Tuesday, June 24, 2008

What To Do About Custody

I recently heard a report about legislation proposed in New York regarding parental rights in the case of divorce. 

The legislation proposes that in divorce cases, joint custody should automatically be granted.  Fathers' Rights groups are pushing for the law while Mothers' Rights groups are adamantly opposed.  Who's right?  From where I sit, both.

Let's look at the mothers' side for a moment.  Arguments from one group center around domestic violence.  We certainly know that most  domestic violence occurs on the part of the man (but by no means all.  There are many studies that show men suffer domestic violence far more than previously thought but are less likely to report it).  The argument is that, if you grant automatic joint custody, there's little protection for children who are at the mercy of violent fathers.  

Domestic violence is a serious matter and certainly cannot be overlooked.  It harms children (and spouses) in so many ways, not the least of which is to often turn those children into future batterers.  Regardless of how the legislation goes, there must be sure and certain protections against abuse.  Period.

Too often, when there is violence, mothers and children are forced to leave their homes -- often forced into battered women's shelters -- while the batterer stays in the house.  Too often in divorces where there is no issue of domestic violence, women are still the ones who leave the marriage with little or nothing and making it difficult to care for children.  The situation is changing for the better, but it needs to improve dramatically.

Likewise, on the fathers' side, much can and should improve.  Orders of protection are routinely placed against fathers whether or not they have ever struck anyone in their lives.  They are routinely told their existence only matters for their ability to produce child support.  They are routinely told that children need mothers, that fathers aren't really necessary.

Obviously, the best path lies somewhere in the middle.  As a pastor, I have had many divorcing parents in my office, and I see the pain that both feel.  In most cases fathers and mothers alike desperately want what is best for their children.  In most cases, neither parent is an abuser and each longs to play a vital role in their children's lives.  The courts need to start out with those assumptions.

So, my humble suggestion for this legislation is that joint custody should be the default setting in divorce cases based on the assumption that a consistent living pattern with both parents is crucial to a healthy childhood.  

Of course, if one parent, under oath, accuses the other of domestic violence, then temporary custody should be granted to the accusing parent, while supervised regular visits should still be available to the accused.  Depending on the age of the child(ren), their input should be taken into consideration.

Once an accusation is made, however, there needs to be a heavy burden of proof on the accusing parent.  The potential for abusing the system with false accusations is high, and emotions get hot in divorces, especially when children are involved.  Should it be proved that the accusation was false, there should be legal ramifications.

The last suggestion I would make is that both parents be required by the courts to attend counseling or classes -- not to try to save the marriage, but to learn how to effectively parent together in this new and unsettling way of life.  Even if they can't stand each other as spouses, they must learn how to be partners in childrearing.

There are many websites for Fathers' Rights and Mothers' Rights groups.  They have legitimate complaints but some are blind to the obvious.  Children need both parents.

Divorce is necessarily messy and painful.  It's one more sign of our imperfection as human beings, exposing the ugliest facets of a relationship and raising countless complex issues.  There will never be perfect resolutions.  But making joint custody with mandatory "divorced parenting classes" the default setting is a start.

Strong Weakness -- A Sermon

Forgot to post Sunday's Sermon.  Here it is:  

There are times when I understand what Jesus says -- but I don't really get it.  Almost any time he says, "Don't be afraid," I can't wrap my head around it.  That's because I'm a coward.

He tells us not to worry about money, and I spend much of my time fretting about the budget.  He says don't worry about what people think of you, and I fret over that.  He says don't fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul -- and I am afraid.

I understand what he was saying to the disciples in today's Gospel -- he's sending them out not only on one preaching mission but ultimately out to the world after he's gone.  Jesus knows what they'll face -- prison, beating, torture, death.  He tells them that the message they bring is more important -- and that this life alone is only fleeting -- they will have joy in heaven.

This life isn't the final story -- it's just the school before real life in effect.

What they do to the body doesn't matter because they can't touch the soul.

Which raises a question:  If what happens to the body doesn't matter, why do we bother helping people to eat?  Or to have clothing?  Or to go to school?  Or to have shelter?  Why are we sending 13 people down to Towel Camp next week

Because of what Jesus also said.  Don't fear what can kill the body but not the soul.  Fear rather him that can kill the soul.  And what can kill the soul?

