Monday, April 7, 2014

"Senseless" Violence

Violence never makes "sense."  We were not created for violence, and yet human beings harm, hurt and kill each other every day. When we have a mass shooting it becomes "senseless." What is a sensible shooting? What is sensible violence?

Senseless?  Wednesday people will gather at Ft. Hood for a Memorial Service and “try to make sense” of the mass shooting last week which took the lives of 4 and wounded 16. We want to understand, make “sense.”  Investigators try to discover the “motive.” The issues are more profound, more unique to each situation and also more common to all of us.

We may never know the precise “motive,” but I do know these things:

We as a society need to stop using words—publicly and privately—like “crazies,” “kooks,” “weirdoes,” to describe, and thereby dismiss, people who live with a mental illness. Do we use such words to describe someone with a broken leg? We need to learn about different kinds of mental illness, and that few are associated with violence. We need to recognize that millions of people, including perhaps ourselves, deal with depression and anxiety and take medication for sleep issues every day. Human beings, all of us, are flawed, with failings.  That is not to excuse our actions, but neither must we separate the "good" and the "bad," the "whole" and the "broken."  

“Home base” is not always safe. I know you are supposed to be safe when you reach home base. (The baseball season opened last week, too). But much violence takes place at home, whether in a family residence, in a faith community, a business which is “like a family,” or on a military base.  Suicide and homicide rates are high “at home.” Human beings have a difficult time being humane with one another. (For years we disregarded “domestic” violence as excusable.)

The response of, “We need extra security” to a mass shooting cannot be our most sensible approach. Fort Hood covers 340 square miles, the largest U.S. military base with a population of 70,000, including 42,000 military personnel,  family,  and civilian staff. With contractors and others going on and off base each day, providing absolute security is an almost impossible task.  The answer is not allowing more concealed weapons on base.  Likewise a “sensible” approach of spending millions to add gun-power security to schools and malls leaves us more fearful not more skilled at engaging one another safely with  respect.
God has created us for safe, loving interaction.  Sin has broken these relationships. Fear which drives us to put up more barriers and to provide more opportunities to kill one another cannot be the answer. 

Once again a woman risked her life to save others. Had it not been for this (at this writing unidentified) military policewoman’s courageous acts, the death count might have been higher. Kimberly Munley, a civilian police officer and her male partner stopped the shooter in the Ft. Hood mass shooting in 2009. Due to her wounds she can no longer work in law enforcement.  They remind me of Antoinette Tuff, school clerk in Decatur, Georgia, who last August stopped a 20-year-old armed young man, off his meds, from a mass shooting by compassionately talking to him. This is not to set women apart, but to note the irony, that for so long women were not thought strong, stable, or sensible  enough for military service. Or women might cause men to be distracted. The reality is that today women in our military are serving well and also are subjected to untenable numbers of rapes and other sexual assaults.  Women are stable, strong and wise enough for war, in these cases, to stop the violence.  

I know that there are people grieving, so many people grieving. Not to be forgotten are those in Puerto Rico, and especially the home town of a young man, an ordinary, patriotic man whose mother died last fall, who, like half the young men from his high school, join their country’s military. And I grieve with the families of those killed and wounded at Ft. Hood, and with the families of the 22 veterans who commit suicide every day in this country. And I grieve with the families of those killed by guns every single day in the United States.   

I know there are those who want more tests to “weed out” people with problems from the military. But how can we construct those absolutely accurate predictors?  And when dismissed, where should such men and women go?   To our street corners?  Perhaps it was not a brief tour in Iraq that “triggered” (I hate that term) the shooting , but an argument immediately preceding the event. How can we know for sure the complexities of human emotions and motives? God did not just "get rid of" those with problems. There will be no perfect places with perfect people, whether that be the military, churches, businesses. The challenge is to deal with the problems within each of these institutions.

So, what do we do?

More guns? I absolutely will not choose that option. Gun shops right outside the base, right outside, well everywhere.  Guns in the home, guns more accessible and guns in the hands of more people will mean these sad stories become more frequent.

Give up on humanity?  No, I will not choose that option. God in Jesus Christ did not.  But I will call us all to new commitments.  Military bases, work places, school campuses, households, houses of worship are all places to notice those in need, to ask, to care, to really care.   We know how to bond together after a tragedy. What about the day before, and every day?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Issues of Religious Freedom and LGBT Rights Not Over With One Veto

Many sigh in relief believing the issue of religious liberty and LGBT rights is over with the veto of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer; however, deeper questions over the free exercise clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution, and how to be a diverse nation, remain. There is an old adage, "Don't talk about religion and politics in polite company." And certainly not around the family dinner table, especially the extended family dinner table. But perhaps we need to; perhaps we have to. Perhaps we can. Yes, religion and politics.
We need to talk about the nature of the issues themselves. In the Arizona case, some headlines read, "Anti LGBT Law Vetoed" while others proclaimed the opposite: "Freedom of Religion Law Vetoed."

Those very opposite interpretations of what happened tell us what is not over. And reasons for the governor's action probably had more to do with pressures from corporations on the possible impact on Arizona's economy and reputation.

What are the issues? The Arizona bill would have given business owners the right to refuse service to LGBT people and others on religious grounds.

Gov. Brewer, in remarks made when she announced the veto, said the legislation "does not address a specific or present concern related to religious liberty In Arizona," and that it was "broadly worded and could result in unintended and negative consequences."

