Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Tale of Two Women, Part II (with thoughts about Indiana)

There's good news and bad this week.  First the good.  My daughter Liz, her partner Erica and their two children have found an apartment just two blocks from their daughters' school.  It's a bit smaller than where they are now, but they are pleased to have the matter settled.

The further good news is the incredible amount of support they received as they dealt with the blatant bias exhibited by some of the folks they encountered during their search.  In a Facebook post Liz wrote:  "This past month and a half has wreaked havoc on my spirit. I've almost lost faith in [our city], organized religion, humanity in general but you all haven't let me. You've offered prayers and thoughts, legal and tenants' rights advice and referrals, babysitting, storage, guest rooms, and even short term rentals. . . . Thank you all for being there."  I add my thanks as well!  I'm glad my kid and her family have such a supportive network--including her church!

But there is bad news as well.  For religion is still being used as an excuse for biased behavior.  I refer to the so-called "Religious Freedom Restoration Act"(RFRA) just signed into law in Indiana. 

I looked up the legislation itself, and found this summary of the legislation's purpose: "The Religious Freedom Restoration Act .  Provides that a state or local government action may not substantially burden a person's right to the exercise of religion unless it is demonstrated that applying the burden to the person's exercise of religion is 10 essential to further a compelling government interest; and 20 the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling government interest."  The summary goes on to describe legal actions that can be taken if the law is violated.(

The bill itself contains definitions of "exercise of religion" and "person" among other items.  I know I'm asking you to wade through a lot this week--but this is important!  Here's the definition of "exercise of religion" put forth in the legislation.  "'Exercise of religion' means the practice or observance of religion.  The term includes a person's ability to 1) act; or 2) refuse to act; in a manner that is substantially motivated by the person's sincerely held religious beliefs regardless of whether the religious belief is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief."

Now don't misunderstand.  I am a big fan of religious freedom!  I think it is essential and have stood up for it more than once.  But that said, religion should not be used to fuel bigotry. A person may believe that black folks are all damned by God, but that doesn't give such a person the right to deny housing or service at a restaurant to African-Americans!  Someone may believe that God demands that women be subservient to men, but that doesn't give such a person the right to refuse promotions to women in business based on their gender!  (I realize such things happen--but they are illegal!)

Part of the issue in the case of the Indiana legislation as it currently stands is that sexual orientation is not a protected class like race or religion or ethnicity.  It is not illegal (in Indiana) to discriminate against someone based on their sexual orientation.  Which opens up the possibility that the RFRA can be used to protect folks like the potential landlords who told Liz and Erica that they wouldn't rent to them because of their "lifestyle" was contrary to the religious beliefs held by the landlords.  

No doubt "fixes" to the legislation will be instituted in the days and weeks ahead--the potential financial cost to Indiana is too great to let it stand!  But Arkansas is considering a similar bill--and across the country, religious freedom is being pitted against civil rights.  And it is one of my core religious beliefs that that is just plain wrong. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

A Tale of Two Women

My daughter Elizabeth and her partner Erica were told earlier this winter that they would need to move out of their apartment.  Their landlords are older folks and have been having some health issues, and so their son is going to move in so that he can watch out for their welfare.  A noble thing to do.

So they've been apartment hunting.  They'd like a three bedroom apartment, but their two daughters could share a room if it came to that.  They've got several real estate agents working on it.  They've announced it at church, they've posted it on their extensive Facebook networks.  They are both employed.,  They have great references.  Their credit checks out.  But despite seeing several places, they've yet to land a new home.

Liz and Erica live in Massachusetts, in one of the most diverse and liberal cities in the country.  Yet what they are encountering a bias.  They suspected it all along, but it was confirmed by their most recent experience.  A potential landlord told their real estate agent flat out:  we won't rent to them because they are, well, you know, two women.  It goes against our religious beliefs.  (I can't help but wonder what they'd say if they knew Liz and Erica's daughters were African-American!)