Aside from fear, what kills the soul is a simple thing:  Not loving.

Loving our neighbors -- doing what is best for them body and soul -- feeds our souls.  Trying to control and dominate others -- or simply ignore them -- kills our souls.  

The reason Jesus could send his disciples into dangerous situations is because it was important for them to share God's love -- it's the same reason he faced the cross himself.  

I am thankful that sharing God's love does not usually mean facing torture and death.  Usually it means just reaching out to someone in need.  Hard enough for many of us.

But therein lies our strength.  Our strength is not in going in with both barrels blazing -- that's weakness.  Our strength is in what the world perceives as weakness -- the intention not to dominate but to serve.

How different our world would be if those in power embraced weakness -- embraced the idea that to strike at enemies -- even those who hurt us -- is meaningless.   Embraced the idea that the best way to be all that we can be is to serve those in need -- that is, asking them what they need and partnering with them to help rather than imposing upon them what we feel they need.

There are many who face death and suffering in order to serve others -- witness Zimbabwe this week with its political assassinations.  But their perceived weakness will be their ultimate strength.  Not only because reaching out in love rather than domination feeds the soul but because those who desire to dominate ultimately collapse upon themselves.  

Don't fear those who can kill the body and then have no more power.  Fear the one who can kill the soul.  Fortunately, Jesus tells us, we know how to strengthen the soul.  The question is and always has been, do we have the will?


Saturday, June 21, 2008


Thought I'd lighten things up today with a game I enjoy.  The object is to get the entire field to be one color -- in 25 moves or less.  Start in the upper left hand corner and tap the color on the color palette that you want to change your color to.  As you tap, the starting square will grow, but you can only tap colors that adjoin the starting square.  You'll figure it out.  Have fun!

Friday, June 20, 2008


June is Torture Awareness Month.  We're two thirds of the way through June, and I have not said anything about it, and I'm a bit ashamed by that.  After all, we, the Church, are here to stand up for the poor and oppressed.  

Instead, I've spent much of my month worrying about Sunday School ceremonies, grant requests for maintenance, and vacation.  But at a meeting last night, other clergy were talking about events they had attended to protest our country's seeming acceptance of torture against "the bad guys."  So, while this little piece may not do much, I want to add my voice to the many out there who believe no country -- including our own -- should ever ever torture.

Why should the church say anything about torture at all?  I mean, shouldn't we leave that to the politicians? Shouldn't we keep out naive noses out of the business of protecting our country from "evil doers?"

Um, lest we forget, how we treat each other is the church's business.  Lest we forget, the church teaches that we are all created in God's image, no exceptions.  There is not, nor has there ever been sanction for cruelty, even though segments of the church itself have clearly and painfully been guilty of the same.

As Christians, we are bound to the words of Christ.  This is the Son of God who said, "Love your enemies."  This is the Savior who said, "To him who strikes you on the one cheek, also offer the other.  And to him who takes away your garment, do not forbid your tunic also."  The one who said, "He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword."  Not to mention, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," and "Love your neighbors as yourself."

Christ does not allow cruel treatment of those who are in our power.  

Incidentally, neither does the U.S. Constitution.  The courts have told us time and again that things our country has been guilty of in recent years are clearly illegal.  The constitution declares that the writ of habeas corpus may be suspended only “in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion.”  The courts have throughout history declared "harsh interrogation" techniques to be torture and thus illegal.  Our government specifically mentioned water-boarding as a reprehensible act of torture when it was used against our troops in World War II and in the Korean War.  We sentenced on Japanese soldier to 25 years hard labor for practicing it on American prisoners.

But even if, as the president says, we are allowed to use these methods because it's an emergency, should we?  No.  

Study after study has shown that torture almost never yields useful information.  Victims will say whatever they think the torturer wants to hear in order to make the suffering stop.

But even if it yielded useful information, we should never do it, because it destroys us more thoroughly  than terrorism or war.  It infects us like a virus, eating our moral fiber and making us no different from the very people we want to protect ourselves against.  Anyone who resorts to torture has become morally bankrupt.  Period.

Officially speaking, the Army does not torture anymore (not that they ever called it that).  But other agencies, such as the CIA, are said to still make use of it when agents deem it appropriate.  And we still hold untold "detainees" in secret prisons (not just Guantanamo Bay).  

