SATURDAY 6-PACK: December 16, 2017

A weekly listing of articles, audio clips, and other tidbits I’ve encountered that seemed interesting, insightful, or otherwise useful …

Reports indicate that the compromise tax plan, worked out between Republicans from the House and the Senate along with various business lobbyists, now has enough votes to pass.  Of course, the exact details of the plan aren’t fully known … and might not be until after the vote to pass it. Whatever form the final tax bill takes, it will not fulfill the promises to improve wages for most Americans.  Lots of good quotes and non-technical analysis in this piece – and note the warning at the end:
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The other big news this weeks was the somewhat surprising victory for Doug Jones in the special election to fill the Senate vacancy in Alabama.  With all the post-election analysis, we know that the keep to Jones’ upset was the big turnout and solid support from African-American voters, especially the women.  Make now mistake: this was not about what a flawed human being Roy Moore happens to be; this is about issues that impact real people.  The people who voted expect action on these concerns:
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Here’s the two-fer for the week.  First up, things that were said by professed Christians in Alabama the day before the elction.  The pastor’s comments were particularly provocative.  Second, reactions from Tuesday night when the result came in.  This report features a different reaction by a different pastor.  Who best echoes what Christianity is about?

https://www.npr.org/2017/12/12/570093114/alabamas-special-election-is-now-up-to-the-voters

https://www.npr.org/2017/12/13/570387472/remarkable-win-sends-democratic-candidate-to-u-s-senate

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We also marked five years since the horrifc school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  The radio program  1A devoted the entire hour to this.  The PSA styled as a news report on “tomorrow’s school shooting” is a must-hear:

https://the1a.org/shows/2017-12-14/five-years-after-sandy-hook-are-schools-safer

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Trump and his echo-chamber were at work this week trying to undermine Robert Mueller’s credibility and stop the probe of Russian influence in the 2016 election from being completed.  The reason for seeking a premature stop is intuitively obvious (as my Algebra teacher would say).  That’s why Mueller and his team must be allowed to carry out the assignment they’ve been given.

http://www.startribune.com/let-mueller-do-his-work-or-nation-will-suffer/462898573/

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And finally, a good story … just because it’s really good and moving and timely for the season:

https://themoth.org/stories/love-song-for-malawi

Walking in the Darkness

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light …

 

That’s where we’re headed in Advent, these words from Isaiah that we’ll read on Christmas Eve.  Advent is a journey set in the darkest weeks of the year, as the days grow shorter and shorter.  Even after the solstice, a few days before Christmas, we don’t yet see enough lengthening in daylight to hope for the end of the winter and the light to be restored.

 

The path in daylight … I won’t be seeing this in the mornings anytime soon

This time of year, when the temperature allows for being outdoors (by being within a few degrees of freezing), my morning walks take place in the dark.  There’s just a bit of a reprieve around the time change, but week or two after the switch back to Daylight Wasting Time, I’m back in the dark on my morning walks.

 

This walking in the dark has prompted me to consider what is useful in terms of light … and what is not.

 

Most useful is a full (or nearly full) moon in a cloudless sky.  It isn’t as bright as day, but the soft light is enough to see the path, to see familiar landmarks, and (likely) to be seen by others.  Unfortunately, this phase of the moon lasts for just a few days and the sky must be cloudless, which is a rare thing in Minnesota.  A cloudless sky in winter typically means the temperature is so far below freezing that every drop of moisture has frozen out of the atmosphere … which also means I am NOT walking outside.

 

The streetlights generally help.  For aesthetic considerations and a quieter neighborhood, the overall light level is low.  But the lights are directed down to the streets and walkways and the lights are close enough to see where you’re going (in most places).  However, it isn’t enough light that a pedestrian can be sure that drivers have a good chance of seeing her.  In some places, the walkway curves away from the road and drops below grade.  For that part of the path, the streetlights up by the road don’t provide enough light to see where the path goes.  Along the one major road through the neighborhood, the streetlights are on one side of the street and the sidewalk is on the other.  The lights along that area help the drivers – not the pedestrians.

 

What does not help at all is the glare from headlights of approaching cars.  Much like the streetlights, the headlights are designed and positioned in such a way as to best assist the driver behind the wheel – not those outside of the car.  Rather than illuminate the area in front of me, the glare of on-coming headlights floods the area with so much light, it washes out nearly everything between the light source and me.  It’s kind of like the inverse of “all dark” blind, but it’s a form of blindness just the same.

 

For times like these, when the on-coming glare of headlights is too much or when the streetlights are insufficient for my needs, I’m really glad to have my flashlight.  In many ways, my flashlight is the most useful light of all.  I can turn it on when I need the light and point it where I need the light to be.  I can have a focused, bright light if I need that, or a softer, more widespread light.  The flashlight also has a strobe feature, which is helpful when I need to cross streets as it is much more able to catch the attention of drivers than I am. Drivers who don’t normally yield to pedestrians do when the strobe light is flashing.

 

It’s hard to walk in the dark … where does my next step land? … what might be in the way to trip my feet? … is the path ahead level or is there a dip I cannot see? … what else is along the path that might be a hazard?  I know the path I walk very well from all the months I’ve walked it in the bright, morning light.  Even in dim light, I’m fairly sure of the way.  But if I didn’t know the path or if there were crossings or points of divergence, having light with which to see would be essential to avoid losing my way.

 

Moving through the weeks of Advent is kind of like these morning walks in the dark.  In some ways, it is a familiar path … a cycle of weeks that comes around each year … the familiar countdown rhythm that leads to the Christmas celebrations … a wheel that turns like clockwork.

 

We know the stories … the Annunciation … the mysterious, miraculous pregnancies (mostly for Mary, but also for Elizabeth) … the visions of angels who announce what God is doing … the waiting and the watching … the cry of John the Baptizer: “Prepare the way of the Lord!”  Even if these aren’t necessarily the passages read in churches and homes each week through Advent, these are the subjects of our Advent hymns.  The hymns of Advent aren’t heard much outside of churches – not like the Christmas hymns and carols that have become standards alongside more secular Christmas music that plays almost non-stop from November until year’s end in the stores and on radio stations.

 

But we don’t necessarily need these external guides to show us the way and tell us when we are in time.  We know the path we travel.  We have our routines of preparations, how to get things done, signs that the expected event of Christmas is at hand … the tree, the lights, maybe candles on a wreath … the smells of fresh pine and spices and sugar … the rustle of paper and the slicing of scissors and the whispers of tape dispensers.  Like a well-trodden path or the hands of the clock, these things tell us where we are and when we are.

 

But like walking in the dark, sometimes it is good to have a light, something to help us see.  And like my morning walks in the dark, some lights are very helpful while certain others are no help at all.

 

Least helpful to the Advent journey is the swirl and clamor and glare of the cultural Christmas celebration.  It’s all glitter and sparkle and overly bright and shiny.  There’s the whirl and swirl of activities and festivities.  There’s the endless to-do list that gets longer, not shorter, with each item accomplished … oh, don’t forget this other thing … oh, now there’s this to take care of … oh, sure, I can squeeze this in, too … on and on and on it goes.  There’s the blare of the holiday music that’s been playing for a month now … the same tunes on the radio as in the stores … the same singers with their once-new takes on old classics … maybe made worse for “fresh arrangements” or up-to-date instrumentation or auto tune.  Then there are the crowds of people everywhere, the long lines, the overtired and whining children along with their frustrated adults (who sometimes aren’t any better).  Like the glaring headlights of the approaching cars as I walk, these things wash out all the peace, the quiet, the space for contemplation and reflection … the whole point of the Advent season.

