Sunday, February 7, 2016

"Fish Stories" Sunday Sermon@Highlands

Fish Stories
Highlands Presbyterian Church
February 7, 2016

Lord, suffer me to catch a fish,

So large that even I,

When talking of it afterwards,

May have no need to lie.

Everybody loves a good fish story. The one that got away or the fish that gets bigger and bigger each time the story is repeated. You ought to hear grandpa tell end retell the story of the first fish Rhyland caught. Oh my.  I don’t know how we got it in the car. Took three of us to pick it up.

One of the best fish stories ever was the 2003 movie “Big Fish.” Remember that? Albert Finney played the dying father who has repeated the same stories for so long that his son’s wish for his dying father is the truth.

Finney plays Edward Bloom. Some, find old Edward heroic and charming, and his wife is one of them. Sandra, played by Jessica Lange,  stands watch in the upper bedroom where her husband is leaving life as he lived it. She summons home their son, Will, who knows his father's stories by heart and has one final exasperated request: Could his father now finally tell him the truth? Old Edward harrumphs and starts recycling again.

There are many wild adventures, one involving a catfish as big as a shark, but it would be hard to top the time he parachutes onto the stage of a Red Army talent show in China, and meets Ping and Jing, a conjoined vocal duo sharing two legs. Now surely all these stories are fevered fantasies, right?

Does it matter? Does it ever matter whether a fish story is factually true?

Let me tell you a whopper. Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.

Then Jesus said to Simon and the other fishermen, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

Now there is a fish story. Want to hear another?

In 1965, in Jackson, Mississippi, racism was still rampant. Civil rights workers from the North had descended upon the state, and the Ku Klux Klan was at its most active since the turn of the century. A lone white woman, Joan, decided to assist in starting the first Head Start program in the state to help young black children be prepared to start first grade.

She became passionately involved in the civil rights movement, marching with Dr. King. She became known in all circles as that “white lady” who helped “the darkies.””

One hot summer night, when Joan’s husband was out of town, Joan and her two girls were relaxing. Suddenly, the slam of car doors and gruff voices shouting shattered the stillness. Horns honking, curses disturbed the suburban neighborhood. A brick came flying through the plate glass window. Joan rushed to the front door. Her front yard was filled with men in white hoods setting fire to an old rugged cross in the middle of the grass. She flung open the door, and shouted, “get out of here, you blankedy-blanks!” They faceless cowards fled the woman’s voice.

Joan saw neighbors peeping out from their windows. She grabbed some marshmallows and with her two children in tow, she marched out to the front yard and roasted marshmallows by the fire of that cross.

Slowly, one neighbor after another joined her. The adults whispered quietly, hugging and murmuring as the children cavorted around the fire. The blaze that had been started by bigots was being extinguished by support and love.

Now that’s a whopper of a fish story. Let me tell you another.

There was a man who had a high-ranking job in a state agency working with programs for the poor. In his job, he learned a lot about what worked and what didn’t. He saw that becoming a homeowner gave these families stability, allowed their children to grow up confident. He came to believe he could do more by working outside of the bureaucracy. Terry Williams left that safe comfortable job and without any pay, started the Wyoming Family Home Ownership Program to help low income families become home owners. And no there are 27 families in this community who otherwise never could have owned their own homes.

Now that’s a fish story of the kind that Jesus’s disciples could have told in the years after leaving their fishing boats behind. Here’s another. Once upon a time, a woman sat in a jail cell having been arrested yet again for another DUI. She prayed and heard God tell her to try again. “Master,” she said, “we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.

That fisherwoman is our beloved Laura whose Recover Wyoming now serves more than 3200 addicts and family members seeking a better way if life. A whooper of a fish story. Can I get an AMEN?

How about one more?

There was a little church in Cheyenne that was so small it couldn’t help people in need. It was uncomfortable saying no when people called asking for help with food or gasoline, utilities, or rent. But, the church said, we are too little.

But one day that little church heard Jesus say, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” And the little church did. During the Lenten Season when Christians are called to sacrifice, its members and friends offered donations. Now that little church says YES when people call asking God’s help.

All these fish stories have one thing in common. When the fishermen decided they’d leave their comfortable life behind and follow him, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats.

Now that was a whopper of a fish story.

Let’s find even harder to believe fish stories to tell in the coming years. AMEN

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Remembering Sydney Spiegel

If Wyoming ever builds monuments to those who committed their lives to working people and their families, there will be a statue of Sydney Spiegel.  Sydney was a Wyoming hero who died last month quietly and without the notice his well-lived life deserves.

