Balance, Imperfect but Balance

Balance, Imperfect but Balance

News of the death of Senator Richard Lugar arrives.  Not surprising, but saddening.  Coming two months after the death of Senator Birch Bayh it causes me to think about the gift of balance. 

Balance — that which allows us to stand  upright and walk forward.  Balance — that which keeps us from being overwhelmed by vertigo — whether physical or ethical.  Being Hoosiers, of a certain generation, for many years in the later half of the twentieth century, we United Methodists knew these two, one a Republican and the other a Democrat.  Each different, yet each shared our common Methodist heritage.  We United Methodists watched and lived with a balance displayed in our public/political lives — and in our churches.

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Lugar and Bayh were different — yet they seemed to come as a matching set.  Lugar modeled modesty and graciousness; an intellect – a political and ethical realism; an openness to bipartisan solutions to complex national and world situations.  Bayh was passionate, a natural leader, and could light up a room with his rhetoric; he too was an informed realist, and when prepared, could debate with the best, and his drive to make a difference saw him take a lead in essential societal changes.

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Bayh’s leadership on Title 9 legislation guaranteeing equal rights for women in education, sports and commerce was a difference maker.  Lugar’s commitment to disarmament resulted in much of the nuclear arms control that emerged and his persuasion finally lead to the ending of South African Apartheid.  They both clearly understood that the “perfect could be the enemy of the good.”

Balance: it is missing from our body politic as a nation.  It is missing from United Methodism.  One cannot help but wonder as to how the nation and church moved to our current state of mean-spirited dysfunction.  As a clergy person, I can say that I have watched much of United Methodism in Indiana move away from the welcoming of difference, the welcoming balance, in our faith life and practice.  I have watched as we have had bishops and pastors who were too fearful of conflict to understand the gifts Lugar and Bayh modeled for us as a nation and a church. 

One recent bishop in Indiana now wonders what happened to the “Methodist Middle” and I chuckle.  I watched as honest debate was stifled and only one limited model for being church promoted.  Cautious theological conservatism and focus on seeking the magic formula for “congregational development” was promoted over emphasis on the denomination’s social witness and honest public debate or support for church ministries with the poor or marginalized persons.  We increasingly became a church in Indiana that placed our resources and commitments toward white, suburban, conservative enclaves.  Expressed differences, and openness to other views  — like those modeled by Lugar and Bayh — were discouraged. 

Why for example were certain “preferred,” certain “more conservative” congregations allowed to thumb their noses at the giving to larger denominational causes (something we call a tithe or an apportionment)?  This preference and lack of accountability didn’t go on for a year or two, no, but for decades. Meanwhile such giving was expected by ALL others.  Other congregations, progressives and moderates, were never offered this same “tolerance.” In other words — the progressives and moderate congregations carried the financial responsibilities for all — freeing up resources for those who were more exclusionary in their perspectives and practices to invest.

I watched as decisions were made that moved United Methodism in Indiana to a more fundamentalist and exclusionary stance — preferred over encouraging honest listening and learning from one another about our differences and a seeking of balance.   I am not naive enough to miss the fact that the nation as a whole was drifting toward more bitter language and divisive understandings.  Or, that some leaders do their best to avoid as much conflict as possible — meaning they give more space to the louder voices of “so-called-traditionalists” backed by the political and media sway of the Institute for Religion and Democracy or the so-called Good News or Confessing organizations.  So, it is understandable that leaders might surround themselves with persons who did not search for the balance valued by a Lugar or a Bayh — an ability to seek compromise while still moving ahead.

It required balance to move forward and not end up in a cul-de-sac of narrow-mindedness — something our denomination is seeking just now.  I fear it may be too late… but if there is a way forward, we do have the gift, the model, of two men, Lugar and Bayh, both United Methodists, who brought very different gifts and perspectives.  Yet both made our nation better for their service.  I give thanks for them — and pray for balance to be regained in our nation and our church.

