Rare opportunities, and the reminder that we are not in control

RCL screenshot

Anyone that knows me well knows that I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the lectionary.  If you’re not familiar with the lectionary, it’s a set of Scriptural readings (daily, and Sunday) that run on a three year cycle before repeating.  As you could imagine, the central idea is that the major themes of the Scriptures are covered; so Christians who follow the lectionary will have a higher Scriptural literacy and stronger foundation for faith.

That’s the idea, and I LOVE that idea.  In practice, the things come out pretty mixed.  In important times of the Christian year (Lent, Advent, Pentecost, etc), the lectionary focuses us on the season pretty well. In general, it covers some important Scriptural territory.  However, the lectionary has a couple frustrating, even angering holes.

One intermediate problem is that the Sunday lectionary readings tend to hop all over the place during Ordinary Time, leaving churches and pastors that follow them to try to draw some kind of continuity from week to week.  As a result, worship on the lectionary tends to be whatever the church constructs.

One horrific problem is that the lectionary readings often omit the sharper edges of the Scriptures in favor of passages with vocabulary we can bend to fit what we want to say or do.  I’m very aware that “horrific” is a strong word.  I used it on purpose.  Systematically excluding parts of the Scriptures you don’t want to hear or have to explain is a living example of the prophetic critique that Jeremiah brings twice against the people of Israel, “Prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit.  They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.  ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:13-14, 8:10-11)

Now, you may have several responses to my introduction here.

1. You may be skeptical about the accuracy of what I’m saying about the lectionary.  If you’re a part of a church that follows the lectionary, I would encourage you to take a three or four-month segment and read the passages.  Pay particular attention to what the lectionary leaves out.  Specifically, look for passages like “10-12a.”  You will often find that “12b” isn’t quite as comforting.  In addition, look for passages like 10-12a, 13-15, 19-21a.”  I’ve seen this multiple times in the last few years.  Take a wild guess at what is often repeatedly excluded in the skipped-over sections.

Maybe they’re just setting it up for a simple message to be taken away from the reading, Nathan?” you might say in response.  Yes, maybe.  Sometimes simplicity is helpful, and complexity muddies the water too much.  I get that.  But again and again?  One begins to see a troubling pattern that leads to troubling conclusions.

2.  You may think it’s entirely appropriate to skip certain sections of the Scriptures, because they’re not relevant anymore, or even may be destructive to read and follow.  I’m sympathetic to some of that belief, and deeply aware of the darker implications of that kind of commitment.

I’m sympathetic to that belief, because the Scriptures are a set of living, evolving, progressing writings that emerge from a living, evolving community.  I very much take a narrative approach to the Scriptures that proclaims that God is meeting God’s creation where they’re at, connecting with them, and taking them a step further.  Sometimes those steps are smaller, like the call of Moses to speak up, and sometimes those steps are bigger, like the advent of Jesus; which was such a big step that Israel killed him off as quickly as they could.  Because of this narrative approach, if we happened to read, “Happy is the one who seizes (Babylon’s) infants and dashes them against the rocks,” (Psalm 137: 9) or “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable.  They are to be put to death,” (Leviticus 20:13), I would refuse to say our typical response,

“Reader:  This is the word of the Lord.
Congregation:  Thanks be to God.”

I would refuse to say this not because I confidently believe we know better than our ancestors, but because both of those sentiments (vengeance against enemies, and the death penalty for homosexuality) are contradicted explicitly by Jesus and therefore no longer the truth we turn our life upside-down to follow.  I don’t know exactly what the proper response to a reading of those Scriptures would be.  Maybe,

“Reader:  The story of the people of God.
Congregation:  Damn, that’s different than Jesus,”

or

“Reader:  God’s word to Israel then.
Congregation:  Thanks be to God for the way of Jesus now.”

or whatever else would better fit.

Now, the darker implications of our belief that certain parts of the Scriptures are no longer relevant or helpful is that we presume to believe we know better than our ancestors what faithfulness is and how to live.  In other words, we don’t really care deeply about the narrative progression of the Scriptures unless they reinforce what we already believe about ourselves and the world.  When the Scriptures present a situation that offends us or present a hard boundary on our behavior, we go out of our way to minimize, spiritualize or otherwise metaphorize (is that even a word?), or ignore the passage.  Conservatives and liberals both do this in our society.  Conservative American christians often minimize or relativize Jesus (as crazy as that sounds), while Liberal American christians often minimize or relativize the Old Testament and/or Paul and/or the Scriptures period (to give several quick examples).  In our church family here in Norwood, I often sense the greatest tension in the room when we read passages that challenge a more liberal perspective on the world.

