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Saying No

No is more powerful than yes. Have you noticed? Those individuals and groups that most often say no exert an undue negative power on those who say yes. It’s an organizational dynamic. The nay sayers in most circumstances cast a pall over enthusiasm and can even suck the oxygen from the room.

I’ve worked in various organizations as a volunteer and as staff long enough to observe this dynamic. In journalism it’s especially true because in this field it’s likely that writers and producers are inquisitive, charging individuals who don’t want to hear the word no when they propose a story idea. And that’s exactly as it should be.

But I’ve observed the power of no in religious organizations as well and I’ve seen how the naysayers and control freaks can reduce a creative idea to mush. And that’s a sad state for a religious person because it is ultimately unfaithful. In the Christian faith belief in the mystery and omnipresent spirit of the Creator is central. It shapes what faith is about. The Christian faith is built upon the belief that God says yes and is present in our lives as the motivating force. The Incarnation-God come to us in the person of Jesus-is the ultimate act of saying yes to us. So religious people who say no more often than yes risk losing the capacity to discover that God is in unknown, even in the chaos. And we miss the unexpected realization that God is in our midst.

The idea that God is out there beyond our everyday, mundane experiences is common. This thought holds God as an absolute beyond our reach. The idea that God is in our midst puts God at the center of the ordinary and in a paradoxical way perceives the sacred in everything.

But the frequent act of saying no to the new and unexpected, or even the frighteningly different, easily leads to closing the door on this attitude of openness that allows us to perceive God in our midst. It shuts down creativity, exhausts energy and takes the oxygen from the room.

I’ve been in some rooms devoid of oxygen the last couple of days, rooms where control has taken precedence. And it has caused me to wonder if the organizations that are entangled in the grips of the fear that they are losing control have much of a future. The tighter the grip the less creativity. The less creativity the less innovation. The less innovation the less attraction to new thinking and new people. Eventually the grip is so tight it suffocates.

I want to say, loosen up. It’s going to be OK. You only think you’re in control, anyway. In God’s world, we’re all invited to explore and seek. You don’t control it and the energy you’re shutting down will appear somewhere else because that’s the way Creation is constructed. It’s the physics of the universe, the physical and spiritual universe.

Leonard Sweet in his latest book The Gospel According to Starbucks, provides an apt pullquote that best describes the meetings I’m referring to:

“Organizations dominated by control, compliance and compartmentalization (the three C’s) are being outpaced by organizations that focus on ideas, information, and interactions (the three I’s),” a statement by management expert Manfred Kets de Vries.

A few years ago sociologist Lyle Schaller wrote a book about the decline of mainline denominations titled The Ice Cube is Melting. After seeing what I’ve seen the last couple of days I think a more apt description today might be the oxygen is escaping the room.

Citizenship or Religion: Which comes first?

When Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” what exactly did he mean? Is it possible?
That’s the subject of a discussion on the blog of Stanley Fish in the New York Times, and it’s an on-going discussion in religious communities worldwide. But it’s especially vigorous in the United States. Dale at Theoblogical makes it a foundation of his theology and often cites theologian Stanley Hauerwas who states unequivocally that Christians are “citizens” of the kingdom of God first. This is because history is not human history, it is God’s history and humans are incorporated into God’s history, not the creators of it.

Fish’s entry point is a discussion about liberalism and secularism. He says they are the same and his rationale is that both require religion to take second place in the public arena if a society is to be tolerant, inclusive and democratic. But, he argues, committed religionists must believe the state should be shaped by their religious views and values. Religion is by definition the way we believe the world ought to be, and the way we believe we should act to shape it. Thus, we are presented with the dilemma of conflicting loyalties if we don’t respect the primacy of religion.

And, compromising on religious principles undermines their life-shaping importance. Thus, we live with a dilemma that cannot be resolved unless one side wins out over the other. Fish summarizes the argument by saying we find our way as we go along, compromising and struggling because that’s the only way we can get through.

This gets even more nettlesome when we talk about the primacy of community or individuals. The elevation of the individual to a privileged place in U.S. society has resulted in a cultural and philosophical shift away from community. Even our suburban lifestyles reflect the atomization of nuclear families and the demise of communities. Who in the suburbs sits on the front porch and talks with neighbors as they stroll by on the sidewalk returning from the corner grocery? The very thought is unreal, isn’t it? We sit on decks in back yards that separate us from neighbors and give us privacy. The fronts of suburban homes are for entering and closing out the world, not inviting it in.

