Archive - September, 2007

Pledge for Malaria Bednets

Bishop Janice Huie, President of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church, pledged $1.5 million for bednets for Cote d’Ivoire when she attended the Clinton Global Initiative this week. Her participation in the Initiative is reported by United Methodist News Service. Participants in the Clinton Global Initiative are asked to make a pledge in one of the areas of global change the initiative focuses on.

The people of The United Methodist Church have already pledged approximately $1.75 million for bednets through the Nothing But Nets campaign, according to Bishop Thomas Bickerton, spokesperson for the church’s partnership in Nothing But Nets, and episcopal leader of the Pittsburgh Area. He told an audience in Houston last week the grassroots movement is slightly over halfway toward meeting the goal. A matching grant of $3 million has been provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The United Methodist Church of Cote d’Ivoire is in a partnership with the Texas Annual Conference led by Bishop Huie. The Cote d’Ivoire leaders have identified health concerns as a priority to be addressed in the west African country which has experienced destructive civil conflict in recent years. The church operates hospitals and clinics that are being repaired and improved.

Representatives from the two conferences have met and are creating a plan to implement the various mission and ministry programs identified by the Cote d’Ivoire conference.

Media as Sacred Space

Thanks to David Frumm for a great line that speaks–media is sacred space. Frumm refers to the words of the late Pope John Paul II that “the use of the techniques and the technologies of contemporary communications is an integral part of its [the church’s] mission in the third millenium.

People are more “present” in media environments today than at any time in human history. If religious organizations realize this and are also present, they have an opportunity to engage people in the environment where they live. If not, then it’s quite possible there will be no engagement because it’s more difficult to make the connection outside the media.

I’ve written many times here that we in the mainline haven’t grasped this idea and continue to function outside the media as if it (they) are too trivial to be bothered with, or worse, they’re too polluted to participate in. It’s easier to criticize media than it is to make media.

(As an aside, I still grate at the use of media in the singular. It was plural when I was taught grammar and that stuck. Medium is the singular form. That’s how ancient I am. But media as singular and plural is common usage today and I’m grudglingly giving in.)

Back to the point. The epochs in religious history where the church was at its best were those times when it was able to communicate with people in language that made faith accessible and that voiced their concerns. This was, by all accounts, a remarkable strength of Jesus who is reported in scripture to be an extraordinary teacher and conversationalist. He used common language and told stories that engaged everyday folks and he did it in public places.

It was the energizing strength of the Reformation as Luther took his tracts outside academia and put them into the hands of a wider audience. This, coupled with the publishing of the Bible in accessible language, fundamentally changed Christian history.

It was a compelling strength of many 18th Century reformers, one of whom, John Wesley, I cite often. Wesley was apparently able to preach to coal miners in everyday language from street corners.

It’s often said Charles Wesley, John’s brother, took bar tunes and gave them religious themes.

This is media as sacred space, the place where the sacred and the secular intersect. The stories of Jesus, the Vulgate edition of the Bible, the street sermons of John Wesley, the bar songs of Charles Wesley are all media as sacred space.

In our day the challenge is to find the words and the media to communicate the sacred in the places where we live. Megachurch pastors such as Rick Warren are doing this in spades. Evangelical entrepreneurs like Pat Robertson have been doing it for years. But the mainline has been absent, and the mainline has been in decline for years.

Will media stop that decline? Not exclusively. But one thing’s clear. If you’re not present in media today, its’ as if you don’t exist. Not being present will certainly assure that decline continues because it takes you out of the conversation and out of mind.

Understanding media use as an expression of the mission of the church, as Pope John Paul said, is to understand that the church belongs in the world, interacting with people on their terms. This is where faith changes lives and it might very well be where the church experiences renewal.

Verizon and Corporate Censorship

Revised September 28, 6:34 pm

Blogger Art Brodsky recaps the de-regulation history of the Federal Communications Commission. These FCC actions result in the current climate of corporate discretion to determine which groups are allowed access to certain media and what messages will be carried.

