Sunday, July 24, 2016

Hosea, quit messing with us. It's not nice.

I don’t know what happened in your congregations this morning.  In my tiny rural congregation there was some difficulty grasping the lessons from Hosea, especially considering they had just spent a few weeks struggling with Amos.  For one thing, there was a general distaste for a bible story about marrying a prostitute.  It just didn’t seem, well, in good taste.  It’s just not, you know, biblical. 

I tried to connect Hosea with Amos by reminding them that while Amos was a prophet who spoke to the leadership of Israel about their unethical behavior that thad oppressed and impoverished the common people of the land, and about their elaborate but meaningless religious rituals, Hosea, doing his work at about the same time, prophesied more about their personal relationship with God, and he did it in a strange way; he acted it out.

We talked about Hosea’s marriage to Gomer as an allegory acted out like a stage play.  Hosea played the part of God while Gomer played the part of the people of Israel.  As God had chosen the Israelites, so Hosea chose Gomer.  As God blessed Israel with a land of milk and honey, so Hosea provided Gomer with all she needed.  As Israel betrayed the covenant with God by going after other gods, so Gomer betrayed Hosea by having sex with other men.  Hosea and Gomer acted out their parts as a demonstration of how Israel had treated God.  Throughout the book God shows anger, frustration, lament because God loves the Israelites even though they have betrayed him.  In the end, God declares that by God’s grace the day will come when, in spite of their sin, they will be restored and returned to him, their sins forgiven.  God’s love will never die even as our love proves undependable.  You’ll notice I switched from past tense to present tense because I think it’s what God is still doing in our own time.  

So, did he really do it?  Hosea did what God told him to do, but did he really marry a prostitute and have children by her, or did he simply write about it as if he had?  It’s an allegory to be sure, but I suggested that their guess is as good as anyone else’s as to whether he wrote about it or actually did it.  Whichever, there are some important lessons for us that we tried to get to.

Through Hosea, God reveals that God is affected by what we do.  God is not only engaged in our lives, but because God is love, and because love, whatever else it might be, is emotional, God can and does feel the emotions you and I feel about those we love.  It’s easy to say that we love God, but how many other gods do we love?  More than a few if we’re honest about it.  Like disobedient children, how often have we told God we would do something, but never took it seriously, never did it, and never intended to do it?  Hosea messes with our ideas about God in very uncomfortable ways, doesn’t he?

Like the people of Israel, how can we expect to live into the fullness of life in abundance that God desires for us, while behaving individually and in community in ways that lead in the opposite direction?  It can’t be done.  That doesn’t keep us from trying.  

Can we believe, as Amos, Hosea, and all the prophets said, that in the end God will still be there for us, creating new life for us, no mater what we are going through now?  Isn’t that what the gospel writers, especially Matthew, meant when they said that Jesus is the fulfillment of all that the prophets had said?  If so, how does it affect the way you live?  Hopefully, it allows you to be bolder in your lives of adventure.  We are children growing toward adulthood.  Go with boldness, grow with boldness.  That’s what nineteen elderly folks in a tiny rural congregation are working on.

How’d it go at your end?

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Thucydides speaks to the nation - our nation

Jimmy Carter was famously pilloried for saying that America suffered from national malaise.  What!?  American’s suffering from malaise?  Nonsense!  And so began our experiment with Reaganism, which, by itself, was not much, but it opened the door to so called neocons and neo-liberals (I never have understood the difference between them) who championed the devices of real malaise.

That hadn’t occurred to me until I ran across a citation from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars about the deep cultural malaise that affected the Hellenistic world at that time.  With very little adjustment, it seems to capture our own time.  So with apologies to philosophers and scholars of Greek history who may take justifiable umbrage, here is my interpretation of what he wrote as applied to our own nation in our own time. 

The whole of American society was convulsed with the sufferings inflicted on it through decades of unceasing war and civil unrest.  Words began to change their ordinary meaning.  Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal citizen.  Prudent hesitation became specious cowardice.  Moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness.  Willingness to consider all points of view became unwillingness to act.  Frantic violence became a sign of manliness.  Cautious planning became a target for attack.  Glib platitudes became means to unethical ends.  Thus every form of iniquity took root in the land.  Any thought to working across the aisle was laughed down, and our society was divided into camps in which no person trusted another.