 

And just what is the point of this season we call “Advent”?  Isn’t it about getting ready for Christmas?  Doesn’t that mean all the things we’re doing to get ready for the main event are, in fact, part of the Advent season of preparation?

 

Ah … but this is where the cultural approach to Christmas is like the streetlights along the path I walk in the dark.  Yes, sometimes these things are helpful an aid support in our Advent observance as we indeed do look toward Christmas and the coming of Jesus as the baby born that holy night in a stable somewhere in the little town of Bethlehem where he was laid to sleep in a manger because there was no crib for his bed.  Like the streetlights along the walk path, the guiding lights of culture can assist our preparations.  However, like the streetlights along my walking path, sometimes the path we’re on diverges from where the lights are … and sometimes the lights are lighting another way.

 

The cultural calls to prepare for Christmas don’t help when they pressure us towards consumption of things we don’t need (gifts or food), to buy more than our means honestly can accommodate, to have unrealistic expectations of what our holiday celebrations “should” look like (the perfect tree, the perfect décor, the perfect gifts, the perfect table, the perfect everything).  Following these would-be guiding lights can only lead to disappointment because they lead us to expect more than can possibly be done or arranged or provided.

 

And even at best, when the focus is on the right thing – the birth of Jesus, the lights around us might still take us off our intended path.  If the focus is only on the baby in the manger, caroled by candlelight on Christmas Eve, celebrated in the exchange of gifts (birthday presents in Jesus’ name we give to each other), then we’re still a bit off the path.  Christmas isn’t just about a poor couple’s baby born in a barn.  It’s about God breaking into the world – how God broke into the world then … which gives us some clues as to how God might be breaking in now.

 

In the midst of all this, the practices of Advent are a lot like my trusty flashlight on those morning walks in the dark.  The practices of Advent put the light where we need it to be, to show us the path we intend to be on, to help us avoid what might trip us or cause us to stumble as we find our way through this dark and confusing time.

 

There’s no way of telling what bumps or stumps or rocks or unexpected breaks in the surface might be lurking as we make our way in through the darkness of Advent this year.  We’ve seen plenty of disasters already.  The people in Puerto Rico and Florida and Houston are still struggling to rebuild their lives that were ripped apart by hurricanes this summer.  We remember how children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary were brutally murdered in Advent five years ago, shattering the season for so many.  There’s no way to know what form of chaos will spin its way out of the nation’s capitol next.  Here in my area, a decision about charges in the latest high-profile shooting by a police officer could be coming any day now.

 

We can’t turn off – or even fully unplug – from the Christmas dazzle all around us (even if we want to).  We can’t prevent things in the world around us from disrupting our peace and disturbing our path.  The world keeps moving.  Life keeps happening, the good and the bad.

 

But we can steward are time, watch how we use our minutes and days and hours … choose carefully where we invest our energy.  Such discipline is like that flashlight, guiding our attention to where we need to be looking, what we need to watch for … showing us the way we intend to travel so we can take our steps accordingly.

 

I don’t have to walk in the dark on these mornings.  I have other options … places to walk inside where it’s not just warm, there’s also light.  But I choose to walk in the dark … to be outside … to connect with the physical world around me … the rhythm of the seasons … the cycles of life.

 

Observing the season of Advent is that same sort of intentional engagement.  It is choosing to walk the dark, yet familiar way.  It requires both intention and attention.  It takes effort to stay on the way … to take the time out of the rush for quiet contemplation … to sit with the small light of candles in hope and expectation that a greater light will come … to look at the coming of God in the Jesus story so we can better see the coming of God in our stories.  We won’t see these things unless we’re looking … unless we know where to look … take the time to look … and have some light by which to see.

 

Author of time, Creator of Earth and its seasons, Keeper of Eternity …

 

As our seasons cycle again into winter’s darkness

As the year of your Church moves from the end of one cycle into the advent of a new

As the calendar that has marked this year enters the final weeks and we wait for a new one to begin

 

We light this small flame

 

Turning again to your promise to come once more

Remembering how you came to us a baby in Bethlehem’s manger

Trusting your presence that has sustained us to this time

 

May the hope of your coming and the light of your presence sustain us through the darkness of winter.  As we wait for the day of your promise, may your birth in our darkness renew our hope and life as we watch and wait for your return and the coming of the Day.

Amen

SATURDAY 6-PACK: December 9, 2017

A weekly listing of articles, audio clips, and other tidbits I’ve encountered that seemed interesting, insightful, or otherwise useful …

Well, it is all the news this week … “The Silence Breakers” (aka #MeToo) were revealed as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year with a cover featuring several women from different walks of life who have confronted various forms of bad treatment they received from men.  Leading men in the high profile worlds of entertainment and politics have suffered consequences for a range of sexual behaviors toward female victims (and in some cases, male victims).  Representative John Conyers, who was accused by former staffers of directly propositioning them, went into the hospital for stress and came out to resignation.  Then six women senators started a movement for Al Franken’s resignation because of a series of accusations about inappropriate behavior; they were swiftly joined by other colleagues; this stampede culminated in Franken’s resignation a little more than 24 hours later.  Rep. Trent Franks resigned a day after accusations surfaced from former staffers about being propositioned as possible surrogate mothers.  More accusations are coming in the entertainment world as well as the political one.
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The conversations are necessary and will ultimately be helpful.  However, will the high profile examples (such as those featured on the Time Magazine cover) change things for the less famous, the less well-paid … cleaning crews and maid services, wait staff and clerks, others we rarely (if ever) attend to … the women at various levels on the corporate food chain who know that retaliation will follow if they report things that HR policies say should not be happening?
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And of no less importance, if we do not follow any sort of process … if we set any and all forms of misconduct (from minor to criminal) as completely equivalent with one-size fits all consequences or punishments … once this rage-wave passes, what will be left in its wake?  Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post offers some keen insights through some very important questions:
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Speaking of women who stood up – or sat down, in this case — daring to assert their rights simply to be and in so doing set into a motion waves of action that made a difference … Aiming to mark an important anniversary in the civil rights struggle on December 1st, Trump tweeted about Rosa Parks.  This is wrong on so many levels — and Leonard Pitts nails them all:
 If the connection with Colin Kaepernick strikes you as misguided or misplaced, please check out the article of Kap as Sports Illustrated‘s Muhammed Ali Legacy Award recipient in the current Sportsperson of the Year issue.
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Following up on the themes of race, gender, and class, here’s a long-form heartbreaker: Black women _in the United States!_ are over 250 more times more likely to die as a result of pregnancy (during pregnancy, childbirth, or soon after birth) than white women.  One amazing  woman who was trying to find out why ended up being one of those statistics herself.  Here’s her story:
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Also on the subject of gender, class and expectation, the movie I, Tonya came out this weekend to largely favorable reviews.  I remember my own reactions at the time of the attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan and the obvious involvement of people close to her rival Tonya Harding.  Apparently, unlike a lot of people, I actually liked Tonya as her backstory came to light (growing up poor, driving a pickup truck to the rink, sewing her own costumes … a real young woman, not a fantasy princess).  One of the commentaries written at the time questioned how much blame could really be applied to Tonya who worked as hard as anyone (and harder than some) to follow the rules that would take her to the top … only to find the rules did not apply in her case.  This commentary on the movie makes a similar point and calls into question our enjoyment of knocking people from their pedestals (and how much of that is behind the current bruhaha over the various perpetrators of various forms of sexual impropriety?)
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One thing that is NOT in the forefront of the news as it ought to be – given that the House and Senate are working to find some mutually agreeable version of the tax proposals.  The claim keeps being pressed that the corporate tax cuts (along with tax cuts for high incomes)  will do wonders for the economy to the benefit of all – even though no study supports this theory and experiences indicate otherwise.  Here’s a very clear example of what the proposed tax cuts (especially for businesses) are quite likely to do (and no, this will not benefit workers):
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NPR’s StoryCorps project consistently airs stirring and memorable stories.  But the one from this Friday was truly exceptional.  As the 5th anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School approaches, this deserves a listen:

