Friday, February 29, 2008

March is Spiritual Health Month--here's a "unique" church challenge.

While reading an e-mail from our local Girl Scout Council this afternoon I discovered that March is, among other things, Spiritual Health Month. So I thought I'd GoodSearch this topic to find who might be celebrating this and what type of activities/events would be the focus.

Well, that little Girl Scout calendar note led me to a very interesting article about a church in Florida that is pushing the spiritual health envelope--as well as generating a whole bunch of national attention--with a challenge to their members and others who are (pun intended) "up for it".

I must say, it was an ingenious idea on the part of the pastor to gather attention for the congregation! Read about the Revelant Church's challenge in this article from the St. Petersburg Times.

It's a "free day"--are you taking advantage of it?!

Leapin' Lizards! Today, Leap Day, only happens once every 4 years.

When you woke up this morning did you ask yourself something like, "I've got an extra 24 hours--what should I do with it?"

Or was what you said to yourself more like, "Crap, another day I have to get through--as if 365 weren't enough!"

If you are like me, your answer could vary depending upon your life situation and mental state.

My hope/prayer is that you are enjoying your free day and that you have the opportunity to do something fun that you wouldn't normally do to mark this "unusual" day!

Evangelical Politics Looking Different

For a time David Kuo headed President Bush's White House effort on faith-based initiatives. He sees a shift underway in the politics of evangelicals. They are becoming more progressive and less political:
...For all the talk about evangelicals moving to the Democratic Party, early evidence of this is scarce. Poll after poll has shown extreme evangelical distaste for Clinton, and there is scant statistical evidence to suggest that evangelicals are rushing to Obama.

Times may be changing, however, with younger evangelicals leading the way across the aisle. When a recent poll by Relevant, a magazine targeting evangelicals under 25, asked respondents who they believed "Jesus would vote for," a plurality said Obama. They also said they thought that Bill Clinton was a better president than George W. Bush has been and that illegal immigration was the most important issue facing the next president. "Young Christians simply don't seem to feel a connection to the traditional religious right," says Cameron Strang, the magazine's founder and publisher. "Many differ strongly on domestic policy issues - namely issues that affect the poor - and are dissatisfied with America's foreign policy and the war."

The new movement is likely to be more spiritually cautious and politically shrewd. As Bush's presidency has foundered, evangelicals have started to take spiritual stock of their passionate support for their evangelical pastor in chief. First came the retreat. A review of Federal Elections Commission data from last fall revealed that only 30 percent of those who gave campaign money in 2004 contributed this time around to the campaigns of McCain, Huckabee, Romney, Giuliani or any of the other GOP candidates.

More significantly, preachers galore started telling their congregations to just say no to partisan politics. At the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., the pastor who succeeded the uber-political Ted Haggard has declared his pulpit "politics free." In Minnesota, evangelical mega-church pastor Greg Boyd preaches that the radical life of a Christian doesn't include politics. Meanwhile, evangelicalism's biggest star, Rick Warren, is decidedly absent from domestic politics, preferring to spend his time working on HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Big Brother is Watching Your Church/Denomination!

I received this letter from the chair of our local UCC Conference (I subscribe to their e-mail list) this morning. It is quite disturbing to me! What about to you?

Will Liberalchurch at some point be an IRS target? I've been waiting for a letter like this to arrive in our mailbox for the past 4 years!


Dear Colleagues in Ministry,

Yesterday we received word that the Internal Revenue Service has sent the United Church of Christ a letter with 23 questions about Senator Barack Obama’s speaking to the General Synod as a part of Synod in the City in Hartford on June 23, 2007. While this investigation is clearly disturbing, we are confident that once the church has the opportunity to present the facts and clear up any misperceptions, the IRS will determine that we did nothing improper, nothing illegal.

As your Conference Minister, I want you to know that our national offices went to great lengths to assure that nothing was improper about Senator Obama’s presence at Synod. He was one of more than 60 presenters invited – an invitation that was extended a year before he announced his candidacy – to speak about the impact of their faith on their work and vocation. Other persons represented the arts, academia, media, business, science, and technology.

From the beginning, the UCC clearly stated that this was not a campaign-related event, but an opportunity for Senator Obama, as an active member of the UCC and a leader in government, to speak about his faith. It was announced and enforced that any campaign activities, such as leafleting, canvassing, or displaying posters or placards, would not be tolerated. Obama campaign volunteers were not allowed access to the Hartford Civic Center. And, although some Obama supporters did congregate on the sidewalk outside the Civic Center, they were not allowed access to the Civic Center. Their activity was restricted to the public sidewalk. Only registered Synod delegates and visitors were allowed to attend.

I want to share with you a few words that Connecticut’s Conference Minister, Rev. David Foy Crabtree, shared with those in the host conference for our 50th anniversary General Synod: “Theologically, we are a church that from our very beginning in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, has borne a particular care for the public sphere. Service and leadership in government have always been exalted among us. We have historically encouraged our members to run for office in order to exert an influence on the character of the nation. A part of our faith practice over the centuries has been dialogue with members of our Church who are in office about the nature of their leadership and their commitments. For us that faith practice is intrinsic to our identity as a church.”

The United Church of Christ has chosen to release this information because we are not the kind of Church that hides from public view. We are instead a Church that believes that open and civil dialogue in the full light of God’s shining countenance is the best contribution we can make to a civil democracy. I am sending this email alert to this breaking news because it has begun to appear in newspapers and other media. Indeed, my morning email included a piece from the Wall Street Journal. The February 20 IRS letter to the UCC and the video and written text of Senator Obama’s speech to General Synod can be found at:

Presently this is only an inquiry and we have great confidence this will be resolved in our favor. Meanwhile, I ask that you hold our national officers and our national attorneys in prayer as they work diligently to respond to the twenty-three questions within the fifteen day deadline.

Rev. Dr. Karen Smith Sellers
Conference Minister

Monday, February 25, 2008

Switching Faiths, Dropping Out

A Pew survey inerviews 35,000 individuals and finds that the religious marketplace is highly fluid, with the biggest gains going to the church of the unaffilatied. From CNN:
The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey estimates the United States is 78 percent Christian and about to lose its status as a majority Protestant nation, at 51 percent and slipping.

More than one-quarter of American adults have left the faith of their childhood for another religion or no religion at all, the survey found. Factoring in moves from one stream or denomination of Protestantism to another, the number rises to 44 percent.

One in four adults ages 18 to 29 claim no affiliation with a religious institution.

"In the past, certain religions had a real holding power, where people from one generation to the next would stay," said Penn State University sociologist Roger Finke, who consulted in the survey planning. "Right now, there is a dropping confidence in organized religion, especially in the traditional religious forms."

Lugo said the 44 percent figure is "a very conservative estimate," and more research is planned to determine the causes.

"It does seem in keeping with the high tolerance among Americans for change," Lugo said. "People move a lot, people change jobs a lot. It's a very fluid society."

The religious demographic benefiting the most from this religious churn is those who claim no religious affiliation. People moving into that category outnumber those moving out of it by a three-to-one margin.

The majority of the unaffiliated -- 12 percent of the overall population -- describe their religion as "nothing in particular," and about half of those say faith is at least somewhat important to them. Atheists or agnostics account for 4 percent of the total population.

The Roman Catholic Church has lost more members than any faith tradition because of affiliation swapping, the survey found. While nearly one in three Americans were raised Catholic, fewer than one in four say they're Catholic today. That means roughly 10 percent of all Americans are ex-Catholics.

The share of the population that identifies as Catholic, however, has remained fairly stable in recent decades thanks to an influx of immigrant Catholics, mostly from Latin America. Nearly half of all Catholics under 30 are Hispanic, the survey found.

On the Protestant side, changes in affiliation are swelling the ranks of nondenominational churches, while Baptist and Methodist traditions are showing net losses.

Many Americans have vague denominational ties at best. People who call themselves "just a Protestant," in fact, account for nearly 10 percent of all Protestants.

Although evangelical churches strive to win new Christian believers from the "unchurched," the survey found most converts to evangelical churches were raised Protestant.


The MN House just voted to override the Governor's veto of a major transportation bill:
A $6.6 billion transportation bill is on the verge of becoming law after the Minnesota House voted for the first time to override a veto from Governor Tim Pawlenty. Six House Republicans broke with the governor to make the 90 votes needed to override. The final tally was 91-41.

The Senate already had a veto-proof majority. Finally, courage on the part of legislators to see the big picture needs of the state, not be cowed by our no-new taxes governor who is hoping to be VP candidate (and this may sink that chance), and create the good-paying jobs needed to build a better transportation system.

