Thursday, August 30, 2012

Political Fact Checking

Interesting article that checks the facts of Paul Ryan's speech at the Republican National Convention.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

God's WIll and Our Creative Desires

An outtake from a writing project.... I’ve a favorite book by Robert Corin Morris, Wrestling with Grace: A Spirituality for the Rough Edges of Daily Life (Upper Room Books, 2003). Morris writes, “Many years ago I faced a vague but persistent unhappiness in parish ministry. Why was I so recurrently dissatisfied with a job that was, in so many ways, rewarding? Did this restlessness mean I should leave the ministry? What did I really want?” (p. 204). He went through a process of talking to people and clarifying his skills. Finally he prayed to God, “What do you want me to do?” and he felt the answer in his mind, “What do you want to do?” His answer to himself was that he’d like to teach, and this lead him to establishing an interreligious learning center, and he has focused his ministry in teaching ever since (p. 205).

Morris writes, “Conventional teaching leads us to believe that ‘thy will be done’ means our desire won’t be honored. Sometimes that is the case, especially when our will is still captive to the more superficial cravings and fears of our nature. But it is God’s pleasure to delight in our desires for the good. Major decisions in the early church were taken because it ‘seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ (Acts 15:28, italics added). ‘Thy will be done,’ quite precisely, includes learning to honor our deepest and most creative desires and finding joy in offering them to be part of God’s work in the world” (p. 205).

I wonder if many of us hesitate to seek God’s will, because we think it will be unpleasant and difficult, necessarily contrary to our desires and preferences. We can take a cue from Psalm 37:4 and remember that God is loving and "delightful"--not a “meanie” who shames or forces us to seek his will:

Take delight in the LORD,
and he will give you the desires of your heart. 

Welcome Home, Saki

We moved to a new house a few months ago. Although we’ve unpacked and organized most of our belongings, we are down to the kinds of possessions that now require sorting and judgment. Which of these clothes can be given to charity? Does my daughter want her notebooks from high school and college? What about some of her other things? How about some of my wife’s and my keepsakes that have been in boxes for the past few years: shouldn’t they go? Consequently, our finished basement is still a mess, because we’re trying to accomplish a more definitive sorting, but it’s a slow process that can feel demoralizing.

But that’s just mise-en-scène, as my theatre-tech daughter might say. I’m sitting downstairs among this clutter, keeping our new cat company.

In my September 30, 2010 post, I talked about our kitty Taz, a female tortoise shell whom we got from a shelter a few days after our previous kitty Oddball passed away. Now that we’ve had Taz for two years, we knew it would be a little challenge to introduce a second cat into the family.

When we brought home a new cat, Domino, in 2001, we didn’t do it slowly enough, and Oddball went postal. She did become adjusted to the interloper, allowing him to sleep on the same sofa and the like. Sadly, Domino passed away in 2005, and horribly that same summer, Oddball developed a cancerous tumor that required the removal of a hind leg. But she healed and thrived, getting along on three legs until she passed away of kidney failure in 2010 (my June 15, 2010 post).

My daughter wanted a second cat, so she could bond with the cat more closely than she could when we got Taz, because she was still in college. Now she’s home to work for a year, and the time seemed right to find a new kitty.

She found him online. He had been a stray; the shelter people named him S’more. My daughter decided to name him Saki because of his Asian heritage, since he’s part Siamese (and part tabby).

We’ve kept him isolated in our full, finished basement until we could slowly introduce him to Taz. She knew he was here, and occasionally hissed at the basement door. Last night, we let them see each other for the first time, through the clear plastic (and lockable) pet door on the basement door. Taz’s ears went back and she hissed and fussed, but then walked away----not a bad first attempt at all. She didn't get medieval on everyone's a**, as Oddball had done when we introduced Domino too quickly.

This morning, I went downstairs to visit with him for a while. We take turns being with him and sit among the clutter, playing with him and watching TV.  I discovered that he had scratched a lot of litter from his box and onto the floor. I sighed and looked for a broom. A new pet isn’t as drastically life-changing as a baby. (My daughter’s birthday is coming up!) But they do introduce additional responsibilities into your day.

If you’re a “pet person,” though, your very well being depends upon a little four-legged critter who is your special friend, a refuge and companion amid your tasks and challenges. A new pet is the beginning of a new period of your life, and the anticipation of many family stories and adventures.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Morality Tales and Emotional Responses to Policy

Interesting article about the "cruelty" of Paul Ryan's budget, along with reflection about how we process public policy in emotional ways, and in terms of "morality tales" that conflict.  I've written elsewhere on my blog here, about Robert Reich's differentiation of "morality tales" and ethicist Eric Mount's hope that we embrace "better stories" and a more inclusive vision of the common good. What's your take on these topics?

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The National Discourse on Terrorism

Interesting article, linked below. "'Currently, there are 1,018 known hate groups across the country, including neo-Nazis, Klansmen, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, black separatists, border vigilantes and others. And their numbers are growing.' The ... data shows that hate groups have increased by 69 percent in the last decade. And the so-called 'Patriot' groups have increased nearly 8000 percent since Obama became president... If the news media and political leaders were told there were a thousand violence-prone Muslim groups operating int he United States, can you imagine the reaction? Yet, apart from the glancing attention given incidents like the Sikh temple massacre, the national discourse about terrorism focuses almost exclusively on Muslims."

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Anne LaBastille's Books

My post about Anne LaBastille has been my most-viewed piece on my little blog here, which I appreciate very much!  ( I thought I’d write a little more about Dr. Anne, especially her books.

My first edition
As I wrote at my earlier post, I was one fan of hers among many, and I never met her. I sent her an appreciative letter in 1996, she wrote back, and I enjoyed a sporadic “pen pal” correspondence with her for about ten years. I wrote her things in my life, and she wrote short letters and postcards with goings-on in hers.

I’m a college teacher in the liberal arts, not a conservationist (though I conscientiously recycle and do not vote for candidates who deny climate change). Nor am I someone who craves a lot of outdoor time---her self-described raison d'être! I told her I didn’t even know what a grebe was until I read her books, and that her books definitely broadened my horizon and inspired me. But we were only children/ freelance writers with PhDs/ barefoot-goers/ persons who grew up without living grandfathers. These things provided common ground.

She knew I tried to spread the word about her books to local bookshops, and I helped her on at least one occasion that required online work; as all her fans know, she hated computers. I sent her funny birthday cards each November. She was touched when I turned my dad on to her books, during the year or two before he died, and that Dad and I watched together the Mountain Lake PBS show about her (on VHS) that she recommended. I had a difficult year in the mid 00s and didn’t write her (or anybody) for several months, and sadly, for whatever reason, she didn’t write back when I tried to restart our correspondence.

Following a recent move, I unpacked my library and made sure all her books were together. In fact, I believe I have ALL her books and am grateful that she autographed several. (I asked her permission to send them to her and included a SASE for her to use.) Her older books are well worth seeking in bookstores and online sellers and libraries. I thought it would be fun to go through them all, in case her fans would like to find some of the scarcer texts.  

