Thursday, January 31, 2013

Concerning Guns: The Time to Act is Now

            Yesterday the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony regarding passing strong gun legislation.  At this meeting former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords gave an emotional call for action.  Still recovering from gunshot wounds to the head that have affected her speech and eyesight, she called for courage and for boldness.   I want to echo her call for action.   Action needs to be taken now in at least three areas: 

  • We need to make sure that universal background checks are instituted, which take into consideration all relevant information.  I’m not sure how we can introduce mental health information, but I’m not sure what that would involve.  Do we enter into this database every person’s name that is taking anti-depressants, or is there a higher threshold of mental health related issue?    What is clear is that if you wish to buy a gun, you should have to go through the same process whether you buy it at Walmart or through a private dealer.  Background checks won’t keep every gun out of the hands of every criminal, but it might go a long way in that direction.  And I’m in agreement with Senator Blumenthal, that these background checks should be extended to ammunition sales.
  • Cap the size of ammunition clips.  The President’s proposal suggests capping clips at ten.  We really need to ask why a person needs a thirty round gun magazine.  Despite Lindsay Graham’s fear-based suggestion that six rounds aren’t enough to protect a family, how many rounds are enough?  

  • Ban assault-style weaponsThere are weapons that may prove useful for military and police, but are they useful for the common person?  Rifles equipped with barrels that allow for a silencer or to fix a bayonet – what is the purpose?  Rifles with a pistol grip so you can put the gun on your hip – what’s the purpose? 

Opponents of gun control cite the Second Amendment, which guarantees the rights of Americans to own guns.  I'm not going to argue this point, as the Supreme Court has made it clear that gun ownership is Constitutional.  I will say that context is important, and the reasons behind the amendment may no longer be relevant.  Still, as currently interpreted, the Second Amendment gives Americans the right to bear arms.  That being said, the Second Amendment does not preclude the Federal Government or State Governments from placing limits on the kind and I would say the number of guns a person can own. 

We’ve long heard that guns don’t kill people, people kill people.  While it takes a person to pull the trigger, the capability to kill and to maim is related to the power and capacity of a weapon.  An AR15 or an AK47 is a lot more powerful than a knife.  And if the 2nd Amendment precludes restriction on an AR15, where do we draw the line? 
      Polls suggest that a majority of Americans favor stricter gun controls, with the vast majority of Americans, including gun owners, favoring universal background checks.  So what stands in the way of sensible gun laws?  Apparently it’s money.  Washington politicians from both parties seem to fear the moneyed power of the NRA and similar groups.  So the question is – how do we as the American people get our voice heard?  Did Sandy Hook wake us up?  Will it stir us to action?

            I’m not calling for a ban on every gun, but I am calling for sensible gun laws.  In an effort to achieve this goal I’m working with the Gun Violence Taskforce of the Metro Coalition of Congregations.  We’re meeting for our Founding Convention on February 24th and we’ll be calling on our leaders to be bold and courageous, and to act in the interests of all the people of this nation, but especially for the children. Whether or not you live in Metro-Detroit, won’t you join us in this effort?

Yes, as Congresswoman Giffords declared:  "It will be hard, but the time is now. You must act. Be bold, be courageous, Americans are counting on you."

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Hearing a Word from God -- A Lectionary Reflection

Jeremiah 1:4-10

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Luke 4:21-27

Hearing a Word from God

            It’s said that a prophet finds it difficult to get a listening audience from the hometown folks.  This is especially true if you’re young and inexperienced.  There’s that rule about being seen and not heard, and often it extends well into adulthood.  We’ve all been young once, and know that feeling that the message we wish to share is being discounted by those who are older than us.  Now that I’m a bit older than I used to be (I’m now in my mid-50s), I do have this sense that I’ve “earned” a right to be heard due to my longevity.  That being said, I’ve been in meetings where a young adult or a high school student speaks a word of great wisdom.  Unfortunately that word isn’t often heard or at least it’s discounted.  We know all about generational conflict, which often erupts because people can’t hear each other.  Maybe that’s why a mentor pastor writes to a younger pastor in 1 Timothy and counsels him to not let anyone “despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12). 

            In the passages that stand before us in the lectionary, we hear echoes of this counsel offered Timothy.  A prophet hears a call and is concerned that his youthfulness will disqualify his voice, and another (Jesus) finds resistance to his voice, perhaps because the hometown folks seem too familiar with him.  We know his father.  We know the family.  Why should we listen?  But the word that comes is one that is couched in love – an others-centered love as described by Paul.

