Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Iconic Cross

The American Atheists group has filed suit in New York state court demanding the removal of the crossbeam "Cross" that was left standing at the WTC after the 9/11 attack, demanding that these beams be permanently removed from the Memorial site as "an impermissible mingling of church and state", according to CNN. The cross was moved back to the Memorial from a nearby church, was blessed by the priest who ministered to rescue workers during the recovery period, and has become an iconic part of the site itself.

It is said that this cross was not constructed after the attack but was actually a small part of the structure that did not fall with the rest of the building. There were literally thousands of these crossbeams all up and down the WTC but at the ground level, this is one portion of the building that remained. Because it is in the shape of a cross, or perhaps because it was blessed by a priest, the American Atheists insist it must not be a part of the Memorial because of what the "Cross" (and not this particular crossbeam) represents.

To remove religion from this discussion is probably necessary though not likely because of the unique shape of this particular portion of the structure that did not fall. That it happens to be in the shape of the iconic "Cross" may or may not be a divine miracle, but it still stands for something profound. It still stands for a people who cannot be destroyed. It stands for a remnant of faith that humanity will persevere in spite of humanity's centuries-long attempts to annihilate the human race - or at least those with whom we disagree or just don't like.

One should not expect the American Atheists to let go of this court fight because atheism in and of itself is not real. They are not benign. By what is posted on their website they claim an allegiance to the US Constitution, but the tone is clearly anti-religious. There is a profound lack of respect for persons of faith (maybe even Christians specifically) even as they demand respect. The arguments made for the removal of the cross (beams) are clearly anti-God (one must read the comments very carefully) even though they insist it is only a constitutional matter of separation of Church and state.

Is it only the shape itself that is so maddening to the American Atheists? Would they insist, then, that another method of construction be employed to ensure there are no "cross" beams included in the construction of government buildings? What is their fight about? By the words of the Constitution itself, the inclusion of this crossbeam at the Memorial is not a government "endorsement" of religion but is rather a "respect" for what already exists: the remnant of a building that was not "totally" brought down by those who attacked us. A building that was destroyed but standing for a people who were not annihilated.

The more profound meaning of the steel beams for all Americans is not "The Cross" that stood in spite of humanity's best effort at destruction. Rather it is the crossbeam and remnant representing a people who will not be annihilated, fortitude in the endurance of the American ideal, and the hope that is always before us even in the midst of smoke, ashes, and death. It represents a determination that our enemies may strike and strike hard, but they will ultimately never be able to finish a fight they clearly brought upon themselves. The American Atheists would do well to heed the same warning.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Glory of Judgment

Matthew 13:47-50

Pastor and writer Rob Bell stoked a heretical fire recently when his book, "Love Wins", was released. I've not read the book, but I understand the premise of the book challenges our historically orthodox understanding of hell and eternal condemnation, at least as we have come to understand it, but I do not think this is exactly what the book proposes. In fact, what he seems to be defending is "universalism", a belief that everyone - without exception - will be saved eventually. Mr. Bell's premise is not new, however, because "universalism" has been around since about the 3rd century and has been deemed heretical by the Church since the 5th century.

A Christian heart filled with genuine, divine love (1 John 4:7) should ideally not have a problem with such a concept because if we truly love even our enemies, as Jesus insists we must, we should embrace such a notion of "universal salvation" with a certain gratitude and sense of spiritual relief that the will of our Lord - that all should be saved - eventually does come to fruition. Yet the idea that those have rejected the Lord and His church, have done evil, have done particular harm can hope to achieve the kind of salvation you and I hope for just goes against the grain. Yet we must always be mindful of Jesus' own words in Matthew 7:2: "for with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you" Harsh, right?

To be honest I am not sure how to receive this. I've heard of "universalism" before, but I've not given it much thought because the afterlife is just not something we can be sure enough about to spend a lot of time studying. It is an interesting idea, however, and does speak of the benevolence and enduring love of the Almighty who would go to what we would consider extreme lengths to redeem His beloved even after the Crucifixion, especially those who do not believe - and even for those who seem to us - by our human standards - to be beyond redemption.

Certain biblical texts seem not so ambiguous and paint a portrait of eternal torment, whether physical or spiritual, primarily because this is what we have historically been taught to believe. Matthew's gospel alone seems pretty clear that on the Day of Judgment, the angels will separate the good from the bad (the wheat and the weeds, and the fishes in the net), and the bad will be thrown into the "fiery furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (read, "torment"). This text, however, does not say "eternally". In fact in Matthew 5 Jesus warns that we must make peace before we are taken before the judge and handed over to the jailer in whose custody we will remain "until the last penny is paid" (5:26), a statement which seems to suggest a day of release, a finite period of time.

The prophet Malachi speaks of a "refiner's fire" by which purification for Israel will become necessary not for Israel's sake but for the sake of the Lord's Covenant with David, for He promises through the prophet that the "children of Jacob shall not be consumed", presumably by that same fire. Now if it is true that the Lord "does not change", as stated in Malachi 3:6, then we might reasonably assume this "refiner's fire" could be the same "fiery furnace" spoken of by Jesus in Matthew; that is, if we are still talking about the same God who "does not change".

It could easily be argued, and in fact it has, that Malachi and the other prophets are speaking to Israel in Exile and not to future Christians and that by the judgment that is the Exile, Israel will be purified and made worthy to stand before the Lord and "bring offerings before the Lord" (3:2-6). It is not to the Lord's credit that New Testament theology might suggest that this sense of restoration is exclusive only to the Old Testament and/or only to Israel, for such a contention would suggest that Jesus' entire life, including His Crucifixion, will all have been in vain.

