Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Work, for the Night Is Coming

last sunday, our minister preached on the collection of aid from the church in antioch for the church in jerusalem, mentioned in acts 11.  she suggested that the jerusalem church was in need because those who were part of the church sold their possessions and the proceeds were then distributed as needs arose.  this practice, she said, resulted from the belief that the second coming of jesus was imminent, so there was no need to plan for the future.  she cited the words of jesus in matthew 16, where jesus is quoted as saying that "there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the son of man coming in his kingdom," a saying of jesus found in the other synoptic gospels as well, as the basis for this belief among the christians in jerusalem.

she went on to say that this was a misinterpretation of the teaching of jesus; because the return of jesus did not take place during the lifetime of his hearers, she said jesus clearly meant something else when he made this statement.  i found this disturbing.  jesus' statement seems clear.  if he indeed said this, he believed what he said would happen and intended for his followers to believe it also.  perhaps this passage came into the canon because many of his followers believed that jesus would soon return to establish his kingdom and the saying was added to the received teachings of jesus to support this view.  it seems standard practice that, when a prophecy is not fulfilled, those who gave credence to the prophecy find a way to reinterpret it so that it still has the possibility of being true.

i found the suggestion that the cause of the need in the church in jerusalem was their practice of sharing their resources in support of one another troubling, as well.  it is well established that there was a famine in judea in the mid-first century ce, and from the passage in acts the offering was clearly intended to offer relief to hardships resulting from this famine.  the verses in acts say that the offering was collected on the basis of a prophecy by a visiting prophet, agabus, from jerusalem before the famine had taken hold.  how convenient it was that this prophet came to antioch so that a collection could be made in anticipation of the coming famine!  one wonders if the prophecy was not added to this passage in order to strengthen belief in the power of such prophecies.

the twisting of biblical passages to support one's own political beliefs is all too common in the church, as it probably has been through the ages.  if all biblical scripture is unerring and divinely inspired, how could an entire generation of the first christians have been so wrong in interpreting the clear teaching of jesus regarding his return to establish his kingdom?  how could the first christians in jerusalem, led as they were by jesus' very disciples, have been so mistaken when they sold their possessions and distributed the proceeds equitably among themselves?  wouldn't it be more honest to admit that jesus, or some ancient collector of his teachings, was mistaken about jesus coming back in the near future?  why try to find some political justification for the hardship of the christians in jerusalem when the well-established judean famine is the simplest explanation?

may we stop trying to explain away the contradictions and errors in the "sacred" text and accept that human beings created that text.  may we use our minds to interpret what has been written without fear, abandoning the notion that the bible cannot be examined critically.  may we stop worshiping a book and using it for our own ends.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Land of the Noble Free

in considering the direction of this year's election is the united states, i am astounded at the level of hatred and bigotry that's been unleashed.  the racism and fear that many feel free to express is surprising to me, and it seems that, while much of it is directed at and prompted by the evil playing out in iraq and syria, our home-grown anti-democratic and intolerant outbursts are much like those expressed by the "islamic state" and the syrian dictator's forces.  the desire to "make america great again" by turning back the clock to a time when anglos ruled without challenge, women "knew their place," and poverty and oppression of racial minorities were standard practices is not unlike the intolerant practices of the forces of repression in the middle east.

the hatred directed at undocumented immigrants, muslims, and the lbgt community during the election and the tacit (and sometimes vocal) approval of it by the republican nominee has shown an ugly side of our country that many of us thought had been left in the past.  the party of the right has played to the undercurrent of racism in the country for many years, and the rise of donald trump and his disaffected followers has let the genie escape from the bottle.  watching trump rallies is too reminiscent of the nazi party rallies that brought hitler to power, and one begins to understand how a man like adolf hitler could have gained control in a country like germany, the same country that gave rise to many of the giants of philosophy, music, and literature.

we think of our democracy as being secure, but one wonders about it when mr. trump praises vladimir putin and his "control" over russia, and many elected republican leaders remain silent.  when both the presidential and vice-presidential nominees of the republican party laud putin's "strength" and decry our own president's "weakness," and other republicans fail to call them out for making such statements, we have to ask if those on the right are committed to the principles on which our system is based.  when we see trump's followers attacking those who protest against trump and calling for the democratic candidate's imprisonment, we have to ask if our cherished democratic values are endangered.  when hateful rhetoric and braggadocio take precedence over civil discourse and substantive policy debate, something is very wrong in this election and in this country.

