Friday, March 31, 2017

Religious Identity Hiding under the Cloak of White Fragility -- Sightings (Zach Parris)

Do we choose our religious identity? Or is it a given, a cultural given, mind you, but a given nonetheless? That is the question raised in this very interesting piece by Zach Parris, a Lutheran campus minister at the University of Colorado. Is it possible that the idea of being a "none," is really a sign of being formed by White Protestantism? Could it be that our desire to declare our choice is really a cover for white fragility? The questions emerged out of a visit to the campus by Eboo Patel, a Muslim interfaith leader. The article is intriguing, and I'm wondering what you think about the premise?!

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Religious Identity Hiding under the Cloak of White Fragility
By ZACH PARRIS   March 30, 2017
Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core | Credit: roanokecollege via Flickr (cc)
As we continue to wrestle with whether or not President Trump’s now frozen executive order on immigration constitutes a “Muslim ban”—whether in its original or in its revised form—the American public is faced with another question: what exactly makes one a Muslim, or, for that matter, a Christian? Eighteen undergraduates at the University of Colorado Boulder unknowingly found themselves immersed in this question after a visit from Eboo Patel of the Interfaith Youth Core.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Is Truth Dead?

This week's edition of Time, a magazine to which I've subscribed for years, asks this very question: "Is Truth Dead?" The context is the Trump Administration and the President's penchant for sharing "alternative facts." He has a history of making outlandish and often untrue statements, one of which was the accusation that President Obama wiretapped his phones. There are many examples of false statements on his part, which include his leadership in the Birther Movement, which in many ways propelled his rise to political fame. He has branded the traditional press as purveyors of "fake news," even as he draws from less than reputable sources for his own declarations. At one point in the lead article, the author, Michael Scherer, notes that "Trump has discovered something about epistemology in the 21st century. The truth may be real, but falsehood often works better."

Donald Trump has found a way to use falsehoods to further his own agenda, but he isn't alone, and it's not new. We seem as a people susceptible to embracing ideas that match our ideologies, even if they aren't true. There's a word for this. It's "truthiness." It has it's origins with Stephen Colbert, but has become a well-worn term. So the question is, does truth matter? Have we entered a "post-truth" era, because as Jack Nicholson's character in A Few Good Men told his interrogator, "You can't handle the truth." 

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Not Wishy-Washy -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

In this week's edition of Sightings, Martin Marty, who continues to offer words of wisdom (as a good historian should) about matters involving religion and society, introduces us to a new effort housed at the University of Notre Dame, and led by his former co-author/editor of the Fundamentalism Project, Scott Appleby.  The word "wishy-washy" as used here his reminder that the way forward to peace in the world doesn't meant that people of faith should half-believe and half-practice their religions. Instead, the way forward involves principled engagement. This effort may be one important way to move forward.  I invite your attention to his words of wisdom.  

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Not Wishy-Washy
By MARTIN E. MARTY   March 27, 2017
The University of Notre Dame near South Bend, Indiana | Photo Credit: Greg Nelson via Flickr (cc)
“Watered-down,” “characterless,” “irresolute,” “sapless,” “bland,” “namby-pamby,” and “diluted,” are some synonyms for “wishy-washy,” a word some critics say I use too often when I write about or discuss what is unproductive in interfaith (and other “inter-“) relations. A good antonym for “wishy-washy,” whose usage is first traceable to 1693, is “principled,” but there are many more. Well-intentioned, tolerant folks are properly repelled if not threatened by the murderous language that frequently finds its way into expressions of religious faith, life, and culture. Some of them believe that if they only half-believe or half-express elements of their own faith and tradition, they will help bring about a new peaceable kingdom.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Dry Bones and the Breath of Life - Lectionary Reflection for Lent 5A (Ezekiel)

Ezekiel 37:1-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
37 The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” 
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. 
11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

                The Babylonian exile was a tragic, and yet fruitful event in the life of the people of Israel. It was tragic, because the nation was torn apart. Yet, the exile also gave Judah an opportunity to rediscover its identity as a people. Much of what we know as the Old Testament emerged in the context of the exile. While, it was a challenging time for the people of Judah, who found it difficult to live in hope of a new and better day.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Rebuilding the Foundations (John & Walter Brueggemann) -- Review

REBUILDING THE FOUNDATIONS: Social Relationships in Ancient Scripture and Contemporary Culture. By John Brueggemann and Walter Brueggemann. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. Xii + 211 pages.