So, what does the "free exercise" clause of Amendment 1 of the U.S. Constitution mean and what are its consequences? Through the centuries, and especially today, we debate less than our founders did the first clause, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."(However, disestablishment did occur only gradually over 50 years.) Even that needs our careful attention when there are some Christian denominations in this country that would want to make this a "Christian America." Many other Christian denominations support a diverse, open and pluralistic United States. The term "Christian" is not one umbrella term covering all. Therefore, banners and headlines such as "Christian Rights Trumps Religious Wrongs" and "Christians vs. Gays" are equally inadequate and erroneous.

And that connects directly to the opposite interpretations of the second clause of the First Amendment: "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." If indeed this country was formed to "promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity," (Preamble to the Constitution) There is and will continue to be debate about how private faith is to influence public life. The Preamble would make clear that private faith and religious bodies are to promote the common good, the common welfare. The 13th and 14th Amendments promised freedom and rights for slaves, and the 15th and 19th say suffrage shall not be denied on account of race, color, previous condition of servitude or on account of sex. But these rights, too, need continually to be expanded and renewed.

So how do we balance freedom of religious expression with non-discrimination? One, by realizing the word is "exercise" not just "expression." We are guaranteed freedom of worship, all of us. And the freedom to exercise my religion means the freedom of my neighbors to exercise theirs. In a participatory democracy, we are called to respectfully work for the common welfare of all. That's complex to be sure. It includes our making laws that protect my neighbors' safety, such as not driving under the influence of alcohol. (My own religious values may or may not include refraining from the use of alcohol.)

The term "separation of church and state" are indeed not in the Constitution, but Thomas Jefferson did pen them in another document and we have used them ever since. That could mean "structural separation" involving cutting legal and systemic ties. "Absolute separation" means one never influences the other. "Supportive separation" acknowledges the need for political separation, but allows for aid to all religions, without discrimination. I and my church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, favor "institutional separation" with "functional interaction," so that we do not seek to impose our beliefs on others, but do work for the welfare and justice of all.

The veto in Arizona is not "over." The issues continue. There were some positive effects. Similar bills pending, or being considered in other state legislatures, within a few days were pulled back. But these and other initiatives will reappear. The Affordable Care Act. Contraception. The rights of Muslims. Land rights. Education. What others?

Yes, conversations about politics and religion belong together. We dare not leave the formation of legislation to only a few. It's OK to talk about this around the dinner table, and in each of our varied faith communities around this nation and to have all of our voices heard before there is even a need for a veto.

Monday, February 17, 2014


As the world watched, T.J. Oshie from small town Warroad, Minnesota, in a “sudden death” shootout led the U.S. ice hockey team to a victory over the Russian team Saturday in a preliminary round at the Olympics.  The shootout was necessary to break the 2-2 tie.  The verdict was finally in after an amazing game. The cheering was loud all over the United States.

Also on Saturday, the verdict came in on another shootout, the case of Michael Dunn, shooting at a carfull of African American teenagers playing loud music in a gas station lot in Jacksonville, Florida. Because the verdict was announced during Saturday night prime time coverage of the Olympics I, like many people, almost missed it. The judge thanked the jury for their hard work. They had tried, but even after hours of overtime could not reach a verdict on whether or not Dunn was guilty of first degree murder of 17-year-old  African American Jordon Davis.  Sudden death.  Justice delayed.

The jury, however, did convict Dunn on 4 charges, three of attempted 2nd degree murder of the three other teens in the car.  One could cheer, or at least be relieved. Or be simply saddened.

A different kind of shootout: one a game, with a puck, and referees.  A shootout on the ice, both sides having their turn to win. In the cases of Trayvon Martin and Jordon Davis, they had no guns. They were attacked by another who carried a gun because . . . well, why?  In case he would need it if he was grieved, annoyed, thought he was afraid? In case someone was making too much noise? In case he thought someone was in the wrong neighborhood, should not be there, should not be?

We understand the motives for competitive sports. Are we beginning to take for granted the motives for murder?  Fear begets fear and guns beget guns.  We want to cheer for the United State of America. We  cheer more loudly when we win games. We will cheer more clearly when we no longer fear African American  males, particularly young ones, believing that fear and anger  gives license to take a gun and shoot, and then to continue to shoot.  Life is precious, given by a Creator God. Christ died and rose that we might not take death into our own hands but live in reconciled relationships. The Spirit empowers us to work for justice in the midst of systemic sin.

Obviously, although the words are similar, there is no direct comparison between these two stories. So we compartmentalize.  Watching the Olympics becomes a communal activity. So, too, when there is yet not justice for Jordon Davis, we are all called to address the underlying issues.

Ron Davis, Jordon’s father, said he had waited 450 days for this moment. "The whole world is looking at all of us here in Jacksonville.”   I hope so.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Is Competition Part of Creation or Part of the Fall?

So, did God create us to be competitive or not? We are midway between the Dubuque Winter Iowa Games where 5K participants Sunday faced an icy cold road running advisory and the  2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, running February 7-23, followed by the Paralympics March 7-16, which face the dangers of terrorist threats. Competition with the weather, and worse yet, guns and bombs, were not the plan for either games. 

But what about competition itself? The world will focus on the Olympics. Many of us will watch. Why? It may be the thrill of speed, the grace on ice. For me it’s seeing the flags of all those nations, large and small, as athletes of the world come together peacefully. Peacefully, we pray!

Not that the wars of the world will stop. Not that terrorist threats will go away. Some people have already been killed. Clashes of ideology abound. Plots to disrupt the games challenge a ring of steel and 40,000 and more security officers and guards.

People are peacefully protesting Russia’s anti-gay law and taking a stand with LGBT athletes and LGBT Russian people.

