Saturday, September 28, 2013

Smart-ass pastor, sexual deviant & Jesus

They were billed as “a smart-assed tattooed lady and a middle-aged sexual deviant talk about Jesus.”

Sara Miles and Nadia Bolz-Weber
The smart-assed tattooed lade is Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colo. and author of the new book, Pastrix, which has reached number 24 on The New York Times combined print and e-book non-fiction list for this week. Oh yeah, she is also an ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, not known for smart assess (other than Martin Luther) or tatooes.

The middle-aged sexual deviant is Sara Miles, the directory of ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. The sexual deviant reference is to the fact that she is lesbian. But the heart of her story (told in Take This Bread) is how she walked into this church one day, someone handed her bread at communion  and her life was changed. Now she helps run a food pantry out of the sanctuary of the church and writes compellingly about Jesus. Her new book, City of God: Faith in the Streets, will come out next February.

They sat together on stage, trading quips and insights in front of the roomful of journalists at the annual conference of the Religion Newswriters Association in Austin, Tex. 

“What's you favorite thing about Jesus?” Nadia asked Sara.

“His mom,” was her quick reply. And then a bit more. “He tracks you down.” She told her story of eating bread and discovering Jesus when most of her adult life, neither knew nor cared much about Jesus or God or religion or any of that.

Nadia talked about the beginnings of her church community, a few people gathered at a house one of them a transgendered Unitarian who one day asked her out to coffee. “I think I’m having a crisis of faith,: the young woman said. “I think I believe in Jesus.” 

He tracks you down, Nadia echoed.

“Jesus has no taste,” added Sara. “He hangs out with all the wrong people.”

So it went, stories and insights mixed with laughter. 

Nadia talked about the emphasis on participation at her congregation. At both churches, the singing is without accompaniment and often in harmony because those who can harmonize, do so. At Sara’s church, to say they gather around the communion table understates how closely every bunches up.

“Here's the thing about Christianity,” Nadia said. “Bodies matter.” So people stand where they can see each other.

Sara’s forthcoming book is about her going out onto the streets of her on Ash Wednesday in a a church robe and offering to cross people with the ashes and remind them that they were going to die.

“I am always terrified to do it,” she admitted. “I am appearing in church drag in my neighborhood. 

Yet this challenges what she calls the chronic lie in our culture that we will not die. The ashes represent a welcome truth telling that we all have dying in common and that we can believe in something beyond death.

Both talked about realizing that if church is not about welcoming the stranger … whether it’s a suburbanite visiting Nadia’s church or babies making distracting noises or bad smells from street people – then it is missing an opportunity.

“We have to welcome strangers,” she said. “They are the ones who mess things up.”

Someone asked how they deal with the growing range of views in America about God, spirituality, religion.

“I feel I’m in no way responsible for what people in my church believe,” Nadia said. “They believe all sorts of shit. I’m only responsible for what I say,” adding that she is pretty conventional on Christian doctrine, if perhaps less sanitized in the way she presents it.

And then there was sin. Someone asked how they view that concept.

“Sin is the key to everything,” Nadia said, getting animated. “We all carry brokenness inside ourselves. We can do that in cunning, masked ways. If we didn’t carry these things, we wouldn’t need God’s grace.”

Sara added that repentance is not about saying “I’m sorry.” It’s about change in our lives. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Ten words for Pope Francis

Alejandro Bermudez and
Greg Burke discuss Pope Francis.
Greg Burke tried to describe Pope Francis in 10 words.

That’s quite a challenge after a journalist who had covered the pope during his years as archbishop of Buenos Aires,  Argentina had just finished describing him as “a complex personality.”

Alejandro Bermudez had interviewed then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio several times, had translated the then-cardinals in-depth conversations with the most prominent rabbi in Latin America (the book is called On Heaven and Earth) and had assembled interviews with some of those who knew Bergoglio best for a quick book after his election as pope (Pope Francis: Our Brother, Our Friend).

The occasion was a presentation to the annual conference of the Religion Newswriters Association in Austin, Texas. And Burke was tackling this as a former journalist for FOX News and TIME who in June of 2012, became the senior communications advisor in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.

