Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Strange Solicitation

Sitting at my office trying to work up a sermon for this coming Sunday, I took a very strange call from a man with a very heavy accent trying to get me to commit to coming to a Baptist Church in a nearby town later this month to learn the “real truth” about radical Islam and the threat it poses. Once I told the man I would not be attending and had no real interest in such things, he came pretty near to questioning my patriotism (??) and wondered how I could continue to live in my blind ignorance of the threat posed by such “jihadists”. Once I informed him that I was probably better informed about the world situation than your typical phone solicitor, I suddenly realized that I had allowed myself to be sucked into this ridiculous discussion. As I could virtually hear him shuffle for the page likely marked “successful responses to typical declinations”, I wished him a good day and hung up. Still, he obviously did not know he was talking to a "right-wing extremist" who is considered a "potential" threat to national security.

It occurred to me that during the time of Jesus, the people of Israel believed the Romans to be the real, or at least most grave, threat to the well-being of the people. When Jesus was no longer useful to them in facing this threat, they turned on Him and wished Him dead for all the good He was doing them and Israel.

It also occurred to me that my first real encounter with a so-called “clergy killer” was one who objected when I suggested that Islam and Muslims pose no threat to Christians, Christianity, or the United States … certainly no threat to the Lord Himself. Those like this particular gentleman need enemies to accommodate the pain, bitterness, loneliness, and hatred that permeates their very soul. All that soul-draining energy needs someplace to go, and Muslims are just as good a target now as blacks were in the 40’s and 50’s or the Jews in Nazi Germany in the 20’s and 30’s. Few realize how much energy it takes to hate, and that energy must have an outlet. So all anyone needs is a scape goat, something or someone to blame for their sorry lot in life. All that pain, bitterness, and hatred has to have somewhere to go.

It rarely occurs to these haters of whence the true enemy lies. And it never occurs to them what kind of energy it actually took to torture and nail to a cross an Innocent Man.

Confessions of a Right-Wing Extremist

It has come to my attention that I am considered by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to be a “potential” national security threat because of my opposition to abortion, my concern that DHS and/or the Congress are not doing enough to secure our borders (a big ol’ fence?? Are you serious?? Was the Berlin Wall not once only a “fence”?), that I vehemently disagree with the strong leftward shift this government is taking, and that I am extremely concerned that the states’ constitutionally enumerated rights may actually be in jeopardy (and few seem to notice or care) by an overbearing and overbloated federal government. Though DHS’s latest document acknowledges that my cohorts nor I are actively planning any violent activities (at least, none they are actually aware of), it seems nevertheless to be issuing a subtle, yet direct, warning to me and others like me to be aware that we are apparently not fooling anyone. The DHS paper may also be suggesting, now that we domestic “threats” have been identified, that we are being watched.

This may be seen as a “tongue-in-cheek” essay to poke some fun at those on the federal level who cannot seem to justify their existence unless there is a “boogie man” lurking around some corner, but the truth is this memo from DHS could be construed as an even graver threat than any I could dream up. To think that because I have serious issues with what I consider to be an “extreme” government, I could be deemed a “threat”, potential or otherwise, merely because of my beliefs, my opposition to the Obama administration, and my willingness to make these beliefs known. The implications of such accusations simply stagger the imagination. That such a document is taken seriously by the US government on any level suggests an extreme shift far and away from the so-called “liberal” (a derivative of “liberty”) to the downright fascist. Perhaps it is that Homeland Security is having a tough time justifying its very existence and needs to continue creating threats. Who knows? What I know is that I am no threat to the US government, and I resent such imply threats on such a broad and general scale.

I suppose we should have seen this coming, especially after the reponses from many in what used to be OUR Congress, after the TEA parties (yes, you are all also highly suspect!!) held across the nation that simply expressed the dismay of many citizens that our government’s already-staggering debt, which had been at least partially blamed for the mess we were already in, was more than doubled so as to somehow make it better. I chose not to actively align myself with the local version of the national protest (not for any particular reason), but it appears I may as well have since I am already lumped into the “threat” category by DHS (assuming there are stages, or levels, of threat?), perhaps a far graver threat because of my unwillingness to come into the light.

