Saturday, March 21, 2015

Understanding the incomprehensible

"On Tuesday morning (March 10), Neil (Mick) McMurry left this world on his own terms.” With those words and with their own hearts broken, Mick’s family’s announcement broke Wyoming’s heart.

As stunning as his death, the manner in which he died was more so. It’s near impossible for anyone who knew Mick to imagine this gentle, loving man ending his life with what the coroner deemed “a self-inflicted gunshot wound.”

I knew Mick but not nearly so well as hundreds of others who were much closer to him for much longer. I’ll leave the tributes to people like Bill Schilling. Bill is the president of the Wyoming Business Alliance. He and Mick worked together on countless civic projects. Bill has written of Mick’s lifetime achievements, how Mick was a man who took great risks, reaped great rewards, and then shared it all on good causes.

Mr. Schilling aptly calls Mick and his wife Susie “the face of charity for Casper and all of Wyoming.”

The McMurry family doesn’t need the rest of us to understand. And seeking to do so, we mustn’t invade their privacy during these dark days. Yet, Wyoming must come to grips with self-inflicted death. Our state often leads the nation in the rate by which our people leave this world on their own terms. Perhaps Mick’s final act of charity is to bring some degree of understanding to suicide.

Death by cancer, heart attacks, car wrecks, or strokes is logical. We easily wrap our minds around those deaths, though we grieve. But death by choice defies logic. Suicide is of the mind or spirit, not the body. Death by disease or accident can be explained to us through medical science. Doctors can examine the remains and tell us exactly what happened and more importantly why.

Suicide is different. There is no scientific explanation to satisfy those who grieve. His family says, “Mick had serious health problems that were greatly impacting his quality of life.” That is, in my view, ample reason. Each of us knows others who only wish they’d made that choice before disease robbed them of the capacity to do so.

The writings of Father Ron Rolheiser open new windows into the way we see suicide. He is a widely read Catholic theologian who has seen the pain and guilt left by the myths which inevitably wash up in the wake of a suicide largely because of cultural expectations and religious views. Rolheiser has written extensively on the spiritual dimensions of self-inflicted death.

He doesn’t accept the supposition that death by suicide is any more voluntary than is death resulting from cancer. Just as cancer is the result of a breakdown of the body’s physical immune system, so suicide is a breakdown of the emotional immune system. Rolheiser says, “A person who falls victim to suicide dies, as does the victim of a terminal illness or fatal accident, not by his or her own choice. When people die from heart attacks, strokes, cancer, AIDS, and accidents, they die against their will.” The same, he argues, is true of self-inflicted deaths.

Father Rolheiser seeks to right a wrong the church committed centuries ago. In the fifth century, St. Augustine wrote, “This we declare and affirm and emphatically accept as true. No man may inflict death upon himself at will merely to escape temporal difficulties.” The doctrine, though without scriptural support, became a hurtful church teaching, damaging to families seeking to understand the deaths of loved ones.

Suicide isn’t sinful. Neither is it cowardly nor “an easy way out.” Those superficial beliefs defy our faithful reliance on a God of grace. Those who are left to grieve are victims of these unfortunate myths.

State and federal governments spend millions trying to prevent suicides. The cause is noble. But, an even more noble effort should be made to help families and communities gain a level of acceptance of the deeply painful and personal reasons that good people make the choice.

RIP Wyoming’s friend!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Don’t tell me how violent the Quran is until...

“The Greatest STORIES Ever Told”

A few years ago, the Cheyenne Interfaith Council, made up of liberal and conservative Christians including Mormons, Catholics, Methodists, Disciples of Christ and even Presbyterians…as well as Jews, Muslims, and Unitarian Universalists, sponsored a three-week seminar on the Book of Mormon. Wally Stock, a popular local attorney and his wife, both active LDS leaders, explained the Book of Mormon and other LDS beliefs.

One evening as I walked out of the seminar with a Christian friend, he said to me, “Weird, just plain weird, don’t you think?” I said, “Yes, I suppose it is, but I’ll tell you what’s really weird is the Old Testament story about Moses and the snakes. Now, that is really weird.”