However malaise is understood, the mood of the nation is not a good one.  Public longing for return to better times is always about a time that never existed.  It’s a romanticized ideal, but it is a true longing.  The subtext for many people has to do with a 1950ish time in which social and racial classes were stabilized with white people at the top, and access to the middle class, at least for white males, was almost assured.  Leaving it at that with a smug dismissal would be a mistake.  It also harkens to a time in which representatives of conflicting interests intended to hammer out workable agreements between them.  Not that fringe groups specializing in irrational fear mongering didn’t exist. There were many, and sometimes, like the John Birch Society, they had enough public support to gain a modicum of power.  Nevertheless, those in control of our legislative processes found ways to work out their differences in acceptable ways.  That time began to unravel under Reagan through an intentional movement toward polarized politics engineered by neocon/neo-liberal apparatchiks who were fed up with compromises, and wanted to keep all the marbles for themselves.

Now, I think, we have entered fully into the Hellenistic time of which Thucydides wrote.  The Republican Convention now underway is prime example number one.  I don’t know what this election cycle will bring, but I hope that it is the nadir of our descent, and that at every level of government more rational minds, faithful to the highest values of our national myth, will begin to prevail.  

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

As Western bars go, it was OK

The writing workshop I attended recently had one unexpected turn.  We were invited to take about forty minutes to write a short, short story.  I don't write fiction.  I am not interested in writing fiction, in spite of what some critics say about my essays.  The muse of blank minds reminded me that Garrison Keillor was about to retire, that I, like him, grew up in Minnesota, and that some places in the inter mountain West, where I live, are not unlike Lake Wobegon.  With plagiarizing political speech writers as my guide, this is what I came up with.  Enjoy; it is my only contribution to the world of fiction.  Like Schubert's 8th, it's unfinished, ever to remain so.

Ralph had little to show for his life, and was satisfied with it.  He had a small place about ten miles out of town, and owned a bar at the end of Main Street, Ralph's Pretty Good Bar, where the beer was not bad and there was nothing on the top shelf.  It was the only bar in town so it was good enough.  His pride possession was his old, somewhat temperamental, Bentley convertible with the top permanently stuck in the down position, which he'd bought years ago at an estate sale.  For companionship he had Olga, his St. Bernard, who was a neutered male but he didn't know that when he got "her" from friends who no longer wanted to pick up after him.  Anyway, it was near time to open the bar, and he was running late.  Olga was trundled into the back seat, not without difficulty, and the two of them headed to town.  There would be the usual gathering of old ranchers waiting for their beer and a bump, but they could wait.  They always did.  Besides, it gave them time to spit their Skoal into the gutter instead of on his floor.  Then it began to rain the kind of straight down and sideways at the same time rain that can happen only in western towns.  The car did not like rain on it's cracked red leather, nor did it care for soggy dog odors mixed with dog slobber and whatever detritus hung under her tail.  Being English, it did not like running in the rain under any circumstance, so it quit, deciding to stay put until better weather came along.

Old ranchers will wait for a while, but the desire for a beer and a bump, and the lack of desire to get soaking wet, were inspirational moments for Karl who knew where Ralph hid the extra key, and figured maybe he was sick or something, so decided to open up on his own, which the others thought was a good idea, especially since Fred, retired  rancher and the town's part time cop, was with them.  They did a pretty good job of it too.  Everyone knew how to run the taps, and where the whiskey and glasses were kept.  That part was easy.  No one knew how to run the cash register, so each one kept his own record on a piece of paper to be left on a spindle near the jars of peanuts and pickled eggs.  When, and if, Ralph ever showed up he could sort it out at his convenience.  The penciled receipts left something to be desired as the drinks continued to be poured in increasingly generous portions.

