Thursday, December 27, 2007


The holiday gift-giving season has ended and the bills are now coming due. There is no question that the American economy relies on year-end spending which has effectively commercialized any faith tradition's holy day or days that fall within this time period. Reports of numbers will tell us whether the bottom line bodes well for business or not, but there are serious burdens borne by the consumer that demand our attention. One is what economist Joel Waldfogel calls the “Deadweight Loss of Christmas.”

On National Public Radio's Marketplace, Waldfogel was quoted saying “People value things they receive as gifts about 20 percent less per dollar spent then they value items they purchase for themselves.” This deadweight loss is valued at somewhere between twelve and eighteen billion dollars this year. In effect this means that the marketing of the holiday caused Americans to hand over that much money in exchange for nothing more than the consolation of knowing that they participated in the annual spending ritual. And this only measures the difference in perceived value of gifts received, it makes no judgment on the uselessness of many of the gifts that were given.

The second burden to consider is the growing consumer debt that the holiday consumption frenzy creates. A recent Federal Reserve Bank report indicates that Americans carry over $920 billion in credit debt. Over the previous year, the number of accounts that are 30 days past due has risen by 26% and those that are 90 days overdue by 50% according to some lenders. This all adds up to an insane practice of purchasing over-valued items, many of them redundant or useless, with money we don't have and then either paying even more for them due to interest payments or creating insurmountable debt that brings an avalanche of other problems.

The only thing that keeps this cycle going is the cycle itself! Like a gerbil running on a wheel, the only way to stop the motion is to get off the wheel. This annual feast of overconsumption is surely an a disease. As we enter the flu season, it is apt that this economic disease can been called Affluenza. It is in fact a manifestation of the disease of addiction. Anyone who is living with an addiction knows the daily battles that can involve many setbacks without vigilance. The most successful way of dealing with addiction is through the wisdom of the Twelve Steps. The first step is to admit that we are powerless over the addiction – that our lives have become unmanageable. That should be plain from the numbers reported here, or the bills that you cannot pay.

The second step is coming to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. What power is that for you? Whether you are comfortable calling that higher power God or not, there is a spirituality required for recovery. We are a sorry and hopeless people indeed if we cannot find the spiritual path that will lead us out of the insanity of this runaway consumerism.

The Year in Religion

One of the biggest religious stories of 2007 was the fact that religion itself came under attack. A number of books were written that took religion to task for the harm that is has created historically and the way that it at times impedes social progress today. Many of the accusations are well-deserved as religious fanaticism has indeed led to bloodshed and repression in some parts of the world. Ideologues will always fight not relent and religion certainly is apt to create ideologues. But then, the stubbornness of the new atheists has likewise contributed to the lack of dialog about the clash of philosophies. Public opinion seems to be moving away from the church. Recent research by the Barna group regarding the opinions of American young people about religion was published in a book with a succinct title that names that opinion, “Unchristian.” The good news is that this could be an opportunity for reform if the church can do the difficult work of listening to the outside detractors.

The culture war continued to rage with religious folks involved in both public battles and internal disputes. The Anglican fellowship in the world saw divisions over the issue of homosexuality, with some American churches leaving their local fellowship to join with like-minded churches in Africa. In an effort to maintain some unity worldwide, those who accept the ordination of homosexuals have been asked to stop the practice. Religious voices were raised on both sides of the issue of legalizing same-sex marriage with Massachusetts continuing to permit it while many states moved to explicitly restrict it. On this issue, the year did not produce any signs of promise for dialog.

On a brighter note, there seemed to be some movement this year in the area of care of the environment as a religious issue. Despite the objections of some Evangelicals, a good number of others chose to publish a letter that called for action to slow global warming. Environmental issues present an opportunity for people of all faith traditions to find some common ground for action. We have witnessed the first steps this year.

The most encouraging dialog that was begun this year was that between Muslims and Christians. If nothing is done to reverse the trend toward conflict between these two cultures over half the world's population could potentially become embroiled in violent conflict. Considering the powers involved it is no overstatement to talk about the end of the world. The dialog that has begun centers on two tenets basic to each faith, love of God and care for neighbor. As we end one year and pray for peace in the next, we should cherish this important step and work to continue the progress begun.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

What Would Jesus Buy?

With the craziness of consumerism reaching a fever pitch just before Christmas, it is time for the obligatory respite to complain about it. Indeed there is very little that is redeeming in the purchase of endless and unnecessary items for people who already no doubt have more than they need. Does anyone ever complain that there are just not enough trinkets to buy or trendy items to collect? Of course not, but there is plenty of complaining about not being able to please the voracious desires of family and friends who will be disappointed if they don't get the latest and greatest. Consider that complaint for a minute. Who actually thinks so little of their family and friends to accuse them of such shallow desires? That is the most pernicious element of consumerism, it leads us to actions that that run counter to what we most want to believe. We want to believe that the things that matter most are not things. We want to believe that our family and friends only need our love and care, yet we allow the demands of consumerism to believe that they just must have things as proof of our love.

So why don't we stop? Why don't we wake up and celebrate Christmas by simply doing the things that make us happy with friends and family? Why don't we give gifts to the one who is having the birthday? We could give presents to Jesus who said he would be with us in those who are sick and hungry and in prison. But we all know that our noblest intentions at this holy season will still not be realized. Perhaps consumerism is a form of demon possession. It certainly seems to have a power beyond our control. It also is a force that that is in direct opposition to the teaching of the one whose birthday we celebrate.

A documentary called, “What Would Jesus Buy” opens in theaters this week. It is filled with satirical humor and street theater presented by “Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping.” It will no doubt make many people laugh and no doubt think about the insanity of consumerism. Perhaps we need to laugh to keep us from crying. There is indeed a war on Christmas, and it isn't about not telling the story and singing the songs. It is about ignoring the story and not listening to the message. May this be the year and we all start to hear the message of love at the heart of the story. Instead of giving more things to “the person who has everything” let us bring our gifts to the manger by giving them to the least among us.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Religion and the Public Square

Mitt Romney's recent speech on religious freedom was very revealing. He expressed his belief in some foundational principles that are necessary to maintaining the constitutional mandate to avoid the establishment of religion while at the same time apparently betraying his own beliefs.

To his credit, Romney said “we do not insist on a single strain of religion – rather, we welcome our nation's symphony of faith.” He also pointed to his record of keeping his Mormonism a private faith that informed his decisions without dictating his politics. He rightly suggested that “Americans do not respect believers of convenience. Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world.” Or at least let us hope that cynicism has not taken such a hold in the electorate that this is no longer true. He also lifted up a number of faith traditions for praise: Catholicism, Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, Lutheranism, Judaism, and even Islam. He stated his view of tolerance this way, “Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.” He pointed out that our nation has not always lived up to its high principles citing the banishments of Ann Hutchinson, Roger Williams, and Brigham Young, for their unacceptable religious convictions. Ironically, within his own speech, he too seemed to fail to “walk the talk.”

In a particularly contradictory moment Romney first suggested that "The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion,” but immediately added, “but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust.” He believes that those expressions belong in our pledge and on our currency. He also thinks that nativity scenes and menorahs belong in the public square. If this is the path to tolerance, where does it end? In the area of public display of religious faith the only manageable position is to exclude it totally. This also begs the question of how to respect those of no faith. Romney himself suggests that recent efforts to keep church and state separate have gone so far as to effectively create a new religion of secularism. This begs the question of whether an expression of secularism should be welcome in the public square.

