Going Through the Motions: Prayer

(The following is an expanded version of a post I shared based on a discussion I was following in a social network faith group. The description does not pertain to all members of every church of Christ, but I’m sure we have seen those that this may remind us of.  I do not wish to cast aspersions on every Christian.  But we need to think hard about how committed we are to the founder of the faith, and not just the traditional trappings of of the church as an institution, but to the church as people with a mission to be the image of Jesus in a depraved world.) 

If the prayer of a righteous man avails much, how much do we avail ourselves of prayer in the more conservative churches of Christ? (That’s the group I’m most acquainted with.) Especially where it involves praying for people who don’t look or talk like us? We pray diligently for the military and their safety in harm’s way, and for our leaders who need all the help they can get, and rightly so. But how many times do we hear public prayer on behalf of the people of Puerto Rico who are still not recovered fully from last year’s hurricane season? Or the children being torn from their parents and shipped across the country with no one to comfort them? No, we pray (half-heartedly) for healing, when we know that Sis. So and So’s cancer is terminal. I don’t pray much for healing–mainly grace and comfort to deal with what will come, and come to all. Isn’t it interesting that most of the “miraculous” cures are not registered among coC members or adherents?

We don’t pray for the defeat of government measures that hurt people when heaven well knows that children, the elderly, and the disabled are in the cross-hairs of nearly every “conservative” politician. Because praying for the defeat of cruel measures would be going against the tenets of political conservatism, and we must all be conservative in all things.

We pray hollow words to a God we say we worship, but choose not to emulate in his quality of love. We go through sometimes elaborate motions to look the part of the believer in the sacred auditorium, but do we really internalize the repeated calls to justice and mercy and humility?  Our prayers are rife with pre-packaged formulas, with supplication that God will “Guide, guard, and direct us until the next appointed time.”  We pray for the preachers’ “ready recollection” of the message he has prepared for us.  We pray for God to “forgive us of our many sins,” but often forget to pray for strength and wisdom to avoid temptation. We may pray the prayers of entire services–opening prayer , two for Communion, and closing prayer–and never once acknowledge the centrality of grace to our presence and to our salvation.

I love the people I associate with, and those I have known for all my life. But as I reflect, I see so little Jesus in the lives of so many, and so much more formulaic church member. We take our five steps to achieve “membership,” then perform the five acts of worship regularly, and dismiss grace as an artifice of the denominations to get around obeying the five steps and performing the five acts. Some of us are almost never seen doing anything for the poor or the community, and certainly not as an organized outreach, because we don’t have an example as traditionally recognized, and we dare not overstep our bounds, because we can do good works to our own condemnation. No, we hide the talent in the ground, because God is a hard master, and count on grace–no, make that a graceless precision obedience–to take us to heaven, you know, just over the river, and beyond the sunset, and the second star to the right and straight on ’til morning.

When was the last time someone heard a voice break when someone prayed, or someone sob at the strong emotion they felt in the moment–so strong they poured their hearts out to God in public, even? I have cried for dead children–victims of the almost uniquely American plague of gun violence and school shooting–as I have reminded the congregation to pray for them and their weeping, heartbroken families. I sobbed as I asked the congregation to pray for a little boy, non-verbal and on the autism spectrum, killed by his father, perhaps because he was “inconvenient.” I have choked up thinking about the Christian brothers and sister in the Middle East who did not falter in their faith as the heartless evil soldiers of ISIS decapitated them before their children.

If we are not moved to tears or emotion at such suffering, perhaps it is best we don’t pray for those victims. If they mean so little to us as fellow image bearers of God that we can’t feel for them, how will God ever take the time to hear an empty, pointless, noisy fly-buzz of a prayer?

Perhaps we could start with a model as recorded in Luke 18.13: “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'”  But then, beating one’s breast would be undignified and not orderly in our worship services, and not approved.  So, we’ll just go back to, “Guide, guard and direct us….” As if we’d recognize it if any of those three were to actually happen to us as we leave the holy auditorium and the sacred building, and enter the world, of which we are not a part.

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Another Look at the Golden Rule: A Short Course in Ethics for (a Confused) Humanity

How do we get along in the world?  Sometimes it seems like a near impossibility.  The cards are stacked against us.  We get dealt a bad hand.  People are out to get me.  Life isn’t fair.

And sometimes, those things may be true.  But there are ways to make life better. And it’s not really all that hard.

