Friday, March 29, 2013

Getting upset about stereotypes

Jesus in the History Channel's miniseries "The Bible"

Our friend Adele Banks of Religion News Service has written an excellent news report about Satan being portrayed as dark-skinned in "The Bible" miniseries on the History Channel.

Satan in "The Bible"
There are those who think Satan was made to look like President Obama in the miniseries (and it is hard not to see a resemblance), but Stephen Thorngate, an associate editor for Christian Century, says the resemblance to Obama is not the main point.

“Just don’t give the ultimate good guy fair skin and the ultimate bad guy darker skin,” he said. “We’ve been down that road too many times before.’’

Professor Cain  Hope Felder of Howard Divinity School also weighed in. 

“It’s unfortunate that the producers of this show made this terrible error,” Felder said. “They either should have taken Satan off the screen entirely and just had a voice or something. Or if you’re going to use him, he should certainly not have been black.”

I suspect using a dark-skinned person to portray Satan was subconscious and not intentionally thought out on the part of those who cast this series -- which actually makes it all the worse.

Associating light-skinned with benevolent and dark-skinned with evil is, if not itself evil, at least pretty bad.

What do we need to do to get all of us to think twice before we act on our subconscious ... well, how do I say this? ... our subconscious, uh, racist (frankly) associations?

We need the kind of reaction that will cause all of us to think twice before we do something to perpetuate this harmful stereotype.

Kudos to Adele for an important article.    

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Reading the Bible again for the first time everytime

Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene, Anonymous,
German, 15th century, from the Met,
I actually love sermon preparation almost more than preaching, I think.

I am sure I am not unusual in this.

Sitting with a Scripture lesson until it speaks a new word to you is a powerful and exhilarating experience. It doesn't happen every week, but it happens often enough to keep me intrigued.

Sometimes it is something in the lesson I totally missed before no matter how many times I have read it. Sometimes it can be an old truth that burns inside in a new way because of something that has happened in my life. Sometimes it can be something in the original Greek that I previously missed  because the translations I read tend to be careful and conservative. Occasionally it is something I discover reading the commentaries, although this seems to happen less and less. 

This week, preparing for Easter Sunday, I have been reading and studying John's version of the resurrection experience -- John 20:1-18. Of course, I've preached on this text many times before.

The sermon on this lesson I remember best was the year I realized that John mentions and re-mentions again for a total of four times in a few short verses that Mary Magdalene was weeping. Obviously, John wants us to notice that Mary was weeping. In the sermon I preached at least 15 years ago at Arch Street UMC in Philadelphia, I explored the relationship between tears and resurrection. 

I don't know if the sermon spoke to anybody else but preparing to preach it spoke to me at the time.

This week I realized something that is very obvious --it is mentioned in all of the commentaries-- but that I never really thought about before: the reason Mary is weeping.

She is not just weeping because Jesus has died. She is specifically weeping because she cannot find Jesus' body. She is weeping because --as she says in John 20:13-- "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him."

Wow. She was weeping not just because Jesus has died but because she could not find Jesus' body. She was weeping because she did not know where they had put him.  She could not find him.

What is this part of the story trying to tell us? Something about our experience of grief? Something about our experience of death? I am not sure yet but something about this aspect of the story strangely moves me. 

I've got the next couple of days to figure it out and put it into words.   

Rereading the rest of the story, I suspect this detail about why Mary was weeping adds significance to Jesus telling Mary not to cling to him and his sending her back to the disciples. 

This is what is peculating inside me this week as I read John 20 again for the first time. . 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Rethinking Mormonism

Free image of the Washington, DC, Mormon Temple at
I think one of the most fascinating developments in current religious history is what seems to be happening in the Mormon Church.

Frankly, I have not been a fan.

However, what appears to be happening within Mormonism these past years is the emergence of the capacity for the objective study of Mormon history by Mormons, even when the facts are not complimentary. Mormons seem to be beginning to develop the capacity to be self-aware and self-critical.

This is when, it seems to me, a religious movement begins to reach maturity and the potential for true spiritual depth: when you can be faithful and self-critical at the same time.

Maybe the other indication of maturity is when you can have a sense of humor about the oddities and failings of your own religious group.

