Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Re-reading Letter From a Birmingham Jail

            Today as I write these words people are gathering on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to commemorate the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that took place 50 years ago.  At that event, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.  The words of that speech along with the events of that day have been whitewashed (pun intended) in our collective memory so that we forget the turmoil of that time, the stakes involved in that movement and the sacrifices made to fight virulent racism in our country.  MLK's words did not magically make the United States a better country; less than three weeks later four girls were killed while attending Sunday School when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed in Birmingham, AL.  I heard one scholar state the civil rights leaders understood that the more victories they achieved the more the white racist mind would be driven to violence in order to stop them.
            Perhaps a way in to remembering the risks taken on by the Civil Rights leaders is found in re-reading King's Letter From a Birmingham Jail.  It was written in April of 1963 four months before the March on Washington after King was arrested for leading a non-violent action in Birmingham.  Before that action, white religious leaders published a letter denouncing the tactics of outsiders provoking violent retaliation in Birmingham and urging Blacks and Whites to negotiate and let the courts work out the issues surrounding segregation.  The religious leaders included a Catholic bishop and auxiliary bishop, a prominent rabbi, two Methodist bishops, an Episcopal bishop, the Presbyterian moderator of Alabama and the pastor of First Baptist Church in Birmingham.  These men were not violent racists but rather men who claimed to not like segregation.  They wished to move slowly in changing the system of repression. 
            This powerful writing became a living document to me rather than a piece of history when I was in graduate school at Emory University.  I was a TA at Candler School of Theology, a Methodist divinity school that is a part of Emory, when one of my African American students pointed out to me some ornate paintings of Methodist bishops that hung on a classroom wall.  I had given them little thought, but he pointed out to me that two of the giant oil paintings were the Methodist bishops King addressed in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail.  One of those bishops was a trustee at Emory until his death, while the other remained an adjunct faculty member until only a few years earlier.  The latter maintained in his autobiography that the letter by King was a "publicity stunt."  The men who had urged the slow change of segregation without ever bearing any of its oppression are not long gone from us.
            In a spiritual sense, the moderate white church has not left us at all but remains a living reality among us giving lip service to social change but refusing to bear the pain of its tardiness or hear the cries of those who suffer from its slow pace.  The comforts of peace and security for myself trump the cries of pain from others in terms of racial justice, immigration reform, fighting poverty, standing against sexism, fighting for LGBT rights and so many other areas.  As I re-read King's jail letter, I am once again reminded of my complicity in insulting calls for moderation by a Christianity that has more often than not lost its soul.  Here are a few excerpts that were painful for me to re-read:

"History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily."

"An unjust law is a code inflicted on a minority which that minority had no part in enacting or creating. . ."

"I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a 'more convenient season.' Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
"Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured."

"We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people."

"I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows."

"In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular."

"But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust."

This day, I invite you to re-read King's Letter From a Birmingham Jail and see what strikes you in uncomfortable places. 

Grace and Peace,

Friday, August 16, 2013

Update on Research Medical Center’s Treatment of LGBT People

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

           This past May, CCCUCC members Paul Osgood and Larry Chester and I met with the CEOof Research Medical Center and other hospital administrators about the hospital’s treatment of LGBT people.  The meeting occurred after news broke of a gay couple (Paul Gorley and Alan Mansell) whoclaimed that Gorley was forcibly removed from Mansell’s bedside.  The event went viral as an example of discrimination against same-sex couples.  I had written to RMC executives expressing my concern about the event, and the CEO Kevin Hicks responded with an offer to meet with us.  The meeting was a good first step, but overall they were non-committal about our suggestions of how to reach out to the LGBT community.
            In the months since, as I have reflected on that meeting, I continue to be surprised at the hospital’s tone deafness towards the negative feelings LGBT people have towards it.  The folks from RMC we met with denied wrongdoing in the Gorley/Mansell affair and genuinely seemed shocked by how the story had spread so far and so fast.  When Paul and Larry shared about how they and their partners had experienced discrimination in the past and therefore that experience led them to immediately assume the worst about RMC, it seemed like new information to those present.  The meeting was cordial and those present really did listen to us, but there remained a disconnect between us in terms of understanding why LGBT people would react towards the hospital as they have.
            In our meeting, we advocated for RMC to adopt something called the Healthcare Equality Index which is operated by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.  The HEI is a certification process that focuses on 4 areas of a hospital: 1. non-discrimination policies towards LGBT patients, 2. non-discrimination policies towards LGBT employees, 3. visitation policies for LGBT patients and their partners, and 4. sensitivity training towards care of LGBT people.  We offered the possibility that Research Medical Center can go from being incredibly negative in the eyes of LGBT people to having the stamp of approval of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s most visible organization promoting LGBT rights.  They agreed to look at the materials.  Since our meeting I’m glad to say that Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics has been certified by theHealthcare Equality Index and has committed to all four areas of care for LGBT people.
            After not hearing back from RMC, I wrote another letter to CEO Kevin Hicks to follow up.  I’m glad to say that I did get a return call from one of the hospital’s vice presidents to let me know the steps RMC has taken.  Here is a summary of her words to me.