From a faith point of view, there are theological issues.  Did God create us to compete? Some cite “survival of the fittest,” believing that winning is everything. Others respond that competition leads to harm, even death, and is part of the “Fall” of humankind.

I believe God intended human beings for life-giving interdependence. God created us to grow and designed us to develop, to use all of our talents to the fullest potential. Stretching our abilities through healthy, fair competition can be a means to that end. Watching the Olympics and Paralympics is exciting. But focusing only on the medal count of one nation over another misses the joy of full engagement by all.

Author Bill Diehl wrote, “Jesus lived and moved in a competitive society just as we do.  But he was not hooked by the powers of competition. He did not need to compete.

Did Christ engage in competition? If so, with whom or why? Jesus came not to overpower. He turned competition upside down, saying that whoever wants to be great must be servant of all. He was victorious, but not over human beings. He conquered death, but not for his own sake. For ours. The core of the resurrection life is not competition, but community.  May the Olympic Games be life-giving and community-building!

(first published by Norma Cook Everist, Dubuque Telegraph Herald, Feb. 1, 2014)

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Iowa Caucuses in the Snow

The Iowa Caucuses were held Tuesday night. No national cameras or crowds, just a dark night, snow and below-zero wind chills.  (We had finished shoveling out at noon as the storm headed to the East.) Our caucus met at the E.B. Lyons Interpretive and Nature Center, just south of Dubuque, a beautiful place . . . in the summer in the daylight!

But it was Iowa Caucus Night, so we needed to go! We started out early, knowing the roads would be safe but snow covered after we crossed Highway 151. Arriving 15 minutes early, the parking lot was almost full. We walked up the trail, guided by the warmly lit building ahead. People were already surrounding tables, signing sheets  that would place candidates’ names before the electorate, first the primary in June and then the general election in November. Our U.S. Representative would be running for an open Senate seat and our state Representative would be running for that U.S. Congressional  seat. And there would be a governor’s race this year. More sheets for state offices. The atmosphere was calm, congenial. We knew we were just one small caucus, but that voices matter, everywhere.  Governing the people begins here.
Right at 7:00 the leader in the front suddenly said, “If you vote at the Methodist Church, go to this corner of room; If you vote at the firehouse, go over there; if you vote at Theisens –that was us—go to the center back, and so on. Five precincts met that night at our Caucus site, from the city of Dubuque, and those from Dubuque Country, just to the south: Key West, Swiss Valley. Because city and country precincts were in two different state legislative districts, we would sign petitions for Iowa house and senate candidates at our respective tables. All was well prepared, orderly, organized

Before we moved to our tables, a candidate for the Iowa House stood to introduce herself. It was her first time running for office. A 25-year-old-woman,   who had been working since her youth as a volunteer, legislative aide, and congressional page, quoted her father, “Where there’s work to be done you say “’Yes.’”
Denise led our Precinct 2 group. The first task was to elect a permanent chair. Denise was elected. Delegates and alternates to the county convention which would be at Northeast Iowa Community College were selected. Almost all said, “Yes.” At first I thought the meeting might be perfunctory.  The head of the caucus had said, “When you finish what you need to do, you can go.”  People may have wanted to.  After all, it was cold!  This day the government buildings in Washington D.C. were shut down because of the snow.  Gov. Christi’s inaugural party was cancelled. 

But then something happened.  The groups at the table started talking.   There were ten of us, well 13 counting the three grade-school girls one father brought along to listen and learn.  I know, I know, people think there is little connection between what is said at caucus level and what actually moves through country, district, state and finally onto the national party platform.  But this snowy night we started here.
“Anyone have any resolutions to send along to the platform committee when they meet?”  Denise asked.  One man raised an issue, with wording ready to fill out the required form.  That prompted the woman beside him, “We need to urge support for the Affordable Care Act. I’m in the insurance business and I see the need for people with pre-existing conditions and insurance policies that don’t meet their needs.”   An elementary school teacher across the table, the father who had brought his daughters, spoke up about standardized testing and the anxiety of teaching to the test. Another woman spoke about economic inequality and support for public community schools so that children of all social economic backgrounds have access to quality education.  Issues and ideas were flowing.  We ran out of white resolution forms.  The chair said that was all right. (I shared sheets of my yellow note pad.)  A man said he was concerned about Citizens United and anonymous funds pouring into our state with the open U.S. Representative and Senate seats.  Another mentioned that gun violence has grown not lessened with a school shooting almost every day now: New Mexico, Philadelphia and this day at Purdue University, so regularly “it soon won’t make the news anymore.”  Another added, “We need stronger words than ‘concern.’”  People talked, helping each other with wording.  We voted.  Eight resolutions came from our group of ten, by consensus. 

As we drove home, had anything changed? It was still bitterly cold. We could hardly see the entrance  to our driveway between  six-foot piles of snow.  More snow and cold on the way. But things were different. Participatory democracy!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Power, People and the George Washington Bridge

There was other news the day Chris Christie held his almost 2-hour press conference saying he had been humiliated because he had been lied to, but one could hardly notice it among the cameras and commentators surrounding the George Washington bridge scandal.  Not that creating cultures of retribution is not a very important detriment to democracy. But President Obama's announcement that same day of "Promise Zones" in the midst of economic disparities received less than 30 seconds on evening network news broadcasts. No drama, no coverage! But beyond that fact, I think the stories are connected, metaphorically and more . . . unless we believe the current interest in income inequality is merely a political issue this election year. 

Obama named the five zones -- rural, urban and tribal communities -- that have already shown promise, each working not only in bi-partisan ways, but as neighbors, educators, business leaders, faith communities, together with local, state and federal government. Obama drew on his own community organizing past as he announced the first five Promise Zones in San Antonio, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, southeastern Kentucky, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. "We've got to make sure this recovery -- which is real -- leaves nobody behind," he said. "And that's going to be my focus throughout the year."  He called for a year of action.

