Thursday, February 28, 2013

Taxes for the common good

I was called last night to testify at the Minnesota Capitol at hearings on Governor Dayton's budget proposal. I was supposed to speak at 8:30. At midnight, I was finally at the head of the line when the chair of the committee adjourned the hearing.

Here's what I had planned to say.

Mme. Chair and Members of the Committee:

I'm David Cobb, pastor of Spirit of Joy Christian Church in Lakeville. I also volunteer with the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition. JRLC is supported by 79% of Minnesota's faith communities, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish, in every legislative district in the state.

I am here as a person of faith to speak up for those who often have no voice. They can't get off work to care for their children, let alone to come to a hearing. On their behalf I commend the Governor's goals:
  • To raise revenue adequate not only to balance the budget but to meet human need
  • To tax fairly, calling on more from those of us with the ability to pay
  • To promote public stewardship and serve the common good
Our church meets half a mile from $300-400,000 homes to the west, and just across Cedar Avenue from a trailer park community. Some of our members are independent contractors; some work for large companies, some in retail, education, public works, social services. Some are unemployed or retired. Some are disabled and rely on state assistance. One of our newer members lives in the trailer park.

She came through our doors last year because we changed her oil when she couldn't afford to. It's such a simple thing. But it makes a difference. Twice a year single moms bring their cars, many of them rusting out and on their last legs, to our parking lot where we offer them what for most of us is routine maintenance. An oil change can feed a child for a week. Some have to choose.

We collect food for the Lakeville food shelf. We serve meals at St. Stephen's shelter. We do what faith communities do every day: we identify and meet the subsistence needs of those who struggle. We do it without fanfare. It's what neighbors do.

But we only answer part of our calling if we do not work to correct the systems that cause poverty in the first place. Our regressive tax system causes poverty.

According to the MN Revenue Tax Research Division, the lowest 10% of Minnesotans earn under $11,298 annually. These families pay an effective tax rate, counting state and local taxes, of 30.5%. Afterward, they live on $654 a month. They'd have an extra month and a half of income if they paid what those of us in the middle pay, 12.1%. The top 1% earns over $472,626 and pays an effective rate of 9.7%.

The widow's mite may not be much to me; it's everything to her.

I urge this committee to raise revenue fairly with the poorest among us in mind. The human heart beats with the rhythm of the common good. Revenue must be adequate, it must be fair, and it must be more progressive than it is right now.

Listen to to the better angels of our nature. Measure the common good not by the good it does for those who take their oil changes for granted, but by the good it does for those who can't. Please ensure that this budget serves the common good.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Sunday prayer for hope

God who brought us into being
and who calls us by your promises,
we place our trust in you.

From the depths and darks of mystery,
to the glorious visions of love and light,
you call forth from us the best of your creation.

Show us the wonders of life transformed,
the calm that follows storms,
and also storms that call from us our greatest strength and courage.

Show us in each other the tenderness of care,
barriers overcome, intimacies unimagined.

Show us your vision of how the world can be,
how our lives may be a blessing,
our imaginations sparkling with creativity and light.

We are aware of injustices that oppress,
of complexities murky, challenges hard.

We see the effects of injustice
in hunger, poverty, and homelessness,
and in the -isms of prejudice around race, gender, money, and sex.

We are not unaware of our role
in the degradation of our environment,
and we are grateful for the calling to which we have been called.

So empower us and strengthen us
for the healing of the nations,
for wholeness in relationships,
for love to overcome,
for the breathing of your Spirit in joy and hope.

Gather these and all our prayers
in the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus,
for it is in his name we pray. Amen.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Thinking of Dad, on the anniversary of his death

Dad died 26 years ago today. I don't always remember the date, but his memory is rarely far away.

Is funny how we measure ourselves. We check out our neighbors' homes, yards, cars, clothes. We try to fit in, mostly. There's a magnetic pull toward common values, a common language of sorts, so we listen to the same songs on the radio, cheer for the same teams, pledge allegiance to the same flag.

We want to live a shared story, where there's a place for each of us, and no one is alone.

On the other hand, we want to be noticed when we excel, when we stand out for achievements that stretch us. The captain of the team, the spotlight center stage, All-State band, the promotion, the scholarship, the award.

I find myself, fairly or not, measuring myself against my dad. When he died, he was only a year older than I'm about to be. When he was my age, he and Mom had two kids in college, one in high school, and one in elementary. He'd been a college chaplain, church choir director, college professor, and Dean of Faculty, and Vice President of a college. A year later he'd become President of one of our church's divinity schools.

I don't feel as old now as I thought he was then. But when I look at his pictures, he looks younger and younger. I'll outlive him in another year and a half. And in some odd way, even though the things I've done are different than his, and he's been gone more than half my life, I feel closer to him now than ever.

