Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Lincoln: Still Relevant 200 years later

Lincoln's 200th birthday just passed.

Last week, the following words jumped out on

Was Lincoln a Racist?

This is the thought provoking article by Henry Lewis Gates Jr. on The Root website. It's must read material. I'll attempt to summarize:

The suggestion that Lincoln held racist views is a disturbing one to modern day Americans. Not only is Lincoln considered our best president ever (poll out this week to confirm the no-brainer), he's likely the most beloved president as well. He stretches beyond party lines, for both Republicans and Democrats claim connection to him.

There is a sense with Lincoln that he was a man before his some ways he is so mythical that he seems so beyond the ordinary human being.

The article suggests (correctly, I believe) that Lincoln was more conflicted about African Americans than we'd like to believe. While it's pretty clear that he detested slavery (for various reasons), the article points to various sources to make a clear argument that Lincoln did not consider Blacks to be equal to Whites for the majority of his life.

It appears he continued to struggle with what to do with African Americans in the United States until he met Frederick Douglass. Gates suggests that in Douglass, Lincoln recognized his intellectual equal. It was perhaps the crucial turning point in his thinking.

Gates makes the point that we have more to learn from this Lincoln than the mythical one:

"It should not surprise us that Lincoln was no exception to his times; what is exceptional about Abraham Lincoln is that, perhaps because of temperament or because of the shape-shifting contingencies of command during an agonizingly costly war, he wrestled with his often contradictory feelings and ambivalences and vacillations about slavery, race and colonization, and did so quite publicly and often quite eloquently."

Gates concludes: "By the end of the Civil War, Lincoln was on an upward arc, perhaps heading toward becoming the man he has since been mythologized as being: the Great Emancipator, the man who freed—and loved—the slaves. But his journey was certainly not complete on the day that he died. Abraham Lincoln wrestled with race until the end. And, as Du Bois pointed out, his struggle ultimately made him a more interesting and noble man than the mythical hero we have come to revere."

Read the article for yourself.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Celebration of New Ministry

The Celebration of New Ministry will be this Saturday at All Saints' Episcopal Church in Littleton NH @11AM, where I will officially be installed as the new priest (rector).

Sorry that I haven't had time to post...I have a few thoughts on Lincoln coming in a few days.

Thanks for understanding.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Seeking Power

I chose Dr. Horrible this week because I’ve been thinking a lot about power lately. It was the subject of my sermon last week, inspired in part by driving through that powerful storm. I’m leaving off the intro and “getting to the point.”

(I am indebted to Tony Campolo and his fantastic visit to Trinity Cathedral on 10/29/2008. Many of the distinctions on the difference between power and authority come directly from him, and I encourage people to listen to the podcast of his lecture.)

The power of that storm made a lasting impression on me. I underestimated its power to keep us from our task of getting home. As I reflect on the power of the storm, and the conversations we’ve been having about creating and fostering growth and change, it occurs to me how useful some power would be. After all, our American culture seems to greatly value power. Conservatives and liberals both try to grasp it. Wealth certainly seems to lead people to having powerful influence over others. And there’s no doubt that religious groups and institutions have used power to enforce morality and structure.

So why not us?

Now, I know that with power comes the danger of abusing power. Power corrupts, after all. We’ve seen examples of the abuse of power the past week. The abuse of political power of the Governor of Illinois in his money making method of appointing senators, and abuse of economic power by the Wall Street leaders handing out bonuses with bailout money have been all over the news.

For the sake of argument, lets suppose that we could resist the temptations to abuse power.

Would power be helpful in creating change as a church?

Well, lets consider an example of a good use of power in our society: The police officer. Assuming abuses of power are kept in check, police officers are good examples in the use of power:

If I’m driving, and the officer’s lights go on behind me, I pull over. Why?
---in part because I realize I might have broken some law
---in part because I know the officer has the power to enforce those laws
---in part because I know that I can’t outrun the officer
---in part because even if I escaped I’d certainly get caught eventually
---in part because I can lose my privilege of driving and be thrown in jail

The fact that the officer has a gun and license to use it probably doesn’t occur to me, but perhaps it should...

For all of these reasons, I choose to submit to the police officer’s power. But I wonder, does real change occur from this power?

