Saturday, July 4, 2015

Two Church Articles for a Patriotic Weekend

Frederic Edwin Church, "Our Banner in the Sky," 1861
A Facebook friend shared this essay from the Patheos site, "God and Country: Idolatry in the Hymnal" by Jonathan Aigner. The author comments about the "nationalistic fervor" reflected in some of our beloved hymns like "America the Beautiful" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." He knows some pastors who had successfully limited this fervor to "a few songs," but he argues that "is still too much. It is worth making some people mad….We can appreciate the good things about our country, but we don’t worship it. When we enter our sacred space, we do so as citizens of a different kingdom that bow at a different throne."

On another Facebook stream was a different perspective, found on the UMC Holiness site, "On not guilting 'Mericans for loving 'Merica" by Chad Holtz.  Holtz writes that, when he tried to take a strong stand concerning worship and July 4th, he ended up being a stumbling block to others and taking a stance from a privileged position. He realized, "None of the people I worshiped with on Sunday were actually worshiping America. Rather, they were simply grateful for it. None of them were actually worshiping the flag. Rather, they were showing respect for it." So for him, "Pride in America … has opened many avenues for me to talk with everyone else in the world who hasn’t read Yoder or Hauerwas (turns out that’s most of the world), making me 'one of them so that I might win some.' "

I thought that these two articles were well worth reading and praying about; together they give a good summary of the tricky issue of patriotism in worship. I wonder if a pastor's approach to this issue is as much a matter of temperament and leadership style, as well as a congregation's "personality" and health, as it is a theological challenge.

"Just Landed in Hanoi"

It has been a nice week, but it's been lonely because my wife Beth, who is the Webster University president, has been on a business trip to Southeast Asia, visiting the Bangkok campus and meeting with education officials in Vietnam. She doesn't mind these long flights and overseas trips; they would wear me down.

This July 4th weekend will feature the farewell concerts of the Grateful Dead, in Chicago. Jerry Garcia's last concert was in Chicago, prior to his 1995 death, and thus the "core four" surviving members will play the band's last three shows there. Drummer Bill Kreutzmann was just nineteen when the band began, fifty years ago.

When I was a younger teenager, I loved browsing the LPs at the old Sav-Mart store in Collinsville, IL, during Saturday shopping trips with my parents. I remember looking at the Dead's 1971 "skull and roses" album and wondering if I should buy it. I didn't, but in hindsight I would've greatly enjoyed their music, which I never really listened to until I got satellite radio in my car and found the Grateful Dead station, to which I turn fairly often.

Beth texted me early this past week that she had "just landed in Hanoi." That place name created some cognitive dissonance for me, an old fearfulness. I was too young for the draft but did grow up during that era, when the war and its daily casualties were daily features on the evening news.

Of course, bands like the Dead thrived during the peace-and-love movement associated with the war. Who would have thought about the band's remarkable longevity?
The war has been over for many years. Beth (and some people we know) tell me that the country is a beautiful and interesting place. One of these days I'll try to accompany her on such an Asian journey, and think about history's strange paths.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Finding Barth's Grave

My wife Beth, who is president of Webster University, had a business trip last month to Webster's Vienna and Geneva campuses. Usually teaching when she goes overseas, I was free in June to come along on her trip, which was a wonderful experience. I had been to Vienna but not yet to Switzerland. After we finished her business in Geneva and did some sight-seeing, including a visit to John Calvin's church, we took the train up to Basel and spent a few days in that delightful city.

