Monday, November 3, 2014

Vote Beyond Fear: Hallowe'en, All Saints Day and Sandy Hook Promise

As music set a quiet tone, first a dozen came in the door to hear Nicole Hockley at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa.  Soon a few hundred filled the room. That was last Thursday night.

As we turned on our porch light, first a trickle of children came to our door, and then more and more children, dressed in scary costumes, but filled with laughter as we handed out little pumpkins and gourds. That was last Friday night, All Hallows' Eve.  

Saturday was All Saints Day followed by All Saints Sunday.  People entered church doors lighting candles and praying in remembrance of their beloved who had died this past year. 

On Tuesday all are invited outdoors to vote.

The days are connected in my mind.
Nicole Hockley was brought to Dubuque by the Dubuque Coalition for Nonviolence. Her talk:  “Creating a Safe Community: Working Together to End Gun Violence.” She is the mother of Dylan, one of the first grade children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, almost two years ago.

I was not afraid of the children who came to my door on Hallowe’en. And they were not afraid of my husband and me.

So, what are we afraid of? The fear factor is a real player in the November 4 election. Fatigue over scary negative ads makes people simply want the election to be over rather than vote at all. The over-whelming  fearful focus on Ebola in the United States distracts from the urgent necessity of concentrating efforts to stop the disease in West Africa. Terrorist beheadings make people fear the stranger of a different ethnicity or religion.

Grab a gun quick! “I’m afraid.”

The community members who came Thursday night heard the speaker from Sandy Hook Promise emphasize their work is about keeping children safe. Everyday dozens of mothers and fathers experience loss because gun violence is such a pervasive part of our culture: death on the streets, death through unsecured guns, death through domestic assault, death through suicide. These are in all races and social economic classes. Nicole gave the statistics of 289 shootings a day where 90 people die, seven of them children and teens. That’s over 100,000 acts of gun violence every year.

Trick or treat. The laughter of children in scary costumes is not scary at all. But gun violence is.

All Saints Day. When a child dies, well-meaning people of faith often say things like, “God wanted another little angel.” Nicole Hockley hesitantly confessed to the Dubuque community that her faith has been shaken, saying that hearing people say this is “God’s will” is not comforting. Rather, she said, “There are different ways to grieve.”  Friends, love and acceptance of each other’s grief with respect have been most helpful.

So, on this Voting Day, who will dare to go outside and vote in a culture of fear? And who will be so overcome with apathy or impotence that they just stay inside closed doors? Cultures of fear separate people. Divide people. We blame, scapegoat, and therefore excuse ourselves from any positive action.“But choosing to do nothing does not honor the dead nor protect the living. We need to work together for positive change,” said Nicole.

Gun violence is not even among prominent issues in polls for this November 4th election, although school shootings obviously have not stopped. Rather the culture of fear has widened: All those children coming across our borders from Central America, ISIS, Ebola. The images on morning news programs follow a pattern: “Breaking overnight” followed by the most eye-catching images that excite more than inform. They frightfully entertain if our role is merely spectator.

But if our role is to go outside together, to become really informed, to enter the dialog, to act, to become a part of movements to make a change, then we can make a difference.

All Saints Day: “No longer are we bound by the sting of death,” was the message I heard. “You are free.”

Voter suppression will work only if we let it. Saints will help their neighbors vote. No tricks.  And voting must lead to empowerment of people to have voice to move their legislators to actually act. And we dare not go back inside after Election Day is over, with our own personal bag of candy. I have my treats; forget about your needs.  There is so much we really can do together: caring about the children: victims of gun violence, those children who come across the border, the thousands of children with or orphaned by Ebola in West African nations, the millions of children who continue to live in poverty.

Anti-gun violence laws, immigration reform, international health, economic inequality, wise strategies for global peace call us outdoors to vote and to act.

Saturday, October 11, 2014


October 11 would have been my parents’ wedding anniversary. My father died when I was a child, so I don’t have memories of their anniversaries.  But their life together, like their singular personalities, are part of my identity. A long-standing question: “Is nature or nurture more important in formation?” No doubt both. One thing is certain, nurture in faith communities is crucial. However, saying, “Our church is like a family” can be problematic. I know what people mean: close ties, belonging. But that image also can signal exclusivity to the stranger, and to those who don’t resemble the predominate membership
The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) speaks of tribes, but in the New Testament Gospels Jesus talks about leaving brothers or sisters or mother or father or children for the sake of the Good News and of receiving a hundredfold brothers, sisters, mothers, children. The Epistles (the Letters of the New Testament) are often addressed to “Brothers and Sisters” of the new churches. There are warnings against saying “I belong” to this family or that leader, and against divisions between Jews and Gentiles.  Christians are described as, “all heirs through adoption.”