The first writer who gave me a sense that something new might be happening in Mormonism is Janet Riess whose articles began appearing in the Christian Century magazine in 2007. She wrote an article for the Century entitled "We're Christian Too" just after she had published her book Mormonism for Dummies.
Janet Riess

It was Riess's 2011 article in the Century entitled "Normal Mormons" that heightened my realization that, along with the religion's emphasis on propaganda (which they have done particularly well), an objective scholarly analysis of Mormonism has been emerging.

Read this paragraph from "Normal Mormons":

There's no question that Mormon theology is subtly changing. The real question is how far it will bend to accommodate its host culture and where will it seek to reestablish its distinctiveness. Historians such as Jan Shipps, Thomas Alexander and Kathleen Flake have argued that whenever Mormonism has had to give up something central in order to assimilate into American culture, it has tended to compensate by hardening its position in other areas. For example, when polygamy was jettisoned in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Word of Wisdom (the Mormon dietary code that eschews coffee, tea, alcohol and tobacco) assumed a position of prominence. Early generations of saints had adopted a relaxed view of the Word of Wisdom, as is evident in the sanctioned presence of wine at early Mormon temple dedication ceremonies, the appearance of coffee on the list of required provisions for saints undertaking the arduous journey west to Utah, and Brigham Young's decades-long struggle to stop chewing tobacco. But once polygamy was disavowed, the Word of Wisdom became one of the most important markers of LDS identity.

The development of both scholarly Mormon historians, called the New Mormon historians, and more popular writers like Janet Riess who balance their commitment to Mormonism with a commitment to telling the story of Mormonism objectively and truthfully seems to me very healthy. We should applaud it.

Steve Evans wrote an essay for the Washington Post "On Faith" page recently about the fact that, for the first time in the history of the Mormon Church, women will offer an invocation or benediction at the church’s worldwide General Conference, coming this April 6–7.

Even though Evans does not believe women praying at General Conference for the first time changes everything, he says:

 But still -- this really matters. In a church run by patriarchy, women can feel that their opinions are irrelevant. If this is happening because church leaders are responding to recent letters and voices, that is a very good thing indeed. It reinforces my belief in my religion.
 I think there is a relationship between a religion's capacity to read its own history self-critically and its ability to change.

Being able to have a sense of humor about yourself also helps. 

Janet Riess, who writes a blog for Religion News Service, is sometimes very funny. In one blog entitled "Three Things I Wish Non-Mormons Knew About LDS Baptism for the Dead," she mentions a website she came across entitled

 She says she got a great laugh out of reading the satirical website:
Sadly, many Mormons throughout history have died without having known the joys of homosexuality.
With your help, these poor souls can be saved.
Simply enter the name of your favorite dead Mormon in the form below and click Convert! Presto, they're gay for eternity. There is no undo.
Being able to laugh at yourself rather than being defensive is a good thing. 

So I am hopeful and more likely to listen the next time a Mormon missionary pays a visit.

Riess's latest book, by the way, is entitled Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor.

Also, Wesley Seminary sponsored a conversation between Mormons and Methodists last year reported on here by the Salt Lake City Deseret News.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Yea, Jim!

From the "60 Best Signs Against DOMA" on BuzzFeed.

A big thanks to all the Foundry folk who witnessed today at the Supreme Court building!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Praying for SCOTUS

As the Supreme Court prepares to hear two cases concerning marriage equality this coming Monday and Tuesday, the Family Research Council reminds us to be in prayer for the justices and those arguing the case on both sides. 

From their March 20 "Prayer Targets" page:

May God guide us in praying for each member of the Supreme Court: for Samuel Alito, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Anthony Kennedy, Chief Justice John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Sonia Sotomayor, and Clarence Thomas. May each Justice be governed by the fear of God and fidelity to the moral law and Constitution. 

