Thursday, July 30, 2009

Healing of the Nations -- A Disciple Commitment

Isaiah speaks of the healing of the nations. A great hymn does as well. The "Healing of the Nations" is the theme of this years Disciples of Christ General Assembly. The Rev. Cynthia Hale, Pastor of Ray of Hope Christian Church in Atlanta, got the conversation off to a rousing start last night, taking us back into the creation story, reminding us that we are a people (humanity that is) created for a purpose -- fearfully and wonderfully made, as the Psalmist put it ( Psalm139:13-14).

The Assembly theme rests on the Disciples new "mantra" -- A Movement of Wholeness in a Fragmented World." We're not perfect agents or messengers, but this is our calling, to live out God's vision of wholeness in a very fragmented and broken world. It is a powerful calling, one that will certainly struggle with in implementation, but still a most powerful invitation to move into the future. My expectation is that we'll continue the conversation -- in worship and in prayer, service and in study.

For more details I'll send you to the reporting from Disciples World's Sherri Emmons.

Oh, and the house band she speaks of in the piece -- a great group of musicians led by an ever energetic Bill Thomas of Van Nuys.

Foundational Texts, Interpretation, and Playing the Game - Sightings

The Sotomayor hearings are over, the Committee has voted, essentially along party lines, to send the nomination forward for a nearly party line vote to confirm (the way things are now done). Ingrid Lilly, a professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies, writes today in Sightings (the last issue till September), about the religious -- hermeneutical debates --underpinnings of the recent hearings. Is there not a similarity in how both text of Scripture and text of the Constitution being approached? Take a read, offer your thoughts.


Sightings -- June 30, 2009

Foundational Texts, Interpretation, and Playing the Game:

The Religious Underpinnings of the Sotomayor Hearings

-- Ingrid Lilly

Following the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, Mike Seidman, law professor at Georgetown, argued that the proceedings revealed only the “official version” of the American judicial system: that “fidelity to uncontested legal principles dictates results.” This simple claim, adopted by Sotomayor in her opening statements, funded most of the Senators’ affirmations and critiques over the four days of the hearings. It even appeared in the form of a now-famous metaphor coined by then-Judge Roberts who said, “Judges are like umpires. Umpires don’t make the rules. They apply them.” The claim also exposed the deep effects of American religious anxiety on the theater of American justice as only our country’s Supreme Court has the capacity to reveal.

The claim that law is straight-forward and a judge merely applies it to the presenting facts served as the fork in Senator Jeff Sessions’ “dangerous crossroads.” Sessions outlined the two paths: “Our legal system is based on a firm belief in an ordered universe and the objective truth,” he said to clarify the correct path, calling the judge the “guide to truth.” The other direction is a “relativistic world” where “words have no true meaning.” Charles Grassley’s remarks rang the same tune, urging Sotomayor to “resist the temptation to mold the Constitution to your own personal beliefs and preferences.”

The terms “temptation,” “truth,” “ordered universe,” and even the metaphor of the path are only the terminological patina of religious effects on these deliberations. More fundamentally, the Constitution was often treated as a sacred text. The issues of fixed, self-evident meanings for words and the negative role of the interpreter are two of the most prominent anxieties felt in contemporary Christian Fundamentalist doctrines of Scripture. These were the same concerns driving the accusations against Sotomayor for her subjective, identity-based, empathetic judging. We even heard strange emphasis on the written Constitution in the hearings, particularly in John Cornyn’s remarks, which seemed to reduce the law to the textuality of our founding document: “It (the court) could continue to depart from the written Constitution. It could further erode the established rights we have in the text of the Constitution. And it could invent even more brand new rights not rooted in the text.” Whether a Senator referenced the written word or the entire body of law, the reduction was the same: Law is objective, self-evident, and clear; judges merely execute the truth of the law. A similar sentiment is expressed by the independent Southern Christian church billboard I saw yesterday: “We do not change the message. The message changes us.”

Other exchanges in the proceedings seemed engined by similar religious concerns. Ben Cardin used familiar theological language when he described the Constitution and Bill of Rights as “living documents,” which is consistent with some approaches to the Bible as requiring the completion of the church, or the sermon, or personal experience and reason to be authoritative. And Sheldon Whitehouse appealed to the documents’ “great principles.” Discussions of foreign law and mainstream values fell into place within the conceptual analogy as well. First, it was established that foreign law is often consulted but cannot be considered binding on an American legal outcome. However, some argued that foreign law should never be consulted because even when not treated as binding, foreign law acquires authority in the deliberation of justice. It’s as if priests were telling parishioners not to read the sacred texts of other religions, or to look for truth anywhere but in the Authority of our sacred text.

Second, much emphasis was placed on how mainstream are Sotomayor’s values. Such a concern is easily correlated with hermeneutical theory. When one concedes that subjectivity plays a role in interpretation, anxiety often follows about the identity of the community of interpreters. Here it fell to the Senators who affirmed the judicial role of subjectivity to insure Sotomayor’s status as mainstream. Leahy called her a “judge for all Americans,” Cardin talked about “mainstream American values,” and Charles Schumer itemized a list of statistics to prove Sotomayor’s membership in the mainstream. Almost everyone mentioned her “truly American” story.

In the end, however, it was a return to baseball that was supposed to provide the balm to all the religious anxiety. When Schumer asked Sotomayor about her ruling on the baseball strike, he got Chairman Leahy in on the most powerful hermeneutical example of horizons of interpretation: play. The Red Sox, Mets, and Yankees served as powerful proxies for differences of identity. As in baseball, so in hermeneutical theory: Play, more than shared interpretive horizons, determines who can be on the field. And for all Senators, regardless of their stated opinion about the metaphor, the judge does not stand outside the diamond only calling balls and strikes. She is a player, awaiting invitation to the field.


Complete transcripts of the Senate Judiciary hearings, including the manuscripts of the opening speeches, can be found at

Louis Michael Seidman’s comments can be found in “The Federalist Society Online Debate Series,” at

Ingrid Lilly is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at Western Kentucky University.


In July’s Religion and Culture Web Forum, “Flowers in the Dark: African American Consciousness, Laughter, and Resistance in Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” ethicist Jacqueline Bussie of Capital University pursues the question of why, in so many accounts, people in oppressive situations of suffering respond with laughter. Focusing on the example of Toni Morrison’s slavery-era novel, Bussie, in an excerpt from her Trinity Prize-winning book The Laughter of the Oppressed, explores the complexities of the human condition and points toward a more nuanced understanding of ethics. Invited responses will be posted later in the month from Joseph Winters, Cooper Harriss, John Howell, and Zhange Ni.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

General Assembly Day One

I'm at the Disciples of Christ General Assembly in Indianapolis. Drove down this morning, heard our General Minister and President Sharon Watkins give a sense of the church, and will worship tonight with Cynthia Hale as preacher. General Assemblies are generally an enjoyable time for me. I get to see old friends, make some new ones, worship, fellowship, learn -- and do some voting. Voting has its place, but its not the primary reason we're here. We could do that by phone or computer. What's important is connecting with one another, reaffirming ties that bind, while recognizing that we're simply part of the broader church of Jesus Christ, which forms a part of the whole human community.
I'm not sure to the extent that I'll be posting, but I'll try to keep things updated as best I can. If you're reading this and at the GA -- I hope I run into you.
Blessings from Indianapolis!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Evolution of God -- Review

THE EVOLUTION OF GOD. By Robert Wright. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009. 567 pp.