Another point to consider is what is written in 1 Peter 3:18-20: "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the Righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit, in which He went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison because they formerly did not obey when God's patience waited in the days of Noah while the ark was bring prepared, to which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water."

This passage suggests these "eight persons" were spared the judgment, the "fiery furnace" that the "spirits in prison" were - or are - currently subjected to. Paying "the last penny" and to stay until it is "paid in full". We only assume these imprisoned spirits had outright rejected the Word of the Lord even though clearly they were involved in evil acts, but it is unfair to judge them based on a standard they were unaware of.

There is nevertheless a price to pay for our sins because it is fundamentally unjust that sin would go unanswered, but it is quite a stretch to suggest that the atonement of the Christ can only account for sins yet to be committed. Instead the "Righteous died for the unrighteous" - only those who are currently alive and can still repent "in the name of Christ"? Something much bigger is happening, and something much bigger did happen at Calvary that day so long ago. If Jesus died to take away the sins of the "entire world", this would necessarily include ALL SINS of the past. It is not consistent with the character and nature of the Lord that Jesus would have preached "nana-nana boo-boo" to the "spirits in prison", those whose end came well before the time of Christ - and even before the time of the Law. These could not have been judged by the Law, and they cannot have been held responsible for rejecting a Christ they never knew. Things that make us go, "hmmmmmmm".

If all this is even partially true, why then do we worry about leading a pious life, attending worship, offering gifts, fasting, or praying? Why not just live like we choose to live and let the chips fall where they may? An easy answer to this would be to ask what keeps us from robbing banks or convenience stores. We could all use a little extra cash, so what stops us? That it is just "not right" has a root in the "natural law" that simply says we are not entitled to what is not ours to claim. We also know, however, that the odds are we will be caught and sent to prison. No one wants to go to prison.

The one thing Scripture is very clear about is that this time of "refining", this time of "penitence", this time of - dare I say? - "purgatory" in which our sins are "purged" from our souls is not a pleasant time. It is, by all accounts, a time of "torment", of "weeping and gnashing of teeth", a "fire that will burn but will not consume" - unspeakable torment of the soul. The inference in "universalism" is that we could conceivably spend "indefinable" time in such a state which will still be a complete and total separation from the Lord. Because we entered into our "sleep" in a state of ungodliness, we must be "purified" before we may expect to enter into the presence of the Holy One.

How long? The Lord alone knows. And the Lord alone judges. The Lord alone makes right all things that were previously wrong. By the atonement of the Christ, all things are "made new". Who of us is to say this does not include _EVERYONE??

All up, All in

Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:47-52

I have often wondered how much of a remnant in the 21st century Church remains that even closely resembles the emerging Church of the 1st century. That is to say, of the doctrines and practices we teach, preach, and embrace today, do they even come close to what St. Paul, St. Peter, St. James, or even Jesus tried to convey in their original teachings?

Since we began our Wednesday night OT Survey class, we have been challenged to look more closely at the Scripture as it was written and for whom it was written; going forward from the beginning rather than moving backward into it from the end. I think we can agree for the most part that the NT is a more thorough commentary of the OT because the NT cannot make sense outside the OT context. I also think we are inclined to "insert" not only NT theology into the OT but we also tend to "insert" certain doctrinal and practical traditions and personal opinions into the OT as well, traditions and opinions that have evolved over time especially after the 16th century Reformation.

None of this is to say these are all bad necessarily, but such narrow focus can be misleading or even outright dangerous especially when we pay more attention to a locked-in personal belief system based on what "tickles our ears" and thus refuse to look more closely, openly, and honestly at what is actually written within its own context. A former OT professor of mine had a favorite saying as it pertains to common and fond notions of biblical interpretation: "When all else fails, read the Scripture."

There is another fond saying as it pertains to "consumer-minded" Christians who demand the "ear-tickling" and reject the soul-jarring: "prostitutes also give their 'clients' what they expect and demand - for a price." A more contemporary, "progressive", and (we think "enlightened") understanding of grace has become somewhat "cheap" and watered down because we have reduced Christian faith to a religious "service" - like plumbing or roofing. It becomes "my way or no way". Witness the many church "shoppers" who visit churches with a certain list of "demands" and "expectations", and then witness the churches and pastors who "prostitute" themselves in a vain effort to appease these individual demands and expectations. Give the "clients" what they demand, says the pimp.

When we become so narrowly focused on how the Bible and faith should appeal to us on an individual basis, we tend to overlook the profound meaning that is in the many parables Jesus uses to make real for us the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven. If Jesus had never used any parables, all He spoke of would be so abstract there would be very little we could ever get hold of. Interpretation would be left strictly to chance, and serious disciples, students of the Bible can clearly see that the Lord left nothing to chance.

If there is to be a one-dimensional focus on spirituality, faith, and religion; it is within two particular parables Jesus shares. The first is the "treasure of the field" (Mt 13:44), and the other follows: the "great pearl" (Mt 13:45). In both parables there is one singular focus: obtaining the riches of the Kingdom of Heaven at the expense of everything else. In both cases the persons finding the "great treasure" or the "great pearl" sold everything they had, withholding nothing, recognizing this one highly significant fact: it is not possible to have both. They could not keep all their other "stuff" - AND - acquire what they really needed, that which alone has immeasurable value.

It is not easy for us today because I think even the Church has allowed her mission and her message to become so distorted as to leave the faithful somewhat confused. We have been led to believe we really can "have our cake and eat it, too". We have been led to believe we can keep all our stuff - AND - obtain the riches of the Kingdom of Heaven. We have been led to believe we can play on both sides of the street at the same time. We have been led to believe it is possible - in fact, desirable - to balance the demands of serving two masters at the same time.

