Wednesday, September 10, 2008

9/11 plus seven

This year we observe the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. As with all anniversaries, there is an opportunity to reflect upon what this means for us as individuals and in our communities.

In New York City, a number of things are different this year. Construction has begun in earnest on the World Trade Center site. The Pit is growing unrecognizable as such, and this is the last year that public memorial events will take place on the spot where the towers stood. Mayor Bloomburg is seeking to take over control of development, seeking completion of construction by the tenth anniversary of the attack (Bloomberg Urges New York City Take Control of Trade Center Site).

A number of 9/11-related projects are "sunsetting," a genteel term for "no more funding." Some people see this as another example of "get over it already," a thought which has never been absent from public discourse. The needs have not sunsetted, only the money. It is also true that many people have moved on and made accommodations with this history, as is natural and healthy and to be expected.

Yet there are still voices to be heard, images from which the smoke has not yet cleared.

There are archetypal images which have developed over time - stories of heroes, and narratives about the struggle between good and evil. There are images, some clear, some clouded, some forgotten, of the people affected by these events - not only those killed and their loved ones, but of the survivors, the responders, the bystanders. Everyone "of a certain age" has their 9/11 story.

And there are the global waves which spread out when the towers fell, reaching Afghanistan, Iraq, Bali, Madrid, London, Pakistan, and whose effects are still being felt but only partially known. (Let's not forget Guantanamo Bay, Uzbekistan, Egypt, Poland, Georgia, Iran. And while Vice President Cheney was "doing no harm" at the Republican Convention, I suspect we will one day learn he continues to work on the dark side, this time in Azerbaijan.)

Given the way 9/11 has been used and abused as a political device, it is prudent that Senators Obama and McCain have decided to avoid overt campaigning this September 11th. It is appropriate to take a moment to let our decision making be affected by the act of remembering.

I would like to suggest that the memory start, not with the grand narratives, or an analysis of how 9/11 fits into geopolitics. But that the appropriate starting point for memory is the truth. We need to understand and tell the story of what actually happened, and a crucial part of the truth is the real people involved. We need to see their faces. Our politics and our policies work better when they are rooted in humanity. We knew this, almost instinctively, at the beginning, when "Missing" flyers became sites of civic grief, prayer, and honor. While prayers for rescue morphed into memorials, it was to their faces we looked.

Some good places to look again are:

Voices of September 11th - Living Memorial
New York Times - Portraits of Grief
State Dept - Global Victims and Heroes
Tribute Center - Person to Person History

Please visit one of these sites and remember some of the people caught up in the midst of this event which has taken on so much significance.

Working as a chaplain in the WTC recovery brought home again and again the goodness of people, seen over and over in stories of their lives and the living testimony of peoples' response to destruction. Ordinary stories of goodness, repeated again and again, are quite extraordinary.

It took very little to destroy those buildings and murder those within them. The Christian symbol of the cross is meant to recall not only the torturous death and the cruelty of those who impose it. The cross also recalls the human life of the one nailed to it. And it points to the promise that while good may not be as dramatic as evil, goodness is stronger, more prevalent and persistent, and constantly being renewed.

May God hallow our remembrance, and lead us into the true recovery work, which abandons destruction and runs headlong to healing.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Babies, guns, and Jesus

This is my first partisan post. It is so important to get this one right...

Rush Limbaugh and I agree on something. This election is about three things. We are simply focused on three different things.

Rush Limbaugh watched the Republican Convention and declared that this election is now focused on Sarah Palin and is an attempt to renew the culture wars, about "babies, guns, Jesus. Hot damn!" Sarah Palin: Babies, Guns, Jesus - August 28, 2008. Is this really the vision you have for America?

One of these things does not belong with the others...

I suggest that this election is about another three things.

1. Can Democrats fight? ¡Si se puede! Yes we can! I love my country. I have fought for my country and my values. Barack Obama and Joe Biden must hold this ground. Americans respect, trust, love, and will follow someone who will stand up for what they believe in. This election, and our country are worth fighting for - even if we must say some hard things. John McCain is a hero who abandoned his principles and good judgment to woo the Republican base. Sarah Palin is a self-described pitbull who is long on teeth but short on policy and empathy. By contrast, Barack Obama is about the American values of hard work, big dreams, and the guts to believe that we can overcome our differences.