The first book of hers I purchased was “The Wilderness World of Anne LaBastille” (West of the Wind, 1992). I forget what it cost, but now it’s a fairly expensive collector’s item. (However, when I checked online, I realized other of her books have risen in price since she died. ) "Wilderness World" has interesting essays, her photography, and even some of her poetry.

I have her four children’s books, all published by the National Wildlife Federation for the “Ranger Rick’s Best Friends” series: “White-tailed Deer” (1973), “Wild Bobcats” (1973), “The Opossums” (1974), and “The Seal Family” (1974).

Several of her books resulted from her long-time Central American work. Here are three related books:

“Birds of the Mayas” (West of the Wind Publications, 1964), written and illustrated by Anne LaBastille Bowes, folklore as told by Ramon Castillo Perez
“Bird Kingdom of the Mayas” (Van Nostrand, 1967), by Anne LaBastille Bowes and illustrated by Anita Benarde.
“Birds of the Mayas: Field Guide to Birds of the Maya World” (West of the Wind, 1993), written and illustrated by Anne LaBastille.

The 1967 book is the folk tales from the first part of the 1964 book (which, like “Woodswoman,” is dedicated to her husband). Both the 1964 and 1993 have nearly identical covers, and although Mr. Castillo’s name isn’t on the cover of the 1993, he received a long grateful acknowledgement inside the book.  The 1993 has more current information about Central American birds, the quetzal, and the Lake Atitlán giant grebe.

Speaking of the lake and the rare Podilymbus gigas, she wrote two books about that bird:

“Ecology and Management of the Atitlán Grebe, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala” (The Wildlife Society, August 1974, monograph no. 37).
“Mama Poc: An Ecologist’s Account of the Extinction of a Species” (W.W. Norton, New York. 1990).

The first is a 66-page scientific monograph about the lake and the giant grebe, including conservation efforts up to that date. Some of the people who appear in “Mama Poc” are mentioned in the text and the detailed acknowledgments. Of course, “Mama Poc” is the 25-year account of her and others’ efforts to preserve the Lake Atitlan giant grebes, and as such is a detailed, tragic chronicle of extinction.

What a story is “Mama Poc!” We have only conjectures about the extinction of many species, and information from different authors about other species’ decline, like the passenger pigeon. But here is one’s person’s sustained and disciplined observation of the species’ last years, though obviously she would’ve preferred to have written a different ending.

Another related pair of books (which you can connect with the previous books as representative of her conservation efforts) are:

“Assignment: Wildlife” (Dutton, 1980).
“Jaguar Totem” (West of the Wind Publications, 1999).

The 1980 book was the original sequel to “Woodswoman,” before “Beyond Black Bear Lake.” With the dust jacket depicting her high on a rock formation and chest-deep in Atitlán reeds, the book chronicles her many conservation and environmental activities during the years covered by “Woodswoman.” Some of the stories are elaborated in “Mama Poc.” In “Woodswoman III,” she writes how disappointed she was that “Assignment: Wildlife” fell out of print and was remaindered fairly quickly. I purchased my copy from her. I’ve seen copies on online book sites, but “Jaguar Totem” reprints most of the stories of “Assignment: Wildlife,” updates the stories, and provides information and statistics current to that time. Some of that information is depressing, others hopeful.

So much of her work, especially the “Woodswoman” series, aimed in part in inspiring and empowering other women. “Women and Wilderness” (Sierra Club Books, 1984) is her groundbreaking series of profiles of 15 women who work in conservation and ecology, including Margaret Murie,  Carol Ruckdeschal, Nicole Duplaix, Eugenie Clark, and the others. The book shows interesting intersections of environmentalism and feminism.    

A collector of her books might enjoy collecting some of her articles, too, like her 1964 "Reader's Digest" tribute to her mom (with the byline "Anne L. Bowes"). I've her four National Geographic pieces, including the one with a photo of her, in full Daisy Mae mode, snoozing in her canoe, with Pitzi on the lookout.

I've saved for last the four Woodswoman books from 1976, 1987, 1997, and 2003. (Later editions of “Beyond Black Bear Lake” carried the additional title “Woodswoman II.”) I thought the first two formed a nicely matched pair, with “Beyond Black Bear Lake” providing a heart-warming conclusion. The second two books carry the story of her work (and her dogs and cat) through the subsequent years. I found “Woodsman III” rather downbeat in places, but I never would’ve told her that. It shows the high stakes involved in the preservation of Adirondack Park and the tremendous difficulties she faced in being uncompromising about preservation issues. After her chronicles of a Thoreau-like quest for solitude and self-sufficiency in I and II, III and IIII bring you to the hard reality; age and environmental changes required her to spend more time at her farm. One speculates how she would have addressed changes in the publishing industry (after her descriptions of “book peddling” in III and IIII), considering how so many publishers have moved toward a significant electronic component.

As I look through the short letters and postcards she sent me (now tucked inside the books), I remember fondly being pen pals with her. As I say, I was simply one fan of hers among many, but I’m honored that she told me briefly about things that eventually became part of her books: the break-in at the end of “Woodswoman III,” Chekika’s struggles with arthritis and illness, the newly-arrived Xandor, and her ill-fated experiences as a visiting prof at a southern university, recounted in “Woodswoman IIII”. It’s lovely that she took the time to dash off notes to her fans!  

You get a wonderful variety of subjects from her books. I hope someone writes a biography of her someday, but you get plenty of amazing stories among her books. You're inspired by the fullness of her life.

For instance, her Central American ecological work is so interesting, and you marvel at her leadership, influence, and activities in another country while pursuing a domestic career. You can appreciate her writings about varieties of Central American birds. She did a lot of other conservation work, too, and you can read about those activities as well.

But amid her public work, she was also a solitary, creative person, and her accounts of seeking solitude and privacy (and dealing with loneliness) form a very different kind of story.

I also enjoy the stories of her several German shepherds and other animal companions, and you can follow those stories across several books.

Plus, she was active in book publishing and marketing. And she was a teacher, and a park guide----those stories across her books are interesting. Plus she was an advocate for women, in her writing, teaching, and guiding. And, if you want, you also can follow what she tells us of her personal search for fulfilling human companionship, and the stories of her close friends like Rodney.

Still another thing you can take from her work is a gentle spirituality of the earth, a sense of wonder. And you also get warnings about ecological problems like global warming, which have been coming to more public awareness lately.

If you’re a person who struggles with having solitary, creative time alongside some type of public leadership, you know that there is a psychological struggle which is sometimes terrible. I watched a documentary on Leonard Bernstein, which included the insight that he always stripped his emotional gears moving between his very extroverted conducting work and his introverted work composing music. At first I thought Dr. Anne’s testiness at intrusive people (like the stories that open “Beyond Black Bear Lake”) seemed ungrateful, but then I thought about how important it is to stay “in the zone” when you’re trying to create something. Having someone interrupt your process is troubling. And, of course, who wants people arriving unannounced to meet you, especially if you suspect that the person wants to meet an attractive woman?