If we have come to believe these things to be possible, we have essentially rejected the biblical reality of Jesus' teachings. We have chosen to believe in "grace" but have rejected the necessary element of "discipleship". In other words, we have chosen not to trust and believe the Lord yet we do not hesitate to call Him "Savior" - unless, of course, we are in mixed company. After all, we do not want to "offend" anyone, do we?

Why is this? How have we allowed the state of our spiritual being to fall to such a lowly estate? It is because we have yet to fall completely into the "pit" of life. We have managed pretty well over time and have invested heavily in the so-called "American Dream" which is at its core completely antithetical to discipleship. The two do not - and cannot - mesh. They are completely incompatible because the "American Dream" does not care one whit about one's neighbor unless that neighbor happens to enhance the value of one's real estate or investment holdings.

The choices we face are not always easy because there is an internal, spiritual struggle between what is pleasing to our bodies and what is nourishing for our souls. Yet choices have to be made intentionally with a sense of purpose and a strong sense of spiritual awareness. This requires active participation in those "means of grace" (corporate worship, Scripture study, the sacraments, praying, fasting), acts of humility and submission which all work to enhance that necessary spiritual awareness. Anything less leaves us vulnerable to the forces of this world which seek to subvert our allegiance to the one we call "Lord" and "Savior".

Jesus had a choice to make and it became clear to Him when His hour was upon Him that for the sake of something much greater, He could not have it both ways. He could not protect His mortal body without endangering His immortal soul - and yours. He gave up everything He had for that one invaluable treasure, that which our Holy Father values above all else: His beloved, His creation, His children. He chose you with everything He had. He was "all in". Are we?

Monday, July 18, 2011

A legislative update from Congressman Mike Ross, D-Ar

I've been pretty hard on Mr. Ross lately and have written some pretty harsh letters to him in expressing my frustration and sense of hopelessness and utter lack of confidence in our Congress. And alway - ALWAYS - Mr. Ross writes back and is always - ALWAYS - very gracious in his responses. So I thought it fair to share what his weekly update contains. I don't always agree with Mr. Ross, but I do not question his integrity. I am confident that Arkansans will never wake up to his face and a corresponding scandal splashed across the front pages of our newspapers.

Dear Friends:

In the midst of the debt ceiling negotiations in Congress, we sometimes lose sight of the big picture. If Congress does nothing but simply raise the debt limit, we are ignoring the fundamental problem that spending is out of control and that we are once again kicking the can down the road until we hit the debt limit again.

Every time the United States approaches its debt limit, it creates problems in our economy. The uncertainty of America being able to pay its bills threatens our credit rating around the world, destabilizes the markets, stunts economic recovery and hurts job creation. So, the best and most commonsense way to ensure this debt limit problem never happens again is to require that Congress stop out-of-control deficit spending altogether.

That’s why I have cosponsored a balanced budget amendment to the United States Constitution, or H.J.Res. 10. In fact, I have helped introduce a balanced budget amendment in each and every session of Congress since I first arrived. I strongly believe in a balanced budget amendment because it is the only guaranteed way we can get our fiscal house back in order and prevent future fiscal irresponsibility.

H.J.Res.10 would require Congress to produce a balanced budget every fiscal year and would require the President to submit a balanced budget in his or her annual report to Congress. The amendment would also prohibit spending for a fiscal year to exceed revenues, unless, by a three-fifths roll call vote of the House and Senate, Congress authorizes a specific exemption.

The last time a balanced budget amendment was seriously considered was in 1995, when it passed the House but failed by a single vote in the Senate. An amendment to the U.S. Constitution proposed in Congress requires a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and Senate and must then be ratified by three-fourths of the states, or 38 states, or by a ratifying convention.

Some will argue that a balanced budget amendment isn’t practical. But, look at our state. Arkansas has a balanced budget amendment and prohibits deficit spending. The amendment has required our Governor and the state legislature to work together and, as a result, our state has consistently produced balanced budgets. I know it can be done because as a former state legislator, I made the tough decisions, took the tough votes and worked with members of both parties to reach a balanced budget for each of my ten years in the State Senate.

Back in the mid-1990s, President Clinton faced growing budget deficits, a ballooning national debt and a divided government with Republicans controlling Congress. Though they certainly had their battles, in the end, our nation achieved not only a balanced budget, but a budget surplus, effectively erasing the nation’s budget deficits for the first time in four decades. Though the budget surpluses didn’t last long after President Clinton left office, the experience taught us that by working together in a bipartisan manner, it is possible to balance the budget. It was done then and it can be done again.

I will continue to monitor the debt ceiling negotiations very closely, but I will also be looking long-term and working to pass a balanced budget amendment. Both sides will be forced to make concessions and I will continue to be a moderating voice, bringing everyone to the table as we find commonsense ideas that will help us return to the days of a balanced budget and a stronger economy.


Mike Ross

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Thought for Wednesday July 13, 2011

“Sing to the Lord a new song; play skillfully with a shout of joy. For the word of the Lord is right, and all His work is done in truth. He loves righteousness and justice. The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.” Psalm 33:3-5

Except for perhaps what is going on in our own individual lives, we should easily be able to look around and see that things are not so good. Politically and socially (and perhaps especially spiritually), we seem headed for a meltdown. Before you think it, however, I am not suggesting that the “end is near”. I’m not that kind of preacher, and that attitude is simply defeatist! We must continue to live until the end is upon us! I wonder, however, if we notice that we continue to do the same things over and over, somehow expect things to get better, and thus prove the adage true: insanity is defined by doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.

If, however, we think things are just fine (especially if we personally seem unaffected by all that is going on around us) and we have no mind or heart toward those who continue to struggle politically, socially, and spiritually, then we are missing the proclamation of the psalmist’s expression. We do not share the Lord’s very passion for the things of truth, righteousness, and justice – except as these pertain to us and how much we can get only for ourselves and only for those whom we love.

