Monday, August 31, 2015

Freedom of Religion? YES! Freedom to Discriminate? NO!

Vos vestros servate, meos mihi linquite mores (Latin)
You cling to your own ways and leave mine to me.
--Petrarch, 14th century poet and humanist

Religion is a funny thing. 

By funny I don’t just mean, “A priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into a bar…” Yes, faith can be funny.  But religious faith can be funny too: as in odd, strange, difficult to explain or understand, especially when the faith you profess is different from the faith your neighbor holds on to, or visa versa.  Times when faiths clash in the world, with the world.  It’s the old “my God is better than your God” argument.  Just read the news. Jews against Muslims. Muslims against Christians.  Christians versus the Muslims.  Buddhists rejecting Hindus.  Atheists mocking believers. Yada, yada, yada…

That is funny, because you’d think God would not take sides amongst God’s people, right?  That instead God ultimately wants all folks of faith, all people, regardless of faith or no faith, to live in peace. You’d think at its best, religious faith would respect other faith paths and traditions, remember that as religion moves through this amazingly pluralistic world, from the sacred to the secular, religion should do so with humility and not so much hubris.  As Elvis Costello sang, “What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?” 

After all, this is God we are talking about. GOD: as in the creator of all things, eternal, always was, always will be, beyond any human comprehension. Who can know the very mind or will of God? In my little human mind and opinion, no one. So as a person of deep faith, I get really nervous when my fellow believers insist that everybody else is supposed to believe exactly what they believe, live just like they live. I get annoyed when they then take what are private beliefs into the public sphere and demand that the rest of society get on board. 

That’s not funny.

Just ask same sex couples seeking to be legally and lawfully married in Rowan County, Kentucky these days. Newsflash: as of June, same sex marriage is a constitutionally protected right in all fifty states. I don’t think there was an asterisk in the Supreme Court’s ruling exempting this one place.  But apparently the clerk of that county, Kim Davis, thinks the law doesn’t apply to her. Davis has refused to issue marriage licenses to any couples, gay or straight. She cites her religious faith and her struggle for religious freedom as the reasons for her defiance.  

Davis certainly has a constitutionally protected right to express her beliefs freely and fully. To worship as she wishes. To bring her God inspired ideals into the world and then try her best to get others to believe what she does. Organize.  Preach. Vote. But here’s the problem, the not so funny thing. Davis apparently also believes she has a legal right to insist that her private beliefs trump her public responsibility as a government employee, a duly sworn representative of the Kentucky state government, bound by all of the laws of the United States of America.  

As a fellow Christian I wish she’d take a real stand and resign her position immediately. Be true to her conscience and step down. Take her place in a long line of faith inspired folks who have the courage to accept the full cost of discipleship.  Then I’d really respect her stand, if not her specific beliefs.

This is what I believe, as a Christian and person of faith. All my life, as a citizen and pastor, I’ve enjoyed the benefits of living in a nation which reveres the separation of church and state, the Jeffersonian ideal that government has no business promoting, or preventing, religious practice. As a Christian, Uncle Sam can’t tell me what to believe or what not to believe. My responsibility is to live side by side in respect, with folks of my faith, other faiths, and no faith. Religious freedom does not give me or Davis or any other person of faith the legal right to discriminate against a fellow citizen, or deny their legal rights.   

So here’s a serious suggestion to my fellow believers. Be as convicted and sure of your beliefs as you desire, but then live and let live. Live and let live. The United States is an incredibly and increasingly diverse nation, a secular democracy, not a faith based theocracy. Therefore if a person’s religious practice (or lack thereof) does not impinge on the rights of others to practice religion, or directly hurt others, I say live and let live. When we who are religious carry our beliefs into the public sphere, we must abide by the same laws which apply to all the people.  Especially for those of us who are people of faith: maybe we need to worry more about how well we are doing with our God and less about how our neighbors live their lives. As Jesus once said, we need to watch out more for the log in our own eye than the speck of sawdust in the eye of a fellow citizen.

A Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, an Atheist and an Agnostic walk into a bar and guess what?  They all get along.  They respect each other. They live and let live.  

Wouldn’t that be funny?


Saturday, August 22, 2015

A Real Superhero Named Jimmy Needs Our Thanks and Prayers

"Superman never made any money, saving the world from Solomon Grundy, And sometimes I despair the world will never see another man like him."
            --"Superman", the Crash Test Dummies band, 1991

Superheroes never really die. Right? 

There must be something written in the “Superhero Instruction Manual”, a clause that says no matter what disaster strikes a superhero--in the last cartoon panel, on the final page of the comic, in the waning seconds of a blockbuster movie--he or she always survives somehow. Always. I’m sure of it. She beats the bad guys again. He carries on again, fighting for justice, peace and a better world because, hey---he’s a superhero.  She’s a super heroine. The rules of the universe don’t apply to them.

But then I heard last week that former President Jimmy Carter, a real life superhero, one of my personal superheroes: he is very, very sick with brain cancer, and that made me very, very sad for me and for our world.  No…Carter can’t fly at supersonic speeds, toss a tank aside like it’s a toy, or morph into invisibility. Yet his super powerful work for love and peace, the tireless ways he has stood with and on behalf of the world’s poor and oppressed since leaving office in 1981…for me, that’s what makes him a real superhero.  He is mere flesh and blood, yet heroic in the deepest human sense.

You want super heroic deeds? Carter’s lent his name, power and sweat to the cause of building housing for all God’s people in need, through Habitat for Humanity (HFH). In the thirty nine years that Carter has helped expand HFH, it’s grown from a small grassroots organization to the largest non-profit builder of affordable housing in the world.  Five million people in 70 nations now live in one million Habitat houses. 

Thanks Jimmy.

In 1982, Carter founded the Carter Center, at Emory University in Atlanta, to work for a more peaceful and healthy world.  Today the Center’s 175 employees are deployed in 91 countries: monitoring elections for fairness, brokering peace deals among warring factions, helping to eradicate chronic diseases like trachoma, the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness.  From Albania to Zimbabwe, the Carter Center’s commitment to a better life for all God’s children has made Creation freer and healthier.

Thanks Jimmy.

Not every one thinks Carter is a hero. Maybe that’s good. Heroes aren’t supposed to make all of us happy. A man of authentic embodied Christian faith, Carter left the Southern Baptist Church (America’s largest Protestant denomination) in part for that church’s stands against the full inclusion of women, and gays and lesbians. That cost him friends and goodwill.  His stand against the systematic oppression of the Palestinian people by the state of Israel has made him an enemy of many in the United States and abroad.  He is far from perfect, sometimes speaks too soon or too sharply and later has to explain, but he always takes an honest position on issues that matter. He uses the power of his ex-Presidency to work on behalf of the powerless. 

Thanks Jimmy.

He deserves thanks, too, for what he has not done, since departing the White House.  No worldwide tours and speaking gigs for millions in fees, speechifying to well heeled groups and power brokers.  No jumping on board some cable TV show as a commentator, collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars for empty pontificating.  No lobbying or backroom deals. He’s always stayed “Jimmy”. Teaching Sunday School at his home church in Plains, Georgia.  Finding joy in writing books and woodworking and loving Rosalyn, his partner in life for 69 years.  He’s remained a true public servant.  A public servant.

Thanks Jimmy.

I know I’m bias about my superhero.  I actually got to meet and work with him at a Habitat “Blitz Build” on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, in 1994, when Carter led 3,000 volunteers in building 34 homes in seven days.  Standing together in a long line for lunch one day, we exchanged greetings and shook hands. He was gracious, kind and humble, anxious to get back to work.  Always the work. I’ll never forget that.

Superheroes aren’t supposed to die.  But in the real world?  My oh my: how well some heroes live in service to their fellow human beings. 

