The Common Good

Blog Posts By Tom Ehrich

Posted by Tom Ehrich 4 days 13 hours ago
Let’s be clear: The much-heralded “decline of Christianity in America” isn’t about God losing faith in humankind.It isn’t about losing our moral compass thanks to whatever you happen to loathe. It isn’t about fickle millennials. It isn’t about zigging trendy or zagging traditional.In fact, I would argue that Christianity isn’t in trouble at all. Churches are in trouble. Denominations are in trouble. Religious institutions like seminaries are in trouble. Professional church leaders are in trouble.But churches can’t hold God hostage. 
Posted by Tom Ehrich 3 weeks 3 days ago
I enjoy cop shows on television.My favorite is Blue Bloods, following the “Reagan” family from terrorist threats to homicides to domestic violence.I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a cop. Perhaps routine marked by bursts of frenzy, some of it life-threatening. One’s hometown seen through the lens of crime, tragedy, and evil. Low pay, high risk.I like Blue Bloods because it shows upright law enforcement taking “Protect and Serve” seriously and making brave and ethical choices.These shows are quite unrealistic, of course. Crime doesn’t get solved that easily or snap decisions made that wisely.I don’t think, however, that I realized until recently how separated from reality those fictional accounts have been. As police shootings of unarmed citizens go viral, as minorities talk of long-standing police brutality, as we watch guards beating prisoners, and as federal law enforcement engages in creepy surveillance, internal corruption, and the arming of local police as military commandos, the veil is lifted.Now we see in our own American law enforcement the same brutality and power-madness that have marked corrupt societies we supposedly surpassed, from the secret police in Eastern Europe to uniformed thugs in South America.I find it confusing. Not the discovery that TV isn’t real, but to see how low we have fallen. Has this brutality been the dark side of police work all along?
Posted by Tom Ehrich 4 weeks 3 days ago
I am in a lovely college town to help a congregation discern its path forward.It faces challenges that many church leaders will recognize: leadership, finances, isolation from the surrounding community, not enough young and middle-age adults to carry the congregation forward.It also has pluses. The members aren’t deeply divided or mired in distrust and disdain. They aren’t afraid of change. They don’t bury the future in grand laments about a lost “golden age.”I think they have a good shot at turning a corner and building a healthy next phase. I hear reports from across the nation that things are improving for Christian congregations. A new generation of clergy is exploring new ideas. Fresh energy is emerging. Denial is losing its hold, as congregations whose average age is 60 to 65 realize they must change or die.Denominations are slower to adapt, but they, too, are moving forward in practical ways such as training in leadership and stewardship, and flexible deployment of resources.Yet for this fresh day to last, church leaders will need to embrace a truth that goes beyond organizational development and resolving present issues. It’s a truth that many congregations simply cannot hear.That truth is this: There is too much shallowness, not enough depth.Over the years, in a process that isn’t at all unusual, we have equated faith with attending Sunday worship, maybe pitching in on a committee, and forming friendships within the fellowship. People enjoy belonging to the congregation. They radiate a palpable joy in being together. They seem content.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 5 weeks 4 days ago
As presidential candidacies multiply and campaigning accelerates, we can expect much tawdriness to occur. These are difficult times in American democracy.Money will pour into negative campaigning and ideological posturing. Lies will become the norm. Every word will evoke counterattack, and facts will lose their currency. Barbed sound bites will be mistaken for wisdom. Bullies claiming to be “Christian” will be among the loudest. On both sides.What are people of faith to do?We can assume, first of all, that truth-telling will be absent all around. We, then, need to be truth-seekers, reading beyond the sound bites and toxic jabs for actual insights into what candidates stand for and what is their character.We can assume, second, that God’s name will be taken in vain by everyone. Every candidate will tell stories of personal faith, maybe even dramatic conversion. They will quote Scripture and claim to be promoting God’s work.In fact, to judge by candidates’ behavior, their words will be insincere and their faith a concoction meant to satisfy the sweet tooth of religious leaders. We, then, need to do our own work of discerning whether they have any functional familiarity with Scripture and any real concern for Christian ethics.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 6 weeks 4 days ago
Little by little, the direct sun of spring is vanquishing the snow of this long winter, and new life is starting to emerge.Something similar is happening in my home state of Indiana, where the darkness met behind closed doors to conspire against certain citizens in the name of religion.For a time, hatred prevailed. But then a more-direct sun began to shine in the American heartland, and people took notice of what the Republican-controlled Legislature and cowardly governor had done.The people spoke out. It started with leaders in the tech community (Salesforce, Apple, Angie’s List) and, to my amazement, pillars of the sports establishment, such as the NCAA and NASCAR. Soon, citizens across Indiana and the nation condemned the state’s so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act as little more than legalized discrimination.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 8 weeks 4 days ago
