Sunday, November 19, 2017

Thanksgiving and the Longing for Special Providence




When I was a little boy my mother taught us a bed-time prayer which my sister and I said every night:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
The Lord go with me through the night,
And keep me safe till morning light.

In the more common, older and much scarier version of that prayer, the last two lines are:

If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

I’m glad Mom gave us the revised version. I can’t imagine teaching a child to say the original.

The scarier version dates from a time when little children did sometimes die in the night from a host of deadly childhood diseases which have mostly been eliminated over the last century. Today our children are safe from those deadly diseases because scientists have discovered vaccinations and medicines that are truly miraculous. Our medical and scientific progress is (I believe) part of what God is doing in the world. It is part of God’s continuing creation

Today we have come to expect that for our children, safety is the norm. And death and disease are rare. At least they are rare among the developed nations of the world. It is easy for us to forget that in other parts of the world children continue to die of disease and malnutrition at an alarming rate.

We expect our children to be safe, and there is nothing wrong with that. All children ought to be safe. And safety is what every parent wants for his or her child.

But the biblical promise is not safety. The promise is that God will not leave us. Or to put it differently, in the context of my bed-time prayer, “safe” meant “safe in God’s care.”

One of the most cherished misunderstandings of biblical faith is the doctrine of “Special Providence.” We want to believe that God loves us more and protects us more than others. Special Providence promises that God cares for me, and for my family and loved ones, in a special and unique way. Of course, that is true in the sense that each of us has a unique experience of God’s care. But as Jesus said, the sun shines and the rain falls, on the just and the unjust, and God’s love is there for everyone.

In a radio sermon preached in 1952, Reinhold Niebuhr said that for many people, believing in God means “that that we have found a way to the ultimate source and end of life that gives us, against all the chances and changes of life, some special security and some special favor.” As an example, he speaks of the prayers “that many a mother with a boy in Korea must pray, ‘A thousand at thy side and 10,000 at thy right hand, let no evil come to my boy.’”

For the mother or father with a child in danger, that is the most natural prayer in the world and it is the deepest desire of our hearts. Yet in the end it is impossible. As Niebuhr explains, “The Christian faith believes that beyond, within and beyond, the tragedies and the contradictions of history we have laid hold upon a loving heart, and the proof of whose love, on the one hand, is the impartiality toward all of his children and, secondly, a mercy which transcends good and evil.”


On Thanksgiving we give thanks for the Providence of God and the blessings that sustain our life on this fragile planet. The promise of Christian faith is not that God will grant us a special exemption from life’s hardships, or give us a special reward for our virtue, but that at the center of life there is a loving heart, which will be with us now and forever.



Wednesday, November 1, 2017

An Eighteenth Century Worldview and Our Theological Task


Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
II Corinthians 3:4-6

The United Methodist Church is on the brink of schism because of disagreements about the nature of human sexuality.

The practical issue that divides us is the question of whether our LGBTQ siblings are to be included in, or excluded from, full participation in the life of the church. 

Within and beneath those highly contentious issues there is a foundational question about who we are as a church.

John Scott Lomperis, the United Methodist Director for the Institute on Religion and Democracy posted an essay on the Juicy Ecumenism blog of the IRD titled, “Case Closed: Affirming Homosexual Practice is Irreconcilably Contrary to Core United Methodist Doctrine.”

His contention is that “within the specific context of United Methodism, our denomination’s core doctrine leaves no room for directly and explicitly affirming homosexual practice.” And for emphasis he asserts that “Acknowledging this is not a matter of opinion or faction, but rather of basic intellectual honesty.”

Before I give you the link to his essay I need to warn you that it is long and ponderous, and as you read it you may find yourself losing the will to live. So be careful. But here is the link: Case Closed.

Lomperis observes that John Wesley’s sermons and his notes on the New Testament are part of our “Doctrinal Standards.” And he cites several instances in the sermons and in the notes where Wesley condemns “sodomites” as proof of his thesis that the condemnation of “homosexual practice” is part of our core doctrine.

He cites a passage from Sermon #38, “A Caution Against Bigotry” as an example:
“In Section I.11 of this part of our Doctrinal Standards, Wesley classifies ‘sodomites’ as part of a list of different types of sinners, listing ‘sodomites’ immediately after robbers and immediately before murderers! Specifically, Wesley judged that the fact that ‘common swearers, drunkards, whoremongers, adulterers, thieves, robbers, sodomites, murderers, are still found in every part of our land’ to be proof of the devil’s power.”
“I am uncomfortable with the word ‘sodomite.’”, writes Lomperis, “But we have no power to change eighteenth-century English language usage.  The fact remains that in Wesley’s day this was a very negative term applied to individuals who engaged in homosexual practice.” 

Note the exact wording he uses. It is instructive.

Lomperis speaks of “eighteenth-century English language usage.” He notes that this language usage was common “in Wesley’s day,” and that the language conveyed a very negative perception of same sex relationships.

Wesley used the language of his day to convey the viewpoint of his day.

It should not surprise us that an eighteenth century man, even a well-educated and enlightened eighteenth century man, would not have a twenty-first century view of human sexuality.

John Wesley was a brilliant man, but he was still a man of his times.

