Tuesday, December 29, 2015

There Is Room in My Heart for Thee

a few days ago, i read a post by james ford on his blog, monkey mind, that contrasts the "christmas jesus" with the "easter jesus."  i, too, have been troubled by these two images of jesus and wrote about them around easter of last year.  each christmas i am caught up in the magic of the season--the lights, the greenery, the benevolent and jolly elf who brings gifts to all the world's children, the constant reminders of our longing for peace and good will.  while we decry the commercialism of christmas, that doesn't bother me, because i love nothing more than looking for presents for those i hold dear.  i look forward to giving my end-of-year gifts to charities i find doing good works that are beyond my capacity to perform--enabling those with little to improve their lots, providing clean water where none would be available otherwise, broadcasting news that is fair and impartial and music that is lovely, promoting peace in far places, enabling youngsters in impoverished areas to get an education.

in short, i love christmas in a way i can never love easter.  christmas is about those things that are important.  it is not about triumph.  it's strains are not martial anthems full of words like "victory" or "conquer," but rather about humble people in humble places, in mangers and fields.  even when we sing "we three kings of orient are," the sense of the text is about the mystery of following a star to a lowly manger, not about the pomp of the "kings" themselves.  the only christmas image i find disturbing is that of ascribing kingship to the baby whose birth christmas celebrates.  i suppose that is why one of my favorite christmas hymns is "thou didst leave thy throne and thy kingly crown," even though its last stanza speaks of "[jesus] coming to victory."  the refrain is what endears the song to me ("o come to my heart, lord jesus, there is room in my heart for thee) as it links the inability of mary and joseph to find sanctuary in bethlehem with making a space for what jesus represents in our hearts.

the christian winter celebration with all its non-christian overtones, is a uniting of all the longings of humankind through the ages, sharing so much with many ancient traditions that have nothing to do with the birth of a baby in bethlehem.  it is a symbol of our belief that light will overcome darkness, that the earth will be renewed, that kindness and generosity are better than selfishness and greed, that the meek will inherit the earth.

may this season bring you joy.  may each of us find peace and comfort in doing good for one another.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Somewhere in My Memory

when i came into our den this morning, the light outside had a beautiful and golden, perfectly suited to the memories running through my mind the past several days.  as christmas approaches, i think back to the christmases of my childhood, those perfect celebrations that the filter of the mind creates.  i see myself with my many cousins in the home of our grandparents.  wonderful smells float into the living room from the kitchen as the food is taken from the ovens and carried into the dining room.  my uncle has his amazing home movie camera out, with its blinding light bar that causes us little ones to giggle and the adults to beg him to put it away.  the tree is surrounded with presents, and the children want to hurry with the meal so we can begin unwrapping and playing with our new toys.

there is no hint of any unpleasantness in the memory of those glorious holidays of sixty or so years ago, but i know that those days were imperfect, just as our present celebrations are.  there was one branch of the family that refused to conform to my grandmother's schedule, and every year there was a contest between my grandmother and them about when dinner would be eaten.  the children whined about the delay in the dinner, because that meant a delay in the opening of presents.  the other adults complained because the nonconforming group never came on time, despite the fact that the late-comers told my grandmother every year to start dinner without them because their own family plans made it impossible for them to arrive as early as my grandmother wanted them to.  underlying every christmas of my childhood was this unnecessary animosity over who would control the christmas day schedule.  then there were the snarky behind-the-back comments that some of the aunts made about others of the aunts, the political debates between my grandfather, an unabashed liberal, and my great-grandmother, a feisty little woman who disagreed with everything he said just because he said it.

those perfect christmases of my childhood were far from perfect, and the desire to control manifested itself then just as it does now.  i am glad that my memory paints them in a golden glow, even though as an adult i  know the petty arguments and resentments that were as much a part of them as the great joy we small cousins experienced.  i hope that my family is creating happy memories for ourselves each christmas without the craving to control how the celebration happens.

may we remind ourselves that the perfect day never comes to pass, unless we give up the need to control each day.  may we accept the day as it comes, grateful that we are alive to experience it.  may we remember that our longing to impose our will, our insistence that events conform to our expectations, is a source of unneeded frustration.  may we rejoice in the great gift of life.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Love Is the Theme

how many expressions of religious practice are intended to control others!  of what use is a religion if its end result is to increase suffering in the world?  we turn the benevolent teachings of the world's great religions into a tool for dividing us, a means for imposing our own narrow views on those who do not share them.  so much human misery is a result of our so-called practice of religion.

as we look at the chaos in the middle east, the war being fought so that a cruel expression of islam can be forced on a population that wants to be left alone to live life on its own terms, as we listen to politicians invoking christianity as the reason that women must be deprived of control of their own bodies, we should ask ourselves if the world wouldn't be better off without religion.  the idea of a nation where the most controlling fear-mongers who claim the mantle of christianity hold power is a frightening one.

i go to church each week and long to hear words assuring me that the teachings of jesus are incompatible with what passes for christianity in many christian churches in the usa, but i never hear that.  there is no encouragement to live a life that says "neither do i condemn you."  little by little my connection to the church lessens, and i have reached the point of being tied to the church, not by religion, but by the many friends who are a part of our community.  perhaps that's what the church is at best, a means of being connected to others in caring for one another and the world.  i'm not hearing how this web that binds us together is the reason that christianity exists, in opposition to the christian bigots who preach fear and an us-against-them philosophy.  i need to hear that from the pulpit, in our scripture readings, in our music, and it is not happening.

what if our concept of God is wrong?  what if God is the sum of all that is good in creation?  what if God is the thread that ties all-that-is together?  if that were true, each time we cause suffering we would weaken that thread and God would suffer as well; every injury to the planet would be an injury to God.  God would be present in everything and everyone with whom we come in contact, and we would be best when we had reverence for all of life, for all of creation.  perhaps that is where i'm being led, and that doesn't seem like such a bad place to be headed.

may we abandon religions that cause suffering for ourselves and others.  may we see God in others, doing to the others as we would have done to ourselves.  may we live lives of generous acceptance rather than controlling condemnation.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

That Morn Shall Tearless Be

the president of a university tells students to arm themselves in a speech in which he said, "I’ve always thought if more good people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those muslims before they walked in…"  he urges them to enroll in a free course offered by the police department of the university that will allow them to earn a concealed weapons permit.  the student body of the university cheers.  "liberty university," what a name for an institution that preaches fear and bigotry, where the leader of the university refers to "those muslims" as if all muslims are terrorists and ignores the fact that most of the mass murderers in the use have been anglo citizens!  more guns, what a great solution to the problem of gun violence!

the president tells the nation that "freedom is more powerful than fear," but his words will fall on the deaf ears of those whose only solution for terrorist carnage is more carnage.  ted cruz urges us to bomb isis until the "sand glows in the dark," even though we've already dropped so many bombs that we are running short of them.  donald trump suggests that "with the terrorists, you have to take out their families."  marco rubio tells us that the idea that a person on the terrorist no-fly list would go into a local gun store and buy a gun is "absurd,"  though he knows that most of those who commit mass murders in this county do so with legally obtained weapons.

these folk who bloviate about our "christian" nation urge us to treat others in the most unchristian ways, to kill before we are killed, to fear those who are "different," to slaughter innocents who get in the way of our slaughter of the "bad guys."  they have decided that we are to be a people who must be free of gays, non-christians, political progressives, and free-thinkers.  i shudder when i imagine what our country will become if they are in control, and i cringe at the number of our citizens who are taken in by their hateful rhetoric.

my father, a veteran of the european theater in world war two, often remarked at how much he liked the german people he met at the war's end and how puzzled he was that such a cultured, seemingly kind people could have been taken in by hitler and his nazi bullies.  as i look at the reaction of so many to the likes of falwell, cruz, rubio, trump, huckabee, and carson i understand how fear and loss of hope led so many in germany to embrace the ideology of hate and demonization, the scapegoating of those who were vulnerable.  how easy it would be for the "cultured, kind" people of the usa to go down that road.

may we shun bigotry and intolerance.  may we stop the madness of more and more guns that will only lead to more and more killing.  may we realize that the problems of the middle east are largely of our making, that it is we who have created the terrorists we fear so much.  may we find solutions that ease the suffering of others rather than causing more suffering.  may we heed the words of president obama and embrace freedom rather than fear.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

How Far Is It to Bethlehem?

christmas is fast approaching, and life seems to be way too hectic.  we've been decorating inside and outside our house for weeks now.  we started early hoping that december would be more relaxing.  despite the early start, that doesn't seem to be the case.  i have to admit, though, that the end of decorating is in sight.  we only have two more strings of lights to put outside, along with a few pieces of "yard art."

at the same time, this doesn't seem to be the season of peace on earth and good will to all that christmas is supposed to be.  the fighting continues in the middle east.  domestic terrorism in the usa seems to be a greater danger that ever, even while the demagogues rant about rounding up "illegals" and pinning green crescents, so to speak, on all muslims in the country.  where is the promise of christmas now?  for millions of people devastation, hunger, and persecution are the reality, while we "christians" are more concerned with taking advantage of the latest retail bargain.

