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WWTD? Have you bought your bracelet yet?


le blog logoWWTD—What Would Teddy Do?

While this question is unlikely to spawn any adolescent evangelical fashion trends, it does have some cache these days. In the wake of the passing of the Senior Senator from Massachusetts many of his former colleagues in our nation’s legislature are reflecting on his legacy, his tenacity, and his lifelong commitment to healthcare for all Americans. The healthcare reform debate has stalled on the predictable shoals of partisanship and the relatively new phenomenon of vitriolic town hall meetings. And it was amidst these events that Senator Edward Kennedy died, was eulogized, and is remembered. How best, both his Democratic colleagues and Republican friends/rivals are asking, ought we to memorialize him? How can we honor his memory as we work to reform the manner in which we pay for health care? How would he have proceeded, were he still with us? What would Teddy do? wwjd b

Frankly, it’s surprising to see so many legislators and commentators from both ends of the political spectrum agree that the WWTD question is relevant. It’s surprising to hear so many of Kennedy’s political adversaries speak his name in almost reverential tones. It’s surprising to hear the Blue Dogs and GOP stalwarts agree to follow a trail that the deceased “Liberal Lion” might have blazed. But it isn’t surprising to see that they answer that key question—What would Teddy Do?—in very different ways. As Christians know all too well, even when there is a consensus of reverence for the past words and deeds of a great person, there is little chance of that consensus translating readily into a plan for future action. WWTD? WWJD? So often we just do not and cannot know.

Evangelicals in the Echo-Chamber...Chamber...Chamber...Chamber...

Charles S. PeirceMy favorite philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce, was fond of reminding his fellows and readers that the world has a way of correcting (sometimes brutally) our false ideas. Misjudge a staircase and you get a bruised knee, misjudge the weather and you get wet, misjudge the market and you go broke. In the long run, Peirce argued, the world ultimately corrects our false hypotheses. So correction hurts, but subjecting ourselves to correction is the only way in which we ever grow, learn and improve ourselves.

Given this state of affairs, Peirce recommended that the prudent course of action was for the wise person to subject herself to constant non-catastrophic correction: listen to critics, perform controlled experiments, and test new theories in controlled environments before adopting them wholesale. The best way to be right in the long run is constantly to listen to voices and heed data that suggest a course correction. The surest way to guarantee failure is to listen only to opinions and heed only data that confirm one’s own assumptions and hypotheses. Today, we know this phenomenon of “isolation from correction” by another name: the media echo-chamber.

The frequent Fox News viewer might almost be forgiven for thinking that President Obama was not born in the United States, that health care reform will lead to Nazi death camps for beloved grandparents, and that America is fast becoming a Leninist dystopia. Viewers who also spend hours listening to Rush Limbaugh and reading op-eds from Gingrich literally might not know any better. They rarely hear opinions from the other side that aren’t simple strawmen or caricatures. And yes, the same phenomenon exists on the far Left. Just google Lyndon La Rouche or “911 conspiracy” for plenty of examples. I refuse to provide actual links to this nonsense be it on the Right or on the Left.

9 Days, 130 Miles, 2 Gun-totin’ Good Ol’ Boys, 1 Clear insight into Liberal Evangelicalism

Day 2, On the Banks of the Jessup River, 6 miles north of Piseco, NY.

I had been making almost record time all day. It was only 3:00 PM and I’d covered nearly 15 miles through the woods. My 50 lb. pack was starting to chafe a bit, but the relatively clear and smooth trail was helping me stay on schedule. At the river crossing I shrugged off my pack and broke out the camp stove to prepare a meal of chicken bullion, soy nuggets, Raman noodles and lentils—It’s much better than it sounds! As I sat waiting for the water to boil I met some new people.

I’ll spare you their names, but they were a father and son from less than 50 miles away. They were a bit startled to see someone else this far back in the woods, but since this was the spot where the Northville-Lake Placid Trail and the Jessup River intersected I wasn’t shocked to see them. I was shocked, however, to see the high-powered rifles they carried and the handguns slung at the father’s side.