Our Book of Discipline speaks of “Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task.” The Doctrinal Standards are part of our history and they shape our present, but Our Theological Task calls us into the future.

The Doctrinal Standards are meant to be a foundation, not a ceiling. 

Our Theological Task is not limited to looking for quotations from the writings of John Wesley and applying them to the twenty-first century.

We are not called to be religious archaeologists excavating an historical crypt, or curators of a Methodist museum. Our task is to use the wisdom of the past to guide us into the future.

As Paul told the Christians in Corinth, we are called “to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”



Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Blatantly Disregarding the Gospel

Wedding of Rev. David Meredith and James Schlachter
Then Jesus said to those who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
John 8:31-32

The current edition of the online magazine of the ironically named “Good News” movement is headlined by an essay written by Good News Vice-President and United Methodist clergy person Thomas Lambrecht.

The article which is provocatively titled “Blatantly Disregarding Truth,” is about the case of the Rev. David Meredith.

Rev. Meredith is a pastor in the West Ohio annual conference who was charged with three violations of his clergy orders:

1. “Immorality including but not limited to, not being celibate in singleness or not faithful in a heterosexual marriage”

2. “Practices declared by The United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings, including but not limited to: being a self-avowed practicing homosexual”

3. “Disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church”

The committee responsible for investigating those offenses dismissed all but the third one and this, according to Rev. Lambrecht, is evidence of “the current crisis” in the United Methodist Church, which revolves around “a critical lack of accountability.”

“The committee has effectively ignored the Discipline,” says Lambrecht, “and decided to impose its own standard of morality, essentially declaring that there is nothing wrong with a clergyperson being in a same-sex marriage or being a self-avowed practicing homosexual.”



If that were really what they had done, then it would be a good thing.

Actually, what the West Ohio Conference has done is to go back to the understanding of church law that existed before the Judicial Council rewrote the Discipline to rule that a clergy person in a same sex marriage was therefore “a self-avowed practicing homosexual.”

(I pause now briefly because I cannot write that phrase about “self-avowed practicing” without feeling ashamed, embarrassed, and amused. It is hard to think of a more effective demonstration of the irrelevance of the church in the twenty-first century than a focus on rooting out “self-avowed practicing” homosexuals.)

Rev. Lambrecht calls the West Ohio decision an “egregious violation of the church’s law and accountability process.” And he offers the hope of the Good News movement that the decision might be overturned on appeal. This, he argues, “would lead to a restored process that demonstrates that the church is able to hold its clergy accountable.”

And then he concludes:

“If an appeal fails, this committee’s decision will demonstrate that our church is no longer governable. We will no longer be governed by laws, but by people who reserve the right to undermine or ignore requirements that they disagree with. Such an outcome would demonstrate our ever-deepening schism and could only reinforce the movement toward anarchy and the reliance on raw power in our church-values that hardly comport with being disciples of Jesus Christ, let alone leading to the (positive) transformation of the world.”
When Rev. Lambrecht writes about “Blatantly Disregarding Truth,” the truth to which he is referring is the Book of Discipline as it has been interpreted by the committees and councils and conferences that agree with Rev. Lambrecht.

Our Book of Discipline is a collection of resolutions and affirmations intended to guide our life together as a denomination, but it is not The Truth.

The truth of the Gospel is a higher calling. That is the truth by which we judge our faithfulness.

When Jesus told his disciples that they would know the truth and that the truth would set them free, I don’t think he was talking about chasing after LGBTQ folks and throwing them out of the ministry.




Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 


Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Happy United Nations Day

Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares
by Yevgeny Vuchetlich, 1959
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Isaiah 2:2-5


At the United Nations building in New York City there is a statue of a man beating a giant sword into a plowshare. The sculpture, titled, “Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares,” was created by Evgeniv Vuchetich and given as a gift by the Soviet Union in 1959.

When President Reagan addressed the United Nations General Assembly in 1987, he began by describing the journey that brought the delegates and the nations together as a kind of pilgrimage, and then he said, “We come from every continent, every race, and most religions to this great hall of hope . . .” 

Near the conclusion of his address, speaking specifically to the Soviet Union as well as to the whole assembly, he asked, 
“Cannot swords be turned to plowshares? Can we and all nations not live in peace? In our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all the members of humanity. Perhaps we need some outside, universal threat to make us recognize this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences world-wide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world. And yet, I ask you, is not an alien force already among us? What could be more alien than war and the threat of war?”

In tone and in substance, President Reagan's speech stands in sharp contrast to the speech recently given by our current president in which he vowed to "totally destroy" North Korea if the United State had to defend itself.

"Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime," Mr. Trump declared. "The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary. That's what the United Nations is all about; that's what the United Nations is for. Let's see how they do."

The United Nations Charter was ratified on October 24, 1945. Today is United Nations Day. When I was a boy we celebrated United Nations Sunday in church every year.

My guess is that most people don’t know that today is United Nations Day. And we do not have many political leaders who would speak of the U.N. assembly room as “this great hall of hope.”

Over the years the United Nations has been relentlessly vilified and marginalized by politicians. Some see it as simply ineffective and others see it as a threat to our sovereignty. In a book called “The Black Helicopters Are Coming!” political commentator Dick Morris’ claimed that President Obama was plotting to have the United States invaded by the United Nations. Morris admitted that “it sounds crazy,” but insisted that it was really going to happen.

