Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Guns are not the answer

I think perhaps the most disturbing thing I have seen in the wake of the shooting in Newtown is an ad that ran in Maxim magazine from a gun company.  The tagline was "consider your man-card reissued."  I have no idea if the shooter in CT saw this ad and if that influenced his actions at all, but I cannot help but wonder if such a mentality is making it easier for people, mostly men, to see guns and violence as a solution when things become difficult in their life.  When we create the image in society that guns are a way to claim power or to reclaim a sense of identity we are helping people who are hurting to see guns, and in turn violence as a solution.  The answer in my mind is not to ban guns.  Banning drugs has not stopped enough people from seeking them as an answer when times are tough.  Instead I think we need to actively work to create a culture where there are better ways to get help than to grab a weapon, or a bomb, and see how many people you can take out with you as you go.

We cannot totally guard against the desperation that causes someone to cause mass violence.  Our efforts would better be spent helping people to not get to that state of desperation.  We have all felt the desire to hug our own children closer in the wake this violence, but I believe also need to be closer to those around us as well.  I worry that even as connected as our society is we are still to far apart, that people who are hurting are falling through the cracks.  Instead of turning to their neighbors for help they turn to guns, to violence, to death.

There are not easy answers to this problem.  To fix the epidemic of violence in our nation requires sacrifice.  I think it means we need to look at all the ways we teach ourselves, and we teach others that violence is an answer to the problems we face.  Maybe it means turning off the television a bit, or switching the channel.  For me it might mean playing less-violent video games.  Until we start to create a culture where we glorify things besides violence then I think we may be faced with more desperate individuals who turn to killing to solve the problems of their lives.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Someone recently noted I had not posted anything on my blog lately.  A lot of this is the fault of Bryce and the fact that I spent 8 weeks at home caring for him ... and like most new-borns he demands a lot of attention.  I realize that the other reason I have not blogged much is I feel like around elections I am left biting my tongue a lot.  Even if the IRS did not have laws around the role of the church in politics I am not inclined to dive into these highly charged waters.  I am privately very politically but since my calling is a pastor is to all people I think it better to keep my personal opinions out of the way of my ministry.

This time of year it can be hard to escape politics.  So I think I am going to go for an area that I feel is not political at all ... hope.  Obviously hope is gets used in political discourse but I am talking about a more generic hope.  I am talking about a hope that no matter who wins things will be better ... or things will be alright.  I think that sort of hope is lacking in the world.  It clearly is lacking in politics but I think it is also lacking in other places.

I follow the Vikings and unlike mostly people I am not that surprised that they are 4-1 at this point in the season.  This is not because I am good at analyzing football and picking winners and loser (my family can attest to that) but simply because I tend to have hope.  Even in the midst of a losing 3-13 season last year I kept finding reasons to hope.  Not because it was justified ... in fact it was often unjustified but just because I felt hope was better than despair.  Reading the Star Tribune sports pages I often feel the local writers need some hope when it comes to covering our local teams.  It may not be accurate journalism, but it would be optimistic journalism.  I think a lot of local fans look for hope when it comes to their sports teams (or should anyway).

Another area I see a lack of hope is the economy.  This is a tricky situation ... one could easily argue that false hope is what got us into some of the mess we are in now.  People seemed to hope that the housing market would go up and up ... or hope they could afford the mortgages ... or hope no one would notice the mortgages they were bundling were filled with bad loans.  One of the biggest hindrances to a recovery seems to be a lack of hope.  People are not hiring because of the gloomy outlook ... and the outlook remains gloomy because people are not hiring.  I know it is far more complicated than that ... but I cannot wonder if there is some room for hope here too.

Maybe we need to find a way to distinguish between false hope and true hope.  True hope is not blind optimism (every lottery ticket I buy will be a winner) ... instead I think it is an optimism that is tempered by the knowledge that losing is not nearly as bad as we make it out to be.  The line from Fight Club "only when you have lost everything are you free to do anything" comes to mind.

