‘We say prayers in the plural’: Bernie Madoff, Yom Kippur and East Tennessee Jews

Image: cover of an Australian children's book by Camille Kress
Image: cover of an Australian children's book by Camille Kress

Rabbi Earl Jordan takes the Bernie Madoff scandal personally.

Madoff, you might recall, is the New York financier who is now in prison for cheating thousands of investors out of about $65 billion. His crimes sent a wave of disgust throughout the Jewish community.

“You can imagine how the Madoff scandal embarrassed and angered us,” said Jordan, the new rabbi at B’nai Sholom Congregation near Bristol. “Jews are fond of talking about the list of Nobel Prize winners (who are Jewish). Not that anyone expects his child will be a Nobel Prize winner because of that, but with our history, we’ve had some need of building confidence. When we have somebody like a Madoff, he’s such an embarrassment to the whole community.”

During this same phone conversation, Jordan mentioned the July arrests of 44 people in New Jersey, including five rabbis, who were charged in an elaborate scheme that involved international money laundering and the sale of human body parts.

Bernie Madoff
Bernie Madoff

“It’s been a hard year for Jews,” he said.

Spiritually speaking, that year is coming to an end. Tomorrow marks the end of the most important 10-day period in the annual Jewish calendar: Yamin Nora’im, literally “the days of awe,” or, as they are more commonly called, the High Holy Days.

They began last week with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and conclude tomorrow with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur is observed with a 25-hour fast, excluding young children and the sick or infirm, and an extended worship service. The day is solemn but not sad because when the day ends at sunset, Jews will feel released from burdens of sins committed against God in the past year and invigorated by anticipation for the year to come.

But these observances are not between one person and God. They are centered in the community, in large degree because Jews regard the sins of one person as shared to some extent with their community. Madoff’s transgressions caused spiritual shockwaves, not just financial ones.

“When one person sins, the stain is on the whole people,” Jordan said.

That also helps explain why Yom Kippur means forgiveness only from offenses against God, not against other people. Jews must reconcile directly with anyone they have wronged. In fact, rabbis of old taught that a person would not be forgiven at all until he had “appeased his neighbor.”

“We feel a communal responsibility,” Jordan said. “We say our prayers in the plural.”

Jordan, a 75-year-old Boston native, has come out of retirement for the second time to serve B’nai Sholom. (“I was retired four years and I was bored out of my skull,” he said.)

During a career lasting almost a half century, Jordan served congregations in seven states, taught at universities and administered Jewish nonprofit organizations. He moved to East Tennessee a little over a month ago.

He is rooted in the more liberal Reform tradition but is also a member of the Conservative denomination, a breadth of perspective the congregation shares because of both history and necessity, since it is probably the only synagogue between Roanoke, Va., and Knoxville.

“I was fascinated by the circumstance here: a small congregation that was willing to go to the expense and trouble of a full-time rabbi,” Jordan said. “I loved the idea of people coming from so wide a geography. I thought that would be interesting, and the people here sold me. They seemed so warm and welcoming.”

bssignJordan’s arrival has kindled new interest in the 105-year-old congregation, which counts 55 households as registered members. The synagogue was full during last Friday’s Rosh Hashanah service, with at least 120 worshipers.

To Jordan, that’s a start.

“My agenda is to make the congregation a little more welcoming than it had been,” he said. “The same people had been doing the work to maintain the congregation … but they’re burned out. They’ve needed some new motivation and some new programming.”

He comes with ideas and is already talking with members about the congregation’s future, conversations he hopes to extend into regular Saturday-morning gatherings. It’s too early to know exactly what will develop, he said, but he feels comfortable in his new community.

“I’ve found a fertile place to develop new friendships,” he said. “That’s one of the things I am so impressed with. I don’t feel like a stranger.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 26 Sept 2009.

Vive la Revolution! (parenting, that is)

meet parents posterBeing a parent is so important to George Barna that he, his wife and their young daughters left their conventional church and, with a small group of other families, started a house church four years ago. It is centered on a simple, salient idea: that their main task as a church body is to rear godly children.

“It’s what we needed to do,” Barna said in a phone interview this week. “From God’s perspective, parenting is one of the most important things we do, maybe the most important thing. This is Job One.”

Barna makes no claims as a professional parenting expert. But he is indeed a parent – and also a researcher.

In the 1980s he launched the Barna Group, a California-based research company that specializes in exploring “cultural transformation and faith dynamics,” as company literature says. Out of his organization’s studies and polls, which often draw national attention, he has written more than 40 books that describe the changing American cultural and religious landscape and sometimes offer strategies for shaping it. Roughly speaking, Barna puts research on a Christian mission.

Over the past five years, he’s applied his organization’s expertise to issues of family life, parenting and spiritual development, which were the topics he addressed at First Christian Church in Johnson City on Sept. 10.