may we decry the hate, bigotry, and intolerance which have given rise to donald trump's nomination.  may we embrace the values of equality, mutual respect, and freedom of thought on which our country was founded.  may the remainder of the election be devoted to serious discussion of the problems facing us and how to solve those problems.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Children of Creative Purpose

my wife and i toured a house designed by frank lloyd wright a few days ago.  it was one of many such houses we've visited, and each leaves me marveling at his genius.  the guide for this tour was especially knowledgable, pointing out details that worked together to create the total effect of the house.  he demonstrated how wright had considered the placement of each concrete block, each support beam, each vertical support member, and the floor grid, so that all the elements of the house's "bones" were complimentary.  the impact of the horizontal elements, from the raking of the mortar in the joints to the placement of the built-in shelving to the flat roof, caused the eyes of the home's viewer to be drawn to the "rootedness" of the home in the earth.  the wall of windows across the rear elevation of the house and the continuation of the floor grid, color, and material from the interior to the exterior made one feel at one with the natural world outside the home.

as we walked inside and around the exterior of this beautiful creation, i tried to imagine what it would be like to live in such a home.   i marveled at how wright's careful planning would have changed the inhabitants' character and world-view.  because wright's philosophy of organic architecture and the subtle impact of his design undoubtedly had an effect on those who lived there, he made its inhabitants better people and the world a better place.

here is a model for our existence in the world, insignificant as we are in the universe.  we create the environment in which we live and are a part of what we create.  are we attentive to the details of our lives?  do we consider how the elements of our lives, the moment-by-moment decisions we make, affect ourselves and others?  do we live deliberately, or are we going through life thoughtlessly, without consideration of the effect of our actions or lack of action?  do the details of our lives work together to create a unified whole, or do we live willy-nilly?

may each of us create a life that makes us and the world around us better.  may we take responsibility for our own plans or lack of planning.  may we be fully aware of the beauty around us and be one with that beauty.  may each moment lead to the next with purpose and awareness.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Then to Side with Truth Is Noble

one of our favorite tv shows is "blue bloods."  we love the cast, the close family relationships, the tension between the quest to bring the guilty to justice and the constitutional protections that are afforded to criminal and victim alike.  lately i've been troubled about the subtle racism of the show, though.  in a recent episode that we watched, a young black man was being interviewed by a panel of mentors who hoped to guide him toward a more productive life after his recent release from jail.  the young man had the flippant manner of the stereotypical street thug, and an older man on the panel who had also just been released from prison was to be his primary mentor.  this older, and therefore wiser, man was, of course, white.  he was all the things the younger parolee was not:  well spoken, well dressed, patient, kind, full of remorse for the crime he had committed, respectful of law enforcement.  i found myself wondering why the writers had not cast a person of color in the role of the mature role model, someone who shared the background of the younger man, with whom the street-wise youngster could have identified more readily.  or why the man in need of guidance could not have been a more sympathetic figure rather than this stereotype of everything that bigots think all young black men are like.

in another recent show, whoopi goldberg is cast as a member of the city council, a thorn in the side of police commissioner tom selleck.  she wants to abolish a police program that seems to target members of the black community, a program that the police commissioner believes is justified because of the petty crimes that make life unpleasant for law-abiding members of that community.  in the end, the police commissioner prevails when the proposed abolition of the program is defeated in the city council, but he agrees in a private meeting with goldberg to work with her to find compromises that make the program more palatable to her and her constituents.  here we have the wise white authority figure graciously reaching out to his defeated opponent and the councilwoman expressing her amazed gratitude for his unexpected magnanimity.

in yet another episode, a young hispanic man is shot by a black uniformed policeman.  predictably,  the hispanic community erupts in protests, and the policeman is pilloried by the press.  the black mayor of new york city publicly questions the necessity of shooting the knife-wielding latino, provoking an angry response from selleck's character.  in the end, the mayor's position is proved wrong and the vindicated policeman, filled with remorse, transfers to a precinct in a less crime-ridden area of the city.  this plot line has the black mayor apologize to the white police commissioner and inform the commissioner of his intention to resign because of his error in judgment.  the always gracious-in-victory selleck character convinces the mayor to stay on.  again, the wise and generous white man treats his opponent with undeserved respect.

