Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Knowing God

(This was my sermon from June 21st, but I delayed posting due to other blog entries)

At her mother’s funeral Thursday, Sam Anderton told us that it was ok to be selfish, and weep and mourn for Deborah’s passing. It would be wrong, she said, to remain only there, for her mother’s life was a blessed one and she provided love and inspiration to friends, family, and even a daughter. Our lives are richer by Deb’s life with us, and we should rejoice over the blessing that was...and in some sense still is...the sacred relationship of her life.

Our scriptures for today and the events of this week...from here in Littleton to across the globe in Iran...once again echo the truth that two things that appear to be different...even contradict...are both true.

We know God: through our teachings passed to us by our families, our shared community in the church, through our reading the Bible, through our witness to the beauty found in the world, and through our experiences and interactions with other human beings. We know God loves the world.

In the same breath, I wonder: how dare we claim to know God? How dare we claim to know how God acts, how dare we claim that good fortune means blessing from God, how dare we assume that violence or injustice means God has turned away and forgotten, and how dare we assume that we know what God should do.

God is God, and we’re not.

Many a preacher has said this, but it’s true in more than the obvious sense. So often, our sense of God is powerful, based on a notion of control. Blessing or curse, it is God who has the power to impose God’s will over everyone else.

The power to impose one’s will over another...that’s such a human understanding and pursuit.

Why do we suppose that this would be the way of God?

Is God diminished in our eyes if the ability to control and orchestrate everyone and everything is not an aspect of God?

That’s been the fear of many a religious person: The classic understanding is that God is in control, so everything has to have a reason and a purpose, unless power has been temporary been wrestled away by the devil. So things that point to new understanding...away from what we’ve attributed to “God’s way,” be it science or social custom...gets met with suspicion, resistance, and even violence.

But it’s clear in our scripture, in the Old Testament as well as in Jesus’ way, that God transcends our fears and expectations. It is often in the new understanding that God shows us a new way to live. It should be no surprise that God points us to a way of life that is not based on control: be it power, wealth, or domination.

Control over all...at least in the way we understand it...does not appear to be God’s way.

Charles LaFond, The Canon for Congregational Life of our Diocese, suggests that the evil one has a new strategy: to get us to do too much. Even if we are doing good things, we end up isolated and exhausted. In the attempt to control, we fall away from God.

This works like a charm, and best of all it leaves no paper trail. We end up over stimulated, over tired, over committed, and under prayed.

Prayer is a way to counter this.

But what do we ask of God? How do we pray to a God who does not control all…at least, not in the sense of control that we understand. If prayer is not an asking God to do or not to, to bless or to curse, than what purpose does it hold? How should we pray?

First off, prayer is a multi-facetted thing. It is a conversation that God has already started, long ago at Creation, which we are invited into. It isn’t so much about right and wrong as it is being open and honest with God.

When we’re stressed or hurting, when we’re overwhelmed by fear or sorrow, and when we feel alone, it is more than appropriate to voice our hearts desires to God...asking for this or that, venting our frustrations and anger, confessing our fears and worries, or begging forgiveness. It’s not about getting what we want, but the open invitation to unburden ourselves to God.

When we know someone is struggling in one way or another, it is helpful to name them in prayer…be it formally praying a list of names, or whether it’s remembering them as we go through our day…keeping us connected to God and those in need.

When we come together as a community to pray, like we’ve done today, our corporate prayers that we say together work well to voice what binds us together as the community of God.

But what about praying in general? How might we pray to a God that isn’t sitting in a massive control center, choosing to bless or curse us at every opportunity?

Bishop Spong once said that he thought prayer was the time that he spent at the beginning of his day, before he started the day’s work...but that he later realized instead that the minutes of practice and mediation at the beginning of the day centered him, so spend his day in prayer, doing what God called him to do. Paul’s call to “pray without ceasing” being lived out.

I think that’s at the center of our Christian living.

So I have something for you. (I passed out candles to everyone).