At a church workshop last week, I set aside my carefully planned teaching and just let people talk.It became clear that everyone had an old story they needed to tell. Until it was heard, no one in the room could or would move on to thinking about the future. And even when it was heard, half of them would keep cycling back to the old story.I sensed that, for some, the old story contained an identity, in the sense of “this story is who I am.” I need to keep telling this story so that you know me. Until I am sure you’ve heard it, know me, and accept me, I can’t stop.For some, the old story was the burden on their back, the cloud over their heads. This story explains why I fall short, seem hesitant or even paralyzed. If you know my story, maybe you can accept me and forgive me.For some, the old story was the safe place, the known that kept the scary unknown at bay. As long as I keep telling this story and presenting the me that existed yesterday, I don’t have to contemplate the ways I am changing and the tomorrow that worries me.It was like a case study in the long-ago classic, “I’m OK — You’re OK.” People wanted to know they were OK — acceptable and maybe someday even loved.I think back to a recent lunch with the rector of the local Episcopal church, where I kept peeling the onion, telling her one thing about myself and then, if she accepted that, telling her something more. She was doing the same. If we know each other and still accept each other, then we can be in relationship.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 9 weeks 3 days ago
American Christianity is at a crossroads — again. It’s the latest in a long string of crossroads.In the run-up to revolution, American branches of European denominations — such as my Anglican ancestors — had to declare loyalty to the crown or to an emerging rebellion.In the 1830s, congregations throughout the restless nation had to decide whether they served whites or all people, including Native Americans.In the mid-19th century, denominations were forced to choose between continued slavery and a commitment to freedom.On it went. During each era of change and expansion, Christian communities had to decide what they stood for and what the gospel meant to them. Would they serve immigrants who spoke a certain language or all people in the community, one class in the emerging industrial society or all people, enclaves of status and like-mindedness or whole communities?Whatever choice was made, each congregation and denomination found a way to justify it. The choices themselves didn’t flow from Scripture. Rather, in stepping up as theologians for slavery or abolition, for white rule or open access, for changes in women’s place or perpetuation of patriarchy, preachers wore out their Bibles and seminary training looking for rationales to do what they wanted. They claimed absolute authority for what, by any reasonable standard, was simply their preferred way of doing things.Now Christianity in America faces a similar crossroads that turns on the question: Do we serve only ourselves and people like us, or do we serve the larger community, especially its outcasts and vulnerable?Up to now, the church has focused on who crossed the threshold into our pews and who had leadership roles within the fellowship. Now the challenge is to go out into the world, see what the needs are, and rethink how we do things in response to those needs.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 10 weeks 4 days ago
On my recent 4,100-mile pilgrimage across the U.S., I occasionally used my radio’s “seek” function to find stations.I often stopped on a “Christian radio” station, sometimes a national network such as American Family Radio, sometimes a local effort featuring preachers from area churches, always conservative.I did so because I enjoy gospel music and I was curious what the radio preachers were saying.They tended to be excellent speakers and well-prepared. But their message seemed frozen in time, as if nothing had changed in America since the 1950s except for the identities of enemies who are allegedly “attacking Christians,” "attacking Christian values” and “attacking the American way of life.”This siege mentality seemed basic to every preacher I heard. I suppose it’s one way to rally the troops. Get them fearful, angry, and suspicious.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 11 weeks 4 days ago
A recent survey found that 57 percent of Republicans agreed that Christianity should be established as the United States’ national religion.Not only would this violate the clear wording of the Constitution and the intention of the founders to keep religion and government separate, it also raises a difficult quandary.Whose Christianity?Of the estimated 1,500-plus Christian denominations in the U.S., which flavor of Christianity would emerge as the national standard?Would it be conservative Christianity or liberal Christianity? Would it be Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, or nondenominational? Would it be church-centered Christianity or a more personal flavor, such as house communion? Would it be the 1950s-style neighborhood-church Christianity that many older churchgoers yearn for, or a contemporary megachurch?
