Saturday, June 21, 2008

More of the Same

Throughout the early campaign season, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-OH, continually harped on the need to present articles of impeachment against President Bush and Vice President Cheney while seemingly ignoring the fact that he, as a member of the US House of Representatives, could actually do such a thing. I always wondered why he chose to talk about it on the campaign trail as he sought the Democratic nomination for president rather than do something about it as a sitting representative. Well, he finally did it long after he was soundly trounced on the campaign trail and written off as a less-than-serious contender for the nomination.

The Philadelphia Inquirer recently kinda-sorta gave Mr. Kucinich suppressed applause for finally having had the gumption to submit the articles to the House even though the PI also acknowledged the Congress’ complicity in approving and funding the war effort. In the end, the PI gave Kucinich his due: “Having been read into the record, the impeachment articles now are likely to do no more than gather dust in committee. OK. But as least Kucinich did his part to place a footnote in the history books.”

At the VERY least, the articles of impeachment against the president have been read into the record, but what has been accomplished? What may well be noted in history’s footnotes is that there was apparently only one member of the Congress who felt it necessary to frivolously waste time submitting for consideration something that had no chance of even being considered because the president is only months away from being out of office anyway, which is what an impeachment conviction is ultimately designed to do.

If I were to make some kind of prediction, it will be that someone some distant day from now will actually say out loud, “President Bush was impeached” without filling in the rest of the blanks and telling the whole story: there was this one pissed-off congressman from Ohio, if I remember correctly, whom no one seemed to take seriously, but he wanted someone to know that he was here, I guess. The whole impeachment process takes months anyway. By the time the articles might have passed the House and the Senate made ready for the trial, President Bush would be another former president.

The joke is on us. Though impeachment is no laughing matter, one cannot help but to wonder if this is not some lame pay-back for President Clinton’s impeachment which actually did make it to trial in the Senate though he was exonerated. So it remains to be seen whether the next president will be impeached by some congressman with an ax to grind. Meanwhile the price of oil on the worldwide market is making history, and Congress is fighting tooth and nail to continue the current moratorium on domestic drilling. Energy research and development will take a back seat to a new windfall profits tax (which didn’t work 30 years ago), and there has actually been congressional talk about nationalizing this nation’s oil refineries.

Now we are in the midst of an election season. Though Congress will recess probably in August, there is no reason to believe that anything of substance will come from this Congress before then. Democrats will blame Republicans, and Republicans will blame Democrats and we will merrily reelected almost every one of these people all the while giving this Congress its lowest approval rating ever. Nothing will ever change in this Congress until this Congress is changed. If Obama continues to beat McCain over the head with his “more of the same” banner while we reelect the same people who have given us all this and more, “more of the same” will be the least of our worries.

Reflections of the Soul

Genesis 21:8-21
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

They say that the true character of a person is revealed in the choices they make when no one is watching. The world does watch, and watches carefully, for signs of faith as Christians work within the demands and expectations of our contemporary culture. Rev. William Obalil, a United Methodist elder in Geneva IL, suggests that the nature of our discipleship is revealed not only in what we do but also in our reasoning as justification for the choices we make. He writes: I fear not many weekly churchgoers are equipped to integrate what we hear and affirm in church with the concrete choices faced each day – at home, school, work, and marketplace. The result is functional atheism. Much of the time we operate as if God were not an active factor, let alone the decisive factor, in our decision-making. Yes, we engage in discrete religious practices. We go to church, we pray, we read the Bible, and we give time and money to acts of mercy. But we also act without considering God as a force to be reckoned with. We weigh a purchase, asking, “Can I afford it?” but not, “Am I being a faithful steward?”

It occurred to me as I reflected on Jesus’ discourse to His disciples that we pay a lot of attention to the life of Christ while He was physically present on the earth, but we do not seriously consider how it might have been for the disciples who followed Jesus throughout His time on earth, who lived and worked and worshipped with Jesus and knew Him to be within eye sight or ear shot. It could well be that the choices made by these disciples were tempered somewhat by the knowledge that Jesus was always nearby. Our theology teaches us that He is still nearby even if only spiritually, but do we really live our everyday lives as if we really believe that?

