A wide spot in my imagination.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Laughing, Happy Sinners Wanted

"A place where sinners laugh at themselves and make other people happy.”

What is the church all about these days? Why does the church exist? Why am I a Christian? Why are you, dear reader, a Christian (if you are)?

I suppose these questions have always been important and have been asked in various ways for the last 2000 years or so. But ever so often they take on new relevance.

A church member here preached a very fine sermon last Sunday tackling those very questions. His sister (a minister) had emailed that his nephew (a cradle roll Presbyterian) had become a teenaged agnostic or maybe even an atheist. The sister was trying to figure out if the church was worth sticking with.

On a plane last week, I read Phyllis Tickle's book, The Great Emergence. She rips through a rollicking list of changes in the past 200 years -- from evolutionary science to the role of women to technology to transcience -- all of which have changed the church and have asked questions about the role of the church.

At the same time, the church where I serve is growing in this amorphous, willy-nilly kind of way that is invigorating and challenging. We probably need a larger building. But before we start mixing mortar, we thought it would be a good idea to think about, and maybe answer, the questions above.

So we began a formal process of trying to jot down a few sentences that define our church's values, our mission, and our vision.

Last night, a group of thoughtful souls sat around a table and bantered about vision. We were sort of working with the starting point, "In 3-5 years, United Christian Church will be..."

We talked and wrote and compiled lists and sample sentences filled with very good ideas. Our working premise is that church serves a three-fold purpose: It's a place for all people (emphasis on ALL) to enter, be welcomed, be included. Once they're here, the church is a place for healing, learning, growing. Third, we have a vision of our church as a "ministry center" -- a place that is a hub of all sorts of needs-meeting work and encourages people to do that work.

In trying to articulate all of that succinctly and compellingly, we were earnest...and wordy. The folks around the table were also funny and open-hearted.

At various points, we talked about the importance of fun, laughter, imperfection and passion in a church. Based on that, I tossed out a tongue-in-cheek vision statement: "United Christian Church is a place where sinful people come to laugh at themselves and make other people happy."

Not exactly high-faluting. Certainly not traditional. Possibly even a little shocking to some. But I like. I think it captures the three-fold vision we were exploring.

No doubt our vision writing group, with input from the larger congregation, will, in time, craft a more poetic, evocative formal vision statement. In the meantime, I'm holding on to this one as an informal mantra of who the church is called to be: "Sinful people who come together to laugh at themselves and make other people happy."

Can I get an, "Amen"?

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

God as Western Union Boy?

Dear Pat, Glenn and Michele:

I hope it's okay that I use your first names. Your chatty TV sermons, radio broadcasts, and stump speeches give me a first-name-basis kind of feeling. If not, please insert Rev. Robertson, Mr. Beck, and Congresswoman Bachmann. Call me Tim.
Now that the niceties are over with, loosen up. Or at least, let God loose.

Last week, each of you told us what God was up to. Rev. Robertson, you said that the East Coast earthquake was a sign from God. Mr. Beck, you said that Hurricane Irene was a "blessing." And Congresswoman Bachmann, you said that the hurricane was a message from God.
Your comments shouldn't be a big surprise. After all, Mr. Robertson, a few years ago you blamed a hurricane in Haiti on someone's pact with devil. And you agreed with Jerry Falwell when he blamed the September 11 attacks on the ACLU and others. Mr. Beck, you compared the Norwegian kids who were shot at summer camp to Hitler youth. And Mrs. Bachmann, you blamed swine flu on Democrats and Jimmy Carter, even though it first popped up when Republican Gerald Ford was president.
But this go 'round you all three spoke for God. And wrongly, I think. In the process you trapped God, limited God, confined God.
You trapped God with old-timey images. By portraying God as using the elements for vindictive purposes, you echoed some of the language of the Bible, where God kills to send a message or uses the sun as a weapon. Yes, those images are scriptural. But they were written by people who thought the earth was flat, who thought leviathan lives in the ocean, who thought giants roamed the woods, who thought that cutting off the enemies' foreskin was good public policy. So, yes, the ancients thought God used bears and winds and rivers to send messages. But that picture of God is more like Zeus than like the One Who Was And Is And Ever Shall Be. You've trapped God on a flat-earth or up on a cloud hurling lightning bolts. Let God loose among the particles of physics and the dust of galaxies and the iPods of today.

