Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Oh, Rest Beside the Weary Road

we have an advent calendar shaped like a christmas tree.  at its base is a tray that contains ornaments of various colors and patterns that attach to the tree magnetically.  each day during the season, i add another ornament to the tree, counting down to christmas.  on christmas day, there is a large star to top the tree.  i look forward each year to filling the tree with ornaments as the big day approaches.

as i reflected on what christmas means to me, i thought about all the clich├ęd phrases we use to describe the meaning of the day that is so important in the christian calendar.  christmas is probably all those things--a time of new beginnings, of hope, of light in the darkest time of the year.  for me, it is a mark of the rapid passage of time.  my advent calendar fills with ornaments so quickly, and before i know it, it's time to put the star on the top.  my wife and i are celebrating our 48th christmas together, and we are both observing our 70th christmas.  it seems as if only a short time ago, i was a wide-eyed child jumping with excitement on christmas morning and an even shorter time since my wife and i celebrated our first christmas together.

how could so many years have elapsed so quickly?  coming, as it does, so close to the end of the old year and the start of the new, i suppose it is natural to associate december 25 with replacing the old calendar with a new one and beginning a new year, filing the old one away in our memories.  i think there is more to it than that, though.  christmas reminds of events that happened so many years ago, in a place and time that are very different from our own.  it reminds us of oppressive occupiers of a tiny land in which the baby was born.  it reminds us of cruel kings that would slaughter innocents to protect their thrones.  it reminds us of the universality of a mother's love.  it calls us to look back at events even further removed from the day of jesus' birth: to ancient lands, to earlier religions that called humankind to lives of peace and virtue, to cultures so different from ours and yet so similar in many ways.

christmas means looking back for me, back through the eons of time and remembering how much we have in common with those who have gone before us.  the present reminds us of the cycle that repeats over and over:   cruelty, selfishness, bigotry, and fear of those who are superficially different are eternal, but so is kindness, concern for others and the natural world, love, respect for one another.  in the face of all that is wrong with the world, there are religions and philosophies that assert what is right with the world.  the birth of a baby in an obscure place that christians celebrate at christmas was not the beginning of the search for what is right, but a continuation of it, a reminder that there are many lights piercing the darkness.

may this season bring joy in the face of sadness, hope in the face of fear.  may we be reminded that kindness ultimately defeats cruelty, but the selfishness from which that cruelty is born continually reasserts itself, making the need for love and kindness all the more important.  may we love unconditionally and without reason.  regardless of our religion or lack thereof, may we have "happy holidays!"  shalom.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

From Lies of Tongue and Pen

i went to the post office the other day to mail some christmas packages.  in the parking lot there was a truck with a large trump sign in the back window.  on the back bumper was a sticker that said, "i don't believe the liberal media."  i wondered exactly what the owner of the pickup meant.  i was certain he didn't spend a lot of time reading "rightwingwatch.org" or "huffingtonpost.com"  did he mean that the "liberal media" is any media other than fox news or the right wing radio talk shows that abound in our area?

this led me to think about the proliferation of "fake news" which was in evidence during the recent election campaign and that so many of our citizens were ready to believe, things like "pizzagate" that claimed hillary clinton and members of her campaign staff were operating a child sexual abuse ring out of a pizza parlor in washington or the story long perpetuated by donald trump and others that claimed president obama was not born in the usa or the claim that secretary clinton's aide, huma abedin, was sympathetic to the muslim brotherhood and that our government had been infiltrated by that organization.  one of the most disturbing characteristics of the trump campaign and of our president-elect is the promotion of these far-fetched conspiracy theories.  mr trump's embrace of such disproved and fantastic lies gives them a legitimacy that reinforces his followers' insistence on their veracity.

the increasing reliance on social media as a source of information and the denigration of the traditional press is a disturbing trend that came to the fore in this election.  both major-party nominees were dismissive of the press, and mr. trump, in particular, frequently attacked the media, egging on those who attended his rallies as they targeted the reporters who were confined to the "press pen."  the refusal to distinguish between legitimate reporting of the sort that seeks truth without bias and pretend reporting that dismisses facts that fail to support a preconceived conclusion or that passes on unsubstantiated information as fact is a grave danger in a democracy.  the problem is not so much that fact-averse journalism exists, but rather that there are increasing numbers of people who are ready to accept as fact that which is demonstrably false.

i wonder if there is not a relationship between ready acceptance of patently fallacious reporting and unquestioning faith in religion.  the religious right's insistence that those who question or refuse to accept supernatural religious belief are undermining the foundations of our country seems to go hand in hand with insistence that fact-free "news" is preferable to conscientious journalism.  those who are ready to accept unprovable religious beliefs may be more likely to accept unproven stories that support their own biases.  as carl bernstein, the legendary reporter who, with bob woodward, exposed the watergate conspiracy during the nixon admistration, said recently, "what we have seen throughout the [trump] campaign is pathological disdain for the truth, a kind of lie, and ease with lying, that we have not seen before."  a democracy that allows this sort of conduct to take place unchallenged cannot continue to exist.  the easy acceptance of propaganda that has been proven to be untrue undermines the rational thinking on which our country was founded.

may we counter falsehood with truth.  may we seek truth wherever it may lead.  may we not succumb to arguments that target our emotions and our own biases rather than our brains.  may we defend the press's freedom to say whatever it wants but, at the same time, may we insist on proof of what is being said.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

And the World Will Be a Better Place

this morning i am thinking of the unspeakable acts of cruelty going on in the world, of the merciless shelling of the city of aleppo, of the battle raging against isil, of the unspeakable killings that are part of the drug trade in central america and mexico.  i am thinking of the pivot towards anti-immigrant sentiment in this country and in europe.  i am thinking of the persecution of women throughout the world and the desire to control women in my country, exemplified in the "fetal heartbeat" bill passed by the ohio legislature in the wake of donald trump's victory.  i am thinking of the oligarchy our country has become.

