Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Senator Reid has proposed a new iteration of what is fast becoming an old and divisive issue. Like most divisive issues, the need for action is pressing, but concensus on the path forward is lost in the morass of conflicting interests and agendas. Healthcare Reform that effectively drives down the cost of health care is everybody's goal, but the major stumbling block on any agreement as to the path is, of course, the idea of the public option.

I think Republicans are right in saying that "public option" is in the final analysis a euphemism for government-run health insurance. The fact that a euphemism is felt necessary stems, of course, from the opportunity of Republicans, for whom a party platform board has always been "less government," the opportunity to accuse the other side of the aisle of increasing the size, and therefore, cost, of government. Democrats, on the other hand, are rightly questioning what other entity can adequately call the health insurance industry to accountability but the government, and that perhaps this is, indeed, the government's job.

I guess I'm a pessimist when it comes to this. I don't think the health insurance industry has the capacity to police itself any better than any other successful industry without some sort of external pressure, but neither do I think that the government has ever been very good at running anything. It's job is to make laws, enforce them and enact them, which lacks the intrinsic economic reasons to be efficient that the private sector has.

So what is the solution? I don't know, but it reminds me of a story I heard in a sermon today. A student asked a rabbi why the words of Torah are to be put on the heart rather than in the heart. The wise rabbi responded that we place the words of Torah on top of the heart so that when the heart breaks they fall in. Perhaps we will not find a solution until something breaks. Tragic, I know, and many of us (including me) believe the system is already broken, but apparently it has not yet broken badly enough. I would like to hope that our lawmakers could come up with a workable solution, but my wiser side thinks it will take pressure from some other source to balance out our health-care system. I hope I'm wrong....

The reason I think I'm not wrong is that none of us really "get" redemption until we are broken by forces undeniably bigger than ourselves. God's grace is made perfect in weakness. I still like Leonard Cohen's quatrain, "Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."

Monday, October 26, 2009

I'm not normally into spook flicks, but last night I watched a delightful piece of fiction on Animal Planet (yes, they do show fiction sometimes) suggesting that werewolves, hounded too closely in Europe, found their way to the New World and set up housekeeping in quiet neighborhoods of the North East, following their gruesome lifestyle hidden in plain sight. It followed the story of a lone wolf in his attempts to take over a pack, quite interesting, really. As Halloween approaches spook flicks are already filling the airways. Apparently we just like to get scared sometimes.

But why do we watch these monster shows? Because we know that deep inside the human psyche is the potential monster. This morning's news told of the efforts the authorities are making to locate and apprehend Somer Thompson's killer. John Walsh of "America's Most Wanted" suggested the perpetrator was a calculating and intelligent predator, perhaps one who has come out of retirement after years of quiet and honorable living, or even a wanderer, like the "lone wolf" of the Animal Planet series. Indeed we have monsters in our midst who give expression to the darker, crueler side of human existence, and noble people must stand in their way to protect the innocent.

But we all have monsters in our closets, too, those things that scare us inwardly, our past, our future, our present state, whatever it is. Noble thoughts and actions need to stand against these impulses to protect the innocent side of ourselves.

There is a twist, though. By the time I finished watching the show last night I liked the werewolves. They were in a sense, wolves in human clothing, living out their pack mentality in a human context. The lone wolf's gruesome killings were natural and understandable in the light of his real identity. Perhaps that, too, reflects something within. Whereas I would never advocate that the serial child killer be "understood and liked for who he or she is," within ourselves we must beware of dualism that suggests that the evil within us is merely the counterpart of the good. Evil is always good corrupted. The werewolf was described as the result of a mutant strain of rabies that infected a human after a wolf-bite in the early middle ages. These "wolf people" were actually very sick people, corrupted from what they were intended to be. Likewise, the monsters in your closet are something good corrupted. In your fight with the evil within you do not neglect the good at its heart--it often proves to be your greatest genius.

Friday, October 23, 2009

I've never been very atuned to social niceties, I've just never been very good at them and covered with pious statements about not being concerned with what others thought of me. But when a recent Northwest Airline flight to Minneapolis overshot the city by 15o miles one of the passengers reported that the pilots said the reason was because they were "bickering about Northwest Airlines company policies," and they would be landing shortly.

Now even I know that the word "bickering" indicates a serious case of foot-in-mouth desease. "Distracted" would probably not have been much better. It seems the company spokesperson probably put the best possible spin on it and called it a "heated discussion." Jay Leno thinks they fell asleep. I know polititians who would have called it "searching for better ways to serve you."

