Sunday, January 25, 2015

“The worm that saved the world”
Highlands Presbyterian Church
January 25, 2015

You have all heard the story of Jonah and the whale. But have you ever heard to story of Jonah and the worm?
Once upon a time, the word of the Lord came to Jonah, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”
Jonah googles Nineveh and and saw that Ninevah was to the north. So he headed south, fleeing to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He kept going down…first down to Tarshish and then down to Joppa when he found a ship, he went down to the deepest hull of the ship to hide from the face of God.
But the Lord knew exactly where he was and hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. The ship’s crew was afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw all the cargo overboard to lighten the boat.
Jonah was fast asleep. The captain came and said to him, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.” The sailors said to one another, “This must be the fault of one of us. Jonah began to sweat. His face was flushed. They could tell he was the one to blame.
Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?”
“I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.
Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. Jonah wanted to continue going down to get away from the wishes of God so he said to them, “Pick me up and throw me down into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.”

So they picked Jonah up and threw him down into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in down the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the smelly belly of the fish, saying, “I called to the Lord out of my distress. You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, all your waves and your billows passed over me. The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head. As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you. I want to make a deal. If you save me from the belly of this fish, I will, with the voice of thanksgiving, sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”
Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.

Then the Lord repeated himself, speaking slowly so that Jonah would get every word. “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out north and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.
Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city. It would take a man three days to walk across it. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. There he stopped on a street corner and gave the shortest sermon in the history of sermons; 8 words!
“Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
Short and effective for upon hearing those 8 words, the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God.

All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Now Jonah was really put out. The sermon he gave was not intended to be a warning. He thought it was a prophecy. He had hope God would do what God said God would do and that in 40 more days, Ninevah would, in fact, be no more.

But NOOOO…God saved Ninevah and the Ninevehites. This was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! I was afraid of this? You thought I fled because I didn’t want to go to Nineveh as you requested. Oh no! I ran away because I was afraid that in the end you’d relent and save these undeserving sinners.

That’s why I fled to Tarshish in the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, I have seen more than I can bear. Please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah said to himself…I have every right to be angry with a God who saves the undeserving.

Jonah walked out of the city and sat down and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting, still hoping to see a mushroom cloud consume the city.

The Lord God kindly instead sent a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush.

But God had another surprise for Jonah. Early the next day, God sent a worm. The worm attacked the bush. The bush withered so that Jonah was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

But God said to Jonah, “What reason do you have to be so angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.

And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

I know you have been taught from the time you were a child that this is the story of Jonah and the whale…a story of how Jonah defied God, was swallowed by the whale…repented and decided to follow God and was saved.

I am sorry. The church has taught you wrongly. This is not the story of Jonah and the whale. It is the story of Jonah and the worm.

Yes…Jonah comes around and does what God asked…sort of. But he wanted it both ways. He wanted out of the belly of the whale as we often want out of the belly of the predicaments in which we find ourselves. To get out, he promises to do what God asks.

He goes to Nineveh but delivers little more than a vague semblance of what God has asked him to do. Then we get to the real story. Jonah is angry with these merciful God. And he tells Him so. Jonah didn’t go to Nineveh the first time around because he didn’t want those people to be saved. “THOSE” people didn’t dress or act or eat or believe as he did. He didn’t want to be used by God as the tool for saving those people.

Despite his lukewarm, half-hearted efforts, THOSE people are saved. Jonah is angry. He leaves the town and finds a place to sit and stew. God sends him a plant to shade him so that he can stew comfortably.  And when God thought Jonah had stewed enough, he sent the worm.

It’s the worm that deprives Jonah of the comfort he needed to continue avoiding God’s real message. When the worm attacks the plant, the shade is gone and Jonah now must face what he is really angry about.

You see…like many of us…Jonah thought he alone knew who was deserving and who was not…and God has surprised him.
God sent the worm first to make sure Jonah was comfortable…and then to jerk him out of his comfort zone.

You see God knows we are uncomfortable with people who are different from us…but in the end God doesn’t care what we think about who should be saved

God’s job is to use us to serve them and love them regardless of whether they live in Nineveh or Somalia or down the road on the other side of the tracks.

And the closer we get to God the less we will worry about the worthiness of others

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The New Right's Religious Freedom

State and local governments do yeoman work to diversify the economy and bring jobs to Wyoming. Then the legislature comes to town.

It never fails. They can’t help themselves. Every year at least one says something that finds its way into the national media, making us look to the world as a bunch of intolerant, backwater bigots. This year it’s “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

The Orwellian title is designed to make us think that someone has taken someone else’s religious rights when the bill is designed to take the civil rights of minorities.