What a preposterous story the elves of the lectionary put in our Lenten path this morning. Cathy read it from the 21st chapter of Numbers. The Israelites set out on a journey, so the story goes. From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea. I’m guessing at least some of them suffer PTSD from the last time they saw the Red Sea; but along the way the people became impatient. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water.”

Remember in Matthew where Jesus asks, what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a fish, will give him a snake?” Well, now we know the answer.

The Lord’s response is not to send a fish, but rather…poisonous snakes. These serpents bite the people and many Israelites die. The people come to Moses and say, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prays for the people. And the Lord says to Moses, “Okay…just do this Moses. Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a real live serpent bit someone, that person could look at the serpent of bronze and live.”

I’m sorry. I know that is our story, a part of our Bible. But it’s weird. And yet from the pulpit of nearly every Christian church this morning preachers will connect this story to the most compelling of all Christian stories, the story of Jesus being lifted up on the cross. The connection goes like this. Just as whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live so it is that we can have life by looking upon Jesus on the cross, knowing that in three days he will rise from the dead and walk out of the tomb.

That story is so compelling that Christianity in all of its many forms is the largest religion in the world. That story drove us right to the top of the charts. There are about 2.1 billion people on the planet for whom this story is compelling enough that they identify themselves as followers of the Risen Christ. It’s called “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

But, it’s not the only story that propels people into a meaningful relationship with God. When Joseph Smith was 21 years old, so the Mormon story goes, an angel named Moroni gave him some ancient records. Joseph had little formal education and was unfamiliar with the ancient language written on the sheets of gold, but he was able to translate them because God gave him the gift and power to do so. The translation took less than three months, and in 1830, 5,000 copies of the Book of Mormon were published.

The Bible is written by and about the people in the land of Israel and takes place from the creation of the world until shortly after the death of Jesus. Mormons accept the Bible as the word of God as do we. But they also have The Book of Mormon, what Mormons believe is the history of God’s dealings with the people who lived in the Americas between 600 BC and 400 AD. The prophets in the Book of Mormon recorded God's dealings with these people, which were compiled by a prophet named Mormon onto gold plates.

I understand that may seem silly to you, but it is the Greatest Story Ever Told for millions. Missionaries are handing out copies of the Book of Mormon all over the world, even we speak. What kind of book can cause so many readers to go out into every corner of the world and knock on the doors of houses and huts, testifying to how that book and its stories have changed their lives?
Worldwide, there are over 15 million Mormons, a few more than the numbers of Jews. In North America the LDS Church is the 4th largest individual denomination with over 6 million members, a population about equal to the number of Muslims.

Did you realize that Jesus is a significant part of the Greatest Story Ever Told for Muslims? Muslims find his birth to Mary and his ministry as a great prophet to be a compelling story. He is one of the five greatest Muslim prophets along with Moses, Noah, Abraham, and Muhammad. True, they do not believe he was divine, neither do they believe he died on the cross.

The Quran tells a story about a group of Jews who insulted Jesus and his mother. He appealed to God against them.  God transformed those who had insulted Mary and Jesus into monkeys and swine. Then the Jews, according to the Quran, took counsel on how to kill Jesus. But, Muslims believe it was not possible for men to kill someone so close to God. They teach that God told Jesus that He would raise him up to heaven, and so Jesus said to his disciples, “Who among you will agree to make yourself look like me and die in my place and be crucified and then go straight to paradise?”  A man among them sacrificed himself, so that Jesus could live. God changed him into a form resembling Jesus and it was he, not Jesus, who was crucified.

Weird story? Right? But a story compelling enough that Islam is the second largest faith on the planet following close behind Christianity. Islam is growing much faster even in the US than are we.

It is a conceit unbecoming a faith in God to see our story as the only story. Yes, the Book of Mormon is strange. The Quran has teachings with which we disagree. Native Americans and other indigenous peoples as well as the Hindus and the Buddhists tell stories we find off the wall but they find compel themselves into a life of faith in a divine being.

I like this Buddhist story. It’s called The Thief and the Master. One evening, Zen master Shichiri Kojun was reciting sutras when a thief entered his house with a sharp sword, demanding "your money or your life".