we watch a video of a young black man being shot sixteen times by a chicago policeman as onlookers scream.  we learn that other policeman seem to have erased video that would have brought this tragedy to light much sooner.  we read of the police persecution of a large segment of our population, and many are angry when this persecution is brought to light.  a leading presidential candidate suggests that a protestor who dared speak of this at one of his rallies deserved to be "roughed up."  yet we are more worried about getting our home decorations just right.

may we recall the man and woman who sought a place to have their baby and found the humblest of rooms.  may we remember the man who reached out to the abandoned in his society while the pious collaborated with the oppressors.  may we recall his words that the first will be last and the last will be first.  in whatever small ways we can, may we do what we can to make christmas a reality, not merely a promise.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Love Shall Tread Out the Baleful Fire of Anger

where to begin?  with the tragic events in bamako, beirut, and paris?  with the venomous rantings of the xenophobes?  tragedies often bring out the best and the worst in us.  as we watched in horror as misguided terrorists wreaked havoc in three cities, our first impulse was often revenge for the killings of innocents.  an eye for an eye, or even many eyes for an eye, seemed a reasonable response at first.  as we watched a blindfolded muslim man embraced by many on the streets of paris, that first vengeful impulse faded for many of us.

for others, the acts of few extremists brought out extreme views in the name of protecting ourselves from such acts of random violence.  in the usa we had proposals from serious presidential candidates for registering all muslims so that they could be tracked by the government, calls for abandoning plans to bring a small number of the syrians who are in need of sanctuary to our country, a plan to admit only christian refugees,    suggestions for the forced closure of mosques, and comparisons of those in need of sanctuary to rabid dogs or a bunch of grapes of which a few are poisoned.  governors across the country vowed to keep syrian refugees out of their states.

at the same time laws to prevent those on the terror watch list from legally buying guns were condemned by conservative lawmakers and the gun lobby.  the house of representatives rushed to pass legislation to prevent syrian asylum seekers from entering the country.  a large number of democrats joined all but two of the republicans in the house to create a veto-proof majority, though the new law probably won't make it through the senate.

our fear has overshadowed our empathy for the families of those who were killed or injured by the terrorists in mali, lebanon, and france.  many have become blinded to the terrible suffering of the victims of islamic state and the civil war in syria.  we have resorted to the hateful rhetoric which greeted other waves of immigrants--the irish, the italians, and lately those from south of our border.  we are afraid of those who are different, those whom some say don't share our culture or our values.

but these "foreigners" are our sisters, our brothers, our parents, our children.  they are us with different languages and sometimes different religions.  they want peace and safety.  they want to have the necessities of life for themselves and their families.  they want their children to have an opportunity to prosper, to live without fear, to have enough to eat.  how can we turn our backs on them, thereby creating more hate and radicalism in the world?

may reason prevail.  may we find our better selves.  may compassion conquer fear.  may our country and all the world see that hatred and suspicion feed the forces of hate and ignorance.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Lord of All Being, Throned Afar

a few days ago i read a post by adam lee on his blog, daylight atheism, which was linked to an article of his that appeared in theguardian about those who profess belief in God.  his point was that, while the latest research by the pew research center which found 89% of people in the u.s. believe in a divine power, that figure is misleading because of the wide diversity of belief regarding the nature of that divine power.  simply to say an overwhelming majority of us believe in God suggests that we believers have much in common with regard to our belief, while the reality is our theism leads us in many different directions.  our "gods" are quite diverse, just as we are.

perhaps it is more accurate to say that our perceptions of God are diverse.  because there is a wide variance from theist to theist regarding the nature of God, doesn't mean that we don't believe in the same God.  just as each person may see something different in an abstract painting or find a different meaning in a poem, those differences in perception don't mean we are looking at different paintings or reading different poems; the painting is the painting and the poem is the poem.  it is our interpretations, our perceptions, that are different.

this doesn't diminish the validity of adam's point, because our perception of God influences the way we perceive life and our relationships with those around us and the environment of which we are a part.  the "clockmaker" God of the deist, the "interventionist" God of the evangelical, the "ground of all being" God of the philosopher, or the "pantheist" God of those who believe God is the personification of nature lead those of us who perceive God in any of those or myriad other ways to live our lives very differently, while those who believe there is no God see life through still different eyes.  to lump all theists together in the 89% majority is misleading.

i find myself somewhere between the "clockmaker" and the "ground of all being" theists, denying the idea that God is constantly monitoring every move i make to see if i am conforming to a "divine" plan that was laid out for me before my birth.  yet my faith is such that i believe in a God that cares for me as an individual and as a part of the vast universe, a God who rejoices and suffers with me without making marks in a giant book, marks that will be tallied at some judgment day in the future.  the God in which i believe understands our human foibles and loves us in spite of them, leading us to love one another and to recognize that we are all more alike than we are different.

what we believe about God is important.  that belief colors our thinking about every aspect of life.  the absence of belief also leads one along a different path from the disparate paths of belief.  may we love and respect each other despite our differences in belief or lack of belief.  may we take time to consider the nature of our belief/non-belief and where that leads each of us.  may we abandon beliefs that cause suffering for ourselves and for others.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

When Upon Life's Billows You Are Tempest Tossed

during the past week i've been in a sort of funk while dealing with several issues that have arisen since returning from our trip overseas.  several needed repairs to our home had to be sorted out, there are divisions in our church, some performance commitments took up a great deal of my time, and plans needed to be made for some future home improvements.  i've allowed all of this to overwhelm me, and i haven't been very pleasant to be around.

on friday, my wife and i took a break from the demands of daily life to take in a movie.  getting away from the house and my responsibilities helped me to see how wrapped up i had become in the problems we've been facing and to put things in perspective.  i realized that everything will work out over time.  while there are many molehills to get over, there are no mountains--it's my worrying mind that has made mountains out of these molehills.

all-in-all, life is good, and i have much to be thankful for, not the least of which are a loving wife, wonderful children, a comfortable home, enough food to sustain me, and many friends.  i don't have to find a roof for my head, as many people do every night.  i don't have to go to a soup kitchen for food, as many do every meal.  i am not alone in the world, as many are.  all these gifts are undeserved, and i am fortunate to have this life.  instead of being weighed down by problems that are insignificant in comparison to the worries of many who lack the basic necessities, i can see that my problems can be dealt with if i address them with patience and thought while relishing the wonderful joys of life and doing my part to help others with real difficulties.

may we stop to count our blessings.  may we accept that chance plays a major role in our situation in life.  may we acknowledge the help others have given, and continue to, give us, realizing that none of us are "self-made."  shalom.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

It Is Not The Healthy Who Need A Doctor

late one afternoon while we were is scotland recently,  i took a nasty fall that scraped and cut my nose and forehead.  my wife and i debated about whether i should seek medical attention, since the cut on my forehead night heal better with stitches.  we decided to leave it alone after the bleeding stopped and check with our landlord, who works at the tourist office, the next morning.  he encouraged us to see a doctor, since there would be no cost to us, but at the very least, he thought we should consult a pharmacist.

i decided to wait until the end of the day and go to a nearby pharmacy.  i didn't want to give up a day of sightseeing, and, though we had purchased medical insurance for our trip, i didn't want to have to deal with the complexities of seeking treatment in another country.  as we went through the day, several people inquired about my injury and each was puzzled that i didn't avail myself of medical treatment, since each person we spoke with assured us there would be no cost.  i put off seeing even a pharmacist until the next day and was relieved when he assured me that the cuts were healing well and recommended some antiseptic cream to ward off the chance of infection.

a few days later as we visited with another couple who were about our age, they told us about the husband's experience with a frightening virus that had infected his brain.  he thought that he had suffered a stroke because he first had a tingling sensation in one arm, then had difficulty with one leg, and finally lost the ability to speak.  this happened over the course of a few days, and when the speech loss occurred his family took him to the hospital.  the doctors ruled out stroke as the cause, since the progress of his ailments had been gradual rather than sudden.  while in the hospital, he lost movement in the tingling arm and the leg that had first bothered him.  the cause of his ailment was found and, once treated, his symptoms dissipated within a matter of days.  with a brief period of therapy, he recovered completely.  we asked about the cost of his treatment and the quality of his care, and he told us that there was no cost whatsoever and that he had received excellent care.  he and his wife were full of praise for the national health service and expressed amazement that our health care seemed to be so expensive and complex.  they said they couldn't imagine having the cloud of possible impoverishment hanging over our heads should we suffer a major health problem, as many young people in the usa do because they can't afford comprehensive health insurance.

we came home with the same puzzlement about health care in our country.  i'm sure there are some in the united kingdom that could tell horror stories about their health care system, but every person we encountered who expressed an opinion had high regard for british health care, and, because of my injury, we heard this from many.  perhaps the british system wouldn't work here, but there must be a better way than what we have now.  if health care could cease being a political football and be viewed as a basic right that every person should enjoy, we could make progress in finding a solution.