He earned a Bachelor’s Degree in history and education at the University of Minnesota and a Master’s Degree in history at the University of Wyoming. At one time or another, Sydney worked as a ship fitter, a newspaper proofreader, and as a railroad bill clerk. He was active in politics, running for state school superintendent and was the founder of the Wyoming Labor Party. His book “All Empires Die” creatively gathered the great revolutionary figures from all time. They engaged one another and the reader in a fascinating, hypothetical dialogue.

For all he accomplished in his life, Sydney Spiegel would most likely hope to be remembered as a teacher. He taught high school history classes in Cheyenne for many years. He was one of those teachers we all hope our children or grandchildren encounter in a classroom. Sydney was creative and challenging, unafraid of the truth and fearless in telling it to the youngsters he was charged with teaching.

That didn’t always sit well with conservative school board members.

Theologian Kathleen Norris wrote “Dakota,” a poetic study of small town contrasts between “open hearts and closed minds.” That contrast was apparent when, in the early 1970s, the nation’s social unrest found its way to Wyoming.

Some students and a few educators saw the battles for civil rights and to end the Vietnam War and decided they wanted to be a part of it. Most school administrators and school board members saw the same events and said, “It won’t happen here.” Sydney Spiegel was a victim of the latter.

The bottom line was that conservative board members didn’t like Sydney’s politics. When most teachers belonged to the Wyoming Education Association, he was an outspoken leader in the aggressive American Federation of Teachers.

As a part of his union activities Spiegel published statements, the Wyoming Supreme Court later said were “sharply critical of administrators in education for the reason that the techniques employed by them in the administration of the schools had the effect of harming instead of aiding the educational processes.”

Sydney rebelled against the principal’s office routine of interrupting classes with messages. He used a rope to bar the messengers’ entrance into his classroom while he was teaching. Sydney sided with students who protested racial bias during a high school assembly honoring Dr. Martin Luther King.

He’d taught for 19 years when he was fired in the early 1970s. Sydney sued not for his job alone, but for the rights of his fellow teachers. The Wyoming Supreme Court reinstated Sydney in a ruling that provided Constitutional protections for all public employees seeking to exercise First Amendment rights in schools and the community.

Writing for the Court, Justice Robert Rose said, “The board of trustees of the school district versus Sydney Spiegel, the teacher, is a contest about liberty.” Justice Rose defined liberty quoting the words of the great American jurist Learned Hand.

“The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it’s right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of others; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own; the spirit of liberty remembers that not a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard side by side with the greatest.”

Sydney Spiegel, God rest his soul, was the “spirit of liberty.” In Wyoming, where too few are willing to fight for their own much less your liberty, Sydney Spiegel’s intellect and courage earned him the right to be remembered.

Friday, February 5, 2016

What is our vision for Wyoming?

Wyoming is at a historic crossroad. Yogi Berra said when you come to a fork in the road, take it. But Robert Frost knew that when two roads converge in a yellow wood, you cannot take them both. You have a choice between the easy one and the one less taken.

Wyoming is there. Our long, easy reliance on fossil fuels is coming to an end. Oil prices are hovering at a per-barrel price much less than required to fund the state’s budget. Coal is fast becoming history. Like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the leaking dyke, the state’s politicians have “courageously” attempted to hold climate change reality at bay.  But the leak was real and too large for their thumbs.

Here we are. Two roads diverge in a yellow wood, and sorry we cannot travel both, we stare down one as far as we can, hoping for an easy stroll by the coming river of red ink.

As the reality of the international drop in the reliance on fossil fuels crept upon us, Wyoming politicians avoided anything that resembled vision. With thumbs in the dyke, they hoped against hope that a new technology or fake scientists could save us from the wrath.

But the first episode of this reality show requires state lawmakers to cut 200 million dollars from the state’s budget. Legislators can take the easy road or the road they have far less traveled, the one that requires vision.

Traveling the road less traveled means giving some thought to where we want to be at the end of that road. We know the financial structure the state uses to support it goals must change. The question is how will the state change?

A state’s budget isn’t simply a collection of numbers. It’s a reflection of the state’s vision for the future. Legislators must do more than add and subtract. They must have an idea of what they are adding to and subtracting from. Unfortunately, with all that fossil fuel money flowing, they haven’t had to do that. Now they must.