Without any fear, Shichiri said, "Don't disturb me! Help yourself with the money, it's in that drawer.” And he resumed his recitation. The thief was startled by this unexpected reaction, but he proceeded with his business anyway. While he was helping himself with the money, the master stopped and called, "Don't take all of it. Leave some for me to pay my taxes tomorrow.”

The thief left some money behind and prepared to leave. Just before he left, the master suddenly shouted at him, "You took my money and you didn't even thank me! That's not polite!" This time, the thief was really shocked at such fearlessness. He thanked the master and ran away. The thief later told his friends that he had never been so frightened in his life.

A few days later, the thief was caught and confessed, among many others, his theft at Shichiri's house. When the master was called as a witness, he said, "No, this man did not steal anything from me. I gave him the money. He even thanked me for it." The thief was so touched that he decided to repent. Upon his release from prison, he became a disciple of the master and many years later, he attained Enlightenment.

During Lent, we Christians seek enlightenment on a path leading to the greatest story we have ever been told. We are on a path to the cross and an empty tomb. This is OUR story, the one that invites us into a relationship with God. But it is not the ONLY story by which people come to know God.

There are consequences God didn’t intend if we claim our story as exclusive to the world. Losing sight of the fact that we do not have the ONLY story, but one of many can lead us into the worship of idols. If we believe our story is the only story, we are turning our version of God into a Golden Calf. I don’t thing God intended our story to be seen as exclusive. God intended stories to be the way in which we all come too see God, to understand God, and most important…to have a relationship with God.

When we care more for the story than for the relationship, we have stepped over a line intended by God to separate believers from idolaters.

What should we care if Mormons find the story of the angel Moroni to be compelling? Who are we to say the Muslim story is wrong or that the stories of other faiths are weird while only ours make sense? Maybe ours make sense because we have been raised from children to believe these stories. They make sense to those who have long been taught about God through the images of these stories.

But what about others who were raised differently, with different stories and different faiths. What does it matter which story they adhere to IF the story compels them to love God, to love others. Please don’t say, What about radical Muslims who believe the Quran teaches them to kill us” unless you also want to talk about how fundamentalism causes people of every faith to do evil.

Don’t tell me how violent the Quran is until you go back and read Joshua and Judges and compare the body counts and atrocities there with whatever you read in the Quran.

Stories that inspire believers to kill others are not God’s story. When a story, whether from the our Bible or the Hebrew Bible, the Quran, the Book of Mormon, or the Bhagavad Gita leads people toward God’s love and causes them to love others…it is the word of God.

We’re nearing the end of our Lenten journey for another year. Let’s finish strong. Let’s not worry about whether the greatest stories others have ever been told sound strange. Instead, let’s be thankful when their stories bring them into a relationship with God such as causes them to join us in bringing hope to the world. AMEN

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Gale McGee's 100th birthday

Saint Patrick’s Day 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of Wyoming’s greatest political leaders, Gale W. McGee.

In the early-1980s, I practiced law in Cheyenne. One afternoon, my secretary interrupted a lengthy deposition. “There’s a man who says he’s ‘Ambassador McGee’ on the phone. He said he’d call back, but I thought you’d want to speak with him.” Everyone in the room needed a break. I was delighted to hear from someone I’d admired for so long. “What can I do for you Senator,” I asked. 

“I need a lawyer.”

McGee, then Ambassador to the Organization of American States, explained there was a new county clerk in his old hometown. For almost forty years he’d proudly displayed an Albany County-5 Wyoming license plate. After all these years, the clerk refused to reissue it because McGee lived in Maryland. He wanted to know if I could help.

A couple of phone calls later and his license plate was in the mail. I thought, “How soon they’re forgotten.” Those who give much of their lives to public service are like shooting stars. They move brightly across Wyoming’s skies for a brief period. When they burn out, they’re gone from our hearts and minds. Browse the history section of your library. You’ll find few biographies of important Wyoming public servants. That’s one reason I’m in the midst of writing McGee’s biography and why the biographies of others need to be undertaken.

After World War II, college enrollment burst the seams of every university. McGee was recruited to teach history at the University of Wyoming in 1946. Dr. McGee had completed his PhD at the University of Chicago. Having taught previously at Iowa State, Nebraska Wesleyan, and Notre Dame, he was atop the list of many schools. When UW offered him a professorship, a colleague warned him against coming to Laramie.

