Monday, December 31, 2007

Mitch Henson, Radical Christian

Pastor Mitch HensonJust a couple days after Christmas, we received the news that Mitch Henson, our beloved pastor at Glendale City SDA Church, passed away following complications from a surgery. It wasn't supposed to be this way. This past year, he had been battling brain cancer, but he was getting excellent care, and he was winning that battle. The surgery was unrelated to his cancer, and the fatal complications so unexpected. Our whole church family is greatly saddened by his untimely passing, and Mitch's wife, children and grandchildren remain in our prayers.

One of my earliest recollections of Mitch's sermons was one where he was preaching about the acceptance of all. I'm paraphrasing, but I remember it something like this:
All are welcome in this church, all are accepted. We have no guards at the door, checking for moral worthiness. All are welcome. It's not "all except those who are divorced, except those who are single parents, except those of a different faith, or a different orientation, except those who have deviated in any way from moral codes and social customs". Have I left anybody out? Have I left anybody in? Here, it's not "all except". It's "all". All are welcome here. Which part of "all" don't you understand?
That sermon was about seven years ago, but I still remember those words because it felt like Mitch was talking directly to me. I was a newcomer to the church, a non-Christian with little knowledge of Adventism, attending only because my fiancé regularly attended and brought me along. So I initially came in feeling like a total outsider, but I was warmly welcomed by the congregation. And when Mitch preached his sermon, his message spoke right to me, reassuring me that there were no "outsiders" at Glendale City Church.

It's a simple message, but it's a radical one, and it was one of Mitch's fundamental themes. He saw judgmentalism as one of the greatest and most devious of temptations, and he found in the gospels a radical rejection of judgmentalism. As Mitch once observed, Christ was radical in his day, and because of his radical message of acceptance of all, he was not allowed to speak in the temple, he could only teach outside of it. Christ ministered to the lepers, the tax-collectors, the prostitutes and the outcasts, rather than the scribes and Pharisees. In following Christ's example of radical acceptance and anti-judgmentalism, Mitch found his calling, and in his 23 years of ministry at Glendale, he made the City Church a haven for those who felt unwelcome in other places. Under his leadership, City Church has a remarkable following. We have people who regularly drive over 70 miles to attend our church, and we have members all over the country who have chosen to make Glendale their "home" church, because they have felt ostracized (or been actually "disfellowshipped") from their local church. The spirit of compassion and inclusiveness is pervasive in City Church's membership, but it has been Mitch's courageous leadership that has set the tone, and made City Church a shining beacon of Christian compassion, and a spiritual liferaft for the outcasts of more judgmental churches.

Pastor Mitch Henson at our weddingMitch undertook many special ministries, but the one that has touched me most directly is his ministry to gay people. I think Mitch recognized gay people as the contemporary equivalent of lepers in the gospels, unjustly despised and outcast as unclean, and worthy of compassion and acceptance. City Church is not a "gay church", but it has a healthy gay attendance (about 5-10% of the congregation, representative of the general population) because it's one of the few churches where gay people are not treated like lepers. The very first time I met Mitch, it was at a picnic for SDA Kinship, a support group for gay Adventists, and he was there to show his support. George (my fiancé) introduced me to Mitch, and we told him that we were planning a wedding ceremony, and asked him if he would be willing to take some part in it. We didn't ask him to officiate the ceremony, as we knew this could place him in professional jeopardy with the conference, but we invited him to do a Bible reading, or whatever part he felt comfortable doing. Taking any part at all was risky for him, but he readily agreed. We gave him a copy of our ceremony, with a place indicated for a New Testament reading, and asked him to pick whatever scripture he felt was appropriate. We didn't know what he would say, but when the day came, and it was his turn to do his reading, in his own characteristic style, he not only gave us a reading (Matthew 18:18-20) but spun it into a whole homily, personal comments, and a blessing. It was a wonderful gift to us, and a very courageous thing for him to do, given the denomination's official position on gay marriage. But he was being true to his calling, doing what he thought was the Christian thing to do, knowing that someday years in the future the official denomination will catch up. (Mitch was years ahead of the Adventist mayor of Philadelphia, for instance.)

Mitch performed many courageous ministries and righteous deeds, but he often did them quietly, sometimes partly out of professional prudence, but more out of his inherent humility. He was never one to trumpet his good deeds, to brandish his righteousness, or to think he was better than anyone else. His personal style of preaching, wandering around the dais, just talking extemporaneously from a few notes, points illustrated with homespun stories from his own family and life experiences, in his disarming North Carolina drawl, had a way of putting everyone at ease even while giving us something to think about. He delivered his sermons just like a regular guy talking to his peers. His informality of tone and off-the-cuff delivery often belied the depth of thought that went into his preparations. We'll always remember his excitement at discovering new insights in old passages ("stay with me now", "fasten your seatbelts", he'd say). He always spoke to his congregation genuinely, humbly, and personally.

