Tuesday, June 28, 2016

I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy

while traveling in the mid-section of the usa recently, my wife and i attended a dinner theater variety show.  the show began with an audience warm-up by the m.c., a pleasant young man who told jokes, did a few magic tricks, and played a game with some audience members.  during the meal, the show's band played some so-so jazz numbers, and after dinner the young performers, including a female singer, a male pop group, and a male dance ensemble, presented the main show.  all the performers were talented and well-trained.  the show was much better than i had anticipated, featuring lots of broadway and movie tunes and some inventive dance numbers, and the musical arrangements were first-rate

the entertainment company that puts this show on owns several other venues in the area, including water and amusement parks, all of which are run quite professionally and appeal to people of all ages.  this company has a knack for bridging the generation gap with a variety of offerings that attracts families with small children, teens, young adults, and seniors like us.  i was surprised when, near the end of the show we attended, one of the singers came on stage and made a short speech about the singers' need to share their faith, after which he and the female singer sang a duet which was vaguely religious.  this was followed by a spiritual sung by the male pop group.  had these two numbers been presented without reference to "faith-sharing," i would not have been bothered by them; i've often heard the duet performed as part of a secular program, and the spiritual arrangement was more about the energy of the song and its performers than any message conveyed by the text.  what troubled me was the assumption by the show's producers that the christians in the audience were entitled to a faith-based message that was out of place in this secular setting and indeed made that message seem more an attempt to pander to evangelicals in the audience than a sincere expression of belief.  i wondered how non-christians in the audience felt about being subjected to this proselytizing, having paid the hefty admission price for what they thought would be secular entertainment.

i was troubled, too, by the patriotic finale which immediately followed the "faith" songs.  the tie-in between the two segments seemed to be typical god-and-country fare that used patriotic music in a way that for me is contrary to true patriotism.  there was a speech about how grateful we should be for the veterans of the armed services, with a call for all veterans to stand and be recognized, and a tribute to first responders, again with a request for the audience's applause.  following this a medley of service anthems was sung, and the veterans of each branch were asked to stand and be recognized as their branch's song was performed.  the medley ended with a huge slide of the american flag projected on the screen at the back of the stage, as the entire cast sang "you're a grand old flag."

i don't have anything against patriotism or patriotic music, but the wedding of christianity in this secular setting with an over-the-top patriotic extravaganza seemed contrived and inappropriate.  i wonder if veterans tire of being used in this way and if such casual recognition makes some feel as if their service is cheapened.  how many of those veterans were hurting from the horrors in iraq and afghanistan?  how many were mourning the loss of comrades lost in the war?  how many were pained by the injuries that they and their fellow soldiers were struggling to overcome?  a round of applause seems too easy a recognition for the great sacrifices that veterans have made.  we applaud in such a setting but don't provide the resources that veterans need when they return home, and our consciences are assuaged by a show-business medley and a giant flag.

may a christian majority not force its beliefs on those who don't share them, cheapening those beliefs in the process.  may we show our gratitude for the service of our fellow citizens in substantive ways, rather than using those veterans to promote our own agendas.  may we consider how our actions affect and are perceived by others.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

May Our Dreams Prove Rich with Promise

this morning i am thinking of two different, maybe-related-in-ways-i- don't-see-yet ideas that i can't get out of my head: the tendency of everything to fly apart or dissolve and the necessity of proving things by opposites.  my mind is often drawn to contemplation of that instant where everything flew out of nothing.  how did it happen?  what was the cause? will there be a point at which this constant expansion, this "flying apart" of the universe reverses itself and all things collapse into nothing?

what about opposites?  can we understand tall without a short with which to compare it?  can we understand complete without incomplete?  empty without full?  whole without fragmented?  or the reverse.  is noise the absence of silence or silence the absence of noise?  this brings me to suffering and happiness.  if suffering is absent, does that mean one is happy?  can we understand happiness without having suffered?  can one suffer and at the same time be happy?

i am much drawn to the dalai lama's teachings about happiness and his idea that every being has the right to be happy, that indeed this should be the basic direction of life.  we should all be moving toward happiness, claiming it as our natural state of being.  i don't know enough about buddhism to know if this is a (the) central teaching of buddhism, but i am convinced after living almost seventy years, that happiness is the best goal one can have.  so i'm back to opposites and what happiness means.  if i could let go of all clinging and craving, attain a perfect state of emptiness, would that be the point at which i am happy?

