Interfaith Clergy Letter to the Editor in Clark County

(This is a letter a group of us from Clark County wrote in response to some of the controversy surrounding September 11th this past week. We submitted it to our local papers which did not pick it up so I thought I’d post it here.)

This year, a small group of clergy in Clark County began gathering monthly to learn from one another and to support one another as community leaders.   As an interfaith group, we honor and celebrate the religious traditions and spiritual paths of all people in our community.

For many people of faith, this week includes two major religious holidays with Rosh Hashanah for the Jewish community and Eid al-Fitr for the Islamic community.   However, this week is also charged by the memories of 9/11, plans to build a community center and prayer space in a building 2 blocks from Ground Zero and the furor over threats to burn The Qu’ran, the sacred Muslim text, by a pastor and his followers in Florida.   We are grieved at some Americans’ misunderstanding of one of the world’s largest religions. We celebrate the rich diversity within all faith traditions.  We stand together to honor the Islamic Society of Southwest Washington and all Muslims who are our neighbors. Continue reading Interfaith Clergy Letter to the Editor in Clark County

There is No Pure Christianity

A long while back a friend of mine wrote on his twitter this remark:

There is no pure Christianity, it is all syncretist.

And I agree with this point, all Christianity today is influenced to a smaller or larger extent by outside forces. I’m not sure it’s ever been any different to tell the truth.

But I want to take this statement in a slightly different direction. What I have been thinking of lately is something more like:

There is no pure christianity, it is all interpretation.

And I don’t think this is necessarily a problem at all. Questions like “what is Christianity?” and “what does it mean to identify as a Quaker?” are ones that I’ve been thinking about a lot, partly because I’m currently preaching on Quaker testimonies and some of the more specific practices within our particular denomination, but it’s also because of the things I hear in general conversation and in the media.

It is not unusual for people to claim “Christianity is this,” “Christianity is that,” “I am a biblical Christian,” or “I am rooted in Christianity and then I go from there.” For many, all you have to do is assent to a couple value-free ideas about faith and everything is peachy-keen. But even to say something as basic as “Jesus is Lord,” is loaded with cultural, theological, spiritual, historical, and narrative significance that cannot be fully understood, appreciated or experienced outside of these things. And I suppose all of this is fine on the surface but what it betrays is that many of us still assume a Christendom culture, or a general understanding that there is one monolithic Christianity that everyone pretty much understands and accepts at some level. But this is just not the case. And for many the Christianity they understand is the Christianity of the 700 Club, the Christianity of the street preachers at the Saturday Market in downtown Portland hooting and hollering damnation at every passer-by. For many, there is no alternative to this, this is for them the only image of Christianity they have ever witnessed.

When people say “I am simply a Christian and that settles it,” or “the basics of Christianity are…” I always wonder, and sometimes ask, which Christianity are they talking about? It has never been a good idea to talk about the Christian faith within the abstract, or in the generic. But that is exactly what is happening today in a world where biblical language, theological imagery, and other Christian assumptions of the Reformation period can no longer be assumed. Today, when we share Christianity with people (I think) it always needs to be couched in our communities, our traditions, and the stories of people who are actually working this stuff out. The Bible is a part of this, but arguing from it alone as though a couple straight-forward ideas will remedy the problems is (IMO) fools-play and makes light of the transformative power of our Lord.

So when we talk about Christian faith are we talking about a Christianity that supports empire or creation? Are we talking about a Christian faith that is rooted in the life of Jesus, or one that simply focuses on his death and resurrection? Are we talking about Christianity of the creeds, or Christianity of the queries? Are we talking about the Christianity of George Fox, John Calvin, Dorothy Day, Lucretia Mott, or George Bush? And while it is possible that somewhere deep down inside the root of all this there is a common thread, but I think we are too far past a point where we can reach that common thread. And for some of this stuff it’s not an either or (for instance, we are all (at least us Americans) implicated in empire whether we like it or not), but what does it lean towards?

We are in a world of interpretations and not only should we not forget this, but we might try embracing it. In fact, I think that they are the very things that can help us discover something that is more meaningful and real than if we are left to simple generic forms of Christianity. So much of what passes as “church” these days is a rip off from a commercial on broadcast TV, a stolen play from a big-box store playbook, or a thinly cloaked politics borrowed from the latest town hall rally or social protest. The capitalist model of faith is one where choice is king. We pick and choose what we like, what feels right, what looks, acts, and talks like us and in the process everything is left bland and generic (both conservative and liberal camps are guilty of this). Another way is to assume for ourselves a tradition that is made up of practices, stories, characters, and particular filters (some helpful and some not) and become people who enter into the Christian faith through that corridor. We can offer an alternative to the street preacher/screamer, but that alternative will not on its own look at all like what passes as Christianity today.