Instead of measuring myself against him, as if it's a competition, I'm measuring the space between us. And it's shrinking. I'm feeling more connected to the church he loved and served, more a part of something larger. I wonder if he felt these things as he got into his late 40s. Perhaps.

Dad, I miss you. But I'm glad I'm part of Jackson's life, and Katy's, and I'm glad to call myself your son.

Friday, February 22, 2013

A favorite poem on shoveling snow

I shoveled the driveway this afternoon and couldn't stop thinking of my favorite snow shoveling poem. It's by Billy Collins. Enjoy. Or not. Your call.

Shoveling Snow with Buddha

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over a mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.

Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.

Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?

But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.

After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?

Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.

Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Walls fell today

Spiritually speaking, today was a watershed. I did things I haven't done before. I learned to see people in public service as real people doing their jobs and not just abstract positions or roles. Walls fell.

You'd think this would be old hat for me. After all, I've prayed at candlelight vigils for death row inmates at the hour of their execution, marched and mobilized against nuclear war, lobbied my university's chancellor to divest from South Africa during apartheid, written letters on behalf of political prisoners for Amnesty International, and worked the Vote No phones on the marriage amendment.

I am no stranger to political activism.

But today was different. I was with the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, an interfaith group representing Christians, Muslims, and Jews from every legislative district in Minnesota. Eight hundred of us met with all our legislators in person, one at a time, to talk about how they could pass legislation that benefits people in need.

I talked with my senator about sex trafficking and asked her to support laws to treat girls picked up for prostitution as victims in need of treatment, not criminals in need of jail time. Did you know Minnesota has one of the worst records in the nation on sexual slavery? Turns out my senator went to school with Jeff Bauer. She's already signed on to the legislation.

I got to talk about the Governor's tax proposals with my representative who used to be a Republican and now is a Democrat but isn't party-line either way. I learned a thing or two about where we differ, and I believe he heard me.

I said walls fell. These were internal barriers. I'd always thought of political leaders in terms of their roles, their public personae, their sound bites and positions. Today I saw them in their offices, running to and from meetings, and listening to constituents. Ten minutes here, fifteen minutes there—giving me their attention.

I heard them think out loud about things the way we would at church in a discussion about some theological issue where the stakes are high.

And I wondered: why have I though of politicians only as abstractions, not people? Lord knows I've known enough of them when they're not at work. But in this environment, they were real people doing real, meaningful work. And that work meant listening to us, to me.

And then I wondered some more: how many people look at churches and pastors the same way I've looked at lawmakers? What walls do people see when they look at a church, assuming the people inside are a particular way, have certain prejudices and ideas? What do they see when they look at me, a pastor? Do they assume I'm as unapproachable or set in my ways as I assumed my legislators to be?

I'm in a different place spiritually now than I was when I woke up this morning. I feel like my voice was heard, like it matters, like I've made a difference as a person of faith in a political world.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Get ready to rumble!

Well, maybe rumble is the wrong word. Grumble? Mumble?

For those of us studying together at Spirit of Joy on Wednesday nights, it could be all of the above. But I doubt it. Instead, I expect some deep conversation about how we think about God, Jesus, the Gospel, who we are, and who we are called to be. 

Starting next Wednesday night, we'll begin a series on Howard W. Stone and James O. Duke's second edition of How to Think Theologically. The schedule and ordering information are here

Stone and Duke haven't written a systematic theology, but they have done something far more clever. They've provided tools for us to explore our own understandings and beliefs. 

The book started over a cup of coffee between the authors. We'll study it following dinner, and you can be sure the coffee will be fair trade, locally-roasted, and hot.

I've still got to come up with the right word for what I'm really getting ready for. Humble? Yeah, that's it! I expect I'll be humbled by the stories shared and lives interwoven as we equip ourselves to do the deeper work of public theology. That's just how it goes around here.

Join us if you're in the Twin Cities area. We're about 25 minutes south of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

How I can tell if God is calling

I'm feeling a bit reflective today. So this is less explicitly parable and metaphor and more  theological musing. 

Several folks at church have shared with me that they suspect God is calling them to a particular ministry. It's not mine to share what they are hearing. It's theirs, and if the call persists, they'll each test it in the wider congregation and we'll seek fuller guidance together.

What's so remarkable to me is also not the ministries themselves—even though they are remarkable—but that in the busy lives we lead any of us can hear the low whisper of God's call. I'm convinced God does call us. But I'm not sure we all hear that call the same. "Tune my heart to sing thy praise," an old hymn goes. Our hearts are tuned differently, based on our embedded ideas of God.

My embedded theology, that is, my ideas of God that go deeper than conscious thought, the assumptions I live with day-in and day-out and make sense of my experience, begin with something so simple I don't even know if I could make an argument for it: God calls us to love and justice. 

