Monday, November 5, 2012

Keep Austin Compassionate

What kind of city are we?

When I travel and say I’m from Austin, people gush about our city. “I love Austin!” “Austin is such an awesome city!” “I wish I lived in Austin!”

Recently, Forbes listed Austin as first among US cities in economic growth and Yahoo Finance said Austin was the most popular city for college grads.

From the outside, we look really great. But that begs the question: What really makes a city great?

Last April, as a member of Austin Interfaith, I had the opportunity to accompany several City Council members, staff and representatives from Austin non-profits on a visit to the Chapman Partnership in Miami, Fla. The partnership operates two facilities in Dade County that provide comprehensive services for the homeless, including shelter, day care, job training and housing assistance.  Homelessness has been drastically reduced through the work of this amazing organization.

Trish Bell, chairwoman of the Chapman Partnership board, spoke at a banquet for our Austin entourage. She said that what makes a city great is not exciting sports teams (like the Miami Heat) or generous donors (like  Alvah Chapman) but the degree to which a city is willing to help the poorest among them with dignity and compassion.

On election day, we have an incredible opportunity to continue making Austin a great city for everyone. Three ballot items – Proposition 15 and related Propositions 14 and 17 -- directly address the shortage of affordable housing and medical care for the poor. These propositions, which are part of a $385 million City of Austin bond proposal, will cause no increase in local property taxes. 

Proposition 15 will provide $78.3 million for affordable housing for veterans, low-income seniors, the disabled, the homeless and their families. Passage of this bond allows the city to continue a number of programs for low-and middle-income persons, including rental assistance, home ownership grants and loans, home repair and infrastructure improvements. More funding will be available for transitional and permanent supportive housing for the homeless.

Are these programs really needed in Austin? The simple answer:  Yes.

Rental and housing affordability has risen steeply in recent years, which makes housing in Austin out of reach for many working families. According to the U.S. Census, during the past 10 years the poverty rate among seniors has increased by 42 percent in Central Texas. Approximately 24 percent of workers in Austin earn less than $13.50 an hour. Almost 10,000 homeowners here live at or below the poverty level.  

Who are these people? They are cafeteria workers, janitors, cabbies, bus drivers, day care workers and home health attendants. Surely great cities help make available decent, safe and affordable housing for everyone -- especially for the folks we depend upon daily.

In addition, Proposition 15 would provide funds for the most vulnerable among us, for those who have lost their homes or who are chronically homeless and in need of support services to stabilize their lives and work toward self-sufficiency.

But will it work? Housing Works of Austin commissioned an economic impact study which showed that the 2006 Housing Bond of $55 million brought more than $800 million to the city of Austin.  Housing Works estimates that more than 3,000 affordable homes have been added since the last bond, along with critical repairs for 600 low-income homeowners. These bonds have helped more than 200 first-time home owners and thousands of renters.

Propositions 14 and 17 also stand to make positive impacts on the poor in our community.  Proposition 14 is a $78.6 million bond designed to improve public parks, recreation centers and trails. It will provide funding for much needed expansions at the Dove Creek Recreation Center, which features programs and activities for low-income families.

 And Proposition 17, an $11.1 million bond for health and human services, will let the city expand shelter services for women and children. The recent creation of “Safe Sleep Shelter” by a coalition of downtown and university-area churches, providing emergency shelter for about 40 to 50 women each night, demonstrates the need for increased shelter for Austin women.
The ballot this year is long, so when you arrive at your polling booth, please take time to scroll down to the propositions. Let’s continue working together to keep Austin compassionate.  I hope you’ll join me and Austin Interfaith in voting YES on Propositions 14, 15 and 17.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Roots with Fruits

Guest blogger is Nolan Nichols, a member of University UMC, a firefighter and a fairly new convert to vegetarianism. Thanks, Nolan, for sharing some of your spiritual journey and how it connects with the things we do every day. 