You've also limited God to the job of messenger, sort of like Hermes or the Western Union boy. Your God just tosses around natural disasters to warn and punish or say, "Look at me." Free God from her day job to live as full-time Mystery, Ground of Being, the Great I Am.

Third, the image of God you present is, well, just plain mean. Granted, Congresswoman Bachmann, you said your words were just a joke. But still, the idea of God who kills children, destroys buildings, and ruins lives? Ouch. The writers of the Bible mention God's steadfast love hundreds of times. God is gracious and kind and slow to anger, the words says. Part of the Bible even uses some pretty sexy talk to describe a God who is intent on some pleasureful stuff. (Now that would get your ratings up in the polls, people.) And my favorite sentence in the Bible simply says, "God is love."

So, Pat and Glenn and Michele, thanks for reading. Let God go.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

In the event of a hurricane, don't call Ron Paul

Ron Paul is an interesting fellow. The Libertarian-leaning Republican Congressman and presidential candidate is often lauded for being honest, authentic, clear-thinking and the like. His bluntness often leaves political-watchers shaking their heads.

And with Hurricane Irene bearing down on the East Coast, Mr. Paul did not disappoint. He says that we don't need FEMA or any other federal response to the hurricane. He said, "We should be like 1900." Then he mentioned Galveston, which was battered brutally by the 1900 hurricane.

At worst, Mr. Paul's ideas come across as uncaring. If your fellow citizens -- in Texas, along the East Coast, wherever you aren't -- suffer, too bad. You can help them if chose, but you're under no obligation if you think they don't deserve your money. Or if you're just not interested. Let 'em fend for themselves, Paul seems to be saying.

On another level, Congressman Paul missed out on some history. His implication is that we don't need federal assistance for disasters in 2011 because we didn't have it in 1900.

Granted, we didn't have FEMA. And we didn't have the Internet, cell phones, weather radar systems and the other things that go into modern day storm-chasing and storm-fleeing. But Galveston did have federal help following the 1900 hurricane.

The advance warning of the hurricane was less than a day. But that warning came from the U.S. Weather Bureau -- a federal entity. The federal government helped save lives.

Congressman Paul's comments also seem to imply Galvestonians happily facing that storm on their own. Not so. Major Lloyd Randoloph Dewitt Fayling coordinated the relief effort in Galveston. At the time, Major Fayling said, “The situation demands federal aid. It demanded it from the very first…. The disaster is so great and so terrible no municipal authority in the country could be expected to handle it unaided.”

And the federal government responded. The United States government sent money, supplies, and army troops -- troops who did some of the things that FEMA and other aid workers do today.

And, after the hurricane subsided, it was the federal government -- specifically the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- who built the first seawall to protect Galveston from future floods.

My hunch is that many people in Galveston were glad to see their federal dollars at work saving lives, giving aid to the devastated, and rebuilding their city in safer ways. Seems like that's what a government should do.

So, Congressman Paul may actually be right: "We should be like 1900," where individuals, city officials, state officials, and federal officials all chip in to help in the event of a natural disaster.

But if I'm ever faced with a hurricane pressing down on my house, I don't think I'll call Ron Paul. He may not feel like helping that day. Oh, and he might not have had a phone in 1900 anyway.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Hippopotamus Walks into a Pastor's Office

A real-life story from inside the pastor's office and inside my mind....

