I was not aware of the Orlando Massacre when I stepped up to the pulpit on Sunday, I only heard about it when I came home later that day. And I have to admit I reacted in a similar way than I have when other tragedies have happened in the very recent past. I said “That’s terrible!” and then I sat there, numb. I think that many people know this numbness, this helplessness, this kind of frustrated and impudent rage that only can bear in silence the relentless horror of being part of this society and its inexhaustible violence. So I took a few days to collect my thoughts, and say something of value in the midst of the thoughtless words and insane rhetoric that inevitably accompanies these all too familiar tragedies.

We are numb. We are paralyzed. We are beset by a culture that is quickly destroying itself, and we are sitting powerless, watching it upon our little screens. And this helplessness manifests in fear, and anger. We then take that fear and anger to social media, and begin the cycle again, where those who would  do violence are emboldened to action by our own anger and fear. I think that we, as a collective, are responsible. We have been injecting our society and its discourse with so much hate, blame, and division, that violence is the only possible fruit of our thoughtless words.

The easy answer is gun control, which may reduce (but only fractionally, I’m afraid) the symptoms of this disease, but will not begin to touch the real problem. The real problem is with us, the people of this nation. None of us want to hear that, but I believe it is true. We have built a society where everyone wants their opinion heard, yet none want to listen. We live in a society where it is okay to demonize other groups, (other Americans!) to defame them, to speak ill of them on the global stage of Facebook and Twitter, and then feign innocence when the terrible words that we sow to the world are reaped in violence and hatred. This is your problem, my problem, our problem. We have done this to ourselves.

The only way out is to stop. Stop cursing people. Stop your own hatred. Stop venting your half formed emotions on social media.

I have been horrified at how many Christian ministers have defended this violence with their thoughtless words. And I want to go on the record to say that this is not my religion. In many parts of the Church, we have grown accustomed to defending our self righteous views by quoting the bible. We throw Bible verses at each other like weapons to defend our hate and our prejudice, and by doing so we tacitly create an environment that is perfect for violence to flourish. While we are quoting the bible, perhaps we should more often use it on ourselves. Perhaps we should pay more attention to Jesus, and what he taught us. Jesus said,

“But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,

bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

 

When was the last time that those who fight so hard against the LGBT community have read this passage and taken it to heart? No matter what else the bible says, this is in there too! Have we forgotten that the Bible is our guide to life, or do we now only use it against others? How have we twisted Jesus’ Gospel of peace, and God’s word so drastically that now they are only used for division and strife?

 

We are reaping what we have sown, and it is clear to me, by the fruit of this harvest, that what we have sown is not from God. How could it be? And then we decry Islam for being a religion of hate? We must first take the beam from our own eye!

 

Whatever you feel about the morality of the LGBT community, if you are a Christian you first have the moral obligation to conduct yourself in a Christ like manner. This world and this society are looking to us for cues to move past our troubles and strife, and are finding in the church only a reflection of the same vitriol that is tearing our secular society apart. What will set the Church apart? Not that we are holy, but that we are humble.

 

Retaliation is not working. It never has. More guns, or less guns is not the answer. The answer is the hard part: we must take personal responsibility. We must take responsibility for our words, our actions, and how we treat people who are different from us. We must take responsibility for how we speak about and treat our enemies. We must take responsibility for the endless hatred and fear that we spew onto social media. We must take responsibility for our part in the cycle of violence that is destroying us. We have had a part to play in what has happened, by our hatred, or even by our complacence. And we alone are responsible for ending it.

 

We begin by changing our hearts, and exchanging good for evil, instead of fighting fire with fire. And we must, as a people, immediately divest ourselves and our support from those religious and political leaders that use blame, hate and fear to motivate us. This is not a popular view, and many will think it weak. However, it is not the difficult or courageous thing to retaliate. The harder part is to prosecute peace when  those around you cry for blood. The most courageous thing to do is not to blame, but to take responsibility, take inventory, and change our situation by first changing who we are and how we treat each other – even and especially our enemies.

 

Your words have power –use them for good.

Divest from hateful and vengeful leaders.

Take responsibility for your actions and speech.

 

And if you are a Christian, please listen to your Lord, and begin again to practice what he preached:

 

 “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,

 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.

 “Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either.

 “Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back.

 “And just as you want people to treat you, treat them in the same way.

 “And if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.

 “And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.

 “And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, in order to receive back the same amount.

 “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men.

