Thursday, October 11, 2018

Richard says he isn’t very good at politics. Au contraire mon fraire

I am going to miss Richard Johnson.

Richard Johnson has been good for Cheyenne. His departure from city government is not.

Whether you agree or not, we can agree on one thing. Richard is a maverick. The label defines someone as independent, unorthodox, free spirited and unconventional. Cowboys use the term to describe an unbranded calf.

There is something troubling, but intriguing, about mavericks. The thing about mavericks is that no one invites them to their house for dinner because you never know what they might say. Mothers and fathers certainly don’t want their daughter to marry one.

Take, for example, what Richard had to say about some of his city-council colleagues who reacted with fear to a proposal that Cheyenne become a Compassionate City. Some fellow city councilmen had a knee-jerk reaction and linked the independent, locally grown Compassionate Cheyenne movement to a national website. The same website attempts to inform anyone who takes time to actually read it that local chapters are not bound by the national goals and are entitled to establish their own. That’s what Compassionate Cheyenne has done.

But the national website mentions a United Nations initiative. The UN is just too scary for council members looking for a politically-correct reason to reject the proposal. Richard didn’t mince words. He called them out. “They are all living in fear, he said. “It’s like there is an 11th member on the dais and it’s the boogeyman.”

Mavericks are not fearless, but unlike run-of-the-mill politicians, they are practiced in controlling their fears in order to get done that which needs to be done and to say that which must be said.

It’s not just his honesty but his get-it-done attitude. Cheyenne will have a splash pad only because Richard willed it to happen.

Those kinds of politicians make others uneasy by setting the bar too high, though most say there ought to be more mavericks. Losing one from the political process is never good.

Richard is quintessentially maverick. Mavericks write their own rules as they walk the walk. Mavericks are willing to look at old problems through eyes staring out from heads tilted from vertical to almost horizontal. The world looks so different from there.

That view of the world is disorienting to most politicians. Mavericks are comfortable with the off-kilter perspective. They like it enough to actually say aloud what they can see from that point of view. They are willing to take the risk of saying things that others may have thought but kept to themselves.

In the 1960s we said such people marched to a different drummer. We learned they actually built a different drum. As a result, they sound different and that makes others nervous even as they are drawn in by the maverick.

I have met Richard face to face only recently, but I have followed his work on the Cheyenne City Council for years. I follow him on social media. I read the news coverage of his endeavors. I haven’t always agreed with him but isn’t that the point of being a maverick. If most people agree with a politician most of the time, that person cannot be a maverick. He or she has been branded and is comfortable with the brand.

Richard Johnson, one the other hand, is unbranded and is true to himself while offering a unique, independent voice on issues, a different way to see the world. More important, he is a maverick who knows how to get things done. That is his hallmark.

Richard says he isn’t very good at politics. Au contraire mon fraire. Did you see the sendoff this troubled country gave John McCain? It wasn’t about him but about his independent voice, his willingness to say and do the unexpected, as a politician who built his own drum and marched to it rather than the tune others banged out for him.


Richard, you may not be very good at politics as usual. That is why the community needs you.



Friday, October 5, 2018

The trumposaurus of the 21st century

America has become “Jurassic Park.”

You know the movie’s plot. Dinosaurs thought to be extinct are resurrected, brought to life by an evil man whose goal is to amass emoluments by displaying them in a zoo-like habitat. Predictably the plan goes terribly wrong. Ferocious predators prove to be what ferocious predators have been since the beginning of time.

The thought-to-be extinct creatures wreak death and destruction. Before the dinosaurs are brought under control, they cause a great deal of drama and suffering.

Most thought the country had evolved. We thought the dinosaurs of racism and bigotry were mostly extinct. We were aware that some Neanderthals still hid in caves but responsible political leaders were always able to keep the ugliness under control. We couldn’t imagine the nation had become so polarized that it would elect a trumposaurus whose goal was to bring back dinosaurs and divide the country along racial and cultural fault lines.

If you don’t think that which we thought extinct has returned, listen to the vicious threats a loathsome Stegosaurus aimed at a 12-year-old Oklahoman transgender girl. Named for a small- brained creature from the Mesozoic Era, it called her, “A half-baked maggot” threatening caveman-like violence. “If he wants to be female,” this creature from our past said, “make him a female. A good sharp knife will do the job.” Another urged his son to beat the girl until she left their middle school.

Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs were resurrected using ancient DNA. Today’s were resurrected with Tweets.

The trumposaurus was not the first to revive the dinosaurs. Richard Nixon had his Southern Strategy, restoring life to dinosaurs who were fast dying off in 1968. George H.W. Bush had the Willie Horton dog whistle. The trumposaurus found fertile ground in the undergrowth of the American jungle. There he was aided by feckless politicians and state-controlled media.