It is indeed time to “sing to the Lord a new song”. It is time to reconnect to the only true source of all that is good. Same ol’ same ol’ obviously does not work, and moving away from the Body of Christ is not bringing blessings on anyone. Listen to the Voice that is within. Hear the Word of the Lord from Scripture. Know that blessings come in abundance to those who share the Lord’s passions. Believe this nation can turn around if there is a genuine revival and collective renewal of heart. We do not have to “reinvent” the Church; we just have to reconnect.


Monday, July 11, 2011

Bishops all in a row

With respect due the United Methodist council of bishops, the Call to Action report, and the perceived need for a "set-aside bishop", I am not convinced the UMC should strive to emulate the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, or the Disciples of Christ who are essentially in the same boat as American United Methodists in declining membership. Centralized leadership sounds appealing (and it seems to work for the Roman Catholics), but it will not work for the UMC until the General Conference and all United Methodists put the focus of the United Methodist Church back where it belongs: being spiritual servants of the Lord our God "in the world" (the real "main thing") and not political advisors with spiritual undertones "of the world".

The United Methodist Church as well as our fellow Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Christian Church disciples seem more intent on finding a place at the political banquet table than at the eschatological banquet table of the Bridegroom of the Church, and the unbelieving world is clearly not responding to this. Because political winds shift according to the fickle standards of humanity and the Church seems more interested in trying to keep up with pop culture, the "unchurched" (as perhaps also many of the faithful) may be paying more attention to the hierarchy than we give them credit for and are choosing to stay away from the Church, any church, which is being led desperately to "fit in" and be "popular". One cannot find integrity or credibility, let alone spiritual stability, in such an organization that will turn its back on its past and freely surrender its moral authority simply because the world might not like us. It is fair to ask why anyone in his or her right mind would even sign up for such chaos in the Church when the world offers it free of charge and still allows one to sleep in on Sunday morning!

I see the role of this proposed "set-aside bishop" as problematic from the outset if this bishop will not be granted some level of authority by and accountability to the General Conference, but I also see potential problems if this bishop's role is reduced to a political, rather than a theological, role as I suspect it will just as the General Conference has. If the role envisioned for this bishop is more interested in building consensus (what is most popular or political expedient) rather than upholding and defending the integrity of the Discipline of the Church and the will of the General Conference according to what is written, recognized, and embraced as "scriptural" authority (the Bible), we are only adding another layer to the political hierarchy to no discernable spiritual end.

How will a set-aside bishop keep the worldwide UMC honest and focused if bishops of an episcopal area cannot keep pastors within their charges honest and spiritually connected to the Holy Scripture, our true and unflinching Authority that is not subject to popular vote? The recent case in Wisconsin is an excellent case in point. That elder got a 20-day suspension for her flagrant disregard for church law, as attested by her personal guarantee that it will happen again if the opportunity presents itself. Yet another pastor in Virginia a few years back appropriately exercised the authority granted to him by the Discipline and, without the benefit of a trial, was removed from his pastorate and placed on involuntary leave by his bishop. It was not until the Judicial Council ruled in favor of what is written that this pastor was restored. Will a set-aside bishop be honest and forthright according to the Book of Discipline within the context of the Holy Scripture which gives the Discipline its authority in the first place, or will he or she be at breakfast in the White House?

Bishop Janice Riggle Huie had this to say of this proposed position: "Let's focus on the main thing here, the need and purpose of the set-aside bishop and then let the other pieces arrange themselves around that." I would think the role must first be clearly defined before we can begin to "focus on the main thing"; and "other pieces" will not simply "arrange themselves". It will be necessary to define the role and what is envisioned for that role before we can clarify and justify "the need and purpose" of a set-aside bishop. We must "arrange the pieces" ourselves.

I do not suggest such a position is not needed or cannot be useful, but the role and its intent must be clearly spelled out for the Kingdom; not the country nor even the world. The person occupying this position must not be allowed to strike out independently, and there must be standards of accountability and the legal means to uphold these standards. It is bad enough that individual, renegade pastors (as the many retired bishops recently did) get all the secular press to the point that the unbelieving world comes to believe these people and their personal opinions are a genuine reflection of the United Methodist Church. We do not need an "official" spokesperson adding fuel to that fire.

The unbelieving world does not need lessons in social politics nor are they quite prepared for orthodox, dogmatic religion. They need the Gospel. They need Christ, for it is this Lord alone who shows the way to the Holy God - not to the state legislatures or the US Congress. They need life, and "life in abundance", which comes only from embracing and believing the Gospel. The world needs to be called to "repentance", and right now the Roman Catholic pope is the only world-wide church leader with the courage to say so. Will we be so courageous? Will this "set-aside" bishop be unafraid to publicly speak the "R" word? Will this person be prepared and willing to be held to a standard that does not - and will not - change? Or will this person be only willing to go along in order to get along? Will this person even be fully aware of what "the main thing" really is, or will this person step into the position believing the position alone really was the “main thing” all along?
Dear Mr. Ross:

Where are your specifics? Where are your proposed cuts? What do you consider to be “meaningful” as it pertains to spending cuts? This is an incredibly vague and nonspecific pulpit pounding that says absolutely nothing. Considering that the vice president of the United States is currently drawing Social Security, how can you even suggest that Social Security should not be on the table? Stop trying to play yourself off as a hero to helpless seniors, and start acting like a representative of all the people of this district, including those of us who do not draw Social Security, continue to pay the tax, and are less than confident that Social Security will even exist in twenty years – all because members of Congress are too busying posturing and not legislating. You can do more for seniors who truly depend on Social Security by addressing the legal abuses played out by well-to-do “seniors” like the vice president who are still earning more-than-adequate paychecks and will have more-than-adequate pensions. I am quite certain he is not alone.


