imageEvery so often you are privileged to witness shifts in history as they occur. That was true for me as I sat in the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) on Sunday evening, July 9.

Rev. Teresa Hord Evans was elected as the General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). This is a renewable six year term. She follows Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins who completed a twelve year term.

Teresa is a graduate of Harvard and the University of Chicago Divinity School where she later served as Dean of Students. She is the first African American woman to serve in the highest post of the church, a first among all Christian denominations in the United States and Canada. She takes her place as a pace-setter alongside Sharon Watkins, who was the first female head of communion among the many Christian denominations.

What a deep drink from the well of sanity and sanctity! I’m here with friends, gathering with the tribe of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) at the General Assembly in Indianapolis. With what is swirling in the world at present it is satisfying and inspiring to reconnect with a wholly different story and affirmation of what life really means and the terms of engagement for this time.  Much of this is simply restating the core values of faith, justice and deep community.

Sharon Watkins has just finished a twelve year term of service as our General Minister and President.  She has been a steady and inspired presence at her post. Many of us remember when she was the preacher at the Innagural worship service in the National Cathedral for President Obama.  Sharon was the first female “Head of Communion” in the nation – now joined by several other women in other denominations who occupy the highest post. One of the most powerful tributes I heard given to Sharon was that she made the fact of a woman serving in the church at this level “normal.” Yes she did. So much so that our next GMP will also be a woman and an African American woman at that.  We  will pass the baton to Rev Teresa Hord Owens at the close of the Assembly.

When the national/international tribe of church gathers it is always a time for high festival celebration. That includes the best and brightest worship and that was certainly true for the opening night of the Assembly. It was refreshing to hear that unity is not real unity unless it is unity shaped by justice. In a time when that message is mostly absent from national discourse we were heartened to remember who we are and who we are meant to be.

In addition to countless reunions with colleagues and church folk from across the years the Assembly is a magnificent gathering of the whole church in all its diversity. In local congregations we often lose track of our remarkable ethnic and geographic richness. Our brothers and sisters who live and minister in many varied contexts do so in ways we cannot, and that is the point. Together we are a potent force for the activity of the Spirit in a universal kind of way. Our ecumenical and international relationships are rich. Our reach into every aspect of society is broad. We are not alone.

This morning we worship at Central Christian Church and hear William Barber bring the word. He has been a voice for faithful engagement for justice in our time. We can’t hear that message too much.

Return and Repair

Posted: July 1, 2017 in Uncategorized

As the young woman walked down the stairs into the basement she noticed that it was the same as always, yet not the same as always. Sitting beneath the small window at the workbench, was her grandfather, bent over his work. She smelled the mixing fragrances of oil, wood shavings, gasoline and grass clippings. It was just like always except for one thing; her grandfather died years ago.

Standing beside the bench she could hear his raspy breathing. He spoke without lifting his eyes from his work. “I’ve been waiting for you to come.”

She stood silently, waiting. “Years ago I went to the shop and found a wooden chain, one I had carved from one piece of pine, broken, one link cracked. I never asked and you never told.”

After what seemed like an eternity she cleared her throat. “Yes, Grampa, I was playing and using the chain as a whip and it broke. I put it up and never told anyone.” She held her breath, anticipating the worst.

“You are not to worry about breaking it,” he said as he continued to sand. “That broken link represents a terrible loss you would endure in your life. Do you know which one?”

The young woman nodded yes.

At that Grandfather turned away from the bench and handed her the wooden chain with the link repaired. “Sometimes time heals, but not always. The most important healer is love because it is timeless. And that’s why you came back.”

She carried the wooden chain carefully up the stairs, walked to the living room and placed it on the mantle right beside the urn with the ashes in it.

They were perfect side by side.

Sometimes the issue du jour is living in your own back yard. That is the case with the recent Supreme Court case of Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri. The issue was whether that congregation was eligible to receive funds for the development of a playground through the Department of Conservation if it satisfied all application requirements. It had in fact satisfied the requirements but was denied anyway because Missouri’s Constitution denies state funding for religious organizations. The high court ruled in the church’s favor saying that it goes too far when public funds are denied for a cause as secular as a playground.

Even as a pastor and one who frequently comes down on the side protections of religious freedom, I have problems with the ruling. I’m glad the church is getting its rubberized playground surface. I am, however, unconvinced by the high court’s ruling.

The Constitutional question, of course, has to do with the First Amendment and its “non establishment” clause and “free exercise” clause. Government shall not establish any one religious organization nor shall it prohibit the free practice of any religious organization. The founders, in particular Thomas Jefferson, elucidated the principle behind the amendment as being one of separation between church and state. That is, they shall not be too intermingled – either positively or negatively.