 “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

 “And do not judge and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned.”       Luke 6:27-37

 

That is the only way out of this mess we have made for ourselves. We must be once again willing to, like Jesus did, die at the hands of our enemies in the relentless pursuit of peace. That is real courage. The time is way past for the easy way out. To end the violence that plagues our nation, we must be about the hard work of loving our enemy, listening more and talking less, and extending love to the unlovely. Only then will we be truly free.

 

And to the political and religious leaders who seek to manipulate us with fear, blaming, and easy answers – I vote “No Confidence.” I urge you to do so as well.

orlando-mass-shooting

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Hello all, its me again. I rarely use this blog, (although make sure to read my other posts if you like) but it is a good publishable place to air my thoughts, and if you care, respectfully discuss issues.

Respectfully discuss. I have to make an apology. I posted a fun little meme the other day on Facebook which lit up many of my friends and relatives.  When it got hot, I got huffy and got on my soapbox trying to clarify and defend my view, but Facebook is not a great medium for that. I prefer the blog form for this kind of discussion. So if I hurt your feelings or scared you by how rabid and liberal I sounded, I do apologize. I don’t want to be harsh, but I do have something to say.

Here’s what I meant when I posted…

The earliest followers of Jesus were derided and made fun of. (They were also lit on fire and fed to lions, but that is another topic.) One of the derisive monikers these early followers of “The Way” were given, was “Christian.” (Literally, “little Christ”) This was supposed to be an insult, because Jesus was a discredited and executed political rabble-rouser, and to associate with someone so discredited would bring dishonor on you and your household.  But the name stuck. And the reason why the name stuck is that the followers of Jesus persistently and even joyfully went out and did the things that Jesus Christ did, hence the name, “little Christs.” Some fun evidence of this is found in the book of Acts, where the early church and its ethos are recorded for the interested reader. These people sold all their goods, and redistributed them among each other, so no one was in need. They made a special ministry (the first diaconal ministry, for all you deacons out there) to care for widows and orphans, two groups that were forgotten by, and marginalized by the culture of the time. (For more on Acts, see “The Bible”) So Christians, for all intents and purposes, were the first social safety net. Not for citizens of the Roman empire, but for the lowly who did not qualify, or who were cast out of that society for any number of reasons.

Ok, so that’s what Christians are, or at least where they got the name from right? Cut and dried. But wait a minute, twenty centuries have gone by, and we still have Christians – are they still doing these things? Yes. Yes, they are. In my neighborhood there is a Children’s home for orphans, founded by a Lutheran minister that took this Christian thing seriously. There are numerous places, both churches and para- church organizations,  that see a ministry to the poor  as at least part of their mission to the world: caring for people who need it, feeding the hungry, etc. Good enough right?  This is a least part of the church’s job, and I probably won’t get too much argument about that.

So that settles it. The church’s job is to feed the poor, and that’s that. We don’t need the government for that, and that is not what government is for. I would love to be able to agree, but I can’t for at least two good reasons.

#1 The church is broke.

Okay, not broke, but reeling from the past 50 years of declining membership, tepid giving, expensive personnel,  and REALLY expensive real estate. We cannot afford to be our society’s safety net anymore. This was maybe different  in say, the middle ages, when the church and the state were so closely conflated that they were practically the same entity. Then not only was it the Church’s job to do the “Christian things” but it was also the default mode of the state to provide for the welfare of citizens.(I apologize if this is a poor one sentence summation of several centuries of European history.) The system was not always (or even hardly ever) adequate, and people still lived short and brutish lives if they were poor, but there was no argument about what the state’s responsibility was, and where they ultimately got their power from.  Again depending on the location and the nation, this got done better or worse from century to century. Usually worse.

So not a perfect system,  but at least the church was better funded, and had a lot of political clout. Not always used well, but a lot of money and clout.

21st century, neither of these things are true. And like my cousin pointed out “The poor you will always have with you.” (One of my pet peeves is how much this particular verse is mis-quoted, but I will not go into that now.) So what do we do with these darn poor people?