Charles shared this mediation technique with the vestry the other night.

You find a quiet place. You light your candle, and for five minutes you just listen for God.

There's nothing to ask...don't try and discern any questions, or find a particular action. Use no words, and offer nothing but your attention.

Just listen.

Upon hearing this description, one vestry member, in a light-hearted yet wondering way, asked:

“Have you ever heard God talk to you?”

Charles thought for just a moment, and said:

“No, I think God’s too busy listening to speak. We just listen to each other. Two hearts listening to one another…”

Friday, June 26, 2009

Remembering Michael Jackson

The King of Pop, Michael Jackson, suddenly died Thursday June 25th. When someone is universally known as "The King of Pop," it seems obvious that anyone who writes on popular culture has to say something. So here I go:

There was no one quite like Michael Jackson, and there has never been (an never will be) an album like Thriller. Even non-fans of Michael (can't call him MJ...that's a basketball player) have to admit that Thriller was an incredible album from start to finish, and it still is the highest selling album of all time.

My blog, however, is Religion & Popular Culture. Even though my use of religion is really broad (ethics, spirituality, philosophy), it is hard to place Michael here. Jackson's music made you want to move and dance, and his lyrics flowed in the beat...as smooth as his moonwalk. His lyrics, however, did not have much depth. There's nothing wrong with that, he was an entertainer, not a philosopher or ethicist, but it leaves little for me to talk about here. His videos as well were primarily to entertain and dazzle, not give life commentary.

If you contrast him with "The Queen of Pop," Madonna, there's no question who had more to say about life. Through her lyrics and videos, Madonna had a lot to say...not all the time of course... but there's much to explore.

It's not that Michael didn't try. The song and video Black or White clearly was trying to say something on race...and the special effects of one person morphing into one another was unbelievable...but there was something odd about it all. Perhaps that the singer's appearance has changed so much by then: bleached skin and numerous surgeries, that it was hard to find the message credible...that on some level Michael didn't believe it (at least, he wasn't comfortable being who he was, which is the greater message of the song.)

Man in the Mirror is the song I've been thinking of
since I heard about his death. I am sad...not just about hearing about someone I "grew up" with has died...but perhaps because I have this notion that, for all of his success, Michael Jackson never reached the change that his soul appeared to long for. It's not like I knew him, or even read much about his life, but it seemed to me he never became at peace with "the man in the mirror."

I will remember Thriller as a great moment in history, and a phenomenal musical achievement. An, oddly enough, it's a Simpson's episode guest staring "John J. Smith, " an uncredited Michael Jackson, that may give me my favorite Michael memory (and I'm not the only one...). The episode "Stark Raving Dad" has Homer being committed to a mental institution and meeting a man who insists he's Michael Jackson. Bart, meanwhile, has hurt Lisa one too many times, and she demands that, if he cares about her at all, that he give thought to her birthday for once in his life.

"Michael Jackson" helps Bart write and perform a song for Lisa's birthday that celebrates who she is, (that the real Michael wrote for the show), and acknowledges Bart's real feelings for her. At the end, "Michael Jackson" tells them that his real name is Leon Kompowski, a bricklayer from New Jersey, and that he was now free to go on living his life.

I wonder if the real Michael was ever freed that way...perhaps he is now.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Couldn't be prouder...

There are few things more satisfying than witnessing the growing up of a teen where you've had some mentoring role. Preaching at Trinity Cathedral Cleveland on June 14th were Karl Bitikofer and Elizabeth Hauserman, two recent high school graduates. I met them as they began Jr. High, with me in charge of Trinity's youth. How fortunate the Episcopal Church is to have these two bright young adults in their midst!!!

