A wide spot in my imagination.

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.