You get flashes of self-centeredness and eccentricity in her writings but I thought she was laudably generous in her praise and credit-giving to the people who worked with her and helped her over the years. People who don't give coworkers and friends proper credit are kind of despicable, in my opinion, but Dr. Anne seemed warm and inclusive, and she names many people in her books' acknowledgements and dedications.

(That she wouldn't begrudge correspondence with someone like me---such a neglectful and rudimentary conservationist compared to her---shows a caring spirit that some of us lose, the more deeply we become involved in favorite causes and fields of interest. I can't even get some of my colleagues to return phone calls and emails, let alone maintain handwritten correspondence!)

You get a lot of encouragement and inspiration in her writings. Here, too, she had a heart for including and helping people. When I purchased “Wilderness World,” my first impression was that she's a very invitational writer. You didn’t get the outrage of Thoreau, who couldn’t believe someone wouldn’t make time to walk 20 miles a day! Dr. Anne helped you see what contributions you could make: you didn’t have to fly to Guatemala or build a cabin in the woods to do your part. Amid the difficulties and limitations of your life (whatever they might be), you can still make a difference. She provided a gentle prod to people whose self-esteem might be too low to realize their own potential and influence. Apparently she had the “Woodswoman” persona down pat, but I feel like her books were aimed at being a teaching and empowering tool for readers, motivated by a loving heart.

With regard to my own freelance writing, I’ve been stepping out of my own comfort zone lately, and rediscovering Dr. Anne’s books have given me a fresh injection of inspiration, as they did when I was first starting out. I almost never feel like the spirit of someone is guiding me---a lovely feeling that some friends of mine experience.  But this may be an occasion where I do feel led and assured.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

"Who Will Be America's Next Leader?"

Thought provoking piece by Walter Brueggmann, who's hard to beat as a biblical scholar. "This [God-given] wisdom [of rulership] is not successful management or clever rulings or flourishing economy or technological mastery. It is rather attentiveness to the socially, economically vulnerable as the prerequisite for effective governance and power."

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Keeping the Sabbath

Good blog article about keeping the Sabbath.  When you're a pastor and other church staff member, it can be difficult to have a proper Sabbath.  Pastors who want their flock to volunteer and serve more may unintentionally put demands on people's Sabbaths.  And if you're like me and enjoy the work you do, you're tempted to carry on that work over the whole weekend!  This writer speaks to the need for Sabbath---which, after all, is a divine command, and a precious thing that my Jewish colleagues affirm as a "sanctuary in time" (Heschel's term).—-far-too-little-sabbath-sabbath

Sunday, August 12, 2012

My Informal Survey of the Whole Bible

Ever wondered how the Bible's sections fit together? Ever wished you understood some of the "sweep" and interconnections of the whole Bible?  What luck!  :-)  I've copied a survey, which I did a couple years ago during a midlife time of renewed Bible reading, onto my reworked and brightened-up "Changing Bibles" blog: the August 2012 posts.

A Trailing Spouse on the Trail

For most of my professional life, I’ve been a trailing spouse, that is, a person whose spouse has the primary job and who moves when that primary job changes.

I’ve always refrained from writing about it, and mostly will continue to do so here. Either I sound like I’m patting myself on the back for this and that, or I feel sad about things that were painful. Some folks have looked at my resume and called my career "distinguished", which startled me and, of course, pleased me very much.

Looking online for a funny picture to post here, I found this one attached to what turned out to be an excellent article on trailing spouses in ministry and missionary work. The author sensitively discusses the issues and provides advice, with good examples.  I recommend the article in its descriptions of feelings about being a trailing spouse (in this case, religious work) and some ideas for friendship, support, and contentment.

As I wrote some earlier drafts of these reflections, I honestly thought that---for me----only a couple of my experiences are truly peculiar to being trailing spouse.  Others are more or less universal in working life. I’ve had to leave jobs because of Beth’s desire to relocate---but many of us relocate without necessarily wanting to.  (God bless our military folks and their families, for instance!)  Certain opportunities had unexpected challenges and difficult, hard to please people---but that can be true, as well, of a job you dreamed about and moved to a new town for! And although I don't like some of the more "trivial" tasks (that the above author discusses), they do give me mental and artistic "space" for some of the work I do which involves creativity.

Spouse trailing in red car... 
One thing that is special to “trailing,” is when one’s opportunities do not develop as quickly in a new location than you want. The relocation, after all, hasn’t been for your job!  You might have to keep your job search ongoing.  (And yet, this aspect of "trailing" is basically a kind of unemployment, which many people sadly experience.  If you're trailing, hopefully your spouse’s income can pay the bills. But it may not, or you might have to stretch your finances to make ends meet.) I jokingly tell people I was a “Kelly girl” for a while, but it was no joke: my work, in the location to which we had just moved for Beth's career, wasn’t working out as planned. Our move was costly, my career was still new, and I needed to keep working and making money. People’s careless comments made me feel ashamed, but the key thing was to fill my time with honest work until I figured out what God was up to.

Another thing has made me particularly downcast sometimes. I regret the fact that although my parents are very proud of my wife and proud of me, their pride in me had a "cut off" point (an parental expectation I didn't fulfill) because I was never the “bread winner.” My dad wondered what my salary was, and I didn’t tell him because it was none of his business, but also because he would’ve disapproved.

I’ve had to accept all this with regret and try to "move on" quickly if I become blue. I don't know if other, particularly baby-boomer men have similar feelings. My folks never understood that the working world is different from theirs; not only are more women in the work force, but the whole middle class no longer thrives as it did during their generation. Plus, with regard to the teaching part of my career, a great, predicted opening of the teaching market, on account of a generation of professors retiring, did not happen. Our dreams would be so great if the world just cooperated, LOL.

Again, I think I'll leave a lot of things private, even the very good things, because we all have different experiences and I don't want to imply that mine are normative. As I write all this, I realize that part of my experience has been, when I'm discouraged, to acknowledge my feelings but to put the things in perspective with everything else in my life.  If I have my life is a good balance, things go well and there's joy. One’s work is always interconnected with one’s family life, one’s health, one’s relationship with God, and other things.

One thing I've really appreciated as a a trailing spouse has been the “Covenant Prayer” from John Wesley’s 1780 Covenant Service.  Really, it's a good prayer for anyone's working life---for any aspect of life, for that matter.

"I am no longer my own, but thine.

Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.

Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee.

Let me be full, let me be empty.

Let me have all things, let me have nothing.

I freely and heartily yield all things 
to thy pleasure and disposal.

And now, O glorious and blessed God,

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.

And the covenant which I have made on earth,

let it be ratified in heaven. Amen."

I’ve known some pastors who love that prayer and yet cling haughtily to the very Puritan idea that if you’re not successful you’re doing something wrong---not in God’s will. That Puritan idea, of course, is found in many areas of society.