Podcasts of their sermons can be found here. Their text was Mark 4:26-34

Karl sent me his text the day after he preached, and this is what I wrote him:

Wow! It's really a great sermon! I can see the thought process you described all the way though it. On first reading, this is my favorite part:

Part of doubt, is letting go of the things that don’t build faith, letting go of the ground you have already searched. So instead of searching the spot you may have missed or trying desperately trying to move the tangled briars, let go, move on. And eventually this means letting go of fear, letting go of pain, letting go of suffering and letting go of death. Just stop worrying about it, let go; and stop trying to make sense of it, stop fighting. It will be ok. Once you let go, it can all still happen, but it can’t hurt you any longer. So once we let go of the lost land, what is the good soil that is left over. It is simply what helped you let go of everything that was already lost, forgiveness, understanding, compassion, nothing short of unconditional love. Love is all that’s left. Love is the good soil for our seeds of doubt. (Karl Bitikofer)

It has been said that approx. 90% of our human thoughts lie in the past: reliving the "glory moments" (often remembering it as better than it really was), or worse, dwelling on the regrets (if only I had done this, my life would be so much better.) A nod to the past instead of a dwelling in it allows us to grow in the "soil" that we currently find ourselves in, while looking towards a future. The past then becomes "fertilizer" for the good soil left over...fertilized by love!

Really well done! I'm really proud of you and Elizabeth. I can't wait to hear the podcasts.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Ordinary Time With Jesus

With Easter, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday past, we have entered “Ordinary Time.”

Ordinary time applies to the church season from now until Advent, when the Church Year begins again. We usually refer to these Sundays as “the such and such Sunday after Pentecost.”

Ordinary Time gets its name from the word ordinal, meaning "numbered," since the Sundays of Ordinary Time are expressed numerically.

But there is also this tendency to think of this time in the common sense of “ordinary.” Until I went to seminary, I thought this time was just ordinary. I looked up "ordinary" in an online dictionary:

1. Commonly encountered; usual.

2a. Of no exceptional ability, degree, or quality; average.
2b. Of inferior quality; second-rate.

While I don’t particularly like these definitions for “ordinary time,” I must admit that there is some sense of “average” present in this season. As summer really begins, we return to “ordinary Jesus”...the accounts of his journeys around Palestine, and his telling of parables.

James R. Edwards, the Professor of Biblical Languages and Literature at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington, writes this about parables:

A common understanding is that parables are simple earthly stories with heavenly meanings. That is a common misunderstanding. Parables cannot be understood by standing outside them and peering in. They can only be understood by getting out of our seats and entering into the drama. Jacob had to wrestle with his mysterious opponent in order to receive a blessing from God (Genesis 32:22-32), and we must likewise wrestle with parables if we are to receive God’s blessing through them.”

I like Edward’s basic idea...that the parables have to be encountered and wrestled with to find understanding. What amazes me about parables: the comparison of something that is like something else, is that usually at least two possibilities are going on. There is the obvious way something is compared, and there is another level of comparison and meaning. Often, this second comparison feels different than the first...sometimes, it seems to even counter the first comparison. In other words, two things that appear to contradict each other are both potentially true.

This sometimes odd or uncomfortable for us, as we seek clarity and certainty in most things. Our human experience, however, suggests that our most meaningful experiences have this sense of apparent contradiction. It can be a simple thing like crying when we are especially happy, joyful, or laughing. We think of crying as sadness, and yet it is not always so.

One of the most profound examples of apparently contradictory things being true is death. When someone dies, we celebrate his or her life. Church service wise, it is to be joyful. We give thanks that the person is at peace, especially when they had been suffering. At the same time, we shed tears...we lament, we regret, and sometimes we even get angry. Two things that are supposed to be contradictory...joy and sadness...are both true.

Our religious explanations are full of examples of this type of relationship: our Trinitarian language...Jesus being fully God and fully human...Mary being mother and virgin...they all express truths where there appears to be contradiction.

Most of Jesus’ parables seem to have that quality to them. There are multiple ways to hear them...and sometimes the results both seem to contradict AND be true.

The first parable this morning is this: The kingdom of God is as if someone scatter’s seed on the ground, and then goes on to other things. The seed grows and grows, and only when the grain is ripe does the sower come back, for the harvest has come. (Mark 4:26-29)

This little parable is found only in the Gospel of Mark, although Matthew has a similar story with the sowing of the weeds into the good soil.