Some people will be upset to find that the key is in that dusty old book of spiritual writings that we call the Bible.

Many people have heard of something that has come to be called The Golden Rule, found in Matthew 7.12.  In one translation, it reads, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”  It’s Jesus talking to incipient disciples in what has been labeled the Sermon on the Mount, a collection of sayings that essentially herald the opening of Jesus’s personal earthly ministry.  It is found from Matthew 5 through Matthew 7, and it is full of ideas and ideals of human behavior.

But verse 12 is of particular interest in that it is said to sum up the entirety of the Law and the Prophets.  There are other sayings in Jesus’s teachings that mention the Law and Prophets.  Later in Matthew’s very Jewish history of Jesus’s life, the teacher was asked what the greatest commandment of the Law was.  Jesus replied in chapter 22, “37 …”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38  This is the great and first commandment.  39  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  40  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”  Later, James wrote about the Royal Law in James 2.8, “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.”

Paul’s writings return to this ideal that was originally written in Leviticus 19.8, in the context of not seeking vengeance.  Moses scribed, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”  Paul, who was self-described as the consummate Jew, an academic legal expert and later, Christian convert, wrote in Romans 13.9-10, “For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  10  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”  Then, in his dissertation on the Law vs. Liberty, he wrote in Galatians 5.14, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The Jews had a written code of religious and secular laws.  On top of it, they added commentaries that essentially compounded the Law with corollaries that made keeping the Law immensely difficult to any but those who were focused completely on it.  But even they could not keep it all.  Thus, sacrifices were made to atone for those that violated even the smallest bit of that Law.

Law keeping is hard.

Jesus simplified the fundamentals of Biblical ethics in his Golden Rule, and his teaching on the Greatest Commandments. What is the heart of the matter?  Loving others as we love ourselves.  Unless we have some sort of condition that forces us to do self-destructive things, we show our love for ourselves by doing things that are good for us, by doing things that make us happy, that keep us safe, and that keep us going a little longer, a little farther down this road of life.

All of these things we have learned since our earliest acquaintance with scripture.  Many learned Matthew 7.12 as one of the first “memory verses” they mastered.  Words are so easy to commit to rote.  Application is the hard part:  How do we wish to be treated?  With dignity and respect, or with indignation and disdain?  What makes us feel better about ourselves and our lives? What makes life easier?

But the Golden Rule did not just fulfill the Law to love one’s neighbor as oneself.  Jesus said it fulfilled the prophets’ call to justice and kindness.  I was deaf to the prophets’ calls to justice until I was well into middle age.  I avoided the dry moanings of those men, calling the erring Israel and Judah back to the reality of a relationship with God.  They had wandered away from God, even followed after pagan deities.  But so often, they were called to return to justice, mercy, kindness and humility.

For example, the very opening of Isaiah describes the futility of the expression of Law keeping without attention to the core teaching of love for others.  In Isaiah 1, the Prophet speaks forth for God, “16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”  All of the observances of feast days and sacrifices were pointless if they did not show love for others.

Jesus related the same concept in Matthew 9.13 and 12.7, where he asks his detractors what was meant by a quote from Hosea 6.6, “For I desire steadfast love (also translated as “mercy”) and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

Why is this such a big deal?  Because God made humankind to be in his image.  To bring this essay full circle, go back to the Sermon on the Mount, back to Matthew 7.  The Golden Rule verse begins with “so” or “therefore” in many translations, demonstrating that a conclusion is being drawn from the preceding argument in verses 7-11.  ” 7 Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 9 Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”  

No one who loves his child would give him something harmful when the child asks for food.  It seems so obvious as to need no actual comment.  But the principle is then crystallized in verse 12, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

So the question remains for many today: how do I treat others?  The answer is simple: how I would wish to be treated.  That answer is simple, and indeed, rather simplistic and superficial with direct connection to reciting the Golden Rule, but the true depth requires more thought and reasoning. Everyone would likely want to be treated well in general, with respect and with dignity.  But we need to be able to understand where others are in terms of their needs.  If I were homeless, how would I hope to be treated?  If I were sick and in desperate need of medical care, how would I hope to be treated? If I were fleeing from oppression, the threat of a violent death; if I were struggling to find some place where my children could grow up in peace, with the hope of a better life, how would I wish to be treated?  If my life were so difficult that I have sought refuge in medications, becoming addicted to opioids or alcohol or gambling or sex, how would I hope to be treated? I know I have a problem, so do I need lectures and punishment and harassment? Or could I use some help to overcome my addiction and change my life so that it is bearable and so that I can find strength and comfort in something besides such self-destructive outlets? If I were trapped in a cycle of poverty, financially unable to move my home to a place where there may be greater opportunity, yet unable to find work where I live in this blighted inner city, do I need berating for living on handouts or the encouragement that a hand-up could provide? 