i find that i catch fleeting moments of happiness from time to time and that those moments are less fleeting that they once were.  i'm not sure that means i am coming to an understanding of emptiness, but i am sure that more and more i sense a deep state of happiness that transforms suffering into experience rather than pain, suffering becomes non-suffering.  would that i could have gotten farther along this path earlier in my life, but that is craving something that is tinged with regret for past failings!

here in the stillness of this morning as i think about matters that are too deep for my shallow mind, i touch the happiness that is elusive, and i feel at peace with the flying apart of the universe and all things in it while i am at the same time bound to each bit of matter that makes up what we call "environment."  may we all find peace.  may we find happiness that transcends momentary joys and suffering.  may we be complete while all things are coming apart in the slow progression of time.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

It Is Well with My Soul

a friend's 101-year-old mother recently had a major health crisis.  during her hospitalization she had several ups and downs.  one day she would seem to improve, and our friend would begin making plans to bring her mother home.  the next day, she would take a turn for the worse, and our friend would talk as if her mother might never leave the hospital alive.  after a little more than a week, our friend's mother was able to return home.  

our friend sent a text to all of us who were close to her and her mother that said something like, "thank God for answered prayers; prayers really do work."  my wife's response was, "she should be thanking the doctors and all those who cared for her mother in the hospital."  as i thought about what my wife had said, i was reminded of my own beliefs about "intercessory" prayer.  God had little (or nothing) to do with the recovery of this frail lady beyond giving the health care providers the skills to assist in her holding onto life, and i'm not sure that God deserves credit even for that.  the success of her struggle was owed to many: those who attended her in the hospital; those who devised the procedures and medications that helped restore her; a concerned and loving daughter; those who trained the doctors, nurses, and orderlies who attended her--the list could go on and on.

we have so many to thank for the good things that happen.  perhaps God is the first cause, but that initial impulse set so many things in motion.  they are all tied together and interdependent.  we are the products of forces that stretch back through the millennia, and the
smallest act can produce results that are unimagined and unanticipated.  life just happens, and we don't know why.  we search for causes and want there to be a god who is the cause rather than the randomness of living coupled with the deeds of countless others.

why did our friend's mother survive while others in the same circumstances did not?  there are so many possibilities--her will to live, the good fortune of exactly the right interventions at exactly the right time, maybe random good fortune--another endless list of causes for this result.  maybe it wasn't good that she survived.  maybe she will live the remainder of her life suffering physical pain, limited in her mobility, finding little enjoyment in life.  maybe her strength and courage to fight on will inspire others.  maybe her survival was a salve to her daughter's conscience so that our friend can feel that she has done everything possible for her mother.

always more questions, and the only answer is that life is what it is.  we can accept and find happiness where we will, or we can rail against what we believe to be the causes of our suffering.  may we be thankful for minds that question and for the resources to seek the way to end suffering.  may we say, "life is," and let that be enough.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Old Times There Are Not Forgotten

this past weekend, my wife and i decided we should pay a visit to my uncle, my dad's only surviving sibling.  uncle is a few months shy of his hundredth birthday, still lives alone, and still drives, though he probably should give up driving because of his failing eyesight.  as he reminisced about his boyhood, i was reminded of the terrible legacy of that blight on the great american experiment that was, and is, the institution of slavery.  in his conversation, uncle spoke of the camaraderie he and my dad, who was less than two years younger than uncle, had with the boys in the neighborhood, which included both black and white youngsters.

my parents were fortunate to have grown up in situations where they had many contacts with the black community--my father because his father employed many black men in his business and my mother because most of the customers of the small business her parents owned were black.  both families lived in neighborhoods that were bi-racial, and like uncle and my dad, my mother's brothers'  playmates included black youth who lived nearby.  this was not true for many white families in the south in those days between the two world wars, where racial separation was strictly enforced and where most whites and blacks lived in different worlds that rarely interacted.  when they did interact, one world always benefited at the expense of the other.

yet even for my parents, there was this implied sense of separation.  in the innocence of youth, skin color made little difference when it came to playing in the neighborhood, but both black and white playmates knew that a day would come when the easy relationships would end.  the black children with which my dad and his brother played would grow up to be employees of people like my grandfather most likely, and the black peers of my mother's brothers knew that they would grow up to become that debtors of people like my maternal grandparents.  i am sure this rigidly observed difference in social status influenced their play.  a black playmate dare not strike a white one or insist too loudly on his right to take his turn in the game if a white wanted to steal it.  even in subtle ways on the playing fields, white entitlement was certainly evident.