It doesn’t just sound crazy. It really and truly is crazy. But this is where we are.

The truth is that the United Nations has not lived up to our highest hopes, but its achievements have still been significant.

Over the last seventy-two years small wars have been constant and the resulting deaths and injuries have been staggering. On the other hand, we have avoided massive world wars, and that is no small achievement. The second half of the twentieth century was much more peaceful than the first half. And the United Nations must take some share of the credit for that.

In spite of its obvious limitations, the world is a better place because of the United Nations, and on United Nations Day I want to touch briefly on a few of the U.N. organizations that have fostered international progress and understanding.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is organized to reduce hunger worldwide through improving agricultural productivity and raising levels of nutrition. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is similarly targeted to reduce rural poverty in developing nations by funding relief efforts.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) promotes global cooperation to improve maritime safety and decrease marine pollution.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) acts as a forum for discussing global financial issues and provides loans to developing countries.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) promotes world peace and security by fostering international cooperation in education, science and culture. They promote the fundamental freedoms endorsed in the UN Charter.

And then there are some UN organizations that require no further description: the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Trade Organization (WHO), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and the World Bank Group (WBG) which includes five sub-groups focused on promoting development and reconstruction.

It is an impressive list. Together they promote an international strategy for beating swords into plowshares. 


Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

*An earlier version of this post was published on October 24, 2012.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

John McCain's Vision for America


On Monday Senator John McCain was awarded the Liberty Medal by the National Constitution Center. The award is given annually to mean and women who have demonstrated courage and conviction in working to secure the blessings of liberty to people around the world. Past winners have included Nelson Mandela, Sandra Day O’Connor, Kofi Annan, Shimon Peres, and Colin Powell.

McCain was introduced by former Vice President Joe Biden with whom he served in the United States Senate for twenty years. And they share a friendship that goes back over forty years.

Biden and McCain are old school.

They come from a time when legislators saw themselves as colleagues who might disagree vigorously on how the country should be governed while sharing a common sacred commitment to the ideals on which it was founded. McCain was clearly moved when he thanked Biden for his introduction and recalled their friendship over the decades.
“We didn’t always agree on the issues. We often argued – sometimes passionately. But we believed in each other’s patriotism and the sincerity of each other’s convictions. We believed in the institution we were privileged to serve in. We believed in our mutual responsibility to help make the place work and to cooperate in finding solutions to our country’s problems. We believed in our country and in our country’s indispensability to international peace and stability and to the progress of humanity. And through it all, whether we argued or agreed, Joe was good company. Thank you, old friend, for your company and your service to America.”
McCain talked about what a gift it was to serve the country he loves. Quoting a phrase used by President George H. W. Bush, given in 1991 at a Pearl Harbor remembrance, he called America “the most wondrous land on earth.”

He talked about America as a place where with all of its flaws. we are blessed by immigrant dreams, where we share a storied past and rush toward an imagined future. He noted wryly that America was a place where “a person can escape the consequences of a self-centered youth and know the satisfaction of sacrificing for an ideal, the land where you can go from aimless rebellion to a noble cause, and from the bottom of your class to your party’s nomination for president.”

“We are blessed,” he said, “and we have been a blessing to humanity in turn.”
“The international order we helped build from the ashes of world war, and that we defend to this day, has liberated more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. This wondrous land has shared its treasures and ideals and shed the blood of its finest patriots to help make another, better world. And as we did so, we made our own civilization more just, freer, more accomplished and prosperous than the America that existed when I watched my father go off to war on December 7, 1941.”
And then he contrasted his understanding of the ideals of American with Mr. Trump’s retreat from international leadership:
“To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.”
Before concluding with a personal appreciation of what it has meant to him to serve this “most wondrous land,” McCain focused directly on the new nationalism of the “alt-right.” He addressed the shouts of “Blood and Soil” heard from white supremacists at the Charlottesville rally, a phrase they took directly from Nazi Germany:
“We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did. We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.”
It was a stinging indictment of the current White House, delivered clearly and concisely, without personal venom or insults.

It was old school.

In our current political climate it was almost quaint.

Thank you, John McCain, for reminding us what it means to serve your country.




Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 


Here is the prepared version of McCain’s speech, as released by his Senate office:

Thank you, Joe, my old, dear friend, for those mostly undeserved kind words. Vice President Biden and I have known each other for a lot of years now, more than forty, if you’re counting. We knew each other back when we were young and handsome and smarter than everyone else but were too modest to say so.

Joe was already a senator, and I was the Navy’s liaison to the Senate. My duties included escorting senate delegations on overseas trips, and in that capacity, I supervised the disposition of the delegation’s luggage, which could require – now and again – when no one of lower rank was available for the job – that I carry someone worthy’s bag. Once or twice that worthy turned out to be the young senator from Delaware. I’ve resented it ever since.

Joe has heard me joke about that before. I hope he has heard, too, my profession of gratitude for his friendship these many years. It has meant a lot to me. We served in the Senate together for over twenty years, during some eventful times, as we passed from young men to the fossils who appear before you this evening.