Jesus Christ experienced suffering in being estranged from religious leaders, separated from family, deserted by disciples, and finally forsaken by God on the cross. We have and we will experience brokenness in families, and being estranged from one another, even within faith communities. The church is not just a cozy family. The gift of grace in Jesus Christ is reconciliation.

When my mother was widowed we moved from Des Moines to Mason City; a congregation invited us in. There we found not just families: the Swansons, the McMurrays or the Ortegas, but a broad caring community. 

When Burton and I married we decided—I don’t remember how or when—our home would be open to whomever God placed within our family.  Within a year, we were invited to adopt a child—while we were yet in seminary. Through the years our family has included a chosen child and two biological children. And through the decades, we have received a hundredfold brothers and sisters in Christ.

Although we disconnect, forget, and mourn the loss of one another, God creates and recreates community, far more than a hundredfold. Through God’s warm embrace we become ever-reaching-out people, way beyond biological families, so that we can nurture one another. How far? Refugees, immigrants, strangers wait for our welcome.
Yesterday The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to India's Kailash Satyarthi, a Hindu, and Pakistan's Malala Yousafzai, a Muslim, a remarkable and prophetic  sign of being kin across religious and national boundaries. These two remarkable people inspire us all in their courage, passion and work that all children, including especially girl children deserve an education, and that no child should be a slave, nor property, nor oppressed or in danger. Indeed, how can we be ever-reaching-out people?

Monday, August 25, 2014

How Long, Michael Brown, How Long?

The funeral service for Michael Brown, filled with music, celebration, and challenge, is over. There’s other news: the earthquake in Northern California, ISIS. The cameras move on.  The Time magazine cover this week: “The Tragedy of Ferguson.”

The New York Times magazine cover June 29, 1990, was “The Tragedy of Detroit.”  Same phrase 24 years ago. That cover was 23 years after the 1967 Detroit “riots.” That’s 47 years. The Rev. Al Sharpton ended his words at Mike Brown’s funeral with, “We are required in his name to change the country.” Will we?

In Detroit 1967 forty-three people were killed in the streets, most of them blacks gunned down by police or the National Guard. Eventually President Johnson sent in 4,700  federal troops.  Afterwards “For Sale” signs sprang up in white neighborhoods.  Developers built shopping malls beyond Eight Mile and a mass exodus began.  The story of Detroit is a long and lingering one.  Then it was white suburbs vs. a black city.  There have been racial tensions in St. Louis for just as many years. But this time, St. Louis County particularly North County, has grown more black while whites move further out to the exurbs.

One quote from 1990 article by then black Mayor Coleman Young, echoes today: “White people find it extremely hard to live in a neighborhood they don’t control.”

Why do I contrast these two cities, when I could draw incidents from dozens of others?  Why do I have a 1990 magazine?  Because I and my family lived in Detroit in the summer of 1967 and because I lived in St. Louis before that.

I was serving a church in St. Louis Hills, just inside the south county line; my husband served a congregation in North St. Louis. We went back and forth. I got into trouble in my all-white congregation, when I marched in solidarity and protest in the streets of St. Louis after the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four Sunday School  girls. My picture just happened to appear on TV. About me, congregation members said, “She’s very nice. It’s just that she has this problem: she likes Negroes.”

Four years later, living and serving in Detroit, I was 8 ½ months pregnant when in July, 1967, we saw the smoke begin to rise. Later that night, while hearing “This Land is My Land; This Land is Your Land” play on TV, the trailer across the bottom said “Curfew. Everyone must be off the streets.”  Well, people did not leave the streets.  The city burned, night after night. The police and military guns were protecting major stores and aimed at us, the inner city residents.  I was young, then, but I remember the moment it became so clear (even after working for years in the Civil Rights movement) that change will not come just because there has been a tragedy. National TV cameras had left Detroit. President Lyndon Johnson came on TV and said that things were calm now and, “The troops are gone.” The troops were not gone.
After that everyone had more guns. In 1992, after the Rodney King beating in LA, over 2,300 people were injured.