The Meaning of Progressive

Over on the VOS listserve (Voices for an Open Spirit, a progressive Church of the Brethren forum) naturally open to all voices a conservative asked for a definition of progressive Christian. here is the reply of one progressive, Ernie Barr:

1. What does "progressive" mean as applied to Christians? To me, the "progressive position" is in contrast to the "conservative" or "fundamentalist" point of view. Conservatives or fundamentalists generally hold to the literal interpretation of scripture. As a progressive, I understand the Bible, to a large extent, to be metaphorical. That is to say that even though the Bible sets a historical context, much of the detail is not factually true. For example, there is good evidence that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, but actually in Nazareth. Prophets foretold that Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem and so the New Testament writers wrote it that way "in order that the scriptures might be fulfilled". It is no discredit to the Gospel writers that they took liberties with fact; they had a purpose in writing and a particular readership, so they wrote it that way. That surely sound heretical to many readers of this list, but one has to ask exactly what about the divinity of Christ is compromised by saying that he was born in Nazareth? One might ask what about the veracity of the Bible is lost in this example? Actually nothing, when it is realized that the Bible is written by humans for an express purpose to particular readers. The Bible is not, in my understanding, the literal word of God. This view makes the Bible more real and intelligible than to have to fit all the literal geographical and time sequences into place. There are many other examples I could cite.

2. To what are progressives progressing? My answer is a clearer understanding of the Bible's message. I would contend that the message of the Bible is seldom found in the literal understanding of the words, but the words of metaphor or figurative expression. For example: I believe that Jesus was born in the same way that each of us was born--he had a human father and a human mother. For reasons that others may know, Jesus was in such close relationship to God that he is rightfully referred to as "the Son of God". That appellation, I fully accept, but it is metaphorical. To say that "God sent Jesus into the world" is another such metaphor, because when one sees and experiences such a person as Jesus, how can one express that realization--a realization that is in fact inexpressible otherwise? There are many situations in the Bible where figurative expressions are used in an attempt to express inexpressible truth.

3. What will you find when you get there? How will you know when you get there? and IS there an end point? Let me try to speak to all three in one reply. We never "get there". What one finds is a glimpse of truth here and there--an insight that fits with other insights (As an aside: Pilate asked, "What is truth?" To me, "truth" is what agrees with other truths you have found--that is, does it all fit together under the most rigorous examination your beliefs.) There is no "end point" to our search for truth.

Let me add: What is really important to me is the words of Jesus, when answering the lawyer who came to him asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus said, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." Olden Mitchell pointed out to me that the admonition to "love the Lord your God will all your mind" is Jesus' addition to the original law (Deut. 6:5). This would suggest to me that, as Marcus Borg says on the first page of the preface to his book The Heart of Christianity (which I heartily recommend!) "The sacrifice that Christianity asks of us is not ultimately a sacrifice of the intellect."

Very Nice.

A Sad Man

Ralph Nader is running again. I suspect that any progressives who voted for him before have sufficiently learned their lesson and that this time around his influence will be miniscule. But it is sad to see a once fierce fighter for consumer protections now completely lost in his own ego.

Why We Will Get a Single-Payer Health Care System

Eventually. Because of doctors like Dick Adair, a 65-year-old physician, who talked to Minnesota Monitor:

"The financial burden of caring for uninsured people is driving some doctors out of primary care and into better-paying specialties, at a time when we need more primary care doctors," he said.

In his years as a physician, he has seen a sharp change in how physicians look at health care. "Having lunch with other doctors used to mean listening to conservatives griping about the government. Now lunchroom talk is that single payer would be a good idea," said Adair.

The Monitor reports that a recent survey of physicians in the state showed that 64% support moving to a single-payer system. Only 12% support the current managed care mess. Physicians were a driving force in sinking Hillary's ill-fated reform efforts during Bill's first term. Now they are coming around to seeing what another doctor quoted in the article says is the real driving force behind the insurance industry's grip on the healthcare system: "...their ultimate goal is to deny claims and save money."

Moderation on Abortion Position Key To Reaching Evangelical Dems

Amy Sullivan says in the Washington Post that the Democrat's willingness to work with conservatives on reducing abortions - while still remaining pro-choice - is one key that has encouraged evangelical and Catholic Democrats to move back into the fold this election season:

Full-throated support of abortion rights has been sacrosanct to the Democrats for most of the 35 years since Roe v. Wade. In the 2004 campaign, all the Democratic primary candidates pledged their opposition to a ban on so-called partial-birth abortion at the annual NARAL Pro-Choice America dinner, a position then favored by only 20 percent of Americans. ("Keep your rosaries off my ovaries," went the liberal slogan.) That November, Bush won a third of the pro-abortion rights vote, while Kerry picked up only 24 percent of antiabortion voters.

That was it for Catholic Democrats. It was bad enough that they felt pressured to vote for abortion legislation that made them uncomfortable, then had to endure threats from angry church leaders. But if the result was a Democratic Party so marginalized that its inability to appeal to antiabortion voters cost one of their own the White House, what was the point?

So they set out to defuse the abortion issue themselves. In the fall of 2006, two Catholic Democrats in the House of Representatives, the antiabortion Tim Ryan and the pro-abortion rights Rosa DeLauro, introduced legislation to reduce abortion rates by preventing unwanted pregnancies and providing support to pregnant women and new parents. That same fall, an antiabortion Catholic Democrat, Bill Ritter, won the Colorado governorship after convincing his party's activists and donors that a pro-life politician need not be actively anti-choice. In a few states, pro-choice Democratic candidates sat down with evangelical and Catholic leaders to talk about abortion. They didn't back down from defending women's right to choose, but they won with support levels from Catholics and evangelicals that were 10 to 15 points above the party's national average in the midterm elections.

Marginalizing and locking out anti-abortion Dems was always a really dumb move. First of all, a progressive party should have nothing to fear from a diversity of positions on issues. Secondly, it is possible to be fully supportive of a women's right to have an abortion and agree that we ought to be providing a full range of health, legal, and financial services for women with the goal being to bring down the rate of abortions. Bill Clinton's line that abortions should be "safe, legal, and rare" is still the right approach. All sorts of Democrats ought to be able to support candidates and policies that embrace this goal.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Calling of Liberalchurch

If the calling of liberalchurch is to minister to the GLBT population south of the river, then why did only 2 members maintain a faithful witness at the monthly P-Flag meetings that liberalchurch hosted? (And one of them was a hetromember with 3 gay sons and the other a hetro mother of 2 children with no GLBT family members?)

While I think Liberalchurch is inclusive and accepting of all people, I personally think that it is understating things to say that providing a safe place of worship for GLBT persons is the "calling" of Liberalchurch.

Those who are already GLBT members of Liberalchurch seem to want, for the most part, to forget about the fact that they are a member of a sexual minority. They come to Open Circle precisely because they do not want to be defined by their sexuality.

It seems to me that the larger calling of Liberalchurch is to be a witness for Progressive Christianity to people in the Twin Cities Metro area -- regardless of their sexuality. Providing a safe place of worship to GLBT persons is just one aspect of a much larger calling!

Friday with Sampson and Sadie

It was 10 below on Wednesday morning when I took this picture on my way out to Bible Study. But the sun was shining in the window and the cats were enjoying its warmth.

BTW, own a cat and live longer. From the Star Tribune today:
Here, kitty kitty ... .
A new study suggests cat owners are less likely to die of a heart attack or stroke than people who, well, don't own cats. And
no, dogs don't do the same trick. The study, by researchers at the University of Minnesota, found that feline-less people were 30 to 40 percent likelier to die of cardiovascular disease than those with cats.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Hillary's Experience

Here is George Wills' commentary on her constant reference to her experience vs. Obama's:
The president who came to office with the most glittering array of experiences had served 10 years in the House of Representatives, then became minister to Russia, then served 10 years in the Senate, then four years as secretary of state (during a war that enlarged the nation by 33 percent), then was minister to Britain. Then, in 1856, James Buchanan was elected president and in just one term secured a strong claim to being ranked as America's worst president. Abraham Lincoln, the inexperienced former one-term congressman, had an easy act to follow.

Holy Dirt

In Chimayo, N.M., how a religious legend is born:

On a chilly February morning, Rosa and Ben Salazar of nearby San Pedro, both 78, visited the Santuario to pray and replenish their supplies of holy water and dirt.