All of us have biases that make up the belief systems that guide our actions. Some of our belief systems include a belief in God or gods, others don't. If only those who believe in a single God are capable of being good citizens then our government schools must start teaching religious practice as part of training good citizens, and those who don't share that belief cannot be first class citizens. Clearly this would be unconstitutional and unwelcome. Those of us for whom religious beliefs matter should likewise be troubled by the thought that the government might attempt to teach our beliefs. Which particular doctrines would be taught? The only acceptable position is one broad enough to accept all citizens of any faith, or of no faith. Romney is welcome to bring his faith to the public square, indeed should be praised for clearly sharing his biases. But let us hope that whomever is elected president will truly live out a commitment to represent all the people, not drawing any lines that exclude any citizen.

Monday, December 03, 2007

A Common Word

One year after Pope Benedict XVI made controversial remarks regarding Islam, a group of 138 Muslim leaders representing all the various denominations and traditions of Islam have published a letter to the Christian community called “A Common Word Between You and Us” ( This group includes people with different profiles: religious authorities, scholars, intellectuals, media experts, professionals, etc... It also includes people from different schools of mainstream Islam: Sunni (from Salafis to Sufis), Shi’i (J’afari, Ziadi, Isma’ili), and Ibadi. It includes figures from Chad to Uzbekistan, from Indonesia to Mauritania and from Canada to Sudan. Many of the individual signatories guide or influence millions of Muslims and hold positions of religious, social, and political responsibility. The accumlated influence of the signatories is too significant to ignore. The content of the document is powerful in its stunning simplicity. It lifts up two doctrines arguably at the very core of both religions: love of God and love of neighbor.

Despite historical theological tensions, this group of Muslims goes to great lengths to show that the Christian devotion is to the single God of the universe whom they also worship. The second core belief that this document points out as held in common between Muslims and Christians is the concern for neighbor. It receives little space in the document, no doubt because it is is so obviously at the heart of both faiths. The well documented letter cites not just the Koran, but also the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible.

So far, the Christian response has been astoundingly positive. A response stating that the Muslim letter was both encouraging and challenging was issued by 300 Christian leaders. Among the signatories are the expected mainline denominational leaders and liberal theologians, but also signing were televangelist Robert Schuller and evangelical leaders Jim Wallis (of Sojourners magazine) and Rick Warren (author of “The Purpose Driven Life”). The pope has also responded with an offer to meet with a delegation of Muslim leaders.

There is no doubt that this is a remarkable exchange at a critical time in the history of relations between the two religions that together represent 55% of the world's population. The conversation around shared beliefs needs to replace the name-calling that is becoming too common. We in the West have to give up the idea that all Muslims are represented by the militant fringe of “Islamo-fascists.” Likewise, Muslims need to resist the urge to paint the West with the broad brush of the term “the Great Satan.” In both religions, not only those who think the worst about the other, but also those willing to take violent action toward the other need to be reduced even further than the minorities that they are currently. Both documents agree that “the future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.” The military force available to nations potentially on opposite sides of a what could amount to a renewal of the Crusades along with the frightening ability of terrorism to act as a catalyst demonstrate the fact that indeed the future of humanity may rest on the ability of all of us to love whatever God we serve will all our hearts and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Ending Economic Slavery

Two centuries after the British parliament passed the bill outlawing the transatlantic slave trade, one might expect that enough time had passed to eradicate slavery completely. Tragically, slavery persists in the world in greater and lesser degrees around the world today. In Nepal, families in abject poverty will sell their daughters into the sex trade in Thailand. Elsewhere the promise a job in a foreign country can turn into the nightmare of forced labor in a factory without even knowing where you have been taken. While these extreme examples are isolated, forces at work in the global economy are creating what the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches sees as the equivalent of slavery.

The recent meeting of WARC produced a statement that said in part, “We live in a scandalous world that denies God’s call to life for all. The annual income of the richest one per cent is equal to that of the poorest 57 per cent, and 24,000 people die each day from poverty and malnutrition.” This extreme income disparity can all too easily be manipulated by the unscrupulous rich to so control the lives of the desperate poor to indeed be a form of slavery. People of goodwill cannot ethically remain idle and silent while the distribution of the world's resources means luxury for a few and suffering and death for multitudes. People of faith who embrace the story of the Hebrew Exodus should also understand the consistent demand of their faith to seek economic justice. Time and again, God's chosen people are reminded not to be like the Egyptians who enslaved their ancestors through the accumulation of wealth. In the story, during the time of famine only Egypt had stores of food. As peoples came from far away to buy from Egypt they eventually had to offer all their labor for their very existence. This was what Moses led the people out of, yet they didn't learn the lesson and had to be reminded not to enslave their fellow Israelites once in the Promised Land. The practice of the Jubilee Year (Leviticus 25) involved releasing slaves, forgiving debts and returning land to those who has sold it so that the original balance of wealth and resources could be restored. The Hebrew Bible seems to understand that extreme wealth will lead to slavery.

As we in America struggle with the question of what to do with immigration, we should be careful not to ignore the influence that wealth disparity plays in luring the poor of other nations to come here to work for slave wages. Using the threat of deportation to exploit workers is exactly the sort of sin that the ancient prophets decried repeatedly. It is wrong to ignore the behavior of the oppressor and focus only on the illegal actions of the oppressed. Would it make more sense to punish the parents who sold their daughter to brothel or to work to end the sex trade? Until the day when sharing by all means scarcity for none we will need to use the rule of law to combat exploitation.

Friday, October 26, 2007

For the Birds

President Bush went fishing this weekend. In his weekly radio address, he told us that fishing not only builds memories but also adds billions of dollars to the economy. While he went on to outline some initiatives regarding the environment, it is telling that he started by making an economic case for the actions. Too often in our national conversation the only way to advance a cause is to show that there is more benefit than cost. But sometimes the greater good has no dollar value.

Thankfully, the president seemed to understand that point when advancing the plan to expand the National Wildlife Refuge program. He highlighted migratory birds as a reason for increased funding. Habitat loss is a critical concern for migratory species. Economic concerns argue in favor of managing habitat for migratory waterfowl that are hunted since that is regulated by the federal government and thus and includes gathering revenue from licenses and fees. Perhaps, the president is motivated by unconditional concern for vulnerable non-game species, or by the boon to the economy offered by the burgeoning birdwatching community. We may never know, but there is hope that threatened species will benefit.

The larger question in this discussion is the ethical one, that is, how shall we find the motivation to protect the vulnerable who have no economic stake? Unconditional concern for the other, particularly those others with whom we have little or no connection is rare to find. No doubt this is why faith traditions strive to nurture this high ideal, we don't seem to come by it naturally. Enlightened self-interest where we can see that something might return to us is at least one step in this process. We need to see that there is potential value in saving all the current resources of the earth for our children and their children. Then we need to see that there is no good distinction to be made between our children and the children of other people. In fact, if we open up more fully to true unconditional concern we might discover that even seemingly insignificant birds might be worthy of our efforts.

