Sunday, February 18, 2018

A Craven Madness

For God did not give us a craven spirit, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.
II Timothy 1:7

Four years ago, after a troubled young man shot and killed three people in Isla Vista, California, Richard Martinez, whose son was one of the victims, made an impassioned plea for gun control.

In a series of interviews, Martinez called out the “gutless politicians” whose unwillingness to implement any meaningful restrictions in the availability of firearms was a major factor in his son’s killing. 

"Why did Chris die?" he yelled in one interview. "Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA. They talk about gun rights. What about Chris' right to live?"

The Onion published it's own commentary on gun violence.

I love the satire in The Onion, but this seemed in very bad taste. Above a picture of grieving college students was the headline: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” The article is short and it isn’t funny at all:
ISLA VISTA, CA—In the days following a violent rampage in southern California in which a lone attacker killed seven individuals, including himself, and seriously injured over a dozen others, citizens living in the only country where this kind of mass killing routinely occurs reportedly concluded Tuesday that there was no way to prevent the massacre from taking place. “This was a terrible tragedy, but sometimes these things just happen and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them,” said North Carolina resident Samuel Wipper, echoing sentiments expressed by tens of millions of individuals who reside in a nation where over half of the world’s deadliest mass shootings have occurred in the past 50 years and whose citizens are 20 times more likely to die of gun violence than those of other developed nations. “It’s a shame, but what can we do? There really wasn’t anything that was going to keep this guy from snapping and killing a lot of people if that’s what he really wanted.” At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past five years were referring to themselves and their situation as 'helpless.'”
Not funny, but precisely to the point.

Why are we unable to do anything? Why are we so addicted to guns? And I know that three of the seven victims in Isla Vista were killed with a knife, so we could also ask why we are so addicted to violence. But guns are the common denominator in mass killings over the years.

As comedian John Oliver once said, "One failed attempt at a shoe bomb and we all take off our shoes at the airport. Thirty-one school shootings since Columbine and no change in our regulation of guns."

After 9/11 we made drastic changes in airport security. Basically, we search everyone. We won’t allow anything more deadly than a paperclip carried on an airplane. We limit shampoo bottles to 3.4 ounces. We won’t let anyone park anywhere near the boarding areas. We tolerate restrictions that once would have seemed bizarre. And we do all of this to prevent another tragedy.

The total death toll on 9/11 was 2,996. The number still looks horrific. Even one death is too many. 

But more than 30,000 people die each year in America from firearms. We have lost approximately 500,000 lives to firearms since 9/11. This is madness. 

To borrow the word shared by Mr. Martinez and the Apostle Paul, this is a craven madness.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

*An original version of this post was published on May 28, 2014.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Bad News on the Doorstep

And in the streets: the children screamed,
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed.
But not a word was spoken;
The church bells all were broken.
And the three men I admire most:
The father, son, and the holy ghost,
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died.
Don McLean

If people are not screaming in the streets (and maybe they should be), they are surely screaming on TV.

There is plenty of bad news, though not as many people find it on the doorstep. Those of us who still want to get the news from a newspaper are much more likely to find it at the end of the driveway. But I am not focused on current events right now. I am thinking about music rather than the famous memo.

And I am thinking about the past rather than the present.

Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J. P. Richardson (the Big Bopper) died fifty-nine years ago today in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa.

They were on a tour called "The Winter Dance Party," which was scheduled to cover two dozen Midwestern cities in three weeks. The logistical challenges of transporting several bands by bus to so many cities in such a short time were significant. When they got to Clear Lake, Holly suggested to his band mates that they charter a plane to take them to the next stop in Moorhead, Minnesota.

They made arrangements for a 21 year-old local pilot, Roger Peterson, to fly them in a 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza. The plane seated three passengers in addition to the pilot. Because he had developed a case of the flu, Richardson asked Waylon Jennings if he would agree to give up his seat on the plane. When Holly heard about it, he told Jennings he hoped the “ol’ bus freezes up,” and Jennings responded in jest, "Well, I hope your ol' plane crashes". Those words would haunt Waylon Jennings for the rest of his life.

The plane crashed shortly after take-off, caused by a combination of bad weather and pilot error. Because he was unfamiliar with the instruments in the Beechcraft, the young pilot may have thought the plane was ascending when it was actually going down.

I was too young to really notice when it happened. I was not old enough to care about Rock and Roll. But I feel a melancholy sadness looking back.

The music didn’t really die. In fact, you can argue that it got better. But I cannot listen to Buddy Holly without thinking that something wonderful was lost. The music was special.