in the face of all this, it is easy to feel powerless.  what can i do to combat this pervasive evil in the world?  how can i defend those who have come here to make better lives for themselves and their families?  is there a way i can make life better for those who are endangered by the present political and social climate?  one thing i've resolved to do this giving season is to increase my financial contributions to organizations that are doing good in the world by providing the impoverished with tools to improve their own lives and institutions that improve the quality of life for those in my community.

the question of how i can make a difference in the world through the way i live my daily life still nags at me.  financial assistance to worthy causes is good and something each of us who can ought to do, but i want my life to make a direct difference, to live a life that takes a stand against the forces that increase suffering for so many.  here are some pre-new-year resolutions that i hope will make me and the world a better place:
* i can strive to treat others with more loving-kindness and respect.
* i can hold my tongue when i'm tempted to lash out at another who has wronged me.
* i can speak against the intolerance and bigotry that seems to be increasingly prevalent, and i can speak in such a way that is less a personal attack against the intolerant and bigoted and more an affirmation of ideals that i embrace.
* i can stop criticizing others as persons and start criticizing ideas that are harmful to others.
* i can be more patient.
* i can be more concerned with hearing another than i am with proving that i'm right.

so this is the day to begin to live these resolutions in my life, to live more skillfully.  i can't waste time fretting over the actions of our president-elect and his advisors, actions that i have no control over.  i can't go fight with the rebels in syria.  i can't conquer mosul or raqqa.  instead, i can exhibit the qualities that i want to see in others, living my life with dedication to ideals that i believe would make the world a better place if we all adopted them.

may we each make the world a better place, one human contact at a time.  may we treat others as we wish to be treated.  may we not give in to pessimism and fatalism.  may we love those with whom we disagree.  may patience replace anger.  may we never give up.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

What Child Is This

it is interesting how seemingly unrelated things sometimes converge to make connections in our minds.  during this time of year, my wife and i watch lots of holiday movies, some great, like "it's a wonderful life," some not-so-great and pretty sappy.  though the election is over, we live near louisiana, and there is a senate race there that won't be finished until next week, so we are still having political ads for that election foisted on us as we watch tv.  it's the connection between a couple of these movies and one particular political ad that has infected my brain.

in one movie, the female lead is shown practicing yoga.  she and her adult daughters no longer attend the church where they used to sing in the choir.  they seem to have joined the "spiritual but not religious" movement, but, in the end when all the conflicts in the story are resolved, we see the mom in her choir robe singing in the church choir again.  she steps forward out of the choir, a spotlight shines on her, she invites her family to come to the chancel where they are substitutes for the holy family in her closing solo.

in the second movie, set in the "wild west," an outlaw is responsible for accidentally killing the pastor of a church in a small town in the aftermath of a bank robbery.  as he dies, the pastor tells the man that he can change, that every wrong act can be forgiven.  in his remorse, the outlaw flees the scene to live a life of seclusion.  his two partners seek him out, an argument ensues, and, in the process of trying to escape, he is shot and left to die by his former friends.   a woman and her two children find the man alive near their farm, take him into their home, and nurse him back to health.  every night she reads the children a bible story, and the two stories that stick in the mind of the injured outlaw are those of the prodigal son and the good samaritan.  the outlaw becomes a changed man, falling in love with the widowed woman and helping her care for her two children and the farm.  in the end, we discover that the pastor he killed was the woman's husband and the children's father, but they forgive him, recognizing that he is not the same man who killed their husband and father.

in the commercial, the conservative candidate lists his "core beliefs."  one of them is, "i believe in God; the second is, "i believe we don't owe anything to illegals;" another is "i believe in love, but i believe in carrying a handgun just in case."  i've heard his beliefs so many times that i mute the tv every time i see his face.

all three of these that i've described trouble me:  the first movie by its vague religiosity that finally leads to a mawkish recreation of the christmas manger tableau, the second movie by its insistence that change for the good requires becoming a christian, and the commercial by the candidate using "God," "illegals" "love," and "carrying a handgun" as non-too-subtle codewords to appeal to his evangelical base.  of the three, i found the redemption movie the least bothersome, despite its insistence on christianity as the only path to change; in it, the woman and her children care for the injured outlaw, acting as his "good samaritan," and in the process, they are able to let go of the loss of the pastor-husband-father and move on with their lives, while the outlaw finds a way to forgive himself and to make amends for his past actions.

the religiosity of these three--the two movies and the political ad--is what ties them together in my mind.  this idea that religion, and particularly the christian religion, is the only effective way to do good in the world is offensive.  i sometimes think that God laughs at our use of religion as a means of separating the "good" from the "bad," those following our brand of religion being the good, while everyone else is bad.  i wonder if the real truth isn't that we are born with the ability to be both good and bad, and religion or lack of religion has little to do with which prevails in our lives.  rather, it is the choices we make, the skillfulness with which we live our lives, and the influence of those who surround us in our formative years that determines whether good or evil fills our hearts.

may we take responsibility for our own choices.  may we overcome bad influences and relish good ones.  may we try to live more skillfully each day that we are given.  may the true meaning of christmas, the potential for good that the birth of every child brings to the world, fill us during this season.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

All We Like Sheep

from time to time, i read an article about a drive to rename a building on a college campus or to remove a statue that some find objectionable.  while it is honest and instructive to examine the lives of those who are revered as great men and women from the past, acknowledging both their faults and their virtues, in my view, it is a mistake to condemn them for their flaws if we do not honor their notable achievements.