My mind went back to the thousands of people stranded in traffic in Fort Lee for hours, their "being stuck" recurring day after day last September because of the lane closures to the bridge leading into NYC. Fort Lee, of course, is not southeastern Kentucky. I'm speaking metaphorically here about people being stuck because of the intentional lack of concern on the part of others. Being stuck in poverty, not being able to move in any direction, with no power to change the situation also results from the intentional or naively unintentional lack of concern on the part of people with power. Stay with me here for a minute.

Having lived near NYC for nine years, I have crossed that bridge often; I can see the lanes, Fort Lee, and the traffic. I wonder how those who haven't, but who cross other bridges every day think about this. "What's the big deal about a few lanes being closed?"  For fifteen years our family lived across another river, not the busiest bridge, but no small river, the Mississippi.  Traffic from many lanes on the Dubuque side flowed seamlessly from the north, south, and west, into one lane, for the one mile drive home across that mighty Mississippi.  When the bridge closed for a year for construction, driving to work from Illinois to Iowa (four miles) meant going around through Wisconsin.  But still, we weren't stuck. The point is: People across the country who have never driven across the GW or had an entire town stuck, "get it."  It's about power, and the misuse of power to keep people stuck in their place, unable to move or do anything about their situation. 

The Harlem Children's Zone, that Obama celebrated  last Thursday, is across the GW Bridge in NYC, ironically. Poverty and wealth can be on both sides of the "tracks," both sides of a bridge, inner cities, small towns, some suburbs, rural and tribal areas. Poverty and Promise zones can be large or small, 97 square blocks of Harlem. Of course we need more than 5, or 20, zones. We need promise not just through charter schools but for children in all public schools. We need to make that promise to each other.

We mark the 50th anniversary of President Johnson's announcement of the War on Poverty. Johnson spoke of communities on the outskirts of hope. Maria Shriver delivers her report to President Obama on poverty this Tuesday afternoon. There is so much to be done. And together, we can. If, that is, we aren't caught in a traffic jam where all of us are stuck politically.  Gov. Christie gives his State of the State address today.  The questions about the GW Bridge and Fort Lee will continue. And news coverage will continue. Will we continue our interest in Promise zones as well as traffic zones?

I'm going to simply ignore the rhetoric that contends "Poverty won" the war on poverty.  Of course poverty will be with us always, as will war. But we are called continually to work together to create communities of care and opportunities of hope, and call people out when they deliberately keep people stuck, particularly children stuck on the bus on the first day of school, or on every day of school without prospects for directions for success. We can perpetuate cultures of retribution or we can turn  our attention to a year of action of real concern for all.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Christmas is Not Over; the Work of Christmas has Just Begun

President Barack Obama and his family were to have returned early from Hawaii to Washington for fiscal-cliff talks (they didn't; however, the constant wording that they were on “vacation” bewildered me. I mean, when families, (such as mine) came from the warm Southwest to frigid, snowy Iowa for Christmas, the place they grew up, they don’t tell their friends they are going “on vacation.” So why, every year, are the Obamas “on vacation” when they return to the place of Baracks’ birth for Christmas.

And yes, almost every year, someone feels his “vacation” needs to be “cut short” because of business. Not that the work of being president does not go with him wherever he goes, and not that most of us don’t go back to work shortly after our particular religious holiday, but there’s often a “crisis” that stops President Obama from having the rest he needs for the responsibilities he carries.

But he is portrayed as being “on vacation” rather than celebrating Christmas in a state where many consider he was not even born. And some of these same people declare there has been a war on Christmas for the past few years.

I wonder. . . . Who won the war this year? Or was there a war at all?  If so, perhaps it was not an assault from the outside, but apathy from the inside.  Perhaps we could measure the outcome by how quickly many (most of whom were not called back thousands of miles to handle a work crisis) “cut short” or literally threw away Christmas. We need to be clear, this is a pluralistic country.  For many, many people, Christmas is not a religious holiday and should not be imposed as a “decoration” or “consumer” requirement.  But for Christians, I noticed trash was piled up at the curb the next day when it was not even trash pick-up day. 

December 25 is the first of 12 days of Christmas, coming to a conclusion with Epiphany on January 6. Time to celebrate, remember, worship as well as live our daily lives. There were, of course, those whose main belief was conspicuous gift-giving consumption, or, rather, purchase- on-sale-competition and, on the 26th the Ritual of Return.

But at a deeper level, churches were full.  Families did re-unite.  I heard small children listen to the Christmas story and sing more verses of carols than they thought they knew, because they had been hearing them all their lives.  And I saw these same children knowledgeably select chickens, ducks, fruit tree seedlings, and health care kits from Unicef and Lutheran World Relief and ELCA  gift catalogs to give to children around the world, because, this, too, they had been doing each year since they were old enough to choose by pointing their little finger to a gift catalog picture and say, “duck.”

Christmas, I believe, was more than a vacation for the Obama family, and more than a vacation for many families. And while work calls many of us back, Christmas need not be over.  I want to go back to when President Obama lit the National Christmas tree December 6.

He said, “For 91 years, the National Christmas Tree has stood as a beacon of light and a promise during the holiday season.  During times of peace and prosperity, challenge and change, Americans have gathered around our national tree to kick off the holiday season and give thanks for everything that makes this time of year so magical -- spending time with friends and family, and spreading tidings of peace and goodwill here at home and around the world. . .