The most common contemporary way to hear this story is that God scatters the seed...which is life and specifically human beings...allows them to grow to maturity... and then returns only at harvest time (death or the second coming). Meaning can range from an exploration of free will, to some understanding that God’s returning to reap the harvest.

There is another way to hear this story. Human beings could be the ones who scatter the seeds. The seed sprouts and matures, and the earth produces the fruit. Only then does the one who scattered the seed return to see the growth and the harvest.

There are wonderful paths of exploration in hearing the story this way. What exactly did the sower plant? Seeds that grow to produce grain? Words of God’s justice and love? A child?

In each of these cases, there is the message that we will not necessarily see the growth that we may have planted. We are also not to stress and worry about whether or not the growth will occur... we need not try and micromanage it all. There also seems to be an underlying message of how little the sower does in comparison to the earth that nurtures the seed to maturity. Perhaps the life message is that each of us is called to participate, but no one is solely responsible for another’s growth.

We could explore these ideas to great detail, but I want to move onto the second parable.

Our focus on the mustard seed parable tends to be how something small grows up to be something that “puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32) It is a wonderful image how each one of us, as well as the church, can become something that nurtures and supports others.

There is another aspect of Jesus’ example that’s worth exploring: the obvious comparison with the “Cedars of Lebanon” found in the other passages for today (Ezekiel 17:22-24 & Psalm 92). The Cedars of Lebanon was a well know image of the kingdom of God: a towering tree whose strength cannot be missed. The Redwoods of California would be what most Americans might refer to today, but I live in New Hampshire, so I'll choose the “Pines of New Hampshire” as our equivalent.

Jesus points to the Mustard shrub as his example for the kingdom of God. It is, in some sense, a parody of the Cedars. No one would ever mistake a 10ft Mustard plant for a 100ft Cedar. It’s like comparing a Witch-hazel with a great Pine. Witch-Hazel’s are great shrubs...and can be large enough to be considered trees...but they hardly compare to the towering Pines. There’s nothing grand or glorious about them.

The Mustard shrub is, for all intensive purposes, a weed. Jesus might have been standing near a bunch of them when he told this story. Were they impressive? Perhaps, but they were no Cedars...Mustard shrubs were common plants found everywhere Jesus went.

Everyone was looking for something huge to point towards the kingdom of God: looking up to the skies to find a towering Cedar, but never finding one. In the process, people looked past the flourishing Mustard shrubs...after all, they’re just weeds.

Brian Stoffregen, a Lutheran pastor, says that as far as he knows, there are still no cedars growing in Israel; but there are a lot of mustard plants. He writes:

Is God ruling now or not? Perhaps we are looking in the wrong places -- staring up in the sky for tall trees, instead of looking on the ground for common weeds -- and maybe we do the same thing with people. I've heard it suggested that a weed is just a flower that's a victim of prejudice.

This interpretation of the parable -- God's rule is like a weed -- is one that certainly would challenge and threaten the hearer's world of assumptions of the coming, powerful kingdom of God. Yet, when the seed of a weed is covered by cement, they seem to find a way to grow through the tiniest of cracks. (Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at CrossMarks.com)

I love that image: the kingdom of God is like the weed that finds a way to grow through the tiniest of cracks. What an ordinary...and astonishing way...to describe God’s love breaking through into the world.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

My Blog List

New feature on the blog: "My Blog List" links to the latest blog entries of people whose blogs I try to regularly read. Mostly these are friends, colleagues, and people I want to know better! Enjoy!!!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Talking Trinity

We had a Baccalaureate for the White Mountain School at All Saints' this past Friday. During it, I noticed that the "Easter white" altar hangings were back out, and wondered to myself whether we had anything with a Trinity image, since it was going to be Trinity Sunday. So I arrived early Sunday morning to change it out...and discovered we didn't have anything.