“There’s not a legitimate supper club within a hundred miles,” he said. “There’s not a legitimate theater within a hundred-fifty miles. All the local folks do is catch trout and shoot deer.” McGee was sold. When he drove into the beautiful Laramie Valley that summer, his first words, according to Wyoming historian “Doc” TA Larson, who became his closest friend, was “Let’s go fishing.”

He remained an outdoorsman and a “teacher” his entire life. Elected to the US Senate in 1958, Gale McGee was one of the most celebrated orators in the history of the world’s greatest deliberative body. During three senate terms, he worked with Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford. McGee was Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS) under Presidents Carter and Reagan.

He was a part of what many historians believe to be the golden era of senate accomplishments.

He and his colleagues enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare and Medicaid, created the Peace Corps, and put critical consumer and environmental protection laws on the books. This group played their role in amending the US Constitution to expand the vote to eighteen year olds and passed laws to protect women from employment-based discrimination. They held a president accountable for excesses committed under the epithet “Watergate.”

On his birthday in 1961, Senator McGee and his parents were invited to meet with America’s “Irishman-in-Chief.” Saint Patrick’s Day wasn’t only Senator McGee’s, but also his father Garton’s birthday. JFK said, “You have a special claim to the watchfulness of the great saint of Erin, and I hope he obtains for you many more years of health and happiness.” The Irish Saint did just that.

In 1970, Gale McGee became the last Democrat elected to the Senate from Wyoming. Voters thought he’d changed. So, in 1976 he lost. Truthfully, it was the voters who’d changed, becoming more interested in fighting the federal government than being part of a larger world.

Regardless, Gale McGee served Wyoming well. He earned the right to be remembered. On the 100th anniversary of his birth, Irish eyes are smiling.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Sunday's Sermon @ Highlands

The Passover was near. Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
That’s how the reading from John starts. The Passover was near. Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
If you care about Jesus, you’re saying, “what the heck. Don’t you know those folks are looking for a reason to kill you? It’s Passover. The place will be crawling with Roman soldiers to make certain nothing gets out of control. Their co-conspirators in the Temple have been plotting. They don’t need much of a reason to kill you…nor much of a plan. You need to think this over.”
Holy week always reminds me of the last week of Martin Luther King’s days on this earth. Or…actually…of so many of MLK’s days on this earth. Whether it was Atlanta, Birmingham, Selma, or Montgomery. Anywhere he went, it could have been asked of him, “what the heck. Don’t you know those folks are looking for a reason to kill you? They don’t need much of a reason. You need to think this over.”
So…why’d he go? Why do people who care about social justice go where they’re not wanted, say what most people don’t want to hear, especially those with power, why do they go where their bodies, or lives or reputations are put at risk? When MLK was asked why he was in Birmingham, he answered, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”
He said, “Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" message far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.”
The Gospel of John tells us of the time when…just like the prophets and the Apostle…and Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X and others…Jesus knew what he was walking into and the danger he was placing himself in…as MLK said the night before he was murdered, as he was in Memphis to help lowly garbage workers, “The question is not, "If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?" and he said,  Then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out there. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don't know what will happen now,” he said. “But it doesn't matter with me now. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will.”
He knew he was about to lose his life, about to be killed and thought only about God’s will. It’s not likely any of us will ever be in that position...all we have at stake is a little bit of our reputation, will we be liked or criticized or ostracized, or ridiculed…if we do God’s will.
The Passover was near. Jesus went up to Jerusalem.”
And like every one of the other prophets, then and now… he’s not bashful about why he’s there. Jesus heads straight for the Temple. If he’s gonna hide, he’s gonna hide in plain sight. Why, you ask, did he choose the Temple? In those days, the temple was the center of the power of the rich and politically influential…it was used to abuse.
This is where the chief priests, chosen by the Roman Emperor, maintained a boot on the neck of the poor. The Temple was where the politically powerful and the religiously corrupt conspired to make certain the unjust social, economic, and political systems of the day survived any effort to reform them.
It was the first century’s den of robbers.
At Passover, Jesus knew it would be filled and while the danger was great, so was the opportunity to speak out about the withering injustice.
When he walked through the door, he didn’t just say that’s too bad, that makes me feel sorry for those who are hurting and hungry…Jesus lost it. He lost it. He knew what he was going to do, the statement he was going to make, the symbolism of turning over the table of the money-changers. None of that was an accident. None of that was coincidental…any more than was Gandhi’s salt march, Rosa Parks taking a seat at the front of the bus, the Freedom Riders getting off the bus at disembarking from the safety of the Greyhound and wading into a group of bigots who had hate in their hearts and clubs in their hands.
Jesus walked into that Temple and challenged the very things that propped up the injustice of those times; just like Gandhi challenged the tax on salt, a critical product for the masses or Rosa Parks took the seats at the front of the bus which were a symbol of white privilege…just as the Freedom Riders submitted themselves to the brutality of those who thought their clubs were more powerful than God’s will.
Gandhi and Rosa Parks and the Freedom Riders knew as did Jesus that if you take away the symbols of power, the oppressors have no power. The empire could not maintain control over the oppressed without the religionists. The temple was the symbol of their power. The religionists could be counted on to calm the people when they reached the boiling point. That’s why the Temple leaders sought to kill the trouble-maker Jesus.
That’s what John was trying to tell us in the 11th chapter when he later told of the chief priests and the Pharisees calling a meeting of the council, and saying, “What are we to do? If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”
Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You don’t get it. You need to understand that it is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”
I received an email this week from someone about the column I wrote a week ago criticizing the legislature for its votes against gays and lesbians, the poor, people without healthcare, criticizing them for ridiculing working people on food stamps, ignoring people struggling with two or three low wage jobs…and others who are different. The email talked about friends who are gay and how people, politicians, church leaders…mistreat them.”