The idea that God has evolved may be off-putting to some and welcomed by others. How one responds to this idea may depend both on what is meant by the phrase and where one stands in regards to the idea of God. A believer may take this idea differently than will an unbeliever. Philip Clayton, in his book Adventures in the Spirit (Fortress, 2008) encourages believers in God to welcome dialog with science and philosophy, and not to fear any challenging implications to faith. It is with that sense of openness that I came to Robert Wright’s fascinating study of the evolution of the idea of God, from its origins in hunter/gather societies to the development of the great religions – especially the three Abrahamic religions. Wright admits that he approached this study with an agnostic sensibility. Indeed, the focus here is not on whether God exists, but how humans have envisioned and approached the idea of God. His is a materialist description, assuming that ideas of faith have evolved because they fulfill a role in society. Indeed, when he speaks of specific religious expressions he takes a rather minimalist view – that is Jesus said and did little of what has been ascribed to him, and the stories of early Judaism, from Abraham to Moses, likely did not happen.

By materialist, Wright insists throughout that the “origin and development of religion can be explained by reference to concrete, observable things – human nature, political and economic factors, technological change, and so on” (p. 4). While taking an agnostic position on the existence or reality of God, he insists that this materialist exploration of religion, and its conclusions on how the idea of God has developed, doesn’t by itself preclude a religious world view. But, it does mean that in all likelihood the traditional perspectives will not suffice.

Another adjective needs to be added to this perspective. It is materialist, but also functionalist. Wright wants us to look at the way religion and the idea of God has functioned in society – both positively and negatively. This is an important point to make, because while religion has had negative influences and impacts, it has also had positive ones. Over time, however, the positives have largely, though not completely, overtaken the negatives. That is, few would want to trade modern monotheism for the animism of hunter-gatherer societies. As with all evolutionary trajectories, this one doesn’t move in a straight line. Indeed, one can find in the historical record many parallel movements that run into the present day. Thus, when he begins his exploration of primordial religion, he needn’t’ go back millenniums to find examples, he needs only look at the 19th century records of the Klamath Indians of southern Oregon and northern California for an example of hunter-gather society. The notion of a god and gods develops as culture develops, for different societies have different explanatory and social needs. Because he believes that one of the key dimensions of religion, and why it emerged in our evolutionary development, is that it provides a source of social cohesion along with moral guidance. Regarding the role of religion in moral formation, Wright picks up on Paul Tillich’s rather abstract definition of God as “ground of being” and suggests that a central role that God plays in emerging society is that of the “source of the moral order” (p. 446). Indeed, if there is proof that God exists, it may be this, for religion seems to affirm a sense of purpose for human existence.

Unlike the so-called “New Atheists,” Wright takes religion and religious people quite seriously. He may be agnostic, or even an atheist, but he recognizes that religion played and continues to play an important role in increasingly complex societies, providing both social cohesion and moral direction. Indeed, it is the moral imagination that most clearly emerges as the idea of God evolves over time. In saying that God evolves, Wright takes no position on the existence of this or any other god. It’s not a question of whether God, if God exists, has developed over time, only that our ideas of God and our expectations of God and of religion have developed over time.

In the beginning there were many gods. Indeed, there were as many gods as were needed to explain reality. In Hunter-Gatherer communities, like the Klamath Indians, the world was small and the explanatory needs few. The key to religion was making sure not to offend the spirits. Broad conceptualizations of the eternal or even the moral were not high on the agenda. The shaman emerges as one who helps explain and manipulate the spiritual dimension, but in time more is needed, especially as societies grew and needed more social control – first chiefdoms and then monarchies and nation-states.

While animism and polytheism are the earliest forms of religion, in time other more centralized forms of faith emerge. First it was monolatry (worship of one god, while recognizing the existence of others). Monolatry was made possible in part as societies, such as ancient Israel, were able to subsume more and more divine functions on fewer and fewer divine beings. It will be difficult for many Christian and Jewish readers to accept that ancient Israel was polytheistic well into its existence. Thus, Yahweh may have “begun life” as a storm god or a warrior god, in time Yahweh becomes the god of Israel and then the creator of all things (consider the views attributed to Elijah or even First Isaiah). The last stage, monotheism, doesn’t develop until the exile and post-exilic periods. The turning point, however, was Josiah, whose attempt to rein in Israel’s religious options would lead to national disaster, but also to a more firmly developed monotheism.

By the time of Jesus, Judaism was essentially fully monotheistic, but it still was nationalistic. The exceptions might be Philo’s important engagement with Greek thought. But Philo, unlike Jesus, lived in Alexandria and breathed deeply Greek philosophy. What Philo was able to do was develop a theology of the Logos, a theology that Wright believes holds promise for the present, and would in time influence Christian thinkers, including the writer of John’s gospel. But in Palestinian Judaism of the first century, the expectations were in line with those of Second Isaiah, which held out a universal vision, but assumed that the world would in time submit to the God of Israel.

It is out of this milieu that Jesus and Christianity emerged. The assumption that Wright takes – influenced in part by his reading of the minimalism of Bart Ehrman (I would have preferred to see him engage scholars such as Marcus Borg or John Dominic Crossan) – he assumes that Jesus’ perspective remained largely nationalistic. Thus, his words on love of neighbor assumed a Jewish context, not a universalistic one. That would be left to Paul. Yes, those who see Paul as the corruptor of Jesus’ message of universal love will be disappointed, because in Wright’s view Paul, not Jesus, is the formulator of the Christian idea of a God of universal love. And, the reason for this is simple – Paul’s message of inter-ethnic love. In this view, Paul takes Jesus’ teaching on love of neighbor and expands on it, in large part due to his need to bring together a broader ethnic coalition into his religious entity. Thus, in time Jesus’ message of love allows for love not just of neighbor, but also of one’s enemy. And this has important moral implications.

The idea that all people, regardless of race or nationality, are equal candidates for God’s love (so long as they don’t squander the opportunity!) Is a form of ethnic egalitarianism. And ethnic egalitarianism is probably closer to moral truth than the alternatives (p. 286).

Wright recognizes that Paul’s wasn’t the only version of Christianity available – he notes especially the perspectives of the Ebionites (the original Jews for Jesus) and the Marcionites, but Paul’s expression is the one that survived and gained the most traction, in part because it was best able to provide social integration and moral guidance. Things would change, of course, for Christianity with Constantine’s conversion. Constantine would have been attracted to Christianity’s vision of inter-ethnic harmony, since his empire was by nature multi-ethnic. Wright writes: “Maybe Constantine just knew a good social cement when he saw one” (p. 297).

From Christianity, Wright moves on to Islam, and this maybe the most fascinating and helpful section of the book. With the perspective that ideas of God evolve, he makes the assumption that Muhammad borrowed from and remade the ideas found both in Christianity and Judaism. Indeed, he raises the question of whether Muhammad was originally a Christian – though not of an “orthodox form.” Wright notes the ethnic, linguistic, and cultural connections that Muhammad and Arabs would have had with their Christian and Jewish neighbors. And the Koran hints of these relationships as well. What is intriguing about this section is the promise it holds for bringing peace between Muslims and Christians and Jews. He notes that by and large the Koran holds out the possibilities of such relationships and generally speaks of living in peace and toleration of the People of the Book – a concept that over time seems to stretch to include Persia’s Zoroastrians and others. There isn’t room here to engage all that is involved in this conversation, but there is much to be considered.