All of this leads me to wonder if congregations can be communities that offer inclusivity and affirmation while also reinforcing religious values. If so, how does that community shape the world? If not, why do they exist?

I’ve been mulling this over because it’s clear to me that if the health of the people of the world is to improve and a measure of the suffering ended, it will require partnerships between governments, religious organizations, corporations, foundations and others. No one group can do it alone.

But, if we draw aside into our enclaves and battle with each other over different values we weaken our capacity for change. And if we claim that government’s role is limited while individuals are primary, we make a strong claim about community.

Of course we compromise. But some of us compromise on some issues that others cannot abide. And the struggle continues. As Fish, I don’t have a good answer for this dilemma. I suppose we must agree to disagree. compromise where we can, and holding fast where we can’t. We’ve not seen good examples of this in recent years among some religious leaders who won’t or can’t compromise.

But I do know that the challenges we face globally require us to see others as neighbors in a global community. And they require us to recognize that our private enclaves are not immune to the infections, contagions and sufferings experienced by far too many of us in the human community. West Nile has come to suburban Nashville, for example. Like it or not, we are connected. And that reality is a call to action.

Jesus also said to heal the sick, relieve the suffering, comfort the grieving and free the oppressed. How to do this at scale is the question. It may be the work of Caesar and the religious community. If we can agree, we might make a difference. If not, we may as well sit on the deck and watch the world pass us by.

American Cancer Society and the Uninsured

Recently a letter writer told me I was both a bad citizen and a poor Christian because I had said we need to “fix the health care system in the United States.”

I thought it was obvious things aren’t working so well with the uninsured growing by two million a year. Now I read the American Cancer Society is devoting its advertising budget to call attention to the uninsured and the need to fix the system. So, perhaps I’m in better company than I thought.

More importantly, the cancer society says chronic disease can’t be reduced so long as so many are not receiving necessary care. It’s a new tack for the society, and one that I applaud.

The ads are reportedly not partisan but they lay out a case that’s necessary for policy-makers to hear, and to act on–fix the system. Building support for a grassroots movement to improve health care delivery is necessary and the voice of the cancer society can be a very helpful encouragement.

The society deserves our thanks and our support for doing the right thing.

Mother Teresa’s Doubts

Mother Teresa expressed profound doubt about the existence of God throughout her adult life according to a new collection of her letters. This revelation is a source of shock and curiosity for some, and proof of the falsehood of religious faith for others. It’s the cover story in TIME this week.

Apparently Mother Teresa wrestled with these questions throughout her adult life. They led her to ask if the charitable work she was known for was hypocritical. “What do I labor for?” she asked in one letter. “If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true.”

Doubt is a profound part of religious life. Many of the greatest saints in the Christian tradition experienced doubt. The Book of Job is an extended discussion of doubt and it offers no safe harbor. Similarly, many Psalms express open, raw questioning. Jesus asked, “Why have you forsaken me?” For the biblical writers, the experience of evil was too profound to be ignored, so profound that it had to be a part of the life of faith. And the Bible provides no easy answer. In our culture of fast food theology, we tend to forget this biblical complexity. The absolutist morality of some religious teachers has made doubt appear to be a sign of weakness, not a part of the mature life of faith.

It’s understandable that doubt would creep into the inner lives of the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s order). They carry out the most difficult work imaginable. I met with a group of these nuns in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia some years ago and we discussed doubt and faith. The nuns drove a van into the city streets in the evening and picked up the most vulnerable and ill. They also received terminally ill patients from the hospitals and were among the first to operate a hospice for patients with AIDS. Daily, they witnessed death, and actually sought out the dying.

In the hospice, I met a little girl whose face was severely disfigured because a soldier had hit her with a rifle butt. She was also scarred from some type of burn. Her disfigurement was so great it was difficult to see the form of a face.

How can a caring person not experience doubt in these circumstances? As we discussed the question, the nuns were forthright. They did get overwhelmed at times, but they always felt the strength of a spirit beyond their own resources, they said. I thought how remarkable that must be, and also how inadequate my faith was.