Mike Daniel
Magnolia AR

PS: was comparing congressional action during the Reagan administration to that of the Obama administration your way of creating a “non-partisan” or “bipartisan” atmosphere?

Dear Friends:

In the next few weeks and months, Congress will make some major decisions about our nation’s budget that will impact each of us, particularly in regards to the nation’s debt ceiling. Currently, the debt ceiling – or the legal limit on how much debt the U.S. can accumulate – is $14.294 trillion. The U.S. Treasury Department has said it can continue to meet the government’s obligations until August 2, 2011, when the United States would begin defaulting on its financial obligations here at home and around the world.

Since Congress first established the debt ceiling in 1917, it has been raised 67 times, including 17 times under President Reagan and so far three times under President Obama. Raising the debt ceiling isn’t new, but the government’s out-of-control spending and national debt have reached unsustainable levels.

Recognizing the importance and urgency of the situation, the House of Representatives and the Senate have recently announced they are cancelling their scheduled district work periods in July to remain in Washington until the job gets done. I commend this decision. Congress needs to stay at work in Washington, stop the partisan bickering and start working together to draft a commonsense compromise that preserves America’s standing in the global economy, cuts spending and reduces our deficit.

I have previously said that I will not support any increase in the debt ceiling unless it includes meaningful spending cuts that will actually reduce our deficits without punishing America’s working families and seniors. That’s why on May 31st, I voted against a measure to raise the debt ceiling from $14.294 trillion to $16.7 trillion because it did not include any cuts to federal spending.

However, as the debt ceiling negotiations continue, many in Congress are demanding that substantial cuts to Social Security and Medicare be negotiated into any compromise to raise the debt ceiling. I fundamentally disagree. I want to cut spending and return to the days of balanced budgets more than anyone else, but I will not punish seniors who need Medicare and who deserve the Social Security benefits they earned.

For more than 75 years, Social Security has helped keep more than half of seniors out of poverty and it continues to be a critical financial lifeline for more than 620,000 Arkansans. In fact, in its long history, Social Security hasn’t contributed a single dime to the country’s current debt, according to the Congressional Budget Office. In fact, the surplus payroll tax revenue paid into the program over the years and loaned to the Treasury has actually kept the country’s deficits below where they would otherwise be. As the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) so clearly stated, “Social Security did not cause the deficit, and it should not be cut to reduce a deficit it did not cause.”

However, while Social Security continues to have surpluses, we must recognize that it is on an unsustainable path as “baby boomers” begin to retire. But, massive cuts to seniors’ already promised benefits are simply unfair and unacceptable. We must look at other ways to reform Social Security and Medicare that protect seniors, honor their lifetime of hard work and ensure both programs' long-term solvency.

In these uncertain economic times, Social Security and Medicare are more important now than ever before. Due in no small part to these life-saving programs, millions of seniors can live their lives with dignity and independence, instead of poverty and despair.

As your Congressman, I remain committed to ensuring Social Security and Medicare endure for the people of Arkansas and our nation as a whole. And, as a commonsense voice for Arkansas, I will continue to find ways we can cut spending and reduce our deficits without punishing our state’s most vulnerable citizens who are already scraping to get by and who did nothing to get us into this mess in the first place.

Mike Ross, D-AR

An Open Letter to the US Congress

I have often wondered what I would say and how I would say it if I ever had an opportunity to address a joint session of the Congress with the US president and vice president in attendance. There are times - especially during an election season - when I become so infuriated and frustrated with the ridiculously juvenile behavior of so many grown and educated men and women that I just want to disappear. There are times when I am entirely too involved in politics, and there are those times when I wonder if I am involved enough.

I say all this as an individual, an individual who has no voice in the Congress. I write to my representative often, but I always get back a vague form letter the content of which clearly reveals that neither he nor his aides actually read my letters. And why should they worry about me? I am just one person with no political connections. I am not part of any corporate lobbying effort, and I do not speak on behalf of any social organization that may constitute a threat to this representative's reelection. I just want to know what my congressman believes, where he stands, and how he intends to address the current problems. He's been in office for ten years, and I still am not sure. My senators? Well, one historically takes weeks, sometimes months to even get around to a vague answer, and the other one is new to his office. He hasn't had time to upset me just yet.

So what would I say to the Congress? Could I address them as this lone individual who is struggling to pay bills and keep up with rising prices? Could I make a reasoned and impassioned plea that would cause the Congress to join hands and sing, "Kumbayah"? Doubtful. I seriously doubt this posting on my blog will go very far because my counter says I get about 30 hits per week. I am not widely read nor am I known outside of my own little community, but I have something to say and my concerns should matter because I am not an extraordinary person - which is to say there must surely be others across the nation who not only agree with me but who feel as frustrated and as impotent and even as threatened as I when it comes to the behavior and conduct of our Congress and this incredibly detached US president. So here goes ...

Ladies and gentlemen (and I use these terms loosely):

If you ever wondered if you are making a difference in what you do, let me offer you this perspective: you are making no difference whatsoever. You are simply a face in the crowd of hateful, mean-spirited, vindictive, power-hungry rubes you worked so hard to distinguish yourselves from when you were begging for the job in the first place. You made promises you cannot constitutionally or even reasonably keep, but you made these promises because your political advisors told you what the crowds wanted to hear. Do you get the irony in this last statement? That you wanted to be a representative of the people, but you needed to hire professional advisors who could tell you what and who the people really are whom you claim to be capable of representing?

