Sunday, August 23, 2009

What did He say??

John 6:56-69

Recall Matthew 15:21-28, the story of the Gentile woman who comes to Jesus begging that He heal her “severely demon-possessed daughter”. Jesus responded only to His disciples, who began begging Him to send this tenacious woman away, perhaps after giving her what she was asking for: “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). The Gentile woman was relentless in her plea, and Jesus finally told her: “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs” (Matthew 15:26). In the end, the woman indicated that she would be satisfied with “crumbs which fall from the table”. At this, Jesus marveled at her faith and healed her daughter.

Then Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans, indicates not only that judgment will come to “the Jew first” but also “glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good, to the Jew first” (Romans 2:9, 10).

It seems clear, then, that the primary focus of Jesus’ ministry was “to the Jew, first”. How, then, can we reconcile His primary mission with terminology used in John that, in fact, did turn away Jews? The very idea of the consumption of human flesh is abhorrent, but the consumption of blood is expressly prohibited by command of the Lord (Genesis 9:4). Even if Jesus’ death was already a foregone conclusion and His flesh would not be “alive” with blood coursing through His veins, as some scholars suggest, there is no indication that these Jewish disciples were completely on board with what lay ahead, including the intentional and voluntary death of Jesus. The Jews fully expected a Messiah, perhaps THE Messiah, and they expected that THE Messiah would rid the world of evil and then take His place on the Eternal Throne, but there is NOTHING in prophecy that suggests for one moment that any Messiah, let alone THE Messiah, was to be “eaten” with a blood chaser!

We know from history, and this especially includes religious history, that taking the Bible too literally has probably caused more problems than have been solved. In fact, literal translations probably account for more of the separations between Christian denominations – and conflicts between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity; all of which share common scripture to one degree or another – than anything we could possibly imagine. Yet we continue to read into Bibles stories that have passed through Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin translations, little of which can be precisely translated, word for word, into English. One of THE most common mistakes I’ve observed is folks who do not speak, read, or write Hebrew attempt to make a word-for-word translation. Those who are genuinely in the know say it cannot be done, but it has likely been done here and there over time. This is part of the reason why some theology teachers in my past, for instance, have insisted that NRSV is the preferable translation because it does not attempt “transliteral acrobatics”, to use one professor’s choice of words.

What does this confusion do for us? It would, at the least, upset a delicate belief system by which we have come to understand the role of Jesus not only in human history but also within the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as “Messiah”, the bedrock of the Christian faith. For instance, I earlier referred to “a” messiah as well as “THE” Messiah. The word “messiah” is an English “rendering” (not necessarily “translated”) of the Hebrew word “Mashiach”, which means “anointed”, not “savior”. In Hebrew terms and traditions, being “anointed” has usually inferred the literal use of oil with which one is anointed to a position by proper authority, therefore including Hebrew kings and Jewish high priests among the “anointed”. So reading NKJV 1 Samuel 26:11, we hear “messiah” (or “anointed”) when David speaks: “The Lord forbid that I should stretch out my hand against the Lord’s ANOINTED”, referring, of course, to King Saul who, though having been duly “anointed”, eventually lost the Lord’s favor.

So is all this language getting in the way of the Jews who objected to what Jesus had spoken when they exclaimed, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (John 6:60)? It would be reasonable to say, “yes”; there is a part of them that cannot accept what Jesus is saying based almost entirely on His choice of words. Cannibalism is not a Jewish practice, and blood is prohibited for consumption. Clearly, then, they did not get what He was saying, but even after Jesus tried to clarify what was actually being said, those disciples who turned away had pretty much stopped listening.

Even though Jesus refers to His flesh as “food” and His blood as “drink” (John 6:55), as real as it gets, He then seems to contradict Himself when He says, “It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless” (John 6:63), meaning, of course, His human flesh. Even still, the Jews who were with Him up to this point are sufficiently “offended” and chose to walk away. They voluntarily disengaged themselves from the encounter purely because of language; to them, offensive language. They didn’t get it but perhaps more significantly, they didn’t want to get it. They “heard” His words, but they were not truly “listening”.

I would be very nearly willing to bet that at this moment, there are some who have been sufficiently “offended” by the earlier language I chose that came uncomfortably close to suggesting that Jesus is not THE Messiah by tossing in a particular Hebrew word and then suggesting that King Saul was as much “messiah” (that is, “anointed”) as Jesus. It is only because we have become accustomed to “Messiah” or “Christ” and have all but given Jesus a “last name” as Christ. It should not matter and we should be willing to listen more carefully and fully engage ourselves so that we can draw our own conclusions and, thus, our own faith, but we don’t. We get used to a certain thing a certain way, and any deviation from what we are used to is at the very least heresy; at most, blasphemy.

