Monday, December 17, 2012

the discussion

OK, so folk actually seem to be beginning to have the discussion about guns that is WAAAAYYYY overdue.
Here's the problem... many are beginning with misinformation.  The NRA has done their job well.

Here are a couple of untruths that they have floated out there and are clearly just not true.

"People need to have guns in their homes to be safe from home invasions."  Every study, let me say that again, every study has shown that households that own guns are significantly more likely to have a family member die of gun violence than homes without guns.  There are lots of other factors including age, gender, number of people in the household,  and type of gun but the bottom line is always true, if you have guns in your home, someone in your household is more likely to die of a gunshot than if you do not.

"If more people were armed, then someone could have stopped the shooter."  See the above.  Add the statistics that consistently show show that the more guns in an area, the more gun deaths.  States that have higher gun ownership have higher numbers of shootings.  Conversely, states with stronger gun laws and/or lower gun ownership have fewer homicides or suicides by gun.  Again, the stats all show that more guns means less safety, not more.  Please think about this further.  If teachers came to school with guns, eventually a child would get access to one and we would see a tragedy.  Even under the best of circumstances where police returned fire in August at the Empire State Building, by-standers were hit by fragments of bullets shot by trained police officers.  Imagine if 15 by-standers had pulled out their guns and began firing.   How many innocent by-standers would have been shot then? Think also of the states where there are stand your ground laws.  An individual feels threatened, whether justified or not, and instead of retreating, pulls out a gun and shoots.  Someone dies.  Without the gun, the individual retreats. Finally think of those places in the world where virtually everyone is armed - Somalia, Afghanistan, you get the picture.  Is that really the kind of place we want to emulate?

"If guns were illegal, only criminals would have guns."  Of course, the statement is not true.  Law enforcement personnel would still have guns.   Military would still have guns.  And if guns were outlawed, production stopped,  and those extant confiscated and destroyed, eventually even criminals wouldn't have guns.  That is obviously not going to happen, but fewer guns would mean fewer available for criminals too.  More importantly,  the implication here is that somehow having a gun makes an individual less likely to be a victim of a crime.  It just is not accurate. 

"The real problem is people, not guns.  If the crazies didn't have guns, they'd still kill people in some other way."  There is a degree of truth in this... but only a degree.  Violence still happens without guns, but it is pretty difficult to kill 27 people with a knife or a baseball bat before someone is able to stop you.  Yes, we must address a culture of violence and even more importantly, we must address issues of mental illness.  In the meantime, lets remove the tools of violence.

"We need guns to be able to stand up and revolt against tyrants at home."  This argument is the one that actually runs closest to the 2nd Amendment, but it is also the most ridiculous one.  Are we really expected to believe that untrained individuals could mount a revolt using the kinds of guns that are in circulation against a military like the US has?  Look at the difficulty Syria is having against a third rate military with third rate equipment and imagine sending civilians against helicopter gun ships, jets, missiles, tanks, armed drones, and the best trained, most well equipped, military in the world.  This statement betrays such a profound lack of trust in the American system that I don't know quite how to even address that part.  I trust the system.  I trust the checks and balances.  I trust the American people to not allow things to get so far that a revolution is necessary.

Now we can have a real discussion about guns.  They make some people feel safe.  Is that a good reason to sacrifice our children?  As of my writing this, there have been over 94,000 people shot in the US this year.  Is that a price we want to pay for a feeling of security, especially one that is not borne out by any of the facts?  Some people like to hunt or target shoot.  Fine, what kinds of weapons and ammunition are necessary for those sports?  And what are reasonable restrictions regarding those weapons and ammo?  Doesn't it make sense that the regulations are at least as stringent as for driving - a class, a written and practical test, a license that must be periodically renewed, age requirements for gun use, registration of all guns, periodic inspections of all guns, safety regulations regarding gun design that is strictly enforced...  Some folk appreciate the artistry in some guns and like to collect objects of beauty.  OK, then for collectors, maybe no ammo?  There is the 2nd amendment.  Yes, there is, but what does it reasonably mean in our society today?  When it was written, a musket shot one ball and then had to be reloaded, taking up to a minute per shot for an experienced musketeer and significantly longer for a person who was not an expert.  The weapons were also extremely inaccurate.  We just aren't talking about the same thing here, so how does the amendment apply?

Let's do away with the NRA lies and have a real discussion.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Gun Violence

I'm writing out of frustration and grief and won't think this through as carefully as perhaps I should...  so just some random thoughts...

Evidently some right wing preacher has already commented that God didn't step in and stop the murders of children because "God doesn't go where God isn't welcome," i.e. public schools.  What utter, utter nonsense.  I really don't even know how to respond to this idea except to say that it is ridiculous.  This is obscene.  This is blasphemous.

I'm frankly waiting to read the crazies who say that Obama planned this as a way to take away their guns.    And then there will be the slightly less crazy who will say that this is exactly what Obama was hoping for so he could take away their guns.  It hasn't happened yet (that I'm aware of) but I fully expect it.

I do hope that our leaders see this as a final impetus to do real gun control reform.  Yes, I know "guns don't kill people, people kill people," but it is pretty difficult to bring about this level of violence without a gun.  And yes, I know there is more going on here than just guns.  We obviously had a very troubled young man... who never would have been able to perpetrate that degree of violence without guns.   I have read the 2nd amendment - "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."  Frankly, I see nothing in that sentence that says anything at all about any person who wants a gun having the right to go out and purchase one.  It is well past the time when we need serious and significant regulations regarding the ownership of guns, of ammunition, and of the production of both. 

These children and adults did not have to die.  We can choose to make it next to impossible for this type of violence to happen again or we can allow groups like the NRA to continue their ridiculous propaganda and give in to their completely irresponsible ideas.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

another world

I have one of the most amazing commutes in the world.  I blogged about that drive once before with some photos here.  It is a 35 mile drive from my home to my job.  The first 9 miles of my drive are across the Santa Ynez valley and then over the Santa Ynez mountains using the Gaviota Pass until I run right into the Pacific Ocean.  About the next 20 miles are along the Gaviota Coast, a gorgeous and almost completely undeveloped coastline with the ocean on one side and the mountains on the other.  There are a few ranches on the mountain side including one with llamas, but mostly it is rock and chaparral.   The road weaves closer and farther from the ocean but for most of that stretch, it is very close to the water.

It is a California highway so I rarely drive it much under 70 mph.  That means that I get glimpses of incredible beauty but rarely get to savor them.  Today was one of those days.  As we came through the pass, the sun was shinning brilliantly.  There are multiple oil platforms visible from the shore, all of which are a minimum of 3 miles from the shoreline.  Some 22+ miles out are the Channel Islands.  Often the islands are obscured by fog.  Today, there was a fog bank we could watch moving across the ocean, slowly enveloping one after another of the oil platforms.  I caught a glimpse of what I think was a whale spout and then a bit of the back of a whale submerging into the water.  I have seen whales from my car at least 2 other times and possibly 3.  A number of times a year I see a pod of dolphins swimming by.  Watching the surfers on their boards always makes me think of the surfers and swimmers who have been attacked by great white sharks in the area.  Once or twice a week we see scuba divers putting on their equipment to dive and I wonder what amazing things they will see.

I look both left and right, mountains and sea, and see beauty and wonder both ways but today I was struck by the realization that I feel comfortable on the land.  That is where I live.  I understand the mountains.  I know there is danger there - rattlesnakes, mountain lions, bear, the possibilities of dehydration or a fall, or even getting lost in the wilderness, but it still feels familiar.  The ocean... that is another world altogether, just feet away but completely foreign to me. 

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree

We put our Christmas tree up yesterday.  The house is full of the scent of fresh pine...


we have two cats

Monday, November 12, 2012

officially old

Back in the day, 30 was the entry to old age.  I remember the saying"never trust anyone over 30."  I remember one of the anthems of my age cadre saying, "I hope I die before I get old."  I remember turning 30 and having almost as bad a time as I did the first time we bought a minivan.  I was seriously depressed.  I was old and I hadn't saved the world yet.