So there I was sitting in my office, checking email, planning ahead, and honestly getting ready for a little vacation next week.
The doorbell rings. It's the church insurance agent wanting to take a few pictures for their file and to drop off our renewal estimate. Turns out we have about a $1.5 million worth of stuff that her company will insure if we pay them about $7000 a year. Fair enough, I think.
We talk about our church's sexual abuse prevention policy, she gives me a CD about crime-proofing our sanctuary, we talk about payment dates and about possibly increasing our workers' compensation coverage. The typical "business" of the church.
I thank the insurance agent, she leaves me a card to email her some follow-up information, and as I walk her out of the office, in walk two more persons: Samuel and Ntombikayise Mkhonta. Samuel Mkhonta is the Bishop of the Kukhany'okusha Zion Church (KZC) in Swaziland. Ntombikayise is an active worker in the life of that church as well. They are visiting the States for awhile.
We talk.
The bishop tells me about some of their church "business."
The KZC is working to feed orphans in Swaziland, a country where 30% of the children are parent-less due to a staggering death rate caused by HIV/AIDS. The church set out to feed approximately 300 kids one simple meal a day. They find themselves feeding almost 600 children a day, until they run out of money, the bishop says.
The KZC is also trying to support elderly people who have few resources and little help. The church gives the elderly corn meal that they hope will last for three months. It rarely does.
To offset the soaring unemployment rate, the church is using volunteers to make the soup that is fed to the orphans. The pay these food preparers receive is a month's worth of detergent.
Bishop Mkhonta is funny man, dedicated, passionate, clear-eyed. He tells me a story about being attacked by a hippo while baptizing church members in a river. I think back to my earlier conversation about workers' compensation insurance.
The bishop tells me about ten year-old orphans who are the heads of their households. The households really have no houses, just mud and stick make-shifts that wash away when the rains come. I glance, self-consciously at the 12 pages of legal jargon sitting on my desk describing our "multi peril property protection." Seems to me a ten year-old trying to feed younger siblings in a mud shack is "multi peril."
I give the Mkhontas a quick tour of our $1.5 million worth of sheetrock and shingles and pews and carpet. Bishop Mkhonta is most interested in our baptismal pool. Seems he would like something similar for his church in Swaziland. Not only to stay away from hippos (see above), but also because the last time he baptized people in a flooded, polluted river, he contracted some kind of disease. My run-through of our insurance policy had reminded me that our church has no flood insurance. Probably wouldn't cover infectious, baptismally-contracted diseases anyway.

The bishop and his wife left.

I sat down to glance back through the insurance forms. But the words all ran together. Other words started rattling around in my head: juxtaposition, geography, blessing, fairness, justice, injustice, unfairness, ministry, contrast, calling. Those words swirled around and around each other until one word emerged: wrong.
That word was tattooed on the side of a giant hippopotamus splashing through the muddy waters of my troubled mind.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The trinitarian formula of a forgetful mind

I'm forgetful, or lazy, or absent-minded, or something.

For most of my life, I've been forgetting things. Growing up, it was my homework and jackets. By the time I graduated from high school, I had probably lost a dozen or more coats.

As an adult, it's car keys, billfolds and cell phones. I never lose them, but I often forget them. Leave them places. Set them down somewhere "important" (such as the freezer or the bumper of the car), then wander off. I spend a lot of time searching for them.

Then I find them and off we go again.

Most days when I leave the house, I have a little ritual. I pat three pockets to see that I have my three things: front right pocket: phone; front left pocket: keys; back right pocket: wallet.

Yesterday, as I was doing my triple check, it occurred to me this was some kind of modern genuflection: a bow to my own humble humanity. But rather than crossing myself, I'm patting myself: Sort of a mix between a TSA pat down and some kind of ritual observance in honor of forgetfulness. Odd, I know. But that's how my mind works.

Then it dawned on me that my three necessary objects -- phone, keys, and wallet -- are some kind of trinitarian formula. I just haven't determined their metaphysical meaning yet. Oh well, scholars and theologians have been haggling over explaining the Christian Trinity with equally unsatisfactory meanings for a long time, so I figure I've got a couple of thousand years yet to work it all out.

Your thoughts are welcome as to the meaning of this all.

In the meantime, let me see how I add my newest object to lose: reading glasses, the curse of being over 40. Three pairs I own, and none to be found. Oh, maybe they're in the car.