Somewhere around the Great Depression, our society decided that it was the “civilized thing” to help people who were the victims of circumstance. Lots of programs were born from this “New Deal” and it was hotly contested, just like any public assistance program is today, but eventually we decided, as a society, that it was not in our best interests to leave the poor dangle in the wind of fate.  You might have seen the continuing effects of the “New Deal” if you have ever collected social security, participated in Medicare, got a student loan, received a tax exemption for having children, or bought a gallon of gas – activities which are all subsidized by the government in an ever widening web of economic props, many of which can be traced back to “New-dealism” –the idea that states, in my words, that “capitalism is good, but that when people lose the game, they should still have the right to  participate in society and not just die. “

If you argue that this is not the Government’s job, you are not alone. I concede that this is a valid political opinion.This counter-argument has followed social liberalism its entire life. In fact, i will admit that fiscal conservatism has a lot to commend it. It reduces the tax burden, presumably  stimulating the economy with more available dollars; it trims government and puts the financial responsibility for public assistance (if any) more on states and local governments who can more easily discern for themselves what an appropriate public safety net is; and finally, Fiscal Conservatism is mindful of not  passing on huge deficits to the next generation. These are good things- really!  Except for the small fact that…

#2. We are a Christian Nation

We love to say this. We love to wave our flags, and sing religious songs. There is an American Flag in my Church’s sanctuary, and I bet there is one in yours too. On the 4th of July, we pray and we sing. On 9/11 we pray and we sing. Our Nation has a long, complex,  and interesting relationship with the Christian Religion that cannot be overlooked. Despite the fact that we have Constitutional protections against the establishment of a state religion, (The very First Amendment ,in fact) the Christian Ethos still infuses every level of Government. You might want it more so, or you might want it less so, but it is there. Sometimes it makes me a little bit nervous. History does not bear too many times when a cozy relationship between religion and state ended well. But that is the rhetoric out there. There is a strong contingency of American people who believe in this “Christian Nation” concept, and take it seriously. Make of it what you will.

So now refer back to my previous discussion on the term “Christian.” The name did not originally mean that you went to a certain church on Sunday, or that you bought into a certain religious/political ideology.  The term was originally coined because the people did the things that Jesus did. Now open your Bibles and read the Gospels again. See Jesus. Listen to Jesus.  Now look at our government and our culture.

And ask yourself this question:

“If being a Christian means doing the things that Jesus did, because you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, come to save you from you sin and teach you the way to live, can we really, with a straight face,  call ourselves a nation based on Christian values?”

Its fine if the answer is no. In fact, I don’t really believe we are supposed to be a Christian Nation.  (1st Amendment again.) We could be a “Nation of Christians” and that would be awesome.  A “Nation of Christians” could get things done.  But a “Christian Nation” is a fantasy. It is an unconstitutional idea that is being sold to us by a few very sharp ideologues, who know how to manipulate our emotions for political gain. I prefer my religious freedoms. I prefer to practice my religion as I see fit, and not have it interpreted to me by a particular political stance.

So here we are. Fiscal Conservatism is a valid political view. And if you don’t want your tax dollars spent on the poor, by all means, make yourself heard in the polls. If you are also a Christian, that’s great too. May the Spirit of Christ impel you to greater compassion in your personal walk, and give you the grace to be light and hope to the world.  Be a leader in your church and follow Jesus in holiness and peace. But please do not conflate these two views into anything like the phrase “Christian Nation.” Because I don’t think that means what you think it means.  That is really all I was trying to say with the Jimmy Carter meme.  This glib phrase from Jimmy highlights the absurdity of the phrase “Christian Nation.”  I don’t think it can exist, and even if it could, I don’t think it should exist, mostly because if it did, it probably would not reflect  my particular brand of Christianity.  And I do not like people telling me what it means to be a Christian any better than you do.  But please let me share with you how my faith shapes my life and my own actions.

My faith informs my political views. (Not the other way around!)This is hard, because as I have said a number of times, there is no ticket for that. Even though I sometimes look to the future and wish that I could, I personally do not hold with Republican Fiscal Conservatism, but on the other hand I do like their stance on abortion. But not on war. Or the death penalty.  I like Socially liberal tenets of The Democratic Party, but I think Abortion should be illegal. I took a poll, and I’m not just a 3rd party voter, I’m like a 5th party voter. So my vote won’t really count, ever.  If you think I’m full of crap, you can at least take comfort in that.  (Actually it might surprise you that I’m still a registered Republican. It surprises me too sometimes, especially with “The Donald” show lighting up the polls. God save us.)