We didn’t always agree on the issues. We often argued – sometimes passionately. But we believed in each other’s patriotism and the sincerity of each other’s convictions. We believed in the institution we were privileged to serve in. We believed in our mutual responsibility to help make the place work and to cooperate in finding solutions to our country’s problems. We believed in our country and in our country’s indispensability to international peace and stability and to the progress of humanity. And through it all, whether we argued or agreed, Joe was good company. Thank you, old friend, for your company and your service to America.

Thank you, too, to the National Constitution Center, and everyone associated with it for this award. Thank you for that video, and for the all too generous compliments paid to me this evening. I’m aware of the prestigious company the Liberty Medal places me in. I’m humbled by it, and I’ll try my best not to prove too unworthy of it.

Some years ago, I was present at an event where an earlier Liberty Medal recipient spoke about America’s values and the sacrifices made for them. It was 1991, and I was attending the ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The World War II veteran, estimable patriot and good man, President George H.W. Bush, gave a moving speech at the USS Arizona memorial. I remember it very well. His voice was thick with emotion as he neared the end of his address. I imagine he was thinking not only of the brave Americans who lost their lives on December 7, 1941, but of the friends he had served with and lost in the Pacific where he had been the Navy’s youngest aviator.

‘Look at the water here, clear and quiet …’ he directed, ‘One day, in what now seems another lifetime, it wrapped its arms around the finest sons any nation could ever have, and it carried them to a better world.’

He could barely get out the last line, ‘May God bless them, and may God bless America, the most wondrous land on earth.’

The most wondrous land on earth, indeed. I’ve had the good fortune to spend sixty years in service to this wondrous land. It has not been perfect service, to be sure, and there were probably times when the country might have benefited from a little less of my help. But I’ve tried to deserve the privilege as best I can, and I’ve been repaid a thousand times over with adventures, with good company, and with the satisfaction of serving something more important than myself, of being a bit player in the extraordinary story of America. And I am so very grateful.

What a privilege it is to serve this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, magnificent country. With all our flaws, all our mistakes, with all the frailties of human nature as much on display as our virtues, with all the rancor and anger of our politics, we are blessed.

We are living in the land of the free, the land where anything is possible, the land of the immigrant’s dream, the land with the storied past forgotten in the rush to the imagined future, the land that repairs and reinvents itself, the land where a person can escape the consequences of a self-centered youth and know the satisfaction of sacrificing for an ideal, the land where you can go from aimless rebellion to a noble cause, and from the bottom of your class to your party’s nomination for president.

We are blessed, and we have been a blessing to humanity in turn. The international order we helped build from the ashes of world war, and that we defend to this day, has liberated more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. This wondrous land has shared its treasures and ideals and shed the blood of its finest patriots to help make another, better world. And as we did so, we made our own civilization more just, freer, more accomplished and prosperous than the America that existed when I watched my father go off to war on December 7, 1941.

To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.

We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did. We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.

I am the luckiest guy on earth. I have served America’s cause – the cause of our security and the security of our friends, the cause of freedom and equal justice – all my adult life. I haven’t always served it well. I haven’t even always appreciated what I was serving. But among the few compensations of old age is the acuity of hindsight. I see now that I was part of something important that drew me along in its wake even when I was diverted by other interests. I was, knowingly or not, along for the ride as America made the future better than the past.

And I have enjoyed it, every single day of it, the good ones and the not so good ones. I’ve been inspired by the service of better patriots than me. I’ve seen Americans make sacrifices for our country and her causes and for people who were strangers to them but for our common humanity, sacrifices that were much harder than the service asked of me. And I’ve seen the good they have done, the lives they freed from tyranny and injustice, the hope they encouraged, the dreams they made achievable.

May God bless them. May God bless America, and give us the strength and wisdom, the generosity and compassion, to do our duty for this wondrous land, and for the world that counts on us. With all its suffering and dangers, the world still looks to the example and leadership of America to become, another, better place. What greater cause could anyone ever serve.
Thank you again for this honor. I’ll treasure it.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Our Greatest Moment

President Truman signs the Marshall Plan
Is not this the fast that I choose: 
to loose the bonds of injustice, 
to undo the thongs of the yoke, 
to let the oppressed go free, 
and to break every yoke? 
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, 
and bring the homeless poor into your house; 
when you see the naked, to cover them, 
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, 
and your healing shall spring up quickly; 
your vindicator shall go before you, 
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. 
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; 
you shall cry for help, 
and he will say, Here I am. 
Isaiah 58:6-9

Seventy years ago today, on October 5, 1947, President Harry S. Truman delivered the first presidential address ever broadcast on live television.

And that first address may also be the greatest.

His address followed a presentation by the Citizens Food Committee concerning the starvation in Europe and the need for Americans to sacrifice in order to save their European sisters and brothers.

After the Second World War the United States embarked on one of the greatest achievements of world history, the rebuilding of Europe and Japan after the devastation. The Marshall Plan prevented economic collapse and led to a world-wide economic expansion and shared prosperity.

