Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Suffer the Little Children

jesus loves the little children,
all the children of the world.
red and yellow, black and white,
they are precious in his sight.
jesus love the little children of the world.
so goes the children's song so many of us learned in sunday school.  do those who scream hateful slogans at busloads of children from central america think of the words of that song during their protests?  do they think of the ordeal these children have gone through to reach the usa or the children's violence-filled lives in the countries they fled?

when jesus said, "when you do this to the least of these, my children, you do this to me," there was no exception for unaccompanied minors from central america.  refusing to treat these refugees humanely and to provide them sanctuary is ignoring the teachings of jesus.  when we say that what's happening in their home countries is not our problem, we are wrong.  injustice anywhere is our problem, it is the problem of every human being, especially those in a privileged society like ours.  when we say that we can't take care of all these children because we can't even take care of those in need in our country already, we are wrong.  the fact is that we choose not to use the abundant resources in our country to take care of those in need, but in this wealthy nation there are adequate resources to care for those who are unable to care for themselves.

may we see this crisis for what it is: a test of our national character and our humanity, a call to gain our lives by losing them in service.  may we abandon political expediency and the clamor for the easy solution of loading these children on planes and dumping them back in their home countries.  may we listen to the words of jesus, take up our cross, and follow him.  shalom

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

All Things within This Fading World Hath End

last tuesday afternoon i received a call that my dad was in the hospital and that i should come as soon as possible.  my dad had moved with his wife to an assisted living facility in a town about ten hours from where i live, so hopping in the car to see him required some preparation.  my wife and i packed and headed out as quickly as we could, stopping along the way to pick up my younger sister who lives about an hour away.

we drove through the remainder of the afternoon and evening through some terrible storms that slowed our speed down to around thirty miles per hour for much of the way.  we finally arrived at the hospital around one on wednesday morning to find my dad awake in anticipation of our arrival.  he was overjoyed to see us, and we were relieved that we made it while he was still alive and lucid, as we had been told that he might not make it until we got there.

he remained alert throughout the day wednesday, and we enjoyed our conversations with him.  all of us, including him, knew that these would be our last visits with each other.  he told both my sister and me how much he loved us, what good children we had been, and how glad he was that we were able to come see him.  by thursday, he had to be sedated with so much pain killer that he was no longer alert, and he slept through the day thursday and friday.  my sister insisted on staying with him each night while my wife and i went to a nearby motel to sleep.

on saturday morning about 5:15 my sister called to say that he was gone.  we rushed to the hospital to see him one last time and headed home by around 6:30, having made funeral arrangements and gathered his belongings from his apartment during the day on friday.  it was difficult sitting in the hospital room watching him inch towards death, even though we knew he was in no pain.  the attempts at comforting us by visitors and callers were little help.  i grew tired of hearing people tell us "he's in God's hands now," "we never know when God will take us," "God needs him now more than you do," and similar platitudes that were intended to ease our sorrow.

i wanted to say, "can't you see that his body is simply worn out and can no longer sustain his life?  the end of his life has nothing to do with what God needs or wants.  life has a beginning and an end, and dad has reached that end."  instead i thanked them for their well-intentioned words and kept my thoughts to myself.  dad lived for almost ninety-six years and had a full, rich life, and i am glad he was my dad.  i will miss him terribly, and his death reminds me that my life, too, will come to an end in the not-too-distant future.

may i come to my end in as dignified a fashion as my dad, surrounded my family who loves me.  may each of us live so that when we die people will say that our life was well-lived.  may we leave behind a legacy of lovingkindness, compassion, and generosity.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

An Establishment of Religion?

in the memorial and remonstrance, written in 1785, james madison said, "during almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of christianity been on trial. what have been its fruits? more or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution."  the  memorial and remonstrance was written in opposition to a proposal by Patrick Henry to use government funds to support christian churches in virginia.