                The Bible is an ancient book that several billion people look to for guidance on all manner of concerns, spiritual and otherwise. There is much distance separating the ancient world and the contemporary world, which has led many to cast aside the Bible as a collection of outmoded and irrelevant stories from another era. To read the Bible as anything other than literature, might be akin to watching Leave It to Beaver for guidance on family matters. Perhaps it would be helpful to experience a conversation between two people who have expertise in matters biblical on the one hand and contemporary on the other. That is just what this book, Rebuilding the Foundations, attempts to do.

The authors of the book are a father/son duo. The father in this case is biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, who is well known in my circles not only as a biblical scholar but as a prophetic figure. He has a knack for connecting ancient and contemporary worlds, bridging the perceived gap between eras, bringing modern culture under the lens of the biblical narrative. He certainly believes that the Bible has something worth hearing today. His partner in this conversation is his son, John, who is a sociologist by trade, teaching sociology at Skidmore College.  This combination makes for a most interesting and thought-provoking book.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Don’t Judge by Appearances - Sermon for Lent 4A

1 Samuel 16:1-13

You’ve heard it said: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” There is great truth in this. I have first hand experience, because one of the reviewers of my first book, which was a revision of my dissertation, did just that. He made disparaging remarks about the book’s cover, and said next to nothing about its contents. Now, I will admit that the book’s cover is a bit odd, but I had nothing to do with the cover design. This lead me to think that he judged the book by the cover, and never read a page of what lay inside. 

It’s easy to judge people based on their appearance. We do it all the time. But when we judge by appearances, we often get things wrong. I once took a man whom I knew fairly well to the ER. He looked dirty and disheveled, and was dressed in the blue overalls a car mechanic might wear. The ER staff looked at him and asked if he was homeless. I told them no. In fact, he probably had more money than all of us in the room. That’s just the way he lived. On the  other hand, there was a homeless person who would come to the church for help, and he always wore a white shirt and a tie. Appearances can be deceiving.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Religion and Human Rights

·     Tuesday evening I had the privilege of being one of three speakers at a Niagara Foundation sponsored Abrahamic Dinner.  This event was held at Rochester College, and brought together members of the Islamic, Jewish, and Christian communities -- to promote dialog and understanding. Each of us, a Rabbi, an Imam, a Christian pastor, was asked to speak to the ways in which our faith traditions understand human rights, and whether this overlaps with or differs from secular understandings. We were asked to speak from the perspective of our own faith tradition, which is difficult when Christianity's 2 billion adherents are divided into thousands of denominations and sects. Nonetheless, I did my best!  As for my partners, the Rabbi went first, and I didn't find much if anything to disagree with. In fact, he set me up nicely! As for the Imam, I learned a lot about the flexibility of Islamic law, which allows for support of human rights (more so perhaps than secular American law).

Since this is an important conversation, I decided to share some of what I said. Below you will find my answer to the first question, which dealt with my traditions codes of human rights and relationship to secular codes.  Before I share below, I want to add that I agree completely with the Rabbi's statement that the Jewish tradition, and the Christian tradition following it, speaks not of rights but obligations.  That said, I invite you to consider my response:

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Humanities Endangered -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

On the budget chopping block are the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. They make up a minuscule part of the budget, but seem easy pickings for budget cutters. After all, what "results" can be measured from the humanities? In fact, what are the humanities? Don't we need to invest in STEM, which leads to good jobs? Let me question differently: does history matter? Does literature matter? These are the humanities. The funds from this endowment doesn't just fund projects by elitist academics. It funds programs at the local historical society that help students understand their community better. Martin Marty is one who understands this question better than most, and I appreciate his word for the week, and share it with you, that you might take up the cause. That is, if you think that telling our stories is just as important as building a few bombs!