2. What is worth fighting for? "Without a vision, the people perish" (Proverbs 29:18). There has been a fair amount of discussion about fact-based (and fantasy-based) voting. We believe that our positions are about the real world and about issues, not about the "horserace" and media-centric celebrity frenzies. We cannot make ourselves crazy about what people are perceiving. If we cannot win based on what we see and know as real, well, then, we're f***ed. Barack Obama is about thinking through issues, listening to people who are not lobbyists, economic policy which pays attention to workers and homeowners, healthcare which privileges people over insurance companies, and national security founded upon economic strength and war as a last option (not the first). We have to tell the truth as best we see it and trust in God and our fellow citizens to sort it out and do the right thing. Please note: this trusts the VALUES of American voters. If we can't trust that, well, the election is a crapshoot based on whatever you last heard from the TV-machine.

3. Turnout, turonout, turnout. This election - like every other - comes down to how many people get to the polls. If you're worried about the Bradley effect (where people say they're ok with a black guy and then vote white in private), or the Rove effect (where every good thing is spit upon and cast into doubt), or the Diebold effect (where those in power will lie cheat and steal to stay there), then GET YOUR ASS AND ALL YOUR FRIENDS' ASSES REGISTERED AND TO THE POLLS!

That, my brothers and sisters, spells victory. The people, united, can never be defeated. And that is a non-partisan statement. Just make sure YOU are one of the people who makes a difference.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Who do you think you are?

Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

As I listened to the lessons for today, it seemed to me that identity issues are prominent. Jesus asks his disciples "who do you say that I am?" Have they been paying attention? Are they aware of what’s going on?

The apostle Paul is also concerned with a couple of identity issues: using the different gifts given to each member, and also finding or forging a new identity, as members of the body of Christ.

One reason these "identity issues" stood out for me is that I have been reading a book about the management style of the Jesuits, an organization within the Roman Catholic church. The author, trained as a Jesuit before leaving for a career as an investment banker, makes the case that the thing which has allowed the Jesuits to be a successful 450 year old company, is their focus first of all not on what they do, but on who they are.

Their core strength as an organization originates not in their mission, but in developing self-awareness. Every Jesuit goes through a long period of formation including spiritual exercises which help them understand their strengths, weaknesses, values and worldview. It redirects Jesus’ question, as if to say, before you can really understand who Jesus is, "Who do you say that you are?"

It seems to me that we have really misunderstood that question from Jesus – "who do you say that I am?" – if we see it as a test, and the right answer is "Messiah!" Had the reading continued, we would have seen that Peter’s answer was only partially right, for he then failed to accept the truth of who this Messiah was, not a conquering hero, but a poor servant who would suffer and die. I don't know about you, but I'm inclined to behave differently in relation to a conquering warrior than to a suffering servant.

You see, I think Jesus’ question is about relationship: "who do YOU say that I am?" Had anyone asked Jesus that question – "Who are you?" – in chapter 3 of Matthew's gospel, I doubt he would have been able to answer. Let’s remember that in the preceding chapters, Jesus had heard God’s voice calling him beloved. He had been driven into the wilderness and been tested by the devil to understand himself in relation to God. He had repeatedly gone off by himself to be and become a person shaped in prayer.

It seems to me that part of what Jesus did, and part of our own call in Christ, is to accept self-knowledge as part of our mission. Self-awareness, knowing ourselves, helps us relate to God.

The Jesuits use a daily prayer of self-examination, which asks things like:
· [God,] When did I sense your presence the most in my day?
· When did your presence seem farthest away from me in my day?
· How were you loving me in my day?
· How were you loving me even when your presence seemed far away?
· How did I respond to your love in my day?

AA and other Twelve Step movements also value self-awareness in the process of recovery. The “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves” helps one become aware not only of their current identity, but also to form a new identity, free from addiction.