But when President Truman addressed the nation, the rebuilding of Europe was faltering. “The situation in Europe is grim and forbidding as winter approaches,” he said. “Despite the vigorous efforts of the European people, their crops have suffered so badly from droughts, floods, and cold that the tragedy of hunger is a stark reality. The nations of Western Europe will soon be scraping the bottom of the food barrel. They cannot get through the coming winter and spring without help--generous help-from the United States and from other countries which have food to spare.” If we do not act, said the President, all of the rebuilding efforts may be wasted. “I know every American feels in his heart that we must help to prevent starvation and distress among our fellow men in other countries.”

Truman called on the nation to give up meat on Tuesdays, to give up poultry and eggs on Thursdays, and to give up one slice of bread per day. He also called on distillers to save grain by stopping the production of alcoholic beverages for 60 days. And he called on the Commodities Exchange Commission to tighten regulations and reduce the “gambling” in grain futures which resulted in even higher prices.

He told the country that Mrs. Truman had directed the White House staff to follow the food conservation measures. And he said that the same policy would be followed in all government restaurants and cafeterias throughout the country. “As Commander in Chief,” he said, “I have ordered that the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force shall also comply with this program.”

This morning, as I read Harry Truman’s address, I reflected on the present state of the world, from the hurricane devastation in Puerto Rico, to the tensions with North Korea, and the global refugee crisis. It is hard to imagine any leader in our country calling for the level of shared sacrifice that President Truman called for after World War Two.

And we need to remember, that was after the great sacrifices required by the war itself.

If we want to understand what American greatness should look like, it is hard to imagine anything surpassing the Marshall plan. President Truman was putting American interests and American economic power at the service of the world. 

The food measures did not last long. With increased American help, the European recovery soon made such radical conservation unnecessary. Europe and Japan were rebuilt and America entered a time of unprecedented prosperity.


Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

*The original version of this post was first published on October 5, 2011.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

"Like a Flag Flown at Half-Mast to Mark a Tragedy"

Eric Reid and Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem last season
He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.
Philippians 2:7-10

In a Tuesday morning tweet, theologian Diana Butler Bass wrote:

Preaching on Sun & just checked assigned lectionary text:  "At the name of Jesus, every knee should bend."

I kid you not.

Apparently even the Apostle Paul has something to say about NFL players “taking a knee during the National Anthem on Sunday.

The protest began in the 2016 preseason when Eric Reid and Colin Kaepernick chose to sit on the bench rather than stand during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality. A week later they decided that they should kneel rather than sit in order to make clear that their protest was meant to be respectful of the anthem and the flag.

In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Reid writes:
“After hours of careful consideration, and even a visit from Nate Boyer, a retired Green Beret and former NFL player, we came to the conclusion that we should kneel, rather than sit, the next day during the anthem as a peaceful protest. We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”
Like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy. 

Hardly a sign of disrespect.

“It baffles me that our protest is still being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, flag, and military personnel,” Reid wrote. “We chose it because it’s exactly the opposite. It has always been my understanding that the brave men and women who fought and died for our country did so to ensure that we could live in a fair and free society, which includes the right to speak out in protest.”

Other players around the league joined Reid and Kaepernick in their silent protest, but it did not gain widespread attention until the President put it front and center in a speech on behalf of Senator Luther Strange in Huntsville, Alabama. He asked the crowd if they would “love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired’?”

He also called for fans to boycott the league until the protest was stopped.

Which resulted in many more players choosing to take a knee during the anthem, and many of Mr. Trump’s fans reacting with anger toward the players.

We might pause for a minute to think about the language Mr. Trump used. The Nazis and White Supremacists in Charlottesville were carefully described with the generalization that there were good people on both sides. But (mostly) black football players taking part in a peaceful protest are called “sons of bitches.”

When the “Black Lives Matter” protests began, a major part of the criticism was that the protests were not sufficiently peaceful. But it is hard to think of anything more peaceful than kneeling.

In his “Minority of One” column in the Chicago Tribune, Steve Chapman writes:
“. . . if you don’t like how Black Lives Matter pursues its agenda, you should welcome the NFL players’ approach. It’s silent; it’s not disruptive; and it’s entirely nonviolent. It doesn’t block traffic, occupy police or frighten bystanders. . . That the display evokes so much fury and disgust among whites, from the president on down, confirms what was evident 50 years ago. The problem is not how blacks raise their complaints about American society; it’s that they raise them.”


  
Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 


Friday, September 22, 2017

Thoughts on The Uniting Methodists Movement (Can the Center Hold?)


"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Matthew 5:11-12

It hardly qualifies as persecution, and it would be hyperbole to say that they have been subjected to “all kinds of evil” utterances, but Ginger Gaines-Cirelli and Adam Hamilton have certainly gotten a lot criticism for their leadership in the United Methodist centrist movement. 

Hamilton has national recognition as the founding pastor of a mega-church  of more than 20,000 members and Gaines-Cirelli is the Senior Pastor the most visible church in the  Reconciling Ministries Network.

The “Uniting Methodists” say that they are “Called to be a unifying and clarifying voice in a divided conversation and a polarized culture.”

It is a worthy vision.

Heaven knows the diagnosis is accurate. We are divided and polarized as a culture and there are deep an painful divisions within United Methodism. It remains to be seen whether this new group can be a unifying and clarifying voice.

They believe that faithful Christians can different views on same sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ persons. In simplest terms they want us, as a denomination, to agree to disagree.