So I checked my collection of stoles: no images of the Trinity.

Now intrigued, I looked closely at all of the stain glass windows...all of the kneelers...even at all of the artwork throughout our campus...and I did not find a single image of the Trinity.

I was wondering if this is a coincidence, or if this speaks to the uncertainty with The Trinity. Could it be that we’re not sure what else to say beyond “Father, Son & Holy Spirit?” Perhaps we feel this way because the Nicene Creed seems to go into such detail concerning the Trinity:

We Believe in One God, the Father, the Almighty
We Believe in One Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God
We Believe in the Holy Spirit. The Lord, the giver of Life.

Perhaps we feel unable to add anything…or perhaps we’re afraid that if we don’t understand the Trinity this particular way, our faith comes into question. What ever the reason, it seems that we tend to avoid exploring the Trinity.

The story of Nicodemus in the Gospel of John (3:1-17) was the text for Trinity Sunday. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, and starts questing Jesus. Nicodemus isn’t your typical Pharisee found in the Gospels. He’s not trying to trick or trap Jesus. His is an sincere effort to understand Jesus’ teachings. It’s also important to say that Nicodemus is probability a better representation of your average Pharisee: sincere, questioning, and searching…than the so-called “Pharisees” of most of the Gospel verses, who represent those in leadership positions who opposed Jesus.

Jesus tells him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Nicodemus replies, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Nearly everyone who reads this passage rightly sees that Nicodemus is missing the point by being so literal.

Jesus replies: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

I find it sadly ironic that so many contemporary people get caught up by Jesus’ words. “You have to be born again” is the cry of many people in response to this passage. “You have to be baptized” is the cry of others. There is this tendency to assign certainly to this passage…whether we take a literal or metaphorical tact. It seems not far off from Nicodemus’ response about reentering the womb. “Being born of water and Spirit” is a mysterious statement…tangible yet unexplainable. Look at Jesus’ example “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

What I think Jesus is saying is that life’s greatest mystery…the nature of God, and our relationship with God…can not be explained by “how.”

But Nicodemus, like so many of us, can’t resist asking: “How can these things be?”

I think this is the prevailing tendency of Trinity Sunday for most preachers. How can I describe the Trinity: be it literally or abstractly…as an idea or as doctrine. How can I explain or define it?

Perhaps this is in part response to the countless people through the years who have come up to ministers and said “I’m not sure if I believe in the Trinity.”

When someone says this to me, I want to explain to them the richness of the image…the vision contained in “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” I want to make things clear, in a concise way that their eyes won’t glaze over and that they won’t tune me out. I want desperately to convey “How these things can be.”

But in reality, I can’t explain the Trinity, and I’m fooling myself to think otherwise.

In the book Handbook of the Christian Year, the authors suggest that an alternative to explaining the Trinity is to instead "...treat Trinity Sunday as a day in which we praise and adore the infinitely complex and unfathomable mystery of God’s being to which we point when we speak of the Holy Trinity.” (Hickman, Saliers, Stookey & White, 1992)

This isn’t a blind following, but a sharing of experiences in the ways we have encountered God.

So here's one person’s exploration of the Trinity...based on a visual image of The Trinity.

Jan Richardson is a writer, artist, United Methodist minister, and director of a company called The Wellspring Studio. On her website, she is offers this Celtic image of the Trinity, and her reflections on it.

She writes:

Historically, Celtic Christians offered no systematic theology by which they sought to define the nature and work of Trinity, but evidence of their experience of the triune God abounds. Beyond their artistic and symbolic depictions of the Trinity, they left a remarkable body of prayers and poetry that offer us an incarnate experience of the Trinity. In their poems and prayers, Celtic Christians moved from the abstract to the actual; for them, the triune deity was not a theological concept but rather was deeply embedded in daily life. In the Celtic imagination, God, Christ, and Spirit are intertwined with one another and with all of creation. It evokes the God who both exists in a dynamic wholeness within itself yet also reaches out (or is it in?) to embrace us.