I have to admit that even as I think about religion or philosophy often and wonder how either may be reflected in what I have already done, I cannot say that I’ve given even half as much thought into something I may be ready to do BEFORE I actually do it. I am actually more inclined to act instinctively according to my own experiences and desires or according to cultural or social expectations and demands – or a little of both. And given the state of the current credit market crunch, for instance, I would suspect that I have not been the only one.

In Matthew’s discourse Jesus seems to be going off in several different directions at the same time almost as if He may be running down a list of generalities and then thinking, “Oh, and by the way …” There is a lot to take in, but the central theme seems to be about the active, and interactive, Divine Presence that responsible disciples should consider at every turn. It is especially revealing in verse 26: “… nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” It is as if He is saying, ‘you can run but you cannot hide’!

Still, I think this is probably the wrong approach to take when reading and praying this passage. Our theology must never be reduced to perceiving of the Holy Father in such a negative light as that of a task master who rules with an iron fist because in verse 27 Jesus moves to something a little more positive in encouraging us to share what we know. This must surely be an indication that what we will have revealed to us is GOOD NEWS that others need to know about, so understanding something Jesus shares as a veiled threat does not fit well with all that He has tried to teach us.

“Everyone who acknowledges Me …”, contrary to popular belief, is not restricted to an opportunity for martyrdom or an e-mail that comes with the not-so-subtle “threat” “that those who deny Me will be denied …” if we fail to forward the e-mail to “at least 10 people”. Back to the very point that Rev. Obalil was trying to make regarding our moving about at work or school or in the public marketplace, I think maybe this part of Jesus’ discourse has everything to do with how we conduct ourselves and temper our purchase choices. Whether those around us know us as members of a local church or as Christians at all or not, what we do is a reflection of who we are and what we believe to be true. If our decision to act or refrain from acting is not determined by our knowledge that the Lord is nearby, then our act might be construed as a denial of the real presence of Christ. Honestly, this is a pretty overwhelming thought and more than a little unsettling.

“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone {or anything} as obedient slaves, you are slaves to the one you obey, either of sin which leads to death, or of obedience which leads to righteousness?” Romans 6:16

So whom do we pay homage to? Who gets our time and attention? The answer to these questions is revealed in everything we do, every choice we make. And Jesus does not make it easy for us, either. When He proclaims that He “brings not peace but a sword”, it may be a way of telling us that within this context which will certainly bring challenges that will test our limits, our proclamation – or denial – of Christ will be revealed in how we face up to these challenges, whatever they may be.

It is not an easy thing to be a disciple of Christ, and it is a mistake to pretend otherwise. Think of it this way. There are those who will avoid confrontation at almost all cost, and they mistakenly believe that such avoidance is an indication of weakness or fear. Think for a moment of how much strength is required to bite one’s tongue when one might rather unload on the offending person. It is not hard to curse someone who has wronged us, but it is almost physically painful to withdraw from a confrontation when we would rather not especially when it is our pride, and not the Gospel, that is on the line.

This is the challenge before disciples not only in the way we think through a purchase but in the way we deal with everyday life and everyday people. The world tells us that it is ok to “tell it like it is” or to “do it if it feels good”, but Jesus challenges us to offer something different. To “take up {His} cross” is to put aside our lives and our desires and our natural inclinations. When we are able to do so, it is then when we “lose {our} life for {His} sake” by choosing the spiritual and faith-filled alternative. Only then will our very souls be an accurate and honest reflection of Goodness and Mercy. Only then will our souls be a reflection of Christ when His life becomes ours, and our lives become His. It is what the world is hungry for, and we as disciples are the ones called to provide it.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Ultimate Father’s Day Gift: by regeneration through baptism to give back to the Holy Father what was first His

2 Kings 5:1-15a
1 Peter 3:18-22
John 3:1-8

Before there can be any serious discussion about baptism, it is important for man to consider a couple of important theological truths:

1) man alone cannot cleanse and restore a soul by any means, and
2) the power and might of the Lord’s hand cannot be defined or restricted by any amount of water.