I confess that I cannot accept the assertion that the exclusion of LGBTQ Christians from full participation in the life of the church is faithful to the Gospel. This does not mean that I believe that everyone who holds that position is an evil person. And it does not mean that we cannot have fellowship with one another. It does not mean that we cannot “agree to disagree,” but I cannot see the two perspectives as being equally valid interpretations of Christian faith and ethics.

In this argument the two sides do not have an equal claim on the truth.

And before we go any further it should be stated that although it has often been said that “there is pain on both sides,” that pain is not equal. 

United Methodist policies and positions over the last four decades have caused great harm to our LGBTQ siblings. For traditionalists to claim that the “pain” they feel at knowing that there are pastors in our denomination who celebrate same sex weddings and conferences that ordain gay clergy is somehow equivalent to the pain of exclusion and marginalization is disingenuous at best.

The Uniting Methodists Movement makes six affirmations:

  • Disciples: Despite our differences, we are committed to remain a part of, and support, The United Methodist Church and to fulfill its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
  • Evangelism: We are committed to both evangelism and social justice as essential to the expression of vital United Methodism.
  • Standards: We accept and uphold the Doctrinal Standards and Theological Task of The United Methodist Church as stated in our Discipline.  
  • Interpretation: We believe our differences on the questions of same-sex marriage and ordination stem from differences over biblical interpretation, not biblical authority.
  • Officiation: We call for disciplinary changes so that clergy are neither compelled to officiate at same-sex weddings, nor prohibited from doing so.
  • Ordination: We call for disciplinary changes so that annual conferences are neither compelled to ordain LGBTQ persons, nor prohibited from doing so.

The first three affirmations are pretty straight forward. We might argue about how we interpret our Doctrinal Standards, and some traditionalists are still pushing for a literal interpretation of the Nicene Creed as a normative theological standard, but those issues are not new and they are probably not deal breakers.

On interpretation, we can expect some serious pushback from traditionalists, who have been adamant that the issue is biblical authority.  I have addressed that issue numerous times, so I won’t go into it here.

The most controversial of the affirmations are the last two.

It will be hard for traditionalists to accept same sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy within “their” denomination, even if they are not required to participate directly. 

As the pastor of a Reconciling Congregation who is committed to the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons, I am more concerned with the issue from that perspective.

The United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus lists their primary concerns:

By trivializing LGBTQIA+ justice, the UMM does further injury to those who have already been harmed;
The UMM does not fully take LGBTQIA+ voices into account;
LGBTQIA+ persons could not sign on to the UMM plan without participating in our own oppression or that of other members of our community;
The UMM is built on the delusion that the perpetuation of injustice is as moral as seeking of justice;
The UMM breaches our principle of connectionalism – where all persons can “participate in every level of connectional life and ministry.;”
It is as though we have become the Laodicean church described in Revelation: “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:16). To seek a middle ground between inclusion and discrimination is to place institutional preservation before our call to follow the way of Jesus, in whom we have the freedom “to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever form they present themselves.” (UMC Baptismal vows)

The Reconciling Ministries Network issued this assessment in their press release:
“The foundational statement of the UMM is another example of fellow United Methodists advocating for changes ‘about us, without us’ and once again asserts the false notion that a unity of substance can be achieved while discriminatory policies remain in place. The proposal joins a long tradition of prioritizing a surface level kind of unity over the well-being of LGBTQ people, particularly those most vulnerable in the South, and fails to embrace an unprecedented opportunity to set our church on a new course toward justice, reconciliation, and health.”
The most faithful and just “way forward” would be for the whole United Methodist Church to embrace the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in every aspect of our life together. 

Sadly, that is extremely unlikely.

And there is no way that those of  us in favor of an inclusive church would agree to stop celebrating same sex weddings or ordaining qualified candidates regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

That leaves two options.

We can split into two (or more?) denominations, or we can embrace a future like that envisioned by the Uniting Methodists Movement.

Whether we split or remain united, the traditionalist churches and pastors and conferences will continue to do what they are presently doing, and the inclusive churches and pastors and conferences will also continue to do what they are presently doing. 

The only short-term difference is that if we split, then the folks on the other side will not be doing what they are doing in “our” name.

We will no longer be responsible for their unfaithfulness.

At this point, Adam Hamilton’s example is useful. Over time his position changed from traditionalist to favoring inclusion. That happened because he came into increasing contact with faithful Christians who happened to be gay. That happened in spite of the cost. When he came out to his congregation in favor of inclusion something like 800 members left the church in the next week. That is no small thing, even in a mega-church.

The culture is shifting on this issue. 

People are changing. 

One of the key questions we need to ask as we consider the future of the church is how we can best facilitate that change in the church and in the wider world.



Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Progress and the Bending of the Moral Arc

When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
Deuteronomy 26:6-9


Senator Dianne Feinstein
In a recent blogpost on the Juicy Ecumenism blog of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, the Rev. Dr. David Watson commented on remarks by Senator Dianne Feinstein directed at Roman Catholic judicial nominee Amy Barrett addressing the role which
Professor Amy Barrett
Barrett’s faith might play in her judicial decisions.


