Saturday, April 30, 2016

“Flashcuts Out of Chaos.” Great name for a poetry collection. You’ll enjoy the read. One award-winning poet called it “the most humane and winning collection” of poetry. It’s a collection of Charlie Brice’s writing. Charlie is one of thousands of bright Wyoming kids who grew up here but left, never to return. “Flashcuts” is a reminder of the high costs of their exodus. 

Never been much for poetry. High school experiences with poetry weren’t all that inspiring. I suspect that was more my fault than any teacher’s. Pretty much left poetry behind by graduation day.

Half a century passed and an old high school friend changed that.

“Those cottonwoods were thrilling.
They danced like ballerinas
and sometimes went mad
throwing their white blazon
all over the city like furry confetti.”

Charlie Brice graduated from St. Mary’s High School in 1968. His days in the parochial school find their way into his poetry many decades subsequent as attested by his poem, “Daydream.”

“He daydreams,’ my mother
read aloud Sister Susanna’s
terse and torrid critique.
‘What’s a daydream?’ I asked.
‘It’s when you look out the window
and stop listening in class,’ my mother said.”

Charlie experienced daydreams about things like world peace. It wasn’t about religion. It was more profound. “Daydream” revealed healthy skepticism about religion. “Someone picked up the end of a river and found frogs reciting the Baltimore Catechism.”

Charlie earned conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War when local draft boards demanded that applicants demonstrate a genuinely moral conviction against all war. He did.

Charlie studied philosophy at the University of Wyoming, graduating from Denver University in 1974, the year he married Judy. In 1998, Charlie was awarded a Ph.D. in psychology from Duquesne University. He and Judy remain in Pittsburgh. Charlie was a psychoanalyst, retiring a decade ago when he unleashed the poet.

The poet writes, “Stop daydreaming,’ my mother said.” Fortunately Charlie didn’t.

“But the music I heard/saw out that window:
The Nutcracker Suite-Elephants skittered like leaves
across the sky, Jesus jumped
from his cross and chased Lazarus to Life.”

Over the years, Charlie’s poetry was read in countless national publications such as the Atlantic Review. He earned prestigious honors including the International Merit Award in Atlantic Review’s 2015 International Poetry Competition and the 2013 Allen Ginsburg Poetry Contest.

Often his work recounts those youthful Wyoming days. Charlie wrote a story he titled “Coward.” (http://www.literal-latte.com/2014/04/coward/). It was about his decision to seek conscientious objector (CO) status while living in Cheyenne. He persuaded the draft board of the honesty of his convictions and served in the psychiatric ward of a Denver hospital. It was a courageous choice but not particularly welcomed here. Charlie’s best friend’s father told him, “C and O were the first two letters in the word coward.”

“Coward” tells of the day a patient asked, “You scared to fight?

“No,’ I said, ‘I just don’t believe I or anyone has the right to take another person’s life.’ Becoming a pacifist had been a long and arduous road. I’d studied the thought of Buddha, Spinoza, Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, but it was Yevtushenko’s poem, ‘People,’ that convinced me that killing a person meant killing a world, a universe of relationships, a lifetime collection of love, hate, joy, disappointment, defeat, and triumph. Who had the right to do that?”

Wyoming might hold onto more of its young if it honored people who aren’t afraid to fight but didn’t after reading Tolstoy, Spinoza, Gandhi and linking the killing of one person to the destruction of “a lifetime collection of love, hate, joy, disappointment, defeat, and triumph.”

Thank God for Facebook. It’s where those staying in Wyoming connect with friends who didn’t. Many of us who remained made good lives here. I have no regrets. Yet I can’t help but wonder about Wyoming. What could we be today if Wyoming had been more open to folks like Charlie Brice.

It wasn’t. It isn’t. Its loss.

“Stop daydreaming,’ my mother said.” Wyoming did.