Notice something, though. After the other Jews had walked away, Jesus turned to His Twelve and asked whether they, too, would prefer to walk away. Peter answers for the Twelve when he says there is no one else to go to. “We have come to believe and know that You are the Holy One of God” (John 6:69). So how did they come to know this? Jesus said it earlier in verse 65: “… no one can come to Me unless it is granted by the Father.” He also said it in Matthew 16:17 when He had asked the Twelve whom they believed Jesus to be. Peter offered his confession to Jesus, and Jesus said that “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” Faith; that Divine Gift that man cannot impart to man.

Knowledge of who Jesus really is, is knowledge divinely imparted; that is, it comes from the mouth of the Living God alone. We disciples can only witness to the Truth of this Knowledge, but we cannot impart this knowledge, this faith. It comes only from above. While it is important to participate in worship where the Word of the Lord is read and preached, it is probably more important that we fully engage ourselves as if hearing the Word proclaimed for the very first time, to put aside the man-made traditions and doctrines that put more emphasis on some individual’s understanding and stand humbly before Him as if He is about to impart to us all we need to know until the next time we choose to give Him our attention.

It is not an easy thing, nor necessarily a good thing, to disavow all that we were raised to believe, but it is always a good thing to question man’s biblical interpretations and personal opinions of the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven, not accusingly but with an open mind and an open heart. We can know that Jesus is not to be “eaten”, in the purest and most literal sense of the word, but we must know that the Lord and His Eternal Word are to be taken “internally” so that He becomes as much a part of us as the Spirit will allow.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Certain Reality of Life: Death

Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto is portrayed in the 1970 film, “Tora! Tora! Tora!”, as saying after his attack on Pearl Harbor, "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve." Whether this was actually spoken by any Japanese admiral may be subject to historic speculation, but it is a reasonable assumption that an admiral would have been at least politically aware of the certain potential of a nation with such vast resources at its disposal and a history of national resolve when directly threatened.

Now this same “sleeping giant” battle cry is being used by town hall protesters as a warning to members of Congress who have, at least prior to the August recess, all but ignored the outcry such speculation about the various health care bills floating about in Congress has brought. Some seemed genuinely surprised by what has come about from these gatherings, which is not entirely unreasonable considering the majority that carried Obama to the White House. Even still, I applaud those members of Congress who continue to hold these town hall meetings while mindful of what is likely to come as a result.

It occurred to me earlier that this outcry, resulting primarily from so much misinformation, is not unlike the outcry that came as a result of President GW Bush’s Social Security privatization proposals. Republican members of the Congress were skittish about how such proposals would be received by American voters, and Democrats were gleeful as they virtually ran to AARP-sponsored meetings and retirement homes, thumping their chests, and telling Social Security-dependent persons that GWB was going to throw them into the streets and that “George Bush will take your Social Security OVER MY DEAD BODY”! In spite of GWB’s direct and unambiguous words and specific proposed exemptions, Democrats intentionally, effectively, and successfully twisted the president’s words and put a stop to even having a national discussion/debate on addressing the very real – and very serious – problems Social Security will face in a matter of a few short years. The problems still exist, the danger is very real, but now we don’t even want to talk about it. It is much easier to claim a victory and leave well enough alone.

It would be nice to say we learned a hard lesson, but the truth is we’ve learned nothing at all. There are those “sacred cows” we can never have serious discussions about because our elected officials lack the courage and the resolve to be serious about anything other than their own reelection campaigns, and we voters lack the wherewithal to be serious and hear the unvarnished truth. Congressional incumbents will do enough damage control over the course of the next few months and will be able to convince their constituents that the outcry was “heard” and responded to. These same constituents will then be lulled back into complacency, and those members of Congress will have again successfully manipulated the voters. And health care reform – which we all agree is badly in need of serious discussion and attention – will be only a pipe dream, thrown into the annals of “nice try” history and forgotten.

Now that I have successfully taken myself completely off task, allow me to go back to the matter at hand. “End of life counseling” (aka, “death panels”) under the various House proposals will be voluntary on the part of patients but would be mandated to be made available to these patients, and doctors will be reimbursed by Medicare. What all this means is that there is a certain reality we must all face. And if it is true what President Obama said about “how the chronically ill and those toward the end of their lives are accounting for potentially 80 percent of the total health care costs” (Washington Times, July 9 editorial), then we need to be very serious about exactly what is being done against what is being proposed.