            The call to ministry is always received with fear and trepidation, and the call to prophetic ministry is even more so.  Who am I that God would call me?  What gifts do I possess that will enable me to take on this responsibility?  How will I know what to say or when to say it?  Besides, I’m young and inexperienced.  Those of us who have answered the call to pastoral ministry know this feeling well.  In fact, I doubt it ever goes away completely.  But the word that comes to Jeremiah is clear – Don’t say I’m only a child,” because you must go where I send you and say what I tell you to say.  Don’t be afraid, because I’m there to save you.  Yes, remember that I’ve created you for this purpose.  I knew you in the womb.  I designated you, from before your birth “a prophet to the nations.”  Yes, Jeremiah isn’t just God’s spokesperson to Israel; he has a much bigger venue – the whole world.  Yahweh isn’t just a tribal deity protecting a small strip of land, but rather Yahweh paints on a much bigger canvas, and Jeremiah has been called to deliver this word.  But don’t worry, God provides the words.  Not only that, but God has commissioned Jeremiah to rule over nations and empires, “to dig up and pull down, to destroy and demolish, to build and plant” (Jer. 1:10 CEB).  It’s a tremendous responsibility, but it’s also the call of God.

            If Jeremiah speaks for God, so does Jesus.  After delivering the sermon in the synagogue, drawing upon Jeremiah 61, which speaks of the mantle of the Spirit, Jesus declares – “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”  Now there is a question left open – is Jesus applying this to himself (as I suggested in my previous meditation and in my sermon this past Sunday), or is it more open-ended.   That is, the Age of the Spirit has begun.  Anyway, people seemed to like the sermon.  In the translation found in the Common English Bible, we’re told that “everyone was raving about Jesus, so impressed were they by the gracious words flowing from his lips.”  They were awed by the power of his words, much like the teachers in the Temple who were “amazed at his understanding and his answers,” when as a twelve year old he engaged them in serious theological conversation (Lk. 2:47).  They wondered about all of this, because this was Joseph’s son.  Somehow it doesn’t seem as if this was meant as a compliment, but more wonderment that Joseph’s son could be so erudite! 

            Jesus’ response to their embrace of his speaking ability is interesting.  He seems to want to dampen mood – quickly.  He tells them – I know you want me to conduct healings here like in Capernaum.  But, “no prophet is welcome in the prophet’s hometown.”  It’s almost as if he’s saying -- enjoy the sermon because that’s all you’re getting.  But he goes on from there and speaks of Elijah’s provision food for widow of Zarephath in Sidon.  Why did God send him there when there were so many widows in Israel?  That sounds awfully close to what we hear said about foreign aid – why help feed the hungry in Africa when we have so many starving in America?    Then there’s Naaman, the Syrian, who was healed of his skin disease by the Prophet Elisha.  Why Naaman, when there were folks back home needing healing?  Are you surprised that Jesus’ retort riles the crowd?  This wasn’t a great way to end a sermon.  No, instead, it angers the people and in what seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy they reject his ministrations.  Like Jeremiah, his calling may have come while still in the womb, but it isn’t received any better than Jeremiah’s.  Luke tells us that they ran him out of town and tried to throw him off a cliff.  They would have succeeded, but apparently the time wasn’t right, because he “passed through the crowd and went on his way.”  How this worked, I’m not sure, but the passages from Jeremiah and Luke remind us that prophetic words aren’t always well received.  It’s true that in this case Jesus’ words could be seen as overly abrasive.  I’m not sure I could get away with this any better than he did, but still, is there not truth to the idea that prophetic words rarely meet with warm embrace.  As Walter Brueggemann suggests:
The preacher must remember that when the congregation (or some part of it) is deeply and convincedly embedded in the dominant narrative, prophetic preaching that advocates the counter-narrative sounds like unbearable nonsense.  [Walter Brueggemann, The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word.  (p. 6).]
It seems clear that the people of Nazareth were committed to the dominant narrative and didn’t appreciate Jesus’ prophetic message.  

            If Jeremiah faces a call that appears overwhelming and Jesus moves the people from awe to anger, which seems to be the dominant position of prophets, Paul offers a rather different perspective.  In fact, it might seem as if Jesus could benefit from Paul’s approach.  We all think of Jesus as a man of love, but his words in Nazareth seem harsh, while love is that which is without end!  Paul’s word might not seem to fit with the other two passages, but in many ways 1 Corinthians 13 offers us a context for engaging in ministry, especially difficult ministries.  Jesus tells us to love our enemies and forgive those who hurt us, not seven times, but seventy times seven times.  Paul writes to people who are facing heartbreaking divisions.  People are fighting over who has the best and most important gifts.  They’ve ranked certain gifts above all others and are holding this over the heads of the others.  Tongues is one, but prophecy also seems into be highly valued.  Paul doesn’t discount such gifts, but he puts them in context.  Indeed, he puts all of our ministries in context.  Eloquent speech, effective communication, and more, they are of little value outside the power of love.  It is common for us to be reminded that the kind of love mentioned here is agapic, others-centered.  This love, which is patient and kind and isn’t jealous, doesn’t brag, isn’t arrogant, rude, seek its own advantage, irritable, or subject to fits of complaining.  Do you see yourself in these descriptions?  I’ve been there, done that.  I know that I don’t always allow this form of love to define my life, let alone my ministry.  Still, Paul is clear – it is this love that will endure.  Everything else is irrelevant. 