"Each Christmas, we celebrate the birth of a child who came into the world with only a stable’s roof to shelter Him.  But through a life of humility and the ultimate sacrifice, a life guided by faith and kindness towards others, Christ assumed a mighty voice, teaching us lessons of compassion and charity that have lasted more than two millennia.  He ministered to the poor. He embraced the outcast.  He healed the sick.  And in Him we see a living example of scripture that we ought to love others not only through our words, but also through our deeds.

"It’s a message both timeless and universal -- no matter what God you pray to, or if you pray to none at all -- we all have a responsibility to ourselves and to each other to make a difference that is real and lasting.  We are our brother’s keeper.  We are our sister’s keeper.

"And so in this season of generosity, let’s reach out to those who need help the most. . .”

And so it is back to work. That’s clear. And President Obama is very clear. He clearly states that he is a Christian. And just as clearly says that this is a nation where many diverse people hold many beliefs and sets of values. Each of us, as we carry out our work in daily life, have responsibilities to our brothers and sisters here and around the world, and especially to those who need help the most.  

It’s too soon to throw out the tree and those words.  There’s work to be done.

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Letter to Malcolm in Prison on the death of Mandela

Dear Malcolm,
      I received your letter and wanted to respond now, after hearing of the passing of Nelson Mandela. You have been in prison so many years, Malcolm. You know I have kept your letters and the total fills many file folders.  And I know you have kept my letters, except for when you were moved to a different prison on a moment’s notice. Your words ring true, “Please don’t despair. We are linked in Spirit so at times words understood need not be spoken.”
     Yes, I see from the change of return address that you have been moved once again, and this time even further from your family, 4 ½ hours from home. “It seems like the closer I get to the door and the more good I try to do the worse things get for me.” Malcolm, I remind you of what you have done through the years while in prison. You counsel younger men coming in, you teach, help men with family problems and make sure they have what they need.  I rejoiced with you that in the past year you were able to become a leader in a program that helps men find new lives of peace and purpose once they leave prison. And, yes, I can just see you intervening on behalf of the young man to right the wrong done to him. I’m glad you were successful with the prison administration. I think they may have been fearful of you having that much influence and that may have resulted in your being transferred.
     I hear your words, Malcolm: “I am tired, Norma. I’m not about to quit, but I am tired.” Don’t quit, Malcolm. Even though I live so far away now, further than your family, I am encouraged by your words, “I still seek opportunities to do what I do and be who I am. I am able to teach some classes and assist men with getting their lives together.” Take courage, Malcolm.  Know that you are not alone, even though prison walls and distance separate us. You say that my words comfort you, Malcolm, but it is yours that strengthen me as you write, “My trust is in the God of Justice and grace and love and compassion and hope. It is because of this compassion that we are not consumed.”
     Nelson Mandela fought apartheid in South Africa and was imprisoned for it, coming out 27 years later to continue the struggle and then become president of his country.  He is said to have been the greatest leader of the second half of the 20th century. It would be easy to not see the man behind the icon. Those 27 years in prison took so much from him during the prime of his life.  You, more than I, Malcolm, know that.  The world watched as he came out of prison, not knowing what he would look like, not seeing even a picture, not knowing which direction he would turn and lead. And then we saw: towards “Truth and Reconciliation” which kept that country from being torn apart in violence and civil war as apartheid was ending.  And you, Malcolm, have participated in your own “truth and reconciliation” initiatives in prison, particularly a few years ago.
     President Obama described Mandela as, "one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth. He no longer belongs to us; he belongs to the ages. Through his fierce dignity and unbending will to sacrifice his own freedom for the freedom of others, Madiba transformed South Africa and moved all of us. His journey from a prisoner to a president embodied the promise that human beings and countries can change for the better."
      Malcolm, we know that South Africa continues to face its own struggles and that the United States is not a post-racial society, not when with “The New Jim Crow” such a large percentage of black men are incarcerated. And the gap between rich and poor grows. Mandela worked to free and reconcile oppressed and oppressor. We aren’t there yet, are we Malcolm? But, here we are, over 40 years after our families, one white and one black, lived around the block from each other in Detroit. Nothing can separate us. You closed your letter with, “Give my love to the rest of the family. Take care of yourself and make sure you get some rest.”  I will. And, Malcolm, I received the picture your mom sent of you, Greg and her when they visited you last month.  I’m glad they could make it that far. You look good. The years in prison can’t take that away. Keep on keeping on. God’s strength.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Who Is at the Front of the Room? “Higher” Education

Picture this scene at Wartburg Theological Seminary where I am blessed to teach.  Classes start early.  Alert, eager, engaged, we dig into studies together. Although I may sit at the front of the room, ten minutes into the hour, it’s not just my wisdom students copy down, but some new theological insight we discover together that none of us would have thought of on our own.  Next is chapel, followed by time in the refectory  to connect. One hears a buzz about global concerns, new student projects, meetings. By noon conversation has turned into action perhaps in the Dubuque community, perhaps in the broader church and world. 

Learning together, life together, all over the place.  Yes, students respect the faculty.  Likewise faculty respect students, their ideas, gifts and experiences.
Wartburg is a strong academic institution. And a strong learning community. The two go together. When any environment is merely hierarchical, assuming knowledge is inside only one person--the professor/teacher, pastor/priest-- teaching and learning are limited.
Appropriate teaching authority lies in setting the stage for people, the body of Christ Christians would say, to be learning around the Word of God together.