Of course, people do wear their age differently now than when I was a kid.  I am much, much younger than my parents were when our numbers were the same.   They were further along in the journey of life - when my mother hit 30, she had an 11 year old daughter, a 6 year old son, and a 1 year old daughter and had just purchased their second home.  I had a 2 year old, was living in company owned housing (a parsonage), and was still working on a degree (my doctorate).  They went bowling on weekends while I played guitar in bars. By the time they were my age now, they were struggling physically and, as a result, financially.  They felt old.  For the most part, I do not. Now I also don't feel particularly young.  My body reminds me that it is not what it once was.  I am very aware that the men in my biological father's family were mostly dead in their 30's.  Thanks to the wonders of modern chemistry, I am not.  Still, my joints creak.  Tendons are less flexible.  I carry a bit more weight... and not nearly as quickly.  I do have an AARP card although I still can't get the cheaper tickets at the movie theater.   In large degree I had dismissed the ideas of my youth regarding that boundary of 30 years... until...

Last week my daughter turned 30.  That has raised the question again.  She certainly doesn't look old to me and she is not as far along on her path as I was at that point.  She is still working to establish herself as a writer, talks about going back to school for her doctorate, and she and her husband
 are planning for children but haven't yet.  She doesn't feel that boundary like I did, but we're talking about a different one here - having a 30 year old daughter.

So... if turning 30 didn't make me old, does have a daughter turn 30 do it?  Am I officially old?  You tell me.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

"It's Not My Country Anymore"

I've heard that said by a number of my very conservative friends.  I guess they have to decide that.  Clearly it is not the same country anymore.  Romney won a near historic percentage of the white vote and still lost the election.  It isn't a country controlled by white folk anymore.  More women were elected to the senate than ever before and one state - New Hampshire - has elected women to all of their leadership positions.  It is not a country run exclusively by men anymore.  Billionaires spent incredible amounts of money trying to buy the election Sheldon Adelson personally funded 6 campaigns with huge amounts of money and they all lost.  Yes, money still talks, but it is no longer the deciding factor and the plutocracy doesn't have free reign anymore. 

It is a different country than the one I knew as a child in the 50's and 60's.  I embrace it.  I'm excited by that.  I believe this new country embodies the hopes and dreams implicit in the experiment called the United States.  Still, it is different and my conservative friends need to make a decision whether they are part of this new expression of the United States.  Should they decide to withdraw... that's OK, but they cannot call themselves patriots.  They may say, "Obama is not my president," but if they do, they are also saying they are no longer part of this country.

For the Republicans, it will mean they need to re-evaluate and decide on new directions or they will be relegated to being a small regional party with less and less national voice.  At least for a while, they will still have the power of obstruction, but their positive voice will become more and more marginal as the demographics continue to change.  You can decide whether they are racist or not, but this election clearly was about race and their party is clearly identified racially.  A majority of white people voted for Romney.  Everyone else voted for Obama.  Obama won.  It is a new America.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

solo gig

Last night I played a solo gig for the first time in a lonnnggggg time.  Years ago, I did the solo thing a lot but every since I began to perform with my daughter Alexis about 15 years ago, I've found myself playing the role of backing up a singer.  Being a side player is a very different experience.  It truly is a supportive role.  You listen to the singer and wrestle with a song that is the singer's choice, trying to enhance his or her performance.  It is a unique discipline to give your talents and skills for another's art.  The upside is that you are responsible primarily to the singer rather than the audience.  If a mistake is made or there was something lacking in the choice of material, that falls back on the singer.  At the same time, to some degree you lose the joy of making your own choices.  When backing up a singer, I clearly play my style, but there is always the possibility of the singer vetoing something that I feel works well.

As a solo performer, you are responsible for everything - the choice of material, the pater between songs, and all of the aspects of the performance.  There is nobody else to blame for anything that doesn't work.  All of that adds up to serious nerves for me.

In the two years plus of producing the Cambridge Drive Concert Series I have paid serious attention to which acts seemed to connect the most deeply with the audience.  While depth of songwriting, skill of playing their instrument, and quality of a voice all count for something, that was only part of the picture.  The best musicians and the best songwriters did not necessarily make for the best performances.  There is an intangible connection that characterizes some performances that really makes a special time.  The audience has an experience that enriches their lives.  The best performers consistently enable that kind of experience.

You'll have to ask someone who was in the audience whether I was able to create that kind of experience.  I do have to say that I felt that my guitar playing has been better when playing behind someone else.  Still, I felt very good about what happened.  I'll keep at it and try to do some more solo gigs.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

the problem with small government

The problem with small government is that there are big problems.  We saw that this week in a major way.  Sandy barreled down on the northeast and the damage is astounding.  There is no way that the strapped states could meet the needs of their devastated populations.  Many of them have provisions in their constitutions that they must have balanced budgets so the only way they could address the problems of a natural disaster like Sandy would be to decimate all of their programs.  It simply would not work without obscene human costs.

Beyond that, when we have people in leadership whose basic assumption is that government is a bad thing that needs to be shrunk until it is small enough to be drowned in the bathtub, it doesn't matter whether they are skilled and competent or not.  They will not respond in an adequate way.  We saw that after Katrina when FEMA blew it big time.  There were reasons even beyond the incompetence of the leadership (and they were incompetent).  They simply didn't see it as their job.  The response was inadequate and many areas of the gulf still have not recovered.  On the other end of the spectrum, we see the Obama administration who put FEMA resources in place as soon as it became clear that Sandy would be horrific.  They began to make contacts with the governors and building coalitions to get things done before the storm hit.  Even Gov. Christie of New Jersey praised the Obama administration for their efficiency at addressing the problems.  He also said that he is expecting significant funds from the federal government to help meet the needs of his state.

Romney implied during the primary debates that FEMA should be privatized or at least that the responsibilities it owns be passed down to the state level.  Republicans significantly cut funding to FEMA over the past few years and Ryan's budget calls for further cuts.  All of that is while holding the recent memory of Katrina.  They simply do not believe it is their job to help out in times like this.  The responsibility is given to the states, who simply cannot address the biggest issues.  The expectation is that charities and the private sector would help.  We saw how that worked with Katrina.  Faithful volunteers spent hundreds of thousands of hours helping out and slowly drifted away as the months passed.  Some are still working there but they cannot begin to address the problems that persist 7 years later.  The private sector?  The casinos went back up on the gulf coast in a matter of months.  Housing for poor folk?  Still waiting to be constructed.

The next time you hear a Tea Party person claim we need smaller government, remember the images of New Jersey and New York and ask them, "If we didn't have a big government, who would help in times like this?"  They very well may answer that folk are on their own... that is not a country where I want to live.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Church Music Redux

Yesterday there was a op ed that said that revitalizing the Roman Catholic mass will involve abandoning pipe organs.  While I have to say that I have no commitment to revitalizing the mass nor do I think that scraping pipe organs is the solution to any problems the RC church is having in attracting younger folk, I was very interested to see a response to the piece on Felice Me Fa.  The author gives four recommendations:
1. encourage music education
2. prioritize and support music in the parishes
3. give people more time
4. let music come to life
The author betrays a number of problematic ideas that often characterize the mainstream church.  Let me give a little background here first.  There is an interesting disconnect where more theologically liberal churches tend to be more conservative in style, while churches with a conservative theology are often more attuned to cultural change when it comes to their worship style.  It makes some sense.  If you believe that your neighbors are all going to hell and care about them at all, then you'd be willing to do just about anything to get them "saved."  If couching the message in contemporary music and a Jay Leno style worship works, then you do it.  If on the other hand, you do not believe that all of your unchurched neighbors are going to hell, there is a different motivation for what goes on in the life of the church.  All too often that gets translated as a responsibility to convey some higher culture.  That is the problem with the blogger's recommendations.

It is not the responsibility of the church to teach folk about any type of music and even less is it the responsibility of the church to preserve arts and culture from centuries ago, regardless of the beauty of those arts.  Likewise, it is not the responsibility of the church to make judgements regarding the relative value of different styles of music.  While I agree that music is extremely important in the life of a church, its role there is not a central one.  It is supportive.

I have served three churches, two of which had pipe organs and one of which was a very significant instrument.  I have worked with stellar organists and have been deeply moved by some of their performances.  I have also seen significant amount of church resources go into organ maintenance when there were other issues that I judged as being more important to the overall ministry of the church that were ignored.  Personally, I do not experience the presence of God in organ music, listening to a church choir, or a hand bell choir.

Let me address her four recommendations individually. 

1.  Is it sad that young people don't have an appreciation of much of the serious music from our past?  Yes.  (FWIW, my bachelors degree is in music)  Fixing that issue is not the job of the church.  It belongs to schools.  By all means encourage music education, but put it where it belongs.