My home office, with the black
Dogmatics on a middle shelf. 
I became interested in Karl Barth's theology while a Greenville College freshman, inspired by William Hordern's book Laymen's Guide to Protestant Theology that my professor had assigned. My dad paid for, and our pastor ordered for me, the whole set of the Church Dogmatics before I set off for Yale Divinity School. I liked to read the heavy volumes as I hoped to learn as much theology as I could. Eventually, my doctoral dissertation at University of Virginia was entitled "The Social Ontology of Karl Barth," which I wrote while we lived in Flagstaff, AZ. Among the Dogmatics volumes, I focused upon Barth's christological anthropology in III/2. A copy of the huge, white German volume helped me deepen the journey through the smaller, black English text. (I remembered the anecdote of a YDS professor, Robert Clyde Johnson, who at the time was recovering from a heart attack and said he'd been advised not to pick up a volume of the Dogmatics with one hand, so he wouldn't strain his heart…)

My teaching and writing careers took other directions than the Barthian theologian I considered becoming. While in Flagstaff, I accepted a part-time teaching position in world religions, a subject that has been an integral part of my career. But at the same time, Barth's famous saying about reading the Bible with an eye on contemporary issues (a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other) became a guiding principle in all my curriculum writing. I still like to take down those black volumes, follow Barth's arguments, and think about the content of those small-print sections. I hope someday to write another book that delves into the Dogmatics.

Visiting Barth's hometown of Basel had never been on my bucket list, but this trip provided a nice opportunity, especially since Basel turned out to be such a great place. But where was Barth buried? How does one find his grave? Luckily, I found this website which provided excellent directions for finding the family grave. I also checked Eberhard Busch's biography, a book I've had since div school days.

Just as that website indicates, the way there is the # 31 bus from Schifflände station in the city center. (Beth had found us a wonderful hotel, the Schweizerhof, opposite the train and bus connections.) The 31 bus takes you to the gate of the cemetery, the Friedhof am Hörnli. Beth and I walked and walked back to Section 8; the day was in the 80s, but at least some areas were shady. The interesting grave stones around the Friedhof, so different from American styles of stones, kept us fascinated as we progressed to the grave.

Barth is buried with his wife Nelly, some of their children, and Barth's assistant and confidante Charlotte von Kirschbaum. I tried not to be too emotional, but I felt deeply the honor of visiting the resting place of a such an influential thinker---and who, in my own life, inspired so much of my religious and vocational life.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

"Harper's" Article on the ACA

While no expert at all, I've been interested in the development of the Affordable Care Act, since began to move through Congress in 2009. I devoted a few posts on this site to the topic, and we've discussed it in my college classes on contemporary moral issues. I believe that health care is a fundamental right, and that the Bible is concerned with physical as well as spiritual well-being. But is this act the way to go? How do we help provide proper and affordable health care in our contemporary time, when steep medical costs can make care out of reach for many? Does the act hurt small businesses, while attempting to provide justice for others?

A recent piece in Forbes discusses ways that the ACA can be improved: "The Supreme Court’s June 25 decision in King v. Burwell preserves federal health care subsidies under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) for Americans who reside in states that have opted not to create their own health insurance exchanges. In so doing, it removes an immediate uncertainty for those who would have been left without coverage if the federal exchanges had been declared unconstitutional. But it leaves untouched a more basic problem. The ACA’s reliance on mandatory participation in exchanges as the only way to obtain a health insurance subsidy is fundamentally flawed…"

That author suggests solutions: "The most important is to replace the ACA’s income-conditioned premium subsidies with a 'fixed dollar' refundable tax credit. This would be available to all Americans, with no income-based limitation. With the credit available to all, there would be no need for the unnecessary individual and employer mandates." Individuals could shop for coverage, and employers could enjoy more flexibility, including small businesses.

The current issue of Harper's Magazine (July 2015) includes an article by Trudy Lieberman, "Wrong prescription? The failed promise of the Affordable Care Act" (pages 29-38). I plan to read the article more closely this coming week. Lieberman regrets that the act is still poorly understood by Americans, has been ineffectively criticized by conservatives via misinformation, and has been barely criticized by liberals (p. 29). She makes numerous interesting points worth thinking about; she laments that the ACA has not at all fixed "our high-priced, unequal, and insanely inefficient system" but rather has "reinforced and accelerated many of the system's most toxic features" (p. 38). If the Supreme court rules favorably on the law (which it has, since the article's publication), it will be necessary to fix problems not only in the law but problems in our health care system prior to the law's passage.