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All of the above is a prequel of sorts for a simple observation I made last Sunday.  The lectionary’s outline highlights certain themes because it has to pick something, and the lectionary very rarely includes “sharp” words that challenge and offend.  Yet for some reason, the shapers of the RCL, in tune with the Lenten season, chose to include last Sunday some very strong Scriptures that were BEGGING, JUST BEGGING, PLEADING, to be central in the time of worship.   Our church family is focusing in the Lenten season on the appropriate themes of Repentance, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation.  We read from:

Isaiah 55:1-9 (theme: Listen to the Lord and obey, and you will live!)

Psalm 63:1-8 (theme, devotionally: “My soul thirsts for God!”)

1 Corinthians 10:1-13 (theme: Warning, continue to choose disobedience and idolatry, and God has every right to end you)

Luke 13:1-9 (theme, from Jesus’s lips, “Repent, or perish!”  Perish.  Spiritually: unsatisfied, unfruitful.  Physically: Wasting away, death.  Again, God has every right to end you if you aren’t serving the purpose you were created for).

What important passages to be reminded of!
How appropriate for the themes of Repentance, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation!
How timely and needed for a congregation that tends toward liberal perspectives!
What a gift from a lectionary prone to avoidance of passages like these!

We read the passages near the beginning of our worship gathering.  Tension developed in the room as the passages were read aloud one after the other.  I looked around and could see faces responding in certain ways, some seeming to cringe in embarrassment at what they believed to be the provincial backwardness of the passages, some seeming to cringe at the starkness of “Repent or perish!” because there isn’t a whole lot of wiggle room or room for mystery or complexity, others offended with some masking it better than others, some wondering how to respond faithfully to such stark words, others grudgingly hearing the passage as a surprising and hard teaching, and others seeming to come alive in response to the words!   A spectrum of responses.

In other words, a ripe opportunity to be reminded in practical, meaningful ways that we are not the authority.  A ripe opportunity to listen to the testament of our ancestors in thinking they could construct their own ways of defining good and evil.  A ripe opportunity to consider how the grace and compassion of God lives alongside the wrath and judgment of God; with both being vital parts that make up God’s love.  Ripe, ripe, ripe, RIPE, RIPE!

The simple reading of the Scriptures gave us the opportunity to begin this importance reflection on God’s authority, that in fact, our belief that we are free to construct our own understanding of truth and life is a central component of the chains that enslave us as God’s creation.  It is a twisted, wicked lie passing as truth that constrains, sickens, and ultimately destroys us.  And yet God compassionately, graciously, patiently waits for extended periods of time for us to abandon this false pretense. God forgives a thousand, a million times over as we offend and rebel against him.  And eventually, because God cares more about his kingdom breaking out in this world, a kingdom of people under his authority bringing healing and reconciliation to that which is twisted almost beyond recognition, God is willing to end us, to destroy those who would militate against his purposes.

We don’t want to hear this, whether liberal or conservative.  We would rather plug our ears, sing comforting songs, read books that reinforce our beliefs, continue constructing our own world, and only read Scriptural passages that feed our perspectives.  And thus we remain ignorant, but willfully so.  And God will not stand for willful ignorance. God will eventually act, and do it because of His great love for this creation that with agonizing groans begs for the sons and daughters of God to be revealed.

Lent is Lent for a reason.  It is a season we still set aside to focus on our need for repentance, our desire to rule our own lives, our sense of justification for rejecting and excluding others from our love.  I needed to sit and reflect with my brothers and sisters on the FACT that God is the authority, that we are NOT, and that that fact is GOOD, GREAT news.

I know we will have more opportunities during Lent to dwell deeply in our sinfulness and rebellion, to dwell deeply in God’s long-suffering patience, compassion, and just judgment.  I sincerely hope we take those opportunities, because after Lent, the lectionary will return to its old ways, release us to resume building our own world and religion the way we please.

I lament.
I hope.
I thank you, God, that you are awakening me to see the chains wrapped about my arms, legs,
the fog slowly clearing from a mind clouded and confused by my sin.
Thank you that your Way is good and right.
Thank you that we have a role to play,
that you have invited us to collaborate with you,
under your authority
for the healing of your world.