Verizon’s reversal of its ban on text messages by the prochoice organization NARAL is yet another incident in what will be an on-going test of the limits of free speech in a deregulated communications environment. It’s to Verizon’s credit that the corporation changed its ruling. But it’s a reminder to all that free speech is in peril when corporate values determine which messages can be sent.Corporations protect their self-interest and when controversial social messages put them at risk, as they perceive it, they backpedal. And if they don’t want to listen there is no appeal. We’re left with the goodwill and sensibilities of enlightened executive decision makers.
In fact, I believe audiences are more sophisticated than some corporate leaders assume. We distinguish between the message and the messenger. We know messages sent on a common carrier don’t reflect the corporate stance of the company. But the flip side of this conundrum is that opposing groups can threaten economic boycotts that bring bad publicity at least and economic harm at worst. My hunch is that sometimes the hassle doesn’t seem worth it and corporations are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
But, this discomfort aside, it’s essential to protect free speech. I think it’s unfortunate that deregulation has left us at the mercy of corporate policies. This puts on everyone the responsibility to be an advocate for free speech. It means inconsistent policies with no common foundation. And we’re at a disadvantage because we don’t have the resources to engage the challenges. We must rally public opinion and sometimes that works and sometimes not. So, we’re left with a diminished conversation and a corporation-ruled communications infrastructure that is most concerned about self protection and only secondarily concerned about our right to speak.

National Council of Churches Death Watch

The announcement yesterday of wholesale staff cuts at the National Council of Churches writes another sad chapter, perhaps the next to last, in the recent history of this once-proud organization. Even with a strategic plan in place the next meeting of the General Assembly might better be billed the death watch because the layoffs send a signal the Council is on its last legs regardless of plans on paper. Why anyone thinks support will be forthcoming in the future escapes me.

The reasons for the financial crisis are many. Whether a “nuclear” action of this magnitude was necessary is debatable, but it’s done. I regret the dislocation and career disruption staff will go through. Having survived one of these episodes myself I know the trauma firsthand but I also know they will survive and prosper perhaps finding even more meaningful landing places.

At first, I thought it might be interesting to recount how the Council got to this stage of near death. But not today. Instead, what haunts me is the inability of the leaders of the mainline communions that make up the Council to find a compelling purpose, energizing vision and motivating rationale for the ecumenical movement. It’s not as if there’s a lack of matters where faith intersects with crushing human dilemmas and could inform responsible action. A child dies every thirty seconds of malaria, a disease that has been eliminated in the wealthiest nations but plagues the poor of sub-Saharan Africa. The war in Iraq saps the life blood of U.S. youth and Iraqis and squanders treasure. As recently as yesterday, the nations of the world didn’t rise to the occasion and pledge the amounts desired by the Global Fund to combat the diseases of poverty. And the list goes on and on.

These aren’t merely public policy issues, they’re places where faith and policies intersect and they define who we are as a global community and how we in the Christian faith community view our moral responsibility to live our faith. And the fact that the Council is pulling back from staffing them is revealing. The lack of vision is clear. We leave it to rock stars and megachurch pastors to call us to be our best and challenge us to exert influence on behalf of the dispossessed, powerless and poor.

In a media saturated world the Council has lost its voice, and more telling, no one is listening to it anymore.

Of course the leaders of the Council are morally alert, sophisticated and committed. Their intentions are the best. And they struggle with harsh financial challenges in the Council and in their own communions. But as foundations, corporations and other groups are seeking partnerships in unprecedented ways to design actions on a global scale, the Council has fiddled with the strings of reorganization, focused on its internal concerns and the world moved on.

On a personal level this pains me because I, as many other staff colleagues, have literally put my life on the line to tell the stories of the Council’s mission to end hunger, fight poverty, bring peace and assure justice. But on a bigger stage, the absence of a meaningful progressive witness for peace, justice and equity leaves a hole in the public dialogue that distorts the full character of the Christian voice. We leave it to others to shape perceptions of the world and how we can change it for the better.

But looking in the rear view mirror doesn’t get you to the future. So, I’m casting my gaze in a different direction. What was, is past. What can be, lies ahead. New partnerships, new ways of acting, new formats for global change await. If the voices of the future are Bono and the two Bills, well, so be it. The road ahead looks exciting and there is energy around every corner. Those who take up the challenge and run the risks will, I think, find abundant life. And those who don’t…well that’s up to them and to God.