Posted by Tom Ehrich 14 weeks 3 days ago
Despite the fuming of a former Republican governor, President Obama didn’t offend “every believing Christian in the United States” when he noted at a national prayer breakfast that we, too, “committed terrible deeds” in the name of our religion.I, for one, was pleased to have us called back from the “high horse” that Christian religionists often occupy when criticizing other faiths while ignoring the mote in our own eye.In our pursuit of religious victory, we Christians have at times been a scourge on civilization. We have slaughtered many, and not just centuries ago in a safe and distant past but still today.We have served as apologists for slavery, apartheid, racial segregation, white terrorism of blacks in the South, suppression of labor, and repression of the poor and immigrant. Some of our misguided brethren are declaring war now on women and on gays, as if God’s promise to love all of humanity needed to be ignored.We have winked at our own scandals while presuming to judge our neighbors for their flaws. We have sought special favors — such as tax exemption — and used the benefits to serve ourselves. With the world around us descending into violence and intolerance, we bicker about doctrine and property ownership.Our hands are stained. Plain and simple.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 16 weeks 4 days ago
Apocalypse or snowstorm? For a nervous few days, we worried that life as we know it in New York would be undone by a monster blizzard.As it turned out, we didn’t get the feared 36 inches. But as we stood in long grocery lines and planned escape routes from work, we realized that not a single one of us — not even the mega-wealthy and mega-powerful in this mega-city — could control this moment.For me, a blizzard would have imperiled my scheduled move Upstate on Jan. 29 and my scheduled flight to California next week and ensuing four-week pilgrimage driving east on two-lane roads, plans made over many months.Now we could see our “control addiction” in action. Some believe control is the ultimate human addiction. Not caused by a chemical or harmful substance, but caused by the grand delusion that we are all-powerful, we are “masters of the universe,” as Tom Wolfe put it. Our wealth and our weapons can make life exactly what we want.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 18 weeks 4 days ago
While a new Congress relentlessly pursued its ideological agenda to trim government and reward its big-money patrons, a vastly more complicated world intruded:In Maryland, a bishop reportedly driving drunk struck a bicyclist, fled the scene while he lay dying and, according to some reports, returned only after a church official told her she had to do so.In Paris, a handful of religious terrorists defended the Prophet Muhammad by slaughtering the staff of a satirical magazine.In Nigeria, the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram intensified its systematic massacring of Nigerian citizens.In New York City, police officers wanting more respect from the new mayor waged a childish campaign of disrespect against the mayor and against the people of New York.In Washington, the latest jobs report showed more jobs being created but no gains in pay. That means the lower and middle classes continue to be dragged down by up-with-wealth political actions.All this in a week’s time, all while Congress was pursuing a stale ideological agenda dating back to the 1930s. In that agenda, legislators would gut Social Security (take that, FDR), reward big oil with a new pipeline (thanks for the patronage, Koch brothers), chip away at Affordable Care (gotcha, Barack) and appease social conservatives.They would treat the world as a simple place where government must shrink, people must suffer and the precious few must get richer.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 22 weeks 3 days ago
I had just started as pastor of a large church when a key leader took me aside and said I was free to preach about anything I wanted, except homosexuality.He didn’t want to hear any sermons addressing the issue then dominating many conversations among Christians. Keep the topic in the closet.Sixteen years before, in a town once governed by the Klan, a leader told me not to preach about race. Too many people remembered signs saying, “Negroes must be out of town by sundown.”Many clergy have been told, in terms ranging from kindly counsel to peremptory demand, to “keep politics out of the pulpit.”Many a mainline pastor will attest: The one topic that Jesus addressed more than any other — wealth and power — was declared off-limits in congregations that hoped to attract wealthy constituents and their budget-saving pledges.Many churches gave up their ethical voice in exchange for money, the very trade Jesus warned us against. The issue wasn’t partisan campaigning or endorsing specific candidates — a clear violation — but any mention at all of race, sexuality, warfare or economic injustice.As a reader recently wrote me: “I hear enough about blacks on TV.”So it is that Christmas becomes a sweet story and a centerpiece for family love. 
Posted by Tom Ehrich 24 weeks 3 days ago
Early on the first Sunday of Advent, I logged in to Pandora and heard the familiar chant “Adoro Te Devote.”As a child, I knew Thomas Aquinas’ beloved text as “Humbly I Adore Thee.” At that time, faith meant standing with my family in the family church and singing such hymns with devotion.The joining in song and prayer drew me closer to God. Or so I thought.Later, as my life became more challenging and as I entered a world that seemed largely untouched by faith — a world where hatred, greed, violence and arrogance had free rein — I wondered if faith needed to be something more.More rigorous, perhaps, deeper than a child’s cozy feelings. Faith needed to embrace more than lingering echoes of days gone by. Faith needed to address today’s cruelties and sadness. Faith needed to confront warfare, prejudice and unwarranted privilege.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 25 weeks 4 days ago
Every now and then something scars the “national memory,” and we encounter ourselves as a single people. We grieve as one or we celebrate as one.Those moments are rare, and maybe they should be rare. It would be artificial for a people as divided as we are to pretend to a national consciousness. We don’t agree on the facts, we don’t agree on our own history, we don’t agree on meaning and ethics, we don’t like each other, and we certainly don’t trust each other.Now, to echo President Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg 151 years ago, we are met on a great battlefield of the wars we wage against each other. It isn’t a field in central Pennsylvania. It is the nation itself.Cities are set to explode over worsening racial injustice and police misconduct. Football players get a free pass on domestic violence. Colleges shrug off epidemics of rape and cheating.Banks and a small moneyed set wage unrelenting war on their fellow Americans. Descendants of immigrants turn against new arrivals and call it patriotism. Large companies like General Motors sell defective products. Lobbyists control our legislators, and they in turn deny votes and basic rights to certain citizens.The question, then, is the one President Lincoln posed: Can a nation so wounded by its divisions, hatreds and manipulated fears survive? Are we setting the stage for even more repressive surveillance, even worse predations by the government-owning few, even more weapons in unstable hands, even worse despair among the many?