Interfaith Days: Asalha Puja

Today is Asalha Puja, a Theravada Buddhist festival, also called Dharma Day. It celebrates the Buddha's first sermon in which he set forth his basic teachings, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The sermon, given to five of his disciples, is thus the basis of all of the Buddha's teaching. This site provides some aspects of the holiday. As this site indicates, "Across Thailand and other communities of Theravada Buddhists, Asalha Puja is an occasion for donations, making offerings to temples and witnessing sermons. The day following Asalha Puja begins, in many Theravada communities, the three-month “rains retreat.” While the rainy season renews life in the natural world, monasteries host monks and nuns indoors—so that the new life may not be disturbed. In centuries past, wandering monks halted their travels during the rainy season."

(From the 2015 Interfaith Calendar of the Diversity Awareness Partnership of St. Louis---see for more information---and various online sources.)

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Physician-Assisted Suicide

Logging on to my yahoo mail this morning, I noticed a news story about a woman who has filed a lawsuit to allow physicians to prescribe for her (without legal repercussions for them) life-ending medication. She has Stage IV cancer, has only months to live, and any manner of her death looks bleak.

I had just purchased the new issue of The Economist (July 27-July 3, 2015), with the cover story, "The right to die. Why assisted suicide should be legal." The summary article (p. 9) and the story (pp. 16-20) looks that the difficult issue from a helpfully international perspective. A few European counties, five American states, and Colombia allow for some kind of physician-assisted dying (p. 9). Oregon's law and also Colombia's took effect in 1997, with Belgium and the Netherlands following, while Switzerland has permitted the practice for quite a while, with clinics assisting patients to die, including one that accepts patients from other countries (p. 17). Meanwhile, there are legal cases and bills in Britain, Germany, South Africa, Canada, and several American states (p. 16). So the "time has come" for the idea of assisted suicides as attitudes change and legal and legislative efforts make progress.

Yet the Hippocratic Oath, which disallows administration of poison, is a strong aspect of the medical tradition (p. 20), as is the notion that ending your own life is a kind of sin. There is also the factor of possible improvement, like the article's story of a paralyzed Canadian man whose health improved. but that man has also pushed for a bill in Parliament to allow doctors to help patients die (pp. 18-19). It is a significant issue, which  my students in "Contemporary Moral Problems" have discussed; if there is " 'unbearable suffering with no prospect of improvement '" (p. 19), should that patient have such an option. According to this Economist article, attitudes are becoming more open to allow horribly ill people to have that choice available. Personally I am still against it, but I feel compassion for the California woman in the above news story. What do you think?

Here is the article:

Monday, June 29, 2015

A Rose Emily for Emily

My wife Beth remarked that the daylily in our backyard is doing very well. It has a history. Maybe ten
years ago, a colleague in Akron loved flowers and gave us this type of daylily called Rose Emily, because our daughter is named Emily. We kept it at our Akron home, then we moved it in our car when we came to St. Louis in 2009. Later, we moved from our first St. Louis house to our present one, and the plant came along. We also moved a rose from Akron, but it died, while the daylily is still doing well.

The plant's name reminds me of the time Emily came home from middle school and said, "We read this creepy story in class today, about this old lady who poisoned her lover, and she had my name…." Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily," of course.

Earlier in our family adventures, we moved another, special plant. Emily's very first summer camp was at the historic Farmington home in Louisville, KY, and she brought home a mint plant. We planted it in our yard, and then when we moved to Akron a few years later, we brought the mint along. Our Akron home was on a lake, and we planted the mint in the fertile soil near the lake. Unfortunately it didn't survive when the lake overflowed its banks after a heavy rain, but the mint was a nice reminder of her first summer camp for nearly fourteen years. I loved to rub its leaves and smell that distinctive aroma on my fingertips.