I don’t know where this DHS paper will go or where our government may take it from here. This much I do know: I am not aware of the Arkansas congressional delegation expressing any concern for this move by DHS to essentially categorize general opposition to Obama’s government as “national security threat”. This should say something to Arkansans who re-elected the Democrat to the Senate and the three Democrats to the House but refused to vote for Obama. Something is amiss. I sincerely hope I’m wrong, but indications are that “liberal” is about to be redefined and no longer very “libre”.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Misguided Notion - and demise - of Social Security

The Pittsburgh Tribune reported Saturday that Vice President Joe Biden has been drawing Social Security benefits since November 2008 when he turned 66 and became eligible for full benefits under the law. For those not familiar with Mr. Biden, he has been a member of the United States Senate since 1973 up until he was selected as Mr. Obama’s running mate in the 2008 presidential race. Mr. Biden’s salary in 2008 was $169,300 as a US senator. As the vice president of the nation, he will earn $227,300 for as long as he serves in that capacity.

Eventually he will retire altogether and, due to his extraordinary length of service time, will be genuinely entitled to a pretty generous government pension. The issue at hand is the “entitlement” mindset of Social Security that allows everyone to draw, regardless of work status or income bracket. That Mr. Biden had to pay taxes on a large portion of his Social Security earnings is beside the point. Why, pray tell, would he feel compelled – or entitled - to draw this money on any level, particularly while he is still drawing a substantial salary? This same article reported that the Bidens disclosed income in 2008 of $253,866, of which $6,534 was Social Security income. I would hardly consider $247,332 an income that requires subsidy. Incidentally, this same article also reported that former VP Dick Cheney, who is a year older than Mr. Biden, did not report Social Security income in 2008. Whether he will attempt to claim these benefits in 2009 or ever, I suppose, remains to be seen.

Former President Bush took quite a beating in his last term over Social Security in debates that never actually took place except in the media. The opposition to Mr. Bush’s privatization proposals amounted to a lot of political posturing and chest-thumping by Democratic blowhards such as Marion Berry, D-AR, who “assured” his elderly constituents that as long as he had breath in his body, he would protect their benefits even though currently paid benefits were never in jeopardy, according to Mr. Bush’s proposal. Mr. Berry never directly addressed the actual proposals, and he never made a serious contribution to the debate or discussion except to engage in a lot of name-calling and scare tactics. What he and so many others like him did was to ensure that the “sacred cow” of Social Security will continue to pay out more than it collects under this misguided notion of entitlement that does not consider genuine need, which was the founding intent of Social Security to begin with, and continues Social Security’s downward spiral toward insolvency until drastic action will be required to maintain this “entitlement”. That fund was intended to keep our nation’s elderly from starving to death; it was not meant as an income subsidy for a more lavish lifestyle or more expensive vacations or play money for slot machines.

I realize Social Security is a hot-button issue for the majority of Americans. I also recognize the political reality that if Mr. Bush had engaged in such a discussion in his first term, it is highly unlikely he would have seen a second term as US president due to this issue alone. This is the rub, though, isn’t it? The state of this nation’s mindset is such that the government has, over the years, taken so much from us that we feel somewhat compelled to take back from this government whatever we can to sort of balance the scales. It was also a mistake for the Social Security Administration to begin sending out quarterly statements to individuals so as to suggest that the fund is “holding” the money we pay in trust now for our own private, individual use later.

In simple terms, Social Security funds withheld from paychecks is a tax that is paid out directly to those who qualify for benefits. I doubt that many working Americans ever conceived of the day when we would be subsidizing the US vice president’s salary, which is paid from income and other federal taxes, while giving his total annual income a boost from the Social Security funds withheld from our earnings.

It is said by many that our current economic situation will get worse before it gets better. My guess is that the Social Security situation, as it is now, will get worse but never better because Americans and our Congress lack the courage to face up to certain realities. It has become the task of each member of the Congress to get and keep the job they have, not to actually do the job that has been entrusted to them. It will be our demise sooner or later.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Fool's Game

Every effort, every movement, every song, every dance must have a beginning. There is little in our physical world that is perpetual, as without beginning or ending. A finite world has finite stuff. So although I consider yesterday’s TEA parties to have been a colossal waste of time, the protest that was the theme has been looking for a voice for a very long time; it had to start somewhere. I have to say, however, that not many politicians took notice, and even fewer Democrats bothered to show at all. And why would they? It was the Democratic majority in the Congress that pushed through an $800 billion “stimulus” package that few bothered to read, and fewer still really understood. That “stimulus”, I think, is at the heart of the protest.

Here’s the thing, though. Politicians do not typically pay attention to protests, and Democrats have such a commanding majority in the Congress that they will spend no time worrying about a few Republicans in the streets scattered across the country. Politicians do not worry much about anything unless or until their political advisors tell them to worry, and that anxiety is directly related to chances for re-election. Put THAT in jeopardy, and notice the attention given such as in Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-AR, starting up her re-election campaign two years before Election Day. Obama and Hillary started a new trend with the last election, so I guess now we’re stuck with two-year-long, perpetual political campaigns.