“Our research shows that children’s moral and spiritual foundations are pretty much in place by the age of 13,” according to Barna. “The second key thing we learned is how important it is for parents to take control of the spiritual development of their children.”

And that’s the problem, he said, because vast numbers of parents, religious or not, virtually abdicate their parental roles, allowing anything, from sometimes erratic educational systems to decadent video games, carry greater influence in their children’s thinking than they do. Even churches contribute to the problem by allowing – or encouraging – parents to hand off responsibility for their children’s spiritual nurture.

“We’ve twisted things around in our culture to treat children as a kind of add-on,” he said this week.

The results can be catastrophic, visible in rising obesity rates or declining educational performance. Stunted spiritual growth is part of the picture.

George Barna
George Barna

“By their own admission, our children are confused theologically,” Barna wrote in 2007. A national survey the previous year found that most 8- to 12-year-olds are “biblically illiterate.” Fewer than half – 46 percent – say their religious faith is very important in their lives. Most American teens say they are Christians, but only one-third of them “ardently contend that Jesus Christ returned to physical life after His crucifixion and death.”

Barna considers this “crisis” – his word – the almost inevitable result of what he calls “default parenting” and “experimental parenting.” In effect, most parents let popular assumptions or faddish theories dictate what they should do with their children and expect from them. Most child-rearing, in other words, goes too much with the flow.

Barna’s solution is what he calls “revolutionary parenting,” the title of his 2007 book that described his organization’s findings when it looked for the traits of effective parents. Revolutionary Parenting has mushroomed into church-based curricula and seminars like the one he presented last week.

The research identified six characteristics common to effective parents, made up of intentional attitudes and practices. These “critical dimensions” include the parents’ priorities in life, how well they mentally connect with their children, the non-negotiable boundaries they establish for children, the importance of behaving like a parent, the crucial values and beliefs needed by children, and the “transformational goals” the parents want for their children.

This list isn’t a cafeteria menu, Barna said. It’s more like a list of ingredients that must be combined into a recipe for all parts of the family’s life.

rev parenting cover“Some elements have to do with realizing that (parenting) is my priority in life,” he said. “Look at your values and beliefs. What are you trying to build in the child? What are the goals you set, and how are you measuring them? Part of it is just wrapping your head around what it means to be a parent. The ability to bring life into this world is a privilege, but it comes with a huge responsibility.”

Such words should be obvious statements, but in these days and times they can sound insightful, profound and challenging. Some people might even say revolutionary.

 Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 19 Sept 2009.

The URI tries on its Bible Belt

coexistPat Griggs of Johnson City, a self-described activist, traces her “call” to a quarter century of interfaith involvement.

In the early 1980s, she helped organize people of different faiths to protest nuclear arms. On the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, she sat in a school parking lot to make sure the children of Muslim friends made it to class without incident.

So joining the effort to re-launch a local chapter of the United Religions Initiative? No question.

The URI is a worldwide network designed to encourage cooperation among people of different faiths, whether Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or Wiccan or agnostic. The ultimate goal is world peace, based on the idea that before the world can find harmony, the religions of the world must learn to live together.

URI was born in 2000, the brainchild of Bill Swing, the Episcopal bishop of California, who dreamed of an organization that would serve as a kind of United Nations for religions. Today, URI claims more than one million people from 120 faith traditions are involved in more than 320 local self-governing organizations, or “cooperation circles,” in 60 nations. The U.S. and Canada comprise 44 circles, including the one in Johnson City, the only circle in Tennessee.

The local “CC” was formed in 2000, but small membership limited its efforts mainly to hosting an interfaith dinner each Thanksgiving.

Last spring, however, the Rev. Jacqueline Luck, who moved to the area in 2007 as the new minister of the Holston Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, gathered the few CC members for lunch, and they decided the time was right for a new start.

With Luck acting as coordinator, a dozen people from at least five faith traditions gathered at the Johnson City public library on Aug. 31 to gauge interest in interfaith cooperation and discuss what a revitalized CC might do.

“There was a lot of energy in developing a circle,” Luck said in a phone conversation this week. “The roots are already planted. We just need to nurture it a little bit.”

Since CCs are self-governing, there is not one model. Some emphasize environmental issues; others focus on educating about religions; still others work to help poor people. Whatever shape the local group takes, Luck thinks it can make a big impact.

“I think the main thing is learning to work together,” she said. “Anything to help with this community, to work on local issues that cut across faith boundaries. That’s why I think it’s a natural to do justice work. In this area, caring for the earth is a strong possibility too. It’s trying to love our neighbor in one way or another. That’s common ground too.”

URI logoThese goals sound praiseworthy, but the URI has been the object of criticism from its start. Various religious groups, including the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches and several evangelical Christian bodies, keep the URI at arm’s length. (For examples, go here and here.)