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Editor's note: Sightings will be off this Thursday for the University's spring interim. See you next week!
Humanities Endangered
By MARTIN E. MARTY   March 20, 2017
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with historian and filmmaker Ken Burns, whose 10-part, 18-hour documentary series The Vietnam Warwhich will air on PBS in Septemberwas funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities | Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State
In and after the present chaos, should our republic survive as a republic, wounded but responsible citizens will need to assess what they lost and what they might recover. So many humane causes will beckon for attention. The arts and humanities may have a lower priority when it comes to the Union’s constitutional commitment to promoting the general welfare—relative to higher priorities like care for the aged, the ill, the poor, the displaced—but they deserve a glance in this time of crisis. In the proposed national budget they would be demolished. Sightings, however, has stayed alert to them. We know more about them and their place than we do about many other causes.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Revelations of the Heart -- Lectionary Reflection for Lent 4A (1 Samuel)

1 Samuel 16:1-13 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
16 The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. 
When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.”[a] But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11 Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12 He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.


                To date the Lenten readings from the Hebrew Bible have taken us from the call of Abram to the ministry of Moses in the desert and now to the anointing of David as king of Israel. In each of these passages God acts to forward the way of blessing. It’s not that things go swimmingly. Abram and Sarai are called, but lack that necessary child to continue the line. Moses has to deal with a crew that is always complaining about something. Then comes the age of the monarchy. We know from the opening chapters of 1 Samuel, that the people demanded a king so they could be just like everybody else, but in doing so they were challenging the kingship of God. The first attempt at answering this demand was the anointing of Saul, but that didn’t work out. So, God told the prophet Samuel to go and find a successor to Saul. He was directed to the home of Jesse of Bethlehem, among whose sons Samuel would find the chosen king.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Witness of Religion in an Age of Fear (MIchael Kinnamon) - A Review

THE WITNESS OF RELIGION IN AN AGE OF FEAR. By Michael Kinnamon. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. X + 122 pages.

Once upon a time an American President declared that the “Only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Franklin Roosevelt made that declaration in his first inaugural address, even as the nation was in the throes of the Great Depression. Times have changed, and we have entered an “age of fear.” It doesn’t matter what your political commitments are, fear has taken hold of our lives. While fear has its benefits, too often it takes hold of our lives in dangerous and destructive ways.

When it comes to the things we fear, the list is long. It might be changing demographics or economic uncertainty. It might be crime or unfettered access to guns. It might be the religious other who has moved into the community and erected mosques and synagogues and temples. We seem anxious about the threat of terrorism, but then that’s the point of terrorism. Terrorists win when people live fearful and anxious lives. Unfortunately, one of the contributors to this emerging age of fear is religion. Religion often is the stirrer of fear, but it can also be a calming voice in the midst of chaos.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Seeds of Blessings - a Sermon for Lent (Genesis 12).

Genesis 12:1-4

The word “bless” is found in some form nearly 600 times in the New Revised Standard Version. When I looked up the words we translate bless, blessed, and blessing in my Bible dictionary, I discovered that the Hebrew words speak of health, longevity, and fertility. I also discovered that it can be translated as flourishing. So, if you say “I’m blessed,” or “what a blessing,” is this what you mean? 

When Bruce Barkhauer was with us, he spoke of a "thread of hope" running through Scripture, linking creation to new creation. I believe that there is also a "thread of blessing" running through scripture that connects the call of Abram to Jesus, and through Jesus we are connected to the realm of God. 

This morning we heard God call Abram to leave his homeland and migrate to a new land so that God could make him and his descendants a great nation so that all the families of the earth would be blessed in him or because of him. All he had to do was pack up his family, and head out toward a new and strange land. We might call this a true Lenten journey, because Abram had a lot to lose if he took up this vocation. He also had much to gain, but that would take a leap of faith. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Hard Power in an Age of Fear

Many of us who grew up in church learned the story of David and Goliath in Sunday School. In that story the Philistine army featured a very strong and very large warrior named Goliath. He is described as being six cubits and a span in height. In other words, very tall! He was so tall that he instilled fear in the army of Israel. No one was willing to go up against him, until a young shepherd arrived. That shepherd was named David, and he volunteered to meet the enemy. He did so, not armed with conventional armament but with a sling and a few stones. He prevailed. (1 Samuel 17).