When it comes to the church I think this is the kind of hope we offer.  Not an artificial hope of a land flowing with milk and honey ... if you just do enough right.  But a genuine hope that no matter what there is room for grace, room for God, room for resurrection.  Maybe that kind of hope does not have a place in politics or economics, or even sports ... but I think it is the kind of hope that the church should be offering to everyone, especially in these challenging times.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Winning Isn't Everything

I love the Olympics and a recent scandal there in particular has perked my interest.  Four teams were ejected from the badminton competition for trying to lose.  Not knowing badminton rules very well I can only assume that like fencing they have a rule that forbids throwing matches.  Many people want to blame not the athletes but the system that creates the problem.  From what I understand, like soccer and beach volleyball (among other sports) badminton has pool play that then creates the seeding for a direct elimination bracket.  When one of the two Chinese teams unexpectedly lost a matches it became clear that if the second team won all their matches they would face each other in the semis instead of the finals.  Since the two teams are considered to be #1 and #2 in the tournament they both could benefit from not facing each other until the finals.  It may seem counter-intuitive to sports, but what if losing sometimes is better for the longer term picture.  An example of this can be seen in swimming events.  Competitors like Phelps who swim in several races, sometimes on the same day have to make choices about how to spend their finite energies.  If they go all out in the semi-final heat of one event, does that leave them enough energy to win gold in another event?  Is only doing enough to qualify in one event as bad as throwing a match in pool play to conserve strength or set-up a more favorable draw for the final bracket?  What about a tennis player who drops a set they don't think they can win to save strength for the next one?  Is winning really everything in sports or should we be acknowledging that there can be a competitive advantage to losing at times?  Is that a problem?  Obviously in specific instances, like fencing where it is clearly against the rules there are issues, but maybe we should be looking at changing those rules.  What is the difference between when it is the better interests to lose within the sport, like going easy in a race compared to when it is in one's better interests outside the competition, like the White Sox throwing games in the World Series?  Sports are a competition that is defined entirely by rules.  My question is ... what do we want the rules to be?  Is it a bad thing when in the effort for a greater victory someone chooses to lose?  Some might call it a very Christian notion in fact.  I love it when game theory intersects with theology.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Private Act of Worship?

There was recently a case in the news about a man in Arizona being arrested.  At issue was his alleged failure to follow zoning laws for the church on his property.  His counter-argument was that it was not a public space but part of private property and that anyone who attend the bible studies he held was an invited guest. What struck me the most about all of this was the claim that his worship was a private event.  As someone who wants to welcome anyone and everyone to worship and create as large and inclusive a group as possible, the idea of a church and worship being private rather than open to the public seemed antithetical to my understanding of church.

Then this last week I had a different revelation.  For the last six weeks I have been preaching on the Seven Deadly Sins.  My final sermon on the topic is coming up on Sunday with Gluttony.  In the midst of it I have been struggling with the question of how hard to push how sinful we are/can be.  One criticism of Christianity is how judgmental it can be and calling people out for sinful behavior seems to possibly fit into that area.

When I was in college we would get visit maybe once or twice a year by a street preacher who would stand on the sidewalk and preach to us sinful college students.  Now, I am not saying that Beloit students were without sin.  In fact I think it is safe to say that we were/are as sinful as any other college student, or really any other person.  The judgmental nature of the sermons did little to endear anyone, Christian or otherwise, towards Christianity.  Here was an outsider coming into our midst to tell us what we did wrong.

Here was an example of someone being far more public about their worship service than I was comfortable and bringing their full message to the people.  So if it was wrong to have a private service in your house and only invite friends, why did it also feel wrong to hold a worship service ... or at least the sermon portion of it ... in public and let anyone and everyone hear your message?  On reflection I think it is because worship, especially the sermon portion is NOT a public act, but a private act.  The private act can be open to the public, but when done properly it is not really meant for the general public, it is meant for the specific public.  A good sermon speaks to people where they are, it is a conversation among friends.  In the safety of such a context suddenly talking about sin does not become a soap-box lecture from some holier-than-thou individual, but the constructive advice (though perhaps hard to hear) from a trust friend and spiritual leader.