Well, here’s what I honestly think. If I was driving too fast, and the police officer pulls me over, regardless of whether or not she gives me a ticket, I guarantee I’m driving under the speed limit all the way home. For a while, I’ll be driving slower: thinking about the consequences if I get caught driving to fast. Push comes to shove, however, the first time I’m late for something and in a rush, odds say that the speedometer gage will be hovering around or above the posted speed limit...and only seeing a cop again is likely to change it.

It’s important to note that I’m not thinking about how driving slower saves gas, I’m not thinking how speed limits protect the safety of myself and others, and that driving slowly especially makes a lot of sense with the winter weather and the unfamiliar roads of New Hampshire.

(to be clear...this is all very hypothetical...not only have I not been pulled over since moving to New Hampshire...or for that matter anytime in years...but I have, the vast majority of the time, been driving under the speed limit.)

The point is this...power forces people to do things “in the moment.” The police officer doesn’t have to remind me of any of the reasons to get me to pull over. The lights go on, and I bow to the power.

Power is the ability to get people to obey you because of your ability to coercer them. Even if you don’t actually coercer them, the fact that you can forces the desired behavior. Most organizations, including the church, need some people with power in order to have some accountability.

But it also leads to the critical point in this morning’s Gospel reading (Mark 1:21-28). The text clearly makes a big deal that Jesus uses AUTHORITY in his teaching, something very different from power.

The Gospel makes it very clear that authority is what sets Jesus apart.

“They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22)

“They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority!” (Mark 1:27)

The Gospels are full of the many ways that Jesus turns down power. The temptations in the wilderness were all about power: stones to bread: economic power, jump of the temple and be saved by the angels: religious power, all the kingdoms of the world can be yours: political power.

Jesus rejects any methods that will coercer people to obey him.

Instead, he pursues love, which is essentially the yielding of power by virtue of the fact that love is not based on compliance or right action.

Jesus claims the way of the servant: one with no power to dominate but instead is a position concerned primarily with the care of others.

And finally, Jesus claims the way of self-sacrifice: not for his own gain so he will be rewarded, and not to attract attention so he will be well thought of. Jesus’ self-sacrifice is being true to the ministry he is called to: to love God with his all, to love his neighbor as himself, and to proclaim God’s desire for peace and justice for all.

And thus, Jesus is one with authority.

People obey those with authority because they sense the legitimacy of the claims being made. We follow those with authority because they earn our trust by their words and actions, and they speak the truth with passion.

Think of some of the people that invoked change of hearts and minds the last 100 years: Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, Mother Theresa. They did so without the backing of any army, without the condemning of any opposing group, and without the superior economic force. They fostered change by their love for all people, by their servant leadership, and by their own self-sacrifice.

And none could doubt that when they spoke, they did so with authority.

The task of the church today is in this way, counter-cultural. It is precisely not to acquire power. It is not to claim “moral authority,” which is church speak for religious power.

Instead, we the church are to claim the loving, serving, and self-sacrificing way of Jesus. We are to proclaim and live out God’s vision of peace and justice for all.

In our doing so, we just might come to amaze people...and even ourselves...with the discovery that we are a community that teaches with authority.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Facinating Case of Dr. Horrible

Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog is another profound offering about living our complicated, human lives.

(If you're not familiar with this movie, see Tuesday's post first.)

We are introduced to "Dr. Horrible" (Neil Patrick Harris) through his video web blog, practicing his "evil laugh." Dr. Horrible, AKA Billy, is an amateur villain who is looking to move up in the ranks into the exclusive "Evil League of Evil."

The thing is, as we get to know Billy, we find that he's very likable and sweet, but very insecure. It's clear that his ethics aren't really immoral: he scoffs at the idea of a battle with a "do gooder" in the park because "there's kids in that park." In fact, he seems to clearly draw the line from doing any violence. He thinks the so called "path of evil" that he is undertaking will make the world a better place...and perhaps, most importantly, give him the courage concerning the girl he's secretly in love with but can't bring himself to talk to, Penny (Felicia Day). The gentle song in the laundromat involves his newest "secret weapon": a freeze ray. The freeze ray isn't the classic "ice gun" or anything that harms someone, but a device that pauses time so he can gather his thoughts and speak is heart (or at least, a coherent sentence) to Penny.