2. Yes, prioritize music in congregations and spend enough money to make sure the music is done well.  Music is important in our culture.  But remember the role of music in the church.  It is there to help people to experience the presence of God.  It is not the role of the church to preserve the popular culture from previous centuries in Europe.

3.  Unfortunately, waiting for people to become more aware of unfamiliar and unappreciated music styles is not a possibility for the church.  People will leave for churches where they can experience music they already find meaningful... or jettison church altogether.  They are not there to receive a cultural education... they are there to experience the presence of God.

4. Here we agree... more or less.  There is nothing like live music, but music in the church is not about performance, it is about participation. 

So, unless your congregation is one that is showing by the attendance numbers that it deeply appreciates the organ, dump it.  And more than that, dump all of those vestiges of a different age so that the church, especially the mainline and progressive churches, can speak a message which the larger culture can hear.  I believe in the good news.  I believe a progressive gospel message is needed in our broken and fragmented world.  An organ along with those practices and ideas from a past long gone, in almost all instances, only keep that message from being heard.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Mormonism in the news and the ballot box

Let me begin with a disclaimer.  Being a Mormon (or a Muslim, an Athiest, a Unitarian, a Bahai, or whatever else) does not disqualify an individual from running for president.  At the same time a candidate's religious commitments or lack thereof can certainly be considered when an individual decides for whom they will vote.  All of that has nothing to do with this post.

A second disclaimer... while there are lots of Mormons in the area where I live and the property owned by the church I serve shares a boundary with a Mormon church, I don't have any friends who are Mormon.  I do have some acquaintances who are Mormon.  The Mormon folk I know are nice people.  As a community, the hold some values that I admire.  They care deeply about their families (even if the definition is a lot more narrow than mine).  They care for one another in community and are there for one another when there is need.  They take their faith seriously and live it... a two year commitment to mission work is a serious thing.  They do have some values that I find problematic as well.  The misogyny built into their theology, the belief in American exceptionalism, and a general secrecy about their faith that borders on and perhaps is at times dishonest all trouble me.

And an affirmation.  My personal theology is not exclusive.  I affirm the truths in other religions and deeply appreciate what they can teach me as a person of faith.  In addition to a variety of different brands of Christians, I have friends who are Muslim, Bahai, Jewish, and Hindu.  I also have friends who are agnostic and others who are atheist.  I learn from all of them and I am glad they are all part of my life.
Last week the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association removed Mormonism from the list of cults on their website.  It was clearly a political move as Franklin Graham, Billy's son, has been an outspoken opponent of Obama and there have been many evangelicals who have been reticent about voting for a member of a cult for president.  Remove any mentions of Mormons as a cult and perhaps remove a bit of that reticence among some evangelical voters.  Early in the campaign a PAC supporting Romney made a television ad raising the issue of Obama's ties with Jeremiah Wright and the brand of Afro-centric Liberation Theology preached at Trinity UCC Church in Chicago.  Romney quickly asked that the ad be dropped and it was.  He clearly was worried that issues of religion would cause large numbers of evangelicals to stay home on election day if they learned more about Mormonism.  Coinciding with the removal of the cult definition, Romney brought up his faith at the end of the second presidential debate.

Mormons are not Christians... at least not in any traditional use of that descriptor in spite of the fact that they call themselves Christian.  Yes, a person named Jesus is central to their faith, but that could be said about other non-Christian religions as well.  Jesus appears in Islam and is affirmed in many eastern religions but that does not make them "Christian." 

Let me just point to two different Mormon doctrines that take them clearly outside of historical Christianity.  First is a little saying "As God was, man is, as God is, man may become."   Some folk may see parallels here to the traditional Christian idea of the incarnation, but it does go far beyond that idea.  This is a Mormon idea that each man can evolve into a god and that God was once like we are now and evolved into whatever God now is. 

Second, Mormons are polytheists.  Christians have always called themselves monotheistic and placed themselves in the same traditions as Jews and Muslims.  Now, some Jews and Muslims might raise questions regarding Christian monotheism we struggle to make sense of the Trinity, but Mormons again clearly believe something beyond that.  Joseph Smith taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three separate gods.  Other Mormon profits have affirmed numerous times that there are many gods with each world having its own god.  You can also see that theme in the previous paragraph.  If we all (men) can become gods, then there clearly are multiple gods.  Indeed, one prophet, Orson Pratt, said that there are more gods than there are particles of matter.

I do not know whether or not one should include Mormons in a list of cults.  I guess that becomes a matter of definition.  I would say that they clearly should not be included in any historical definition of Christianity. 

Should that affect your vote?  Only you can decide that.  There are Mormon politicians whom I respect and for whom I might vote - Jon Huntsman would be one.  There are politicians who call themselves Christian for whom I would never vote.  George Bush was one.  Romney?  Sure, you can consider his religion if you want, but more importantly,  look at his policies and both his expressed values and the things he has said and done in the past... vote accordingly... just don't vote for him because he is a Christian.  He isn't.  He is a Mormon.  For that matter, don't vote for Obama because he is a Christian.  He is.  Instead, look at is policies, his expressed values, his actions, and the things he has said and vote accordingly.

Friday, October 19, 2012


I've been unfriended on Facebook... more than once.  The first time I was aware of it, I was upset.  Yes, I am opinionated and I'm not shy about sharing opinions, but I try to be respectful of those with whom I disagree and I try to learn from them.  I also try to help them better understand my position.  Yes... there is a degree of "evangelism" inherent in that, but I am more concerned about discussing and learning than about converting.  I really wanted to know whether there was something I had said that was offensive and fix it.  I didn't try but I still am curious about that first unfriending.

I never imagined that I would do it.  I have some pretty conservative friends and I treasure their input especially when we don't agree.  That reminds me that there are other ways of seeing the world and they always have something to teach me.  They also remind me of some of the fallacies on my side of the theological, cultural, and political boundaries.  That is very good.

This week, for the first time I unfriended someone.  It wasn't easy for me to do.  I really do treasure those connections across viewpoints and I really do try to be both respectful and humble.  This time, there was no discussion and no respect coming my way at all and no interest in seeing anything from another's viewpoint.  More than once I got messages from other friends asking what was up with that person on my timeline.  Then the questions became "why are you putting up with that?"  and I began to see that some of the remarks were hurtful to other friends or worse than that, were bringing out the worst in me and in other people.  So, I unfriended this individual.

I wish we had been able to talk and learn from one another.  I wish that both of us would have been stretched and encouraged to see things in new ways.  That just wasn't happening and as another friend reminded me, "don't feed the trolls."  I don't regret it, but I am sad.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Redistribution of Wealth

a popular graphic on Facebook
The catch phrase "redistribution of wealth" has become an important one in this political season.  It is often thrown out as a criticism of Obama, that he is for the redistribution of wealth.  I'd like to make a few observations about the issue.

First, every economic transaction involves the redistribution of wealth.  When I receive my paycheck from Cambridge Drive Community Church, it represents a redistribution of wealth.  Church members have placed checks in the offering plates and their wealth is redistributed to me and to other obligations of the church.  When I go to the grocery store and purchase groceries, my wealth is redistributed to workers, stockholders, property owners, and before them to producers.  The question is not whether wealth will be redistributed, but whether the rules that govern the redistribution are fair to all involved.

I have to say that I often respond to Facebook posts and to the graphic above about redistribution of wealth by saying it is a Biblical idea.  It clearly is and basically always involves redistributing from the wealthy to the poor.  The Old Testament laws regarding the Year of Jubilee are the archetype for the issue.  In those laws, every 50 years all debts were cancelled, slaves freed, and land - the primary means of production - returned to the original family of ownership.  Think of what that means for a minute... John Doe was an excellent businessman, worked hard, and was able to acquire significant property.   He dreamed of passing it on to his grandchildren so they could have a leg up.  Doesn't happen though because in 50 years, everything is equalized and all of the additional property he purchased through his hard work went back to the original families of ownership with no reimbursement to him or his heirs.  On the other hand, Jack Smith was a lazy do nothing.  He lost all of his family's property due to sloth and poor decision making.  He never thought a moment about his grandchildren.  Because of the year of Jubilee, they didn't need to live with the consequences of his poor choices.  Everything was equalized and they started on a level playing field with the grandchildren of John Doe.  Neither would benefit or suffer from the decisions made by their ancestors.  Scholars do not believe that the laws were ever observed.  It is no wonder.  By the time the first observance came around, those who had accumulated goods and advantages weren't willing to give them up.  In spite of the clear proscriptions in the Law, they refused to follow God's plan for redistribution of wealth.  Like the graphic, they shouted, "It's not fair!  We worked hard for that property."  The law looked at a deeper question of fairness and observed that systematically denying the means of production to some people is worse yet.