They suspect that the URI is promoting a philosophy that artificially erases distinctions between faiths or dilutes doctrine to a hodge-podge of vague spiritual clichés. Many Christians, for example, find it hard to reconcile the URI’s goals with Scriptures that teach Jesus is “the only name under heaven by which we might be saved.” They point out that the URI’s charter is written with such broad strokes that it never even uses the word “god.”

But seeking common ground, say URI supporters, is not the same as asking believers to abandon their own faith.

“The URI is a bridge-building organization, encouraging mutual respect among all faiths, with domination by none,” according to Sandy Westin, technology and communications coordinator for the URI in North America. “It in no way encourages homogenization of religious belief, but rather encourages respect for the sacred wisdom of each religion, spiritual expression and indigenous tradition.” The URI charter, Westin pointed out, encourages members to deepen their roots in their own traditions.

“We’re trying to learn to communicate with each other, trust each other and work together toward this ideal of hoping all religions can exist together,” Luck said. “I’d like us to be visible in the community as an example of what’s possible, to be standard bearers for harmony among religious people.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 12 Sept 2009.

Pilgrimage, leap of faith or walk in the wilderness? Lutherans and gay ministers

elcaJames Nipper has his work cut out for him.

As senior pastor of Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Johnson City, Tenn., he must lead the congregation in a kind of figurative pilgrimage regarding sex and sexuality.

The church is traveling on a long and winding road with its denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The ELCA decided during last month’s Church Wide Assembly to permit people in same-sex relationships to enter its ordained ministry.

“Up until this time, it was accepted that these pastors could serve in the ELCA as long as these remained celibate,” Nipper explained in an e-mail this week. “This document now allows for pastors who are in committed relationships with people of the same gender to be reinstated to the clergy roster and/or allowed to receive a call to serve in the ELCA.”

“Pastor Jim” regards this new policy as “more of a process, a procedure, by which a congregation can choose to call a gay pastor.” No such process existed before.

About 60 members of the Our Saviour congregation attended an open forum on Sunday afternoon. The congregation has about 500 confirmed members and an average worship attendance of about 215.

“We had a lively discussion,” Nipper said. “We did not come to a consensus but we did have a like mind that we should stay together as a congregation.”

He could have said the same thing about the national body: there’s little consensus about blessing same-sex relationships or ordaining gays and lesbians for ministry, but hope to stay together. Last month’s convention, made up of clergy and laypeople who represent churches and regional synods, approved the main document by a vote of 676-338, exactly the minimum two-thirds majority required for passage.

castro-rainbow-flagTo its credit, the ELCA has not taken the easy path. If the denomination’s utmost concern was keeping membership up or maintaining some kind of superficial peace, it could have settled matters years ago. (The ELCA is by far the largest of several Lutheran bodies in the U.S., but like other mainline Protestant denominations, it has been shrinking for decades. The denomination reported 4.6 million baptized members in 2008, down from 5.25 million in 1988.)

As it is, the social statement, “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” resulted from eight years of discussions, meetings, debates and votes. The ELCA has produced social statements on several issues, and they are considered teaching documents as well as policy statements.

This one is a broad, thoughtful statement of church teaching about sexuality and related issues, from abuse to economics to pornography, as well as marriage and, of course, same-sex relationships. As the title suggests, it emphasizes sexuality in its God-given nature as both a gift and matter of trust.

What grabbed headlines, of course, were the resolutions permitting people “in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships” to enter any of the church’s four formal levels of church ministry.

The resolutions are careful to provide for “structured flexibility,” allowing individuals and congregations to live by their “bound conscience.” In short, while the ELCA won’t forbid people in same-sex relationships to enter ministry, it won’t force the issue either.

But as serious as issues about homosexuality are, even more is at stake. By all accounts, these decisions raise questions about core beliefs, from biblical interpretation to the meaning of marriage to the validity of two millennia of Christian teaching.

Critics note all this, and more.

“The ELCA has formally left the Great Tradition (of confessing Christian churches) for liberal Protestantism,” Robert Benne wrote in a commentary on the Christianity Today Web site. Benne is the director of the Roanoke (Va.) College Center for Religion and Society and was a voting member at last month’s assembly. “A tectonic shift has taken place, and it wasn’t primarily about sex.”

Benne predicts “a profusion of different responses by congregations and individuals.” Besides those who approve the new policy, many will leave the denomination, he wrote. Some will wait to see how an organized renewal movement responds. Others will pull away from their involvement in the ELCA to live at the local level. Still others “will try to live on as if nothing has happened.”

The way ahead for Our Saviour Lutheran Church, according to Pastor Nipper, will include Bible-oriented studies, small group discussions and an effort to “help our people look positively to the future.”

Yes, he has his work cut out.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 5 Sept 2009.

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