The put this in context the Supreme Court has ruled in the past that government money might not be used to specifically fund scholarships for religious training. That would be direct government support of a religiously sectarian effort. Church playgrounds, though, have now fallen into another category, classed along with other community organizations with public facilities.

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley and Governor Eric Greitens applauded the decision. They, like a majority of the high court, fall on the side of what they would call religious liberty and against unfair treatment of churches simply because they are religious organizations.

Here is why I have problems with this and it is both a Constitutional argument and a theological one.

The free exercise clause prohibits any effort to block any form of religious expression. This was a corrective that the founders found essential as they experienced the opposite in the countries of their origins. Too often minority religions were persecuted mightily. In the case of a state church, non-authorized religions were seen as as illegal and immoral for state and church. Our founders knew they must protect religious freedom from religious tyranny.

Free exercise, however, is not absolute. Other laws may supersede this. In the case of the Branch Davidians, for example, laws about child endangerment superseded free exercise of religion; just because this is part of your religious practice that does not mean that it is acceptable according to other laws of the land. Free exercise is not absolute.

And here is where the problem begins. The Trinity Lutheran Church playground case was not about persecution, mass discrimination or the suppression of free exercise. None of that was in play. The case was not primarily about the free exercise clause – thought arguments presented it in that way. Rather, it was about the non-establishment clause.

Should state money, government money, be used to support any religious organization? The answer based on past rulings tends to be that exceptions may be made for government money channeled to churches if the uses of that money are designated for a community non-religious good, like the distribution of food, clothing and other resources. And they extended that reasoning to things like playgrounds.

Lots of kids from the neighborhood could use it, they said. But that is not really the core issue. This is the church’s playground used primarily for its congregation and its programs. Would we say at my congregation that everything in the church is religious and created with religious intent except the playground? We would not. We would never say that the playground is separate, that it’s secular. No, it is seen as part and parcel of our entire church’s mission and ministry.

I would say that by using government money to support a church in the development of a playground they are indeed violating the non-establishment clause and the principle of separation of church and state. You see, it’s not really about a playground – that’s just the presenting issue. This judgement is biased and tilting toward something else.

For all the “school choice” people who welcome government support of religious schools this is a convenient step in that direction. As a matter of fact that position is now being articulated by our Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, who wants more money directed to school vouchers for religious schools. And that is how a judgement about a church playground is about more than a church playground.

I think we should be expecting more and more disregard of the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment. What we will see instead is more language about the free-exercise clause, hyperbole on steroids. Keeping the balance of those two is important but that balance is being diluted with this recent Supreme Court judgement on the Trinity Lutheran Church Playground.

Oh, I would be derelict not to mention the greatest irony of the moment: All of this is being brought to you compliments of the same people who are most often in the “states rights” camp. They don’t want some runaway federalism forced down on the states. Except they don’t seem to mind disregarding Missouri State Constitution when it draws a line in the sand between church, state and funding. But in this case, when it suits their purposes, I suppose it’s just fine to ignore it.

On Making Sandwiches

Posted: June 24, 2017 in Uncategorized

This morning the paper towels were torn off the roller and floated onto the kitchen counter. Each little section took its place in the temporary runner to hold the slices of bread. The hands pulled the bread out of the plastic bag and laid each piece gently upon the bed of white. The assembly line moved each portion of the sandwich to its appointed destination, some peanut butter here, some jelly there.

Sometime between when the towels were lying all naked on the counter and they had received their first adornment it arose, the memory of another kitchen in a house from my youth. The hands that placed bread upon paper towels were those of my father. He was preparing sack lunches for his sons before they went to school. His posture was slightly bent over, like a watch maker inspecting the springs. These were his hands and not those of his wife, our mother, because her hands were now finally, eternally at rest. And he made the sandwiches.

Time and experience are sage teachers; a moment from youth is never seen the same from the vantage point of maturity. At the time I couldn’t have been less interested in such a sandwich making enterprise. Isn’t that what parents do, make sandwiches? Only now can I see that his frame was bent by loneliness and sadness over that counter. Only now do I wonder what he was thinking as he spread mayo on the bread and topped it with baloney. What does a widower feel as he makes sandwiches for hungry sons who are so focused on themselves they hardly notice him?

Much of what we do we do because we must, because if we don’t do it no one will. We try to do the right thing whether our heart is in it or not. And if we feel too sorry for ourselves we try to give up that pity party for Lent. But other times our busy hands let our minds and hearts drift up and out to places unknown to sons or daughters or friends or bosses or neighbors. They just think we’re making sandwiches.

