Friday, October 30, 2009

Thoughts on the Signing of the Hate Crimes Bill

This week President Obama signed into law the long awaited Shepard Hate Crimes Bill, which broadens hate crime laws to include sexual orientation as a factor in violent crimes.

When I found out that the law had been signed, I tweeted about how proud I was of our President and our country. Several folks replied that they don't understand why it can be more of a crime to beat one person to death than another person. Isn't every violent crime a hate crime?

(For those that aren't easily offended, there's a fantastic South Park episode about this very question.)

I share their sentiment and I agree that any violent crime is hateful. But I think the importance of the Shepard bill is much greater than the mandate of tougher sentences for physical attacks on certain people. The symbolic importance of this bill is somewhat like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts strengthened protections of rights that were in theory already guaranteed by the Constitution, but in practice they were systematically denied to people based on skin color. The importance of these bills was what they said about where we as a country were and how we were determined to do better in living up to the values we profess.

I believe the Shepard bill fulfills a similar symbolic purpose. As a country we are taking a stand and saying that violent attacks against anyone for any reason is never acceptable.

I am especially happy to see this bill passed because it was stalled for so long in Congress, with much of the opposition to it taking the form of half truths and outright lies clothed in religious language (this is another similarity to the aforementioned bills).

As a person of faith I respect the views of my brothers and sisters who believe that differing sexual orientations are a sin, even though I do not share this view. But I think most of us (fringe groups aside) can agree that violence against any group for any reason is never acceptable.

I am hopeful that the passage of the Shepard bill signals a positive shift toward a more peaceful and tolerant society.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Silent No More

A friend shared this USA Today article recently, and it gives voice to a problem that most people acknowledge on a certain level, but few people really understand. The problem is that being a pastor is a stressful, lonely job, and studies show that most pastors a very unhappy.

The article points out that pastors themselves share some measure of blame for this. The types of personalities drawn to local church ministry are generally people pleasers (guilty as charged), but the reality of leadership is not only that you can't make everyone happy, but real leaders often have to do things they know will make others angry because it is for the greater good.

Many pastors also set themselves up for failure by implying (sometimes in not so subtle ways) that they consistently embody the high ideals they encourage their community to live out. When Ted Haggard was forced out of his church in 2007, I wrote a post about how both pastor and congregation play into the myth of the perfect person, the super-hero pastor, and that the pressure will become overwhelming and the consequences will be disastrous.

This isn't just an abstract issue for me. I've been very open about my struggles with depression and anxiety, both in the congregations I've served and here in the blogosphere. And many of the things I've experienced in ministry have made my mental health struggles worse. The very fact that I've shared these struggles has had negative consequences on more than one occasion. So while I've never been suicidal like some of the pastors mentioned in the USA Today article, I understand what it's like to feel lonely, and even on occasion hopeless as a pastor.

One problem is that most pastors don't have very many "safe spaces" where they can be open and honest about their struggles. Pastors generally work more than 40 hours a week, much of that time spent with people in their congregations, but rarely are those people a safe space for a pastor. Sadly, most pastors can't feel safe with other clergy, either. Often times we're too afraid of shattering people's illusions that we're perfect, or we know that someone will see a point of weakness and use it against us.

Sadly, most pastors are either too proud or too scared to seek out professional help, assuming that if they just prayed or read their Bible more everything would be OK. So we become trapped in a self destructive cycle that everyone sees, but no one wants to talk about. But it's only a matter of time before the elephant in the room charges and people get hurt.

(For anyone in the Middle Tennessee area, I recommend the Pastoral Counseling Centers of Tennessee. I've seen the same counselor there for the last six years and the benefit has been immeasurable.)

If you're a pastor, please take a risk and speak up. Name your fears and your struggles. Sure, you run the risk of upsetting someone or giving a dysfunctional person some ammo against you, but you might also be surprised at who else might be suffering in silence, and at how your example may encourage and empower them.

If you have a pastor, step back and take a look at how you and your congregation treat them. Are your expectations unrealistic? Is your pastor setting him or herself up for failure by letting you expect too much of them? Ask yourself this question: do I pray for my pastor? Trust me, they need it.

Naming our struggles won't solve them, of course. There will always be difficult people and situations. But if more people realize that pastors are people too, including (maybe especially) pastors themselves, we'll all be a whole lot better off.

Monday, October 26, 2009

More Shameless Self Promotion

The new issue of Circuit Rider just came out, and I got to write one of the feature articles. The issue is focused on Ministry with the Poor (one of the four areas of focus defined by the 2008 General Conference), and my article is on "Prophetic Preaching in the Real Pulpit". It talks about preaching on challenging issues in ways that will actually be heard and acted upon by a congregation.

I hope you enjoy the article. Please leave any comments (positive or otherwise) you have below.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Experience and Health Care

As many folks out there know, Kate had the flu last week. She's much better now, and everything went pretty smoothly, but as new parents facing the first illness, having her fever go over 104 degrees was pretty scary! (Jessica wrote a couple blog posts about the experience)

Experiencing the health care system for the first time from the parent's perspective has caused me to reflect on the current national debate about reforming it.

On Monday afternoon, when Kate's fever spiked high enough that we knew we should take her to the doctor, we were able to immediately get an appointment and be seen by someone within an hour. They wrote us a prescription, and we were able to get it filled right away at the pharmacy, and it helped get Kate's fever down. After a few days at home and a follow up visit to the doctor, she was all better and life could return to normal.