may we turn from causing suffering for so many while playing politics with health care.  may we find solutions that bring down its cost while making good care available to everyone.  may we have compassion for those who cannot access the health care system because they can't afford it and devise a means to providing adequate care for all our people.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Each Smile A Hymn

upon our return from our recent trip, we've had to deal with the usual "coming back to reality" issues of day-to-day life: our central air unit has to be replaced, our 13-year-old lawn mower has decided to retire, we have a roof leak, the house has to be cleaned, and so it goes.  as we try to deal with these issues, we've reflected back on our trip, remembering the wonderful sights we've seen, the new locales we've experienced, and the kind people we've encountered.

when we travel we discover that people everywhere are much the same.  there are a few impatient, rude, selfish folks, but most are gracious and kind.  the lovely irish lady from whom we rented our first apartment left us fresh baked bread and staples for breakfast.  the young irish student that set beside us on the train from waterford delighted us with stories of her life and curiosity about ours in the states.  the manager of the spar store/petrol station in newtonmore, scotland, treated us with such courtesy as he gave us advice on sights to see and routes to take, and we looked forward to the necessity of stopping to see him several times during our travels.  the pharmacist who came out from behind the counter in edinburgh to look at the cuts i got when i fell and to find the right cream to help me heal quickly made us feel that we were long-time customers instead of tourists he would see only once.  the scottish couple we chatted with as we traveled on the train from mallaig to fort william seemed like life-long friends.  as we waited to board the ferry to return to dublin from wales, i struck up a conversation with a young english man, and he became our companion on the ferry ride across the irish sea, as we talked about the national health service in the united kingdom--the subject of his post-graduate studies--and our complex and expensive health system in the usa.

everywhere we go, we find wonderful people, strangers who become our friends for a few fleeting moments but who seem to have so much in common with us that they could easily be members of our family.  this trip, like each one we take, convinces me that we are all much more alike than we are different.  we may speak different languages or the same language with different accents.  we may be young or old.  we may have different sexual orientations.  we may practice different, or no, religions.  at our core, we long for connections with others, for a peaceful life, and for every person to be free from want.

may we remember that a little kindness to a stranger goes a long way toward making life happy.  may we see that our similarities are more important than our differences.  may we live lives that set aside the cultural barriers that separate us and see our common humanity.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light

while we were traveling, our church took two actions that have left me puzzled.  first, the church marriage policy was updated, stating the "for christians, marriage is between a man and a woman."  second, the church accepted a transgender person into church membership.  the decision on the marriage policy saddens me, though i am not surprised.  i disagree strongly with the church's decision limiting marriage, and i find the phrase "for christians" especially disturbing.  does the church mean that if one acknowledges same-gender marriage as being legitimate, one is no longer a christian?

i was relieved that the church did not turn away the transgender person who applied for membership.  many in the church strongly disagree with the church's decision, and i have learned that attendance was quite sparse on the sunday she was formally received into the church.  those who were there attributed the low attendance as a protest against the church's decision.

our church's membership is weighted heavily toward those who are 50+, and we live in a very conservative community in a very conservative area of the country, so it is not surprising that most oppose same-gender marriage and deny the existence of transgender persons.  old ways of thinking die hard, and, even when these points-of-view are wrong, they won't change quickly.  that doesn't mean that they have to be accepted, and i am troubled that the clergy leadership of the church is not engaging us in discussions of both these issues.

we have committed gay couples who are members of our church.  we have gay individuals who have been elected to positions of leadership.  we have a gay staff member who is in a committed relationship and plans to marry his partner.  in the face of these realities, we have to deal with the issue of homosexuality and same-gender marriage more honestly.  the church can't make a pronouncement about the definition of marriage, flatly stating that those who disagree are not christians, and think that the issue has been addressed.

can we tell a gay member that she is qualified to be an officer in the church but the church can't honor her commitment to her partner?  can we tell our gay staff member that we're willing to honor his service and pay his salary, but we won't acknowledge his husband?

some of the most conservative members are pushing for our church to leave our denomination for one that flatly condemns same-gender marriage and refuses admission to transgender persons.  one person has already withdrawn her membership because she is unwilling for the church to take time to struggle with these issues and has left to search for a church that condemns same-gender marriage in more emphatic language and refuses membership to transgender persons.

like her, i struggle with whether to remain a member of my congregation; unlike her, my reason is its refusal to recognize that the church has no business telling people whom they should love and to whom they should make a permanent commitment.  at the very least, the church should acknowledge that one can find same-gender marriage acceptable and still remain a christian.  for now, i'm willing to wait for attitudes to change as our clergy and leaders examine this issue, but i'm not willing to leave our denomination because the national church has decided that a congregation can honor same-gender marriage.  in the coming weeks, i will speak with our leaders and ask that they reconsider the decision they've made and the language used to express that decision.  once i have a sense of the rigidity of their position, i'll have some guidance in making my own decision.

may we acknowledge that change often comes slowly and that there are times when that is a good thing.  may we stand up for what we believe to be right, even when we're in the minority, and may we do so while respecting those with whom we disagree and without attacking them personally.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

When Hatred and Division Give Way to Love and Peace

may i understand, o God of mystery.
may i be at peace with myself and others, o God of peace.
may i be fully present in this and every moment, o God of the cosmos.
may i be filled with loving-kindness, o God of love.
may i be patient, o God of eternity.
may i see my suffering and that of others, o God of healing.
may i be generous, o God of all good gifts.
may i forgive any wrong done to me, o God of mercy.
may i make amends for any wrong done by me, o God of justice.
may i think clearly and logically, o God of reason.
may i see no "others," o God of unity.
may i not cling to that which is impermanent, o God of the ever-changing universe.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Fly Me to the Moon

my wife and i are off on a month-long trip, so i won't be posting for a while.  i hope to be back blogging by mid-october.   may all who stumble upon this page or who come to it on purpose be well, may you be happy, may you be at peace.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Blessed Assurance!

three events keep swirling through my mind--first, a county clerk's refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because of her belief that doing so would be a denial of her christian beliefs and her subsequent jailing for contempt of court; next, the dismissal of our church secretary because of her problems relating to other members of the church staff; and, finally, walking into our local movie theater and hearing an advertisement for how to have a "lasting relationship with jesus christ" by attending a local evangelical church.  how are these events related to one another?  what does their coming to mind together mean for me?

i am suspicious of those who are confident in their own rightness and righteousness.  i am troubled by those who seem to have no doubts about their own beliefs and who can dismiss the beliefs of others with self-assurance.

i ask myself how would issuing a marriage license to a same-sex couple harm kim davis, or how would her faith be harmed if she permitted her deputies to issue licenses even if her own conscience would not allow her to do so.  how can she be so certain that her "deeply held" religious beliefs are right and should therefore be forced on others?

if an employee of a church harbors resentments against other staff members, i question whether the problem is best solved by firing that employee.  would it be better to bring the staff together to air grievances and to try and come to terms with the source of those resentments, resorting to dismissal only as a last resort when all else has failed?

i wonder why movie patrons should be subjected to advertisements recruiting members for a local church after they've paid for admission to a movie theater.  should the theater chain make a profit by selling ads for the purpose of religious proselytizing?

in all of these situations, there is an underlying assumption that, since i am right, you must be wrong if you fail to adopt my belief system.  the county clerk says that her belief that same-sex marriage is a grave sin makes it her duty to prevent others from committing this sin in so far as it is possible for her; there is no questioning of the reasons a same-sex couple would wish to commit to each other in marriage.  the church elders take the side of some staff members against another staff member and say that the staff member who is having difficulties relating to some other staff members must be in error without giving her  a chance to defend her position or providing a mechanism for all of the staff to work through their differences; there is no opportunity for all of the staff to find wholeness by honest communication with one another.  the church which seeks to "save" others by paid commercials at the movie theater forces ticket holders to listen to their message, quite a different thing from the recruiting ads for local colleges and blurbs to entice attendees to buy tickets for upcoming movies; their "saving" message is reduced to just another commercial as trivial as the other commercials that play in the lobby and restrooms.

may we allow room for doubt and questioning.  may we seek healing and wholeness rather than taking the easy road of getting rid of whatever offends us.  may we not reduce the most profound questions of life to glib answers that can be found in a thirty-second blurb over a public address system.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

But the King's Own Army None Can Overthrow

"who is this king of glory?  the lord strong and mighty, the lord mighty in battle."  so says verse 8 of psalm 24.  i wonder how much suffering resulted from this kingly image of God, this god of war.   how many wars have been fought with all sides claiming that God is on their side?  how many victories have been credited to God's favor?  how many have been killed in the name of God?