So, when is it OK to "spin" the truth? And how far "spun" becomes a flat-out lie? Casuistry has never been my strong suit but I would argue that if your motivation is to save your own skin you may very well err on the deceptive side. If your motivation is to ease another's pain you will probably be better guided, even if it begins with a frank admission to the truth. After all, Jesus did a lot to ease others' pain in this life, and in the end gave His life to ease our eternal pain. That seems to be the more Godlike thing to do. So in the long run, maybe "bickering" wasn't the most politic thing to say, but coupled with a sincere apology, could have been the best.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Near Indianapolis a desperate young man jumped the barrier in a check-cashing store and demanded money at gunpoint from the terrified attendant. In her fear she instinctively began to pray, and as she prayed she began to talk to the young man, and tell him he ought to pray and not throw his life away like this. Over a period of time the man calmed down, and the two (get this!) spent about 30 minutes in prayer and discussion together. In the end the man handed the woman the only bullet in the gun, took $20, and left. He said he needed it to feed his 2-year-old. On the security cameras you see the two, assailant and victim, embrace before he leaves.

George Stephanopoulos reported the story on Good Morning America this morning and called it "grace."

Grace indeed, and whereas perhaps the majority of instances like this end up very differently, the fact that in this case gentleness and faith won out over cruelty and violence shows that grace indeed has the potential of yielding a powerfully transforming experience, something that the standard path of this world cannot muster.

So what are we going to bank on? Choosing the standard path is to put grace up for a vote that fails to entertain eternity. Choosing grace, even though most of the time we'll get hurt is to vote for heaven, and vote for the great reversal at the resolution of all things where finally the last shall be first and the first last.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

President Hamid Karzai has chosen to do something truly historical for Afghanistan. He has agreed to a run-off election between himself and his closest challenger, Abdullah Abdullah . This is historic because for the last 20 or more years the country has been the battleground between one strong-man against another.

When you are a strong-man any sign of weakness can spell the end of your career, and most likely your life. This could be interpreted as a sign of weakness--to acceed to the requests of the decadent and sinful West. I'm sure he will catch flack for it.

I know that concerns for the sense of legitimacy are part of his consideration, but on the other hand, weakness as a way toward reconciliation and unity is not something native to the strong-man mentality. Perhaps he is blazing new trails for this war-torn country.

Muslim though he is, however, his is also showing us something of Christ. Christ's way forward is by weakness. The greatest of all is the servant of all. Greater love has no man...Only in dying lies the potential of resurrection.

I would sure like to see him win again!
Catalino Tapia is a Mexican fellow who came to California early in life. When he got here he had $6 in his pocket that he called "capital." He got work as a gardener with a lawn-care company. After some years he went on his own. He got married, had a family, and worked to put his kids through school. His crowning moment was when his son graduated from UC Berkley school of law.

It inspired him to gather some of his friends who also had kids in college and do something about the economic difficulties that Hispanic students often face. He set up the Bay Area Gardener's Foundation (http://www.bagf.org/) and sought donations. The foundation grew, and last year awarded 21 scholarships of between $1500 and $2500. You do the math.

Why is this story inspiring? Yes, this man has realized the American Dream, but more than that. When ABC interviewed him they showed him in his own back yard--it was not as nice as mine. This man works for kids, not for himself.

Jesus worked for us, not for Himself. In fact, He gave Himself for us. He brought us abundant life, like Catarino does for his scholarship recipients. He gives us hope in the darkness like Catalino does for the poor of th Bay area. This story is inspiring because Catalino gives us a glimpse into the heart of God.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

This morning at Rotary I met a fine young Iraqi man who is living here seeking to help the U.S. Military correctly identify its targets in Iraq. I thanked him and welcomed him. We need more like him.

I can understand why there are Iraqis who do not want us to be in their country. Since the invasion the U.S. has lost 4349 service men and women according to icasualties.org. If you add the rest of the coalition forces it brings the total up to 4667. Add to that the 2993 who died in the attacks on 9/11/01 and you have a total of 7660. A recent report in the Killeen Daily Herald released the figure of 85,694 Iraqis who have died betwen January of 2004 and October of 2008. That does not include those who died in the initial invasion, because there was no functioning Iraqi government to keep records. It does not count the ones who have perished since Halloween last year. Comparing the two figures, our own losses counted to the max compared to this figure which is clearly limited you still have to admit that for every American loss more than 11 Iraqis have perished. We have lost just under 1% of what they have. For us to suffer equally would mean having 900,000 people die, someone from virtually every family in the country.

