What a Week

(My weekly church blogpost shared here, as our church website is in transition)

Remind me not to take vacation during the last week in June ever again.

I remember watching the Phil Donahue Show one summer in late June as a kid, shortly after school let out (I was a really fun kid. Really.). They were talking about the constitutionality of burning the American flag in the wake of United States v. Eichman, a case that ruled as unconstitutional laws that banned the desecration of the American flag on free speech grounds.

The guests were passionate. The audience members were opinionated. There was lots of energy around this issue.

From that moment I got more and more interested in both politics and in the flag, and I learned quite a bit about both. I read the Constitution and the Flag Code, and various opinions about both. One of the lessons I learned is this: even though school is out and summer has started, late June – when the Supreme Court releases its most anticipated rulings – is one of the most consequential times of the year for our country.

In the past week, the Supreme Court has ruled on marriage, healthcare, environmental protections, fair housing, and congressional redistricting, among other issues. Together with the outrage following the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and the heated – yet very important – discussion surrounding the Confederate Flag, it was a significant week for our nation.

Now, in the midst of all this news and critical issues before our country, the church cannot be silent. At the least, the church and its leaders should seek to make sense – in terms of faith – of what our society is experiencing in this moment. Even more, the church and its leaders should be public voices for justice. After all, a lamp isn’t lit to be set underneath a bushel (Matthew 5:15), the call of a prophet is to cry out loudly against injustice (Isaiah 1:23, for example), and the kingdom of God is not a matter of words but of power (1 Corinthians 4:20).

Cries for the church to stay out of politics, and for preachers to speak on matters of faith not politics, miss the point. Jesus engaged in ministry publicly. Jesus spoke about how people treat one another. Jesus died at the hands of government – publicly. The prophets of old decried how society neglected the widow and the poor. Faith without works is dead, and one work of faith is to seek a more just society that improves the health and welfare of any who suffer injustice, indignity, poverty, hunger, and oppression of any kind. Faith is inherently public, and is inherently concerned with public things.

After all, Jesus’ main way of speaking about God’s intent for humanity was to speak of the Kingdom of God. “The Kingdom of God is like ….” Kingdoms are societies. They are inherently social, public, corporate. The life of faith is not just something we keep to ourselves, individually.

Even more. Faith is not just one part of our lives, but informs the whole of our lives. We do not put faith on and take faith off. Faith is not just found in one box in our closet, to be taken out on Sundays and holidays. Faith is part of all that we do. Faith informs all of our actions. Faith – and the God in whom we have faith – is concerned with all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).

Thus faith led me to weep when nine African Americans were murdered while at prayer. When one member of the body of Christ suffers, I suffer. Faith led me to ask tough questions about the legacy of racism, the power of symbols, and the unfulfilled promise of “we the people” seeking to form “a more perfect union.” In faith I read where Scripture tells me that “love bears all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7), and that we are called to “bear another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). Looking at the burden of racism and the legacy of oppression that my sisters and brothers bear, I grieve and ask, “How can I bear this burden with them?” I don’t have a very good answer. The question gnaws at me. The status quo is not working. Racism persists. This sin, and the structures that were shaped by it, need to be dismantled.

Faith led me to celebrate the Supreme Court ruling on marriage, extending marriage rights to same-gender couples in all fifty states. For years couples and families have lived without the dignity and legal protections of marriage. Medical decisions, estates, health insurance, shared property ownership, and so many other protections and opportunities were denied to same-gender couples and their families, to our neighbors and friends, to Soldiers wearing the uniform of the Armed Forces, to our fellow human beings and sisters and brothers in Christ. Legal prohibitions created a hardship for millions of people. Faith celebrates when hardships are alleviated, when “the lowly are lifted up” (Luke 1:52). Faith rejoices at wholeness and healing and justice.

In neither of these issues am I directly implicated. I am not black. I am not gay. Yet that is precisely the point. Faith is not primarily concerned with the self. Our faith is primarily concerned with the whole of society and the care of the other. “Love does not insist on its own way,” writes Paul, speaking to the faith community in Corinth (1 Corinthians 13:5). Faith is oriented toward the justice and renewal of the Kingdom of God and those who live within it. Justice is experienced – and enacted – in community. Faith is inherently interested in the community and the world.

