Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Numbers Tell the Story

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.
Matthew 5:9

Yesterday in the waiting room at a doctor’s office, I was leafing through an old news magazine and listening to the conversation around me. A woman was speaking to a man on the opposite side of the room. “How old do you think I am?” she asked. The gentleman demurred, wisely saying that he was not very good with ages. “I’m eighty-one,” she said proudly. “Do I look it?” The gentleman told her that she looked very good.

After a few minutes of silence, she asked again, “How old do you think I am?” Her son, sitting next to her, said, “Ma, you just told him how old you are.” But she was undeterred, “I’m eighty-two,” she said. Before anyone could point out that less than five minutes ago she had told the man that she was eighty-one, she explained, “I just turned eighty-two.”

Apparently, I thought to myself, I really have been here for a long time. But the son chimed in, “You’re right, Ma, you turned eighty-two last Sunday.”

As the conversation was going on, I was looking at a section in the magazine called, “Numbers,” and half-way down the page I saw this:

104,295The number of Vietnamese
killed by abandoned landmines
or explosive devices since
the end of the Vietnam War.

I scribbled down the number just before I was called to see the doctor.

It seemed impossible. I had heard of the dangers of landmines. Remember Princess Diana? But I could not imagine that scale. By contrast, there have been about 4,500 United States Military deaths in Iraq since the war there began in March of 2003. How could civilian deaths in Vietnam since the end of the war possibly be more than twenty times the (U.S.) military deaths in the Iraq war?

So I checked. And I received a brief but shocking education.

104,295 is not the number of deaths; it is the number of casualties. Right now, the casualty number is actually a few hundred higher than that.

The number of landmine related deaths in Vietnam since the end of the war is a little less than 40,000.

Still, it is a staggering number. And we hear very little about it. When one of our soldiers is killed in Iraq or Afghanistan by an I.E.D. (Improvised Explosive Device) we hear about it. But when a child is blown up by an abandoned landmine in Vietnam, or Cambodia, or Angola, or Rwanda, or a host of other countries, it does not make the news.

A recent UNICEF report explains the geography of this destruction: “Afghanistan, Angola and Cambodia have suffered 85 per cent of the world's land-mine casualties. Overall, African children live on the most mine-plagued continent, with an estimated 37 million mines embedded in the soil of at least 19 countries. Angola alone has an estimated 10 million land-mines and an amputee population of 70,000, of whom 8,000 are children. Since May 1995 children have made up about half the victims of the 50,000-100,000 anti-personnel mines laid in Rwanda.”

And the report goes on to say that “Children are particularly vulnerable to land-mines in a number of ways. If they are too young to read or are illiterate, signs posted to warn them of the presence of mines are useless. Also, children are far more likely to die from their mine injuries than are adults. Of those maimed children who survive, few will receive prostheses that keep up with the continued growth of their stunted limbs.”

The UNICEF report speaks of landmines as “contamination” and “pollution.” But isn’t it more accurately called a form of terrorism?

Landmines are widely used because they are incredibly cost-effective. They can be produced for as little as $3, and they can be dispersed at a rate of up to 1,000 per minute. They are always on duty. They never sleep. And they never give up. Actually that last one is an exaggeration, apparently they typically remain active for up to fifty years. That’s not really forever, but it is a long time.

Getting rid of them, on the other hand, is extremely expensive and time consuming.

Jesus tells a series of parables about the cost of discipleship. In one of them, he talks about a king’s rash decision to go to war without counting the cost and gauging the strength of his enemy. But as the great Christian pacifist A. J. Muste said, our real enemy is not another king, our real enemy is war itself. In a pamphlet titled, “War Is the Enemy,” Muste argues that we believe that non-violence is too costly, but we never really consider making the same investments in peace that we make in war.

And, we might add, when we consider the cost of war we seldom account for the collateral damage that may occur decades after the fighting is over.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Cost of Christmas

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
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 1:51-53
Last year Americans spent about $450 billion on Christmas presents. In round numbers, that comes to $1,500 for every man, woman and child. In a reversal of Mary’s song of praise, with few exceptions, that money has been spent to fill the rich with good things.

I’m guessing that when Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The Cost of Discipleship,” this isn’t what he had in mind. We spend a lot more on Christmas than we do on discipleship.

What does that say about us as Christians?

In the fourth verse of her Christmas Carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” Christina Rossetti writes,

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wise man, I would do my part;
yet what can I give him; give my heart.
But the reality is that the vast majority of the people singing that carol are not poor. And we are capable of giving much more than a lamb. When we sing about giving him our hearts, it touches us deeply, but we are not really serious about it. If we were serious about it, then we would live differently.

We will never close the gap between our lives as they are, and our lives as we know they ought to be. And there will always be a disconnect between the message of Christmas and the way we live that out. But we can make a start.

Howard Thurman, who was Dean of the Chapel at Boston University for many years, wrote a wonderful poem 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.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Boogaard's Brain

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.I Corinthians 9:24-27Derek Boogaard was known to hockey fans as one of the fiercest fighters ever to play in the NHL.