Among so many others, my life has been touched by Pastor Mitch. I will always remember him for his compassion, his courage, and his humble righteousness. He was truly a radical Christian.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

What's He Destroying Now?

When I heard the news this morning that there was a fire in the Vice-President's office, my immediate reaction was "Good lord, what is he destroying now?" In other news this morning, the CIA agreed to cooperate with a Congressional inquiry and hand over documents concerning the destruction of torture videotapes. I wonder if the documents in question were in the Veep's office...

(AFP Photo snarfed from Yahoo! News)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Commuting with the Dalai Lama

Since I got an iPod for my birthday earlier this year, my commute to work (about 40-60 minutes each way) has become much more enjoyable. I have a bunch of regular podcasts I enjoy (including Good Food, This American Life, Left Right and Center, Dan Savage). I've "read" a number of books from I've been getting my dose of classic lit with The Classic Tales podcast (a free weekly download). And now, I've just started to sample from Apple's new offering iTunesU, which syndicates audio content from colleges and universities across the country. I spent the last couple of days listening to the Dalai Lama and Cornel West, courtesy of Stanford's Aurora Forum. I'd read both of them before, but you get such a different sense of the person from hearing their actual voices and their own more spontaneous words. The Dalai Lama took a bit of concentration, because he spoke some in English and some Tibetan through a translator, his accent was thick, and sometimes I wasn't sure when he switched gears. But it was worth the concentration to hear the words of this amazing man. He is much more down-to-earth and pragmatic than you might expect, and he laughs and jokes often. He is compassionate and politic in a way that is so foreign to the American temperament. A number of questions were put to him where he was encouraged to take a position, American-style, in such a way that the questioner hoped to be able to go off and say "I'm right about X, and the Dalai Lama says so." Instead, His Holiness' answers were always Solomonic, expressing his thoughts clearly, but with a lot of appreciation for context and the complexity of life, and not giving anyone any ammunition for an argument.

I've only just started Cornel West, but his voice is different than I had imagined. He speaks pretty softly and kind of raspy. I was a bit surprised at first by his cadence, which is somewhere between preacher, rapster, and poetry performance (think City Lights), but reflecting on some of his writings (his appreciation of jazz), it seems in character. It really makes the commute go by more enjoyably having such intriguing company in the car.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Fisking the Pope on Families