Bottom Line: voters do not trust the government to make such decisions or even be indirectly involved in such decisions. This lack of trust is being translated to “health care will be denied to the elderly” (it’s called “reading between the lines”) so as to save a few bucks. Indeed, try to call the US government, any agency, and see how hard it can be to get a knowledgeable human being on the line. And imagine such an overtaxed system such as a national health care office where decisions to fund or not will be made daily and, quite literally, thousands of times per day. But let us not allow the language to become inflammatory. It is not, as I understand it, a matter of deliberately choosing to end the life of an elderly person. Rather, the choice will be the usefulness of thousands of dollars worth of treatment that may not be effective. There is a huge difference.

Yet even as I have nothing to lose or gain politically from this discussion, I cannot bring myself to say what needs to be said: we humans will not – repeat, NOT – live forever. It is imminent; our lives will end, but we have an aversion to such a truth as this. And even though Americans are living longer, my guess is that such longevity is not exclusively attributable to “natural” (read “pills” … and lots of them) genetics or “good, clean living”. The tricky part is defining “toward the end of their lives”, as President Obama had put it in the July 9 Washington Times editorial/interview, because no one can know exactly when the “end” will be without taking definitive measures to deliberately terminate a life. And this is where too many Americans see the US government stepping in. The government may not “pull the plug on grandma”, as Obama so callously put it, but government may well decide whether grandma is plugged in in the first place. And this, I think, is the problem.
Incidentally, the “pull the plug” claim is no more or less ridiculous than “throw grandma into the street”, as congressional Democrats gleefully proclaimed during the Social Security debate-that-never-took-place” during President Bush’s last term. But again, I digress.

The issue of health care in America is as real and as serious now as Social Security was, and still is. Whether we accomplish anything of substance remains to be seen and will be contingent upon American voters’ insistence on knowing the truth (the sleeping giant awakened AND alert!) not only about what these proposals contain but exactly how much – or how little – their senators and representatives actually know. And this cannot be determined until we actually allow them to speak. But may we also be realistic about what is at stake, and putting a 25-year-old heart into an 85-year-old body is not realistic. Nor practical.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Leadership Void

It occurred to me as I was preparing a sermon last week that there are two different types of leaders in this world. One is designated by proper authority; the other earns the honor. One asks “why” and seeks to fix blame when problems arise; the other asks “where do we go from here” and seeks to fix the problem. One “cracks the whip” in order to get people to fall in line by whatever means necessary and at their ready disposal; the other motivates and moves people of their own accord. One believes himself to be the “know-it-all” and absolute authority, incapable of mistakes and seemingly eager to belittle those in his or her charge; the other recognizes his limitations, his status as a human – and fallible – person, and utilizes the gifts and talents of those in his charge to achieve the common goal. One micro-manages and trusts no one; the other delegates authority and is able to trust because this leader takes time to know those in his or her charge.

The purpose of the sermon was to distinguish between knowledge (that of knowing something) and wisdom (that of knowing what to do with that knowledge) and I came to the conclusion (though this was not in the sermon) that our government is filled with all kinds of knowledgeable persons, but there are few who evidence gifts, or even desire, of wisdom. It is not that these many are incapable of wisdom, but true wisdom is not incidental and does not necessarily come with age and/or experience. Wisdom is willfully and actively sought.

The several health reform proposals floating about in the Congress have caused a great deal of concern, confusion, and downright consternation among the populace not necessarily because the legislation itself is dangerous but because each party is using the weaker points of these many legislative proposals not to build upon but to destroy political opposition. And because each party is using what it thinks it must, even to the point of distorting genuine information, to make the other look bad, we citizens are left with little more than sound bites that lack useful substance. Because we lack good information from those we have appointed to represent us, we react angrily. Sad, but true.

Speaker Pelosi “blames” the media and monied interests for the outcry and accuses these town hall “criers” to be not only “un-American” but also implies these many to be incapable of independent thought or of disseminating such complex issues. Republicans blame Democrats, and Democrats blame Republicans. President Obama blames “all the above”, does not (or will not) subject himself to the same scrutiny and questions as congressional Democrats have endured at these town hall meetings, and still within such a heavily controlled environment gives only platitudes, emotional innuendo, and answers “questions” about very complex issues as health care and insurance from prepubescent children who are clueless about what is really at stake.