“We’ve had miracles here,” Mrs. Salazar said. They have stepped up their visits since her husband was found to have cancer. “He has spots on his lungs, and the doctor originally said he would have to have chemotherapy,” she said.

“We come here all the time to pray,” she said, and at home they rub the dirt on her husband’s chest and feet. And, lo, after his latest CAT scan, Mrs. Salazar said, the doctor told them that he looked better and that chemotherapy might not be needed after all.

Father Roca believes in miracles, too, but, he said, “They are the work of the Good Lord.”

“I always tell people that I have no faith in the dirt, I have faith in the Lord,” he said. “But people can believe what they want.”

Father Roca prefers to direct attention to the six-foot-tall wooden crucifix above the main altar, and he happily recounts its fabled history.

On a dark Good Friday in 1810, according to legend, men from the secretive Penitente Brotherhood were engaged in rites on a hill above Chimayo — whether self-flagellation, a crucifixion of a chosen member or just prolonged prayer is not clear. One of them, Don Bernardo Abeyta, saw a strange light shining upward from the valley.

When the men went down to investigate, the light disappeared but at its source they discovered a half-buried wooden crucifix. They sent for the nearest priest, 10 miles away in Santa Cruz, who had the crucifix taken in a happy procession to his parish church. But the next morning it was gone and had reappeared at the spot where the men initially found it.

This happened three times, the legend goes, before everyone got the message. Don Abeyta built a small chapel for the crucifix at the discovery site in the valley, which, historians note, had been a sacred area for Pueblo Indians. Soon, word began to spread that this was a place for the lame and the blind to be healed. Today’s dirt hole is said to be on the spot where the crucifix was found, accounting for its supposed
power and the continued faith of visitors even if they know the dirt is brought in from outside.

Father Roca said there was evidence that the crucifix had been brought to the area originally by a Guatemalan priest and from early on, it was called Our Lord of Esquipulas, after a major shrine in Guatemala.

As for the dirt, the best-known attraction of his busy little church, he said: “I don’t like to think about it. People come here not for the crucifix but for the dirt, and some people even sell it.”

Mrs. Salazar, the believer in its healing power, said she knew nothing of Father Roca’s vexation. “I think the dirt gets blessed by the priests, doesn’t it?” she asked.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Why are Some People Gay?

Conservative Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten had a blog post yesterday on the science of sexual orientation. It began like this:

Is sexual orientation biologically based? Most gay rights proponents will answer with an emphatic “yes,” and deny there is any legitimate argument to the contrary. Grounding sexual behavior in this way creates some natural advantages for the gay rights argument. If sexual orientation is as immutable as, say, skin color, then it fits more neatly into the framework of traditional anti-discrimination law.

But Gary Greenberg, writing in the left-leaning Mother Jones, is not so sure this conventional wisdom will hold up. Greenberg, a practicing psychotherapist and gay rights advocate, believes that proponents of the biological explanation for sexual orientation are ignoring complexities in our sexual make-up — complexities that may eventually undercut the current foundation of the gay rights movement.

She has several quotes from the Mother Jones article which seem to suggest that the genetic argument about sexual orientation isn't black and white. Particularly among women there is movement back and forth "across customary sexual orientation barriers."

Kersten wonders, then, if gay rights cannot be grounded in clear biological science, on what legs does it stand? She quotes Jon Davidson, legal director of Lambda Legal, who argues that sexual orientation is an identity issue akin to religious persuasion. Whether we are born with or raised into or choose a religious identity, that identity is protected under the law. Discrimination is not legal. Sexual identity ought to be thought of, and treated in, the same way. Kersten ends her article by asking the question: "Is there a solid foundation for gay rights in a right for people to “believe whatever they want”—something analogous to the right to religious belief?"

It is an interesting post coming from her. And it elicited a very good response from Andy Birkey, who writes for the Minnesota Monitor. He begins by noting that Kersten ignored what the Mother Jones article had to say about recent scientific findings of differences in brain anatomy and gene sequencing between gay and straight men. There are biological correlations that suggest, but don't yet prove, there is biology involved in sexual orientation.

But Birkey goes on:
If a lack of biological evidence undercuts the foundation of the gay rights movement, then that foundation has been undercut for quite some time. There have been no conclusive studies demonstrating a genetic cause for sexual orientation. Kersten says that gay activists respond with an emphatic "yes" to the question of a genetic cause. But that's not quite true. Most gay activists would answer the question, "Are gays born that way?" with a subjective "yes." For us, we feel that we were born gay.

None of us would answer a question about the biological determination of our sexual orientation with, "Of course! It's the genetic marker, Xq28, on the X chromosome, silly!" We don't know the biology of why we are gay or lesbian or bisexual or straight, but we know we are those things. We feel it, and we have felt it all our lives.

The lack of a genetic marker doesn't mean that our desires, relationships and communities are merely a "choice" to be changed by the Lord or by discredited therapists. It does not mean we don't believe that our sexual orientation is a fixed, innate characteristic. We have faith that we are living our lives as we were created to live them. It doesn't matter that we have no conclusive biological proof of the innateness of our gayness; we are on the side of righteousness...

Can we draw an analogy between sexual orientation and religious belief? There is a body of scientific evidence that suggests a biological factor, but mostly, gays and lesbians are asking their fellow Americans to take a leap of faith and trust us when we say we love who we love, that we have found the relationships that mean the most to us, and we have created the families that make sense for us. And, for almost all of us, that's not something we can change.
If, Birkey says, Katherine Kersten is making this kind of analogy, then he has found something on which they can agree. Personally I have my doubts that this is where she is taking this thought process.

I have known some women who have moved back and forth between being straight and lesbian; I have not known any men who have done the same. (I have known many men and women who tried to be straight, got married, had kids, pretended... until it didn't work.) I have wondered if there might be some difference between men and women on the biology of sexual orientation.

But I have known far more gays and lesbians who have personally anguished over their feelings and attractions and who, at moments in their lives because of church or family or school friends wished it were not so. Whatever the science eventually sorts out on the whys of sexual orientation (and I suspect it will be mostly genetic/biological), I celebrate the ability of these folks to come to terms with who God made them to be - gay and lesbian -and support their dreams and their right to be married, raise children, have legal protections, be ordained as clergy, and be recognized with the exact same level of emotion and commotion that those of us who are straight get when we fall in love and find a partner to share our life with.

Invisibility Cloak

Harry Potter has one. And soon, maybe, we can too. From the Washington Post:
...The nascent invisibility cloak now being tested, for example, is made of a material that bends light rays "backward," a weird phenomenon thought to be impossible just a few years ago. Known as transformation optics, the phenomenon compels some wavelengths of light to flow around an object like water around a stone. As a result, things behind the object become visible while the object itself disappears from view.

"Cloaking is just the tip of the iceberg," said Vladimir Shalaev, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue University and an expert in the fledgling field. With transformation optics you can do many other tricks," perhaps including making things appear to be located where they are not and focusing massive amounts of energy on microscopic spots.

Other researchers are testing material that absorbs "99.955 percent of the light that hits it," making it by far the darkest material known. Very cool.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Christianity in Nigeria

In the last century Christianity has seen explosive growth in Nigeria, so much so that by the middle of this century the global heartland of Christianity will be in northern Nigeria. Eliza Grizwold, whose father was once Presiding Anglican Bishop in America, has an interesting and mostly disheartening look at the state of Nigeria's Christianity in the new issue of Atlantic Monthly (subscription only).

The population of Nigeria is evenly divided between Muslims and Christians. In the last decade violence has flared and attrocities have been committed by both sides. In addition there is plenty of inter-religious conflict between different brands of Christians and different brands of Muslims. On the Christian side Grizwold identifies two powerful, and sorry, players. The first is the now well-known Archbishop Peter Akinola. Akinola is best known in this country for his hostile views towards homosexuality. Conservative Anglican churches in the US are attempting to have him be their presiding bishop rather than the liberal American alternatives. But in Nigeria, Akinola is probably better known as the past president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, an umbrella organization founded in the 1970s to give Christians a collective and unified voice as strong as that of Muslims.

Grizwold tells the story of one Christian-Muslim conflict in the town of Yelwa, where in 2004 a group of Muslims brutally attacked and killed members of a Church of Christ who were meeting for worship. Members of the Christian Association of Nigeria responded:
According to Human Rights Watch, 660 Muslims were massacred over the course of the next two days, including the patients in the Al-Amin clinic. Twelve mosques and 300 houses went up in flames. Young girls were marched to a nearby Christian town and forced to eat pork and drink alcohol. Many were raped, and 50 were killed...