On this day I am reminded (if I need reminding) that life is fragile and precious, and that every day is a gift.

Everyday it's a gettin' closer,
Goin' faster than a roller coaster,
Love like yours will surely come my way,


Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

*The original version of this post was first published on February 3. 2011

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

And the Greatest of These Is Love

Captain Daniel Hall and Captain Vinny Franchino
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body to be burned, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. 
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
I Corinthians 13:1-8,13

On February 24, 2004 I spoke at a press conference of clergy supporting equal marriage. I remember the date because it was Elaine's birthday and in my remarks I referenced our marriage of (at that time) thirty-five years. 

"As a Christian," I said, "my support for same sex marriage is rooted and grounded in the theology of marriage itself. Marriage is a covenant between two people; a promise made before God and the community to love one another forever. We make this commitment in spite of the fact that we know that forever is not ours to give; it belongs to God. And the fulfillment of the commitment is never just a human effort; it is always a gift of grace."

Not long after that a woman in her eighties, one of the saints of the congregation, asked me to visit with her. She wanted to talk with me about her grandson who had recently told her that he was gay and that he was in a serious relationship.

The grandson and his partner had been fighter pilots in the Navy. They were graduates of Annapolis. But in the era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” they had resigned their commissions and taken civilian jobs in the Pentagon. Even so, they were worried that if their relationship were known it could jeopardize their security clearances.

The young man’s parents, a wonderful couple, had been invited to share in the discussion and it was clear that they were fully supportive of their son. Their only concern was that we all understood the need for complete confidentiality.

Mildred was comforted by the thought that there were responsible and thoughtful Christians who supported same sex relationships. And she was glad that I was supporting equal marriage, but she could not completely let go of the reservations that she had lived with for so many decades.

The memory of Mildred’s grandson came to mind when I read the story of two Apache helicopter pilots who became the first active-duty same sex couple to be married in the chapel at the West Point military academy. Captain Daniel Hall and Captain Vinny Franchino met at West Point in 2009 when Hall was a senior and Franchino was a first year.

“We couldn’t tell the truth for fear of what would happen to us,” Franchino told a reporter. “So we put it in our minds that we were never going to say we were gay, we were never going to get made fun of, and we were certainly never going to get kicked out of the Army.”

When congress repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2011, the couple felt safe enough to go out on their first date, which took place in 2012.

Franchino said that although he’s been through a lot with his new husband, nothing was worse than when he had to hide his identity.

“We’ve experienced everything from people feeling awkward around us to being called faggots while holding hands and walking down the street, stuff like that,” Franchino said. “But despite what we’ve been through, nothing was worse than having served during the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ years.”

Mildred passed away before the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and I don’t know what became of her grandson and his partner. I would like to think they were married in the chapel at Annapolis and have been living happily ever after.

But this is a story that still casts a dark shadow.

One wonders how it is possible for the United States Army to be more loving than our beloved United Methodist Church. How can the army be ahead of the church when it comes to accepting and affirming our gay and lesbian siblings?

And as happy as I am to see a photo of the army captains embracing under the traditional arch of crossed swords after leaving the chapel, reading some of the comments on the story reminded me how deeply the Christian faith has been wounded by the hatefulness of some of those who call themselves by that name.

Consider this:
“An act of hate against God, mocking marriage. I have to wonder what these two boys are expecting to accomplish, committing such a sin. Homosexuals will not inherit the Kingdom of God, after all, if they choose to be enslaved to that spiritual disorder.”
Or this:
“Despite the efforts of a liberal of a liberal society to normalize this behavior, it is not and never will be. This country is bombarded daily with stories of the ‘first gays to _________’(fill in the blank). Call me what you want, but I will never accept, condone, support, or recognize this behavior as anything but immoral and against the laws of God and nature.”
There is no excuse for such hatefulness. And disguising it as Christian faith just makes it worse. The comments are crudely written, but more polite language would not make the sentiments less offensive. Those who dress up such views with cleaner rhetoric do no less damage.

This is toxic. It is unloving and it is unlovable. 

It is a slander to our faith.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Friday, January 19, 2018

All My Tomorrows (On Janis Joplin's Birthday)

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become servants of one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Galatians 5:13-14

Paul did not agree with Kris Kristofferson’s assessment that “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” 

But then again, Paul never heard it sung by Janis Joplin.

She would be seventy-five years old today.

My brain has a hard time imagining Janis Joplin at seventy-five, but she certainly left us way too soon.

