Thursday, August 30, 2007

Larry Craig's Dilemma ... or Our Own?

Senator Larry Craig’s (R-ID) post-excuse is somewhat lame coming from a US senator. However, his “explanation” seems to be rather typical of what we have come to expect from a politician: ‘I didn’t really do it. I was just being expeditious.’ To be fair to the senator, however, if it is true that the Idaho Statesman has been “investigating” his sexual orientation (what else was there?) based solely on a blogger’s claim, a claim that, like the newspaper’s, lacks any credible or “hard” evidence (the newspaper writer’s admission), then a plea-out to disorderly conduct might have seemed the most prudent course of action. Perhaps it was reasonable at the time to conclude that such a minor charge would slip quietly away without notice.

Now the Senate Republican leadership wants an ethics inquiry, and for what reason? Apparently Sen. Craig produced a card to the arresting officer identifying himself as a US senator perhaps in hopes that the matter would be handled quietly. With a newspaper reporter dogging the trail desperately hoping to finding a “smoking gun” somewhere? Good luck with that one, senator.

I suppose the fact that Sen. Craig has been so openly anti-gay while dealing with proposed legislation has this sort of thing just dripping with irony so much so that reporters would gleefully jump at the chance to have their names attached to such a scoop. To achieve what, though? How will this nation or even the good people of Idaho benefit from such exposure? What harm has been done besides what is now happening to Mr. Craig and his family, which is substantial to say the least? Have the people of Idaho been somehow let down? Do they feel cheated? Does anyone besides the people of Idaho have a legitimate gripe in the first place?

That Mr. Craig produced a US Senate card while being arrested was a cheap shot, to say the least. I have personally witnessed high-ranking public officials receive special treatment in public places (whether the officials demanded it or it was extended to them because they were public officials, I cannot say) that I considered to be inappropriate because they are citizens just as we commoners who still must wait our turn, so it could well have been a rub-the-wrong-way gesture toward the arresting officer. It was still inappropriate, no doubt, but what is happening now is not teaching anyone any kind of important lesson. Justice is not necessarily being served at this juncture, having already been served in a Minneapolis court. The man said, “guilty”, and that was that.

Today the ones who are being truly harmed are Senator Craig’s loved ones and especially his grandchildren (he is blessed with nine) who will certainly pay for granddad’s indiscretion or misjudgment or whatever it was. Beyond Mr. Craig’s lack of judgment, however, the grandchildren will pay due to the overzealous determination of a newspaper reporter who has determined for himself – absent any “hard evidence” - that Mr. Craig’s sexual orientation is a matter worth investigating. Shame on us for demanding such news.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Sabbath of the Heart

Psalm 71:1-6
Isaiah 58:9b-14
Luke 13:10-17

“Come to Me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Matthew 11:28

One of the things I hate most about Christmas is the feeling of a compulsory gift exchange. That is to say, whenever someone unexpectedly gives us a gift we feel compelled to go out and get something for them. It is the socially acceptable thing to do, and we are pretty sure it is expected of us even though we should also know that a gift purchased in haste will be a gift gone to waste even as we try to remind ourselves that “it’s the thought that counts.” What rubbish! We cannot know for sure if the gift-giver had an ulterior motive to begin with, but we cannot rest until we’ve returned the favor and removed that monkey from our backs! After all, we are nothing if not well versed in the social graces.

Giving gifts in hopes of getting gifts in return makes no sense. After all, if it is a matter of spending money on gifts for others as an “investment” (that is, hoping for and expecting some sort of return on that “investment”), would we not be better served if we were to save the cash and buy for ourselves what we really want rather than to gamble on spending that cash for a decent gift and getting junk in return? For this reason alone, it is not reasonable to believe that those who come bearing gifts always have something up their sleeve although if the gift comes from an unlikely source or if we hold positions of influence on any level, there may well be a good reason for suspicion. After all, virtual strangers don’t give gifts out of the goodness of their hearts. If they do, we can be pretty sure it is a gift with strings attached. Otherwise, it could well be that the gift-giver thought of us and found something they thought we might enjoy. Shame on us for questioning the motive when the gift comes from a genuine friend!

What is important to us when it comes to those gift-giving occasions? Do we focus on the contents of the package, or do we put more thought toward the one bearing the gift? And if we have a focus that leans too heavily one way or the other, does it matter? Is the gift more or less important than the one who offers the gift, or is the gift merely an extension of the gift-bearer’s affections? I hate it when folks ask me what I want on those gift-giving occasions because I think I prefer to be surprised, but I also think that I prefer to let the one proposing a gift to me know that the matter of the gift is not nearly as important to me as the manner in which it is offered. If our focus is entirely on how the gift will benefit us personally, we are in for disappointment because a material gift will likely never meet, let alone exceed, our expectations.