Posted by Tom Ehrich 26 weeks 3 days ago
I’ve decided not to worry about the earlier-than-ever start to Christmas commerce this year.Shortly after Halloween, with hardly a nod to Thanksgiving, stores and advertisers began going full-bore on the supposed “Christmas package,” namely, gift-giving, family fun, decorating, and entertaining.It’s sad — this annual effort to derive profits from a facsimile of a 1950s Christmas — but other things are a lot sadder: an elusive economic recovery, continuing gun violence, racial violence, religious extremism, mounting rage, and intolerance at home and echoes of the Cold War in Europe.Let commerce tread the line between gauche and tacky — merchants have salaries and suppliers to pay, after all. We have a troubled world to care about.The path to that care doesn’t go by way of Wal-Mart or Budweiser. It is God’s path, and it goes by way of anticipation, promises, prophetic vision, a birth, a life, a death, and over all of it a sustaining grace that cares little for our seasonal receipts but cares intensely about our lives.Maybe it’s good that commerce has declared its independence from religion and decorum. That clears the way for faith to have its parallel season — not in competition with commerce, but as the deeper reality that commerce can never attain, the deeper meaning we yearn for.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 27 weeks 4 days ago
Election 2014: Something important has just happened.Big money bought an election. Fear prevailed over confidence and loathing over reason. The majority chose not to vote, allowing a passionate minority — older, whiter — to change the balance of power. Attack ads drowned out issues. A broken political system tolerated cheating and bullying.Most worrisome is the absence of the virtues that enable a democracy to function in a challenging world. Civic-mindedness gave way to clever voter-suppression tactics. Freedom of the press got lost in attack ads and deliberate distortions of reality. Respect for opponents is gone. So too is the search for common ground, competing ideas, confidence in the nation, confidence in government, confidence in the future. Gone, gone, gone.How could this happen? Several reasons — from intellectual laziness to self-serving leaders. The reason that touches my world is the collapse of progressive Christianity as a teacher of civic virtues.Progressive Christianity is only one voice on the spectrum of religious opinions. But over the years it has had a large impact in its insistence on honesty, fairness, tolerance and humility. Progressive Christians have fought slavery, racial injustice and oppression of the vulnerable. Our search for truth has allowed room for other truths, other voices — a critical attitude in preserving democracy.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 28 weeks 4 days ago
Like other citizens of our free land, Christians tend to divide sharply, predictably, and with heated language.We disagree about almost everything, from cultural norms to attitudes toward wealth and power; from personal behavior to what Jesus intended.To judge by our blog posts, our comments, our letters to the editor, and our remarks in public, we are appalled at what other Christians believe. How can this person have that viewpoint and still call himself a Christian? Does she not know that her words heap burning coals on her own head?In view of our fiery words, you’d think we had explored the extremes of Christian faith and were shouting across a vast, unbridgeable chasm. In fact, we differ within a narrow spectrum, like those who debate Coke vs. Pepsi.That narrow spectrum tends to be far removed from what Jesus actually said, did and expected. We argue about things that don’t matter because we can’t stand the things that do matter. We argue about sex, for example, in order to avoid the topic Jesus actually addressed, namely, wealth and power.And when we do address wealth and power, we tend to affirm the individual’s right to have as much as they can get, even though Jesus said no such thing.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 29 weeks 3 days ago
Right-wing Christians and the politicians who pander to them like to say that the United States was, is and always should be a “Christian nation.”Why, then, are they so obsessed about money and political power and so determined to make people afraid?After all, Jesus spent an estimated two-thirds of his teaching time on wealth and power. His message was clear, if radical: Give wealth away rather than build bigger barns. Submit to others rather than seek power. Love your enemies rather than smite them.Moreover, his one new commandment was equally clear: Don’t be afraid. Live without fear. Live in trust and confidence. Live in harmony. Make peace. But whatever happens, don’t be afraid.Instead of preaching a gospel of self-sacrifice and generosity, right-wing Christians support the mega-wealthy who yearn to stifle democracy and move us further toward plutocracy: Keep the riffraff from voting. Keep alternative views out. Live in the bubble of like-minded people, not the marketplace of ideas and diversity where Jesus lived.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 30 weeks 4 days ago
Once the first person in America died from Ebola, the usual bigots and ideologues blamed it on President Obama, whom they loathe. Some suggested Obama deliberately allowed the virus into the U.S. for nefarious purposes.“He wants us to be just like everybody else, and if Africa is suffering from Ebola, we ought to join the group and be suffering from it, too. That’s his attitude,” said Phyllis Schlafly, the matriarch of America’s religious right.Every misstep will be laid at the president’s doorstep, as if he personally ordered a Dallas hospital to screw up.Such nonsense plays well in an election year, at least with a certain portion of the electorate. But the question remains: How are we as a society to deal with a potential contagion that could impact our lives?Our worst instincts, as always, will be to blame whatever we don’t like, to imagine barriers and travel bans that would protect us, and to turn against each other. Schlafly, for one, blames Obama personally for  “letting these diseased people into this country to infect our own people.”
