Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Scared Before Halloween

First United Methodist Church in Duluth, Minnesota, where I am the pastor, is located on a beautiful site. We sit nearly atop the hill overlooking Lake Superior (my office has a spectacular view). We also sit at a busy intersection. Bordering our property is a sidewalk – a public sidewalk. Being public space, people are free to use it for any lawful means, including campaigning for their favorite candidate. This can lead to misunderstanding, as it may appear that the congregation is endorsing one candidate or the other. First United Methodist Church does not endorse any political candidate, though we encourage our people to use their faith-based values as they vote, and in their lives as citizens. As pastor of the church, I will not endorse a political candidate, even in my private life, though I will be voting.

As already noted, though we do not endorse political candidates as a congregation, our location can make it appear that we do. This led to a recent phone message, most of which I have transcribed.

I just drove past your church and I’m very disheartened by an Obama sign on your property. Two young ladies holding up a hand-made blanket that said “Women for Obama.” How in the world can women be for Obama when he believes that partial-birth abortion is o.k? That is murder. That is the most heinous crime there is – tearing an unborn child from the woman’s womb. That’s awful. I can’t believe your church would endorse such a thing.

I don’t know how any Christian could ever vote for Obama. Do you know he has taken the American flag off of his campaign plane and replaced it with a rising sun? Check and type in Barack Obama’s plane.

This man is scary. Christianity – if he gets it, which I don’t think he will, God’s not going to allow that, it would disappear fast. Please rethink this
. [The caller then left her phone number] Unbelievable, in front of your church.

I am glad the caller left her phone number. I called her back and left her a message clarifying that the sidewalk around our property is public space which we don’t control, so her call was misdirected. I did take her up on her offer to check out the story on Barack Obama’s plane, and it is true, to a degree. He did remove the logo for North American Airlines, which was a version of the United States flag. He replaced it with another version of the flag, this one inside an “O” with a sun rising over it. It is an Obama campaign logo symbolizing something like “morning in America” I suppose (where have we heard that before?).

This action does not lead me to label Barack Obama “scary.” What I find scary is the passionate dislike for Obama displayed in this phone call. This person is clearly going to vote her faith-based values, just like I hope people in my congregation do. But I also believe that people of deep and thoughtful faith can disagree about issues and candidates, and that one point-of-view is not, thereby, God’s point-of-view and the other something hideous and evil. And last time I checked, Barack Obama was a Christian, sometimes criticized for the remarks of the pastor of his Christian congregation. How would his election make Christianity disappear fast? If Nero, Caligula and Domitian couldn’t rid the world of Christianity when it was a much smaller movement, how would a democratically-elected president of The United States accomplish this?

The election is just days away, and whoever is elected will have his hands full from day one – an economy in crisis, two wars in progress. It will take the best efforts of our elected leaders and our citizens working together to move the country forward in a positive way. Christians and others concerned for justice and the common good will need to find ways to work together. If we begin with the premise that God did not want the newly elected president to be elected, such working together is going to be a challenge. That’s scary.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Men and Church and Violence

I was going to write about men and church, based on a recent discussion at a new men’s group forming at my church and some things I’ve read in the recent past. I will get back to this shortly. This past Thursday, however, I attended an event that made a deep impact on me and I want to say a word about that.

Thursday the Minnesota Clothesline Project came to Duluth. The Clothesline Project is an art project which memorializes the victims and survivors of domestic abuse. This particular clothesline had a garment for each of the 643 victims of domestic abuse in Minnesota since 1988. I had received an e-mail about the event and about the need for volunteers to help hold the clothesline, and though it was a busy day, I felt I needed to be there. I wanted to make sure the church was represented. Biblical language has been used to justify physical domination within families, and though I believe such use to be a misuse, I felt I needed to be there. It was not until I arrived that I remember Theresa, a woman I had not thought about for quite some time. Theresa was 19. I knew her grandmother – she was a member of Pengilly United Methodist Church where I was pastor. I only got to know Theresa after her death in 1997 when I was asked to officiate at her funeral. She had been shot and killed by a jealous ex-boyfriend. As I looked at the shirts before we took them outside on the Lake Superior Lakewalk, the memory of Theresa and that horrible event came rushing back. During the ceremony before the outside display, the names of victims of domestic violence from the wider Duluth area were shared, and I heard her name again. I wonder how her family is doing after all these years. I wonder how all those affected by the violence we remembered together last Thursday are doing. I pray for their peace and well-being. I pray for an end to such violence.