A particular verse in the discussion of the year of Jubilee has been on my mind a great deal this week as I've been thinking about this issue.  Leviticus 25:23 says,  "the land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants."  In an agrarian time, the land was the primary means of production.  Leviticus tells us here that the primary means of production belongs to God, never to an individual, and therefore cannot be sold or owned in perpetuity.  The "owners" are always tenants or aliens rather than owners of the means of production and that property is always God's to redistribute.  More importantly, the assumption is always there that those who hold the means of production are stealing from the poor.  This especially clear in the minor prophets but we see it just as clearly in the words of Jesus - Mark 10:23-25, Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

So what do we do with this today?  Clearly we are not going to institute the Year of Jubilee.  Still, we can see the tax code and government programs shaped in such a way as to favor the poor over the wealthy so regardless of whether one is wealthy because of hard work or an accident of birth or whether one is poor because of laziness or an accident of birth, all receive equal opportunities.   We can imagine schools funded in such a way as to remove the systemic advantages that go to the already wealthy.   We can imagine the means of production as equally available to all.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates and How They Can Save Us

first two disclaimers and an apology...

I received this book for free in return for writing this review.  Second, I have met the author.  A few years ago we met at an event called Soliton and had a few beers together.  I found Kester to be delightful and very bright.  Neither issue will impact any opinions I have regarding the book.   And the apology, I promised to write this review by September 30.  I didn't.  I'm sorry.  Here it is.

The other day I was sitting in front of the television watching a rented movie.  Before the film began there was the typical announcement that "piracy is not a victimless crime."  Of course it is not... we've all imagined the violence of Somali pirates taking hostages of the coast of Africa, families terrified, life disrupted, and on rare occasions, people dying.   But how is that the same as copying a DVD or CD?  And is the situation in Somalia really what we've imagined?

I knew next to nothing about pirates before reading Mutiny.  I do have a friend who is doing her doctoral dissertation on pirates so I've heard a little bit about the way that they were used by the powers that were in the political machinations of the 1600's.  Still, I knew very little more than the cartoonish pictures so prevalent in pop culture.

Brewin has two themes that are central to his argument, the benefits of the commons are being confiscated by those with power and resources, leaving the common people without, and whenever the commons are blocked, pirates emerge to unblock things.  Indeed, his definition of pirate is "one who emerges to defend the commons wherever homes, cultures or economies become ‘blocked’ by the rich." (Kindle Locations 783-784).   He does push the argument a bit further into metaphor as well and talks about the unblocking of the self as a psychological act of piracy necessary for maturation.

The short review of the book is that I loved it.  Go buy it.  The longer review is a little more nuanced.  Brewin clearly says again and again that the pirates are not out to change the game, they have just refused to play.  At the same time, there is more than a bit of romaticization of the pirates, turning them into counter-culture heroes and heroines.  I asked my dissertation friend about Brewin's picture of freedom and equality loving pirates and she reminded me not to forget that they killed people... lots of people.  Evidently piracy was not a victimless crime... but neither were the situations that led to piracy victimless.  That is the message of the book.

In a world where labor and its rewards are more and more separate, where the commons of creative thought and traditions of music and writing, where the power of religion is used to bind people rather than free them, piracy becomes a naturally occurring response.  The questions are many and the answers not simple, but Brewin argues the spirit of the pirate is needed to fix the problems of the world.  What do I say to that?  Argh!

Thursday, October 04, 2012

St Francis of Assisi Day

St. Francis preaching to the birds

In the Roman Catholic Church, each saint has a day assigned to honor them.  Today is St. Francis of Assisi Day.  I thought of him this morning as I fed my cats, as we drove to work and saw three deer feeding beside the road, watched a herd of cattle and then of llamas in the fields along the highway, passed a murder of crows dropping walnuts to the road to break them open, saw a pair of mockingbirds trying to run another crow off that had gotten too close to their nest, listen to the insects and birds sing outside my open office door, listened to the squeals and laughter as children arrived for nursery school...  Francis saw the presence of God in the faces of all of his little brothers and sisters, heard the voice of God in their songs, and preached back to them the good news of God's love.  He calls us to find the very presence of God in the wonders of creation surrounding us.

In yesterday's daily e-mail meditation, Richard Rohr had this to say about Francis

In most paintings of people waiting for the Holy Spirit they are looking upward, with their hands outstretched or raised up, the assumption being that the Holy Spirit will descend from “up” above. In the Great Basilica in Assisi where St. Francis is buried, there’s a bronze statue of him honoring the Holy Spirit. His posture and perspective are completely different from what we have come to expect. He’s looking down into the earth with expectation and desire! This is the change of perspective that became our alternative orthodoxy—although it should have been mainline orthodoxy! He was merely following the movement of the Incarnation, since Christians believe that the Eternal Word became “flesh” (John 1:14), and it is in the material world that God and the holy are to be found.
 Today, I will honor Francis by looking down to find the presence of God.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Pulpit Freedom Sunday

Religion and politics has become a hot button topic these days.

Roman Catholic Archbishop John Meyers has said that members of his church who are pro gay marriage should not receive the Eucharist.  

For the past five years a group of conservative pastors have observed what they call Pulpit Freedom Sunday.     Each year there is a lot of discussion about the propriety of the day and of churches making political endorsements.  It is scheduled for this Sunday.

First let me come clean.  I believe in absolute freedom of religion.  The State has no right to dictate what a religious group can say or believe or constrain the way that faith lives itself out unless it is a danger to the general public.   I also believe in freedom from religion as a necessary corollary to absolute freedom of religion.  If individuals are not able to escape the influences of faith, they cannot freely choose.  Public policy is therefore never to be based on religious doctrines. Freedom of religion is clearly an important issue in the two situations raised above.

A Roman Catholic archbishop can restrict who receives the Eucharist based on his understanding of Roman Catholic teaching.  If he deems that advocating gay marriage is a sin, and that sin precludes one from the Lord's table, he can do that.  The Roman Catholic church is not a democracy and it is irrelevant whether the majority of members agree or not or even if the teaching has no credible basis in scripture.  He is the bishop and he speaks for the church (I know that is a slight over simplification).  There is a set body of doctrine and practice, set by the church, which members are obligated to hold and observe.  Now, if he is misinterpreting the church's teaching, that is for those above him in the hierarchy to say, not the members, not the US government, and certainly not those outside of the Roman Catholic Church.  If an individual disagrees, he or she can leave that communion.

I also agree with the founders of Pulpit Freedom Sunday that the state has no right to control anything said from the pulpit.   Part of the issue of freedom of religion is precisely that, that the government has no right to dictate what a religious group can or cannot say.  Indeed, for many of the early framers of freedom of religion, a significant part of the equation was the ability of the Church to judge the State.  How could they do that if they were not allowed to speak on political issues?  If you look at the history of political speech in churches, it was not against IRS rules until the time of LBJ.  Before then, pastors often spoke on political issues and no doubt, endorsed candidates at times.

Many folk misunderstand the way the tax code impacts separation of church and state.  They often believe that religious organizations receive their tax exemption because they are like other charities that receive special tax status because they provide some community good.  While I would argue that religious groups do a tremendous amount of good in our society, that is not why they receive tax exempt status.  They receive tax exempt status solely because they are religious groups.  The Supreme Court said in 1819 that the power to tax is the power to destroy, and the State has no grounds for any type of control over any religious group... therefore no taxation.

Some see the tax exempt status as a government subsidy to religion.   The argument goes that because religious organizations do not pay taxes but do receive the benefits of government services, that equals a subsidy. The argument itself is not all that strong, but even if accurate, it does not matter.  The Constitution precludes the establishment of religion and as was said above, the ability to tax is the ability to destroy... thereby interfering with religious freedom.

Now, I would not dare endorse a candidate from my pulpit (even though anyone who knows me could make a pretty accurate guess who I'll be voting for).  I believe that God calls each of us to weigh the questions and make a decision.  I believe there are some views that are clearly mo but that reflects my theology, not everyones'.   Some religious groups have very well defined beliefs and extremely narrow options for disagreement.  Freedom of religion requires that they be allowed to speak their religious beliefs from their pulpits.