It feels awkward to talk about sin during a sermon because it does feel like scolding or shaming the congregation.  At the same time, think of a coach who never told you when you were doing something wrong, would that be helpful?  In fencing I want to know when I am making a mistake ... shouldn't it be the same with my spiritual life?  Now, I am not saying I want anyone to criticize my fencing ... even if they know better, I prefer to leave that to my coach.  In the same way I am not sure I want anyone to be critical of how I am living my life spiritually, I would prefer that be reserved for those I trust with spiritual authority in my life.

Worship is both a public and private act.  It is something open to the public but it involves a certain amount of trust and willingness to address that which is private (our personal struggles with faith).  I think the hardest part is to hold that tension.  Anyone can walk in to a worship service and participate and there needs to be a trust created for them to feel safe to engage in what is ultimately a most private act ... growing in an understanding of God.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

One Small Step For Humankind ... One Giant Leap for Individualism

First of all, I have to admit that the launch of the rocket by Space X (link) is exciting and offers a lot of potential for new science and learning as well as might provide some significant cost savings when it comes to space exploration.  All of these things are good but I worry that they come at a price to our collective being as humanity.  The article I cited above has a great quote "It's fine to rely on partners, but that's not where the greatest nation in the world wants to be."  I find this sentiment to be troubling.  Is our individualism what really makes us great as a nation.  Is it really the fact that we can "go it alone" a sign that we truly are #1 in the world. My worries about private companies engaging in space flight is that it runs the risk of privatizing the knowledge that we can gain from such an experience.  Do we really want the symbol planted on Mars if/when the first humans land there to be a corporate logo?  I am not opposed to the idea of companies finding ways to make a profit through space exploration and travel, but I do worry that if it is done solely with private dollars and private backing that ultimately the gains no longer are public but also held in private.  It is probably overly romantic of me, but I have always loved that fact that some of our last frontiers of exploration, namely space and Antarctica have been held, not privately by companies or even nations, but have been seen more as a resource of all humanity.  I want to be excited about the potential offered by private companies but I worry that all of us seems to feed into the individualistic psyche of our nation.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Guns Don't Kill People, Robert's Rules Kill People

In the wake of General Conference there has been a lot of talk among United Methodist about the failings of Robert's Rules of Order.  The general feeling is that Robert's Rules are often abused by those who know them and work to create winners and losers when it comes to debate rather than working towards the unity of the greater whole.  While not the only victim of blame in the wake of General Conference, Robert's Rules receive what I believe is an undo share of the criticism and hear is why.

1) It really is akin to blaming the gun for killing the person instead of the person firing it.  Not only that, unlike a gun, whose sole purpose is to fire, Robert's Rules is a tool whose purpose is orderly discussion, productive debate, and working towards the unity of the greater whole.

2) We are talking about a convention with close to 1,000 voting delegates, I am not sure there is any system of governance for such a meeting that would not fall into similar challenges.

3) The formality of Robert's Rules is NOT meant to shackle debate or to oppress voices it is meant to encourage debate and allow for voices to be heard.

Instead of blaming the weapon, this is a great time to ask ourselves what caused Mom to be pointing it at Dad in the first place.  Why do we feel the need to use rules as weapons of division rather than as tools of unity?

I am a huge fan of working to reach a consensus and I am a strong believer in the work that the Holy Spirit can do in a gathering of people.  But NO model exists that will change people's minds and force consensus.  I was a part of a group of seven that needed to a consensus on who was to represent the group to a larger meeting.  Three of us believed that we really were the best person to represent the group (ten years later I am willing to admit I might have been wrong on my beliefs at the time).  We spent hours debating the process and ultimately came to a conclusion that I should represent the group but I do not believe we really reached consensus (that everyone thought I was actually the best person for it).  Even with the consensus I believe there is a chance that others may have felt like "losers" despite the fact that without a vote we could not point to clear winners and losers.