So too, I believe, is the American Experiment. The United States was established by “we the people” to establish “a more perfect union.” The Bill of Rights was written to restrain society, its government, and its majorities from trampling on the rights of individuals. But more than a mere restraint function or a statement of the rights of individuals, the Bill of Rights and the eloquent call to create “a more perfect union” speak to a positive view of a society in which “liberty and justice for all” is the goal.

In the critical conversations about race that our nation has begun since the Charleston shooting, and in the celebrations and hand-wringings and questions of “what’s next?” following the Supreme Court’s ruling, our nation is one step closer to realizing its calling to form a more perfect union. Such steps are difficult, and ours will never be a perfect union – sin will make sure of that.

Yet we strive ever forward, as Christians and as Americans, to make ours a more perfect union. Such a more perfect union begins to take shape when our focus turns from self to other, and we recommit ourselves not to insisting on our own ways but instead to bearing others’ burdens … to seeking liberty and justice for all.

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Right to Religious Freedom? Yes. Right to run a business according to your faith? Not necessarily.

Our nation’s commitment to the free exercise of religion is unwavering. Religious organizations are tax-exempt, and gifts to religious organizations are tax deductible, lest the tax code be seen as a burden to the free exercise of religion. Americans are free to assemble with people of like faith and to practice their faith in community without fear of government intervention. People can generally dress, worship, eat, practice morality, and otherwise structure their lives in accordance to their faith. This is a great strength of our nation.

And even the Armed Forces support a Chaplain Corps that provides service members with Chaplains who perform religious services and provide for the free expression of religion of service members. Chaplains also advocate for religious accommodation – to include provisions for a religiously-defined diet, the wearing of particular religiously-prescribed clothing, religiously-defined grooming standards, required head coverings, etc. – within the highly structured and uniform environment of the military.

We are a nation committed to the free exercise of religion.

In this spirit, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed in the 1990s to guarantee the free exercise of religion by members of minority religions whose religious free exercise was unintentionally burdened by laws that otherwise had nothing to do with religion. So committed to the free exercise of religion are we that we wanted to make sure that minority religions could practice their faith without other laws would hinder their religious practice.

Yet, just over a week ago, my state passed a law that was designed to protect members of the majority religion (Christianity) from public policies they perceive as burdening their religious beliefs. What began as a law to protect the free exercise of religion from unintentionally burdensome laws has become, in its most recent state-law versions, a law to allow corporations to seek exemption from public accommodation laws on religious freedom grounds.

Of course, we’re talking about businesses owned by Christians who feel it a violation of their religion to provide services to gays and lesbians, particularly to gays and lesbians seeking same-gender wedding services (flowers, cakes, photography, etc.). They believe that providing such services would be an endorsement of a marriage that goes against their religious beliefs.

Yet, there is a big difference between ensuring the free exercise of one’s faith, and guaranteeing that a religious person who owns a business can operate that business with religious exemptions to key public policy commitments of our nation – including that of public accommodation (ie, businesses must serve all customers who walk through the door).

To this degree, the Armed Forces offers a helpful lesson.

The Armed Forces provides a Chaplain Corps to provide for the free expression of religion, and to perform religious services (worship, prayer, sacraments, rites, counseling, etc.) for service members. Yet, this commitment to religious expression within the military does not – cannot – accommodate a service member whose religion forbids the carrying of arms or engaging in combat. Such a citizen simply cannot be a soldier.

Ultimately, there is no constitutional right to join the Armed Forces.

Perhaps this is instructive for Christian business owners who seek exemption from serving certain customers. While there is a constitutional right to practice religion, and while free enterprise is central to our nation’s culture and economy, there is no Constitutional right to be a baker, or a photographer, or a florist. If conducting business according to the laws of our nation causes the business owner to violate their faith, perhaps the business owner need to find a new line of work.

The pacifist Christian cannot expect to keep a job in the military without violating her faith.

The orthodox Jew cannot expect to work in a pork processing plant without violating his faith.

Likewise, the conservative Christian perhaps should not expect to work in the wedding industry, if such work might require her to serve couples that offend their religious sensibilities.

The life of faith requires people of faith to make hard decisions. Will we tithe, spending less on consumer goods, house, or sports for our children? How will we raise our children? What choices will we make for engaging the culture – do we participate in civic holiday celebrations or not? What happens when religious practice conflicts with school or work schedules (an issue of particular concern for minority religions)? For some Christians, perhaps, one new hard decision they face is to find a line of work that would not put them in a position to violate core tenets of their faith.