The email said this has contributed the writer’s decision to be an atheist!

I wrote back and said, “Don’t let them take away your faith. Don’t let them get by making you to feel as though there is no God.” I said, “You don’t have to be an atheist. Jesus is on OUR side, not theirs. Don’t let them think for a minute that Jesus doesn’t see them as the 21st century’s den of robbers. They rob others of their faith by claiming they speak for God and that God doesn’t really love everyone.   

You see, the center of corruption is no longer the temple or the church. Today’s chief priests tried to teach their Gospel of oppression and hate from the pulpits. They tried to abuse scripture to make it appear Jesus was on their side. They failed.

It’s almost St. Patrick’s Day. I want to illustrate what I am saying with a little Irish history. When the English first started trying to control the Irish and enslave them, they sent the priests to explain why the word of God expected them to be good slaves. It didn’t work. Why? Because the priests spoke English, not Gaelic. They didn’t speak the people’s language.

So then the English went to the government. If they’d just pass the right laws or refuse to pass others, the Irish could be controlled by a unjust, discriminatory, oppressive system.

You see, that’s where we are today. The fundamentalists tried to make their case that God wants the poor and the gay and the immigrants and others to be oppressed. But they found they don’t speak our langauge and we don’t speak theirs. When they learned they could not persuade us from their pulpits, they went to the Capitol Building.

There’s a hymn called “The Anger of Christ” the lyrics of which speak to this third Sunday of Lent, the day Jesus lost it in the temple:

May the anger of Christ be mine,
 when the world grows hard and greedy;
 when the rich have no care for the poor,
when the powerful take from the needy.
    In a world of restless change,
 standing for love and faith and justice;
 in a dark confusing time,
 we bear the light, the shining light of Christ

If Jesus were around today, he would not have headed for the temple. He’d have headed for the modern day den of thieves, the place where the politically powerful have conspired with the religionists to maintain political, economic, and social injustice. 

If Jesus were around today, he’d make a whip of cords, and drive all of them out of that den of robbers, along with their sheep and cattle. He’d overturn their tables and their lives and the power they hold over others. If Jesus were here…

…wait…Jesus is here! Jesus is among us and he’s working through us. Have you seen the trailer for the CNN special about Jesus? “The clues he left behind? WE ARE the clues he left behind.

The Passover is near. Jesus is going up to Jerusalem and he wants us to with him. AMEN