the principle of government neutrality in matters of religion continues to be a thorny problem in the united states, as the recent supreme court ruling in the hobby lobby case demonstrates.  subsequent to that ruling and president obama's announcement of his intention to issue an executive order banning discrimination in hiring by federal contractors, several religious leaders sent the president a letter asking for a religious exemption to that rule for religious organizations that receive funds under federal contracts.  this seems a reasonable request, even if one disagrees with the religious belief that lgbt citizens are violating christian teachings.   should a religious organization be forced to employ those that they believe are violating the religious principles of that organization?  should an lgbt person accept employment from an organization that condemns them as "sinful" because of the sexual orientation with which they were born?

the right questions, it seems to me, is: should government contracts be awarded to religious organizations?  there is little doubt that some religious organizations do much good, but should the government support "faith-based" organizations by employing them to fulfill government contracts?  should state governments furnish textbooks and other materials to religious schools because the parents of the students attending those schools have helped pay for those materials through the taxes they pay?  should public school districts be forced to supply specialized instructional personnel in certain areas, like special education, for students in religious schools?  these are all areas where we seem to have crossed the line separating church and state in the united states, and, in the case of school policy, the courts have often sided with religious organizations and against public schools.

as we, though government policy, become more entangled with religious organizations, the closer we move to establishing an official religion in the united states.  the persecution complex of the religious right and the push for control of government at all levels by the advocates of dominionism seek to move us closer to the establishment of christianity as the de facto, if not the de jure, official religion of the usa.

the tax-exempt status of religious groups is another way in which all citizens are forced to support religious organizations, even those with which they disagree.  why should an atheist have to pay more in taxes to make up the shortfall created by granting tax exemptions for the church, mosque, or temple down the street?  why should we be able to deduct our contributions to our church from our income for tax purposes, beyond the extent that those contributions actually support charitable endeavors such as homeless shelters?

as we look at the great harm the religious dominance of governments has created around the world, madison's words from 1785 are as true now as they were then.  one has only to look at religious states like iran and israel, governments identified with a particular religious groups like that of iraq or syria, and the persecution of one religious group by a more dominant group like the persecution of burmese muslims by burmese buddhists to see how right madison and jefferson were as they fought to build a wall of separation between church and state in the young united states.

may those of us who identify as members of a religious group use our influence to continue the struggle that was a part of the reason the united states came into being.  may we practice our religion without infringing on the rights of others to practice or not practice religion according to the dictates of their conscience.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Let It Begin With Me

a few days ago, as i read johan maurer's "can you believe" blog, his review of to end all wars by adam hochschild caused me to think of some of the wars now raging around the world: of syria, iraq, sudan/southern sudan, somalia. afghanistan--of the tensions in thailand, pakistan, and ukraine/russia--of the "war on terror"--of all the violence we commit against each other--of the futility of trying to control how others act, think, dress, believe, love.  what is it about our species that motivates us to engage in so many futile actions aimed at taking control, when ultimately the control we seek to impose is impossible?

as we look back in horror at the first world war and the preciptating event that occurred 100  years plus a few days ago, we can see the horrendous loss of life, the disruption of the lives of millions who were affected by the war, and the end of the war that planted the seeds that led to the second world war.  in hindsight, it is easy to ask how we could have become embroiled in conflict on such a huge scale, but those who marched most of the western world off to that awful quagmire didn't have the luxury of hindsight.  the only movement that could have kept the world from involvement in the slaughter was the peace movement, those who cried unheeded.

now we hear the drumbeat of war again: voices urging us to return to iraq, to intervene in syria, to do something to protect ukraine (though what that "something" is, no one can say).  what do we say to those who are suffering in these places so far removed from our experience?  how do we ease their suffering?  will sending more of our young men and women off to die make their lives better?  the only thing that makes sense is for wars to end, for human beings to finally stop fighting one another in the futile effort to control one another.

is absolute pacifism the answer?  God only knows, but right now it seems a better answer that what we've tried as a species since the first weapon was used to take another's life.  may we choose peace over war, tolerance over the desire to impose control, and love over hate.  may there be peace on earth.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