It is noteworthy that Sen. Lincoln’s last go-round was against a Republican whom she outspent by millions … and she won re-election by the skin of her teeth. She spent millions; he spent a few thousand. Now she is cranking up her re-election machine even earlier to gather even more money, and there is no indication that she really understands the collective mind of the electorate she purports to represent. What she does know is that the last election was a bit too close for comfort, so she seems to believe that campaigning longer and making promises for her NEXT term (as opposed to staying on top of THIS term’s business) is all it will take to keep her job. The point? Voters got her attention four years ago, and she has not yet forgotten.

The apparent evidence in this particular case has not been lost on Sen. Lincoln, and it will likely be that she will vote these last two years of this term much more conservatively than she has voted in the previous four. She and her political advisors know well the short attention span of voters. Now that voters are sufficiently angry and she having won her last election by a very narrow margin, expect her to do a lot more schmoozing. Voters and circumstances have her undivided attention, and it is clear she is afraid.

Though I am not excited about the prospects of perpetual campaigns, I like the idea that a politician would know that he or she will need at least two years to convince me they are worth keeping and are worthy of the job. What I will certainly not like is the reality that these politicians and their advisors will spend these two years “marketing” their product. They will spend an inordinate amount of time trying to keep the job and not enough time actually doing the job. And this, dear reader, is the state of American politics. It is not about public policy or governing; it is about re-elections.

Beyond the money spent for re-elections, consider the federal budget. We’re now in the trillions … with a T! My guess is that most normal people cannot count that high, or comprehend that number. And all that money has to come from somewhere. And let’s be reasonable: you can screw around with wealthy people for only so long. Heck, even their money has limits. Then you and I, middle America, will be “asked” (though they never really seem to ask, do they?) to give it up for the good of the country. Only we will discovered that it is not the country, per se, more than it is the bloated government that is now completely out of control, and a budget that is geared toward getting one party or the other re-elected. “For the good of the country”, my eye. I’m not falling for it any longer, but I am not going to waste my time walking the streets or carrying signs. Nor should you.

I am not advocating term limits, though I would not be completely opposed. Term limits, however, will require constitutional amendments, and that takes a lot of time. Besides, there is a much easier way. Democrat or Republican, federal or state, no incumbents are re-elected. Then, and only then, will the Congress finally notice our protests. Clearly, there is no other way. We can march in the streets all we want but until these politicians feel threatened in their own job security, they will not care or respond. They don’t have to because of voter complacency. And as long as voters willingly roll over for the obligatory tummy scratch from a condescending politician, nothing will change except, perhaps, the tension on the leash.

Be very careful and aware, America. Our freedom is on the line, and we’re being played for fools.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Dear President Obama

Dear President Obama,

May I first congratulate you on your hard-won victory and ascendency to the presidency. You, like many before you, have inspired new generations of young Americans who look upon such an election and finally come to realize one of the greatest blessings of this nation: anyone can aspire to one day become President of the United States. The trick is to want it badly enough to prepare for it.

I must tell you, Mr. President, that I was not among those dancing in the streets upon your election. Truth be told, I was sorely disappointed because I was then, and still am, quite uncertain about your public policy philosophy or your preparedness for such a daunting task. Given my cynicism toward campaign rhetoric, it is extremely difficult to listen objectively when I am internally convinced that public office seekers will say and do almost anything to win votes. Why else would senators and representatives have political advisors? Aside from my cynicism, you seem to believe government to be the answer to all citizen’s prayers whereas I believe government is constitutionally restricted in what it can or even should do. Having said this, however, I was prepared to embrace your election and give you the benefit of the doubt because, after all, this is my country. You are now the duly elected president. You became, therefore, my president.

I have a couple of issues, however, that have caused me to step back and question my allegiance to the office, and I will be blunt and succinct. Mr. President, with the stroke of a pen you put the people of the United States on the financial hook for worldwide abortions. Essentially it is, Mr. President, that you are forcing me to pay for abortions in other countries. The United States has gotten into the business of actually and actively exporting and promoting death, and I am sorely disappointed that any human being with a conscience would or could do such a thing, or at the very least, pretend to speak for an entire nation in moral issues as this. Life is fundamental, Mr. President. It is the foundation of our very existence; to actively promote abortion itself as a fundamental right is to deny this reality. To actually put money out there to finance such a heinous practice is, to say the least, absurd in light of the extreme economic circumstances we face here at home. At most, it is teaching younger generations that human life only has the value governments choose to assign it. This was the worst thing you could have done.