Guns and more guns. We had hoped the tragedy of Sandy Hook would change things.

Cameras will leave Ferguson for now. But we dare not forget yesterday’s headlines. (Just where have the child immigrants at our southern border gone in the past few weeks?)

And we need to do more than remember headlines, lest names change but headlines be merely repeated. Systematic problems can be addressed: community organizing, political engagement, voter registration, commitment to truly integrated public schools, facing the militarization of law enforcement.

At the funeral Michael Brown’s name was recognized as being now known around the world with the potential for his young life to be a turning point for change.  A Church of God in Christ pastoral representative whose own son had been gunned down on the streets asked, “Will things ever get better? Will justice ever be achieved?” He empathized how hard it is to understand, and quoted Phil 4:7, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Including himself and his wife he said to the parents of Michael and the parents of Trayvon Martin, “You didn’t choose to be part of this group, but we have a special calling, to be agents of change.”

Last week Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson said, “When these days are over and Mike Brown’s family is still weeping . . . We need to thank Mike Brown for his life and we need to thank him for the change he’s going to make that is going to make us better.” The days ahead will be hard, very hard. We need to call for and work urgently towards justice, peace and reconciliation.

I watched the service via live streaming video. Held at Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis which seats 2,500 with 2000 overflow, I heard the powerful Gospel music.  Nurses in white lined the center aisle.
The Rev. Michael Jones welcomed everyone to the “Life celebration.”  He said that the church is a place of peace and refuge because of the Prince of Peace. The Old Testament lesson was Psalm 27  read with fervor, “When evildoers assail me . . .” (v. 2) and the powerful beginning, “The Lord is my light and my salvation: whom shall I fear?” Another person read from the New Testament, Romans 8:28-39. I love that text, especially, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, not things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”(vs. 37-39)

Activists, hundreds of members of the Ferguson community, large numbers of the extended family sat and stood and clapped (some more loudly than others or course—not all black churches are alike). Jesse Jackson was there as were Martin Luther King III and his sister Rev. Bernice King, along with quite a few members of Congress. Two and a half hours later, more people could have spoken, but it was time to go. We had been to Church together. The funeral procession left for St. Peter’s Cemetery.

Oh, and the baby I was carrying in July 1967 in Detroit? He was born, but a few weeks late. His birth story goes, “He wasn’t so sure he wanted to come into this world.”  For over twenty years he has been a public high school vocal music teacher, creating community among teenagers not only by singing together, but through listening to each other’s stories, pain, and joy, in their own lives and internationally through global music. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

What Can You See Across a Border?

We recently returned from a two-week trip through Canada. We appreciate Canada and have enjoyed being in most of the provinces through the years. One thing that impresses us every time is that their television weather map does not stop at their border, whereas U.S. weather maps on TV show a vast “nothing” beyond our northern border. For two weeks we could grasp a larger picture. Ah, Maine and New Brunswick sit side by side.

What can we see across borders—all kinds of borders?

The House and Senate left for five weeks without any helpful action on the critical situation at the U.S. southern border.

Hamas tunnels are being destroyed; Israel rockets hit yet another U.N. school.

A commercial airplane is shot down flying high above a war zone on the border of Ukraine and Russia.

Thousands of Syrian refugees remain across borders in Jordan and Lebanon.

The Ebola virus spreads across borders of Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria in West Africa.

It’s all about borders and the need to understand people on other side.

What do we need to see in regard to the Ebola epidemic? People in the U.S. need to look beyond being only concerned that people in this country not be at risk. (Yes, we do need to ensure safety procedures in hospitals against diseases.) We need to see ordinary people in West Africa where the outbreak is by far the largest ever in the nearly four-decade history of Ebola. We need to focus on the huge risk to people there who are being infected and dying. And, yes, help. For example, through Doctors without Borders. 

How can we see people across borders when we build higher and higher walls?
How can we see people across borders from thousands of feet in the air?

