Archive - May, 2009

Did Pres. Obama Borrow a United Methodist Phrase?

Did President Obama or one of his speechwriters borrow a phrase from The United Methodist Church when he spoke on abortion at Notre Dame’s commencement? I don’t know, but I’m getting blog posts and emails from people who think he did.

UMC logo I would have thought it old news, but reaction to the speech still seems to have some energy behind it. The church invites people by concluding its advertising saying, “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors. The people of The United Methodist Church.” President Obama used a phrase in his speech calling for “Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words. It’s a way of life that has always been the Notre Dame tradition.”

One blogger critical of Obama’s abortion position speculates that in the Internet age it’s possible an Obama speechwriter found the phrase and wrote it into the speech. (The church was advertising heavily at the same time and the phrase was on television and radio, the Internet, in national magazines, on billboards, taxis, busses and bus stops around the nation including a national launch event in Washington, D.C. In addition, several Internet and print publications wrote about the campaign before and concurrent with the President’s speech.)

The blogger questions the wisdom of using the words of one religious group to address another and attributing the concept to the second group’s tradition.

United Methodist clergyperson and blogger Lee Carey also thinks the President borrowed the United Methodist phrase. Rev. Carey believes United Methodist leaders are “overwhelmingly pro-abortion” and, presumably, the President knows this too and used it for this reason.

As I can’t recall having had a conversation about abortion with the leaders I know, I can’t confirm Rev. Carey’s observation.

But I did think it curious when I heard the President speak the words and immediately sent emails to a couple of staff people to call it to their attention.

If the phrase was borrowed it wouldn’t be the first time. We noted with appreciation that Laura Bush borrowed without attribution a phrase from the Nothing But Nets campaign to encourage people to donate to a campaign to end malaria.

In both cases it’s possible the speakers were not aware they were borrowing language from particular campaigns. There are copyright issues. But if we can end malaria through a global partnership that focuses on the bottom line of saving lives and doesn’t get mired in who gets credit, I’m all for it.

And if we can discuss contentious differences with open hearts, open minds and fair-minded words, I’m for that, too. But I’d like to make note that the phrase is very similar to, if not adapted from, a self-description of The United Methodist Church which is rooted in the Wesleyan tradition.

And on a selfish note, I get a little pleasure when we craft a phrase that people hear, remember and re-use, if that’s what happened.


This was posted at 12:30 pm and re-edited at 6:40 pm.

Faith and Religious War in Somalia

Quran student As if fractured Somalia were not divided enough, a report this week says Islamic groups are realigning for renewed fighting. Somalia disintegrated 15 years ago when a corrupt government fell. Clan fighting plunged the country into anarchy and it’s remained there.

Jeffrey Gettleman writes in the New York Times that Sufi moderates are joining the fight against the Islamic Shabab insurgents. The Shabab teach an extreme form of Islam and have destroyed Sufi mosques. It’s a new and dangerous turn. Gettleman says Western nations hope the Sufis taking up arms will give moderates the upper hand.

More likely, however, it’s a sign of an intractable situation and a desperate hope for change. Trading clan for sectarian warfare is a dangerous exchange. In a society riven by division, it’s yet another deadly divide. The idea that changing the configuration of violence as a path to civic stability indicates the hopelessness of any other path and it takes more than a leap of faith to believe it will work.

It requires ignoring the potential for wider regional instability and rationalizing away the cultural and religious tensions that have long simmered in Ethiopia, disregarding the religious cleavage that is a major factor in the genocide in Darfur, minimizing destabilizing border tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea and long-standing rivalry between Somalis and Ethiopia.

If the Sufis resist the insurgents and establish a working government with support across Somalia, it will reverse a decade and a half of bloody fighting that has taken a horrible toll on the Somali people and has made the region a tinder box. But the long term solution is to address the poverty, disease, land disputes and the need for justice. In Somalia’s anarchic state these have not been at the top of the list of policymakers. But the risk of Somalia becoming a base of operations for terrorist training and international lawlessness is clear.