We each have some sort of ground-level assumptions we use to make sense of everything else. These are mine. I would doubt a nudge to be from God if it led me toward something unloving or unjust. If, on the other hand, it leads me toward love and justice, then even if the path is rocky and the mountain steep, I have to pay attention.

I bring this up because I might be tempted to test the call by measuring it with someone else's stick. I might, for example, decide something is from God based on whether or not there are obstacles in the path. I've heard some say that they know a particular path is from God because all obstacles fall away,and if there are stumbling blocks, it's God telling them it's the wrong path. But I don't buy it.

There's not a person in scripture whose call made their path easy. For most it made it more dangerous. I'm hard-pressed to find many outside of a few warrior-judges and kings who didn't call people to create a fairer, more just, more faithful and loving community. 

What about you? What are your ground-level, embedded ideas of God, the ones all the others depend on? And how do they help you discern if you hear God call?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Peripheral spiritual vision

When I learned to drive, I learned to adjust my side view mirrors so I could just see the backside of the car. While listening to Car Talk, I found out I had been doing it wrong all this time. It really does create dangerous blind spots.

To eliminate the blind spots, Click and Clack said to move the mirrors farther out. That way as cars pass from my rear view mirror, they appear in the side mirror. I did this two days ago. I must say, it's taking some getting used to. But the cool thing: the blind spots are gone!

It has me wondering where the blind spots are in my spiritual life. What do I not see because my vision isn't broad enough? Is my image of God too narrow? Are "objects in mirror closer than they appear"? Will I "cut someone off" because I can't see where they're coming from or where they're going?

I must say, it's a bit strange not being able to see the sides of my car. But, I already know where I am on the road. Now I can see others better, which will make me a better driver. If I can figure out how to broaden my spiritual vision, it may make me a better human being.

Blessings and peace.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Cleaning House

When a new boss cleans house, it's scary. When it's just Katy and I, cleaning house can be quite satisfying.

Still, it's daunting to face stacks of paper in the study and partially-complete projects upstairs. Filing has never been my strong suit. Sometimes whole rooms are out of sight, out of mind.

But taking the vacuum to the dust bunnies under the chair, I feel like Don Quixote defending Dulcinea's honor. As Katy sorts Keepers from Recyclables, we both feel better. And by the time I take the last box to the attic and reunite that lost glove (now found) with its mate, a sense of accomplishment and calm settles in. Dishes are put away. Surfaces are scrubbed. Order returns.

If we can do this with clutter, gloves, dishes and dust bunnies, maybe there's a chance for some Lenten house cleaning in my prayer life, too.

For me, it means slowly reading out loud a scripture passage that has nothing to do with Sunday's sermon, perhaps also reading a poem, and humming a Taizé chant I know by heart. However it happens, I clear my mind of distractions while simply being in the moment. It doesn't take long, but it centers me, helps me feel connected, whole.

Things will no doubt get cluttered again, both in the house and in my spiritual life. Still, it's good to take the time Lent brings to put things in order. Without a strong interior journey, the outward journey suffers. I might even find that missing sock.

Blessings and Peace.

Friday, February 15, 2013


Talk about a loaded word! What comes to your mind when you hear "judgment"? A court settlement? A line call on the field of play? Some sort of final exam for life?

I'm entering the wonderful world of speech tournaments. It's one of the perks of being a parent. Jackson made the school speech team, so Katy and I have volunteered to be judges.

Good judges, as it turns out, have some pretty hard work to do. It's not nearly as hard as the work the competitors are doing, but to honor these students, I have to be honest, attentive, careful, deliberative, and a good interpreter of rules. I also have to be willing to make a decision. Somebody in each round did better than all the others. My job as a judge is finally to make constructive comments to help each competitor get better next time, and then to rank them.

One thing I'm learning from the students is that they expect and deserve good judgments from the judges. The critique sheets they receive are like gold. They take each one seriously and use the comments to improve before the next competition.

What they don't deserve in any way is to be treated judgmentally, either by their teammates, their competition, their coaches, parents or, yes, by their judges. And they learn how especially important it is not to be judgmental toward themselves.

There's a difference between judgment and judgmentalism. The -ism is a form of condemnation. The other is an act of life-changing grace.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Taking stock

I heard an interview last night on Minnesota Public Radio with a man who works in Antarctica. He talked about the long winters. But what really intrigued me was when he talked about preparing for trips. One trip he took inland was for three months. He had to choose everything he would take, including every toiletry item and every meal he would eat, for the full time he was away. Choosing from canned and frozen goods, he would need to decide how many meals would require frozen hamburgers, scallops, chile rellenos, soft drinks, coffee, etc. He said taking stock was the hardest part of the trip. But he had to do it. His life depended on it.

Taking stock spiritually rarely seems like my life depends on it. But what if, as I suspect in my more reflective moments, it actually does?