That's as far as I got.  Here endeth the story.  Now it's time to get back to politics, economics, theology, and the occasional nonsense.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Public Safety - Dallas - Baton Rouge

I deplore unjustifiable police violence, and I deplore those who use it as an excuse to vilify the police.  I’m an old man now, but once in my youth I was a sworn officer.  It didn’t last long.  It wasn’t my calling.  But it made an indelible impression on my life.  For the last fourteen years I have been the fire and police chaplain in our community. 

It was Noon today.  From across the region, fifty police officers, deputies, and fire fighters stood at attention in the plaza at First and Main to remember and honor those slain in Dallas and Baton Rouge.  I was asked to offer an invocation.  This is what I said.

We live in conflicted times in which we are too easily tempted to turn on each other, distrustful of each other, afraid to give of ourselves for the well being of others not like us.  It is not what the Almighty has called us to be.

St. Paul, having learned his own lesson as an agent of persecution, came to understand that in God there are no longer those who are privileged and those who are not, no longer those who are in bondage and those who are free, no longer male or female, but all are one in God’s presence.

We too often stand apart, making excuses for why we are entitled to make exceptions.  There are no excuses.  There are no exceptions.  It is time to put away falsehoods.  Let us speak truth in love, not to our neighbors, but with our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 

Today we pause in the busyness of our own lives to remember in our hearts, and before the Almighty, eight of our members who have become victims of the violent, hate filled distrust that has infected our world.  They were working peacefully among peaceful protesters, black, brown, and white, when violent hatred took their lives.  They were on routine patrol when an assassin took their lives:
  • Patrick Zamarripa
  • Brent Thompson
  • Michael Krol
  • Lorne Ahrens
  • Michael Smith
  • Montreal Jackson
  • Matthew Gerald
  • Brad Garafola

O God, you made us in your own image.  Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that the time may not be far off when all nations and races may serve each other in harmony.  And let all say,


Friday, July 15, 2016

Distracted by too many things

"Martha, you are distracted by too many things.  Mary has chosen the better part."  So said Jesus in the familiar story of Mary and Martha.  How can we not be distracted?  There are too many things going wrong in our world not to be.  Florida, Louisiana, Minnesota, Texas.  As I write it's Nice, France.  Too many mass shootings.  Too many unnecessary deaths at the hands of those on whom we rely to protect and serve.  Too many assassinations of our finest and bravest at the hands of the vengeful.  In the background are the daily stories of refugees fleeing unspeakable terrors, willing to risk death at sea or life penned up in camps as the better choice.  How can we not be distracted?  In the midst of it, in our own communities, we are surrounded by voices of contempt, suspicion, conspiracy, and bigotry, each justifying itself on nothing more than rumor, hearsay, and the irresponsible trash talk that has become the source of "news" for many.  

We desperately need the better part chosen by Mary, but what is it?  The old hymn says it well, "This is my Father's world."  It is not ours.  We are merely the stewards of it, and each of us only for a short time at that.  For those of us who claim to be Christian, we have our instructions.  We have been told what stewardship entails.  Love God with all our being.  Love our neighbors as ourselves (remember the Good Samaritan?).  Love each other as Christ has loved us.  Everything comes after that.  It is the better part.  Amidst our distractions, let us strive to be agents of Christ's love in a world so desperate for it.  No more dodging the question or making facile excuses.  These were commandments, not suggestions.  It isn't just the better part, it's the only part. 

A Note of Caution to my Friends on the Right

Three recent columns implored my progressive and liberal friends to listen to and respect the deeper concerns of those on the right.  This brief essay is implores my conservative friends to refrain from being taken in by Trumpian propaganda. 

I’m on a couple of Republican mailing lists.  It’s probably because I faithfully respond to their “surveys”, which are riddled with questions implying the horrors of continued Democratic control of the White House over issues that don’t exist and economic conditions so distorted they bear only the faintest whiff of reality.  Anyway, yesterday’s mail brought the first fund raising letter from Donald J. Trump himself, and it was a propaganda gem.  