Somali pirates have reminded the world of the danger of this failed state, once considered so remote and insignificant it was virtually forgotten. We now understand that’s an inaccurate perception.

It’s a long shot that a moderate government can take control. If it does, however, it will need more than moral support. It will need development assistance, infrastructure reconstruction and technical assistance. The last thing the Somalis need is more bloodshed and the last thing the world needs is a prolonged religious war in the Horn of Africa.

The British Museum Website

Speaking of institutions, as I did in the previous post, I received a list of recommended websites from StumbleUpon and the British Museum’s site was listed. When I think of an institution, I think of the British Museum.

I’ve done research there and I find it a remarkably interesting place. And I realize even writing that last sentence can offend those who take offense at the very existence of institutions such as the British Museum.

I’m referring to the conversation about the role of museums, their authenticity, their value as archives, their social and cultural function as conservators or as exploiters. Museums are returning cultural objects and human remains to people from whom they extracted them years ago. It’s a conflicted context and a worthy illustration of the interplay between an institution’s mission and the social context in which it was formed. A museum reflects the values that informed the mission when it was organized in addition to the values it seeks to display through its offerings. A changing context calls those values into question and, in the case of museums, demands adaptation and deep change.

That said, this is one of the most intriguing institutional websites I’ve seen. On the face of it, it’s worth visiting for the experience it offers. It’s an example of an old-line institution breaking into the digital world.

Are Institutions Obsolete?

Institutions. We don’t like them or trust them. Sometimes we want to bring them down a notch or two. They’re cumbersome, territorial, political and dysfunctional. They’re always behind the times. It’s easy to dislike them.

Writing in the 19th Century about governing institutions the sociologist Thorsten Veblen said, “Whatever is, is wrong.” He was observing the rise of institutions for a newly affluent “leisure class” in the Industrial Revolution.

Veblen said we form institutions out of our social experiences. But circumstances that cause us to create organizations have already passed by the time we get organized to deal with them. Therefore, institutions are always behind the times. It’s a social paradox.

I just sat through three weeks of non-stop meetings of an institutional church. Thinking about the institution is top of mind right now.

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that this institution must change. It’s organized around human experiences of the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. The need to change is urgent. Not merely for financial reasons. That focuses attention, but the change was needed long before the global economy fell off the cliff.

Bishop Gregory Palmer, President of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church, told the Connectional Table and General Council on Finance and Administration this week that the church is not structured for life in the digital age. “Life happens,” he said, “off-cycle of the General Conferences of The United Methodist Church. And we’re not structured to make certain movements that might need to be made in a world, in a digital age that is changing everyday.” The General Conference is the legislative and governing body of the church.

Bishop Palmer repeated his call for a realignment of the church to allow for faster response to its mission.

I think he’s right on target. When the last general conference met barely one year ago Twitter wasn’t even known to the delegates. Most had probably heard of Facebook but weren’t using it. That’s changed. Today young adults and youth are moving from Facebook as older adults are flocking to it. Twitter is the current most popular tool for social media and many others are also out there. And we’re still learning how to use it.

These tools have affected how people relate to each other and form communities. They obviously affect how we communicate with each other. Community is a central part of the life of the church–worshiping, learning, supportive community. But community enhanced by digital tools is something the institution hasn’t known before. And we’re not organized to adapt to it quickly enough. Veblen was as right for our day as for his.

The institutional church isn’t obsolete, but it must change. I’m skeptical of anyone who claims to know precisely what the change should look like. But I’m also in agreement with Bishop Palmer that the need for change has arrived, if not passed, and we must get on with it. We’ll probably stumble and make a mistake or two along the way. But that’s OK with me because we are trying to find new ways of being the church and making its teachings relevant in a whole new social context, one unlike the human race has ever known. A bit of humility and a lot of forgiveness seem necessary prerequisites as we journey to find a new way. But we must make the journey and it’s already begun.