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Transitioning Out of Mediocrity -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

The church hasn't yet fully responded to the question of faith and sexual orientation, but it's not the only question to be pondered. There is also the question of gender identity. Neither sets of questions are new, but the church dealing with them openly is rather new. Martin Marty, who completed his theological education, by his own admission, two years prior to my birth notes that questions of cisgender (a term so recent that my spell checker doesn't recognize it) and transgender weren't part of his theological education. I'm not sure it was part of mine either, thirty years later. Nevertheless, this is a conversation some of us are having and the culture at large is engaged in it, thus the church will have to come to the Table sooner or later. In the meantime, I invite you to read this brief Sightings essay by Martin Marty, who offers words of wisdom and points us to helpful resources as well.

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Transitioning Out of Mediocrity
By MARTIN E. MARTY   March 13, 2017
Participants in a march through Karura Forest in Nairobi, Kenya, one of the international women's marches on January 21, 2017 | Photo Credit: Voice of America
Cisgender dysphoria, transgender identity, etc., were not part of my formal curriculum in theology or religious studies, which ended at 3:00 p.m. on graduation day, December 14th, 1956. The earliest known use of the term “transgender” was in 1974, and it entered dictionaries only after 1988. “Trans-” was joined by sibling “cis-” even more recently. The phenomena to which these terms point have arrived in the clinic, the court, the classroom, and the sanctuary with such force that some alert citizens, religious or not, have found themselves struggling to find a way in the wake of their arrival. In our theologically and politically polarized society, not all the related discourse or actions have been civil, or manifest “the fruit of the Spirit.”

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Plant Gardens and Eat the Produce - A Reflection (Jeremiah 29)

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream,[a]for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord. 
10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

The Exodus and the Exile figure prominently in scripture. The former, the Exodus, provides an important foundation for our Table Fellowship. The Last Supper remembers Passover, and the theme of manna is also prominent in our Eucharistic theology. The Exile might not figure as prominently in our understanding of Table Fellowship, but it was a defining event in the life of Israel, and our story, as followers of Jesus, is rooted in that story as well. We live in the world as exiles and nomads. As Jesus told prospective disciples, he didn’t have a place to lay his head, and he told Pilate that his was a kingdom not of this world. We live in the world, but not of the world. Despite this sense of impermanence, we find a sense of hope and purpose as we gather together at the Table.  

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Is God With Us? - Lectionary Reflection - Lent 3A (Exodus)

Exodus 17:1-7 Common English Bible (CEB)
17 The whole Israelite community broke camp and set out from the Sin desert to continue their journey, as the Lord commanded. They set up their camp at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.The people argued with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” 
Moses said to them, “Why are you arguing with me? Why are you testing the Lord?” 
But the people were very thirsty for water there, and they complained to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?” 
So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What should I do with this people? They are getting ready to stone me.” 
The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of Israel’s elders with you. Take in your hand the shepherd’s rod that you used to strike the Nile River, and go. I’ll be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Hit the rock. Water will come out of it, and the people will be able to drink.” Moses did so while Israel’s elders watched.He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites argued with and tested the Lord, asking, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”


                In Advent we heard the message of Emmanuel—God is with Us—in Lent we hear the question—“Is the Lord really with us or not?” The Advent declaration appears in the revelation to Joseph that the child of his betrothed was conceived of the Holy Spirit and that God would save the people from their sins through him (Matt. 1:18-25). The Lenten question is raised during a rather tense encounter between Moses and the people of Israel as they wandered across the desert. The murmuring or complaining of the people of Israel is a constant theme in Exodus. The people cried out to God, seeking deliverance from slavery. Now that they are free, they have other complaints, and the person who bears the brunt of these complaints is Moses. A chapter earlier, the complaint had to do with food. Now it’s a lack of water that concerns the people. You have to feel for Moses, because he has been put in an untenable position. He had claimed that he was acting on behalf of God, after demonstrating God’s power, the people agreed to follow him. Whether they understood the full ramifications of this decision is unknown. Of course, had we been among the people affected, we probably would be complaining as well. After all, water is essential to life, so why would you camp in place where water was absent?