Thursday, June 30, 2011

Today is payday and the “Boys of Summer” may not get paid!

It is an outrage that in the wealthiest nation on earth some children go hungry, some veterans go homeless, many hard working people have no health insurance and…and today is payday and the “Boys of Summer” may not get paid! It is indeed a sign that the Apocalypse is upon on us that the Los Angeles Dodgers have filed bankruptcy. “Say it ain’t so, Joe!”
I suppose anyone who read the Book of Revelation could have predicted this. The 13th Chapter of the last book of the Bible warned us. “Men worshipped the dragon for he had given his authority to the beast and then they worshipped the beast saying, “Who is like the beast and who can fight against it?” In Major League Baseball, the beast is what it has become in politics, religion and all else that was once good in America. Money!
While conservative, apocalyptic Christians may see the United Nations, World Trade Organization, and the International Criminal Court as preliminary steps to the formation of a one world government, what they should really fear is the takeover of Major League Baseball by tycoons like Frank McCourt!
When the storied Brooklyn Dodgers packed up and moved to Los Angeles in 1958, many prophesied the end of the world as we then knew it. But this week, the end times are seriously near as the Los Angeles Dodgers moved from the playing field at Chavez Ravine to a bankruptcy court in Delaware.  The Dodgers are assured larger crowds there than they have had in LA this season.
From the time my memory begins, I was a Dodger fan. It became harder in 1993 when the Rockies began playing in Denver. It became impossible in 1998 when Rupert Murdoch and his FOX Group bought the team from the O’Malley family. That day the Boys of Summer became just another banana republic whose mission was no longer to win championships but to provide a lavish income to a few wealthy families. A franchise that had won 21 National League championships and seven World Series “BM” (before Murdoch) never won another.
Current owner Frank McCourt continued the tradition Murdoch started of skimming the profits and investing in his own lavish lifestyle rather than the future of the team. He wasn’t as clever as Murdoch and this week his Ponzi scheme caught up with his greed. In truth, the Dodgers were bankrupt long before their formal filing this week.
“And I heard a voice from Heaven saying, “Write this! Blessed are the dead!” (Revelation 14:13) Fortunately the end times came earlier for fellows like Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Johnny Roseboro, Don Drysdale, Junior Gilliam and Roy Campanella. They didn’t have to witness the demise of what they and Walter O’Malley, Walt Alston, Branch Rickey and others had built over the long haul.
Enter Bud Selig and the “mark of the beast.” The Book of Revelation famously predicted a time when “no person can buy or sell unless he (sic) has the mark, the mark of the beast.” For the Dodgers now, that mark is Bud Selig’s signature. Let’s hope he is a bit more circumspect about lending the mark in the future than he was when Rupert Murdoch and Frank McCourt came calling. It may the last chance to decide whether America’s Pastime will be making money or playing baseball.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

“America” is being reinvented, taking a sharp turn to the right…by a vote of 5-4.

Significant American values are being redefined. What we thought was “America” is being reinvented, taking a sharp turn to the right…by a vote of 5-4. It began in 2000 when the US Supreme Court elected George W. Bush president on a 5-4 vote. He then used his two terms to pack the Court with activist judges who have consistently set aside long standing legal precedent making the country safe for radically right wing beliefs.
Their crusades continued yesterday when the high court voted 5-4 striking down a state law providing matching public funds where a candidate was competing with an opponent able to massively outspend her. Arizona had deemed it in the best interest of democracy to limit the raw influence hard cash has on the political system. The state legislature enacted the law giving all candidates, not just the wealthy, a chance to run while allowing privately financed candidates to spend as much as they want.
This exercise of state’s rights ran afoul of the Supreme Court’s view of democracy, plutocracy or theocracy...whatever may be their ultimate goal. So much for the conservative mantra about state’s rights. By a one vote margin, money will continue to rule Arizona elections.
This 5-4 vote has become the norm. It’s not only the margin by which the Court elected Bush, it is the same margin by which the Court drove the last nail in democracy’s coffin in the Citizens United case when five of the nine justices corporations have a Constitutional right to buy elections at wholesale prices.
By that same 5-4 fringe, these activist judges trashed consumer protections against Wall Street bandits ruling the investment adviser who gives you such poor advice that you lose your life savings cannot be held liable even for false statements made in a fund prospectus. If you bone up on what all that legalese means you might be able to protect yourself from crooked Wall Street folks but you cannot protect yourself from these five members of the Supreme Court.
These same five made the world safer for Walmart to discriminate against women and minorities by denying them the ability to file a class action law suit. 5 to 4 against 1.6 million female employees who may well have been the victims of gender bias.
Last April the Court took AT&T’s side against you. When AT&T asked the Court to allow it to use the fine print of contracts to eliminate class actions, a practice that flouts the laws of 20 states, the Court said those state laws are out…by a vote of, yes…5-4. Similarly, the same five trumped federal anti-age discrimination law when a large employer told the nine justices they’d rather face an arbitrator than a jury. Five of the nine said that sounded good to them although they had to void years of precedent to do so.