From Instant Gratification to Deferred Gratification?

Can the U.S. move from a culture of instant gratification to deferred gratification? The question was inspired by a program on NPR this morning. From the car radio I went into a meeting where the same thing was being talked about.

There’s a lot of conversation and writing that says we’re re-considering our personal finances today. We’re saving more and we’re starting to live within our means. Some are asking, “How much is enough? What’s the difference between needs and necessities?”

I heard The Rev. Beverly Wilkes-Null in a meeting today speak about this and found her ideas thought-provoking. I asked her to do a brief Flip cam video interview and she graciously accepted. The video can be found here.

I’m interested in what readers of this blog think. Can we make the move from instant gratification to living with “just enough?”

Health Care: Words That Work

Three reasons we need quality, informed health journalists: Frank Luntz, AHIP and PhRMA.

Luntz is the pollster, strategist for right wing politicians fighting against universal health care. AHIP (America’s Health Insurance Plans) is the professional lobbying association that gave us the Harry and Louise advertising that capped off the disinformation campaign that scuttled the Clinton Health Care Initiative. And PhRMA (Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America) is the drug industry lobbying group that prevented Medicare from bargaining for cheaper drug prices and lavished overpayment to private insurers in the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003.

As the nation moves into a more focused debate on health care reform it’s inevitable that the words used will be laced with emotion and, unfortunately, obfuscation. Pollster Frank Luntz offers “Ten rules for stopping the ‘Washington Takeover’ of healthcare.” That’s the opening sentence of his latest research project. Luntz advises Republicans about how to speak of key social issues.

Luntz pioneered the instant response dial. Focus groups respond immediately to the words of politicians by using a tool to dial up or down their reaction to those words. He engineers messages by determining favorable language. His research is being used to build opposition to Pres. Obama’s health care reform measures. There’s an interesting overview of Luntz’s recommendations to Senators and Congressional representatives about how to talk about health care reform on the Campaign for America’s Future blog.

Blogger Bernie Horn writes that Luntz is tailoring messages to fears he unearthed through research. For example, one fear is that a government-run health program will deny patients access to physicians and treatment they need. Unlike the current system in which health insurers control access and treatment based on their own profits, Luntz raises the specter that government bureaucrats will control our health destiny. Fear more than fact.

AHIP and PhRMA have pledged to cut costs and save two trillion dollars over the next decade. But, a moderately skeptical person has to ask, “Where have you been? And why now?” And most pertinent, “What’s in it for you?”

These are same groups that have given us the most expensive and arguably least effective health care system among developing nations. Given their track record on public policy, skepticism and a critical eye are justified.

What we need in the health care debate is accurate information, authentic debate and genuine problem-solving. We’ve had enough inaccurate and intentionally misleading rhetoric. We need health journalists who will cut through the rhetoric and interpret the issues free of the political agendas of well-heeled, self-interested lobbying groups. Health care reform must not be held hostage to politics once again.

Flip Video of Rethink Church Launch

I just posted my first Flip video. It’s the Rethink Church launch event at a Home Depot parking lot in Washington, D.C. last week.

I shot the video with a Flip HD videocam. Edited with iMovie, the basic Mac movie editor. Recorded the narration with a Blue Snowball USB microphone.

Why Mainstream Media No Longer Matter

Mainstream media no longer matter. I’ve defended them, criticized them and pulled for them to survive. But cable news has become background noise. Newspapers are in their death throes. Infotainment, reality television and celebrity gossip have become the profit centers for too many journalistic enterprises.

I’ve also been critical of mainline leaders for not being media savvy. Well, they’re still not. But it matters less today. They have alternatives, and they should use them for all they’re worth.