I am a Christian, and as such, I reject treating any other human being as an object to be manipulated any way I choose.  We treat our prisoners with respect because we would want ourselves, our sons and daughters to be treated with respect as well.  And just because others don't do it is no reason for us to resort to similar behavior.  

I've always thought we were better than that.  I pray we are.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Wedding Bells

Wedding bells are chiming in California because today, gay couples there can legally get married.  So, what do we make of it?

Is it the end of marriage as we know it?  Will this encourage more people to be gay?  Maybe people will start thinking, "Wow, look at them getting married.  Maybe I should get married to someone of my same sex, too."

Of course that's absurd.  In fact, there are virtually no negative consequences to gay marriage, at least from a civil standpoint.  Most of the folks getting married in California have been monogamous couples for many years.  One couple had been together for more than fifty years.

Granted, there may be religious objections.  But think about it, religious objections are not on the same par as civil objections.  California has not required any religion to solemnify any marriage.  The Episcopal Church does not allow its priests to perform same-sex marriages, so even if I lived in California, I would not do it.

That doesn't take away from the fact that gay couples should have the civil rights accorded any other life-long couple.  They should enjoy the same rights that my wife and I enjoy.  Except for religious considerations, there is no reason not to.

And think about the good it does for there to be these marriages.  They can support each other when and if one has to go to the hospital.  They can formally commit to each other, strengthening their relationship and garnering a deeper level of support from their friends and family.  They can put to rest the lie that gay people are more promiscuous than straights.  

As a citizen, I fail to see any reason to deny marriage to a segment of the population that desperately wants to join into that union.  Whether we call it marriage or something else is entirely irrelevant to me -- I'd say we leave that to the people involved.  If gays choose to call it marriage, that's fine by me.

Of course, the question pops up about what would I do if the church ever did allow same-sex marriage.  It's a simple answer: I'd do it.  Why, if the bible is so adament against it?

First, because the bible is not to be read literally.  Those who do so are guilty of idolotry.  God is God and the bible is not.  Jesus is the incarnation of God, and he said nothing about gays.  We do not believe that everything in the bible is prescriptive, nor should it be.  Secondly, even taking the scriptures very seriously, many of the passages cited as indicating God's displeasure with gays are being abused.  They are, at the very least, of uncertain meaning, most of them open to other plausible and completely different interpretations.  You can't read the bible in English and think you understand it.  You can't really even read the Hebrew with any confidence that you get it all because the most ancient texts are incomplete or unclear.  Never believe anyone who points to their King James and says, "See, it says so right here, so that's the way it is."

As a point of reference, we in the Episcopal Church take scripture very seriously, noting that it contains all things necessary to salvation (but not that everything in it is necessary to salvation).  We also take tradition and reason as equal parts of our understanding of God's will.

So, when the church allows it, I'll celebrate such marriages.  But for now, let those wedding bells chime in California.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Bits of Heaven - a Sermon

Happy Fathers Day.  Every Father's Day you see these cards and ads idealizing Father/Son activities.  Well, My son and I had a little father/son outing yesterday when we went on a Boy Scout rafting trip down the Housatonic.  

Let me tell you, it wasn't like the white-water rafting stories so many friends told me about.  "It'll be the time of your life," one friend said.  If you don't count the 5 hours of travel and waiting around doing nothing time, the trip down the river lasted six hours.  Three of those hours consisted of sitting in still water trying to paddle while the boys pushed each other out of their rafts (and trying to push all of the adults out) and stealing each others' paddles.  Two of those hours consisted of trying to dislodge our rafts from the endless array of rocks that littered the last third of the river run.  A half hour of our time consisted of eating lunch on a muddy bank.  

But one half hour was glorious.  Fast water that looked ominous shooshed us smoothly along, brief stretches of choppy water gave a roller coaster ride, shooting us over those rocks or bouncing off them like giant pinballs.  It wasn't much, maybe, but it was just enough to give me a glimpse of what people love about the river.  Mind you, we forgot all about the glorious glimpses once we hit the rocks later on.