What, however, is this love Paul speaks of?  I’m partial to the definition of agape provided by theologian Tom Oord:  “acting intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being in response to that which produces ill-being.” Oord notes that agape isn’t the only form of Christian love, but it’s not only others centered, but it pursues the good of the other even in the face of efforts that would produce “ill-being.”  That is, Oord says – “in spite of love” [Thomas Jay Oord, The Nature of Love: A Theology, p. 56).    

We love others despite pain and suffering and seek to promote what is good.  I think this is the intent of Jesus and Jeremiah.  Their words might come across harshly at times, but their goal is to produce well-being in the face of ill-being.  

Relational Healing: Urgency and Gentleness – A Reflection on the Healing of Bartimaeus (Bruce Epperly)

Bruce Epperly brings to a close his series of four posts reflecting on the possibility of divine healing.  The reflections emerge from his recently published book -- Healing Marks (Energion, 2012).  Bruce's theological orientation is relational.  As a Process Theologian, he believes that there is a connection between spirit and matter, and thus healing is possible.  In this reflection he looks to the story of Bartimaeus, the man born blind.  What does the healing of Bartimaeaus say to us as 21st century scientifically sophisticated persons?  Is healing possible?  What is its nature?  With questions like these in mind, let us hear from Bruce.


Relational Healing: 

Urgency and Gentleness – A Reflection on the Healing of Bartimaeus

Bruce Epperly

Is God’s quest for healing unilateral or relational?  Does God take into account our freedom and creativity in relationship to God’s own freedom and creativity?  Do we have freedom to “yes” or “no” to God, and even propose “new” possibilities that add something to God’s activity in the world? 

Agency and urgency are at the heart of the healing of Bartimaeus. (Mark 10:46-52) Desperate for a cure, Bartimaeus cries out to the healer Jesus as he passes by.  Bartimaeus’ plea is so insistent and urgent that his companions try to muzzle him.  But, the more they order him to be quiet, the louder this sight-impaired man shouts.  Sensing this may be his last chance to regain his eyesight, Bartimaeus cries for mercy over and over again.  Finally, he attracts the attention of the Healer, who calls Bartimaeus to his side and asks what seems to be an obvious, and yet improbable question:  “What do you want me to do for you?” 

In many ways, Jesus’ response to Bartimaeus is echoed in the story of the man at the pool.  (John 5:1-9)  Although it was obvious to any observer that the man was paralyzed, Jesus once again asks a curious question: “Do you want to be made well?” 

“Duh….Thank you Captain Obvious!” as the Urban Dictionary reports. The answer should be clear, “I want to be cured, and stand up and walk?”  But, as “totally obvious” as Jesus’ question is, the man at the pool comes up with “reasons” or “excuses” rather than unequivocal “yes.”

In both narratives, Jesus’ approach is relational and open-ended.  He does not initially tell the two persons with disabilities what is planning to do for them.  Nor does he cure them immediately and without their consent.  Despite Jesus’ ability to work within natural causation to restore sight and strength, he makes room for his companions to define the healing they seek.  Jesus’ approach is persuasive rather than coercive; he encourages freedom and creative among the vulnerable.  Although Jesus’ aim is abundant life, the quality of their response shapes how Jesus responds; it also determines the healing they receive.  And, in the case of the man at the pool, the cure of his paralysis is part of a larger healing process, moving him from passivity to agency, and victimization to empowerment.

My recent book,  Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel, affirms the relational nature of healing.  Whether we see these stories as representative of Jesus’ whole person ministry, embracing body, mind, spirit, and relationships, in God’s quest for abundant life, or see the healings as relating primarily to social and spiritual transformation, it is clear that our agency is essential to the healing process.  We may need a physical cure, but we almost always need spiritual, volitional, and emotional transformation to claim our well-being.  We must choose wholeness, regardless of our medical or spiritual “miracles” that are available to us.

Jesus’ “methodology” of healing often appears as a form of spiritual direction, or friendship. Not content with a unilateral solution, Jesus invites persons to consider the deepest desires of their hearts and reflect on what they really want in a particular moment of decision.  This is not just the case in terms of the questions addressed to Bartimaeus and the man at the pool; many other healings are relational and evocative.  They involve decisions about how we will respond to God’s invitation to abundant life: four men overcome obstacles and choose to lower their friend through a roof they have just damaged; a woman chooses to leave the solitude of her outcast status, inspired step by step by her faith in Jesus’ healing power; Jairus and his wife maintain hope despite the crowd’s assertion that their daughter is dead; a foreign mother does anything to facilitate her daughter’s healing; another sight impaired man remains faithful in spite of receiving only a partial healing; Levi the tax collector quits his job to follow Jesus; a few people in Jesus’ home town choose to belief despite the overall skepticism about the healer.