Two other issues that have been raised a lot lately are not so clear - payment for contraception by medical insurance paid for by Roman Catholic institutions and the issue of abortion and public funds.  The Catholic institutions in question are involved in matters not quite so clearly religious in nature such as hospitals, hire individuals who are not Roman Catholic, and serve in ways that are not quite clearly religious.  I think the solution given by the Obama administration is an inelegant but workable solution.

As for abortions, public funds are not eligible to be used to pay for elective abortions anyway so the question is moot.  It does raise a sticky point for me.  What about taxes that are used to pay for things clearly in violation of a group's religious principles?  If public funds were used to pay for elective abortions, should Roman Catholics or members of some evangelical groups be allowed to withhold a portion of their taxes because the funds are being used in ways that conflict with their faith?  How about tax dollars that fund the military or capital punishment, both of which have been forbidden in Anabaptist doctrine for centuries?  Should Anabaptists be allowed to withhold the percentage of their taxes that go to fund the military?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

what is music?

It might seem like a silly question to some folk but it does get rolled around in some of my circles and can generate significant heat.  There is a generation of guitar players out there with amazing technique who, as often as not, build compositions around that technique.  The pieces may have very little in terms of melody and could never be performed on another instrument so some folk have questioned whether they are really music or not.

A recent discussion/argument on a guitar forum got me remembering...  In Jr. High one year, I had a student teacher in music who was a flautist.  One day she performed for us, playing a piece by Varese called Density 21.5.  I had never heard anything like it.  It certainly didn't fit any definition of music I knew, all formed by listening to folk music and the Mills Brothers at home and James Brown on the radio.  It opened my ears, my imagination, and my future and likely played a significant role in my development as a musician.

Here's a video of a performance of the piece by Laura Pou.  As I understand it, she takes some liberties with the rhythm of the piece and "sings" it a bit more than Varese intended.   I find it a wonderful performance - I love watching her body language - and the piece still makes me perk up and listen.

What do you think of the piece?  And does the performance move you?  Finally, is it music?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Apples & Fall

We have amazing produce in our area of California.  A few weeks ago, some friends were visiting and we stopped at a local farmer's market.  One of the friends remarked, "This is overwhelming."  She was correct.  There is just such a variety of incredible produce that it can be overwhelming.  Cheryl and I rarely shop at the farmer's markets because the decisions are so difficult to make.  When 10 different booths are all selling amazing strawberries at the same price, how do you pick?  There are often vegetables that I don't recognize.  Flowers, organic meats, fresh fish, nuts, honey, and amazing fruit...
Stayman Winesap apple

Apples are another thing altogether.  There are a few orchards that grow good apples but most of the apples here are too sweet for my taste and don't have the snap I look for in a good fresh apple.  The season also seems to be compressed for the apples I prefer.  Cider, often made from apples that have fallen to the ground, is illegal to make in Santa Barbara county.   So, the things I yearn for in the fall are difficult to find.

Today, I heard an interview on NPR about apples.  I think I heard the interviewee say that there are some 15000 varieties of apples!  However many there are, Cheryl and I have found an orchard that we like to visit -  Gopher Glen Orchards.  They grow some 50 different varieties of apples including some we know and love from the northeast like Stayman Winesaps.  And, because they are in a different county, they're allowed to make and sell real cider. It is about a 60 mile drive from our house and travel costs make the apples and cider ridiculously expensive... but they are APPLES and it is REAL CIDER and that means fall.

So we bought some cider and some Spitzenberg apples, reportedly Thomas Jefferson's favorite variety... and they are good!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Go Steelers... or maybe not

I have to admit, I'm a Steelers fan.  Growing up in Pittsburgh, football is religion and the Steelers are at the top of the Pantheon with the Pitt Panthers and high school football teams trailing behind.  When other boys wanted to grow up to be fire fighters or police officers, I wanted to be a defensive lineman.  When my nephew played on the AAA State High School championship team, I was soooo proud.  I have my Steelers jersey and my Terrible Towel.

In 9th grade my son was recruited to play high school football.  He was big and strong and quick.  I was a little nervous.  I knew the possibility of injury but he was the stuff of a serious football player.  The coach decided to make him a center and he began to learn the position.  They had a scrimmage on the final day of practice before the season was to start and down he went.  When I got to him, lying on the field, I could see that his knee cap was on the side of his leg.  Off to the hospital and his football career ended, but not the recruiting.  He got bigger, stronger and faster and is built like a stereotypical defensive lineman.  He went to city college and his first day on campus was seen by the football coach.  "Wouldn't you like to play on the football team?  You'd make a perfect nose guard."  John said, "No" and all of my Pittsburgh formation sighed.  He often worked out in the weight room with the football team and the pressure went up.  "You know, if you worked hard, you could probably play division one football after two years at City College... and get a serious scholarship."  John remembered his knee and a statement from the orthopedic surgeon, "Next time, and there will be a next time if you play football, it will be worse."  John said, "no."  Two years later, he walked onto Allan Hancock College campus and the football coach saw him walking across the lawn... "wouldn't you like to be on the football team?"  He sometimes works out at a gym owned by two retired NFL players... "John, you should be playing football."  We were visiting Pittsburgh and walking down Penn Ave. in the Strip District, the crowds parted like Moses parted the seas and you could read their minds - "What team does he play for?"  My very attractive daughter mused as we ate in a little diner - "The guys here don't know whether to look at John or at me."

I still have fantasies of him on the gridiron with me living my childhood dream vicariously but I'm glad John was smart enough and strong enough to keep saying, "no."  Of course, there is no telling that he actually would have been a good player as it takes more than size, speed, and strength.  There has to be a kind of aggression that I'm not sure he has.  I'm glad I never found out. 

I heard that during the opening week of the NFL, there were 120 players injured.  It is no wonder.  I look at my 300+ pound, 6'3" baby and imagine him running at someone full tilt and I can feel the bones cracking.  The thought of two of him colliding at a full run makes me shudder.  That happens in virtually every play in every game.  Even as a senior in high school he wrestled at 285 and there were guys on the football team at least as big.   Players are bigger, faster, and stronger than they ever were before and the likelihood of serious injury seems to go up every year.  When I read of brain injuries of retired players, I have to wonder what will become of the current generation of players who get hit harder every week.  And the injuries are not limited to pro players.  A running back on John's high school team had a significant brain injury and his life and the lives of those who love him will never be the same again.

When I allow it, I feel a sense of responsibility.  I support this game that will leave most of its players in pain, possibly crippled, and with a significant chance of brain injury.  I know the argument that the players enter into the game aware of the possibilities... but that doesn't fly.  What 21 year old athlete as big and strong as a horse does not see themselves as being invincible?  The other guy might get hurt, but not me.  Plus they began playing long before that.  And I can't imagine a way to really make the game safer... maybe if they didn't wear helmets they'd be more careful about their heads? 

So I'll watch the Steelers this year but at some point during every game, I'll feel responsible for the bodies of those men and for their futures and for all of the little boys dreaming of being a football player.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

protecting America

Yesterday morning I was having breakfast with my friend Ben and we got talking about where we were and what we were doing when the first plane hit the towers some eleven years ago.  This led to a discussion about the mythologies of the Republican Party, in particular the line "Bush kept us safe..." to which Ben responded, "except that one time."  The reality is that one of the largest attacks on US soil happened under his watch. 

Shortly after the event, there were stories that claimed the Bush administration had intelligence which had been ignored which may have enabled them to stop the attacks.  An op-ed in yesterday's New York Times indicated that the degree of negligence was greater than previously reported.  Of course, the right wing talk radio world has become apoplectic, yelling that liberals are blaming Bush for 9/11. 

Yet, they give Bush praise for no attacks on his watch... other than the one, the only one since Pearl Harbor... but that doesn't count.  It does count.  And worse than that, while there may not have been another attack on US soil after that, the reality is that the Bush administration's policies destroyed any sense of security that we had as a people.  They played on our fears.  They curtailed our rights.  And perhaps worst of all, they destroyed our economy by rushing into two unnecessary wars which consumed incredible resources while at the same time cutting taxes.  They presided over the destruction of our economy, in large degree the results of their policy choices.  Losing one's job, one's home, one's future is anything but being "safe."