Cincinnati justice for ex-offenders

This has been a year of great learning for me.  Since wise learning necessarily means time spent reflecting on issues (theory) and acting on issues (practice), since I spent much more of my time over the last few years reflecting and theorizing, I made a commitment when we moved to  Cincinnati that I would spend more time acting.

As the title suggests above, one of the places I’ve devoted some time to has been advocating for ex-offenders (what some would call ex-convicts or other various terms).  It so happens that Cincinnati is much like any other community in how we handle ex-offenders, which makes the struggle here extremely transferable to other arenas.  This is the process by which we handle ex-offenders:

1) They commit a crime and are jailed
2) They serve their time
3) They come back into mainstream society
4) They apply for jobs to support themselves and their families
5) They are rejected for these jobs (public and private) because they have had a felony conviction and won’t be hired
6) Given little to no options for meaningful employment, they are tempted to return to “easier,” illegal ways to support themselves, which often put them back in prison
7) Repeat

So, as this seven-step process illustrates, our society, which you would think has a vested interest in ex-offenders being rehabilitated, actually promotes a massive disincentive for rehabilitation.  This is a cancerous tumor in Cincinnati that often is not spoken of or paid attention to because it’s uncomfortable, unsavory, makes us shift in our seats and look the other way.  After all, to truly provide the incentive for rehabilitation would require our time, our energy, and our extending chances to those who have made mistakes. And for various reasons, we don’t want to risk those things for the sake of our personal comfort.  It’s a classic case of short-term selfish benefit at enormous long-term cost to our society.

So what can we do?  How can we make the trek back to more healthy relationship with ex-offenders, to provide incentives for them to be productive members of society?

It is that question that a small number of folks asked not so long ago here in Cincinnati (specifically the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, the Amos Project, and now, more recently, the fledgling Cincinnati Faith and Justice, of which I most directly identify).  About a year ago, the OJPC started stepping up pressure for the city to change its hiring policy, and targeted their action toward the city asking some simple questions like:

1) How old is the conviction and is it relevant to the job?
2) How serious was the offense?
3) What has this job applicant done to turn his or her life around since they were convicted?

About four months ago, the AMOS Project launched the Nehemiah Campaign to Rebuild Cincinnati focused primarily on this issue, which Cincinnati Faith and Justice linked up with, which led to my involvement in the campaign.  The last two weeks have been a roller coaster of emotion for those involved in this, which I’ll address in my next post, but I wanted to lay out in this one some of where my learning-in-action has gone over the past year.

Baby don’t let ’em put a name on you

I read this article about Senator Scott Brown today that reinforced some educated hunches I have about him.

Evidently the “Tea Party Express” tour stopped in Boston, MA today and Brown, who the Tea Party supporters go out of their way to say they elected, was conspicuously not there.  In Boston no less, the home of the “original” tea party, which persons would say presents every opportunity for Sen. Brown to enjoy the adulation of the crowd and prove his conservative commitment….yet he didn’t show.

Official release from a spokesperson,

“While he is unable to attend Wednesday’s event, the senator appreciates the strong grassroots support he received from a wide range of individuals, including those who are part of the tea party movement. He hopes they have a successful event,” spokesman Colin Reed said in a statement.

Translation: “We don’t want to fully identify with these people because we find them polarizing and Senator Brown is not arch-conservative like them, even though they cast him in that light during the campaign for the seat.”

Brown’s senatorial victory on January 19th was hailed across the country as a referendum on Pres. Obama’s policy initiatives, with persons variously saying “The people have spoken,” and “Obama better watch out!”  But I had a sneaking sense throughout Brown’s campaign against Martha Coakley to replace Ted Kennedy that his momentum and eventual victory had very little to do with Barack  Obama and very much to do with Martha Coakley and Scott Brown.

First of all, Coakley campaigned as if she “knew” the election was a rubber-stamp for her obvious accession to the Seat.  Coakley famously said in response to challenges she was being to passive in her campaign, “As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?” That ridiculous comment (You’re in Boston, Martha, not Miami), together with commenting that Curt Schilling was a Yankee fan (again, he of the famous bloody sock forever enthroned in Red Sox lore), combined with long stretches of non-campaigning, to show a woman out of touch with the people she was claiming to represent.

Her opponent, Scott Brown instead worked his butt to the bone to win Massachusetts voters.  He did shake hands at Fenway Park in the cold, he did drive his personal truck all over the state, he did shake hands, kiss babies, make speeches, and get his agenda and his aspirations out there, Coakley didn’t, and he beat her.  The combination of Coakley’s blahness and Brown’s commitment was striking, and I think Massachusetts voters saw that.