 

SATURDAY 6-PACK: December 2, 2017

A weekly listing of articles, audio clips, and other tidbits I’ve encountered that seemed interesting, insightful, or otherwise useful …

First, the news we all should be watching: The Tax Bill.  Now that the Senate has also passed a version, the  next step will be to reconcile the version from the Senate and the version from the Hosue.  There are significant differences and the final form remains to be seen.  But here is a non-technical, understandable, not-too-wonky analysis of the economics around the proposed changes (especially with corporate taxes), the current economic growth rate, GDP and stuff like that.  It’s worth the read to understand why these proposals are a very bad idea:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/11/29/tax-cut-proponents-promise-3-4-percent-growth-this-economic-milestone-shows-thats-nearly-impossible/?utm_term=.788cfe28b344

 

Second, a three-fer: Three different interviewers … three different political leaders.  At different points, each interviewer asks a very direct, difficult question and each politico dodges, spins, or dissembles in one way or another.  Yes, it’s a dance and tracing out the steps furthers understanding:

Kai Ryssdal and Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee on Marketplace …

Robert Siegel and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) of the Seante Finance Committee on All Things Considered …

Steve Inskeep and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) on Morning Edition …

 

Third, although the parallels are not perfect (as noted in this piece from Marketplace), events in Kasnas under the leadership of Gov. Sam Brownback are instructive for the current national-level tax proposals.  Although the Kansas commentator is somewhat suspect (being from Wichita, which is home base of the Koch Brothers, who are the primary architects of this nonsense), even he has to concede things have not gone as planned in the Sunflower State, now known to some as Brownbackistan.  (Check it out on Facebook; it’s also a hashtag on Twitter.)

https://www.marketplace.org/2017/11/30/economy/what-congress-could-learn-kansas

 

Fourth, another financially-related development that isn’t getting enough attnetion: the turn of events at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  First, let’s recall why this was created: abuses by various financial entities that misled consumers and set into motion the chain of events that culminated in the Great Recession of 2008.  Second, note yet another example of a politico attempting execute the artful dodge, tunring the focus from consumers who need protection from predatory actions by big businesses to consumers needing protection from their government.  Who (or what) is really being protected here?

David Grenne and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) on Morning Edition ….

 

Fifth – Sense and Sensibility (Part I) regarding what has been the lead news story most times this week (when other far more important stories should have been front and center).  This concerns the allegations regarding Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), but the points about varying degrees and keeping a sense of perspective can apply to many similar — and dissimilar — stories:

http://ww.startribune.com/let-s-bring-some-rationality-to-discussion-around-al-franken/460871993/

 

Sixth – Sense and Sensibiolity (Part II) on the same themse, but with the lens turned back at all of us and our current cultural setting with a view towards more mature (and quite likely healthier) sexual ethics:

http://www.startribune.com/it-may-well-be-time-for-us-to-rethink-how-we-think-about-sex/461132813/

 

SATURDAY 6-PACK: November 18, 2017

 

A weekly listing of articles, audio clips, and other tidbits I’ve encountered that seemed interesting, insightful, or otherwise useful …

First, this is a holdover from last week that I finally had a chance to listen to.  Kerri Miller had one of her usual insightful conversations with a couple of experts about the role of prescribers (doctors and pharmacists) in the current opioid epidemic.  Not only is this a call for more responsible prescribing and better counseling when the medications are dispensed, there is also genuine push-back against the use of opioid painkillers for chronic pain.  (Actual studies indicate that these medications are not effective for long-term use.)

https://www.mprnews.org/story/2017/11/08/americas-opioid-crisis-what-health-care-providers

 

Second, for on-going issues from past weeks and months, Luke O’Brien’s long-form piece from the new issue of The Atlantic on “The Making of an American Nazi.”  Warning: this piece does include foul/offensive language.  It also does not shy away from clear indications of serious mental illness in the subject.  Reading it, I was strongly reminded of M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie.  Yes, this is crazy-business … and yet, many people seem to be drawn to it.

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/12/the-making-of-an-american-nazi/544119/

 

The House passed a tax alteration plan … the Senate Finance Committee green-lighted a similar, but distinctly different, version.  Is this a good thing?  Here’s two reports from Marketplace to consider:

https://www.marketplace.org/2017/11/17/economy/opposing-views-tax-reform-and-against-jeffrey-sachs-douglas-holtz-eakin

https://www.marketplace.org/2017/11/17/economy/weekly-wrap/trickle-down-economics-based-tax-bill

 

And there’s the latest national chapter in the on-going exposure of sexual harassment and worse by men in positions of power.  Kate Harding offers some good consideration of the larger factors to be considered and why resignation/firing/being disappeared from public sight are unworkable as “one size fits all” solutions.  I wish she had pushed a bit further on a couple of lines of thought in her piece.  First, that there are not isolated individuals; the individuals are symptoms of a pervasive systemic problem.  (Perhaps part of the reason men are so quick to call for the expulsion of the fellow who has become a pariah is to make him a scapegoat for their own offenses?)  But second, I wish she would have given more attention to the varying degrees between harassment (from isolated incidents to a clear pattern) to various levels of physical assault to rape.  It’s a continuum and the responses need to vary accordingly.  However, there are word limits to consider when submitting opinion pieces to newspapers:

http://www.startribune.com/kate-harding-franken-must-stay/458288473/

 

Apparently the chief tweeter can’t stop himself.  He really should … he definitely should not be commenting on things like the Al Franken revelation , as Steve Sack makes perfectly clear:

http://www.startribune.com/sack-cartoon/458283793/

 

But what else is new?  Trump has such a long record of trying to shift blame for others, exaggerate the mistakes of others to seem far worse than his big ones.  You’d think people would be so tired of it by now … at least tired enough to stop falling for it. Leonard Pitts explains why we need to keep the focus where it belongs.

http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article185269983.html

 

SATURDAY 6-PACK: November 11, 2017

A weekly listing of articles, audio clips, and other tidbits I’ve encountered that seemed interesting, insightful, or otherwise useful …

It’s been quite the week, opening with the shocking events in Sutherland Springs, Texas … moving into the off-year elections … the unveiling of the Senate Tax Plan … oh yeah, and the on-going cascade of reports of sexual harassment and assault involving famous, powerful men … all taking place against the backdrop of Trump’s trip to Asia.  Where to begin?

