Tuesday, November 04, 2008

What kind of country?

My son just called from the University of Missouri this morning, November 4, to inform me that he had voted for the first time in his life. He was excited to participate in our democracy. It only took me 10 minutes to vote he said. And my imagination took me to polling places all over the country where voters face long lines that could delay their voting for at least an hour or two, sometimes more. That in itself is a disgrace and a discouragement to voting, but I believe the commitment to democracy this year will outweigh all of that.

It was just last Thursday night that my son called late at night to tell me he had attended a rally out on the main quad at Mizzou for Barack Obama. He had volunteered to help with the rally.
"Guess whose hand I shook," my son asked with high energy in his voice. "Who," I asked.
"I shook Barack Obama's hand as he entered the gate I was staffing, and he shook my hand on the way out too." "Awesome", I said, as he told me that the crowd might approach 40,000.
What an experience for a young man!

This election year has been remarkable. I never would have imagined a black man being elected
in my lifetime. As a native of the South, North Carolina to be specific, I grew up with obvious barriers to black Americans all around me. I remember separate water fountains, separate eating sections, blacks expected to sit in the back of the bus, and blacks limited to balcony seating in theaters. And yet I also remember my home church holding a joint worship service with the members of the African American First Baptist Church, and how some of our own church members walked out. Incredible! I remember entering high school and sitting next to Jewell Edwards, the daughter of the pastor of that same African American church. Remarkable!

Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but for the next 100 years blacks in the South were denied full citizenship in our country. I saw that first hand growing up.
Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, and in the process ceded the South to those who rejected full participation by black citizens in our democracy.

What a remarkable year this has been. It has reminded us that democracy is never a finished project; it must always continue expanding. Democracy is an ongoing effort to liberate and empower all citizens, for ours is a participatory government.

On his election as President, Abraham Lincoln said to all of our nation's citizens: "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies." Some 150 years later, that same hope and declaration holds true. We are not red state or blue state Americans, we are the United States of America. That is an audacious hope and dream!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Charting a Course for the Next Generation

What kind of values and wisdom do we hope to pass on to the next generation? It's an age old question, but I'm hard pressed to say what it is that our culture and often our churches have to say in response to that question. With three young adult sons of my own who've challenged me to find some answers to what I hope the world will become with their involvement, I keep looking for answers myself.

Marian Wright Edelman's new book The Sea is so Wide and my Boat is so Small offers up another marvelous book of "Letters" to a wide audience of leaders, citizens, and groups who bear responsibility for the shaping of the next generations. Marian Wright Edelman is a national treasure for her advocacy and leadership of the Children's Defense Fund, an organization based in Washington, D.C. that speaks for the poorest of our nation's children. She's also a parent who has tried to pass on wisdom and faith to her own children through books like "The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours", a book I highly recommend.

Here's the issue, as Marian Wright Edelman describes it:
"While thirteen million privileged children in the richest nation on earth are growing up in indefensible poverty without the most basic necessities of life and a fair chance to envisage a better future, millions of overprivileged children are growing up infected with the affluenza virus- the spiritual poverty of having too much that is worth too little.
Given every material thing they desire- cell phones, iPods, fancy cars, and the latest trendy fashions-while living in big houses in well-to-do neighborhoods, many lack sufficient parental and community attention, limit-setting, spiritual guidance, and moral example...These lost, out of control children are desperately crying out for attention, direction, and protection from parents and other responsible adults."

Marian Wright Edelman wrights letters the old-fashioned way. They are meant to be read and re-read and savored for the long term. They aren't digitized emails that are quickly read and moved to the deleted file. Her letters bear up to the challenges of real life and authentic moral struggle. Here are a few distilled principles for living a rich and rewarding life that Edelman wrote for her grandchildren. Edelman writes, "I wish you..."

  1. An optimistic and determined spirit. Edelman quotes Helen Keller, who became blind and deaf shortly after her birth, and wrote, "No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit."
  2. A courageous and just spirit willing to speak up for right and against wrong. Being courageous is not being unafraid. It is being able to do what you have to do even when you are afraid.
  3. A forgiving spirit. "Hate is a very heavy burden to carry," is an understanding that Edelman gained from the great singer Marian Anderson during the Civil Rights struggle.
  4. A passionate and persevering spirit. Find and pursue your passions. .. Don't let closed doors deter you. Keep knocking on them.
  5. A can-do spirit devoted to making a positive difference in the lives of others.
  6. A generous spirit. How difficult that can be in our society, when we are told that our value is measured by what we get and not by what we give.
  7. A resilient spirit. Don't dwell on your failures, Edelman writes to her grandchildren. Learn from them and move on. Don't dwell on your weaknesses or on what you wish you could do but can't. Do what you can do. Build on your strengths.
  8. A calm spirit. Try to take time to be silent and to listen to your inner self, where God lives. Be able to be alone without being lonely.
These are just a few of the nuggets of wisdom that Marian Wright Edelman seeks to pass on to future generations. I'm wondering, what do we as parents and as people of faith and as members of the larger human family plan to do in "charting a course for the next generations." What do you plan to offer? Each of us can do something.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Some Sunshine for Your Day

from the Steve Winwood new album "Nine Lives"