Let's see, where did I put my keys...

Friday, April 22, 2011

Pulling Teeth, the Rutter "Requiem" and Good Friday

When I was a child, I hated having my baby teeth pulled out. I was much happier with a bloody, gnarly, hanging-by-a-sinew mess than I was with the brief ounce of agony it took to make way for a new tooth to sprout.

Tonight, my eight year-old daughter pulled out a tooth as our church choir sang the last movement of John Rutter’s “Requiem.” In the instant of the gentle instrumental interlude as the piece segues from a soloist singing, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord,” to the chorus singing, “Lux aeterna luceat eis Domine,” (“Light eternal shine on us, God”) my daughter quietly pulled out her lower right canine.

Then she held it up and grinned.

Thanks to a miracle of life that I understand biologically, but am amazed by emotionally, the new growth pushed aside the old.

It’s funny how we people hang on to old ways. I was at a meeting of school parents last week to talk about a new program for kids. The main objection many parents seemed to have to the new program is that it’s not the old program.

Ain’t that how life is, though? I don’t like asparagus, a child whines. How do you know, the parent asks, you’ve never had it?

And far worse are the old ways to which humanity at-large clings: Killing, war, violence, retribution, neglect, gossip, greed. Soul-killers, all. That we crave.

Once upon a time, a new voice sang out with hope. The powers of the old ways thought the tried-but-probably-not-true path was best. “Kill the new kid,” the empire shouted. “Hammer him up to an old fence post outside of town, then stick him with a butcher knife strapped on a broomstick.”

And they did. And he died.

But something happened. And some of the people standing around saw something even newer. In vulnerability and weakness, they saw the pathway to new life. Some of the people, not all, saw that suffering love offers a transformative power that outweighs the fence posts and butcher knives of crucifixion. Some of the people saw that forgiveness outweighs fighting. Some of the people saw a new kind of power—the old kind of power says that the best you can do is to stomp on everybody and everything that troubles you; the new kind of power loves the stomped-on, the standers-by, and even the stompers.

Somewhere about the time somebody sang, “Blessed are the dead,” an old growth gave way to new life. That’s Good Friday, the instant of the gentle segue, just before the angel chorus, or some such group, burst out with, “Light eternal.”

I’d like to think that God held up a tooth and grinned.

Note: The third paragraph from the end owes much to some writing by Walter Brueggemann.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Payday Lending Testimony

Yesterday I testified at the Texas House of Representatives Committee on Investments, Pensions and Financial Services about the need for payday lending reform in Texas. Below is a copy of my prepared remarks (my spoken testimony was a bit different):

Testimony of

Rev. Timothy B. Tutt

Pastor, United Christian Church

Austin, Texas

To the State of Texas House of Representatives

Committee on Invesments, Pensions, and Financial Services

Regarding Payday Lending legislation

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Madame Chairman, Members of the Committee:

I am the pastor of United Christian Church here in Austin. Quite frankly one of the things that I do as the pastor of a church is worry. I worry about church members when their loved ones die or are sick. I worry about couples I counsel with when they are getting divorced. I worry about church members who are in the hospital facing huge bills.

And I worry about people when they lose their jobs.

You know, of course, that schools are facing huge budget cuts. We have several – maybe 25 or 30 – teachers in our congregation. So I’m worried about those teachers.

Three of our church members teach at Northwest Elementary School, in the Pflugerville School District. That school may lose four teachers dues to budget cuts. So there is a lot of stress and distress at that school.

Then in the middle of all of that worrying, these flyers showed up in the school mailboxes. Flyers from a local payday lending establishment were mailed to every teacher in that school offering them “fast cash.”

If you read the fine print, the flyer says, “The APR for a $360 Advance is 533%.” The print is tiny, but at least it’s there – but that is appalling: 533%. And the flyer was sent to elementary school teachers who are afraid they are going to lose their jobs or have their salaries cut.

Madame Chairwoman, Members of this Committee: That is wrong. This is one example of the payday lending industry preying on fears and offering quick fixes that simply sink people further into debt.