You did it, however, and you did in fact promise that you would. This great and progressive nation took a giant step backward as it pertains to defining an enduring civilization and a culture that intends to survive by announcing to the world that if there are women across the globe who want to kill their unborn children, the US will provide the necessary funds to make it happen. We publicly loathe the Chinese “one child” policy, and yet you singlehandedly have offered to finance this very policy in other parts of the world. Very poorly done, Mr. President. My disappointment cannot be adequately expressed in words, and you cannot give any speech that will salve the open sores you have agitated.

Even beyond this, however, I must also take exception to your calling upon the American people to be prepared to “make sacrifices”, presumably for the sake of the federal budget, the deficit, and ultimately the national debt. Often there have been questions pertaining to the willingness of the American public to make sacrifices for the good of the country. Many recall with fondness the evident patriotism expressed in the many sacrifices made during the WWII era, there, too, for the war effort and the “good of the country”. It was indeed a different time and a different people, a whole other generation that still believed in our government. This was a government of, by, and for the people, a government that believed in the survival of subsequent generations, not their destruction. This was the government that led the prosecution efforts at Nuremberg against Nazis for their heinous crimes against humanity. Little would we know then that one day this very government would actually embrace the abhorent practices we once prosecuted and condemned.

Today the support and the confidence is just not there. Not only do I believe that younger generations are predominately of a “me first” attitude, but I also believe that government officials who live like royalty, vote themselves pay increases, work to protect their own interests, and spend money as a means of gaining public favor (and votes) regardless of the financial or economic consequences have actually contributed to such selfish attitudes and have no right or business asking Americans to sacrifice even more, especially when it is abundantly clear that American “public servants” are unwilling to share in these sacrifices. Yes, it happens on the state level as well when, in the big middle of a horrific recession that will get worse before it gets better, our own state legislature votes itself a pay increase and justifies it, as our house speaker did, by saying, “I need the money; my wife’s pregnant.” Clueless, Mr. President. Or complacent. Or selfish.

Let us be clear, Mr. President. I do not percieve that you are a leader; it seems more that you are willing to follow the Democratic majority in the Congress, this same Congress (regardless of party dominance, incidentally) which has been running roughshod over the American public for far too long. But because far too many members of this Congress have ignored the people of this country for far too long by working to protect their own interests above the interests of the nation, I for one am no longer willing to offer any sort of “sacrifice” to this or any other government. I once proudly wore the uniform of the US armed forces and was willing to do my part in defense of this nation. But until I see more of a willingness from you and the members of Congress to give more of themselves, I am no longer interested in “sacrifice”. My country is not my God.

I do not pretend to speak for others, Mr. President, though many may agree with me. And this piece may never make it beyond my own personal blog, but I do hope these thoughts and the upcoming TEA PARTY’s which will be held across the nation this April 15 may actually survive to the next election, and I sincerely hope that at least half the current members of Congress lose their jobs. Only then, I am convinced, will this government begin to turn around and actually represent the people rather than the party.


Michael P. Daniel
Magnolia AR

Monday, April 06, 2009

Palm Sunday 2009 ... "What Triumph?"

Mark 11:1-11

There are a couple of items related to Mark’s text that should be noted. First, it is said by some scholars that Mark may be the first known Gospel text and that Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a reference. There is also a belief that a disciple named “Mark” may have actually been a disciple of St. Peter’s. Though I don’t know it can be proved, it is believed by some that “Mark” may have actually written this account as told to him by Peter which would give the account substantial credibility. Second, verse 10 of the text may be the truest indicator and best summary of exactly what was on the minds of those who were enthusiastically greeting Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem: “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”

It finally comes down to this. Jesus is about to enter into the city of Jerusalem and is hailed as something of a conquering hero even though nothing has been conquered … at least not yet. What is worse is that the people who are greeting Him are very likely clueless as to exactly what is taking place or what is about to take place. What they do know is that they are Jews, and the pagan Romans are in charge of their lives and their homeland, the land once known as the “Promised Land”, the land of a Covenant. What they also know is that this Man coming into town on a donkey’s colt is the One often referred to as the “Son of David”, David being the late, great warrior king, the eagerly anticipated “ancestor” and protector of that “Covenant Land”.

What they also know is that theirs is a miserable lot in life living under the thumb screws of the overbearing and secular “state”, a “state” that does not share their values or their God, and they would like to see some changes. Serious, radical, and QUICK changes. For an anxious people of faith, scripture such as Psalm 37:7 should offer some solace: “Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him”, yet patience seems no longer an affordable luxury. And Scripture is not what these people want to hear. It is what they NEED, but it is not what they are after. The LORD is not what they desire at this moment unless the LORD is willing to agree with them and give them what they want.