Posted by Tom Ehrich 31 weeks 3 days ago
News articles about turmoil at General Theological Seminary had immediate impact on those of us who attended Episcopal seminaries.But the news “went viral” far beyond that small coterie and for reasons beyond nostalgia.For one thing, it’s a juicy soap opera. Faculty playing hardball, then finding themselves unemployed. A dean pushing back, then losing credibility as word about him spread. A board looking confused and high-handed. Students wondering if they, too, should go on strike.But impact goes beyond the particular event itself. For something fundamental seems to be changing.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 32 weeks 4 days ago
General Theological Seminary’s campus in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan is everything you’d want in an urban seminary.Handsome buildings, a chapel at the center, quiet walkways in a noisy city, calm places to read and pray. All serving a wonderfully diverse student body eager to minister in a changing world.It’s like the best of historic church properties: harking back to a day of noble architecture and tradition and yet looking outward to a frenetic city and changing religious environment.Why, then, is GTS on the verge of financial collapse and, now, paralyzing internal conflict? Its dean is under attack, 80 percent of its full-time faculty were dismissed, its board is floundering — all in the glare of press and blogosphere.Why? For the same reason that historic churches and denominations are trapped in “train wrecks.” Their time has passed.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 33 weeks 4 days ago
For one year, my wife and I are living 2,700 miles apart.She lives in a one-bedroom apartment here, south of San Francisco. Each weekday she walks two blocks to the home of our middle son and his wife, where she cares for their 9-month-old son.“Granny nanny” is what they call this phenomenon. Once maternity and paternity leaves expire, grandparents across the country are moving close to their adult children, maybe into their homes, to provide child care so both parents can pursue their careers.A six-hour plane ride away, I am back in our Manhattan apartment, where our youngest son, age 23, is living at home until he lands a job in the worst job-finding environment since the Great Depression.Our oldest son, meanwhile, is adapting his country house to become a multigenerational household next year, when my wife returns east. I have already had a taste of caring for their 8-month-old daughter, and it is wonderful.It seems we have joined a growing trend toward sharing living space: three generations (grandparents, parents and children) or two generations (parents and adult children).
Posted by Tom Ehrich 37 weeks 4 days ago
When churches conclude their summer hiatus and resume full-scale ministries this week, much will have changed from a year ago — outside their doors.Conditions might have changed inside, too. But it is the world outside that demands fresh attention in mission and ministry.Ferguson, Mo., has happened, revealing disturbing trends in law enforcement and deep fault lines between white experience and black experience.Russia’s aggression against Ukraine happened, threatening a resumption of dangerous tensions between Moscow and Western democracies.The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria happened, raising the dreaded specter of a take-no-prisoners war on modernity, reason, progress, women and other faiths.The 113th Congress happened, mired in systemic dysfunction, with one party determined to cripple a black president and to channel more wealth to the wealthy.The Koch brothers and their megabuck cronies happened, changing the face of electoral politics with unprecedented infusions of cash and ideological vitriol.The two-tier economy happened, with one tier doing extraordinarily well and a much, much larger tier falling further behind, leaving despair among all age groups.Border wars between terrified migrants and swaggering white men bearing arms against children happened, threatening America’s true core value as a welcoming nation promising freedom.These outside-the-walls developments have little to do with the usual church fussing — except to say that it’s time for church people to stop their usual fussing.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 38 weeks 4 days ago
Church leaders often worry that Sunday morning is the “most segregated day of the week.”On Sundays, churchgoers gather inside congregations that are remarkably monochromatic. Whites with whites, blacks with blacks, Latinos with Latinos, Koreans with Koreans, and so on.This phenomenon, however, is more than discomfort with diversity. It is also a search for safety. In the historic black church, for example, worshippers can assert the dignity and worth that a white society denies them. For three hours on Sunday, the need to avoid offending whites doesn’t govern their lives.As we are learning in Ferguson, Mo., African-Americans feel unsafe — far more than many whites have realized. Young black men, for example, flinch whenever a police car passes — a vulnerability that money, job, and education can’t overcome.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 40 weeks 4 days ago
I was scanning my Facebook news feed when I read articles about murders in Iraq.It seems Islamic extremists in Syria are using beheadings and crucifixions to intimidate opponents. Photos and videos look eerily like scenes from illustrated Bibles.I read about right-wing hate speeches on the steps of the Massachusetts State House in Boston, stirred by opposition to immigrants but proceeding on to everyone else they hate.I read about gay bashing in the military. Anti-Semitism in Europe. Domestic violence in Baltimore. And on and on.I have two responses. First, I applaud those who post such things on Facebook. Cat pictures are fine, but if this ugliness is going on in our world, we need to know about it.Second, has humanity entered some new depth of degradation? Or do we just know more?