Last week the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church met in Bethesda, Maryland and conducted a week’s worth of church affairs. They:

  • pledged to raise $75 million to eradicate malaria

  • launched a $20 million dollar media campaign that announced the church is taking a serious look at how it goes about serving people and carrying out ministry

  • had prayer and holy communion with migrant day workers standing in mist-shrouded parking lots

  • agreed to rollback their salaries to last year’s level, in effect, taking a salary cut to witness to their concern for people struggling in the global economic crisis

  • agreed to raise $5 million to complete a $20 million campaign to pay pensions to clergy and surviving spouses in developing nations who have no retirement benefits. (This is a first among religious organizations. There are no reliable pension programs in religious groups in the developing world.)

  • commissioned a working group to devise a plan to reorganize the thirteen-million member global church.

These actions received virtually no coverage in mainstream media. They won’t sell papers or draw viewers. None of the bishops has the media clout of a celebrity megachurch pastor. But they have the capacity to activate a network of significant depth and reach, far beyond the capabilities of celebrity clergy.

What United Methodists call “the connection” is an organizational network that is the envy of many who tell me they can only dream of what they could do with such an organizational capacity behind them.

The bishops’ actions won’t divide the church, so by the standards of conflict hungry journalism, they’re not news. But they are relevant and they will capture the imagination of the thirteen million members of the church. And this leads me to a reluctant conclusion. These thirteen million people around the globe don’t matter that much to mainstream editors.

For the most part, we haven’t seen ourselves in their editorial decisions for years and that makes their journalism irrelevant to us. But more significant, they’ve been replaced. Google, Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed, Yammer, YouTube, blogs, email. You know them well. Effective, viable alternatives.

I did five interviews in two days. Only one was with a mainstream journalist. But every story was posted and twitted. We were in the top tier of Google searches. Bloggers commented and linked. Websites I’d never heard of reviewed our releases and linked. Almost immediately I began to get reaction.

I still want solid, quality journalism to survive. But because they’ve made the editorial decisions they’ve made, because there are alternatives, because they’ve made themselves irrelevant to most of us in the moderate middle, mainstream media no long matter as they once did.

Rethink Church in the Parking Lot

workers The worker from Eduador spoke of his family back home as he stood in the Home Depot parking lot in Washington, D.C. last week. His brow wrinkled and his voice broke. He’s a long way from home and his existence here is day-to-day precarious.

As I listened, I felt a tug of emotion as well. The air was cool and wet. It was an unlikely day to pick up work. About 100 men stood in small groups dispersed around the lot. They wait here each morning for contractors and others needing day laborers. But if it’s wet they can’t paint, cut grass, install fences or do the myriad other jobs that are their lot.

I saw only one worker chosen this morning. For those left there will be no remittance back home. No food money. No rent earned today.

The bishops listened. They prayed with the workers, served them breakfast and introduced some of them to a staff member of Foundry United Methodist Church who works with migrant day laborers and with an organizer who has created an advocacy group for them.

The conversation was triggered by the launch of the church’s media campaign called "Rethink Church." It’s an effort to ask United Methodists to rethink how to be the church in this new century.

What happened in the Home Depot parking lot, and in other parking lots in metropolitan Washington that morning, was church. Not in the traditional sense. In the John Wesley sense. In the way Jesus did it. Church in the streets.

When Wesley confronted conditions of the poor in London and Birmingham he went to them. Outside the walls of the institutional church. In the fields near the mines where the miners toiled. In the teeming neighborhoods of the poor in the backstreets of London.

He preached, prayed, offered them medical care, taught them to read, led study groups, visited them when they were sick and sought work for them. He took the church outside itself and he started a movement.

The Lord's Supper In Gaithersburg, Maryland , Bishop Minerva Carcano and her episcopal colleagues had a similar conversation. But one worker saw her and said, "Obispo." Bishop. He asked her for holy communion.

There was a flurry of activity. Loaves of bread appeared, and what someone described to me as "some kind of purple liquid." And right there in that place spontaneously, unrehearsed, the Lord’s Supper was consummated. The bishops of the church and the workers who live hand to mouth every day shared bread and "wine" in Jesus’ name.