On a brave new morning, smiling at the sky
Every shadow of the past whispers goodbye
There is hope, if you can see
I give it all to you, you give it all to me
Every winter has the sun within its heart
And everything we think we knew we can forget
Maybe far but not apart
I know it's getting better and it will be better yet

So fly
'Cause I know what you're feeling
When it turns out that way
And that emotion is healing
And we can fly


The great Steve Winwood has returned with a magnificent new album titled "Nine Lives".
Get it and you'll find some sun-drenched hope in the midst of this awful calamity we are experiencing in our economy. "Nine Lives" says it all. Life is stronger than death.
Hope is more powerful than Fear! If we people of faith don't believe that, what do we have to offer the world ?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Dismal Science

Out on the bike trail this afternoon, I pulled up to the top of a hill overlooking a lake, where I met a man on a recumbent bike who had cycled up from the opposite side of the hill. "Nice bike," I said as we both stopped to admire the view and catch our breath. We struck up a conversation about the advantages of different styles of bikes, one thing led to another, and we exchanged first names and a little personal information.

What do you do? he asked. Well, I'm a Presbyterian pastor, I responded. Interesting my new friend remarked. "Are you finding more people coming back to church during this awful economic crisis?" he asked. Not in large numbers, I responded.

It was an interesting conversation up there on top of the dam, as we looked out over the lake.
How often do people speak about faith and the economy in the same breath? In my experience, not very often. Yet Jesus spoke about the stewardship of wealth in his parables and teaching frequently. In fact, "wealth and its stewardship" was one of Jesus' favorite topics. Someone once said that it's safer in our society to talk about sex, than it is to discuss one's personal finances. I don't know about that, but it looks like we are headed toward a social and economic crisis that may press us all to open up about personal stewardship and the fate of our collective economic condition.

One suggestion. Over at Sojourner's Magazine, in its online version sojo.net, editor Jim Wallis has addressed the economy and faith on his personal blog "God's Politics" today. Wallis intends to open up an ongoing conversation on faith and the economy. It should be thought provoking.

My new friend asked, "Are people coming back to church to help deal with their fear and anxiety over the economy?" It's really too soon to tell, I think. But I wonder about this. What would people find if they did return to church. Would they find pastors and congregations willing to address this topic of our shared economic crisis in open forums and in sermons? Can you envision churches planning a learning series about the justice of our economy? I think that would be intriguing. Imagine planning a series with some local professors from nearby colleges.
And how about an ecumenical cluster of churches together sponsoring a forum in which local congressional leaders would be invited to address this topic. Finding a trained theologian/ethicist to speak about the topic from a faith perspective could add depth and breadth to an ongoing conversation.

"The dismal science"; that's what we have called economics. I wonder if we can afford not to learn more about the key elements of the ways in which nations and communities create, distribute, and conserve all the facets of wealth production and consumption. It is a justice issue. It is a crucial issue for human betterment that can no longer be ignored and left in the hands of Wall St. "masters of the universe."

For spiritual and theological reflection on our current crisis, consider the comments of
St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430 from the City of God (Book I, Chapter 20).
Here Augustine speaks about the crisis of the great city of Rome, in a parallel to our own times of anxiety. This is what Augustine wrote:

They lost all they had [in the sack of Rome]. Their faith?
Their godliness? The possessions of the hidden man of the heart,
which in the sight of God are of great price? Did they lose
these? For these are the wealth of Christians, to whom the wealthy
apostle said, "Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we
brought nothing into this world, find it is certain we can carry
nothing out. And having food and raiment, let us be therewith
content. But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a
snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in
destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all
evil; which, while some coveted after, they have erred from the
faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows."

Perhaps this could be a start in inviting people of faith to engage in conversation about our current spiritual and economic challenges.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Three Cups of Tea.. a journey toward peace and spiritual encounter

If you've seen the Brad Pitt movie Seven Years in Tibet you will recall the story of one man's spiritual odyssey in the high himalayan mountains, in the land of the Dalai Lama and in the culture of Tibetan Buddhism. It's a stirring adventure story among a peace loving people who will face the militant challenge of China in our own day. Everyone loves a Buddhist goes the saying. Who loves the Muslim?