In the Celtic triple spiral, there is a space where the three spirals connect. It is both a place of meeting and of sheer mystery. Its vast, vibrant emptiness reminds me that, in this life, we will never know all the names of God. Even as the Trinity evokes, it conceals. We will never exhaust the images we use to describe the One who holds us and sends us, who enfolds us and impels us in our eternal turning.

We are to be a living sign of the Trinity who dwells in eternal, intertwined relationship within itself and with all creation. As individuals and as communities, we are beckoned to times of spiraling inward, to attend to our own souls. We are propelled, in turn, into times of spiraling outward, to attend to the world beyond us. In all our turnings, the presence of God persists. With you always, Jesus said. (Trinity Sunday: A Spiral shaped God)

I believe that it is this type of sharing: sharing our own personal experiences, and hearing the experiences of others, that leads to transformation of being born by water and Spirit that Jesus speaks of. It’s not the explaining how things are, or by the dictating of what we must do, but by seeing our life’s journey as an exploration of “the earthly things”: the fabrics of our world, the meaning of our lives, and the mystery that is God’s love for all.

A significant part of this exploration, for us, happens in the church.

Michael Hopkins, an Episcopal priest, writes this on his blog:

We are members of the Episcopal Church because of our calling to be a people at one with one another. It is because of the communion I experience in it, relationships, connectedness, that constantly give me a glimpse of relationship with God, in fact that are manifestations of that relationship itself. As Episcopalians, the church becomes our laboratory for human relationship, a body through whom God continues to choose to work in spite of its flaws. Put succinctly and personally, I am called to be a part of you and I cannot separate this call from my call to be one with God. (From Glory Into Glory, Michael Hopkins)

We are intertwined with one another and with God. We can’t really explain it…but we somehow know it’s true.

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8)

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Role of Bishop

It appears that The Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester cannot receive enough votes from standing committees in the Episcopal Church to be consecrated as bishop of Northern Michigan. Not since the 1930s has an elected bishop gone unseated. I'm unclear (as many are) as to what this will mean for the Church, and how it might affect General Convention.

There has been a lot of public statements and letters discussing the Bishop-Elect, for and against his consent (including his own letter stating his case.) I have a lot to still read, but I've always been fundamentally against withholding consent of any Diocesan election where the canons of the church are followed. If a Diocese chooses to elect someone Bishop, and the procedure is transparent and follows the rules, then I see little ground for withholding consent. (Some have raised issues with Northern Michigan's process, but I have yet to be convinced that it was improper).

There are lots of links here...read for yourself.

One response was from Dr. Lewis Weil, the Professor of Liturgics at Church Divinity School of the Pacific. The article and full letter can be found here, on Episcopal Cafe.

Dr. Weil's letter is fascinating on so many accounts, as he writes specifically to the liturgical experimentation that has caused the bulk of the trouble for the Bishop-Elect (much more-so than practicing Buddhist meditation, which has upset some as well). It is well written and compelling for those concerned with Forrester's experimental Baptism liturgy.

What really strikes me is the powerful quoting of Raymond Brown's work on the role of a Bishop.

You mention that the question has been raised about the distinction between the ministries of bishops and those or priests, with bishops being understood as “guardians of the faith.” Speaking historically, certainly this has been an important dimension of the episcopal ministry. But for me, I must bring to this question the work of the late Raymond Brown on this question. Probably some thirty years ago he published a very important little book titled Priest and Bishop. In it, and on the basis of his substantial work on the books of the New Testament, Brown proposed a missionary model for the episcopate. He calls for the bishop to exercise the radical ministry implied in the ancient title pontifex — bridge builder. In this model, the bishop is the one who is reaching out into the expanding edges of the community, and who then interprets the various voices in the Church to each other in order to build up the unity of the Body which transcends such differences as progressive and conservative. The priests, on the other hand, Brown sees as the resident pastors, those charged with the building up and nourishment of the local communities, and in that sense the conservators of the tradition. For the episcopate, I would hope that, given the needs of the church in our own post Christian world, Brown’s interpretation of the episcopate might be given fuller expression.