The Republicans want us to forget all of that.  They want to go back to the same economic policies that got us into this mess.  They are rattling sabres at Iran and threatening yet another protracted and expensive war while at the same time talking about more tax cuts.  They say that after creating one of the largest messes the country has ever experienced, because a Democratic administration has not cleaned it all up in four years while dealing with a congress that was/is of the least interested in actually solving problems of any congress ever, we should allow them back into power. 

Was Bush responsible for 9/11?  No.  Could he have stopped it?  Maybe.  Are the Republicans responsible for what happened afterwards which led to one of the largest recessions we've known and the slowest recovery, the loss of more lives than have been counted, and the virtual destruction of two countries on top of allowling ours to go down the toilet?  Absolutely.

So, if you want to protect America and to help keep it safe, do not vote for the party that has been working to destroy it since 9/11.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Glide Memorial

Whenever we travel, we always try to attend a church that is doing things differently than we do.  I hope the experience will stretch me and open me to a new way of doing what we do at Cambridge Drive.

Last weekend was our anniversary.  We didn't have time or money to do a real vacation so we drove north to O'town and visited our daughter and son-in-law for a few days.  We decided to cross the bridge and attend Glide Memorial Church on Sunday morning.  It was a unique experience.  I've never been to a church before where the website advised you to arrive at least 1/2 hour early to ensure getting a seat.  Sure enough, the line was over a block long before the doors opened to allow us in.  During the service, the pastor asked the members of the congregation to stand.  Less than 1/3 of the people attending stood.  The group standing were significantly more diverse - all colors, sexual orientations, economic settings, ages - than the mostly white tourists attending.

The service itself was very much a performance.  The band and the choir were killer but rock concert loud in a room with typical lousy church acoustics - making the sound pretty muddy.  Still, the excitement was infectious and much of the time everyone was on their feet clapping along.  There was only one song that was clearly meant for the congregation to join in singing so it felt more like a performance than a worship service.   A group who had recently returned from a work trip to Kenya spoke during the sermon time... they did a very good job, clear, succinct, and meaningful.   There was little prayer, no time of silence, and I don't recall anyone mentioning Jesus.  My daughter Alexis found the experience way too intense and blogged about it here.

I was struck by the difficulties of doing worship in a congregation comprised of folk without shared history or even commitments.  I was reminded of the difficulty of doing ministry in urban areas and the resources that work requires.  I was thrilled with an obvious welcome that was there for all without question or hesitation.  I'm glad that Glide is there.  They provide a version of the gospel that is rarely seen and open doors to folk very few churches would welcome.  Still, it isn't for me... but it doesn't need to be.

So, what did I learn?  There is room for a progressive gospel and a style that is culturally relevant.  Indeed, even tourists want to experience it.  I would expect that at least some of the folk there left with a new hunger to find a church that would actually accept them as they are and speak to them in ways that touched their lives when they returned home.   I learned that I can never take the need for balance in worship for granted.  I learned that I feel pretty good about who we are, what we are doing, and the journey we are on at Cambridge Drive.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Sex and the Church

I've been thinking about sex... in the church... and that we need much more of it.

Let me tell two stories and share a song to help explain.  About 15 years ago, we had taken a youth group from upstate New York to the New Jersey shore to help a church with their summer Bible school.  We took a day trip to Philly for fun and spent some time on south street.  We had given the kids some freedom - they were high school students - and walking down South Street, some of the adult chaperones found the kids... shopping in Condom Nation.  It wasn't a huge deal but there was some embarrassment and off we all went to get water ice.   Later as we were driving back to the shore through the New Jersey Pine Barrens at night something wonderful happened.  It was as dark as pitch and by the time you got to the back of the 15 passenger van, there was no light from the dashboard at all.  A teenage boy, feeling safe and a bit anonymous, asked a serious question, "What's the big deal about sex?"  It led to a wonderful conversation about sex that likely never would have happened under any other circumstances.

Jump forward to last week.  I came across a link to a blog called sexquestionsfromseventhgraders on tumblr.  (It looks as if it is gone now).  The blog was ostensibly written by a teacher who has an anonymous question box in their classroom and is just a selection of the questions put in the box.  Assuming it is real, and there is no reason not to, the questions are at once both shocking and easily imagined.  In a time when pornography is so easily accessible it is not a wonder that children see lots of it.  Many of the questions asked seem to come straight from typical porn themes.  "Do girls like getting semen on their faces?" "If you have anal sex are you still a virgin?"  And on they go.

It is shocking to go from the innocence of the question from a high school boy 15 years ago to the explicit questions from seventh graders today.  More shocking to me is that at least some of those seventh graders are learning about sex primarily from watching porn videos and expecting that because of what they've seen, they know about sexual expression and about what bodies are supposed to look like and how they work.

Sex ed in schools is fine for the mechanics of things but someone needs to be talking about values.  As often as not, parents are uncomfortable with talking in substantive ways about sex.  Conservative churches often have abstinence programs (good luck with that as all of the data shows) but seem to be just as reticent to talk about the real deal of sex.  Progressive churches often ignore the subject.   I think it is time that we bring sex into the church in a big way, being honest, and talking about the way God intended real people to enjoy one another.   Why not tell our kids that sex is fun?  That sex is about mutual pleasure?  That sex is about sharing and communication and giving?  That bodies don't look or work like the ones in porn videos?  That the kinds of treatment of women seen in those videos is not what God intended for our relationships or our sexuality?  That sex is wrapped in all kinds of meaning and is not the same as any other bodily function?  Why not talk about sex in all of its glory, pleasure, and the dysfunctional ways we relate sometimes?  If we don't, who will?  And if nobody does, then we're setting up an entire generation for frustration and failure in their relationships - relationships designed by God for mutuality, pleasure, and the humanizing experience of sharing the entire self with one's partner.

Here's another picture of an earlier time... as Richard Thompson sings about a teenage boy who learned all about sex from magazines and books and cannot understand why his girlfriend is not reacting correctly.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

foster kids

Some years back we did foster care and had a number of children come through our home.  Each had their own stories but for the most part, they were not happy stories.  In many cases, they had experienced things that children should never experience.   Each of those children made a place in our hearts and all these years later I find myself thinking about them - wondering what happened and hoping and praying for their best. 

We had one little boy whose life had been pretty bad who really caught our hearts.  Through the years, I have felt that we failed him even though we did our best for him.  My imaginings of his future were rarely positive.  Then the other day, I got talking about him with a church member and came home and decided to try to hunt him down on the internet.  I think I found him on Facebook.  Its hard to tell as he was just a child then and is now a grown man plus there is almost no biographical info on his facebook page and is name isn't an uncommon one.  Still, I'm pretty sure it is him. 

Here's the wonderful part, he looks to have gotten things together and found a positive direction for his life against what were terrible odds.  I hope it is him.  And whether it is or is not, that little boy, now a man, is still in my heart and my prayers.

I've thought about contacting him to see... but I'm conflicted between whether a contact from his past would be comforting (to know we still think of him and pray for him) or troubling as it would surely bring painful memories to the surface.  So, for now, I'm not contacting but continuing to pray and dream.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Political speech

I vote religiously (in both ways - in every election and in ways that reflect my faith).   I think it is an important thing to do as a  civic responsibility and as a steward of the future. 

This coming election strikes me as being especially important.  While things have certainly been worse, the country feels as if it is sitting on the knife edge.  The two candidates, especially since Romney chose Paul Ryan as his VP, have radically different agendas and understandings of the direction we should go.  If a Romney/Ryan ticket won the election and if the Tea Party was able to get a few more votes in congress, we could see a radically different country than the one I love in a very short number of years.  Add the possibility of the next president getting to choose as many as three members of the Supreme Court and this becomes a very important election in which everyone should vote.

There are multiple streams in this election cycle that deeply sadden me. 

The political discourse has become polarized to the point that there is little real discussion of the substantive issues.  Clear facts are dismissed out of hand.  Political leaders on the Republican side have stated that their primary goal is not to do right by the people but to ensure that Obama does not win again.  I am struck by the quick name-calling against Obama - Socialist, Marxist, Terrorist, America Hater... which feels more intense to me than I have experienced before.  My gut says that the degree of animus can only be based in racism but that is another post.

Both sides are throwing around inaccurate statements, although it seems to me that the Republicans are a bit more loose with the truth.  Still, both sides have trafficked in inaccuracies and at times, down right lies.  I know politicians "stretch the truth," but again, it feels worse to me than I have experienced before.