That's really the story of the book Three Cups of Tea, which begins in 1993 when high up in the Himalayan mountains American mountain climber Greg Mortenson stumbles lost and near death into a remote village after a failed attempt to climb K2, the world's most dangerous peak. The people of a desperately poor village in Pakistan's Karakoram Himalaya took in Greg Mortenson and nursed him back to health over the course of 6 weeks. These were simple Muslims in a land that is now considered among the most violent and dangerous places in the world for Americans to venture. It's the epicenter in some views of world-wide terrorism and the cultivation of militant Islam. But Mortenson was extended a life-saving hospitality that would transform his life and send him on a grand adventure more challenging and worthwhile than any climb he had made into the Himalayan mountains. Hospitality can be just that life changing!

As Mortenson came to appreciate the villagers of Korphe who rescued him, he came to an understanding of them as a people who had hopes and dreams for their children like people all over the world. They hungered for a better life for their sons and daughters, after seeing that the government of Pakistan failed repeatedly in its promises to build schools. No books, no supplies, no school building, no teachers. Mortenson surveyed the situation and made a rash promise. He would return from America and build a school for the children of Korphe. One school only! From that small step a movement developed that led to the foundation of an organization known as the Central Asia Institute (CAI), with Mortenson as its executive. But from that day in 1993 to today's unfolding mission by CAI there's an adventure story worth telling that rivals and exceed Pitt's Tibetan movie.

Along the way, Greg Mortenson came to love the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan and the children of those countries. The subtitle of the book Three Cups of Tea spells out the mission of CAI: "One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations...One School at a Time".

Along this voyage of discovery, Mortenson found surprising and often unlikely allies and supporters both in the United States and in Pakistan and Afghanistan. His central learning was this: "If you really want to change a culture, to empower women, improve basic hygiene and health care, and fight high rates of infant mortality, the answer is to educate girls."
Mortenson has pursued his vision and the growing strategy of CAI in a land that most Amerians fear. It isn't the land of gentle Buddhism. It's the land of Islam, which many Americans unfairly caricature as largely centered on violence.

Mortenson doesn't downplay the intent of terrorist organizations, but he offers us this perspective. "'I've learned," observes Mortenson, "that terror doesn't happen because some group of people somewhere like Pakistan or Afghanistan simply decide to hate us. It happens because children aren't being offered a bright enough future that they have a reason to choose life over death." That's a difficult principle for many Americans to embrace during this long struggle with terrorism, when most of our responses as a nation have been fear based. Mortenson's mission is clear and I find compelling, when he argues that the war on terrorism will be won with books, not bombs. The real enemy is ignorance.

My favorite passage in Three Cups of Tea occurs after Mortenson has returned to the village of Korphe, after an amazing and most unlikely success in raising the funds to build a school. That is a remarkable achievement in itself. But when Mortenson returns to head up the building effort you learn his spiritual journey has just begun. In his obsessive goal to build the school, Mortenson drives the village members so hard, that he loses sight of the larger need they have to celebrate this achievement in a land where life unfolds slowly and at a different pace than he is accustomed to. After all, these people measure time in years and centuries, not just in hours and minutes.

Haji Ali, the villager chief and elder, who has played such a significant role in Mortenson's life from the day he stumbled into Korphe, takes this American aside after the frustration of the villagers has grown unbearable. "If you want to thrive in Baltistan (their region)," says Haji Ali to Mortenso, "you must respect our ways."

"The first time you share tea with a Balti; you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die," Haji Ali says to his young American friend.

"Dr. Greg, you must take time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated. But we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time," said Haji Ali

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

What does it mean for Religious Leaders to Coooperate?

Blog Comment: Today an important announcement and press release points to a vital interfaith partnership to address the enormous crisis affecting the states and people of the Gulf Coast following the recent hurricane disasters. I point this out because one of the signatories to this call for a partnership between government and faith groups is Rev. Richard Cizik. Rev. Cizik is Vice President for Government Affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals. He will be speaking this Thursday, September 18 at Countryside Community Church (UCC) about "Evangelicals and the Interfaith Movement". I'll be attending that lecture and I hope to ask Cizik about this advocacy effort by a broad coalition of religious groups calling for a moral response to the Gulf Coast Crisis. Having traveled to the Gulf Coast three times in the last couple of years on mission trips and to attend a national church mission conference there, I've developed a passion for the suffering of our brothers and sisters in this region of our nation. This is a crisis of government and of the faith communities in our nation. I'll post after Thursday night's lecture.... See the press release below...

Leading religious officials today (September 16) signed an interfaith statement calling for not just a charitable response but for justice through long-term human rights-based recovery policy to help Gulf Coast families.

The statement urges national leaders to make enacting bi-partisan resident-led federal solutions, including the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act, helping families return and participate in rebuilding their communities, creating living wage jobs, restoring the coastal wetland and ensuring human rights along the Gulf Coast a national moral priority.