It’s gone viral on the Internet. reported, “Restaurant owners could refuse to serve gay people, African-Americans, or non-Christians and they can get away with it by simply claiming that their “religious liberty” gives them the right to do so. A doctor could refuse to perform an abortion procedure to save a woman’s life. A pharmacist could refuse to sell contraception to women. Employers could fire and refuse to hire gay people. Simply put, public and private citizens can basically discriminate against gay people and anyone else they consider inferior at will. And they can do this just by playing the religious liberty card.”

What employer will eagerly associate their corporate brand or send employees to a place where they’ll be vulnerable to lawmakers who don’t value them as human beings?

Sponsor Nathan Winters, a pastor with a rather odd sense of the Gospel, can’t articulate the problem his bill “solves” except for saving ministers from being compelled to officiate at a same-sex wedding. That’s what the lofty ideal “religious freedom,” has come to mean.

The law isn’t necessary. No one can force pastors to officiate at gay marriages any more than someone can force them to love their neighbor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the captives, or give drink to the thirsty. Pastors choosing not to minister to people are protected under existing law.

Rev-Rep. Winter’s bill defines “exercise of religion” as “the practice or observance of religion, including an act or refusal to act, that is substantially motivated by a sincerely held religious belief, whether or not compelled by or central to a system of religious belief.”

A science teacher who believes the earth is only 6000 years old has a “sincerely held” religious belief. If this bill passes, so will students who don’t learn science.

Worse, “sincerely held” belief doesn’t have to be “central to a system of religious belief.” The bill has homosexuals in its crosshairs. The sponsors fantasize county clerks will be able to refuse issuing gay-marriage licenses.

If legislators think this is their ingenious way to short-circuit federal court interpretations of the Constitution’s equal protection clause, they should remember how that worked for their Southern counterparts in the 60s. They too thought state law could trump progress toward equal rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Like Rev-Rep. Winters, they misled themselves and their constituents.

There’s more to this than protecting bakers who won’t make wedding cakes for gay couples. Think about it. To avoid government rules, one need have only a “sincerely-held religious belief” and that “belief need no be connected to any “central system of religious belief.”

If I claim a “sincere” belief outside of a “central system of religious belief” that the use of LSD, meth, peyote, or other hallucinogenic drugs opens my mind to the presence of the deity, the bill gives me a “Get-out-of-jail-free” card.

Doctors whose beliefs about infidels are out of the religious mainstream, may refuse to treat people of other faiths in the ER? Before you say, “There are professional rules against that” you should know the bill nullifies those rules.

What about an hotelier who adheres to a bigoted, but sincerely held “religious” view who denies rooms to interracial couples, Jews, or fill-in-the-blank? Law enforcement officers or judges with “sincerely held” off beat religious beliefs may impose Sharia Law.

This bill is as dangerous as it is unnecessary. It’s also another cause for embarrassment around the country.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Meet Nora Webster in the mirror

Nora Webster is an Irish widow. She lives in Wexford during the early days of “The Troubles.” Her longtime husband has died. She is left to raise four children on her own with few skills and difficulty maintaining relationships. But she courageously navigated it all. Life went on.

Nora’s fictional, the protagonist in a book by Colm Tóibín. Charlie Brice, a friend I trust to lead me in the right literary direction, recommended the book. He warned me the hard part is first 50 of its 373 pages.

Charlie’s an accomplished poet. He grew up in Cheyenne, attending St. Mary’s. During Viet Nam he found his voice. He was thoughtful enough about the world around him to become a conscientious objector. Charlie and his wife now live in Pittsburgh. Many of his poems are found in major national publications. This is one about his friend Phil Druker.

His Voice ~ for Phil Druker
Tea warms my throat, brings belonging grounding
the sense of home-- but does Phil, dying of cancer, feel this?

Does a man loosed by morphine know or care
about the pleasures of home? Or is he leaving home waiting
to abandon that alluvial gobbet called “I,”
that rickety shack of self once strong and stark
now disappearing like the shimmer 
from a highway baking in the sun?

The countdown the march beating drum down
of a ticking clock thread that leaves the spool bare.

We hadn’t spoken for forty years.
Now his voice isn’t his own, but a timbre
of unimaginable suffering:
the sonorous dissonance of anti-nausea meds--
no longer his voice, but that voice.

Reading “His Voice” I understood why Charlie would be the one to recommend “Nora Webster.” Voice matters. Where we get our voice and how we choose to use it matter. Nora relied on her husband’s voice until it was, like Phil Druker’s, silenced. Then she found a voice that had been there all along. Her own.

Readers and writers alike are accustomed to stories that follow an accepted formula. The formula says each must have characters, a setting, a plot, conflict, and resolution of the conflict. That’s what makes a story a story. But lives, our lives, are not formulized.