Only God is the Almighty One, so for me to “Lord it over” my students (Oh, did I say “my”?) is to confuse roles. That is not to say we professors abdicate our responsibility to teach, and to read, research, and publish. And there’s accountability, mutual accountability.  But students do not write a paper merely for the professor, rather, as adult learners, they study, read and write for their own growth and therefore learn in order to serve as ministerial leaders in the church and world.
Teaching and learning in community is extraordinarily challenging.  It’s much easier to deliver a lecture or preach a sermon while others remain quiet, “at our feet,” so to speak. But Jesus taught “on the way,” on the road, in the midst of people’s real lives, real needs. He interacted with them.

We are called to teach, believing the Holy Spirit resides in each person. That opens us to receive a student’s new insight, questions, comments, living examples. We learn from those whom others might discount.  We learn across gender, socio-economic, racial boundaries. 

No one student is at the head of the class. In fact, the shape of the class and learning itself changes. Amazing what we can learn together. This is higher education.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Ways We Try to Justify Our Traditions: Sports and Beyond

The debate about whether the Washington Redskins should bow to pressure to change its name will continue as long as we as a nation fail to see the difference between trying to justify traditions and recognizing the real deep-seated problems which keep us all in bondage. The issue goes beyond the Washington team and beyond football; however it is something we can dare to address together.  Listen to recent conversation points about the Redskins’ name, hear echoes of other issues, and consider alternatives:

Ways we try to justify our actions and ourselves:

·         “The team is 8l years old. Why didn’t anyone object until now?” All sorts of objectionable behaviors remain through the years, becoming “time-honored” traditions. We need to understand the history of the United States which tried for decades to either assimilate or annihilate indigenous peoples. Severely oppressed groups lack power to object and when they do, their objections are rarely heard.

·         “It’s only a name.” Names signify who we are. “I am somebody,” was the cry of the Civil Rights movement. And so a people refused to be recognized as Negroes, but named themselves Blacks and then African-Americans. And women chose “Ms.” Group after group has refused labels.  Making a woman a sex object, or a “colored person” a yard decoration, or one of the over 550 distinct Native American tribes a mascot, dehumanizes them. We are beginning to realize the pain and the lethal danger of name-calling and bullying. It’s never “only a name,” when one uses another’s name, image or body.  

·         “I am not a racist.” Racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism and all other “isms” are not simply a matter of saying one remark or even one name, but systemic issues with deep roots. We, our stereotypes, prejudices and fears, are all entwined. We need to continually root out the weeds that will crop up anew in every generation.  “I am not. . . .” is rampant self-justification. Far better to recognize our need to shed our fears and defenses and truly seek to understand one another. Only then will all be free of bondage.

·         “Most people are not offended.” No matter. In fact that attempt at justification ranks right up there with, “It’s all in fun,” or in terms of sexist remarks, “Can’t you take a joke?” Or, “Why do we have to be politically correct?” Whenever people give that self-justifying response, I quickly realize, “They just don’t get it.”  They don’t yet understand it is not a matter of trying to not offend someone. It’s not a matter of “being a (little) more sensitive.”  It is a matter of trying hard to understand the deep underlying issues so that we can all come to a higher level of respect for each other’s personhood, history and culture.

·         “We have permission of Native tribes.” People give “permission” for many reasons.  Perhaps because they are forced to, forced off their land, forced to give in for fear of losing their jobs or their homes, forced to let someone assault, abuse and control their bodies for fear of losing their lives.  I cannot speculate, and I cannot judge, but I can ask. “What does ‘giving permission’ really mean to everyone involved?”

·         “There are other awful ones, too. Some are worse.”  The essence of self-justification is finding someone who does something worse than I do.  Another response is, “Everybody does it.” Unfortunately, the practice of using names of Native Americans for team sports has been everywhere.  It’s hard to count them all.  Add to that the thousands of names and words from Native American tribes that have become names of towns and streets and rivers and parks. So, what is one to do? Think! Research! Remember! Discover! Ask! The number of teams that have changed their names and logos is a major start. And news sources that have decided to use, “Washington’s pro football team” instead of the “Redskins” is an example.  This can become, with courage, a movement, not just to be “sensitive,” but to be part of a new way of being Americans together.

·         “Native Americans are honored.”  Simply saying another is honored is to ignore how the other may actually feel. For decades we “honored” women by keeping them “happy,” at home, “on a pedestal,” “sheltered,” away from the public world where they could use all of their gifts. Likewise we kept “happy Negroes” as slaves. Hmm…  To honor is to repent from a shameful history of conquest of native peoples and their lands. To honor is to move from ignorance to knowledge of the people behind the names of streets and rivers and towns. To honor is to address grievances of ignored peoples. To honor is to hear and respect the great history, tradition, legacy and presence of native people who say, “We are Americans.”

Only one justifies: Jesus the Christ, in whom we have freedom to look deeply at the traditions which keep people in bondage, repent, and change.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