The problem with winners and loser is not Robert's Rules, it is each of us.  It starts with the fact that each of us generally thinks we are right about something (if we thought we were wrong we would likely try and come up with a different idea).  We then usually look for any tools we can to make sure the right decision is the one that is made ... or keep people from making a wrong decision.  I think this comes from a lack of trust.  I see this in myself a lot.  It is easy to look over matters and feel like I know what the best solution to a problem is and then grow frustrated if others do not see it that way.  The next step is to start thinking about how to change their minds, to fix things, or otherwise move things in the direction I want them to go.  Robert's Rules can be great for that.  A person who is knowledgeable about Robert's Rules as many more tools at their disposal than someone who does not.  The problem does not lie with Robert's Rules, it lies with each of us, failing to trust the wisdom of a greater body.  I know that the body is not always wise in its decisions, but maybe we need to think more about what that means, then blaming Robert's Rules for getting us there, because after all, if they are really causing harm, Robert's Rules makes it pretty easy to set them aside if that would be better for the group.

My personal challenge, as I get ready for two large meetings is to think about how I can get past that desire to win and use Robert's Rules I believe they are intended to be used ... for the good of the body

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

I'm All a Twitter

So over the last several years I have been internally debating the merits of Twitter.  I created an account several years ago, @RevJeffOzanne, but have never really used it much.  Some of what I have been unsure about is what I might say on Twitter that I don't already say in other forms like Facebook, and if all my Twitter peeps are also on Facebook, am I just wasting my time/energy.  As I was watching General Conference (the quadrennial gathering of The United Methodist Church for all my non-UMC readers) I was following the Twitter feed for the event as well.  It was fascinating to be watching the dialogue that was occurring around General Conference and peoples thoughts and reactions to it.  Part of me was excited about the possibilities that such discussions created.  Here was a chance for many more voices to be added to the thousand people who were actually allowed to speak at General Conference.  Other parts of me were less excited ... here is why

  • Twitter takes the snarkiness factor up a notch, or twelve.  I love snarkiness, I often engage in snarkiness, and I definitely have passed the time in meetings and events being snarky with the person next to me.  My concern however is that Twitter encourages our snarkiness at the expense of more constructive thinking.  We end up being snarky in the same forum we are trying to be serious in.  No one would stand up in a meeting and make a snark comment, but we offer them on Twitter in the same space we use to advocate for serious ideas and issues.  I feel like this confuses our communication.
  • Twitter creates a second realm of discussion ... while it can bring more conversations out into the public (like allowing those of us not at General Conference to be a part of the debate) the forum that it creates is limited, despite Twitter having millions of users.  The fact that not everyone is one Twitter creates divides in the conversation between those in the know and those not.  The "Includer" in me worries about the exclusion that naturally occurs from this.
  • Somethings take more than 140 characters to say ... though not this ... and short thoughts can limit rather than encourage debate.
I am sure these faults don't make Twitter irredeemable and worthless, but it makes we wonder how much our new mediums of communication have an effect on how we think and how we engage in conversations.  Comment sections on news articles, rather than fostering health dialogue become collecting areas for hateful opinions, bad logic, and untruths (if you disagree, feel free to comment below).  Maybe the great challenge of Twitter is to realize that because it is so easy to say things, we should say less instead of more ... (and I don't mean simply reduce the number of characters).

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Christianity and Government

I have to start with a disclaimer ... I know this topic is covered in much better detail by others and I am going to do a poor job of citing any outside sources or necessarily creating new thoughts and opinions ... but this has been rolling around in my head for a week an I wanted to try and get it out on "paper" so to speak.

