16 September 2009

Priorities in the church (or any other faith community)

I've been doing some pondering (and writing) about my own faith community's priorities of late, and a couple of folks suggested I share my thoughts with the online community as well. What follows is a slightly modified version of an article I wrote for my congregation's upcoming newsletter, with a couple of additions to try to broaden the perspective beyond an exclusively Christian one (although I do think that most of what Jesus had to say can apply broadly to the whole of humanity). Feel free to cite or quote it if something in it strikes you as useful for your own community.

Priorities - things that are regarded as more important than others; the right to take precedence or to proceed before others. At least that's what my dictionary software says. When we talk about the church, it can be trickier than you think to agree on priorities, mostly because so many things we do as a church are important and valuable that we hate to rank any one above the other. But in the real world of limited resources, the truly faithful response is to set priorities and decide what things are essential to the mission of our church.

Mission - an important assignment, vocation or calling. What is our calling as a church? What have we been “assigned” to do as Christians? According to the “official” United Methodist line, we are called “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Sounds good, right? But how do we go about doing this? This appears to be a two-part mission statement – first, make disciples; then, transform the world, or more specifically, teach and equip them to transform the world. So those must be our two priorities...easy enough. First, how do we make disciples?

Disciple - a follower or student of a teacher or leader. For Christians, this specifically refers to a follower or student of Jesus. To be someone's follower or student in this sense means more than simply taking notes and passing an exam at the end of the term. Disciples are called to learn what the teacher has to teach, by words and by example, and to put those teachings into place in their own lives. That is, the student should become more and more like the teacher. Once the students are transformed into being more like the teacher, they are then ready to transform others.

Transformation - a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance. When we are transformed as disciples, again, we become more like the person Jesus showed us how to be. Then we are able to go out into the world to transform it, to make it more like the world Jesus envisioned, a world where love, justice, and peace are abundant. This would indeed be a thorough and dramatic change!

OK, so there's the basic outline: We learn in order to transform ourselves, so that we can go out and transform the world. But remember this – it's a two-part formula. If we try to transform the world without first transforming ourselves, we lack the internal, spiritual resources necessary to do so. This is certainly not just a Christian concept - recall Gandhi's "be the change you wish to see in the world". On the other hand, if we are content with “improving” ourselves without genuinely investing ourselves in changing the world, we miss the entire point of Jesus' call on our lives, or the call of the Buddha, or the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), or Gandhi, or most any other spiritual leader. We don't get to pick and choose whether we want to be involved in only one or the other aspect, not if we're seeking to live lives that are faithful responses to God's love.

So then, as Christians everything we are about in church, everything we say and do, everything on which we spend time and money ought to be about the furtherance of these two goals – transforming ourselves into more faithful disciples of Jesus, and transforming the world in ways that God desires. As many congregations move into the time of year when they seek to discern new leaders and set their budgetary priorities for the coming year, it would be good to keep these two goals in mind.

I often hear that we, as a church, need to “pay the bills”, “keep the lights on”, and other similar things. But we should only do these things to the extent that they are really furthering our two-part mission. Am I suggesting, for example, that we bundle up in sweaters and coats in an unheated sanctuary in January so that we can spend the utility savings to feed the hungry? Perhaps that's too outlandish, too radical. Perhaps we need to be more sensible, more reasonable than that. And perhaps the love of God, the love that Jesus taught and lived, is more sensible than outlandish, more reasonable than radical.

But perhaps not.

05 September 2009

Flawed heroes, redemption, and forgiveness

I've picked up on a recurring theme in certain current events of the past couple of months. What I've noticed are several instances of controversial figures eliciting very divided responses from the general public. Let me explain by way of offering a few examples.

A few weeks ago, the Scottish government released Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi, the only person ever convicted in connection with the Lockerbie bombing of a Pan Am flight in December of 1988 that killed 270 people. Scotland has a policy of “compassionate release” whereby the government may release a prisoner ahead of his or her scheduled release date for a variety of reasons, and the government examines each case individually. Al-Megrahi was diagnosed with an advanced stage prostate cancer, and will in all likelihood die within a few months at most. The Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, decided to release him from prison so that he could travel home to Libya and die there. This decision prompted outcries from both governments and individuals who lost relatives and loved ones in the bombing.