Maybe we need to save the birds simply for the inspiration they provide. A recent Mutts comic sums it up. .. Maybe we should try to learn that lesson as well. If we could begin to free ourselves from a primary concern for gathering and protecting stuff perhaps we could find the freedom of flight into a future where generosity by all will mean scarcity for none.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

One Person's Heaven

Ann Coulter has once again stirred controversy with her comments. This time it was a comment that her dream of a perfect America is a place where we are all Christians happily defending America. The comments were made on CNBC's The Big Idea. When pressed by host Donny Deutsch, Coulter said that yes, she would throw out Judaism. She explained her belief that Christians are “perfected Jews” who desire that Jews be perfected because, although they will get to heaven through obedience to the law, they could be on the “fast track” if they became Christians. Deutsch, a practicing Jew, made it clear to Coulter that her glib comments had offended him personally. She seemed almost incredulous that he didn't see her point as generous not onerous.

With all due respect to Deutsch, who rightly suggests the best solution is to ignore her, there is value in examining both Coulter's behavior and thoughts. She presented an interesting theological position. Though she didn't explain it, the way she used the word perfected theologically. In the minds of the writers of the New Testament, to be made perfect meant to be completed. Indeed, traditionally Christianity views Jesus as the completion of the covenant God made with the Hebrews. In this sense, Christians can be called perfected Jews. Also, since Christians are instructed to share this good news with others, it would make sense that Coulter thought she was offering a gift not an offense. Granted, Deutsch did not receive this as good news. Coulter's insensitivity to his position and lack of regard for how her comments might be received by the general public both expose her need to behave more politely and leads to reasonable accusations of antisemitism. We may ignore Coulter's inflammatory statements, but the view she espoused and the nerve she hit cannot be ignored. Many Christians believe that their brand of Christianity is the only true path to salvation and thus would only fault Coulter, if at all, on her style but not her substance. While other Christians have come to accept that the same God whom they worship could never break the original covenant with the Jews and so respect them by not attempting to convert them.

Political correctness has arisen as a way of peacefully coexisting in a pluralistic society. Unfortunately, this type of oversensitive vigilance can also fuel bigotry by forcing it underground. Simply biting one's tongue is insufficient when the heart remains unchanged. True sensitivity to the other begins with self-examination. When religion claims an exclusive path or a corner on the truth then anything that passes for tolerance of other truth claims is little more than lip service, or at least something less than true acceptance. What if we approached truth as something we only ever partially possess, but always seek? Perhaps then we could believe as Mohandas Gandhi believed that there are many paths up the mountain of truth, so it doesn't matter that someone is on the other side of the mountain. Unfortunately, Ann Coulter's heaven would be Gandhi's hell.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Resisting Evil

The recent expose in the New Times about secret endorsements of severe interrogation techniques once again forces us as Americans to consider whether torture not only has been, but quite possibly continues to be committed in our name. Clearly, the current administration has been walking a fine semantic line between so-called “enhanced” techniques and blatantly illegal torture. Does it take a trained legal mind to name as torture practices such as keeping a person in prolonged darkness or cold, or denied food, or kept naked, or slapped in the head, or strapped to a board and drenched with water to simulate drowning? Perhaps just the opposite is the case, that it takes a team of lawyers to find a way to call it something other than torture.

Whether called enhanced interrogation or torture, the practice is illogical. If an enemy believes that capture leads to torture the incentive to surrender evaporates. A torture victim with no knowledge still has the incentive to provide information and thus will provide the interrogator with bad intelligence, leading to a need for more torture. The enemy with knowledge who is willing to die for his or her cause will never provide actionable intelligence regardless of the amount of torture.

A simple moral restraint is comes by considering that our actions against others open the door to the same treatment of our soldiers when captured. One way to find exemption from Golden Rule morality is to believe that the other is somehow incapable of good. This sort of reasoning also helps to maintain the illusion that torture has never been condoned by the authority structure, but is the result of a few “bad apples.” Phillip Zimbardo exposes this myth in his book, “The Lucifer Effect.” In 1971 he discovered the power of systemic evil in his landmark Stanford Prison Experiment. In the course of a single week in a mock prison with college-aged men pre-screened to assure their mental health he created a situation where unprovoked, but also unrestrained, the guards psychologically abused the prisoners. These young men were not evil, but they committed evil acts. Zimbardo admits that his participation in the creation of this situation was likewise evil. In human rights and war crime law this is known as command responsibility. So far in the investigations of prisoner abuse no one has been charged with command responsibility. In a democracy, there is a certain command responsibility that each citizen bears once the truth is exposed.

Zimbardo's research shows that under carefully constructed circumstances that include assurances from authority figures, relative anonymity and peer pressure most people can be persuaded to perform ghastly deeds. This explains how prison guards can be recruited from the general population to execute fellow humans in concentration camps. With the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity so pervasive in American religious practice accepting the possibility that each of us individually and all of us collectively are capable of evil ought to be easy. Yet, we so easily find ways to believe that we are always agents of goodness and truth. C. S. Lewis spoke of the battle of the two dogs within each of us, one good and one evil. The dog that wins is the one we feed. We can never be totally free from terror until we learn to resist the evil which lies within.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Politics of Fear

Every year since September 11, 2001, the President has declared and Congress has voted that we continue in a state of emergency. One must wonder what threshold must be met to end this threat. As long as there is an official state of emergency, there is a legitimization of nearly any action identified as an effort in the war on terrorism. Terror alerts, with their accompanying color codes, have never been accompanied by any specific instructions for increasing safety or reducing fear. Imagine a severe storm warning issued by the National Weather Service with the only instructions being “be careful.” Naturally, that would be totally unacceptable. But that is the extent of the instructions given when the terror alert level has been elevated. All that seems to be accomplished is frightening the population. If we are destined to live in a constant state of terror, with the only relief being a lower level, then haven't the terrorists won?

Fear is a powerful way of controlling behavior. Isn't it possible that the government's fear-mongering is designed to distract and control the American populace? It is easy to claim that an unseen threat has been thwarted while continuing to instill fear of a never-ending aggression. Conspiracy theorists take things a step further and claim that terrorist attacks have been staged by our own government seeking to gain this sort of control over its people. While that extreme position requires more evidence than is available, the suggestion that fear-mongering is designed to serve the interests of big business does not seem so far fetched. Consider the fact that the President showed a great concern for the economy following the attack on 9/11 and basically instructed Americans to go to the mall. Consider also that Halliburton, Bechtel and Blackwater are getting richer by the day as long as the war in Iraq continues. Finally, consider the amount of money spent in campaigns for congressional and senatorial seats, let alone the presidency, and the fact that none of those campaigns can be successful without major corporate contributions. Fear-mongering appears to be good for the bottom line.