When I was younger ... don't actually remember when it was ... I decided I could not be President of the United States.  I disqualified myself from consideration because I would be unable to be an effective Commander-in-Chief.  I believed then, and I still believe today that Christian teaching (turn the other cheek, love your enemy) was clearly incompatible with the office of the President and the violence that the office is called to engage in, for the device of our country.

In Romans 13, Paul entreats all of us to be subject to authority and to government.  He makes the claim that all governments derive their power ultimately from God and they become violent (bearing the sword) instruments of God's wrath/judgment.  It is clear that Paul feels that the violence and punishment engaged in by the state is a way in which God's power is manifest in the world.

While I certainly agree that this is what Paul is saying in Romans, I struggle with it as being consistent with a larger Christian message.  As followers of a grace-filled God and as people who ultimately have ourselves fallen short of expectations, it is hard to see what seems to be a very violent and harsh form of justice to be something attributed to the same God of love we see in the Gospels and even in other places in Paul's letters.

The United Methodist Church is very clear in the Social Principles that we oppose violence in several forms that the government engages in.  One is war (which is clearly stated as incompatible with Christian teaching) and the other is the death penalty (which the UMC opposes).  While Paul may believe that God gives such authority and power to the state, the stance of the UMC is that we (as the state) should not use it.

Here is where I get hung up ... if I am not comfortable being President because of my faith is it okay for me to be comfortable with someone else being it instead?  It feels like saying I oppose killing animals for food ... but if you do the butchering I am okay with eating it.  Am I asking to have my cake and eat it too?  I think Paul is struggling to see how government can function without the sword.  Would any of us pay taxes without that threat? (yes we are not threatened by the sword, but instead we would risk being placed in jail at gun point ... so is it really that different?)  Would we feel safe in our borders without an army to defend us?  If our Christian values really are opposed to violence and war, are we comfortable "outsourcing" those to people with different beliefs around these matters?  Are we called to live in a state that is almost by nature un-Christian (though instituted by God) ... or are we called to find new ways to create a government that actually reflect our values and perhaps seek to transform the world into something other than what it is today?

What do you think ... do Christian values undermine some of the fundamental aspects of government (need for the sword)?  Is it okay for Christians to be a part of such a government without seeking its change?  How do those values get balanced out?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Bow Ties are Cool

When I was in seminary I would jokingly invite people to sit with me at the "cool kids club."  Given my own shyness and geekyness it was far more an attempt at humor than an assertion of my own trendiness.  Simply by calling it the "cool kids club" I could not make it cool any more than repeatedly stating "bow ties are cool" makes that statement true.  (The use of Dr. Who in my example might be a further proof of my un-coolness ... or proof of how amazingly cool I am)  What brings all of this to mind is that yesterday I was reading yet another article about the demise of Facebook and how it is now clearly uncool.

I am not an expert on social media or social trends, but it feels like for at least a couple of years I have seen these stories about the decline of Facebook as if it is only a matter of time, and a short matter of time at that, before Facebook is too big, successful, evil, whatever to be cool and we must move on to something else.  I have seen several reasons expressed for why Facebook is/will be in decline.  The CNN article seems to imply that one of the declines of Facebook was when parents and shudder grandparents starting using Facebook.  Something cannot be cool if everyone is doing it!

What bothers me about all this is that as a society we place a ton of value on being cool and generally seem to define coolness in such a way that it is impossible for the public to be cool.  Why do we do this to ourselves?  Why do we chase after something that by definition we can almost never attain.  We fight against it ... I went to a school of non-conformists (we all seemed to fight conformity in the same ways).  Some people resist the pressure to be cool by being deliberately uncool ... in a way that is clear to be perceived by others as being cool.  I was fighting against the pressures to be cool by jokingly creating a "cool kids club" so that by definition myself and really anyone could be cool.  In the end I think we are longing for community and we are longing for connection.  Coolness is all about a desire by us to be loved by others and to be invited in to something greater than ourselves.  Maybe we would be better off if we worried less about trying to be cool ourselves and instead worried about making those around us feel cool and the world would be a better place.  Besides we all know that anyone who hangs out with cool people has got to be cool as well.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Corporate Ethics in an Embodied World