During the Christian attack, ...two young women took shelter in an elder’s guarded home. On the second day, the Christian militia arrived at the house. They were covered in red and blue paint and were wearing those numbered white name tags. The Christians first killed the guards, then chose among the women. With others, the two young women were marched toward the Christian village. “They were killing children on the road,” Danladi said. Outside the elementary school, her abductor grabbed hold of two Muslim boys she knew, 9 and 10 years old. Along with other men, he took a machete to them until they were in pieces, then wrapped the pieces in a rubber tire and set it on fire.

When Danladi and Ibrahim reached their captors’ village, they were forced to drink alcohol and to eat pork and dog meat. Although she was obviously pregnant, Danladi’s abductor repeatedly raped her during the next four days...
Here is Akinola's response to questions about this episode of violence by Christians against Muslims:
When asked if those wearing name tags that read “Christian Association of Nigeria” had been sent to the Muslim part of Yelwa, the archbishop grinned. “No comment,” he said. “No Christian would pray for violence, but it would be utterly naive to sweep this issue of Islam under the carpet.” He went on, “I’m not out to combat anybody. I’m only doing what the Holy Spirit tells me to do. I’m living my faith, practicing and preaching that Jesus Christ is the one and only way to God, and they respect me for it. They know where we stand. I’ve said before: let no Muslim think they have the monopoly on violence.”
The violence is appalling on both sides, but it is particularly disturbing to hear a Christian leader condone - no - support it. (It is also somewhat amazing to me that there are "pacifist" Brethren I know who like this guy; anyone who is anti-gay is our friend, I guess.)

Then there are the Pentecostals who are thriving by preaching a prosperity gospel. Pentecostalism stepped into the vacuum created by the collapse of the oil boom in the 1970's. Since then the Pentecostal Gospel of Prosperity, and the African Initiated Churches, or AICs, have converted millions to the prosperity gospel version of Christianity:
...Today, AIC members account for one-quarter of Africa’s 417 million Christians.

One bustling Pentecostal hub, Canaanland, the 565-acre headquarters of the Living Faith Church, has three banks, a bakery, and its own university, Covenant, which is the sister school of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Canaanland is about an hour and a half north of Lagos, which has an estimated population of 12 million and is projected to become the world’s 12th-largest city by 2020. With 300,000 people worshipping at a single service at the Canaanland headquarters alone and 300 branches across the country, Living Faith is one of Nigeria’s megachurches, and the dapper Bishop David Oyedepo is its prophet. The bishop, whose bald pate glistens above deep-set eyes and dazzling teeth, never wanted to be pastor: he had no interest in being poor, he told me. “When God made me a pastor, I wept. I hated poverty in the Church—how can the children of God live as rats?”

Bishop Oyedepo built Canaanland to preach the Gospel of Prosperity. As he said, “If God is truly a father, there is no father that wants his children to be beggars. He wants them to prosper.” In the parking lot at Canaanland, beyond the massive complex of unusually clean toilets, flapping banners promise: Whatsoever you ask in my name, he shall give you, and By his stripes he gives us blessings...

“God isn’t against wealth,” Professor Famous (a convert from Muslim) said. “Revelations talks about streets paved with gold.” He added, “Look at how Jesus dressed.” When I appeared baffled, he patiently explained that since the soldiers cast lots for Christ’s clothes, they were clearly expensive. In Canaanland, clothes matter: the pastors wear flashy ones and they drive fast cars as a sign of God’s favor. They draw their salaries from sizable weekly contributions. On Sundays at some Nigerian Pentecostal churches, armored bank trucks reportedly idle in church parking lots, while during the service, believers hand over cash, cell phones, cars—all with the belief that if they give to God, God will make them rich. It’s said that if the Christian Prosperity churches disappeared, the banks of Nigeria would collapse.
In fairness, part of their recipe for success is the way they foster discipline and hard work, which is all very good but not the same as the message of Jesus. Jesus had expensive clothes?

There are bright spots, like Pastor James Movel Wuye and Imam Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa, friends turned enemies turned friends again:

At a Christian conference in Nigeria sponsored by Pat Robertson—one of the most anti-Muslim preachers in the world—a fellow pastor pulled James aside and said, in almost the same words as the Sufi hermit, “You can’t preach Jesus with hate in your heart.” James said, “That was my real turning point. I came back totally de­programmed. I know Pat Robertson might have had another agenda, but I was truly changed.”

For more than a decade now, James and Ashafa have traveled to Nigerian cities and to other countries where Christians and Muslims are fighting. They tell their stories of how they manipulated religious texts to get young people into the streets to shed blood. Both still adhere strictly to the scripture; they just read it more deeply and emphasize different verses...

...As Pastor James told me at his office, Peace Hall, in Kaduna, he still believes strongly in absolute and exclusive salvation mandated by the gospel: “Jesus said, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life.’” He still challenges Christians to rely on the strict and literal word, and he’s still uncompromising on fundamental issues of Christianity. “We see same-sex marriages in the United States as signs of end times: it’s Sodom and Gomorrah,” he told me. “But I also want to say you can believe what you want to believe. We have to find a space for coexistence.”

Like many conservative Christians, he is misreading the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. But at least he understands the need to coexist. Let's hope that the views of more Nigerian Christians and Muslims evolve to this point.

Praying for God to Bring Destruction on Enemies

That's what Southern Baptist Pastor Wiley Drake is doing in response to an IRS investigation prompted by a complaint from Americans United for Separation of Church and State:

Last August, Americans United filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service about Drake’s use of church letterhead and a church-based radio program to endorse presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Federal tax law forbids tax-exempt groups from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.

In a Feb. 5 letter, the IRS notified Drake that his First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park is being investigated.

In response, Drake issued a Feb. 14 e-mail appeal to followers to engage in “imprecatory prayers” (curses) against Americans United and three of its staff members.

Said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, “We deplore Pastor Drake’s reckless and repugnant antics. Introducing this kind of religious extremism into American life is reprehensible.

“We have asked the IRS to investigate what we believe to be Drake’s violation of federal tax law,” Lynn continued. “If Drake thinks he is innocent, he has more than adequate legal representation, and there is ample opportunity to make his case.

“Trying to turn God into some sort of heavenly hit man is repugnant,” Lynn concluded. “There is more than a whiff of the Taliban in this action”

Wrote Drake, “In light of the recent attack from the enemies of God I ask the children of God to go into action with Imprecatory Prayer. Especially against Americans United for Separation of Church and State…. Specifically target Joe Conn or Jeremy Learing [sic] and their leader Rev. Barry Lynn. They are those who lead the attack.”

Drake directed his followers to Psalms 109 (as well as Psalms 55, 58, 68, 69 and 83) for examples of imprecatory prayers. Verses from those texts ask God to bring death and destruction to those targeted.

It just continues to amaze me that there are people who believe in a God who can or would do something like this, and that this kind of action has the remotest connection to the life and message of Jesus.

Castro Steps Down

For nearly 50 years, a thorn in the flesh for US Presidents, Florida politicians, and US-Cuba relations, Fidel Castro is officially stepping down as Cuba's President. A chance for two new Presidents to take us in a new direction.

Elections in Pakistan

Veiled women showed their identification cards in Karachi. As the country is facing a growing insurgency by the Taliban and Al Qaeda, rising prices and escalating violence, the nationwide vote will now serve as a kind of referendum on President Pervez Musharraf, who has grown deeply unpopular.

Photo: Akhtar Soomro for The New York Times

Musharraf's party gets trounced. How will the military respond? What does it mean for US-Pakistani relations? Is this election good news or bad news for the Taliban and Al Qaeda? An election brings big changes and big questions.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Martha, Martha

This is actually a post about Mary, but it references a scripture verse from Luke about Mary and Martha:
38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ 41But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ (Luke 10:38-42, Oremus Bible Browser)
I was struck today by a post by biblical scholar James Talbot on The Jesus Dynasty Blog:
**Wendy Pond just pointed out to me that the text actually says that “Martha welcomed Jesus into her house,” when “they,” namely the Jesus entourage, came to a certain village. It does not say that Mary lived there, but just that Martha had a sister called Mary. It is possible that this “Mary” has been traveling with the group, suggests they stop at her sister’s house for a meal and rest, and she has developed the practice of gathering and sitting with the men. Even though Luke introduces these women as if they are “new” to the story, it is clear from the way Jesus speaks to them in the core tradition that he knows them both well. The “good portion” that Mary has chosen appears to be her desire to hear and learn the words of the Teacher.
The particular wording of this passage never struck me before. It doesn't say Jesus came to the house of Mary and Martha. It could be that Mary was part of Jesus' traveling entourage. We don't know exactly how she relates to the other Marys - it gets quite confusing.