recently a number of teachers and students at the university of virginia criticized the president of the university for quoting the university's founder, thomas jefferson, in a letter to the university community.  thomas jefferson was a slave owner who was enriched by the forced labor of those he owned.  he fathered several children by one of those slaves, never freeing her nor acknowledging their children.  he held racist views that are rightfully condemned.  at the same time, he was an intellect of the first rate, a champion of our fledgling republic, the author of our declaration of independence, and our third president.  his views on slavery were conflicted, and, like many of his fellows, he did not see a way out the moral morass of an economic system dependent on this vile institution in the near future.  that the president of the university jefferson founded should be chastised for quoting its founder seems to be an exercise in political correctness that goes too far.

i understand the need to expunge the name of a person like nathan bedford forrest, a man who needlessly killed hundreds of black union soldiers during the civil war and who founded the ku klux klan after the south's defeat in that war, from the many buildings, streets, and other constructions which are named in his honor.  such a person is unworthy of honor, but to relegate people like woodrow wilson to the dustbin of history seems incongruous.  we must acknowledge that wilson held racist views and suppressed dissent during our participation in the first world war, but he also did much good in promoting world peace and working to engage our country in a role of leadership in making the world a better place, ruining his health in the process.  here is a man who is worthy of both honor and condemnation, a man who was flawed, as we all are, but one who sought to do good despite his imperfections.

the list of the great whose faults were long ignored and who were portrayed as paragons of super-human virtue is lengthy, and it is imperative that we re-examine their lives, in the process acknowledging their humanity.  their greatness lies in the fact that, despite mistakes and views worthy of condemnation, they did great good; the fact that they were human beings with warts and blemishes ought to inspire each of us to do whatever good is possible within our own limitations.

may we not be so ready to condemn others while we ignore our own failings.  may we see that we are all human, capable of both good and bad actions.  may we strive to live skillfully and forgive our own failings to do so.  may we be generous to both ourselves and to others.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

I Lift My Lamp

a few days ago my wife and i took a day trip to visit three small towns near our home, shopping for christmas gifts along the way.  this loop took us through some beautiful countryside, and several off-the-beaten-path communities.  looking at several confederate flags waving in isolated yards along the way, we were reminded of the racism that has surfaced during the past election campaign and the days of transition leading to donald trump's inauguration.  one home had a united states flag, a confederate flag, and a christian flag displayed on tall flagpoles near the highway.  we wondered how the three could be reconciled.

the analyses of the votes cast during the election has begun, and it is apparent that, in large measure, trump owes his victory to the overwhelming support of white evangelicals, 81% of whom voted for him.  their support, coupled with the failure of some key groups to turn out to vote for secretary clinton in several battleground states, enabled a candidate who espoused racist, mysogynistic views to prevail.  those of us who supported hilliary clinton are heartened that she has won the popular vote, and calls for the abolition of the electoral college have grown stronger and more numerous.  after all, this is the second time in the last twenty years that a progressive candidate has won the popular vote, while losing the election due to the peculiarity of the electoral college system.

we cannot say with accuracy that the american populace has abandoned the progressive philosophy.  we can trace the failure of hilliary clinton and al gore to win elections to a compromise made when the constitution was drafted over two hundred years ago.  in order to assuage the fears of small, less populous states the electoral system was established to give more weight to the states whose leaders were afraid that they would be overwhelmed by the more populous states, just as the founders compromised on the counting of slaves as part of the population, deciding that a slave was only 3/5 of a person in counting the population of a state.  this abominable decision was reversed by a bloody civil war that freed the slaves and made them 5/5 of a person for purposes of the census and voting power, thus increasing the electoral power of the states that had formerly been "slave states."

throughout the history of the usa there has been this battle between the forces of progressive and regressive policies.  in the aftermath of the civil war, a regime of "reconstruction" was instituted that insured that southern whites would develop a sense of alienation from the rest of the nation, a sense that has persisted for amost 150 years.  these draconian measures alienated the poor white southerners from the newly freed slaves, and it was not until the era of franklin delano roosevelt that a common bond between these two groups was forged, a bond that was broken when progressive policies were enacted that insured that full voting rights would be extended to black americans in the south.

regressive policies, like the poll tax, that made it difficult for blacks to exercise the right to vote were abolished.  the civil rights movement worked to register large number of black southerners, often with great resistance from the white political establishment in southern states.  the voting rights act gave black americans, who were overwhelmingly loyal to the party of fdr, new tools for their own enfranchisement and placed restrictions on powerful white "states' rights" advocates in the south.  the result was a stark division in party affiliation between white and black southerners, giving rise to a strengthened republican party in a region that had been uniformly loyal to the democrats.

once again we have seen measures adopted to disenfranchise black southerners and other minorities.  ascendant republicans in southern state houses and legislatures have instituted identification requirements for voting, purged voter rolls willy-nilly, decreased the days available for early voting, reduced the number of polling stations and the hours for voting, making it more difficult for those at the lower rungs of the economic ladder to vote.  the supreme court has removed most of the restrictions on white power that were part of the voting rights act, undoing much that this legislation accomplished.  these regressive policies played a role in the republican victory in the latest election.

many factors contributed to trump's victory, but the fact remains that a majority of americans voted in favor of the more progressive of the two major-party candidates.  the liberal political philosophy in the usa is not dead, though the archaic constitutional election process dealt it a blow.  the forces of progressivism must regroup and prepare for the next election in two years.  perhaps the policies of the new administration will create a sense of "buyer's remorse" among those who cast a protest vote by voting for mr. trump, and the democratic party will field candidates that will cause these angry voters to return to their democrat roots.  history has a way of surprising us, and it may be that this latest election was a quirk that will be reversed.