It seems clear, therefore, that this current government, from the White House to the Congress, is absolutely lacking in genuine leadership because wisdom is not only not actively sought but is, instead, intentionally avoided for the sake of political gain. Because of this, Americans have but one option: clear out the House and the Senate and begin anew. This means even the “good ol’ boy” congressman, who glad-hands so easily among the constituents a few weeks before election time and has done many personal (and political) favors, has brought home plenty of “bacon” and is well-connected, must go. No exceptions. It would be a bitter pill to swallow for many who are actually satisfied with their own representatives and senators but a necessary pill because this government will not begin to respond to the people until they fully recognize that we are not mindless sheep who can be led by the proverbial shepherd’s crook.

Ultimately, the central issue is one of trust, is it not? Though we might “like” our own members of Congress, do we really trust them to act in our behalf for the common good? Do we really trust that if there is a choice between something good for us or good for them, that they would choose us? Given the consistently low approval rating numbers according to various polls, my guess is that we do not trust the Congress to act in our behalf. So why reelect them when we know that if our own “bosses” felt the same toward us, that we would soon be unemployed? That these members of the Congress are not subject to the same scrutiny and supervision is the foundation of their abject arrogance.

Here is the simple litmus test for potential candidates: do they tear down their opposition? If so, they are not worthy of our trust. They may possess a great deal of knowledge, but it is clear that they are incapable of using this knowledge for the greater good. Knowledge of a particular issue is used only for personal, professional, or political gain. It does not take a great deal of wisdom to tear someone down and it does not even take a great deal of intelligence to find fault with another’s proposals or ideas, but it takes a real leader to think through things and offer more than simple platitudes.

And I think it really is that simple. Consider, for instance, Sarah Palin. She came out with these “death panels” because the proposed legislation allowed for “end of life” counseling to be paid for by Medicare. There is no wording in the legislation that I am aware of that grants the government any options. Rather, the available (and some very expensive) options are spelled out for the one receiving the counseling so that the patient may exercise these options and make informed choices. Mrs. Palin should know perfectly well that her words would only inflame, not inform, and her rhetoric is destructive rather than useful and constructive. Her only aim – and ONLY aim – is to discredit the president and congressional Democrats. Absent her own proposals, she really should simply remain silent until she has something useful to contribute to the discussion.

The town hall meetings were a necessary first step toward addressing this massive legislation before it turns into yet another massive, uncontrollable government program. It is sad that these meetings got so out-of-hand and downright disrespectful of those who stood in disagreement, but I think it has become necessary for the members of Congress – and potential candidates for Congress – to see and experience the utter frustration felt by voters. No single thing or person or committee is “at fault”, but it is strange to see so many members of the House who were just reelected getting hammered by that same constituency.

But let wisdom prevail. Whether “revamp” or “reform”, a lot of forward thinking and past experiences will have to enter into this national conversation. “Grandma’s plug”, Trig Palin’s disability, and other such emotional black-mail have no place in this debate. The nation has made itself clear: we want information, useful information about exactly how such proposals will “make things better” or be “deficit neutral” or will “rescue the economy”. No more apocalypse. No more “doomsday”. The facts, please; just the facts.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Divine Perceptions and Certain Reality

2 Samuel 18:1-33

In the movie, “Bruce Almighty”, the character “Bruce” is not having a good way with his career. His life is better than most. Like many of us he has friends and blessings he seems to take for granted and he has a job many might kill for, but he wants “more”. There is nothing wrong with a little ambition, of course, until one is blinded by this ambition, and “Bruce” was because he was so stuck on getting what he wanted that he was unable to see the good he already had.

Sound familiar? I know I’ve been there, and it took a pretty hard and painful fall before my eyes were finally opened, even if my vision is still a little fuzzy! And this is exactly what had happened with “Bruce” except that when he “fell”, his immediate reaction was that of anger. He “blamed” the Lord for being a “mean kid with a magnifying glass” who treated him as an ant on a sidewalk, taking a perverse pleasure in burning off “Bruce’s” antennas. Bruce was pretty sure the Lord was spending His days doing little more than trying to figure out ways to “smite” him. This “personal” Lord was falling down on the job! And “Bruce” believed he could do the job better.

The really sad thing is that this very strange and very narrow “theology” expressed by “Bruce” is not unlike what so many remember as the “old time” religion in which the fiery depths of hell seemed to be the primary focus to be used as a spiritual “weapon” with which to beat people into submission and get them to “tow the line”, while the grace and mercy of the Holy Father came in a distant second, if at all. The basic theme and prevailing image is that of a “God” who is interactive with humanity ONLY if He gets to clobber someone!