 

This does not involve the shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs.  But it does speak to the beauty of family ties and the way such acts of violence leave permanent scars, from the StoryCorps Project … and a mass shooting you may have forgotten

Lost in all the major news and drama of the week, one of Chicago’s most famous legal residents answered his summons for jury duty.  Barack Obama was only the most recent former president to receive such a summons.  Scott Simon muses on the power and privilege of the highest office in the land … which might not be the one you think it is…

Continuing in the You, Me, and Them: Experiencing Discrimination in America, this report makes it clear that words, actions, mistreatment DO take a real toll on a person.  This piece focuses on a doctor with Hispanic heritage and things he experiences repeatedly that will make you cringe … and maybe gasp … and it might make you mad…

And some of the same truths also apply to the women finally coming forward to tell the truth about their experiences of harassment and worse.  Here’s a good reason to burn one of your monthly free articles from the New York Times Lindy West, telling it straight-up, as always …

 

And here’s another good reason : Gail Collins’ run-down of the many clouds and shadows looming over Trump’s efforts to celebrate the anniversary of his election, the week that was …

 

And finally, do these apparent missteps, mistakes and out-right failures really matter?  It may depend on whom you ask.  Michael Kruse’s visit to Johnstown, Pennsylvania is revealing — and stunning.  Warning: this piece does contain some very frank language that some may find offensive.  However, it is an accurate and exacting portrayal of what is happening in this slice of “Trump Country”.

 

SATURDAY 6-PACK: November 5th

 

A weekly listing of articles, audio clips, and other tidbits I’ve encountered that seemed interesting, insightful, or otherwise useful …

The big news story of the week was supposed to be the Tax Bill from the House.  Clearly, it’s only a starting point and campaigns to preserve the deductions and exemptions that are slated to be removed in the proposal. were underway even before Tuesday.  In the swirl of exaggerated claims, both in support of and in opposition to the bill, it’s important to mind the spinning.  Here’s some fairly straight talk courtesy of Marketplace, including a segment in which Kai Ryssdal puts some very pointed questions to Kevin Hassett, Chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisors.  You can decide if the answers make sense  … or not.
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But, of course, the tax plan unveiling was eclipsed by the news of the pending indictments from Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian influence in the 2016 Election … and by the delay in the tax bill unveiling due to lack of agreement among drafters of the bill. Here’s some clarification amid all the chaos:
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The news of the indictments (and the Papadopoulos plea) has been a cause for celebration among some liberal factions.  However, even if their great hopes are ultimately realized, this still doesn’t solve the underlying problem.  Leonard Pitts reflects on a column from March 2016 … and points to the real problem underlying all this.  (And follow from this to his more recent piece responding to White House Chief of Staff’s John Kelly’s comments about the Civil War that almost got lost in the twin dramas of the latest steps in the Mueller investigations and the House tax plan):
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This week’s two-fer … Because an immigrant was involved, Donald Trump wouldn’t consider passing up a chance to spout off how terrible immigrants are after the truck attack on the bike path in NYC.  (Notice how it was “too soon to discuss gun laws” right after Las Vegas, but less than a day is soon enough to call for changes to immigration programs)  The attacker came into the US through the “Diversity Visa Lottery.”  First up, how the program actually works … then, how better community supports for immigrants might have prevented this – and can going into the future:
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Children are listening and watching … what are the hearing and learning in our tech-saturated culture?  Here’s a timely reminder to watch your tone an language in their presence – even with Alexa (or other voice-activated assistance programs:
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Here’s a good example of why saying “All Lives Matter” is not the same as saying “Black Lives Matter.”  This is the first part of a two-part story; the second airs on Sunday.  You can also link to the You, Me, and Them: Experiencing Discrimination in America page on the NPR website for other pieces in this series.  There were also a couple regarding Latinos and discrimination around housing and voting.

 

WHAT IF IT DOESN’T GET BETTER?

Summer and assembly time have  passed.  Rally Day, the now traditional re-launch of regular congregational activities, has come and gone.  In many cases, some of the prompting for renewed focus on activities — and attendance — in the congregation has come from the downward trend lines that are dogging most congregations these days.  (And in many congregations, this has been the case for decades.)  Trend lines may be discouraging; however, there is something to anticipate.  With the approaching 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses going public in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517 (however it happened that those points for private debate within the church became public knowledge), there has also been encouragement to celebrate our history and, perhaps, find in that history the fresh courage and direction we need for going forward.

I don’t know that a significant historical milestone is going to change much … for us or anyone else.  The sale of indulgences, which the 95 Theses protested, is a historical relic.  The Catholic Church no longer engages in fund raising by means of selling indulgences in the ways Luther protested.  Modern Catholic theologians readily acknowledge that Luther raised some good points with his critiques.  Recent studies show that what Lutherans and other Protestants and Catholics in the pews believe is much more similar than different.  Lutheran and Catholic leaders are discussing how to heal the breach between these branches of the Christian Church.  Were it not for the larger implications where the clergy are concerned (that Lutheran pastors may marry and can be women as well as men), I suspect Luther’s excommunication would be readily rescinded.

If the past has any lessons for the present, those lessons would be in the return to scripture as the guide for faith, the recognition that the Word of God is not simply the printed text on the page but it is the Spirit of God speaking through these words that make it the living Word of God, able to impart faith and direct our living.  This would be a helpful antidote for much the “Bible-olatry” that is present these days, where the printed text on paper is regarded as an inviolate, sacred thing that is not to be questioned … as though the Bible came down from heaven, already printed in English, shrink wrapped and ready for purchase at the bookstore.  I’m not a major-league Biblical scholar, but I know first-hand that translation is messy business.  Words in any language have subtle connotations that allow for multiple readings before we even get to variations in copies and questions of later insertions.  If people of faith were to demonstrate more humility in our approach to scripture, how we read it and how we use, and if we were to let it work more on us rather than applying it to others, that would go a long way toward better engagement with the people and the culture outside our church doors most Sunday mornings.  (The so-called Nashville Statement is the opposite of what I’m describing here and a move in the wrong direction.)

It is there, in the engagement between congregations and their communities, that the struggles mapped out in our trend lines are being most keenly felt … it’s where those struggles play out in congregations.  Most of our congregations are not growing.  (This isn’t just an ELCA or even a Lutheran problem; many congregations in all Christian denominations are facing it.)  Among the relatively few congregations that are not declining, most of these are holding their own – not losing too many members, but not gaining very many members, either.   Word on the street has it that, in the synod where I live, 85% of the congregations are considered to be in decline.  I doubt that number varies too much across the synods.  More members die than are baptized, especially if we don’t count the babies who are brought for baptism in order to make Grandma happy and are rarely ever seen in a congregation again, even when time of confirmation rolls around.  More congregations close or merge than new ones are established.  For decades now, most new mission starts have failed to produce viable congregations and end up closing after just a few years.