as we look forward to the ultimate victory of progressivism in the usa and the world, may we stay true to our principles.  may we oppose the forces of regression which see those who are different as "others" who are to be ostracized.  may the progressive ideals that protect those who have come through the "golden door" to find freedom and prosperity in this country ultimately prevail.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

And Crown Thy Good

last wednesday morning i woke to find that what i feared when i went to sleep the night before was indeed a reality:  donald trump had been elected the 45th president of the united states.  when tuesday evening's election results began coming in, i was optimistic that hillary clinton would be victorious, as reports of her carrying most of the northeast and illinois countered trump's early wins in the southeast.  all of this was consistent with what the polls had predicted, and i was confident that the democratic candidate would carry the west cost, colorado, new mexico, and all the "rust belt" states around the great lakes except ohio.  some of that proved to be the case, but when i finally went to sleep shortly after midnight, trump was leading in wisconsin, michigan, pennsylvania, and new hampshire.  i knew that it was likely that the unthinkable, seemingly impossible, victory of demagoguery was probable, but i hoped against hope that some sudden surge of uncounted votes would swing the election away from trump.

on that wednesday morning, i was fearful for the millions of undocumented aliens in our country.  when trump is inaugurated, will a huge "deportation force" begin rounding them up and loading them on trains and planes for mexico, breaking up families and disrupting their lives and the economy in the process?  will trump be able to dismantle the affordable care act, leaving millions of americans in a healthcare limbo, with lost insurance coverage in the middle of treatments for major illnesses?  will the senate begin considering a replacement for justice scalia who will move the supreme court to the right and undo the decisions protecting the rights of women and extending marriage equality to all our people?  will we break trade agreements and mutual defense pacts with our allies, throwing the world into greater chaos?  will laws protecting the environment be repealed or gutted?  will international treaties to reverse the damages of climate change be abrogated?  will the rights of workers be diminished?

i am very afraid, and my heart aches for all those who will suffer if the agenda trump has promised is enacted.  what can i do in the face of the fascism that seems to have taken over our country?  will republicans in congress who opposed trump have the courage of their convictions and come to the aid of those who will be hurt by trump's policies, or will they celebrate a partisan victory while throwing millions of the residents of our country under the bus?  will democrats find a way to work with moderate republicans to prevent the worst aspects of the new president's policies from becoming law, or will have four years of legislative gridlock?

so many questions, so much angst, such a feeling of powerlessness.  may we come to our senses.  may we be filled with compassion rather than anger.  may wisdom prevail.  may we reach out to those whose anger propelled mr. trump into office and see their humanity, even as we demonstrate lovingkindness for those against whom their anger was directed.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

In Reason's Ear They All Rejoice

as i drove down a street i seldom travel in our town a few days ago, i saw a billboard with a picture of a man dressed in a suit speaking into a microphone.  the caption on the bottom of the billboard said, "you can't explain it, you just have to experience it," along with the name of a church that is, i suppose, led by the man pictured on the billboard.  my immediate thought was that this is what is wrong with so much in our culture and with so many christian churches.  the suggestion is that it's acceptable, indeed preferable, to set reason aside and blindly follow a strong leader.  let you life be ruled by feel-good pop philosophy and unthinking acceptance of the most irrational beliefs and all will be well this school of "thought" asserts, and many are willing to fall prey to just such an unthinking approach to the most important decisions we make in life.

we've seen this sort of absurdity play out in this year's presidential election.  one candidate can make the most absurd statements, blithely tell lies that are easily rebutted by his own words, imply that our national problems can be blamed on "certain groups," and make insulting remarks about women and anyone who crosses him, and his followers cheer him on.  a relative who supports him told me today that he admires this man for figuring out to avoid paying income tax while living in the lap of luxury and refusing, on the flimsiest pretexts, to pay his creditors, telling me that this only demonstrates "how brilliant he is."  this relative said, "all rich people do this, and, if i were smart enough, i'd do the same."  as long as donald trump says what his followers want to hear, no matter how repugnant his conduct, they support him without questioning his many policy inconsistencies, and religious fundamentalists endorse him while his actions run contrary to the values they purport to embrace.

the strong strain of anti-science, anti-intellectual, anti-education populism in this country empowers those who refuse to examine issues in a rational, thoughtful way and plays into the racism and sexism that has long been the dark underbelly of the national psyche.  this anti-rationalism condemns those who challenge the status quo and brands those whose ethnicity, religion, sexuality, or life-style are outside the dominant culture as "others" who are to be feared and ostracized.  if "you can't explain it," you need to question it and search for explanations, and, if you can "experience it," there must be a basis for that experience.

may we use our minds to understand, rather than thoughtlessly accepting.  may we challenge our own beliefs and those of others until they can be proved.  may we embrace learning rather than fearing it or ridiculing it.  may wisdom based on reason be our goal, and may we not embrace those who reinforce our prejudices.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

As in Our Daily Life We Struggle

my wife and i own a timeshare, and, on the trip from which we've just returned, we used our timeshare points to stay at a resort where we've never stayed before.  we are often asked to attend an "informational meeting" when we visit a timeshare, and we usually decline.  this time we decided to attend, as the man scheduling the meetings assured us there were changes in the ways we could utilize our timeshare that we would learn about in the hour-long meeting.

the next morning we showed up at the appointed time.  we were kept waiting for ten minutes before being shown into the meeting room, where we joined several other couples.  what was to have been an hour-long meeting, drug on for almost two hours, starting with the large group presentation filled with lists of complicated processes and types of timeshare memberships, followed by a meeting with two individuals who couldn't provide written explanations of the products they were trying to sell us but did provide misinformation in response to questions that we asked.  when we finally brought the session to an end by pointing out that the promised time limit had been exceeded and that we had other things we wanted to do, we managed to avoid displaying our anger or being rude, though it took self-control on the part of both my wife and me.