in our church's wednesday night bible studies, we are investigating the teachings and preaching of charles spurgeon, the famous 19th-century british preacher.  on one of these wednesday studies, we contemplated spurgeon's image of a christian approaching the throne of God, as God sat in majesty.  that image seemed too earthly for me.  i thought of spurgeon, steeped in the the traditions of british respect for the monarchy with great britain at the height of its imperial power, seeing a god who is the heavenly embodiment of the english sovereign and wondered if this is the image of God that we ought to have in our heads, if indeed we ought to have any image of God.

if God has neither form nor substance, should we create such for God?  when we do, are we not worshiping a god of our own imagining?  this battle-king god of the old testament is far from the God about which jesus teaches.  we must choose between a God of love and a god of war, the latter being the justification for all sorts of oppression and cruelty that humans visit on one another.

may we never pretend to understand God as a human-writ-large.  instead, may we revere the mystery that is God, not daring to believe that we have found a solution to that mystery.  may we replace certainty with doubt, with searching, with dissatisfaction when it comes to answers that come too easily.  may we see God in every act of love.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

And Sorry I Could Not Travel Both

yesterday was the 47th anniversary of a significant milestone in my life, and i spent much of the day thinking about what my life was like 47 years ago.  i had just begun a new job, my first full-time "adult" job.  it was a job i had taken by default--more about that later.  my boss was unpleasant, and the duties he assigned me were not what i had been promised when i accepted the job.  each day was a torture, but i made it through the year for which i was contractually obligated before moving on to another job.

this was at the height of the vietnam war, and i, like many other men my age, faced difficult choices.  as a college student, i had been exempt from military service, a privilege that i had qualms about, as i watched other young men sent off to the war because they could not afford to attend college or they had not been fortunate to receive an education that permitted them to enroll.  when i graduated, i received a grant to study for my masters in special education, a field that was just emerging, at least in our state.  i had worked in a camp for special needs students the previous summer and felt called to work with these young people.  i knew, though, that if i began my masters' work, the draft board would call me up, and i would be shipped across the pacific, very likely to die fighting a war i opposed.

i had few choices: i could accept the grant and take my chances (which weren't very good), i could flee the usa for canada or another haven perhaps never to return to my home, or i could accept a job that allowed me to continue my exemption.  i chose the last and have always wondered what would have happened had i taken the second alternative, the one i felt most positive about.  yet that choice, too, seems cowardly.  so many of my peers who did not enjoy the privileges i enjoyed had no choice; when they were called they had to go.  there were no draft-exempt jobs or colleges open to them, nor could they afford to flee to another country.

the choice i made set me on a path that i continued for my entire career.  some of the jobs i accepted in my field were wonderful, others, like my first job, were miserable.  yet all-in-all those years were good ones, providing a decent income for my family and yielding a good retirement when the time came.  even the bad jobs provided much personal satisfaction along with the hardships.  it's amazing how a single choice can affect so much of what follows, and in the end it's fruitless to consider "what if" as we look back on the choices we've made.

may we each rejoice in the life we've been given on this beautiful planet.  may we be grateful for our family, our friends, the many joys we experience.  may we do the best we can with the opportunities we're given, without regret for not having chosen another path.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Bible Tells Me So

the voices of the religious right continue to lament the course the usa has taken, what with the rulings of the supreme court in favor of marriage equality and the continuing, though increasingly limited, access of women to abortion services.  some of them have said that we should rejoice because these rulings, along with the proposed agreement with iran, are signs that the "end times" are upon us.  several have warned that "god's favor and protection" have been or soon will be withdrawn from the country to punish us for obeying "man's law" rather than god's.  the god in which they place their faith is very different from the god in which i believe.

this god of vengeance that picks winners and losers among the nations of the earth causes grave evil to befall those who fail to "follow the rules."  the rules of this god are determined by a narrow interpretation of the bible, and the rules change from time to time, depending on the human interpreters' views.  it appears that this god is controlled by those who believe in Him (because this god is definitely male); it is the believers, not their god, who pick which biblical rules are to be followed and which are to be ignored, and the believers interpret what the rules mean.  those who disagree are doomed and sooner or later will be punished.  these "christians" support israel unquestioningly, not from any sense of redressing wrongs visited upon the jewish people, but because of their interpretation of israel's role in the coming apocalypse based on their view of biblical prophetic writing.

is such a god worthy of veneration?: a god that can be manipulated for one's own political ends, a god that punishes some and rewards others based on standards devised by that god's followers, a god that creates only to destroy, a god that insists that men should control women, a god that allows terrible suffering to occur so that "good" can come from the experience.  i want no part of such a god.  God is not a great santa claus in the sky who gives us what we want when we ask for it, God is not an ogre that causes suffering for all because the first humans ate a forbidden fruit.

may we turn from such a vision of God, either to rejection of belief altogether or to another vision of God.  may we see those who worship this false god of the religious right for what they are: narrow bigots who have created a god of their own imagining to suit their own purposes.  may we proclaim that their god is not dead, but rather that such a god never existed, no matter how many films are made that say otherwise.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

You, the Everlasting Instant

a few days ago, someone who was not a christian asked me what it meant to me to be a christian.  at first i replied that it meant to treat others with kindness and respect, and my questioner said that any decent person, christian or not, would act in such a way, pushing me to differentiate my christian practice from that of non-christians.  as i thought about his challenge to me, i told him that first i am a theist and second i try to live my life in accord with the teachings of jesus.  i went on to say that many christians would not consider me a christian because i don't share many of their orthodox beliefs, but it's not my place to determine if someone else is a christian; i can only address my own identity as a christian.  that seemed to satisfy him, and the discussion ended.

as i've thought about that conversation, i have tried to define what being a theist means for me.  i find myself thinking of God as the First Spark that set everything in motion, of God as Beginning.  i think, too, of God as being That which is greater than the sum of the parts, the parts being all that is, each part vibrating with the energy of creation.  i think of the collective energy of every molecule, every being, every bit of matter as containing the essence of the Primal Cause, so that God is at once within and without, and everything-that-is is a part of God but no thing alone is God.  God is the Ground of Being, so that nothing exists without God, and God exists because creation evolved from that initial elemental explosion.

so we are all filled with bits of the universe that resulted when nothing became something.  we are tied together by the impulse of creation.  every object, animate or inanimate, is bound to every other object, and God is present in all.  some would say that makes me a pantheist, and maybe they are right.  but i see God as more that the life force which exists in each part of creation.  God is the Cause, the Great Mystery that breathes life into the void, the Beginning and the End.  Perhaps next week, i'll write about what i think God is not!

may we all seek to understand the reason for our being.  may we embrace all of creation and sense our connection to every part of the universe.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

To the Marriage of True Minds

47 years ago this month, my wife and i were married.  we were both 21 and had just graduated from college.  we were so excited to be beginning our "adult" lives together.  we came from very different backgrounds, though we were born within 30 miles of each other and grew up only 45 miles apart.  early in our marriage, our beautiful daughter was born, but we waited ten years after that for our wonderful son to join our family.  one of the joys of our marriage is that both of our children turned out to be kind, loving people that are a pleasure to be with.

over the years, my wife and i have had our differences.  we sometimes allowed insignificant disagreements to make us angry at one another.  at times, we became so involved with our jobs that we defined ourselves by our work.  over the years, we've seen that we're better together than we are separately, and we've learned that a little patience and kindness go a long way towards making our marriage a happy one.  the individual quirks that so irritated each of us at one time have become endearing idiosyncrasies that we not only tolerate but embrace.

last night we watched the movie "still alice" about a brilliant and lovely woman afflicted with a rare and aggressive form of early-onset alzheimer's disease.  alice's family came together to support her and each other, and we were reminded of what it means to truly love your partner, to live out "for better, for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, 'til death do you part."  in an age where it's so easy to give up on one another, we are so glad we didn't.  how terrific it is to take pleasure in being together, to know that we support one another, to have this wonderful life together.

may every person find the joy of loving another for a lifetime.  may we see beyond the petty annoyances of living with another person to the genuine person who is our beloved.  may our love for our partner be molded by patience, kindness, and compassion.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Are Your Garments Spotless?

when i was a child, catholic-bashers made fun of the roman catholic church by saying that catholics could do anything they wanted so long as they went to confession afterwards and received absolution.  fortunately, i don't hear that sort of talk much any more, but every sunday in churches of my sort the same thing happens: we read a corporate confession together and then an absolution for all of us, clergy included, is pronounced from the pulpit.  as i sat there after the confession last sunday i wondered, "what good did that confession do, if afterward we continue to live just as we did before the confession?"

it seems that confession is useless unless that which follows confession is an attempt to stop doing those things that we asked forgiveness for doing.  this is the problem with "original sin."  it leads to a fatalism that supports the idea that, as creatures who are compelled to sin continually, there is no way of correcting our faults.  therefore, we must rely on God's mercy and seek forgiveness rather than work to change ourselves, to be less sinful.  but if we are incapable of amending our ways in any significant way, what is the point of confession?  jesus said to the woman who was brought to him by his enemies after she had been caught in an act of adultery, "go and sin no more."  in other words, change your ways.  her accusers fled in the face of jesus' reminder that only those who are sinless have the authority to cast the first stone.  jesus asked where those who condemned had gone and said that he, too, would not condemn her.