I find that it’s best not to startle anyone in the woods so I always try to announce my presence while still at some distance. “Howdy,” I called while they were some 30 yards down stream. They came along and we had the obligatory chat about the weather and the trails. They’d hiked in from a side trail and when they saw me eyeing the weapons they were quick with an explanation; “It’s red squirrel season.” Well, I wasn’t going to argue with their claim. If they said they were after red squirrels then that red squirrels it was! Though I’d like to see what’s left of a red squirrel when they’ve brought one down. The boy was carrying a 44 and the father had a 30-06. Both had scopes. For those of you unfamiliar with the finer points of squirrel hunting, going after red squirrels (two thirds the size of grey squirrels) with those weapons is like using a baseball bat to swat a fly.

I finished dinner quickly and hit the trail once more, hoping to put some serious distance between me and these fellas before I pitched my tent for the night.

“NOT WITH MY MONEY!”…Reflections on why nobody wants to pay for toilet paper

It’s truly amazing the trouble a little box can cause. The little box I’m thing looked like this “[] ” and beside it was an innocuous word: outreach.

But oh Nelly the trouble that little box causes!

What an idea! Maybe we could increase giving to the church by giving folks the option of checking the outreach box. Then they would know that their funds were going to cover our church’s larger missions. It would help us support more ministries and missionaries!

We’ll return to the church budgetary process in a moment, but first a word from the NY Times. Headline: Health Bill Might Direct Tax Money to Abortion.

As the debate over healthcare reform stretches over the August break and into the autumn, a chorus of voices are beginning to ask about the possibility of federal funds being used to provide abortions. Current law prohibits such action, but if the entire healthcare system is rebuilt and more Americans get their care through the Federal government, it is unclear how this might influence all manner of women’s health procedures.

Predictably, activists on both sides are beginning to flex their rhetorical and financial muscles. However, the issue that interests me is the argument being made by abortion foes. Allow me to paraphrase: it’s bad enough that abortion is legal…do not dirty our hands by using our money (federal money) to pay for this horrific procedure. Many on the political Left might recognize this argument, since it was anti-war activists during the Vietnam era who popularized it. It became a badge of honor for some aging hippies (something I myself wouldn’t mind becoming someday) to have the IRS garner their wages, since they refused to pay taxes when those taxes were going to buy gun ships and ammunition. “Not with our money you don’t!” cried the hippies. “Not with our money you don’t!” argue twenty-first century anti-abortion activists. Ok. I’m not actually interested in writing about political strategy or budgetary concerns. I’m concerned about what happens when this kind of thinking enters our congregations. “Not with my money!” cry the congregants who don’t like the new Sunday school curriculum. “My tithes should go only to outreach!”

Ich bin ein Evangelical...so what should I do?

I spent several eye opening hours in the library this week doing some personal research and tracking down sources for teaching projects. For a while I’d been looking for a particular Newsweek cover article on Evangelicalism and I finally tracked it down. This doesn’t sound like much, but the article was from October 25, 1976. At that time Carter and Ford were making their final push before the November election and I was 8 months old. So as I dug through the microfilm cabinets and enjoyed some journalistic time travel I also managed to make some trenchant observations about 1976.

1) Based on the ads, women love men who have big mustaches and drink J&B.

2) Feathered hair and Marlboros make women hot...also based on ad observation.

3) 33 years (about as long as Jesus lived) after Newsweek declared 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical,” certain key problems still plague us. The descriptive phrase that jumped out at me described Evangelical writings as “not a call to Christian servanthood, but an upbeat stress on what God’s power can do for you.”

I love Evangelical churches and I love that they “work,” but I wish we could be more critical about what “working” means. Works for who? Works to what end? Works at what cost?

Unexceptional Christians

After three weeks the raging flames of national pride have finally abated.

Not only does life in Quebec deprive the American sojourner of his precious Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi—available so far as I can tell only in the U.S.—but it subjects him to yet another day of national pride: St. Jean Baptiste Day, June 24. Now some might find it odd to celebrate the life of a rigorous ascetic and martyr with public drunkenness but this curiosity was soon surpassed by the strangeness surrounding Canada Day, July 1. On Canada Day the residents of Canada celebrate gaining their nominal independence from Great Britain by flooding over the border into the U.S. to buy cheap goods and eat at American restaurants. But despite all of this, the manner in which the Canadians celebrated their national holidays struck me, for one thing was missing. No where in the proceedings was divine blessing recognized, invoked or besought. This of course stands in stark contrast to the frequent references to God and divine approval of the American project that so pepper American celebrations on July 4. It’s hard to imagine the Toronto Blue Jays stopping every evening mid-seventh inning to sing “God Bless Canada.” It would be…untoward i.e. un-Canadian.