Some now refer to this as “or else” theology, and in some traditions it is still very much alive (though I would hesitate to say alive and “well”). There is nothing entirely untrue about such apocalyptic expressions, but over time the collective Church has come to realize – much to its dismay - that not only is such theology far too narrow but that many have chosen to walk away from such “by the sword” theology because the emphasis leans toward punishment and eternal condemnation rather than redemption and eternal life. Jesus emphatically states in John 3:17 that “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved”. Far too many took – and still take - a very strange and perverse satisfaction in the knowledge that SOMEBODY’s gonna get it in the end!

It is an odd thing that we can essentially agree on the same things but express our beliefs by different emphases. It is commonly known, for instance, that the Puritans chose to come to America to escape religious persecution, but it is not often mentioned that they chose to escape from a predominately Christian Europe, kings and queens often referred to as “defenders of the faith”. Simply stated, they did not believe in a state-sanctioned and –sponsored church and wanted a church all their own in which they would be free to express their own theology. In the end, it was John Winthrop’s own personal theology and his Massachusetts “city on a hill” that was supposed to be the ideal of Christian living and governance turned out to be far more oppressive and restrictive than the ‘government’ church from which they sought to escape. There was nothing entirely “wrong” about what Winthrop believed to be true, but his firm belief system and “state-sanctioned” church did not allow that others may not see things exactly the way he did. He became a reflection of the very repression he sought to flee from!

We all have a particular way of thinking when it comes to the Lord, and much of how we see Him has to do with how we were raised and taught and what traditions we come from, religious or otherwise. Our perceptions have to do with how we’ve been treated in the past and how we’re treated now. We are told that some women who grew up in abusive homes cannot conceive of the Lord as “Father” because their own earthly fathers were so abusive. Many see the Lord as “punisher” and “judge” while others think of Him in more redemptive terms such as “savior”. I, for one, have a hard time calling Him, or referring to Him, as simply “God” because it just seems a bit too familiar, a little too “chummy” and lacking a certain sense of reverence.
Surely we can each name someone in our past or present who absolutely rejects the usefulness of the Lord and His Church because of a bad experience with preachers, deacons, and other Christians in the past, regardless of their capacity. And of course, we can all reasonably conclude that the essence of the Lord has not changed, but many have a particular perception of Him based not on scriptural content or context but based almost entirely on personal experiences with persons associated with church.

Though I cannot say that many scholars or theologians would agree with me, I cannot help but to wonder if the writer of 2 Samuel was not using the story and conflict of King David and his son, Absalom, as an illustration of the emotions the Lord may feel toward those who actively rebel against Him and then suffer perhaps a premature death before they were able to make peace and come to terms with Him. This may not have been on the writer’s mind and we may be looking at nothing more than a historical account of the curse and reality of what David’s house was doomed to become after he impregnated Bathsheba and then order her husband’s death as a way of covering up his indiscretion and sin: “the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me … I will raise up adversity against you from your own house” (2 Samuel 12:10, 11).

It is clear that the Lord is capable of anger. If we believe in the Incarnation – that Jesus is the Lord God in the flesh – then we must necessarily believe the Lord to be capable of compassion. If we believe that King David was truly a man “after [the Lord’s] own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14), then we must believe that the Lord continued to use King David in a positive way as a ‘shepherd’ of His people in spite of the challenges with which David was personally confronted. And if we believe the Lord God to be capable of love, then we must necessarily believe Him to be capable of grief and mourning.

King David chose to flee rather than confront his own son in battle. One might come close to suggesting that David may have run out of fear, but the expression made by the King in wishing for his own death rather than having to endure the pain associated with the death of his own son makes clear that David was not concerned for his own hide. He was an experienced and savvy man of war! Absalom would not have stood a chance! To fight, rather than to flee, would have been more to David’s human nature and inclination, we might think. But to think of King David ONLY in such terms would ignore the many facets of his entire being. He was capable of much more than simply making war. Like the rest of us, he was not merely one-dimensional.

And it makes me wonder about the many dimensions of the Lord and how those dimensions are reflected in our own being, especially within the context of having been created in this same divine image. We are obviously not created to physically reflect a divine image because such a physical image does not exist. And we can be reasonably sure that we are all called forward in Christ to be a reflection of a Divine Image and New Covenant in witnessing to the entire world, beginning in our own neighborhoods and communities. But the Image we reflect is the image we perceive, and this image is not always the one we might freely choose. Rather, it is more likely to be the image that has been imposed upon us over an extended period of time that we are incapable of seeing the Lord any other way. If judge, then judge. If vindicator, then vindictive. If law-enforcer, then law-enforcing.