The overwhelming number of perpetrators of domestic violence are men. Here we are, back to men. Here is what I hear about men and church. According to the Barna group, more than 90 percent of American men believe in God, and five out of six call themselves Christians, but only two of six attend church on a given Sunday. A number of researchers note that churches tend to attract many more women than men. At the same time, research finds that religious participation leads men to become more engaged husbands and fathers (Hartford Seminary research). One would hope that it might help men be less violent in those relationships, though there are exceptions to that – the faithful church goer who is also an abuser in the home.

Church seems good for men, but men are not adequately engaged in the church as a group. That truism can be found any number of places. So there are those who look for solutions. One such person is David Murrow whose recent book is entitled Why Men Hate Going to Church. I’ve not read the book, but read a review of it in The Christian Century (April 3, 2007) and was directed to some of Murrow’s material on-line at and Murrow argues that the reason men avoid church is because it has been “feminized.” The local church is perfectly designed to reach women and older folks… but this church system offers little to stir the masculine heart…. The more masculine the man, the more likely he is to dislike church…. Men and young adults are drawn to risk, challenge and adventure. But these things are discouraged in the local church. Murrow believes churches need to create a healthy masculine spirit in church. They need to present Jesus’ masculine side. Part of the problem is that while many pastors are men, “few truly understand men.” Apparently the brains of male pastors aren’t wired in a very manly way, for Murrow argues that the differences between men and women are rooted in brain differences. “Brain differences play out in the entertainment men and women choose. Women buy romance novels; men buy pornographic magazines. She’s stimulated by words; he’s stimulated by images.”

I am deeply ambivalent about Murrow’s work, and others who argue that the main reason men are not in church is that the church lacks “masculinity.” I don’t feel myself described very well in many of these descriptions of masculinity – though I suppose all these years in the church have drained my testosterone. I enjoy reading – a perfect day for me would include a couple hours of reading (I don’t have many perfect days). I don’t hunt or fish, though I do golf – badly. I enjoy some sports, baseball especially, and football. NASCAR does absolutely nothing for me. I have two dogs, pom-a-poos, not pit bulls – and ain’t I a man?! On the other hand, Murrow has something to teach. We have not often enough emphasized the deep adventure and challenge of the spiritual life – our need to battle powers of darkness in our lives and in the world - - - hatred, injustice, uncontrolled anger. Still, the end of our struggles seems the development of a gentler spirit, of kindness, of compassion, of love. Developing such a spirit is deeply challenging, an adventure worthy of all our courage, a risky endeavor – for the road to developing such a spirit is rarely straight.

I come back to last Thursday, standing on the shores of Lake Superior with men and women holding up the names of people, mostly women and children, who have died, mostly at the hands of men. Some of the language of masculinity used by those who don’t find the church masculine enough has violent undertones. A song used at GodMen rallies goes like this: We’ve been beaten down/Feminized by the culture crowd/No more nice guy, timid and ashamed/We’ve had enough, cowboy up/In the power of Jesus’ name/Welcome to the battle/A million men have got your back/Jump up in the saddle/Grab a sword, don’t be scared/Be a man, grow a pair! I don’t blame domestic violence on such language, but to ignore the potential connection is unwise. To ignore the list Paul offers for what life looks like when God’s Spirit is at work (Galatians 5, fruits of the Spirit): love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, seems foolhardy. Risk, challenge, adventure and courage are central to Christian faith – but risk for what, challenge to do what, adventure in what direction, courage for what purpose? Could it be that part of the adventure is to become a man who is more concerned with the well-being of the world than with growing a pair? Could it be that one of the contemporary risks for the Christian man is the risk of asserting that real men can be kind and gentle? Might Christian men, acknowledging the damage done by some of our culture’s definitions of masculinity, need courage to be different, courage to control their raging hormones, courage to follow one who refused to strike back against those who were taking him to his death believing that the violence needed to stop somewhere.