Abetting the trumposaurus are fearful members of Congress, known as Spinlessopoluses. This timorous species walks softly, making no noise even in the face of danger. Playing starring roles in this Jurassic Park sequel, they refuse to exercise their Constitutional obligation to provide checks and balances.

Alas, it is our system of checks and balances that is becoming extinct, allowing dinosaurs to thrive.

Right-wing media also deserves credit. The Jurassic era’s celebrity dinosaur, Laurasaurus Ingrahamopolus, set aside the dog whistle, openly touting the prejudicial fears of her ilk. “The America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore.” She blamed “massive demographic changes” which “have been foisted on the American people,” adding, “They are changes that none of us ever voted for, and most of us don’t like.” The Ingrahamopolus blamed legal as well as illegal immigration.

These dinosaurs may be blind but they are not color blind.

The America she and others seek thrives in the resurrection of extinct dinosaurs and their ability to instill fear. “Make Jurassic Park Great Again” is a plea to turn the dinosaurs loose on people of color.

Remember Charlottesville? The trumposaurus said there were “some very fine people” among the neo-Nazis. One of those “very fine people” is a deplorasaurus, appearing on CNN, proudly displaying swastika tattoos and Nazi paraphernalia, boasting that the trumposaurus resurrected the hate and how the cause of neo-nationalism was bolstered by his election.

This trumposaurus gave new life to dinosaurs. They came out of their caves to roam America once again. Parts of the USA are as threatening to people of color as Jurassic Park. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) tracks hate crimes and reports what it calls a “Trump effect.” That term refers to the “uptick” in dinosaur-based violence against racial and cultural minorities since November 2016, causing havoc, death, and destruction just as could be expected of resurrected dinosaurs.

According to SPLC data, “after Trump’s election, bias incidents became a daily reality and hate crimes targeting the nation’s most vulnerable communities became a national nightmare.”

The dinosaurs are real. The time has come to decide whether to restore American ideals or live in Jurassic Park.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Esther of the Bible-when powerful men believed a woman and justice prevailed

The next two weeks, the Lectionary takes us to Biblical myths that invite us to think a little deeper about the nature of God. Those who take part in the Highlands Book Club experienced that journey with Bishop Shelby Spong’s most recent book “Unbelievable.”

“God,” Spong argues, “is not a being” but rather is “being itself.” God, he said, becomes visible in the transformation of the world, what he called “the outbreak of human wholeness.” Spong locates his views of the nature of God in scripture, citing among others Isaiah 35: 5-6.

5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert

Isaiah saw God as the experience of the reversal of fortunes, a moment when injustice is righted, the oppressed freed, the hungry fed, the lions laying down with the lambs and the lambs no longer nervous. God is not separate from these human experiences but is those very experiences.

Who or what do you think God is? Let’s dig down on that question.

How fortuitous it is that after the last week the Lectionary asks us this morning to tell the story of Esther and how the suffering of others was avoided because a man in power chose to believe a woman, a story that speaks to the nature of God without ever mentioning God by name. Her book is the only book in the Bible that doesn’t mention God Yet, it teaches us more about the nature of God than we can imagine.

Once upon a time, King Ahasueras, who reigned over much of the known world from India to Ethiopia, gave a banquet for all of his princes and servants, nobles and governors. It lasted 6 months

When it ended he gave a second banquet for the people of the capital city of Susa. It lasted another 7 days. When the king was drunk with wine, he ordered his 7 eunuchs to retrieve the queen t come before him and the partiers, for he wanted to show her off to the others.

Queen Vashti Tweeted the King, “Sorry, that’s not happening, I will not dance in front of the king and his drunken buddies. ##MeToo.” Queen Vashti knew that it took powerful women to put an end to the games men were playing.

Unaccustomed as the men of the day were to women asserting control over their own bodies, the King was flummoxed. He consulted his advisers. These were all powerful men, wise enough to know the queen’s refusal to do as told was not just a problem for the king but them as well. If one woman was allowed to say no, it could prove contagious. Once their wives learned a wife could refuse a husband’s command, the entire empire would be in turmoil.

They advised the king to get rid the kingdom of this queen and find a new one. So, it was that the king sent letters to all the royal provinces, to every province and to every people in its own language, declaring that every man should be master in his own house.

The king held auditions for a new queen. Women from throughout the kingdom were brought before the king that he might replace Vashti.

There was a Jew named Mordecai who had adopted the orphan Esther whose parents King Nebuchadnezzar carried away to Babylon. She was a young woman as smart as she was beautiful. Esther was one of the young women brought before the king though she had to hide the fact that she was a Jew. When the king saw her, she immediately won him over and Esther was chosen to be the new queen.

Mordecai, meanwhile, went to the king’s gate each day to try to get a glimpse of Esther. One day he overheard men plotting to kill the king. He told Esther who told the king and the plotters were executed and Esther gained the king’s confidence.