On Tuesday, the Pope published a message on "The Human Family, A Community of Peace". The politicized takeaway of some was that "Pope says abortion, gay marriage are 'obstacles' to world peace". (Andrew Sullivan frets that the Pope blames gay married couples for world war.) It's true enough that the Pope did say something that pretty clearly implies that, and I won't dispute that Benedict would intend that implication. The exasperating thing is that he's so close to being right about everything he says in his message. He just can't seem to see that gay families are valuable families for nearly all the same reasons straight families are. Let's look at the Pope's message:
Indeed, in a healthy family life we experience some of the fundamental elements of peace: justice and love between brothers and sisters, the role of authority expressed by parents, loving concern for the members who are weaker because of youth, sickness or old age, mutual help in the necessities of life, readiness to accept others and, if necessary, to forgive them. For this reason, the family is the first and indispensable teacher of peace. ... The family is the foundation of society for this reason too: because it enables its members in decisive ways to experience peace.
Do gay spouses not love one another, care for one another, accept and forgive one another, just as straight spouses do? Do gay parents not love and teach their children as straight parents do? Do gay people not care for their family members in sickness or old age, just as straight people do? Indeed, every virtuous element of families that the Pope has enumerated here applies equally to gay families as to straight ones. (It may be said to apply somewhat less to childless families than to childful ones, but despite common confusion to the contrary, that is not a gay/straight issue.)
Consequently, whoever, even unknowingly, circumvents the institution of the family undermines peace in the entire community, national and international, since he weakens what is in effect the primary agency of peace. This point merits special reflection: everything that serves to weaken the family based on the marriage of a man and a woman, everything that directly or indirectly stands in the way of its openness to the responsible acceptance of a new life, everything that obstructs its right to be primarily responsible for the education of its children, constitutes an objective obstacle on the road to peace.
Except for the over-specification of marriage as to a man and a woman, I can agree with all of this. As discussed above, gay families are as relevant as straight families in serving to exemplify and reinforce the fundamental elements of peace. Given that, following the Pope's logic then entails that anything that undermines the institution of the family (including gay families) undermines peace in the world. In other words, if the Pope would properly recognize gay families as valuable families, he would have said: "This point merits special reflection: everything that serves to weaken the family based on the marriage of two loving people (such as not giving all marriages their just legal recognition and societal support), everything that directly or indirectly stands in the way of its openness to the responsible acceptance of a new life (such as banning adoptions and foster care by gay parents), everything that obstructs its right to be primarily responsible for the education of its children (ditto the previous), constitutes an objective obstacle on the road to peace." Sure, I know what the Pope has in mind by "openness to the responsible acceptance of a new life", but the words he has chosen here captured the essential part of it. Who could possibly be more open to the responsible acceptance of a new life than gay parents who must make a monumentally intentional effort just to become parents?
The social community, if it is to live in peace, is also called to draw inspiration from the values on which the family community is based.
Indeed. Some of the most inspirational examples are those who hold to the traditional marital values of lifelong loving commitment, not when it is easy, supported, and encouraged, but when it is hard, when it is discountenanced by society and by government, when our partners are sick and dying of disease without a cure. You want inspiration for values? Try Curtis Watson, rather than Britney Spears. The Pope is right about the crucial importance of the family to the larger community. Which is precisely why it is wicked to not be supporting all of us who wish to create and sustain families.
Knowledge of the natural moral norm is not inaccessible to those who, in reflecting on themselves and their destiny, strive to understand the inner logic of the deepest inclinations present in their being. Albeit not without hesitation and doubt, they are capable of discovering, at least in its essential lines, this common moral law which, over and above cultural differences, enables human beings to come to a common understanding regarding the most important aspects of good and evil, justice and injustice. It is essential to go back to this fundamental law, committing our finest intellectual energies to this quest, and not letting ourselves be discouraged by mistakes and misunderstandings.
That's nearly perfect, but there's one crucial omission, which may tell the Pope's blind spot. I believe knowledge of the natural norm is inaccessible to those who reflect only on themselves. It is simply not possible to discern the essential vs the contingent, the common vs the distinct, without reflecting on all of nature and the glorious variety of the Creation. Without striving to understand the deepest inclinations present in other beings, one may mistake deep inclinations distinctly present in one's own being for the deepest ones common to our nature. Those of us who have experienced "coming out" can tell a thing or two about coming to understand "the inner logic of the deepest inclinations present in our being". We were not discouraged (or only temporarily so) by our prior misunderstandings of who we are. We -- out of necessity -- committed our finest intellectual energies to the quest of discovering the essential parts of the values we were raised with, the most important aspects of good and evil, justice and injustice. Our initial image of the good life, based on mistaking our parents' contingency for our essence, once shattered, forced us to reimagine a good life for us as God created us. And for many of us, this quest has lead us back to marriage, discarding the contingent part not found in our deepest inclinations (the man and woman part), and keeping the essential part, the lifelong loving commitment of two people. From my own quest, I am absolutely certain that gay marriages (like my own) and gay families embody all of the goodness that the Pope rightly sees in families, for they are families, just like any other in the essential aspects. And undermining them is indeed an obstacle on the road to peace.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

FILM: Enchanted

Enchanted - movie posterI have to say that we were utterly enchanted by Enchanted. In recent years, Disney has been aiming their films more at everyone in the family, keeping it for kids, but with some lines thrown in with a wink and a nod to the adults. In this latest film, they've really brought ought their A-game on that concept, creating an absolutely magical film that is layered in its sophistication, an earnest sweet story that engages the kid in all of us, while worldly adult themes are woven in. Unlike previous films, it's not just an occasional wink to the adults, but there's a whole part of the story that's almost a coming-of-age story, except that it's not about kids growing up (directly), it's about innocent Disney cartoon characters crashing into real world New York City, and gently learning the difference between the cartoon world and the real one. So while the kids are watching the story about the good princess and prince evading the poison apples of the evil sorceress queen and her henchman, the adults are watching an engaging romantic comedy that happens to feature some ripped-from-cartoon characters, and seeing that both the cartoon characters and the "real" ones have something to learn from one another. Along the way, the adventures of an innocent princess and prince in the "big city" are quite amusing, and the semi-earnest, semi-self-parody all-Disney musical numbers are laugh-out-loud funny. I was laughing and grinning ear-to-ear during the Central Park extravaganza, and I split a gut with the apartment cleaning number. The film is very well cast. Amy Adams is pitch-perfect as Giselle, the indomitably optimistic would-be princess who sees the good in everyone, and Patrick Dempsey is perfect as the big-city romance-attracting but commitment-repelling emotionally complicated man (skills he's honed to a fine art on Grey's Anatomy). James Marsden is excellent as the gallant but simple Prince Edward, with his classic good looks, pure resonant tenor, and good physical comic talent. Susan Sarandon is a wonderfully wicked queen, Timothy Spall is amusing as her half-hearted henchman, Idina Menzel does a nice turn as Patrick Dempsey's fiancee (a comic and non-singing role must have been fun change for this Wicked diva), and Rachel Covey charms as Patrick Dempsey's daughter. Bill Kelly's script and Kevin Lima's direction work together flawlessly to balance sincerity and parody, reverence and playfulness. If you have a kid, or if you've ever been a kid, you should go see this clever, witty, funny, sweet story. Truly Disney at their best.