So maybe the fact that there is no pure Christianity at this point is actually helpful if we think about it from the perspective of interpretations and traditions.

The Wounding of Creation

This morning someone in our meeting requested prayer for the oil spill and during the time of prayer the image of the oil spill came back to me in a powerful way. I envisioned the hole where the spill gushes out as a seeping wound. Creation is deeply wounded, and that wound continues to gush uncontrollably. We do not know what to do to make it stop. We technologically advances, brilliant, wealthy, powerful, people are utterly helpless to keep her from bleeding to death. We cannot make it stop. This excessive oozing of the “blood” flowing from creation is clear and obscene symbol for the wounding that creation has bore for quite some time now. For this short time, everyone is pained by these images. Many, when (and if) this is over, will try and wipe the slate clean and go on with their day-to-day lives, as though nothing ever happened. This is like the other tragedies that have happened this year, they all force us, for however short a time they last, to face the reality, that the Earth and its people are not to be taken for granted any longer. Right now, the images are stark and recurring. This obscenity of this situation, is the same as the woman who has bled for 12 years wandering out into the public to track down a healer-physican (Luke 8:42), it is intrusive as the lame man begging for help outside a place of worship day in and day out (Acts 3). It  is out in the open, unavoidable, unstoppable and absolutely intrusive. It tells us something about our society, and our own lives.

Creation is wounded, and there is nothing we can do to heal these scars. God help us. God forgive us.

Creating Liberated Spaces: Some Thoughts

Back in February, and on the dawn of Transfiguration Sunday, about 30 (?) folks piled into a Southeastern Portland home to share in a conversation being facilitated by two out of towners Eliacin Rosario-Cruz (Seattle) and Mark Van Steenwyk (Minnesota). The crowd was made up of a number of men and women from a variety of backgrounds, some Episcopalian, some pastors and clergy, some starting or living in intentional communities, all interested in what it means to follow the radical way of Jesus in our time. I was particularly interested in going because I wanted to meet Mark, whose website Jesus Manifesto I follow, and hang out with Eliacin and his family. But the description of the event from the website caught my attention nonetheless:

In what way is Jesus and his way actually revolutionary? Is Jesus’ call to “seek the Kingdom” actually a call to nonviolent resistance, to solidarity with the poor, to liberation for the oppressed?

What structures within our society (organizational structures, thought structures, etc.) get in the way of that happening? And what way can we realistically embody the Kingdom alternative?

Join us as we talk honestly about the radical call of Jesus, the distractions that gets in the way, and how we can begin to to create Kingdom spaces in the here and now. Continue reading Creating Liberated Spaces: Some Thoughts

Simplicity in a World of Excess – John 12:1-8

This week on the pastor’s email list there has been a really long discussion around whether it is appropriate to boycott certain businesses. It all started when a pastor sent around a forward he’d received that claimed that a certain corporation had been working with the immigration enforcement to get immigrants arrested on a specific day in March. This pastor was calling for a boycott of Wal-Mart because of this. It quickly came out that this text message was a hoax, but the question of boycotting a business because of how they do or don’t use their resources was still being discussed days after the initial email got started. (I think this is a good question and worth continued discussion in the church, boycotts can be powerful tools for social change — don’t forget the Montgomery Bus Boycott — or my post on Amazon). Continue reading Simplicity in a World of Excess – John 12:1-8

Favorite Music of 2009

Here’s a list of my favorite, or at least most listened to, albums from this past year.

Elvis Perkins In Dearland

Elvis Perkins in Dearland’s self-titled, second album arrived this year and it has been in constant rotation on the record player since it’s arrived. It is seriously one of our daughter’s favorite albums, she loves all the upbeat songs especially. I loved the first album, Ash Wednesday, and listened to it none stop while I was in England for three months. Whenever I listen to that album now I can’t help but remember that time in our lives, Emily was pregnant with our first daughter, and I was studying away at Woodbrooke making great life-long friends. Their sophomore effort is even better than the first, the songs are very diverse, deeply emotional, spiritual and psychological. Do yourself a favor and listen to them. Here’s how:

If you follow this link, you can preview a number of songs on google’s search page.

Here’s a full concert on NPR.

And here are two videos from the new album that are marvelous.


Continue reading Favorite Music of 2009

Let's have an Amazon.com-free Christmas this year

Amazon.com-free ChristmasRecently on twitter I said something I’m sure lost me a few followers,  “Let’s make it an amazon free Christmas.” (Though I don’t doubt I say plenty of things on any given day that make people wonder why they associate with me!). But in either case, it’s true, let’s boycott Amazon and every other big corporate chain store this Christmas! This is really how I feel these days. I’m tired of the big company’s crushing all these little local shops. Store after store in our little downtown of Camas is going under and I’ve already mentioned the major bone I have with what Amazon is doing to our independent bookstores. I’ve been boycotting Amazon for all my book buying at least since the time I wrote that post in favor of shopping at places like Fuller Seminary Bookstore, Powell’s books or Abebooks online. But I want to extend this challenge beyond just books to everything that can be purchased on Amazon.com.