I am up to my eye-balls in Mary readings right now. Martha, Martha...

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Progressive Brethren Summit

It has been officially announced:

A "Progressive Brethren Summit" has been announced for Nov. 7-9 in Indianapolis, on the theme, "Faithful and Just: Progressive Brethren Speak." The event is sponsored jointly by Voices for an Open Spirit (VOS); the Brethren Mennonite Council for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Interests (BMC); Womaen's Caucus; Christian Community; and a number of congregations and individuals; and will be hosted by Northview Church of the Brethren. It is planned as "a first general gathering of those who see themselves as 'progressive' and currently, or formerly, participate in the Church of the Brethren," according to an announcement. It begins Friday evening with worship and speakers addressing the difficulties facing progressive Christians in "A Challenged Church"; Saturday includes a plenary session on being "A Jesus Church," break-out groups with presenters on a variety of topics, afternoon workshops, evening worship and speakers focusing on "A Welcoming Church," and a concert by Mutual Kumquat and others; Sunday will present several models of progressive Bible studies, with worship and celebration of "A Courageous Church." Cost is estimated at around $80, plus housing. Details and registration will be available around March 1 at and For more information contact Ken Kline Smeltzer at or Carol Wise at

Friday, February 15, 2008

UCC is clear on Science

Seeking an end to millenniums-old feud, UCC announces advertising outreach to

Written by J. Bennett Guess, United Church of Christ
January 29, 2008

With hopes of mending a millenniums-old feud between religion and science, the UCC has launched a new web-based advertising campaign geared toward the scientific and technological communities. "Our hope is to begin to move the church to the place where its public image, public witness and public identity is one of a community of faith that is eager to engage science and to welcome and honor scientists," said the Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president.

The UCC has purchased ads on more than 30 popular science-oriented blogs during the
month of February. The ads seek to promote both a pro-science, pro-faith message.
The science campaign, according to Thomas, is a significant next step for the UCC's
"God is still speaking" identity effort, a multi-million-dollar initiative that has included national TV, radio, web and print advertising. The web-based ads will link to an expanded "faith and science" section on the UCC's website dubbed "not mutually-exclusive", as well as provide directions on how visitors can locate UCC congregations.

"Through our Stillspeaking Initiative, the United Church of Christ has been intentional about seeking out groups of people that have been marginalized by the church, either intentionally or unintentionally," Thomas said. "And, frankly, when it comes to persons engaged in scientific inquiry — geneticists, mathematicians, chemists, engineers, science teachers and students — the church has a history of communicating disinterest, distrust and even hostility."

The advertising effort is being propelled by the release of a meaty Pastoral Letter on Science and Technology — authored by Thomas and a nine-member working group of scientists and theologians — that calls the church to "open ourselves
and our theology to the momentous conceptual changes of our times."
"Many today are hungering for an authentic spirituality that is intellectually honest and at home in a scientific era," the pastoral letter states. "They are searching for a new kind of wisdom to live by, one that is scientifically sophisticated, technologically advanced, morally just, ecologically sustainable, and spiritually alive."

The 2,400-word pastoral letter, titled "A New Voice Arising," is being distributed in February to each of the UCC's 5,700 local churches. Accompanying materials suggest how churches can host opportunities for further study and sciencerelated
group sharing. The UCC's blog will devote the first week of February to posts and discussions about religion, science and technology. The UCC also is hosting a sermon-writing contest on science and technology for pastors and seminarians, with two $500 top prizes, and the denomination is asking local churches to honor persons working in science-related professions during worship services on Sunday, May 18.
The UCC's pastoral letter has received endorsements from prominent scientific leaders. Alan I. Leshner, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said the UCC's effort is a
"clear support for science." "In the same way that UCC states that it cannot ignore the context in which it functions, neither can the scientific community
ignore its societal context," Leshner said. "For this reason, we see a dialogue between science and religion as vital."

Charles Townes, a UCC member who has received both the Nobel and Templeton prizes for physics, called the pastoral letter "a thoughtful, knowledgeable and perceptive discussion of science and religion and growth of their helpful interaction."

Ian G. Barbour, a physicist and theologian who won the 1999 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, said, "This is a wonderfully clear summary of the serious challenges and exciting opportunities when traditional religious beliefs encounter
recent discoveries in a range of sciences — from cosmology to evolution, brain research and genetics. It is truly a 'pastoral' letter in addressing personal questions in the lives of laypersons today rather than the more abstract debates
common among theologians or philosophers." "A New Voice Arising: A Pastoral Letter on Faith Engaging Science and Technology," as well as information about the
UCC's science-related advertising effort, is available at

The UCC is a step ahead of other Protestant denominations when it comes to wooing Progressive Christians fed up with the non-inclusiveness and antiquated theological interpretations of other mainstream denominations.

Clearly the UCC is working toward a Progressive Christian witness that will be appealing to those who still find organized religion and faith communities to be relevant and useful in their lives. While other denominations will be shrinking, this one stands to grow.
New York Times columnist Jennifer Warner writes in her column today about a topic near and dear to my heart and mind--the presumed overmedication of the American Public.

Those of us who are taking daily medications for anxiety and depression are alternately championed and scorned by our family and friends in our attempt to improve our quality of life. One day they love us, the next day they tell us we are a drone in the Generation Rx. Many of us continue this wenching debate of whether we are saints or sinners with ourselves every morning when we swallow this day's daily dose.

Warner's own anecdotal research and common sense have led her--and me too--to the understanding that psychic pain has existed since the beginning of time and since someone has been around to experience it. With that pain humans have developed various ways to escape it. We have struggled on how to regulate (or not) various forms of self-medication some of which is harmful to ourselves and others around us.

Given the alternatives, I'm happy to pop my *legally prescribed* pills on a daily basis if they make me a more joyful, productive, and loving person who can turn around and provide help and sustainance to those around me. Swallow on!

Another reason to lose the Weight!

I have always said that if a heart attack doesn't kill me/you, some form of cancer will. Here's more proof! Here's more good motivation to lose those extra pounds--or in my case dozens of pounds. One day at a time!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Loving Kindness Guided Meditation

From the Beliefnet website, here's a guided meditation for Valentine's Day on loving kindness conducted by Sharon Salzberg.

Pursing the White Stag

From Reuters news service...

A mythical and ghostly creature has appeared in the wilds of the Scottish Highlands -- and has been caught on camera.

The rare white stag, from the red deer species, is believed to be among just a tiny handful living in Britain, according to a conservation group.

The John Muir Trust is now keeping the stag's location secret for fear of poachers.

"To see him amongst the other stags was truly thrilling because he does look like a ghost: you do a double-take," Trust Partnership Manager Fran Lockhart, who filmed the stag, told Reuters.

White stags are seen as a magical and powerful force in many mythologies.

The animal's ghostly glow comes from a recessive gene which causes leucism, a condition which reduces the normal brown coloring in hair and skin. They are not albinos, which have red eyes due to lack of pigment.

In Celtic traditions, white stags represent messengers from the afterlife. Arthurian legend has it that the creature can never be caught -- King Arthur's pursuit of the animal represents mankind's spiritual quest.

It is also said that for those who set eyes on the animal, a momentous moment is near.

"They say their appearance is meant to herald some profound change in life for those who encounter them -- but I am still waiting," said Lockhart.

Her dog, though, stood transfixed for 45 minutes watching the white stag, instead of his usual scampering around.

Lockhart believes the Scottish Highlands' white stag is between 6 and 7 years old. She said he is maturing well, with a good set of antlers.

The last official recording of a white red stag in Britain, not to be confused with the more common white fallow deer, was last October when the body of one was found decapitated on the moors between Devon and Cornwall.

(Reporting by Georgina Cooper)

Happy Valentine's Day

Love Is...

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

- Corinthians 13:4-7

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Detours by Sheryl Crow

I was in need of some new music to play so I got the new Sheryl Crow CD the other day. I loved her first hit "All I Want To Do" back in the 90s. After a few tough years which have included a failed relationship with cyclist turned motivational speaker and cancer spokesperson Lance Armstrong, and also a bout with breast cancer, she's hit her singer/songwriter stride again!