Penny is a lonely young woman who's an advocate for the homeless. She wants to change the world by caring for others. She seems to recognize the gentle nature of Billy almost immediately when they finally speak, and it appears that there is hope for a relationship.

Alas, a twist of fate: Penny is "saved" from a speeding van by Captain Hammer as he attempts to thwart Dr. Horrible's stealing of the final part for his freeze ray. Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion) is an egotistic, careless glory hound that nevertheless fights for "good." He actually causes the runaway van in the first place when he sends the van out of control (damaging Horrible's controls). He throws Penny roughly out of the way into a pile of garbage bags, and it's Horrible who actually stops the van. Penny, however gets a case of hero worship for Hammer because she believes that he saved her life...and Hammer loves people who worship him (especially, we learn, potential female conquests).

Of great interest is the comparisons between Horrible and Hammer. Captain Hammer is clearly set up as the bully: you can imagine this guy picking on the weaker kids like Billy as he grew up (perhaps even leading Billy to to his evil schemes). There is no doubt that the viewers like and bond to Horrible as opposed to Hammer. There's no doubt who is more genuine and caring, and who is more interested in Penny as a person. You can also make the argument that Horrible is more interested in justice (for he sees injustice in the world) than Hammer, who simply fights "bad guys" because "A Man's gotta do what a Man's gotta do" (as the song goes).

There's no doubt in the viewer's mind that Penny would be better off with Billy than Captain Hammer.

Here's the thing: Dr. Horrible is still ultimately focused on obtaining power, motivated by a belief that seizing power will make things better (for himself and the world). He's not unlike Hammer in this sense, who uses his brute strength to be powerful.

Penny starts to realize that Captain Hammer is not really the real hero she thinks he is. Yes, Hammer has the power to influence the building of the homeless shelter, but he does so only to further Penny's vision of him (and not out of any concern for the homeless). Besides that...he's also a self-centered scumbag. It's only a matter of time before this relationship falls apart.

That same desire for power, however, dooms Penny and Billy from any lasting relationship so long as he pursues power. Consider the telling line about Bad Horse (the leader of the Evil League of Evil), Penny's reaction, and Billy immediately covering it up:

Billy: "I want to be an Bad Horse."
Penny: "The thoroughbred of sin?"
Billy: (gulps) "I meant Gandhi."

Deep down, Billy knows what he's doing is wrong, but tragically sees no other way to make a difference in the world.

It's possible, after spending more time with Penny, he might start realizing what power does and does not give. Billy would eventually have had to make a choice between his "evil ways" and pursuing other avenues than power to make a difference in the world.

This opportunity never presents itself, because Billy is gloated into wanting revenge on Hammer for stealing Penny. He thinks: when I have power, I will have all. He stops spending any time with Penny, and focuses only on the completion of a new death ray to kill Hammer so he will finally gain status into the "Evil League of Evil," in the process "rescuing" Penny from the insincere Hammer.

Irony of ironies, he hesitates when the moment to grab power arises, because he has to do something truly horrible to get it. Would he have pulled the trigger? We'll never know. Of course, Hammer reveals himself to be even more immoral in his attempt to kill Horrible: no hesitation there. The shocking, tragic results (ok, not shocking if you've watched Whedon's stuff before) is both not Billy's fault, and completely his responsibility. He, after all, put everyone in jeopardy by his attempt to seize power.

Of course, the final reality is that the power leaves Billy empty: only "Dr. Horrible" appears to exist at the end...not the conflicted, likable man, but a true villain.

Is he redeemable? Well, that's up to the Whedons', but certainly there's plenty of precedence for villains finding redemption, but it's a long, hard road. Someone will not only have to teach him to love again, but will also have to help him see value in his own life.

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog was written by writer/director Joss Whedon, his brothers Zack Whedon and Jed Whedon, and Maurissa Tancharoen.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

I'm working on a commentary on Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. Whedon, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, wrote with a team of writers (mostly family) this 43-minute musical for the web during last year's writer's strike.

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, in addition to opening a promising new frontier of direct-to-internet independent offerings, is another profound work about the nature of good and evil, and how so many of us teeter on either side of things as we journey through our lives.

If you want to familiarize yourself with it, you can watch it through this link:

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

or you can read about it (including a detailed synopsis) on Wikipedia