Let your good thoughts grow into good actions. The eye can never say to the hand, "I don't need you." The head can't say to the feet, "I don't need you." (Corinthians 12:21) One cannot say that one dancer is more important than the other; the beauty is in the two moving together. Which are more important the fruits or the roots of a tree? (As you read on, feel free to interchange the words, Love and God, as I have come to know one as the other.)
What about the roots and fruits of life? Root of your life, ground yourself, in the soil of love. Let your thoughts and attitudes grow from there. You must be rooted and grow from a firm foundation of love. From this nutritious soil love can grow into all the branches of your life. Spreading off the branches of your life should be the fruit or action of love.
Over the last year I have truly enjoyed a vegetarian diet. It is love that prompted my dietary switch. It was not the health, financial, or environmental benefits of vegetarianism that prompted my decision, but love’s caring grip that held me to my path. It has been a daily cultivation, maintenance of a penetrable heart, opening, and accepting of love that has formed the fruit of a peaceful diet. Being vegetarian is not the goal, but is a fruit of love.
My diet is a constant source of humility. If we look creatively we can be peaceful. Peaceful, with what some call our “God given food.” Animals and people have been dignified in this decision. When it comes to your diet, your interpretation of this blog, your first step into action, trust your intuition. Trust in love. For those adventuring into vegetarianism: find perseverance, find righteousness, and don’t becoming self righteous.
There will always be people who accuse you of not growing in the right direction. Do not worry. There will be someone who spotlights some gnarled branch of your life. There will be someone who wants your tree to look like theirs.  “You should be vegan. You should eat meat. Animals were put on this earth for us. There is a speck in your eye.” Come to peace with the inevitability of misplaced judgment. Do not be swayed by the hot winds of those around you, but continue to lean towards the sun.
Enjoy the springing forth of sweetness in your life. Go vegetarian, walk, meditate, sing, give a hug, give a present, give a word of encouragement, take a handout, take a friend to dinner, take a stranger to dinner, let love grow into fruition. The goal is not to have a well pruned little tree of life. Grow a great big expansive loving tree. Let love branch out in all directions and reach yourself skyward and the fruit we bear will nurture us with goodness.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Summer Reading

At University UMC, the rhythm of the year cannot help but imitate the rhythm of the university (University of Texas) year. (Isn’t there a parable about when the elephant moves, the mice scamper?) So, yes, while we strive to be liturgical and follow the Christian year, when the university shuts down, we all kind of shut down as well.

For me, it means fewer meetings and emails (yay!) and more time to enjoy family (mostly by skype these days) to take in great music in Austin, to enjoy food with friends and to get in some great summer reads.

Here’s six from my summer list; I’ve read the first four and have just begun the final two.   

Free Will, by Sam Harris

Harris is one of a trinity of writers that I and others call the “evangelical atheists.” The other two are the late Christopher Hitchens (“God is Not Great”) and the biologist Richard Dawkins (“The God Delusion”). Harris’s book explores the idea that what we normally  think of as free will is a fiction. His claim is that to speak of human beings having free will makes no sense. How, then, does one develop any kind of morality or hold people accountable for their actions, if they’re not free?  Good question. Harris takes it up with energy and style and it’s a short read.

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker

What would happen if the earth began to revolve at a slower pace and the days and nights lengthened?  This is Walker’s first novel, a well-written , surprisingly hopeful sci-fi tale. The book inevitably shadows questions in light of global warming and the changes being wrought in the earth of reality.  

The Power of Parable, by John Dominic Crossan

Crossan is perhaps the premier New Testament scholar in our time, one of the best at taking a complex biblical topic and breaking it down. The subtitle is “How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus.” Crossan is interested not just in re-describing the parables of Jesus, but finding their pre-cursors in several books of the Old Testament. And then taking whole gospels as parables, that have an implied challenge or even attack. So, for example, Matthew’s gospel becomes an attack parable on a brand of Pharisaic Judaism that is in important ways in tension with the tenets of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. All in all, a fascinating, if at times far-fetched, journey with a great scholar.