The money being spent... could do sooooo much good elsewhere.  Think how many teachers could be hired with the money spent on each one of those attack ads.  The amount of money being spent by billionaires is just obscene.   That the SCOTUS equated that with free speech boggles the mind.

Now, this year I am doing something I have never done before - I am making a campaign contribution.  I can't give $1 million like Bill Maher did or even less like Sheldon Adelson who has pledged as much as $100 million to defeat Obama and reportedly has already given over $50 million.

I believe in freedom of speech and have no problem with Mr. Adelson supporting whatever candidate he likes.  Here's my question... why is his speech allowed to be so much "louder" than mine?  If we put this analogy back to its origins, we see how silly the situation has become.  Back in the day, free speech was just that.  I could get my soapbox and go out to the corner and speak.  I could shout... but only so loud.  The physicality of it enabled a real exchange.  The woman who disagreed with me could get her soapbox as well and we could have a lively debate or at least any audience could hear both sides of the issue.  This just isn't possible when Mr. Adelson is able to speak at a volume 1,000,000 times louder than me.    Limiting the amount he can give to a candidate does not limit his free speech, it only limits the volume and ensures that mine can still be heard.

A friend of mine was a part of a Black Muslim group back in the 70's that had a saying, "He who talks loudest gets over."  This year the SCOTUS has institutionalized that saying... and that is not a good thing for the state of political discourse or for our country.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Confessions of a Bible Thumper - review

We all have times in our lives that are critical to our formation... times that really are foundational to the people that we become, but are not good places to be stuck.  Being a teenager is a good thing, but only for 7 years.  Beyond that, it becomes problematic.  There is an old saying that everyone should live for a time in New York City, but not until they become too hard and everyone should live in Southern California, but not until they become too soft.  The implication is that both are good places to be from.  You can make your own list of developmental stages or experiences that played an important role in your formation.  In my list, I would add that evangelicalism is a good place to be from.

That is the story I was hoping to find in Confessions of a Bible Thumper by Michael Camp.  In part it was there as the story is his journey out of the evangelical church but he never really acknowledges any positive results from his time in evangelicalism.  He obviously has faith now, a faith that was birthed in an evangelical church.  He has a deep respect for the Bible, again birthed in an evangelical tradition even if he does understand the Bible in a very different way now.  Clearly, much of his experience with evangelicalism was toxic, but it still was an important place for him to begin.

Camp's book takes place in a brew pub as he and a small group of evangelical friends discuss his fictional manuscript and his journey from evangelicalism.  They go through a number of issues which he sees as important to the evangelical community and shows where they got the Bible wrong.  The issues include inerrancy of the Bible, freedom, the shape of the church, sexuality, eschatology, sexuality, and creationism vs. evolution.  As someone who lives outside of the evangelical community, none of his arguments were new to me (with the exception of his discussion of punctuated equilibrium in the chapter having to do with evolution) and the issues are not ones that particularly catch my imagination.  Still I can see that for many in the evangelical community, his arguments would be completely new ideas and may encourage new considerations or defensiveness. 

There are three themes which run through the book that I found really disconcerting.  Again and again he speaks of the church and includes only the evangelical tradition in that word.  He does throw a glance at other protestant traditions as when he answers the question of why he did not attend a more liberal church when he found himself in theological disagreement with the evangelical churches he was attending but a glance is all mainline or liberal protestantism gets.  He doesn't even mention Orthodox and Catholic traditions.  All the while, he rails against the legalism of the church.  He certainly could find the failings of any of those traditions, but they would not be the same as the ones he lived in evangelicalism.  By completely dismissing those other traditions, I think he also shuts them off as possible landing places for his future audience.

The second theme is related to the first.  He dismisses the institutional church as being a construct of the Roman empire which he says has no basis in scripture.  Rather than argue the point, let me just say that I think he neglects his own commitment to follow the truth wherever it leads and instead allows his own distaste for the evangelical church as he experienced it to color his conclusions.  He endorses the house church movement as some sort of return to the Biblical model for Christians and ignores the fact that having a house church still requires some sort of structure and so is an institution.  Someone has to pick the time for the meetings, get them started, and ride heard over the agenda. 

Finally,  he rails against spiritual practices such as tithing, praying, attending church as legalistic commands not based in scripture.  While that may be true that none of them are commandments which followers of Jesus are obligated to observe, it neglects the truth that spiritual practices are important for formation and ritual helps to shape us in important ways.  Those practices may not be helpful in his spiritual life but for others they can be extremely important, not as commandments but as disciplines that give shape to a life of faithfulness.  I would guess that he wouldn't disagree with what I said, but his tone seems to reflect an authoritarianism that feels a bit too much like the evangelicalism he is escaping.

All in all, I hope Confessions from a Bible Thumper is just the first volume of Camp's story.   I hope to read a bit more generosity to those of us who choose to stay in the institutional church and find there, in the midst of all of its failings, a significant opportunity to be the body of Christ in this time and place.  In the meantime, I think this volume could be a good read for folk struggling to find a new way to read the Bible and understand their own faith.

Monday, July 23, 2012

I'm slow

No smart comments...

I mean that I'm slow at putting down roots.  Santa Barbara is very similar to Hawaii in many ways.  The temperatures run a little cooler in Santa Barbara, but much of the flora is the same with many of the same flowers blooming in both places, the pace of life is similar, and the relationship to the ocean is similar.  That adds up to some pieces of life that surprised me when we came here. 

At graduation, many of the graduates wear orchid leis.  At that time of year, they have them in most grocery stores and Costco has a huge refrigerated display of them.  When our daughter graduated from Juniata College in Pennsylvania, we brought a lei for her and many people asked whether she was from Hawaii.   She was pleased to confuse them with "no, I'm from Santa Barbara, we wear leis too." 

Clothing in both places is very casual and very colorful.  For men, that means you see lots of Hawaiian shirts with bright colored flowers.  Yes, you do see them all over southern California, but it seems more prevalent here to me.  I remember joking about getting a Hawaiian shirt after we first moved here.  Cheryl laughed.  She knew my northeast sensibilities only wore black until they would come up with something darker.  No bright colors. Period. 

playing bass in the song circle following Andrew's service 
About two years ago (8 years into our life on the Golden Coast - reference to Katy Perry's "California Girls") I began to talk about getting a Hawaiian shirt more seriously and would pick them up and look at them in some of the clothing stores or at the local Costco.  I would look at them, knowing that wearing one would make me an official resident... but unsure about me wearing flowers. 

This past week... I bought one.   It isn't as bright as many but is is covered with hibiscus flowers, a flowers endemic to both Hawaii and Santa Barbara.  On Saturday we had a celebration of life service for my friend Andrew Jackson, a marvelous guitar player and friend who died after a courageous battle with cancer.  (do click on his name and listen to some of his wonderful music).  One of the instructions for the service was to wear Hawaiian dress.  It was a fitting tribute,  a gathering of colors, wonderful music, tears and laughter, a reminder of the importance of maintaining our circle of friends (a favorite image of Andrew's).  I wore my Hawaiian shirt and Andrew showed me that I really do belong here.

The other piece of putting down roots is that I do put down roots.  Once a place is home, it really does become my home.  Don't be surprised if I buy a few more Hawaiian shirts.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Gun violence

I don't have any issue with people having guns for hunting, target shooting, or even collecting (under certain circumstances).   I do believe that the NRA interpretations of the 2nd Amendment is completely off base and out of touch with the current reality.

The tag line "guns don't kill people, people kill people," is again proven incomplete as an apparently lone gunman entered a theater in Aurora, CO and shot and killed 14 people (as of my writing) and as many as 50 were wounded.  Yes, it was the violence of an individual man, but it would not have been possible without the three guns he was carrying.

We need sensible gun control NOW.  Go to the Brady Campaign to see how you can help change the current situation which enables so much needless violence.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

By What Authority?

I subscribe to Richard Rohr's daily e-mail meditations from the Center for Action and Contemplation.  Rohr is a Franciscan priest who writes about the intersection of spirituality and culture.  I deeply appreciate his insights.  Recently he inspired me when he began a series answering the following questions “By what authority do you say the things you do, Richard? How do we know these are not just your ideas? Why should we believe you?”  Another way of framing the questions might be to ask, why do you believe the things you do?  or What are the foundations of your faith?

I thought it might be interesting to think about those questions and blog a bit.  So I'll be blogging about a few of my sources of authority in no particular order.