1.     1.  Three members of the leadership team of HCA Midwest Health System (the parent company of RMC) have taken the 90-minute seminar on the Healthcare Equality Index offered by Human Rights Campaign.  However, it was determined that being fully certified by the HEI would be too expensive for the entire company. 
2.      2.  Since the overall corporation will not seek certification by the HEI (as did Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics), RMC has begun a focus group to look at the feasibility of its staff taking the 90-minute training offered by HEI on the care of LGBT people. 
3.      3.  RMC is also in the process of carrying out an internal review of its policies and practices regarding the treatment of LGBT People and how best to include LGBT people in the hospital’s code of conduct.
4.      RMC is talking about having explicit LGBT representation on its Board of Trustees.

Although I am disappointed that RMC’s parent company is unwilling to lead the way on improving care for LGBT people, I am pleased that our local hospital seems to be taking real steps towards improving how it cares for this important part of its community.  I take these steps to be very positive, although ultimately the proof will come in whether or not RMC administration creates an environment where all hospital staff are expected to care for the specific needs of LGBT people.
            I feel the steps RMC has taken thus far are directly related to our church’s willingness to speak out on behalf of LGBT people.  Granted, those steps are incomplete, but I feel we should celebrate progress even as we continue our advocacy for all people who are not given their proper due as children of God.  I urged the VP I spoke with to consider going public with these steps and to speak to the media about their efforts to improve care for LGBT people.  She said she would “take that suggestion back upstairs.”  We will wait and see if RMC can improve its image with as well as its care to LGBT people.
Grace and Peace,

Friday, August 9, 2013

Your True Self

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

            According to the theology I picked up as a teenager, we humans are fallen creatures—under the power of sin.  I went to plenty of youth camps and retreats with sweaty evangelists trying their best to get teenagers to “let Jesus into your heart” by telling us what lousy sinners we were.  God was spoken of “out there” but rarely “in here.”  Combine these negative theological messages with my low self-esteem at the time and the usual doubt every teenager feels about himself or herself, and I was left with the understanding that there was nothing “inside” me that was good.  Sure, Jesus might “enter into” my heart if I let him in, but why would he want to hang out there very long? 
It was not until I was in seminary that I learned about what Quakers called the “inner light” or “that of God” in every person.  Thomas Merton called it the “true self.”  Theologians and mystics through the centuries had called it the “imago dei” or “the image of God” inside each of us.  This last term comes from Genesis 1:27 where it says, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  The idea behind these terms is that we are not beings who are “utterly depraved” or “totally corrupt” but rather free beings—prone to sin but still possessing that divine spark—the imprint of God inside of each of us.
            At first this idea of an “inner light” seemed to sound like New Age teachings—suspect and heretical.  Yet, there was something inside of me that responded to this idea.  God was not just “out there” but also—maybe, just maybe—“in here” too.  The more I encountered writers who believed that the “image of God” was present inside each of us the more I understood they were not ignoring our propensity towards self-deception and destructive behavior.  Rather, self-deception and destructive behavior are what result when we do not live out of our “true selves”—the person God created us to be.
            For me, the significance of this transformation in my thinking about myself—and a transformation in my thinking about just where the presence of God was to be found—came most profoundly in terms of vocation—not choosing a job, but rather discerning God’s calling for the kind of person I would be.  Throughout my adult life, I have struggled to discern not only what profession I would hold but what kind of husband, father, son, brother, friend and Christian will I be.  It took a long time to realize that feelings of dissatisfaction, longing, frustration and even depression where not things to be resented but rather gifts, because they were alerting me when I was trying to be someone other than the person God meant for me to be.  My “true self” or “inner light” was trying to win out over voices telling me I had to prove my worth rather than trust God’s declaration that I had inherent worth.  The pain in my psyche came when I resisted the presence of God at the core of my being.
            An author whose words have been grace to me is Parker Palmer, a Quaker educator.  In his short and simple—but oh so spiritually rich—book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, Palmer describes the kind of false sense of vocation I had learned as “rooted in a deep distrust of selfhood, in the belief that the sinful self will always be “selfish” unless corrected by external forces of virtue.”  In his own life, Palmer also had learned this false understanding of vocation.  He says, “It is a notion that made me feel inadequate to the task of living my own life, creating guilt about the distance between who I was and who I was supposed to be, leaving me exhausted as I labored to close the gap.” 
            The difference between mere “self-improvement” for self-gratification and the profound discovery of the “image of God” inside ourselves is vast.  Palmer writes, “Self-care is never a selfish act—it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others.  Anytime we can listen to true self and give it the care it requires, we do not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch.”  Indeed, when a person lives a lie he or she is destructive in all his or her relationships.  Yet, when we live out of our “authentic selfhood”—the person God created us to be—our relationships are healthy and faithful. 
            The irony of this discovery of our “true selves” is that it results in our discovery of more than just our “self.”  Again Palmer notes, “The Quaker teacher Douglas Steere was fond of saying that the ancient human question “Who am I?” leads inevitably to the equally important question “Whose am I?”—for there is no selfhood outside of relationship.”  The ultimate relationship, of course, is the one between our “true self” and our Creator.
Grace and Peace,