We keep looking for some sort of magic formula or secret sauce that will turn things around for us, that will get us growing again, that will attract the new members, that will bring in the people at the margins into active membership.  There isn’t any such formula and looking for one is just a distraction from the real causes of this struggle … and the deeper assessments of our current goals and motives.  Maybe we already sense we won’t like what we find and that the hard truths we find will force us to change and so we avoid all this because what we really want is to keep things the way we like them, which is the way we’ve known and experienced.

If we are to be brutally honest, much of our congregational decision-making – what we do and how we do it – is based on keeping current members pleased so they will keep coming and keep giving.  Much as we try to gloss over naked financial realities and spiritualize things somehow, congregations require money to get things done.  Buildings require mortgage payments as well as upkeep and maintenance costs, just the same as any other house or building does.  Utility bills for electricity, phones, internet, and maybe even gas service must be paid the same as for any other household or business operation.  There are salaries to pay … pastors, office administrators, custodians, and (in many places) the musicians who give significant contributions of time to preparing things for Sunday worship.  It takes the labors of people to keep lines of communication open, make sure the building is clean and ready for use, have everything ready for Sunday services (and other events).  People should be paid for the work they do; we all expect this in our daily lives.  A congregation has a certain amount of basic operating expenses and it is reasonable to expect the members to provide financial support for the congregation’s operations.

As a result, much of our recruitment efforts are motivated by the need for member replacement, to make up for those who were lost (through death or moving away or other life transitions).  Adding members will keep the attendance numbers up and (with proper encouragement) the funding levels steady.  With effective stewardship education, perhaps giving could be increased … which would, of course, allow the congregation to do more – more of what it already does, or perhaps even more beyond its walls. If we were to strip them down to the most basic level, most of our outreach (and our in-reach) efforts are about membership recruitment and motivation.  It’s not about making disciples, which is the calling Jesus has actually given us.

We didn’t set out with the intention to become this way.  It just happened as things in our culture and society shifted and changed.  But we didn’t notice and didn’t respond until things had changed so much that nothing we did seemed to work anymore.  Now that we have noticed, we’ve been wondering why, trying to do what we’ve always done – but do it better, hoping that we can turn the tide.  But such a task is nearly as impossible as altering the tides of the ocean by our own direct efforts.

Just how did things reach this point?  Let’s review …

Coming to America as immigrants, Lutherans organized their congregations for the preservation of the culture of the old country at least as much as for the active practice of Christian faith.  The community of the congregation was a chance to gather with those who shared the language of the old home, the music and rhythms, the smells and tastes.  It was a way to connect with the homeland in the midst of a very different country.  As a result, keeping tradition has been a significant value within our congregations.

Most of our congregations did not drop their ethnic languages (German, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Danish, etc.) until the war years (especially World War II).  Moving to English was a way of showing loyalty to the US and support for the war efforts.  (Placing American flags in sanctuaries was part of this demonstration as well.)  Because Germany was an aggressor nation in both World Wars, German congregations may have been swifter to let go of the old language and move to English than other ethnic groups.  But however the language shifts came about, many congregations did not make that change until most of their members were much more comfortable and fluent in the English of America than the language of the old country.

After the war years, the red scare phenomenon and the post war baby boom helped increase church membership.  The Baby Boom was the most apparent development as huge numbers of men left the military, took up civilian life, married … and had children, lots and lots of children.  Congregations soon found themselves overflowing with children who needed space for classes, places to sit in worship, and ways to be engaged in what was happening.  The sky-rocketing birth rate meant congregations didn’t have to do anything to increase their numbers; families were doing it all on their own.

Beyond the Baby Boom, an increasing interest in the public invocation of religious faith as a protection against the threat of communism also helped.  America’s roots with the pilgrim settlers from Europe who came to the New World seeking religious freedom were highlighted.  The Christian faith of these early pilgrims was expanded to include Judaism as well, primarily an act of contrition for American non-assistance when the Jewish populations in Europe faced the horrors of the Holocaust.   In the heady mix of patriotism and religious devotion as a defense against the aggressive, godless Communist menace, it was almost a civic duty to be a member of some congregation.  Whole programs developed to help congregations enroll as many of their neighbors as possible for membership, primarily out of a sense of civic obligation.

The flourishing economy of the post-war years also had a shaping impact on congregational life in the 1950s and well into the 1960s.  Standards of living rose for most workers.  Benefits such as Social Security, pensions, and home ownership were allowing more elders to leave a significant amount of wealth behind when they died, something almost unknown in previous generations.  People had money to give and they did.  Directing a portion of one’s estate to the church became a fairly common practice.

How times have changed over the following 40 to 50 years!  Wages have largely been stagnant for much of the working population for several decades now.  When households are struggling to afford the basics (rent, food, utilities, transportation needs) and provide for the children (including higher education), there’s less money available for any sort of discretionary spending, including giving to a congregation.  The modern way of death (together with our longer life spans) is depleting the assets of our elders to the point there is often little to nothing left from which to make a final bequest to a congregation.  The Baby Boom went bust and even the echo boom isn’t increasing church membership rosters.  The 1950s and 60s are gone in so many ways (not just in terms of congregational life) and it’s more than time we all accepted those times are never, ever coming back.  Things will never again be the way they used to be.

And yet, our congregations are hard-wired for cultural preservation.  Initially, preservation of the ethnic culture served as a driving force for congregations.  During World War II and the Cold War that followed, congregations readily adapted to preserving a Christian culture tailored to the patriotic needs of an America striving against the godless forces of totalitarianism and Communism.  The world and the culture around us have shifted and changed, but here we are, still trying to preserve a past culture, much as we have always done.  Part of preserving the original ethnic culture was keeping the outsiders out … and that dynamic is still present … which continues to make it hard for outsiders to enter the doors of our congregations.

Now that there are fewer and fewer of us already inside, we’re going to have to connect with others on the outside … somehow.  We’ve never done that before.  We don’t know how.  And we can’t learn to do something new when we’re trying with all our might to keep things the way they’ve always been.

So, to ask the classic question from the catechism:

What does all this mean?

It means, at a minimum, these trends are not going to get better – not any time soon, maybe not ever. We need to come to terms with that.  Congregations will be smaller in terms of members and giving will decrease with the diminishing numbers of members and as the members age.  We can no longer afford all that we used to do.  There is no “doing more with less.”  Having less to work with means we are going to have to do less or find other ways of doing things to compensate for the loss of dollars and of people.

This means some congregations may have to sell or rent out their buildings, share them with others … put them to work in some way to generate the income needed for the upkeep.  Other infrastructure of the larger church, colleges and seminaries and managerial operations (synodical offices and churchwide headquarters), will also have to shrink.  An increasing amount of the declining congregational offerings will need to stay local, to take care of business at home; this leaves less to be sent forward.  Just as physical property at the local level is going to diminish, property held at higher levels will have to be reduced.  Seminaries and colleges may need to combine, maybe with one another … maybe with similar programs in the area … maybe with other colleges and universities that do not have strong connections to a religious organization. Seminaries in particular may have to add other graduate degree programs to attract a wider range of tuition-paying students.  (Another reason for this will be described in a bit …)

We also have to become more realistic about pastors.  It is certainly preferable that congregations provide pastors with salaries commensurate with their levels of education (a master’s degree program on par with law school in terms of academic requirements).  Professionals with similar credentials have starting salaries well above $50K per year and, in many cases, approach or exceed the six-figure mark after five to ten years of experience.  This is not going to happen in most congregations.

