Wednesday, August 15, 2018

“A new effort at inclusion recently came to F.E. Warren Air Force base, but not everyone is happy about it.”

A recent story on the front page of the Wyoming Eagle-Tribune (“F.E. Warren removes Bible from memorial” August 1, 2018) began, “A new effort at inclusion recently came to F.E. Warren Air Force base, but not everyone is happy about it.”

Efforts at inclusion never make everyone happy, especially those who think it is good to exclude some folks.

The story tells of the decision to alter one of the symbols on POW/MIA memorial tables on the base. Replacing the Christian Bible is a more inclusive “POW/MIA Book of Faith.” And as the reporter noted, “not everyone is happy about it.”

One local Navy veteran is quoted. “The Bible designates all things for all people. It doesn’t make any difference whether you’re a Muslim or whatever.”

I have Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and some Christian friends who would be quite surprised to hear that. The Bible is not only a Christian text but it is a symbol of Christianity. Many Christians believe it is the theological underpinning of Christian exclusivity. It does make a difference whose holy book is chosen for such a memorial.

When you are a member of a decidedly large majority, as Christians in the military are, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there are others who do not share your religious beliefs. You take it for granted to see the Bible displayed or to hear prayers lifted up in the name of Jesus at public events. But the U.S. military is so much more diverse. The largest category is, as among civilians, those with no religious preference. Among the rest are not only Christians but also Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, even Wiccans and atheists.

Their religious freedoms must be recognized and are not included in the display of a Bible alone.

The same Navy vet asserted the military buckled under pressure from the Military Religious Foundation. He said the decision to replace the Christian Bible with a book of faith “does nothing but degrade what we did and what our fathers did before.”

Actually, those who made the change “buckled” under pressure from the U.S. Constitution, the document whose promises to a free people are at stake every time our military goes to war.

What is the Military Religious Freedom Foundation? Unlike Trump’s religious freedom commission, which is designed to find ways to justify discrimination against non-Christians, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation seeks to make real the religious freedom protections enshrined in the Constitution. 

The Foundation’s website describes its “Mission” as follows: “The Military Religious Freedom Foundation is dedicated to ensuring that all members of the United States Armed Forces fully receive the Constitutional guarantees of religious freedom to which they and all Americans are entitled by virtue of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

Their website includes an Air Force regulation, which reads in part, “Every Airman is free to practice the religion of their choice or subscribe to no religious belief at all. You should confidently practice your own beliefs while respecting others whose viewpoints differ from your own.” 

The key to religious freedom is, as the Air Force directive acknowledges, “respecting others whose viewpoints differ from your own.” That includes not insisting that your holy book be placed on the POW/MIA memorial table to the exclusion of others.

The WTE news article quotes a letter-to-the-editor writer who made the claim, “How can we expect our military to protect us from real threats when they take action like this after a marginalized group claims the presence of the Bible is oppressive.”

Throughout the history of this nation, every reform that made the U.S. military more inclusive has been met with an identical criticism. Those who opposed the racial integration of military units said it would weaken the military. When women were included, the same argument was made. Ditto when the military was opened to gays and lesbians.

And yet, through it all, the United States continues to have the strongest, most capable military force in the world.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

This morning's sermon @ Highlands

I came across this story on the Internet. You may know that O. Henry is not O. Henry’s birth name. He was born William Sydney Porter, the same name under which he was arrested, tried, and convicted of embezzlement, the same name he took with him to prison in 1898.

While in prison, a guard took a liking to him and mentored him about how to clean up his life when he was released. When the time came for Bill Porter to leave prison, he told his mentor, “I can’t leave this prison with my old name. I need a new name for a new life. … I want your name.”  The prison guard responded, “My name?  My name is Otto Henry.  For generations, there have been Otto Henrys.  Otto Henry is a good name, a respected name.  You may have my name, but only if you promise to take good care of it.”

Isn’t that what Christ asks of us? Take my name if you choose; call yourself a Christian if you’d like; but only if you promise to take good care of the name.” 

It is times like the ones in which we are living that test the ability or the willingness of Christians to take good care of that name. During our lifetimes, there have been other such opportunities to show that we were serious at the moment of our baptism about taking that name and taking good care of it.

There was the civil rights movement, the struggle for women’s rights, the movement to end the war in Vietnam and others. Today it is the struggle for immigrant and refugee justice.