Friday, August 2, 2013

What About Hitler?

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

            If you spend any time at all talking about theology, philosophy or politics, inevitably somebody brings in a Hitler comparison.  There are even a few terms for this tactic.  Reductio ad Hitlerum is a phrase used to describe when a person tries to refute his or her opponent's views by comparing them to something Hitler would believe or do.  (e.g. Obamacare sounds like something Hitler would do!).  A similar term is "Godwin's Law," a rule about manners on the internet that says, "Given enough time, every on-line argument-no matter the topic-somehow inevitably leads to a comparison to Hitler or the Nazis."  Some have enhanced this latter concept to say that a discussion is officially over when a comparison to Hitler has been made with the person making the analogy to Hitler having lost the argument.  In other words, bringing in Hitler as a trump card to blast your opponent is a sign of intellectual weakness, because you resort to the most extreme horrible example possible to make your point.
            Continuing on from my discussion of Hell in my thoughts last week, I would like to coin a new term: Salvitum Hitlerum or "the salvation of Hitler."  (I feel sure Mrs. Wagstaff my high school Latin teacher would be horrified by my Latin grammar-or lack thereof.)  I believe Salvitum Hitlerum comes into play in theological arguments about God's love, forgiveness, Heaven/Hell, salvation, etc.  The argument goes that Hitler-being the worst human being ever (Osama bin Laden also works)-is the most unworthy of God's grace.  Therefore, to say that God forgives everyone or shows grace to everyone would mean that Hitler would be forgiven too.  Hitler cannot be forgiven, so the idea of God forgiving everyone must be false.  Put a kindlier way, God desires to love and forgive everyone but some reject God's love and forgiveness and spend eternity in Hell (e.g. Hitler).  For God to forgive the sins of Hitler is an affront to the idea of God's justice and/or holiness, since Hitler is the worst human being ever.        
          Don't get me wrong; I'm not defending Hitler.  I want to be officially on the record as abhorring everything Hitler did and stood for.  I am 100% anti-Hitler and anti-Nazi.  But I am wondering if there is room to talk about God's grace and love without resorting to the extreme position of asking, "What about Hitler?"  Can we table the salvation or damnation of Hitler for a moment?
            Any discussion of what happens after this life is by its nature speculative.  Although we have church tradition and scriptures that describe the afterlife (good and bad), the images and definitions are vaguer than most believers would care to admit.  Furthermore, despite occasional claims of people having near death experiences, we don't have objective evidence about any of it.  So, a little humility is called for when we ask what happens after we die.
            Christianity is in agreement that a positive life after death (i.e. Heaven) is a gift of God that humans cannot earn-we call that grace.  Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox may argue about the mechanisms of grace, but all agree that we get to heaven by grace-none of us gets in because we deserve it.  Sure, we can argue that some are more deserving than others-for example, "Everyone is more deserving of heaven than Hitler."-but no one earns it.  (Don't believe me?  Check out Romans 3:23 and Romans 6:23.)  Despite this rare occasion of Christian theological agreement, we still wish to do our own judgment about who really deserves to go to heaven and who does not.  The Bible is pretty clear that we are putting ourselves in the place of God when we judge the worthiness/unworthiness of another to receive God's love and doing so is frowned upon.
            I was raised with a very restricted understanding of heaven and hell.  Only those who accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior could get into heaven; everybody else goes to Hell and suffers for eternity.  This life is your one-time chance to accept God's offer; once you croak it's too late.  As I experienced people of different Christian denominations and even met people of different religions, my neat and orderly view of the afterlife began to crumble.  Would God really send a good person to Hell forever just because he or she happened to be Muslim or Hindu?  My fellow conservative Christians and I would debate whether God would send a Muslim to Hell if he had lived his whole life in Saudi Arabia and never met a Christian to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ?  We would wonder if God would send Gandhi to Hell (sort of the opposite of the Hitler argument)?  Once you begin to consider that God is at least as loving as you are, and if you could see room for grace then God probably could too, then the idea of a heavily populated Hell begins to crumble.