Some will say that this smacks of “liberalism.”  I say it shouts the most fundamental of godly principles. Given a choice between placating some oppressive political ideology and following God’s own fundamental ethic, I will take the path that makes life better for the oppressed, not the oppressors.  It is the Rule that is Golden.  Gold is not the rule.

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land….”

I can’t imagine the terror at the US southern border these past few months.  A family fleeing violence in a lawless Central American country takes what they can carry and heads North, to what they have heard, what they hope will be a land of opportunity, only to be met by rough men and women with guns that take the children and put them in separate detention centers from their parents.  The anxiety.  The fear.  The incalculable sense of loss.  Damned if they stay in their homes to a life of constant threat of violence.  Damned to a life of misery in this miscast land of shattered dreams.

A parent has a responsibility to see to the safety of his or her children.  The decision to migrate north must be a difficult one.  They have heard of bad things that may happen along the way.  But the dream of the promise a better life overcomes the reality of the threat of dangers along the way.  They make their decision, and by whatever way they can, they leave certain danger and a constant sense of privation and head toward the uncertain.

If it is true about children being held in pens at these detention centers, I am saddened beyond belief at this miscarriage of American justice, mercy, and decency. We have abdicated our often-touted role as a guardian of morality and human decency for a false sense of security.  These children are not security threats.  The vast majority of their parents are not either.

But it pains me even more when I see people who claim a Christian faith support these barbaric and ungodly measures.  Let me be clear: the treatment of children and families of undocumented immigrants at the border is wrong.  It is evil in its purest form.  Where mercy is asked, we grant none.  Where asylum is sought, we now summarily detain until we can send frightened people back to their homes filled with violence and hostility.

This is as far from Christian as can possibly be perceived.

I agree that there must be control over entrance into the country. But we can decide how we do these things, either with compassion and decency or with overt hostility. 

The biblical view is clear.  The Israelites were commanded to be charitable and merciful to immigrants.  In Leviticus 19.33-34, the law is given, “33 When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.  34 You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”  The Israelites were to do sojourners, strangers, immigrants no wrong.  Why?  Because they themselves had been immigrants, strangers, sojourners in Egypt.  You were once in their shoes, they are told.  You were in need, and you were provided for.  Of course, in the narrative, the Israelites devolved into slavery over the centuries, and were later liberated.  But perhaps that is the message to them: treat others better than you were ultimately treated.

The treatment of children is alluded to in the New Testament in the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount as recorded by Matthew in Matthew 7.9-11.  “9 Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 11  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” 

But these are not our children.  No, but they are children.  They are human beings who are our neighbors.  Remember the story of the Good Samaritan?  The question was asked, ‘Who is my neighbor?”  And Jesus told that often-repeated story of compassion.  The upshot was anyone who needs your help is your neighbor.  Anyone who needs your compassion.  Anyone who needs mercy.

Is there a more compelling picture than a child knocking at the door, at the gate of this country, asking for food, water, clothing, medical attention?  Is this not the very image of how we will be judged in that decisive moment in Matthew 25?

The conclusion of Jesus’s comments in Matthew 7 are summed up in that well-known verse 12. “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” 

The Golden Rule.

How many times have we heard it repeated?  We know the words.  We can speak the words like some incantation.  Mechanically.  Inauthetically.  Self-righteously.

But like musical notes can be mechanically sounded, the meaning in the melody is lost without the understanding and emotion of the musician.

Do we crave having our children torn from us?  Do we seek detention in a pen or cell or other confinement as we recite our Pledge of Allegiance, promising liberty and justice for all?  How do we justify treating others this way?

The evil in this action is many-fold:  it is not only the evil of treating others without mercy and compassion.  It is perverting if not ignoring the teaching of our sacred texts in favor of the rantings of power-hungry men who have no morals, yet claim piety and purity of intent.  It is ignoring what is required by God of those who would claim to be his children—justice, mercy and humility.