It came to pass that a man named Haman was selected by the king to be his chief of staff. Everyone feared Haman and bowed down before him, everyone, that is, except Mordecai. Haman was furious and decided to take revenge by slaughtering all of Mordecai’s people, the Jews. But, first he had to get the permission of the king.

“There are certain people among the peoples of your kingdom,” Haman told the king. “They are, shall we say, different. They speak a different language. Their culture is different. Their religious beliefs are different. The color of their skin is different. Remember how the Pharaoh worried that those who were different would take over his kingdom? Well, that is what is happening to our country,” said Haman. “There are just too many people among us who are DIFFERENT. That cannot be tolerated.”

“I know what to do about these people,” said Haman. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued for their destruction. I will pay ten thousand talents of silver so that it may put it into the king’s treasuries.” 

So, the king pocketed the dark money, signed a decree giving Haman the right to kill all the people in his kingdom whom Haman thought to be DIFFERENT, and he and Haman sat down to share a drink.

Mordecai learned of the plot. Went to Esther. Would she speak to her husband to stop the slaughter? Esther was afraid. Women couldn’t do that. Even queens couldn’t approach kings without an invitation. The penalty was death.

Mordecai replied, “If you keep silence at such a time as this, others will suffer because you would not speak. Who knows? Perhaps you have found yourself in a place where you can make a difference for just such a time as this.” 

Esther went to the king who received her happily. “What is it dear Esther?” he said, “I will give you even half my kingdom if you ask.” Esther asked the king to invite Haman to a banquet she was preparing.

Meanwhile, Haman was feeling good about life. All was good. Even the queen wanted to honor him. He confided in his wife that as good as things were going there was still that troublesome Mordecai, living and breathing and refusing to bow to him. His wife told him he should go ahead and build gallows in anticipation of hanging that loathsome Jew.

Unbeknownst to Haman, the king, one sleepless night, read through the records of the kingdom and found the entry reporting it was Mordecai who uncovered the plot to assassinate the king. “Has Mordecai ever been honored for this?” he asked. “No,” no honor had been bestowed on the man who had saved his life. Without naming the man he wished to honor, the king asked his chief of staff, “What shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor?”

Haman said to himself, “Whom would the king wish to honor more than me?” Haman said to the king, “For the man whom the king wishes to honor, let royal robes be brought, which the king has worn, and a prize horse that the king has ridden, with a royal crown on its head. 

Let the robes and the horse be handed over to the king’s most noble official; let him robe the man whom the king wishes to honor, and let him lead the man on horseback through the open square of the city.” 

The king said to Haman, “Thus shall it be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor.” Haman and the king hurried off to the banquet Esther planned, Haman under the impression that he was about to be honored by the king. After they had wined and dined a couple of days, the king asked Esther, “What exactly would you like from me? Whatever it is, I will grant to you.”

Esther told the king someone was plotting to annihilate her people. “Who?” the king demanded. “It is he.” The queen pointed at Haman. The king left to contemplate whether or not he should believe a woman who was accusing one of the most powerful men in his inner circle. While the king was gone, a now very frightened Haman went to Esther to beg mercy. In his exuberance, he fell onto the couch where Ester lay just as the king returned. It didn’t look good. Things just got worse.

One of the king’s eunuchs whispered to the king, “Did you know Haman prepared gallows to hang Mordecai, the man you are preparing to honor. They are ready.” The king said, “Very nice. Then use them to hang Haman.” And so, it was done.

Then the king issued a new decree revoking the authority to kill the Jews and permitting them to defend themselves if attacked. Haman had plotted against the Jews and cast his lot to crush and destroy them; but because of Esther the king gave orders that his wicked plot should come upon Haman’s own head, and that he should be hanged on the very gallows Haman had built.

It was a stunning reversal of fortunes, the sort of reversal of fortunes in which the nature of God can be defined.

And as we read the story of Esther, we ask how it is that an entire book of the Bible can tell a story like this without once mentioning the name of God, a story of a man in power choosing to believe a woman led inexorably to justice. There we witness is the hand of God in this story.

This is the nature of the God we worship; not a bearded old man on a heavenly throne who sides with humans because of their gender, race, religion or other human construct. God is never mentioned by name. Esther is never judged by creeds or church doctrine. Not once is Esther asked whether she has been saved or born again. Her church attendance or whether she tithes is not measured.

As Bishop John Spong says in his book, “While God may be present in the experience, the experience can never be identified with God.” The common theme in many Bible lessons, Spong argues, is that “God is not a being separate from the beings who are human.”

For those Esther saved, God is experienced and need not be mentioned. God’s hopes for the world in that one moment of history are accomplished by the hands of a human being. Esther acts out of love, Vashiti out of self-respect. Therefore, God exists through the choices of humans like the two Queens, both of whom God created for such a time as this. AMEN