First - the Bible.  There are scores of more conservative Christians who would shake their heads at me saying that.  They would argue that I don't really believe the Bible.  Depending on what you mean by that, they may be correct.  I do not believe the Bible the way they do.  I do not take the Bible literally.  Indeed, there are things in the Bible that I do not believe are God's word to us and there are things I just do not believe.  I would go so far as to say that in order to really believe the Bible, one cannot take it literally.

So what do I find in the Bible if  "plenary verbal inspiration" is not a descriptor I would ever use?  (Plenary verbal inspiration is the idea that the very words of the Bible are individually chosen by God.  Many who hold that view would say that it only applies to the original autographs or documents written by the Biblical writers.  Others apply the idea even to some translations, usually the KJV.) 

I do not expect the Bible to be without contradictions nor do I expect it to be a book of history in the modern sense or of science.  I believe that taking the Bible seriously requires one to recognize that it is comprised of metaphor, parable, myth, poetry, and is the stories of fallible human beings trying to make sense out of their experiences of the Holy... and sometimes misinterpreting it entirely.  I am inspired by my ancestors in faith who struggled with the presence of the Divine One.  I am challenged and humbled by their courage and strength and I am warned by their weakness and cowardice. 

Theirs are not the only stories.  There are similar struggles in every culture in the world.  They are the stories that are central to my culture and my faith so I stand in them, wrestle with them, and hopefully learn from them and become a better follower of Jesus because I take them seriously.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

The Problem with the Insurance Argument

After the Supreme Court ruling, the question of health insurance has come back to the front with Democrats celebrating and Republicans vowing to repeal.   Democrats should not be celebrating and while the Republicans might be able to repeal the Affordable Care Act but they have no solution worth real discussion.

First off, the free market does not and can not work with regards to health care.  The consumer has no power to influence the market at all.  You can't shop for the lowest cost when you've just had a heart attack.  Add that there is often only one hospital nearby and the physician on duty is the physician on duty.  Most of us also have no control over what, if any, insurance is available to us and even less over what is covered by that policy.  Employers may shop for the lowest price on insurance but it is very seldom that they do so while comparing two identical products and the dissimilarities may not be obvious until the product is used and the patient discovers that a specific lab or physician is not covered by their insurance.  And the coverage is constantly changing so a physician covered one year may not be the next year.  Which services and providers are covered by a given policy rarely if ever have anything to do with quality of care.  Market forces simply do not work when it comes to health care so if we rely on them to control costs or quality, we will only see failure.

Second, there are some things that should not be sold for profit.  Health care is one.  In a for profit business, the business always has a primary responsibility to make money for the stock holders.  There is a legal responsibility to do that regardless of whether they are producing widgets, automobiles, or providing health insurance.  The first responsibility is not to the client, it is to the stock holder.  Obviously, in the free market, a better product is more likely to produce higher profits for the stock holder, but the primary job of any for profit company is not to produce widgets, automobiles, or sell health insurance... it is to make money for stock holders.  For health insurance companies, that means denying coverage.  If they can deny a procedure, they have made more money.  It is no surprise then that for profit insurance companies have employees whose job is to find ways to deny coverage to the patients and they get bonuses when they do so.  At least a panel of government agents making decisions around coverage would have the well being of the larger population as their primary concern. 

The bottom line is that the current system, even under Obamacare, cannot solve the problems we face and will remain the most expensive health care delivery system in the world while at the same time being far down the list in terms of almost all of the significant metrics for outcomes.  The good news is that there are models around the world that actually work.  All we need do is swallow our pride and embrace a model that delivers health care to all of our citizens at a more reasonable price.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Affordable Care Act

Today the SCOTUS ruled that Obamacare is constitutional.  I am not a lawyer and don't claim to understand whether or not it is a good ruling.  My gut says "yes," but that is an opinion without any real basis so take it with that degree of impact.

Whether or not the law is constitutional has nothing to do with whether or not it is a good law and there are those on the right and the left who are arguing that it is not a good law.  Those on the right say that the law interferes with the movement of the free market and impacts the freedom of individuals.  Those on the left argue that health insurance is too important to be subject to the whims of the free market and should never be a for-profit business and that this law will make the movement towards establishing a non-profit, single payer system more difficult to accomplish. 

I hoped for at least the option of a single payer system all along and in the best of all worlds, that is what Obamacare would have been.  I'm not sure how this law will impact that possibility.  There are those who argue that the constraints on the private insurance companies included in this law will drive them out of the health insurance business and push us towards single payer.  Others argue that this law just entrenches the for profit health insurance companies which will keep us from moving towards single payer.  Time will tell.

The Republicans will vote to repeal this law although, it isn't clear that they would do this if they really had the power to make it happen.  Being seen as responsible for removing the popular provisions of this law is not likely something they really would want and keeping the popular provisions without the individual mandate is not something the insurance companies are likely to be happy about...

Interesting times.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

tired of politics

Yep... I'm tired of politics.

First the reasons why I keep making political tweets, facebook entries, and blog posts...

I think politics are important.  Our politics do shape the way we live together as a nation and the way we interact with the rest of the world.  That has profound implications for me as a person of faith.  If I really claim to follow Jesus, then my faith must express itself in political ways.

I think the next election is particularly important as there may be a member or two of the Supreme Court who are replaced and the make up of the court has a huge impact on the direction of the country.  Another far right justice could really change things.  (I know that Supreme Court justices have tended to surprise people in the past as they have taken their roles very seriously but there have been some recent appointments that seem to not get it and are simply partisan hacks.)   On top of that we are facing some significant issues that require choices to be made based on values and the platforms of the two primary parties do represent different value sets.

Obama has not thrilled me but I don't know that anyone could have done a better job given the current political climate.  And I am convinced that much of the reaction against Obama is racist in nature.  Yes, I know that previous presidents have also been the brunt of jokes, animosity, and disrespect, but it feels worse at this point and the only reason I can see is his race.  That must be resisted.

And the reasons that I am tired...

The attacks on Obama really do seem over the top and at times have an overt racial side to them.

I don't sense that either party, but especially the Republicans, have a commitment to making things better so much as they have a commitment to winning... or worse than that, for the Republicans, a commitment to ensuring that the Dems lose.  Indeed, Mitch McConnell has said as much.

Yes politicians lie... and politicians engage in hyperbole... and politicians make promises that they either can't keep or flat out don't intend to keep...  but again it seems worse to me as, and again I see it more from the Republicans, they flat out lie as a way of getting power. 

I am disenchanted by the role big money can play and has already played since Citizens United.  (see the Wisconsin recall as a clear example of that).

And finally, I am saddened by the degree to which partisan politics have fragmented our nation.  I happen to think that a diversity of viewpoints and even disagreements are productive when we have a common commitment to the common good and work/struggle/wrestle together to that end.  More and more it feels that the differences do not help us to find creative solutions or even compromises,  instead they drive us apart.

So, I'm trying to write/blog/tweet/post less about politics... we'll see how that goes.

Good Grammar, Proper Word Choice

I'm usually pretty good with my English.  My grammar is usually spot on... and I'm generally careful with getting the right word in the right place.   It is, after all, a significant part of my job.  Sometimes though, I do fall down... and I have a good friend who enjoys finding such gaffes and sent me a note the other day with a few examples from previous blog entries.  Thanks Tom ;-)

In one, I quoted the phrase from the United Church of Christ, "Don't place a period where God places a comma,"  except I misspelled comma - I wrote "Don't place a period where God places a coma."  And I did it more than once so it wasn't a simple typo.   Tom enjoyed wondering what it looked like when God put people into a prolonged unconscious state.  In another blog I said something like "illicit a response," but of course meant, "elicit a response" although an illicit response might have been entertaining.

So I've been thinking about the wrong words/poor grammar issues that make me cringe... here are a few...

Irregardless - no such word.  It is a conflation of regardless and irrespective.

There, Their, They're.  Three very different words even though they all sound the same.  Use the right one in the right place.  There = a place.  Their =  a possessive, belonging to them.  They're = a contraction of "they are."  Every time I see the wrong one in the wrong place, I can hear my 8th grade English teacher exploding.

The wrong prepositions... don't you just hate it when people confuse the usages of him/he, her/she, me/I ?

What grammar/word choices issues get under your craw?  Can you list some more?  Or write a sentence using a bunch of the ones that make you cringe?