And yet our lives do have “seasons” of success and failure, happiness and discouragement, productivity and idleness, missed opportunities and surprising blessings.  Wesley’s prayer deeply links the seasons of life that we all experience---whether we’re “trailers” or not----with the movements of God’s care.

Keep believing in spite of
Not only as a trailing spouse but in the whole of my life, my best Christian witness is that God has never failed me over the long haul. I don’t like to talk about the Christian life in ways like: “Give your heart to Jesus and you’ll have peace,” etc. (So if you’re upset, then you don’t have Jesus???)  Specific events are difficult, things do or don’t work out; tragedies and crises happen, some of which are life-changing. Many times we have no idea is God is present or even cares. That’s very much the outlook of some of the psalms, too!  But I do like to tell folks that the Christian life is a way to have a framework, so to speak, for one’s whole life: a framework of belonging to God and being cared for and led.

But God’s care and guidance don’t just affect us as individuals. It’s easy to start thinking about “God’s will for my life” in a very individualistic, self-centered way. God’s will for our lives encompasses God’s will for our family members and friends, and God’s will for them encompasses us, too. If you’re trailing, God may want to employ your spouse and let you be “laid aside” for a short time. Your "trail" becomes a journey of faith, but you're not alone thereon.

God’s care for us becomes clearer over the long haul, as we look back and see grace.

Martha's Mad and Mary's Chillin'

Here's an "outtake" from a project. Twenty years ago, I taught a Sunday school class of retired adults.  We read together the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), and as often happens, there was an immediate identification with Martha.  Even for those retired adults whose employment years were past, life did not seem in balance.  They volunteered for things, they traveled, they were active in church, one of them cared for a husband in declining health, they had responsibilities with grandchildren, and so on.  Jesus’ seeming preference of the inactivity of Mary over the conscientiousness of Martha seemed insulting to my class members!

It’s true that this passage is challenging.  In the story, Jesus stays at the home of close friends. (Notice that Martha feels sufficiently comfortable with Jesus to scold him!) Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him, but Martha is concerned about preparing a meal for their guest and resents that Mary has left all the work to her.

We’re liable to stop at our identification with Martha and leave the matter there, the same way we often do with other difficult passages like turning the other cheek, and so on. But there is a lot to learn from these sisters.

One thing we should notice is Martha’s feelings. In modern psychology we might say Martha was “projecting” her anxiety on Jesus. She felt pressured and impatient by the meal and assumed Jesus was also impatient, which he wasn’t.

I do this all the time, and other folks do, too. People in position of authority who are insecure this way can make you miserable. When any of us feel this way, we imagine that a situation is more dire and urgent than it is, because we feel so pressured and insecure in our hearts. Unfortunately, we spread our unhappiness by inflicting it on others.

In those days, students often sat at the feet of the teacher. But as in many cultures, students weren’t usually women.  So Mary may have seemed lazy to Martha, but she might have also seemed to be audacious and inconsiderate. Thus Jesus assured that Mary’s choice of being a student “will not be taken away from her.”

Martha also had a heart full of worry.  In another passage, Matthew 13:22, Jesus points out that many people hear his teachings but “the cares of the world” “choke” those teachings like seeds which cannot grow, and so those people don’t experience the deeper understanding of his teachings, nor the help of his living presence.  Here in Luke’s gospel, Jesus calls his teachings “the better part,” which Mary has chosen.  In other words, she has set aside her cares (and, we might say, she didn't allow her cares to define her and rule her life) in order to learn from Jesus’ presence and teaching.

This is a good lesson for us, too.  Sometimes we’re indeed very busy, and sometimes things in our lives are out of control. Sometimes we’re so worried we think everything is falling apart and no one cares.  We may start to think Jesus himself doesn’t care very much!

Seeking Jesus’s teachings but also his very presence can help us examine our responsibilities, feelings, and priorities. A few Sundays ago, our pastor preached a sermon on a different text (John 21:1-14) but his point was applicable for this passage, too.  Jesus doesn’t call us to stop working altogether, but Jesus does call us to be able to recognize him in the different aspects of our lives, and to listen for his guidance as we go about our work and business.  

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Landscapes of the Heart

First, let me give full credit to the photographer of these pictures. They were taken by Mr. John Kohlberg, who sells on eBay some of his railroad photographs from many midwestern communities. He took these photos in Ramsey, IL in November 1991. Ramsey is a small village in my native Fayette County, Illinois, north of my hometown Vandalia; my Strobel great-grandparents and four of their ten children are buried in Ramsey (though my grandfather, number eight of the ten, is buried in Vandalia). Mr. Kohlberg's original photos are sharper and better than my scans. I received his permission to post these and so please don’t download them yourself.

The photographs depict the Norfolk & Western railroad. He says that originally this was the NKP’s Cloverleaf District, St. Lous Division, 4th Subvision from Madison, IL to Charleston, IL, later acquired by the N&W. (The “Nickel Plate Road” was the New York, Chicago, and St. Louis Railroad, reporting mark NKP). The views were taken on the west end of Ramsey, east of the Illinois Central Interlocking Tower, and also from the stairwell of that tower. The line is abandoned.

I like to use eBay to find postcards and antiques related to Fayette County. Mr. Kohlberg’s photographs came up for bid as I did a "Ramsey" search. I purchased the photos not because I was familiar with those specific views (and I’ve not been to Ramsey for several years), but because that my heart was so warmed by them.

I grew up on a residential street traversed by the Illinois Central tracks. The railroad still operated when I was young; it rumbled across Fillmore Street, and sometimes you had to wait a while as it passed. The ICRR crossed Vandalia’s main street at a slight angle and sometimes halted downtown traffic as it rolled past the old debot, one of the town’s hotels, the grain elevators, and a lumber yard. The Pennsylvania Railroad also passed through Vandalia, but west and east. Those trains rushed through town much more quickly, stopping north-south traffic. I remember so many times when, as a little kid, we’d have to wait at the railroad tracks during a downtown errand, and I’d try to count the passing cars but either lose count or became motion-sick.

My dad was a truck driver who hauled gasoline and fuel oil to places around southern and central Illinois. Over the years he had two places where he parked his truck, one at Fifth and Johnson Streets and the other at Sixth and Main (Main is not Vandalia’s primary thoroughfare, in spite of its name, so a large truck parked beside white storage tanks were off the principal section of the downtown). The first place was along the Illinois Central tracks, where a wooden trestle carried Johnson Street above the ICRR tracks, and the second was near the intersection of the PRR and ICRR, where both current and exempt tracks lay across a small, gravel landscape, where tenacious grassy plants nevertheless persevered.

Sometimes I walked to downtown Vandalia along the ICRR. It was a stupid thing to do, but this was the 1960s and early 1970s, long before the headphones and music devices that have tragically contributed to the deaths of people walking along tracks, hit and killed on the trails. My only distraction was my own thoughts, and popular music like The Who’s Who’s Next or Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath” in my mind. At a young age, when my friends and I played in the park beside the railroad tracks, we wondered if we might find hobos inside box cars that were occasionally parked along the ICRR. We had little idea of what a hobo was, but we imagined he’d be good natured, if ragged, and would befriend us and talk to us about life on the way. (Again, this was the 1960s, when we knew not to talk to strangers, but child abductions and the like weren’t in the news as they’d become much later.)