What do we need to see when children are walking across the Texas border and turning themselves in to border authorities? Can most Americans even picture the countries of Central America, particularly Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, from which the unaccompanied and migrant children are coming? We need to commit ourselves to global education beyond our own self-interests to see the complexities of the contexts. We need to understand the issues of drug trafficking in Central America, Mexico, and the United States, in which we also participate, which contribute to this migration. Even while holding divergent views on how best to shape and implement just and comprehensive immigration policy, we need to really see the children.
And we need to go beyond our fears which come from not really seeing, fears which breed rumors such as “Unaccompanied minors are carrying drugs” when drugs are not being found on the children from Central America. Tens of thousands of children are fleeing terrible poverty and gang violence in their countries. They risk dying on the journey rather than becoming killed in their home countries.
Two days before the full outbreak of World War II more than 10,000 Jewish children from Germany, Poland, Austria and Czechoslovakia were sent by train to Great Britain. The “Kinderstransport” saved their lives as their parents and relatives provided an escape from the horrors of Nazism.
Today parents from Central American countries face a similar dilemma, and they too have chosen to send their children to seek refuge from the horrors of daily life under the ruthless actions of drug cartels and street gangs.  Rather than being welcomed, as were the Kinderstransport children, they are received with suspicion and seen by many as intruders, opportunists and law-breakers. But some families and church and humanitarians groups are really seeing the children and offering hospitality and care.
On our trip, in Buxton, Ontario, Canada, we visited one of the settlements which was an endpoint of the underground railroad for slaves from the United States seeking safety and freedom in the mid-19th century. Refugees made it across a border.
Borders will always present challenges   No one person or country can deal with a border crisis on their own, but together we can. We need to work with those communities and countries who feel so overwhelmed, not just for our sake, but for the sake of the world.  
What do we see?  We will not understand what we do not see. We will not be able to act wisely on what we do not understand.  We need to look not only through a US lens. Moving beyond personal fear we can begin to see global consequences and search out global answers.

Home from Canada, I will this week be attending a memorial service for my friend Thom Determan who died slowly from cancer.  Up to the very end he worked every day on global education.   Purposeful work.  Incomplete work that we all need to continue.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Aimee: A Caretaker of Creation

Picture the scene outside six months ago. If you were in the Dubuque area or anywhere in the northern United States or Canada then you surely have not forgotten how high the snow was the first of February and how many nights temperatures fell below zero all winter long.

Spring came slowly. I watched through March and April and into May to see which perennials, bushes and trees had made it through the hard winter. Our Red Bud tree had only a few flowers, but the leaves finally came. Some of our shrubs which each year had borne the weight of heavy snow, this year had dead brown sections. Our dogwood tree bore no leaves at all.

For years I had nurtured a small evergreen volunteer in a large pot, taking it in during the winter. But last summer, when our 4-year-old granddaughter, Aimee, was visiting from Phoenix, we boldly planted it in the backyard. Covered with snow all winter, now its needles were totally brown. There was absolutely no sign of life; but I could not bear to discard it. Not yet. Aimee would be visiting again this summer. So I waited, and then, in June, new green life pushed through at the ends of its branches, beyond the brown needles.
In mid-June, when I had determined it was time to cut down the obviously dead Dogwood, my husband saw oh-so-small new leaves on the tree.

A hard winter indeed. We have a God of Creation and persistent renewal, giving life amid signs of death. Human beings experience the destructive forces of tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, forest fires, drought and flood.  How can we understand a God of creation in the midst of destruction? Yet many of us believe that the Creator God is also the Renewing God who loves the Creation and calls us to be stewards of the earth, not to dominate and use it only for personal benefit.  We who are part of creation are called to be caretakers. Yes, first conservation. (Some remember when only a handful of people recycled.) Yes, interest in ecology. And yes, the seriousness of climate change. We, who seemingly have so little power or control are participants. I believe the Creator God loves the creation and calls us to watch for the redbuds, and to participate in the renewal of the earth.

Aimee visited again this summer. She saw the brown dead needles and the new green life and said, “The sunshine came!” Together we tended the young tree, still alive. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Free Exercise of Religion for Whom?

Monday's Supreme Court ruling that the Hobby Lobby crafts store chain does not have to provide all forms of birth control for its employees marks the first time the high court has said some businesses can hold religious views under federal law, in cases where there is essentially no difference between the business and its owners.