I will be the first to admit that I am one of the many people who is frustrated with the notion that corporations are people too ... or specifically that they are entitled to many of the same rights without many of the same responsibilities.  At the same time I understand that if we value many of our freedoms specifically speech and assembly, then we should want to give some rights to corporations.  For that reason I wanted to try and approach things from a different angle ... what does a world look like if we actually did think of corporations as people.

It seems to me that one of the jarring aspects of this idea is that corporations are so clearly not people ... lacking a body for one thing, but also in terms of a values.  Corporations are artificial constructs with clear purposes.  Those purposes can be good "make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world" would be a corporate purpose I am a big fan of.  Often when we think of corporate purposes it comes closer to ... maximize shareholder value (make money) while providing some sort of service.  We tend to ascribe higher purposes to humanity than simply maximizing shareholder value (would that be parents?).

How does this get changed if corporations are people?  For one it might change how we act towards corporations.  I have been guilty of hating corporations (something I try to never do with individuals).  I do not see business as a collection of individuals struggling to make money, provide and service, and get on with their lives.  Instead I find easier to think of them as faceless entities chasing the almighty dollar and can ascribe all sorts of unfair/cynical motives to their actions.  If we think of corporations as people it might change our expectations for them and our compassion for them.  I would hope in turn it might change how shareholders and board members think of the actions of the corporation.  If corporations become embodied instead of disembodied maybe it will be easier for corporations to act like people ... ethically and for the greater good.

I know that some of this feels like wishful thinking ... but I don't wonder if the disembodied nature of corporations today in our collective perception is what makes it so much easier for them to be involved in terrible actions.  Corporate raiding takes on a whole new meaning.  Embezzlement also feels less like a victim-less crime.  Maximizing shareholder value can no longer be the soul purpose of a company ... any more than it is socially acceptable for people to live only for themselves with no concern for their neighbors.  What I think I am saying in all of this is ... maybe if we started treating corporations as people ... and ascribing humanity to them ... it might cause them to act more like people and with more humanity.  Just a thought

Thursday, March 1, 2012

What Can We Do?

Just this week tragedy struck in the form of another high school shooting.  Every time we hear about this things we start to ask the questions ... how could this happen ... who is to blame ... what can we do to stop this?  Casting around for blame is easy.  We can ask where the parents were.  In the case of the shooting we can try and determine how the individual acquired a gun.  We usually wonder if there were some signs that we could have seen.  Was there a way teachers, friends, or anyone could have known things were about to become violent?  I was in high school when the shooting at Columbine took place.  I remember how things changed at the high school afterward.  Security was tightened, procedures were put in place to lock down the school and keep kids safe.  None of these things felt like they would really make a difference.  The fact of the matter is with that many children around it is impossible to keep everyone safe.

Marianne and I have been watching West Wing.  At one point on the show they talk about how the real nuclear threat from a terrorist organization is not the payload on some missile but a small device smuggled into DC or near some other target.  I like to think we have good security measures in place to keep our leaders safe, but against some threats it is easy to wonder how much can we really do.  As far as I know we never really had a good way to keep us safe from the Soviet threat, except mutually assured destruction.

When we are faced with threats, when we look at tragedies and wonder what went wrong, we want to believe there is something we can do to keep our children safe, to keep our leaders safe, to keep ourselves safe.  We cast about for answers, more gun control or more guns, better parenting, better support in schools.  We want to believe there is something we can do.