What is another reason I find the election to be less about Obama and more about Brown? Brown’s proven political positions.  As conservative commentator Kathleen Parker commented in the Washington Post,

In any case, Brown’s more compelling package concerns issues, his positions on which are not so easily categorized along party lines. He supports a woman’s right to choose, for instance, though he opposes partial-birth abortion and federal funding for abortion and believes in strong parental notification laws. He opposes same-sex marriage but believes the decision should be left to states. He would not vote to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act but does not favor a federal constitutional amendment declaring marriage as between a man and a woman.

On fiscal matters, he favors tax cuts, opposes the current government expansion and would oppose a second stimulus bill. He has praised President Obama for both his decision to increase troop levels in Afghanistan as well as taking his time arriving at that decision. He criticized the president for being “too slow” in responding to the panty-bomber and thinks we should treat terrorists as war criminals, trying them in military courts.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t recall conservatives panting from their screams that Obama’s “agenda was rejected” ever mentioning that Brown was pro-choice by their absolute standards. I don’t recall them discussing that Brown isn’t hell-bent on constitutional amendments against homosexual marriage. And those are the two massive issues that most arch-conservatives can’t get past to see the rest of someone’s politics.

Brown since has gone out of his way to praise Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senator John Kerry in their work with him on the jobs bill that he supported with a slew of Democrats.  Someone seeking to self-identify with the tea partiers would know that ANY positive comment about Harry Reid would earn them a tarring and feathering by tea partiers.  And in response to comments by some that he was either a liberal, conservative, or moderate Republican, he responded, “I’m a Scott Brown Republican.”

I’m more and more convinced Scott Brown is a better, more wiser politician than pundits would like to paint him as.  He doesn’t fit the labels perfectly, he thinks for himself, he is willing to break party lines early in his term instead of being McConnell’s yes man lapdog.  Don’t reduce Brown to a “referendum on Barack Obama.”  Let Brown speak for himself.

Kudos to Brown for holding Tea Partiers at arm’s length.  He doesn’t need their extremism to identify himself, and doesn’t need to smile and wave with their hero, Sarah Palin, on his side for a good photo op and conservative check-in-the-box.  You go, Scott Brown.

Who’s Ralph talking about?

“So extreme is the President’s corporatism that he is finding more genuine conservative groups taking sharp issue with his policies.  In a little reported evolution that may change the future complexion of American politics, organizations that call themselves conservative populists are teaming up with their progressive counterparts to oppose corporate bailouts.  Last year this coalition defeated the breeder reactor boondoggle- a high _________  priority.  In _____, it nearly defeated the legislation regarding the Alaska gas pipeline that would coerce consumers into paying for the pipeline even if the project isn’t completed and consumers did not receive any natural gas.  The synfuel industry’s welfare project is under similar pressure, though its predicted mismanagement and awful economics appear to be self-dismantling.  This new coalition put up a strong fight against the _______-ite bailout of the big U.S. banks that made such imprudent loans at skyhigh interest rates to foreign countries.  ________, who spent years lecturing around the country from General Electric on the virtues of sink or swim free enterprise, has become the most prominent advocate of big business bailouts in American history.

If this all goes against his philosophic grain, it demonstrates the contrary power of giant business over his government.  His formerly strong belief in states’ rights is surrendered when companies want his backing for a weaker federal law replacing the adaptable common law in the fifty states that gives people injured by dangerous products rights to sue and recover compensation from manufacturers.  It is surrendered when the banks demand that his agencies preempt stronger state regulations designed to protect depositors and borrowers.  It is surrendered again when the nuclear industry wants him to strip state and local governments of their police power over the transportation of radioactive materials through their communities.  Corporatizing the ex-conservative _________  __________ is a routine matter these days, even when Wall Street’s economic and tax policy demands result in placing Main Street, with its small businesses, at a comparative disadvantage.”

Ralph Nader  “On the corporate state and the corporatizing of America”

Campaign Finance Ridiculosity…

I hopped on the internet today to write an email to my local representative Rep. Bob Goodlatte in response to a news alert I received from the group I Love Mountains about the upcoming Clean Water Protection Act’s debate and hopeful vote.  After a bit, I had written a targeted, informed (hopefully) note to Goodlatte reminding him of greater moral responsibility that’s attached to this bill, especially given that District 9 of VA just south of us is a place that will be deeply affected by an up or down vote on this bill, assuming it isn’t amended into oblivion.