Wright’s perspective is formed by his previous writings on “zero-sum” and “non-zero-sum” games. That is, a “zero-sum” game is where if one side wins the other must lose. In a “non-zero-sum” game, both may win. This thread runs through the book, as he explores how religions and ideas about God reflect the changing dynamics of these two ways of existing. The hope is that we can enter a “non-zero-sum” realm, where we are able to live together with our differing understandings of God and reality. This is why the conversation about Islam is so important. In the minds of many we live in a “zero sum” reality where it’s either Islam or the West. The good news is that within Islam itself, along with both Christianity and Judaism, there is a witness to a different way of living together.

The Evolution of God is a rather massive book – 483 pages of text, along with an extended set of end notes. It’s not difficult reading, but it is challenging. It is a book informed by extensive reading – though he admits that he isn’t a linguist or trained in any of the scriptural languages. He deals with a rather wide range of ideas, including salvation, sin, and moral development. He touches on theology, but doesn’t dwell on it. He notes the differences between Christian, Jewish, and Muslim understandings of God, but also notes their points of commonality.

Will this book satisfy the religious traditionalist? Not likely. Nor will his positive words about God and religion sit well with many atheists. Some might be frustrated by the attention given to the Abrahamic religion -- believing that Eastern Religions deserve greater attention -- but what is said of the Abrahamic religions can, to some degree, be translated to others of the great religions. The other reason why he may have focused on this trajectory is that it is here the greatest dangers to human existence lie.

While there will be those who fret about the book, many others, including people of deep faith, will find much here to explore, meditate upon, and discuss. While there are numerous points at which I might disagree, I believe that the conversation begun here can have a valuable impact on how we view and experience life today and in the future. Indeed, if it can stir our moral imaginations, then it will have served its purpose well. And what is the moral imagination?
In short, the moral imagination, like other parts of the human mind, is designed to steer us through the successful playing of games -- to realize the gains of non-zero-sum games when those gains are to be had, and to get the better of the other party in zero-sum games. Indeed, the moral imagination is one of the main drivers of the pattern we've seen throughout the book: the tendency to find tolerance in one's religion when the people in question are people you can do business with and to find intolerance or even belligerence when you perceive the relationship to be instead zero-sum (p. 420).

The goal, of course, is to move to the point where more and more of our relationships are non-zero-sum! So, if you're up for the challenge then this will be a most helpful and intriguing book.

Giving -- Sightings

With the economic downturn many churches and other non-profit agencies report decreased giving. If you don't have a job, you don't have money to give. But, apparently giving to religion and to public support sorts of non-profits has not gone down all that much, if at all. Yes, giving to cultural and recreational sorts of entities might have fallen drastically, but not religion. Anyway, Martin Marty speaks to this issue and in doing so looks back to the Great Depression and makes some interesting comparisons.

I invite you to take a look and offer a thought! What is your experience?


Sightings 7/27/09


-- Martin E. Marty

Giving USA Foundation last month reported on “giving, U.S.A.” under a headline, “Giving in worst economic climate since Great Depression exceeds $300 billion for second year in a row,” but “a 2 percent drop in current dollars over 2007,” as well as “the first decline…since 1987” and the second since the Foundation started keeping score in 1956 has occurred. “Two-thirds of public charities receiving donations saw decreases in 2008. The exceptions were Religion” along with “Public-Society Benefit and International Affairs.” Ms. Del Martin of the Foundation, speaking of the religiously motivated, said “It would have been easy to say ‘not this year’ when appeals came their way, and we definitely did see belt-tightening…[N]on profits have had to do more with less over the past year, but it could have been a lot worse.”

However, human services charities “are among the first to reporting increasing needs for their services in 2008,” and most expect things to get worse in 2009. The sector named “Religion,” in the first year of the new hard times, reported that “giving to religion increased an estimated 5.5 percent (1.6 percent adjusted for inflation.)” Also, “religious gifts account for an estimated one-half of all individual giving, not counting gifts made through bequests (5.6 percent) or family foundations (about 3 percent.)”

No one on the giving front is relaxing, or being and sounding optimistic, but the record so far gives some reasons for hope and provides some impetus for digging in and digging deeper so that this vital sector can play its role, locally and nationally, especially on the “human services” front. It is always the first to get cut or chopped down by (especially) the most financially strapped state governments.

I’ve read many articles in which authors look to the Great Depression to find out about giving, coping, enduring, et cetera. I’ve also been asked about it, since a chunk of my The Noise of Conflict, 1919-1941, volume two of Modern American Religion, deals with what people wrote and did “last time around.” I quoted an important Research Memorandum on Religion in the Depression by Chicago Theological Seminary Professor Samuel C. Kincheloe, as good a reference as any.

One difference between that depression and all previous American depressions, according to an editorial in The Christian Century from September 18, 1935, cited by Kincheloe, was that it was “the first time men have not blamed God for hard times.” My reading “this time around” suggests that the judgment holds true and gets seconded. Yes, some judgmental evangelists who argue that God sends Hurricane Katrina and tsunamis say that God gets the credit for the current crisis, but almost everyone else finds plenty of blameworthy activity going around. Different ones of God’s creatures get the blame, depending upon who is assessing the damages and pointing to the damagers.

Human flaws and follies, globalization trends, bad banking practices, and much more are shamed and blamed, and they bring hard times and judgment on themselves – or, better, “ourselves.” There is plenty of room for work by theological ethicists and preachers, but while chest-pounding and finger-pointing go on, it would seem that the signals from Giving USA are important as reminders for what to do continually.

I, or “this writer,” as we used to say, do/does not think that charitable giving and churchly acts of mercy will take the place of or do more than supplement what has to be done through government and secular agencies. But the durability, dedication, and partial steps religious groups and individuals manifest remain vital in the larger economy of nations.


Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at

In July’s Religion and Culture Web Forum, “Flowers in the Dark: African American Consciousness, Laughter, and Resistance in Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” ethicist Jacqueline Bussie of Capital University pursues the question of why, in so many accounts, people in oppressive situations of suffering respond with laughter. Focusing on the example of Toni Morrison’s slavery-era novel, Bussie, in an excerpt from her Trinity Prize-winning book The Laughter of the Oppressed, explores the complexities of the human condition and points toward a more nuanced understanding of ethics. Invited responses will be posted later in the month from Joseph Winters, Cooper Harriss, John Howell, and Zhange Ni.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Birthers? What Gives?

Okay, folks, what's this about a birth certificate? Why is Lou Dobbs, Rush Limbaugh, Alan Keyes, Gordon Liddy, and others on the far right fringe, so concerned about Barack Obama's birth? Why does a Republican Congressman from Delaware have to defend Obama's citizenship in front of a hostile town hall -- and get booed when he says that Obama is a citizen? Oh, and why does Lou Dobbs still have a job at CNN?