Every moment is decisive: it involves our turning toward or away from the highest possibilities for ourselves and those around us.  God presents visions and energy; our vocation is to ponder how we shall respond and live in accordance with our responses.  Sometimes a solution is obvious and we turn away (for examples of turning from health to disease by family members sabotaging the quest for wholeness, see Scott Peck’s People of the Lie.)  But, when we open to the possibilities of the moment – of this moment – creative transformation is possible and new spiritual and physical energies are released, sometimes eventuating in unexpected changes in physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

So, listen throughout the day, perhaps you can hear God’s whisper, “What do you want me to do for you?” or “Do you want to be healed?”  In the intricacy of call and response, what will be your reply?  How will you respond to God’s invitation to health, creativity, and freedom?

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty three books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living,  Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and  Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary.  He recently served as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University.   He may be reached at for lectures, workshops, and retreats.  His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).  Healing Marks is now available for Kindle.  

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Leadership that Fits Your Church -- A Review

LEADERSHIP THAT FITS YOUR CHURCH: What Kind of Pastor for What Kind of Congregation (The Columbia Partnership). By Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce.   St. Louis:  Chalice Press, 2012.  Xv + 160 pages.

            It should be abundantly clear to both clergy and
congregation members that not every match is made in heaven.   Even with the best of intentions and tools, matching a pastor with a congregation is complicated.  I suppose E-Harmony and can bring couples together with their patented computer models, but matching pastor to church seems a lot more complicated.  As a pastor whose first pastorate ended with a less than happy resignation, I look back now and can see how this was not a good fit from the beginning – at least not as a first call as a solo pastor.  Hopefully now that I’m in my third call, I’m a bit wiser and better able to discern proper fit, but even now it’s not always easy to know for sure how the match is working. Of course, a match needn’t be perfect to work, but the two parties need to understand each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and expectations.    

            When it comes to matching congregations to pastors, there are no fixed methods.  In some traditions, such as the United Methodists or the Roman Catholics, Bishops assign pastors to congregations.  Hopefully they have a good sense of fit, but both church and pastor must trust the judgment of a third party.  Other traditions, such as mine, require congregations to discern who to call, while pastors must decide whether to accept the wooing of a particular congregation.  The denomination will assist, but the final decision is between pastor and congregation.   Whatever the method, there are factors that will determine success or failure.  Going into conversations with wisdom and insight may preclude the formation of unhealthy and unhappy pastor-congregation relationships.

            One possible tool that could assist this process, or help pastor and congregation better understand each other if the relationship is already in place, is Leadership that Fits Your Church.  Authored by Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce, the book offers an interpretation of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, which was first taken in 2001 and then again in 2008-2009.  The authors of this book both served on the staff that produced this survey that involved over 500,000 worshipers in 5,000 congregations from across the country and theological spectrum.  Therefore, Woolever, the Research Director of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, and Bruce, who prior to her death in 2012 served as research manager for the research services office  of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and project manager of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey were well suited (matched) to interpret the findings for both churches and clergy.  The authors suggest that pastors, congregational leaders, and denominational leaders, consultants, seminary faculty and students, and academics might benefit from reading the book.  The authors note that their “ultimate goal is to help pastors see themselves and their ministry more clearly,” as well as help church leaders better understand clergy so that when they engage in pastoral searches they can “discern the type of clergyperson that best fits the needs and values of their congregation” (p. xv).

            The survey covers a wide variety of points, from identifying the kind of pastor one is to the identity of congregations, what makes for a satisfied pastor to the roles pastors play in congregations, including their contributions to the growth of congregations in numbers as well as vitality.  Reading the interpretation of the data, you discover very quickly that this is a rather complex issue.   In part theology/tradition plays an important role, but so does experience and temperament.  Often we discover that what one might think leads to success doesn’t, and areas one might ignore as inconsequential might have great value.  So, longevity in the pastorate tends to contribute to growth, but if a pastor stays too long longevity could prove damaging.  I found it interesting – perhaps because I’m now in my mid-50s that the majority of growing congregations are led by pastors in their 50s, but conversely churches led by pastors in their 60s lead the decliners.  Or consider the question of self-care.  Often pastors who don’t take a day off, and work long hours, will find great success, but they can also burn out quickly.  Words of wisdom are offered near the close of the book, when the authors note that “the road to effective ministry is paved when pastor and worshiper opinions about how things are going coincide, “so it’s important to take the church’s temperature from time to time   (p. 119).

             If you’re looking for a book that offers prescriptions for successful fits, this is not the book for you.  That’s not the purpose of the book.  But, if you’re interested in looking at the congregational/pastoral relationship and looking for questions and data to facilitate that self-analysis, then this book will be of great assistance.   From my perspective, I think this book will be especially helpful for congregations in the process of looking, as well as pastors seeking a new call.  It can help alleviate some pitfalls that often plague the process.  Denominational officials involved in placement will also find this helpful.  For congregations and pastors already in relationship with each other, the findings of the book can be helpful to the process of understanding where each comes from.  Understanding where the other comes from, what his or her gifts might be, and the congregation’s own sense of purpose can help alleviate potential conflict.  Perhaps the most important contribution the book makes to this conversation is the way in which it counters the idea that the key to success is getting the “right leader,” and ignoring the importance of lay leadership. 