I mention this because our little story can seem a lot like life itself at times.  Most of the time, it seems like nothing happens -- you try to move forward, but maybe nobody wants to move forward with you or there are too many distraction.  Who knows.  A lot of the time, life is just plain hard -- you get scared or frustrated or you don't know how you're going to make it.  Some of the time you're sitting in the mud wondering what else you could have done with your time.

But sometimes, you get a glimpse of why we're here, of what makes life and love so special.  People come into your life, spectacular events change you, something you accomplish makes you sit back and say, "Wow."

Not only life is like that, but heaven -- or at least what we get to see of it.  We live in this world, and quite often we get so caught up in the rocks of our lives that we fail to remember or even recognize those glimpses of heaven.

Those are the days when it's good to remember the scriptures -- the glimpses of heaven that others have had.  The stories of Abraham sitting there minding his business when the Lord appears in the guise of three men.  Abraham at a hundred years of age, and the Lord tells him he's about to become a father.  YOU may not think of having a child at 100 as glorious, but for Abraham, it was as good as it gets.  And this man had seen his share of rocky patches in life.

Or look at Jesus, sending his disciples out to preach.  He takes them from their normal lives doing a wide array of jobs and sends them into the world with one message:  "The kingdom of heaven has come near."

Two things to remember about that message.  The message isn't that the kingdom of heaven is here right now.  It has come near.  Close enough to catch a glimpse of, to see what can be, to see what God promises.  Some people recognized it and others did not.  Some were too caught up in the rocks of their lives, perhaps, to notice.  But those who did, saw a glimpse of heaven.  They did not see heaven when the disciples came through, but they saw just enough, just a bit of heaven.  And it was enough.

The other thing to remember is that Jesus told the disciples their mission would be hard.  Hard but worth it.  Because just as others saw bits of heaven in their preaching, so would they.  They would face persecution, prison, even death -- but what they saw of heaven would be enough.

If your life isn't all you'd like it to be -- if there are rocks, and distractions, and mudholes you find yourself sitting in, well that certainly makes you human.

But you will see glimpses of it as you look around -- and if you let them, they will be enough.  Amen.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Happy Anniversary to Me

Happy Anniversary to me!  Happy Anniversary to me.  Happy Anniversary to meeeee.  Happy Anniversary to me.  (Sung to the tune of Happy Birthday)

Today is the eighteenth anniversary of my ordination.  To be technical, it's the eighteenth anniversary of my ordination as a deacon.  In our church, as in others, a priest must first be ordained as a deacon and serve for at least six months before going on to the priesthood.

It's a funny journey toward ordination.  Before you're ever ordained, you've spent at least three years studying and preaching.  Three years in seminary of learning pastoral care, the nuances of scriptural interpretation, biblical languages (no Latin for us - we prefer Hebrew and Greek), canon law, liturgics -- all that fun stuff.  About the only thing they don't teach you is how to run a parish.

Every denomination prepares its pastors differently, but in ours candidates for ordination are generally required to have a Masters degree before entering seminary.  Mine was in German and education.  In some denominations, they spend many more years in seminary than our paltry three, and that might be better.  I kind of wish we'd had at least one more year teaching us how to deal with budgets, broken pipes, insurance companies and committees. 

After eighteen years of ordained ministry, I still lose the most sleep over buildings and grounds issues.  Go figure.

I plan on celebrating by not going in to work today -- well, Monday's my day off anyway.  So, maybe I'll go to the ice rink and skate for awhile.  But I'll also thank God for the opportunity to touch a few lives in a world where to make a big difference starts one life at a time.  

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Who Follows? -- A Sermon

This is Recognition Sunday when we recognize all the hard work and dedication of Sunday School students and teachers as well as our graduates.  Good Job, everyone.

Students are often seen as followers.  Jesus certainly referred to his disciples as his students -- so Sunday School students, you're in good company.  

Or are you?  Now, I know our Sunday school students never misbehave, and they always listen and understand everything right away.  But if you read the bible, you'll see that Jesus' students -- and in fact, God's students -- or should we say followers? -- weren't always so good.

In fact, sometimes it seems like the people who God allowed to be his followers weren't very good students at all.

Let's look at Abraham, the star of our Old Testament reading.  Now, in our reading from Romans, St. Paul clearly considers Abraham to be the paragon of virtue, the man who personified faith.  Of course, you know how when things happen a long time ago.  You forget the bad and remember only the good.  So Paul remembers only the heroic things about Abraham -- He remembers the faith. 