I've not taken up this birther issue so far, in part because I'd rather not have a bunch of nut cases overwhelm my blog with comments I'll likely end up having to delete. But, this thing has legs and is being put out there by people working for CNN. I might expect this from Fox, but CNN? Anyway, I was listening this morning to an interesting conversation on NPR's On Point show with Tom Ashbrook. The primary guests included Ben Smith of Politico, Michael Medved, a conservative talk show host (who called on conservatives to denounce categorically this movement and stop winking at it), and a representative of the Southern Law and Poverty Center.

Like most conspiracy theories on both right and left, this one is ludicrous -- and to be clear here I don't believe that George Bush or even Dick Cheney planned or orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. So, let's stop this craziness!

Anyway, instead of expending great amounts of my own time and words on this, I'm going to allow the most trusted man in American, now that Walter Cronkite has passed on, Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, to speak for me! Take it away Jon!

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Born Identity
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJoke of the Day

Reflections -- Going to the General Assembly

Early Wednesday morning Cheryl and I will head out toward Indianapolis. We'll pick up two other members along the way, one a youth delegate. Our destination is the Disciples General Assembly. There we will worship, participate in learning activities, attend luncheons and banquets, and do the business of the church. There will be about 6000 or so other folk there with us.

This is work related, but I've come to enjoy the event. No, not the business portion. I find that at times to be tedious. But, it's important that we discuss issues of importance, even if we don't have sufficient time to devote to each issue. Sometimes these conversations are contentious, but in many ways the current rules have limited the nature of the debate. We have fewer social justice type resolutions, the most conservative activists have already departed, so that part of the Assembly is, rather mundane.

But, why go? Why spend money on a week such as this? Besides giving me the opportunity to reconnect with old friends, many of whom I've known since college days, I get to make new friends, and build new networks. There's also great worship and preaching. I'm looking forward to hearing our General Minister, Sharon Watkins, preach. I'm also looking forward to again hearing Cynthia Hale preach. The worship, led by Bill Thomas, is always great. It has developed a rather Southern California style, for that's where Bill Thomas comes from. It's a bit ironic that a church rooted in the mid west and south has taken on this worship style at Assemblies.

But perhaps the most important reason for being there, even if it may not be at the forefront of my own thinking, is the opportunity recovenant with the broader Disciples community. I've posted at several other points, including at Theolog essay, especially in regard to the Michael Kinnamon/Jan Linn book, Disciples: Reclaiming Our Identity, Reforming Our Practice (Chalice Press, 2009), about the importance of heritage and identity. Perhaps it's because I have a rather peripatetic background -- I've been everything from Episcopal to Foursquare -- that I value a sense of heritage and tradition. It's not that I believe that ours is the only way, or that ours is necessarily the best way, but it's this particular community and its traditions that provide a context for me to live and move and breath the Christian faith. Indeed, this is the tradition that works best for me.

So, when I gather with brothers and sisters at the General Assembly or at a Regional Assembly, I'm recognizing that there are others taking the same journey, who are formed by the same traditions. Thus, I'm able to recovenant with them, with the hope that together we may hear God's voice and direction, and take on the call of God to engage the world with love, with justice, and with grace. It is not that we're better, it's just that we have a heritage that should form us for ministry.

So, should you be a Disciple and going to Indianapolis this week. I look forward to sharing in worship, study, fellowship, prayer, and work with you -- as we covenant together to be God's people in this time and place! If you're not, I ask that you pray for us or think of us as we gather!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Power of Understanding -- A Sermon

Reposted from Words of Welcome

Ephesians 3:14-21

I’ve heard it said that "the more you know, the more you know, you don't know." That may not make much sense, but there’s truth in that statement. Because the universe is so vast, it’s simply impossible for anyone, no matter how smart, to know everything about everything. Not Einstein, not Stephen Hawking. When I was younger, I didn't understand this truth. In fact, I’ve heard it said that I was a “know it all.” And this wasn’t said in positive terms! Hopefully, with growing maturity, I’ve become less of a “know it all!” Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions on things, because I do! I expect that what’s true of me, is true of most of you as well.

Speaking of understanding, Our Disciples tradition has always prized a “reasonable faith.” From the very beginning we’ve valued the life of the mind. Our very name signals this value, for to be a disciple is to be a learner. If we’re learners, then we must recognize that we don’t know everything, that we need teachers, and that we should be open to new ideas. If our faith is a reasonable one, then we should value both intellectual understanding and the search for truth – wherever it may lead. The late Disciple leader Ronald Osborn affirmed the principle that the “Disciples mind is biblical,” but our faith is more than simply a biblical one.

It is reasonable: it thinks the Bible through with common sense. It is empirical: it reads the Bible in light of the knowledge that comes through the sciences. It is pragmatic: it tests in action the teachings of scripture and all religious notions.1

Sometimes we Disciples are accused of having a “head” religion rather than a “heart” one. But does valuing the mind mean that one can’t have a heartfelt faith? If I read this morning’s text correctly, then I believe it’s possible to have both a religion of the head and one of the heart.


This morning’s text is in reality a prayer that focuses on God’s presence in our lives through Christ. This prayer asks God to provide us with the power to understand or comprehend both the world and the things of God. It asks that God give us the "strength to grasp," the breadth, length, height, and depth of Christ's love for us. This prayer underlines the immensity of God's love. But, in praying this prayer, we also ask that God would make us vulnerable, so that we might experience God’s love for us, a love that’s so great and wondrous that it surpasses all knowledge.

This side of eternity, we’re told, God's love is "so great that you will never fully understand it" (vs. 19, NLT). But, even if we can’t understand everything, we can experience God’s love as well as the fullness of God’s presence. This might not be an objective, analytical kind of knowledge. Indeed, it is probably a more intuitive kind of understanding. Although books are helpful, it’s not an understanding that can be gained by reading. Nor can it be gained through education, though education is a good thing. No, this kind of knowledge is gained by living in relationship with others.

I understand why so many people talk about being spiritual without being religious, but I’m not sure this is a “go it alone” kind of experience. Experiencing God’s presence and love is, more often than not, a communal thing. It starts in our families -- in the intimacy of husband and wife, or the tenderness of the parent-child relationship. From there it moves to our lives lived among the saints of God. We usually think of saints as being holy people. But in reality, all of God’s people, as they live in relationship with God, are saints. So, even as the family isn’t perfect, neither is the community of the saints – the church. Despite their faults, however, both the family and the church offer opportunities to experience God’s presence. And, as valuable as sermons and bible studies and Sunday school classes may be, they aren’t usually the places we learn to understand the power of love. No, the sense of understanding comes as we sit with the dying or the sick; when we listen to the ones who are fearful and the confused; or, when make ourselves vulnerable to each other. Indeed, we gain an understanding of God’s presence, when we learn to accept each other as they are!

It’s in the context of living together as God's people that we begin to understand the immensity of God's love for us. It’s as Henri Nouwen writes, "love asks for total disarmament. The encounter in love is an encounter without weapons." We have to let down our guard and become vulnerable with each other. That isn’t easy! In fact, Nouwen suggests that international disarmament might be easier, but that’s the task that lies before us if we’re to experience the fullness of God's presence.2


Our text connects the experience of God’s love with experiencing the "utter fullness of God." But, what does it mean to experience the "utter fullness of God?" If this sounds like a bit like mysticism, you may be right, and it means having a mystical experience, you may be right, and for rational people, like Disciples, the idea of mysticism may be a bit off-putting.