Exploring baptism, then, must necessarily revolve around what baptism is and who the Major Player is. There are obviously contrasts between denominations and traditions as to how baptism is practiced – and I hasten to add that NONE are “wrong” - but regardless of the chosen method or timing it must always be remembered that baptism is a time of celebration because it is the regeneration of life itself. It is also the very best that we can give to the Holy Father, most appropriately on this Father’s Day because we are taking those who once belonged to the world and are offering them back to the Him.

In and of itself baptism is a mystery which theologians have tried for generations to explain, but it does have profound significance in what it means to the life of Christ’s Holy Church because baptism is not necessarily an “individualized” event; it involves – in fact, REQUIRES – participation from the whole church because of what the whole Church represents: the very Body of Christ. Baptism, like so many other elements, is an act of worship as a Sacrament because it involves the spoken Word of the Lord our God AND our response.

Baptism is an act of initiation in which those who step forth voluntarily or those who are presented in faith are offered to the Lord in His Holy Church and in the presence of the entire congregation. Regardless of whether these who are presented can speak for themselves or will have someone speaking in their behalf, baptism as a Sacrament of Christ’s Holy Church brings them – BY AN ACT OF THE LORD GOD – into the fold of the faith and Christ’s Holy Church Universal which knows no denominational or geographic boundaries.

But when we try to determine for ourselves the appropriate age for baptism or the “proper” method by which man baptizes or restricts from the covenantal Sacrament those we determine are not worthy or ready or able, the essence of the Sacrament is diminished and we are left with more confusion than comfort, more division than unification. And when we try to determine for ourselves the precise prescription by taking what is only inferred in Scripture, we actually move further away from the Holy than we draw near by becoming bogged down in senseless arguments about rules man has created along the way.

Baptism is, now and always, an act of the Lord God. Our stepping forward is an act of faith. I think maybe it is important to understand the nature of the Covenant we enter into at baptism by looking back at the Covenant the Lord made with Abraham with circumcision as a sign of that Covenant. Listen carefully to the words of Genesis 17:9-14: “The Lord said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you shall keep My Covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is My Covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your offspring after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a sign of the Covenant between Me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slaves born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall My Covenant be in your flesh an everlasting Covenant.”

Take care not to get hung up on circumcision itself because in exploring the NATURE of the Covenant we must also remember the Philippian jailer in Acts 16:25-33. Paul and Silas had been imprisoned after casting out a demon, and while they were there they began signing hymns and praising the Lord God in the presence of the other prisoners. Then there was a great earthquake; chains were broken and the doors of the prison were opened. The jailer awoke and saw all this and was about to kill himself because he thought all the prisoners had fled, but then he heard Paul call out to him. The jailer came to believe and as a result of his own faith, “he and all his family were baptized” (Acts 16:33b).

Scripture does not tell us how many members the jailer’s family had nor are we told the ages of those who were baptized. What we can take from Acts and from Genesis is the very same message we can take from the life of Christ: we who know the Truth are responsible for the spiritual well-being of those who do not. Baptism is a sign of the Lord’s New Covenant just as circumcision was a sign of the Lord’s Covenant to Abraham. And just as Abraham was responsible for all those in his charge, child or slave or child of a slave, we are also responsible for those in our own charge especially when they cannot speak for themselves.

Most importantly of all is the Word which comes from Christ Himself: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” (John 3:5) but take heart because this is not a threat of condemnation but is, instead, a PROMISE of LIFE! Baptism is a rite of passage, an initiation into the New Covenant by which all of mankind is invited to enter. There is no word of restriction as to who may come or who may be presented. The Word of the Lord God calls all of humanity into the New Covenant which is Christ the Lord. The initiation into this New Covenant is Baptism, and it begins the journey for all who desire the Peace and the Life of Christ not only for themselves but also for those whom they love. And it is an ultimate act of love and faith to give back to the Holy Father those who have been entrusted to us.

Baptism is an act of the Lord God Himself in His fullness and mercy. Let not man, by his finite wisdom and limited understanding, attempt to diminish the Lord’s mighty Hand. Amen.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Judgment vs Experience: eye on the future or lessons from the past?