In the process of looking up the District and people within, I happened upon the website OpenSecrets.org, the web portal of the Center for Responsive Politics (another Ralph Nader-inspired organization).  The website has summary pages for present representatives that show percentages of votes missed, bills sponsored or co-sponsored, expenditures, and campaign finance.  I happened to look on the profile on newly elected Rep. Tom Perriello and found myself disgusted.  

Now, granted, I’m not disgusted at Perriello’s profile and the things Perriello seems to care about.  In fact, Perriello’s got some impressive international social justice credentials (check out his Wikipedia page). Personal piety that expresses itself in concrete actions in the world for justice should be applauded.  What disgusted me was what drove Perriello’s election over Virgil Goode, which is more of a disgust with the sytem that Goode and Perriello exist in than a disgust with Perriello himself.  I snapped a picture of it for you to look at and see what draws your eye.

Tom Perriello Open Secrets profile

If you haven’t seen it yet, I’d encourage you to see the disparity between the top contributor to Perriello’s campaign and the second-largest contributor.  Seem a little strange?  

“Now, what is ActBlue?” you might then ask.  Turns out it’s a national clearinghouse for Democratic political action and a place to raise money for specific candidates.  Now, supposedly they’re a Political Action Committee (PAC) under the law, which means that they are limited to giving “$5, 000 to any candidate committee per election, primary, general or special.”  But ActBlue gave $268,117 to Perriello.  Now how in the world is that legal/did that slip through the cracks?  I’m glad Perriello had grassroots support from multiple donors, as I am Goode, whose #1 donor was a similar conservative website counterpoint to ActBlue. 

But how in American politics is it that we continue to allow financial loopholes to drive the election of our representatives in government all the way down to the local district in our area?  This ActBlue donation is so outrageously disproportionate to me and doesn’t make sense whether legal or not.  I can only guess that they exploited some legal loophole to accomplish this massive donation.

I’m interested if someone has some way to enlighten me further.

Focus on the Family, partisan political hackery and a “Letter from a Christian in 2012”

My lovely wife sent a link to me on Friday that astonished me; as in, my jaw hit the ground.  The link was from a letter written by James Dobson’s political action group on October 22nd entitled “Letter from 2012 in Obama’s America.”  If you’ve got the time to skim something for about fifteen to twenty minutes, I’d encourage you to follow the link to the letter to get an idea of where Dobson went with it.  If you want my summary of it, I’ll give it to you in precisely sixteen words:  a fearmongering childish unwise piece from a leader I’ve come to expect these things from.

Later in that same day I came across a group on Facebook that I promptly joined called “A Christian Bipartisan Rejection of Focus on the Family’s Letter from 2012.”

I will say this, and I’m not exaggerating.  There have been few times that I’ve been this horrendously horrified to call someone a brother in Christ as I have now with James Dobson.  He is a confused, bitter, co-opted, unwise man.

I made a decision on Friday to write my own “Letter from a Christian in 2012.”  Maybe someone else will read it, but I wrote it to organize some of my thoughts as a counterpoint to Dobson’s rhetoric that smears the body of Christ.  I’d like to encourage you to read my equally long “Letter” that was intentionally written to parallel Dobson’s letter at certain points.  Maybe you can place them side by side and follow along simultaneously.  In case you didn’t see the link above, here’s the link to my “Letter”.

Letter from 2012

Political season accountability…

I admit.  I am a naive person when it comes to a good number of things in my life, and that includes the legislative record, press releases, and supposed statements or non-statements.  So when I watch a political debate and hear the same “he-said, she-said” stuff you’d hear in a divorce court, I get confused and frustrated.  If I really want to know the truth, I’d act on my frustration and direct in in healthy ways (say, choosing to go deeper into the issues rather than lazily saying “Politics is meaningless and stupid”); but it sure helps when others do that investigation and help us naive voters with some further wisdom.

That’s why I love fact check websites after debates or on certain issues and claims. While they certainly can be spun a political direction as well, they offer something deeper.  

CNN has their own fact check website.  And factcheck.org has a good one as well that may carry a little less spin than CNN as a self-confessed “non-partisan, non-profit consumer advocate for voters” (though the liberal bias stuff is much more political rhetoric and perception than anything else). *update* I found the site politifact.com today, which has a more wide-angle look at political quotes and stances; also non-partisan. *update*

Let’s go deeper than buzzwords as we consider our vote.