He died last May at the age of 28. He killed himself. We don’t know whether he did it on purpose or by mistake, but he died of a drug and alcohol overdose.

His brain was examined by researchers from Boston University. The results came in a conference call to the family in October. Derek Boogaard had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known as C.T.E., a disease related to Alzheimer’s. Positive diagnosis can only be made posthumously, but researchers say the symptoms include memory loss, impulsiveness, mood swings, and addiction.

More than 20 former professional football players have been posthumously diagnosed with C.T.E., as well as many boxers. What makes the Boogaard case different, and very troubling, is that he was still in his 20’s, in what should have been the prime of his career. The researchers told Derek’s family that they were shocked to see such advanced disease in someone so young.

The results set off a flurry of investigations, hand-wringing, and well-intentioned pronouncements from people in the hockey world. Almost everyone agrees that something must be done. What is surprising to me is the almost unanimous agreement that whatever is done must not change “the character of the game.” What they mean by that is that fighting is and will remain integral to NHL hockey.

Fighting is not permitted in youth or high school or college. It is not permitted in European hockey or in the Olympics. And everyone loves Olympic hockey. But it belongs in the NHL.

Which causes me to wonder if Derek Boogaard isn’t the only guy who took too many shots to the head.

Fighting is not the only cause of head injuries in hockey. It may not even be the major cause. Players are bigger and faster, and the collisions are more damaging.

And all of this is part of a larger pattern in sports.

More than ever, players talk about intimidation. It’s not about checking, it’s about “hitting.” And in football, no one tackles anymore; they “hit” the guy with the ball. If one player hits another with enough force, it is referred to as “blowing him up.” Even basketball coaches and analysts talk about one team intimidating another.

Football helmets, which were introduced to prevent injuries, and began life as leather padded caps, are now used as weapons. The highlights shown over and over are not of tackles, they are of flying bodies and huge collisions. It’s exciting and it sells.

Do you remember Ted Johnson? He played linebacker for the Patriots and he was once a Super Bowl champion. But repeated concussions turned him into a shell of his former self. He lost his career, his wife, and his whole life collapsed.

The NHL and the NFL are both concerned about concussions. And they should be. They are looking at rule changes, and they should look at rule changes.

But in a broader perspective, this is about our vision and our values as a culture. Why do we find the violence so appealing? How many Derek Boogaards or Ted Johnsons will it take before we decide that we have had enough?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Tim Tebow's Very Public Faith

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
Psalm 1:1-3
The most hated man in the National Football League right now is Tim Tebow, quarterback of the Denver Broncos, who has led his team to seven improbable, almost miraculous victories, in the last eight games.

It seems like every other caller on the sports talk shows is phoning in to say how much they despise him. Hating Tim Tebow has become a national pastime.

Callers are irate that Tebow seems to begin every interview by saying, “First, I’d like to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” And they hate it that almost every success is quickly followed by dropping to one knee in prayer. This act of spontaneous prayer has been labeled, “Tebowing.” The Global Language Monitor, a website which monitors global language trends, has announced that “Tebowing” has officially entered the English language. One definition says that Tebowing is getting down on one knee and praying even if everyone around you is doing something completely different.

I don’t share Tim Tebow’s theology, and we would disagree on a wide variety of social issues, but as a football player, he is fun to watch, and I think the world could use at least a little more “Tebowing.” Wouldn’t it be great if more people would get down on one knee and pray when everyone around them was doing something completely different?

Given the variety of unpleasant things professional athletes have said in post-game interviews and the number of unpleasant gestures we see at football games, it is hard to see how Tebow’s public profession of faith can generate so much hostility. Praying on one knee is way better than a lot of the touchdown celebrations we see.

But the irate callers insist that it is simply not appropriate at football games. They don’t go to football games to see people pray. And they don’t need a football player telling them what to believe.

For his part, Tebow seems unfazed by the furor. When a reporter asked him how he felt about so many people saying they hated him, he said simply, “I’m living my dream. I’ve dreamed of playing professional football since I was seven years old. I don’t care what they say.” He is cheerful and respectful and polite.

Tebow’s pastor, Wayne Hanson, who pastors the Summit Church in Suburban Denver, says that the Broncos are winning because of their quarterback’s faith. “It’s not luck,” Hanson said. “Luck isn’t winning six games in a row. It’s favor. God’s favor.” He believes that the Broncos would not be winning if God had not decided to reward Tebow for his faithfulness.

Tebow himself seems to have a more mature theological understanding than his pastor, and he has consistently rejected those sorts of pronouncements. He is happy and he clearly delights in his faith. But he does not claim divine favor in his successes. He talks about a team that believes in itself and teammates who believe in each other. He talks about the strength of the Denver defense and about how he is just trying to do his part.

In the strange world of talk radio, callers at one end of the dial were calling the sports show to say how much they despised Tim Tebow’s religion on the football field, while at the other end of the dial callers were phoning the public affairs show to say how much they despised Lincoln Chafee for keeping religion out of the tree lighting at the State House.