Why did all of this happen? Why did we have such a good experience, scary though it was at certain moments? The work of caring and dedicated medical professionals played a large part, of course. But we have the kind of access to them that not everybody has.

The first thing that the receptionist and the doctor's office or the pharmacy technician does is look on their computer to check our insurance information, and when they see that we have good coverage, they smile and are glad to help us. This isn't because they're greedy. It's because they need to earn money like anybody else, and the knowledge that we can pay gets us better treatment.

A quick glance around the waiting room at the pediatricians' office showed us people with kids as sick or sicker than ours, some of whom were unable to be seen or were having to wait a very long time because they had little or no coverage.

So why does Kate deserve better care than these other kids? The idea that we live in a meritocracy, that those who work harder deserve more, doesn't really apply here, because at eight months old, what has she done to deserve better treatment (other than being objectively the most beautiful baby ever, of course)?

The answer is that she gets better treatment because she won the genetic lottery, being born in the United States to an upper middle class family. Jessica and I won similar genetic lotteries back in the early 1980s. We've worked hard and made the most of the opportunities we've been given, of course, but no one can deny that we had infinitely more resources and opportunities than most people in this country, let alone the entire world. All because of the families we were born into.

We're told by some folks that giving all people access to a basic level of health care will somehow hurt us and make our lives worse. But I'm not sure how an infant whose parents both work blue collar jobs (or, for that matter, whose parents are out of work because of the economic downturn) getting the same basic care that Kate gets hurts my family.

Jessica and I are both very fortunate to have jobs that have enough flexibility to allow us to stay home when our child is sick. I don't see how some basic protections allowing people in less flexible jobs a certain amount of days to do the same hurts my family.

I'm still working on educating myself on the specific proposals, so at some point I'll probably be able to say what specific policy I'm in favor of.

So for now, let me simply say that equal access to health care for all people won't hurt my family. In fact, I think it will make it stronger. Jessica and I won't stop working hard and just depend on someone else to take care of us. But if one or both of us were to fall on hard times and lose our jobs or our coverage, at least we'd know that Kate would still be able to be seen by a doctor and not turned away because she picked the wrong time to get sick.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Some Perspective from You Tube

As Jessica and I were hanging out at home today caring for our sick daughter, I came across an interesting blog post.

James McGrath, a professor of mine from college, shared this video, which claims to educate viewers on church history in four minutes:

To be fair, I don't know who produced this or in what context it was originally shown. And, of course, there's only so much you can do in four minutes. That being said...

This is church history from the viewpoint of white American evangelicals. The only mention of Eastern Orthodoxy is when Byzantine culture takes over parts of Italy. Africa only shows up with the mention of Augustine. Roman Catholicism disappears completely after 1517 (when Luther posted the 95 Theses), and its mentioned more for its wars than anything else. The rest of the globe disappears when the USA arrives on the scene (save for the twin antichrists: Charles Darwin and Godless Communism), and there is no mention of the Civil Rights movement in the US!

It's pretty creative, but if you want to really learn some church history, spend more than four minutes on it.

On a lighter note, here's a video that explains the origins of the Swine Flu:

It all makes sense now! This pandemic is part of a holy Jihog against us gentiles and our impure pork eating ways!

Friday, October 02, 2009

Much Needed Push-back

Looking back at my blog posts over the last few months, I've noticed an undercurrent of negativity. I'm generally not a negative person, and I don't think my posts have been overly gloomy but I have noticed a growth in my cynicism (case in point, my post on Frustration with the Political Climate).

For a long time I've been something of a political junkie, and while I tend toward the liberal/progressive end of the spectrum because of my religious convictions, I don't consider myself a partisan person. So I've become frustrated that the hyper-partisan nature of the campaign season, particularly in Presidential years, hasn't receded into the background and been overshadowed by substantive debate.

The thing that has bugged me the most is how the conservative end of the spectrum has been dominated by talking heads like Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Bill O'Riley, and Sean Hannity. These guys seem way more interested in tearing down people who disagree with them than in actually accomplishing anything constructive. After a summer filled with Tea Partiers, people making signs of President Obama with Hitler mustaches (I thought it was equally stupid when my fellow war opposing liberals did the same thing to President Bush), scary people carrying guns to protest rallies, and other forms of outrage that seem largely manufactured, it seemed that the radical voice of the right was somehow becoming mainstream.

This is particularly distressing to me because I have a deep appreciation for intelligent, rational conservative thought, and I find that it provides balance and perspective in my own thought. I have a number of friends and loved ones (including both my father and father-in-law) whose conservative leanings challenge and sharpen my own take on the issues. Dialogue with them is extremely stimulating, even thought we rarely end up agreeing on much.

So I was very happy to see some influential conservative voices recently push back against the extremists who have been dominating the conversation of late.

David Brooks, a very intelligent columnist for the New York Times, wrote an op-ed making a very persuasive case for how the Faux News talking heads have significantly less power and influence than they claim.

South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (who has often pandered to the radical right) recently hit back very hard at extreme voices, specifically O'Reilly and Beck, suggesting that these guys are doing more harm than good. Graham made an especially salient point when he contrasted the willingness of the Founding Fathers (guys who often did not get along well) to dialogue and compromise for the good of the whole country with the current state of political discourse.

I hope these protests from more rational, mainstream conservative voices represents a return to civility in our national discourse. If we can put down the Hitler signs and assault rifles, quit shouting and actually talk to each other, we'll be much better off. We won't always agree or get our way all of the time, but at least we'll remember we're all on the same team here.