The Sabbath is probably the most misunderstood of all divine gifts because of the manner in which it is presented. It comes to us as a COMMANDMENT, so it already presents itself in a “thou shall not” context which sounds more negative than positive. It’s right up there with “you shall not steal”, etc, so the force of its words comes to us as more of an ultimatum, a threat. If this is our state of mind or thought, then it is little wonder that we are unable to recognize the GIFT for what it is and for what purpose it is meant to serve.

And this is no less true in Jesus’ own time. The leader of the synagogue (Luke 13:14) is positively clueless as to the intent and design of the Sabbath. As Jesus points out, where else but in worship should one expect such a healing to take place? The synagogue leader probably came by his belief about the Sabbath honestly, but this leads us to question how something as simple and as beautiful could have been so woefully misunderstood for so long. The answer may be as compelling as it would be now if we seriously question how we could have taken the Sabbath so much for granted and not appreciate it for ALL that it is to us.

The weekends are for the most part reserved for our leisure. For those of us lucky enough to have weekends free, we make plans to recreate or catch up on what was neglected during the week. We sleep in, do yard work, house work, swim, hike, or whatever else our hearts desire. On Sunday we (should) go to church, and then we go out to eat or have a nice dinner at home. From there we are back on recreation or whatever else suits us. Essentially, we use the weekend – including the Sabbath – to please ourselves.

For the most part this is not an entirely bad thing. Part of the essential element of the gift is that it is intended for our use, for our enjoyment. The Lord created human bodies to do amazing things, but He would also know better than anyone that the body – as well as the mind – needs to rest. It cannot go non-stop for days on end without eventually crashing … we call it ‘burn out’, and many of us have experienced it to one degree or another. We know that its effects are real, and the consequences can be devastating. So because our Creator is well aware of our limitations, He offers a gift. It is a MANDATE, make no mistake, but like all other commandments, we must look beyond the surface and acknowledge that there is more to the Word of the Lord than mere words.

So there must be a balance. Yes, the Sabbath is intended for our benefit – primarily, rest - and our enjoyment, but we must still be mindful that it is the Lord’s Day, a Day sanctified by our Creator Himself. What this means to us is that even while we are enjoying and recreating and resting, we must not fall into the “me first, me only” abyss of self-centeredness because, according to the prophet Isaiah, this seems to violate the spirit and the sanctity of the day blessed by the Lord.

“If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth.” Isaiah 58:13-14a

Too often we read the prophets but don’t take from them the “practical application” of the Law. For Christians, it is difficult to read the Law or the Prophets without the New Testament perspective. The early Jews lacked this perspective, so what is written was what they had. The intent of what was written for their benefit had to stand on its own merits. I can think of no better teaching of the Sabbath than this.

Isaiah takes us far beyond the notion of the Sabbath as being used only for our benefit. In conjunction with Jesus’ point to the synagogue leader, how better to glorify the Lord than by giving of ourselves and not considering it “labor” or “work”? Of course there is the “rest” element of the Sabbath that we need, but we have to dig a little deeper to find the true meaning of Sabbath and the Lord’s intent on sanctifying this Holy Day. For our rest and comfort, sure, but giving of self is defining the truest concept of biblical love and allows us the opportunity to portray a divine gift in a practical way for others to see and to comprehend.

It almost seems like a burden to be made to feel as though we must go out and “work” on some charity if we’re going to do anything at all. If it does, then we’re back to the negativity of “commandment”, and we miss the “gift” element of the Sanctified Day. This is not to suggest that perhaps the mention of “Sabbath” and “commandment” in the same breath must somehow be realigned or perhaps be rewritten. Not at all. In order to fully appreciate the impact of the gift and its Source, however, we must receive the “mandate” as we would a loved one who forces us to take medicine that tastes, well, “mediciny”. We hate it and we would rather endure the sick than to take that nasty medicine, but the loved one who offers it then becomes rather firm in the insistence that we WILL take the medicine … and learn to like it. Or suffer the consequences.

And I will offer the consequences in this way. It has been recently revealed that Mother Teresa, almost from the beginning of her incredible ministry of service to the poorest of the poor, suffered a crisis of faith. In letters she wrote to friends, she expresses a spiritual weariness that can easily from confronting the ugliest of ugly in an unjust world and working tirelessly on behalf of those who suffer as a result of such injustice: “Where is my faith? Deep down, there is nothing but emptiness and darkness. If there be a God – please forgive me.”