So God bless you Jimmy.  And thank you Jimmy. We’re praying for you.




Monday, August 17, 2015

Candidates: Please Tell Us The Truth That We Need to Hear

“Tell the truth boldly, whether it hurts or not. Never pander….If truth is too much for intelligent people and sweeps them away, let them go; the sooner the better.”  --Swami Vivekananda

Twenty two. Twenty two! That’s the number of women and men running as candidates to become the President of the United States, on January 20th, 2017.  Two women and twenty men.  Five Democrats and 17 Republicans. Eleven former or current governors, seven ex or standing United States Senators, a real estate mogul, a retired high tech CEO, a neurosurgeon and a recent Secretary of State. And a partridge in a pear tree…

A somewhat seemingly diverse bunch in its own way, I suppose, hailing from places as different as their personalities: a sharp elbowed New Jersey boy, a soft spoken son of steamy Florida, an old boy Arkansas preacher, a diminutive Rhode Island politician.  All but three will one day collect a government workers’ pension.  Two come from Presidential relations and want to carry on the family tradition. Ideologically they range from the fiery Socialist Bernie Sanders of Vermont to the radically Libertarian Ron Paul of Kentucky. 

But each, in his or her own way, practices that oldest of political games.  Pandering.  That’s where a candidate tells us what we, in the electorate, want to hear, or does not tell us what we need to hear. So red hot is their desire to win, to take office, to sweep to victory, to govern, that the typical politician these days regularly says from the stump whatever their given audience is clamoring to be told.  They tell liberals exactly what they want to be told, and tell conservatives exactly what they want to be told too.

Or they just equivocate, prevaricate, dodge, or avoid the questions all together.  Last month candidate Hillary Clinton was directly asked whether she favors or opposes the Keystone pipeline, a proposal to pipe Canadian tar sands oil through the heart of the United States down to refineries in the south. Liberals and green voters hate it.  Conservatives and energy independence folks love it.  You’d think she’d bite and just say “No way. I’m against it!”  Yet her answer? A non-answer. “If it’s undecided when I become president, I will answer your question.” 

What?! To be fair, pandering and prevarication is the norm across the political spectrum.  But still it begs this question: why can’t our candidates just tell us the truth?  Tell us what they really believe and how and why? No glossing. No nuanced verbal dancing to win votes or avoid controversy.  I’d love to see a Democrat stand in front of a group of New Hampshire seniors and say the only way to save Social Security is to raise payroll taxes and the minimum retirement age.  I’d love to see a Republican stand up in front of a group of wealthy donors and say that the rich need to pay higher taxes to fund vital government programs and lower the deficit.  I’d love to see any candidate stand in an Iowa cornfield and tell farmers that ethanol subsidies are nothing more than welfare for the farm states. Heck, I’d love to see a candidate at the Iowa State Fair refuse to eat a proffered corn dog and instead reply, “Yuck—that looks disgusting! And I’m on a diet anyways.”

The problem is not just about the candidates.  It is about us as citizens too, we who far too often just do not want to hear what we need to hear, about all the challenges we face as a nation.  We clamor for and expect robust government programs like universal health care and national defense but then protest that we pay too much already to Uncle Sam.  We drive on roads and bridges crumbling around us but then refuse to pay higher gas taxes.  We are more than ready to cut services to some groups—the poor, the homeless—but then get angry when our pet subsidy (student loans, the mortgage interest deduction, a local military base in need of closure) is on the chopping block.  We want to have our cake and eat it too and our candidates are more than happy to then feed us any position, as long as it results in a vote for them.

Reminds me of a complaint the biblical prophet Jeremiah had against the leaders of his day, in ancient Israel. The priests and the generals sat by and did nothing as invading armies gathered at the borders of that nation.  All pretended that nothing was wrong, the people and the politicians together.  “They cry ‘peace’, ‘peace’, when there is no peace!” Jeremiah lamented.  Some things never change.