Hilary, Crooked Hillary to be specific, was said to be allied with liberal special interests, and nothing could be worse than allies that are both liberal and have special interests.  Nothing has to be said about what liberal meant, or what the special interests might be, because we know that the words themselves tell all.  However, simply calling something liberal was not enough; it quickly became “ultraliberal” backed by Democratic leaders called ‘Bleeding-Heart” and “Hatchet-Man”, the allies of “Crooked Hillary.”  What strikes me is how easily these transfer to the every day vocabulary of Trump supporters.  Not long ago when talking with a group of my Trump supporting friends (yes, I do have them and they are my friends), I stopped the conversation and said no more labels. If you think she is crooked then tell me exactly what you are accusing her of.  After a painful silence there was a weak attempt to rehash old issues long resolved as unfounded or immaterial, and then the admission that “I just don’t like her.”  Thats fair enough, she’s done a lot of things not to like, but no more labels, and especially labels that haven’t been personally evaluated for accuracy, using a reliable source, which does not include Fox News or talk radio.  

Well, back to the letter.  It went on to accuse Obama’s leftist legacy of being responsible for America’s downward spiral.  What leftist policies might be in that legacy?  What downward spiral would that be?  Terms were never defined, but a gifted propagandist knows they not only don’t need to be, they shouldn’t be.  Of course ObamaCare was high on the suspect list, charged with a list of specious accusations easily accepted by those who have not examined them.  Then there was the liberal plan to pass blanket amnesty for illegal immigrants instead of securing our borders.  What plan would that be?  Has anyone ever seen or heard of such a plan?  No!  But there’s the Wall again, to be paid for by Mexico.  Amazing!

Trump crowed about the assertion that more Americans are out of work since Carter’s administration.   It’s one of those smidgen of truth things.  In the face of eight years of all time record job growth, it is true that between retirements and persons who have dropped out of the job market, there are a lot of  people still out of work, but that begs the question because it’s a phenomenon in the face of unprecedented job growth that could have been even better had Congress showed any inclination to cooperate with the administration.  He also complained about the slow growth of the economy with no awareness that it is at its maximum rate given the constraints of world economic conditions.

Of course he trotted out the $8.5 trillion growth in debt over the last eight years without acknowledging that half of it is due to accounting for war costs kept off the books by the previous administration, and that the annual deficit has been reduced faster and farther than under any previous president other than Clinton.  For a deal maker whose entire empire is based on debt (and getting out of it through bankruptcy), he seems to have no idea how national debt works, but that’s another issue.  He probably does know, but those who follow him don’t, and it’s easy to scare them with big scary numbers.  

In the end, his fund raising letter, like the surveys I respond to, was a masterpiece of old time propaganda.  What troubles me is that old time propaganda works, and it works well.  

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Third and Final Lecture to Progressives about Right Wing Values – so pay attention!

Two previous articles encouraged centrist progressives and left wing liberals to pay more attention to what right wing tea party types and Trump supporters are saying, at a level deeper than bumper sticker soundbites, to better understanding what is going on among a significant portion of our population.  I’m particularly interested in our own little corner of the nation, the rural intermountain West, where anti-government candidates are elected and reelected with ease, even though the policies they endorse weaken the social and physical infrastructure of the quality of life their supporters desire to have.  

For more centrist candidates (both left and right) to win elections and stay elected, their supporters need more empathy (I detest that word, but it’s useful here) for what the right wing base wants and is worried about.  When you get past the ill informed and often deeply prejudiced soundbites they’ve picked up from talk radio and Fox News, there can be something worth listening to.  That’s going to take some doing.  Left of center activists in our region are so used to being vastly outnumbered that they tend to isolate themselves behind walls of supercilious contempt for the unenlightened masses.  Moreover, they are content to blast away at far right soundbites with gobs of undigestible data the right has learned to dismiss as mere propaganda.  It has all the dignity of a middle school food fight.  What progressives need to do is dig deeper to find out what’s down there. 

