Wednesday, May 20, 2015

It's Miller Time

It’s Memorial Day weekend and time for me to write my annual article honoring Harlan D. Miller who represents for me the universe of those who have fought and died under the American flag.    Regular readers may recall Harlan.  He died some years ago now, and I will place a small flag near his grave and lay flowers on it.  He served in WWII, was blown up in North Africa, spent years in the hospital, and lived the rest of his life as a near hermit whose mind was embedded in the late 19th century.  If you are interested, you can look back on articles from previous years about Harlan.

Harlan stands in for so many others, and this year remembering him brings to mind my dad.  He also served in WWII as a supply officer on a destroyer in the Pacific.  Never once did he tell a story about what he had experienced.  Only once did I see him cry.   I was a young adult, and we were together touring another destroyer, one he helped decommission shortly after the war; it was a sister ship to the one he served on.  

He was enthusiastic about showing me around and explaining how everything worked, but somewhere along the way I ceased to exist, and he was back in another place at another time.  Whatever it was that he was reliving, it brought tears streaming down his cheeks.  A few minutes later he shook it off, was embarrassed at what had happened, and never talked about it.  I have no idea where he was or what was happening in those few moments, but I know it was tragic, and soul shattering. 

Memorial Day is about remembering.  We remember those who died in war.  We remember first those who died fighting under our flag.  We also remember the non-combatant civilians who could not get out of the way of death.  Sometimes we even remember the enemy dead with a sense of sorrow for them.  Let us also remember those whose lives were torn to shreds and patched back together again in whatever way they could be patched. 

Dad was one of the lucky ones.  He came from a loving family, returned to a loving family, and was successful in his chosen career.  To the very end, he enjoyed all that could be enjoyed, and was generous in giving whatever he could to make life good for others.  Some others, like Harland, were so physically and psychologically damaged that whatever the good life was, it was not theirs to be had. 


Dad is buried three thousand miles from where I live.  I cannot place a flag or lay flowers on his grave, but this weekend, when I am honoring Harlan, I will remember Dad. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

John: My least favorite gospel

On the whole, I don’t much care for John’s gospel.  When teaching adult classes in years past, I’ve had something to say about parts of the bible I don’t like, and the response has been predictable: a hushed embarrassment that a member of the clergy, a teacher, would dare to say anything bad about the bible.  Psalm 45, I once said, was appalling, and when I come to it in Morning Prayer, I skip over it.  There was stunned disbelief as the group struggled to twist its text to squeeze out something of theological value.  So, I’m reluctant to admit that there is a whole book I don’t much care for. 

I know that John is just about everyone’s favorite starting place for their Christian journey.  Maybe it was mine too once upon a time, but I can’t remember.  It’s chock full of memorable lines, and there are elements in it that I treasure.  The prologue for instance, the Samaritan woman at the well, a portion of John 5 that implies the possibility of universal salvation, the woman caught in adultery, Jesus as shepherd, the  new commandment, Thomas, and the post resurrection lake side picnic.  That sounds like a lot to like, and it is, but there are several themes that run through the text that make the whole of it less than appealing.  

For me, and for many, the biggest is the way John hammers at the Jews with such consistent force that he inspired centuries of anti-Jewish violence all across Christian Europe, and a good deal of harsh bigotry in the Americas.  John cannot be blamed for the Holocaust, or the many pogroms that preceded it, but he did provide the tinder, with the spark provided by preachers of every stripe.  Of course it can be explained away by careful exegesis, but the plain meaning of the language is not lost on newbie Christians, those attending church in Lent, and anyone else who thumbs through the book.  I feel compelled to offer several corrective sermons every Lent, and I don’t like having to do that.  

On a more complicated level, I have problems with how John tries to weave his way through his take on light and dark dualism that brushes up against gnostic fantasies.  He puts quite an emphasis on the separation of ‘the world’ ruled by Satan (or a prince we take to be Satan) that is in opposition to the heavenly realm of God.  Jesus appears to be the only connective tissue between them, and one gets the impression that it might be a tenuous one at that.  He makes it very easy for some Christians to imagine themselves as warriors on behalf of God in a fight with the devil, the outcome of which is still in doubt.  It’s great science fiction but lousy theology.  He also makes it easy for some Christians to claim that whatever cultural prejudices they have salted their faith with stand against the sinful world of everybody else’s culture.  It’s the old ‘We may be in the world, but we’re not of the world’ nonsense that one frequently encounters. 