James Marsden as Prince Edward(A footnote on James Marsden: He must have shaved a dozen times a day making this film to be so Disney-princely-smooth! I have to say, I'm quite impressed with his versatility as an actor, from X-Men to Heights, The Notebook to Hairspray, 24 Days to Enchanted, he's really explored a broad range of roles. And it doesn't hurt that he's gorgeous and adorable. Which certainly made him pack an extra charge as a Disney prince come-to-life. For me, and I suspect for a great many gay men, the Disney prince is a powerful archetype. As a child, years before I knew I was gay or understood anything about that, as I watched Disney movies, on some deep subconscious level, I desperately wanted my prince to come someday. A Disney prince is a symbol that resonates deep, so to see one come to life, even in a parodical way, connected with some deep feelings. I would so wake up if James Marsden kissed me!)

Monday, December 10, 2007

Today Republican No More, Tomorrow Parties No More?

I've been a registered Republican for 27 years, ever since I first registered to vote in the 1980 presidential election. My initial decision was entirely tactical: I wanted to vote for John Anderson against Ronald Reagan in the Republican primary. Ever since then, it's largely been inertia that's kept me in the GOP, as I lacked any strong feeling of affiliation with either party, and with the closed primary system that had been effect in California until a decade ago, it seemed a form of self-disenfranchisement to not affiliate with one of the major parties. Now, however, with California's "modified closed primary", it seems reasonable to become unaffiliated with any party, as I can vote in the partisan primary of my choice (if the party allows). With that proviso, I can agree with KipEsquire that registering independent is an appropriate way to take a stand against the two party system.

As indicated in Kip's post, the open/closed primary issue is a bit of a mess. Here in California, we voters passed an initiative to have an "open primary" in 1996. That meant that voters could vote for any candidate in any party in the primary, regardless of their affiliation. In other words, if you're a Democrat, but the Democratic primary is not very competitive one year, you were welcome to vote in the Republican primary instead. Unfortunately, the US Supreme Court shot that down a few years later, holding that it violated the parties' freedom of association to be forced to allow non-members to vote in their primaries. In other states, however, closed primary systems, where only partisan-registered voters can vote in their party's primary, have also been shot down on association grounds. In particular, in Connecticut, the GOP wanted to allow independents to vote in their primary, but the state's closed primary system prevented that, and again the court held that the party's right of association was being violated. California currently has a "modified closed primary", in which each party gets to choose whether it will allow unaffiliated voters to vote their ballot. (Unlike the open primary, though, cross-over voting is still prohibited. The "modified closed primary" is only potentially a good deal for independents.) In the 2004 and 2006 elections, both the Dems and the GOP allowed independents to vote in their primaries. However, I just noticed that the filing deadline has passed for the upcoming presidential primary, and the GOP chose not to renew their invitation to independents. So it looks like only the Dems (and the American Independent party, in case anyone cares) will be open to California independents in February. I'm curious whether that was an intentional decision by the GOP, or they just missed the filing deadline. (The option needs to be explicity renewed for each election, 135 days in advance.) The Ron Paul forums are on top of this, but I didn't see any statement from the GOP. Plausible speculation is that party HQ is afraid if they let the independents vote the GOP ballot, too many of those votes would go to Ron Paul.

Personally, I liked the "open" or "blanket" primary that we had for a couple of election cycles, mostly because it was subversive of the two-party system. Constitutionally, I understand the freedom-of-association problem that the parties have with the open primary (as well as the strict closed one), and can even imagine a similar argument being made against the modified closed primary (i.e., what if a party wanted to allow its ballot to be offered to anyone, even if they were registered in a different party?). I think the fundamental problem is that if the parties are truly private associations, then why are public funds being spent to conduct "their" primary elections? Official elections are expensive affairs. If people want to form private associations to promote candidates, that's great, but why should taxpayers bear the cost of these associations conducting their private business of deciding who they want to promote? I say the constitutional solution to primary elections is to drop them altogether as a government-sponsored event. Or better yet, keep primaries as a chance to winnow the field, but keep it completely independent of the parties.