There is another element to consider. If our perceived image of the Lord leans more toward ‘enforcer’ than anything else, if we see Him primarily as merciless against the evil-doer, then we might be more inclined to overlook His grace and mercy – period. We become so consumed with this almighty, all-powerful “smiter” of evil that we fail to see the Holy One, our heavenly Father, who is capable of experiencing grief. We see a “warrior God” who destroys and vanquishes and banishes, but we cannot see a “Savior” because the “warrior God” is interested only in beating one into what would essentially be involuntary submission. And if we cannot “see” a Savior capable of love, it is reasonable to suggest we cannot “know” a Savior capable of love. And if we cannot know a Savior capable of love, we cannot rest and take comfort in our Savior’s love.

It is not a matter of choosing between “which God” is more pleasing to us because to dismiss one element of Him is to dismiss Him entirely. To dismiss one facet of His existence is to live in ignorance of ALL He is. It’s sort of like living with one’s spouse for years before finally one day saying, “Oh. I didn’t know that about you”. It’s not necessarily that this element of surprise did not exist, but it could be more evidence that we simply chose not to see it – out of love. You know, sort of like those annoying habits that are cute early in the marriage but soon become like fingernails on the chalkboard?!?!

David’s grief was expressed in knowing the pain he was experiencing at the loss of his child. You and I must always be consciously aware that this death that would have separated us from our Father did not happen – because the profound sacrificial love expressed by David’s willingness to die in place of his son was endured by Christ in place of His children. Judgment was rendered that very dark day, dear friends, and we were spared so that we could be finally and completely reunited with our Holy Father. This is, indeed, the very essence of love, and it is the entire Being of a redemptive Savior of the world.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Defining the 'Fight'

It is disheartening, to say the least, that congressional Democrats are presenting themselves at town hall meetings during the August recess only to be shouted down, jeered, booed, and threatened even to the point that it becomes necessary to involve police protection, as happened recently in Tampa FL. The confusion and downright fear of the average citizen in this whole “debate” is understandable because each political party seems more intent on scoring points than honestly discussing, debating, and presenting legislation as far-reaching and expensive as this proposed national health insurance plan (we must stop referring to it as health “care” reform), thus leaving themselves open to ridicule and downright abuse because relatively few seem to even know or understand what is on the table. Hence, the town hall meetings intended to inform.

The White House is no help with the uncivilized behavior that is being expressed and experienced by threatening to “punch back twice as hard”, as expressed by White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina. Just as President Obama recently – and suddenly – found his own foot in his mouth by referring to Cambridge MA police acting “stupidly”, Mr. Messina’s poor choice of words is only adding fuel to the fire and completely mischaracterizing exactly what is at stake.

Members of Congress are now forced to deal with the certain reality of an approximate (if appropriate) 30% approval rating. In a nutshell, 70% of these polled Americans do not trust the Congress even if they happen to like their own congressman. Strange situation, that, but I do not want to digress. The mid-term elections are more than a year away, and a more pressing problem exists now.

It does no good to engage in shouting matches at such functions as these town hall meetings because a) no one is afraid of the shouter (if this is what the shouter seeks), b) the speaker has an obligation to make his or her presentation and answer questions, c) others are in attendance because they have legitimate questions and concerns, and d) common courtesy and decorum demand a certain level of behavior conducive to an open discussion and mutual respect. The people may not like what they hear and the members of Congress may not like what they hear, but this is the life of public service. It is not a matter of shoving something down one’s constituents’ collective throat so that they will “take it and like it” (which ultimately defines ‘fascism’), but it does mean these members of Congress are obliged to listen. They can even try to sell what they believe in (as they should) so that voters can then decide for themselves how to vote in the next election, but members of Congress must never be threatened to the point of requiring police protection. They do, indeed, “work for us” (as many shouters have proclaimed), but they are not required or obligated under any circumstances to subject themselves to verbal abuse or threats of physical harm.

Top-level Democrats, including US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, and US Senator Harry Reid, D-NV, are also mischaracterizing the objections that are being expressed by these protesters and shouters by suggesting that these citizens are little more than “stooges” for monied interests. In putting too much emphasis on the frustrations of citizens as misguided or misappropriated, they risk fatal political harm to the honest debate – and perhaps to their own careers – that must necessarily take place. They fail to notice, or seriously note, that citizens are expressing their utter sense of powerlessness and lack of control within a system of government that was not intended or designed to usurp the will of the people appropriately expressed through their representatives. They have done little to allay the confusion and honest fear these protesters have of a tyrannical government that appears poised to force something on them they do not want.

In the din of confusion that is utterly and painfully apparent, it is impossible to know exactly what the fight is all about. Are we resisting a new, expansive, and expensive government program we obviously cannot afford, or are we resisting an overly expansive government that seems bent on taking without asking? If it is the latter, it leaves us with this burning question: why do we continue to reelect the same people to the same offices, knowing we will only get more of the same?