Not all fear is bad. Fear of fire teaches us not to touch the burner on the stove. Fear teaches us to look both ways before crossing the street. But fear without hope leads to violent means to selfish ends. In our religious traditions, prophets have often attempted to elicit fear of the consequences of continued wrong behavior. But true prophets also provide hope that changed behavior will result in better consequences. What hope is offered by those who call for violent opposition to terrorist threats? If our hope is in a stronger economy that continues to distance us from the suffering of the “Two-Thirds World” then we are relying on a sham promise of safety in wealth that will not bring true and lasting peace. True believers of all traditions should understand that power of love is greater than fear, indeed true faith drives out fear. Perhaps the first step in our recovery from the crippling effects of terror is accepting the truth of President Roosevelt's declaration that all we have to fear is fear itself.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Waging Peace

The war in Iraq has to this point cost over $450 billion. By some estimates, it will cost over a trillion dollars by the time it ends. Huge numbers like these can become almost meaningless in their lack of relativity. With this in mind, the National Priorities Project created a web site,, to break down the massive expenditure into equivalencies.

One way of comprehending this large expenditure is to determine the local contribution. Using federal taxes as a guideline, the five-town Tantasqua region can be understood to have contributed nearly $39 million toward the war so far. Consider what it would have meant if that amount had been invested in education; every single student who has graduated from Tantasqua Regional High School during this time could have had four free years of education at a public university and there would have been money left over to hire a couple dozen new teachers in the school district. If the money had been spent just on hiring teachers there could be well over 100 new teachers locally.

Or consider if social services had been provided. Over 4500 children could have been given free health insurance. A year of Head Start could have been provided for over 5000 children, or there could be 348 new public housing units in our region. All of these amounts are surely much more than our region needs. Take your town budget and make your own list for construction and repair of properties and infrastructure or salaries of town employees.

In this ever-shrinking world it is unethical to think only of ourselves. The United Nations Millennium Development Goals are a plan to reduce extreme poverty by half by 2015 as well as address other dire situations such as reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS. This is a battle worth waging with an estimated cost of only $40 to $60 million a year. By using the biblical principle of tithing, America could fund this effort alone with just 10% of the Pentagon budget. If outspending the “Axis of Evil” 40 to 1 militarily is not making the world safer, perhaps it is time to take seriously the religious demand of charity and use our greatest resources, our wealth and generosity, to make a real difference in the world. If in place of waging war on terror we had decided to wage peace, America might now be engendering respect around the world instead of the fear and loathing that militarism brings. Terrorists rely on the cover provided by fearful or sympathetic populations and governments. Waging peace removes that cover by addressing the fear of want and changes sympathies by generosity instead of at the end of the barrel of a gun. Waging war creates martyrs for terrorist causes and reinforces the image of America as a dominant aggressor. Compared to the high cost of war, peace is a bargain. Isn't it about time we start at least shifting some of our vast resources and give peace a chance?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Just Say "No" to War

The Collegium of Officers of the United Church of Christ have written a powerful pastoral letter against the war in Iraq and are asking others to sign the letter. Their goal is 100,000 signatures by World Communion Sunday, October 7. They call us to seek forgiveness for "the arrogant unilateralism of preemptive war." They also call us to "cast off the fear that has made us accept the way of violence and return to the way of Jesus."

The ideal of returning to the way of Jesus coupled with the letter's opening paragraph decrying the way this war was justified serve as a reminder that the acceptance of war as a necessary evil was not always a part of Christian thinking. For the first three centuries of Christianity, pacifism was the primary view of Christians. Early church leaders such as Origen and Tertullian wrote tracts on the subject. Roman soldiers who converted to Christianity were instructed not to kill! All of that changed rapidly when the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official state religion. By his edict, Christians went from being social pariahs who could be killed for their beliefs to being the only ones who could be soldiers or political leaders. Needless to say, this had a radical impact on Christian teaching. Augustine created a compromise position, which has come to be knows as the Just War Theory, stipulating principles that had to be met in order for a war to be considered just. Just War Theory is clear that no war can be started preemptively as an act of aggression, that it cannot be used for acquisition of land, power or resources, and that civilians may never be targeted. Applied to the current war, all of these principles raise serious questions. In fact, the sickening ratio of civilian to military causalities in every battle fought today begs the question of whether modern warfare can ever be considered just.

September 21 is the United Nations International Day of Peace. This annual event focusing on peaceful resolutions to conflicts is a call for a world-wide one day cease fire. That surely will be met by accusations of naivety and impractical idealism. Indeed, the logical end result of pacifism may be that evil triumphs and innocents suffer. But pacifism doesn't mean passivity. The innocents who suffer need to be those, who like Jesus, stand up to injustice with a willingness to lay down their lives before they will take another's. Non-violent resistance to injustice is a very active expression of faith requiring the commitment of all the resources at our disposal to wage peace.

The UCC pastoral letter calls us to repentance for having "confused patriotism with self-interest." True patriotism is a love of nation that calls it to be the best that it can be. Ending this war is a patriotic act, but it will not come by wishing it to happen. Christians need to add protest to their prayers. Let's begin to believe in peace more than violence and roll up our sleeves to do the hard work. You can begin by signing the pastoral letter at

Monday, September 10, 2007

What If Hell Didn't Really Exist?

Carlton Pearson used to be involved with Oral Roberts' ministry and pastored a mega-church of 5000 people. One day he was watching news coverage of a flood and questioned God on why these poor souls should be going to hell because they weren't Christian. Our still-speaking God spoke to Pearson to assure him that that wasn't the case.

Now Pearson has written a book, "The Gospel of Inclusion." This is from his website:

Have you ever asked how a loving God could condemn most of His children to eternal torment? Bishop Carlton Pearson did, and his answer will change everything you ever thought you knew about God, eternity and God’s plan for humankind.

In The Gospel of Inclusion, Bishop Pearson courageously explores the exclusionary doctrines of mainstream religion and concludes that according to the evidence of the Bible and irrefutable logic, they cannot be true. Instead, he offers us the Gospel of Inclusion—the simple, stunning truth that everyone has already been saved by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

In this astonishing book, Pearson argues that the controlling dogmas of religion are the source of much of the world’s ills, and that we should turn our backs on proselytizing and holy wars and focus on the real Good News: that all of humanity is indeed loved by the Divine!

I look forward to reading this book and potentially welcoming Rev. Pearson as a UCC colleague since he is seeking standing in the United Church of Christ, where we believe we are called to a radical hospitality that includes all.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Preaching Up a Storm

Recently, Senator Barack Obama preached up a storm of controversy preaching about a storm from a church pulpit in New Orleans. Part of the attack can be dismissed as a disingenuous double standard from Republicans who have not objected in the past when members of their party followed the campaign trail to churches on Sunday mornings. But another part of the attack was theological. Some Evangelicals objected to Obama's use of Jesus' metaphor of building a house on a rock. They insist that the only genuine understanding of the rock is to see it as Jesus himself and/or his teachings. Obama used this image to imply that the government's response to Katrina provided a foundation of sand, not rock. He told the congregation that their response following the storm of taking in those who lost homes was the true rock.

Two years ago, President Bush used a different biblical image to offer hope to the Gulf Coast. He spoke of how God once provided an ark to save people from a flood and that God never leaves anyone totally abandoned. He conveniently neglected the part of the story that the flood came as God's judgment of the people, but there was no similar outcry at that time about his incomplete use of scripture.