I couldn’t put Tóibín’s book aside though I couldn’t say why. This male writer’s ability to convey an honest female voice was a part of it. But there was more. After reading it cover to cover, I then reflected on why the storyline had been so captivating.

And then it struck me. “Nora Webster” has but three of the five elements we expect in a story. It has characters, setting, and conflict. But her story has no plot and no resolution of the conflicts.

And neither do our lives.

We are much more like Nora Webster than any of the characters created by Dickens, Cervantes, or Hemingway. We live day-to-day dealing with what life sends our way. We aren’t helpless to affect those events but neither do we control them. We are born into families, communities, and cultures that largely determine who we are. We react to the joys and disasters that come our way.

Some of us deal with it by developing a faith in God. Others develop a fear of God. Families leave their marks on us for good and bad. Characters we encounter along the way and the settings in which we live determine the nature of the conflicts we experience. Some are resolved. Some never are. But there’s no larger plot to our lives. Just life. For most, that’s quite enough.

A New York Times book reviewer wrote poignantly, “The result (of Tóibín’s book) is a luminous, elliptical novel in which everyday life manages, in moments, to approach the mystical.”

Tóibín’s voice, like Nora Webster’s, Phil Drucker’s, Charlie Brice’s, you and I, is the voice we share as whatever force shaping our days “manages, in moments, to approach the mystical.” At that mystical moment, it becomes “no longer just our voice, but that voice.”

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Ever see a cockfight?

It was the first of six consecutive weeks spent in Nicaragua on my first trip to that Central American country in 1989. We were in Estelí, 90 miles north of Managua, the sprawling Nicaraguan capitol.

Estelí is legendary for the stand its people took in the dying days of the Somoza dictatorship. Estelí was the place the Somoza family was determined to exact “final revenge” on its way out of power. More than 15,000 casualties were suffered in the city as the Guardia Nacional attacked Estelí in those awful days.

In 1979, as Somoza and his followers fled, the Revolution ended. The Sandinistas took control. A decade later the counter-revolution neared an end. That war between the US-funded Contras and the Sandinistas was fought largely from Estelí north to the Honduras border.

Too many years of being on the frontline of internecine warfare turned the city into a frontier-like existence where the constant exposure to life-threatening risks gave way to continual violence of all sorts.

My guide that day was a young Nicaraguan who, years earlier, had been captured as a revolutionary and tortured by Guardia officers. He wanted me to see the back-alley culture of his hometown.

Walking along the streets on a quiet Sunday afternoon the bullet holes in buildings and the bomb craters left by the departing Somozans ten years earlier were evident. We arrived at a building, not more than a dilapidated warehouse. The sign above the door read “Pelea de Gallos Hoy.” Cockfights Today.

Inside, the building was filled with smoke and noise. The floor was dirt, its walls grimy. There were no women, only men. It seemed all were smoking cigarettes, drinking rum, and shouting angrily at one another. Many were waving hands full of Cordobas, the local currency, which in those days was being devalued by the hour.

We worked our way to the center of the building. There we found a rather small, blocked off area, about the size of a boxing ring. Instead of ropes, a wooden fence about three feet high surrounded it. The shouting intensified as we neared the outer perimeter of the fence.

Three men circled each other in the ring, two holding roosters in their hands. They each shoved the face of their rooster into the face of the other man’s bird. The taunting caused each of the cocks to become increasingly angry. The third man appeared to be a referee of sorts. At his signal, the other two men threw their roosters to the ground and the cockfight began in earnest.

It didn’t last long. Razor-sharp knives called gaffs, about 3 1/2 inches long, were strapped to the birds’ legs. The roosters attacked each other with unnatural viciousness. The birds screamed. Blood flew. The gaffs cut deeply into each bird. They continued to hack away, puncturing the other’s body and gouging one another’s eyes.

Within minutes one of the birds did the greater damage to the other. It was held high by the referee and the crowd cheered loudly as he declared that bird the winner while the other bird was tossed out of the ring into a pile of dead and dying losers.

The noise died down a little as Cordobas exchanged hands from those who bet on the loser to those who had money down on the winner.

“Why do the birds act so aggressive toward one another?” I inquired. “Las drogas,” was the answer. The fighting cocks are shot full of stimulants before a fight. The drugs cause them to react to one another in a way that they would not otherwise.

Witness the cruelty. Click on

Cockfighting isn’t simply cruel. It is barbaric. I was horrified to learn that this blood sport may have occurred within a few miles of my own home. But Cheyenne isn’t a frontier village in a third world country. The District Attorney should take seriously this horrendous violation of our community values and prosecute all involved to the fullest extent of the law.