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Bacon Bits and Your Congress

Members of Congress are home during the August recess and facing not-so-surprisingly hostile crowds over the health care legislation debate (actually, it’s INSURANCE they’re debating, lest we become confused. I wrote about this earlier). It is certain that most members of the Congress would expect a tough sell on nearly every level. And partisan politics being what it is, there is a lot of misinformation out there because Democrats AND Republicans are being less than honest with their constituents only in the hopes of scoring some cheap political points. Make no mistake: both sides stand accused of using scare tactics and of being obstructionist, and neither side is being completely honest or forthright in what is even on the table. Why? Because most members of Congress have no real idea of what the 1,000 + pages of this contested legislation contain.

There is another factor that is contributing to the hostility of constituents that members of Congress seem oblivious to: their collective approval rating is floating at right around 30%, depending on the poll. This means 70% of voting Americans do not trust the Congress, and it may be the bulk of this 70% that is showing up at these town hall meetings. Sad to say that since it is said that most members of Congress have not had time to even read the legislation, they are exposing themselves to questions they are unable to adequately answer. Give them credit for having the guts to do such a foolish thing, of course, but also consider that they are counting on voters’ traditionally short memories; mid-term elections are not for another whole year. That’s plenty of time for them to bring home a little extra “bacon” to turn voters’ attention away from the big picture. Think of it. Stimulus money to build a new community center … with a candy machine … and chips … and maybe some chairs. Ohhhh, shiny baubles and trinkets. And then see this new “stimulated” community center close down shortly thereafter for lack of funds to maintain and operate it.

These are the things we continually vote to keep in our lives as we continually reelect the same representatives and senators. In addition to these little “bacon bits”, they now propose to create a whole new spending program they cannot define or defend except to play with voters’ emotions by reminding them of the 45 million Americans who have no health insurance. Grossly short of facts and figures, these members of Congress depend on political advisors to help them get through the tough times so that come election time, they will know which buttons to push.

Many voters hesitate to allow a new campaign to gain much traction against an incumbent for no reason other than the adage, “better the devil you know”. Seasoned incumbents also hammer home the mantra that “experience” will always rule the day and serve us well, and voters forget that this “experience” has gotten us where we are today: $11 trillion in the hole and a deficit that is as large as the federal budget with little hope of improvement because the issue of jobs is being largely ignored. No jobs means no taxpayers. No taxpayers means no revenue. No revenue means no budget. Yet the budget continues to grow, and spending will virtually explode if government-funded health insurance (insurance the president and members of Congress will not participate in, mind you!) becomes a reality.

Listen to your congressman as he (or she) comes a-callin’. And then advise them to enjoy their last year in office. And then do the right thing: take back YOUR Congress.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Slaves No More

Exodus 16:2-5, 11-15
John 6:2-35

“Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?” Romans 6:16

Many of us are slaves to certain habits and behaviors, but not all habits and behaviors are inherently destructive. While it is true that some of us are slaves to alcohol, gambling, tobacco, work, and even food; others among us are slaves to physical fitness (ok, some of YOU might be), financial discipline, and healthy eating. In fact, it may be that we are all slaves, in one sense or another, to something in our lives and not really be consciously aware of it. They are not always such bad things to have in our lives, but all behaviors speak to a certain human trait I believe to be inherent in all of us: we are creatures of habit. And because we have within us a certain “survival instinct”, we are also possessed of certain self-serving, though not necessarily selfish, behaviors. If something works for us in the beginning, we will pretty much stick with it and even protect it almost at all cost.

So as we identify those habits we could probably live without, we sometimes create new habits with which to offset the old. And sometimes we don’t. Old habits are hard to break, and it really doesn’t matter how we come by these habits or even why, although knowing why we do things might help us to stop if we truly want to stop. I remember my aunt trying – IN VAIN – to get me to stop biting my fingernails by putting that awful-tasting stuff on my nails. My initial fear was that this “stuff” might look like gloss, but it dries well. My second fear was the inevitable “change” that would come as a result if I were to stop biting my nails. Then it occurred to me: stop putting the nasty stuff on my fingernails! That problem was solved pretty quickly … but I still bite my nails.

Captivity has a nature all its very own, but we rarely associate “being held captive” with “being creatures of habit”. We typically understand habits as learned behavior, of course, but we also more often enter into these habits of our own free will, if subconsciously. That is to say, we are not often forced into habitual behavior by external forces even as we are certainly influenced. Regardless of how or why we learn certain behaviors, by the time we figure out that a substantial portion of our lives is devoted to these habits, whether good or bad, it’s very nearly too late. We are hooked and, thus, enslaved.