Take This Bread, by Sara Miles.

Miles was the keynote speaker at the Washington Island Forum that Linda and I attended last month, an annual event sponsored by the Wisconsin Council of Churches.  Miles was a late convert to Christianity, wooed into St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church by communion. A former chef and war correspondent, Miles sensed a calling to start up a food bank for all-comers. And so the adventure with Jesus follows, filled with some incredible characters and stories.   And prayers: “O God of abundance, you feed us every day. Rise in us now, make us into your bread, That we may share your gifts with a hungry world, And join in love with all people, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

James Cook: Master of the Seas, by Frank McLynn

Magisterial biography of Captain James Cook and his three voyages circumnavigating the globe in the late 18th century. McLynn gives just enough background to make it fascinating without getting bogged down. Cook is an amazing study of indefatigability and leadership.

2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years, by Jorgen Randers
Forty years ago, Randers and his colleagues at MIT produced The Limits to Growth, which was essentially a scenario analysis designed to answer the question, “What will happen over the next 130 years  if humanity decides to follow certain policies?”  It was not, however, predictive. 2052 is a broad forecast of what Randers and others believe is the probably global evolution in areas like population, climate, food and economics. Despite the fact that Randers believes that humanity will not change its ways, he remains hopeful about the future.  Hmmm …

 What’s on your summer reading list?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Strangeness of the Gospel

A couple of months ago, I had a Sunday off and it coincided with a visit to Austin by Dr. Schubert Ogden, renowned process theologian and emeritus Professor of Theology at Perkins School of Theology on the SMU campus.

While I still try to read theology and did attend a process theology conference back in January, I’d pretty much lost track of Ogden. His writing, even when I was a grad student working with him, was always pretty heady, heavy stuff. Ogden loves to pile on the qualifiers so that you understand exactly what he’s saying and what he’s not saying. Or you quickly get lost and have absolutely no idea what he’s saying at all.

Robert Hall, senior pastor at Tarrytown UMC, invited Ogden to answer questions as a kind of Sunday sermon.  At the service I attended, some of the questions were written by kids. He not only gave wonderful answers, he wrote out answers to everyone who sent in questions.

My experience of Ogden in grad school was just a tad different, and so it was a pleasure to see this pastoral side. Back in the day, Ogden was so passionate about theology and so rigorous in methodology that sloppy thinking was carved up like sushi.

One person asked him about other religions. What about someone who hears the gospel and still continues in their religious tradition? What’s their fate? Ogden was clear that Christians don’t have a monopoly on the truth.

But then he talked about what it might look like for someone outside Christianity to hear the claim that Jesus makes, the gift and the demand of God’s grace. Given all of the things that they might have heard about Christians and about Jesus, it might be very difficult, perhaps almost impossible for them to hear that claim in the same way that we hear it in our context.

All of which led me to wonder about folks who have only heard the message of our consumer-oriented, American culture-affirming, flag-waving, prosperity-gospel Christianity buzzing in the background.  What do they hear when they come by my church? Can they ever get beyond a Christianity suffocated by a set of impossible beliefs that must be believed to hear about the Jesus I know, the one who offers a way of life of truly radical freedom?

How do we get that word across in a culture that understands Christianity as homophobic, judgmental and hypocritical?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

An Impassioned Response to GC 2012

(A post from Jeff Sturgeon, lay member of Travis Park UMC in San Antonio, following the General Conference report at the SWTX Annual Conference last week.)

 Bishop Dorff, brothers and sisters of the annual conference... I stand before you as a United Methodist with a long history with the Church. My grandparents, parents and siblings are Methodist. My neices and nephews are forming their own identies within the United Methodist Church. I graduated from a United Methodist related university. I have served my local church in many ways. This history has shaped who I am.

I stand before you hurting... smarting from pain, frustration and confusion that was General Conference 2012. And I stand before you as a gay United Methodist. I know my pain is not unique; many feel battered and bruised that yet again our General Conference has failed to advance to full inclusion in the church of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.

