Friday, June 11, 2010

Fish Story

We have a children's story in worship every week and thankfully I have nothing to do with scheduling it and we have many people willing to take a turn on the schedule. But last week when the children came forward for a story no adult stood up so I took an impromptu turn.

What to talk about? Well I told a story from my fly-fishing experience the previous week. I asked the children if they ever fish or like to fish. Then I told them that I like to fish and I usually make it a practice to 'catch and release' the fish I catch, and I explained what that meant.

Then I related that during the past week I had caught a fish that did not survive as I brought it into my net. I talked about being sad about the fish dying. I then told them that I kept the fish, brought it home, and ate it for dinner.

I asked them if they liked to eat fish or burgers or chicken. I asked them if they knew that the meat they ate was once a living animal. I talked some about how important it is for us to know that we live in a web of life where some animals give their lives so that other animals can live. I finished up by talk about my feelings of reverence for life and explained what that word meant to me.

Did they get it? I had one parent relate to me that their child had not a clue what I was talking about apart from fishing. I had another parent tell me that they thought I was making a commercial for PETA. Ha. I had another parent tell me that just the previous week their child had said to them after watching a tv show that had chickens running around that the child had said "chicken, we eat chicken" which had prompted an interesting conversation and gratitude from the parent that I had picked up the subject while it was fresh on the child's mind.

I have vivid childhood memories of working on relatives farms and learning first hand that the animals I enjoyed (cows) or feared (pigs) would soon be on the dinner table. I have the same kind of childhood memories from fishing and hunting. I learned about the cycle of life; I learned about reverence as I watched animals die so that I could eat.

I also have vivid memories of taking my suburban raised daughter to a farm when she was a youngster and her breaking into tears as she protested that "my milk does not come from a cow it comes from the store." Living in an urban area there can be a certain disconnect between the food we eat and the real life and work that brings us that food.

I think we have a responsibility in our religious communities to somehow make that connection. Whether it is our food or our consumer lifestyle or our energy consumption: some animal or some plant or some person is giving their life so we can live. I think about that every time I go fishing.

The Tragic Nature of Human Life for the Earth

Andrew Sullivan links to gruesome video and sobering statistics on the number of birds killed by wind farms:
The American Bird Conservancy estimated in 2003 that between 10,000 and 40,000 birds were killed each year at wind farms across the country, about 80 percent of which were songbirds and 10 percent birds of prey. "With the increased capacity over the last seven years, we now estimate that 100,000 – 300,000 birds are killed by wind turbines each year," said Conservancy spokesman Robert Johns. By our math, that comes to 274 to 822 birds a day killed by wind farms across the country.
For some reason this Henry James saying came to mind:
Every man who has reached even his intellectual teens begins to suspect that life is no farce; that it is not genteel comedy even; that it flowers and fructifies on the contrary out of the profoundest tragic depths--the depths of an essential dearth in which its subjects roots are plunged...The natural inheritance of everyone who is capable of spiritual life is an unsubdued forest where the wolf howls and the obscene bird of night chatters.
I don't know how it is possible to ponder what it means to be human for the rest of life on the planet and not have a sense of tragedy. We are fouling the Gulf of Mexico with our oil and this is only the most immediate and visible cost of our addiction to oil. We are doing the same thing to our mountains and streams with coal mining.

We are told we need to move to more earth-friendly forms of energy: like wind. Wind farms are sprouting up all around the country. And killing staggering numbers of birds.

There is no escaping the conclusion that even when we are acting at our best, which isn't very often, we are exacting a terrible toll on the planet. And there really isn't much we can do about it except to strive to keep our environmental footprint to a minimum, protect and preserve as much of nature as we can, and grieve for the birds and fish who die so we can live.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

How Diverse Can a Church Be?

James McGrath asks this question on his blog: how diverse can a church be? I think there are couple of ways of thinking about an answer. One is that it depends a lot on the emotional health an intelligence of the people in leadership at the church. Emotionally healthy people have clearly self-defined values and boundaries and are not threatened by people who have different beliefs. If the leadership is healthy they can model healthy dialogue and conflict and the congregation can tolerate, perhaps even welcome, a certain amount of diversity. On the other hand if the leadership isn't emotionally healthy then they will probably be threatened by diversity and seek to enforce adherence to a more narrow theology or doctrinal position. (And this has nothing to do with liberal or conservative theology; it is true across the spectrum. Emotionally healthy leadership seems to attract more diversity of thought and opinion around whatever the spiritual orientation is.)

Another way to think about it is what I learned from evangelical church planters whose training I attended nearly 20 years ago. At the time there was no training available for liberal church planters, at least not that I was aware of. The one teaching that was driven home over and over was that the group of people planting the church must all agree on essential matters of theology and doctrine. Therefore, I was taught, it was very important to hammer out a set of core values that clearly define where you stand on how you read scripture, understand Jesus, think about culture-war issues like homosexuality, etc. The leadership needs to agree on these issues and then when the church gets underway new members also need to be in essential agreement. It is better to say to someone "You know there is another church down the road that might better meet your needs" rather than be so desperate for new people that you welcome those who have fundamental disagreements about core issues. I heard these trainers say that there would be more than enough diversity to deal with even among those who are in agreement on core values.