"Of Course!" Reflections on the Installation of Elizabeth Eaton

Presiding Minister Mark S. Hanson blesses newly installed ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton.
Of course. People were gathering for “Holy Communion with the Installation of the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” Elizabeth A. Eaton, in Rockefeller Chapel, University of Chicago. Oct. 5, 2013, was a historic day but it felt more like a joyful, “Of course.”
As the magnificent organ swelled with Bach and Britten, hundreds came on line to watch the live video. A bagpiper played “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” while the ELCA Church Council, bishops, ecumenical and global partners processed. Paris Brown sang Dottie Rambo’s gospel favorite, “I Go to the Rock.”
The bells of the great chapel pealed. The time was now. Choirs, many singers from Augustana College, Rock Island, Ill., grand piano and drums, everyone sang, “Come, all you people, come … .” The Lutheran church is a global church.
Then still Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson welcomed those in the chapel and online in the name of Christ and said, “We have come together from many places to mark a new season of ministry in the life of this church … Let us enter this celebration confident that through the Holy Spirit, Christ is present with us now, as we pray that this servant may fulfill God’s purpose in her life and in her ministry among the whole people of God.”
Of course!
I have been invited to write this reflection in personal historical context. Many stories came together on this one day. I invite you to reflect on your own.
I heard those churchwide words of welcome and remembered my pastor saying one day in confirmation class when I as a youth was new to the Lutheran church, “Of course women cannot be pastors,” adding in a hushed tone, “They have babies.” But that same pastor helped me go to college.
Less than a decade after that first “of course,” while attending Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, one of two women among 800 men, I heard from my homiletics professor, “Of course you cannot preach. You are a woman. Your assignment will be an ‘inspirational address’.” But I did receive an “A” in the course (before The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod turned radically to the “right” theologically) and graduated with a Master of Arts in religion in 1964. I served in deaconess ministry in St. Louis, and then for over a dozen years with our family in inner city ministry in Detroit (I preached one day at Concordia College, Ann Arbor — while pregnant) and New Haven, Conn. The degree provided a Lutheran foundation for later pursuing a Masters of Divinity from Yale Divinity School, (and still later a Ph.D.) and an invitation to teach at Yale.
Meanwhile, in the early 1970s we were exiled from the The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod over issues of more open interpretation of Scripture and more inclusive mission and ministry. Although I served on the board of Seminex, I heard an implied “of course just some of us are free,” when told in regards to women’s ordination, “Can’t you wait a few more years?”
The American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America had begun ordaining women in 1970 and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches would follow a few years later. Women kept responding to God’s call, even when churches through the ages said, “Can’t you wait a few more years, decades, centuries?”
There were all kinds of fears and barriers in the 1970s in reaction to women being ordained as pastors in Lutheran and other church bodies: “Jesus was a man; women cannot represent Jesus.” “If we ordain women, all the men will leave the church.” “What will happen to your children?” (They turned out fine, thank you.) “These women are Communists.”
Of course there were fears, but they were unfounded. Women did not want to take over the church or push out men. Women’s goal was inclusion and partnership, not hierarchical power.
On Oct. 5, 2013, with the welcoming words of Bishop Mark Hanson and the entire ELCA, with brass horns, a procession with candles and cross made its way up the center aisle to welcome Bishop Elizabeth Eaton at the door of the chapel. Red banner ribbons furled overhead. Signers were singing. Everyone proclaimed, “Christ is made the sure foundation.” I saw historian Martin Marty’s face in the crowd.
Vice President Rodney Sprang and Secretary John Sleasman of the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the ELCA said, “We bring before you the Reverend Elizabeth Eaton who has served among us faithfully as our bishop, chief pastor, and sister in Christ … we send her forth to serve as the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.” There were tears in my eyes.
In Thanksgiving for Baptism we were reminded as sisters and brothers, “God frees us from the bondage of sin, unites us together as one body, and calls us forth to new life and mission in the world.” To the Canticle of Praise, Elizabeth was led into the chapel as the assembly was sprinkled with baptismal waters by Presiding Minister Mark Hanson, Preacher Jessica Crist and Assisting Minister Yolanda Tanner, vice-president of the ELCA Delaware-Maryland Synod.
The First Lesson, Isaiah 42:5-9, was read by Rev. Chienyu Jade Li in Chinese: “I have given you as a covenant to the people … To bring out from the prison those who sit in darkness …”
The soloist led in chanting Psalm 121, “My help comes from the Lord.”
Of course, of course.
“The lord will watch over you … from this time forth forever more.”
The Second Lesson, 2 Corinthians 4:1-12 was read by Dina Tannous Vega in Arabic. “Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart …”
In the Gospel procession and acclamation, “Halle, Halle, Hallelujah,” global women’s voices sang, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation.”
Of course, of course.
Conrad Selnick, an Episcopal priest and husband of Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, read the Gospel, Mark 4:1-9.
Of course. Ecumenical partner and marriage partner, he represented ecumenical and full communion guests and family of Bishop Eaton this day as he also served communion.
At my ordination in 1977 in the chapel of Yale Divinity School, a very ecumenical setting, my husband, Burton Everist, a pastor, preached. Various people from all three predecessor bodies of the ELCA had tried to stop or impede my ordination. Roger Fjeld of the American Lutheran Church prevailed and presided at the ordination rite.
Just a few years before, July 29, 1974, Burton and I had attended the service where 11 women were “irregularly” ordained priests in The Episcopal Church in the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, with 2,000 in attendance. The ordinations were considered “invalid,” but one of the four bishops who participated said the ordination event “stands as a prophetic witness on behalf of and for the oppressed.” The service was interrupted by those who stood in opposition.
One of those 11 women participated in solidarity at my ordination at Yale three years later.
Two years after that Wartburg Seminary called me as a professor, first among the three American Lutheran Church seminaries to take the risk of calling a woman. In 1979, although one by one women were becoming pastors, other people were still using the Bible to claim that women could not be teaching theologians over men and could not assume any headship role because Eve had tempted Adam into sin and, “It is clear in the Bible that women can never rule or lead.” And, “We cannot use ‘inclusive language’ because God is male.” Of course!