            I don’t think there are any perfect matches, but understanding expectations and needs can go a long way to keeping relationships from souring and enabling congregations to flourish, even as pastors are better able to enjoy satisfaction and success in their ministries.  Having data like this can open up the channels of communication so that this can be achieved.  The authors are to be commended for their work at interpreting the data and making it available in an understandable way, pointing out how the data can assist the process of becoming vital and growing communities of faith.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Immigration Reform -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

There are a number of important issues on the front-burner of the nation's political horizon.  Gun violence, national debt, health care, jobs, etc.  On many of these issues there is little agreement as to how to resolve seemingly intractable problems.  With regard to Immigration Reform, however, there seems to be a growing consensus that we must deal with this issue in a comprehensive way.  Although Nativist sentiment is still widespread, even many Republicans have seen the hand-writing on the wall and realize that at least on a national level they can't hope to win the Presidency while ignoring persons of color, especially Hispanics.  A key component in this change of focus is to be found, as Martin Marty points out, among Conservative Evangelicals, who have begun to recognize the biblical mandate for welcoming the stranger.  Perhaps this is an area where we can build a consensus that will make it possible for the millions of people, mostly young people, who have lived here, worked here, and contribute to our society to come out of the shadows.  Take a read, offer your thoughts.

Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion
The University of Chicago Divinity School
 Sightings  1/28/2013  

Immigration Reform
-- Martin E. Marty

Tomorrow is the beginning of what will be a congressional battle over immigration reform. The subject was rarely and lightly handled in the political wars last year, perhaps because both parties found other issues to be more important for the country or more exploitable by their candidates. Whoever thought that the issue would remain relatively quiet and subject to merely partisan but still civil debate has found or will find that it is as potentially uncivil and vitriolic as most contentions are in this polarized society.           
A signal of possible change appeared early last week, for example, as reported in the Chicago Tribune last Tuesday. Brian Bennett reported on how conservative evangelicals, long presumed to be anti-immigration reform, were now seeing the emergence of various important voices in a coalition of supporters. They are pushing their political kin in GOP legislator ranks to change. Instead of right versus left or Republican versus Democrat, this time it is “conservatives versus conservatives,” observed libertarian Alex Nowrasteh from the Cato Institute. On this issue many libertarians, U.S. Chamber of Commerce types, and conservative Christian organizations are surprising publics who thought immigration reform was a cause of the left.           
While Republican strategists dub the coalition “Bible, badges, and business,” a network of evangelical pastors will encourage their congregations to publicize and read 40 biblical passages about how to treat foreigners, calling this push the “I Was a Stranger” Challenge. The Evangelicals, seen as newcomers to the political battle on this side, are not alone. A canvass of websites shows that liberal, moderate, and mainline Protestant denominations and most of their non-denominational cousins have been strong on this front for years. Catholics are strongly on their side, being able to cite official documents of their church, texts which enhance the arguments in the forty biblical passages. Jews, Orthodox Christians, Mormons, and others provide religious rationales, drawing on their sacred texts.           
Is the coalescing, action, and support of immigration reform going to make it easy to pass legislation for reform? Not likely. Those who wish for a taste of what’s “out there” will find it in the scores of violent postings against church leaders who support reform. I punched “Print” on my keyboard, bringing up the story about evangelicals, and instantly found 44 pages of critique, almost all of it on the “against” side. Many if not most of the reactions are, admit it, hateful, dismissive, violent, rarely religious or theological. This faction will be busy and will be heard. Still, that they may not win everything they want as “anti-s,” is evident by the affirmations of the religious voices here declares by the libertarians, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others.           
Here’s the key: these joiners to the debate may or may not be friendly to religion, but they see business reasons to “welcome the stranger.” They will add clout to the religious coalitions, which usually lack it. Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick of the Goldwater Institute in the Wall Street Journal offer seven succinct paragraph-length reasons to support immigration reform. They know, as do the religious leaders, that there is no single healthy course for these reforms. They know that there will be some legitimate criticism from people who do not cite religion, but favor the practical issues which have inspired the furious rhetoric of the religious “anti-s” or the anti-religious voices promises a season of tumult and, one hopes, helpful legislation. 

 Brian Bennett, “Poll: GOP can woo Latino voters with shift on immigration,” Chicago Tribune, January 23, 2012.
 Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick, “Solving the Immigration Puzzle,” Wall Street Journal, January 25, 2013.
 Melissa Steffan, “New Video Launches 'Largest Ever' Immigration Reform Effort by Evangelicals,” Christianity Today, January 14, 2013.
 Immigration reform: Religious voices add to growing momentum,” Religion Link, January 14, 2013.