so, here is the answer.  we have the power to learn from our mistakes.  it is not sufficient to admit them and ask for forgiveness.  the forgiveness comes not from the mercy of God but from our own attempts to lose ourselves in the process of becoming more than we were before.  we must forgive ourselves and make amends to those we have harmed, so that they, too, can forgive us.  confession is the realization that we have erred; forgiveness is an action that attempts to correct the error.

may we not depend on God to forgive us.  it is that still small voice inside us, "that of God," that leads us to the realization that confession is needed, and that same voice leads us to actions that propel us to "go and sin no more."  shalom.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Teach Us to Know the Truth that Sets Us Free

one of our pastors has been preaching a series of sermons based on readings from first and second samuel.  one of these, based on a passage from 1 samuel 15-16, focused on the anointing of david to succeed saul as king of israel.  in the course of the sermon, the preacher reviewed the reason that saul had been rejected by God: his failure to massacre all of the amalekites, who, according to 1 samuel 15, deserved death because in samuel's words that he reports came directly from God, "they [the amalekites] waylaid them as they came up from Egypt."

i was troubled that our preacher failed to address this part of the story.  how can we accept the message of the scripture that an entire city-state, all of its people--rulers, men, women, children--and even their animals are to be annihilated because of something that their ancestors had done?  is this the God that we worship when we come together each sunday?  saul could have been faulted for saving the best of the livestock, perhaps to satisfy his own greed or the demand of his soldiers for the spoils of their victory, and sparing the ruler of the amalekites.  there were many other acts that saul could have been condemned for:  his increasing insanity, his consulting a soothsayer, his building of a monument to himself at carmel after his defeat of the amalekites.  but why would he be rejected by God for sparing the lives of some of the amalekites?

another sermon in the series, based on 2 samuel 6, had to do with david's intention to bring the ark of the covenant to jerusalem.  the message of the sermon was david's seeming inappropriate behavior as he danced before all the people in the procession in celebration "before the Lord," an action that was condemned by his wife michal, saul's daughter.  earlier in the scripture lesson, in the early stages of the move of the ark, one of those watching the transport of the ark on a cart, a man named uzzah whose father abinadab had cared for the ark in his home, reached out to steady the ark and was struck dead because he had dared to touch the ark.  again i was troubled that there was no questioning of why God would strike uzzah dead as he was performing a good deed.  in what the scripture suggests was a spontaneous response to the stumbling of the oxen pulling the cart God murdered uzzah.  is that act consistent with a God of love and mercy?

i understand that the preacher was focusing on the anointing of david to be the future king in the first sermon and on david's exuberance in worshiping God in the second sermon, and my intention is not to criticize.  rather, i wonder why we so often ignore passages that give attributes to God that are not consistent with a God who loves that which God created.  why don't we question the "divine inspiration" of such verses?  do others sit through church services and think, "why are we afraid to challenge these teachings that don't make sense to us?  how can we ignore such content in the bible?"

may we not be timid about questioning that which is unreasonable.  may we seek a faith that takes us from blind acceptance to using the mind that God has given us.  may we not attribute a capricious cruelty to God on the basis of a book that is neither "divine" nor, in many instances, "inspired."  shalom.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

As Love Knows How

we continue to hear that christians in the usa are being persecuted--deprived of religious liberty--as the debate about marriage equality continues to unfold after the supreme court's ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.  the owners of a bakery in oregon have been found guilty of discriminating against a same-sex couple by refusing to bake a cake for their wedding.  elected officials in some states have refused to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples.   all of these "christians" have cited freedom of religion as grounds for their discriminatory practices and refusal to abide by the law of the land.

one wonders where this idea of discrimination masquerading as freedom of religion will lead.  are "christian" officials who issue building permits going to refuse to issue permits to religious organizations that violate their private religious beliefs?  will we see a "christian" official deny a building permit for a mosque on religious grounds?  are those who make other bakery items going to ask if those baked goods will be served at a pre-nuptial party for a same-sex couple before they agree to sell their cookies or pastries?  will "christian" manufacturers of cutlery stamp notices on their products that disallow their sale if they are going to be used by a same-sex couple?  these are all examples of "participation" in same-sex marriages that flow from the "religious liberty" reasoning of the christian right.

baking a wedding cake is quite different from condoning same-sex marriage; a cake has no opinion, it has no religious beliefs.  issuing a marriage license is not a sanction of a same-sex marriage; it is simply performing the duties that one agrees to perform when placed in a public office, usually by election.  the act of issuing a marriage license has no imprimatur from the official issuing it.  this "religious liberty" jargon is a form of "newspeak" in which the meaning of the phrase has nothing to do with liberty and everything to do with discrimination, a form of discrimination that is now illegal.

may we learn to accept the difference between private religious belief and public service, acknowledging that, when we open a business that serves the public, we have no right to deny service to some members of the public based on our relgious beliefs.  may we insist that public officials obey the law they swore to serve when they accepted the responsibilities of their positions, rather than allowing them to hide behind a perverse definition of freedom of religion.  may we act in love towards all those who may now claim the right to legally wed.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Land of the Free

now we hear outcries about "unelected" judges who are "legislating" decisions contrary to "nature and nature's god.".   at the same time complaints are heard that the plurality of citizens who favor marriage equality have influenced the five justices who formed the court majority to decide, not according to the constitution, but rather, based on popular opinion.  is there any reason appointed judges would be more susceptible to the vagaries of prevailing mores than elected judges would?  it would seem that judges who depend on the votes of the populace  are more likely to cater to the will of the people even if that will circumvented the clear language of the constitution.

the balance of power between the three branches of the federal government in the usa is dependent on an independent judiciary that is answerable only to posterity and preservation of law based on constitutional principles.  the federal courts, especially the supreme court, are the protectors of minorities from the tyranny of the majority.  popularly elected legislators may pass laws that trample on the rights of the under-represented, but the courts have the obligation to prevent such laws from taking effect.  this is what has happened in the case of the marriage equality ruling.  those who long have been denied the right of marriage, with its many legal benefits, on the basis of religious teaching and tradition, now are treated equally before the law, thanks to the decision of a majority of the supreme court.

may those who disagree with marriage equality on the basis of religious belief accept this ruling, which cannot force them to abandon such beliefs.  may all see that in a secularly governed state religious belief  cannot be used to deny some the rights that others enjoy because of the accident of birth which determined their gender.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

the event, held on the grounds of, and paid for by, a large church was called "red, white and blast."  on one end of a large grassy field, a giant usa flag hung from a line supported by two "cherry-pickers" extended from utility trucks.  at the other end of the field, bounce houses provided amusement for scores of children.  hundreds of small usa flags marked the route leading to and from large parking lots and still more of the flags were planted around the field.  families sat in lawn chairs and on blankets all over the field between the giant flag and the bounce houses, awaiting the arrival of dark and the promised fireworks spectacular, as vendors sold frozen treats and drinks on the pavement beside the field.

on the stage in front of the giant flag a brass ensemble played.  during a break between songs the members of the musical group performed a skit in which one musician, acting the part of a baseball player, bemoaned the hiring of a new umpire to one of the other musicians, who played the role of a fellow baseball player.  As a pretend pitch was thrown, the new umpire seemed to be unable to make a decision about whether the pitch was a strike or a ball, finally deciding it should be deemed a "strike-ball," exhibiting characteristics of both.  the next pretend pitch made contact with a phantom bat, and the umpire, unable to determine "fair" or "foul," asked the audience to vote on what call should be made.  this was too much for the players, who brought out the rulebook.  the umpire pointed out that the rules called for "subjective" determinations to be made and that many of the rules were quite old and might no longer apply.  the players stalked away, calling over their shoulders that there was no longer any reason to play a game that had no rules.

the obvious point of the skit was that society was abandoning the rule book, that is, the bible.  without the biblical rule book, there was no point to life.  right or wrong was determined by the position of the majority.  there was no prevailing morality because the "objective" criterion of the rule book had been abandoned.  the problem with this point of view is that the bible is not a rule book.  it is a religious document that is often self-contradictory.  those who espouse the rule-book view of the bible are the self-appointed umpires who get to choose which rules are to be obeyed and which are to be ignored.  they claim to have an absolutist position on what is right and what is wrong, but even the most cursory examination of history demonstrates that the interpretation of the biblical rules changes over time.  the practice of slavery that was supported by biblical rules is no longer considered to be right; this "right" has now become a "wrong."  the legitimate use of birth control and abortion that evangelical christians once considered "right" has now become "wrong."