The scripture lesson for Sunday is Mark 8:31-38.  This is the first time in Mark that Jesus tells his disciples he is going to be killed.  Peter's response is one of shock, one of outrage.  I think we are like Peter.  Peter had grown up under the rule of the Romans.  He had probably seen friends, family members, or neighbors suffer under what was at times an oppressive rule.  I am sure he had felt powerless and wondered how his country could ever be free from the threat they faced.  Then he met Jesus.  Then he encountered this divine individual who could heal the sick, cast out demons, and perform all manner of miracles.  This was not an ordinary person, this was the Son of God.  If anyone could overthrow the Romans it had to be Jesus.  At least that is what he thought until Jesus said that he would fail, that the Romans would win, that even the Son of God could not defeat the might of Roman.

Like I said, we are like Peter, we want to believe in something that will keep us safe, something we can do to avert these tragedies and make everything better.  Like Peter I think we need to confront the fact that in the end that is impossible.  If, like God, we value free will, then it will always be possible for someone to find a way to cause harm, to hurt others, even to kill.  Jesus challenges us to think about this differently.  Jesus challenges us to realize that dying is not necessarily losing.  In fact sometimes living can be losing.  Jesus "loses" to the Romans because he refuses to play their game, because he refuses to believe that power, violence, and force are acceptable solutions.  He believes that is better to love and lose than to kill to win.

We cannot do something to guarantee that we will always be safe.  I knew people in high school that wore trench-coats like those that the shooters in Columbine wore.  I have friends who felt hurt, isolated, and alone in middle school and high school.  They never turned to violence, but I know there were days they thought about.  I know it sounds trite but I think if we just loved more it would make a difference.  I think it would help on the little things and ripple its way up to the big problems.  We cannot do something to keep us totally safe, but I would rather seek to love everyone and risk dying because of that then trusting no one ... because how else can we really be safe?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Give me liberty ...

For obvious reasons I am huge fan of the religious liberties we afford individuals and institutions in this country.  I know that my life, my faith, and my job are made easier by the fact government in particular, and society in general are supportive of what I do.  Recently there has been some discussion about whether or not our religious liberties are under assault.  Moving away from campaign rhetoric about this issue is hard.  Extreme claims tend to be made either to score political points or maybe because the tension of the situation escalates what gets said and done.  One of the main arguments is that a threat to religious liberties creates a slippery slope.  As someone who is okay with contraceptives I am unaffected by the recent debates but who knows what a future administration might seek to do under this established precedent.

What frustrates me is that it seems to be a short sighted view of the situation.  The implication that is often made is that this is a new assault on our freedom.  Not only have states passed similar laws already, but this is not the first time a religious group has been challenged over its rights to practice.  Native Americans can point to drug use in religious ceremonies as an example of a place where the government has made a choice.  Mormons were forced to give up a long held religious practice of polygamy in order to be accepted.  "Assaults" on religious freedoms are not new.  What might be new is for a politician to disagree with a large voting bloc on such an issue.  But that is worrying because it seems to imply that religious freedoms are only important if they are held by someone with political clout.  Surely we want something better than that.

Our country was founded around the idea of inalienable rights ... rights that cannot be taken from us.  Any society that wishes to function however requires that individuals living in it surrender some of their rights in order for things to function.  We have the right to pursue happiness, but we agree collectively that such pursuits should not include killing others, or break traffic laws, or a whole host of other rules we come up with to try and balance things out.

I think we need to do the same when it comes to our religious liberties.  This is harder because now we get into the idea of what is morally right.  If we believe something is morally wrong can we be a part of it?  Most of our rhetoric is not favorable to compromise and continued growth.  Any time I think we need to slow down and look for a middle ground I am reminded of the strong passions of people like Martin Luther King who were told too often to wait for their freedom, to wait for an end to oppression, to allow things to slowly work there course.  How can I be sure that the issues that I am asking for patience on are not urgent issues of injustice for others?