another aspect of the story troubles me:  in yet another show, jamie, the astute younger son of the police commissioner, disarms a man armed with a knife while multiple police officers are yelling at him to back off and let them shoot the man.  here we have the compassionate white police officer who values the life of the wrong-doer so much that he puts his own life on the line to keep the offender from being killed, but when a black police officer is faced with the same situation, he kills the man threatening him rather than holding him at bay while waiting on nearby police officers to arrive and assist him in arresting the man.

all this is to say, that i don't believe that the writers intend to be racist in these scripts, and i still find much to admire in the series.  i've watched six years worth of the show and will continue to watch it as long as new episodes are added, but i've just begun to see the pattern of the wise white authority figures who prevail over less-wise, though often sympathetic, people of color.  this is a trait that is inherent in our culture.  we in the not-much-longer majority community fail to recognize the subtle racist attitudes that we perpetuate.  we are unfamiliar with the trials of non-whites in our culture, and we fail to put ourselves in the shoes of others.  we assume that our reality is the reality of everyone, when it assuredly is not.

we don't know the fear that comes from wondering if a policeman will shoot first and ask questions later.  we don't know the fear of wondering if our child will be criminalized by an action at school that is perceived as threatening when it merely questions authority.  we don't know the fear of wondering if our child, or ourselves, will be shot by a stand-your-ground vigilante if we go into a white neighborhood by necessity or mistake.  we don't know the fear of seeing our young son  imprisoned for committing crimes for which a white man, more than likely, would have been given a suspended sentence.  we don't know the shame of being viewed as "welfare queens" because we are black and poor.  we don't know what it's like to be viewed as stereotypes rather than as unique individuals.

i hope that the writers of a series that i enjoy recognize the underlying racism of some of their scripts, and i hope that viewers like me will see the bias that we perpetuate every day.  may we as a society and as individuals have empathy for those whose skin color and backgrounds are different from ours, recognizing them as human beings with the same needs as us.  may we admit our culpability for the wrongs we find in our culture.  may racism and bigotry become relics of a past that is no more.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

And the World Will Be Better for This

there are many kind and loving people in the world, and i am fortunate to be surrounded by some of them.  when i go to choir rehearsal at church, i often sit next to "c" who is the exemplar of a good person.  c is a couple of years younger than me.  c's wife passed away a few years ago, leaving a hole in his life that can never be filled.  he is always filled with optimism, though, and never gave into bitterness over his wife's untimely death.  he speaks with glowing pride of his grandchildren and spends much of his spare time helping one of them who is handicapped.  i marvel at his capacity for caring for others and his refusal to speak ill of another person.  i always feel better for having been around him.

then there is "l," another friend from church.  she and her husband, "s," always have smiles on their faces.  their love for each other is evident when you are around them.  l sings in the choir, too, and i've served on several committees with her at church.  no matter what difficulties we encounter when we work together, she always persists in looking for solutions, never expressing any discouragement.  she is quick to laugh and has an uncanny ability to find middle ground between opposing opinions, bringing people with seemingly irreconcilable differences together.

one of the friends i most admire is "m,"  a wonderful musician and a great human being.  m if full of energy, a full-time teacher who also conducts our local orchestra, directs the music at one of our large catholic churches, leads our community chorus, performs frequently as a pianist, and still has time to help anyone who calls on him.  he and his wife have a young daughter, and he's a devoted father and husband.  it's difficult to deal with temperamental musicians, but m never becomes impatient.  he encourages young talent and is one of the most modest people i know.  when he smiles, everyone around him has to smile with him, and one never know what witty remark he will come up with next.

as i think about c, l, m, and the long list of friends i admire, they have this in common: they are filled with optimism, always looking for solutions, never allowing life's difficulties to get the better of them.  may we all be problem-solvers rather than naysayers.  may others feel better for having been around us.  may we look forward to a bright future rather than allowing past mishaps to fill us with bitterness and fear.  may our lives touch others for good.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

I Ask No Dream, No Prophet Ecstasies

while i waited in line at the drive-through window of my neighborhood pharmacy, i noticed one of the bumper stickers on the back of the car in front of me.  it read, " global warming?  how about global prayer?"   it was taking an interminable time in line so i had some time to think about the suggestion on the bumper sticker.  did the woman in that car really think that global warming would be solved if everyone prayed about it?  was she suggesting that global warming is a hoax, as one of our presidential candidates has told us, but global prayer is a real way to solve our problems?