She was the lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company when they came to Wesleyan on March 9, 1968. Fifty years ago this spring. A month before Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. Three months before Bobby Kennedy. Eight months before we elected Richard Nixon.

But when I hear her singing in my head I don’t think about national events. I think about that great talent lost. The wrenching pain that drove her to greatness and ultimately pushed her over the edge. 

When she was at the University of Texas, as a fraternity prank, some guys nominated her for “Ugliest Man on Campus.” There must be a special place in hell for people who think that’s funny.

The acne scars. The tangled hair. When I hear Faith Hill sing her version of “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart,” I wonder if two people could ever be more different than Faith Hill and Janis Joplin.

Everyone sings sad songs. And every singer wants you to believe that they have lived the blues. But Janis Joplin didn’t need to convince anyone.

In Kris Kristofferson’s “Me & Bobby McGee,” she sang one of the most poignant lines of all time: “I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday.” 

As it turned out, she did not have very many tomorrows to trade.

Sometimes yesterday seems so much better than today. In my head, it is not Bobby McGee, but Janis Joplin, who is singing. And feeling good was easy then, when Janis sang the blues. 

“Me & Bobby McGee” is a dark vision. But it is despair delivered with a driving beat that makes you want to sing along. The words are dark but the music is bright.

In many ways, faith is about trading yesterday for tomorrow. Maybe not without regret, but certainly with hope.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Christmas: A Lesson to Be Lived

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Luke 2:15-20

Like Mary, we should treasure the words of the story and ponder their meaning.

Unfortunately, if we do that, our peaceful holiday cheer will soon be displaced by a deep discomfort at the huge disconnect between the biblical message and our commercialized celebration of the holiday. Even before Jesus was born, in the proclamation brought by the angels to Zechariah and to Mary, Luke tells us that the baby will bring a challenging message about transforming our lives and the world around us.

On Christmas Eve, our Christmas Pageant closed with a wonderful poem by Howard Thurman,  an African American preacher and theologian, who was Dean of the Chapel at Boston University from 1953 to 1964. The poem is about what it means to take the Christmas message seriously. It is titled, “The Work of Christmas.”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
           To find the lost,
           To heal the broken,
           To feed the hungry
           To release the prisoners,
           To rebuild the nations,
           To bring peace among people,
           To make music in the heart

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Tax Reform (The Magnificat in Reverse)

He has brought down the powerful 
from their thrones, 
and lifted up the lowly; 
he has filled the hungry with good things, 
and sent the rich away empty.
Luke 1:52-53

The new congressional tax bill is not tax reform. It is just tax cutting. And it is not just cutting taxes; it is distributing the overwhelming majority of those cuts to the wealthiest among us.

And it is not just at all.

The wealthiest 1% of all Americans already control substantially more than the bottom 90%. Under the new tax bill that top group will gain a little bit more.

This is the Magnificat in reverse. The rich are filled with good things and the poor are sent away empty.

Of course the theory-- and we should be clear that this is a political theory without any economic evidence to back it up-- is that if the wealthiest people have more money they will invest it in enterprises that will benefit everyone. Right now the wealthiest individuals and corporations are sitting on a lot of capital. The theory is that if they had more capital they would create jobs and raise wages.

This has not worked in the past, but (apparently) hope springs eternal.

For at least four decades the American economy has been devoted to a massive redistribution of income from the bottom to the top. The gap between the richest Americans and the poorest Americans has been growing, and the middle class has been shrinking.

And let’s be clear. This gap has widened under both Republican and Democratic presidents. There have been different rates of increase but there have been no great reversals.

President Obama made income inequality a major policy priority. He was able to reverse the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans while maintaining those cuts for the middle class, and he was able to expand healthcare for middle and low income families. But those modest policy changes were more than offset by the massive gains in pretax income that went to the wealthiest Americans as the economy recovered from the crash of 2008.

The new tax bill will deal a possibly fatal blow to the Affordable Care Act. By repealing the individual mandate, the bill will result in 13 million more Americans without health insurance. That number could rise if the increase in premiums caused by the repeal of the individual mandate causes premium costs to rise dramatically. We know that premiums will go up. We don’t know how much they will go up. 

This is not unintended. 

In a celebratory gathering on the White House lawn, Mr. Trump deviated from his prepared remarks to offer a candid assessment: “I shouldn’t say this, but we essentially repealed Obamacare.”