In the end, I do not know.  I am not sure a compromise on an issue is the morally perfect action.  I am sure however that if we do not find ways to compromise and instead cling to our inalienable rights it can quickly become hard to live as a society.  An end to an injustice comes not simply with a change in laws but a change in hearts.  That is maybe where we need to begin.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Keep It Local

The local chamber of commerce is pushing the idea that we should "Keep It Local: Work, Shop, Live, Play."  I am a big fan of the idea of buying local.  I see the benefits both in turns of economic benefit for the local community but also the environmental impacts of such practices.  To be perfectly honest I am not a perfect follower of this practice even if I am a solid believer in it.  As I was looking at the tagline from the chamber I thought what they are missing is worship.

Should we be worshiping local?  Years ago, churches were built around this very concept, local worship.  Communities walked to their local church and there was an expectation that people who participate in the church closest to them (of their chosen denomination of course).  The rise of the car, the commuter mentality, and an increase in consumerism in selecting a church as radically changed this.  People switch between churches and denominations based on the personal needs and desires of the individual family.  I am currently benefiting from this in my current church.  Several of our members drive further to get to our church then they would have to go to reach another United Methodist or UCC congregation.

When I think about worshiping locally I don't think we need to only think about going to the closest church, even though that would have some positive environmental benefit.  I do think that church and faith is personal enough that there is value in finding the right community for you, even if it is not the closest one.  Maybe when we think about worshiping locally it would mean worshiping with a sense of where you are, who surrounds you.  To worship locally is to attend not only to our relationship to God, but also our relationship to our neighbor.  Churches can often be islands to the sea of people living around them, isolated from the communities they are located in.  Especially in under-crowded sanctuaries our own worship experience can be cut off from the nearest person, whether they are three pews away or right in front of us.

Worshiping locally, like shopping locally is a call for us to be intentional about the people who surround us and to remember that we are connected.  Even in our personal relationship with God, we are called constantly to be in community with our neighbor, whoever they may be.

Monday, January 16, 2012

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Last Friday while out for a walk I got a phone call telling me that one of my members was in the hospital.  It was after visiting hours but I figured since I was near the hospital I would stop by and if they were awake pay them a visit to see how they were doing.  When I got to the hospital, despite the hour, I was taken to see the patient.  While it is possible they would have done this for anyone, what is more likely is that they respected the fact that I was a pastor.  That kind of trust is humbling as a pastor.  Certainly I believe I am trustworthy but it is touching to experience it when all a person is knows is that I am a minister.

Recently the Supreme Court heard a case between a church-run school and a teacher at the school.  The Court ruled that because the teacher's position was considered to be a religious position, the church was not subject to ADA requirements and was able to dismiss her because of a disability.  This is an important statement for churches.  It affirms that the fact that the state, in order to allow for the free establishment of religion will not make laws that effect churches (or other religious institutions).

While I support the decision of the Court, I feel it gives us in the church a great deal of responsibility.  Just like the nurses in the hospital, the Court, and really the people of the United States are trusting churches to use our freedoms well.  We should not see this as license to discriminate however we want without regard for the law.  But instead to see it is as people trusting us that when our religious views differ from the law, we have the right to maintain our beliefs even if they run contrary to popular sentiment.

When I look at the actual case argued however I am saddened by the decision of the school.  Yes, they are correct in arguing that they are not LEGALLY obligated to continue to employ the teacher.  What I fail to understand is what their theological justification for it might be.  It seems rather that the school is using the convenience of the religious exemption in order to fire someone from a position, not because of theological differences but because for health reasons.  Their actions were consistent with the law of the United States but I do not see them as being consistent with their faith.

Our society, despite the challenges caused by scandals in the church, continues to respect religious leaders and religious institutions.  I believe that we in the church need to be humbled by that respect and by the freedom we are granted under the law.  We should not take it for granted, nor should we seek to abuse it.  Instead we should do all in our power to deserve that respect and make the best use of that freedom.  To do otherwise is to do an injustice to the people of this country and to our faith.