I Did It My Way

a post appeared on the patrolmag blog a few days ago commenting on a post that was written for thefederalist blog.  the patrolmag post stimulated me to think about the american obsession with individualism, a topic that is called to my attention more and more these days.  this type of individualism is an exclusionary individualism that ignores any obligation to society in general, that refuses to respect divergent points-of-view, and insists that one's own beliefs are the only ones that can possibly be true.  an emphasis on the individual is not something new in the american psyche, but i fear that our present interpretation of a sort of exclusionary individualism is a dangerous and destructive force in our society and particularly in our political life.

the type of individualism that is presented to us at present is a me-against-them sort of philosophy.  it is a negative expression that allows those who adopt it to conveniently exclude the messy business of dealing with reality.  if one denies the existence of climate change and the human role in it, one doesn't have to address the problems climate change presents.  if one denies the forces of nature as seen in scientific understanding of the origins of the universe and the evolution of life on earth, then one can adopt the solution to the origin of life that "God spoke, and it was.".  if one denies that sexual orientation is determined before we are born, it is easy to condemn those who are not heterosexual and simply believe that gay people choose to be gay.

for believers in this type of individualism, the government is a convenient enemy, though collectively we are all the "government," a fact that these individualists deny.  once the government is seen as an evil monolithic institution beyond the control of the electorate, then one can cherry-pick which laws should be obeyed and which should be ignored; those laws which conform to what is convenient for each individual then become "just," and those that are inconvenient are "unjust."  since the government is inherently evil, the individual is justified in taking up arms and killing those who represent forces the individual sees as the enemy.  when such individualists band together and feed off each other's fantasies of evil conspiracies that are embodied in the government, small armies are created to defend "individual liberty" against the tyranny of the rest of society.

these victimized individualists see themselves as part of a persecuted class, refusing to admit that diversity is the lifeblood of democracy.  those who are different--minorities, those who hold other political points-of-view, members of other religious groups, secularists and humanists--are seen as a danger that must be opposed at all costs.   the children of the rugged individualists must be kept away from the corrupting influence of different people and ideas that they might encounter in public schools; purity of thought can only be maintained through home schooling.  the individualist's family must band with other right-thinkers in churches that exclude all those who dare to question their narrow beliefs.  the larger society is secular and evil, and this larger society, with its confusing array of philosophies and beliefs, is an enemy that insists that freedom to be diverse is a necessary expression of a democratic society, thus encroaching on the individualist philosophy and thereby persecuting those who subscribe to it.

the thinking of those thus victimized plays into the hands of power brokers like the koch brothers who use this idea that government and society at large is evil to achieve their own ends.  the government-is-evil belief means all regulation is wrong, and business entities should be free to do whatever is needed to reap the rewards to which they are entitled.  laws that rein in the power of business persecute these enterprises, just as "unjust" government laws persecute the individualist.  labor unions are seen as evil because they thwart the ambitions of business leaders and take away the individual's "right to work."

it is in the extension of the individualist philosophy into the sphere of politics and the ability of greedy business leaders, like those who make up the club for growth, to harness the adherents of this way of thinking at the ballot box that is so dangerous for american society.  without the alliance between those who espouse the individualist philosophy and the less scrupulous members of the business community, these sort of individualists would be a group that is largely ignored by the rest of society.

may we return to a healthy respect for the individual that recognizes divergent beliefs and points-of-view.  may we honor the idea that all of us have an obligation to work together for the common good, realizing that all should have an opportunity to realize their full potential regardless of background, ethnicity, or social status.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Make Me a Channel of Your Peace

we watch in amazement, fear, anger, consternation, disgust, and dread as groups in our region parade around, openly carrying firearms ranging from hunting rifles to assault weapons.  we see pictures of them in restaurants and stores.  we watch videos of them, guns in hand, pursuing those who film their "open carry" demonstrations.  in our community a local group made much of the city council's refusal to permit these "patriots" to stage a parade through the city, a parade intended to demonstrate the group's interpretation of a state law that they believed allowed them to openly carry firearms wherever and whenever they wanted.

as this is going on, we regularly read of senseless killings across the country.  these have become so commonplace that we may view them as part of the routine of life in the united states.  when reasonable measures are proposed that might curb gun violence, various "gun rights" groups protest loudly and at length about attempts to limit their "second ammendment" freedoms.  recently there was a report of a controversy in a nearby southern state regarding that state's new gun law, with some holding that the law gave citizens of the state the right to openly carry firearms into polling places.  when will this madness stop?