“Hosanna”, translated, means “Save us, we ask”. It is an invocation of the people and should be a prayerful appeal to the Lord, but I don’t think this is true in this particular instance. And this parade is marked by these same people who are eagerly laying palm branches and even their cloaks on the road in front of Jesus and who are also calling out to Him, “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!” It would be easy to characterize this gathering as a prayerful event sort of like a revival, but I think such a characterization would be wrong, or at the very least, misleading. It is an event filled with hope and anticipation, to be sure, but what the people seem to desire – or expect - is not necessarily consistent with the will of the Lord because the true “enemy” has yet to be exposed. For the time being, the Romans will have to do.

So what is happening? This event which is unfolding, commonly referred to as the “triumphal entry”, has often been presented as a sort of “conquest”, a “triumph” as if something has been won. It seems to read as though Jesus is now “large and in charge” and masses of people are finally handing their lives over to Him, but events as they unfold will indicate anything but. We would like to believe that the “kingdom of heaven is at hand” but for all intents and purposes, nothing is really happening. At least, not what the people want or expect. And if we stop and think it through, nothing much really changed after Jesus’ crucifixion … at least not in Jerusalem and certainly not in the lives of those who would herald His arrival now and curse His presence later.

Humans are a fickle bunch, not much given to reason. And over the course of some 2000 years, this reality has not changed. And yet Jesus, knowing this, walked right into the big middle of it. Our own Bishop Crutchfield said it best: He had a decision to make. It was a fear-filled moment. He could give in to the fear and go home to Galilee, or He could trust God and go on into Jerusalem. He chose to trust God. The people gathered around Him like a surging ocean. The shouts of the crowd accented the power of the hope in their hearts. It was a demonstration of power the Romans hated and the religious leaders feared. It was a scene that could provoke a massive reaction. He had a decision to make. He chose not to give way to fear of reprisal. He chose to trust God.

Jesus was about to enter into a very dangerous world, a snake pit really, a world filled with hatred and violence. A world filled with weapons of destruction and men trained and willing to use them. A world in which only a handful of men could make decisions that would affect whole regions filled with people who were powerless to stop them. A powder keg of a world marked by a short fuse. And Jesus surely knew the Pharisees and other religious leaders were walking with a lighted match. It was only a matter of time before the anger, the fear, the hatred, the anticipation of better days that would not come soon, would be ignited.

Yet He pressed on. There was one simple focus that drove Jesus to press on even when He knew He had other options, options that would have saved Him, options that would have been far more pleasing to His physical self AND to those who truly loved Him. The focus, of course, was the Holy Father. It was not for the people who would call on Him and praise Him when they had need or hope but would turn on Him when their own desires were not fulfilled. There was no spite for these “fair weather friends”; only compassion, pity, and mercy. Yet it was still His love for and focus on the Lord God that moved Him forward.

In the Church calendar, we mark such days as if we were there. It is much easier to embrace, even appreciate such things when we can actually find a way to be a part of the whole experience. Yet it is also fair to say that even after hundreds of re-enactments of this fateful day throughout church history, not much has changed nor will it. After this worship service, we will pretty much go on about our lives as before and all will be well. As in Jerusalem, nothing will really change.

Why should it? Why should there be any change? It seems we have it all now. We can have our cake and eat it, too. We can declare our own salvation, and continue as before. No harm, no foul. Nothing much left to do. We can continue to insist that the will of God is best defined as that which pleases us. We can continue to contribute to weapons designed to maim and kill, we can continue to proclaim “In God We Trust” when in reality it is the money upon which such a cheesy motto is imprinted that we actually and truly trust. We can and will continue to fit the Lord in whenver we find the time … after we’ve done everything else. After we have first pleased ourselves and taken care of our own needs.

Yet in spite of this sea of selfishness and greed, we are offered the Blessed Sacrament of Holy Communion. We can choose to come forward and receive this wondrous gift, never truly understanding it, but perhaps appreciating it for what it is: a moment of complete and total union, we with one another and with our brethren around the world – and most certainly with Him who is seated at the Right Hand of our Heavenly Father. He who will, by the compassion of His own heart, grant to us the peace we so desperately need, forgive us our sins and our betrayal – IF we are truly penitent - and ask us to do better while He offers to us the strength of His Blessed and Holy Spirit to endure and persevere. And in the end, all He asks is for us to REMEMBER.

Until or unless we do, nothing will change. Now or ever