and of themselves, to be significant, to see these as tremendously important moral issues, is a classic case of becoming judgmental or moralistic. Issues of human sexuality became a prominent concern along with dancing and card-playing, so that sexuality was often viewed as a suspect human phenomenon. Anything that smacked of sexuality was to be avoided. Again, this led to significant instances of judmentalism and moralism. It is a rather sad commentary to me that one very helpful piece of writing on the moral issues in human sexuality comes from a Buddhist (that’s not the sad part) and was not something I ever encountered in my own Christian journey through that kind of conservative Christian faith (that's the sad part). Sharon Salzberg, in Lovingkindness, writes: All too often, people will sacrifice love, family life, career, or friendship to satisfy sexual craving. Abiding happiness is given up for temporary pleasure, and a great deal of suffering ensues when we are willing to cause pain to satisfy our desires…. Sexuality is a very powerful force. A mature spirituality demands that we, without self-righteousness, commit to not harming ourselves or others through our sexual energy. (175-176) Here, sexuality is not condemned. It is acknowledged as powerful and because it is powerful we need to be careful in how we use our sexual energy. This is more helpful than much of what I remember learning in my early sojourn with Christian faith, where sex was suspect and you just didn’t go there – don’t ask questions. That kind of judmentalism and moralism are what people have experienced too often. That’s why people think that most Christians are judgmental.

Being judgmental is not the pure province of this kind of conservative Christianity. I have also seen it on the more liberal side of Christian faith. Here the problem is less making certain kinds of trivial behavior (card-playing, e.g.) a grave moral issue, it is more the inflexibility and rigidity that some “liberal” Christians use when discussing the moral commitments of Christians. Delwin Brown in his aforementioned book writes, You can be a Republican and a Christian – indeed, you can be a very conservative Republican and a Christian! (3) I know some Christians who would shudder at such a statement. They identify the social morality of Christian faith so completely with certain political positions that any who disagree are insufficiently Christian or prophetic. Some of the most heated, pitched battles among Christians are among the narrower, more judgmental, more moralistic people on both sides of an issue.

Somehow I think Christian faith at its best lives with the paradox of holding passionate and thoughtful intellectual and moral commitments, and doing so with humility and graciousness. Patrick Henry in The Ironic Christian’s Companion describes this kind of Christian faith beautifully. Once upon a time the term “Christian” meant wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around. But these days “Christian” sounds pinched, squeezed, narrow. Many people who identify themselves as Christian seem to have leap-frogged over life, short-circuited the adventure. When “Christian” appears in the headline, the story will probably be about lines drawn, not about boundaries expanded…. Curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure are not preliminary to Christian identity; a kind of booster rocket to be jettisoned when spiritual orbit is achieved. They are part of the payload. (8-9)

Can we get there in Christian faith? When we get there, how might we change the perception that most Christians are intellectually narrow, arrogantly judgmental, and priggishly moralistic? Oh for the day when people are concerned about Christians not because they are too judgmental, moralistic, or narrow, but because they are too adventuresome, courageous, and creative in their intellectual and moral commitments.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Traces of Grace

So, I get home from Jurisdictional Conference early morning on July 20 and am in worship later that same morning. Thankfully, some kind and gifted persons from my congregation had agreed to lead worship on that day. I shared my experience with the congregation - the beginning of the next chapter of our life together.

The week following was busy and blessed. I prepared for the following Sunday – July 27. I officiated or helped officiate at two weddings on the 26th – and that was a joy and privilege. Then we went on “vacation” - - - which involved moving our son’s belongings from Fargo, North Dakota to Duluth, where he will be entering a Master’s degree program in “Political Advocacy and Leadership” at the University of Minnesota here, and our older daughter’s belongings from Duluth to Minneapolis where she is entering medical school at the University of Minnesota. Our younger daughter was touring with Strikepoint, the world class handbell choir from First UMC where I am the pastor. When I think about my children, I am often overwhelmed by feelings of grace. They are delightful human beings.

All of this – and sorry if this seems the blog version of home made vacation slides (do some of you even know what those are??) – is a prelude to the mission trip we left for on Sunday August 3. Jurisdictional Conference, a busy week, an even busier vacation - - - and then off to South Dakota, Tree of Life Ministry on the Rosebud Reservation (a place we had been two years before). I was none too excited about doing this given all that had come before. I was tired. I was still trying to integrate all that had happened at Jurisdictional Conference.

As we were leaving, traces of grace wove their way into the journey. I heard that friends from the United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Minnesota, the community in which we had lived before moving to Duluth, and the church which my family attended as I was traveling as a district superintendent, were also going to be at Tree of Life. Their pastor, Jeff Hanson, is a close friend, and Jeff Reed from their church is a person I continue to get to know better and appreciate deeply (see the link to Jeff’s blog under “Links”). As we turned south from the freeway toward Rosebud and Tree of Life, a deep sense of peacefulness filled my heart. Was it returning to a familiar place? Was it knowing that in addition to being with good friends from my church (Ron, Carolyn, Laura, Dale, and my wife Julie) we were going to be at Tree of Life with old friends from Alexandria? Was it knowing that I was really going to be in a very different place doing different kind of work for a few days? I don’t know, except to say that this peacefulness was a trace of grace.

Arriving that night, the people from Alexandria were going to share in communion, and we were invited. Though I had yet to eat dinner that evening, I felt I needed to wait to do that. Some deeper hunger needed to be fed. As we shared the bread and the cup, I knew that though I had traveled reluctantly, this was where I needed to be. Traces of grace.

One day a few of us worked to begin repairing and restoring a home that had been badly burned in an electrical fire. As I walked through the house, there in what had been a bedroom was a box of VHS tapes – American Graffiti, Forest Gump among others, reminding me of a common humanity shared across racial-ethnic and socio-cultural and geographic lines. There, in that same room, was an overturned plastic crate on which a bird had built a nest. I walked over to look more closely and inside that nest were four eggs – new life emerging in a burned out building. Traces of grace. Where was God tracing new patterns in my life in places where I might be feeling a little burned out?

The traces of grace continued after leaving Rosebud. As mentioned, my older daughter is entering medical school and on Friday of that same week, we attended her “white coat” ceremony. The ceremony marks the entry of new students into medical school, but more importantly is meant to remind them that theirs is a humanistic profession – humanistic not in opposition to “theistic” but humanistic in contrast to a narrow scientism which forgets that medicine, while deeply rooted in science, is ultimately about the healing of persons and families. Listening to speakers talk about the meaning of the medical profession I was reminded that in many ways my own career as a pastor is a humanistic profession, too. It is a theistic humanism, rooted in a deep conviction that human life is ultimately healed as it is healed in relationship to God – but humanistic nonetheless. Pastors should be theologically astute, but the best theologian who does not care for the people God has entrusted to their leadership and care is not a terribly good pastor. Traces of grace can be reminders of why we do what we do.

Pictures can convey traces of grace, too – and here are some from our mission trip – including a picture of that remarkable scene of new life. May this be a trace of grace for you.

With Faith and With Feathers,