The little girl’s face still haunts me. And the reality of the evil that disfigured her cannot be easily resolved with platitudes, nor philosophical treatises discussing evil. It’s just too deep to be explained away. It’s no wonder Mother Teresa wrestled with this.

The fact of evil doesn’t prove or disprove the existence of God, nor the correctness of belief. Paradoxically, the presence of doubt is no measure of faith in the long term. Perhaps it’s more important for us to know a figure no less charitable and self-giving than Mother Teresa, as Job before her, experienced the same doubts and fears the rest of us harbor. Doubt is an existential reality and in that realization is maturity and perhaps a measure of hope. To doubt is not simply to be lacking in faith. It is to be human. And to be faithful is not to be free of doubt, it is to engage the difficult questions and struggle with life’s meaning in the face of the evil that distorts and disfigures in many different ways. And In the meantime, we serve, each in our own way, we serve because no matter the answer, the suffering must be eased, the ill cared for, the dying comforted and held close.
This, we do know.

What is Your Spiritual Type?

What is your “spiritual type?” A survey on offers the opportunity to compare how you experience the Holy with several types. The site also offers resources for deeper examination based on the interests and practices you identify. The website is a gentle offering of tools, ideas and practices that can lead to helpful answers to questions of faith. The survey results present you with suggestions for further study.

Gates And United Methodists Followup

It came as no surprise that a conversation between United Methodist leaders and staff of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would find common ground. But the sense of shared commitment to the claim that every life has value that pervades the Gates Foundation philosophy struck some of us as a strong complement to the religious claim that all life is sacred. So it isn’t just commonality about programs or approaches to confronting poverty, hunger and disease. It’s a shared sense of belief in the value of human life. This became more obvious to me as the conversation progressed. And it made the possibility of partnership seem possible.

Sometimes when I write about values I get a bit defensive because I’m aware of the skepticism about religion that many thoughtful people in the United States feel. And, I’m also aware that religious claims strike many people as having little authenticity. The contentious period we’re passing through makes it more difficult for some to believe these claims and to trust they are genuine. I think this is a bit of the fallout that comes from the close identification of religion with right wing politics and, equally important, the identification of religion with cultural values as if religion and culture are the same. They aren’t of course, but to state even this is to invite criticism of disloyalty to one’s nation in the minds of some.

So, I tend write less about values than I should and when I do, I write more defensively than I should. And honestly, the conversation between the church folks and the Gates folks didn’t even broach this subject in the way I’m writing in this post. But the conversation did lead me to reflect on a growing desire that I believe is afoot. People, religious or not, want to make a difference in the world and to engage the problems that make life so miserable for some.

I take this as a hopeful sign. I’ve been amazed at the way the Nothing But Nets campaign to raise funds for bednets to prevent malaria has taken hold in The United Methodist Church. Every day I get a note reporting another story of commitment and hard work to raise funds for bednets. Some are about children taking up this cause. Others are about youth. And still others are about local congregations, many of whom might have said they can’t be pushed to give more because they’re already stretched to the breaking point financially. Yet, they continue to push to raise funds for bednets.

Despite the current stock market roller coaster ride, the developed nations of the North live in abundance. We are not in a setting of scarcity. I appreciate that the abundance is ill-distributed to the point of being unjust. But never the less, the mainline faith communities exist in abundance, and many in them are motivated to do more than settle into material comfort and forget the rest of the world.

I live in the hope that this percolating concern and emerging good will can be focused into a movement, a movement to improve living conditions and provide the medicines, knowledge and support for ending much of the human suffering that exists unnecessarily around the world today. That’s a visionary hope, I know, and it probably meets with skepticism, but I hold to it none the less. And I wonder what would happen if a global movement took hold to call upon governments and civic organizations to concentrate on saving lives and put an end to the wars, poverty and diseases that are killing children and adults today at a frightening pace. I think I hear the seeds of this movement when I hear young people talk about what they want to do with their lives. And I think I witness it when I hear the reports of people who thought they couldn’t do it, reach financial goals for bednets that make them feel they’ve accomplished something wonderful. And they have.

So these are my ruminations following the much more specific and concrete conversation I was privileged to be part of with the Gates staff. I just keep wondering what would happen if a global movement were to take hold and tackle the diseases of poverty. How many lives would be saved? How many promising children and young adults might live long enough to take up the cause and find ways to unleash life, and turn away from death?
What would happen if people of faith were to take seriously the call of Jesus to live abundantly and to serve others graciously? That would provide a different view of religious faith to the world, it would save lives and it would reaffirm the biblical teaching that all life is sacred. I keep wondering.