“Dogma and law are two different things,” said Feinstein. “I think, whatever a religion is, it has its own dogma. The law is totally different; in your case, Professor [Barrett], when you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for, for years, in this country.”

Watson’s indictment is scathing. “Let’s be clear,” he writes. “Senator Feinstein’s statement cannot mean, ‘You are dogmatic and I am not.’ Rather, it means, ‘I prefer my dogma over yours.’”

Although the term “dogma” is often used negatively as the description of a rigidly held system of beliefs that is impervious to rational inquiry, it can have a more neutral meaning as an established set of opinions. Watson defines it as “a body of accepted teaching.”

Secular liberals, he argues, have their own dogma.
“Secular liberalism is not a value-neutral position. It is a value-laden position with its own set of moral and philosophical underpinnings. One of those presuppositions is the idea of “progress,” that human beings are becoming better and better as time goes on. . . . We are becoming better in our understanding of the natural world and in our mastery of it. We are learning to understand human behavior and human flourishing better than we ever have before. We are developing a keener sense of morality than those who came before us in history. We know better than they did.”
For Watson, “the idea of human progress . . . is an untenable myth, at least with regard to our moral and spiritual development.” And then he lists the evidence for his assertion:
“Two World Wars, the Holocaust, the development of nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge, the Rwandan Genocide, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, 9/11, chemical warfare, the rise of global extreme poverty… It was a bloody hundred years.”
Yes. It was a bloody hundred years. But it was also an amazing hundred years: the rights of women, the advancement of race relations, the end of segregation and apartheid, advances in worker rights, advances in the rights of the handicapped, giant leaps in our global standard of living, the end of colonialism, increases in life expectancy and healthcare, and that's just a partial list.

A lot of good things happened in the twentieth century, but the belief in human progress is not based on a single century; it is based on the observation of human history over thousands of years. 

The belief in human progress grows out of a fundamental biblical idea, that God is at work in human history. That’s why, as Dr. King said in his sermon after the march from Selma to Montgomery, the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. This is the central claim of the Exodus. And it is the theology of the Kingdom of God.

In the rich symbolic language of Deuteronomy, "The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm . . . and he brought us into this place . . .”

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Shiphrah and Puah Resist the Transgender Decree

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?”
Exodus 1:15-18

In the modern day version of this story Pharaoh tells the women that they should enforce his decree that transgender men and women should be forced out of his army, but here as in the original, they do not do as the king commanded them.

In today’s story the women are United States Senators rather than Hebrew midwives, but like the women in the ancient text, they love justice more than they fear the king (or his political operatives). 

Justice is a bipartisan issue.

Republican Susan Collins and Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand have proposed a joint amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would prevent the Department of Defense from enacting the President’s ban on transgender persons serving in the military.  

In July, Mr. Trump issued the ban in a tweet that came as a surprise to his own administration, including the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis.

Senator Gillibrand tweeted in response, "To all trans men and women serving bravely in the military: I plan to introduce legislation to fight back. We'll keep raising our voices." Senator John McCain, the chair of the Armed Services Committee called the decree a "step in the wrong direction."

The amendment introduced on September 11 would prevent the Department of Defense from discharging current transgender service personnel "solely on the basis of the member’s gender identity.”

“Any individual who wants to join our military and meets the standards should be allowed to serve, period. Gender identity should have nothing to do with it,” said Senator Gillibrand in her statement.

“If individuals are willing to put on the uniform of our country, be deployed in war zones, and risk their lives for our freedoms, then we should be expressing our gratitude to them, not trying to exclude them from military service," said Senator Collins.



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Monday, September 11, 2017

The End of the World as We Knew It

“When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfillment of all that is written. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Luke 21:20-28

(This is the sermon I preached 
on September 16, 2001, 
the Sunday after 9/11.)

"When these things begin to take place, 
stand up and raise your heads,
because your redemption is drawing near." 

The Scripture reading is actually an advent text in our lectionary. It is also a Holy Week text, since it comes from the last week of Jesus’ life in Jerusalem. He is talking about the second coming. I chose it for today because it speaks of disaster and catastrophe, and I believe it is useful to remind ourselves that this is not the first time that people of faith have faced such things. It is useful to remind ourselves that such catastrophe was not unknown or unanticipated in biblical times.

The events of this week have been tragic and catastrophic. The pain endured has been immense. Our lives have been shaken. there is a real sense in which this kind of war in our global village has changed our world forever. What Jesus tells his disciples is that in times such as these, precisely in this kind of situation, we are called to respond with faith and courage. In the last verse, he tells them, "When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

Stand Up

This is a time for people to stand up; to stand up and think; to stand up and question; to stand up and pray. People have a lot of questions. Obviously, there are a host of questions. There are questions of security and politics, but I am thinking about theological questions. I hear people asking, “How could this happen?”

That question has been asked of many religious leaders in television interviews this week, and most of the answers have been awful. I understand that Billy Graham did a great job at the service in Washington, and I thought the Roman Catholic Bishop of New York was wonderful, but most of the responses were poor. 

The low point for me came when Ann Graham Lotz, Billy Graham's daughter, was asked how God could let this happen, and she said, “You have to understand, we have spent years driving God out of our lives,” and she went on to talk about taking prayer out of our schools. Apparently, she believes that God killed three thousand innocent people to teach us that we ought to make kids pray in school. I don’t know what kind of barbarian god she worships, but that is not the God that I know.