my great-grandmother--the matriarch of my mother's family, my mother's mother's mother--was old enough to remember the last vestiges of slavery in the old south, having been born just before the outbreak of the civil war.  she lived until i was a young teenager, and we were never sure of her real age because there were no accurate written records of her birth.  but it amazes me that i am still connected to the awful institution by this link.  the civil war seems long ago, but i have only to recall my great-grandmother's stores of her young childhood to be transported back to that era when slavery was accepted as normal.

slavery casts a long shadow over this country, and especially over the south.  uncle and many of his generation still fail to see that awful legacy.  he sees nothing wrong with speaking in ways that subtly disparage people of color, including the president.  though he recalls his black friends who later became his and my grandfather's employees with fondness, he will never see those dark-skinned former playmates as his equal.  he will always believe that his light skin entitled him to be the boss, and that any other arrangement of the social order would be unnatural and morally wrong.  for all his wonderful qualities, uncle is a racist, and those of us who are of my generation must be vigilant lest we be racists, too.

those who had little or no contact with black culture in their formative years are unfortunate.  they have not seen this cancer on our national body up close.  they have not experienced this awful caste system in our country by watching almost-equals become something far different as buddies/playmates/friends matured.  those who grew up in a white world with little or no contact with the parallel black world cannot understand what havoc slavery has inflicted on the united states.  it is all to easy for those whose lives were not bound up with the fortunes of members of the black community to fail to recognize the social forces at play, to see the preponderance of our prison population as a monolithic sea of black that deserves to be incarcerated, to believe that black families fare less well economically because of some innate traits that pass from generation to generation.  those who have experienced life in close contact with members of the other race know, even though they may force themselves to ignore it, that these inequities have nothing to do with whether one has dark or light skin and everything to do with the forced immigration and forced labor of dark-skinned humans by light-skinned humans.

may we constantly strive to wipe out the vestiges of slavery that loom over us.  may we recognize that the debt that whites owe to blacks in this country can never be repaid.  may we open our hearts to the truth that the promise of freedom and equality can never be realized until the inequities in our social fabric are acknowledged and addressed.  shalom.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Above the Noise of Selfish Strife

i have been under the weather, so i am late in posting this week.  i have been much in thought about the sermon our minister preached last sunday, based on the first part of the first chapter of galatians.  the gist of her sermon was that nothing must be added to the gospel as interpreted by st. paul, even if what is added is something good.  among the "good" things she enumerated were care for the environment, concern for the poor, and work to end income inequality, in short, the so-called social gospel.  i found her sermon disturbing, because these things flow from a reasonable reading of the gospel.  later in the book of galatians (galatians 5:14), paul says, "for the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' ”  if we conduct ourselves in love for our neighbors, we act in ways that show compassion for others, we act in ways that move the world toward justice, peace, and mutual respect.

still later in his letter (galatians 5:22-23), paul enumerates the "fruits of the spirit:"  love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control and he urges the christians in galatia to "not become weary in doing good (galatians 6:9).  it would seem to me that if those fruits that paul lists and the urge to do good to and for others doesn't flow from the gospel, the gospel is not "good news" at all.  our minister's point was that the essence of the gospel was the death and resurrection of jesus, but i would argue that the gospel is the whole of jesus' teaching, not the end of his time spent on earth, that what is important is jesus' life.

throughout galatians, paul urges his readers to celebrate their freedom from rules and regulations, to enjoy life because of their faith rather than finding life a tedium of prescribed rituals and limitations.  he cautioned them against dividing into factions, and i fear that is what is happening in our congregation and in so many other congregations in our country.  we are limiting our freedom by saying "if you don't believe as i do, you are not a true christian."  we are unwilling to consider that there may be other perspectives that our own, that no one has a monopoly on truth, that it is possible for two opposite points-of-view to contain elements that are valid.  we are becoming increasingly intolerant and placing orthodoxy above the gospel we purport to follow.

it is by reducing the gospel to one narrow set of propositions that we pervert what jesus taught and what paul warns about in galations.  may we be open to the truth where we find it.  may we use our minds to seek what is reasonable rather than accepting unreasonable orthodoxy.  may we be followers of the good even when that good is dangerous, recognizing the innate goodness of others even when they fail to share our beliefs.  shalom.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

In Our Joys and in Our Sorrows

i listened one evening as my friends, jack and jan (not their real names), talked about the day that had just passed.  jan said, "what a day! nothing went the way we had planned.". she continued, listing all the things that had "gone wrong."

