Fired for Studying Atheism?

Ryan J. Bell, a professor at Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Theological Seminary was fired last week after he announced he would spend a year “living as an atheist” while documenting his experience. While the schools call his study “important,” they couldn’t seem to stomach having one of their teachers living outside of their profession of faith in the name of scholarship.

You can read more at Hemant Mehta’s Patheos blog. He’ set up a fund for Bell, who’s saving will run out in about two week’s time.

Pope Francis is Cool and All, But . . .

. . . take care not to get sucked in by what you want to be true. I’ve seen this story making the Facebook rounds with a lot of happy smilies from my liberal religious colleagues and friends. Sounds nice, no?

Totally fake.

Honestly, if you read a story that sites no sources and links nowhere else, it’s a good idea to put on your skeptical spectacles. Third Vatican Council?? I think we might have heard something about that before now from a major news source, and not a blog with a satire disclaimer on its site.

I like the new Pope. He makes me proud to have gone to a Jesuit college. Please, though, let’s not project too many of our daydreams onto him, mmkay?

A Phelps Leaves the Fold

Read this.

Last Sunday I told my congregation that since there was no such thing as demons, we could not allow ourselves to demonize one another. “Kill your demons,” I said.

Westboro has long been one of my demons. Megan Phelps-Roper has just helped me take a step towards following my own advice. Isn’t grace a funny thing?

Prayer Before the New Mexico House of Representatives, 29 January 2013

In this moment before the work of the day begins, before we speak and act, before we struggle and find our common ground

Let us pause, quiet our minds, still our bodies, breathe deep, and allow ourselves to come into the presence of that which we call Holy.

Eternal, Beloved, Gracious

God of many names

We pause this morning in gratitude – there is so much for which to be grateful

For the beauty of creation that surrounds us and makes us humbled to call this place our home

For the spirit of life that flows through that creation, uniting its people in common breath and common dignity

For the spirit of democracy that allows us as one people to chart our own course

For the spirit of vocation that calls us to give of ourselves in service to one another

For the spirit of trust that makes that service in the name of democracy possible

May we be worthy of the trust given to us

May we live up to the highest ideals of our call to serve

May those who serve today remain focused on the greater vision that gives rise to that call, and not lose sight of it in the midst of our divisions.

May you serve with wisdom and courage this day. May you find the strength to stand when you must, and the humility to bend when you must.

May you open your hearts wide enough to hold every person you serve, remember the common breath and the common dignity we all share –  remember our faces today in this chamber, so that you may look us in the eyes when you leave, that we might know our trust has been well placed.

Eternal, Beloved, Gracious

God of many names

For the gift of this day and the values that bring us together in the work entrusted to us, this morning we are blessed to pause and give thanks. In the name of that which we know as Holy. In the name of all the helpers of humankind. Amen.

The Most Important Question

On September 30, 2012, I returned to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Santa Fe to give the second part of my series “How to Be an Armchair Theologian.” [originally delivered 4/25/10 at the Unitarian Church of Los Alamos]

Re: the “47%” — We’re Having the Wrong Conversation. Again.

WARNING: Long Post. Contains Math.

I confess I have found myself frustrated this past week over the public response to Mitt Romney’s “47%” remarks, leaked from a private fundraiser in May. Just to recap, here’s what was said:

There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it…These are people who pay no income tax, 47% of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. So he’ll (President Obama) be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean, that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the five to ten percent in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not.

In the days since the video was released, there’s been a lot of response . . . but not necessarily the right response. From the right there’ve been two basic strategies: distancing (“I’m not him!!”) and apologia – namely a defense of the truth of the statistic in spite of the “inelegant” delivery.

From the left, the responses have been about process (“Is this the end of Romney’s campaign?”), or decrying of the candidate’s character, or lack thereof. The left’s response has been primarily about the character question, and about Romney’s seeming lack of compassion. Most of this has come in the form of, “Yes, but look at the people contained within the 47%!!”

In both instances, the truth of the statistic, and of what Romney is trying to communicate, is not often disputed. Technically, Romney is almost correct (it’s 46% according to the Tax Policy Center, who also note that number is abnormally high due to the current state of the economy).

However, the people who Romney is really trying to talk about are the poor. Look at the phrases used: “dependent upon government”; “ believe they are entitled”; “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” These are all standard issue conservative bromides vis a vis “the poor.” From the left, we decry the lack of compassion inherent in those statements. From my side of the aisle, I hear: “But that number includes the elderly! And children! And veterans!” There’s not a lot of challenge about the statistic itself, and the number needs to be challenged, especially if what we’re really talking about is poverty in the United States.

Thus, my frustration. Both ends of the political spectrum (at least from those who have a platform from which to be heard) make their arguments based on myths about poverty in this country that (dammit!) refuse to die. Romney’s remarks have provided us with an opportunity to have a fresh, honest conversation about poverty and “the poor.” And we’re dodging the conversation.

America (red and blue), you are pushing all my buttons this week. Let’s have a chat. » Read more..

The Vision Thing

Do you remember  “Magic Eye” images? They were these odd, abstract, poster-sized images that you could find in shopping mall kiosks across the country during the ’90s. The idea was that if you focused in the image in just the right way (“focused beyond” said the image makers) amazing 3D images would be revealed. A “Magic Eye” picture featured prominently in a running gag in one of my favorite movies, 1995′s Mallrats. Willam, one of the “rats” who inhabits the mall, has spent an entire week staring intently at a “Magic Eye” poster, desperately trying to see the hidden picture—a sailboat. “Today’s my day,” he says. “I brought a lunch and a soda, and I’m not leaving until I see this sailboat everyone’s talking about.” Every few minutes, the film cuts to Willam, standing in place and staring, as one mall patron or another walks by, casually glances at the picture for a second and exclaims, “Hey! A sailboat!” Willam grows angrier and more frustrated. In the end, Willam just can’t see the picture. Instead, he let’s loose with a primal scream of frustration and kicks over the display.