He did allow as to how now that Francis was the pope, each day was a bit more unpredictable for the Vatican communications staff.

So his 10 words to describe Francis:

Mercy – He noted that over and over, Francis reminds people that “God doesn’t tire of offering mercy.”

Moxie – Another word for courage, Burke said. “We are all going to get challenged by Pope Francis, especially those who live comfortable lives in the First World. That’s a good thing.”

Margins – He talked about the pope constantly reaching out to the edges, a recurring theme of not getting closed in on one-self … and of the church not being so self-referential.

Prayer – Burke reminded people that the pope spends a lot of time in prayer and that he is open about his struggles with it … struggles just like other folks have. He told of workers in the building where the pope lives seeing him shuffle into the chapel in the middle of the afternoon, rustling around for his rosary beads just like any other old man. Later, he also noted a kind of “old-fashioned religion” that appeals to Francis reflecting the popular piety of Latin America where he grew up.

Encounter – This is a pope focused on engaging with the world’s many religious traditions, crossing the usual philosophical and national borders that separate people.

Joy – Burke acknowledged that John Paul II and Benedict talked about joy but said that Francis seems to be showing it in remarkable ways, even as he warns people to watch out for discouragement.

Proximity – One thing that has been clear over the past months is how much Francis likes to be physically close people. One of the most memorable phrases of these early months, Burke suggested, is that church leaders should “smell like the sheep” because they move so closely among them.

Simplicity – Lots has been written about Francis’ simple life style, his carrying his own briefcase, his paying his own bills. The message: It’s not about power and privilege, Burke said.

Humility – Burke recalled the moment when Francis was introduced to the world and he bowed and asked the crowd to pray for him. He noted the pope’s repeated references to himself as a sinner. And he said pointedly that Francis expects that of others in the church.

Compassion – He reaches out to embrace those who are suffering. At every audience, Burke said, Francis goes to those in wheelchairs, to those who are hurt and touches them.

A few other insights –

The pope’s extraordinarily popular tweets are drawn from his morning homilies and other writings. He signs off on each one before it is sent out.

Bermudez said that this is a man who has always been quotable because he shapes his messages in ways that there is a clear take-away with a quote that people can remember.

Bermudez earlier talked about the seeming obvious but deep impact on Francis both of being from Argentina and being a Jesuit. In Argentina, he said, there is a vibrant Catholicism with lively internal debate, lots of writers and historians and an excellence in canon law. And the Jesuit influence shaped his spirituality, his sense of going to the frontiers which in our era are the cultural margins and then making sure that what you do has results “for the greater glory of God.”

Obama reflects on death and resurrection

Joshua DuBois started working for Barack Obama in 2004 when Obama was running for the U.S. Senate. He guided Obama’s faith outreach efforts during his presidential campaign and then served as director of the White House office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships from 2009 until this past February. Later this month, he has a book coming out called ThePresident’s Devotional: Daily Readings that Inspired President Obama. The book will include not just the readings, but some of DuBois’ reflections on dealing with the spiritual dimensions of the crisis that roll through the White House.

Joshua DuBois talks with
Manya Brachear Pashman
of the Chicago Tribune.
DuBois talked with journalists at the annual conference of the Religion Newswriters Association today in Austin, Texas. There was some tension in the room, because journalists who cover religion found the Obama White House a very difficult place to get access to, but DuBois still praised them for their focus on the issues involving people’s search for meaning.

One fascinating tidbit. He talked about how Obama started an Easter Prayer Breakfast several years ago, inviting a wide range of Christian pastors to join him and then each year, revealing a little bit more about his own understanding of “what the death and resurrection of Jesus meant to him.” DuBois lamented that these did not get enough attention but said they offered a depth of insight into the spiritual side of Obama.

So for those who are interested, here are links to the speeches from the past several years:

April 6, 2010

1st Amendment for people or institutions?

One of the clearest delineations of the terms of the debate over religious liberty came in an unexpected place on Thursday.

Speakers and panelists from many viewpoints had offered their perspectives in a series of presentations in a conference room at the Texas State Capitol as attendees at the Religion Newswriters Association pre-conference probed contentious issues ranging from the Obama administration mandate on including contraceptive care in health insurance to the rights of high school cheerleaders in a small Texas town to put Bible verses on the banner that football players would crash through on their way into the Friday night game.