 "I thought it was a lovely day.  even though it didn't go as planned, look at all the things we accomplished," jack replied, listing all the things that they had been able to do because of the changed circumstances of the day.

as I thought back on their conversation, it hit me that there are so many good, but not perfect, things in our lives.  jack had seen the day as a good one, though an imperfect one; jan had seen the day as a bad one because of its imperfections.  i was sitting in my chair--a good one but not a perfect one.  it was a bit too narrow, but it supported me well.  the back was at just the right angle to cradle my lower back that often hurts, and the seat was at the right height.  all in all, it was a good chair.  the floor on which my feet rested was beautiful, but it was easy to damage, and it showed every speck of dirt that settled on it--good, not perfect.  our house was a wonderful house, thoughtfully planned with many unusual, but beautiful and helpful, features.  after sixty-two years, things had to be repaired from time to time, and the plumbing, though functional, was a little quirky.  a good house, but not a perfect one.

i could list so many good-but-not-perfect things in my life, as we all could.  the point is that if we expect perfection we will always be disappointed.  if we expect each day to conform to our ideal, we'll never have a "good" day.  we are so much happier if we accept the circumstances of each day as it comes to us.  so what if the repairman who promised to come shows up today, two days later than he said he would, to make a needed repair.  at least he's here now, and you make the best of it.  or what's the great tragedy if you discover that the shirt you had planned to wear today is found to be in the laundry with a stain on the pocket?  you have other shirts that are just as nice.

life is full of these inconveniences.  we can either deal with them with acceptance or allow them to ruin our day.  may we choose the former.  may we embrace the day on its own terms, taking things as they come.  may we say at the end of the day, "it was a lovely day.  i am grateful for it." may we learn from the events that force us to change our best-laid plans and rejoice.  shalom.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

No Matter What May Be the Test

a bad storm with heavy rain and high winds passed through our area a few days ago.  all over our county and the neighboring counties, trees were downed, and power outages were widespread.  we were fortunate that we suffered no damage or loss of power, but several of our neighbors had trees come crashing into their homes.  the day after the storm, our local newspaper had a front page story on the havoc caused by the storm, and one person whose home had suffered major damage was quoted as saying that god had been good to them, sparing them from any physical harm.  if "god" had protected them from harm, why hadn't "god" protected their home and the scores of other homes that had trees blown into them?  why had their home been hit, when most other homes were unharmed?  had they done something wrong that resulted in this god punishing them by causing the tree to fall on their home, while god spared them from injury?

i will never understand the worship of such a capricious god.  so much of life is governed by happenstance.  storms are ungovernable forces of nature.  trees fall in storms for many reasons--sometimes the tree is weakened by disease, or it is of a type that has shallow roots that are susceptible to being blown over in water-soaked ground, some just happen to be in a spot where the winds of the storm are strongest.  who knows?  many trees fall without doing harm to people and homes.  what does God have to do with any of this?  God didn't cause the storm.  God didn't direct the path of the wind.  God didn't protect some homes while causing damage to others.  If anyone or thing is to blame for this storm, it is us, who go about abusing our planet and increasing the likelihood of more and more violent storms.  The same storm that wreaked so much havoc also brought about needed rain--blessings and curses from the same source, but the source wasn't God.

i am sorry that several homes were harmed by the storm.  i am happy that ours was not among them.  if the next storm blows one of our trees into our home, it won't be because God is sending us a message, and, if we escape damage, it won't be because God is protecting us.  whatever the result of the next storm, that result will be caused by "that's just the way it is."  we may thank God for being present with us in our suffering or our rejoicing, but God deserves neither credit nor blame for the random circumstances of life.

may we not fall into the trap of seeing God as the cause of some or all of the events of our lives.  may we not look at what happens as some sort of signal from God.  may we be grateful that we can live our lives using the resources we've been given, and may we accept blame for the misuse of those resources, striving always to live more skillfully.  shalom.