How weird is that?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Gay Rights Are Human Rights

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
Genesis 1:1-5
One of the most fundamental biblical observations is that words matter.

God speaks and things happen. The heavens and the earth are created by the Word of God.

The Bible is clear that there is a difference between divine speech and human speech. Our words are limited and finite. We cannot speak the world into being. But human speech carries within it echoes of the divine.

On Tuesday, in Geneva, Switzerland, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a remarkable and important speech in recognition of International Human Rights Day.

She noted that the Declaration was enacted when the world was still reeling from the horrors and atrocities of World War II. The document was drafted over a two year period, culminating in one last long night of debate with the final approval coming at three o’clock in the morning on December 10, 1948. Forty-eight nations voted in favor of the Declaration; eight abstained, but no nation voted against it. The Declaration proclaims a basic truth, that all human beings are born with basic rights. These rights are not conferred by governments, they are inherent in our common humanity.

Over the years since that declaration, the world has made great progress. Barriers to liberty and equality have been dismantled. Racist laws have been repealed. Laws relegating women to second class citizenship have been abolished. Religious minorities have been protected.

After looking back, Secretary Clinton looked ahead. “Today,” she announced forcefully, “I want to talk about the work we have left to do to protect one group of people whose human rights are still denied in too many parts of the world today. In many ways, they are an invisible minority. They are arrested, beaten, terrorized, even executed. Many are treated with contempt and violence by their fellow citizens while authorities empowered to protect them look the other way or, too often, even join in the abuse. They are denied opportunities to work and learn, driven from their homes and countries, and forced to suppress or deny who they are to protect themselves from harm.”

The human rights challenge to which she called the delegates was for “gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.” The Secretary was quick to confess that “I speak about this subject knowing that my own country's record on human rights for gay people is far from perfect. Until 2003, it was still a crime in parts of our country. Many LGBT Americans have endured violence and harassment in their own lives, and for some, including many young people, bullying and exclusion are daily experiences. So we, like all nations, have more work to do to protect human rights at home.”

It was an historic speech.

Secretary Clinton acknowledged that sixty years ago when the original Declaration was adopted, no one thought of the rights of LGBT people. And she acknowledged deeply held beliefs and traditions that opposed those rights.

Hillary Clinton is a United Methodist Christian, and she has on many occasions spoken of how her Methodist upbringing and the teachings of John Wesley have influenced her life. In calling for change she used a classically Wesleyan argument. She observed that our understanding evolves. Once we believed that slavery was ordained by God. Once we believed that women ought to be second class citizens. Experience changes us. We learn and grow.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. popularized the insight of the Rev. Theodore Parker, used first in the debates about slavery, that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. John Wesley never used that language, but he understood that insight. Secretary Clinton did not speak of a moral arc, but she did talk about being on the right side of history.

And Secretary Clinton also announced that the rights of LGBT people will be a factor in decisions about United States foreign aid.

One speech, even an historic speech, will not change the world. But it is an important first step. And eventually, the world will change.

To read the full address, use this link:

The Real Meaning of Christmas

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.Luke 2:1-7
After Governor Lincoln Chafee issued an invitation to the annual tree lighting ceremony at the State House, his office received about 3,500 calls in protest. Seven hundred were from Rhode Islanders, and the rest were from out of state. The callers were upset that the Governor called it a “Holiday Tree” rather than a “Christmas Tree.”

As far as we know, when Governor Don Carcieri issued the same announcement in 2009, and called it a “Holiday Tree” no one said anything. The same for Lincoln Almond many years earlier.

But this year our Holiday Tree was in the news from coast to coast.

Yesterday, protestors crashed the Holiday Tree lighting ceremony in the State House Rotunda. One man carried a large sign that announced, “Saving Christmas, One Tree at a Time.” And a few dozen “Christmas Carolers” interrupted a Children’s Chorus to sing “O Christmas Tree.” I’m sure the children will remember that as a wonderful witness to the true meaning of Christmas.

As Tiny Tim said, “God bless us, everyone!”

(And just for the record, “O Christmas Tree” is not really about the birth of Jesus, it’s about the evergreen tree.)

Further down Smith Street, Bishop Thomas Tobin led a Christmas tree lighting at a Roman Catholic Church. He compared Governor Chafee to the innkeeper in Bethlehem who turned away Mary and Joseph.

That seems a little harsh. At the least, it’s unfair to the innkeeper, who didn’t turn them away at all. He did the best he could. Because there was no more room in the house, he invited them to stay in the stable beneath the house.

A Cranston man, who came to the State House to protest calling it a Holiday Tree, said of the Governor, "He's trying to put our religion down. It's a Christmas tree. It always has been and it always will be, no matter what that buffoon says it is."

For his part, the governor stood by his decision. "If it's in my house it's a Christmas tree, but when I'm representing all of Rhode Island I have to be respectful of everyone," he explained after the tree lighting. "Now we can get back to next year's budget ... with pleasure."

The ironies in the story are wonderfully amusing. And it’s all mostly harmless fun. But I do wonder about the children, whose performance was interrupted. What did they learn about Christians and about Christmas?