In the end, John just makes it too easy for us to engage in bigotry and gnostic fantasy while passing it off as orthodox Christianity.  Properly understanding John’s gospel, if properly understanding is the right way to put it, requires some very deep study of the text and its context.  That’s not  something most Sunday church goers ever do, or ever will do, and so, on the whole, I don’t much care for it. 


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Sin, Sex, Booze, and Paul

Whatever became of sin?    Many years ago Karl Menninger wrote a book by that title in which he deplored the absence of sin from the moral vocabulary of the time.  I recall wondering about his premise because sin seemed to be on every pastor’s list of things to hammer into our heads, and I even heard it bandied about in public places, but on the whole I didn’t pay much attention to it, which was the point Menninger was trying to make, but I figured it didn’t have anything to do with me.  I was wrong, but, in a sense, so was he.

Sin has made a marvelous comeback.  It has become the bedrock of the moral vocabulary of many Christians who deeply lament “the world’s” blindness to sin.  The problem is, as I see it, that sin has become trivialized almost beyond recognition.  The matter came up a few weeks ago in a conversation with a friend who is struggling a bit with the leaders of his church.  As we talked it became clear that sin was mostly relegated to pornography, excessive consumption of alcohol (or other drugs), and having affairs outside of one’s marriage. It was not that unusual.  When questions about what sin is have come up in my various small group discussions, they almost always get reframed as questions about immorality, and that means sex.  It’s an interesting transition.  The question of sin evades the question of what morality might be, immediately slides into immorality, and equates immorality with behavior related to sex and alcohol (or drugs).

I don’t know whatever became of sin in the years when Menninger wrote, but it seems to me that these days it’s most often stuffed into a pigeon hole marked sex and booze.  If that doesn’t trivialize sin I don’t know what will. 

This is a problem.  Jesus, at least according to the gospel writers, was far more concerned with sin as our failure to attend to the ways of God that lead toward healing and reconciliation with a particular emphasis on the poor, oppressed, and marginalized.  Moreover, what the gospels record as Jesus’ teaching is the culmination of almost everything contained in the prophets.  That’s a very heavy scriptural load, but hauling it down the road of everyday life is dangerous because it always leads onto the thin ice of prejudice and politics that we would prefer God not be too concerned with.  It’s so much safer, easier, and self satisfying to leave that load behind, and be happy with sin as sex and booze.

To be fair, the trivialization of sin by equating it with immorality and then equating immorality with sex and booze, while effectively ignoring anything else, is not a new phenomenon.  The letters of Paul are filled with it.  Paul was concerned that his newly baptized Christians not get caught up in lives of drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, sexual immorality, fornication, and impurity.  At least that’s so if you were a Roman, Corinthian, Galatian, or Ephesian.  I guess it was OK for others, but I digress.  Paul had to deal with particular issues, and I cannot be certain what those issues were, but I think his emphasis on the perceived licentiousness of the communities in which new churches had been established has been a disservice to the rest of us because it is so disconnected from the moral teaching of Jesus and all the prophets.  


Whatever happened to sin?  It got buried by all of us who are not keen to take on the  moral burden of Jesus’ teaching, and have found being titillated by sex and booze to be more entertaining and far more self satisfying – whether we’re for them or against them (in others).

Friday, April 24, 2015

When is the End of Life?

My friend Bill died a month ago.  A brilliant scholar, he had suffered a number of strokes, and was being cared for in a facility that catered to patients with dementia and brain injuries.  He decided that it was time to let nature take its course.  He refused most food and medications, and died in short order, but he died fully confident in the resurrection life that lay ahead. 

A few weeks later I was in the E.R. with a man in his mid to late nineties who had also suffered from a number of strokes.  He was surrounded by family who pressed the staff to do whatever they could to not let him die.  The last I heard he was still in the hospital being kept alive, but with no hope of recovery in any sense of the word that makes sense.  

Our medics responded recently to the home of a ninety-eight year old woman who appeared to have no pulse but did not have a DNR order that anyone knew about.  Her caretakers were emotionally agitated, urging that she not be allowed to die.  The medics did what they had to to get a pulse and transport her to a hospital, where, connected to all the available contraptions, she died.  By then a son had been located who affirmed that there was a DNR, but he was the only one with a copy and lived hundreds of miles away.