What this flyer promotes may currently be legal. And they may have even told the truth in the tiny little font at the bottom. But it is immoral.

As the pastor of a Christian congregation, I see that the scriptures of our faith tradition are clear. Exodus 22: 25 says, “If you lend money…to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.” Jesus himself said, in Luke Chapter 6, “If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But… do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.”

Now, I don’t expect the payday lending industry to reconfigure their business practices to conform entirely to these biblical standards. And I understand that charging a reasonable amount of interest makes sense in their business climate.

But this example, and the current practices of the payday lending industry acting as CSOs, are not reasonable.

The current practices of the payday lending industry are immoral, out of control, and predatory.

I urge you to support legislation that closes the CSO loophole, sets fair and reasonable rates and fees, and stops the cycle of debt.

There’s a lot to worry about these days. Reforming payday lending practices gives us one less problem to worry about.

Thank you very much.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Fair Lending Press Conference

Earlier today, I joined thirty or so of my minister colleagues at the State Capitol to express our support for changing current payday lending laws in Texas. Right now, payday lenders operate through a loophole in Texas law that allows them to charge any rate of fees and interest that they want without any oversight or regulation by the state. Following are my remarks, explaining the theological basis of our efforts:

Remarks by Reverend Timothy B. Tutt Pastor, United Christian Church, Austin, Texas

Texas Faith for Fair Lending* Press Conference March 21, 2011

Tomorrow, the House Committee on Pensions, Investments, and Financial Services will hold hearings on current payday lending practices in Texas.

Today, we are gathered, as members of the clergy and representatives of various religious groups, to support reform of payday lending in Texas.

But these are not new topics. Issues of debt and economic fair treatment have concerned people of faith forever.

As the pastor of a Christian congregation, I can say the scriptures of our faith tradition are clear:

  • Exodus 22: 25 says, “If you lend money…to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.”
  • Jesus himself said, in Luke Chapter 6, “If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But…do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.”

The Bible is very clear that those with money are supposed to be compassionate and fair to those without money:

  • “It is well with the [the person] who deals generously and lends; it is well with the one whose affairs are conducted with justice.” – Psalm 112:5
  • “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and God will repay [that person] for [those] deeds.”- Proverbs 19:17

Now, I don’t expect the payday lending industry to reconfigure their entire business model to conform entirely to these biblical mandates. I don’t expect them to give up charging interest. I understand that charging a reasonable amount of interest makes sense in their business context.

But the current practices of the payday lending industry are not reasonable.

The current practices are immoral, out of control, and predatory. Charging 500% interest violates any sense of decency and compassion and basic fairness.

This is not a matter of left or right, Democrat or Republican. The people here today represent religious congregations across the theological and political spectrum.

This is not just a Christian issue or a Jewish issues. The sacred writings of Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism are equally expressive.

We are not here today just to support good public policy.

We are not here today just to take part in the legislative process.

We are here today with the firm theological conviction that 500% interest is wrong. Charging people astronomical rates and fees is wrong. Trapping people in cycles of debt is wrong.

We are here today to speak a word of justice, to call for kindness, to remind ourselves and our elected officials that God cares how treat each other. God cares especially how we treat the poor and needy among us…and we should care as well.

Thank you.

* Texas Faith for Fair Lending is a statewide coalition of religious groups, working to reform predatory lending in Texas.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Testimony in Support of Anti-Bullying Legislation

Yesterday, I testified at the State Capitol in support of anti-bulling legislation. Below is a copy of my testimony:

Testimony to the Texas House of Representatives Public Education Committee

Rev. Timothy Tutt, Pastor, United Christian Church, Austin, Texas

March 1, 2011

In Support of H.B. 224

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:

Thank you for holding a hearing on this important piece of legislation.

I am the father of two elementary school children and the pastor of United Christian Church here in Austin. I support this bill.