Liz is a very religious young woman.  Very active in her congregation.  So is Erica. My point is, she appreciates the value of faith and the institutions that support it.  "You know, Dad," she told me the other night, "I'm not going to leave the church or anything, but I do understand better why so many of my friends are opposed to organized religion."

So do I. 

And frankly, it has me worried about the future of religious institutions in general, and the church in particular.  We who are part of an older generation often wonder why young people seem so estranged from the church.  I suspect some it has to do with apartment hunting--so to speak.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The American Family Secret

I've been co-teaching a course on race and religion in nineteenth-century literature this month with my friend Dr. Tom Cooley.  Tom taught English at Ohio State University and is now retired.  He's a very insightful guy, and we've been having a lot of fun teaching together.  That said, this is pretty we're dealing with pretty sobering stuff.

This week we finish up our course taking a look at Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.  It's not the best of books, from a literary perspective.  Nor is it the most theologically sophisticated read of the nineteenth century.  But it's impact on American society is legendary!  Hundreds of thousands of copies sold in the first year alone.  And minds were changed.  That which had been easy for some to ignore, suddenly became very real. 

Nancy Koester, in her excellent Harriet Beecher Stowe:  A Spiritual Biography, recounts Stowe's comment that writing about slavery felt like being "forced by some awful oath to disclose in court some family disgrace."  (147)  And of course, it was and is.  For the American family, it was a great disgrace.  Something we don't want to talk about--a family secret.

But talk about it we must.  For it's impact, these many decades later, is still being felt.  For though great strides have been made in terms of the laws of the land, racial bias still lies just below the surface, just waiting for a Ferguson or a frat house video to come along and remind us of it's destructive power.

Only when our biases are exposed to the light of day can we see them clearly enough to remove them.  That's why I'm teaching about our history as a nation.  The problems we face today didn't come out of nowhere.  They are deeply rooted in the soil and souls of our beloved country

Monday, March 9, 2015

Why Remember Edmund Pettus?

No doubt you have heard or read about what USA Today describes as the "racist back story" of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.  After all the iconic bridge has been at the center of much of the reporting about this weekend's anniversary of Bloody Sunday, that day fifty years ago, when non-violent protesters were met with hatred and clubs by local officials as they marched for voting rights.

In case you haven't heard, Edmund Pettus was a Confederate general and a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama.  Much of his life and work was devoted to promoting white supremacy.  Many have noted the irony of the fact that this bridge named in his honor has become a potent symbol of the Civil Rights Movement.

The question being pondered by some is whether or not the bridge should be renamed.  Why honor the memory of one who engaged in such hateful actions?  Similar questions have arisen here, in the county where I reside, which is named after Robert E. Lee.  While not a member of the KKK, Lee was, of course, at the fore of the Confederate Army.  Should we continue to remember him in this way?

Quite honestly, I don't know the answer to such questions.  Especially in the case of Pettus.  Why remember such a soul in such a way?  Yet, there is something to be said for remembering.  Something indeed.  If the story of Pettus and the Klan is recalled on a regular basis perhaps it will remind us of why people needed to march across the bridge named for him and then on to Montgomery. 

Here in America there are too many who believe racism is a thing of the past.  Too many believe we are living in a post-racial society.  Perhaps a marker like the Edmund Pettus Bridge can help us remember not only how far we've come, but how far we still have to go.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Mr. Spock and Myers-Briggs

For years now Star Trek has helped me explain Myers-Briggs Personality Types to parishioners and others as I have worked with them on various issues.  I thought of that when I heard the news that Leonard Nimoy, the actor who portrayed the half-Vulcan, half-human, character named Mr. Spock in the original series.

I remember well watching episodes of Star Trek at my friend Kevin's house when we were in junior and senior high school.  I was always intrigued by the way Gene Roddenberry and his team of writers managed to weave social commentary into what was basically a Western set in outer space.  I loved it! 