The Gulf Coast Civic Works Campaign is a nonpartisan partnership of community, faith, environmental, student, and human rights organizations in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi and their national allies advocating for federal legislation based on HR 4048, the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act and urging national leaders to make creating jobs, rebuilding infrastructure and affordable housing, and restoring natural flood protection along the Gulf Coast a national priority.

The 108 signers include Richard Cizik of National Association of Evangelicals; Richard Stearns, president of World Vision; Rabbi Steve Gutow, Jewish Council for Public Affairs; Michael Kinnamon, National Council of Churches; Ingrid Matterson, Islamic Society of North America; Larry Snyder, Catholic Charities USA; David Beckmann, Bread for the World; and Jim Wallis, Sojourners.

Interested persons can support this effort by contacting their member of Congress at: http://www.colorofchange.org/gulfcoast/message.html

The text of their statement:

Gulf Coast Civic Works Campaign Interfaith Statement

Supporting Human Rights in Gulf Coast Recovery Is a Moral Priority

As Hurricanes Ike and Gustav hit the Gulf Coast, internally displacing over one million people, we as a nation were reawakened to the needs of the Gulf Coast. Three years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck and the levees breached, the slow pace of recovery and the new needs caused by Ike and Gustav's destruction have created a moral crisis along the Gulf Coast that demands a powerful response from people of faith.

While the nation has learned to better prepare for this latest hurricane, whether by inaction or injustice, we have still failed to protect the wellbeing of Gulf Coast survivors, new residents and their families, especially the children, the poor, the sick, and the vulnerable through just long term rebuilding policies which fully support human rights. The collapse of local institutions, homelessness, internal displacement, poverty, abusive labor practices and environmental degradation mean they continue to suffer and struggle unduly. A spiritual wound remains open across the region, one felt in God's creation and every community across this country.

Our God is a God of justice, of humanity and of healing, and this moral injustice calls each of us to bold action in support of the common good. We must act to justly rebuild communities, restore the Gulf Coast, and empower families to overcome the devastation they suffered in our nation's worst natural disasters.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Part 2: 21st Century Church-the Vital Mainline Church

"Thawing God's frozen chosen, one at a time!"

(poster in the youth room of a Presbyterian church, seen on a mission
trip to New Orleans post-Katrina)

In my last post, I wrote about a 10 week adventure of worship and learning about the 10 spiritual practices that Dorothy Butler Bass reports about in her important book "Christianity for the Rest of Us." I heard Bass in a lecture series not long ago, as she spoke about the 3 year Lilly Endowment research project that allowed her to study in depth some 50 mainline churches all across America. By way of introduction, Bass commented to us that "When I told people of my quest to study the practices of vital mainline churches across America they would often respond." "Vital mainline churches? Must have been a short journey!" People sometimes commented to Bass about the mainline: "Aren't they the frozen chosen?" And then another remark often made by people in her audiences: "Only conservative churches can grow." Bass then shared with us that some critics consider the old mainline denominations "culturally irrelevant and hopelessly confused."

How would you respond to the above comments?

There's something bubbling under the surface of many mainline churches that is now beginning to receive attention from students of church transformation and renewal like Bass. In Bass' study of 50 mainline congregations all across America, some new and exciting things are happening, and people are growing deeper in their faith and are experiencing a new sense of identity as people of faith.

For many people in churches, there seem to be only two current options that are receiving attention: You either try to join the Purpose Driven Movement of churches or you attempt to become a better Program Driven Church. Those are not the only options according to Diana Butler Bass.

How would you introduce change? a group of church leaders asked me recently.

Bass does not argue that mainline churches should change. Rather, she maintains that mainline churches are changing and have already changed. Many are moving beyond the Purpose Driven and Program Model Churches to embrace something different. Here's how Bass describes the change already taking place:

"... a new kind of mainline congregation--the practicing congregation--- has been born because of these changes. Practicing congregations weave together Christian practices---activities drawn from the long Christian tradition---into a pattern of being church that forms a intentional way of life in community."

Bass argues that these vital mainline churches are taking ancient and fundamental practice of faith "Out of the Historical Deep Freeze" and putting them back into the shared life of congregations. This movement of the Spirit goes far beyond the limited way many church folk describe their congregations, when they limit their comments to "We're a friendly church."

If discipleship means following the "Way of Christ" surely there's more to be said than calling ourselves a friendly, nice group of people. As Dorothy Butler Bass observes, "Jesus asks everyone to change. It is the heart of his message." Our is a not a faith frozen in some historical deep freeze, it is a living, breathing relationship with a God who claims us for purposes grander than we can imagine. We can no longer assume that people, even in our churches, understand what it means to live a vital faith. That's why we are called to teach and model the practices of faith that are a part of the ancient tradition of faith, come alive in a new day!