Once downtown---a kid walking on my own in our small, safe town----I looked into the hazy, summer distance of the PRR tracks, and I sometimes became wistful and curious about the direction my life might take---as much as a young person can form such thoughts. I felt at home in our small town, but the railroads represented the world beyond our town: places to which to travel, the unknown to face as it came. The railroads also represented to me a kind of passing world because, although I’d no knowledge of the state of railroad business in America, I knew that passenger trains no longer stopped at Vandalia, and in fact such service had ceased when I was four or five years old.  Vandalia had four or five hotels, though I only knew of the two that still operated as such; another had been converted to the First National Bank, and two others had long since become local businesses. I had a very basic idea that Vandalia’s hotels had once been busy, necessary places for travelers, salesmen, and the like who rode the trains. Vandalia had several bars and package stores. “Package” sounded like such a nice word, a word we used at Christmas. And although my parents didn’t drink, I eventually became nostalgic for old beer signs for Stag, Falstaff, Miller Hi-Life, and others. Somehow I associated these familiar beer signs with the railroad, not logically, but I suppose because of the ICRR to the business district. A lot of hometown landscapes and features became sentimentally mixed in my mind.

My parents and I would drive to other small towns in the area, visiting relatives, or shopping for antiques in small shops along U.S. 51 or U.S. 40 or the more distant U.S. 50. These towns, too, had railroads. Bored while visiting relatives, I might play in the yard and see the nearby railroad tracks, the lines that accompanied it, the untidy landscape that also followed the tracks along their course. As we traveled, I might see a rusty storage tank beside the tracks, or a railroad tower, or we might pass over a very bumpy railroad crossing, marked with the familiar Railroad Crossing “crossbucks” sign. (The really old railroad signs were “sawbucks” and cast iron. There were examples of those at a gasoline storage area just west of nearby Effingham, IL, and I thought they seemed so old upon the landscape, where old U.S. 40 and its motels, corn fields, and farmhouses paralleled the PRR.)

Once I grew up and no longer traveled with my parents, I still loved to pass through small towns and reflect upon their landscapes. Of course, I enjoyed railroad landscapes, and although I’m not a railroad buff as such I appreciate the history and become deeply nostalgic when I see a trains passing through a small town, or abandoned tracks crossing a village road and very old sidewalks, or storage tanks and towers, or tracks that pass by someone’s old small house, with its yard and clothesline and “stuff.”

Thus, Mr. Kohlberg's photographs filled me with nostalgia, though I wasn't familiar with those particular scenes in the village where my family once lived. But they're familiar in that sense that I knew these kinds of landscapes from a young age. They're typical of my small town Illinois "home places. "

I wonder: what everyday landscapes move you deeply, even though they may be very plain and, to some people, unattractive? One of my best friends, for instance, is cheered by the urban landscapes of Queens. Another loves the hilly vistas of small town Pennsylvania, where old homes perch on steep hills or stand along the very street. What sights and topographies would remain dear to your thoughts when, as Annie Dillard writes in her memoir, everything else in your mind is fading away, because you so love them?

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sikhs and Christians

Thinking about the shootings at a Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin, I pulled this post from a couple years ago.... I’m not in the habit of rereading my own works, but the other day I looked through my doctoral dissertation, The Social Ontology of Karl Barth (International Scholars Publications, 1994). One chapter of this “light classic” concerns Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity.

Since the post-Nicene fathers, the divine nature is said to subsist in the three personae (prosopa): the Father who is the incriminate origin of the Son and the Spirit, the Son who is the Logos made flesh, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Barth prefers the Patristic idea of tropos huparxeos (or modus entitativus, or Seinsweise), rather than prosopon, in order to preserve both the unity and tri-unity of God. He stresses that God’s tri-unity (Dreieinigkeit) points to God’s essential relational being, “in which the being of God for us is not something foreign to God’s essence but is grounded in his very being” (Church Dogmatics, I/I, p. 359f).

Because God’s essential (not accidental) nature is relational, God’s self-revelation to human beings takes us into a union with God. Any knowledge of God is also a sharing of the life and being of God in that God’s self-revelation is the nature of God in God’s tri-unity. This is not supposed to be a theopoiesis of human being but rather a gathering of humans into a saving relationship. Nor is it a mystical union, because God’s self-revelation is a wholly free act of God and never a miracle that we can objectify or claim, even in prayerful mysticism.

Jesus Christ is God’s “being in act.” The Trinitarian doctrine of “perichoresis” (the natures of the persons of the Trinity mutually permeate and condition one another) grounds the nature of God in his three ways of being and in his being for us (pro nobis). Knowledge of God is inseparable from God’s Lordship in Christ. But not only do we know who God is because of Christ, we also thereby know one another as fellow human beings whom we can serve gladly. That is because Christ’s human nature is not something foreign to his divine nature, but it, too, is essential to the being of God. So Christ not only reveals God but also essential, social human beings.

Now, just to make a very quick comparison of two kinds of faith, I pulled another of my books off the shelf, What Do Other Faiths Believe? (Abingdon, 2003). My interviewee for Sikhism explained his faith:

“Our scripture starts with a word, Ik Onkar... If you miss the meaning of that word, you’re going to be following the rituals but not the sense of the faith. If you followed and understood the meaning of that word, the rest of it falls into place. Ik Onkar means, ‘there is only one.’ There are not two. That one, is God. Once I understand that, you and I are not two. Just like I have two hands and two legs, my leg is not the same as my hand but they are one, a part of this body. If someone cuts off my hand, it is no longer part of the body; it cannot function. If we are an extension of that ultimate God, and that’s all we are, so our purpose in life becomes very clear to us: to serve that greater body” (pp. 72-73).

He explained that when we misunderstand our true identity, we think of ourselves as an “I,” something separate. But that is a very basic and serious error. Our true identity is as part of a whole, which is God, and thus our purpose in life is to serve one another. My interviewee said that, when we serve ourselves, we become analogous to a cancer cell. He noted that our goal is to add value to the universe. For instance, “If you are serving a customer, rather thinking, ‘How can I sell him something?’ now you can ask, ‘How can I add value to him?’ I am in the listening mode and try to find out ‘What does he need?’ Then I come around and serve that. Everywhere you see success happening, it has this ingredient present" (pp. 74-75).

Here are two different religions that affirm the ontological sociality of human beings, rooted in the being of God. In Sikhism, God is understood as the one God with whom we share our being. In Trinitarian Christianity, our sociality is grounded in the being of God pro nobis. One is a matter of understanding the true nature of our relation, the other is a matter of our being brought into a saving relationship. One is an impersonal God of infinite qualities, the other is a personal God whose very being is in relationship. In both cases, we do wrong, and fundamentally betray our human nature, when we serve only ourselves.