Concepts like mysticism and union with God sound a bit irrational, but to have mystical experiences doesn’t mean that you have to give up the rational side of your being. St. Bonaventure was both a mystic and an intellectual. You can explore the spiritual dimension and not reject science. What it does require of us is that we recognize that there’s more to reality than meets the eye. If we’re to experience the “utter fullness of God,” then we must embrace a robust view of faith, one that values both the head and the heart.

If we take up this calling to love God and experience the fullness of the God “who is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,” then as we gather for worship, we will heartily and mindfully give God “glory in the church, and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Eph. 3:20-21).

I am by nature a rationalist. I’m analytical and inquisitive. Just ask my family. I ask way too many questions. I know that this personality trait can get in the way of mystical union with God. Indeed, it gets in the way of prayer and worship. Be that as it may, I believe that it’s possible to bring together both understanding and faith, both questioning and mystical experience.

For most of us, union with God is a momentary experience. We get a taste of heaven. It’s like a door opens and we step through, but then have to return. Think about C.S. Lewis’s Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – the children seem to live a lifetime in Narnia, and when they return home they discover that they’ve been gone for only a few minutes. There are those moments, maybe in worship, maybe in a work project, perhaps in a conversation at a bedside, where we taste and experience the depth of God’s love and presence. They may pass quickly, but they’re life changing events.

As we think about what it means to understand and comprehend God’s presence, Henri Nouwen goes a step further and suggests that maybe we’re most able to experience God’s presence when we experience suffering and pain – whether physical or emotional. He writes:

But the pain is so deep that you do not want to miss it since it is in this pain that the joy of God's presence can be tasted. This seems close to nonsense except in the sense that it is beyond sense and, therefore, hard to capture within the limits of human understanding. The experience of God's unifying presence is an experience in which the distinction between joy and pain seems to be transcended and in which the beginning of a new life is intimated.3

Yes, this is the one who can do "infinitely more than we can ask or imagine" (vs. 20, NJB), whose fullness we seek to experience. If we’re going to experience the presence of this God, then we must be strengthened in our inner being and "rooted and grounded in love." That’s because it’s when we struggle with pain and suffering that we often find ourselves face to face with the living God. Indeed, it’s usually at those moments that we let down our guard and welcome God’s presence into our lives.

What I hear in this prayer is an invitation to bring our pursuit of truth and understanding together with an openness to mystical union with the Creator who is revealed to us in the person of Jesus and witnessed to by the Holy Spirit.

1. Ronald Osborn, The Faith We Affirm, (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1978), 14.

2. Henry Nouwen, Seeds of Hope, ed. by Robert Durback, (New York: Image, 1997), 73.

3. Nouwen, Seeds of Hope, 127.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, Michigan
8th Sunday after Pentecost
July 26, 2009

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Racial Profiling in America

Do you believe that America is color blind? That racism is a problem of the past? If so, then you're probably white. If you're a person of color, your experience is likely different. The recent fracas initiated by the arrest of a distinguished Harvard professor for "disorderly conduct," an arrest that led to a probably unadvised comment by the President -- which of course set off the Rush Limbaugh set. This comment about stupidity, gave Rush the opportunity he's been waiting for to call the President a militant black. Mind you, militant probably means "uppity." Remember back during the presidential campaign, when Obama was called an "elitist"? I think that this meant he was "uppity."

Anyway, we'll likely never know the complete truth of this encounter. We have two different stories, and you have to decide who is telling the truth -- the white police officer or the Harvard professor. While we may never know the truth in this case, the reality is that people of color experience discrimination and prejudice on a regular basis. This is especially true of Black men. I think every African-American I've ever met has at least one story of a racially tinged encounter.

In today's NY Times, columnist Charles Blow offers his own story and some statistics. It appears that 66% of African American males have felt that they had been stopped by police because of their race -- only 9% of white males said the same. So, Blow says to Gates -- welcome to the club.

The President, who has stepped back from the remark at the press conference -- a remark that has overshadowed his statements on health care -- has called this a teachable moment. I hope that we can learn something. I hope we can learn that race is still an issue in our nation. I hope that we can learn that politicians can and do manipulate racial fears for political gain (it's already happening). It's time to listen to each other, so that we might understand.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Health Care Reform -- A Pastoral Letter from Sharon Watkins

I have posted several pieces on Health Care Reform. Having received a pastoral letter from the Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, the General Minister and President of my denomination -- Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I decided to share it with you. She reports having come from a meeting of other religious leaders with political leaders, including officials from the current administration and the Bush administration and Congress. I encourage you to read it and consider the message.


July 24, 2009

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

You are no doubt aware of the debate on health care reform currently taking place in the United States. I recently attended a conference on health care, organized by and for religious leaders to help us understand the current discussion. We heard from health care policy experts, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Mark McClellan (who served in the Bush administration) and other political leaders. They assured us that health care reform can happen this year. But we, the faith community, must act to make it happen.

Jesus’ ministry was one of healing, bringing life to the dying, sight to the blind, wellness to the sick, and peace of mind to the troubled. Jesus’ witness was that abundant life includes physical, mental and spiritual wellness. The call upon us is to make this vision a reality for all.

Disciples have been involved in the work of healing at home and abroad for generations. The General Assembly has twice spoken out on the need of health care for all (1999, Cincinnati Resolution, 9995; 2007, Fort Worth, Resolution 0724). Congregations know what it is like to help families when they have fallen through the holes in our health care safety net.
I am writing because I believe this is the moment of a generation – when the United States can finally make decent, affordable health care accessible for all. The moral vision is there. The policy expertise is in place. It’s the political will that needs our support. Our legislators need our encouragement in the hard work of reform. I urge you – whichever of the possible options you might support – to contact your Senators and Representatives and ask them to achieve affordable, accessible, accountable, and inclusive health care this year.

In spite of media reports to the contrary, it appears legislators are close to making health care reform happen. There is growing agreement about what a renewed health care system might include: people who like their coverage would keep it, people who are uninsured or lose their coverage would have an affordable option to purchase it, no one would be excluded because of pre-existing conditions, long-term costs would be reduced by streamlining paperwork and emphasizing patient-focused, preventive and wellness care.

The big challenge is how to pay for it. Congress will figure that out, too. It’s going to take compromise, but they will get there if they keep at it. We need to urge them to keep at it.
I am inviting each one of you to get involved. Contact your Representative and Senators about health care reform by using this toll-free number: 888-797-8717. Visit the Disciples Health website ( for links to helpful information.

What we do together now can make a difference for all of us, and especially for those who do not have access to affordable health care, who stand in greatest need of our prayers, our support, and our advocacy.

Thank you for your prayerful consideration and action.

In Christ,

Sharon E. Watkins
General Minister and President

Outing the Good Samaritan --Reprised

Several years ago I wrote an op-ed piece on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). It's possible, considering that the parable is found only in Luke, that it doesn't come from the lips of Jesus (both Matthew and Mark include a conversation about the Great Commandments, but not the illustration). I don't know; I'll let the NT scholars fight that one out. But, I do believe that it has a strong message for us today -- especially as we debate such things as immigration reform and health care reform. What is the nature of compassion? And, is compassion central to our faith? And if so, how does impact our politics. So, here is my meditation for the Lompoc Record published in 2007. Think about the parable as you consider the events of the day.