One thing I find rather tragic is just how many people Christian bloggers are in bed with Amazon. It’s really surprising that even some of the most alternative thinking folks I know become very mainstream when it comes to getting the cheapest possible books (or other products) they can find, or making money on every book link they have in a post (most often with no disclaimers anywhere).

But I should be up front, I really don’t like any big box stores: Wal-Mart, Target, Whole Foods, you name it (though you will spot me at some of these from time to time, I honestly try and avoid them as much as possible).  And I am already boycotting Amazon, so I’m  not generally tempted to shop there; I guess this makes my challenge more of an open invitation than a personal one. I started turning against these, what we might call, homogeneous consumption troughs back when I was in high-school back in Alliance Ohio. We watched Wal-Mart move in, and destroy tons of the local businesses in our small town and in my estimation Alliance has never fully recovered (here’s an interesting profile of a woman who worked at that particular store). That one experience left me a little bitter and started me on another path: I start looking for different ways (and places) to spend my money to support businesses I believed in.

Let’s face it Amazon.com is the Wal-Mart of the Web. They are taking over, cutting costs, and helping to finish off whatever is left of small town America. In the film “What Would Jesus Buy?” Rev. Billy has a funeral for small town America next to the Wal-Mart headquarters; I’d be interested in having an online (blog) funeral for the same thing Amazon is doing to local bookstores, music stores, and everybody else they’ve set their sights on (I highly recommend the film).

Of course, one response to my Amazon-free Christmas twitter remark was fair enough: “The people who supply to or work for Amazon don’t need the money?” He’s right, yes, they most certainly do, or at least some of them do. But why not go directly to the company, or person selling the good and cutting the middle person out? Further, do you really need that thing you’re buying from Amazon in the first place? Surely you’re not purchasing most items to benefit the other person, so one of our first questions should always be: do I need to buy this thing in order to have what possessing it promises? I’ve found that so many of the things I really need, I can find used on craigslist, at a garage sale, or from a friend who is no longer using it (church email groups are great for this kind of thing!). And of course there’s the whole “You don’t need to buy a gift to give a gift,” line that Rev. Billy preaches that is about as Gospel as they come. Making gifts are really one of the best ways to go. Why spend a lot of money (or any!) on Christmas, is that what it’s all about?

But then I ran across this post on the lives of Amazon.com workers and things start to look even less favorable for the corporation ironically named after the very thing it is helping to decimate (paper anyone?). Here are some of the conditions reported from warehouses in the UK that the post highlights:

– Warned that the company refuses to allow sick leave, even if the worker has a legitimate doctor’s note. Taking a day off sick, even with a note, results in a penalty point. A worker with six points faces dismissal.

– Made to work a compulsory 10-hour overnight shift at the end of a five-day week. The overnight shift, which runs from Saturday evening to 5am on Sunday, means they have to work every day of the week.

– Set quotas for the number of items to be picked or packed in an hour that even a manager described as ‘ridiculous’. Those packing heavy Xbox games consoles had to pack 140 an hour to reach their target.

– Set against each other with a bonus scheme that penalises staff if any other member of their group fails to hit the quota.

– Made to walk up to 14 miles a shift to collect items for packing.

– Given only one break of 15 minutes and another of 20 minutes per eight-hour shift and told they had to notify staff when going to the toilet. Amazon said workers wanted the shorter breaks in exchange for shorter shifts.

Inside The Lives Of Amazon.com Warehouse Employees

Now certainly this is just one report and doesn’t cover every warehouse they have (though the are lawsuits in the US for some of the same issues), but let’s not lose the point: these are not statistics that should be popping up in the warehouses of such rich corporations like Amazon (the way they do with Wal-Mart, etc).  I want to raise a basic question about shopping online: with an even greater amount of anonymity that the Web provides businesses, in what ways are you being careful about the impact of shopping for really cheap things from some other states and countries and how it impacts your local communities (and Does it matter to you?) But also, what about that company’s business practices and how it treats its employees, will you support (i.e. give your money to) a company that treats its employees poorly, runs them into the ground and takes advantage of them? At least with Wal-Mart you can walk in and take a look at how people are being treated, and you can ask the employees how things are going for them. Of course, if we know the answer will we respond? This is generally not the case for our online shopping and Amazon is starting to get in trouble for some of its poor working conditions. Let’s respond this year.

So I reassert my challenge, Let’s have an Amazon.com-free Christmas this year.

[Image from Huffingtonpost.com]