imagine going into a fast food restaurant or (even more frigtening) into a bar where one is surrounded by gun-toting diners or drinkers!  imagine shopping with your children for the week's supply of groceries as bearded armed men parade through the store wearing t-shirts with threatening slogans on them!  perhaps we need to watch an old western movie each day so that we can see the heroic sheriff confiscating the guns of cowboys in from the trail ride, as mandated by city ordinance.  if folks in the american west had the sense to realize that guns ought to be checked at the city limits, why can't 21st-century americans see how senseless the proliferation of these weapons is?

may we wake up to the need to refrain from causing needless fear in the hearts of our neighbors.  may we see that there is a connection between the ease of acquiring and carrying lethal weapons and the increase in killings by crazed gun-carrying individuals and groups.  may we realize that it is us, not the government or its laws, that is the root cause of these horrific shooting sprees.  may we promote peace, not killing.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

In Him No South or North

the branch of christianity to which i belong is wrestling with the church's response to the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage in the united states.  our denomination now permits the ordination of gay clergy but does not recognize the legitimacy of same-sex marriage in our book of order, the official "rules" of the church.  this places our ministers in a difficult position, particularly in states where gay marriage is now legal.  a move is afoot to change the church's policy during our next general assembly, when delegates from across the country will gather.

some of our congregations left the denomination after the policy to ordain gay clergy was adopted, and others are already making plans to leave in anticipation of the acceptance of same-sex marriage within the church.  their departure will make the national church much more liberal in its makeup, and for those of us who are in the less conservative camp that is a good thing.  it places those who feel a deep loyalty to the denomination and yet disagree with its stance on gay rights in a difficult position, though.  this is particularly true of ministers who continue to wrestle with their consciences on this issue.  how ministers who are not yet convinced that acceptance of gay marriage is consistent with christian teaching address the issue with their congregations largely determines the position the individual congregations take with regard to remaining a part of the national church.  those congregations that have withdrawn did so largely because their ministers led them in that direction, and these departures have been painful for many members of the congregations that have chosen this path, forcing the minority that opposed leaving the national church within these congregations to leave congregations of which they had been a part for many years to find a new congregation or to remain and take part in an action they felt was wrong.

my congregation's ministers find themselves in the position of feeling torn about this issue.  on the one hand they disagree with the church's policy and on the other they feel a responsibility to guide our congregation to remain a part of the church as we know it.  exactly what policy change, if any, is put forward for consideration as a proposal from the general assembly is an open question, and i hope that any such policy will allow for individual ministers and congregations to act as they believe right in their interpretation of christian teaching.

yet, when i think of the discrimination gay men and women have suffered over the years, i wonder how a commited gay couple would feel towards our congregation and our ministers if they asked permission to be married in the church and were refused.  we have gay couples in our congregation who have been active in the life of the church and who are beloved by others in the church.   there has never been a problem of accepting them and calling them to positions of leadership in the congregation.  right now, gay marriage is prohibited in our state, though the state supreme court is considering whether the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage should be allowed to stand.  if the ban is struck down, this may be a situation our congregation is forced to face, and i can't predict what position our ministers and lay leaders will take.

i am inclined to say that these leaders should be free to follow their consciences in making this decision.  yet, i keep coming back to the pain that gays have suffered.  how difficult it must be to feel you must refrain from holding the hand of the person you love in public or to resist the urge to kiss your partner at the stroke of midnight at a new year's eve party, to be unable to ask permission to celebrate your anniversary in the church fellowship hall or to have your anniversary announced at the weekly church dinner along with heterosexual couples, to watch as a straight couple walks down the aisle to celebrate their commitment in front of the congregation while you and your partner are unable to celebrate your love with your fellow christians.  can we allow this pain to continue to be inflicted on those we love and who are our brothers and sisters if they are God's creations?

may we embrace all persons as they are, loving them because they are as God made them.  may our positions as individuals and collectively as members of the church be loving and accepting.  may we act towards all as we would act towards jesus.  shalom.