Here's some lyrics from one of the songs titled "Out of Our Heads"

Every man is his own prophet
Oh every prophet is just a man
I say all the women stand up, say yes to themselves
Teach your children the best you can

Let every man bow to the best in himself
We're not killing any more
We're the wisest ones, everybody listen
'cause you can't fight this feeling any more, oh anymore

If we could only get out of our heads, out of our heads,
And into our hearts
Chlidren of Abraham lay down your fears, swallow your
tears and look into your hearts

COB Church Member Profile Data

I'm a relatively new subscriber to Messenger. As someone not born and raised in a Brethren household, I have few ties to this denomination. So receiving this monthly publication has been enlightening--when I read it. I read with interest the article in the February issue by Walt Wiltschek who is editor of Messenger and interviewed Brethren sociologist Carl Bowman about the results of a recent Church Member Profile he conducted and presented to the COB General Board. He really hit all the "hot button" topics in his survey.

I particularly liked his comment as it has echoed my thoughts over the past 3 + years trying to contemplate what it means to me to now identify myself as a member of the Church of the Brethren denomination.

In the interview Bowman was asked a question about what the results of the study say for the identity of the denomination. Bowman's response was: "Interestingly, Brethren still really value their identity as Brethren. The question is, what does that mean?...Our identity today is so diffuse."

Personally I too have found this to be true. The little research I have done to explore and learn about polity and process within the COB denomination leads me to believe that this trend will continue. While this is not unique to the COB denomination, it seems that other denominations are more "polity and process oriented" on how the differences get resolved.

Perhaps for the denomination to grow, it must first shrink during the process of redefining it's identity for the 21st century?

Bill Clinton Gets Called On Conversation

A couple of days ago Terry Mattingly, who covers religion for the Scripps News Service, had a post about Bill Clinton's speech at the New Baptist Convention meeting in Atlanta. During his speech, Clinton related a story about a meeting he had in 1993 in the White House with Rev. Ed Young, the Southern Baptist Convention's new President. At the time Young was, and still is, pastor of a church in Houston. Here is Mattingly on what Clinton had to say about their conversation, in a speech before thousands:

Continuing a lengthy story that he turned into a parable, Clinton claimed that Young "looked at me and he said, 'I want to ask you a question, a simple question, and I just want a yes or no answer. I don't want one of those slick political answers. ... Do you believe the Bible is literally true? Yes or no.'

"I said, 'Reverend Young, I think that it is completely true, but I do not believe that you, or I, or any other living person, is wise enough to understand it completely.' He said, 'That's a political answer.' I said, 'No, it's not. You asked a political question.' "

There is only one problem with this. Young says it isn't true. Mattingly has followed up with Young's response, given through the Baptist Press:

After receiving a copy of the address you delivered at the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant in Atlanta, I have asked for divine wisdom as to how I should respond. Initially, I was stunned. Your comments concerning our visit together were not just taken out of context; the conversation you described never took place. Certainly we did not agree on many issues. You were gracious, patient, and transparent. I was impressed with you as a person and with your willingness to allow others to share with you. I certainly was not confrontational, and on several occasions we simply politely agreed to disagree. . . .

The most important thing I wish to correct is that I have never asked you nor anyone else the question, "Do you believe the Bible is literally true?" I do not believe the Bible is literally, in the normal definition of the word, true. Jesus said, "I am the door." No one takes that "literally." As you know, Sir, in the Bible there are metaphors, parables, hyperbole, poetry, apocalyptic language, etc., and the Bible cannot be understood by anyone who would be foolish enough to think that you can take the Word of God literally. Also, at no time during our visit did I use the pejorative phrase, "slick political answer."

I think this is an interesting story for a couple of reasons. First, I think Clinton got caught in a public lie, not for the first time. I like Clinton; I think he was a good President. I also think that all Presidents lie; there is something about the nature of the job that invites dishonesty. But this was an unnecessary lie. There were no national secrets at stake. And that leads me to my second point. I think Clinton also violated confidentiality by making public the contents of a private conversation, albeit an apparently made up one. I suspect Young was surprised to read press reports of Clinton sharing details of a private conversation. He shouldn't have done it.

Finally, the primary reason I relate this back and forth conversation is that it reminds me to be careful about language when talking about conservative Christians. Don't they believe the Bible is "literally true?" Not really; they understand as well as I do that the Bible is full of metaphor and poetry, as Young suggests in his response. The real fault line is around issues of inerrancy. To what extent is the scripture without error? Fundamentalists and conservatives don't always have the same answer on this issue, but most settle on some version of the idea that in their original autographs the scripture is without error. This allows for the possibility of human error to have crept into the text through transcription and editorial license, and calls, therefore, for textual criticism and biblical scholarship to sift through the manuscripts. But still, they would say, even with whatever human error has made its way in the original intent can be determined. But there was once an authentic, original autograph that captured without error the mind of God.

I disagree with this, of course, and don't think there was ever a moment when humans encountered the divine in a way that is different than we do, through the glass darkly. This means there is always error. This means, for me, that I view the scriptures as human creations; humans seeking to convey what they believed was divine wisdom. I read the scriptures reverently because they are the repository of thousands of years of spiritual reflections, and they have shaped the course of human life and human history. But however true the wisdom contained in them might have been for their time, it may not always be true for ours.

It is important, though, to accurately convey the nature of the differences between conservatives and liberals.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Birthday Quote

Who said this:
You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.
Believe it or not it was a Republican. Today is Abe Lincoln's birthday. Would that today's spend now, our children can pay later Republicans would do a better job living up to the legacy of the greatest President their party has ever given us.

Shelley Madore

Shelley Madore is my state representative. Two years ago she broke through the south metro Republican strangle-hold on House and Senate seats. Today in the Star Tribune columnist Nick Coleman tells the story of how she came to be involved in politics:

Madore, 45, is a DFLer from Apple Valley who ran for the state House of Representatives in 2006 after encountering the indifference of legislative leaders to people in her situation. At the time, Madore and her husband, Paul, were earning about $50,000 a year and struggling to make the payments on their modest home and the $908 monthly premium on their health insurance.

The family's financial well-being was devastated when Madore's daughter, Erica, who was having trouble walking, received a long-overdue $25 X-ray. Until then, Madore said, her doctor suggested that Erica, 9 at the time, was having psychological problems, and he refused to order X-rays. After the Madores went to another doctor, out of their insurance network, an X-ray was done. It showed a tumor pressing on Erica's spinal cord. The operation that followed cost $60,000. Madore learned the price tag when the hospital asked her to pay it.

"But I have insurance," Madore said. "The company says it won't pay for the operation," the hospital replied. "You will have to pay it yourself."

Millions of Americans are one serious illness away from bankruptcy. The Madore family (son Jason is autistic), knows what living on the edge is like.

The only way they could pay for Erica's operation (she is 17 now), was to apply for assistance under a program limited to families with less than $3,000 in cash assets. Madore, working as an advocate for special-needs families, became disgusted with the system and went to the state Capitol to talk with legislators about fixing it.

She was told by a Republican legislator that her need to buy supplementary insurance to cover her family's huge medical bills was a "discretionary expense" like his decision to pay extra for "ice time" for his son's hockey practice. She was outraged. And then she turned her anger into community service and political action. Now she is part of a group of mostly freshman legislators who are proposing a version of a comprehensive healthcare plane for MN.

Their Minnesota Health Plan faces some tough sledding in the legislature. Our Republican governor continues to oppose any move towards universal healthcare. And some of the old-guard leadership in the DFL are still a bit too cozy with those who gave us the "miracle" of managed care.

But the times they are a' changing. And Madore's victory in the south metro is a sign of that. It wasn't that long ago that Republicans rode to victory in the governor's mansion and in the state legislature on the strength of the suburban bubble of prosperity that ringed the metro area. Those suburban Republicans were much more concerned about getting enough "ice time" for their kids than they were about families without healthcare. They were also outraged that they had to pay more in annual vehicle taxes for their BMW's than those driving beat-up Chevys. They had the same feelings about having to support a public school system with their property taxes. And God forbid any of their money be used to support public transportation.

But the bubble has burst. The healthcare system is broke, our infrastructure is crumbling, our schools are in trouble. In the suburbs. Under Republican watch. Madore is part of the wave of DFL Senators and Representatives who kicked out the no-taxes crowd in the suburbs and put the Legislature back in control of the party that actually cares about the welfare of struggling families in the state. They have their work cut out for them, but Shelley's personal experience suggests that she is the kind of legislator who knows what it takes to bring change against long odds.