Maybe I am risking turning some men off to my church with such thinking, but if it leads some men toward kindness and gentleness, especially when they know the power of their own anger, and toward more self-control when they know that being out of control may include striking out against a loved one - - - well, I am man enough to take that risk.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, October 5, 2008


Amidst the flurry of recent news about the crisis in our financial system, the $700 billion dollar rescue package and the Vice-President debate came the news about the death of Paul Newman. Newman died at age 83 on September 26. Yes, the financial crisis and the current election are more important events and have the potential to affect our lives dramatically. We also need to acknowledge the power of the stories we tell about our lives and how those stories are shaped by the stories in our culture. In our society and culture many of the stories that shape how we tell the stories of our lives are found in the movies. These deeply held stories about our lives are often more powerful in shaping our lives, in the longrun, than some of the news items which scream at us on a daily basis.

The power of film is indisputable…. Movies carry some sort of psychic charge that no other art form can quite match…. The mind seems to step into another sphere of engagement as the images of the screen flood into our receptive consciousness. Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies.

[Movies] remain in the twenty-first century our primary story-telling medium, interpreting reality for us and acting as a type of cultural glue…. Movies help us to “see.” They focus life for the viewer, giving us a richer variety of experience than would otherwise be possible. Robert K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality

Movies are powerful, and one powerful image that has graced the screen in the past fifty years has been the image of Paul Newman. My three favorite Newman films are Cool Hand Luke (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Verdict (1982) – the first Newman film I watched in a theater as best I can remember. Cool Hand Luke provides an image of someone creating a life story that is bigger than his life, and of someone whose sense of adventure rarely left him. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,with Robert Redford, is a film about male friendship, about the value of cunning, about the importance of humor. The Verdict is a film about redemption, where a lawyer down on his luck, becomes convinced of the rightness of a cause and risks everything to do the right thing. These pedantic descriptions don’t do justice to the richness of these films or their effect on our lives.

Part of Newman’s appeal to me went beyond his movies. He was a person who sought to use his fame to make a positive difference in the world. Newman’s Own salad dressings and spaghetti sauces have generated thousands of dollars for charity. Newman’s Sockarooni sauce is a personal favorite. Newman was politically active. Newman’s integrity carried over into his long marriage to JoAnn Woodward. We need not nominate Paul Newman for sainthood to recognize that he tried to do a lot of good. His off-screen life enhanced the images viewed on screen.

Paul Newman campaigning for Eugene McCarthy in Wisconsin in 1968

Films are powerful and their images help define reality for us. I am grateful for the work Paul Newman has left. And if it seems too unrelated to what has been going on in our world recently, here’s a thought.

One scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid involves a knife fight. Butch (Newman) is being challenged for leadership of his gang and the challenge comes in the form of a knife fight. Butch begins to tell Harvey, his challenger, that before the fight begins they need to lay down the rules. Harvey: “Rules? In a knife fight?” Butch: “Well, if there aren’t going to be any rules…” and he hauls off and gives Harvey a quick kick in the groin. Someone counts to three and Butch beats back the challenge, punching out an already double-overed Harvey.

When there aren’t any rules, sometimes someone gets kicked in the groin and is left bent over struggling for breath. Our banking and finance system have been operating with too few rules, and now we find our economic system bent over struggling for breath. Thank you, Paul, for helping me figure out what is going on in the world!

With Faith and With Feathers,