"Bridge Builder" really stands out as a critical addition to the "guardian of faith" that has been so used in my lifetime. Suggesting that the priests, as pastors, are "the conservators of the tradition" as they build up and nourish the local communities, and the Bishop is "reaching out into the expanding edges of the community, and who then interprets the various voices in the Church to each other in order to build up the unity of the Body" is a thoughtful and exciting twist for the future of the Church.

This really makes me think: could it be that in recent times the position of Bishop (from the focus on who gets to be a Bishop to the actual Bishops themselves) has leaned too heavily on "the guardian of faith"???

It appears so to me. I believe that this weight has come down hard on many Episcopal Bishops...potentially paralyzing them from "reaching out into the expanding edges of the community" as Brown suggested is their obligation. We can't build bridges by making promises to circumvent the development of these edges, and we can't simply reject legitimately elected leaders that might make us uncomfortable.

If we do, we'll not only miss out on those God is calling to be Bishops...we'll undermine the specific leadership that's needed from the episcopacy.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

What Judge Sonia Sotomayor said...

Here's the firestorm quote:

"I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

The setting was the Judge Mario G. Olmos Memorial Lecture in 2001, delivered at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, by appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor. It was published in the Spring 2002 issue of Berkeley La Raza Law Journal, a symposium issue entitled "Raising the Bar: Latino and Latina Presence in the Judiciary and the Struggle for Representation."

Excerpt from the Lecture: ‘A Latina Judge’s Voice’

Click the above, link to read the whole lecture but here is the controversial part in context.

"In our private conversations, Judge Cedarbaum has pointed out to me that seminal decisions in race and sex discrimination cases have come from Supreme Courts composed exclusively of white males. I agree that this is significant but I also choose to emphasize that the people who argued those cases before the Supreme Court which changed the legal landscape ultimately were largely people of color and women. I recall that Justice Thurgood Marshall, Judge Connie Baker Motley, the first black woman appointed to the federal bench, and others of the NAACP argued Brown v. Board of Education. Similarly, Justice Ginsburg, with other women attorneys, was instrumental in advocating and convincing the Court that equality of work required equality in terms and conditions of employment.

Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. Justice O'Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases. I am not so sure Justice O'Connor is the author of that line since Professor Resnik attributes that line to Supreme Court Justice Coyle. I am also not so sure that I agree with the statement. First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.

Let us not forget that wise men like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Justice Cardozo voted on cases which upheld both sex and race discrimination in our society. Until 1972, no Supreme Court case ever upheld the claim of a woman in a gender discrimination case. I, like Professor Carter, believe that we should not be so myopic as to believe that others of different experiences or backgrounds are incapable of understanding the values and needs of people from a different group. Many are so capable. As Judge Cedarbaum pointed out to me, nine white men on the Supreme Court in the past have done so on many occasions and on many issues including Brown.

However, to understand takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give. For others, their experiences limit their ability to understand the experiences of others. Other simply do not care. Hence, one must accept the proposition that a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the bench. Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see. My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage."

Here are my thoughts:

The context is "decisions in sex and race discrimination cases." Judge Sotomayor is saying that personal experiences of racism or sexism (ie. being a minority) would hopefully give an advantage of perspective for a "wise judge." A white "wise judge" would have to pursue the "understanding of the values and needs of people from a different group." Judge Sotomayor clearly says this is possible, but hard because "to understand takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give."

I think, in context, her point is not only clear, but correct. She clearly also states her challenges because of her background. "Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see. My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage."

She's telling the truth: it's hard to differentiate between personal experiences and "the facts," and to know when your experiences help you to see, and when they hinder your seeing. Judge Sotomayor is suggesting that we all have to attempt to integrate our personal experiences with the greater picture...especially to consider areas where we do not have experience, or where our experiences bias us.

To me, this sounds likes the words of a wise person...and a more than qualified judge.