But I personally feel that as a society we have a responsibility to the poor,  in our communities, our country and in the world. I do not think it’s as easy  as saying “they should get a job” or that they are lazy. Poverty is a complex and nuanced issue that cannot be dismissed with a sound bite. I know that because I try to apply my faith on the ground to feed people in my own community day to day. Not only that,  I try also to be an advocate, speaking to the larger structures that keep people in poverty, and speak God’s truth to those systems that are unjust. They are there, and they are not going away. That is the whole package- not just a band-aid, but a plan to make this a better world for everyone. I will not succeed in this life.  I will keep trying anyway.

My Christian Faith informs my own personal actions, and as I participate in democracy, I will be voting for leaders who will reflect my values as someone who follows Jesus and tries to do the things he did. That is the only way  in which “a nation based on Christian values” makes any sense to me. If Christian people, who have Christian values, elect leaders that enact policy that does the things that Jesus did, then we are closer to that moniker.  But religious conservatism and Republican conservatism, in the unholy alliance that has existed in its current state since the Oral Roberts “Moral Majority” days, is often at odds with what I see when I read the Gospel account of Jesus and his works, and see in the New Testament  the community of faith that was inspired by Jesus and motivated by his Spirit. Religious leftism, as my friend Cliff pointed out, also makes a new fundamentalism that defines what it means to be a Christian by the things you do, which is at odds with the core of the Gospel as I understand it as a Lutheran. And although I am left leaning,  I am deeply skeptical when the label “Christian” is applied to many of the ideas that come from either of these conflations between politics and religion.  Because our faith should inform our politics, not the other way around.

There ARE lazy people in the world. Some of them are on assistance. That is a shame, and a waste. But I administrate a local food-bank, and I can tell you that of those folks that are on assistance and come through the line once a month to get help, the percentage that I personally feel are trying to play the system  is surprisingly low.  I know that because I have taken the time to get to know these people: I talk with them, pray with them and hear about why they are on the rocks, and have spent a lot of time thinking about what might make a difference in their lives.

There are a lot more widows, whom social security does not even cover the cost of their medicine. There are folks who got hurt on the job and waited for 6-12 weeks for disability insurance to kick in, going from living paycheck to paycheck to being 3 months behind. There are people who never had the opportunity to get out of a situation of generational poverty because they were never taught how, could never in a million years afford school, and who live in a rural area with no jobs and nowhere really to go. And yes, sometimes there are people who made mistakes, trusted the wrong people, maybe went to prison, and now have nothing with which to start their life back up again.

I personally cannot look Jesus in the face, and then turn and tell them they all had their chance, and they got what they deserved. They know that already. They, like all of us, need grace. Do I get taken advantage of? Of course.  But my conscience is clear. God will judge. As a Christian, I read verses like Matthew 25:37-40; James 2:14-17; and 1 John 3:17-18 (Among many others) and I let the ethos of Christ inform my actions and my political views, not the other way around. If you have found a better way through life, please tell me, and I will listen to you in all earnestness.

But above all, because I work directly with the poor, I have learned that these  people are all people. Human Beings. God’s Children.  Deserving of Love, a second chance, a leg up.

I am angered by those who try to play the system, because their abuse is all many people see, either in my little food-bank, or in state-run assistance programs. And I get very angry, because there is a great and legitimate need. The church cannot fill the need, even though we valiantly try. Even the state cannot fill the need, because we will never really have the political will for comprehensive change of the many systems that keep people in poverty. We need to be a Nation of Christians, because only the power and compassion of Christ can make us a whole and healed people again.  That is the glimpse of the coming Kingdom of God that I have gotten from the work I do. It gives me hope for God’s future:  the time that is still coming, when the Spirit of God will make all things new.

But until that time, we cannot tire of doing the right things. And if we vote to have our state or national government chip in, it will make the job just a little easier for those of us on the ground.Jimmy

Trying Again

Posted: January 9, 2015 in Uncategorized

Having a blog is something that I, intellectually, would like to do. I mean, it sounds good in my mind like, “Hey Check out my blog.” has a nice ring to it.

But I have never been a journaler (Journalist?) and although it seems that although I might have some good things to say  I have been having trouble getting it out there. Sigh.

So I’ll try again. I think that basically, I will include the other things I am interested in as well as polemical political/religious rants. That would be a good place to start. So if you are interested in my burgeoning woodworking hobby, I have some pics for you. If you are interested in  music, guitars, and vintage equipment there is a place for you here too. And if you want to have a conversation about religion, politics, or whatever has cheezed me off this week, well, I will try not to disappoint.

2015, and I’m starting over again.  Let’s see what a different mindset, and an expanded vocabulary of subjects can do.