SCHIP, Sojourners & Bush

A letter about a meeting between President Bush and several religious leaders in Austin shortly after his election is featured on SOJOnet, the email newsletter of Sojourners. It’s a revealing account of the President’s desire early on to find ways to combat poverty through faith-based efforts. The threatened veto of SCHIP seems a 180-degree turn, as Jim Wallis of Sojourners points out. The Sojourners blog is here but it doesn’t contain the email letter. That is a subscription worth getting.

The Washington Post summarizes Senate reaction to the veto threat including strong comments against it by leading Republican Senators such as Sen. Orrin Hatch.

Reacting to the President’s claim the bill would subsidize families earning as much as $83,000, the Post reports on Hatch’s reaction as follows:

Hatch, who helped negotiate the compromise, said it is flatly untrue that the bill would cover children in households with incomes of as much as $83,000. A recent Urban Institute analysis found that 70 percent of the children who would gain or retain coverage under the Senate bill, which resembles the compromise, are in households with incomes below twice the poverty level, or $41,300 for a family of four.

“We’re talking about kids who basically don’t have coverage,” Hatch said. “I think the president’s had some pretty bad advice on this.”

Hillary’s Religion

An interesting discussion of Hillary Clinton’s religious influences is occurring on the web and in the newspapers.

Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for President Bush, says Hillary’s well-articulated and genuine faith would serve her well among religious voters turned off by Rudy Guiliani’s pro-choice history. By Gerson’s reckoning, the preponderance of Hillary’s values, based on United Methodism’s blending of scriptural and social holiness, would be an asset in a head-to-head race with Guiliani whose religious values are not as well articulated.

Gerson says Hillary may be the “most religious politician since Jimmy Carter.”

What’s most interesting to me, however, is the recognition by Gerson that Hillary’s faith tradition is based on solid theology, scriptural interpretation and social action. This tradition has taken a beating the past several years as ideologues on the right sought to discredit and brand it as insufficient if not unfaithful. The most recent was Chuck Colson’s op-ed in which he says mainline Christians don’t follow biblical teachings faithfully.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, identified four foundation stones his followers should rest upon–scripture, tradition, experience and reason. Scripture was always primary, but Wesley stayed away from fixed doctrines even as he asserted his strong interpretations about many elements of faith to his followers. Yet, his method was rather flexible and his followers are a diverse lot.

Hillary’s religious values are rooted in this diverse and flexible theology, and that theology is well-suited for life in the 21st. century.

For a more complete discussion of Wesley’s theological method see Dr. Albert Outler’s narrative at the Wesley Center for Applied Theology.

Jena and Bloggers

The Jena protest grew straight from cyberspace, according to blogger Bob Morris at Politics in the Zeros. Morris says it was Black activists who picked up this story of injustice and carried it into national consciousness while white bloggers missed it. Probably the first, real world protest birthed on the Internet, he says.

Morris links to blogs that led the way. It’s worth checking out.

Creation, Community and Healing

I was thinking about these three words recently when I read a note from a Native American friend. The note itself isn’t important, but the language and suppositions in the note are. Language reflects culture, obviously. And culture reflects how we live our lives.

When Native people speak of Creation, it’s not the language of science or the debate over evolution. It’s not political language nor European theological language. But it is sacred language. It’s possible to write about Creation as European theologians have done, Creation as incarnational. That is, the Creation and its various parts point to the sacred in our midst. But European theology can’t contain the fullness of what I’ve heard Native peoples express.

It’s more like this: even the rocks speak. Creation is sacred and it has a voice. Elements don’t merely point to something else, they are themselves sacred. To be in Creation is to be part of the whole fabric of life that comes from the Great Spirit. When referring to our time here, the earth is personified as Mother Earth. She embraces us, nourishes us and gives us life. The whole can’t be divided into parts because each part is connected in an organic, sacred, living way.

Community comes naturally to Native people. It isn’t something you create on paper, organize, or work out from a study guide. It just is. It’s so much a part of how we should live together that it’s beyond question or study.

And the word healing is about how life is lived in the Creation and in the community. It’s not touchy, feely, it’s the what the Creator wills for us and it’s the result of the multiple gifts of Creation. Creation is our medicine.

And all of this is so seamless it goes beyond what we can comprehend or see. It informs who we are.