I’m with Willam. I never could see the pictures in those things (although I never kicked over a mall kiosk over it).

The human capacity to imagine a future—and to actively work toward it—is a lot like trying to see a Magic Eye picture. Everything beyond the horizon of right now is a blur. And yet, somehow we’re able to focus beyond the blur and call a picture into our minds. Sometimes, when we stand together in a community, we might even be able to see similar pictures, or pieces of the same picture. However, not everyone is going to see the same future. It’s guaranteed to happen. Nine out of ten see the sailboat. The rest see . . . who knows? What then? How do we maintain community when vision differs? Do we argue for our own picture? Do we try to see what another sees? Do we hold our tongue (like Good Ol’ Charlie Brown in the comic above)? Or do we kick the whole thing over in frustration?

On Service

I was a Boy Scout for several years in my youth. The Scouts and I weren’t the best fit, but I made it up to the rank of Star – a disagreement with my Scoutmaster over whether or not I’d actually completed the requirements for Life would be my excuse for eventually taking my ball and going home. I have a few fond and vague memories of my time in the khaki uniform, most of which involved doing incredibly stupid things with fire. One thing, however, has remained with me rather vividly over the years: the service project. Round about my freshmen year of high school, my friend Stephen was on the home stretch towards becoming an Eagle Scout, a feat which required him to plan and execute a major community service project with the help of his fellow scouts. And so, one hot Saturday morning a dozen or so uniformed teenagers started unloading lumber and sacks of concrete from the backs of pickup trucks and headed off down one of the trails at the local park, where Stephen had gotten the approval of the city to build a fitness course. We spent the day putting up exercise stops along the trail. Stephen got a “thank you” visit from the mayor, and we all got our picture in the paper. All in all a rewarding day. That was my first real glimpse into what I’ll call the glamorous side of service – work that makes the community a better place, a more obviously beautiful place, but also gets you recognized.

My experiences in the less glamorous side of service would soon follow. To earn the Star rank, I was required to take on a personal service project, just me on my own. I sat around stumped for several weeks, unable to figure out what to do (or at least what to do that would have the public impact that Stephen’s fitness trail had made). Finally, my mother (a social worker who knew what was where in town) sent me down the hill to the local homeless shelter. Our Father’s House served the homeless men of the city, giving them a place to sleep and a few meals a day while they tried to get back on their feet.

The shelter put me to work cleaning up around the house – gathering laundry, making beds, cleaning bathrooms. Bathrooms! At that point in my life, I didn’t even clean the bathroom in my own home. It was work that forced me to get over my bad teenage self. Humbling work, and decidedly not glamorous. No one was lining up to take a picture of me cleaning toilets in a homeless shelter, or driving around to the local restaurants picking up the remains of the previous evening’s dinner service, saving it all from a wasteful early death in a dumpster. Besides myself, my parents, and the staff of the shelter (and, eventually, my Scoutmaster), no one would know what I’d done. Not even the residents would know it was me who’d washed their sheets and scrubbed their toilet that day (I worked during the hours that the guests were expected to be out either working or looking for work). All they knew was they had a hot dinner to return to, along with a clean bed and bath – a little bit of dignity in a typically undignified situation.

That’s the other side of service: hard work for little public reward, work that doesn’t change the world in one fell swoop of concrete and pressurized lumber, but rather transforms it one little gift of human dignity at a time. Both kinds matter, but the latter is often the more abundant and necessary. Often we go looking for the big fix and grow dejected when either we can’t find it, or it doesn’t accomplish what we hoped. Often we overlook the latter, because it’s hard to see what difference it will make in the face of all the change that this wounded world requires. But none of us are Atlas. Our shoulders aren’t broad enough to carry the weight of the world’s needs, but they are strong enough to toss a few starfish back into the ocean. The greatest service we can do is to lift up the person right in front of us, waiting for that moment of dignity.

The Thing About Love Dogs

February’s Theme: Love

I became a dog person recently. This is a major life change for me. I spent most of my life, up through early adulthood, being wary of, if not downright terrified of dogs (an unfortunate schoolyard encounter at the age of five between a beagle’s jaw and my own posterior is to blame for this – funny now, yes, but at five? . . . not so much). I’ve slowly gotten over this trepidation in recent years. This past August, after much prodding and pleading from my family over many months, we took a ride down to the shelter in Española and adopted a pure-bred New Mexico Brown Puppy. We named her River (after characters in a couple of favorite sci-fi TV shows). She’s a sweet dog, just-right-sized, and (hallelujah!) doesn’t bark and howl along with the other dogs in the neighborhood. In many regards, it’s been like having a permanent toddler in the house, being responsible for another being’s feeding and other bodily functions in ways I haven’t had to in several years, now that the human children in the house are older. Annoying some days, to be sure, but a minimal investment considering what is received in return.

“Welcome,” said one of my Facebook friends, “to a world of unconditional love.”

. . . and . . .

“Dogs,” said one of our members to me, “are great practitioners of the inherent worth and dignity of all people.” » Read more..

Illuminating the Word

Went to see this exhibit on the new illuminated St. John’s Bible at the New Mexico Museum of History this afternoon. Absolutely gorgeous. If you’re in or near Santa Fe, you have until April 7th to give it a look. More on my impressions later.

[full page illumination of "Creation" from the frontispiece for the book of Genesis, Donald Jackson with contributions from Chris Tomlin.]