as a preacher i heard recently put it, there are many in our society who use the bible as a hammer with which they drive nails into the hands and feet of those with whom they disagree.  they pick and choose which of its contradictory rules to follow; they ignore those they find unpleasant or "antiquated."  they forget the simple, profound "rule" of micah 6:8:  "what does the lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"

may we not use any "sacred" book in ways that were never intended.  may we instead use our reason as we read these books, gleaning what wisdom we can without using them as weapons against those who disagree with us.  may we more concerned with cultivating lovingkindness and compassion within ourselves than we are in insisting that others conform to our views of right and wrong.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Come to Me and Do Not Fear

he came to them, and they welcomed him.  he sat among them and heard their kind words.  in the end, he hurled racial epithets at them and killed nine of them.  then he fled, soon to be apprehended.  this killer was not choked to death by the police, as a black man was in new york for stealing a pack of cigarettes.  this killer was not shot in the back by the police, as  a black man was in south carolina for fleeing from a policeman.  this killer was taken into custody without a struggle, and almost immediately those who would perpetuate the society which fostered this killer began to rationalize away the racism that filled his heart.

he must have been high on drugs, they said.  he killed them because they were christians, not because they were black, they said.  he killed them because they didn't carry guns and couldn't defend themselves, they said.  it was the victims' fault, they said, because their leader promoted a message of non-violence and espoused the cause of reasonable gun laws in his role as a state senator.

they looked at the symbols with which he surrounded himself and declared that the symbols didn't matter.  it's ok to fly a flag on the grounds of the state capitol, even though that flag glorifies a past that forced thousands of people of color to live in the most degrading and cruel conditions, a past that ripped thousands of free men and women from their native lands to live as the property of others, they said.  "that flag is part of our heritage," they said, failing to mention that heritage is disgraceful and ought to be disavowed in the strongest terms.  it's insignificant that he posed in pictures with that flag, they said.  it's unimportant that he wore clothing that pictured the flags of white-supremacists regimes in africa, they said.

how can the right-wing apologists be so blind?  or is it blindness, at all?  is it pandering to the bigots in society in order to win their votes, to keep the bigots on the side of right-wing politicians who depend on the racists to stay in power, especially in the former confederate states?  contrast their ignoring the cause of the young killer's actions with the speech of the victims' families.  "i forgive him," was the litany that was heard coming from their mouths and hearts.

may we have hearts filled with forgiveness.  may we go the extra mile for those who demand the first mile of us.  may we pray for those who "despitefully use" us.  may we condemn a past that visited unspeakable horrors on so many innocents.  may we refuse to see those who appear different as "others" who are a threat.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

I Stand Alone on the Word of God?

we christians are wont to claim that christianity is the only true religion and quick to point out what we view as absurdities in other religions.  how often do we examine our own religion in the same way we examine other religions or analyze the beliefs of our own expression of christianity in the same we analyze the beliefs of other variants of christianity?  if we put ourselves in the place of a hindu looking at christianity as an outsider, what would we point out as problems with christian belief?

how can we believe in a god who creates creatures with certain desires and then punishes them for acting on those desires?  how can we believe in a god that insists that we follow the teachings of a "holy" book that is full of contradictions and how do we know which of those contradictory teachings are right?  how can we believe in a god that commands us to overpopulate the world?  how can we believe in a god that becomes angry and destroys what that god created?  how can we believe in a god that visits terrible suffering on us and expects us to accept that as the will of a loving god?  how can we believe in a god that "saves" some to live in eternal bliss and condemns others to eternal suffering without regard to the virtues of either the saved or the damned?  how can we believe in a god that sanctions the descendants of abraham and sarah to murder thousands of innocents in the process of conquering a small corner of the middle east?  how can we believe in a god that creates us with rational minds and then expects us to accept the irrational on faith?

this list could continue, and we christians need to examine our religion as non-christians would.  so much of the world's suffering is caused by our inability to see that some of the basic tenets of our religion are indefensible when held up to the light of reason.  to insist on irrational belief, on blind faith, is to deny what is the defining characteristic of human nature.  a true God expects us to use our minds, to question, to sort through that which is reasonable and that which is unreasonable.

may we not waste time defending the indefensible.  may we never fear to ask questions or to challenge conventional beliefs.  may we not place our faith in beliefs that make no sense, but may we instead use our minds to search for truth and follow that path wherever it leads us.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

My Country, 'Tis of Thee

proponents of so-called "state's rights" in the usa are adamant about the empowerment of the individual states to control what happens within the borders of that state without interference from the federal government.  when the matter at hand was slavery, this theory of constitutional power held that the central government had no power to outlaw slavery within a state without the consent of the voters of that state.  the american civil war was waged over this question.

now there are a range of issues that are pitting the "state's righters" against the federal government.  these include marriage equality, environmental standards, health care generally, and women's health care with regard to abortion.  some of these issues are before the supreme court now, and some of the advocates of the superiority of state control over federal control have put forth the argument that those who disagree with a potential court ruling favoring marriage equality can legally ignore the court's ruling because it is a matter of conscience--god's law (as they see it) trumps human law as interpreted by the supreme court.

what strikes me as odd is that many of those who are so adamant about the rights of individual states are quick to assert state control over individual and local issues.  they see no contradiction when they insist that state power should control a woman's health, requiring tedious and unnecessary medical delays when a woman seeks to end a pregnancy, as if state legislatures are in a better position to make such private individual decisions on behalf of women.  when local communities decide that hydraulic fracking is inappropriate within their city limits, conservative legislatures influenced by powerful energy lobbies have no problem in taking away local control in the same manner they condemn the federal government for imposing national environmental policies on the states.  when town councils or popular city votes create ordinances that protect the rights of gay residents, state's right legislatures see no hypocrisy when they pass state laws taking away the rights of municipalities to pass such ordinances for those who reside in their city limits.

this controversy is as old as the constitution itself.  one of the first challenges to federal authority was a "whisky rebellion" fought against a tax imposed by the new federal government, a rebellion that was quickly put down by president washington.  new england states considered seceding in opposition to the war with mexico early in our history.  one would think that a bloody civil war would have settled the question once and for all, yet it persists.  it seems that we citizens of the usa want it both ways; we want the federal government to exert control when we are in agreement with it, and we want individual states to exert control when a majority of the state's residents disagree with national policy.  we forget that in a democracy, the individual doesn't always prevail; sometimes those with whom we disagree are in the majority, and we are forced to acquiesce to the majority decision, even though we are free to loudly protest that decision.

may we who are residents of the usa remember that compromise is the essence of democracy.  may we all respect the opinions of others, even when we are convinced that those opinions are wrong.  may we argue against those opinions responsibly within the framework of laws which allow democracy to exist.  may we rejoice in our freedom to speak out without fear of retaliation from an oppressive government.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

See Our Fathers and Our Mothers and Our Children Sinking Down

last week i wrote about the delight many experienced at the discovery that josh duggar had sexually abused several minors, including some of his sisters, while he was still a minor himself.  i suggested that gleefully condemning mr. duggar about his moral failure was a moral failure as well; i was (and am) disturbed that regarding his actions as an indictment of some sort of defect in right-wing thinking ignored the fact that proponents of a wide range of political beliefs are guilty of the same sort of abusive behavior.

i wrote little of the effects his behavior had on the victims and hope that i did not imply that their suffering is of little consequence.  the male-dominated climate in which the young mr. duggar was raised made it all too easy for the under-age females he abused to be placed in a position of forced forgiveness for the wrongs he did; they could not be regarded as good christians if they failed to acknowledge his repentance with corresponding absolution.  there is no evidence that the victims had access to any appropriate counseling.  without clear understanding of the wrong done to them and the psychology of their abuser, they could not have been in a position to come to terms with him when he re-entered their home.  nor has there been any indication that josh duggar took any action to make amends to his victims.

those who quickly spoke out in support of the duggar family failed to take note of the philosophy that prevailed in their home, which taught the children growing up there that (1) the outside world is dangerous and to be avoided, so schooling in the home was essential, (2) the role of men and women is to "be fruitful and multiply," implying that the sole purpose of marriage is to produce offspring, (3) the role of women is to care for those offspring and to keep a dominant male happy, and (4) expression of sexuality outside marriage is sinful and impure.  these beliefs created an environment that was harmful to all parties involved and contributed to the abuses that josh duggar visited on his sisters and others.

may we look with empathy on those who were abused.  may we open ourselves to varied points of view and philosophies so that our minds and lives don't become narrow expressions of suspicion about all those who differ from us in appearance or belief.  may we treat each other as equals without establishing hierarchies based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.  shalom.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

And When Like Wand'ring Sheep We Strayed

a young man who has been home-schooled, who has lived much of his life as a star of a reality television show about his family that includes 18 siblings, is discovered to have been guilty of fondling girls, including some of his sisters, during his early teen years.  it's too easy to ridicule josh duggar for his fall from his right-wing pedestal and to shake our fingers at him for his and his family's pompous pronouncements about how gay rights endanger children.  they've engaged in hypocritical and ill-informed statements about how marriage equality and laws prohibiting discrimination against the lgbt community harm children.