Huckabee Staying In

Mike Huckabee has just the slimmest chance of pulling off an upset of John McCain. McCain leads Huckabee in delegates 707 to 198; he needs only 1191 to seal the deal. But Huckabee is staying in the race. I saw him on TV yesterday speaking from Virginia where he addressed the issue of why he was still in it. He said, in essence, that because he was in Virginia campaigning and speaking, John McCain was also in Virginia campaigning and speaking. If he dropped out, he said, McCain would not be there because he wouldn't need to be there. He is giving the voters in these states a chance to have their voices be heard and their votes count.

I don't know what is really going on in Huckabee's mind; there is speculation he wants to be VP. Could be. But I am glad he is staying in for the reasons he gave. For the same reason I am glad Hillary and Barack are still slugging it out. This is the most substantial and consequential presidential campaign we have had in a couple of decades. In both parties there may be a contested election right down to the conventions and that means that the elections in every state matter. We have real choices and a real debate on issues and vision for the country. It is good for the country to be having this kind of election.

Monday, February 11, 2008

There's Something About Mary (2)

The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene, by Jane Schaberg

Continuing the summary of chapter 3. How, I asked in a previous post, did Mary Magdalene (MM) get turned from one of the central witnesses to the death and resurrection of Jesus into the popular image of a whore? Schaberg suggests that the transformation is already happening in the biblical texts, particularly the Gospel of Luke. Luke adds an important detail to the story about MM not found in Mark (apart from the later addition to Mark found in 16:9*) or Matthew. In original Mark and then Matthew and John MM is only named in the death-resurrection narrative. But in Luke 8:1-3 the author tells us that MM was part of a group of women who had been cleansed of evil spirits. What, pray tell, might those evil spirits have been? This is the first important piece of information that contributes to a process of conflation.

The second is that nowhere in the gospels does it say that MM anointed Jesus; we are only told that she unsuccessfully attempted to anoint the body of Jesus at the tomb. But we are told that Jesus was anointed by a woman. In Mark and Matthew she is unnamed; John identifies the woman as Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus. Both Mark (14:3-9), Matthew (26:6-13) and John (12:1-8) tell us that a woman anointed the feet of Jesus and this anointing was interpreted by Jesus as a prophetic act anticipating his death. Once again, though, Luke 7:36-50 gives this story a different interpretation:
36One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” 41“A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Oremus Bible Browser)
Schaberg says of Luke's move:
Luke has radically rewritten Mark's account and turn the anointing prophet into a woman most readers have seen as a prostitute, forgiven for her great love it. Even though the Markan and Matthean versions carry the remark of Jesus that "wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she [the prophet] has done will be told in remembrance of her," Luke's story -- without the remark and without the prophetic dimension of anointing -- overpower the other two by means of its dangerous artistry and its ideology. The prophet is morphed into the whore. This moment of forgiveness for sexual sin all but obliterated the political anointing, and later became the central moment of the mangling legends. (p.74)
The conflation of MM who wanted to anoint the dead Jesus with the prostitute whose sins were forgiven and anointed Jesus in gratitude has begun. And it takes off. By the 6th century Pope Gregory the Great could declare:
She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices....It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefor displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner... (p.82)
The legend of MM the repentent whore is fleshed out in some fascinating ways in the Middle Ages, as we will see in a subsequent post. But it is important to note Schaberg's commentary on why this happened. There was, she said, a need to downgrade her and to deny her authority. There was also "the desire to attach to female sexuality the notions of evil, repentence, and male mercy."
She became a whore for many reasons: sexism, never simple, and misogyny; the struggle to create and maintain a male hierarchy with its male models and precedents; unconscious or semi-conscious androcentrism; asceticism and the increasingly high value put on celibacy; intolerance of difference; the genuine fear of one's opponents within and without; political and social and cultural pressures; the liking for a good story; anger. (p.81)
It didn't have to be this way; it almost certainly wasn't this way in the Jesus movement or the Pauline churches, although it didn't take long for men to put women in their "place." It apparently wasn't this way in some of the gnostic-inspired communities where MM was recognized and revered as a leader, as we will see. But in the proto-orthodox to orthodox church movement, sexism became the norm sanctioned by "the will of God." We are just beginning to correct that wrong interpretation of God's will.

*There is a consensus among biblical scholars that Mark 16 originally ended with verse 8. Verses 9ff were later added to bring Mark into conformity with the later gospels.

Saddest Story of Iraq Debacle


I'm an innumerate, but the figures on this -- the saddest story of our Iraq debacle -- are so large that even I can do the necessary computations. The population of the United States is now just over 300,000,000. The population of Iraq at the time of the U.S. invasion was perhaps in the 26-27 million range. Between March 2003 and today, a number of reputable sources place the total of Iraqis who have fled their homes -- those who have been displaced internally and those who have gone abroad -- at between 4.5 million and 5 million individuals. If you take that still staggering lower figure, approximately one in six Iraqis is either a refugee in another country or an internally displaced person.

Now, consider the equivalent in terms of the U.S. population. If Iraq had invaded the United States in March 2003 with similar results, in less than five years approximately 50 million Americans would have fled their homes, assumedly flooding across the Mexican and Canadian borders, desperately burdening weaker neighboring economies. It would be an unparalleled, even unimaginable, catastrophe. Consider, then, what we would think if, back in Baghdad, politicians and the media were hailing, or at least discussing positively, the "success" of the prime minister's recent "surge strategy" in the U.S., even though it had probably been instrumental in creating at least one out of every ten of those refugees, 5 million displaced Americans in all. Imagine what our reaction would be to such blithe barbarism.

Back in the real world, of course, what Michael Schwartz terms the "tsunami" of Iraqi refugees, the greatest refugee crisis on the planet, has received only modest attention in this country (which managed, in 2007, to accept but 1,608 Iraqi refugees out of all those millions -- a figure nonetheless up from 2006). As with so much else, the Bush administration takes no responsibility for the crisis, nor does it feel any need to respond to it at an appropriate level. Until now, to the best of my knowledge, no one has even put together a history of the monumental, horrific tale of human suffering that George W. Bush's war of choice and subsequent occupation unleashed, or fully considered what such a brain drain, such a loss of human capital, might actually mean for Iraq's future.
Michael Schwartz's article follows. Disgrace piled upon disgrace.

GOP Valentines Day Greetings

The Republican National Committee injects some political levity into the Valentines Day season. Pretty funny.

Gated Communities Among Wealthy Evangelicals

D. Michael Lindsay is a member of the sociology faculty at Rice University and the author of Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite. In today's USA Today he writes about what he says is a dangerous trend among wealthy and powerful evangelicals:

President Bush is Public Evangelical No. 1. His presidency is the capstone of evangelicals' 30-year rise from the margins of society to the halls of power. But while the president has gone to great lengths to testify publicly to his faith, he often doesn't do the one thing that defines most evangelicals — go to church. He attends chapel at Camp David and other special services, but the president rarely can be found in a congregation on Sunday morning. (In contrast, Presidents Carter and Clinton both attended services in Washington during their tenures.)

Surprised? When most of us think of devout evangelicals, we think of people who attend church regularly and are active in their local congregations. Yet many of the most prominent evangelicals do neither. They regularly attend Bible studies and religious gatherings, including last week's National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, but many can't be found in the pews on Sunday.

I spent the past five years interviewing some of the country's top leaders — two U.S. presidents (George H.W. Bush and Carter), 100 CEOs and senior business executives, Hollywood icons, celebrated artists and world-class athletes. All were chosen because of their widely known faith. Yet I was shocked to find that more than half — 60% — had low levels of commitment to their denominations and congregations. Some were members in name only; others had actively disengaged from church life.

Why? For many it is because churches aren't run like businesses:

... James Unruh, who served as the chief executive of Unisys, was also at one time an elder at his Presbyterian church in California. He has since decided he will never serve again. He couldn't stand the inefficiency of church meetings, a common refrain among those I interviewed.

"It's very frustrating to be patient and not to try to run things because that's what you're doing all day in your business," Unruh told me. Others described local congregations as "inefficient," "unproductive" and "focused on the wrong things."

These factors are driving evangelical leaders into the arms of fellowship groups that exist outside the churches, often called "parachurch" organizations. The shift began in the 1950s, but it grew dramatically over the past 20 years as the parachurch sector became more professional and well-resourced. Nearly three-fourths of the leaders I interviewed serve on the board of at least one parachurch organization, such as the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. They prefer these groups because they have a broader reach and a bigger impact...