Faith and scripture should be employed in the service of inspiring hope. Both of these politicians did just that. Obama told the church, the Body of Christ, that by doing Christ's work they were building a foundation of rock. Bush told the suffering that God was their last refuge, their best hope. Appeals like these to Christian charity are a much better use of religious language than, for example, the divisive, even sometimes hateful, campaign to deny equal marriage rights to homosexuals.

Two years ago, standing in a deserted New Orleans addressing the people of America, Bush had the opportunity to appeal to the demands of faith to rise up and meet the need. He didn't ask us to roll up our sleeves, instead promising government assistance. Now we see that he failed to deliver on his promises. Obama has yet to be tested on this issue and may likewise fail to deliver, but at least he understands that the power of faith lies in the action that accompanies it.

Mixing religion and politics must only be done with great care. It is much too easy to fall into the self-serving justification of “God is on our side.” Religious language also has the power to become code to indicate who is in and who is out. But throwing faith out of the public square would silence the prophetic voice that speaks truth to power. As a person of faith, I am compelled not just to care about, but to work for the common good. As a religious leader, I call on all people of faith to join their voices in public debate and not just “talk the talk” but also “walk the walk.”

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Grace in Texas

Texas Governor Rick Perry has heard the voice of the people (and I would suggest the voice of God) and has avoided what would have been a huge injustice by commuting the sentence of Kenneth Foster from death to life imprisonment.

In what was nearly a literal "eleventh hour" reprieve, Perry granted life to Foster on the day he was scheduled to be Texas' 403 execution since 1982. Foster had been tried jointly with the man who actually pulled the trigger in this murder. Foster's only crime was driving the car. The murder was not premeditated, rather it occurred after an altercation arose. The victim was shot approximately 80 feet away from the car. Since the convicted murderer has already been executed, this would have been a miscarriage of even "an eye for an eye" justice by taking two lives for one.

You can read more about Kenneth Foster (who will obviously remain an activist while in prison) here and you can see the Governor's statement here

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

What's Your Score?

I found this interesting site that gives you a score of your personal political view and then rates candidates against your responses. It is important to click on the question for some of them since it opens a separate page that helps to explain how the answers are scored. Here is the link

When you finish the questions you can change category (e.g. unannounced/withdrawn candidates, senators, etc.) and hit "score the quiz" again and the other lists will come up without having to take the quiz again.

You can also look at where you rank on a 4-sided array: left-liberal, libertarian, populist, right-conservative (and the middle section of moderate). There is a link that opens a page explaining the scale with a nice chart. By way of a brief explanation, a perfect hard-core liberal score would be 100% personal and 0% economic (see the site for explanation of the categories). Hard-core conservative would be the exact opposite 0% personal, 100% economic. Libertarian is 0/0 and populist is 100/100. Get the picture?

It came as no surprise to me that I was nearly "off the chart." The only thing that kept me from a perfect hard-core liberal score was my soft position on choice. I scored a 98/0. Apparently my support of "fair trade" over anti-globalization (which is also the position for "buy American") didn't affect the economic score. Granted, some of the issues are too complicated to fit neatly into this model leaving no room for nuance. For instance, I was unable to find a comfortable position on UN troops in Iraq being conflicted between my pacifist and multi-lateral views.

I was a bit surprised for by the way my views aligned with the candidates'. Kucinich topped my list with 90% agreement. I was then surprised by the second choice being Dodd at 75%. The next three in order were Clinton (73%), Obama (68%) and Edwards (63%). Of course, beyond the issues there are personal characteristics, assessment of an individual's ability to lead and inspire, integrity, believability, etc. that factor into a final decision. Not to mention that me as a registered member of the Green Party I won't be involved in choosing any of these candidates in the primaries (and I didn't have the option of testing my views against a Green, but it would clearly be equal to or greater than Kucinich).

The drop in percentage between the most conservative Democrat and the most liberal Republican was about 25% for me. On social issues, there were 4 Republicans whose match with my views was 0%, an absolute disagreement on all issues! They were Romney, Tancredo, Hunter and Gilmore. Brownback was my only 0% on the economic scale. He and Hunter were tied at 3% overall as my worst matches. I also checked my top ten best and worst matches of incumbent senators. Barbara Boxer topped my list and there were a full 8 Republican senators who got zeroes from me.

Among unannounced candidates no one would beat Kucinich, but Al Sharpton at 80% would move into second. And for today's quiz try naming the one unannounced potential candidates who would be an absolute 0 on my scale.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Questioning Your World

I am now writing a weekly column called Questioning Your World in the Tantasqua Town Common. The paper is delivered free to every home in Brimfield, Brookfield, Sturbridge, Wales and Holland. If you go to their site you can read the entire paper, but it is in pdf format, so it is a big download. I'm posting all my columns here at Cross Left (you can get an early read of tomorrow's column there today).

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Skeptic's Way

There has been a rise in what is being called "the new atheism." Two leaders in this movement (if that indeed is what it is) are Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. While some Christians decry this trend, I contend that we have brought it on ourselves. Far too much of religious practice is superstition or faith claims that assault reason. Let's take a look at each of these.

Superstitious religious practices are those that claim a quid pro quo relationship with the divine. This may be seen in practices like burying a St. Joseph statue in the yard of a house you want to sell or simply showing up in church on Christmas and Easter to "cover your bases." Whether it is charismatic theology demanding the gift of tongues or health and wealth "name-it-and-claim-it" theology, we are practicing sorcery when we claim to so manipulate God. This creates a god who is either petty or weak. It is definitely creating gods in our own images and thus the atheists can easily dismiss this type of religion.

Fundamentalists of various stripes make truth claims that don't hold up to reason. The obvious current example is creationism (even disguised as intelligent design). This is a religious tenet when presented as young earth thinking or simply a philosophy when it doesn't rely on Biblical assertions. In either case it is not bad science, it is simply not science. That's ok as long as it doesn't pretend to be science, but sadly it does. Since the atheists are touting reason and the scientific method there is no room for discussion here.

Perhaps the greatest fuel for the fire of the current tendency to reject God is the way that so many religious folks claim exclusivity based on what they perceive to be ultimate reality revealed through a very particular tradition. These sorts of claims are not limited to fundamentalists. In Christianity, it is not only the Evangelicals and Orthodox believers who make this claim, but most of mainline Protestantism and nearly all of Catholicism claims that Jesus is the sole provider of salvation. Consider how this appears to the objective viewer. This claim of exclusivity has been at the heart of all the religious bloodshed throughout history. This is the reason that churches and individual believers have been able to act in ways completely counter to the teachings of the traditions they teach. This is handing the loaded gun to our detractors while it is still smoking from shooting ourselves in the foot!

So what would I say to the new atheists? Glad you asked ;-) My first challenge to them would be to prove what they claim, i.e. that there is no God. I'll concede that I cannot prove the existence of God, that is something that I take on faith for very personal reasons. But, there is also no proof that God doesn't exist and so that can only leave us all with some form of agnosticism, which literally means a lack of knowledge. I don't know that God exists, but I choose to believe that God does. The atheists likewise don't know, but they choose to believe that God doesn't exist. In either case we are agnostics with biases, some of us toward God and others away.