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

This month’s Religion & Culture Web Forum features “Medicalized Death as a Modus Vivendi” by Michelle Harrington. Harrington argues that "an unchastened practice of palliative care constitutes a modus vivendi in the political sense. Standardized assessments and interventions purport to provide a way of coping with the fundamental questions of human existence with only instrumental reference to the diverse beliefs of religious traditions; they threaten to homogenize and manage the patient and his or her intimates according to a generic spirituality that serves clinical norms and efficient social functioning." Medicalized death, Harrington concludes, "cannot do justice to the considered convictions of Christians who profess a faith formed around death and resurrection." Read Medicalized Death as a Modus Vivendi.

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Spirit's Mantle -- A Sermon

Luke 4:14-21

I’ve always found the story of Elijah passing over the mantle of the Spirit to Elisha to be quite powerful. It’s really the story of one generation passing the torch to the next.  So, when it came time for Elijah to ascend to heaven, he turned to Elisha, and asked him: What can I do for you before I leave?  In response, Elisha boldly asks Elijah for a “double share of your spirit.”  Yes, he wants everything Elijah has, but more.  So then, after Elijah ascends into the heavens, Elisha picks up the same mantle or outer coat that his mentor used to hit  and divide the Jordan, so they could cross over to the other side, and he followed his mentor’s example and hits the water and it divides so he can cross back over to the other side.  When the other prophets see Elisha coming toward them, they recognize the spirit of Elijah resting on Elijah’s former assistant, and affirm his calling to begin a new era of prophetic ministry in Israel (2 Kings 2:1-18).

Although the stories are different, something similar happens on the day that John baptized Jesus.  John didn’t give up his ministry of baptism that day, but it’s clear that the mantle passed from John to Jesus at the moment the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus, anointing him as messiah.    

This morning we catch up with Jesus after he’d endured the trials and temptations in the wilderness, and gained some notoriety  for his preaching in the synagogues of Galilee.  Now comes the real test – facing the hometown.  These people know him better than anyone else, or at least, that’s what they think.  After all, they can say – “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”  Because they’d heard about the miracles performed in other towns, they expect him to do the same for them.  With these expectations hanging over him, Jesus enters the synagogue, and as soon as he arrives the leaders invite him to read the scripture for the day and offer a few words of interpretation.  In other words, they invited him to deliver the sermon!     

Now, hearing the Word of God read and interpreted was very important to a community like this.  They believed that God spoke through these words, and they hoped God would speak to them that day.  

You get the sense of importance that the Jews placed on hearing the Word in a passage from Nehemiah, where the people go to Ezra the Priest and demand that he read to them from the Torah.  When he opened the scroll and blessed the people, everyone shouted “Amen! Amen!” and they bowed down and worshiped the LORD, even putting their faces to the ground.  Although we don’t know what Ezra read, the people begin to weep.  Obviously this Word cut deep into their hearts, and so I wonder, does the Word cut deep into your heart and mine?   

When Ezra hears them weep, he tells them:  “Don’t be sad, because the joy from the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:1-10).   

  So, in the tradition of Ezra, Jesus opens the scroll, reads from it, and offers his interpretation.  It’s his first sermon in the home church, so how will the people respond? 

Well, the Word that Jesus reads comes from Isaiah 61, which offers good news to the oppressed.  After Jesus reads this passage, he points to himself, and tells them that the Spirit of God had anointed him to preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, liberation of the oppressed, and the “year of the Lord’s favor.”   This year of the Lord’s favor is the Jubilee year, which, according to the Torah, instructed the people to return the land back to its original owners.  It was designed to prevent wealthy landowners from accumulating large tracts of land at the expense of the common person.    

These are powerful words that reveal God’s vision of justice, God’s preferential option for the poor.  These are the kind of words that inspire prophetic leaders like Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, and Dorothy Day.  But on this day, Jesus chooses to embrace it for himself.  After laying out God’s vision for the world, he places this mantle of the Spirit on himself, because, as Jesus declares: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”  Not yesterday, not tomorrow, not in the next life, but today.  Yes, today is a day of new beginnings.  

When Jesus uses the word “today,” he’s declaring that the reign of God has begun, and that it would be marked by a message of liberation and hope – not for the powerful and the rich, but for the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned – that is, the people living on the margins of society.

Since our nation observed the birthday of  Martin Luther King this past Monday on the same day we watched the first African-American President be re-inaugurated, it’s good to remember that Dr. King wasn’t just a leader in the Civil Rights Movement.  He focused his attention on God’s justice and he took up issues that made him rather unpopular.  When prophets talk about justice, they have a tendency to make enemies!    So, his decision to speak out against the war in Vietnam and provide leadership for the Poor People’s Campaign turned former allies into opponents.  There are aspects of Dr. King’s legacy that we tend to forget, but they too reflect the Good News that Jesus sought to proclaim and embody. 

How should we hear this message of Jesus that he takes to the pulpit in Nazareth?   