And thanks to emilydonna for becoming a follower, for no reason,  last week. Your notification in my in box stirred me to realize I should post something on my blog for a change.

I wasn’t always a monk…

Posted: January 9, 2015 in Being a pastor

When I can’t sleep, I will sometimes slip out of bed and go back to the living room to watch a little TV. One of my guilty pleasures at times like these is to watch one of Netflix’s wide selection of Chinese imported Kung – fu movies. No one else in my family really likes that sort of thing (these movies are often really bad!) and plus I can turn the sound way down and read the subtitles, so as to not wake anybody else in the house. It is like a warm glass of milk.

On the particular evening in question, I was watching “Bulletproof Monk,” a martial arts  action thriller starring “Chow Yun-fat” as well as some token white people nobody ever knew. I was surprised that the production date was 2003, because this gem of the silver screen offered every feature of acting, lighting, and cinematography you would expect from a cheaply made action movie from 1984. Pure heaven.

Anyway, there is a scene where the Tibetan monk played by Chow Yun-fat, is giving relationship advice to the punk-ish white kid who seems to somehow be the protagonist in a cosmic battle between good and evil, despite the fact that he leaned kung fu from watching old Bruce Lee movies.  He also, despite also being a strong candidate  for D-bag of the year, has managed to attract the notice of a beautiful, capable, and incredibly rich young lady. So, Chow is giving romantic advice when the kid stops him and exclaims, “What do you know, you’re a monk!” Mr. Yun-fat replies, “Yes, but I was not always a monk.”

And I could hear the distant roar of “Yeah!” from every religious leader, ever.

Because, let’s face it- if I had a nickel for every person I have caught unawares and “speaking freely,” who turned around after muttering or shouting an epithet to see my collar, only to exclaim, “Oh Father, I am so sorry!” well, I would be a rich man.  Let’s not even discuss right now why is it not okay to cuss in front of a priest or a pastor, and it is okay to do so, say, at a high school football game.  Perhaps these people imagine that I squirted out into the world with a collar on, and up until their indiscretion, I had managed to preserve my holy and virgin ears from hearing any and all profanity? Oh, phooey!  If they only knew.

On one hand, if we are still on our best behavior in front of clergy, that at least says something for the state of religion in general. Perhaps we still have some small traction in the world – at least there is a lingering sense of morality that has not been totally wiped from the collective consciousness of our society. And it might be a good sign that this moral imperative is still loosely associated with religion – or at least the religious- among us. But still… I ‘d like to believe that the church, and the “religious” among us stand for more than the “tsk” at life’s indiscretions, and have a bigger role than being the somber librarian of our otherwise raucous society, whose only apparent  job is to “Shhhh!” us when we get too loud.

But we were talking about me. Being treated like some untouchable and supernatural thing of virtue, I miss a lot of what makes humanity really human. And if people are on their best behavior around me, that means that I am an “other”- not only an outsider to humanity’s base depravity, but an un-trusted, and often unwelcome interloper in common life. And that not only makes me feel quite lonely, but more importantly, it insulates me from the real lives of the people whom God has sent me to serve, preserve, and teach “the Way.”  When I do not get access to the whole lives of the people around me, when they are more worried about my fragile constitution for coarse language than they are being genuine human beings around me and with me – well, I feel I have missed an opportunity to speak into their lives on a human level. I often long for genuine human connection-  not as a priest, or as a part of some “spiritual upper-class,”  but as one who has lived, and struggled, and searched for meaning in the world, and who is searching still;  as one who is not perfected but is, by faith, imagining the possibility of perfection from the perspective of my own brokenness, and the brokenness that I share with all of humanity.  I was not always a Pastor! And yet I am here. Wouldn’t that a compelling place to start a dialogue?

I’m telling you, that could be a great conversation.  If I could get anyone to  @#$%ing  have it with me.

This life therefore is not Righteousness,

but growth in Righteousness.

Not health, but healing.

Not being,  But becoming.

We are not yet what we shall be,

But we are growing toward it.

The process is not finished,

But it is going on.

This is not the end,

But it is the road.

All does not now gleam in glory,

But all is being purified.

-Martin Luther

x

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to accompany my son to the Pennsylvania State National History Day competition. He wrote an essay that qualified at our regional National History Day competition, and was chosen to compete at the State level. On the way to Mechanicsburg from our town in the Northwestern corner of Pa, we stopped at Gettysburg.