In light of this revelation, some have suggested that Mother Teresa was a fraud. In the public eye, she was the epitome of faith. Otherwise, how could she have possibly continued for as many DECADES as she devoted to her ministry? “What do I labor for? If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You are also not true.”

It seems to me that the real crisis in faith Mother Teresa experienced was a crisis that will come as a result of never taking the time to rest, the MANDATED rest sanctified by the Lord. If we work non-stop and never take time to reflect and to pray, how can we know of the presence of the Lord when we are constantly bombarded by the realities of THIS WORLD and all its ugliness? And Mother Teresa saw the worst of it – everysingleday.

This kind of depth-of-soul pain is precisely what I think the Sabbath was “commanded” to confront. The Sabbath as the true gift it really is, is designed and mandated and GIVEN for its most spiritual nature: to know that there is a God, that we are not Him, and that we are not alone, forsaken, nor forgotten. The Gift of Sabbath is given with no strings attached but with a real benefit that will always exceed our greatest expectations.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Packing for the Trip

When it comes time to travel, I am probably the world’s worst packer. For that matter, when it came time to move into our (hopefully last!) home, my wife and I were pretty much at odds as to how carefully everything should be packed. We bought a home in the same neighborhood that is only about three blocks from our old home. I just did not see the point in taking so much care to pack when the greatest care could be taken just to drive the three blocks and unload it straight into where it belongs. Why pack and unpack, with all the stuffing that goes with it, when the trip is going to be five minutes, tops? It’s not like we were moving across the country!

I just don’t worry too much about how carefully things go into a suitcase or a box. I guess a lot of it has to do with perspective. I am focused not on the journey itself but rather, on the destination. I want to get there as quickly as possible. If something does not make the trip in its proper condition, well, that’s why the Lord made Wal Mart. The same principle applies to taking a short business trip. I’ll take what I need, but I’m still so focused on the destination that I just don’t put a lot of thought into how my goods are going to survive the trip. I don’t know that such an attitude is good or bad; it just is what it is.

No matter where we choose to go, there is always going to be the journey itself which will conclude, sooner or later, with our arrival at destination. I suppose there can really be no such thing as “aimless wandering” because we are always going to eventually wind up somewhere whether we mean to or not. What is important to us, however, will reveal itself in whether we are focused on the journey or the destination. Is one more important than the other? I think not. Rather, it is the proverbial two-sided coin; there cannot be one without the other. And it seems to me that if we focus too intently on one, we may miss the significance of the other.

I have long maintained that if we focus too intently on getting to Heaven (i.e.; saving our own skin), we will miss out on the importance of why we are created in the first place. If we truly believe in the grace of the Lord, we will be more intent on the missionary journey that is discipleship and let the judgment fall into the hands of the merciful One we call “Father”. It is important – to the glory of the Lord – that we live a life worthy of Him, living the best example of Christ’s life that we possibly can. After that will be the call of the Lord God: “Well done, My good and faithful servant. Now enter into My glory.” Anything that focuses too much on “getting saved” can run dangerously close to trying to earn our way into Heaven which, of course, cannot be done.

In Luke’s Gospel reading (12:13-21), however, Jesus seems intently focused on the Final Destination while the rich man is more concerned about the journey though I would suggest that the journey of discipleship that Jesus calls us to is not the same journey the rich man is concerned with. The rich man is completely focused on himself and his own personal comfort, perhaps even his pride. He wants to hoard all that he can so that he can be sure he will never run out, or he wants everyone to SEE what he has and what he has accomplished.

The problem with such an attitude of “self” is that just as surely as there are poor and hungry people among us now, there were poor and hungry people then. In fact, Jesus says so. But “like a thief in the night”, the Lord snuck up on the rich man (again, like Jesus says so) and called him to account. It was time for the Judgment, and all the rich man had to show for his life were big barns filled with his grain and other goods. I think it is safe to say that for the rich man at that moment, all his possessions just about equaled the value of a rusted out Dodge pickup.

Greed makes us do funny things although not many people are laughing when it comes time to account for our lives. And we will, without exception, be called upon in one way or the other because nothing of this life that we can acquire by our greed will do us much good when the Day of the Lord comes. And even in this life, our greed has a tendency to sneak up on us without warning and demand of us more than we are willing to sacrifice, including our families, our children. For the greedy, “adequate” is never enough and in our quest for “more”, we are most willing to sacrifice almost anything to get what we want which is still …. NOT ENOUGH.

I would also suggest that most likely what we value most in this life will matter least in the world to come.