In these times it is not popular to care about the parents who come here, fleeing violence in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua or elsewhere. It is not popular to care about the human beings who are being thrown into immigrant prisons, or their children who are taken from them and sent somewhere else…not even most Christians believe we should care about these people. A recent poll concluded that among Evangelical Christians, only 25% believe Christians have a responsibility toward these people. Mainline Christians fared little better. Fewer than a majority said we who took Christ’s name should care for it enough to care about these our brothers and sisters.

Interestingly, two-thirds of those claiming no religious affiliation said we have that responsibility. What does that say? The less connected one is to a church, the poll determined, the more they care about these brothers and sisters. Now, that is a sad commentary particularly on those who claim to believe that what we do unto them, we are doing unto Christ.

So, why us? Why should this small band of Christians who gather here care when so many of our fellow-Christians not only don’t care but condemn and disapprove of us for doing so?

Well, could be because we took scripture seriously enough to recognize that on dozens of occasions God tells us to treat the foreigner as a part of the community and how Jesus said that when we welcome the stranger, we have welcomed him. We saw Jesus transfigured and took note of the fact that there were but two prophets invited to the ceremony. Moses and Elijah, the two who openly and bravely confronted a lawless Pharaoh and a ruthless king.

And we listened when God opened our hearts and minds to learning some of the truth, opened us enough to learn some of the facts and the history of our immigration system. We invited law enforcement officers to speak about how they relate to undocumented people in our community. In our studies, we learned that the claim that undocumented workers commit more crimes than US citizens was simply not true.

We listened to those who administer public benefits programs when they came here to tell us the truth about whether undocumented people are draining public benefit programs and costing taxpayers billions. They are not, is what we are told. Other than emergency medical services, these folks get no benefits. No food stamps, no welfare. We learned that these workers are paying billions into the social security trust fund but will never be eligible for a dime’s return.

We listened to undocumented families tell their stories and found them to be so much more complicated and valid than what we here from the politicians and the media.

Then we studied the history of US immigration law. The first immigration law was enacted in 1790 and limited immigration to free, white people, no people of color unless they were brought here in chains; no native Americans though this was their land.

Next came the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. No Chinese need apply for the right to immigrate. In 1924 Congress passed national origin quotas and limited immigration to northern Europeans to the near exclusion of people from southern Europe, Africa or Asia. Those racists quotas stayed in effect for 40 years, until Congress enacted laws permitting family to join family members already in the US. Called family reunification, this law is derided by some politicians as “chain migration.”

During these years, agricultural interests lobbied for laws and immigration policies to allow them to bring in cheaper, foreign labor to work the fields. For decades, the government turned a blind eye as employers in the ag and hospitality industries illegally hired thousands and then millions of undocumented workers.

They came and were hired, married, had children, lived honorable, productive lives until a few years ago when the political winds shifted. By then, millions of undocumented workers had married US citizens, had children who were citizens and were suddenly faced with having their families ripped apart and the breadwinner deported to a land he or she had not known for most of their lives.

And then we looked to the word of God. We studied scripture. We read God’s repeated cry to treat the foreigner as we treat those who are born in this country. We read in the Old Testament that God ordered Sanctuary cities be created as places of refuge for those who had been unjustly accused. We accompanied Mary and Joseph as they were forced to flee the violence in their own land to take the baby Jesus and seek asylum in Egypt. We read in Paul’s writings that when welcoming strangers, some later learned they had provided hospitality to angels and hadn’t even known it.

And we actually met real people facing the loss of children or parents to deportation. Some began to attend our church and became a part of our fellowship. Joselyn is one. She still considers herself a part of Highlands but has a job that requires her to work Sundays. I’ll never forget the first night she walked into Highlands for a Lenten supper. Wide-eyed, nervous, she turned to the person who brought her and said, “All these white people, what do they care about us?”

The answer to Joselyn’s question is simple. God called us to care. We listened.

It’s easy to understand why God called Samuel. Easy call. Here was a young man dedicated to God from his birth. Young Samuel spends his days taking care of the elderly Priest Eli. The closest Samuel ever came to committing a sin was when he once giggled at the sounds made by old Eli as he snored in the night.

Why would God not call Samuel? But, why us. Why have we been called to do that which many of our Christian brothers and sisters find deeply objectionable?