The significance of Gettysburg as a turning point in the Civil war cannot be undervalued – and neither can the staggering loss of life there. The level of carnage among the bucolic hills of southern PA. is sobering. A trip to Gettysburg  has even greater significance right now, as the area celebrates the 150Th anniversary of the three day battle on July 1-3, 1863. During those three days, over 50,000 men lost their lives. Quiet cannons and monuments along the battlefield can only hint at what happened there, but there is an almost hallowed quiet among these fields, as if the earth itself is still reeling from what it witnessed there a century and a half ago.

On the same trip we paid a visit to the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, PA. We were a little pressed for time, but I was able to walk around the grounds where they had a small replica of a WWI trench built, complete with a machine gunner’s pillbox. Imagining the conditions which our soldiers fought that particular war in Europe was another sobering thought. The horror of war was very palpable to me as I walked around in the exhibit. The volunteers that staffed the display told of the amazing and horrifying network of trenches that ran from the Swiss Alps to the English channel, of constant machine gun fire over the heads of the soldiers, mortar fire, and mustard gas salvos that would choke and burn those in low lying areas. I left feeling a bit traumatized, but I’m sure nothing compared to those who lived, and lost life in the trenches. I think the word “valor” took on a new meaning for me that day.

If you count the campaigns against the American Indian nations, battles against pirates, the westward expansion across North America, the dozens of “Police actions” and involvements in U.N. missions, America has been perpetually at war since its inception.  It is part of our history and our heritage. It is also an economic and budgetary addiction that has spawned a multi-trillion dollar industry. An untouchable and nearly sacred chunk of money (23% of the Federal budget) goes to Defense, compared to 3% that goes to Education. (To be fair, education is mainly a matter of state expenditure: for example, 27% of the PA state budget goes to education.) Interestingly, the only other Federal expense that weighs in as heavy is healthcare, at 24%.   War, and healthcare: half of our budget.

Speaking of healthcare…  Returning from my trip, I sat with an elderly individual who faced a grave decision: whether to risk open heart surgery, with a possibly long and painful recovery period, or to have a lesser and perhaps less effective surgery, and take a chance on living better, but for less time… maybe. Which would you choose? I don’t really know myself, but I do know that a choice like this this falls squarely in the category of a “first world problem.” It is a difficulty that a large percentage of the world’s population will never experience, for dodging death with medical advances will never be an option for them. Yet we all must face the fact that we are not immortal at some point in our lives.

At the same time, modern medicine seems to hold out a certain vague promise that if we have the right insurance, or can find the right specialist, we might just be able to live – if not forever- at least past the current health problem we might be facing.  And modern medicine has come a long way in being able to prevent disease, and treat it when it presents itself – we can even have a growing number of parts replaced, extending the length and quality of life. But these procedures are becoming more and more expensive. As insurance companies get more involved in the mix, we have lost touch of how very, very expensive it is to extend our lives the months, or maybe years that modern medicine promises.  That is if we are affluent enough to be able to afford insurance… (otherwise, we will have to come to terms with the imminence of death a little quicker than the more wealthy folks.) The dependence on medicine lets us to forget, for awhile, the imminent and irrefutable fact that death waits for us all. But we value life, or at least our own lives, to such an extent that we are willing to pay any amount of money to have just a little more of it.

In truth, I don’t believe it’s the value on life that impels us at all, but the fear of death. Our judiciary system, our penal system, our Armed forces and the bravado that surrounds them- none of these point to any value placed on individual human life. We are just afraid to die. It is in this fear that we spend half our federal marbles, either in defense of, or in the ultimately futile effort of extending, our own lives. Meanwhile we spend a paltry amount of money actually teaching our people how to live.  3% on education? Seriously!? This is just enough to insult any lofty notions of “building a future for our country” and make a joke of meaningless aphorisms like “no child left behind.” We are leaving our children behind, while at the same time giving them a clear message which quality we truly value -violence. Then we have the silly gumption to be shocked when a kid shoots up a school.