I do not share the concern about same-gender marriage that some conservative Christians have. Yet, as someone committed to the free exercise of religion, I support the right of people to believe what they feel they are compelled to believe by their faith. Yet, their right to believe does not translate into a right to conduct a business in a way that sidesteps certain laws and commitments of our nation.

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What’s Wrong With Us? We Have Hope.

Star Wars Rebels is a wonderful animated television series bridging the gap between Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (where Anakin Skywalker completes his transformation into the evil Darth Vader), and Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (where Luke Skywalker rises up as a Jedi and leader of the Rebellion against the Empire). Star Wars Rebels tells the stories of a small band of rebels from the planet Lothal who resist the Empire with small scale vandalism and interference with imperial activity, but who at this point have not (yet) inspired or led a wider movement against the Empire.

Nonetheless, for their careful attacks and the presence of a Jedi among them, this band of rebels has garnered the attention of the Empire. Targeted several times for capture, they have skillfully eluded the Empire, but have also failed in their attempts to strike a bigger blow against the Empire.

In Vision of Hope, Ezra – a young boy among the rebels who is a padawan, or Jedi apprentice – rides a roller coaster of feelings. Early in the episode he has a vision that ignites in him hope that they can strike a significant blow against the Empire. Yet, the mission that forms from his vision – involving a senator the rebels thought was sympathetic to their cause, but who turned out to be working for the Empire all along – turned out to be a failure.

Screenshot from Vision of Hope: Ezra speaking with Hera

Screenshot from Star Wars Rebels episode, Vision of Hope. Ezra speaking with Hera on boarding platform of their ship, The Ghost.

At the end of the episode Ezra sits down with Hera, the pilot of the rebels’ ship. Reflecting not only the sense of failure from this mission, but from their several failed attempts to thwart the Empire, Ezra is dejected.

“What’s wrong with us?” Ezra asks.

“We have hope,” Hera responds. “Hope that things can get better. And they will.”

I love that Hera’s response to Ezra’s gloomy question – “What’s wrong with us?” – is not an answer about tactics, or manpower, or funding for their mission. And more, Hera doesn’t deny that something is wrong with them.

But instead, when asked, “What’s wrong with us?” Hera responds with a straightforward answer – “We have hope.” That’s what’s wrong with us. We have hope.

We have hope. That word hope looms large in the Star Wars canon, with echoes of Princess Leia calling out to Ben Kenobi in a holographic message in the original Star Wars movie, A New Hope. “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”

Hope. Hope looms large in the Christian faith. Christians have a hope that all will be made right in God’s promised future. Isaiah 25 looks forward in hope to when all will gather at the Lord’s holy mountain and feast on rich foods and drink well-aged wine. Revelation speaks of a new heaven and a new earth. Paul writes of Christians being made into new creations. Mary proclaims of her yet-in-utero son that he will lift the lowly up and fill the hungry with good things, while knocking the mighty off their thrones and sending the rich away empty. And Jesus himself gives a glimpse of his power by healing the sick and raising the dead, offering a hope that what they done in his miracles will be commonplace in the coming Kingdom of God.

Yet, having hope can feel like a liability. “What’s wrong with us?” “We have hope.” Yes, in a world saturated in cynicism and self-reliance, having hope in a God who promises a future where death is no more and tears are wiped from our eyes is a bit strange. Belief in a God who forgives sin, raises the dead, and grants grace freely and even recklessly – well, that’s just plain bizarre. Most of what we see around us could cause us to lose hope, yet as people of faith we are also people of hope.

What’s wrong with us? We have hope. We have hope because we refuse to believe that what we see is all that there is to see … and to know, and to believe. We have hope because we know that what we see is not all there is. We have hope because we know that sin and death and brokenness are not the end of the story, but that there is a resurrection on the other side of the grave. We have hope because we know that weeping lasts for a night, but joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30).

We have hope. That’s what’s wrong with us. We have hope, in a world filled with despair.

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God Sharing Your Underwear Drawer

A Christmas Day sermon preached in 2011 at Grace Lutheran Church in Saint Paul, MN. The reading for the day was John 1:1-14.

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.