Two weeks ago, I received a phone call at our church office from a man who needed someone to talk to. For the sake of his confidentiality, let’s call him Bobby. Bobby told me he was a gay man. He said he had known he was gay since he was very young. He called me because he had some theological questions. Bobby told me the church he attended had told him he was a no-good sinner, that God hated him, and he was going to burn in hell. (We can save the theology of all of that for later.) But in the course of talking with him about these issues, he also told me that when he was young he was sexually abused by a family member. And he told me that all of his growing up years, he was taunted, harassed, belittled, and bullied by other students at school.

You know, Mr. Chairman and committee members, from reading the papers, and just from common sense, that this kind of experience is all too common.

What struck me as so sad in my phone call with Bobby was that he did not feel safe anywhere. He didn’t feel safe at his house of worship, at his home, or at school.

This bill, HB 224, that Mr. Strama has put forward, helps address part of the problem.

My wife works in the Pflugerville Schools, so I am glad to see this bill provides common sense ways to help teachers to identify and prevent bullying.

I am the parent of two elementary school aged kids, so I’m glad to see that this bill addresses text messages, cell phones, and other 21st century high-tech forms of bullying.

And, I think the reporting requirements in this bill are very important. When I get calls like the one I got from Bobby two weeks ago, or when I talk to people in my church office, I hear that people who have been harassed or abused or bullied often feel all alone in the world. Having the statistics available would help victims know that they are not alone in their circumstances. And the reports would help us, as citizens of Texas, actually see the problem so that we can better address it together in our homes, our places of worship, and our schools.

As I said, my wife works in a public school, and we have two elementary school aged children. Providing a safe learning environment is important for education. Addressing bullying is important for human dignity.

We can’t go back and undo the damage done to Bobby, the man who called me a couple of weeks ago. Our church can work to provide a safe place for him now. And by passing this legislation we can do our part to help today’s school children.

Thank you.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Flag at the Revolution

I don't pretend to entirely understand the situation in Egypt. It appears to me that President Mubarak has held tightly and violently to power for several decades. Thanks to a quick-rising, technologically-connected revolt, his reign appears (rightly) doomed. The Egyptian people are clamoring for freedom and representative government.

This morning as I drove my kids to school, I saw a flag flying from an apartment balcony across from their school. The tricolored bands of red, white and black with a gold eagle stamped in the center flapped vivid colors into the early-morning grey of this wintry day.

"Hey, look. Is that an Egyptian flag," I asked. My eight year-old daughter did a quick Google search on my phone, and confirmed my guess.

And in that moment, I got it.

The apartment complex where that flag was flying is not exactly a high-rent place. In fact, it has a reputation as a pretty rough place. But there flew that flag. My hunch is that some immigrants from Egypt live there. Maybe multiple generations crowded together. I bet someone (or some ones) in that apartment works hard at a low-paying job to cover the rent. And I bet they're keeping a close eye on the TV these days, watching a revolution unfold in the old country.

I got it. All of a sudden, I knew something of what Francis Scott Key felt like when he scribbled lines about a star-spangled banner he could see across the Baltimore Harbor. I could feel something of Dr. King's vision from the mountaintop where he saw little children of all colors playing together.

I admit, I sometimes get a little nervous when people talk about reverence for a flag. Part of my says, "Yeah, but it's just material stitched together." And it is. But those stitched-together parts can be powerful symbols of freedom, of hope, and of people.

Monday, January 17, 2011


Earlier today, I took part in a panel of religious leaders who presented a workshop for our local school district personnel. The workshop focused on diversity.

My fellow panelists were cordial, humorous and honest. Overall, a very good experience.

Toward the end of the workshop, an audience member asked about our views on counseling homosexual teenagers. Our responses varied.

One of my fellow panelists used the standard line of "loving the sin, hating the sinner." Homosexuality, he made clear, is a sin.

Today is Martin Luther King Day, so I thought about race relations in the context of sin. Once- upon-a-not-so-long-ago-time, what Dr. Kind espoused was a "sin." For black people and white people to commingle, intermarry -- some people called that a sin.