A few days ago (July 27, 2012), I thought about our interconnections and interdependence in our society.  Thinking about the lovely theologies of the Sikh scriptures (the Guru Granth Sahib) and Christian trinitiarianism gives us an even deeper level for discovering that we're not solitary individuals in society, free to make choices without consequence to others, but rather we're linked and united in the very nature of God.  

Saturday, August 4, 2012

"The Knowledge"

Related to Olympics coverage, NBC featured a story this morning, about "the knowledge," which is the 50,000 streets and thousands of sites and restaurants, etc., that London cabbies have to learn, so they can quickly take passengers anywhere. Our cabbie in London took us quickly from Heathrow to our hotel in Victoria without a missed street.  Another cabbie knew instantly how to get to John Wesley's Chapel from Victoria (a few miles away), though he said he hadn't been asked to for a long time. When I noted this on Facebook, a friend who had been to London twice added that the certification for London cabbies is the equivalent to a college degree, and about as expensive!

All this made me think of a different kind of local knowledge, which I wrote about here in my 8/16//09. Following our move to St. Louis in '09, we found a church we enjoyed. I had lunch with the pastor of the church the other day. He took me to a place in nearby Kirkwood, MO. He mentioned that the building had once been a furniture store, and although the restaurant went by a different name, people still referred to the place as “the furniture store.”

I said that my family and I used to live in a community where a local landmark was “the old Sears store.” The building now contained several different shops and businesses. Nothing identified it as a former Sears place. But folks still said things like “Turn left a block past the old Sears store.” Newbies to the community, as we had been, were very confused by such directions!

The pastor said that he served a rural community and was told to turn at the Old Schoolhouse intersection. He got completely lost and asked for directions. The person chuckled, “That schoolhouse was torn down twenty years ago!” I knew exactly what he meant, because I'd served as a pastor in a rural community and learned disappeared locations to which folks still referred.

In the place we previously lived, I asked a church friend the location of a store, and she said, "Just to the left of old Route 21." I figured out that she meant a certain street which had once been U.S. 21, but that highway had long since been rerouted, and nothing on the street today indicates its earlier designation.

Similarly my hometown, Vandalia, Illinois.  On the “Vandalia Memories” Facebook page, some of us chuckle that we still call stores by the names they had thirty or forty years ago, not out of disrespect for the current owners but from habit.  A classmate has an excellent music store on the main street, but instead of calling it “The Noise” some of us forget and call it “Merriman’s” or “Bo-K,” businesses there in the 1960s and 1970s.

When you move to a new community, you have to learn aspects of the place: locations of good restaurants, the nearest post office, good places to service your car, and other things. You have to learn local perception of things: which beloved sports teams are rivals, for instance. New to St. Louis, we learned that folks are interested in which high school you attended; it’s a way of connecting with people, in a way.

In some communities, unfortunately, you never quite catch what makes folks tick, and you come away regretful that your life there was less positive than it could’ve been.  Two places we lived seemed to me very stand-offish.  Local knowledge also can be subtly exclusive: my daughter becomes frustrated when she's asked which high school she attended, but she says, "Um.... Copley, Ohio.".... She didn't go to high school in St. Louis! Hopefully though, if a community is friendly, and if you have an sincere interest in people and their likes, you can ascertain local interests, overcome the feeling of being out of place, and make enjoyable connections.

One thing that I love about this kind of “knowledge,” is discovering those beloved places which people hold in memory. Folks were accustomed to the furniture store, the schoolhouse, or whatever the place was. Now, the store is something else, or the place is torn down, but the places remain landmarks: landmarks of the hearts, I’m tempted to say.

I found this quote from Katherine Mansfield. “How hard it is to escape from places. However carefully one goes they hold you---you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences---like rags and shreds of your very life.”

Thursday, August 2, 2012

No Shoes, No Problem

A more lighthearted, humorous topic than recent ones, LOL ..... This summer has been so hot, and I've limited outdoor time to the cooler morning.  I remembered a long-ago, perennially shoeless neighbor who grew up in Tucson and said the sidewalks were so hot, that she had to throw a towel on the sidewalk as she went barefoot. That made me laugh; you certainly couldn't walk anywhere very quickly!

Going barefoot is a little like inserting "Holy Grail" or "Big Lebowski" references into your conversation. If you tell certain folks you like going barefooted, you'll get an enthusiastic response and declarations that they hate putting shoes on. "There's NOTHING like going barefoot!" declared a classmate. My lighthearted thoughts about this odd topic are for such folks. Everyone else won't quite get it, just like some people won't understand why you'd say "We want a shrubbery," or "Hey, nice marmot!"

As I took a neighborhood stroll in the morning, I paused and chatted with a neighbor who worked shoeless in the yard, trimming plants and pulling weeds and tossing them temporarily onto the sidewalk. I said how much fun going barefoot is; my neighbor said she goes outdoors without shoes on to do something and then just continues that way with other yard chores. Wading for an hour or so in the tilled soil and mulch made gardening more enjoyable.
That’s a cheerful thing to think about: deciding, as the day goes along, that staying barefoot is fine. Many of us do like to putter around the house and yard shoeless, even while entertaining guests. Something's nicely mischievous about it. I like to rake leaves that way.

Once in a while, some of us like to feel "at home" beyond our yards. In our previous, quiet neighborhood, a neighbor often walked barefoot with her dog. Still in her nice work clothes, she kicked off her shoes at home and then took the pooch for a stroll before suppertime. "I love going barefoot!" she declared.

I like to take walks, but on occasions when going barefoot seems like “what the doctor ordered,” shoeless strolls are so comfortable and relaxing (as long as I watch for pebbles and acorns on the sidewalk). Even a very short walk is delightful. "I'm always barefooted!" said an acquaintance when we were outside. It's that moment when you think, "Should I slip back into my shoes?" but you think, "Oh, heck, why bother?"

One time a friend stopped by my dorm room and wanted to know if I wanted to go to the neighborhood market, an easy walking distance.  I was ready for a break from studying and, glancing at my feet, had an "Oh, heck" moment. My friend and I had a nice early autumn saunter as we chatted about this and that, and the path to the store felt so good.

Shoeless walks to another market, in another town, was a pleasant study break when I was doing school work. I’d step outside and pad through the neighborhood to the store for a soda and a few groceries. The owner also didn’t like wearing shoes, thought them necessary only because customers complained, and praised me for being an unexpected cohort. One day she chided me when I arrived with sneakers on, so as a running joke, no pun intended, I nearly always had bare feet when I stopped by on warm days to shop and chat.

Forgoing shoes can be adventurous, because if plans change, you’ve committed yourself. I remember seeing two laughing friends in our savings and loan place. One had business but kept being sent to other offices. The friend, whose bare feet made hasty, gentle thuds upon the tile floors, was along for company but hadn’t expected the errand to be so complicated.

