Thursday, May 25, 2017

Interfaith Friendship

Yesterday I posted a word about the decision on the part of the Troy City Council to designate Troy, Michigan as a Welcoming City. The city of Troy is the most diverse city in Michigan. We are also the safest city in Michigan (I was reminded that it would be good to make that connection). Last night I attended an open house at the Bharatiya Temple, the Hindu temple located in Troy. There are about 1000 families connected to this temple, and it was a blessing to participate in this open house. A few weeks back, Brett and I attended a neighborhood friendship dinner at the Muslim Unity Center in nearby Bloomfield Hills. Prior to that, I attended, as is my custom, the National Day of Prayer observance sponsored by the Troy-area Interfaith Group. This event was hosted by the local Jewish synagogue. That's just May. Not too long ago I had the opportunity it visit through TIG a local Sikh Gurdwara. In less than two weeks, we will, at Central Woodward, be co-hosting an Iftar Dinner with the Turkish American Society. This dinner is open to the community, but is designed to break the Ramadan fast for that day. 

I wanted to share this because it has become common-place for me, but for much of my life it wasn't. I grew up in a small city in Southern Oregon. You were either Protestant or Catholic or maybe Mormon. I believe there was one Jewish family in town, maybe more, but I didn't go to school with any of them. That reality is common to many, perhaps due to geography, or perhaps due to a choice not to engage those who are different. Unfortunately, such isolation can lead to stereotypes, and stereotypes can lead to discrimination and worse. 

I am a devout Christian pastor. I believe in Jesus. I believe strongly in the commission Jesus gave in Acts 1:8, that we should, as Christians, be witnesses for Jesus to the ends of the earth. I have come to believe that to be a witness to Jesus includes cultivating interfaith friendships. I do so not in spite of, but because of my faith. I experience these friendships with Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikh's, Buddhists, and more, as a blessing. I needn't share their vision of God to embrace them as friends and fellow travelers on the journey of faith. I invite you,my reader, to take advantage of opportunities like the Open House at the Hindu Temple or the Iftar Dinner offered by a Muslim community. Be blessed by the encounter. Let us not build walls. Let us, as Pope Francis declared, build bridges!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Troy, Michigan -- a Welcoming City

With so much chatter about how bad things are (check your Facebook newsfeed for an example), it can be challenging to write something positive. With writer's block setting in this morning, I opened my email and received word from the convener of the Troy-area Alliance Against Hate Crime that the city of Troy, the community in which I live and serve, designated itself a Welcoming City.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Be My Witnesses -- A Lectionary Reflection for Ascension Sunday (Acts)

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” 
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

                The Easter season ends with the celebration of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Ascension Sunday doesn’t get the attention of either Easter or Pentecost, but it is important enough that the creators of the Creeds took notice:
 He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
      From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I realize that such a statement seems archaic and a reflection of an outmoded worldview. We no longer envision a three-storied universe, with God up and out there. We’ve been to the moon and back. We’ve sent space craft to the ends of the solar system. We’ve yet to find this heavenly realm out there. Yet, here we are with the story of the Ascension of Jesus staring us in the face. Now, it is true that only Luke tells this particular story of the Ascension, but does that mean it lacks importance? After all, only Luke tells the story of the continuing mission of God in the power of the Spirit (at least in narrative form).

Monday, May 22, 2017

Reinhold Niebuhr -- An American Conscience

As I watch the news, I am deeply disturbed by the chaotic nature of our political situation. Many Americans chose to throw a monkey-wrench into a broken system, perhaps hoping that it might reset things. In reality, that monkey-wrench has only made things worse. I watch as the nation I live in and love, becomes increasingly polarized. Partisans on both sides of the spectrum speak of the other in terms of good and evil. Perhaps it's my recent reading of 1 John with my Bible study group that has made me increasingly sensitive to this dualistic vision that is present in that letter, but is also present in our political debate. 

So where do we turn for guidance? I wish I could say that there were public theologians who could help us discern a better way, but there is no one with the stature today of a Reinhold Niebuhr. Whether you agree with him or not, he spoke to the great issues of his day, and his voice continues to echo into the present. The very fact, that we're learning that the now fired FBI director, James Comey, wrote his senior thesis at William and Mary College about Niebuhr, comparing his political philosophy with that of Jerry Falwell, is a good indication that maybe we should pay attention to his voice?

I finally got to watch the documentary that explores Niebuhr's life and message that has been broadcast on PBS stations. Ironically, it never got broadcast in Detroit, where Niebuhr got his start as a pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church. It was from Detroit that Niebuhr moved to Union Theological Seminary, 

In many ways Niebuhr is like Bonhoeffer, in whom one can find whatever one wishes to enhance one's position. While this is true, I believe that Niebuhr's realism is needed. Am I a Niebuhrite? I don't know. What I can say is that for sure, but I am paying greater attention to this former Detroiter! 

I direct your attention to the link below, which will take you to a full-screening video of the documentary An American Conscience at PBS. It should be available between now and September. Listen to figures such as Cornel West, Stanley Hauerwas, Jimmy Carter, Susannah Heschel, and David Brooks, among others speak of his legacy. Cornel West notes that Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society remains the most important book on religious social ethics to this day (and I've yet to read it -- I shall soon rectify that deficit).  Please take some time to view and then reflect on the legacy of this man who spoke to the reality of sin in human life. Then we might make better sense of our situation and find better ways of responding.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Sessions, Drugs, Incarceration

In yesterday's Detroit Free Press opinion section, former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade took up the U.S. Attorney General's new policy on drug prosecutions. This policy is a bit of a "back to the future" policy, in that the tough on criminals prosecutor wants to through the book at alleged drug offenders, going for the maximum penalties allowed by law. As McQuade notes, the policy failed back in the 1980s and 1990s to do anything about drugs, but it did fill up our prisons. If the policy is reinstituted it will once again fill up our prisons, often with elderly prisoners, costing the government millions of dollars. For what?

We tried the Sessions strategy in the 1980s and 1990s and it didn't work. Drugs are still prevalent.  The only difference is the number of people in prison. The federal prison population rose from about 200,000 inmates in 1970 to about 1.5 million in 2010. America is now home to five percent of the world’s population, and 25 percent of its prisoners.  What have we accomplished?  
By distrusting his own prosecutors, Sessions has set us on a course that is doomed to fail again. The drug supply will not abate, but the bills will keep coming due for generations. 
We have a mass incarceration problem in America. It especially affects communities of color, in part because the laws on the books often impact them more severely, and because the justice system still privileges those who are white, especially affluent ones.

So, here's my question: Will we make America great by filling our prisons with drug offenders,often throwing away redeemable lives and spending billions on policies that have failed in the past and will continue to fail? That is, unless we really believe in the employment possibilities that come from building more and more prisons so we can warehouse more and more of our citizens. As for me, I think there is a better way, one that deals with the demand side of the equation, empties the prisons, and allows lives and communities to be restored and redeemed. Thus, we need to say no to Jeff Sessions and say yes to the common sense vision laid out by Barbara McQuade, who during her term of office in Detroit was highly regarded (unlike the new AG in Washington).