Most of us in our Tuesday morning clergy group are over seventy, and one of us is eighty-seven.  We got into a discussion about end of life decision making: how we need to get our paper work up to date and have those difficult conversations with our children.  We need to do it, but life keeps getting in the way and we tend to put it off until tomorrow, or the day after that.  Sitting here writing this article I realize that I don’t have a clue about who in town handles the File of Life kits that were once available through the Red Cross, when we had a staffed and active local Red Cross chapter.  Each clinic and hospital has its own version of an advance directive, and, as far as I can tell, none of that is shared information.  HIPPA, you know.  It gets in the way of common sense sometimes.  

Here’s the odd thing.  Our Tuesday group (Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran) stumbled over the theology of end of life.  We enthusiastically affirmed that, as followers of Christ, we believe in “…the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting,” but at a very deep emotional level, not yet.  It was an eery echo of Augustine’s famous prayer to be granted chastity, but not yet.  We were uncertain about when end of life might actually be.  We were agreed that there is a difference between medically aided recovery to the enjoyment of life, and medically induced prolongation of life in a body trying its hardest to die.  But where is that boundary, and how permeable is it?  

Living in a rural area with limited medical care, my grandparents and their friends became elderly at an early age.  End of life was a normal event that happened naturally in due course and surprised no one.  Grief was still grief, but no one was shocked that nothing could be done to keep grandpa from dying.  My parents were elderly by the time they reached their mid seventies, but a better life with better health care meant that there was doubt about what end of life might mean.  I’m seventy-two;  I’m young (no snickering please).  Being old and being at the end of one’s life are not the same thing, but being old brings each of us predictably closer to the end of life, and it would probably be a good idea to talk about it.   

If talking about it is complicated for clergy who are comfortable with God’s promise that “…happy from now on are those who die in the Lord!  So it is, says the Spirit, for they rest from their labors,” and “…to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens,” consider how complicated it is for those whose faith is less, or not at all.  Medically aided recovery from illness or injury, prolonging life, and having a life, are all different things, but they are all related.  And so is God's promise of new life for those who are willing to receive it.  It’s time to talk.





Thursday, April 23, 2015

Alright You Turkeys, Listen Up!

How many turkeys can dance on the head of a pin?  OK, that may be a slight exaggeration so I’ll rephrase the question.  How many turkeys can be accommodated in an urban neighborhood?

We may live in a small city of the rural intermountain west, but it’s still a city.  Four or five years ago a few turkeys showed up in our neighborhood and decided to stay.  At first they were an exotic addition to the local scene.  But, in the best biblical tradition, they have been fruitful and multiplied.  After all, they have no predators, food is abundant, there are places to nest in relative safety, and a small grove of trees provides a great rookery.  The local flock is now more than thirty, and maybe as high as fifty.  It’s hard to tell.  I’m told that they have a life span of three or four years, but given safe haven can live for ten, and we have given them safe haven. 

Gobbling is supposed to be a male trait during the mating season.  Ours gobble in the morning as the sun rises.  They gobble in the evening as it sets.  They gobble in the daytime just for the fun of it. They form gobbling quartets.  Like gobbling monks, they gobble antiphonally.  

When we lived back East, hunters insisted that wild turkeys were a challenge because they are wary, elusive, and cagey about being hunted.  Ours seem quite comfortable living among us, and have no intention of giving up their sovereignty.  They roam in packs up and down the streets, through yards, up on rooftops, and wherever else they want to go.  Local dogs and cats express their displeasure, but the turkeys are coldly aloof.  It’s only with reluctance that they get out of the way of kids walking to school and cars headed off to work.  According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab website, they forage for nuts and seeds but will stoop to salamanders and snails.  One neighbor’s yard must have plenty of each because it looks like its been hoed and raked into turmoil soil.

I’m curious to find out how large the flock will get before it gets too large, and some appropriate agency is called in by irate home owners demanding their removal.  I wonder how one captures fifty or more adult birds, and where they could take them?  Maybe into the mountains where the cougars and coyotes would feast on turkey in grateful thanksgiving for birds that have never known predators. 





Saturday, April 18, 2015

Freedom or Fear?

What does freedom mean?  My tea party friend (and yes, I do have one) says that his political views are all about freedom, but I can’t get a straight answer from him about what freedom is.  Whatever it is, he is certain that it’s being taken away.  

From what I can tell it appears that, from his point of view, the recognition of human and civil rights for others who have not previously enjoyed that recognition somehow takes some of his freedom away and gives it to someone else.  Homosexuals are the targets of the day, but illegal aliens, women, Muslims, and people who are not Europeanish looking, have all had their moment.  They still lurk in the near background. 