Saturday, February 20, 2016

Give Federal Lands Back

Some Wyoming legislators are again asking Congress to give federal lands to the states. The proposal has one major flaw. It’s the inconvenient fact that the federal government doesn’t hold clear title.
Of two-and-a-quarter billion acres of land in our country, federal stakes amount to 28 percent or 640 billion acres. Thirty million acres lie within Wyoming’s borders. That’s 48 percent of the Cowboy State, making it almost as much Washington’s country as God’s country.
The word “Wyoming” is a Delaware Indian word meaning alternating valleys and mountains. Those alternating valleys and mountains belong to several Native American tribes known as Plains Indians. The historic owners included the Arapaho, Shoshone, Arikara, Bannock, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Crow, Gros Ventre, Kiowa, Nez Perce, Sheep Eater, Sioux, and Ute tribes.
This land is not your land. This land is not my land. This land is their land. If ownership is relinquished to anyone, it should be returned to Native Americans, not the states, the Bundys, or other so-called Sagebrush rebels.
Native American claims have better legal standing than claims made in political circles by ranchers, farmers, miners, or loggers. They have no better claim to this land than someone who received your car from the thief that stole it from you. Receiving stolen property is a crime in most states.
All of Wyoming and most of the land within the United States was stolen. Our forefathers were not above employing brutally immoral means to take it from Native American tribes. And this is not ancient history. The theft was completed during a generation in which my great-grandfather lived.
As white people moved west, the U.S. government made a decision. White lives mattered. Red lives didn’t. The settlers and the government that stole the land they wanted were people of European heritage whose holy book taught how a homeland is central to one’s faith.
They slaughtered vast herds of bison upon which Native American lifestyle and culture depended. The U.S. military used systematic violence and genocidal strategies. They negotiated treaties and violated them without regret. In the process, our government did what it could to eradicate Native Americans and, in the end, settled on herding them onto reservations, land which was inadequate to sustain the vitality of any culture.
Taking the land of a land-based culture birthed the inevitable.
The result some 150 or more years later is the hopelessness Wyoming Senator John Barrasso encounters on reservation after reservation. As chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Mr. Barrasso held hearings on Native American youth suicide. He said, “Native youth suicide isn’t a new issue,” asking Robert McSwain, Indian Health Service Director, “When are we going to see results?”

Swain said reservation children suffer from chronic poverty and a sense of hopelessness. “Our children believe they are destined to suffer the same history and injustices our ancestors suffered,” Swain said.

White people destroyed their culture. Instead of blaming victims, the heirs of the destroyers should right the wrong.

In her book “Ceremony” Leslie Silko says, “The (Native) people had been taught to despise themselves because they were left with barren land and dry rivers. But they were wrong. It was white people who had nothing, who were suffering as thieves.”

There’s a deeply adverse spiritual impact knowing that even the land on which we preach the Gospel is stolen. Wealth and sustainable cultures arise from the land. Restore their land and you’ll restore their culture.

Some will reject this because, they will assert, they had nothing to do with what happened in the last half of the 1800s. But we are beneficiaries of America’s two greatest sins, slavery and the destruction of the Native Americans. This is their land. They have the inherent skills and motivation to make certain these assets provide the means of resurrecting their great peoples, America’s First Nations.

The Christian nation some say we are must atone. The land stolen from Native Americans, which is now under federal ownership should be returned to the land’s rightful owners.



Sunday, February 14, 2016

Liberals and Biblical Interpretation

How do liberal Christians interpret the Bible? We begin with an understanding that the Bible is not a single book. This is more critical to scriptural interpretation than it might appear. The Bible is a more like a library. Like a library, it has many kinds of books on its shelves. While you won’t find science books there, you will find history books such Samuel and Kings. You’ll also find myths such as in Genesis.

Readers will find memoirs like the Gospels and letters from Paul. There are the poems of the Psalms, the morality sayings of Proverbs, and the sermons of the book of the Hebrews.

Just like you wouldn’t read the front-page of the newspaper the same way you’d read the comic page, readers need to differentiate between the various genres of the Bible. Each genre must be approached differently when seeking an accurate interpretation.

Reader should cast off any need for factual fundamentalism. As theologian Marcus Borg often pointed out, “truth and factuality” are not the same. For centuries, Christians understood that there is more truth in myth than in what passes for history.

For example, reading the myth of the Garden of Eden as “fact” leads to unfortunate misinterpretations. Such readings support misogynist views of scripture and a theology many progressive Christians reject, “original sin.” Liberal Christians find this story on the “myth” shelf of the library where it tells us about a God with great hope for all of creation who provides us everything we need to achieve God’s dream. The myth explains free will and the responsibility we have to make choices that lead to God.

We spend a great deal of time reading the four memoirs; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John where we learn to apply Jesus’s teachings in our search for God’s truth. This is also where we learn that at the core of Jesus’s teaching is the admonition to avoid strict interpretation of scripture.

When he healed on the Sabbath, dined with tax collectors, or socialized with prostitutes, those who interpreted scripture strictly came unhinged. They were able to point to specific verses in their Bible to prove their point.

In contrast, Jesus taught the greatest commandments are to love God and one another, adding, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Jesus made the point with his “you’ve heard it said” list in Matthew 5. “You’ve heard it said” for example, “you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In other words, we can’t follow the great commandments by interpreting scripture in a way that prevents us from loving God and one another.