May the attorneys defending traditional marriage be given anointing, clarity, effectiveness, conviction and persuasiveness in presenting their arguments. May traditional marriage prevail in the minds of a strong majority of the justices, and may traditional marriage be reaffirmed as the law of the land.
Well, that's not exactly my prayer.
May those arguing on behalf of same-sex "marriage" present their arguments in an inept, confusing and unconvincing way. May they fail to gain traction in the minds of the Justices. May the right of Californians to amend their state constitution to protect marriage be confirmed by the Court, and may the Defense of Marriage Act be ruled constitutional.
Whoa!! I wonder what God makes of that prayer?!

But I do appreciate this ... that the FRC reminds us to approach next week in an attitude of prayer. (Although I am not sure FRC totally models what I would call an attitude of prayer... more just an attitude.) 

May we pray for SCOTUS and the advocates arguing before them but let our prayers be for clear and wise minds and compassionate hearts as everyone makes their case and the justices deliberate about their decision.

And let us pray also for people like Edie Windsor.  Edie, 83-years-old, lived with her spouse Thea Spyer for more than 42 years, including 20 months of marriage after getting legally wed in Canada.  When Thea died, Edie got a $363,000 federal estate tax bill that she would not have gotten had she been married to a man, not because they had a lot of money but because their Greenwich Village apartment had greatly appreciated in value.

Let us also pray for our married Foundry friends who are either living out of the country or else are actually living in two separate countries because U.S. immigration laws will not recognize their marriages even though they are legally married.

Let us pray for all those who have lived committed and loving lives together but whose commitment and love we have not honored.

James 5:16b says: "The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective." The Greek word divkaioß -- translated here "righteous"-- means "just." 

The prayer of those who value justice is powerful and effective.

So let us pray for the justices and for the advocates ... and let us pray for justice. 

We will be having a special time of prayer at Foundry this Sunday.  

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Celebrating the life and ministry of Gordon Cosby

I wrote some reflections about Gordon's life and ministry at the request of the Washington Post.

Jim Wallace of Sojourners wrote a tender memorial about Gordon's life and death in his regular column.

Be sure to read Jonathon Wilson-Hartgrove's posting "Remembering Gordon Cosby (1918-2013)."

Brian McClaren shared about his respect for Gordon yesterday.

I am sure there are many other blog posts already written and in process. Please share in the comments links to any you find meaningful.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Letter to Green Street UMC

Dear Pastor Carpenter and sisters and brothers of Green Street UMC,

On behalf of the congregation of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, DC, I want to express our appreciation for the stand you have taken on behalf of marriage equality. Future generations of United Methodists will look back on these days and be grateful for the witness of Green Street and know that the God of Exodus and Resurrection was still being worshiped and served within United Methodism.

Your communication of your decision is clear and non-defensive. You obviously love the United Methodist Church and are striving to be faithful to our tradition and experience. The good spirit you communicate is a true witness to the spirit of reconciliation.

As you are quoted as saying in the UMNS story, no approach is perfect. All of us who have struggled to figure out what is just and right in our time have discovered this. But it is so much better to do something rather than nothing. So thank you for taking action.  Your witness coming from western North Carolina is particularly appreciated.

May God continue to bless your ministry. You are in our prayers here at Foundry. We are grateful for you. You are an answer to prayer.

Dean Snyder, Senior Pastor
Foundry UMC

Friday, March 1, 2013

For those tired of the news from Rome ...

A game of "Whisper down the lane"?
Are you getting tired of the endless news and speculation from Rome?

(My personal serious favorite is Hans Kung's wonderful op-ed in yesterday's New York Times and my gossipy favorite is Andrew Sullivan's blog about the retiring pope and Monsignor Georg Gänswein who will share his apartment.)

Ianther Mills
So if Rome is beginning to bore you, here is the news of this year's clergy appointments as of March 1 from Fulton, Md., the Vatican City of the Baltimore-Washington Conference.

Foundry folk may want to note that a new pastor is coming to Asbury UMC, with whom we have strong historic ties. We will miss our friend Lou Shockley but welcome Ianther Mills who currently serves as the dean of the Cabinet. We will invite her to preach at Foundry soon.

Our new superintendent will be Joseph Daniels, Jr., who will also continue to serve as senior pastor of Emory UMC.  Our current superintendent Cynthia Moore, who recently led our women's retreat,  will move to a district in Baltimore.

We wish all those moving this year well and especially wish all the best to those who are retiring!