For the most part we followed this advise as we started Open Circle. I knew starting the church that there were certain issues that were important to me that I no longer wanted to have to be fighting about in a congregation: gays would be welcome, I would not be interpreting scripture in a literal way, and Christianity was not the only valid spiritual path. I was clear about these issues as I talked to potential members and those who stayed were in agreement on these issues. When we had enough of a core group we worked out a set of core values and then we clearly published these in all of our literature. We still do.

In some ways our congregation is not very diverse. We are mostly white, theologically and politically liberal. In other ways we are quite diverse. We have a lot diversity in religious background: Catholic, many flavors of Protestant, pagan, atheist, Jewish. We have a growing diversity in age. We started out with mostly boomer individuals and families; now we run the gamut from young families to seniors, singles, cohabitating and married couple with and without children, gay and straight. We have city dwellers, suburbanites and folks coming from small towns and the country, some driving 30 miles to get to church.

I have found it to be true that even with clearly defined core values there is plenty of diversity that presents continuing opportunities for dialogue and challenges for the congregation as we chart our way forward. We have constant conversations around the issues like these: what does it mean to be a Christian or a follower of Jesus today; how do we relate to our denomination, The Church of the Brethren; how do we best deploy our people resources to serve church and community? We have some strong differences of opinion in the congregation about these issues.

I wish we were more racially diverse than we are and interestingly enough, we were more racially diverse when we started than we are now 17 years later. I am not sure why that is but I would guess that part of it has to do with the fact that I do not have great cross-cultural skills and it is not one of the passions that drives me as a pastor, like say being welcoming to glbt folk does.

It is interesting to note that my answer to this question doesn't even touch on some of the issues found in this response.

Two Words for Harry Reid

Everything I read this morning seems to suggest that Nevada Senator Harry Reid was the big winner in last night's Republican party primary as the looniest candidate, Sharron Angle, won. I have two words of warning for Reid: Michelle Bachmann.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

An Inadequate Response to Trouble and Disaster

I am with Bob Herbert on the joblessness crisis and the lack of adequate response from Obama and Congress:

Policy makers have acted as if they are unaware of the magnitude of this crisis. They have behaved as though somehow, through some economic magic perhaps, or the power of prayer, this ocean of joblessness will just disappear. That’s a pipe dream.

Even if we somehow experienced a sudden, extraordinary surge in job growth (which no one is expecting), it would take a very long time just to get back to the level of employment that we had when the recession started in late-2007.

...For all the money that has been spent so far, the Obama administration and Congress have not made the kinds of investments that would put large numbers of Americans back to work and lead to robust economic growth. What is needed are the same things that have been needed all along: a vast program of infrastructure repair and renewal; an enormous national investment in clean energy aimed at transforming the way we develop and use energy in this country; and a transformation of the public schools to guarantee every child a first-rate education in a first-rate facility.

This would be a staggeringly expensive and difficult undertaking and would entail a great deal of shared sacrifice. (It would also require an end to our insane waste of resources on mindless and endless warfare.) The benefits over the long term would be enormous.

Bold and effective leadership would have put us on this road to a sustainable future. Instead, we’re approaching a dead end.

The problem is that even though there is lots of anger on the street that anger is mostly misdirected, i.e. the Tea Party, or misinformed like those who are blaming Obama for not being angry enough about the gulf oil spill. But for all the throw the bums out anger on the street the politicians in Washington don't feel that anger every day; what they feel every day is touch of money that streams into their campaign coffers from the big players in finance and business who have everyday access to Washington politicians. These people are not personally hurting. What is a little unemployment to them? What they worry about and pay for access to talk about is regulations and tax breaks and the threat of inflation that is out there somewhere if we don't tame the deficit. So we get a tepid response to the real and festering unemployment crisis. And despite an epic disaster in the gulf it is still drill-baby-drill, put off only briefly until the cameras go away from the gulf.

There is only one person who has the bully pulpit and who could make the case for a real jobs bill and a real energy policy. I am still hopeful but also increasingly worried that another crisis (or two) is going to be wasted.

The Un-Empty Nest

Meagan moved back home last night from St. Peter as she ends a job in Mankato and begins a new job next week in Bloomington. Fiance Michael and monster dog Kato are residing at Michael's parents' home in Burnsville. Suddenly a bedroom is cluttered, we are buying milk again and there is already a whirlwind of activity in and out.

She voiced her unhappiness about this situation last night and it is hard not to share it. However, she is very fortunate in this economy to have found a decent paying job and her mother and I are hopeful that she will be able to save some money leading up to next summer's wedding. Then we can go back to being the empty-nesters we have grown accustomed to being.