So candidates: I know it a lot to ask.  I know it will take each of you time to figure out how to tell us, the voters, the actual truth. I know it will be a great risk for each of you to have the moral courage to tell us exactly what you believe and then what you will really do when elected President.  And fellow voters: I know to be pandered to sometimes feels really, really good. To imagine that a candidate is perfect just for “me”: my peeps, my specific issues, and my narrow needs.

Yet we need a President, not a panderer.  Twenty two candidates. Fourteen months to go. Let the truth telling begin.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Dog Days of Summer: Catch Them While You Can

Dog days: (origin in or around 1538)--signifies the hottest time of the year, early [July] to [mid] August…coincides with the rising and falling of the Sirius or “dog star” at sunrise and sunset.                                   
It is time to coin a better phrase than “dog days” to describe this peculiar and singular time of the year in New England.   Summer is going along now at full speed, no turning back.   If summer stretches from about the last Sunday in June to the first Monday in September, we’re more than halfway past the mid-point of the season, 47 days in, 25 days to go.  The BBQ grill is well broken in.  For six weeks watermelons have been slurped, drippy ice cream cones licked, and ice cold beers sipped. That first hot dog of the summer is now but a distant memory. Our first sunburn has faded into a tan.   The Red Sox are once again dwelling in the basement of the standings, so at least we need not fear a September swoon. Their swan dive happened weeks ago but hey: no problem getting tickets, right?
So how about we call this time of year “Deep-Summer”?
These are the days we are either on vacation, missing vacation or packing for vacation, anticipating or remembering some sweet time away from routines and the office and the sweaty suburbs.   The garden is well along and if it isn’t, it is too late to salvage that summer salad harvest. There’s always next year.   This is a sweltering time when tomato plants reach up to the sky, soaking up heat and sun, tantalizing us with fruit about to burst. Corn is higher than an elephant’s eye in July and sweet ears finally grace the picnic table. The promises of our May plantings are finally beginning to pay off.    
Maybe we should name mid-August “Tomato Time”?   “Chapter Corn”? Too corny.   
Summer sounds are in full volume.   Hot bugs buzzing in an eerie symphony on a deserted town street.   The rumble of thunder in the distant, the pitter patter of an afternoon rainstorm on the back porch roof. There’s the lack of sound too and people, the emptiness of many cities and towns.   Where is everybody?   Away.   So quiet.   Short lines at Starbucks.   Sparsely populated pews at church.   
Maybe “An August Ahhhhh…”?   “Halfway Hotness”?  
It is tempting in the midst of our current heat wave to curse the temperatures, complain about the burning hot beach sand or the muggy sleepless nights, and maybe even wish for cooler weather.   Don’t tempt fate! Only six months ago we were out in the driveway, struggling to hoist and toss away another &^%$# shovel full of snow. Remember?    Four months ago it was cloudy and muddy and mucky.   No—now is the time to embrace the heat, strip down to the least covering possible and then sit back in a lounge chair or on a breezy back porch and revel in the sun blast.   Long days and lots of sunlight.   Lazy mornings at the pond and precious naps in the afternoon.    Breezy bike rides at dusk and windswept journeys on the bright blue ocean.    
OK: try this…”Awesome August”.   “Sweet Summer Soiree”?  
Too fancy. We need a moniker that simply captures where we are at right now calendar-wise: far away from the winter blues, way beyond spring blossoms, yet still loving some God blessed time before fall reemerges and life gets back to “normal”.
I guess it has just got to be this: “summer”. There really is no other way to name it.   As the writer Ada Louise Huxtable concluded, “Summer is the time when one sheds one's tensions with one's clothes, and the right kind of day is jeweled balm for the battered spirit.   A few of those days and you can become drunk with the belief that all's right with the world. “
It is still summer in New England.   Sweet. Brief.   Soft.   Delicious. Languid.   Fiery sunsets. Misty mornings.   And hot, yes, there are still some dog days left, that’s for sure. Hot enough to sustain us through next winter; short enough to remind us what a gift from God these precious months and weeks and days really are.
Labor Day? Still 26 days or 3 weeks and five days or 624 hours off into the future.
Now? It is still summer. Enjoy it. I know I will!  