At best, I see the entire Congress and the office of the president (and vice president) occupied by a bunch of silly, sniveling pork-mongers who will sell your own souls for reelection. If I did not have such disdain for your conduct, I might actually pity you ... for you are a pitiable bunch.

Just this morning on one of the news channels, a Republican congressman was making his case for refusing to vote to raise the debt ceiling. I happen to agree with him, but it is not because he made a compelling argument. No, what he did do was to try and convince those who will listen that the Democrats are trying to destroy the country. Then a Democratic colleague was asked the same question, and all he did was to try and convince those who will listen that the Republicans are trying to destroy Medicare and kick granny out into the street (a very popular catchphrase, that). Neither of these persons made their own arguments. They only used the opportunity to try and discredit their opponents. It makes me wonder if they can make their case at all and if they cannot make their own case, what do they really know? I know what they say, but I seriously question what they actually know.

I know this debt ceiling fight is not the first nor will it be the last. This is because this Congress and this president lack the fortitude to do what is necessary to reign in government spending - in spite of their lofty promises. It is much easier to increase spending, justify this increase by telling people how you have "rescued" them and thus justify the "need" to raise taxes to pay for the increases. Raising taxes has successfully been spun in such a way that you are able to sell it to your constituents as "acting responsibly" or "rolling up your sleeves" and "making the tough decisions". Sadder still, too many voters actually believe you because you have successfully managed to convince these people that their sorry lot in life is actually someone else's fault, and you are there to make them pay.

The Republicans may be trying to protect us from the Democrats and the Democrats may be trying to protect us from the Republicans, but who is going to protect the nation from the Congress?? When will a voice of reason rise above the din of the chatter and congressional contempt? I can look forward to the day when the Lord will return, but that may be a long way off. In the meantime we must continue to endure your insufferable nonsense because, like you, we seem to lack the fortitude to make our own "tough decisions" and remove all incumbents from these offices. We have been convinced that we cannot do without all that "experience", but from my perspective all this "experience" has just made things much worse. Same begets same, as the saying goes, and nothing will change until the Congress has been changed. Our only saving grace in the White House is that the president's term is limited.

If we can ever get back to a time when citizen-legislators did their congressional business and then returned to their own private businesses that would possibly rise or fall based on how they conducted government business, I suspect we would all be much better off. You would no longer be guaranteed a political career, free travel, and substantial lifetime pensions. You might also have a better grasp of the realities of commerce as a means of wealth creation and as a sufficient defense of the dignity of the human person and American worker. Instead, you need to continue to sustain a needy class of persons dependent upon the benevolence of the US government in order to justify your own positions. In the process you have created a national debt of incomprehensible numbers and continue to run a staggering annual deficit few can understand, which would include, of course, each of you in this Congress. It is only in the advent of a new election season that you have decided it is time to "get serious" about the debt, the deficit, spending, and the debt ceiling. Surely you must have seen it coming at the rate of spending and considering you've been here before just during this president's first (and hopefully last) term. Bless your hearts, I honestly think you do not know any better.

You should all be ashamed of yourselves but judging by your public posturing and running to media microphones after each meeting, I doubt very seriously that you are capable of feeling shame. I think you have all gotten a little too full of yourselves, you have all lost your sense of humility as Christians (for those of you who claim to be) AND as public "servants". You try to play yourselves off as political "leaders" which would clearly indicate you have forgotten - or ditched altogether - your role as REPRESENTATIVES.

Above all else, you have disgraced yourselves and an entire nation because you refuse to listen unless your position is threatened. You will not listen to your constituents, you pay no attention to real numbers, and you refuse to offer even fundamental respect to persons of the opposite party. You cannot make your own case on its own merits because you seem compelled to poke holes in your opponents' case. I know how much easier it is to find fault than to find solutions, but perhaps you cannot make your case because you simply do not have one.

I have not perused each individual website of each individual member of Congress, but what I have seen is filled to the brim with empty rhetoric short on substance but long on party platitudes. You are all for jobs, yet you have created a heavily taxed commercial environment that is not conducive to commercial investment. You are all for energy independence, yet you have created an environment that is hostile to domestic exploration, research, and production. You are all for limited government intervention, yet you all seem to have had a hand in creating or expanding government agencies to an unsustainable level. In the midst of all this, you try to lay all the blame on one person after you gave him virtually a free hand in all he has proposed.

In short, ladies and gentlemen, you have done nothing for the nation but you seem to have all done plenty for yourselves and your own financial well-being. As previously stated, you should be ashamed of yourselves but I find it very unlikely that you are so capable because we all know you will vote to increase the debt limit, you will vow to make corrections so as to never have to do this again, and then you will meet again very soon because spending on the federal level is so out of control no one can tell with certainty how soon you will have pegged out the US treasury yet again. If you have been to this table three times in two years, my guess is that you will revisit this tired subject at least twice more before November 2012.

I wish you all good health and prosperous careers ... in the private sector.


Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Depth of the Soil

Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Casey Anthony was acquitted of murder charges this past week, and the outrage spread like wildfire throughout the coffee shops and Internet social networks like rattlesnake venom through a bite victim's blood; and it is a coin toss as to which is more toxic! Jesus the Christ was tortured and murdered for crimes He did not commit but for which humanity was judged guilty as charged, yet His blood atoned for those "crimes", He was raised from the grave to give us hope in the Resurrection, and yet His name is invoked more often as a statement of dismay, surprise, and shock than in reverence and hope and blessing - if it is mentioned at all.