Simply cutting budgets while parroting the threadbare mantra “no new taxes” is easy. That requires little thought and no vision. However, this year’s 200 million dollar cut is not the end but only the beginning of a long, painful readjustment. If we attempt to stay on the easy road, we will one day come to the end and find not only a stagnant economy but also a declining population with little hope.

Instead of asking what budget can be cut and which programs eliminated, our lawmakers might ask where are we going? What kind of a state do we want? What is our vision for Wyoming?

My suggestion is that they put people and families first. There is ample evidence from financial thinkers such as the Federal Reserve Board that a commitment to early childhood education produces not only healthier children and families but also a more vibrant economy. That would give families and businesses a reason to come here and stay.

Legislators could make Wyoming a shining example of what happens when a state commits itself to making higher education affordable for everyone. Create quality jobs by focusing the budget on improving the state’s infrastructure. Make the health of our citizens a priority with tobacco taxes high enough to reduce smoking and use the revenue to pay the costs of early childhood and higher education.

These are the times that will try voters’ souls. I’m not confident the voters did a very good job in the last election of choosing visionary rather than doctrinaire lawmakers. But they’ll get another chance after the coming budget session. Regardless of whom they choose, Wyoming will be at that place where two roads diverge.

I’d like to think the day will come when we shall be telling this with a sigh. Two roads diverged in a wood, and we—we took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.         

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Why the war was lost

On a smaller but no less detrimental scale, the failure of Wyoming political leaders to expand Medicaid is our Flint, Michigan.

Legislators voting “no” live in a post-factual world. They have health insurance. They can afford to fabricate information to justify denying insurance to 18,000 Wyomingites who’ll get sicker quicker and die earlier than if our legislators had more concern for people than politics.

There’s not much left to say about Wyoming’s refusal to provide healthcare for low- income families. The battle is over. Small-government mindlessness won. The people lost. Legislators like Rep. Tim Stubson and Senator Drew Perkins have their stories. They’re sticking to them. Facts won’t change their minds.

Wyoming’s constitution requires legislators to balance the budget. These “fiscal conservatives” use that to persuade us how smart they are. Mr. Stubson is running for Congress. Can’t you hear him? “I know how to balance a budget. Elect me!” Stubson and his colleagues have a dirty little secret.

They can’t print money like folks in DC. Neither can they balance the state’s budget without palming millions of federal dollars. They take the money from Washington and contribute more than their fair share to federal deficits while smugly claiming to have balanced Wyoming’s budget. They hide their reliance on federal dollars, using them to pay 20 percent of the costs of state government. They call that “balancing the budget.”

After relying on the federal government to pay for many programs, suddenly they say, “We can’t count on the feds to pay what they promise for Medicaid expansion.”

It’s a phony argument. It has been from the beginning but, as I said, it’s their story and they’re sticking to it.

Equally irrational and unsupportable is their assertion that in some states, Medicaid expansion has actually cost more than it saved. Tom Forslund, the Director of the Wyoming Department of Health has repeatedly provided sound evidence to prove to anyone with ears that this is not the case in Wyoming.

Without Medicaid expansion, Wyoming will continue spending millions on healthcare for the uninsured. Hospitals face closure with unsustainable levels of uncompensated care. Medicaid expansion solves those problems while investing hundreds of millions into our state’s medical infrastructure and economy.

Governor Mead offered a budget proposal, precariously balanced on the $33 million net savings that Medicaid expansion will produce in our state. Constituents might ask, “Where are these bright bulbs in the legislature going to come up with that $33 million now?”
For starters they cut $4 million from tax rebates for elderly and disabled citizens. Then they slashed $11.4 million intended for mental health services for people found to be a danger to themselves or others while giving $8 million to UW athletics. Nice, huh? At the end of the day Wyoming will likely have neither a winning football team nor the satisfaction of helping the least of these. We will have to answer only for the latter.

There’s a second reason there isn’t much more to be said. The voters. I’m about done caring more about the well being of people who don’t vote than they care for themselves.

On January 20 the Appropriations Committee voted on the question of whether to provide healthcare for low income working people. But it was decided last November. It’s a coalition of voters that elect politicians like Misters Stubson and Perkins. Some members of that coalition go to the polls believing the Liberty Group-Tea Party line. Most members of that coalition, however, don’t bother to go to the polls at all.

Wyoming is teetering dangerously close to a voter participation precipice. If the trend continues, soon there will be less than a majority of those who are eligible even bothering to register to vote.

Your guess is as good as mine about who they are but I’m betting many of them are people whose lives are most at stake when the legislature makes these choices. It’s time they decide whether their own lives matter enough for them to actually vote.