Perhaps we can find the answer in the story of Pentecost.  As Paul suggests in 1 Corinthians 12, we are the body of Christ, and if we received the Spirit’s mantle on the Day of Pentecost, then we’ve been issued the same call and we have all the necessary gifts to continue Jesus’ ministry in the world today. We’re already participating in Jesus’ messianic reign.  For instance, we partner with Congregational Church of Birmingham in hosting SOS each year.  We’re a key partner with Motown Mission, Rippling Hope, and Gospel in Action Detroit, helping to bringing healing hope to the residents of Detroit.  And more recently we’ve taken a leading role in the formation of the Metro Coalition of Congregations.  

You’ve heard and seen the invitations for our Founding Convention on February 24th, but the Coalition has been busy for some time not only adding to our numbers, but making a difference in the community.   We took a leading role in helping MSHDA get funds out to those facing foreclosure, with Kathleen Potter serving as the chair of that task force.  We’ve reached the point where we think we can declare victory and take up another issue.  We’ve also been active in advocating for a regional transit authority in metro-Detroit, which will allow the region to develop a good, usable  public transportation system.  Crystal Balogh and Kate Mills chair that task force.  A number of others from this congregation are serving on these two task forces, or on the other two task forces – the one addressing gun violence and the one addressing health care.  All of these issues and more serve as calls to justice, and they connect directly to Jesus’ proclamation of a year of the Lord’s favor. 

Yes, Jesus has declared that the word from Isaiah 61 has been fulfilled – but to each of us is given the question – how will you respond?  Will you follow the lead of the disciples and accept the challenge, or will you follow Jesus’ former neighbors who try to throw him off a cliff?  As we ponder this question, let us remember the words of Ezra, who reminds us that “the joy from the Lord is your strength!”

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
3rd Sunday after Epiphany
January 27, 2013


Saturday, January 26, 2013

Gerrymandering and the Rigging of Presidential Elections

Perhaps the time has come for us to rid ourselves of the Electoral College!!  At least since the 2000 election, in which the loser of the popular vote managed to gain an Electoral College victory (though it was disputed), many have talked about abandoning the Electoral College as an outmoded relic of a by-gone era -- an era in which slave-holding states had a population disadvantage, and thus would have fared poorly in national elections.  The Electoral College gave them a certain amount of clout (remember that a slave was reckoned as 3/5s of a person and thus counted in assigning Congressional votes).   The contemporary argument for keeping this relic of that age is that it gives small states a certain stature needed to counter-act the population advantages of larger states.  Why would a candidate visit New Hampshire or Iowa, if the votes that counted would be found in New York, California, and Texas?  In deference to these states, we've continued on with this process.

But the tide may need to change, and change quickly.  You see, Republican legislators in a number of states that Barack Obama won, and in which they control the state house and redistricting, have figured out a way to controvert the votes of the people by assigning electoral votes according to Congressional districts.  Since Republicans did well in 2010 state wide and Congressional elections, they were given the opportunity to set up new legislative districts (both in the states and for the House of Representatives), and they did a good job in making sure that Republicans had the advantage.

So, with Barack Obama back in office and Mitt Romney sent home to the corporate world, Republicans in so-called Blue States are seeking an electoral advantage.  Why not follow the example of Nebraska and Maine, and assign electoral votes according to whether a candidate won a specific Congressional District.  And if we had been using this model in states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Virginian, and in my current home state of Michigan, Mitt Romney likely would be president, even though he only won 47% of the vote. 

 As you think about this question of whether these self-serving decisions warrant abandoning the Electoral College -- sooner than later -- consider that Democrats running for Congress took in a million more votes in Congressional Elections than Republicans, but couldn't retake the House.  America didn't send Republicans back to Washington, gerrymandered districts made this possible (and remember Congress is reviled by most Americans -- wonder why?).  

Is this America's future, where a minority of voters can use the system to assure control of the country?   I don't believe so.  I don't believe that Americans will stand for a President who won 47% of the vote, while the "loser" won 52%.  Does a candidate have to win a minimum of 55% of the vote in order to hope for victory?  This isn't America.  It's not just unfair or unjust, in my mind it does not fit with the American spirit.  It may be "constitutional" but it's not "small d" democratic or American!   

Friday, January 25, 2013

Valuing All Human Beings: Disability and Reproductive Rights Meet Congress -- Sightings

What happens when anti-abortion advocacy collides with the rights of the disabled?  That is the question raised by the US Senate's inability to approve the "United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities."  Courtney Wilder notes the problems with the GOP opposition, including complaints about US sovereignty.  If we can not stand up for the disabled, then there is a real problem here.  I invite you to read the essay and offer your responses.  
Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion
The University of Chicago Divinity School
 Sightings  1/24/2013