But it was at an unrelated session on the growing concern about sexual abuse by religious leaders beyond the well-documented Catholic priest scandal that William Bowen framed the issue in a way that I think covered so many of the issues discussed on Thursday.

Bowen, national director of Silentlambs, an organization dedicated to helping the survivors of abuse, was talking about the resistance of the Jehovah’s Witnesses hierarchy to efforts to hold them to account for child molestation by leaders in their communities. He said they always came into court waving the flag of the First Amendment, saying that the government could not touch them.

“The First Amendment was written to protect the rights of the people,” Bowen asserted, “not to protect religious institutions that hurt people.”

He was framing it in particular to argue that religious institutions ought not be shielded from religious accountability for lawbreakers in their ranks. But the broader issue, it seems to me, is whether the First Amendment is to protect people or institutions.

At an earlier panel, Jeff Mateer, general counsel for the Liberty Institute that aggressively pushes back at efforts to limit religious expression, cited the example of a student asked to write an essay about a hero who then picked God as her hero. She was told that was unacceptable. Matt Dillahunty, host of the Atheist Experience program and not normally an ally of Mateer, said, sure, she should be able to write that essay. It is her viewpoint.

The First Amendment was protecting both belief and speech, they agreed. 

Here's a good summary of that panel from Brian Pellot of the Religion News Service.

Laurie Goodstein of The NY Times
asks Steve Green a question
at the RNA meeitng.
The biggest battle over religious liberty at the moment is over the contraception mandate, of course. It pits groups like the Roman Catholic bishops and Hobby Lobby owner Steve Green against the Obama administration’s insistence that employers offer contraception within their health insurance coverage.

The Hobby Lobby case may well be the first one to reach the U.S. Supreme Court. The Hobby Lobby position that including contraceptive coverage in its health plan violated the company’s Christian-based opposition to such coverage was upheld in a lower-court ruling.

Green said that he could not countenance the notion of his company being required to be, in his words, “an abortion provider.” That, of course, uses the disputed view that contraceptives don’t merely prevent conception but end an incipient life.

The Catholic bishops, interestingly, may actually have some more room to maneuver on this. Even though the church’s opposition to contraception is deeply rooted and well-known, Fr. Thomas Nairn, senior director of ethics for the Catholic Health Association, and Prof. Andrew Getz of St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, talked about renewed attention to an old Catholic moral principal dealing with cooperation with evil.

In essence, the question is how close one is to the evil being done. The greater the distance, the lesser the moral culpability. In the contraception case, they suggested, there is some ability for Catholic institutions to work their way through this with the kind of exemptions the Obama administration has offered to require the insurance companies themselves to absorb the costs of contraceptive care.

Those exemptions are not available to non-church related employers, though. Cue the Hobby Lobby case, that will include the question of whether of corporation is a person.

Which takes us back to that framing of the religious liberty question. Whose freedom is being protected? Under what circumstances? And how to resolve those clashes.

The recurring answer throughout the day. These issues never get resolved. They are part of the tension of a democratic society.

The bright sport was the gracious spirit of everyone throughout the day toward people who were diametrically opposed to their viewpoint. Score one for civility.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Lessons in life and dying from a friend

My friend Mike died last week.

We were the same age. We grew up together in Marinette in northeast Wisconsin. Worked our way through Boy Scouts together. Played at each other’s houses. Studied in the same classrooms. And then, over time, we drifted apart. Until this past year. That’s when I learned that Mike was dying of cancer.

In less than 12 months, we re-established a friendship and Mike and his wife, Nancy, taught me amazing lessons about living with the prospect of dying.

In our initial contacts, Nancy wrote of Mike: “He is doing well with his treatments.  I am amazed, each day, how well he handles this journey we are on.  Never once have we asked ‘why us?’  We feel so blessed that we have each day to love each other and enjoy our retirement one day at a time.  Not everyone is so lucky to have a long goodbye with the one they love.“

Just a note about the actual diagnosis. Mike had stage IV small cell lung cancer that had metastasized to his bones and a bit to his liver. The initial diagnosis came on May 2, 2012, with the expectation that he might live for about a year. He beat that by about a month.