When my daughter was little, sometimes I wore no sandals (or had them off but nearby) when I took her to friends’ houses or to summer camp. I chuckled when a parent of one of her buddies wore no shoes when she drove Emily back home at the end of an afternoon. "Great minds."

One afternoon, I was working around the house when the time came to retrieve my daughter from “zoo camp.” I assumed she would be tired and we’d return home, so I passed on my flip flops. But, not in the least tired, she wanted to visit the zoo gift shop. As it turned out, bare feet provided agility for negotiating a crowd of parents and kids among displays of toys, books and plush animals as I kept up with a small, laughing daughter on the move. I did miss the humor of being barefooted in a jungle-theme place....

Going barefoot used to be a fad, and running errands without shoes was, though not an everyday occurrence, something you’d notice---or do. Leaving our local IGA, I saw an acquaintance heading into the store. She was dressed in her cool top and jeans and carried her purse, but her feet were bare. I assumed she had one of those pleasant moments when she was already shoeless at home and decided to just stay that way for other tasks, in this case, a trip to the grocery.

When you're shoeless while wearing an otherwise decent outfit, the contrast is another quirky thing about deciding, as the day goes along, that staying barefoot is fine. There is a photo online of Jackie Onassis shopping in Italy in nice, casual clothes, but no shoes. I chuckled when a classmate left the dorm for an autumn class, ready for the day in bare feet, warm clothes, down vest, and books and coffee mug in hand.

After the 100+ weather last week, cooler temperatures finally arrived. What a treat that the sidewalks and driveway weren't so hot to the touch for bare feet and I could spend a time shoeless. Devoting a morning to house and yard work, I hauled old boxes from the basement (we just moved), I carried some stuff to the garage, and loaded the car with a few things for Goodwill, then I got the trash and recycling to the curb for morning pick up. Working in the garage is kind of gross, because one's soles soon become unpresentable. At one point in my mighty labors, another neighbor stopped to chat. Once those chores were done, I decided I'd move to the porch and work on the laptop. After writing a while, I took a break and ambled down the street, still holding my laptop. I happened into the neighbor I mentioned at the first, also taking a walk. I chuckled that she'd caught me barefooted, she said that was okay because I caught her barefoot that other morning!

Aged seven or eight, I went to the park a half-block away, and I didn’t realize I was shoeless until I stepped on some thistles. In childhood, you go about your day’s pleasures and not think about shoes unless your parents insist on it. We adults don’t set out with the goal of a fun day, forgetful of our unprotected feet until we’re out and about and something reminds us.

It did happen to me another time, when my family and I were staying at a lodge and relaxing in the characterful great room, with a nice adjoining gift shop and coffee bar. The next morning, I couldn't find my flip flops in our room and realized I'd kicked them off downstairs the evening before as we drank coffee and then shopped. If you like to, going barefoot is a pleasant return to childhood and, once in a while, you feel so comfortable with nothing on your feet that you’re okay with not putting shoes back on, or even better, you relax and forget.

The Family, the Church, and Justification by Faith

Thinking about the whole Chick-fil-A controversy.....Even though Jesus himself made the family unit secondary to discipleship to him/fellowship with other disciples, there's been a movement in the U.S. for a long time that Christians ought to "save the family," i.e., the traditional unit.

While respecting my friends who believe otherwise, I think a focus on the family (no pun intended with that organization) doesn't reflect this aspect of Jesus' teaching about discipleship, and it misses the varieties of families in the Bible itself.

Plus, there are so many different kinds of families today (same-sex couples, blended families, single parents, grandparents raising grandchildren, etc.). Why can't they be preserved and supported, too?  How about divorced persons?  (Mr. Cathy of Chick-fil-A was thankful about company persons being married to their "first wives," but has there been much objection about that statement from divorced persons? I don't know; the gay-related aspect of the controversy takes center stage.)

But by now, the idea of "upholding the family," meaning the traditional unit and first marriage, is so deeply ingrained, especially among many conservatives. Supporting and strengthening one another is certainly a biblical value!  But I think there are issues about the nature of the church, and thus who is part of the fellowship of mutual support and upbuilding.

I've been reading an essay by the distinguished New Testament scholar Nils Alstrup Dahl (1911-2001) in his book, Studies in Paul: Theology for the Early Christian Mission (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1977). Chapter 6 is “The Doctrine of Justification: Its Social Function and Implications” (pp. 95-120).

For the Apostle Paul, the doctrine of justification has social implications in that there is no distinction between persons in Christ---e.g., the famous Galatians 3:28. Paul’s controversy with Peter (Galatians 2:11ff) shows how Paul strongly asserts Christian unity at the Lord’s table because there is no distinction: we are all sinners, but God justifies sinners through faith (pp. 108-109). God acquits Jews and Gentiles alike because we all are sinful (p. 111).

“In his requests and exhortations, Paul puts heavy stress on Christians’ relationship with one another. The commandment to love one’s neighbor is interpreted to be a commandment to love one’s brothers within the community (Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:14-15). In the life according to the Spirit which Christians live and in their mutual love, they fulfill the real requirements on the Law, on the basis of justification (Rom. 8:4)” (p. 113).

We Christians tend to narrow the doctrine, according to Dahl, when we interpret the doctrine mostly in terms of the individual’s relationship with God as part of an ordo salutis: awakening to the Law’s requirement, rebirth in faith and the accompanying justification (acquittal), and then sanctification” (p. 118). But then, the broader implications of justification tend to be lost (p. 118).

As a Methodist I have to be a little careful, because John Wesley affirmed an ordo salutis and closely linked sanctification and justification.  But I still want to think along with (Lutheran) Dahl as he discusses Paul's gospel of justification.  Dahl notes, “The revivalist movement and the evangelical world mission provide obvious examples that the doctrine of justification can have far-reaching social consequences....But it is hard to deny, precisely on the basis of the experience of the missionary churches, that a Christianity which limits the doctrine of justification to personal religious experience and salvation is insufficient. Young Asian, African and Indian Christians today ask for guidance to overcome the problems which their societies and their churches confront. Like many Westerners, they have trouble finding the answers in pietistic-evangelical religiosity. Missionaries brought not only the justifying gospel, but also Western patterns of behavior and a ‘ceremonial law’ enacted by the traditions of the different churches. The questions are complication. One example is polygamy. ‘The missionaries preach salvation by grace alone,’ said one African pastor, ‘but in practice that turns out to mean salvation by only one wife’” (pp. 118-119).

Dahl continues that justification does tend to move into the background as aspects like social responsibility, ecclesiology, sanctification, etc. are brought to the front. But for him, “The urgent task is rather to rediscover the social relevance and implications of the doctrine of what extend does the current practice of the church deny de facto the doctrine of justification, because it excludes certain groups of people from free access to God’s grace in his church?” (p. 119).

He uses the example of racial discrimination and asserts that the problem is “not something outside the task of preaching the gospel... It belongs to the heart of the gospel message that God shows no partiality, and that for this reason neither can the congregations which gather in his name, wherever they may be” (p. 119).