Like many fans of the series and the numerous subsequent spin-offs and movies, I was especially intrigued by Spock.  His ability to remain cool and logical in all situations (well most all) was enviable.  Yet even then I realized his dedication to logic sometimes got in the way of a real relationship, for love is often illogical at best!

Which brings me back to Myers-Briggs.  If you are unfamiliar with Myers-Briggs, it is an inventory of personality traits which is loosely based on Jungian psychology.  It measures preferences in  terms of how we like to interact with the world.  It does by  positing four sets of dichotomies.  The one in question is called Thinking-Feeling.  How do you make decisions.  Do you use logic and reason, or are your decisions primarily based on how you or others will feel about the results?  "Mr. Spock," I tell folks, "was the ultimate thinker.  Dr. McCoy, the ultimate feeler.  And Captain Kirk, somewhere in the middle."

The amazing thing is that I've been using Myers-Briggs for over thirty years--and that illustration still holds up.  No matter their age, folks seem to know the characters and the show (or at least the movies).  A show made when I was in  high school in the sixties!

"Live long and prosper," Spock used to say.  A good wish for all humans--Vulcans too, I guess--regardless of their personality type!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Bumper to Bumper on Periwinkle Way

It's high season here on Sanibel!  The miserable weather up north has driven many a soul to our warmer clime--though even here it has been colder than usual.  We actually got down to 35 degrees one night last week!

High season is both a bane and a blessing.  It means longer waits at restaurants and horrendous traffic.  I live just over two miles from the church and some nights it takes me forty-five minutes to get home!  But high season also means pews are full and all our folks are here.  On balance, I love high season!

It is probably trite, even clichéd, to observe that life often works that way.  But like most clichés it is rooted in truth.  Over and over again I have discovered that with every challenging thing in life there is a corresponding joy.  Of course that's easier to say in a vacuum than it is to affirm in the midst of the challenge itself! 

It's not just a matter of positive thinking, however.  It is also a matter of being willing to take on the challenges.  Somewhere I read recently that there is a significant difference between optimism and hope.  I think this bane/blessing, challenge/joy thing may be at the core of that truth.  I know some things will not end well or the way I want them to turn out.  But that doesn't mean all is lost.  That doesn't mean there can't be some joy in the midst of it.

Of course, I might feel otherwise when I'm driving home tonight.  But, hey, at least gas is cheaper these days!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Stories on the Sand

Every year our congregation hosts a Christmas Eve Beach Service.  Last year about 1500 people showed up for it, stretched down the beach almost as far as the eye could see.  It us a real Island tradition here on Sanibel.

The service is rather simple.  A scripture reading, a soloist singing "O Holy Night," carol singing, candle lighting and a telling of the Nativity Story.  The story telling falls to me--and I try to make it accessible for young and old alike.,  Some years I even invite the congregation to add appropriate sound effects.  I don't know what the sea birds think about the mooing and bleating, but so it goes!

Just off shore there are usually a few boats anchored in the shallows, crew members singing as well.  Our bulletin/song sheet, includes admonitions to cart out any garbage and to be careful of the fragile sea grasses.  A very generous couple in the congregation underwrites our expenses, include parking control, so that the entire evening's offering can go to support two local social service agencies.

The gospels would suggest that Jesus often told stories by the shore.  And some of his crowds were estimated to be much, much larger than our crowd--in a day long before amplifiers and microphones!  I have often assumed that folks in front repeated the stories to those behind who could not hear.  Perhaps that is how the oral traditions about Jesus that undergird the scriptures got started.

Later in the evening, I'll be inside, in the confines of our beautiful sanctuary, where once again (though in a  formal way) we will retell the story and sing the songs and light candles.  But in or out, the story is so simple that it transcends time and place.

As you hear it again, don't forget to pass it on.  Don't forget to retell it someone else.  Share it with a child, or a friend, or a stranger who longs to know God cares.  For that above all else is what the story means:  God cares enough to be with us, among us, in us.

Have a blessed Christmas!