Posted by Tom Ehrich 41 weeks 4 days ago
I went to the town dump today, and I found it open, functioning, filled with people doing the right thing in the right way, giving useful advice to a novice, and able to drive in and out without mayhem, all under the watchful eye of a single employee.Its no-nonsense efficiency reminded me of church suppers, where everything seems to work because people are helping, not managing. Imagine Congress being that capable.I suppose we should be thankful that Congress scampered out of town for five weeks. If they’re going to do nothing, at least they should do nothing out where the constituents who elected them can take their measure.I suppose we should also be thankful that July 2014 only had 31 days. Imagine a longer month for suicidal conflicts and epidemics.We should be thankful, too, that the world’s three great religions — wealth, technology, and the Abrahamic faiths — are getting on people’s nerves. Irritation might lead us to expect better.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 42 weeks 4 days ago
When I was a child, I lived in a black-and-white world of all-this or all-that.Humankind meant my family. The world meant my neighborhood. Religion meant my church. Politics meant my father’s beliefs.Oh, I was aware that more was out there, but it had little claim on my imagination or loyalties. My world was complete. There were no gray areas, no compromises, no maybes.That was a child’s view, reality writ small. In time, I advanced beyond it, until the world became large, complicated, and gray, with places beyond imagining, people totally unlike anyone I knew, ideas beyond anything I heard at my parents’ table.It’s called growing up. Discovering through knowledge and experience that the little I grew up knowing wasn’t enough to know.We are witnessing today a headlong retreat into the not-knowing and simplistic partisanship of childhood. Ideas that make people uncomfortable are banished. Science that calls faith into question is shouted down. Politics isn’t just hardball, it’s dumb-ball: I must win, at any cost, and you must lose. I am right, and you are wrong. My tribe is the only tribe that has value and rights.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 44 weeks 4 days ago
If Christians stopped bickering about church, presenting sex as a first-order concern, telling other people how to lead their lives, and lending our name to minor-league politicians, what would we have to say?We need to figure that out, because we are wearing out our welcome as tax-avoiding, sex-obsessed moral scolds and amateur politicians.In fact, I think we are getting tired of ourselves. Who wants to devote life and loyalty to a religion that debates trifles and bullies the outsider?So what would we say and do? No one thing, of course, because we are an extraordinarily diverse assembly of believers. But I think there are a few common words we would say.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 45 weeks 4 days ago
After the final whistle ended a hard-fought World Cup match, Brazilian star David Luiz consoled Colombian star James Rodriguez.They exchanged jerseys to show their mutual respect, and Luiz held Rodriguez close as the losing player wept in frustration.This poignant moment was much more inspiring than a string of fouls, some intentional, that sent Brazil’s Neymar to the hospital and left players on both sides shouting in agony.During play, soccer seems eerily like the world outside: opposing forces collide, do anything to gain advantage, bamboozle the game’s referees, shout in mock pain and real pain, challenge joints and muscles beyond their capacity, give everything for their nation’s cause — all while spectators whoop and holler in the safety of the stands.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 46 weeks 4 days ago
The New York Knicks have a dilemma: Hold on to high-scoring star Carmelo Anthony, the consummate me-first ball hog, or build their future on team players.I am hoping new coach Phil Jackson gives Anthony his walking papers. The Knicks have been a poor basketball team with Melo’s I-am-the-man selfishness. They will be better with players who know how to work as a unit.As the coaching cliche puts it, “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team.’” There is, however, an “I” in “big bucks,” and in “I am the star,” and in “watch my magic.”It’s the very “I” with which Satan tested Jesus in the wilderness. It’s the “I” that builds empires on the suffering of many and destroys them just as quickly. It’s the “I” that cripples families and ruins enterprises.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 47 weeks 4 days ago
You are a pastor. You work six days a week, sometimes seven. You are on call 24/7. Every detail of your life is out there for public consumption. People project their unresolved issues onto you, especially parental issues from their childhoods.By church rules, you are entitled to a sabbatical, perhaps three months every seven years. But when you propose it, you hear what one pastor heard the other day: “Sabbaticals are for academics who are making a significant contribution to their field, not for clergy who want an extended vacation and can’t take working for a living.”What do you say?In that one dismissive sentence, someone you trust tells you your work is insignificant, you want a benefit that you don’t deserve, and you’re lazy. What do you do?