I’m reminded of a few hours with another friend about fifty years ago.  He was outraged that recent laws opened up housing opportunities for Jews and blacks in neighborhoods that had been restricted.  His argument was that he no longer had the freedom to live where he wanted because he no longer had control over who his neighbors would be.  He could not comprehend that everyone, theoretically, now had the same freedom to live wherever they wanted that he had always had.  The only freedom taken from him was the freedom to tell others where they could not live.  

I don’t see much difference between that fifty year old conversation and what’s being complained about today.

My tea party friend is angry about other threats to his freedom as well.  The government is becoming tyrannical.  It spies on us.  It conspires to take away our weapons.  It refuses to seal our (southern) borders.  It’s laws and regulations infringe on every aspect of daily life.  The undeserving poor get a free ride at his expense.  Everyone, except people like him, feel entitled but avoid responsibility.  We are surrounded by global enemies who intend to attack and conquer us.  We have been infected by internal enemies who are agents of foreign powers.  Secrecy and conspiracy abound.  

Curiously, not a one of these fears surfaced until a black man was elected president, but he is angrily offended when that’s pointed out.  

The thorn that keep jabbing me is that there is a tiny amount of truth in his litany of fears.  We have become a society in which the tremendous ebb and flow of electronic information means that we have less privacy than we had a few decades ago.  It’s not so much a matter of governments and corporations spying on us as it is us making ourselves more easily known to anyone who wants to know.  Our disastrous military adventures, especially in the Middle East,  have created enemies abroad.  They don’t want to invade us, but they don’t want to be invaded either, no mater how vicious their infighting has become.  Various domestic hate groups of one kind or another have been embolden to use violence to disrupt whatever it is about America they don’t like.  And so it goes.

As for the government regulating us to death.  I wrote not too long ago about an exercise we had a few years ago in which it was finally agreed that most regulations on the books were justifiable.  The problem was the way they were enforced through difficult to follow, time consuming, uncoordinated, inflexible ways.  A lot of truth in that. 

And that brings me to a final observation about government control of daily lives.  Here it is: The lower the level of government, the greater its ability to control the minutia of daily life.  So quit haranguing the federal government, and pay more attention to state, county, and municipal governments.  Think about it!  What level of government tells you how fast you can drive, where you can park, what to do with your trash, whether hanging out with nothing to do can get you arrested, how loud you can play your radio, and so on?  If you want responsive government, get involved at the local level and quit complaining.  But be prepared for a fight if what you want is to use the power of government to impose your personal beliefs on others, or  to prevent others from equal access to the public market place.


Monday, April 13, 2015

Laffer is not Funny

I see that Art Laffer has surfaced again as a trusted economic advisor to Governor Brownback of Kansas and a variety of Republican candidates for the presidency.  According to a headline and first two sentences of an article somewhere on the web, he’s confident about where Kansas is headed, certain that economic prosperity is just around the corner.  Amazing!

Back in 1974 he popularized the idea that revenue from taxation could be demonstrated on a curve that showed increasing revenue from increasing tax rates up to a certain point.  That point being the one where rates are deemed to have become confiscatory, dampening economic incentive, and resulting in declining revenue.  It seems to make sense.  The people I worked for at the time believed that no matter what the tax rate was, it was always on the downward slope, so the key to raising needed revenue for public purposes would be lower tax rates always and everywhere.  At least that was what they said.  I don’t think it is what they meant.

For one thing, no one knew, or knows, what the shape of the curve actually is, or even if there is a curve at all.  Moreover, no one knew, or knows, what the optimum tax rate is for any given tax, or for taxes taken cumulatively.  Neither objection really matters because the underlying intent of the argument was then, and remains today, to reduce government by depriving it of revenue.  After all, as the libertarian argument goes, there are far fewer legitimate public purposes than people think there are; government is essentially wasteful anyway; and whatever government does in the name of the public interest is actually an unwarranted restriction on individual freedoms.  

The goofy thing is that it plays into a secular version of Jesus’ admonition that those who want to keep their life will lose it, and those who are willing to lose their life will gain it.  The desire to preserve individual freedom by choking government to death can only result in a more brutal economic and political environment in which oligarchical power is likely to have dominant control over limited resources and opportunity.  On the other hand, recognizing the value of a robust, well financed, government bound by constraints on its power and committed to universality of opportunity and treatment under the law, will lead in the direction of economic well being for many and an equitable distribution of power and influence.  I think the so called founding fathers, especially those who wrote The Federalist Papers, had as solid an understanding of that as an eighteenth century person could be expected to have. 


The Laffer gang has it wrong.  They have always had it wrong.