The journey we call “life” is not an easy one and Jesus never promised us an easy way to go, but we seem intent on making our journey as comfortable and as trouble- and worry-free as we can possibly make it. But because all our attention in focused inward on our own comfort and well-being, we miss out on our greatest opportunities to share not only from our abundance but to also receive blessings beyond worldly measure. These blessings are the “feel good” things that make life worth all the trouble and the discomfort and the inconvenience we may encounter when we choose to share rather than to hoard. And lest we forget, choosing to hoard or to share has everything to do with how much faith we are willing to place in the Lord to see to our own needs. Like I stated earlier, what is truly important to us will be revealed in the decision we make to focus on the journey or on the destination.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to go to Heaven; it is a desire we should all share in common. We know all too well, however, that there are too many non-believers out there who are just not willing to make the journey with us. More is the pity, and the reasons why they would choose to reject our path are too numerous and often too vague to even worry about. Then again, when our time comes to account for our lives it is not likely the Lord is going to ask us to answer up for someone else’s refusal to join us. I think, instead, that He will be more focused on the journey we will have chosen. The reward, the Final Reward, will take care of itself by His Grace and His Grace ALONE.


Saturday, August 04, 2007

Doing the Right Thing

Moral behavior is typically defined not so narrowly as merely being upright or religiously pious. Rather, moral behavior (key word: “behavior”) is more accurately defined as acting in such a way as to benefit one’s own environment. It is not enough to simply live right and mind one’s own business and let things happen as they will because evil is pervasive and is far more powerful than even righteous people are willing to acknowledge. We tend to live according to our own dictates and never mind anyone else. What we fail to acknowledge is that by our immoral silence, we grant implicit approval to all that we see which is evil by failing to stand against it. Just being opposed to such evil is no action at all; it is nothing more than an opinion.

Often, however, we can feel a little overwhelmed by all that surrounds us and come to believe that we are powerless to confront what we know in our own hearts to be just plain wrong. We learn to live within the environment of “wrong” and submit ourselves to a certain reality that we cannot tolerate but also feel powerless to do anything about. It is this very attitude that has allowed such things which we find objectionable to become the norm, the rule rather than the exception.

The late Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority which played a key role in the election of the late President Ronald Reagan attempted to confront what it considered to be a serious “back sliding” of moral life in America by trying to play its hand in the political process. I suppose it was a good idea in its conception, but the movement eventually faded in the American landscape because it became more of an imposition of certain religious values rather than a living example. Abortion and divorce, two social examples (or evidence) of “wrong”, continued unabated even among evangelical Christians. It was not long before the “hypocrite” label was not only attached but was able to stick because such a crowd demanded moral behavior from others but failed to live by its own example, its own values and beliefs. Under such circumstances, it is impossible to convince anyone that such “right” behavior has any value at all. “Do as I say, not as I do” goes about as far in public life as it does with raising our children.

But who gets to say what is right and what is wrong? Christians insists that they have an inherent right to dictate the difference between right and wrong according to their own traditions because this is a “Christian nation”, but they fail to acknowledge that not all who come to this country – or are already here – subscribe to Christian teachings. For that matter, as stated earlier, even Christians fail to live by the teachings of the One whom they call “Savior”. Truly, speaking as a Christian, it is much easier said than done.

As “moral behavior” goes, it might be easier for all of us – regardless of religious background (or lack thereof) – to “first do no harm”. Even Christian teachings insist that if our behavior causes any sort of distress, even as we live in the liberty of Christ and are practicing what we believe to be our religion, that we are to refrain from such behavior out of consideration for others. This sort of concept is pretty far-reaching and encompasses a great deal. Would it suggest that we refrain from practicing our religion altogether if it upsets others? Only insofar as our practice or behavior interferes with others and their right to refrain, in their own pursuit of happiness, from such practices. There is nothing easy about it because there has to be a cut-off point where we can decide that others just need to “get over it”.

It’s not always as easy, as some would insist, to do the right thing because of the differences in opinion and practice and tradition that uniquely exists in America. We Christians would do well, however, to keep an eye out toward others and never mind our own rights or our own happiness. After all, if we really believe in the fundamental tenets of our own faith, we would recognize that the One whom we call “Savior” came not for His own sake but, rather, for the sake of others. It can certainly be said that He lived “right” without interfering with others. The trick is to find and maintain the balance. I’m afraid that I lack the knowledge, insight, or apostolic authority necessary to advise. Suffice it to say that until we can become more like what we are called to be, it might be best that we remain silent.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Right to Work

The United Methodist Book of Discipline, in its assertion that every human person has a right to work, states in its Social Principles: “Every person has the right to a job at a living wage. Where the private sector cannot or does not provide jobs for all who seek and need them, it is the responsibility of government to provide for the creation of such jobs.” The whole premise of the Social Principles is in recognition of the dignity of humanity, including the right to earn a living and provide for oneself and one’s family. Anything less subjects a person to dependence on another and violates that person’s sense of dignity, a condition not suitable for any human being under any circumstances.