We need security, but not at the cost of the soul of the nation.  Whether some accept it or not, we are a nation of immigrants.  That we turn our backs on others who are no different from our ancestors is hypocrisy and arrogance.  If we refuse aid and care to those who stand at the door and knock, we turn our backs on the teaching of Jesus.  There is no way around it.

If we cannot support more immigrants, we must do what we can to help them make their homes safer and more prosperous.  The “America First” doctrine is evil in itself.  We are humans, first, before we are of any nationality.  We are children of God before we are citizens of any earthly realm.  We need to stop ripping babies from their mothers’ arms like some image from slavery or the opening scenes of an incipient holocaust.  When we forfeit our humanity for some concocted sense of nationalistic security, we are doomed to fall.

I echo Dr. King’s quote from the prophet Amos, when he said, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”  The call is as needed today as when he wrote those words from a cell in the Birmingham jail.  There are many national sins to wash away, and one is truly no more egregious than the next toward those who are targeted, but none so blatantly cruel as separating families at their most vulnerable hour, when they need the strength afforded by their bonds of love.  We were meant for better than this.  May we hasten the day when true justice and righteousness may flow from every human heart; when kindness and mercy overcome fear and mistrust; when we once again reflect the image of a loving God.      

 

Of Tax Cuts, Inequality and Questionable Faith

The GOP tax bill was written largely by lobbyists with no input from Democrats. There were no public hearings and no completed analyses to determine projected effects–how could there be? There was no time in the rush to pass anything. One embarrassment is the fact that the bill as passed by the House violated Senate budget rules, and had to be re-voted after the violations were removed. If the bill had actually been crafted with thoughtful deliberation by our representatives as the founding fathers conceived the process, this kind of sloppy mistake would not likely occur.

Senator Cornyn has already said that this tax reform bill will make the ACA unworkable, forcing a de facto repeal of the law that brought health care to millions. The party that cares about deficits and debt just voted to increase the debt by $2.6 TRILLION over 10 years, when interest payments are figured in on the loans we will have to take out from countries like China.

The premise on which this bill was designed is a fairy tale, that lowering corporate taxes would stimulate more domestic investment, and increased wages. Actual history shows otherwise, and current studies indicate that corporations are likely to buy back shares of their stock and increase dividends to share holders before they pay workers more.

Few if any lawmakers had read the entire bill. How do you vote on something without knowing what it contains? Who it will hurt? How it actually works?

And so many of the people that support this claim they have a religious faith, most of them some flavor of Christianity. While some may claim that the calls to care for the poor and the vulnerable are individual ones, we are more effective by caring for them collectively in a nation this size. By taking away food from children and health care from the poor and seniors, we violate the fundamental premise of Jesus so-called “New Commandment,” that we love each other, or the second greatest commandment, to love our neighbors as we do ourselves.

There is no love in giving more money to people who already have more than they can possibly spend or use in multiple lifetimes. There is no love is taking away health care from poor children by failing to pass funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program. There is no love in closing community health clinics. There is no love in failing to support the restoration of Puerto Rico after the hurricanes this year. There is no love is spending more and more and ever more on building bombs and guns and warships rather than educating our youth and building a society where crime is less profitable than contributing to society as an equal partner on a level playing field.

I wish they would disavow their lip-service loyalty and allegiance to the Prince of Peace. They are followers of greed and lovers of money. They are self-serving hypocrites to whom history will not be kind.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said yesterday that we are at a turning point in history. May it be so, but not as he might hope. May it be a turning point of an awakening to civility and cooperation over partisanship, of stewardship over exploitation, of concern for humanity over self-interest, of a burgeoning indulgence in generosity over greed.

America was once a shining example of hope and faith in human goodness and potential. Now, its corruption detracts from its gilded domes and stately columns and once-high ideals. The only way to make America truly great again is to turn from the blighted philosophy of greed and avarice that brought us to this moment in history, and return to the self-evident truths so forcefully proclaimed in the founding document of this nation:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Certainly a rich man’s happiness cannot be of greater worth than a poor man’s life. An immigrant’s pursuit of life and liberty must not be secondary to a rich man’s happiness. Perhaps that trio of endowments by God are in order, that life is supreme, and liberty cannot be experienced without life. Happiness can only truly be pursued by those who are free.

But as President Franklin Roosevelt pointed out,

“The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:

Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.

