Sunday, April 26, 2009

Thoughts Worth Sharing

Here are two quotes encountered this week that are worth sharing.

People travel to wonder at the height of the mountains, at the huge waves of the seas, at the long course of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars, and yet they pass by themselves without wondering.

St. Augustine

I have sometimes dreamt... that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards - their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble - the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, "Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading."

Virginia Woolf, How Should One Read a Book?

For me, I have often been left wondering at the mystery of myself precisely when reading.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Monday, April 20, 2009

We Can Do Better

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. It is difficult to believe that has been ten years since two seniors at Columbine unleashed an attack with guns and pipe bombs at their school.
The gunmen, Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, committed suicide as their violent rampage ended.

Locally, the Million Mom March held a candlelight vigil to remember all the victims of gun violence, including those at Columbine. I was asked to be one of the speakers for the evening, and I gladly said, "yes." The following are my remarks.

Since being asked to speak here on this tenth anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School, we have had to add to our list new place names which mark death from tragic gun violence in our consciousness as Americans: Samson, Alabama; Washington State; Pittsburgh; Oakland; Binghamton, New York. On April 8 an editorial in The New York Times noted that there had been 57 deaths in mass shootings in the past month. The toll continues to rise as last Thursday in Long Beach, California a gunman, a hospital employee, entered the Long Beach Memorial Medical Center shot and killed two workers before taking his own life. As we gather tonight our hearts are justifiably heavy. We feel the effects of this violence, these deaths. We grieve, and for those who have lost loved ones to gun violence, new incidents tear at the scars of previously felt grief. Our sense of security is made more precarious.
Into the heaviness of this evening, let me share a story from my faith tradition, a story that will initially leave us feeling even heavier. Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:8b-9) Just two chapters after the beginnings of humanity comes this story. The placement of the story suggests that early in the human enterprise there is violence and killing. In her book The Fall to Violence, theologian Marjorie Suchocki writes: As a species we present human beings all wear the mark of Cain… within our souls. We have evolved through a long history of violent death, and retain a continued penchant to inflict violence in life. Our birthmark is a common capacity for violence, an aggressiveness written deep within the structures of our being. (94)
As human beings we can be violent and aggressive and a part of what that means is that we cannot prevent every tragedy that occurs in the world. I wish this were not so. I wish I could wave a wand or sprinkle some magic powder and take tragedy out of the world, but I cannot, and we cannot together. We cannot prevent every Columbine, every Cold Spring, every Red Lake, every Virginia Tech, every Binghamton. Our grief and mourning are very real tonight, because we know others will gather in the future to grieve and mourn.
But the story from Genesis contains seeds of hope, hints at the possibility that while we may not rid the world of violence and tragedy entirely, the world can be different than it is. After being confronted with the fact that his brother is missing, Cain utters these remarkable words: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In the context of the story, the clear answer is “Yes!” As human beings we may have capacities for aggressiveness and violence, we also have capacities to be in community with each other, to see ourselves as our sister’s keeper, our brother’s keeper.
That wonderfully evocative notion of being our brother’s keeper, our sister’s keeper, opens up to a more expansive vision for human life, a vision that, in the words of theologian Marjorie Suchocki, bespeaks the beauty of reciprocal well-being, of justice, of love without boundaries. It bespeaks a vision of no less that the community of God. This vision calls us to recognize who we are individually and communally; and to live toward the hope of transformation. (160) As human beings we cannot, we must not simply shrug our shoulders in the face of violence and tragedy, even knowing that we cannot prevent it all. We must also know that we are our brother’s keeper, our sister’s keeper, that we can work together for a world that evidences reciprocal well-being, justice, love without boundaries. We can live toward the hope of transformation.
We may not be able to prevent every tragedy in our world, every violent death, but we can do better.
In a country where almost 600,000 people were murdered between 1976 and 2005 – about 70% by guns, where our murder rate is three times that of Canada or the United Kingdom and five times that of Germany, we can do better. We can live toward the hope of transformation.
In a world where there will be some violence, we can lessen the violence and lessen its murderous impact by limiting the means for acting out aggressiveness and violence. Rage is one thing – rage with an assault weapon that keeps firing once the trigger is pulled is another. Gun ownership is a right guaranteed by our Constitution, but the courts have also provided for reasonable restrictions of that right for the public safety and the public good. What could be more reasonable than to ask that all sales be subject to a background check, to screen out those who seem to have difficulty managing their aggressiveness? We can do better. We can live toward the hope of transformation.
In a world where there will be pain, we can lessen the pain and grief of victims and families and communities by minimizing the number of violent deaths through modest and reasonable means. We have mutual responsibilities for each other’s well-being. We affirm our communal bonds when we look beyond our own wants, our own preferences, our own rights, and look as well to the good of the community. We can do better. We can live toward the hope of transformation.
In a world where there will be some fear, we can lessen fear and anxiety by enhancing our sense of community. Let’s affirm that we are our brother’s keeper. We are our sister’s keeper. Some of the provisions in our laws which makes access to weapons that kill and maim possible for those who should not have such access are not simply legal loopholes, but are holes torn in the fabric of our common life, and when that fabric is torn we all feel less safe, more alone, more fearful. We can do better. We can live toward the hope of transformation.
As I wrap up my remarks, allow me again to turn to my faith tradition, this time to the Book of Proverbs. Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks (1:20-21)
Wisdom still calls to us – cries out from our blood-stained streets and bullet-marked city squares. Wisdom calls to us, reminding us that we are our brother’s keeper, we are our sister’s keeper. Wisdom calls to us – we can do better. As we remember victims, as we mourn, may we hear wisdom’s voice telling us we can do better, reminding us to live toward the hope of transformation.