I can understand why some Iraqis don't want us in their country. Some, undoubtedly, do not want us to interfere with their extremist agendas, but I would guess that is an infintessimally small number. Some so strongly believe in their own sovreignty that, intending no harm at all to us, they still just want to be able to play house by their own rules. I would suspect that most resistance to our presence would fall into that favorite of sinful human exercises of blaming whoever is closest or most obvious for what hurts. The Americans come, masses of people die, it must be their fault.

On that one none of us can claim the higher ground. The headline article in the same issue of the KDH talked about a young man who has been indicted for first degree murder. The details of the case are not public knowledge yet, but I would bet a whole hill of beans on it going something like this: Someone wants something, someone else stands in the way of getting it. Instead of being content without it someone gets violent in order to get it. Life hurts and we don't want it to, so we find someone to blame.

Remember when it used to happen at home? Usually my mother could see through the situation immediately. We always got whatever was coming to us for what we did wrong, but there was always more. She would hold us and let us cry it out. In the end we felt kinda foolish for what we'd done, safe to be that way in the loving care of our mother.

Perhaps what we need along with all the military stuff is a place to "cry it out." Perhaps that place is already available to us...go find your clergy and say what needs to be said, and do what needs to be done. In the Bible it's called metanoia, otherwise known as repentance.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

In almost nine years living in the back yard of Fort Hood, Texas, it has become apparent to me that the business of war is not family friendly. It just isn't, has never been and won't ever be. It serves families by protecting them, but those engaged in the business of war have always struggled to actually have one. The higher up on the ladder you are the easier it is, but if you're one of the "grunts" it's a hard row to hoe.

According to the Killeen Daily Heald, General Cone, current III Corps Commander, is continuing an initiative put in place by his predecessor, General Lynch, called "Family First." It requires that soldiers be home by 6 p.m. on workdays except Thursday when they get off at 3, and no work on weekends. The tension in households around the greater Fort Hood area is tangibly lower with moms and dads home with families...until they deploy. Then the old sense of abandonment sets in again, the haunting feeling among spouses that they live with a partner who has a sanctioned mistress about which they can do very little.

In the article, however, General Cone referenced something very important. I quote the article in today's edition of the paper: "...holistic care of [families] and their soldiers is 'exactly what needs to be done.'" Holistic care will eventually filter up to the philosophy of military action in the life of a nation. How do you take care of people you are training to put their lives on the line for us? We can and ought to do whatever we can to help our soldiers be fit mentally, physically, morally and spiritually, (and I applaud the Family First concept on these grounds) because they tend to come home healthier than when they are distracted, sick and feeling beaten down. But there is ultimately a limit on what care the army is willing to take of families and still do its work as the military, Family First program notwithstanding. Perhaps the most significant initiative is one to decentralize authority. It sounds counter-intuitive for the military to decentralize authority, but soldiers who can make responsible and meaningful decisions at their levels, and who then have the authority to carry those decisions out are, according to numerous studies of effectiveness in the workplace, happier and more motivated to do well than those whose jobs are seen as arbitrary and meaningless. Ironically, according to General Cone (and my own observations from soldiers who have returned) soldiers tend to be given more discretionary authority in theater than at home. He is pushing to change that.

Obviously, Family First is not without its limits, and rightly so. No one should protect our soldiers from every danger or they would not be soldiers. Likewise, the Holy Spirit does not protect us from all temptation, or we would not be believers. Calculated risk is an inherent part of making responsible and meaningful decisions. Developing our moral and intellectual strength to be able to make those decisions well is not only part of psychological development, but spiritual development as well. God made us in God's own image and likeness, and when we use the gifts that God has given us and the mental capacity God has instilled in us to make honest, meaningful and responsible decisions that work for peace and the good of our neighbors then we have been, in a very small way, a little bit like God.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

In the 16th century a Carmelite monk died in relative dishonor shortly after getting out of a monastic prison (yes, there were such things.) He was 49 years old. After his death the popularity of his strikingly profound poetry drew a large following, and most of his body was removed to Segovia where it joined a collection of relics including a sliver from the cross and a charred twig from Moses' burning bush.