All sorts of issues flow from this decision. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and three other justices, sharply disagreeing with the five conservatives on the court, wrote, "In a decision of startling breadth, the Court holds that commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships, can opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs,"
Here are a few issues that I see as central to the first amendment:
1.      David and Barbara Green, in communications to their employees, call them “family.” These thousands of people, diverse in backgrounds and beliefs, are not their family. A nice metaphor, but the word presumes a patriarchal and matriarchal role of being domineering in making personal health decisions for employees, particularly in regard to women and inconsequential sex.
2.      The Greens assert that the Supreme Court decision is helping save the nation. The free exercise clause of the First Amendment precisely is for the purpose of freedom of religion for all. It is neither the privilege nor the calling of one sector of one religion to claim for itself the role of “Savior of the nation.”
3.      In the First Amendment there is no mention of “sincerely held” religious beliefs. Who is to decide one’s sincerely? The nature of a belief? The quality of a religious practice? The First Amendment protects each person’s exercise of each one’s religion. The complexity of how one person’s practice many interfere with another’s has been and will be debated for years. However, sincerity is not the measure.
4.      The Establishment clause of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” has provided the freedom to establish faith communities, build houses of worship, pray, teach and learn. For year religious groups have been free from property taxation.  But this freedom from taxation has stopped short of commercial enterprise. A church or synagogue or mosque may be used for worship and religious education but when it becomes a store to sell things for profit, its activities are taxed. Freedom of religion—no matter how sincere—needs to continue to be kept separate from commercial enterprise. Are corporations people? Even privately owned ones have a goal to make money. They should not be exempt from laws which are for the welfare of all people no matter if their mission statement is “dedication” to certain religious principles.
5.      No Hobby Lobby store is open on Sunday "in order to allow our employees and customers more time for worship and family." That is their choice. If they have gone as far as the Supreme Court to not allow their employees to have insurance coverage for all forms of birth control, perhaps they should post a sign that they will sell their crafts only to people who agree with their sincerely held beliefs. That would be logical. But that of course would not make them “open to the public” in a commercial sense.
6.      The Green family has ventured into wanting to impose their particular private beliefs on the public. Steve Green is a driving force in the initiative to place a Bible-based academic curriculum in the nation's public schools. It is his right to build a business and try to establish a work environment that “builds character, strengthens individuals and nurtures families,” as he defines those terms, but the Constitution does not allow the Green family to impose their “sincerely held beliefs” on the children of the entire nation.  That would mean the loss of religious freedom for everyone.
Now, I happen to be a Christian, although not of the same branch as the Hobby Lobby owners. I treasure the Constitution.  I, a progressive—a liberal—on this issue could certainly be considered a strict constitutionalist. I hold to the First Amendment.  That means institutional separation of church and state. And it certainly means separation of commercial enterprises from another person’s beliefs. The First Amendment insures freedom from religious domination, particularly by the powerful over the less powerful, freedom from having decisions of life and belief and health determined by someone else.  
Sincerely, The free exercise of religion is for the worker as well as the boss!

Fifty years ago the Civil Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson just a few hours after House approval on July 2, 1964.  Yes, there are some connections here. We still have challenges!

Monday, May 19, 2014

60th Anniversary of Brown and the Absolute Necessity of Public Schools

I was a high school sophomore, my sister a senior, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in favor of Brown vs. the Board of Education declaring “separate but equal” invalid.”  Because of my father’s death four years before, my sister and I received social security benefits.  Our mother worked a low-paying job, but we had public education. Both of us became valedictorians, and went on to a public community college. I eventually earned a Ph.D. An excellent public high school where all were included in a small city of 30,000 made that possible. Today that school is still excellent, open to all, but the state first cut 1 million from the school budget, then two million and this year 3 million more.

Brown opened the doors but there was resistance from the beginning. Prince Edward County, Virginia, in 1959, rather than integrate its schools, closed its entire public school system, creating private schools to educate its white children, supported by state and county tax funds. No provision was made for educating the country’s black children. Some students missed part or all of their education for five years.

Brown 60 years ago, 10 years before the passage of the Civil Rights Bill, was a turning point towards dismantling Jim Crow.  In 1954 the white majority accepted white supremacy and racial bias; today the majority reject it and are appalled (surprised, calling it a “generational thing”) by racist remarks by an NBL owner. But asking if someone is a racist misses the deeper issues.