The picture above is of a fresco painted by Ben Long for First Presbyterian Church of Charlotte, NC.


Outing the Good Samaritan

Do you want to be known as a Good Samaritan? Of course you do! The Good Samaritan is an almost universally recognized term of appreciation for people who stop to help others in distress. So positive is this phrase that a nationwide RV organization with a million or so members proudly calls itself the “Good Sam Club.” Its logo even features a man with a halo - a rescuing angel perhaps.

There's only one problem with this picture: the Good Samaritan of Jesus' parable is a somewhat scandalous, though fictional, person. The degree of this scandal has been lost, but maybe it needs to be reconsidered. In its proper context, the story of the Good Samaritan illustrates the qualities of a good neighbor. The Bible says we're supposed to love our neighbor, but, who is my neighbor?

If you don't know the story, let me give you the gist - a guy gets mugged while on a trip. As he lies in the ditch, half dead, two religious professionals pass by and fail to stop. Maybe they're too busy to be inconvenienced, or maybe they're afraid they'll get mugged themselves. How many of us have done the same thing? Although these religious leaders didn't act like a good neighbor, their actions aren't the scandal in this story.

As the story continues, a Samaritan stops to help. He takes the victim to the local inn (there weren't any emergency rooms in 1st century Judea) and pays for any care that the man might need. The story is simple and compelling - if we leave things as they seem to stand. Here we have an example of a good neighbor. Too bad religious professionals aren't such good neighbors, but that's the way it goes. Therefore, let's just follow the adage: “Since we're neighbors, let's be friends.”

If the actions of the religious leaders aren't the scandal, where is the scandal to be found? Unless you know the story's context you won't catch it. In this story the Samaritan is the despised outsider. If you think in tribal terms, he's from the wrong tribe. Though distantly related, the Samaritans and the Jews despised each other, and so considering Jesus was Jewish, no one expected him to give a Samaritan such a good billing, but he did this to prove a point: The true neighbor might not always be the one you expect.

So, who might the Samaritan be today? This parable could be told in an anti-Semitic way, with the onus being on the Jews, but that would be untrue to the story (remember the one telling the story is Jewish). But, the story pushes us to see people through a different set of eyes. We expect that people like us will do the right thing. That's why we're scandalized when American soldiers are accused of wartime atrocities - we can't believe that such a thing could happen. It's also why we love to hear stories about Americans doing good deeds around the world. What we have a problem with is the good “other.”

Today's “Good Samaritan,” if we remember the context, is the despised outsider. It could be an undocumented immigrant or maybe a Muslim living in our community. Could that person be gay? I could add to this list of outsiders, but hopefully you get the point. We all have our stereotypes and our expectations, which color the way we view people. This story about the Good Samaritan helps uncover them for what they really are.

The parable of the Good Samaritan bears rereading, but only if we're aware of the scandal. Otherwise, we'll miss the point: God works in unexpected ways and through unexpected people. If that's true, then perhaps we should think more clearly about who our neighbor is and how we're to treat our neighbor. That neighbor might not look exactly like me or think exactly like me. As we consider the meaning of this parable for today, perhaps we'll discover how we can be Good Samaritans for our neighbors.

Feb 18, 2007

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ten Commandments for a Biblical Psychology -- Sightings

When I hear the phrase biblical psychology or maybe biblical counseling, someone like Jay Adams or Bill Gothard comes to mind. Their view of counseling is pretty much to quote scripture at people, with little thought as to its context or meaning. It's all propositional -- proof-texting to the maximum.

So, here comes today's edition of Sightings, which speaks of Biblical Psychology, and I'm confronted with something else. Here is an attempt to offer a contrast to a Greek based, deterministic, kind of psychology. Dr. Kalman J. Kaplan explores this contrast and offers a view into a more hopeful/positive sense of psychology. Take a look, and offer your thoughts.


Sightings 7/23/09

Ten Commandments for a Biblical Psychology

-- Kalman J. Kaplan

Fifty years ago, Dr. Erich Wellisch wrote, “The very word ‘psyche’ is Greek. The central psychoanalytic concept of the formation of character and neurosis is shaped after the Greek Oedipus myth…There is need for a Biblical psychology.” the University of Illinois College of Medicine and funded by the John Templeton Foundation, such a program has been developed. This Biblical psychology program reformulates mental health with regard to the following ten topics, overturning several of the fundamental premises of Greek-based classical psychology. This program is not theological or limited to any sect or denomination within Judaism and Christianity, but de-situates and offers Biblical foundation narratives as an alternative to those emanating from the classical Greek world.

Greek thought sees self and other as fundamentally opposed, while Biblical thought sees them as working in harmony. The Greek Narcissus cycles between self-involvement and enmeshment – he ultimately idealizes his own face in the brook and commits suicide. The Biblical Jonah shows psychological development as opposed to cycling, and ultimately learns the message of teshuvah (repentance) and divine mercy. He can reach out to another without losing himself.

Biblical psychology addresses the question of obedience versus disobedience:If one’s god is Zeus, one should and indeed must rebel; if it is the Biblical God, one may benefit from obeying. Consider the two flood stories: Prometheus must steal the blueprint for the ark from the capricious Zeus. The just and God-fearing Noah, however, is freely given the blueprint for the ark by the Biblical God.

The ancient Greek understanding of the world sees Nature preceding the gods. In the Biblical account of creation, God precedes nature.The Biblical creation stories do not subordinate man to nature; nor do they focus on an Oedipal conflict between father and son or antagonism between man and woman.

In a famous Greek story, Pandora is described as a curse to man. Conversely, Eve is described as a blessing to Adam and a helpmeet opposite (ezer kenegdo). In the Greek view, then, attachment to a woman is seen as opposing man’s autonomy, while in the Biblical view, attachment to a woman is seen as positive to achieving autonomy.

Biblical psychology also offers another framework for analyzing relationships between parents and children, a perennial theme in psychological analysis. The biblical story of the Akedah – Abraham's binding of Isaac – provides an alternative to the Greek legend of Oedipus to understand the relationship between fathers and sons. The Akedah narrative suggests an unambivalent resolution of the father-son relationship that is based on a covenant of love and shared purpose between parent and child.

Similarly, the Biblical story of Ruth provides an alternative to the Greek legend of Electra to understand the relationship between mothers and daughters, once again based on a covenant of love and shared purpose rather than a compromise based on threats of abandonment.

The Hebrew Bible offers a plan to resolve family conflict by employing the father's blessing. Originally the source of sibling conflict, the blessing may work to achieve some level of reconciliation between offspring, as does Jacob’s blessings to all his sons. Greek literature offers no such balm, never developing the idea that a father should bless his children. Conflict in the family grows angrier in each succeeding generation until the family self-destructs, as did the family of Oedipus.

Biblical psychology also offers an alternate view of the relationship between body and soul, which Plato sees as conflictual – the soul views reality only through the prison bars of the body.
Biblical thought, in comparison, views the human body and soul as both sacred (both referred to as nefesh), both created by God. They can and must function in harmony to fulfill God’s purpose in the world.