Somewhere in the bible, it says “…where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In looking at where our treasure lies in this country, I can see that our heart is afraid: afraid of losing our status as empire, and afraid of losing any days of our brief lives. And yet the things over which we have fought for two centuries, these have not changed. The ideals of the people we have fought, and the ideas of those who end up on the losing side of war have not changed either. The Sons of the Confederacy have not changed their minds, if the puzzling number of confederate flags on the back of pickup trucks is any indicator – probably an even better indicator might be the ongoing racial tension in our country. Obviously the North did not win as decisively as was once thought. Abroad, things are much the same: The Taliban have not changed their minds, nor have the Viet Cong, or the North Koreans. Russia and China are still communist, and everybody still has “the Bomb,” despite a number of wars (hot and cold) that have been fought to keep the communists at bay. Despite the seeming ineffectiveness of armed conflict to settle these ideological disputes, every decade we throw our strongest, youngest, and brightest men and women into the meat grinder of conflict, hoping that one day something will be different. This is insanity! If it has not worked by now, I doubt it will with any new and grander (read expensive) scheme for warfare.  Further, as we amass more and more of the world’s wealth, we have more to lose – more to defend, more of which to fear losing.  Is this neurotic hoarding of natural resources, as well as the days and minutes of our lives, really the American dream?

What was decided at Gettysburg was who had more troops and better tactics. It is a game that could have been played on any chessboard. It did not change the minds of the combatants, nor did it significantly change the attitude of any of the players. African Americans in this country are still systematically and systemically discriminated against, and in many areas of this nation only very grudgingly allowed to participate in the social contract that their forefathers fought and died for, just like the white man’s forefathers did. And despite a strong (read large) central government, the question of state’s rights is still broadly disputed.

If there is any way to properly remember Gettysburg, it is to retain a strong sense of the horror of war. These rolling hills in PA stand as a quiet witness to the fact that a conflict of ideas will invariably lead to a loss of life. It need not be that way, but unfortunately it seems  war is the only way we know of currently to solve any kind of  philosophical problems: the nature of government and the rights of its citizens; whose religion is right, and who has God’s favor; what is a legitimate way of life, and who will control the earth’s resources.  In the mean time, we will continue to cower in fear of the threat of the enemy “other,” while we spend our life’s savings trying to buy one more year of life: demanding to be defended- with other people’s lives – our right to do so.

But we must never forget that defending what we have and hold dear is enormously expensive. Can we continue to pay so high a price? Can we even still consider this state of affairs “Freedom?”  Or perhaps we have too much to lose to ever be truly free again.

I want to write something of substance on this blog. I just am not sure how to go about it. I would like to champion causes, expound on my political agenda, tell the world why it’s so wrong, but I am unable to muster the gumption.

It is amazing to me how very sure so many people are about their views. I say this not as one who is ignorant of issues, or stupid, or uninformed. I read papers, listen to the news, I have a master’s degree, I live in this country too…

Yet I am unsure. Yes, I said it. And I refuse to chalk this lack of surety up to intellectual sloth, or wishy –washy ideals. I know what I believe in, and I know what I stand for. It’s just that I could be wrong. I might not have all the facts. I may be mislead: either by the sources of information that I choose to listen to, or by my own cultural, intellectual, and emotional biases.

Take for instance the issue of cutting back on foodstamps. (SNAP) I agree that we spend a great deal of money on this in our country, and that the system needs more oversight: it is broken and corrupt and easily manipulated. I also agree that we need to preserve a system where the poor and elderly are protected in our society. I think that God would like us as a society to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. Both/and!

This view does not lend itself well to a sign I could wave outside the Whitehouse. And I don’t understand why there can be no political middle. You either have to be fully for something, or fully against it. No moderation, no caveats, no quid pro quo. My main problem is, how can you be so sure? If I’m not sure, how can anybody?

Yet we insist on solving national issues with the same large brush. For or Against. Conservative or Liberal. One is not allowed to see some good and some idiocy in both positions. You either must hate and demonize this administration, or you must swallow everything it does with the same syrupy, fanatical devotion.

National healthcare is a good idea. There is some good in the latest bill, often derisively called Obamacare. (Like calling it that will trivialize an entire multiple thousand page plan into something that a fifth-grader scrawled in crayon on the back of an envelope.)  There is also some very poor aspects to the bill. It may or may not improve life in this country. How is anyone to know?  Smart people work hard to produce these things. Other smart people work hard against them.

The thing is, our entire culture has lost the art of nuance. We use a bulldozer to weed a rose garden, and blame the other side for the potholes. Perhaps governance, like most of the rest of life, is not an all or nothing proposition, but has shades. Perhaps that is how we learn to grow and emerge again as a culture that understands itself, and works to better mankind. I don’t know.