As I mentioned last year while reflecting on all of the God talk surrounding Independence Day, we Americans have an interesting (perhaps even schizophrenic) theological relationship to the notion of America’s pseudo-divine character. On the one hand we note the genocide against native Americans, the enslavement of Africans and the internment of Japanese Americans american and canadian flags(someday soon we may ma add “and the torture of captives”), but we usually follow these quick recognitions of past wrongs with a too quick, “But despite all that we’re still the best country in the world. I mean, look at all of the people who want to come here to work and study.” Our flaws, we tend to think, are mere hiccups along the way. What really matters is the fact that we have been selected by God to do something of world-historical importance. When our ancestors sailed here (ignore the cargo holds full of rum, guns, and slaves) in search of religious freedom they began a project of realizing God’s plan. We were to be a nation set apart, a beacon on a hill, a calm voice for truth and freedom amid the raging seas of history. With this godly charge the American experiment was launched and so our history (the stuff written in text books) has usually included the notion of American Exceptionalism: We aren’t like other nations. The same rules don’t apply to us. Truly a recipe for disaster!

St. Augustine was a Jackass

I worry about condemning hypocrites because someday I may want to be one myself.

The media loves a good story of a politician professing one thing and practicing another.  Throw in sex, a foreign mistress, and the possibility of misspent public funds and they go positively haywire. Even the normally staid commentators on public radio had a hard time not tripping over their double and triple entendres when Governor Sanford of South Carolina—a state not unfamiliar with oversized political characters and stories—announced that he had spent recent days in Argentina with his mistress trying to figure out what to do about his marriage and family.

Gov. SanfordThe story has only recently been knocked off the front pages due to the death of Michael Jackson, but it will continue to generate headlines as Sanford’s opponents work to remove him. And when these headlines appear, I will yet again be troubled by the prevalence of the word “hypocrisy.” I last gave this word serious thought when the Reverend Ted Haggard, a very public evangelical voice against gay rights, was publicly excoriated for a dalliance with another man. The problem I have with labeling these men hypocrites—and I took the time to look in several dictionaries and the label is technically accurate—is that it seems to suggest a contrast term. In other words, by calling someone fat, young, ugly, or liberal are we not implying the possibility that they might be skinny, old, pretty, or conservative? So if hypocrisy is “the practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold or possess,” (American Heritage Dictionary) is there any contrast term?

Justice or Peace...Must we choose?

This past week we watched as President Obama spoke to the Muslim world and raised, yet again, the prospect of peace in the Middle East. Many of us are praying that the new administration finds a way to accomplish what so many others havpresident bartlette failed to do, but we’re skeptical. I’m not yet an old man, but even I remember five other American Presidents trying and failing to bring the Palestinians and Israelis to a peaceable compromise. I’m not necessarily a cynical man, but I don’t imagine that the tag team of Obama and Hillary will manage it this time either. I used to love NBC’s The West Wing, but as soon as President Bartlett managed to create a peace settlement, the entire show lost credibility!

And yet, despite my frustrations, I continue to pray for peace along with millions of other Muslims, Jews, and Christians. We pray and hope even as we doubt. We’re frustrated and exasperated in part, because it all seems so petty; these fights over who owned what strip of land six decades ago. The original protagonists are largely dead and gone, so the remaining fighters are stuck fighting a kind of absurd proxy battle, waging war over hurts and harms that they themselves experiences only vicariously through the stories of their parents and grandparents. Certainly, there have been other outrages and attacks on both sides since the 1940s and 1950s. Yes there has been plenty of death and violence to keep the old wounpeace signds open. But surely (and this suggestion comes so easily to those of us looking at the conflict from a distance) the price paid in lives and limbs has not been worth it.

“Peace! Peace!” We want to cry. “Just knock it off! Enough already.” But of course it is not so simple. There is an epic battle being waged not only between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but between two different conceptions of the fight in the Middle East. What then is our first calling? Are we called first to be peacemakers or are we given a divine mandate to fight for justice.