Never mind nonbelievers. Within such an observation as I have just shared, what nonbelievers do or don't do, what they say or don't say, what they think or don't think has no bearing and no relevance. But in a believer's righteous indignation that a small child is dead and no one - so far - has been held responsible for that death, we are far more willing to tell others how "stupid" the prosecutors or the jurors were than we are to tell our neighbors that they, too, have been "acquitted" of crimes against their Creator by the atoning blood of the Lamb of God - in spite of their unquestioned guilt! We are more willing to try and convince the world that the person accused and acquitted of Caylee's blood really is guilty while ignoring the spiritual reality that in spite of humanity's best effort AND profound guilt, the Holy Father took our very worst and still gave us His very best!

It is this very Word, this Good News Jesus is referring to in His parable of the sower and the seed. It is the Word which comes directly from Heaven above and is brought forth to a nonbelieving world for this reason alone: so that you and I - and everyone we know or come into contact with - can know the depth of suffering our Lord was willing to endure to pay the price for our sins. It is the Word which existed from the very beginning and it is the Word which will endure to the very end, yet it is also the Word that - while no less true - is void of any meaning if the environment (the "soil" as the "soul") is not ready or willing to receive it on the Lord's terms and not our own.

Jesus explains the parable pretty clearly as to what happens in each of the circumstances He refers to. The seeds which fell on the path and were snatched up by birds are the seeds "dropped" on unprepared ground. It may be like us carrying a bucket of seed to the field but tripping on the way. Before we can get the seed collected, birds would get their fill. This is the evil one taking what is good and is manifest in our utter rejection of the Lord and His Word.

The seeds sown on the rocky ground have just enough soil to take a little root but because that soil lacks depth, the seed is uprooted at the first sign of trouble. These are among us who more like the idea of a "magical genie god" who grants personal wishes but cannot fathom a "loving" God who would allow bad things to happen - such as the unexplained death of an innocent child.

The seeds sown among the thorns, quite simply, come to those of us who feel compelled to make a choice between what WE want and what the Holy Father wants for us as we become aware of what discipleship actually involves. In discipleship we discover we cannot always have it our way; that we cannot always do as we please or as we will because often what we want for ourselves may be diametrically opposed to the will of our Holy Father. We would choose wealth and worldly comfort, political power and community affluence, and "cheap grace" that requires nothing of us long before we would even think of assuming the role of a "humble" servant.

The soil's depth is measured in responsiveness, willingness, and finally, "crop yield". It goes far beyond a mere willingness to believe in such a concept, which is the limitation of the seeds sown among the rocks. It extends far beyond being willing to minister to or "like" or "associate" only with those whose images and lives are pleasing and perhaps of some future usefulness to us. The world uses us like it uses any other "beast of burden" and will use us until we are used up and finally consumed - so - we use the world first for our well-being ... intending to get "ours" first.

"The one who hears the word and understands it" is the one who is willing to listen and consider what is being told. This is the one who is willing to "count the cost" of discipleship, to study the word and "reach" beyond one's own comfort zone. These are the ones who are willing to step up and out - rather than to sit comfortably and expect the Word to be "spoon-fed" only in doses AND interpretations pleasing to us and that will be custom-tailored to fit within our lifestyle choices. Among the situations mentioned by Jesus, this is the most difficult among them because this is the one that requires effort and sacrifice (not either/or); it gets inside of us and challenges us to our core. It compels us to battle against our nature and personal inclinations.

Above all else this is the one whose soil is of such depth and endurance that the seed will not only grow strong and healthy, it is also the seed that will reproduce and in such abundance that what was lost on the path, among the rocks, and in the thorns will be more than made up for in the good soil - all for the sake of achieving the Lord's own purposes, not our own. The "crop yield" will be according to how we respond to what has been given to us and how willing we are to submit ourselves to what has been offered. It will also be, in no small measure, according to how adequately we have been prepared to receive such seed by priests, preachers, and teachers who have come before us because we will be called upon soon enough to take their places. Not all in a professional vocation, of course, but no less important to the Kingdom of Heaven in the work of the Holy Church, the Body of Christ.

Among the scenarios offered by Jesus, the last one with the "yield" is the one He focuses on and emphasizes because, quite frankly, it is the one He expects of His followers, His Church - because the metaphor is indicative of what John the Baptist meant in Luke 3 by "bearing fruit worthy of repentance". It is the evidence shown by our acts that we have heard, we understand, and we eagerly respond to His call. Repentance is not simply a turning away or merely refraining from doing bad things. Repentance is NOT benign. Rather repentance is the act of faith and a turning toward something much better and much greater than self-satisfaction or escaping personal judgment. It is in the act of repentance when we show Jesus that we hear Him, we understand Him, and - most importantly - that we trust Him enough to come to Him rather than to demand He come to us. This is the "fruit worthy of repentance".

It really does not matter whether we have been raised in the Church and have never struggled with a fundamental belief, or if we are in the midst of a faith struggle even now. Making a conscious decision to come to Christ - in the midst of struggle AND good times - will change our lives for the better; for it is this decision that moves us one step closer still to the Promised Land and keeps us from looking back. It is the journey that moves faithfully from generation to generation. It is the depth of the soil that sustains the fruit needed to strengthen us for the challenges that are sure to come, and it is the nourishment to give us the courage to strive beyond the horizon. It is the Word of the Lord; it is the Lamb of God. Amen.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Too Long is long enough

Proverb 8:1-14
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

"The Gospel that took my life is the very same Gospel that gave me life!" - me

Forgiveness is the cornerstone of our faith and the very essence of Christ Himself. Yet even among Christians forgiveness is a sensitive subject for those who cannot or will not offer forgiveness. Those who cannot - or at least find it very difficult - have been genuinely harmed, especially emotionally; those wounds and the corresponding pain go deep. The emotional harm goes far beyond being merely "offended". To forgive someone for inflicting such pain, then, is to reach deep from within, put aside the harsh feelings, ignore the pain, and reach beyond self. To do so is not to ignore or even forget what has happened because, after all, we are still human. Rather the challenge is to cast aside and overcome an obstacle in spite of itself that is doing no harm to anyone except the one holding the grudge.