So is that why there are now reports of a clergy shortage?  Is it because salaries aren’t high enough to attract candidates?  Perhaps the better question to ask is: Do we really have a clergy shortage?  Some interesting calculations are used to support claims of a clergy shortage.  One is to compare the number of retirees to the number of new graduates from seminaries each year … as if all retiring pastors were retiring from full-time positions that would need to be filled.  The reality is that many pastors ease into retirement, stepping down from full-time positions into part-time roles.  A number of positions come to an end with a pastor’s retirement, eliminating a possible opening for someone else to fill.  Rather than a clergy shortage, we have a clergy surplus; we have more clergy than positions for them to fill.

But claims of a shortage are made to increase seminary enrollment. Seminaries need more tuition-paying students to sustain their current operations.  Claims of a shortage are far more about the financial needs of the seminaries that the needs of the church at large.  Yes – one of the proofs offered for the alleged shortage of pastors is the number of “first call” openings that go unfilled because there aren’t enough new seminary graduates to fill them all.  But how many of these openings are deemed suitable for first call because that is the only level at which the congregation can support a full-time pastor’s salary?  “Because it’s all the congregation can afford” is not a suitable reason to consider any opening to be appropriate for a newly ordained pastor.  Most of these congregations would be better served by experienced pastors who can help them work through the anxieties provoked by the disturbing trends lines that are beyond anyone’s control.

Since we’re facing a future in which many congregations will not be able to pay the salary expected for a professional with a master’s degree and several years of experience, pastors will have to be bi-vocational.  They may draw some salary from the congregations they serve, but they will also need some form of regular employment, separate from the congregation, to provide a significant portion of their income.  This necessity also offers seminaries a path to growth: education for this type of bi-vocational work will also require courses and degree programs beyond the traditional Master of Divinity. Seminaries can find ways to offer these additional opportunities.

It’s not necessarily a negative for congregational life, either.  It could be a benefit.  Instead of being the full-time, “professional” Christian operating out of the church building, the pastor will be more like the people of the congregation, sharing the same struggles to live as a follower of Jesus in the midst of normal daily life.  Pastors would not just talk about this in theory; they would practice it and live it out as role models.

And that might just turn out to be a very good thing … it could lead congregations back into the work of becoming disciples, students of Jesus … followers who help others follow the way of life he taught … which is what we’re really supposed to be doing

AFTER EASTER … AFTER ANSELM …

Because Easter fell rather late this year, the commemoration of the theologian Anselm of Canterbury on April 21st falls within the first week of Easter.  Maybe it’s because these events are so close this year … Maybe it’s because I spent Lent reading Walter Wangerin Jr.’s The Book of Sorrows … Maybe it’s because of yet another Easter with more people in church than on a typical Sunday … I don’t know.  However, it seems to me that, since we have so many people present on Easter Sunday – the day to tell the Church’s best story in the most beautiful ways we can find – and yet those people do not return the following week or any other weeks (aside from maybe Mother’s Day or Christmas Eve), maybe we’re telling it wrong … and Anselm may be a part of it.

Anselm was Bishop of Canterbury in the first century of the second millennium, dying on this date in 1109.  He is most remembered even to this day for his theological writings.  Philosophy students may still read his proofs for the existence of God.  Theology students still read his explanation of what is called the Satisfaction Theory of Atonement.  For the average American Christian, this is likely the most familiar theory of atonement (how human beings are made right with God through the death and resurrection of Christ).  The briefest popular summary of this theory might be “He [meaning Jesus] paid a debt he did not owe because we owed a debt we could not pay.”

It is a rather concise statement of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (or Why the God-Man).  Anselm’s argument works within the feudal system of his time.  The local lord was sovereign and the serfs were beholden to and completely dependent upon their lord. (If you weren’t the former, you were unquestionably the latter.)  In a similar way to that of serfs toward their lord, people owe God the Creator every thought of their minds, every work of their body, and every inclination of their hearts.  Failure to do this incurs a debt to God.  And since people owe God everything they have to begin with, they have nothing extra with which they might make up such a debt.  As a human being, Jesus also owed all to God as any other human being does … and because he lived perfectly, he did not incur any debts of his own.  Furthermore, through his generosity and divine right (being also fully God as well as fully human), he extends this perfection as payment of debts to Christians.

Within the feudal context of Anselm’s time, this makes a great deal of sense.  But when it becomes unmoored from its context, this theory can become distorted and even damaging.  The closest we in America have ever experienced to the feudal system of medieval Europe was the plantation system in the time of slavery.  Do we really want to use that as the basis for an example of how things should work?

Detached from the context in which it arose, Anselm’s theory has been distorted to the point of perversion.  Much has been made of the blood of Jesus being shed to wash away sins … of God’s wrath at human sinfulness being poured out on the innocent Jesus on the cross … as if the only thing God can do with anger is vent on someone.  Feminist theologians aren’t the only one making the point that this comes across as divine child abuse.

Truth be told, the Christian faith has never settled on a single theory of atonement.  There have been several prominent ones in the history of theology, each with some valid points.  But none has ever been hailed as the definitive statement.  Even in Anselm’s own era, there were critics of his theory.  Most notable among them was Peter Abelard who asked, if the problem were one of justice – that a debt owed must be paid, then how is the greatest injustice the world has known – the execution of a truly innocent man as a criminal – a just solution?

Abelard’s own theory was based on love … that Christ’s death and resurrection was an act of great (and even divine) love intended to motivate Christians to be more loving.  Of course, this also begs the question: Then why aren’t we more loving?  Why are we so often unloving and judgmental?

Abelard may not have had the definitive answer either.  But we need a better explanation than the current formula of Anselm run amok.  Any explanation of what Jesus Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection that even hints at divine child abuse is simply not going to work in our modern context – nor should it.  Although this isn’t exactly what Anselm was describing in his theory, it is how the theory has devolved in our modern context.

Easter is the big day in the Church.  Yeah, a lot of people think it’s Christmas.  But as John Irving wrote in A Prayer for Owen Meany: Anyone can be sentimental about the Nativity; any fool can feel like a Christian at Christmas.  But Easter is the main event; if you don’t believe in the resurrection, you’re not a believer.”  Easter is the main event – and people do turn out for it.

Yes, it’s possible they show up for the trappings and the pageantry … the pastels and the hats, the flowers and the joy, the egg hunts and kids in cute clothes.  It’s entirely possible these elements are the draw.  But for whatever reason, people are in the pews and it is the congregation’s biggest chance to really tell the biggest and the best of all stories.  Is that what we’re really doing?  And if we are, just what story are we telling?

Do we tell the devolved American version of Anselm’s satisfaction theory?  If not (and there are plenty of reasons not to!), then what do we tell?  Do we try to keep it as benign and inoffensive as possible so as not to upset anyone there, especially the visitors or occasional attenders?  Just what does resurrection mean for the crucified Jesus – and for us who profess to be followers of this crucified and risen Jesus today?