Jobs for those who can work.

Security for those who need it.

The ending of special privilege for the few.

The preservation of civil liberties for all.

The enjoyment — The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.

These are the simple, the basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.”

The tax bill violates the first of FDR’s points because it will lead to increasing inequality. Security is on the chopping block as a result of this drive to reward the wealthy. Special privilege is all that is ultimately served in this bill. And civil liberties are constantly threatened by a party philosophy that relies on gerrymandered districts to maintain control.

We have lost our way as a nation. When the President calls for payment for protection from nations around the world, we are no better than gangsters ruling the streets by enforcing protection rackets.

We have lost our nobility of purpose and purity of motivation. We are not led by a government by, for and of the people. We have sold our birthright for a handful of promises that have no chance of fruition.

We must be better than this. We must provide opportunity for all. We must care for the least of these, the poor, the disabled, the hungry. We must realize that the measure of a man’s worth is not his bank account or the stable of politicians he commands but his willingness to serve and lead toward greater equality, not exacerbate the disease of greed and inequality.

Determining the Greater Frontier: Exploration versus Restoration

So President Trump signed a directive to send humans back to the moon with an eye toward Mars. Unfortunately, his budget proposal actually cuts NASA funding, so the symbolism of the gesture is not backed by anything tangible.  Like nearly every American child of the mid 20th century, I have a fondness for the idea of space exploration. I remember the Apollo missions and Skylab and the Shuttle program.

But having taught seminars on the effects of space travel on biological systems, I also know that there are dangers there.

And I know there are problems right here on Earth that we are not adequately addressing: hunger, climate change, pollution, disease, habitat destruction, extinction….

While I will always be fascinated by the idea of colonizing another planet, Mars could not be made even marginally habitable in less than a few hundred years–at least 400 years by one study I saw, beginning with seeding the Martian polar ice caps with very hardy algae to begin the enrichment of the atmosphere. But perhaps more significantly, Mars has an almost non-existent magnetosphere, which means protection against harmful solar and cosmic radiation is far less effective than on Earth, where the core is molten and constantly circulating to maintain that protective field.  Terra-forming is a slow process as we might practice it today, and it is not the sexy, wild-west adventure that too many people envision.

Elton John and Bernie Taupin were right in their song, “Rocket Man”:

“Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids,
In fact it’s cold as hell.
And there’s no one there to raise them if you did.”

So that leaves the question: what is the final frontier? Perhaps that is nothing more than a recursion to the first one–to seek answers for and solutions to repairing and restoring this damaged planet that is our only home.

I challenge the notion that we have only a few hundred years to make the leap to the stars. With a unified will to stop polluting and start restoring, we can make a difference in the habitability of this planet. But it will take strong will to accomplish that. While fortunes could be made in technologies to accomplish this, ultimately this initiative must go beyond profit: as E.O. Wilson has so passionately argued, saving biodiversity is a moral imperative. And I would extend that by mitigating our negative impacts on the environment and saving biodiversity, we save ourselves.

To those of a Judeo-Christian faith, it is finally addressing the primal mission of caring for this complex and fragile creation. “Dominion” as used in Genesis is better expressed as “stewardship”, serving as a caretaker and not an exploiter.

I have shared this passage from C.S. Lewis over and over, and I hope that it will indeed stick with some who read it. Lewis notes that only what he calls “supernaturalists” can truly understand nature. He writes,

“I spoke just now about the Latinity of Latin. It is more evident to us than it can have been to the Romans. The Englishness of English is audible only to those who know some other language as well. In the same way and for the same reason, only Supernaturalists really see Nature. You must go a little away from her, and then turn round, and look back. Then at last the true landscape will become visible. You must have tasted, however briefly, the pure water from beyond the world before you can be distinctly conscious of the hot, salty tang of Nature’s current. To treat her as God, or as Everything, is to lose the whole pith and pleasure of her. Come out, look back, and then you will see…this astonishing cataract of bears, babies, and bananas: this immoderate deluge of atoms, orchids, oranges, cancers, canaries, fleas, gases, tornadoes and toads. How could you ever have thought this was the ultimate reality? How could you ever have thought that it was merely a stage-set for the moral drama of men and women? She is herself. Offer her neither worship nor contempt. Meet her and know her. If we are immortal, and if she is doomed (as the scientists tell us) to run down and die, we shall miss this half-shy and half-flamboyant creature, this ogress, this hoyden, this incorrigible fairy, this dumb witch. But the theologians tell us that she, like ourselves, is to be redeemed. The ‘vanity’ to which she was subjected was her disease, not her essence. She will be cured in character: not tamed (Heaven forbid) nor sterilised. We shall still be able to recognise our old enemy, friend, playfellow and foster-mother, so perfected as to be not less, but more, herself. And that will be a merry meeting.”