Posted by Tom Ehrich 48 weeks 4 days ago
Right-wing politicians are fond of saying we need more Christian influence in American political life.I don’t disagree with that. But I wonder if they have any idea what they are asking. For a nation guided by Christian principles would bear scant resemblance to their political agenda.Take immigration, for example. Jesus practiced radical welcome, not the restrictive legalistic barriers envisioned by conservatives, and certainly not the denigration of dark-skinned immigrants and the unleashing of armed posses along the Rio Grande.God’s people, after all, began as immigrants and refugees. God saw them as a “beacon” to all nations.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 49 weeks 4 days ago
We have weapons, and, in our brokenness, we tend to use whatever weapons we think will work.Some of our weapons get assigned gender tags. Men, we say, tend to shout, bully, interrupt, trivialize, ignore “no,” and turn to violence. Women, we say, tend to manipulate, conspire, and blame.But those tags mean little, and they don’t begin to describe the balance of abuse, which, as women know and men are learning, is overwhelmingly abuse of women by men.Some weapons aren’t about gender. Some people use social status as a weapon. Age stifles youth, and youth embarrasses age. Long-timers freeze out newcomers, and the new form their own exclusive tribes. Wealth bullies poverty. The dominant race represses minorities. Heterosexuals bully homosexuals. Those with hiring power hire their own kind. More and more carry firearms and seem eager to use them.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 50 weeks 4 days ago
The two most critical requirements for democracy are freedom of the press and an educated citizenry.The one informs the people and brings government and power into the open. The other enables people to comprehend information and to discuss opinions without resorting to panic and violence.Power elites have declared war on both requirements.These include “big money” oligarchs, such as the people who gather around the Koch brothers, politicians who cater to the wealthy in exchange for campaign contributions and government officials who have come to identify with the corporate and financial interests they regulate.Through acquisitions of newspapers and television outlets and intimidation of reporters, these power elites seek to turn the press into propaganda vehicles and to distort information.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 51 weeks 4 days ago
I am sweating on the treadmill when a young man walks onto the patio outside my window, sits at a table, and spreads out his drug paraphernalia.He folds a piece of white paper to form a work surface. He measures a brown, leafy substance onto the paper, then, using a subway fare card, mixes in a white powder.Next he puts half of his pile into a cigarette paper and carefully rolls it into cylinder shape. Now he rolls the other half. Both joints go into a plastic medicine bottle.Off he goes down a stairway, pausing to light up, then on to his apartment in an adjacent building.The moral calculation is that not a single one of the people around him matters at all. This is the casual face of anomie, the breakdown of moral guidance and resulting alienation from society. 
Posted by Tom Ehrich 1 year 3 days ago
Not long ago, I visited Topeka, Kan., to teach at one of those grand old mainline churches that got caught in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education.It was around the corner from the modest home of a railroad worker named Oliver Brown who decided his daughter Linda shouldn’t have to attend an elementary school far from home just because the neighborhood school was for whites only.The Supreme Court agreed and, in 1954, struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine that had allowed segregation in public schools. That decision set in motion the mass exodus of whites from urban neighborhoods.So-called “white flight” suburbs sprang up just outside the borders of newly integrated school districts. New schools went up to attract white families, as did housing developments promising a better way of life, code for “whites-only.”
Posted by Tom Ehrich 1 year 1 week ago
In a marketplace unfettered by ethical restraint, a sense of duty, concern for others, or even basic shame, 25 hedge fund managers gave themselves a 50 percent pay boost in 2013.Never mind that hedge funds’ performance, on average, tanked for the fifth consecutive year.These 25 men wanted big bucks, so they took them: a total of $21 billion. All for managing wealth that someone else created and, except for a few, not managing it particularly well.The top earner paid himself $3.5 billion for 2013.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 1 year 2 weeks ago
“Innovation” is a warm and fuzzy word — until you dig inside it.It’s like “community,” a warm and fuzzy term when taken to mean friendships, sharing, common interests, common values, perhaps working together.But from a gospel perspective, “community” means much more. As Jesus modeled community, it means mercy — turning away from our instinct to judge and to punish. It means compassion — giving to the least, even when our instinct is to disdain.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 1 year 4 weeks ago
A smart professor in Massachusetts noticed recently that religion’s decline in America coincided with the rise of the Internet.He theorized that the two may be connected. Headline: “Is the Internet bad for religion?”It’s utter nonsense, of course. The decline of mainline churches began in 1965, not in the 1990s when the Internet became commercially available. It would be more accurate, from a timing standpoint, to say that the American League’s designated hitter rule (1973) caused religion’s decline. Or maybe the “British invasion” in rock ‘n’ roll (1964).