Gates Foundation and United Methodists Meet

For several months conversations have been taking place in The United Methodist Church about an initiative to address global health concerns. Of particular interest is malaria. The people of the church have been enthusiastic and generous giving to Nothing But Nets which provides bednets to mothers with young children through the UN’s Measles Vaccination Program.
This interest has been inspiring. People are taking initiative on their own. Over the past year we estimate gifts from United Methodists (both pledged and in-hand) will approach three million dollars. This is quite a feat.

A major proposal is winding its way through consideration in the church to carry out a global health initiative that would emphasize working to end the diseases of poverty–HIV, malaria and tuberculosis. If affirmed, it would require partnerships with other groups who can bring global scale to the partnership and it would require cooperation across the entire church. It also will take years, if not decades, to see results.

Admittedly, it’s highly visionary. But that isn’t a negative, in my opinion. The church started hospitals and schools in the U.S. and in other countries with vision. Today some of those facilities are among the leading institutions in the country, if not the world. So, vision isn’t lacking in the history of the church. And to have this vision is not to be out of touch with reality.

So tonight I write from Seattle where, with a group of leaders of the church, we will meet with staff of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in an exploratory conversation to see if we have mutual interests and might find it useful to partner around these mutual concerns. It may be that the seeds of a partnership are being planted that will grow into a movement for global health that has the potential to bring meaningful change. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Chuck Colson on Liberal Christians

Ghandi said “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.”

I thought about this as I read Chuck Colson’s commentary about “liberal” Christians in the Washington Post. It isn’t enough for Colson to trash the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for taking a rather mild position to allow bishops to take a breather when evaluating how to work with gay and lesbian clergy, he trashes mainline Christians as well, making Ghandi’s point all the more discernible.

Colson’s lack of grace also makes the scriptural admonition in 1 Peter 3 more pertinent.

United Methodists and Incivility

I suppose it’s a measure of our time that a call from United Methodist bishops to practice respect when holding church conferences evoked a blog post that claims a United Methodist clergyperson “lied through his teeth” in a conference years ago.

The bishops asked United Methodists to engage in respectful conversation as the quadrennial all-church meeting known as General Conference approaches. It’s a pressure-packed meeting in which policies for the global church are considered, budget is approved and church-wide programs of mission and ministry are presented.

As many other denominations in this contentious age, United Methodists are confronted with theological and cultural issues that evoke deep-seated emotions. Among these, how to respond to homosexuality is one of the most prominent.

Neither church members nor clergy are one mind, but a majority of delegates have voted at past General Conferences for restrictive language that prevents the ordination of practicing homosexuals and states that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The church also affirms the sacred worth of every person and calls upon families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends and to commit to ministry with and for all persons. A recent survey reveals that people in different regions of the United States hold widely different views on this issue. However, when asked how important it is for the church to address disagreement on homosexuality, a minority say it’s important to do so.

There are other contentious issues and sometimes the words used to characterize those holding opposing points of view have been harsh to the point of doing harm. It’s this harsh, harmful speech the bishops have called delegates to avoid. It’s a modest, appropriate request.

In 1739, as it became clear the Methodist movement was taking on a life of its own outside the Anglican Church, John Wesley, the movement’s founder, instructed his followers with a set of general rules. Reduced to their simplest form, they are: First, do no harm; Second, do all the good you can; Third, love God by attending worship, hearing or reading about the Word, receiving Holy Communion, praying individually and as families, searching the Scriptures, and practicing fasting or abstinence.

This is the heritage of the people of The United Methodist Church. It’s remarkably fresh and contemporary. The bishops have called us to honor our heritage and behave as we’ve been asked historically to behave.