Those who will not forgive are stuck in a nether world of darkness and bitterness, insisting they have every right to hold the grudge; that they have been unjustly harmed, and someone must pay. Whether they have truly been harmed is subjective, of course, but the pain and bitterness are no less real. It is unfortunate, however, that this pain is often self-inflicted. In both cases, however, there is that burden - real and imagined - that binds us into a such a state of being that we fail to notice that our lives are no longer our own. We have surrendered control of our emotional states to the "offending" party and will be manipulated against our will as long as we are under the "yoke" of this undue burden.

It is no less true for we who cannot move beyond our own sins. Once we are spiritually convicted of such sin it is very difficult - sometimes impossible - for some to let go because of our own consciences. We realize on some level that if some other person had committed such sins against us, we would be hard-pressed to forgive them. So because we know deep down that we are not so forgiving ourselves, we cannot imagine the possibility that someone else could or would be so forgiving. We fail to fully grasp and embrace the full meaning of what Jesus' earthly life was all about.

Whether we are talking about the sins we have committed - or - whether we are talking about sins committed against us, the burden soon becomes impossible to carry. We become isolated, bitter, hard-hearted, and vindictive so much so that the pain and guilt actually intensify and soon overwhelm us. We will not only refuse to forgive others, we will also refuse to be forgiven ourselves because we are spiritually trapped! It's like building a wall from the inside and failing to insert a door.

But this is the whole point of DIVINE forgiveness and the needless burdens the world will impose upon us. The pain is very real, to "err" - as the saying goes - is entirely human, but genuine and lasting forgiveness must necessarily come from the Lord Himself and certainly beyond oneself. Restitution and atonement for wrong-doing on some level must be made either in a personal plea for forgiveness from the one we have hurt - or - in earnest prayer to the Spirit whom we have needlessly grieved; often both because the burden will not simply "go away". It must be answered. Justice itself demands it.

In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus is offering an alternative. Make no mistake; it is no less a yoke He is offering, but it is a yoke that leads in a whole different direction. It is a yoke that binds us, and yet is not quite so binding. It is the genuine yoke of freedom that comes only when we freely choose to walk with Him and "learn" from Him. It is the only yoke from which true "rest for the soul" can be found because I suspect what Jesus is referring to is His willingness to share that yoke and help us to endure. But we must be willing to take a risk, to ask Him in - AND - allow Him in. To do so, and why it is so difficult for many, is to significantly surrender "lordship" of one's own life. And we're just not so willing to go that far. We think it would just be easier to protect our pride, suck it up, and endure the pain.

So we continue to refuse the yoke of the Good Shepherd and choose instead the burdensome yoke the world imposes upon all beasts of burden - and to the world this is all you and I are. The appropriate commercial term is "utility" and has to do with one's "usefulness" to society. The worldly yoke that binds us against our will leads us not where we choose to go but where we are expected and often forced to go. The really sad part of this is that we can actually convince ourselves that our lives still really belong to us! But it's all an illusion.

We are needlessly bound by worldly wisdom that guides us outside the realm of the Lord, convinces us we can make up stuff as we go and - in fact - convinces us that we are doing well in going with the secular and contemporary flow. This yoke convinces us that it is ok - even desirable - to be like everyone else, but it is NOT ok. It is NOT ok because we fail to realize that once we are used up and no longer of any use to the secular world, we are then transported to the slaughter house with the rest of the dumb beasts where certain death awaits. There is no redemption and no life beyond the slaughter house because it is from there where we are finally and completely "consumed".

Shouldn't we know when we've had enough? How much longer do we think we can carry such a burden before collapsing from spiritual fatigue? Jesus came to "give rest" (Mt 11:28) and to "give life abundantly" (Jn 10:10). Why would we choose anything less? Why would we insist upon wallowing in our own misery or in the misery of others? Why, in the name of "freedom, would we allow others to dictate how we feel and how we live?

People don't want Jesus because grace isn't cheap, and mercy isn't easy! It is not by any means "easy" to be a Christian, and yet choosing to follow Christ and surrender everything to Christ means being freed from the shackles of human standards and expectations, both of which shift and sway according to whichever way the political wind is blowing. People actually think this is easier to just "go with the flow" without realizing that flow is certain to shift suddenly and unexpectedly! Choosing to submit oneself to the Lordship of Christ also means that our decisions are no longer our own. We must run everything past Him first. We must make choices each and every day not according to our wills and wishes but according to His. It is not a suggestion; it is a requirement. There is no way around it, and there are no short-cuts. So we often simply choose the burdensome "yoke".

Above all else, living as a disciple of Christ and as one who stands "justified" (forgiven) before the Holy Father by the righteousness of Christ means being not only willing but EAGER to forgive and be forgiven because such acts of mercy are not burdens that stunt personal growth but are rather opportunities for spiritual growth. The "burden", like a tumor, has been removed by the Great Physician! I think maybe if we could see the act of forgiveness not as something we expect to receive but as something we are more willing to impart, we would better understand the very Heart of the Lord Himself. It is an act of divine intervention by very human hands and hearts that forgives an offense without condition, thus releasing ourselves from such yokes of bondage. It is the single, most difficult thing you or I will ever do. And it is the only thing which will ultimately free us.

It is only in this act of forgiveness by Him and through Him when we are finally released from bondage. It is only then when we are freed from the burdensome "yoke" of the world, and it only then when we will EVER find "rest for our weary souls". You and I have carried these needless burdens for far too long. And too long, dear friends, is quite long enough. Haven't we had enough?