            My understanding of God's grace in regards to eternity really began to expand once I became a minister and began doing funerals.  It wasn't long before I officiated a funeral for someone who was not a Christian or at least not one in any measurable sense.  Was I really going to get up at a funeral and tell a grieving family that their loved one was burning in Hell right now and there was no hope of that ever changing?  For years, I took a sort of agnostic view towards the afterlife and just simply acted as if everyone went to heaven, since I had no real way of knowing for sure that they didn't.  Yet, I still held on to Hell, after all didn't the Bible speak clearly about Hell?  (see last week's Thoughts)  My last vestiges of belief in Hell crumbled when a church member gave me the book If Grace is True: Why God Will Save Every Person by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland.  In a very reverent and pastoral way, the book undermines all arguments for God sending people to Hell-even arguments that involve Hitler.
            I believe very strongly that at least in this life people are free to reject the love and grace of God.  Evidence for humanity's destructive will is everywhere.  I need only look in the mirror to find evidence of my own resistance to God's grace and love.  The question, however, is can we still resist God after this life is over?  Is God's offer of salvation really a "limited time offer" or is it always available to us even after this life is over.  The ancient rabbis told a story about Hell which described it as a room down the hall from Heaven.  In Hell, everyone sat around a table filled with food but they starved, because their utensils were too long to get the food to their own mouths.  Down the hall in heaven, however, everyone was feasting and celebrating, because they realized that although they could not feed themselves they could feed each other with their long utensils.  Is Hell a place people choose to remain but are free to leave once they let go of their own selfishness?
In his book Love Wins, Rob Bell asks, "Does God get what God wants?"  The Bible clearly says that God wants to save everyone from destruction, so does God get what God wants or is God too weak?  The Bible seems to say that nothing can prevent God from getting what God wants.  Psalm 139 in the old King James Version says, "Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?  If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.The KJV substitutes Hell for a Hebrew word meaning "depths," but in this context it means the opposite of Heaven.  Whatever or wherever the opposite of Heaven is, God is great enough to even be present there.  If Hell exists, why can't God let people out of it?
Some writers and theologians (including Bell, Gulley and Mulholland) argue for the possibility that whatever Hell is it can serve as a means of turning people back to God.  Rather than being a once-and-for-all sentence, any punishment we receive after this life is to help us to repent of our evil ways.  Can a loving and gracious God really set a time limit on chances to repent?  Would God really say, "Sorry, you learned the error of your ways too late.  I know you want to love me now, but I won't let you?"
When I preached on Colossians 1 the Sunday before last, I focused on verse 20, where it reads, "and through [Christ] to reconcile to himself all things."  God's purpose is to reconcile ALL things not just those people who make the right choice in this life.  How exactly that happens and under what time frame, I can only speculate.  Yet, how depressing and fatalistic is it to think that the many divisions between people and God, between people and other people, between people and creation, and between people and themselves will never be fully reconciled-not in this life nor the next.  Which is greater our destructive and selfish natures or God's love and grace?  I choose to believe that God's love and grace are so great that in the end, one way or another, "all things" will be reconciled to God.  (Yes, even Hitler.)
Grace and Peace,