For our congregation to move forward in the process of calling a pastor, and more importantly, to develop in our mission to love, welcome, nurture, and serve all people by following the example of Jesus Christ, we have to know ourselves, our challenges as well as our gifts. Some of you have worked on our mission profile, our description of ourselves to the Synod and to prospective pastors. Knowing who we are helps others know us, and also helps us know what we need from our pastoral leader.

On Friday I was in Baltimore and happened by First English Lutheran Church, Harvey and Carol’s former congregation. It is a tall steeple church, and I had the opportunity to read the church sign, which this week displayed the message "To hear God, turn down the world’s volume."

To hear God, turn down the world’s volume.

The disciple’s journey consists of letting the good news of Jesus Christ replace and reshape what the world has taught us. Yet even the words of God are heard through the loudspeakers of the world, so that God’s good news can be distorted, so that even the words of scripture may become a barrier to hearing God’s true Word.

For instance, you may have heard this line from the second reading where the Apostle Paul counsels his hearers to not "think of yourself more highly than you ought." There’s someone I know who heard this line a lot when they were growing up, in house which quoted some of the Bible. "Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought" was paired with "don’t stick out," "don’t ask questions," "keep in your place." "Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought" became "don’t think much of yourself ‘cause you ain’t much."

Even though it’s implied in the text, I wish the Apostle had gone on to be more explicit, to spell out the antidote to this kind of distortion. You see, the corollary to "Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought," is "Don’t think of yourself less highly than you ought."

What he actually said is a call to examine yourself, have an accurate view of yourself. And that means is seeing you the way Jesus, the way God sees you. "Think with sober judgment," we are told, "each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned." Not through a lens of idealized fantasy or one of degradation. True discernment is knowing yourself according to the measure of faith that God has given!

We know that this more positive view is true, because look at what the Apostle goes on to say. He does not give a list of warnings or critiques, but highlights those gifts which we should practice and develop. These gifts are ours by God’s grace: prophecy, not as a measure of our wisdom, but in proportion to faith. Gifts of ministry to be developed in ministry, gifts of teaching in teaching. Those who can exhort and encourage should do so, all of us have gifts so all can practice generosity, and our leaders should lead diligently and consistently. And when we practice compassion and service, we can do so cheerfully.

This exhortation is not to be more humble, not to avoid aggrandizement, but to accurately discern and to better use our gifts – to become greater, not in our imagination, but in our discipleship.

You see, this leads us back to that other oft-quoted line that introduces this subject, much beloved by teachers, that we are not to be captive to the noise of this world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds. "Be not conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds." This is not simply learning a few new things, but a reorienting of how we know ourselves, how we seen and relate to the world.

As often happens when you begin listening for God, I heard someone yesterday say something relevant to this idea: "Change is inevitable; transformation is a choice."

The world will bring us changes, both those we welcome and those that are more difficult. Children, we hope, grow up and change. Economic circumstances and health are not solely matters of our choice. We lose people who are dear to us. But we have power and authority when we choose to cooperate with God’s call to us, that call to be transformed, to do the spiritual and emotional and physical and behavioral work needed to exercise and develop God’s good gifts, to be changed by this life that has been given and entrusted to us.

Where are you in this work of transformation? Where are we as a congregation?...

"I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God..."

This is not the sacrifice of ourselves upon the altar. There’s no blood demanded here – the appeal is not through God’s vengeance, or the need to satisfy a debt, or even through a sense of justice, but by the mercies of God. The sacrifice God wishes us to make is our transformation, the change from someone captive to the worst to someone blessed by the best.

Not to think of ourselves as the greatest thing the world has ever seen – but to know ourselves in relation to the greatest thing the world has ever, and will ever see – God’s infinite and unfailing love.

Think back to that line from AA’s Twelve Steps: "We conducted a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves." It can be searching because God already knows us, and it can be fearless because God is not someone we need fear. God loves us beyond our imagining, and when we see ourselves in the light of God, when we see ourselves in truth, the way God sees us, it is through the eyes of love. That love is the engine of our transformation, the source of our renewal.

Who do you say that you are?

Why, that’s easy. We are God’s beloved. And that, brothers and sisters, is not only enough. That is everything.


Lowney, Chris. Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company that Changed the World. Loyola Press, 2003.

Prayer of Examen.