But one young woman at the 1979 fall Warburg alumni convocation came up to me after I spoke and said, “I’ve been waiting years for you to come.” Her name was Andrea DeGroot Nesdahl. Now, 35 years later, I continue to teach at Wartburg Seminary. Challenges remain for us all to be the church God is calling us to be.
This October in Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, Jessica Crist, bishop of the ELCA Montana Synod, chair of the ELCA Conference of Bishops, preached. “A sower went out to sow.” She said this simple story could be modified, amplified, contextualized, but added that all were here today because someone sowed seeds. “Look at the plants that have grown.” She told the assembly that the impediments to success didn’t bother Jesus. She challenged, “You may be tired of rocky soil.” “You may be frustrated by thorns that accompany your every effort. What’s with it with those thorns? Why is there evil? Pain? Just keep on sowing. Does it seem birds keep eating seeds? Your words are twisted? Just keep on sowing. What matters is that we sow.”
And Crist added, that “We do not sow alone. We are part of a community. We are here to install, to sow in a wider field. Each is empowered. Each is sent. Go sow.”
The ELCA has come far since its beginning in 1988. Look at all the plants that have grown.
Representational principles adopted at the time, addressing representation of laity and people of color and whose first language was other than English, assured equal representation of women and men on boards and commissions and at synodical and churchwide assemblies. Beyond the more threatening token stage, overnight our ELCA gatherings looked, well, normal, just as God created us to be together.
But the Conference of Bishops began as an all-male group. I happened to be one of three teaching theologians to address the first Conference of Bishops meeting in 1988 and I told them it was not healthy, (perhaps I said “dangerous”) for the church and themselves that there were no women among them. I said other things, of course, about leadership as partnership, and about the liberation of men as well as women and about all the baptized being called out for vocation in the public world. At the time, there were worries that women might gain too much power. Whenever two of three of us sat together, almost always a man would come up and say, “We’ll have to break this up.” There were fears about “letting all ofthose people in” to change things and make decisions. But what was the fear? Inclusivity was not about breaking things, even “stained-glass ceilings,” but about new, healthy ways of being partners together. That’s why I was so pleased to see the September 2013 issue of The Lutheran magazine, with male and female bishops Mark Hanson and Elizabeth Eaton hand in hand.
Full partnership would come slowly, but it would come.
In the spring of 1992, Maria Jesper, minister in Hamburg, Germany, become the first woman elected a Lutheran bishop.
April Ulring Larson was installed Oct. 11, 1992, in La Crosse, Wis., as bishop of the La Crosse Area Synod of the ELCA. Andrea DeGroot-Nesdahl became the second woman elected an ELCA bishop, serving the South Dakota Synod.
Susan Johnson was elected the national bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada on Sept. 29, 2007, in Winnipeg. This past weekend she was among the global and ecumenical partners who came forth to lead in saying the Nicene Creed together and to lay on hands at the installation of the fourth bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton: Lutheran churches of Canada, Nicaragua, Sweden, South Africa, the United Church of Christ, Moravian, Reformed, United Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Church of Christ, Thailand, and The Lutheran World Federation.
“We believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church …”
“Elizabeth Amy Eaton has been elected and called by the church, for installation into the office of presiding bishop.”
No objections voiced. No interruptions to the service. Nothing called irregular or invalid. No impediments. Historically speaking, this was much more than, “Of course.”
After biblical words from John, Matthew, Acts and 2nd Timothy, Elizabeth was asked, “To you is being given the care of the bishops, pastors, deaconesses, diaconal ministers and associates in ministry; the synods, congregations and other communities of this church. I ask you in the presence of God and of this assembly: Will you assume the office of presiding bishop?”
Elizabeth A. Easton responded: “I will, and I ask God to help me.”
More questions of her and then of us: “People of God, will you receive Elizabeth as a servant of God and a shepherd in the church of Jesus Christ?”
“We will.” The assembly joined in the Prayer of Thanksgiving to God: “By your Holy Spirit you sustain the church … Strengthen and sustain your bishop Elizabeth with patience and understanding … Pour out your grace that she may love and care for your people and teach the faith… .”
And after hearing, “The office of presiding bishop is now committed to you,” all were invited to extend their hands in blessing. People across the miles extended their hands too, some with tears in their eyes, seeing what few could have imagined not many years before but that which the Spirit had been guiding all along. Women had been there all along, from the time of the empty tomb, even if at first, their words were not believed.
The Prayers of Intercession were in many languages. It was clear we are a global church. Bishop Eaton was presented a cross: “Remember to rekindle the gift of God that is within you … .” Acclamation. Applause. Smiles! She shared the peace, “La paz de Cristo sea siempre con ustedes.”
And then, “Let us go now to the Banquet.”
Bishop Eaton and Assisting Minister Tanner were at the altar. We had always been so careful to not have two women at the altar together, but today it was just fine. Sure, most of the bishops are still men. But women and men served communion together today. Phyllis Anderson, the first and only ELCA woman seminary president represented them. There was Beth Lewis and Kalleb Miler and Karin Graddy and Carlos Pena, and more. The oldest and newest ELCA congregations were represented.
We need not be a danger to each other. “Taste and See, Taste and See That the Lord is Good” sang Larry Clark and Paris Brown.
After all had been fed, the assembly broke into “Blessed Assurance,” the old, old song with a new beat with clapping, and people swaying, even at the altar — not too much of course. “This is my story, this is my song.”
The Sending blessing was in Spanish, “The God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another in accordance with Christ Jesus … .”
In just short of two hours, in full voice, the assembly went forth. God calls us out for vocation in the public world again. The recession was long, the Church Council, the bishops filing out from their pews two-by-two, many leaders together, not just one up front, to the music of the bagpipe’s “Highland Cathedral.” As newly installed ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton left at the last, smiling, looking calm and confident, people waved. Applause. Full organ. “Now Thank We All Our God.” Of course!