But was Abraham really all that fantastic?  Paul says he left everything behind, but what did he leave?  His dad was dead.  He was leaving a city that he'd only been in for a few years -- remember he moved there when he was sixty-five or so -- and he took his wife, nephew, slaves and livestock with him.  What was so different about this than any other emigre?

Sure, Abraham follows God, but then he gives his wife away to Pharaoh in order to protect his own safety.  Then he does it again with King Abimelech.  

True, he bargains for the lives of strangers in Sodom and Gomorah, and that's good, but later on he banishes Hagar and Ishmael with hardly a complaint.  And later still, he goes off to kill Isaac without a word.

Which is all a way of saying, Abraham was not perfect.  He was just one of us.

And if that weren't bad enough, look at Matthew, the man Jesus calls to follow him in today's Gospel.  The man is a tax collector, for goodness sake.  We think the IRS is bad, but a tax collector in those days was the worst kind of traitor, the absolute scum of the earth.  

Jesus follows this up with an even more remarkable encounter.  There's a woman following him.  A woman who has been bleeding for 12 years touches him in hopes of being cured.  Talk about outrageous behavior.  In those days, Jews were scared of blood -- it was unclean, and they avoided touching it except in battle.  A woman's blood was even worse - to be avoided at all costs.  So when this woman has the affrontery to touch Jesus' robe, well he had the right to scold her at the least.  Instead, he praises her faith.

All three of these examples:  Abraham, Matthew, and the woman, show us horribly flawed people -- regular folks like us, some worse than others -- who somehow heard God's voice.  It might not have even been a real voice.  Maybe they just got a glimmer of something special. 

Whatever it was, they decided to follow.  As Abraham shows, following did not make them suddenly saintly.  Those who follow God's path often make just as big of mistakes after they make that decision as they did before.

As the woman with hemorrhages shows us, deciding to follow doesn't bring fame or much of anything else -- nobody hears about her again, and we don't really know whether she continued to follow.

Which is all a way of saying that the question of who will follow Christ doesn't depend on their worthiness.  Nor does it depend on their ability to stay on the straight and narrow.

Following Christ is a funny thing.  It's a way of life that challenges us and transforms us, but it never makes life less confusing or any easier.  Matthew followed even though he had to put up with people pointing and saying to Jesus, "You're hanging out with him?"

Following Christ only means one thing.  You want to go where he's going even if you don't know where it might be.  You want something that only he can give.  It's never been a function of deserving it or earning it.  It's a function of desire.

So you can follow Jesus if you want what he has.  The only question is, do you want it?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Political Excommunication

Saw an interesting article about Roman Catholic lawyer and professor Douglas Kmiec who endorsed Barack Obama for President.  He was denied communion by a priest who just before had excoriated him for his endorsement.

While I'm no Roman Catholic and don't believe for a minute that this one priest's actions were the work of the entire church, I do believe the congregation or ministry where that priest works ought to receive the attention of the IRS.  Why?

Well, during the last presidential election, a retired Episcopal priest was guest preacher at an Episcopal congregation and mentioned the names of Bush and Kerry.  He told the congregation that Christians should vote and should do so based on Christ's teachings and example.  Then he compared Bush's and Kerry's statements on various issues and asked the congregation to consider them in light of the Gospel.  

He did not tell people who to vote for.  However, a supporter of George Bush took this to be an attack on the president and filed a complaint with the IRS which then revoked the tax-exempt status of the congregation. It was only after much public outcry that the congregation retained its tax-exempt status.

Now, this was a case of a guest speaker -- not the pastor -- saying something that might be construed as supporting one candidate or another.  In this case, however, the priest denied another Roman Catholic communion for openly supporting a particular candidate.  In essence, what that priest said was, "You must support John McCain or else."  That's blatant political action.

I realize this isn't the whole church saying it, but it is the ministry of that priest, and if it's good enough for a supposedly liberal congregation to receive that treatment, it's certainly good enough for a ministry with a neocon priest as well.  

For the moment, though, I think a public reprimand of that priest would suffice -- after all, just in the case of the Episcopal congregation, it is the action of just one individual.