Like I said earlier, I spent Lent reading The Book of Sorrows by Walter Wangerin, Jr.  It’s a sequel to his best-selling and National Book Award Winning beast fable The Book of the Dun Cow.  However, as the title might suggest, the sequel is more difficult to read than the original.  The second book is more painful and sad; it’s darker in tone and more disturbing.  But perhaps for that very reason, it is also more profound.  Both books are beast fables.  Like those of Aesop or Chaucer (in some of his Canterbury Tales), they are morality tales … what is right and good? … what is wrong and evil?  … how does one know? … how is one to choose? … what ought we do?  These aren’t really parables and certainly not allegories.  But the fantastical setting makes it possible to look at our world and its ways from a different angle, thus seeing things we might have missed before.

Although the evil Wyrm was defeated in his bid for freedom and contained once again at the close of the first book, the second book opens with Wyrm attempting a new strategy to defeat the animals who are his Keepers so he can run loose throughout the cosmos.  Rather than a direct attack as before, he tries something more subtle.  By allowing himself to be killed, he decays into a myriad of tiny worms.  Eventually Wyrm succeeds in luring Chauntecleer, the rooster who leads the community of Keepers, to his rotting corpse.  Chauntecleer is content to remain in the depths and eventually die beside the bones of the beloved companion who defeated Wyrm at the conclusion of the first book.  However, Chauntecleer is moved to leave this abyss by the antics of one of his most loyal followers, a Weasel.  As Chauntecleer pursues the Weasel, he lashes the Stag he is riding with a spur, sending the Stag into a frenzy … and in his frenzy, the Stag tramples an animal mother and one of her babies.

Thus Chauntecleer returns to his community, infected with the little worms who persuade him to refuse the love of his friends and even his wife, persuading him that their words are false … that the only truth in life is that all who are cut then cut back – at least as much, if not more.  The tragedies and broken relationships escalate, until finally the bereaved animal father comes to Chauntecleer.  The Rooster expects this other ,whom he wronged so horrifically, to strike back at him and even attacks this poor father in order to provoke the counter attack.

But none comes.  Instead, the sorrowful father absorbs the Rooster’s blows.  Rather than striking back, he acknowledges the ways he failed his family.  He tells Chauntecleer that he forgives him and offers a message from the Dun Cow (identified in the first book as a messenger from God to help and comfort the animal Keepers).  The message is one of love, of understanding, and forgiveness.  In the face of such unbreakable love, Chauntecleer is finally freed from the influence of the remnants of Wyrm and does what he must to root out the evil from himself, purging it from the community.

Perhaps this points toward the real truth of what the crucifixion and resurrection mean.  Love is stronger than hate and anger.  God does not require the anger to be vented in order to let it go; God can simply let go of the anger.  God can – and does – choose love and rejects anger (understandable and justifiable though such anger might be).  There is no requirement that a debt be paid or wrongs be righted or anger be assuaged somehow.  God simply chooses love in the face of hate, chooses life in the face of death because God can.

Back in seminary, in the second semester of systematic theology, in which we focused on Jesus Christ and the second article of the creed, we often pondered the question “What got Jesus killed?”  There are actually a number of answers, but one of the most provocative is because that’s what sin does – it kills things.  Perhaps literally in some ways, perhaps more figuratively in many others, those acts we might regard as sin, as missing the actual intention, as being not quite what we wanted to do or be in a situation, as falling short of what we (or others) expected us to be and to do … these kinds of things do real damage to others, to relationships, to ourselves.  That’s what sin does; it kills things.  And since Jesus came into the world to deal with the problem of sin, then, sooner or later, sin would kill Jesus.

Of course, where there is some form of killing or damage, there is some form of death (even if not in the most concrete, literal, actual sense).  The resurrection then is the negation of death.  Death is undone.  God’s decree is that life shall be the final word, not death.  Forgiveness is the choice not to repay in kind the wrong done, to allow the possibility of restored relationship.  Anger isn’t undone through venting; anger is undone by love.

This is good news – that life can be different, that we can be different … that death need not have the final word because God has the final word and that final word is life.  By offering love instead of hate or anger, by undoing death itself, Jesus shows a different way of life … and calls any who will to follow and do likewise.

A POEM FOR THE INAUGURATION … Of Sorts

The inauguration of our 45th President last month did not include a poem, which has become something of a custom at these events in recent years … at least for Democrats. Poems have only been read at five of the inaugurations, starting with JFK’s.  That innovation lay dormant for decades until Bill Clinton opted to have a poet read a poem at both of his events.  George W. Bush did not follow suit, but Barack Obama did.  Since Trump’s expressed desire was to exceed anything done before, doing everything that had been done before — including a poem — and then some would have been a decent plan toward that goal.  (And, given that several poet/ storyteller/ bard-types had left us in the days after the election, including a poet with a poem to share might have been a way to blunt such an ill-omen.)  Many poems have been written; surely one would be appropriate to the occasion.

One that strikes me as appropriate for the time is very old; indeed, it is ancient … composed long before anyone had ever conceived of the word president … long before anyone spoke in the English language. It was written in Hebrew, the language of a people govenerned by kings, either their own or oppressive kings of other nations. Psalm 12, a lament, seems suited to the time.

 

Maya Angelou at Bill Clinton’s 1st Inaugural

Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly;

The faithful have disappeared from humankind ….

Throughout the past twelve months, a number of public religious leaders have voiced support for Donald Trump and continue to do so even as his positions, pronouncements tactics, behaviors contradict the teachings and examples of Jesus. These are ministers, preachers, teachers, who presume to speak and preach and teach in the name of Jesus … who are called to be stewards of the mysteries of God … whose work is to guide others in following Jesus. Whether through the expressed support of the likes of Franklin Graham (who has taken up the mantle of his revered father Billy), Jerry Falwell, Jr. (now president of Liberty University, the Christian college his father established) … public Christian figures such as James Dobson (Focus on the Family) and Tim Wildmon (American Family Association). Perhaps the most galling example of a public failure by a Christian leader to keep faith with God was the invocation at the Republican Convention by Mark Burns of South Carolina, who identifies himself as an evangelist, a herald of the good news of Jesus. But there was nothing of that gospel in his words.

Whether these led their followers or their followers pushed them towards it, exit surveys show over 80% of people who identify as evangelical Christians (and are considered white in our raced society) cast their ballots for Donald Trump. His constant dishonesty was no barrier for their support. The self-identified public champions of family values raised no concerns about his multiple marriages, his well-publicized affairs, and the sketchy comments regarding his daughters’ appearance. None of this mattered. It was all shrugged off with a “well, who can know what’s in his heart?”

In their public support of Donald Trump (who himself has demonstrated no faithfulness to and little interest in the ways of God), so many, who want to be considered godly, faithful to God as revealed in Jesus Christ and in the words of scripture, have shown themselves to be faithless.