maybe we should consider what led this young man to this point.  he was denied the opportunity to have social interactions outside his family that most kids have growing up.  how was he to learn what is appropriate or to have the chance to experiment and discover how to express his sexuality during those formative years when hormones are raging?  he was brainwashed with a one-sided view of the world and denied experiencing the diversity of opinions and lifestyles that kids outside the home-schooling community learn to deal with.  when he made these terrible choices as a young teen, he wasn't allowed to access qualified counseling services; his mistakes were treated as "sins" that are forgivable and which can therefore be swept under the rug, so to speak, rather than as cries for help in dealing with something he was unable to comprehend on his own.

how many others are trapped in this narrow-minded mindset during those critical years when they should be learning to deal with the world at large?  we are so quick to point our fingers in delight when self-proclaimed paragons of "family values" are discovered to be just as human as the rest of us.  a conservative senator from a southern state is outed for his dalliances with a prostitute and we gleefully condemn him rather that feeling empathy for his family and the pain he and they must be experiencing.  a "family-values" representative is exposed for his attempts to seduce a page of the same sex, and we are so quick to condemn him.  an anti-gay pastor is discovered with a social media account on a gay app on which he seeks liasons with gay men, and we chortle with delight at his discomfort and "fall from grace."

sure, the hypocrisy of their public persona which hides a hurting psyche that is at odds with what they publicly proclaim makes us angry, and we are thrilled to be able to condemn such two-facedness.  while we do this, we forget that we are all human, we all fail, we all engage in hypocrisy at times.  perhaps we would do better simply to remind ourselves and the world at large that these failings of prominent conservatives demonstrate that they, too, have feet of clay like the rest of us.  while we learn from the dangers of narrow-minded gay-bashing, "sin"-condemning self-righteousness that characterize these proponents of "family values," we should see that they are human like the rest of us.

may we not use the shortcomings of others to place ourselves on a pedestal of tolerant virtue.  may we speak out against wrong but still see the humanity in the failures of others and ourselves.  may we be quicker to empathize and slower to take joy in castigation.  shalom.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Womb of Life and Source of Being

gracious God--that is how i begin my morning meditation, with a prayer that addresses a God that i will never fully understand.  it would be easy for me to be an atheist, except i can't get past the idea that a long series of unlikely events had to occur in order for life on this earth to exist.  how is it that in this small corner of the universe life evolved on this tiny planet?  there must be a beginning, a primal cause, and for me, God is the most satisfactory explanation.

i reject the idea that God is a "personal" God, a great santa claus in the sky, or a vengeful rule-maker with a notebook, keeping a record of how good we are at following mandates recorded in an ancient collection of writings.  God is not my buddy.  God is not jesus.  God is not the cause of all the terrible things that happen in this world.

i don't know what God's role in the world is.  i believe that God cares for all that God created, that all life is sacred, that all of creation should be honored and cared for.  i don't believe that God intervenes in human history or that there is a "will of God" to be discerned.  i believe that the only commandment, the only will of God, is that we love one another and in so doing we love God.  there is no "right" religion, and as we explore the role of organized religion in history, it appears that religion has done more harm than good.  we fight one another in the name of religion.  we seek to convert one another by any means possible, including force.  we commit the worst sorts of atrocities in the name of God, and it is little wonder that many come to the conclusion that there is no God.

two verses from the first epistle of john are for me the most true sentences about God: the one who doesn't love, doesn't know God, for God is love (1 john 4:8) and God is light and in God there is no darkness (1 john 1:5).  this is the essence of religion, not the layers of complexity that have been heaped upon us by religious authorities.  God is not the christian God, not the islamic God, not the hindu God.  God is.  for me, that's enough.  love is the key that unlocks the mystery of God.  if we seek to live a life that is filled with love, we come to know God, even if we don't believe that God exists.

may we love, not in the name of any religion, but simply because that's the best way to live.  may we honor all that is around us, caring for the planet that is our home.  may we cast aside the differences that religion imposes on us and embrace one another as human beings without any need to control each other.  shalom.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Work, for the Night Is Coming

each morning he awoke with a sense of urgency, remembering all the tasks that should have been completed yesterday.  today there were those tasks, plus the new ones that had to be done before this day came to an end.  he made lists of all that must be accomplished in order for today to be considered a success.  he carried his day planner with him everywhere, lest he forget some important appointment.  once he began one of the listed jobs, he saw more all around him that needed to be done.  how could he possibly cram all this work into one day?  yet he had to; the lists told him so, and now there were new items that he had just noticed on the lists.  at the end of the day he collapsed, exhausted and frustrated that everything had not been completed and some items on his lists had to be carried over into tomorrow.  what a lousy day it had been, and the next day would be much the same.

each morning he awoke, looking forward to the new day.  he thought about the most important task that he could accomplish on this day.  as he considered the several tasks that might engage him, he prioritized his mental list.  some jobs were more urgent than others; those were the ones that would engage him first.  the others could be deferred to another day if need be.  he checked his appointments for the day so that he could organize his work around them and made certain that the day would have a flow that left him time to relax between jobs and meetings, and he began this day, as he did each day, with some quiet time for reflection and meditation.  at the end of the day, he took stock of what had been accomplished and gave thanks for the good day he had enjoyed.  he knew that tomorrow would take care of itself and looked forward to moving on to some of the work he had put off on this day.

these are the stories of two friends of mine, one whose life is filled with frustration and suffering, the other who is happy and at peace with himself and the world.  i've learned much from both of them, and it's obvious which i try to emulate.  why do we fall into the "if-only" trap: if only i could get all this done, i could be happy, if only there weren't so much that had to be done, i could be happy, if only there were more hours in the day, i could be happy.  let's forget if only.  let's rejoice that there is fulfilling work to do and be happy in that work.  let's complete the most important work and then give ourselves a pat on the back because it's been done before moving on to the next job on our list.  let's give ourselves time for gratitude throughout each day.  let's remember that peaceful rest is as important--maybe more important--than keeping our noses to the grindstone.

may we all figure out what our priorities are and put first things first.  may each day be regarded as a blessing that might not have come to us.  may we find reward in our work and be grateful for what we're able to accomplish.  shalom.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

We Will Walk Side by Side

a man dies while in police custody in baltimore.  two men attempt an attack on a gathering in garland, texas, and are killed by an off-duty policeman who is serving as a security guard.  there seems to be no end to these incidents in my country.  how could someone have died while being transported to the police station after a simple arrest?  why would two men plan an attack on a group that was attacking their religious sensibilities?  us against them, over and over and over.

now the right-wing media rails against the baltimore protestors.  there is no pretense of trying to understand the intense anger over the senseless killing of a black man in one of baltimore's poorest neighborhoods.  there is no indignation directed at those who killed a man whose only crime appeared to be fleeing the police, who the police only pursued because he ran from them.  none on the right are asking why those living in this area of baltimore live in poverty and why the drug trade seems to be the chief source of income.  none of these pundits are asking why someone would flee from the police for no apparent reason.  instead, there is only condemnation for those who take to the streets in anger and frustration and vilification of the victim.

in garland a gathering of bigots who are intent on offending devout muslims comes under attack.  certainly, the attackers were not justified and left the policeman who shot them no choice.  but what would be the reaction had a group of middle-eastern immigrants held a rally that featured a competition for cartoons depicting jesus?  would armed gunmen from the christian right have appeared outside such a rally?  most likely, given the prevailing belief in texas that everyone should have the right to carry weapons anywhere and to carry them openly.  those who assembled in garland wanted to offend and provoke.  in the name of american nationalism, those who came to garland contradicted the ideals of tolerance and of respect for the beliefs of others inherent in the declaration of independence and the u.s. constitution, as did those who came to kill them.

may we turn from extremism in every form.  may we refuse to engage in the "us against them" philosophy that is anathema to the common good.  may we look for the causes of anger which spill over into violent confrontations in the streets of our cities.  may we stop and think before we so blithely assume the worst in others.  shalom.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Eat at the Welcome Table

a person has applied for membership in our church.  i use the word "person" because i don't know how to refer to him/her; this applicant for membership dresses as a woman for church functions but dresses as a man in professional life.  biologically a man, my friend prefers to dress in female attire as often as possible.  i don't know whether he/she is a cross-dresser or transgender, so i should probably say my "acquaintance," rather than my "friend."  i have known him/her and worshiped with him for a number of years, but only recently did i come to know this acquaintance in her female incarnation.  when dressed as a man, he prefers to be called by his male birth-name; when in women's attire, she prefers a female cognate for the male name.

we've been hearing a lot about transgender issues lately, what with prominent pieces on transgender children and their parents on the network evening news, bruce jenner's recent interview, and several offensively ridiculous bills that have been introduced by conservative state legislators in several states regarding bathroom access for transgender persons.  for those in my generation, it's a difficult issue to deal with.  it's one we'd rather were swept under the rug so that transgender folks could continue to suffer without calling their problems to our attention, but we can't do that, as this situation in our church demonstrates.