My next statement to the atheists would be to assure them that I also don't believe in the god they don't believe in. My journey of faith has taken me away from that place where I accepted that ultimate and objective truth had been handed down to me through the Bible. I now realize that that belief was simply a choice to believe what others taught. I now choose to believe that the Bible is a human document that charts our striving toward God, not God's vehicle to dictate doctrine to us. It is in this journeying, seeking, not knowing, but choosing to believe that I think I may share some common ground with the new atheists.

The new atheists are skeptics, testing hypotheses by employing the scientific method. If something doesn't stand the scrutiny of skeptical thought then it must be rejected and replaced with something that does. Frankly, I can embrace this methodology for my spiritual pilgrimage. I don't have a need for answers. I realize that ultimate truth is something that my finite mind is not capable of grasping completely. So instead I choose to look for truth in the present moment, appropriating it to where I am at this point, not trying to lay claim to the totality of the picture. So I am not afraid to ask tough questions, if God can't handle my questions, then God isn't God! My faith journey thus resembles a scientific inquiry. I form a hypothesis, such as God is love, and then I test it. In the course of this questioning I discover evidence to support the hypothesis and incorporate what I learn to deepen my faith, thus guiding me to further questioning.

Truth be told, I'm pretty certain that most religious people are this sort of seeker most of the time. It's just that we have bought the methodology of the catechism and subject ourselves to the tyranny of answers instead of the liberation of questions. We find it easier to retreat to dogma and fight to maintain integrity and purity of orthodox declarations. This is what fires up the rationalists to debunk what they see as destructive religion. And in this case they are right.

The problem I have with the atheists is that they don't have room in their thinking for something that can't be proven but might still be worth believing. I choose to believe that God exists because that is how I make meaning and learn to live a life that values the other. Atheists find other ways to do the same thing. I think there is something important to be learned from each other if we can stop sniping at each other long enough to listen.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

A Sign of Hope

A pro-life Democrat, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, and a pro-choice Democrat, Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, have co-sponsored legislation designed to reduce abortions that is moving ahead in the House of Representatives. This is so much more encouraging than the typical polarizing rhetoric that keeps the two sides each on the high ground sniping at each other.

This is from Rep. Ryan's web site:
February 16, 2007: Ryan and DeLauro Reintroduce Bill to Reduce Abortions

26 Democrats Join Effort to Prevent Unintended Pregnancies, Support Pregnant Women, and Assist New Parents.

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) - . Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), a member of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), a member of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus announced today that they have reintroduced common ground legislation to reduce the number of abortions in America. The Reducing the Need for Abortions and Supporting Parents Act (HR 1074) would create programs to prevent teen pregnancy, expand Medicaid eligibility for family planning services, combat sexual assault and expand adoption programs.

You can read the entire press release here

How amazing are these two quotes? First Rep. Delauro:
“By funding this initiative, we are offering policy solutions that promote life and support parents beyond the birth of their new child. We are affirming the need to prevent unintended pregnancies and to help women with the economic pressures that may lead them to choosing an abortion,” said DeLauro. “And of all the important goals this initiative can help us reach, perhaps the most important is that it helps move us all forward on this issue – beyond the question of the legality of abortion and toward actually reducing the need for abortion and providing critical investments for families.”
And now Rep. Ryan:

“It is our moral obligation to address those issues with which all sides agree. Whether you are pro-life like me or pro-choice like my friend Congresswoman DeLauro, the common ground we must build upon is our serious desire to reduce the rate of abortions,” said Congressman Tim Ryan. “This package accomplishes that goal by increasing or creating funding streams for programs that have been shown to reduce both unintended pregnancies and abortions. I also want to thank Chairman Obey for his longstanding leadership on this important issue and his willingness to work with myself and Congresswoman DeLauro.”

You can read the full press release at Rep. DeLauro's site here

And the good news is that this passed the House as part of other funding this week. This is the sort of culture war dovishness that this blog exists to support!

And finally, though some may write it off as nothing more than saying the right thing on the campaign trail, watch this video of Hilary Clinton's response to a question about abortions (at the recent forum hosted by Sojourners) and see if you don't find some small comfort in her use of the words "common ground."

Friday, July 13, 2007

And a Child Shall Lead Them!

Well, I may have settled on my candidate for President early in this election cycle. Susie Flynn seems like a perfect candidate for America today. She is straightforward and simple in her message, any nation that can find money to wage a war can find money to provide health insurance to all its children! Let the corporations commence to whine (along with the politicians they have purchased), I'll take the truth of simple logic.

Here are the facts (provided by the Children's Defense Fund:
  • More than nine million children in the United States—one in nine—have no health insurance coverage.
  • Every 46 seconds, another baby is born uninsured.
  • It costs less to provide health insurance coverage to children than to any other group of people.
  • The majority of uninsured children live in two-parent households and almost 90 percent live in families where at least one parent works.
  • Increases in private health insurance costs are dramatically outpacing increases in wages.
  • Ensuring that children have timely, affordable access to health care is a smart economic move. For instance, enrolling uninsured children in health coverage significantly reduces hospitalizations for preventable illnesses.
  • Uninsured children are more than five times as likely as insured children to have gone more than two years without a doctor visit.
  • What the United States spends on health care per person is more than twice the average spent in industrialized countries, yet we rank near the bottom among those nations in infant mortality rates.
  • Existing health care programs for low-income children vary widely, with different standards for eligibility, cost sharing, and benefits in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
  • Americans over 65 have access to health coverage under the Medicare program regardless of income, but children have no such guarantee, leaving millions of needy children without timely access to critical health and mental health services.
Oh, but Susie isn't old enough to run for President you say? Where does it say that? In the constitution that also guarantees the right of habeas corpus to all? Which is more important, that when a person is held by the government that he or she is charged with a crime and given a fair trial by a jury of peers, or that the president be at least 35 years old? Susie, and all the children, get my vote.

And this is just a start. Our health care delivery system is and will remain immoral as long as profit enters into it. It is time for a Susie!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

More God, Less Name-calling

While on dinner break at the UCC General Synod yesterday I happened to see Ann Coulter on Hardball with Chris Matthews. During the questions from the crowd, an Obama supporter asked her how she can call this church-going man "godless." You can see the question and answer here (at the end of the segment). She somewhat dodges the question by discounting Trinity Church UCC in Chicago (Barack's church) by stating the pastor supports Qaddafi and says that we deserved 9/11. Actually, she says that the church is sort of crazy. I've yet to find a reference for making that assertion. And even if (a big if) that might have some validity, it remains a smokescreen to the issue of Obama's faith practice. Indeed, the young man is right to call her on her ability to call a fellow believer "godless" (as one could infer from her book about liberalism, even if she hasn't said so directly...indeed, here was her opportunity to set the record straight if she didn't intend the slur).

And it seems like she is incapable of stopping herself from mud-slinging. Prior to her appearance on
Hardball, she was on the June 25 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, where she said, "I do think anyone named B. Hussein Obama should avoid using 'hijack' and 'religion' in the same sentence." She was apparently referring to Obama's remark in Saturday's speech to the UCC General Synod that "somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together and started being used to drive us apart. It got hijacked."

When this passes for informed public discourse on the issues of the day then we should not be surprised that we are so polarized. Ms. Coulter has a habit of saying nasty things about people. For that Chuck Currie, on his blog, calls her a sinner. Indeed she is (as are we all), but she is surely not godless. Neither is she the "worst person in the world" as Keith Olberman called her.