The note from my friend didn’t say all of this, and in fact, the frustration he expressed is rooted in this understanding of life which is not shared by the majority culture. That was the grating touch point that so frustrated and confounded him. He was operating on a set of values so out of sync with the majority culture’s values that he was in deep inner conflict.

Now, I’m making no claim for expert knowledge of Native spirituality. Some would, no doubt, take exception to my brief and simple description above. And I’m not trying to define it for you or anyone else. But I do know that the struggle between the values of the majority culture and indigenous cultures is still happening and sometimes it’s personal. And I know the damage done to native cultures is deep and lasting, and in many ways, it continues as well.

I also believe some of the majority culture values are wounding Mother Earth and these wounds will be deep and lasting. But I told my friend we can’t despair. The whole story of Creation isn’t written yet. It’s an unfolding drama. We have no idea what’s in store. So hold on. Hold fast. And seek truth.

In any culture, I think that’s good theology.

New Religious Media

An email from David Frumm, formerly religion reporter for the Detroit Free Press, says he’s leaving the Free Press to operate a new website, read the spirit. com, that will offer “creative ideas that have never been been attempted in religious media.”

Beyond this promise, what’s interesting is the assessment of this veteran reporter that we’re at the dawn of an opportune time for religious voices.

Frumm says the challenge is to find a voice. It’s no longer enough to write about religion, it’s necessary to tell stories that give voice. He also says there is tremendous untapped energy in traditional denominations. In a nod to the historical story of Luther’s posting 95 theses on a church door, Frumm’s creative colleagues posted their theses in the form of ten 21st century principles for religious publishing. They’re an interesting set of propositions.

I’ve been contending in this blog for quite a long time that there is a reserve of energy in the oldline, so-called mainline denominations that, if focused and freed, could bring renewal to the church and probably the society. Frumm doesn’t make quite that broad a claim, but the move into digital media coupled with the promise of doing new things in religious publishing moves in the right direction.

The great challenge I see for the mainline, at least at the level in which I work, is to break out of the traditional constraints and constrictions and experiment with new forms of mission and ministry. On the face of it this would seem to be obvious and easy to do. But it isn’t. It involves cultural change, and that kind of change comes only with the pang of birth, or the pain of urgent, emergent threat.

The threat is at hand. The challenge before the mainline is whether they can enter into the 21st century and bear the risk that comes with efforts to breakthrough the past and enter into whatever the future holds. And it means cultural change that will be hard to accept, I believe. It will require freeing up clergy and congregations to innovate, experiment and risk failure. But this is the only road to renewal.

Perhaps most important is finding a voice in the language of the street today. I don’t mean the common language so debased it’s become devoid of passion. The “f” word and the profane have lost all meaning with overuse. I mean language that communicates about sacredness in a society that knows only a secular vocabulary. It’s about finding a voice.

As Frumm notes, it took seventy years following the first use of movable type before Luther found his voice. Digital media are significantly different. They compress time and they are asymmetric. They’re everywhere and becoming available to almost everyone. How do you find a voice in the cacophony? There’s the challenge. Breaking through the clutter and using words that communicate.

That Frumm and his colleagues are moving in this direction in digital media is yet another example of the change that is already afoot. More power to them.

Free Access to New York Times

The New York Times has announced it will stop charging for access to its site at midnight Monday. What’s interesting about this is the Times’ claim it will generate more revenue from ad sales than from online subscriptions.

But even more revealing is the power of search engines to drive users to the site. The Times says users coming by way of search engines did not ante up fees for information. But they represent an opportunity and the hope is they will stay longer if the site is free. This will generate more page views which, in turn, will result in more revenue from advertising.

The Times joins CNN and the BBC providing free access after having attempted paid subscriptions for premium information. If it holds, this bodes well for access to information on the net.

Recently, I was searching for information on organizational management and discovered one article I wanted was behind the pay wall of three or four sites. I didn’t pay. I found what I needed from free sites and probably won’t go back to the fee-based sites. Fees are bad for Internet information providers in a couple of ways. Users who don’t have a critical need for information won’t pay for it, and those sites that charge are likely to find that fees turn people off. They don’t encourage subscriptions, they encourage defection.

The Internet, as the Cluetrain Manifesto made clear many years ago, runs on smart markets. They are formed and reacting to what corporations are doing. In this case, the Times has listened. This move will be watched to see of this free access delivers new revenue.

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