we left feeling mad and depressed.  how had we allowed ourselves to be placed in this situation again?  every "informational meeting" we've attended with the timeshare company has ended this way, and we were upset with ourselves for being rooked into this situation again.  we promised ourselves, as we have before, never to agree to another of these sales pitches, no matter how charming the scheduler who approaches us.  as we reflected on the encounter, we agreed that the two people with whom we met were not interested in our well-being.  they were only concerned with lining their own pockets and those of the company they represented.  we wondered how many of the couples scattered around the room in cubicles with "personal representatives" had succumbed to their sales pitch.

we enjoyed the rest of our trip, and the resorts where we stayed were comfortable and well-maintained.  we've never regretted purchasing our timeshare and make use of our ownership frequently, as do our children.  we won't limit ourselves to traveling only when we can stay at a timeshare resort, as the company would like us to, and we'll continue to travel in our own way, not their way.  i suppose it's human nature to want to persuade others to act in ways that are advantageous to oneself, even when those actions harm another, but one has only to stop and think to realize that there's a better way to live.  why not think first of the effect of an action on the other person and look for ways that are mutually beneficial?

may we not adopt an "us or them" philosophy of life.  may we regard the needs of others as being as important as our own needs.  may we see others as we see ourselves, never enriching ourselves at the expense of others.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

On the Road Again

this week my wife and i are traveling in the mountains of tennessee and north carolina, and i plan to write about our experiences in the next couple of posts, but, for now, i'm taking the week off.  may we all have safe and enjoyable travels wherever we happen to be.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Prayer Is the Soul's Sincere Desire

what do we hope to accomplish when we pray?  our pastor suggested in her sermon yesterday that God desires our prayers because God wants to establish a relationship with us, just as a parent might not give something to a child until the child asks.  perhaps she's right.  it seems to me that prayer doesn't cause God to change, but rather prayer changes the one who prays.  when we pray to be spared from a hurricane, does that mean that we won't prepare for the destruction a hurricane brings?  would we ask for deliverance from the hurricane and then sit in our homes assuming that God will direct the hurricane elsewhere, or would we realize that our best hope is to make whatever preparations we can to protect our property and remove ourselves from the path of the storm?

how often have many of us misplaced some precious object and prayed that we would find it, only to discover it after we've prayed?  i can't believe that we received some message from God that directed us to the lost object.  instead, our prayer triggered a memory in our subconscious that reminded us where to look.  as i've written before, i have serious doubts about the efficacy of intercessory prayer and tend to believe that such attempts to manipulate God border on blasphemy.  so should we pray at all, and, if we do, what should our prayer be?

i think prayers of gratitude are the most important prayers we can make: gratitude for God as a presence that supports, encourages, comforts, and cares for us, gratitude for God as the creator of all things and the source of all good, gratitude for life itself, gratitude for the gifts of reasonable minds and the resources to solve our problems.  i think it's appropriate to express our anguish and pain in the face of the trials of life, not because God will remove that suffering, but because in doing so we acknowledge God's presence and we accept that our suffering is a natural response to events in our lives rather than a weakness to be suppressed.  i think it's ok to confess our failings when we pray, not to seek forgiveness for them, but to express our humanity and to enable us to move beyond them through giving voice to them when we can share them with no other person.

so, i continue to pray, but most often i pray that i will be changed rather than asking God to change things for my benefit.  most of my posts end with a series of prayers: may i take responsibility for the way in which i live my life.  may i look to my own potential to solve my problems, even if i ask God for wisdom and strength to find the solutions.  may i be grateful for all that i am and have, for the gift of life itself.  may i be a better person today than i was yesterday, and, if i'm not, may i forgive myself and figure out what i need to do to be a better person.  may we all live lives of gratitude, kindness, and compassion.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Bound to All in Bonds of Love

as i write on this sunday morning before the second presidential debate, i think of the words of donald trump from the tape of his conversation with billy bush that have been played and commented upon incessantly over the past couple of days.  trump has been condemned for what he said and for the thoughts and actions he describes and rightly so.  soon after this recording came to light, damning recordings of his appearances on the howard stern show were discovered and replayed.  the sum of these past words of the republican nominee paint a picture of a man who seems compelled to objectify women and to brag about his sexual prowess in the crudest terms.  his critics have been quick to say that such a man is not fit to be president of the united states, and they are right.  many of his former allies have abandoned him, and the pundits have decided that hillary clinton has already won the election.  one wonders how trump will conduct himself in the debate and how secretary clinton will respond if he attacks her for the past actions of her husband.

i was as disturbed by the trump recordings as any of those whose condemnations were reported in the media and agree that such a person is a poor choice for president.  but as i think back on my life, i remember many words that i regret, immature comments that should never have been made, crude remarks that would have led those who heard them to think less of me.  i dare say most people have similar memories.  donald trump is not unique in this respect.  his roles as both a media personality and a prominent businessman given to frequent public pronouncements mean that what he says is often recorded, creating a permanent archive of comments that would remain private for most of us.  the fact that he knew his comments on the howard stern shows were being broadcast live and would be recorded for posterity demonstrates that he was unconcerned about how he would be perceived and that he believed at least some of his listeners would admire him for what he said on topics that are usually regarded as private.