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What you take into your Hands, You take into your heart

Via Hand and Heart: Part II

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The Knotted Gun sculpture by Carl Fredrik Reutersward, United Nations, New York

 December 14th, 2012.  Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut.  It has been three years — such horror.  If there were ever evidence that we are following a misguided path regarding access to guns in our nation, Newtown is the evidence.

Twenty-seven murdered.  Children, teachers, a principal — all sacrificed to our nation’s inability to think or act rationally to protect the innocents.

In the early autumn of 2013, ten months after the tragedy, I was invited to preach in a congregation in downstate Illinois.  During the sermon on the text of “reaping and sowing,” I spoke of our inability to address the gun violence in our culture.  At that point, ten months after the Sandy Hook murders, Congress was still unable to offer even the slightest form of intelligent response of healing or hope for an alternative approach.

Following the worship service a well-spoken gentleman approached.  He didn’t appear angry but he did begin by saying he wanted to disagree with the sermon.  “Okay,” I said, “Please share; I am eager to learn.”  At this point he said that I should not have mentioned guns — “talk about violence, if you must, but when you make it ‘gun violence’ you make it political.  People can also hurt others with a knife.” He went on “if more people were armed the innocent could be protected from the crazies.” 

I was speechless, frightened really.   I didn’t want to have an argument right there in the fellowship hall.  A long pause followed.  I prayed.  He was obviously a sincere, intelligent man — one who had the courage to speak of his disagreement.  After what seemed like an eternity, I reached out and took his hand, still not knowing what to say.  Then, these words came, “How long have you worshiped fire arms?  Is it possible that you may have substituted trust in guns for trust in God?”  To my surprise he squeezed my hand and instead of taking up the argument he said, “I’ll have to think about that” and dropped his head.

Later I found out that this man was active in state politics… If he changed his perspective on the gun lobby his work would be in jeopardy.  He too was frightened.

The scripture lessons at Christmas tell the story of the birth of Jesus, yes.  There is more.  This story continues as it moves toward the story of the slaughter of the innocents and Jesus’ family becoming refugees to avoid his murder.  Herod sends out word that all the male infants should be killed.  I am reminded of the cover of the New York Post the day following the Sandy Hook tragedy.

tumblr_mf2xwj6iFj1rv4aqro1_1280Congress continues to give more protection to gun owners than to the innocent ones who face the terror of sick, troubled and misguided folks who find it easier to own a gun than have a license to drive a car.  We are not helpless… even in the face of difficult odds against change.  Let me suggest that you look to the work of the Brady Center at Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

In Part I of this reflection I spoke of the movie Witness and the scene where the grandfather Eli is speaking with young Samuel about the gun he has found.  He says to the child “What we take into our hands we take into our hearts.”  This is one of two scenes I will always remember.

When the movie first came out in 1985, I was teaching an urban studies class for future pastors in Chicago.  One afternoon the class went to see the movie and then came back to discuss it together.  There were about twenty students in the class, approximately half of them were from the Mennonite or Brethren traditions.  The other students were a mix of Presbyterian, Baptist, Reformed and Methodist. 

The discussion turned to the second unforgettable scene for me from the movie.   It is near the end of the film.  Gunmen come to the Amish farm to track down and kill Detective Book and members of the Lapp family who witnessed a murder in Philadelphia.  What ensues is dramatic, haunting and amazing all rolled into one.  I won’t spoil you by giving you the ending of the movie, but I want to share the reactions from my class to one scene in particular.  The grandfather is facing an approaching gunman.  He looks into another room where Samuel can see him as he motions.  Grandfather Lapp’s hand is out at his side, clenched and moving slightly up and down.  The boy understands and runs to perform the unspoken task. 

In the debriefing of the movie Witness with that class in 1985, I asked how many thought the grandfather was signaling for Samuel to go ring the bell to gather the neighbors.  All of the Mennonite and Brethren students raised their hands.  I asked how many thought the signal was to go get the gun… almost all of the rest of us thought it was signal to get the gun.