So here's a start. My spiritual inventory for Lent 2013:

  • Strong relationships with Katy and Jackson. These are my primary bonds where I feel love and acceptance.

  • The ability to trust. This is the hard-won rock on which everything else is built. It's what makes me generous toward the humanity of others, but it's also where I can be most vulnerable to disappointment.

  • A reasonably well-trained, critical intellect. This is where hard questions come from. It houses my hermeneutic of suspicion, and allows me to hold in tension both a radical iconoclasm and a deep respect for ritual and tradition.

  • Thirsty curiosity. Not the same as being nosy, it leads me down new paths where caution would keep me away.

  • Self doubt. I see this as a strength, not a weakness. It means I could well be wrong, and if I am, I'll kick against it for a while, but eventually admit it.

  • Passionate conviction about the subversiveness of scripture. Unlike most official history that's written from the perspective of the victor, scripture is written from the underside, speaking truth to power. And anyone who dares to use it to oppress others had best beware the sword that turns back on the one who wields it.

  • A growing conviction that Jesus really is God's Word. I mean this in the richest, mytho-poetic, metaphorical, and thus meaningful and powerful sense that in Jesus I "hear" something that "speaks" my life and the world and relationships we all inhabit into being.

  • Spirit of Joy. I'm part of a community of faith that encourages and treasures each person as God's beloved gift to the world.

I'm sure there's more. A fledgling prayer life. A healthy heart. The use of all my faculties and abilities (even if my eyes need help). A basic assumption about the goodness I'll find in others.

But this is a start. For the 39 days (not counting Sundays) that remain in my journey toward Easter, I think I'm pretty well-provisioned. Now to see what comes next!

Blessings and Peace.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Lead us not into temptation

tempt (v.)
early 13c., from Old French tempter (12c.), from Latin temptare "to feel, try out, attempt to influence, test."

Temptation. It sounds so, well... tempting. After all, it's not like I'd ever really choose something i felt was really wrong.

But the real temptation isn't sleeping an extra few minutes, or a decadent dessert. Where temptation gets tricky is when I see so many ways of doing good. Isn't it good to push limits, to make a difference? Surely there's nothing wrong with that.

The first Sunday of Lent is coming, and the story is about Jesus in the wilderness, a liminal space, nowhere in particular really. Wilderness isn't just desert or desolation. It's that pause between one way of being and another. Adolescence can be a wilderness. So can the time after the last kid leaves home. A relationship ends, or a job. Wilderness.

We have plenty of "in between" times when we know just what Jesus is feeling. There are choices to be made, directions to set. New paths to travel. Good to do.

But how to choose? So many paths are tempting.

Temptation is rarely about choosing good vs. evil. I don't know of anyone who seriously chooses what they think is evil. We are tempted by things we see as good. Stone into bread? I see the good in that. Make me ruler of the universe for a day? I'd set a few things right.

Sometimes it's better to follow the advice our mothers never gave: "Don't just do something, sit there." It takes a certain level of trust that the universe will survive without me. First trust. That's what I see Jesus doing into wilderness. Faced with temptation of multiple goods, he remembers first to trust in God.

Lord, lead me not into temptation. I can find the way there very well all by myself. Help me instead, when faced with so many choices, good choices, so many possibilities about how I might make a difference in the world, first to place my trust in you. Lead me through, then out of, the wilderness with a new sense of humble purpose and hope.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Love and Welcome Build the Church

While getting ready for Sunday's sermon on the love chapter in 1 Corinthians, I ran across Amy-Jill Levine's notes. She suggests something I hadn't thought of before. Paul probably had in mind the incredible image of Gentiles and eunuchs (who ordinarily would be cut off from worship) gathering as part of God's beloved community. The image comes from Isaiah 56. It's a great image of church: outcasts who do justice and love are as welcome, perhaps more so, than anyone else.

The LORD says:
Act justly and do what is righteous,
because my salvation is coming soon,
and my righteousness will be revealed.
Happy is the one who does this,
the person who holds it fast,
who keeps the Sabbath, not making it impure,
and avoids doing any evil.
Don’t let the immigrant who has joined with the LORD say,
“The LORD will exclude me from the people.”
And don’t let the eunuch say,
“I’m just a dry tree.”
The LORD says:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
choose what I desire,
and remain loyal to my covenant,
in my temple and courts, I will give them
a monument and a name better than sons and daughters.
I will give to them an enduring name
that won’t be removed.
The immigrants who have joined me,
serving me and loving my name, becoming my servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath without making it impure,
and those who hold fast to my covenant:
I will bring them to my holy mountain,
and bring them joy in my house of prayer.
I will accept their entirely burned offerings and sacrifices on my altar.
My house will be known as a house of prayer for all peoples,
says the LORD God,
who gathers Israel’s outcasts.
I will gather still others to those I have already gathered.