If indeed in the theological realm the ultimate end is the redemption or restoration of a fallen creation, it is not incumbent that we seek to plumb new depths of destruction that the grace and glory of renewal should be all the more glorious.  Paul said as much in his discussion of grace in Romans where he posed the question, “Shall we go on sinning that grace may abound?” He concludes, “By no means!” By the same token, the misguided drive to escape our fouled nest only exacerbates the problem by fostering the false hope that the extraterrestrial grass will be greener than the dead stubble of our abused home.  The reality is that at present, there is no extraterrestrial grass.  Full stop.

The directive to take care of the creation was never rescinded in scripture: the job was paradoxically made harder by a nascent mankind’s tendency toward seeking the easy path. If indeed that bite from the forbidden fruit opened the eyes of that primitive pair, the tang of consequence has too long been ignored if not forgotten, and nature has paid a dear price for it.

We must be better toward the natural world. We must see it not as mere resources to exploit, but wonders to behold and treasures to be cherished. Life is a gift, but it is fragile. Running away to a dead moon or a dead Mars will only open new dangers and possibilities to snuff life out. The future is here. Embrace it by nursing this wounded planet back to greater health and vitality.

Liberty and Justice and the Hypocrisy of Conservatism

Last week, three men were stabbed by a white supremacist–two of them died–defending two Muslim girls in Portland. Now, a Portland Republican party official says the GOP should hire paramilitary militia fringe groups for security at their public events. Following a tense situation involving protesters in the Texas legislature, a GOP representative suggested putting a bullet in the head of a Democratic lawmaker.  About a week ago, a Republican nominee for Congress in Montana body slammed a reporter, and went on the win the special election for the open seat.  The Republican budget proposal was released last week, and the cuts for social programs to help the poor are staggering.  The Republican led health care bill will throw some 23 million people off of their health insurance over the coming decade, and some estimates say another 30 million children will lose insurance coverage because of draconian cuts to existing programs.

I watch these things unfold from my perch in a very red (yet deeply impoverished) county in a very red (yet fiscally insecure) state.  And I wonder how things came to be like this.  When did money and the accumulation of wealth become the only goal worth casting and achieving?  When did power for the sake of power alone become the American ideal?

Where is the party that spoke of “compassionate conservatism”? Where is the party of the Bushes and Reagan and Eisenhower? Where is the party that I used to belong to? George H.W. Bush’s famous “thousand points of light” have become nothing but the ashes of a once noble ideal. Reagan’s “morning in America” has slipped into a moonless midnight of isolationism and insecurity. George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” has taken a sharp turn to compassion for business and the wealthy only.

After the GOP approved “Citizens United” ruling in the Supreme Court, businesses are considered “people” that can use money as speech to propagate their pro-business agendas to the detriment of the poor, the sick, the disadvantaged and the environment.

Where Richard Nixon signed landmark environmental legislation into law, the current GOP dominated government is dismantling as much as they possibly can of the regulations that have helped clean and rehabilitate an ailing environment. In the name of saving money for some, they are turning their backs in education for all, health care for all, science and medical research….the list goes on. They have re-written the social contract to be little more than a manifesto for selfishness and greed.

We are in the middle of the process of losing allies who have been at our side since the days of our own inception as a nation (France), allies who have fought with us against fascism (England) and allies that stood beside us as we faced down the Soviet threat of the 20th century (Germany).

We have a (purported) Republican leader who praises authoritarian criminals like Duterte, Erdogan, and Putin, and who may have been compromised by alleged connections to Russian powers.

Where is the party of Eisenhower, the man who was the supreme commander of allied forces in Europe when the security of the entire world was threatened by violent fascism, who worked with forces of the free world and the armies in exile of occupied nations to throw back authoritarian rule in favor of democracy and freedom, at least for the West?  Where is the modern equal to Eisenhower who warned of the dangers of a growing threat from the military-industrial complex?