National Review Online editor and political commentator Jonah Goldberg recently explored the apparent contrast between Senator Barack Obama, the now-presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, and Senator John McCain, the still-presumptive Republican presidential nominee that will pit not only philosophical but experiential differences between these two parties as well as between these two men. His conclusion: “…Obama is locked into a position despite the facts on the ground (regarding the Iraqi war front). Obama may indeed have great (not ‘greater’) judgment, but his record shows little experience employing it.”

Can it be that the continuing presence in Iraq is going to be the sole issue in this presidential campaign while there are so many other issues the next president will have to confront? No doubt the Democrats gained a slim majority in the Congress from the 2006 mid-term elections based almost entirely on the war in Iraq (congressional ethics a distance second, it seems), but is the nation so war-fatigued that a single issue can define an entire presidential race? If this is so, Senator McCain’s experience, regardless of how it is measured, may get trumped by Senator Obama’s perceived judgment only because too many Americans are tired of it all. The question remains, however, whether judgment is a natural attribute that some are born with or if judgment is born of experience. After all, one cannot judge fire to be hot without having been burned or at least have felt the heat.

Benjamin Franklin is quoted as having once said: “Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other”, and Socrates seems to agree: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” In other words, both seem to suggest that the only way we are ever going to gain the ability to make sound judgment calls is through experiences by which we have gained knowledge. None of this is to say that Obama lacks judgment in whatever it is that he has endured in his 46 years of life, but being a lawyer and a former state senator (and a very short-term US senator) does not equip one to deal with the issues that will face the next US president.

Since some have sought to draw parallels between Obama and JFK in charisma, charm, and relative youth, there have been suggestions during this campaign that the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the US and the USSR to the brink of nuclear war, was wrought as much by JFK’s relative inexperience in dealing with a leader like Khrushchev beforehand as by Soviet Cold War military strategy. Such speculation may be unfair without significant context, but it may also be a fair assessment and comparison in how Obama may choose to work and negotiate with Iran and Syria regarding world-wide terrorism if he is indeed serious about talking with either nation’s leaders without preconditions. It could be dangerous to enter into such discussions without a significant knowledge of history and the root causes of these conflicts, and it will be a huge miscalculation to assume that it is only “poverty”. It will be an especially dire mistake to presume that the centuries-old conflict only got “bad” during the Bush administration.

Still, who is to say that a fresh face and a willingness to try something new will not bring a new perspective? There is a lot to be said for learning from mistakes of the past, but it is unclear whether such comparisons to past conflicts can adequately inform the US within the context of the challenges we face today around the globe. There is a lot to be said for straight talk from an experienced warrior who can perhaps stare down a rogue state leader and not blink or stutter. With McCain’s experience, however, comes the knowledge of a man who has come close more than once to physical confrontations even within the Senate with those whom he has had serious disagreements with. This is a time for calm, measured, calculated responses borne from solid experience. It will not be a training ground for newbies, and it certainly cannot be a school yard brawl as when hot-headed kids lose their tempers and don’t what else to do besides lash out.

It seems that genuine experience breeds unshakable confidence and sound judgment, but judgment without contextual experience can breed arrogance or grave miscalculations. Either way, a serious and experienced adversary can and will isolate, expose, and exploit the inevitable weakness. If this is actually what happened between JFK and Khrushchev, then it can be reasonable to assume that Khrushchev backed down in Cuba as a reasonable, measured response. If a similar confrontation occurs under these contemporary circumstances with this enemy that seems willing to die for its cause no matter the total outcome, one can only guess what that outcome may be.

The reality is that we are a nation at war whether we like it or not. The “world community” has not lost respect for us. It is that they see the US now not only as a partner with Israel but also as the same potential adversary: if you hit us, we will hit you back. Somehow, the “world community” does not seem to understand this, and US citizens are coming into a new presidential contest wanting security without understanding that the US, nor Israel, can simply lay down arms and expect others to follow suit.

This enemy we now face will not simply go away nor is there a national entity with which to negotiate. Which will we choose to confront this reality: judgment without context or experience, or experience by which judgment can be made? It seems to me that the next decade, and perhaps beyond, will be determined by the choice we will make in November.