Some of us wish that God would work the way King Kong did in the old movie. Do you remember King Kong on the Empire State Building, grabbing the planes out of the air and smashing them on the ground? Some of us wish that God had done something like that last Tuesday, perhaps snatching the planes out of the air and then setting them gently on the ground. But God simply does not work that way.

As I contemplated the events of last Tuesday and began to think about coming together on Sunday morning, I asked myself, “What can I possibly say? And what difference does it make anyway? After something like this, what’s the point?” And then I remembered that this is not the first time that something like this has happened. Twenty-six hundred years ago, when Jerusalem fell and many of the people were carried into captivity in Babylon, the people of Israel still gathered to sing and pray and worship. The faithful gathered for worship after Gettysburg and during the London Blitz. We can think of dozens of examples. People of faith have gathered for prayer and worship in crises large and small all across the centuries.

For many years, we Americans have enjoyed an unprecedented sense of personal and national security. For more than twenty-five years we have been almost untouched by the threat of war. Desert Storm happened far away and with few American casualties. The threat of nuclear war has been almost non-existent for more than a decade. This week we have suffered a huge loss in that sense of security. And some of us have been tempted to equate that loss of personal and national security with a loss of God’s presence. But that is not the security that God provides. At the end of his life, Moses blessed the people of Israel with the promise that “underneath are the everlasting arms.” The promise is not that God will protect us from every evil deed, but that God will always be there.

The reality is that God gives freedom to human beings, and we can use that in a variety of ways. Today I wore my “Palm Sunday” tie. You can see the handprints or palm prints of children. I wore it in part because it feels to me like Palm Sunday. I feel that somber sense that I experience in Holy Week. I also wore it because I have been thinking about what hands do. God gave us hands, and we can use them to do good things or evil things. We have seen both this week.

And Raise Your Heads

"When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads . . . ." This week we have seen human beings at their best and at their worst. Obviously, what the terrorists did on Tuesday was beyond the scope of what most people had contemplated. When I heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, I immediately assumed it was a tragic accident. Even after the second plane, my mind was searching for an explanation. It was literally incomprehensible.

We have also seen people at their best. What amazing courage it must have taken for people to crash that plane near Pittsburgh, rather than let it go on toward a major population center. The heroism of the rescue workers was magnificent. And was it not a minor miracle that the evacuation of the towers was as orderly as it was. In the face of imminent danger, reports say that people were polite and brave. If even a small number had panicked, the death toll might have been doubled or tripled. One man fell and broke his ankle, and four strangers picked him up and carried him down fifteen flights to safety. Seldom have we seen so many individual acts of caring and kindness in such a small space and time.

We have seen people at their best in our nation, but we have also seen them at their worst. There have been hundreds of attacks on Arab-Americans and on people who looked like Arabs. Molotov cocktails have been thrown into business, guns have been fired, threats and epithets have been shouted.

That is not who we are and that can never be who we are. To put it crudely, we are not them. (To be grammatically correct, I should say, “We are not they,” but it doesn’t sound right.) We are not terrorists and we must not let this tragedy turn us into something less than what we are called to be, as Christians and as Americans. We have an obligation to raise our heads, to lift our vision, and to raise our standards.

The Apostle Paul said that we must “hate what is evil and love what is good.” And he’s right. If we only love the good and do not hate the evil, we become merely sentimental. But William Sloan Coffin was also right when he said that we must love the good more than we hate the evil. If we do not love the good more than we hate the evil, we will simply become good haters. We must not become good haters. We must love the good more than we hate the evil.

Because Your Redemption Is Drawing Near."When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." After describing a great crisis in the most vivid language, Jesus then tells them that the time of crisis will also be a time of redemption. He can speak with confidence about the future because he knows this has happened in the past.

When Jerusalem fell and the people of Israel were taken into captivity, the prophets and great religious thinkers asked themselves, “How could this happen? How can it be that the holiest city of the very people God has chosen to bring his message to the world has fallen? If this can happen, then how can we trust God?” 

This was the greatest challenge that Israel had ever faced. And Israel responded to this theological crisis with some of the most brilliant and beautiful literature that human beings have ever produced. The wisdom and depth of thought were amazing. Israel responded, in the words of Professor Walter Brueggemann, “precisely against the data.” It was out of this crisis, says Brueggemann, that Israel gave birth to the concept of hope. It was in these great reflections on the crisis of exile that the concept of hope was first introduced to the world. Hope was Israel’s gift to the world.

Hope is always “against the data.” It is not an analysis which says that things will get better. It is not the cheerful assertion that every cloud has a silver lining. Hope says we trust in God, regardless of the data; regardless of the presence or absence of a silver lining.

You and I are called to reaffirm our hope: our hope in human beings, our hope in our nation, and underneath it all, our hope in God. One of the many posters placed near the destruction at ground zero quoted Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.”

This is a time for people of faith to stand up and raise our heads. This is a time for people of faith to raise our standards higher than they have ever been. This is a time for us to reaffirm the gift of hope and this is a time for us to love the good.



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