As Dana Milbank reported in the Washington Post:
“Trump, in a Cabinet meeting earlier Wednesday, let his fleeting encounter with honesty get the better of him when he read aloud the stage directions that called for Republicans not to advertise that they were killing Obamacare. ‘Obamacare has been repealed in this bill. We didn’t want to bring it up,’ he said. ‘I told people specifically, "'Be quiet with the fake-news media because I don’t want them talking too much about it.”’ Because I didn’t know how people would —.’ Trump didn’t finish that thought, but he said he could admit what had been done ‘now that it’s approved.’”
Unfortunately, the Affordable Care Act may not be the only casualty.

When the deficit increases, and we know it will, lawmakers will be “forced” to “reform entitlements.”  By “entitlements,” they mean Social Security and Medicare. And by “reform,” they mean cut.

So the rich will have their taxes cut and the poor and the middle class will have their Social Security and Medicare cut. 

Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

"When You're a Star, They Let You Do It"

Trump and Gingrich share the stage at a campaign rally.

“With what shall I come before the LORD,
   and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
   with calves a year old? 
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
   with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
   the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ 
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
   and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God?”
Micah 6:6-8

On January 31, 1999 I preached on the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton. The Lectionary text from the Hebrew Scriptures was that familiar passage from Micah.

I began with a quotation from Martin Luther: “If you preach the gospel in every aspect except for the controversial issues of your time, then you have not preached the gospel at all.”

I now know that Luther did not actually include the adjective “controversial,” but in those days before I checked everything on the internet, I was working from my memory of what someone else had quoted as what Luther said.

Luther’s comments had haunted me for months as I carefully avoided anything beyond a few oblique references to impeachment.

I had avoided it for good reasons. First, there was the danger of too much opinion and too little Bible. Second, I didn’t want to make people unhappy by talking about an unhappy topic. And finally, I did not believe that it was a matter of the soul—it wasn’t where we were living.

At the end of the sermon I asserted two conclusions.

The first was that committing adultery and lying about it ought not to be an impeachable offense.

The second was that President Clinton ought to resign. Monica Lewinsky was an intern. She was barely an adult. He should have been her protector rather than her abuser.

There was more, of course, I talked about the prophetic tradition, about concepts of justice and mercy and humility, and I threw in a heavy dose of Reinhold Niebuhr. But the bottom line for me was that he ought to resign.

My memories of the Clinton impeachment hearings came back to me as I watched with amazement while the charges of sexual misconduct piled up against celebrities and politicians.

When I preached the sermon in 1999 I did not know that the chief architect of the impeachment process, Newt Gingrich, was cheating on his second wife at the same time that he was self-righteously condemning Bill Clinton. Ironically, Gingrich was having an affair with a staff aide who was barely older than Ms. Lewinsky.

It is a somewhat perverse characteristic of human nature that by divorcing his second wife and marrying his mistress he made his affair somehow seem more acceptable. The Clintons, on the other hand, are widely pilloried for staying together. And to make that strangely commonplace judgment even stranger, it is Hillary Clinton who is more widely condemned. 

But all of that is ancient history.

The present tsunami of allegations is unprecedented. And so is the reaction, which seems to indicate that as a society we will not tolerate this any longer.

The bad news is that sexual harassment and sexual abuse and far more widespread than many of us would have imagined. The good news is that women are being taken more seriously. 

And now there are consequences.

Al Franken, John Conyers, Blake Farenthold, and Trent Franks have all been forced to resign. And Roy Moore was defeated.

Donald Trump alone remains apparently unscathed by the allegations against him. And the sweep of the allegations is breathtaking. 

Newsweek reports that Mr. Trump “has been accused of rape and attempted rape a total of three times, once involving an alleged victim who was a year younger than Moore's accuser.”

He has been accused of walking in on beauty pageant contestants, some of whom were teenagers, while they were changing.

And, at last count, nineteen women have come forward to accuse Mr. Trump of sexual misconduct. The Atlantic has helpfully summarized the allegations and the corresponding response from the President.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Trump has denied everything. When a reporter asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, “Is the official White House position that all of these women are lying?”, she responded with a resounding affirmation: “Yeah, we’ve been clear on that from the beginning, and the president’s spoken on it.”

In addition to the denials, the President has also attacked the women by calling them liars and by making fun of their physical appearance, saying that they were not attractive enough for him to want to sexually assault them.

Really. That’s what he said. And he said it more than once.

Other men who have been accused have responded with denials. Some have issued only half-hearted apologies, but none of them have attacked the victims as Mr. Trump has done.

But wait.

You know there’s more.

Mr. Trumps case is unique in that he is the only one who has bragged about his sexual assaults. “When you’re a star,” he boasted, “they let you do it.”

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.