It might be easy to confuse “habit” with “hobby”, especially if we have hobbies we devote a great deal of time to. Some hobbies are downright addictive! And if we devote such time to these hobbies that the things we must deal with are ignored, there is a problem. It is “patterned” behavior that compels us to act very nearly mindlessly, and this is not how we were created.

Witness the people of Israel in the wilderness, suddenly free. Because the nation had been captive for 400 years, the concept of freedom is completely alien to Moses’ generation. They are unable to conceive of it or act within it - and because they are so limited even in their ability to think independently, they remember with FONDNESS the “pots of meat and … bread to the full” they once had (Exodus 16:3). It does not seem to occur to them that they were being “tended” like so much livestock because they simply did not know any better! If we re-read the first chapter of Exodus, we will be reminded that the people of Israel were not “captured” in battle. Rather, they were slowly and “shrewdly” enslaved over a period of time. It all happened because the Egyptians realized that the vast Hebrew population could spell trouble for them “in the event of war” with Egypt’s enemies (Exodus 1:10). Israel failed to realize it was being enslaved until it was too late, likely because their essential needs were being met for them even as they were being mistreated.

Jesus expresses a similar sentiment to the crowd that sought Him out on the other side of the sea: “You are looking for Me not because you saw signs but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (John 6:26). Whether these of the crowd were poor who were finally able to “eat their fill” on the other side of the sea is not nearly as relevant as the fact that they were willing to mindlessly follow a free meal, having completely missed the “big picture”. And these were likely of the same crowd from the other side willing to take Jesus “by force” to make Him their king (John 6:15). Jesus met their basic and most essential physical need and because of this, they were willing to hand over their very lives to Him without fully realizing or even appreciating Him for who He really was (is!).

Right off the cuff, one may be tempted to ask how being drawn to Jesus could be a bad thing, even if blindly and involuntarily drawn. The short answer, of course, is that there is nothing “bad” about being drawn to Jesus. The long answer goes deeper, though, in that if folks could be drawn to Jesus with just bread and fish, they could be drawn to anyone with just bread and fish. Modern-day “false prophets” know exactly what people want, and they know how to provide what people want. And if a person’s immediate and crucial need is met, whether that need is social, personal, financial, or physical, the “provider” of that relief soon becomes the “taskmaster” after having initially – and temporarily - served as “savior”. The relationship never was one of trust or even respect, and there was certainly no element of freedom or voluntary action. Like the bad habits we acquire over a period of time, we are soon “captured” without ever having been consciously aware.

I cannot say I care for Paul’s choice of words in referring to himself as a “prisoner”, though he does say “in” the Lord rather than “of” the Lord. And we do know that Paul’s “captivity” was strictly voluntary on his part; he is still possessed of his own, independent mind. Before his encounter on the road to Damascus, he was possessed of the minds of others by seeking to persecute, and ultimately destroy, this “new” movement of Christians by what we now know as “legalistic” religion that demands mindless obedience; aka, “following the crowd”, rather than a free will response.

And this is the proclamation we should acknowledge for ourselves when we freely choose to partake of the Lord’s Supper. Just as we offer our gifts, we offer ourselves completely and entirely when we freely choose to come forward and “commune” with Christ. When we hand ourselves over to Him through this Sacrament, and when we do it with our minds wide open, we are making a bold proclamation of liberty, having been set free from our sinful past. We proclaim the New Life that is offered to us, and we freely pledge our allegiance to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Be warned, however. If you or I choose to participate in this Sacrament only because we think we are expected to, we are still prisoners of our past – and this divine Gift becomes nothing more than a mindless habit to which we are involuntarily held captive. Even worse still, it becomes poison rather than nourishment (1 Corinthians 11:27-32).

Jesus never asked for “mindless slaves”. He called His disciples His “friends” with whom He shared all He had received from the Father so that they, too, would be “in the know” (John 15:14). And we are further reminded in Luke 14:25-33 that we are to enter into a relationship with the Lord through Christ after having taken everything into consideration, to “count the cost”. If it is blind obedience He gets from us, there is no relationship, “love” is reduced to nothing more than a word, and our hearts – which He wants above all else – are not in the relationship. We are simply “mindless slaves” who have been “captured” rather than “redeemed”.

Come forward today in this Sacrament, and every day in your daily living, not because you feel obligated … but because you are loved. And because you are loved, you are thus set free.