Al-Megrahi had shown no remorse for his actions (although he did continue to insist on his innocence, and questions remain about his actual participation in the terrorist plot). He received what amounted to a hero's welcome upon his return to Libya. At worst, he is a cold-blooded terrorist; at best, he is a man whose warped sense of religion and ideology permits him to consider the deaths of 270 innocent souls as unworthy of his grief. Either way, he seems a reprehensible character. Secretary MacAskill noted all of this in his statement explaining his decision to release Al-Megrahi, but then asserted that the evilness of this one person should not be allowed to define or control his own decision. You can read the full text of his statement, but here's the most relevant excerpt.

In Scotland, we are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity. It is viewed as a defining characteristic of Scotland and the Scottish people. The perpetration of an atrocity and outrage cannot and should not be a basis for losing sight of who we are, the values we seek to uphold, and the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live.

Mr Al-Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days. No compassion was shown by him to them.

But, that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days.

Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed but compassion be available. Our beliefs dictate that justice be served, but mercy be shown. Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as a people. No matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated.

Many people (including those in my own faith community with whom I spoke about this) did not find this explanation to be an adequate justification for Al-Megrahi's release. I'm still not entirely sure what I would have done had I been in Secretary MacAskill's position, but if nothing else, his decision shows a steadfast commitment to certain values of mercy and compassion that cannot be trumped by evil and hatred, and by that if nothing else I am moved. Didn't Jesus teach us to love those who hate us, and to repay evil with love? In the rest of his statement MacAskill makes it clear that he neither forgives nor forgets Al-Megrahi's crimes; he simply refuses to allow himself or his people to be defined by them.

Then there's the case of Michael Vick, football quarterback and despicable thug, who spent the last year or so of his life behind bars for the cruel crime of running dogfights. After his release, Vick applied for reinstatement in the NFL so that he could resume his multi-million dollar superstar career. Many commentators objected to this, arguing that to allow Vick back into the league after committing such cruel and despicable acts would be tantamount to sweeping his crimes under the Astroturf. What's more, even though he has publicly apologized and acknowledged his wrongdoings, many doubt his sincerity. These same commentators argue that allowing Vick to return to the sport sends the wrong message – that if you're athletically talented, you can get away with most anything and still wind up rich and famous.

But I think that line of criticism misses the mark. Vick did, in fact, pay the appropriate penalty for his crimes – he served the sentence imposed on him by our justice system. Other prisoners are allowed to go back to work in their professions after their release (with certain exceptions, of course). The fact that Vick's line of work happens to make him, as a professional athletic superstar, something of a role model for our society's youth doesn't say anything about Vick himself, but it does say a good deal about us as a society. Why do kids emulate someone like Vick more so than, say, Yo-Yo Ma or Neil deGrasse Tyson? This isn't Vick's fault. As the saying goes, “Don't hate the player – hate the game.”

Most recently, Senator Ted Kennedy's death was the occasion for many retrospectives on his life. Some portrayals lionized him as a champion of the poor and downtrodden, while others vilified him for being a besotted womanizer (the latter always referencing Chappaquiddick). As is often the case, the reality of Ted Kennedy was more nuanced than either of these simplistic portraits. It is true that Kennedy enjoyed a stiff drink or three, and his reputation as a skirt-chaser was not unfounded. And yes, he was probably at least partially responsible for the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. It's also true, however, that in his Senate career he established himself as a hard-working legislator, a crusader for civil rights and justice, and perhaps most surprisingly, a bipartisan Senator willing to work with colleagues from both sides of the aisle where he could find agreement.

Kennedy was not a perfect human being – far from it. Neither was he completely and utterly irredeemable. He was, in short, a flawed hero, as were so many of the classical Greek heroes that he and his brothers often cited. The key here, though, is that Kennedy continued to grow, to learn from his mistakes, and to commit himself to working toward the betterment of humanity and society. In a remarkable speech he gave in 1991, when facing a serious re-election challenge and having lost much of the faith and trust of his constituents, Kennedy acknowledged his failings and rededicated himself to improving both the world and himself. "Individual faults and frailties are no excuse to give in - and no exemption from the common obligation to give of ourselves. Today, more than ever before, I believe that each of us as individuals must not only struggle to make a better world, but to make ourselves better, too. And in this life, those endeavors are never finished."

I take hope from this statement, as it reminds me that despite my own failings (of which there are too many to catalog), I am yet not released from my obligation to strive for something more. None of us is without flaws and failings, yet none of us is allowed to stop trying. We will not achieve perfection or complete enlightenment, but we are called to continue to continue on toward these. We are not yet bodhisattvas, but we are called to alleviate suffering wherever we find it, and as Kennedy's brother Robert was fond of saying, we must always strive to make gentle the life of this world.