 Valuing All Human Beings: 
Disability and Reproductive Rights Meet Congress
-- Courtney Wilder
 On December 4, 2012 the U.S. Senate narrowly voted not to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a treaty that has been signed by 154 nations (including the United States) and ratified by 126 of those nations. The treaty describes the precarious position of persons with disabilities across the globe, and is an agreement to support equal rights for disabled people. Article 10 reads, “… Parties reaffirm that every human being has the inherent right to life and shall take all necessary measures to ensure its effective enjoyment by persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others.”
 Despite widespread support for the treaty from over 300 organizations including disability rights and veterans groups, and some Republican leaders including Senator John McCain and former Senator Bob Dole, both disabled American veterans, only eight Republicans joined the Senate Democrats to vote for ratification of the treaty. The ratification failed by five votes. In the wake of the vote, numerous media reports drew a connection between Christian conservatives and the defeat. For instance, The Guardian’s headline read “Christian right enforces GOP senators' vote against UN disabilities treaty.” Former Senator (and conservative Christian) Rick Santorum’s vocal opposition lent weight to these analyses. Other Christian organizations including Joni and Friends, a Christian outreach group for disabled people, and numerous right-to-life groups, opposed the treaty.
 Although opponents to the treaty voiced concerns about United States sovereignty and parental rights, reproductive rights were a central issue for many. The following provision in the treaty, found in Article 25, was controversial: “…State parties shall … Provide persons with disabilities with the same range, quality and standard of free or affordable health care and programmes as provided to other persons, including in the area of sexual and reproductive health and population-based public health programmes.” Susan Yoshihara, senior vice president for research at the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, argued, “We should be clear. The Disabilities treaty includes ‘reproductive health’ as a category of nondiscrimination and not as a right. But this should not allay the fears of pro-life lawmakers or make them think that this treaty will not be used to advance a right to abortion.” Santorum went further, bringing his daughter Belle (who has a genetic disorder known as Trisomy 18) to a press conference, and arguing in print that the treaty might subject her to death against the will of her parents.
 Supporters of the treaty, including Senator John Kerry, argued that because its language was modeled after the United States’ own Americans With Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, such concerns were overblown. And some pro-life organizations do not see the treaty’s language on reproductive care as problematic; the National Right to Life Committee’s statement from 2006 notes, “In order to help prevent any such misinterpretation, the United States made the following clarifying statement when the Ad Hoc Committee adopted the treaty: ‘The United States understands that the phrase reproductive health does not include abortion, and its use in paragraph 25 (a) does not create any abortion rights, and cannot be interpreted to constitute support, endorsement, or promotion of abortion.’”
 Largely unreported in the aftermath of the defeat was the support of Christian groups for the treaty. The United Church of Christ, for example, issued a statement on December 10 that read in part, “None other than the inclusive ministry of Jesus Christ, who taught forthrightly of God's priority invitation to the ‘lame, maimed and blind’ (Luke 14), compels us, as leaders of an accessible-to-all Christian denomination of 5,100 U.S. congregations, to speak as one faithful voice against the outrageous political posturing that has led to this bewildering fiasco.”
 One clear goal of conservative Christians opposed to this treaty is to prevent the abortion of fetuses with disabilities; this is laudable. The question that Santorum et al are failing to ask, however, is whether both in the United States and around the world, such abortions would be less common if persons with disabilities were legally, educationally, and religiously equal to their non-disabled peers. Conservatives’ emphasis on individual rights, and Christian concerns for the “least of these” have great potential to uphold the rights and transform the lives of persons with disabilities, both in the United States and abroad, but the recent rhetoric around this treaty ignored that potential.
 Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has indicated he will reintroduce the bill to the next Congress; perhaps forthcoming debate over the treaty will be more fruitful.
 Abrams, Jim, “UN Disability Treaty Faces Republican Opposition,” The Huffington Post, November 26, 2012.
 Cohen, Nancy L, “Christian right enforces GOP senators' vote against UN disabilities treaty,” The Guardian, December 6, 2012.
 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2006.
 Head, Jeanne, “Pro-Life Forces Had Significant Impact on Text of the UN Disabilities Treaty,” National Right to Life News,September 2006, Volume 3, Issue 9.
 Steinhauer, Jennifer, “Dole Appears, but G.O.P. Rejects a Disabilities Treaty,” The New York Times, December 4, 2012.
 Santorum, Rick, “This Treaty Crushes U.S. Sovereignty,” WND, December 2, 2012. 
 Yoshihara, Susan, “Sovereignty Caucus Briefing on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,” Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, September 11, 2012.

Courtney Wilder, Ph.D., is a past Junior Fellow of the Martin Marty Center, and currently teaches at Midland University in Fremont, Nebraska. Her work focuses on Paul Tillich and disability theology.

This month’s Religion & Culture Web Forum features “Medicalized Death as a Modus Vivendi” by Michelle Harrington. Harrington argues that "an unchastened practice of palliative care constitutes a modus vivendi in the political sense. Standardized assessments and interventions purport to provide a way of coping with the fundamental questions of human existence with only instrumental reference to the diverse beliefs of religious traditions; they threaten to homogenize and manage the patient and his or her intimates according to a generic spirituality that serves clinical norms and efficient social functioning." Medicalized death, Harrington concludes, "cannot do justice to the considered convictions of Christians who profess a faith formed around death and resurrection." Read Medicalized Death as a Modus Vivendi.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.