Posted by Tom Ehrich 1 year 5 weeks ago
As latter-day partisans fling terms like “dictator” and “Nazi,” I decided to read William Shirer’s classic book about the real thing.In “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” the historian describes Adolf Hitler as a sad little man — a layabout and chronic failure — who discovered his larger-than-life quest, convinced himself he was above all normal constraints and found the combination of scapegoating (blaming Jews and Slavs for Germany’s woes) and delusion (grandiose master-race theory) that would justify trampling on lesser lives.Mocked as clownish at first and imprisoned for a foolhardy putsch, Hitler kept honing his message, created a strong organizational structure, unleashed a cadre of brown-shirted bullies to attack dissenting voices and waited patiently for collapsing national fortunes to make his vision of national purpose appealing.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 1 year 6 weeks ago
I was dismayed when I learned that Mozilla Foundation, maker of the Firefox Web browser, had named an anti-gay activist as its new chief executive officer.Brendan Eich wasn’t a hard-core activist. He had donated $1,000 in 2008 to a California campaign to ban same-sex marriage.Even so, his ethical stance struck me as unfortunate. Mozilla’s naming him CEO struck me as tone-deaf. And his refusal to discuss his views seemed too aloof for a high-visibility enterprise like Mozilla.I didn’t join the crowd demanding his resignation. I did the one thing I could do: I stopped using the Firefox browser.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 1 year 7 weeks ago
I don’t know about young girls, but I know from experience that young boys obsess about sex.They crave it, fantasize about it, do everything in their meager power to obtain it, worry about their adequacy, get confused by their longings, and for the duration of adolescence — and often beyond — see people in terms of “getting laid.”I suppose this obsession is natural, and that it serves some fundamental purpose, such as perpetuating the species or giving us something to think about besides our gangly bodies, weird thoughts, and being young and insecure.I don’t know any adult who would willingly repeat adolescence. Yet here we are — we Christians seeking hope, grace, mercy, and purpose, we believers in a God of justice — treating our faith as an endless adolescence centered around sex.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 1 year 8 weeks ago
As anti-gay preacher Fred Phelps passes on to whatever is his reward, we need to ask how he managed to inspire a following.His was hardly an exemplary life. One neighbor remembers seeing his children in Topeka, Kan., in the 1970s and noticing they were bald. He was told Phelps sent his kids out to sell some product, and if they didn’t make their quota, he shaved their heads as punishment.Another remembers how Phelps beat his wife and children with his fists, a belt, and a piece of wood.Many tell how Phelps and his followers at Westboro Baptist Church sent vicious faxes when gay men were dying of AIDS, picketed military funerals with “God hates you” signs, and blamed terrorist attacks and fallen soldiers on America’s growing tolerance of homosexuality.He was consistent, that’s for sure. Brutish and bullying from home to pulpit to public forum. Filled with anger and hate. And totally unrestrained in how he expressed his rage.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 1 year 9 weeks ago
Some day soon, pop music will start wafting through the urban canyons where I live.Rap, salsa, and generic rock will sound from apartment windows suddenly thrown open, from cars cruising by, and from boomboxes stationed beside dominoes players at sidewalk card tables.Styles will collide, and they certainly will drown out spring birds. But no matter. The longest winter on record — or at least the longest since last year — will have ended, and the city can breathe its annual sigh of relief.We did it. We survived the snow and bitter cold. We survived urban indignities like skyrocketing rents and public servants who care little for the public or for serving. We survived snow days when families who depend on public schools not only for education but also for day care and basic nutrition found themselves trapped, and entitled folks complained when schools were kept open after snow to serve those basic human needs.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 1 year 10 weeks ago
I’ll just say it: I thought “ashes to go” was a great idea.Take the imposition of ashes out to the sidewalks where people actually are, rather than staying primly inside on Ash Wednesday and hoping someone might venture in.Thousands of clergy and lay liturgists did “to-go” this year. From all evidence, it was a great hit.Not everyone appreciated the innovation, of course. But then not every Christian appreciates a liberation-minded pope, or songs on projection screens, or preachers in jeans, or services at any time other than Sunday morning, or ditching denominational hymnals, or coffeehouses doubling as worship venues.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 1 year 11 weeks ago
Conservative Christians are claiming that their religious freedom requires free rein for legalized discrimination.That’s a clever argument. It seems to claim the moral high ground, to align itself with basic constitutional principles, and to put bigots in the victim role.The argument is utter nonsense, of course. Freedom of belief has nothing to do with compelling other people to bow to that belief. If anything, freedom of belief should lead to a broad umbrella of diversity, not a parched patch of prejudice.The First Amendment to the Constitution, after all, sought to guarantee freedom — of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and petitioning the government — not to grant freedom to some and not others, depending on the whims of the powerful or pious.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 1 year 13 weeks ago
If you wonder what a right-wing political agenda laden with phony morality would look like, here are two signs.First, from the increasingly shrill patriarch of Silicon Valley, venture capitalist Tom Perkins, the argument that rich people like him should get more votes in elections than poorer people.Second, from the ever vigilant Kansas Legislature, a bill that would legalize segregation of gays in the name of protecting the religious freedom of those who loathe gays.Perkins, of course, rode the gravy train to great wealth by backing those who actually did the work, took the risks, and built something.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 1 year 14 weeks ago
I stopped drinking Coca Cola years ago — not in protest but in a bid for health. But I want to applaud their presenting "America the Beautiful" sung in seven languages.In a 60-second Super Bowl ad, and now a 90-second version at the bizarre Sochi Winter Olympics, the soft drink company showed people of different ethnic backgrounds singing in English and six other languages.I found it charming and warming. It spoke eloquently to the America that I know today — and the America that my ancestors knew when they arrived many years ago speaking German and Norwegian.
Posted by Tom Ehrich 1 year 15 weeks ago
The enclosed mall at Hillsdale Shopping Center had everything on a Friday morning: 1.3 million square feet of glistening space, top-drawer retailers like Nordstrom, reliable outlets like Macy’s, and teen-focused shops like American Eagle Outfitters.It had everything except people.The fabled mall — opened in 1954, enclosed in 1982 — felt like a ghost town. Or, in my frame of reference, like a big mainline Protestant church on a Sunday morning.