I hear many Christians saying exactly what God is like, what he wants, and what his views are on contemporary culture, politics, morality, and life in general. Many of these folks try to sort people out – who can deserve grace, and who are excluded based on who they are, or what they do. How can you be so sure? I myself have walked in search of God and God’s will for a good long time. In search of answers, I have studied religion and Theology for over a decade, and I still am not any more sure of the answers as I was when I began. I am reading the same Bible. Yet my experience calls into question the validity of trying to speak too definitely for God, or trying to be too sure of anything in the Spiritual realm.

Don’t get me wrong- I know my own compass, what is right and wrong, and what God has promised to me: life, love, freedom, and the blessings of this beautiful world. I know that I am not unique to these promises either. But if I can be the benefactor of God’s love, anyone can. I’m quite sure of that – but it may be proved one day that I am wrong.

In religion and politics, we need a renewed sense of humility – just the barest sense that at the end of the day we might not hold all the facts, or be entirely in the right. Just opening up the possibility that the “other” might have something meaningful, intelligent, and intrinsically valuable to add to the conversation will go a long way to help end the trench warfare that marks the political and religious arenas in our society.

But I could always be wrong…

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Why Punk can’t die (in me)

Posted: April 22, 2013 in Uncategorized

I was probably fourteen when a record store in Erie changed my life forever. I was at the mall with one of my friends, and as we entered the shop a sound like no other I had ever heard assailed me, and I knew I had come home. I immediately went to the front desk and asked the disaffected older youth behind the counter what on earth this fantastic music was. He looked at me for a moment, like he was not sure that I was serious, or maybe he did not want to immediately admit me into the sacred club I was about to enter into. Finally he made up his mind, and in an offhand way uttered the word, “Ramones.” I gladly gave him all the money I had.
This was my first foray into Punk. It was 1986, and I was just at the back end of what many purists would call the golden age. By this time, Sid Vicious had been dead for years, and the movement was in danger of going mainstream (sure death) with up and coming bands like Green Day waiting in the wings. (I too was into Green Day before they were big, which incidentally is the mantra which all true Punk aficionados my age greet each other at any formal gathering.) There was no a lot of this kind of music in my small town record store, and you would never hear any of this on the radio. (A source of pride even to this day.)
So it probably was not until 1989 until I stumbled over the band Bad Religion. They had just released “NO Control,” and when I heard it for the first time, it blew the top off my skull. This was the true essence of the art form, this was the true metaphysical reason for playing drums at 250BPM! The grinding guitars kept up with the machine like beat, as Greg Graffin hollered out erudite and polysyllabic rantings against hypocrisy and political tyranny, and idiocy and everything else that was wrong in the world. Intelligent, thoughtful, and angry- I had finally found my voice – the soundtrack to my life.
Twenty-five years later, and a great deal of water under the bridge. After buying all the albums I could afford (on tape!) my whole collection became obsolete around the time I entered mainstream life: got married, had kids, and stopped following that scene almost entirely. I’m a Pastor now, a father, a respectable member of society, long ago trading my combat boots and black trenchcoat for a collection of polo shirts and a clergy collar.
But every so often, I revisit that old stuff, and it energizes me again. There is something to the brash and thoughtful lyrics set to frantic drums and buzzsaw guitars- when lyrics like “Henchman” still ring true:

Stranded
In a life in which your struggle for acceptance
Is a never-ending chore,
Upbraided
For your actions past and present and rewarded for the ideas
Of the future’s bright open door.
The henchman
Is the human analogue of the suffering multitudes
Who like good dogs sit and lick for their reward.
So what good advice have I got for you
To insure against your likely metamorphosis into this reprobate?
Don’t be a henchman,
Stand on your laurels,
Do what no one else does and praise the good of other men
For good man’s sake.
And when everyone else in the world follows your lead
(Although a cold day in hell it will surely be)
That’s when the entire world shall live in harmony.

(“Henchman” from “No Control”)

While my politics, my religious views, my lifestyle, and most other facets of my existence now stand apart from those of my early Punk Rock heroes’, I still can not argue with the sentiments of much of this music. I am still angry that the world is messed up. I am still appalled at what we have made of society, of religion, of human community. And I need to be reminded (we all do!) that the American lifestyle is often an affront to general human decency. And I think I need to stay a little angry so that I can hopefully do my part to change it- to remain a fly in the ointment of our blithely self destructive consumer culture. So Punk Rock: stay sardonic, subversive, and deliciously critical of the status quo: we all need it. That’s why I will always be a Punk.