This article is an attempt to push a little harder in that direction, and is based on conversations with a half dozen friends who are on the tea party side of things, including their intention to vote for Trump.  All are men.  For the most part they are sons of families who have been in the region for generations, and they are deeply rooted in the land and the culture of the pioneer myth.  All have some college education, each is in a profession requiring substantial formal education and advanced technical training.  In other words, they are smart, capable, and proficient in their fields.  Moreover, because I know them as friends I know that they have deep desire for the good of the community.  They are men who were raised to believe in personal responsibility, independence, and pride about making it in life without the need of government handouts, at least not handouts in the form of welfare payments.  

Forget about the candidates now running, I said, and tell me about what you want in a president.  What are the characteristics of a president you could support.  Hight on the list is a president who is not owned by corporate  lobbyists and big money donors.  They want someone (preferably a white man) who is in debt to no one but the people who elect him.

They want someone who believes in the primacy of personal responsibility, who will cut off those who “ride the welfare system.”  They don’t mind a helping hand to get someone out of a hole, but they don’t believe in making it a source of permanent income.  They don’t know how much of that is going on, but they’ve been told it’s a  lot, and they believe the dominant ethos of the country has changed from responsibility for self to dependency on others.

Recent presidents, they say, have a history of going off half-cocked taking the country into places it does not belong, against the better counsel of qualified advisors.  They want a president who will listen to the experts who know about war, foreign alliances, trade and the like.  Maybe presidents should be required to have had military service.

Speaking of the military, veterans have been abused by a system and nation that doesn’t care enough to care for them when they come home.  The nation needs a president who will make proper care for veterans one of his highest priorities.  

Immigration reform must be taken seriously.  They’ve had enough of illegal immigrants living their dream on the backs of tax paying Americans.  Yes, they understand and have sympathy for those who want a better life here, but we have to be in control of our borders.

In like manner, they want a president who will favor law enforcement over criminals, and justice for all rather than justice just for Blacks and other minorities.

God, in a generic Christian way, is important to them, and they want God to be important to the president also.  That means a president who will favor public expressions of faith such as school prayer, prayer before public assemblies, and presidential celebration of traditional religious holidays as religious.

Yes, they want a president who will honor the Second Amendment, and who believes as they do that armed law abiding citizens protect themselves, each other, and the nation against the possibility of tyranny.  Moreover, the Second Amendment stands for all their liberties that are threatened by the intrusion into their lives of government power in particular ways.  For some it’s being forced to buy health insurance, for others it’s over regulation of farming and forestry practices, for others it’s mandates about education, and so on.  It depends on how they make their living, or what part of community life they are a part of. 

That means they want a president who will not tolerate entrenched bureaucracies, who will eliminate the inefficiency of overlapping, contradictory regulations enforced by paper pushers who know little about the businesses they are regulating, and don’t care about customer service.

They are keenly aware that the place of the white male as the ideal representative of the true American citizen is fading, that his place as the principal decider and provider is eroding, and they don’t like it.  Men like them have led the country for almost 250 years.  We are the great nation that we are because of men like them.  Men like them have brought us through two world wars and kept us safe.  But men like them were from previous generations.  Their generation has not done as well, and they know it.  It’s galling, humiliating, and damnit, they don’t want to lose any more than has already been lost to others who have so little claim to the heritage that should be theirs.  You work hard.  You do the right thing.  And what do you get?  Kicked in the gut by people who don’t do the right thing and haven’t done the hard work.  

When you get past the right wing talk radio inspired trash talk, and ignore the distorted information on which they rely, what they want out of a presidential candidate, indeed out of any major office candidate, has real value.  In fact there is an entire menu of values that are either shared with more progressive candidates, or for which progressive candidates can have respect if not share in the same way.  Articulating that in simple, understandable terms is the only way progressive candidates are ever going to begin wining elections around here.  And winning progressive candidates, whether leaning left or leaning right, are the only way our region and nation can begin the process of seeking a new path to middle class opportunity and stability that will include my right wing friends.  

There is only one desire they are going to have to cede.  The days of white male supremacy are over.  For power and position they will have to compete on a playing field less tilted in their favor.  That’s going to be a hard one because, raised as they were in the culture of the rural intermountain West, they are unaware of, and cannot conceive of, a playing field that has ever been tilted in their favor.