Biblical thought, freedom can be achieved in the acceptance of the realities of one’s relationship with God. To the Greek and Roman stoics, freedom from the control of others and the fatalism of life is achieved through suicide. Twenty suicides occur in the surviving seventeen tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides; there are comparatively few stories of suicide in the Old and New Testaments (seven in all), but there are many stories of suicide prevention, and even more of life promotion.

In essence, the Classical Greek view is deterministic and based on a tragic vision of man; the Biblical view is intrinsically positive, open to the possibility of change and transformation. Biblical psychology empowers the person, instilling the idea that life is hopeful, that generations are not in opposition with each other, that man and woman can live in harmony, and that one can overcome a dysfunctional family. Finally, meaning can be found in life rather than death. One does not need to find meaning in catastrophizing a minor mishap, as does Zeno when he suicides after stubbing his toe. One can instead follow the example of Job, who is able to withstand profound stressors because he has an intrinsic sense of life’s worth.


For more information, see

Kalman J. Kaplan is Professor of Clinical Psychology in the Departments of Psychiatry and of Medical Education at the University of Illinois in Chicago College of Medicine. He is also Director of the Program for Religion, Spirituality and Mental Health there sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. His most recent book, with Matthew Schwartz, is A Psychology of Hope: A Biblical Response to Tragedy and Suicide (Praeger, 2008).


In July’s Religion and Culture Web Forum, “Flowers in the Dark: African American Consciousness, Laughter, and Resistance in Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” ethicist Jacqueline Bussie of Capital University pursues the question of why, in so many accounts, people in oppressive situations of suffering respond with laughter. Focusing on the example of Toni Morrison’s slavery-era novel, Bussie, in an excerpt from her Trinity Prize-winning book The Laughter of the Oppressed, explores the complexities of the human condition and points toward a more nuanced understanding of ethics. Invited responses will be posted later in the month from Joseph Winters, Cooper Harriss, John Howell, and Zhange Ni.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Health Care Redux

I didn't watch the President's press conference. I was out with 11 other church members eating great ice cream and playing miniature golf (we had to switch the order due to rain at the beginning of the outing). Great time for all!

But, I'm sure there was enough there to get all the tongues wagging and the spin doctors working. I heard Bay Buchanan say that from an "objective" point of view he didn't accomplish his goal. I'm sorry, but I've never heard Bay offer any objective view before, and I expect that she didn't last night -- nor will I!

So, here's the deal. We can argue all we want about the details and the pace, but something must be done. We have the highest cost health system in the world, which works for some, but is increasingly not working for loads of Americans. Remember the car industry -- the one that got battered so badly? Well, part of the cost of American cars and trucks is health care, which in Europe and Japan is provided by the "government." I'm not an expert on all the ins and outs, so I might get a few facts wrong, but in a system where there are more specialists than family doctors, it's likely that many Americans will have a difficult time getting regular attention. We spend a large chunk of money on keeping people alive when death is imminent. We need to have a discussion about this. Doctors are afraid to "pull the plug." Families are afraid of losing loved ones. And the church, well, we're pretty silent on the moral and ethical components of end of life. And so, we prolong death, costing millions. We also do numerous unnecessary tests -- for any number of reasons. Our health system isn't yet in the electronic age, so that if you move across the country, your current doctor can't see, very easily, what the previous doctor did, so new tests are ordered.

What is the answer? How about doctors on salary, rather than commission? We were with Kaiser Permanente for quite some time -- doctors are on salary, and so they're less likely to suggest self-enriching procedures. There's no benefit for them! Instead, they do what is needed. There are any number of cost cutting opportunities, available to us. And, as I read this morning, the President made it clear that if we continue on the path set before us, with no reform, the costs will continue to rise, and it will bankrupt the country.

Is there hope for success? I think so. The President is working behind the scenes. Gail Collins noted a meeting with "Blue Dog" Democrats that worked out a deal for medicare cost containment. It was a "small victory," but a victory nonetheless. We saw as well the effort that he took to kill the F-22 purchases -- an out of date jet fighter with little or no use (didn't use it in either of the last 2 wars).

Again, why the hurry? Well, one of the reasons is that come 2010, the nation will be in election mode and nothing will get done. Republicans, led by Jim DeMint, have decided that they can use this issue to bring down the President. Thus, politics will reign supreme. With that mindset, it's unlikely that the majority of Republicans will cooperate on any bill.

So, I will continue to support the President!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Health Care Debate

During the Presidential debates, both Barack Obama and John McCain agreed that every American had a right to affordable health care. They differed on their approaches, but not on the imperative. Now, six months into his administration, with the different parties (not just political ones) digging in for a fight, President Obama is calling on America to act, and act boldly to deal with a problem that has been festering for decades.

The President has made health care reform a top priority, and many are saying this will make or break his presidency. Indeed, some in the opposing party, with no real ideas of their own (remember when the GOP was the party of ideas) have decided that if they obstruct this effort they can regain power. They've complained about a lack of bipartisanship, but I've really not seen any big ideas flowing from their side into the conversation.

So, tonight, even as health care costs and insurance rates continue to rise at an every expanding rate, the President will go before the press and seek some traction. The press, for their part, not wanting to be used for such purposes will surely try to turn the conversation elsewhere. Republicans will say that the sky is falling and that health care reform will bankrupt the nation or suggest that health care reform will take away choice and lead to long lines. And, some Democrats will just stall.

We often hear about how wonderful the American health care system is. People sneer at Canada and Europe and suggest that this is socialized medicine. And why is this bad? Well, if you have "socialized" medicine, that is government sponsored medical coverage, this apparently leads to lack of choice. But the reality is that for most Americans there is really little choice. You have as much choice as your insurance companies will allow -- if you have insurance. Most private companies don't have to accept people with pre-existing conditions. And, because much health coverage is employer provided, if you move, change jobs, or lose your job you likely will lose your health coverage. In addition, from the statistics I've read, health care crisis marks the highest cause of bankruptcies in America -- and a majority of those who go into bankruptcy have health insurance -- it's just that the insurance doesn't cover enough. As for the millions who are without health care coverage and they swamp the ER's, who must treat people.

Do I have the answers? No, but something must be done, and soon. We've been arguing about this for decades. I remember having these conversations in High School, back in the 70s. Everyone was worrying about socialized medicine (especially my friends whose parents were doctors). Things have changed little -- but the costs have become overwhelming.

Now, as for me and my household, I have health care coverage for the family. It's expensive and it doesn't cover everything. So, my choices are limited. Indeed, the only people who really have choice are those who have high end employer provided health care (and that's diminishing every year) and the rich (have you been watching Royal Pains on USA?). If you've got money you can get whatever you want.

I don't envy the President on this issue, but I appreciate his willingness to step up to the plate and take a stand. Hopefully, Congress will act soon -- probably not by the end of August, but hopefully before the campaign season begins, when nothing will get done. It has to be done by the end of this year or it won't happen. So, act. It's a moral imperative -- for the health and well-being of the people is at stake.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Little Jazz for your enjoyment -- from Lito Hernandez

Watch for the name Raul (Lito) Hernandez in a few years. He's a friend and former band mate of my son's at Santa Barbara High School. Brett is a year a head of Lito, so Lito just graduated. We've known him since the two were in Jr. High band together. We could tell then that he was a gifted musician. He's also a great young man! Now he's off to college.