There is certainly room for differences of opinion in America, as surely as there is the same room with Christianity. Why must some among us so consistently claim that this is not so? Name-calling quickly shuts down any chance of dialogue. I'll concede that it is difficult to accept that a person whose beliefs are radically different from mine might still be part of the same family of faith with me, but I try always to be willing to start with that assumption until proven otherwise. In this way we can sometimes find acceptable common ground solutions to move us forward. Cutting the other off at the knees only creates a shortcut to a guaranteed impasse...and should lead me to my knees in confession. I pray that Ann Coulter will do just that. How about instead of more "godless" name-calling, seek more God, less name-calling?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Last Day of General Synod

Today was a day busy with business at Synod. Much of today's time was spent taking action on resolutions. The first two resolutions addressed both concerned the resolution passed at General Synod two years ago in Atlanta supporting equal marriage rights for all. According to the standing rules for this gathering, resolutions of witness such as these require a 2/3 majority vote. So, even though it might appear that the Synod was weak-willed on these resolutions by voting “no action,” there are two important points to make. First of all, the votes were overwhelming (as they needed to be) and the reason given by the committee for taking “no action” in lieu of simply voting to defeat the resolutions was that this was one way of recognizing the divisive nature of this issue within our denomination. I must agree that since the committee (representing 10% of the delegates) reported that the opinion of the committee members was nearly unanimous in opposition, it would do little good to bring about a vote that might re-open wounds and end in no change of position. This is a good model of the church at work.

Another moving moment occurred when actress Lynn Redgrave shared the story of her struggle with breast cancer, accompanied by a powerful collection of photos taken by her daughter. At the heart of her tale was the fact that she had not been a regular church-goer, but after her mastectomy she heard that there was a female minister at a church in her town, so she went because she thought a woman might be more understanding. On her first Sunday there she heard words that were familiar and prayers for others who were likewise suffering and it put her suffering in perspective, and as she put it, she “lost her innocence.” It was stirring and assuring to hear someone speaking of finding care and comfort in the local church. This is where “the rubber hits the road” in church growth.

In the afternoon, a pastor of a church who three weeks ago took a vote considering leaving the UCC spoke to the body telling us that he encouraged his church to remain in the denomination because as he put it, “they need us for theological diversity.” He told us that a later speaker said, “sure, they need us but they don't want us.” He then assured us that his experience at General Synod has been one of extravagant welcome and thus supported the resolution on Reaffirming Our Commitment to Observing Covenant (or something like was renamed from Reaffirming Our Faith to Retain Our Churches). It was nearly unanimously passed, certainly reaffirming our commitment to seek unity in diversity.

A resolution stating concern about the nation's immigration policies was passed after a small amount of debate. A resolution calling for a study of the issue of the legalization of physician aid in dying was passed on a split vote (2/3 was required) after some amendments and much debate. A resolution calling for solidarity with the persecuted in the Philippines, where disappearances and death squads are serious problems, was passed after a minor debate about language. The final resolution was in opposition to the use of depleted uranium in weapons and passed easily.

Typical of church business, a large amount of time was devoted to an issue involving a simple issue of the allocation of money. On a close vote, the body decided to allocate money from the Strengthen the Church offering to support the Still Speaking Initiative. The beauty of the process was shown in the fact that after the vote count was announced, the moderator's request that there be no applause was honored and a prayer was offered instead.

While there is a tad bit of business left that will push the beginning of evening worship back some, all that remains is closing worship in which we will be challenged and anointed to service.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Monday at General Synod

This afternoon in the plenary session of the General Synod, a resolution calling on us as churches of the UCC to address global warming was nearly unanimously passed. An interesting (at least to this vegetarian) was an effort to insert a call to encourage a movement toward a plant-based diet since, according to the one making the suggestion, animal agricultural efforts contribute 18% of greenhouse gases world-wide. The amendment was out of order for parliamentary reasons, so the will of the body was never determined.

During her candidate's speech , Edith Guffey (Associate General Minister) mentioned something that struck a chord with me. She pointed out that most members of the UCC don't know who the denominational officers are. This came home to me yesterday when one church member asked about who the people were that we pray for during our communion prayers and another, who attended the worship at Synod yesterday, said, “So THAT is John Thomas.” So whether you've met them or not, our leaders are busy serving the church and I can assure you that they appreciate our prayers.

Marian Wright Edelman, director of the Children's Defense Fund, continued the practice of delivering exceptionally inspirational keynote addresses at General Synod. She delivered an impassioned plea to work to make sure that Congress provide health care coverage for 9 million uninsured children in America. She pointed out that Congress voted to go to war in Iraq without first coming up with the money to so, and isn't providing health care to children more important? She ended with a prayer that included “Dear God, let us not confuse what is perfectly legal with what is right and just in your eyes. Amen.”

Ken Medema, an extremely talented musician, was charged with responding in song. He improvised a beautiful song incorporating words from the person who introduced her, “sometimes you have to stand up when you just want to sit down.” So he sang to Marian that we would all stand up and not sit down until the job is done. While he was singing, one by one people in the audience stood up. By the end of the song we were all standing, many wiping tears away. Marian was among the tearful as she ran back onto the stage to embrace Ken in thanks.

Filled with the inspiration of that moment I left the building to join in a march around the block in protest of the war. As I turned one corner I encountered our Associate Conference Minister, Peter Wells, standing on a wall staring down the marchers. He shouted “what do you want for your children?” Indeed, we all want peace.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

General Synod

Busy days are in order because the United Church of Christ is celebrating its 50th birthday at its annual meeting in Hartford and I've been attending. Today was day 2 of 5.

Today's buzz was all about Senator Obama. Unfortunately, like Barack's own pastor, I had to miss his speech since I was elsewhere officiating a wedding. It was very lovely and through the wonders of the Internet I don't have to miss the speech...and neither do you. You can view it here or you can read the text here

The part of the day that I did attend that was incredibly inspiring was the address by Bill Moyers. In addition to his credentials as a first-rate journalist with impeccable integrity, he also has earned a Masters of Divinity and that showed in his talk this morning. He reminded us that Jesus saw the corruption in the temple and "threw the rascals out." He called on us to do the same with the corrupt leaders in our goverment for the sake of preserving democracy. You can read more about his talk by following the link in the UCC headlines section that has been newly added to our church web site at

I also attended a stimulating talk about on-line social networking and the implications for the way our youth are learning to socialize. It is a little hard to unpack that in this email, but I am very interested in this topic and will try to involve our youth more in this area. One interesting development is that there is now a UCC church under construction in Second Life. If that means nothing to you, don't fret, but if you already know about Second Life, check out the island of Xenia and look for Sophianne Rhode.

Tonight the birthday party for the denomination included a tribute to the inventor of the laser, who is a member of a UCC congregation. He spoke to us about the compatibility and similarity of religion and science. We also got to see a flashy demonstration of his invention. Here is some video:

I need to do a lot of digesting and review my notes to be able to post some responses. Tomorrow is a time for a huge worship service, I can't wait!