These are not the values of the majority culture. We’ve seen the incivility of that culture, its disrespect for the sacredness of human personality, its willingness to make violence a form of entertainment, its language that demeans and diminishes. I have not experienced what the blogger in the link above has experienced, It would make me skeptical too. Such experience shape us and culture infiltrates faith. I do believe we in the church have learned the cultural language of skepticism and despair. We can repeat it by rote. We can even live it out, if we choose to. Sometimes it feels like a a culture of despair it’s killing us because it speaks in words that Gary Gunderson calls the language of death. This language is about division, competition, entropy, despair, disease, fear, separation, lovelessness and confusion. He says “It takes discipline to avoid the vortex that spins us into the center of fear.” I think it kills our creativity, our excitement, our energy, our curiouslity. It puts us on the defensive. It nurtures fear and separation. This is not the language of life. It’s certainly not what Jesus had in mind when he spoke of abundant life.

Conversations using the language of death can only spiral downward. Personally, they leave me in the dumps. I’m interested in getting to the top of the hill to see what’s on the horizon–to glimpse the future. And I know I’m not alone. I think the only way to look toward the future is to put the language of death behind us. The bishops haven’t asked us to avoid discussing our differences, they’ve asked us to show respect and compassion for each other even when we differ. It’s not an impossible task. If it is, we’re beyond repair.

But I don’t think we are. In fact, I think people are already acting in ways that give life.

I heard a report today that Nothing But Nets which seeks to provide bednets for kids in malarial regions has raised $13 million in barely one year. It’s become a grassroots movement. Those who started it had no idea it would take off like this. In this instance people are setting aside those contentious things that we can’t agree upon and rushing toward life, something we do agree on.

But that’s not all. The bishops identified seven vision pathways for church renewal they are holding themselves accountable for. In response, the general agencies of the church that carry out various ministries suggested four areas in which they will collaborate with each other, with annual conferences, local churches and other partners to address both internal and external ministry by the church. The four–attracting new leaders for the 21st Century, creating new places (communities of faith) for new people, engaging in ministry with the poor and working to end the killer diseases of poverty–are generating positive conversation, curiosity and energy. These are actions people of the church said they’d like to happen, and they’ve said they’d like to see them addressed collaboratively. They are biblical. They respond to Jesus’ call to become disciples and follow him.

As the leader of a general church agency, it’s not my place to advise delegates how to vote, how to behave or what’s important. That’s not my purpose here. I am responsible for implementing the mandates of General Conference. But I care deeply for this community of faith and feel passionately about it. As a private individual I have hopes. And I’m sharing personal hope. Maybe I’m naive and my hope is in vain, but I hope the delegates to General Conference come with a vision of what could be–a world in which leaders lead with integrity and global vision, one in which alienation and hostility are transformed by hospitality and compassion, one in which people searching for meaning and purpose recieve an invitation into a faith community, one in which grinding poverty is addressed by empowerment and justice, and killer diseases are prevented and healing is offerred to everyone. Big hopes. Hopes worthy of our conversation, even the commitment of our lives. I also hope we honor the bishops’ call and respect each other even when we differ. And I pray we look to the future where we may catch a glimpse of God calling us to help create a renewed and transformed world; and to be a people who do no harm, do all the good we can, and love God. I hope we speak the language of life.

The New Sanctuary Movement

TIME reports on the new sanctuary movement.

We are taught
to follow
and risk
–and risk
the status
–Bishop Beverly Shamana

Hospitality and welcoming the stranger are central to the three Abrahamic faiths: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. TIME reports on faith groups offering sanctuary and experiencing renewed energy despite controversy about immigration in the U.S. Mainline communions have a long history of working with immigrants and providing sanctuary, and it has always been controversial to detractors.

But TIME reporter, David Van Biema, says “solid biblical underpinnings make [the] issue particularly promising for the resurgent religious left, and it may peel conservative Protestant Hispanics from the right.” He is referring to the scriptural admonition in Leviticus 19: 33: “The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

A key historical example of sanctuary important to both Christians and Muslims is the story of the Ethiopian Negus in Aksum harboring Muslims at the time of Mohammed. The historical account says Mohammed wrote to Negus, the “king of kings” in Ethiopia (known in history and parts of the bible as Abyssinia), asking for sanctuary for these refugees from Mecca and Negus, after questioning them, agreed. The story is valued by both Islam and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Perhaps it was a controversial act, but it is remembered today as an example of interfaith respect and hospitality. In controversy about illegal immigration today in the U.S. it’s inevitable that the description of the sanctuary movement is framed in polarizring language, but it’s also indisputable that the biblical mandate is clear, and the historical experience puts the sanctuary movement on solid biblical and traditional grounds.

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