So, tomorrow I'll drop my registration in the mail officially declaring my independence from the party system. And look forward to the decreasing relevance of the D and R tags.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Mormon Thing

There's been a bunch of buzz lately around Mitt Romney and whether America is ready to accept a Mormon for President, forcing him to do his version of John F. Kennedy's "I don’t take orders from the Pope" speech. Personally, I'm a bit bemused by the whole fuss. Sure, the Mormons have some official beliefs that look a little crazy to those of us on the outside, like some guy in the 1820s finding golden tablets hidden in upstate New York, magic glasses enabling him to read the ancient language, and so on. But if we were anthropologists looking in on western culture, rather than being so embedded in it as we are, would those beliefs seem much more crazy than a virgin birth, the parting of the Red Sea, a guy being swallowed alive by a large fish for several days, and many other things that most of us Americans don't blanch at? I can't really think of any good reason that one set of miraculous narratives should be more crazy than another. The only objective difference is distance in time and space, and some unexpressed but commonly held notion that supernatural events that happened on another continent a couple thousand years ago are somehow easier to accept than supernatural events that happened in this country just a couple centuries ago. As if the laws of nature may be more wobbly in ancient Israel or Egypt, but they're hard and fast in New York and Pennsylvania. It sounds a little irrational when it's put so starkly, because, well, it is irrational. But I think that's what most Americans really feel in their gut. So as far as that goes, I think it's unfair to beat Romney up with urim and thummim.

As to the question whether it's fair to judge a candidate by his religion, I think it depends on the candidate and it depends on the religion. I think it's certainly fair to want to understand how a candidate's religion influences his policy views and his character. It would be a mistake to say that religion is completely off the table. While the Constitution prohibits any "religious test" for public office, I think the Constitution implies a "theocracy test" for weeding out inappropriate candidates. Anyone whose policy views include establishing their religion with the force of government, enacting laws to enforce their religious values, or selecting judges based on their religious views, that candidate should be soundly rejected. So I want to understand that a candidate, even if personally religious, which is fine, has a healthy understanding of the proper role of religion in American government. (See JFK speech if a refresher is needed.)

As I said, it also depends on the religion. I should be up front about my own prejudices here: I would be a priori bothered by a candidate from some weird cult religion. If Romney were a Jehovah's Witness, a Christian Scientist, or a Scientologist, that would strongly put me off. And Romney's problem is probably that many Americans think of Mormonism as in the same bucket with the Witnesses, the Scientologists, and other cults. But I certainly don't. I've known enough Mormons to get a sense of what sort of people they are. And so far as one can generalize about such things, my experience is that Mormons are very decent people. I admit I find some of their beliefs wacky, but their values -- honesty, hard work, helpfulness to others, love of family -- are solid and upstanding. And I guess what impresses me most positively or negatively about religions are their cultural manifestations, the sort of people they produce. And if a belief in magic spectacles and golden tablets gets people to be honest, helpful and decent, well then, I won't quibble about the spectacles. To use one of those completely far-fetched hypotheticals to illustrate my feeling: if I had children, and if I were being suddenly taken away somewhere for a long time, and I had to leave my children in the care of one of four neighbors -- a Mormon family, a JW family, a Christian Science family, or a Scientologist family -- I would pick the Mormon family in a heartbeat, and I would feel pretty comfortable about it.

So I would certainly not be deterred from voting for a presidential candidate just because he is a Mormon. In fact, since I hold the prejudice that Mormons are generally decent people, Romney's religion is a net positive influence on me. Romney's problem, for me, is his transformation during this campaign into a man with no apparent willingness to hold to any principles and a complete willingness to pander. In my case, it's fair to say that Romney has lost my vote despite his being a Mormon.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Maccabees Of This Year

As I have been lighting the Hanukkah candles this year, thinking about the Maccabees fighting to defend their faith and freedom, and about the miracle of the oil, which to me is a symbol for enduring spirit in the face of opposition and oppression, I cannot help but think about the Buddhist monks in Burma, and the other Burmese people who have risen up with them in protest of the Myanmar regime. (And I'll agree with President Bush to call that nation Burma, and not Myanmar, in pointed disrecognition of the illegitimate junta.) It has been amazing this year to see those brave people march in protest, get suppressed, beaten, and disappeared, only to have more rise up and protest some more. As we remember G-d who made miracles for our fathers in their years in this season, let us also think of those who are the Maccabees in this year, and pray for them to be rewarded with justice.