As the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel noted in different times and slightly different language, “Peace, peace,' they say, when there is no peace.”   

New Nominee, Old Question…Can we find a Liberal-Evangelical response?

My late grandfather was a wonderful Christian servant and brilliant social engineer. All five of his children and his many grandchildren rave about him, with only one glaring exception. His kids found him tyrannical when it came to settling fights among siblings. No matter how bad the squabble, not matter the injury (real or perceived), he made them hug one another before either child could go to bed. They still talk (and even complain) about it forty plus years later. But they are a tightly knit family in part because of my grandfather’s insistence that they love one another (or fake it) despite their fights. All along he was teaching them the skill of peacemaking, though he might not have called it that. So they developed the habit of learning to live with and move beyond differences and disputes without one person or one side necessarily winning.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

The art of peacemaking is rarely practiced, and as the fights among politicians and Christians heat up around the nomination of Judge Sotomayor we must think about how we might make and keep the peace in our congregations. How might Liberal-Evangelicals act as moderators and peacemakers? Should we? Can we?

obama and sotomayorThe rhetoric on both sides is overblown. The name-calling is appalling. The ulterior motives for opposing or supporting the nomination of Sotomayor are often barely concealed beneath the surface, and her nomination has become a field upon which dozens of proxy battles are being waged: the battle for women voters, the fight to raise funds from women’s organizations, the battle to encourage donations from pro-life groups, a test of the parliamentary powers of the Republican Senate minority, the battle for Hispanic voters, an ideological conflict between “constitutional pragmatists” and “strict constructionists.” All of these fights predate the rise to fame of this one woman, but because she’s up for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court her record and person become the terrain for this summer’s incarnation of these ongoing wars. And it won’t be much different in our churches.

Tick, Tick...Tick.......

Here is comes…Get ready…

Tick, Tick, Tick…Tick…..Tick……..Tick……….

If you’ve ever been on a roller coaster you know the building feelings of suspense that accompany those Ticks or Clicks. The tensionFightin Irish builds as the potential energy increases, and we eagerly await the coming plunge. It’s hard to tell whether it’s the thrill of anticipation or the shock of the plunge that makes the first hill on a roller coaster the biggest moment of the entire ride. Doubtless they contribute one to the other. It’s the same feeling I used to get late in an August afternoon in Kentucky, when all of the heat and humidity of the day prepared to break in a violent 10 minute thunder storm. Once you’ve been through one, you can feel the next one coming.

I’ve been getting that sense for several weeks now. The energy has been building these past three months, and just this past week I felt the first prescient raindrops…Tick, Tick…Tick….. This generation’s abortion battle is coming. Moderate Christians of a Liberal-Evangelical bent need to be prepared…and we’ll need more than a good umbrella to keep us dry.

Drifting toward Liberalism?

Inevitably here at Le Blog I end up mixing politics and religion. My hope is that the mixture is not so much substantive, as it is illustrative. I think that the political realm is a wonderful place to witness and learn from human drama. When asking, “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” there seems to be no better place to turn for data than the world of politics. Witness the tragi-comedy of Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter. He’s no longer just haunting Europe—I’ve just outed all of you grinning pinkos!—he’s leaving the GOP and moving across the isle to play nice with his new Democratic allies. (Ok, so they’ve stripped him of his seniority, but he still left the GOP.)

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What makes this story such a dandy is the rare honesty that Specter showed when announcing his decision to switch parties. His state party was shrinking, and as it shrunk it was becoming more conservative, less tolerant of dissent and outlying positions, and more concerned with doctrinal purity than with winning elections. Specter’s polling showed that he had practically no chance of winning his own Republican primary due to his moderate stances and especially some recent votes in which he sided with the Democrats. So, rather than lose the primary, he switched parties. Yes, we heard the old line, “I’m not leaving the party, the party left me!” but it isn’t clear that any ideological shift had actually taken place. Specter doesn’t line up any more neatly with Democratic ideologues than he did with the Republican purists. There is just more tolerance for internal dissent among the Democrats right now, in large part because they are in charge. Noblesse oblige is so much easier to manage when you’re running the show. So it seems that the moderate middle has moved, shifted, or drifted Left. Is there an inevitable drift toward Liberalism. Are today’s moderates destined to be tomorrow’s Left?

And what does this have to do with our churches?