We lived 300 miles apart, but we managed to meet three times face to face over the past year. We communicated in between by email. And we held each other in prayer all along the way. 

An email Mike sent out to a network of friends in late July of 2012 offered clues to his attitude: “The chemo is working to slow the cancer down… I am losing a lot hair, but I have discovered the joy of hats! … I am happy and fulfilled.  This is wonderful journey, and the biggest adventure of my life.  And I am getting plenty of time to be ready for the big event.” 

He understood that Nancy and their kids and grandkids were not quite as thrilled with this big adventure, but he was not about to let a simple thing like dying cramp his style.

Mike wrote me in early December to say that the growth of the cancer had slowed enough so that the resumption of chemo had been postponed.  “Spiritually, new wonders everyday,” he added.  That’s what really seemed to matter to him. He was experiencing a sense of God in wholly – and holy – new ways.

Dying also shifted Mike’s view of the world a bit. Our conversations often touched on religion and politics. I though Mike might enjoy one of my favorite magazines, Sojourners, so I got him a subscription. He liked it, noting that “Liberal values without spiritual values are bleak.  I hate judgmental liberalism, just as I hate judgmental conservatism.  Sojourners looks at liberal values with a strong Christian feeling of hope and love.   It looks at what we can do to build, not to defend or destroy.”

Later, he would strive for greater peace within, writing that “I avoid all things that thrive on negative energy, like the news, gossip, cruelty, conflict, or bad humor (the cruel, the meanly sarcastic, and the sacrilegious).  I can look out our bedroom window and see our snow covered hill, trees, sunrise and moonrise.”

Mike sent a health update on Groundhog Day – Feb. 2. Continued growth of the cancer, more pain and fatigue, chemo about to resume. But he also sent a second message that day to those who were more attentive to his spiritual journey: “Spiritually, I feel healthier than ever. My prayer and meditation life is rich… Since I can't volunteer outside the home anymore, I was able to join our parish prayer ministry, since I now have plenty of time to pray. I really enjoy praying for all of you in Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, etc. who are praying for me… God is good.  God is great.  Hope is eternal.”

If hope was eternal, so was Mike’s sense of humor about a situation that would lead many of us to despair. By mid-February, Mike could really feel his body slowing down: “My material world is shrinking, and so is my body. Just like the wicked witch from the Wizard of Oz, ‘I'm melting! I'm melting!’ We had to get a handicapped parking permit for our car. I walk like a crooked old man, with a crooked old stick, but let's face it, that's what I am…”

Within the next few days, Mike shifted from the chemo regime to palliative care with Hospice. He was thrilled: “Now I can look forward to a happy, peaceful death surrounded by loving family, friends, and a fully qualified, fully experienced and fully compassionate medical team. Nancy is a little weepy, but happy/sad weepy.  I feel like the Packers just won the Super Bowl.”

And then a pitch for prayer: “So anyway, keep praying for a happy, peaceful death for me.   If you are praying for me, let me know, as I add you to my prayer book and I will pray for you too everyday and I hope to pray for you when I get to heaven.... God willing.  Bless you all with love, peace, and joy,”

In late April, Mike sent out a detailed medical update, laced with his own brand of humor.  “I just wanted to send you the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of my final earthly journey, focusing on the old jalopy called my body that is on its last miles… I am so grateful for this last year to get to contemplate my life, reach out and discover old friends, strengthen my ties to my family, reach out to others who are suffering from a loss, and even reconcile some emotions stemming from the past.  Fruitful!”

He recognized God in the care that others showed for him, especially that of his beloved Nancy. “I have never felt so loved by God and so close to Him.” He signed off, “May we all live forever in love, peace and joy.”

His final email went out on May 21, just nine days before his death. “I have shared with many of you how well I am doing spiritually,” he wrote. “I feel so close to God, I feel like I can almost touch his face and feel his breath.”
Mike died early in the afternoon of May 30 – the traditional date for Memorial Day, the day his father’s plane was shot down during World War II. Nancy was at his side, the kids were in the house. Now he is with God.