In times like that, with paper towels on the counter, his mind may have actually been traveling back to the first time he handed her a sandwich on a napkin at a picnic on a summer day. And maybe she dabbed the napkin at the corner of her mouth and they laughed together in that dreamy young kind of way.

“Here, don’t forget your lunch,” he called out to the boys on the way to the bus.

“Thanks, Dad, see you tonight.”

“Yes, have a good day.”

 

 

We are now witnessing draconian cuts to state funded programs across the board, the most notable recent example being to the Missouri university system. Public education on all levels is taking the hit. It is not good for our citizens or society. It is not accidental. Why is this?

The immediate and simple answer is “necessary budget cuts.” Missouri legislators and administration reply, “These are the cards we’ve been dealt, now we have to be responsible money managers.”

No, these are the cards you dealt yourselves. How? Through a multi-year effort to reduce state taxes. Why this rush to the bottom when Missouri is already moving toward the basement when compared to other states?

The immediate obvious answer is the legislature. They made these decisions. So two questions: Why are they there and why are vast tax cuts part of their political orthodoxy?

The answer to both of those questions have to do with corruption and money in the state of Missouri. It undermines our democracy. This is a moral issue that affects all citizens regardless of party affiliation.

Our Legislature voted to release itself from ethics constraints pertaining to campaign contributions and lobbying gifts. And boy has the money flowed. The money has flowed from several Missouri mega-wealthy families and corporations. The money has flowed from lobbyist gifts. Big monied concerns have bought and paid for our politicians. They get them elected and keep them elected. They replace them when they don’t toe their line. We have legislative chambers filled with political prostitutes who have no accountability to their people.

These same monied power brokers pushed the agenda on cutting our already low state taxes. They pushed this agenda and expected their puppet representatives and senators to do the same – and they did. And that’s why we are facing a state-wide financial crisis. Don’t delude yourself, this is the reason.

But wait, there’s more. If you thought that was enough corruption, thank you very much, think again.

State district maps are drawn by a commission appointed by the political party in power. They draw the maps after the census. And when they draw those lines they do it in a way that sitting politicians cannot be defeated in future elections. They do not have to be responsive to their constituents. This is called gerrymandering. And it is endemic in Missouri.

How do we undo this corruption? Several essential steps must be taken. It will require a ballot measure for all citizens because you can’t put it in the hands of the fox who is guarding the hen house, the legislature and their monied Johns.

Eliminate almost all lobbyist gifts in the General Assembly.

Require politicians to wait two years before becoming lobbyists.

Lower campaign contribution limits for state legislative candidates to limit the      influence of big money and lobbyists in state government.

Require that legislative records be open to the public.

Ensure that neither political party is given an unfair advantage when new maps are drawn after the next census.

There is no mystery as to why we are experiencing what we are in the state of Missouri. There is vast corruption in our system. This is a deeply moral issue that should alarm all our citizens. And restoring justice will require citizens defying the monied powers that continue to control us and persuade us that this is really all for our own good.

 

In an era in which war has been glorified, glamorized, popularized, sensationalized and romanticized, anything that even resembles its reality has often been lost – so say those who actually know the untethered beast, the monster that rampages through the dust of civilizations. As of late a slender sheaf of authors have written with true personal knowledge of its reality. And of those some write with large and informed views. One of those is Karl Marlantes.

Marlantes is a graduate of Yale and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. He served as a Marine Lieutenant in Vietnam, airdropped into the highlands of Vietnam in 1968 at the age of twenty-three, in charge of a platoon of forty Marines. He killed the enemy. He watched his men die. And he and some came home to live with the invisible wounds of it for decades.

What it is like to go to War is personal, honest, philosophical and moral to its core. Anyone who dares to reflect deeply on Mars the god of war does well to read it. It is not easy, but it is true. And I leave you with one quote to ponder on this Memorial Day:

“The more aware we are of war’s costs, not just in death and dollars, but also in shattered minds, souls, and families, the less likely we will be to waste our most precious asset and our best weapon: our young…The substitute for war is not peace; peace is a seldom-achieved political state of being. The substitutes are spirituality, love, art, and creativity…As long as there are people who will kill for gain and power, or who are simply insane, we will need people called warriors who are willing to kill to stop them…Warriors must always know the people they are protecting and why. They must undertake the personal responsibility for deciding when to kill and for what higher cause. This implies a commitment to a cause beyond self-interests, or even national interest alone.” (256)