One of the other panelists who took the view of homosexuality as sin, is a Baptist (the tradition of my rearing and formal education). In the 1700s in Virginia, Baptists were banned from, and put in jail for, preaching. I don't know if the religious leaders of the day used the term or not, but I bet there were orthodox believers of the day who thought these baptists were "sinners." Their crazy baptism-by-immersion ideas were certainly heretical.

The list of "sins" is long and ever-changing. Women preachers are called sinners. A friend of mine tells a funny story from the early sixties were a church member told her "mixed bathing was sin." Turns out mixed bathing, was boys and girls swimming together.

To some people, wearing makeup is a sin. Or wearing jewelry. For others, using birth control is a sin.

Seems to me that "sin" changes. Cultures change. We should remember that. And be careful.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Religious Liberty

At the memorial service held in Arizona, a Native American medical school professor offered an opening blessing.

As a pastor, I take prayer seriously and try to pay attention to the words I speak and to the company in which I pray. But it never occurred to me that prayer is the kind of thing that talking heads on TV should dissect.

However, before the evening was out, television commentators and others were criticizing the professor's blessing:

  • On Fox News, Brit Hume called the prayer "peculiar" and seemed to smirk at the ideas included.
  • Blogger Michele Malkin said the Native American rambled and babbled. She followed that up with, "Mercy."
  • The blog Power Line said the prayer was "some sort of Yaqui Indian tribal thing" that was "ugly."

These comments strike me as insensitive and intolerant. Let's imagine some other scenarios:

  • What if an atheist commentator ridiculed a Christian praying to God as laughable?
  • What if a Christian prayed using classical Trinitarian language and a Muslim blogger called it polytheism?
  • What if a Native American said that Christian eucharistic prayers were cannibalistic?
Too bad Christmas is past. Seems like religious liberty should be high on our list of asks.

And the religious liberty we need isn't some newfangled, touchy-feely, latter-day liberal concoction. It is rooted in the profound respect for the human conscience.

In 1920, Baptist pastor George W. Truett said in a famous sermon: "It is the natural and fundamental and indefeasible right of every human being to worship God or not, according to the dictates of his conscience, and, as long as he does not infringe upon the rights of others, he is to be held accountable alone to God for all religious beliefs and practices. Our contention is not for mere toleration, but for absolute liberty."

Seems to me, these commentators should have given the professor the liberty to let his prayer stand as his effort to connect with God according the dictates of his conscience.

Back to Truett's sermon. He was a man of his time. He went on to make what seem to me to be some rather intolerant broadsides in that same sermon.

However, he circled back round to his point to talk about those who sought religious liberty:
"They dared to be odd, to stand alone, to refuse to conform, though it cost them suffering and even life itself. They dared to defy traditions and customs, and deliberately chose the day of non conformity..."

So, while some critique, question and make fun of the religious traditions of others, at least those who take a different path have old Truett's blessing "to be odd, to stand alone, to refuse to conform."

Expanding the Circle of Human Kindness

On Thursday, the funeral was held for the nine year-old girl who was killed in the recent Tuscon shootings. In advance of that funeral, members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, announced that they planned to protest at the funeral. The Westboro Church has gained notoriety for showing up at funerals of military personnel and at other high profile events to carrying anti-gay slogans. I find the actions of this tiny group to be reprehensible and uncivil.

Evidently, others agree with me. Because a group of Harley-riding, leather-wearing motorcyclists showed up at the funeral to honor the life of the child and to form a ring of protection around the mourners, keeping the protesters away.

Which just goes to show you -- human decency makes for strange bedfellows. I doubt this little girl had much interaction with motorcycle clubs. But in the face of grief and loss, a circle of human kindness was formed that goes beyond looks or customs and past connections.

A similar thing happened in Egypt last week.

On January 7, the Coptic Christian day to celebrate Christmas, a group of terrorists set off a bomb at a Coptic church. Thirty-one people were injured. (As an aside, the Muslim terrorists who set the bomb are the Egyptian equivalent of America's Westboro Baptists. Both groups pervert their respective faith traditions. They are intolerant cousins.)