while one can't support mr. trump or anyone like him for public office, it's hypocritical for most to castigate him for his remarks without admitting that we, too, have been guilty of similar lapses.  one hopes that trump has matured and changed his philosophy, though the evidence suggests otherwise, just as i hope that i am not the same person that made regrettable and inappropriate comments in my youth.  as one sage i respect commented, such remarks would not be so damnable if they were uttered by a youngster who lacked the maturity to know better, but the fact that trump said these things when he was in his mid-fifties leads one to conclude that he was past the age when his personality was still being formed and makes him culpable for them.

may we be forgiving without endorsing either words such as those spoken by mr. trump or the actions those words describe.  may we not try to remove a splinter from another's eye while there is a log in our own.  may we not forget that each of us has said and done things we regret before castigating another for past misdeeds.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

In Halls of Wealth and Power

as my wife and i watched the first debate between donald trump and hillary clinton, we hoped that secretary clinton would do well and demonstrate her mastery of both domestic and foreign policy.  at the same time, we hoped the debate would allow a larger audience to see the donald trump that has attracted the angry, racist supporters that one sees in clips of his rallies.  both of those hopes were realized, but in the course of the debate, i began to feel compassion for mr. trump.

as he interrupted secretary clinton, lambasted rosie o'donnell, denied well-documented statements he has made in the past, and praised his own temperament while criticizing that of his opponent, i thought about how much he must suffer.  his need for self-aggrandizement and his insistence that he is always right, that he has never failed at anything made me certain that his inner life is filled with turmoil.  his mind must be filled with a constant stream of chatter and distractions that prevent any semblance of self-examination or contemplation of ideas beyond those which will increase his own wealth and importance.

he appears to be devoid of basic notions of compassion, as he refers to "miss piggy," "crooked hillary," "little mario," and "lying ted," ridicules a handicapped reporter, makes fun of secretary clinton's stumble caused by her bout with pneumonia, and holds everyone who criticizes or disagrees with him in contempt.  as evidence comes to light of his dealings with those he employs, his cheating of private contractors, his use of the income tax code to avoid paying taxes while at the same time criticizing those whose poverty excuses them from paying income tax, his apparent manipulation of the charity that bears his name for purposes that are anything but charitable, one sees a portrait of a man who has become the embodiment of the worst of exploitative capitalism, a man like the fictional "citizen kane" that one might expect to utter "rosebud," on his death bed.

beyond his unsuitability to be president of the united states, mr. trump is a reminder that wealth and power are not the sources of happiness, and in fact may interfere with the human capacity for happiness, compassion, and kindness.  in him and his most ardent supporters, one sees an anger that dehumanizes their opponents, thus justifying the ridicule and venom directed at all who disagree with or oppose them.

may we have compassion for those filled with anger and hatred.  may we oppose their policies and tactics without losing sight of their humanity and hoping that they will see the source of their own suffering.  may we remember that the lust for wealth and power is the great enemy of happiness.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

An Instrument of Your Peace

those of us who profess to be christians spend so much time trying to understand our religion.  over the centuries we have debated, fought wars over, and struggled with what a genuine christian religion is or ought to be.  we've fractured into countless expressions of christianity, in the process alienating ourselves from one another and the adherents of other religions and the non-religious.  i'm not sure any of our attempts have moved us any closer to what jesus was teaching over two thousand years ago.

i wish i had a definitive, complete, and true answer to the questions of who jesus was and what he intended the practices of his followers to be. i believe i know some of the things he didn't intend for christians to do or become.  i am certain that he didn't intend for us to live in separate compounds from those who were different from us or to force them to live in their own separate compounds.  i am certain that he didn't intend for us to live in luxury while those around us were in desperate circumstances, in need of food or shelter.  i am certain he didn't intend for us to solve our differences by making war against one another.  i am certain that he didn't intend for us to enrich ourselves by cheating and taking from others.  i am certain that he didn't intend for us to follow a religion of rules that teaches that everyone who doesn't follow our rules is bound for an eternity of torment.  i am certain that he didn't intend for us to preach that our narrow system of beliefs is the only correct system of beliefs while all other systems are wrong and those who fail to adopt our system are doomed.

maybe what we need to do is follow the idea of jesus, rather than the physical person who lived so long ago.  maybe jesus is the concept that true religion is to replace hate with love.  maybe we should stop trying to convert everyone else to our own version of christianity and simply do good in the world.  maybe we ought to do whatever we can to clothe, feed, and shelter those who need care.  maybe we ought to stop taking from the earth without thought of the damage we are doing to ourselves and future generations.  maybe we should make health care available to all.  maybe we ought to stop seeing "others" and accept that we are all in this together.  maybe we ought to stop arguing about religion and start helping one another.  maybe we ought to be content with what we have rather than constantly striving for more that we don't need.  maybe we are all brothers and sisters, parents and children.  maybe we ought to throw away the rule book about which we've spent eons debating and fighting and just care for each other.

maybe this is what great teachers throughout history have been trying to get us to choose.  love over hate.  generosity over grasping.  peace over war.  kinship over enmity.  embracing over pulling apart.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Work, for the Night Is Coming

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Land of the Noble Free

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Children of Creative Purpose

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Then to Side with Truth Is Noble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

And the World Will Be Better for This

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

I Ask No Dream, No Prophet Ecstasies

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

While the Coward Stands Aside

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

We Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident

a few days ago i watched a "law and order" marathon with a visiting relative.  in one episode the plot revolved around the arrest of a black woman on a serious charge.  a grand jury refused to indict her on the charges, and the episode ended with her husband confronting a departing black assistant district attorney on the steps of the courthouse.  the husband said that for too long the arc of justice had bent in ways that penalized blacks, suggesting that it was now time for that arc to bend in the other direction.  this was a rebuke to the ada who had insisted on the woman's prosecution, arguing that the law was the law and meant nothing if it was not rigorously applied regardless of race or mitigating circumstances.