Arkansas is an “at will” employment state which means that workers are free to choose their own employers, depending of course on the employer’s willingness to hire. In the same way, employers are free to hire and fire as they deem necessary within the boundaries of Title VII and the Fair Labor Standards Act, of course, as well as any applicable union rules and contracts. Though it would make no good business sense to do so, an employer can theoretically wake up one day and decide to fire an employee without good cause. A worker can be terminated for any reason or no reason, and this is the rub for so many who deem such a law as unfair to the American worker. On the surface it does seem unfair that someone with a stellar work record can, again theoretically, find himself or herself unemployed for no good reason, but there are two sides to this coin.

Employers are in business for one thing: to make money, to turn a profit; this is the employer’s “paycheck”. An employer invests a great deal into a business venture and has every reasonable right to expect a fair return on that investment. The employer does not get paid if things are not going so well, as opposed to employees who continue to draw a paycheck even when things are not so good; the employer completely assumes the risk of riding out the slow time, often borrowing against available credit in order to meet payroll and other operations expenses depending on business cycles. To protect the interests of the business, the employer will do whatever is necessary to remain in business and stay competitive. This would necessarily include not only hiring the right people for the right jobs but would also include letting go of those who – for whatever reason – do not suit the employer’s needs. It may seem unfair from a purely one-dimensional perspective because the employer does seem to have the upper hand but then again, one-dimensional does not offer a complete picture.

Beyond federal laws which prohibit discrimination and the Fair Labor Standards Act which regulates workplace standards and OSHA which protects workers from unsafe conditions, I would just as soon the government not become more actively involved in other conditions of my employment. I am also not the least bit interested in any sort of employment contract that “guarantees” my employment status because if a better opportunity comes along, I would like to be free to explore that opportunity. This freedom which is the prerogative of every employee is the same prerogative but is also a major expense to an employer who must decide whether to compete for the employee’s services by offering an incentive to stay or hope another qualified applicant comes along. Either could be a major expense due to lost production during turn-over or additional payroll costs.

Either way, each has a stake in the well-being of a company but it must not fall to the government to “protect” citizens in a free-market, highly competitive environment by tying an employer’s hands and forcing businesses to offer what it cannot afford or does not need. One need only to get involved with government processes and how Congress moves a spending bill through a very cumbersome process, for instance, to know that government is incapable of running an independent business from afar. It is blatantly unfair to presume that every business in America can be neatly categorized according to size and issue blanket demands that all business must ascribe to, especially as it pertains to whether or not an employer – who is taking all the risk - has determined, according to sales figures and forecasts, that he is overstaffed and must cut back in order to survive.

It is unrealistic to demand of government or private business guaranteed employment. It is in business’ – and government’s – best interest that government do nothing more than to perhaps provide tax incentives to hire as many workers as possible, but it is a huge mistake for government to manipulate or attempt to artificially stimulate American business or the economy in order to create a false sense of well-being and security, amounting to nothing more than pandering for votes. In the end it could conceivably cost far more than in the beginning and, within the boundaries of established labor laws, businesses should not have to justify themselves and their operational decisions.

Labor is a tough market for anyone but especially so for those who lack the skills or training or education required to land a particular job. For a business, there is not much of a difference. A potential business may decide that it likes the idea of selling widgets, but there is little that can be done with widgets if the market is hungry instead for wadgets. A decision has to be made to provide the wadgets that have a better chance of selling, or business can continue manufacturing widgets and hope for the best. Workers have the same fundamental decision to make in search of employment. It would do little good to train to dig ditches in an environment where no ditch digging is being done or will ever be done. Ours is a volatile free-market economy that is as fickle as the American consumer. It wants what it wants and will settle for nothing less nor ask for more than it can withstand.

Here’s the thing, though. Every human person has a God-given right to provide for himself or herself; it is the reason we work for our wages. However, even though we are free to choose our vocations and even our employers, there is nothing written or implied that we have any sort of right to be hired or retained by the employer of our choosing unless that employer is also in agreement. The employer still enjoys the same freedom to make decisions in the best interests of the business and to provide employment to the workers of his or her own choice.