Bishop Carcano spoke these magnificent words: “I don’t think that it is enough to simply declare that we stand with the immigrant." The launching of Rethink Church at a day laborer camp is "a way of saying to those who are immigrants that we walk with you, we journey with you, Christ journeys with you. Scripture calls us to love you and therefore we are here with you.

Lest you think this was a moment in time, a quick, feel-good diversion, the bishops went to Capitol Hill in the afternoon and spoke to Senators and Congresspersons about poverty legislation and immigration reform. They also affirmed a call to action to address poverty and immigration and committed themselves to raise $75 million for global health. And they agreed to roll back their salaries to last year’s level and called each other to voluntarily contribute to the mission of the church.

I won’t claim I heard the voice of God in that parking lot, but when a reporter interviewing me asked, "What do you think Jesus would say about this?" the following thought came immediately to mind.

I’ve been too wrapped up in bureaucratic and administrative entanglements. I haven’t been here on the street where life happens. At least not as much as I would like and not as much as I should be.

I said, "I think he would say, ‘Welcome. I’ve been here all along. I’ve missed you. Welcome back.’"

By the grace of God we will rethink church and rediscover who we are and where we should be, and we will re-discover that church happens not only in the sanctuary during sacred worship but also in the noisy, wet parking lots where people hustle to get by one more day, places where Jesus is already present, calling us to join him.

The Institution as Connection

Institutions are necessary, desirable and, for all their faults and foibles, valuable. Here’s why. They can mobilize and when they do they achieve scale. They enhance capacity. They empower. In the case of religious institutions, they are expressions of missional theology.

Mobilization isn’t their most important function, but I’ll start here. When the people of The United Methodist Church in the Texas Annual Conference came together to raise $1 million for bednets they partnered with United Methodists in Cote d’Ivoire. That partnership and that million, small as it sounds, got the attention of the Ministry of Health and other civil society groups including international donors.

It was combined with other funds. Volunteers from Texas went to Cote d’Ivoire and participated in a national distribution that included vaccinations, de-worming and instructions for mothers on child care.

In Texas people talked about health needs elsewhere. They learned about the connection between diseases and poverty. Equally important, in Cote d’Ivoire a national grassroots community was energized, trained and empowered. This led to a more focused discussion about health care nationwide. A national conversation followed. Cote d’Ivoire captured this experience and put it to work. A plan was submitted to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria for a wide-ranging attack on these killer diseases. Their plan was approved in round eight for $34 million dollars! (The United Methodist investment was multiplied thirty-fold.)

I would not presume the only catalyst was the participation of United Methodists, but I do contend their participation was important. It signaled the church, which is present in many places that others are not, was concerned and would walk the walk with officials and local people. And it revealed external allies from across the globe. This authenticity, scale and reach contributed to a growing belief that the challenge of eradicating malaria could be met. Resources could be brought to bear. Together, we can make a difference. All of us together. Scale.

But for those of us in the United Methodist faith community there is a deeper point. We are taught by scripture, and we re-state every Sunday, that we are connected to the whole human family, to the Creation and to God. This bond is transcendent, sacred and immutable. In The United Methodist Church we call this “the connection.” We define it in organizational terms. Lately, we’ve diminished it. We criticize it and act as if it’s a punching bag. Some are even considering how to dismantle it.

The connection is about more than scale, but it incorporates scale. It’s about more than organizational structure but it incorporates ecclesiology, how we describe ourselves in the language of theology. It’s about understanding our bonds to the Creator, the web of life and each other. It’s about how together we can influence the circumstances that affect quality of life globally and how together we support each other, relate to God and express our beliefs in the holy.

Empowerment, scale, influence. Mission, engagement and faithfulness. Transcendence, holiness and the sacred web of Creation. That’s the connection, and faithfully engaged it could transform the world.

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