the relative with whom i was watching commented that he was tired of hearing "blacks play the race card."  "none of the problems blacks face," he opined, "are my fault or the fault of anyone i know."  he went on to say that he knew lots of blacks who were decent human beings, but one had only to look at how many blacks were in prison and how much crime was committed by blacks to realize that blacks were just plain different from whites.  one hears such arguments over and over in our country; one of the current presidential candidates is relying on such racism to get himself elected.

i just looked at him and said nothing, knowing full well that nothing i said could sway him.  he would never hear the blood of thousands of blacks who suffered at the hands of their masters crying out to him.  he would never understand the fear black parents feel every time their child steps out into the world.  he would never admit that attitudes such as his caused the lynching of countless blacks at the hands of angry white mobs.  he would never admit that it the responsibility of those of us whose ancestors perpetuated and fought for the institution of slavery to right the wrongs of those who went before us.  "they" aren't like "us:" this rallying cry is the motto of bigots who are compelled to find a scapegoat on which to blame the ills of society.  "it's 'their' fault" that they are poor, 'their' fault that there are freddie grays in the world, 'their' fault that young black men are jailed in disproportionate numbers, 'their' fault that blacks are too often the victims of police shootings.

no, it's the fault of all of us who refuse to acknowledge our own culpability for what our society has become, of all us who fail to temper justice with mercy, of all of us who elect racists to office.  those who elect the leaders of our country must vote for the candidates and parties that recognize our responsibility to right past wrongs, to regard all people no matter their race, creed, sexual orientation, or gender identity as equals who are entitled to pursue happiness.  we are stronger together.

may we enlarge our liberties, increase the opportunities for all our people, broaden the scope of our democracy, and realize the dreams of those who founded our nation.  may we turn from those who see only fear and distrust, those who would divide us rather than unite us. shalom.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

We Will Walk Side by Side

those of us who are citizens of the usa are presented with two very different choices in the current political battle: one a vision of our country as ridden with crime, overrun by "illegal aliens" bent on doing us harm, a land which must turn back to a time in the past where a white majority ruled and "others" knew their place; the other is a vision that sees all people who reside here working together to solve our problems, with every person having access to a living wage and health care, one that looks forward with hope to a future where all share the benefits of our prosperity rather than a turning back to an earlier time when mom stayed at home while dad earned the living and made the decisions and when people of color were invisible.  the first vision sees one man as its only hope, a supreme leader who will save us by making "great deals" while turning his and our backs to the rest of the world.  the second vision makes all of us partners in the work that lies ahead, building on the accomplishments of the current administration, strengthening our partnerships with our allies and working with them to make the world safer and more prosperous.

i was doubtful of the choice of tim kaine as mrs. clinton's running mate until i read his remarks in florida, where he said, in spanish, that all are welcome and called all of us americans, together.  after reading what he said there and reviewing his positions on a number of issues, i saw the wisdom in his selection.  the symbolism of having a hispanic vice-president, along with the several hispanics that were under consideration who have admirable qualities, is appealing, but mr. kaine may be able to reach constituencies that other potential running mates could not.

the politics of fear that were on display in cleveland and mr. trump's acceptance speech in which he said, "nobody knows the system better that me, which is why i alone [emphasis mine] can fix it" paints a picture of a country in chaos, overrun by terrorists and "foreigners," where lawlessness is rampant and "the first task of [trump's] new administration will be to liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens their — our communities."  hearing what came from the republican convention, one is reminded of an earlier time when many were afraid for the future, and a remarkable president said that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."  in his first inaugural address, franklin roosevelt painted a picture of hope in dark times and inspired us to work together to solve our problems when he said, "this is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously."  he did not present himself as a "savior" who was the only  person capable of "fixing" what was wrong.

as i read mr. kaine's and mrs. clinton's remarks in florida, i thought of franklin and eleanor roosevelt and the hope that they brought americans in a very dark time.   i thought of the stark contrast between mr. trump and his supporters who see a bleak present that can only be escaped by finding scapegoats and turning power over to a "deal-maker" whose primary accomplisment has been the accumulation of wealth at the expense of others and who has encouraged others to follow his example, and mrs. clinton and mr. kaine who challenge us to trust in ourselves and the principles upon which our country was founded to solve our problems together with cooperation and compassion, trusting each other rather than fearing one another.

may we embrace the vision that makes us better than we are now.  may be choose hope over fear.  may we lay down the weapons with which we now confront each other and turn to one another with open arms.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

And the Choice Goes by Forever

the other day one of the republican vice presidential hopefuls came out with a disturbing proposal, perhaps one of the most disturbing proposals i've heard in my lifetime.  when newt gingrich suggested that we "test" every muslim in this country to determine if they "believed in sharia law" and then to expel those who do, he demonstrated that he and all those who would have one set of laws for one religious group and another set of laws for all others engage in the most vile sort of prejudice.  jewish religious courts have functioned in this country and other countries, serving the needs of those who subscribe to certain expressions of the jewish religion, with no outrage from the bigots who scream about "sharia law."  in israel, sharia courts are permitted for the resolution of legal questions among its muslim residents who choose to use them, and those courts seem to serve their purpose just as the jewish halacha courts do.

the scapegoating of an entire group of people for the bad acts of a few of its members is reprehensible.  after the senseless murder of members of a prayer group in south carolina by a "christian" white supremacist, there were no calls from right-wing politicos to examine the practices of christians or to ban christians from coming into the country.  clearly, it wasn't the religion that was at fault, rather this tragedy was the work of a warped mind with little understanding of the christian religion.  similarly, the terrorist acts in france and elsewhere and the actions of the islamic state extremists have nothing to do with islam and everything to do with using religion as an excuse to justify the most hateful and repugnant practices.  blaming islam for the misapplication of its teachings is anathema to everything that the usa stands for.