 

Miller Williams at Clinton’s 2nd Inaugural

They utter lies to each other;

With flattering lips and a double heart they speak…

Oh where to begin on this one? The lies … the deceits … the innuendo … the spurious accusations. During the campaign, Trump branded Hillary Clinton as “Crooked Hillary” when she was far more honest, direct, and up-front than ever he was. After bullying and belittling her and many, many other women, he claimed that no one respects women more than he does. (Saturday Night Live made good use of that nonsensical remark) He insists he’s a highly successful business man, but where’s the proof? He still refuses to release his tax returns, so how can we know? He points to the opulence with which he surrounds himself as evidence of his great wealth. He claims he has little debt. But how do we know? Where is the proof?

As has been observed, he says many things that are not accurate – and keeps insisting that they’re true. When the inaccuracies are called to his attention, he doubles down, continuing to repeat them and insisting they are true and that any evidence or reports to the contrary are fake news.

 

Elizabeth Alexander at Obama’s 1st Inaugural

May the Lord cut off all flattering lips,

 The tongue that makes great boasts.

Those who say, “With our tongues we will prevail;

Our lips are our own – who is our master?”…

It’s not just the tongue that makes great boasts; the fingers on Twitter do as well. Nothing is acceptable to Donald Trump unless he is the best ever, lauded in the most superlative of terms. It was inevitable that the crowd for Trump’s inauguration would be smaller than the gathering in 2009 when Barack Obama was inaugurated for his first term. After all, the crowd for Obama’s second inaugural was smaller than the first. That first one in 2009 was truly historical; it will be a long time before anything like it happens again.

But Mr. Trump always has to have the best for himself, the highest praise, the biggest turnout or ratings or whatever. He used a photo of the crowd from President Obama’s first inaugural and tried to pass it off as the crowd at his own. The switch was obvious, especially to those who had been at the inaugurals. But when challenged about it, Mr. Trump doubled down and kept insisting that his was the biggest crowd ever.

But that was just the beginning. He bragged about himself in his address at the CIA the day after his inauguration. A few days later, in an interview for ABC, he boasted of his reception when he was giving that address. He insists everything is going incredibly well, better than has ever been done before … that his proposed cabinet is being met with nothing but astonishment at its uniform awesomeness (even though a number of nominees have faced appropriately harsh criticism because their qualifications and knowledge base are minimal at best) … the travel ban he ordered a week into his presidency was going very well (despite the obvious problems that were happening – in no small part because those who were charged with enacting it weren’t sure what procedure to follow because none of the impacted agencies had been involved in the drafting and there had been no preparations for its implementation). Mr. Trump refuses to hear anything that contradicts his grandiose assessments of himself and his actions.

 

Richard Blanco at Obama’s 2nd Inaugural

“Because the poor are despoiled because the needy groan,

  “I will now rise up,” says the Lord;

  “I will place them in the safety for which they long.”

The needy are already groaning – the refugees seeking a place of safety, a new home in which to rebuild their lives … those struggling to support themselves and their families with minimum wage jobs, a wage that doesn’t even cover the cost of living for a single adult … the people struggling with mental illness or addictions and need help from programs like Medicaid, help that is now being threatened with cutbacks … the list can go on.

The promise is there that God will rise up and act. This isn’t an insistence that churches ought to take over poverty relief operations.  In 2014, Bread for the World calculated that if religious organizations were to take over the food stamps program, every congregation (of any religious affiliation) would have to increase its annual budget by $40,000 for ten years. In other words, it cannot be done.

No, it’s not the churches nor the civic government. It is the Lord God who is to rise up. That’s good news for those in need but not so much for the rest of us. The more dependent we are on the established order of things, the more upheaval we are likely to face. Chaos and collapse are necessary parts of the drastic change that it is required to bring forth something new. If nothing else, chaos is a guarantee with the current president and his administration.

 

The promises of the Lord are promises that are pure,

 Silver refined in a furnace on the ground,

                                 Purified seven times.

This we are promised – and it is a promise that depends upon God, not us … not our leaders … not our president, whoever he (or she) may be. God keeps promises with or without our help. Our part is simply to live and act as best we are made able in the direction of God’s promises.

 

You, O Lord, will protect us,

You will guard us from this generation forever.

On every side the wicked prowl,

 As vileness is exalted among humankind.

Wicked? Maybe not. Weakness and ignorance are more evident than overt ill-will for the most part. However, this is not to exclude the potential for wickedness on the part of some in positions of influence time will tell on that account.

In some translations of this psalm, vileness is rendered that which is worthless and that we do value on a social and cultural level. Why are enough people paying attention to anything the members of the Kardashian family do that they are featured on covers of magazines every week, mentioned in every news feed? We binge watch all manner of entertainment, invest energy and attention in such meaningless contexts as The Voice or Dancing with the Stars or Celebrity Apprentice. I don’t even want to start on HGTV.

2017 Inaguration

But wickedness and vileness is in the eye of the beholder. What seems wrong and even evil to one may seem good and right in the mind of another. Who is to say which is true and which is not when each claims his own perspective as the correct one?

2009 Inauguration

We can no longer even agree on what the facts of a situation are. Studies in the weeks since the inauguration people who voted for Trump are choosing to disregard established facts of the inauguration crowd photos from 2009 and 2016 to support Trump’s claim that his is the photo with the largest crowd. When wanting something to be true is enough to make it so, what is left for a standard to determine what is real and factual? Garry Trudeau’s “My Facts” call center in Doonesbury seems almost prescient.

And what is worthless if someone values it, whether rightly or even wrongly? Who is any one among us to tell another what she values is, in reality, trash? If the Kardashian tribe or HGTV provides something of value to someone, then maybe it has value after all. If rooting for or voting for one competitor over another in any competition provides some meaning or purpose or focus for someone, then there is some value. Just like with facts, who can say what is truly worthy and what is worthless for anyone else? Do we value even a common center, point of reference enough to seek one?

There are people of faith proclaiming that Donald J. Trump is God’s man for our times, that his election as president was God’s doing, God’s will. As the Persian emperor Cyrus was a pagan leader used for God’s purposes, they explain, so God will use Trump whether he is truly a believer or not. There are people of faith who see his behaviors and actions, his words and policy proposals as contrary to the ways of God. For them, Trump’s will and ways are often in direct opposition to what they discern of God’s will. Christians of sincere faith disagree – and who is to say which side speaks God’s truth, truly understands God’s ways?

The psalmist doesn’t stand apart from the community in this lament. There is no one left … The faithful have disappeared … humankind … everyone … the language exempts no one. Yet there is some us/them language. Us are those trying to seek God’s ways; them are those seeking their own ways apart from God. But even those who are seeking may not have it right.

Perhaps that is the way out of the right or wrong, true or false conundrum: an honest, humble recognition that seeking is all we can do; certainty may ever elude us. We cannot be certain where God is in this or what God is doing. We can only trust that God is present in this somehow and search as best we can for signs of God’s movement. But we do so with the knowledge that we are not God and it is not our place to dictate to God, to demand God do our will. Instead, we are to let go of anything that is not God – including our established ways, our institutions, and even the world as we have known it, built it, wanted it to be.  Rather than twist Jesus and his teachings to match our desired ends, the call to follow Jesus means fitting our lives, our words, our wills to the example that he has set for us as best we are able.  Lent is upon us.  It’s time to walk the hard wilderness road, following where Jesus leads.

Turn us again, O God… May your justice shine like the sun and the poor be lifted up.

(from the Lenten dialog for Evening Prayer)