i can't imagine the pain of a biologically male or female child being forced to grow up in accordance with the dictates of anatomy when the child's very being is undeniably in conflict with biological reality.  i applaud brave parents who allow their children to develop naturally without insisting on conformity to anatomy.  i applaud brave children (and adults) who become what their psyche demands.  that empathy for these parents and children doesn't make it any easier for me and many others to understand the body discomfort that transgender humans feel or their desire as adults to become the sexual beings that their brains are most comfortable with.

back to my friend/acquaintance:  i pray that those who've been elected to make decisions regarding church membership will read these words from the front of our weekly bulletin before reaching a decision:  "to all who are weary and need rest–to all who are friendless and want friendship–to all who pray and to all who do not, but should–to all who sin and need a savior–this church opens wide its door and in the name of christ says, 'welcome.' "  i pray that we won't turn our backs on one who comes to us from a troubled past, struggling with issues that few of us can understand.

may we not rush to judge that which we do not understand.  when we say "welcome," may we mean just that.  may compassion take precedence over too-easy prejudice.  shalom.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Come Away with Me, Lucille

a few days ago, my wife and i had the opportunity to observe two couples during a week-long trip.  one of the couples subscribed to marital complementarianism, holding that the bible teaches that husbands, as "heads of the household," have the final decision-making authority in a marriage.  the other husband and wife considered themselves to be equal partners, and during the trip this couple talked over decisions and agreed on mutually acceptable resolutions.  both couples seemed quite happy, but it bothered both me and my wife that the wife in the "complementary" couple seemed to be subservient, even in matters like what meal to order in a restaurant or what gift to buy for a grandchild.

i don't condemn the couple who have ordered their relationship so that the male in the couple has all the power.  the wife appeared happy with her role and seemed to feel free to voice her opinion, even if it was ultimately overruled by her husband.  my wife and i treat each other as equals in all matters, as the second couple in our party did, and i believe that our egalitarian relationship is more satisfactory that our friends' "complementary" relationship.

again, we face the dilemma of "me versus an 'other.' "  when one partner in a marriage is in control, the other partner becomes the "other" who is less intelligent, less talented, more likely to make the wrong decision.  there is no sense of "two heads being better than one;" rather, it is my well-being becoming more important than yours so that i-writ-large can control the outcome.  this attitude carries over into other areas of life; we heard both partners in the "complementarian" couple speak ill of minorities, often ridiculing them.

as i sit and write, i am more convinced than ever that the best way to live is to remind ourselves over and over of our common humanity, to remember that we are all one and the same.  may we join hands as partners in marriage and in life instead of trying to contol others when the opportunity presents itself.  shalom.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Gone Are My Friends from the Cotton Fields Away

a black man was shot repeatedly by a white policeman in south carolina, and the man's final moments were caught on a video by a witness to the shooting.  there are many questions we might ask: would this death have been more tragic if the races of the two men were reversed?  is the race of the two men significant?  what are the circumstances leading up to this tragedy?  why did the bystander feel compelled to capture these moments in a video?  is this incident a reflection of our society's insistence on easy access to guns?  the list of questions that need to be answered could fill many pages.

the one that most concerns me after so many recent deaths of people of color at the hands of white officers of the law is the question of race.  this is the elephant in the cupboard of culture in the usa.  we want to say that there are also whites being killed just as callously but i don't think that's the case.  we have only to compare the reaction to mobs of predominantly white students in kentucky after a basketball game loss to the reaction to mobs of predominantly black people over the killing of a black teen in missouri to see the bias in our culture.  the race of the two involved in this south carolina incident is significant, because, in the eyes of many, non-white lives don't matter as much as white lives.  so close on the heals of our observance of the surrender at appomattox that ended the civil war, the stain of slavery and the aftermath of that horrible war still have not been cleansed from our psyche.

in our part of the country, and i expect in other regions as well, dinner table conversation too often includes little veiled barbs that suggest that blacks or hispanics are not as bright, not as moral, not as industrious as whites.  we see ourselves as a society of us and the others, and the others can't be as good as we are.  we can't let them have power.  we can't acknowledge their complete humanity.  it was all too easy for our forebears to turn a blind eye to the misery that was the lives of thousands of people of color so that a few white colonists and their descendants could enjoy lives of wealth and privilege.  under the veneer of a genteel society, blacks lives didn't matter except for what their backbreaking labor could produce so that this "gracious" way of life could exist.  this attitude continues to persist and to color all our national conversation.

this is the horrible consequence of "us versus them."  we refuse to see our sameness.  we fail to grasp the desire of non-white families to want the best for their children, to acknowledge that race has nothing to do with intelligence, the willingness to work hard, or moral integrity.  we citizens of the usa are not alone in this failure--look at the treatment of the irish at the hands of the english, at the tragedy of racism in south africa, at conflict between arabs and jews in the middle east.  the fact that other cultures are guilty of racism doesn't make it any more right here in this country; it only underscores our human tendency to live mindless lives when we allow our minds to become lazy and to look for scapegoats.

the needless taking of one black life by a policeman in south carolina or new york or missouri or ohio or california is significant.  the hostility to a president because he is african-american is significant.  the denial of voting rights to minorities is significant.  the indifference to the suffering of the poor is significant.  the desire to deny citizenship to hard-working hispanics because they dared to flee poverty and oppression in their home countries is significant.  there is no "us," there is to "them."  there is simply humanity, and it is our duty to treat every person with respect and compassion without rushing to draw the all-too-accessible weapon that can so easily bring a life to an end.

may we train our minds and hearts to see the person inside skin that is white, black, or brown.  may we love without limit.  shalom.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

In Terror and Amazement

christians have just observed easter, a holiday about which i have mixed emotions.  i am uneasy about the militaristic imagery of our hymns, filled with phrases about conquering death.  somehow this "victory march" seems wrong in light of the prince of peace having been executed by the power of a great military state.  easter leaves no room for the recognition of suffering; it pushes those who are hurting and grieving away.  i wish we'd pay more attention to the most ancient versions of mark's gospel in which there is no sighting of a risen jesus, where the women who have gone to the tomb to anoint jesus' body leave in "terror and amazement" (mark 16:8, nsrv translation), and, in their fear, they tell no one of their discovery.

for me, easter is not about eternal life.  rather it is about the permanence of love.  in this way it is tied to my lenten meditations about the qualities of love: love never ends.  as i drove home from church on easter sunday, my thoughts went to the nature of a loving God, a reasonable God, a God who would never create beings whose "very nature is evil," as our easter sunday confession had begun, a God who would delight in eternal punishment for those our religion claims this same God loves.  why would a loving God create us to live this complex existence and expect us to figure it all out in one short lifetime?  the more i think about this sort of God, the less faith i have that the god we are taught about in our churches is an accurate portrayal of the true nature of God.

if one believes in God, doesn't it make more sense that a loving and reasonable God would allow us as many lifetimes as we need to understand what life is all about, to come to a full realization of what love is?  we are such a tiny part of the vastness of the universe, and there must be creatures similar to ourselves out somewhere in the far-flung reaches of space.  is it possible that those beings have found their way to God in exactly the same way christians on this earth have?  are others here on this earth condemned to eternal torment because their cultures have led them to God in different ways than western culture has led christians?

so for me where i am in my journey, jesus' execution at the hands of rome teaches me about a love that lays down its life for its friends.  a literal resurrection is beside the point; the point is that love is unending.  it is the glue that bonds everything together.  it is the reason for living, it never dies.

may we go on loving, hoping for as many chances as we need to discover the true nature of love.  shalom.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Mystery of Love

the conclusion of st. paul's list of characteristics of love in first corinthians puzzles me.  what does it mean that "love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things?"  the new international version has the passage translated,   "it [love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres,"  and the phillips translation says, "love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything."  the idea of love bearing all things or enduring all things isn't problematic; love, both that of God and the love that is a part of our being, should help us to face the problems of life with greater success.  if we say that love believes all things, do we mean that love has no doubts or that love accepts all dogmas without question or is unending trust, as in the niv and phillips versions, a better way of understanding the second phrase in the list?  in the same way, if we accept that love hopes all things, do we have an unrealistic outlook that hopes everything we wish for will be ours or is the idea of a hope that never fades as suggested in the phillips translation the best way of looking at the list's third phrase?

does the sum of these four phrases mean that love is optimistic and accepting?  is paul suggesting that the love which flows through all creation and which is a part of our basic nature helps us overcome the transitory difficulties of life with endurance, trust, hope, and perseverance?  i especially like the last phrase in the phillips translation: "[love] can outlast anything,"  the phillips translation ends paul's list of love's characteristics with this complementary sentence:  "[love] is, in fact, the one thing that still stands when all else has fallen."  for me, this is the great summation of all the characteristics of love;  everything else is subsidiary to love.  love is the great constant that transcends suffering, that makes life worthwhile.  it is the beginning and the end, the only reason for living, the very essence of all that is.

may we each be open to love.  may we give and receive love.  may we see that love transcends suffering and evil.  may we become love.  shalom.