In this sacred season we celebrate God’s presence among us,
and we become particularly enamored of the image of the baby Jesus
being held in his mother’s arms while surrounded by farm animals
and shepherds and angels and kings.
It is quite an image, and something that brings us comfort.
Yes, the angel proclaimed to Joseph that the child shall be called
“Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.”
In a world where we can feel distant from God and from each other,
where phones become a lifeline and friendships are virtual,
the news that God is with us is meant to comfort us,
to close the aching gap of distant relationships
and to surround us with love rather than loneliness.

But what if … but what if there is a side to the incarnation,
an aspect to God being with us that is less-than-comforting?
What if, like a teenager’s relationship with her parent,
we are comforted by knowing that God our parent is near to us,
we rely on the protection and care that God our parent gives to us,
we are grateful that God our parent is there for us when we need, but …
but we also like our distance,
we like to close our bedroom door to keep God our parent out,
so we can have our privacy, our own space,
some distance from God our parent.
What if we are like the teenager, who completely depends on her parent,
but isn’t entirely sure that she wants her parent around all the time?

In today’s Gospel, we read that the Word became flesh and lived among us.
Literally translated, this passage says that God’s Word took on flesh
and pitched a tent with us, took up camp alongside us, moved into our lives.
So, teenager, your heavenly parent is moving into your room.
Bringing in a pillow and taking over half the bed,
probably steeling the sheets in the process, and likely snoring at night.
All parents of teenagers snore, I think.
So uncool.

This heavenly parent of yours has moved into your room and is taking over your space,
putting totally uncool clothing in your jam-packed closet,
hanging up ABBA and BeeGees posters on your walls,
blasting cheesy disco music from your stereo,
and putting their underwear in your underwear drawer – gross!
“This is too close!” you protest. “Eww! Get out of my room. Don’t be so close.”
“You’re supposed to be a parent, like, over there, in your own room.
And do, you know, old people things, and well, stay away.
Go away. Keep your distance. I want my space.”

The Word of God, the heavenly Word, the divine presence,
the Word that spoke creation into being and which was spoken by holy prophets,
was always at some distance –
up in the heavens, or on the lips of a prophet easily ignored ….
But now this Word, this once-easy-to-keep-at-a-distance Word
has become flesh and lives among us,
has come really close, frighteningly close, in-your-face close,
sharing-your-underwear-drawer close.
Ultimately, this is Good News,
that God is so intimately close to us and with us
that we cannot get away from God’s saving, loving, and compassionate presence.
God has pitched a tent and moved into our rooms,
God has gotten in our face and isn’t going away.
It’s not all sweet and comforting, folks. At times it’s annoying as all get out.
We want our space.
But God’s not going to give it to us. Instead, God fills that space with love and grace,
a love and grace that is at times unnerving,
a love and grace that is at times overwhelming,
a love and grace that is at all times surrounding us and holding us,
leading us from death to life,
from sin to grace,
from darkness to light,
from despair to hope,
from weeping to joy,
from a manger to a cross to an empty grave …
to a new kingdom of everlasting life.

Amen.

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“Still”

“There are still problems (with racism and inequality) and communities of color aren’t just making these problems up.”
– President Obama, November 24, 2014

One of the most important words President Obama spoke on Monday night was the word “still.” “There are still problems,” he said.

Still.

The Civil Rights era might have seen the dismantling of a segregationist legal code, but changing laws is not enough. There are still problems.

racism is not over t-shirt

Yes, racism is still a thing. For a biting, sarcastic, yet terribly real video telling of the reality of racism, click on the picture.

There are still problems when the education, criminal justice, and economic systems don’t deliver on their promises – not just in individual cases, but for a whole subset of the American people. African Americans are disproportionately disadvantaged in our American system. Race bias, and racial injustice, are embedded in our society and its institutions. The laws have changed, and so have many attitudes and structures. Things are better. Progress has been made. But there are still problems.

Still.

We cannot turn a blind eye to the struggles of our sisters and brothers in Christ, our fellow Americans. We cannot congratulate ourselves for changing laws 50 years ago and just think, mistakenly, that our work there is done. No. There are still problems.

Still.

Can we believe it? Are we willing to face the facts that there are still problems, lingering from over 100 years of slavery, and another 100 years of Jim Crow, all legacies of an even longer history of imperialism that objectified and commodified the other? For most of our nation’s history, black people have been outlawed and branded as criminal, threatening, commodities, animals, as less-than. For 200+ years the freedom of black Americans was seen as un-American, as a threat to the American way.