Strange as it sounds to our ears, the practice of venerating relics had a logic behind it. The saints from whom these artifacts trace their history were believed to have built up a surplus of merit with God, and those who in true faith venerated the relics could tap into that great storehouse of holiness to help cover some of their own lack.

This Sunday Leslie Hindman Auctioneers of Chicago will sell a bunch of hair purported to have been clipped from the head of Elvis Presley during his time in the military went to auction, along with a host of other elvis paraphenalia. They came from the collection of Elvis' friend and Gary Pepper, who died without heir and left it to his nurse.

The bids will tell whether we do not still believe in relics!
15 years in jail and Richard Miles is out of jail--on the recommendation of the judge that the convicted man's trail was flawed. It leaves me with tremendously conflicting feelings.

On one hand, I am so grateful for the work of groups like Centurion Ministries who watchdog the courts try to free the wrongfully convicted, and for judges humble enough to look back and say out loud that there might have been a mistake.

I'm also horrified at the flawed justice system we have. In the case of Mr. Miles if he is eventually declared innocent the State will reward him hansomely for the time lost, he will be a wealthy man, but at what cost? We put a lot of stake in our justice system, and the legislative and executive controls on it are not commensurate to the control the justice system has on the other two branches of government. But in our flawed and sinful state nothing is perfect.

And perhaps that is precisely the issue. Nothing is perfect. Everything, even my own heart, is a mixture of good and evil. On the one hand, our system makes mistakes, but on the other hand, I would much rather stand before our justice system than the vast majority of other systems on our planet. We do the best we can do, we try to be humble and admit and correct our mistakes, and we ask forgiveness for those things of which we are unaware.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Today is October 12th. In most of Latin America this is "Dia de la Raza," "Day of the Race." It celebrates the arrival of Christopher Columbus on the shores of a Caribean island and the great encounter of Western European culture with its economy, technology and deseases with two great American cultures with their economies, technology and deseases--first the Aztec of central Mexico and later the Inca in western South America. The encounter was characterized by warfare, looting, romanticism, intermarriage and eventually, the emergence of a race of people who are mixed in blood and culture. That mixture is refered to as "mestizo," or "mixture." People who identify themselves as mestizo comprise the vast majority of people in Latin America. Their first language is usually Spanish or Portuguese. They do not associate with the circles of power or with the indigenous populations, though they may very well speak their languages. They are in the middle of society, culture and race, they are mestizo. Christopher Columbus' arrival, with all the negative consequences, is nonetheless heralded as the seminal moment for the beginning of a people. This is their creation story. October 12 is celebrated universally as a day of great significance.

In the world dominated by those areas conquered by England and Germany, however, the sentiment is very different. The coming of the English and German happened later, and in many ways, in spite of Columbus, as if to capitalize on something belonging to another European Crown without having to pay dues. The English and German took very few local wives, but rather brought their women with them. Through warfare or deseases they replaced rather than mixed with the local peoples. The day is named for the man, not the result of his coming. The focus is on history of the day, not the history since that day. This is not a creation story, it is a stone in the creek across which a people stepped. Many people treated today as a normal work day, even schools and universities met in normal sessions.

An article in today's Killeen Daily Herald indicated that some schools were remembering Columbus and the events of his life. Characteristic of many school classrooms, an "accurate" rereading of history is sought that seeks to debunk the hero status of the man. The ill effects of his coming are discussed as well as the positive. His human errors are highlighted. One school classroom put him on trial, found him guilty of crimes against humanity, and sentenced him to life in prison. Obviously, these are Anglo-centric schools.

So who is right? Both and neither. Latin America is only now beginning to rethink its stance toward minorities, and it is calling into question the idealized view of the explorer that has held him in so high esteem for more than 500 years. It is long overdue. But on the other hand, their recognition of his coming as the seed of their race is rightly celebrated. Anglo-Americans are perhaps more objective in their reading of history, but must mitigate against use of this to hide a latent anti-Hispanic sentiment. They cannot disparage mestizos because Columbus wasn't always a saint. After all, most Anglo-Americans, if they took a careful look at their own histories, would find they, too, are mestizo, a melting-pot of races and cultures from many places, and most Hispanics, if they took a hard look at their own histories, would recognize their own indiscriminate elimination of minorities.