It has to do with our faith. Clarence Jordan was a mid 20th Century preacher in South Georgia. Talk about someone called to do the unpopular. Clarence was called to invite blacks to worship with whites in the 1950s. Clarence was shunned and his fellow Christians even tried to shoot him, burn down his church. When he died, they wouldn’t even allow his remains to be laid to rest in the county.

So, Clarence understood the power of God’s call, the depth of God’s word, and the meaning of faith. He said fear was “the polio of the soul, which prevents us from walking in faith.” Indeed, there is a lot of fear being manufactured about our immigrant and refugee brothers and sisters and it is causing a lot of our Christian friends to suffer paralysis of the soul.

Faith is different. It is incompatible with fear. Faith, Clarence said, is the activation of our aspirations. It is our convictions translated into deeds. It is,” this courageous Christian said, “the word become flesh.”

Practicing Sanctuary is what Clarence Jordan would have called “the substance of faith.”

At Highlands, religion is not a spectator sport but it is rather our convictions translated into deeds. Christianity is not how we think or what we believe. It is how we live. Following Christ is not creedal and safe, but engaged and risky.

Why us? Why have we been called to do that which so many despise? The question answers itself. Christ gave us his name and we promised to take good care of it. AMEN

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The problem? We didn't get the "Dear John" letter

The light bulb suddenly went on. Poof. Just like that I got it. It all came clear when a long repressed, teenage memory returned.

I was 15 years old. I had a crush on the pastor’s daughter. The school year ended. She was leaving to spend much of the summer with a grandmother in Seattle. We promised each other we would write every week. And we did for a while.

Actually, I kept writing long after she stopped. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t hear from her. I wrote more often. “Why are you not writing back,” I pleaded. Finally, a letter arrived. “Didn’t you get my letter breaking up with you?”

Turned out Robert, my younger brother, mischievously intercepted that letter and having read it was too embarrassed to pass it along. I couldn’t understand what had changed between us until I learned I had not gotten the “Dear John” letter.

Bingo. That’s why most Americans have such difficulty understanding what happened to our country. We didn’t get the “Dear John” letter, the one where forty percent of our countrymen told us they were breaking up with what we all thought America stood for.

Someone intercepted the letter where many of our fellow Americans tried to inform us that they had grown tired of old American values like truth, decency, patriotism, honesty, and tolerance. They decided we were taking them for granted. Their eyes began to wander. Before long, they were titillated by a reality TV star who wooed them away with his glitzy lifestyle, politically incorrect rhetoric, and alternative facts promising to protect them from a future they feared if they stayed with us.

Here we were, happy as clams, thinking the vast majority of Americans favored civil rights. The letter we didn’t get told us they were flirting with white nationalists and neo-Nazis. They found themselves more in love with the Confederate flag than with Old Glory.

We thought our relationship was cemented in a melting pot only to learn they were more and more offended by anyone entering the relationship who didn’t look like them, talk like them, or think like them.

For much of our time together, we all talked about how important it was that everyone have the right to vote. Most of us worked together to expand that right. Now we know we were being two-timed. Those who jilted us decided the way to get their way, was to pass laws that made it difficult for those who might not vote for the “right” candidates while Gerrymandering congressional district to make them unfairly non-competitive. 

Silly us. We believed our relationship as Americans included a consensus about helping those in need. It seemed obvious to most of us that those without healthcare, housing, or adequate income to feed their children ought to receive a helping hand from those who could afford to help. As it turned out, the greater the need, the more they resented helping.
It was especially hurtful to learn these things about the surprisingly large numbers of fellow Christians who “signed” the Dear John letter. We were foolish enough to believe that when they talked about the value of life, they meant from the womb to the tomb. We’d have never guessed so many of them believed respect for life began at conception but ended at birth.

Perhaps most shocking was to learn that our relationship with one another was not built on a foundation of truth and honesty.

But the Dear John letter we didn’t see made clear that many had decided truth and honesty no longer worked for them, that it made our conversations too stilted, our relationship too confining. Conversations we used to have about science, for example, became confrontational. It apparently took too much energy to limit themselves to that which could be proven. It was much easier to accept things that sounded like what they wanted to hear.

So, one day, the relationship ended. We just didn’t get the Dear John letter.