As we read the Gospel memoirs, we encounter a storyteller. Jesus taught through parable and was a master of metaphor, allegory, and imagery. As children, “Winnie the Pooh” prepared us to interpret Jesus’s stories.

Through Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh we witnessed the centrality of love to all relationships. “Love is taking a few steps backward, maybe even more,” said Winnie, “to give way to the happiness of the person you love.” That’s the “bear” Gospel. A.A. Milne’s characters taught us our earliest lessons about metaphor, allegory, and imagery. We didn’t have to suspend our beliefs and argue about whether bears and tigers and kangaroos can actually talk in order to learn the lessons Milne taught.

Jesus the Jewish Rabbi said, “I am the way.” He wasn’t saying Christianity, a religion that didn’t exist at the time, is the exclusive path to God. Jesus used metaphor to teach that by following his path, we’ll find ourselves closer to God.

Finally, don’t leave it to your preacher to interpret the Bible for you. Don’t limit your scriptural study to people of a like mind. Study in a diverse community with people of different perspectives. You’ll get closer to a helpful interpretation.


And please don’t tell me “Winnie the Pooh” was not Divinely inspired.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Legislators endanger Wyoming's future

The Bible says that “where there is no vision, the people perish.” If that’s true, Wyoming’s future is endangered. The flawed budget built by the Joint Appropriations Committee (JAC) has no vision and will cause some people to perish.

Bertrand Russell once said, “The mark of a civilized human being is the capacity to read a column of numbers and weep.” I had no idea what he meant until I read what the JAC did to Governor Mead’s carefully considered budget.

The JAC budget is a huge victory for the philosophy like-mindless conservatives. When they finished their work, champagne bottles were uncorked at the Liberty Group offices just as in the Denver Bronco’s locker room of Broncos following the Super Bowl. But if you’re a low-wage working family in need of healthcare, hoping your child receives a quality education, or if a loved one requires emergency mental health services, your team just got blown out.

Governor Mead’s proposal exhibited concern for the state’s current fiscal predicament and a vision for the future. The Governor deals with these matters on a fulltime basis. Part time legislators tinker with them on occasion, substituting their pseudo-knowledge for the Governor’s working knowledge.

In the process, legislators endanger the future of the people of Wyoming. Hopefully, their colleagues will take a more considered approach.

It starts with the decision not to expand Medicaid. Doing so saves taxpayers $33 million. Having made their ill-conceived choice, legislators had to mine the Governor’s budget for cuts to make up the difference.

They ripped millions of dollars from the K-12 school fund. Wyoming politicians like to think the world will return of the fossil fuels based economy. It won’t. The world is going on without coal. If the state is to make a successful shift to a new economy, a continuing commitment to quality education is vital. The JAC doesn’t see it that way.

The Committee cut $4 million from the tax rebate program providing help to elderly and disabled citizens for years. They eliminated nearly $12 million required to meet the needs of mentally ill persons who pose such a risk to themselves and others that they must involuntarily hospitalized. They ended a literacy program altogether.

These draconian cuts were necessitated by the game legislators play with Medicaid expansion. The obsessive Republican hatred of President Obama and the Affordable Care Act has led to the state cutting off its nose to spite its face, as my Mother used to say.

I was struck by what Secretary of State Ed Murray said at the annual Right-to-life Rally this month. Reports quoted Mr. Murray. “As rich and strongly as our God has blessed us. We have become poor and weak in this country in the defense of those who are vulnerable.”

Most legislators who voted to cut education, funds for the elderly and disabled, mental health services, and literacy programs while refusing Medicaid expansion share the views of the right-to-life movement. However, their budget doesn’t reflect much concern for the vulnerable once they leave the womb.

Governor Matt Mead deserves a great deal of credit for sculpting a thoughtful budget in the face of tough economic forecasts. He drafted a proposal that has an opportunity to move Wyoming safely into the oncoming storm.

Governor Mead’s budget assured continuing improvements in education while meeting the healthcare needs of low income working families, the elderly and the disabled as well as those with severe mental illness. His budget was more than a set of numbers on a stack of pages. It signaled the state that we could make it through tough times without ignoring the vital needs of the people.

Sure these are lean times. Budget restraints are necessary. Hard choices must be made. But the Appropriations Committee hasn’t made hard choices. They just hacked away. Their budget is akin to the difference between the work of an executioner using a guillotine and a skilled surgeon using a scalpel.

They have shown no capacity to make visionary choices.





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