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Precious Life of Dr. Carolyn Kaelin: The Real News Today

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  --Mary Oliver

"Zeitgeist" is a German word meaning, "the spirit of the age or the current times": what's on folks' hearts and minds at any given moment in cultural history.  Zeitgeist is what people are talking about right now around the water cooler, at the coffee shop. It’s the story trending on Twitter or Facebook or, a “must read” post making digital rounds.  Last week's Zeitgeist moment might have been the tale about a dentist from Minnesota who shot and killed a lion. Or remember the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge? Zeitgeist. For a few weeks last summer it was all people posted about, tweeted about, shared about.

So it was with surprise I opened my browser to the page this morning and saw that the most viewed article of the day, our zeitgeist, wasn't the latest overblown lamentations concerning "Deflategate".  Wasn't another column carping about the Boston Red Sox or a breathless report about a possible shark sighting off the Cape. Instead thousands of us were reading and sharing a real story about a real person whose one precious life made a huge difference in the lives of so many others: Doctor Carolyn M. Kaelin. She died on July 28th after a twelve year struggle against breast and brain cancer.

Her story. She was a surgeon, loving wife and caring Mom to two kids, the founding director of the Comprehensive Breast Health Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a post she accepted at the age of 34, in 1995. In a 1999 Globe story, she spoke of her life's work and call to be a doctor for cancer patients. “...with a breast cancer patient, once you care for them, you care for them for’s really hard–you get to know these patients and their families...become emotionally attached. There are days where we’re calling back patient after patient with not very good news from their biopsies.” The story continues: "If a prognosis was particularly poor, [Kaelin] would explain that, 'at least they may have some time, and can choose to use that time however they wish.'”

The tragic twist to the story is that in 2003, Kaelin discovered her own cancerous lump after a training bicycle ride for the Pan Mass Challenge (PMC).  She rode multiple times in the PMC, the largest athletic fundraiser in the world. Just last weekend 6,000 riders (myself among them), raised $45 million for cancer care and research at the Dana-Farber. That Kaelin passed away just four days before the PMC is heartbreaking.   

Zeitgeist. Convergence. Synchronicity.

So after reading about Kaelin's one great life, good life, the meaningful life that she truly lived in her fifty four years on this earth, my hope this day is a simple one. I pray that Kaelin's story of courage and commitment, of a lived live in service to others, won't quickly fade away, won't get lost in the hyper quick news cycle, tales found today but lost tomorrow. Instead, what if Kaelin's story actually inspired some of us to consider, reconsider, the lives that we are living this day, our one wild and precious life, in the words of the poet Mary Oliver?

I'm 54, the same age as Kaelin. Her obituary makes me think about the quality of the life I live, how well I am using the life that God has gifted to me. It makes me ponder how a random "click" on my DNA strand to one side rather the other, might decide if I have cancer or not, if my days left on this earth are long or short. Kaelin's story reminds us all as mortals that life is finally precious and unpredictable, wild and beautiful, chaotic and a conundrum.  We don't get to choose the end game.  We do get to choose just what we do before we get to the end of the ride called human life.

So here's some good news, God's true zeitgeist and not just for today but for every day that we get to live and breathe and feel our hearts beat in our chests.  As Kaelin so presciently said, we still have some time and so we can choose to use that time however we wish.  We can live for ourselves alone or we can dedicate a part of life to helping others.  We can get caught up in the cultural backwash of the daily news. Is Tom Brady guilty? What did Donald Trump say today? Or we can seek out the truly good news and then let it inspire and shape our lives.  We can focus on all the bad in the world or we can read about a person like Doctor Kaelin and then be moved to be more like her.

That's the news this day and I'm not going to turn the page.  Thank you Doctor Kaelin, for your one wild and precious life.