how frightening it is that there seems to be a large group of people in this country who are ready to follow politicians who spout such hateful rhetoric!  how disturbing it is that there are candidates for high office who pander to bigots who have little understanding of the principles upon which the country was founded!  may we condemn bigotry of every sort in the strongest terms.  may we look for the common decency that we all share, regardless of religious belief or the absence of belief.  may loving-kindness and compassion win over hatred and discrimination.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Somewhere in the Darkest Night a Candle Glows

as i rode my bike through the park a few days ago, my mind turned to the meaning of morality and the role of religion in instilling morality in human beings.  these thoughts came against the backdrop of needless gun deaths in louisiana, minnesota, and texas.  i wondered then and continue to wonder if morality is truly a function of religious belief.  are believers any more or less moral than non-believers?

one thinks of all the evil done in the name of religion--the crusades, the havoc wrought by isis and al-quaida, the troubles in northern ireland, the persecution of an ethnic minority in burma, the hindu-muslim conflict in india, the murders in bangladesh--just to list a few.  if one takes a literal reading of the bible as one's guide to morality, then slavery, incest, honor killing, the repression of women, and genocide are justified.  we see the claim that discrimination against lgbt persons in the name of "freedom of religion" is a valid christian moral choice.

it seems to me that religion is all too often an excuse for the powerful to seek control over those less powerful.  one wonders if the source of the problem is not religious belief, if perhaps the world would be better off if the practice of religion were abandoned altogether.  are atheists more moral than believers?  in many cases, i think so.  the tribal nature of religious practice often diminishes individual responsibility for the moral choices that are made.  it becomes easier to harm others as part of a group than as an individual, particularly when there is consensus among the members of that group as to what constitutes "good" and "evil."  a non-believer must develop a lone sense of what is right and what is wrong.  certainly, there are individuals without belief that pursue hedonistic lifestyles without concern for the harm done to others, but belief or non-belief have little to do with such a choice; some self-proclaimed believers live such lives, as well.

when we define morality as making choices which do ourselves and others the least harm or the most good, religion has little to do with it.  every day is filled with such choices.  do i sit on my rear playing computer games while my spouse labors to take care of all the chores necessary to keep the house running?  do i make healthy choices so that i can be more productive, long-lived, and beneficial to myself and my family?  do i hoard my money or spend it on that which brings me fleeting pleasure while others are without the necessities of life?

may we embrace a moral ethic which brings us true happiness, increases good, and diminishes suffering in the world.  may we not use religion to justify the harming of other beings.  may the world be better because you and i have lived.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

From All the Easy Speeches That Comfort Cruel Men

it seems to me that there are three basic beliefs/attitudes/opinions about the existence and nature of God.  first, one may hold that there is no god; second, that there is a God who set creation in motion but does not intervene in how that creation is proceeding; and third, that God is active, directing the course of creation and each infinitesimal part of it.  from previous posts, it is clear that i am a believer in the second of these views about God.

within that second attitude toward God, there are two opposing beliefs: one, that once God set creation in motion, God allowed it to proceed and observed its progress dispassionately or two, that while God does not intervene directly in the ongoing process of creation, God is always present as the very force binding all things together.  it is in this camp that i find myself.  it is my belief that God is a benevolent, encouraging, loving Creator who comforts, strengthens, and cares about creation and the beings in it.  i have no evidence for this belief; it is simply what i seem to have experienced in my life.

those who reject belief in god(s) would say that my belief is a vestige of my upbringing in the christian faith that i refuse to let go, and they may be right.  i see much to support the non-believing position.  much of what we call "religion" is an attempt to explain that which we cannot explain, and as scientific understanding increases, much of what we accept "on faith" is explained by evidence-based knowledge.  we no longer need to make sacrifices to appease angry gods, and we know there are reasonable explanations for natural phenomena that humans once saw as acts of capricious or vengeful gods.

there is great danger, i think, in the last sort of belief in God.  when one believes in a "personal" God that has a plan for creation and every being in it, it becomes easy to act as if everything that happens and every action that one takes is not only known in advance by God, but is in fact caused by God.  i read an article recently about a leader in the "christian right" who had proclaimed that ted cruz was ordained by God to be the next president.  when that didn't happen, this person encouraged his followers to vote for trump, telling them that God had another plan for the country, and, that despite trump's past and current actions that are contrary to conservative christian philosophy, God must be using trump to carry out God's plan.  his attitude is "who has the audacity to question God's plan?" so if trump has won the republican nomination, it must be God's will that trump become the next president.

since those who insist on a god who has every detail of history and each individual life mapped out into an infinite future are convinced of their own rightness, anything that happens that runs contrary to their own view must be evil that will bring the wrath of an angry god down upon us.  if marriage equality is the law of the land they say, god will be angered and punish the country.  if transgendered people are protected by law, all manner of evil will come upon us at the hand of a vengeful god.  if businesses are not allowed to discriminate against those who are evil in god's sight, religious freedom no longer exists.  these are very dangerous positions that flow from the belief in this sort of a god, and every reasonable person should oppose a faith like this that creates a god in the likeness of those who purport to follow such a god.

may we not allow faith to overwhelm reason.  may we see the dangers in intolerance and bigotry, particularly when we claim that such evil is endorsed by god.  may we not be quick to condemn those who are different from us and to wish them harm.  if we believe in God, may that god be one of love.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

May Our Dreams Prove Rich with Promise

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

It Is Well with My Soul

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Old Times There Are Not Forgotten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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