Then, just as the motorcycle riders decided to help out at the funeral in Tuscon, an unlikely group stepped forth in Egypt -- a group of Muslims (numbering in the hundreds) showed up to escort the Coptic Christians to church, to stand vigil at their place of worship, and to offer solidarity.

Sadly, the strains of intolerance stretch around the globe -- from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka to bombers in Egypt. (Parenthetically, I should say that it appears the Westboro group did not picket at the funeral because they got the publicity they wanted from the uproar.)

But, even more hopeful is the interesting connections between a group of motorcycle riders in Tuscon and a group of caring Muslims in Egypt. My hunch is some new friendships were formed between mourners and the motorcycle club who stood with them. And I imagine new friendships were formed between the Copts and the Muslims who walked to church with them.

Now, we need to get the Egyptian Muslims and the American Harley riders together to expand the circle.

Monday, January 10, 2011

In Support of "Deflamed" Rhetoric

On Saturday, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and a dozen other people were injured and six people were killed, when a gunman opened fire on a meeting the Congresswoman was hosting in an Arizona parking lot.

In the sermons that I preached yesterday at the church I serve as pastor, I called for turning down the rhetoric in American today. I said we need to change the tone of our public discourse. I said we need to stop calling names, stop pointing fingers, and stop using derogatory terms for politicians, for ethnic groups, for opposing football teams, and for our neighbors.

My comments were not fully formed or very eloquent. My ideas were not unique to me. Pima County, AZ, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, liberal commentator Keith Olbermann, a Republican U.S. Senator, and others said the same thing.

However, writing on slate.com, in an article entitled, "In Defense of Inflamed Rhetoric," Jack Shafer said, No, we don't to turn down the volume. He specifically took argument with Sheriff Dupnik's comments that vitriolic rhetoric can create problems.

I disagree with Mr. Shafer.

In defending over-the-top speech, Mr. Shafer said that neither he nor anybody else he knows has been led to acts of violence due to heated, inflammatory rhetoric. That's good. But Sheriff Dupnik’s eloquent, off-the-cuff statements weren’t about Mr. Shafer and other well-adjusted people. His comments were about “unbalanced” people – people like Saturday’s shooter, like Lee Harvey Oswald, like Timothy McVeigh, like James Earl Ray, like the 9/11 airplane highjackers. We all hear the same language. Some of us (hopefully) have the good sense to know that political rhetoric is just that, rhetoric – maybe it’s even a game to some.

However, not everyone is able to make that nuanced distinction. Some, sadly, take those words of violence and think they are calls to acts of violence. I think Sherriff Dupnik (and the sermon I preached yesterday) and other calls to “deflame” the rhetoric are efforts to call us to public accountability. Words matter. As a journalist Mr. Shafer should know that. As a preacher I need to remember that. The call to turn down the volume of our public discourse is simply a call to responsible civil speech and behavior.

Mr. Shafer also wrote that for as long he's been alive, crosshairs and bull’s eyes have been an accepted part of the political lexicon. Maybe so, but that is poor logic. My great-grandmother could have written that for as long as she lived it was accepted to not let African-Americans vote. That doesn't make it right. Just because we’ve always done it that way, doesn’t mean that’s the way it should be done.

Third, Mr. Shafer wrote that, "Any call to cool 'inflammatory' speech is a call to police all speech." Not so. Just because I urge someone not to engage in a certain behavior does not mean I want their behavior monitored or made illegal. Mr. Shafer's statement there seems to cross the line between understanding the difference between 'can' and 'ought.' Jack Shafer, Sarah Palin, Keith Olbermann and most anyone have the right to say most anything at most any volume. That doesn’t mean they should say it. I don’t want anyone’s speech to be policed by anyone other than the speaker.

Finally, a nine year-old child was killed Saturday. Five other people are dead. A young Congresswoman lies gravely injured. A dozen or so others are injured. All due to a violent outburst. Yet Mr Shafer publicly supports violent imagery. And he caps his support with an offer to punch someone’s lights out.

His comments seem poorly thought-through, horribly ill-timed, and painfully insensitive.