200+ years of heinously racist and dehumanizing attitudes in our society don’t evaporate because of 50 years of better laws and some structural reform. 200+ years of racism are embedded in the very DNA of our society, in its economic structure, in its public policy, in its education system. And while some of racism’s impact has changed, it has not gone away. There are still problems.

Still. 

[On my blog on the church website, I have written about the need to listen to the cries from the prophets and from Ferguson. Click here to view that story: Listening to the Cries – Habakkuk and Ferguson]

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Oaths of Office

On Friday I received my commission as a Chaplain (First Lieutenant) in the US Army and in the Indiana Army National Guard. Here are the oaths I swore.

I, Christopher Thomas Duckworth, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Indiana against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and Governor of the State of Indiana, that I make this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the Office of First Lieutenant in the Army National Guard of the State of Indiana upon which I am about to enter, so help me God.

I, Christopher Thomas Duckworth, having been appointed an officer in the Army of the United States, as indicated above in the grade of First Lieutenant do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; SO HELP ME GOD.

April 25, 2014
Lawrence, Indiana

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From Race Prep to Building a Base

I just completed a rather dumb training cycle. With just a few sub-100 mile months under my belt after two months of near zero training due to injury and a cross country move, I decided last fall to run a spring marathon … and to use the Hansons Marathon Method Advanced Program to help me achieve that goal.

So I went from less than 100 miles combined over last June, July and August, Last 12 months mileageand September, October, and November each in the 80-ish mile range, to cranking out four consecutive 150+ mile months (two of those months over 200 miles) in my marathon training program.

It felt great at times. But it also hurt at times. On race day I met my goal of running a sub-3:30 marathon, but I wasn’t quite ready for it. I don’t recommend this kind of running. I needed more of a base, and a more gradual increase in my weekly and monthly mileage. (For the long boring race report/post-mortem of my race, visit my Running Ahead training log here).

So now I’m building a base. Runners with a strong base are stronger, better runners. I want to be a stronger, better runner. I’ve never built a base, but have mostly geared up for races, finished the races, and then – due to injury or life change – stopped running for a period. I’m done with that kind of running. Now is time to build the base.

Though I have some racing goals in mind, my primary goal now is to just keep running, with less intensity but with disciplined regularity, to build my mileage base, get stronger, and increase my endurance. From weeks in the high 50s and low 60s during my marathon training plan, I’m dialing back to 35-40 miles per week (150 miles per month). But unlike I’ve ever done, I hope to string together several months of regular running with consistent miles. Perhaps I’ll intersperse these miles with a few races, but the primary focus will be the disciplined, yet less exciting, goal of building a base.

It’s easy to get up early on a dark, rainy day when you’ve got a marathon on the calendar and a personal record to chase. This new stage of training – with no personal record or marathon on the immediate horizon – will be a new kind of challenge for me.

Still, I have a few race goals for the next few months. For one, I want to go sub-6:00 in the mile. When I was 16 years old I ran 4:23. Those days are LONG gone. However, last year I did surprise myself in an open mile in Minneapolis and ran a 6:03. With more training already this year than I had at that time last year, I am pretty confident I can go under 6:00 – perhaps even close to 5:50 … but we’ll see. I’ve signed up for the inaugural Monumental Mile on June 5 in downtown Indianapolis. Should be fun.

The other race goal I have for the short-term is to drop my half marathon time. In Saturday’s full marathon I hit my half marathon split at just 12 seconds off my half marathon personal record. If I ran a half marathon at just 12 seconds off my personal record, and then continued to run another 13.1 miles, I know I can drop a few minutes from that PR in an open half marathon. But the problem with reaching this goal is that I won’t be in respectable half marathon race condition until sometime in June … and after the end of May there are very few half marathons in the region until late September, when I will report to Ch-BOLC (Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course) to begin my training as a Chaplain in the Indiana Army National Guard.

So the goal for the moment is base-building. Get out there and run 5-6 miles three days/week (easy pace); 7-8 miles two days/week (with a moderate tempo and/or fartlek workout); and a 10ish mile long run. Though I’ve just trained like a madman with 3:50am alarms and 12-14 miles before sunrise some days, this shift to a different kind of training is likely to be my hardest challenge yet.

Wish me luck, please.

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