For speaking at this event, the organizers from the Million Mom March presented me with an apple pie and as I eat it I hope for the day when gun violence will no longer seem as American as apple pie.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, April 18, 2009

Leith Anderson and John Shelby Spong – probably not a combination usually seen together, but they came together in my life in the past month.

I have already written a bit here about Bishop Spong’s visit to Duluth for a conference on including GLBT persons in the church. I noted that I appreciated his visit, agree with him on a number of issues and disagree with him on others. Bishop Spong recently reflected kindly on his visit to Duluth on his web site, even going so far as to “recommend that you visit Duluth in the winter.” His kind words extended to three of my colleague and myself – Rev. Kathy Nelson of Peace UCC, Rev. Bill Van Oss of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and Rabbi Amy Bernstein of Temple Israel. “I found it almost inconceivable that a town the size of Duluth, and regarded as somewhat outside the mainstream of American life in its remote and rural setting, had nonetheless attracted to itself these four outstanding clergy.” What a nice thing to say, and an honor for me to be in the company of Kathy, Bill, and Amy. I still disagree with Bishop Spong on God, though.

I had the opportunity to hear Leith Anderson when he came to speak to the Northland Association of Evangelicals in the Duluth-Superior area. Mainline clergy were invited by a treasured colleague, Rev. Fred Lund, who continues to work to bring together evangelicals and mainline Protestants in our area. Fred is an evangelical pastor who has worked tirelessly for justice in our community. His retirement this year from his church will leave big shoes to fill. Anyway, Fred invited and I took him up on the invitation. He was kind enough to introduce me to Leith, who is both President of the National Association of Evangelicals and senior pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, near Minneapolis. I enjoyed my brief one-on-one conversation with Leith, finding him gracious and engaging.

Leith gave an insightful and informative presentation on the future of evangelicals in the twenty-first century, providing in his remarks a brief history of evangelicalism in The United States. During his presentation, he said he defined an evangelical as someone “who takes the Bible seriously and who accepts Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.” I am an evangelical, then. What would Bishop Spong say? What seems to happen, though, is that taking the Bible seriously gets further defined in ways I disagree with. Both the Northland Association of Evangelicals and the National Association of Evangelicals say that the Bible is “the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.” I believe the Bible is inspired and authoritative for Christian life. I use the term “word of God” to define the Bible, but my Christian faith tells me that only Jesus as the Christ really deserves the capital “Word of God.” I also believe that the word “infallible” takes the Bible more “seriously” than it takes itself. Of my two new acquaintances, I believe Bishop Spong is probably breathing easier now, but Leith is a little more concerned.

The statement of faith on both the Evangelical Association web sites also suggests that Jesus Christ is not only Lord and Savior, but that without affirming that people are lost and thus subject to the “resurrection of damnation.” I affirm Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, as the one in whom and through whom I see God and know God, and the one whose Spirit shapes my life in transforming and saving ways. I would also argue that the God I know in Jesus Christ might also touch human lives in saving and transforming ways through other religious traditions. I have just made myself ineligible for membership in my local and in the national Association of Evangelicals.

However, I was deeply encouraged that though Leith Anderson and I have theological differences, he strongly advocated dialogue with those who disagree. In his presentation he was clear that he believed Christians should exemplify Christ in dialogue, and even said, “if we don’t have discussion with those who are different we become a cult.” Leith Anderson signed the document “A Common Word,” a document inviting on-going Christian-Muslim dialogue. I deeply appreciated the openness and intelligence I heard that night. Thanks for the invitation, Fred.

So the conversations will continue, and I am glad that I now have these two delightful and intelligent conversation partners rattling around in my brain.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, April 5, 2009

Holy Week has begun – a busy week, a deeply felt week, a meaningful week. Not having much time to blog this week, I leave you with some art work appropriate for Easter.

Christ Appearing to Mary
Albert Pinkham Ryder, ca. 1885

The Morning of the Resurrection
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, 1882.

With Faith and With Feathers,