“The social implications of the doctrine of justification mean that believers must visibly express their unity in the fellowship of the Lord’s table, as Paul so forcefully insists” (p. 120). But churches continue to disavow the doctrine in practice.  “Has the message of the doctrine of justification, “There is no distinction,” had any impact on the social structure of the churches? Today, does not full acceptance into a suburban congregation presuppose a certain social standard and certain patterns of behavior?  Do I go too far to suggest that middle class social standards and stereotyped forms of conversion experience and of religious expression have become the ceremonial and ritual law of our time?” (p. 120).

I wonderful if the whole Chick-fil-A controversy---with people evoking God's word and "the biblical definition of the family"---is an example of "middle class social standards" and "religious expression that has become ceremonial and ritual law" that excludes persons.  In this case, gays are excluded, but I think there is also the possibility of persons who are not in traditional families, persons who are divorced, and so on.

A small example is a church I attended, where there was an effort to rethink the annual "mother-daughter banquet."  Not every mother in the church had a daughter, and one mother had lost a daughter to suicide.  But the banquet went on, and to me, it felt like the banquet disregarded the experience of others with different experiences, and if they didn't like it, they just needed to get over it.

Another example is a divorced person I knew, who felt hurt and uncomfortable by churchgoer's comments about divorce.  Needless to say, LGBT persons have experienced exclusion, prejudice, and sometimes physical attacks.

The famous story of Jesus and the adulterous woman is such a powerful story: the people who condemn her and her sin are themselves sinners who excuse and overlook their own sin.  But when Jesus tells the woman to “sin no more,” many of us interpret that as a kind of probation period: God lets us off the hook once but won’t love us anymore if we fall back into sin. But my gosh, don't we all fall back into sin, continually, every day, if not "big sins" involving our genitals, but our attitudes and hatreds and lack of love?  True, God hates sin----and for that reason, he justifies sinners!  God never stops loving us---and God continues to help us as we struggle with our sins and our figurative demons.

God is more loving and constant than we are----because in our own lives, we do have to distance ourselves from hurtful and “damaging” people.  But even though such persons are safe for us, God hangs in with those people, too.  

I wrote on another blog post about ordination of LGBT persons.  I argued that such ordination is appropriate because it’s analogous to the experience of the first Christians: God is actively blessing and empowering persons who are not keeping biblical laws. (In the first century, it was Gentiles who don’t keep Torah; in this case, it is persons who, in some people’s eyes, violate the biblical condemnations about homosexuality.)  But the fact of the Holy Spirit’s work among both Jews and Gentiles became, for Paul, the foundation of the necessity of table fellowship that enacted the truth, “God shows no partiality.” 

Dahl uses the example of racial discrimination, but I think a strong sense of the doctrine of justification can help us overcome discrimination of LGBT persons in the church, too.  It can help us be more inclusive to persons whose family structure is different from our own. It can even help us to be more loving and serving to persons who are not part of the church: for instance our Muslim neighbors who face hostility from persons in our current time.

To affirm, “God shows no partiality,” is to affirm that God showers us with love regardless of our politics or our sexual orientations or the obvious and subtle sins that we commit everyday. “God shows no partiality” means that God’s blessings and favor are so much broader and inclusive than we ourselves might agree with!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Government Size and Responsibilities

Some notes and thoughts from a two years ago, but which dovetail with a couple of my recent posts and politics and government.... The Economist, an excellent source of reporting and commentary, has an article this week (January 23-29, 2010 issue, pp. 11-12) just called “Stop!” The piece is a reflection on the election of a Republican to Teddy Kennedy’s senate seat and considers the “growl of hostility to the rising power of the state.” In fact, the article notes that even in “historically statist” places like southern Europe and Scandinavia people are concerned about “the size and effectiveness of government.”

One issue about the power of the state is the national deficit, which both parties have pushed up. As this article points out, “George Bush pushed up spending more than any president since Lyndon Johnson.” In Britain, the Labour government has also driven up spending.  (Of course, in the years since I took these notes, conservatives have attacked President Obama for increasing spending, too, with measures like ACA and others.)

Regulation is another challenge in the problem of increasing state power. In Europe, for instance, “Conservatives tend to blame the growing thicket of rules on unwanted supranational bodies, such as the European Union,” but voters also want regulation in the form of anti-terrorist security and other safeguards. I can think of analogies in recent American history.

“A further danger consists in equating ‘smaller’ with 'better’,” says the article's author. “As the horrors in Haiti demonstrate, countries need a state of a certain size to work at all; and more government can be good. The Economist, for instance, is relieved that politicians stepped in to bail out the banks, since the risks of tumbling into a depression were large.” (So the bail out measures of Presidents Bush and Obama increased federal spending but may have presented a worse economic crisis than we've had, if you accept the author's argument.)

But “reinventing government” is not easy. “In 1978 another American state shocked the world by rejecting big government: California’s tax-cutting Proposition 13 paved the way for Reaganism, but direct democracy has ended up making the Golden State’s government worse.” Often the solution is in more efficiency rather than in cost-cutting: “Scandinavia’s schools are expensive, but they are by and large more efficient than their Anglo-Saxon peers. Much of France’s health care is paid for by the state but supplied by private hospitals.” Another solution may simply be government cost-cutting rather than “smaller government.” The conversation about the size and effectiveness of government is ongoing!

Another article that I found interesting was in Foreign Policy (Jan/Feb. 2010) which, in a sidebar (p. 63) compared different approaches to American foreign policy. Our role in the world is, after all, an additional component of the discussion of small vs. large government; Reagan, for instance, preached smaller government but also increased the military and challenged Gorbachev to initiate changes. The Foreign Policy piece describes several philosophies to mull, which I simply copy here. Interesting issues, as we debate the size and responsibilities of government!

Jeffersonians (J. Q. Adams, Dwight Eisenhower, George Kennan, William Fulbright) like “limiting overseas entanglements, prioritizing domestic reform, warning of ‘imperial overstretch’” and dislike “bloated military budgets, imposing American values abroad, close alliances with foreign regimes.”

Hamiltonians (Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Theodore Roosevelt, George H. W. Bush) like “economic frameworks for prosperity, G-20 summits, American power used to advance the national interest, opening foreign markets for American business, realism regarding U.S. goals and capabilities,” and dislike “expending resources on humanitarian missions, undue focus on the domestic politics of foreign allies, international human rights watchdogs.”

Wilsonians (Eleanor Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Paul Wolfowitz, Christopher Hitchens) like “spreading democratic values as a prerequisite for international stability, the United Nations, human rights” and dislike “isolationism, alliances with unsavory regimes, making policy based on narrow economic interests, balance of power politics.”

Jacksonians (W.T. Sherman, George S. Patton, Jesse Helms, Ronald Reagan, Sarah Palin), like “muscular expansion of American power, unapologetic defense of U.S.” and dislike “international treaties, the United Nations, timidity, undue concern with human rights and other countries’ sovereignty.”