Where is the party of Reagan, the charismatic former actor turned politician who challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” that separated a city, but more than that, symbolized the separation of humanity between free people and oppressed? Now, we have a president who is bent on building a wall instead of tearing one down.

Now, instead of ideals of freedom and human dignity and equality and the pursuit of happiness, there is the pursuit of wealth for a few and grasping at the wind for so many more. Because we value money more than a vital global ecosystem, we turn our backs on multinational agreements to protect the atmosphere from further degradation. We listen to business leaders over scientists because profit is more precious than people, more precious than life.

History tells us over and over that oppressed people will not remain oppressed, that authoritarian tyranny will not be tolerated forever. And for people of a Christian faith, the call to aid the poor and those without voice is repeated over and over and over throughout the scripture. Many so-called conservatives claim a Christian faith, and even long for a so-called “Christian nation,” all the while turning their backs on their God-given tasks of caring for the environment and responsibilities to the less fortunate.

Maybe some day, we will see that money is no more than a means to an end, that it is pointless without a purpose. Maybe we will reach a point where politics takes its place to serve human needs, not only the human wants of a few.

There is excess and wrong-doing at all points of the political spectrum to be sure. But the greed and violent threats from the right are unnerving. We must be better than this if we are to survive as a people. Let there be liberty and justice for all, but in the sense of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms like freedom from want and fear, and in the sense of true biblical justice, as the relief of the poor and needy.  These should be the American hallmark, maintaining the beacon of liberty, with amity toward our friends and allies and vigilance against oppression, yet tempered with a readiness, a willingness, even an eagerness to extend the olive branch of peace.

A Big Negative on the Negativism

I’ve noticed lately that there are activist pastors who seem to be making a cottage industry of bashing everything in the 21st century church. Now I’ve done plenty of complaining myself. I know it. But every now and then, it is a very good thing to stop, take stock, breathe a little, and praise those Christians who are indeed trying to live by the code of Jesus, i.e., other-centered, sacrificial love. I know they are out there. I’ve seen them. I have been moved by their words and their actions.

I know. They may be thinking this is tough love. We need to be whipped into shape and fast. But why would anyone want to be a part of any group where their leader never offers praise, never asks blessings on the “good-doers”? Didn’t Jesus open the Sermon on the Mount with a set of sayings called the beatitudes, each one beginning with “blessed” or as some might say, “happy”?

There is no doubt much to be ashamed of among the high-profile ministers and the celebrity “Christians of convenience.” But I heard something this past Sunday, Christmas Day, that made me stop and ask myself if I had ever before heard the same sentiment in any place I have ever traveled. A man prayed before the collection basket was passed at a small country church, and he was thankful for the blessing and privilege of earning a living to provide for his family, that the offering we give as contribution to the church treasury was in recognition of that blessing. It was a simple expression, nothing flowery, I don’t even remember any “thee’s” and “thou’s,” but it was real and heart-felt.

Why can’t some of the marquee ministers who are always up in arms take a few beats and praise those who are doing what they can with what they have?

I know there are problems in the vast array of groups that are expressions of a Christian heritage. But there is good, as well. There is quiet decency and dignity. Maybe a dose of good news–isn’t that the meaning of the word “gospel”?–would do more than the constant negativity against all things Christian from people who are supposed to be leading their fellow Christians. Read the short Letter to the Philippians to see how Paul treated these people who were so dear to his heart. He had instruction for them like being quick to settle disputes, but the letter is steeped in so much love that the correction is more like a gentle persuasion.

Like any group, Christians can most often benefit from being led by example. The office of overseer was instituted to be filled by those with a good reputation, men of age and experience, who could provide a good example to those in their charge. Ministers as the most visible of church posts are in a unique position to lead by example, as well. Again Paul urged his readers, his friends, to follow his example as he strove to emulate Jesus.

Christianity has enough detractors outside its ranks. It doesn’t need constant berating from inside. Instruction, yes; correction, yes, but with love, not vitriol.

Do we need to show greater love for the poor and the oppressed? In many cases, the answer is most likely “yes.”  But rather than berate us for a lack of caring, help us find our voice. Show us the way. Don’t condemn us all. The wise man said in Proverbs 15 that “a gentle answer turns away wrath, but harsh words stir up anger.” If we could ever stop being so angry all of the time, maybe we would see more opportunities to live as Jesus did.