In an effort to evangelize among the nation's elite, evangelicals have launched hundreds of invitation-only programs and organizations. Business leaders in Manhattan conduct Bible studies that meet in private clubs. Fellowship groups in Washington are reserved for diplomats and members of Congress. The CEO Forum, an invitation-only group for CEOs of large corporations, has been extremely important to the religious formation of many business executives. And, ironically, meetings designed to spur Christian philanthropy are held at fancy hotels and resorts. Indeed, the evangelical advance into the nation's higher circles has entailed an extension of, instead of a departure from, the privileged and powerful worlds these leaders regularly inhabit. Yet how does an exclusive religious fellowship square with Christian teaching?
Good question.

The Bible as Graphic Novel

Yesterday's New York Times reports on the growing interest in the comic-book/action hero Bible:

Ajinbayo Akinsiku wants the world to know Jesus Christ, just not the gentle, blue-eyed Christ of old Hollywood movies and illustrated Bibles.

Mr. Akinsiku says his Son of God is “a samurai stranger who’s come to town, in silhouette,” here to shake things up in a new, much-abridged version of the Bible rooted in manga, the Japanese form of graphic novels.

“We present things in a very brazen way,” said Mr. Akinsiku, who hopes to become an Anglican priest and who is the author of “The Manga Bible: From Genesis to Revelation.” “Christ is a hard guy, seeking revolution and revolt, a tough guy.” ...

The medium shapes the message. Manga often focuses on action and epic. Much of the Bible, as a result, ends up on the cutting room floor, and what remains is darker.

“It is the end of the Word as we know it, and the end of a certain cultural idea of the Scriptures as a book, as the Book,” Timothy Beal, professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University, said of the reworking of the Bible in new forms, including manga. “It opens up new ways of understanding Scripture and ends up breaking the idols a bit.”

While known for characters with big eyes and catwalk poses, manga is also defined by a laconic, cinematic style, with characters often doing more than talking.

In a blurb for the Manga Bible, which is published by Doubleday, the archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, is quoted as saying, “It will convey the shock and freshness of the Bible in a unique way.”

No doubt. In the Manga Bible, whose heroes look and sound like skateboarders in Bedouin gear, Noah gets tripped up counting the animals in the Ark: “That’s 11,344 animals? Arggh! I’ve lost count again. I’m going to have to start from scratch!”

Abraham rides a horse out of an explosion to save Lot. Og, king of Bashan, looms like an early Darth Vader. The Sermon on the Mount did not make the book, though, because there was not enough action to it.

We wouldn't want any of that soft 'blessed are the peacemakers' or blessed are the poor' stuff to get in the way of Rambo Jesus. But maybe I am being unfair as Mr. Akinsiku has said the "biblical message he wanted to underscore was justice, especially for the poor." More at the Manga Bible website.

Death Penalty Sought for 6 at Guantanamo

From the New York Times:
Military prosecutors have decided to seek the death penalty for six Guantánamo detainees who are to be charged with central roles in the Sept. 11 terror attacks, government officials who have been briefed on the charges said Sunday.
There is nothing that happens in this Administration that is not political. The White House knows that a Dem. administration is likely to shut down Guantanamo and expedite the reviews and/or trials if necessary of everyone in there. It is likely going to be embarrassing for Bush. So we get a pre-emptive strike. In the middle of an election year let's put 9/11 back on the front page and feed the right-wing swamp with visions of executing bad guys. This is likely just Act 1 in the play The Terror Card that will be on our screens during the next year.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

McCain to Court Evangelicals

The Washington Post reports that Sen. John McCain, now the presumptive Republican nominee for President, is seeking to court evangelical leaders:

While the senator tried to appeal to conservatives on the stump, his top advisers were trying to set up meetings with some of the nation's more influential evangelical ministers, including Rick Warren, author of "The Purpose Driven Life," and Joel Osteen, to find common ground. The effort has been spearheaded by Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), who endorsed McCain after dropping his own presidential bid in November.

When asked about that effort, McCain said, "I'll be glad and willing to meet with anyone who wants to meet with me." He added that there is no formalized strategy to reach out to religious leaders.

Notably absent from this list is James Dobson who has said he will never vote for McCain. If these meetings happen, I will be very interested to see whether Warren or Osteen would endorse McCain. I would be surprised. Warren could very well back Obama if he gets the nomination based on what I have read. At the very least both Warren and Osteen have publicly moved towards the middle and embraced a broader (and I would argue more Christian) agenda than that espoused by the likes of Dobson.

Jews Not Happy with Latin Mass

Last year Pope Benedict gave the green light to traditionalists in the Catholic Church who want to celebrate the old Latin Mass. But the Good Friday Mass in Latin prayed for the conversion of Jews, referring to their “blindness” and calling upon God to “lift a veil from their hearts.” It was considered a major step forward in Jewish-Christian relations when the post Vatican II mass celebrated in the vernacular removed this phrase. So in reinstating the Latin Mass the Pope approved a slight change in the offensive language. It hasn't helped:

The revision of a contentious Good Friday prayer approved this week by Pope Benedict XVI could set back Jewish-Catholic relations, Conservative Judaism’s international assembly of rabbis says in a resolution to be voted on next week...

The draft resolution states the prayer would “cast a harsh shadow over the spirit of mutual respect and collaboration that has marked these past four decades, making it more difficult for Jews to engage constructively in dialogue with Catholics.”

On Tuesday, the pope released new wording for the prayer, part of the traditional Latin, or Tridentine, Mass..

An unofficial translation of the new prayer reads: “Let us pray for the Jews. May the Lord Our God enlighten their hearts so that they may acknowledge Jesus Christ, the savior of all men.”

We are long past the time when we should be praying for the conversion of Jews, or those of any other faith tradition. There is more than one way up the mountain. We ought to be praying instead for the strength and wisdom to lives our lives in a manner that someone who is looking for a faith community or a spiritual path might look at us and say: 'I would like to learn more about your path.' Let our life be our way of sharing our faith.

The 2000 year history of Jewish Christian relations is filled with one shameful act after another of persecution and violence and blame and discrimination by Christians against Jews. A very sobering account of it can be found in James Carroll's book Constantine's Sword. Near the end Carroll says:

...there is no apology for Holy Week preaching that prompted pogroms until Holy Week liturgies, sermons, and readings have been purged of the anti-Jewish slanders that sent the mobs rushing out of church.... Forgiveness for the sin of anti-Semitism presumes a promise to dismantle all that makes it possible.
The Catholic Church has apparently not learned this lesson.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Suffer the Children

Two children stand together as heavy rain falls at a temporary shelter for around 19,000 displaced people during post-election violence in Eldoret, Kenya, February 7, 2008.

REUTERS/Georgina Cranston

Archbishop Canterbury Advocates for Sharia Law

As if the world-wide Anglican community doesn't have enough to fight about, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has set off a firestorm across the pond. Here is the BBC report:
Dr Rowan Williams told Radio 4’s World at One that the UK has to “face up to the fact” that some of its citizens do not relate to the British legal system.

Dr Williams argues that adopting parts of Islamic Sharia law would help maintain social cohesion. For example, Muslims could choose to have marital disputes or financial matters dealt with in a Sharia court.

He says Muslims should not have to choose between “the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty”.
Here is some of the response:
Following the archbishop's comments, Home Office Minister Tony McNulty said: "To ask us to fundamentally change the rule of law and to adopt Sharia law, I think, is fundamentally wrong."

Shadow community cohesion minister Baroness Warsi told BBC News 24: "Dr Williams seems to be suggesting that there should be two systems of law, running alongside each other, almost parallel, and for people to be offered the choice of opting into one or the other. That is unacceptable."

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said he had "an enormous amount of respect" for Dr Williams, but could not agree with him on this issue.

He said: "Equality before the law is part of the glue that binds our society together. We cannot have a situation where there is one law for one person and different laws for another."

Trevor Phillips, who chairs the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said the "implication that British courts should treat people differently based on their faith is divisive and dangerous".

In an interview with BBC correspondent Christopher Landau, Dr Williams said Muslims should not have to choose between "the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty".

He stressed "nobody in their right mind would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that's sometimes been associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states; the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well".
The Times religious correspondent Ruth Gledhill put it more bluntly: Has the Archbishop Gone Bonkers? If you read the posts you will see that he has defenders as well who argue that his words are being mis-characterized. Still, given the troubles he is having with conflict in his own communion, it is difficult to imagine what possessed him to stir up this hornet's nest. has much more on this.