Read a daily digest of the activities at General Synod here and check out the headlines section of that page for more stories.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

It Takes Two to Gospel

Therefore, sisters and brothers, since the blood of Jesus makes us confident to enter the holy place by the new and living path opened for us through the veil--that is to say, the body of Jesus--and since we have the supreme high priest presiding over the house of God, let us enter it filled with faith and with sincerity in our hearts, our hearts sprinkled and cleared from any trace of bad conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

Let us keep firm in the hope we profess, because the One who made the promise is faithful. - Hebrews 10:19-25

In a recent meditation by Martin Copenhaver, he wrote:

In other religions one’s encounter with God can be an individual matter.

Not so with Christianity. God created Christian community for the same reason that God created Eve: it is not right that we should be alone.

He wisely observed that the writer of Hebrews used plural pronouns. As a matter of fact, it seems to me that most of the instructions in the New Testament epistles are given to the group of believers, not individual believers. Beyond that, when the instructions are given to individuals they are generally about how to relate to others. Ours is a relational faith.

I also believe that our best faith practices are from internal to external. I think that we need always to be seekers; seeking better to know and be known by God. It is in self-awareness that we can come to spiritual growth. And that growth will necessarily make us stand out in the world, which is why we need to be in the company of like-minded seekers. Collectively we can make an impact on changing the world, saving it if you will.

When our faith practices are dictated by externally imposed directives they are weak against outside challenges. For instance, if a literal interpretation of scripture argues against the earth circling the sun (i.e. God made the sun stop moving in the sky for Joshua and the Hebrews) then Copernican theory becomes a challenge to true faith. On the other hand, if faith practices move the opposite direction, then when external forces push upon it internal faith finds a way to respond without a need to dominate the other. The strength found via internal spiritual practice can never be taken from the practitioner.

The risk inherent in internal spirituality is that it can be groundless, wandering in the ways of unchecked egoism. Thus I come back to my original point, we can't walk this path alone. Internal spirituality should drive us to find our place in the body of Christ, realizing that each of us is incomplete on our own. Ultimately, as someone once observed, it takes two to gospel.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Armed and Dangerous

Many people are surprised to learn that Tai Chi is a martial art form.The gentle, wave-like motion of the gestures doesn’t appear aggressive.Indeed, they are not aggressive in the manner to which we are accustomed.We typically think of fighters as trying to find an opening to attack.Tai Chi is more of a defensive style.A Tai Chi master would be unlikely the one to begin a fight.Tai Chi is about protection of one’s space, maintaining balance throughout every gesture, and utilizing the power that comes from having all the parts of your body working together in a concerted effort to focus the force of the movement.

Unfortunately, many people today are unsurprised to hear Christianity described in terms of warfare.Much of the most vocal and celebrated portion of American Christendom focuses on alleged attacks from the secular world.There is an aggressiveness about much of this that I find troubling.I don’t think that we are called to be milquetoast Christians, we have a responsibility to spread the gospel, and it is a troubling message at times.The good news of the Bible is good only insofar as you find yourself in need of salvation.We all are sinners and thus require salvation, but the accompanying message of repentance requires behavioral change.The gospel message accomplishes H. L. Mencken’s maxim for journalists: it comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. So in the culture wars, I hope that we are messengers with an offensive message, not offensive messengers.

Do people see you as armed and dangerous? Are you grounded in the traditions and teachings of the faith? Can you deliver words of challenge and words of hope that come from the scripture? It is not necessary to memorize verses to deliver the good/offensive word. It is, however, necessary to know the word of God internally. If you arm yourself with the spiritual practices of prayer, scripture reading and worship you will be prepared to be dangerous for God when the opportunity comes to share the gospel.

In fact, if you truly internalize your spiritual discipline it will become something akin to a martial art. You will be in control of the power it gives you. You will realize that the power is actually external to you and flows through you. We speak of the Holy Spirit in a similar way that martial art masters speak of chi, the life force. If you have studied a martial art perhaps you have already made this connection. The greatest martial artists are those who control themselves, not needing to prove anything by fighting. If only we could similarly master the spiritual power available to us. Perhaps then we could work with all members of the human family to change the world for the better instead of choosing sides and battling in a culture war.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

I'm Not Listening!

There is no doubt that words are vitally important. Even though the media's obsession with the minute detail of individual words plays a major role in making the presidential campaign season feel even longer than it already painfully is. Already we have the press raptors soaring around Hillary waiting for her to slip and actually admit that her senate vote to initiate the Iraq war may have been wrong. Obama is learning quickly about the tricky nature of trying to support troops in a war he opposes (a lesson I learned with less significant consequence in this post on Think Worm).

Now the congress is in the midst of debating a 97-word non-binding resolution about the Iraq war. Even with it's brevity, pains were taken to express support for the work of the soldiers before calling for an end of that effort. I think that the resolution is a bit like having one's cake and eating it too, but at least it is an opportunity for every single representative to have his or her "hour in the shower" or at least five minutes at the microphone. With the obsession over words and the minutia of meaning, one would think that all the politicians would at least feign interest in hearing what comes of this debate. I wish that they were leading up to a vote on something that had some teeth, but I still think that the words at least tell us something about where the debate stands and where it might go. In other words, for better or for worse it is a start.

That is why I'm so disturbed and perturbed by the president's comments about this debate. He said

"I've got a lot to do, I'm not sure exactly what hours they'll be debating, but I've got a pretty full day tomorrow. I mean, it's not as if the world stops when the Congress does their duty."

"I already know what the debate is. I hear a lot of opinions, and a lot of people don't believe we can succeed in Iraq and therefore, I presume, want to get out."

Mr. President, an important part of your job is listening. The work of democracy fails when voices are ignored. Your not listening will not silence the voices, but your more than dismissive, indeed it is condescending, attitude forces the political debate to get more agitated, the volume must be increased. The virtue of patience I can applaud, but this seems a lot closer to stubbornness.

Non-binding resolutions may seem to be worth less than the paper they are written on, but they are at least a record of opinion. With any grace, it can also be the beginning of meaningful political dialogue that will lead to change. So Mr. President, please take your fingers out of your ears...

Here are the words of Obama, first from the speech:

"We ended up launching a war that should have never been authorized and should have never been waged -- and to which we now have spent $400 billion and have seen over 3,000 lives of the bravest young Americans wasted."

And then the follow-up explanation:

"I was actually upset with myself. Their sacrifices are never wasted; that was sort of a slip of the tongue as I was speaking. The sacrifices they have made are unbelievable. What I meant to say was those sacrifices have not been honored by the same attention to strategy, diplomacy and honesty on the part of civilian leadership."

In Obama's words I think I hear what he intends to say and I, for one, don't hear an insult of the troops. If anything, I hear him grieving for the senseless loss of life, compounded by the dedication, loyalty and patriotism of those who died. We can choose to pick apart words to spin for meaning that we want to hear (or more likely just use against the speaker), or we can listen with open minds and try to find where we might be close in thought and where the clear distinctions are.

On a side note, I found these quotes on the blog Engaging Your World. If Pastor Tom still allowed comments on his blog, I would have commented on his flippant, broad-brushed categorization of liberals by using the term "kool-aid drinkers." On top of that, the dangerous logic that the commander-in-chief cannot be questioned during a time of war deserves comment as well. I very well may post on the subject next. You might want to read it for yourself.