Anyway, the other day Brett told me he'd seen a video of Lito's 2008 performance at the Grammy Spotlight Award Program -- Lito was Jazz Instrumental Runner up. Don't know who beat him out, but I think you'll enjoy his music! And Remember, this performance was a year ago -- when he was just a junior in high school.

Obama the Anti-Christ?

Back during the heated days of the most recent presidential election, Barack Obama was accused of many things. These ranged from being a non-citizen (I guess being born in Hawaii makes you a foreigner), a closet Muslim, and most intriguing of all -- the anti-Christ. Having come of age while Hal Lindsey and his Late Great Planet Earth reigned supreme, back when apocalyptic-tinged songs rang out on our record players (yes, we still had record players in the 1970s), I'm familiar with the ever-changing complexion of the anti-Christ. Over the years the AC (for short) has been identified as the Pope, Hitler, FDR, among others. Now, in the minds of some, Barack Obama is the new Anti-Christ.

Why? Well, people oversees like him -- that has to a bad mark on him. For some reason Americans take pride in being hated by "foreigners." We consider this perspective a matter of jealousy. So, if Obama is popular then he must be a -- traitor? Or, a weakling?

He's promising to make life better for the majority of Americans -- affordable health care for instance! Although gay rights activists aren't excited about the progress so far, just promising to ease the burden of gays and lesbians in America makes him a pariah.

Matt Sutton, a historian of American religion and author of an excellent study of Aimee Semple McPherson, opines as to Obama's problem with apocalyptic-driven evangelicals. No matter how hard he tries to break through and communicate with a vast majority of evangelicals they spurn his advances as anti-Christian. Indeed, even though he's more apt to quote Jesus than did the evangelical favorite George W. Bush, his rhetoric seen as pseudo-Christian and a cover for his devious plans to remake America into a pluralistic sort of place.

Anyway, back to Matt's article in Religion Dispatches, he opines as to Obama's problem.

So what does this mean for the Obama administration? Nothing very promising. Despite the president’s desire to find common ground with evangelicals, he is unlikely to be able to penetrate the apocalyptic fears that have characterized the evangelical movement since the Great Depression.

Obama is caught in a classic catch-22. The Antichrist, the Bible explains, is going to masquerade as an angel of light. This means that the more Obama accomplishes as president and the more he improves America’s image abroad, the more suspicious evangelicals will become; they don’t want to be duped by the devil. Obama’s talk of more cooperation with other nations, the possibility of a national health care plan, his move to nationalize some private businesses, and his goal of expanding protection of the rights of gays and lesbians will drive evangelicals to one certain conclusion: the End of Days are upon us.

And what to do? Well, perhaps pray for the rapture so that we end up getting the kinds of reforms that will make life easier and more peaceful. Of course, as a pastor of a Christian Church, I'd rather not be "left behind"! A better solution, perhaps, is for Christians to rethink their view of God's future, recognizing that this "left behind" theology is less than true to the Scriptures and the Christian faith.

Jimmy Carter and the Elders --- Sightings

The title of this piece sounds as if Jimmy Carter, the former President and global elder statesman, just started up a jazz combo composed of senior citizens. But, alas, that's not the point of yesterday's Sightings post by another elder statesman (in the religious community) named Martin Marty.

Marty reports on a small group of elderstatespersons, including Nelson Mandela (now 91), Desmond Tutu, Aung San Suu Kyi, and others, who have dedicated themselves to working behind the scenes to challenge some of the persistent problems facing our world. The issue they have dedicated themselves to at this point is the repression/suppression of women.

The Group calls itself the Elders. We're fortunate to have such elders working to make a better world.

Sightings 7/20/09

Jimmy Carter and the Elders

-- Martin E. Marty

Two years ago last weekend in Johannesburg, South Africa, twelve senior statespersons met to form a group called, yes, the Elders. Their founding date, July 18, 2007, may not go down in history as a turning-point, but—who knows?—it may well at least represent a contribution to a turned world. Funded for three years by Richard Branson, the British billionaire, and Peter Gabriel, the rock star of whose existence, we presume, few of the elders would ever have heard, the Elders travel light bureaucratically; if there are hierarchies, their presence is overlooked. They would keep it simple.

The Elders had escaped the notice of this lower-case ‘e’ elder, until I read a column in The Guardian written by President Jimmy Carter, which was also forwarded and blogged-about by Jim Wall, my old boss at The Christian Century. In his blog, Wall mentioned some of the twelve—may their tribe increase to a score and a score of scores!—including leaders named Kofi Annan, Mary Robinson, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela (89-years-old on founding day), Jimmy Carter, and Nobelist Aung San Suu Kyi, for whom a meeting-chair was left empty but reserved while she is in prison in Myanmar. The group intends not to crowd existing organizations but to supplement the work of those with whom this varied but distinguished body can identify. Readers can track them down at the Elders’ site, where the oldersters can state their case. I want to hurry to the Carter column.

Young Elders look ahead to tackle enduring problems in the time given them, so they chose one of the oldest human social and personal problems: cruelty to, discrimination against, and abuse of the larger part of the human race, women. Read President Carter and others who take on the cause and exercise your license to yawn, if you pride yourself on being in the advance guard. Many of the battles, incidents, and causes on which he reports and editorializes will read like “old stuff” to veterans of the women’s movements of the past half century. Reading it thus may help them shrug off or move on from barely addressed and hardly initiated issues in most parts of the globe.

The work of advancing and realizing women’s rights is far from completed. Carter uses as a personal example his having to leave the Southern Baptist Convention after its messengers voted to stress female submission to males, beginning with wives to husbands and lay persons to ordained clergy. We know that he knows, as does Billy Graham (whom he cites favorably as a biblical exegete on this subject), that many of the Baptist women who were to be biblically put in their place found and find ways anyhow to be fulfilled and freed. The problem, say the Elders, is that cruelty, discrimination, and abuse come packaged among garlands of carefully chosen excerpts from the Qur’an, the New Testament, the Torah, and other holy books. Religion justifies the cruelties.

Even to think that Elders or Young’uns can easily and effectively take on the powers to which they point might lead one to paint them as na├»ve. All of the Elders, however, have seen too much injustice and just enough reformation to resist giving up and failing to provide whatever leadership they can. If they only had to battle on secular lines, it would be one story. Having to take on the snippers-of-holy-books is another. The Elders have much to learn—and to teach. While they pursue this cause we picture them not settling for the rocking chair or the souvenir books, but finding other themes. Oh, let me add: belated Happy Birthday, Dr. Mandela.


Read Jim Wall on the Elders:

Read Jimmy Carter in The Guardian:

Visit the Elders website:

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at

In July’s Religion and Culture Web Forum, “Flowers in the Dark: African American Consciousness, Laughter, and Resistance in Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” ethicist Jacqueline Bussie of Capital University pursues the question of why, in so many accounts, people in oppressive situations of suffering respond with laughter. Focusing on the example of Toni Morrison’s slavery-era novel, Bussie, in an excerpt from her Trinity Prize-winning book The Laughter of the Oppressed, explores the complexities of the human condition and points toward a more nuanced understanding of ethics. Invited responses will be posted later in the month from Joseph Winters, Cooper Harriss, John Howell, and Zhange Ni.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.