The difference in what was seen by the two groups continues to haunt.  One group had grown up knowing the power of community when faced with danger; others of us had learned to prefer force and power.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unwrapping an Early Christmas Gift

Christmas 2015: A Pageant of Imagination

How will church nativity pageants be different in 2015?   Should we check the visas of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus before they process down the church aisle?   Or, should they be detained before they sit beside the manger scene in the chancel?  After all, these three family members were “outsiders” threatened by terror.  They were vetted by the authorities and found to be dangerous.  As a result, they became refugees.

You remember this part of the story, don’t you?  As a nation we in the United States seem to forget or perhaps simply say, “Well, that was then and this is now.”  Right?  Well, no, not really.

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Rembrandt’s rendering of “The Flight into Egypt”

 

The fears generated by tragic events in Paris this past week have resulted in U.S. political leaders loosing their ability to think clearly.  To call the response “knee-jerk” is disrespectful to knees everywhere!  The ignorance and intolerance displayed by folks like Donald Trump are not worthy of a great nation like ours.

Suddenly, our greatest fear is the 10,000 Syrian refugees who are being forced by terror to seek new homes?  While Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are accepting millions of displaced refugees, we proud Americans, who are an ocean away, can’t welcome 10,000 who have been screened for nearly two years — and these are persons who are going to be placed with resettlement organizations most of which are religious groups with long histories of working with such refugees. 

Members of the House of Representatives quickly pass a bill that is designed to target persons based on their religion.  It is an astonishing nod to the bigotry and ignorance of the cheap seats in the American electorate.  It has been said by many and it is true — “we are better than this.”

However, rather than writing a screed on the small mindedness behind the statements and legislation that has been proposed, I choose to believe that these events just might be an early Christmas present, waiting to be unwrapped.  An early Christmas gift to be shared at our Thanksgiving dinner tables.  There is the opportunity here for imagination, for those who will be guided by thought, prayer, a clear-eyed view of our history to offer another version — not of who the Syrian refugees are, but who we are, especially if we are persons of faith.

I think of heroes like Colorado Governor Ralph Carr, who was faced with the demands of the Roosevelt administration to set up detention camps for Japanese Americans in his state.  Carr, a conservative Republican was shaped more by his Christian faith than political expediency.  He said, “No, not here, not on my watch” and he paid the price of losing an upcoming election to the U.S. Senate.  Today if you visit Denver you will see that the state judicial building is named for Ralph Carr in recognition an ethical clarity, drawn from  his faith, that allowed him to stand for justice against the popularity of bigotry on the march.

If you watch the news carefully, you will see politicians already coming to terms with their reactive bigotry.  News speak is that they are “walking back statements made about Syrian refugees.”  The mayor of Roanoke, Virginia is an example of one who had to change his suggestion that we go back to camps like those used to detain Japanese Americans during WW II.  Presidential candidate Ben Carson now says he regrets speaking of the refugees with a rabid dog analogy.  Fear is a powerful emotion mixed with self-interest in which human beings sometimes get lost in the worst of our impulses.

These events, put together, provide the occasion to think more holistically and imaginatively about how to proceed.  Should we accept Syrian refugees that are carefully screened.  Absolutely, YES… and I think we should welcome even more. 

HOWEVER, this is only a start — there are dozens of other things that might be done in the United States and in other parts of the world to humanely address this crises.  How do we assist those in Jordan and Lebanon and Turkey who have borne the brunt of the tragedy in Syria?  How do we assist those in Europe facing these challenges?  Now is not the time to play the tortoise by hiding inside our shell.   

The nations of the world no doubt will make increasing military responses to ISIS.  There are arguments to be made as to what might be done and how.  Again there will be dozens of ways to respond.  As for me, there will need to be a witness against war and violence — as our continuing “go to” solution to every dangerous and hostile situation.  Didn’t we get here by trusting too much in overusing the military as a solution to everything?

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James J. Tissot’s “The Flight to Egypt”

 

This week, let’s join one another in unwrapping an early Christmas present at the Thanksgiving table.  Make this your early gift — encourage imagination.  Help others remember that our Christmas pageants are more than little parades of children in bathrobes and silly hats.   Laugh, play and retell the Christmas narrative in fullness, including the parts about a refugee family driven from their home.