i was reminded of the politicians who assure the victims of gun violence that they are being prayed for as these same politicians fight tooth and nail to make certain that there are no restrictions on gun ownership or the "right to bear arms.," whose solution to the stream of mass shootings is more guns and prayers.  prayer is fine, but God doesn't need us to tell God that people are suffering and need care; we have minds that enable us to solve our own problems without God's intervention.  in order for the world to be a better place, it is action that is required, not prayer.

it's too easy to simply try praying away the difficulties we face.  we can pray, "God, please bring an end to senseless killing and abuse of the environment," and we might as well wish on a star for all the good our words will accomplish.  why should God do what we can do on our own?  it's our responsibility to figure out how to bring about a world where life is valued and the earth is cared for.  God may be watching and weeping, but we made this mess, and we should clean it up.

"prayer is america's only hope" signs are in people's yards all over town, but those signs and the people who believe them are very wrong.  concerted action is america's best hope.  we are stronger together, as the democratic nominee says, and it's time we stopped trusting in pie in the sky and started taking the steps necessary to make the world a better place.

may we care for one another and the environment of which we are a part.  may we remember that prayer without action is useless, and right action is possible whether we pray or not.  may we turn from the smugness of praying and then waiting for an answer that will never come without our working to bring it about.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

While the Coward Stands Aside

for the past week i've been a little down since my minister emailed to ask if we could get together to discuss my concerns about our church.  in her note she suggested that i had asked to talk with her about this at some future time, but i don't remember making such a request.  i have expressed my intention to talk with her in conversations with a couple of friends about our mutual concerns.  perhaps one of them has talked with her along the same lines and let her know that i would also like to speak with her.

at any rate, we've made a tentative appointment to meet, and in the back of my mind i've been thinking about what i want to say.  i have several items on my list: the way the dismissal of a staff member was handled, the adoption of an exclusionary wedding policy, the approval of new bylaws and a statement of belief and how that process was carried out, the church's investigation of membership in an organization that exists primarily because of our denomination's decision about marriage equality.  most of all i am upset about my wife's treatment by a member of the congregation, a woman who is involved in several of the activities in the church in which my wife also participates.  after my wife was attacked a second time in a very unkind and public way by one she thought was her friend, my wife stopped going to church, and i can't blame her.  if my wife is made to feel unwelcome and afraid of another such attack, i feel unwelcome, too.

when our congregation considered the new bylaws and statement of belief, i asked questions in what i thought was an informational meeting.  the man who was presenting these documents to the congregation answered them in a manner that let me know that my questions were unwelcome.  to my surprise, the proposed bylaws and statement were put to a vote then and there and approved with all but three of us who were present voting in the affirmative.  i was shocked that such important changes were pushed through so quickly.  we needed more time to think our way through these proposals and to discuss them more fully after the initial presentation.  after this experience, i don't feel free to ask questions or to express my opinion.  it seemed clear from the responses i got when i asked questions that my questions were viewed as challenges to the leadership and that much discussion had taken place to which i was not privy.

i am troubled that the adoption of the new wedding policy, the new bylaws, and the statement of belief were moved in large part by legal concerns.  our church's insurance company advised the church that certain statements need to be a part of our policies as a defense against lawsuits and persuaded the church to buy additional insurance as a protection if the church is sued after its refusal to sanction same-gender marriages.  decisions of faith and practice that are driven by a desire to avoid being sued are questionable, as far as i'm concerned.

i fear that my discussion with my minister may lead to me making decisions i don't want to make, like choosing between leaving our church and many of the people i love dearly behind or continuing as a member when membership is bringing me more stress than joy.  as we've elected church officers, we have pledged to support the decisions that they make on our behalf, but i find myself challenging some of the most important decisions they've made.  can i do this and still keep my pledge to support them?  i know that it is better to have this discussion with my pastor and get this out in the open with her, but i'm still anxious about doing so because it may lead me some place i don't want to go.

may we have the courage of our convictions, but may we have tolerance to realize that others may be right and we may be wrong.  may we remind ourselves that there is such a thing as the "tyranny of the majority," and the rights of minorities must always be protected.  may there always be room for disagreement and questioning.  shalom.