In the final analysis, it is only as we listen to one another openly and honestly, without giving up our own identity, that we can learn and grow into a community that honors diversity and celebrates unity. Perhaps that is even Godlike--the Christian God anyway, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three distinct persons in one unified Godhead.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Pentecost 19, Proper 23 October 11, 2009
St. Christopher's Episcopal Church Rev. Paul Moore

Radical Discipleship

I recently read a book by an 18th century theologian named William Law. When I first got into the book my response was, "This man is a Puritan in Anglican clothing!" He argues for strict adherence to daily prayers at dawn, at 9, at noon, at 3, at nightfall, and just before going to bed. He only lacks one for the 7 monastic hours. And he gives you a theme for each time, arguing the suitability of it for that time of day. He recommends chanting the psalm, because of what it does to your soul. He's very persuasive.

He argues for the godly use of money: Anything over what it takes to live a decent life should be dedicated to caring for the poor. It is God's requirement that we use our resources to care for the needy, for in doing so we care for Him. He argues for the godly use of leisure: Dances, parties and the playhouse are all wastes of our time, they distract the soul, and put into our heads ideas and values that are not godly. The last chapter is, perhaps, the most commanding. He takes on the argument that religion is for the weak of constitution and intelligence. He argues that if you had a benefactor that supplied what you needed, would you not take care to cultivate your relationship with that person? If you had someone who cared for your physical wellbeing, would you not hold that person in high regard? If you had a prince who demanded good from his subjects, would you not obey? How, then, do we not hold our relationship with God, who is our ultimate benefactor, care-giver and King, the highest level of importance in our lives? The name of the book: A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.

Jesus is constantly making a serious case for a devout and holy life. A young man comes up to Him just as He is about to leave on a trip. Apparently it didn’t seem like that much of an interruption, all he wanted was a quick and easy answer. We do that to things of secondary importance in our lives. The man asks Jesus, “What must I do to be saved?” Quick and easy answer there—we all know the answer to that one, right? "Whoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved" Paul says it in Romans 10:13, giving voice to Psalms 38 and 116. But Jesus doesn't give him that answer, because he knows it. What the young man doesn’t understand is that knowledge and action must be connected or it's not really knowledge. In other words, Jesus is setting the pattern picked up by William Law.

So Jesus sets the trap: “Why do you call me ‘good?’ (as if to quickly and easily ascribe to Me something you don't understand?) What do the commandments say?” But the man gets defensive: “I've done all these things since my youth.” The man is obviously either lying through his teeth or he's in serious denial. Jesus gives him the simple answer which is also the hardest one. Go, rid yourself of the one idol that rules in God's place in your heart. Sell your rather substantial estate and give it to the poor, and let Me reign in your heart instead. One of the saddest lines in the Bible follows: The man went away sad, for he had many possessions.

The disciples are astounded. In a world where possessions were an indication of God's favor and poverty was evidence of God's curse, to choose poverty as the path toward godliness ran against everything they thought about God's favor. But God is not money, and the lack of money is not the lack of God. The one who is serious about a spiritual walk will always seek to debunk the idol that so quickly steals onto the throne of one's heart. No wonder many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

The serious call to a devout and holy life is the call to the stewardship of one's soul. It recognizes that one cannot separate the outer actions that express our stewardship of life and the effect those actions have on our inner life. In fact, that inner life is the source and foundation of our outer life. If the inner life is not right nothing on the outside will be right. Good works will be done in pride, not faith, they will help the one helped, but not the one who helps. Gifts to the Church will be done selfishly, rather than generously. The church will benefit, but not the giver. Learning will be done in order to lord it over others. The truth will be known, but it will be of no avail. Prayer will be made as an attempt to get God to do what one wants. The time with God will only mitigate against the substance of the prayers made.

Being a steward of one’s soul is to be on a conscious process of integration of the Gospel into one's innermost being. It requires the discipline of awareness, of becoming aware of what one is really doing, and then digging down to the real reason why.

Here are some guiding questions that can help you probe each aspect of your inner life. Consider that you can divide your life into these three categories: Your time, your possessions, and your relationships. About each of these ask yourself these three questions:

1. Why do I spend my _______ as I do?
2. What does that tell me about what is really important to me?
3. How does that square with the demands of Christ?

Stewardship of the soul is not just about prayer, it is about the whole of life, for just as Jesus said, "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matthew 12:34.) So also, out of the abundance of the heart the soul prays, serves and worships. Perhaps William Law has something to say to our day, too.