This hurt comes from several directions: It hurts me personally that because I am homosexual, the full life of the church is not available to me. It hurts me that because I am in a same gender loving relationship, the value of that relationship can not be affirmed. It hurts my family and friends to see the United Methodist Church respond to me in this way. And it hurts the Church. It hurts the vitality of the church when GLBT members and their families leave the church. We can not create a culture of growth when certain people are excluded from that growth. It hurts the church when we cann't even agree to disagree on divisive, hard issues and every one takes opposing sides.

 My friends have asked why I stay in the church. Quite frankly, I did leave. But God didn't leave me alone and has continued to call, push, pull and shove me back into the fold.

 And it hurts the mission of the church. We heard yesterday from Rev. Rendle that the culture around us has changed! The mission field has changed! And they are watching us. Those who are under thirty, see the church's position and behavior as "mean-spirited", not spirit lead.

 I was inspired by Rev. Rendle's use of the quote from St. Augustine that hope has two daughters, anger and courage. I can not stay only in anger and neither can the church. We must, with God's power and the example of Jesus, move forward in courage. I know that the annual conference can not change the policies of the United Methodist Church. But I know that each person here knows someone in your local church who is like my grandmother, my parents, my brother and sisters, my neices and nephews... like me because all of us are in your churches. How will you express God's love? What will be your Christ-like response to my family and those like me? Thank you, Bishop

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Searching for Jesus on Wall Street

So what do you make of the occupation of Wall Street by thousands of protestors in the last half of 2012, and the sympathetic rallies in many cities around the country, even around the world, including right here in Austin, Texas?

If you listen to some of the talking heads, this is an inchoate group of young people who could be working but aren’t and instead are breaking the laws and calling for an end to corporations, the very entities that might be able to provide them with jobs.

My sense is that we avoid engagement with the occupy movements at our peril. Yes, the issues are all over the map, but there are several central themes that can be teased out. Sadly, they’re themes that are central to Christian theology, themes that most of the church has been sitting on for years and has either been silent or contrarian.

At the center is the call for a transformation of values, a shift away from global capitalism and the power of multinational corporations toward the values of community, local economies and real democracy. It’s a radical shift that Dr. King described in a speech where he broke silence and denounced U.S. involvement in Vietnam. King said:

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

The income inequalities that exist in our country, that are described in the occupy signs stating that “We are the 99%,” are at the highest levels since right before the Great Depression. Turn to almost any prophetic book in scripture, and it’s crystal clear that God is also concerned about inequality between rich and poor. Inequality quickly has quickly turned to injustice as those who have enormous fiscal resources have squandered their wealth on speculation, creating a veritable wasteland for everyone else.
If the Occupy movement has done nothing else, it’s brought the discussion of social and economic justice out of the closet into the open. It’s adopted values of nonviolence and hospitality and has sought peaceful relations with local authorities, surely values that are right out of the gospels.

Over the last few months, the list of what the occupiers are against has grown from moral outrage against the system to include: the funding of college education through student loans, unemployment, lack of healthcare, outsourcing labor overseas, abuse of police power, predatory banking and the sellout of government power to the highest bidders.

How has this happened? Harvey Cox, in what has turned out to be something of a prescient essay, named it: the market has become our God. That’s right—good, old-fashioned, Old Testament-style idolatry. The market has been worshipped as unassailable, which means that to criticize free market capitalism, to suggest that regulations on banks are necessary for example, has been seen by market defenders as sacrilege.

Lost in all of the back and forth is the notion that there is an economy given by God long before Wall Street, an acknowledgment that there is enough for everyone. Only when we return to some sense that we can all live out of the abundance that God has given us, will there be the moral will to take on the challenges of changing the structures that create such destructive inequalities.

I’m thankful for the Occupy movement, for the issues they’ve bravely raised and for their outrage at greed. What do you think? How should the church respond to the Occupy movement?