Between roughly 1965 and 1980, some progress was made in integration, mainly by court order, but “by all deliberate speed” was slow, and now has reversed. We see once again closing of public schools.  Although the “appearance is race neutral,” the reality is not, Attorney General Eric Holder has noted. The 49 elementary schools closed in Chicago were mostly black. Likewise in New Orleans and Newark and across the country school districts, counties and states, under the wording of “school choice,” are taking public funds and giving them to private school movements. The remaining schools in predominantly African-American, Hispanic and poor neighborhoods are labeled underachieving and subject to being closed next. Some poor neighborhoods have become school deserts. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says it’s de facto segregation , about housing, where people choose to live.  The problem is that some people have money to choose and many do not.  

It’s a matter of worth: some children being named--or forgotten, dismissed--as “worthless.” Economic inequality is defended on the belief that some children are worth more than others. Some say that children from poor families ought to clean their school buildings to work for their lunch. Apartheid thinking says, “You are not who we think should succeed in school.” This is directly contrary to our American promises and to our laws.

We need to strengthen public community schools as places for all children to learn together whatever their abilities, disabilities, social-economic, racial or ethnic background. Dismantling  public (“government”) schools hurts everyone. It will not do, for “my child” to have a “good” education, but not the child of my neighbor, next door, across town, across the country. As economic inequality grows, we become isolated and fear the neighbor.

There are of course examples of progress, where people in suburbs and cities have conscientiously joined together to cross racial and economic boundaries to create excellent multi-cultural schools. But still the opportunities are not equal.  One half  to 3/4 of African-American and Hispanic children attend schools in which the majority of students are classified as low income.
First Lady Michelle Obama speaking to Topeka high school graduates said, "I think it's fitting that we're celebrating this historic Supreme Court case tonight, not just because Brown started right here in Topeka. . . but because you all are the living, breathing legacy of this case." She added, “Many districts in this country have actually pulled back on efforts to integrate their schools and many communities have become less diverse.” She told them never to be afraid to talk about the issues, especially race, because it is the only way we will heal the wounds of the past.
Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of one of the plaintiffs said this weekend that Brown opened doors but that we didn’t have reconciliation.  Where’s the courage to have reconciliation among the races? 

Wartburg Seminary where I teach is a Lutheran Christian graduate school. Some "Christian" schools contribute to segregation or exclude children with disabilities.  However we ELCA Lutherans do not promote separatism and welcome people with special needs.  Our Lutheran (ELCA) church body has a social statement, “Our Calling in Education,” which makes a strong case for supporting public schools, even while having many Lutheran pre-schools, day schools, some high schools and many church-related colleges.  We realize the necessity of also contributing to the tax base for education for all, not just "our own." 

I, a young white woman 60 years ago, rejoiced at the passing of Brown: separate is not equal.  The challenge is greater today: excellent public education for all everywhere. 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Seven Sundays after Easter and More

The Easter candy is on sale and most of the Easter lilies have been removed from altar displays, but Easter continues. During this liturgical season there are seven Sundays after Easter before Pentecost. For Christians every Sunday is a celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

We live in a death-denying, death-defying culture. I’m not talking simply about the ways we try to look young to avoid the inevitability of the end of life. But rather the way we as a culture, as a nation, and globally, delay dealing with issues such climate change,  misuse of the environment, and global hunger and are prone to turn to war before diplomacy.  We like to believe that what we do to the planet will not cause permanent damage and that the deaths of thousands of people won’t matter.  Likewise we race though our lives in the fast lane, defying the possibility that we might cause our neighbor’s or our own death.  People drive while texting, take wild chances, as if to dare death to touch us.

We seem fascinated with the spectacle, danger and excitement of it all. Each morning I turn on the television to see what has happened in the world overnight to guide my decision-making. We are called to be responsible participants, not mere spectators. But seconds after the “Breaking news” announcement (which may or may not be) is a 20-minute series of vehicle crashes, murder trials, and dare-devil plunges selected for their dramatic visuals.  All circle around death or near-death experiences.

Death is real enough without our denying or defying it. So the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is something to celebrate.  Something to shout Hallelujah about.  Something to tell the world about.  Something to shape one’s life around.  How should we live so that the life of everyone and the world itself matters?  Scripture makes it clear that Jesus’ death and resurrection bring new life and sure hope for life now and life eternal.
Easter Sunday, 2014, may be old news. Pews may be more empty this weekend. But why in the world would we pass up another opportunity to come together to be empowered for seeking life and saving lives?  Keep in Mind that Jesus Christ has died for us and is risen from the dead. He is our saving Lord; he is joy for all ages.

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.