They were 5-4 votes that released thousands of prisoners from California prisons,  erased the ability of inner-city governments to restrict gun ownership despite high rates of gun crime and eliminated the local control of school boards seeking to achieve racial balance in their districts.
Of the 72 cases decided since October, fully a third were decided by 5-4 votes. Compare that with the previous session, when only 15 percent of the cases in the previous term were decided by one-vote margins. But those numbers do not tell the story. The story is in the impact of these 5-4 votes on our democracy, state’s rights, our economic system and a citizen’s rights to seek redress from the courts.
But by a vote of 5-4, we will live with the results well into the next generation.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Prophets are different. I suspect they didn’t even like the preachers and I know preachers didn’t like them!

Rev. Rodger McDaniel is the pastor at Highlands Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne.
These are excerpts from his sermon last Sunday morning.

As we continue our journey through the Old Testament, we are witnessing the framework for the welcoming of Jesus of Nazareth. The world is painted as a dualistic conflict…two world views are distinct. One the one hand is the world viewed through the eyes of the kings, nearly all described as wicked. On the other hand is the world view offered by the prophets, the men and women of whom Stephen would later ask minutes before his stoning, “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute?
Let’s start with kings and politicians. The Bible is clear on how it came about that Kings ruled Israel. It was not God’s first choice. God’s first choice was that humans rule themselves. Humans couldn’t or wouldn’t and so God anointed leaders. But the people decided they wanted a King to rule over them. 1st Samuel 8…the people demanded a King. Samuel sees this as a rejection of his judgeship. God sees it for what it truly was. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” God asked Samuel to warn the people of the consequences. A king will tax you more than you can bear, a king will take your sons and make them soldiers to fight his war, and a King will take your crops and oppress your dreams. But, the Bible says, “the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! But we are determined to have a king over us, 20so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”
God knew better than the people but God’s rule is that humans get what they really want whether it’s a good choice or a bad one. The people rule.
Not a lot has changed in the 3000 years since. The people now get to vote for their leaders in many nations but don’t seem to have the vision to see beyond their own selfish needs to choose wisely. The people complain about politicians as though they had nothing to do with their selection. Whether it be kings or presidents…God gave us a world where humans make the choice. But from the time of Adam and Eve, we have not been willing to take personal responsibility for those choices.
And then there are the prophets and the preachers. People in the pews tend to speak highly of both preachers and prophets. But the difference is that while they might invite the preacher over for dinner, the prophet is not welcomed at the dining room table. They would be pleased if their daughter married a preacher, but if she chose a prophet, she’d have to elope.
The story of Micai’ah speaks to the fact that the world is full of false prophets but has sparse true prophets. The story tells us that self interest is one of the characteristics of false prophets. The 400 false prophets in 2nd Kings are far more interested in saying what the king wanted to hear. They had a lot at stake in pleasing the king, status, comfort, security. Micai’ah, on the other hand, was the one who was willing to risk it all to tell the truth. True prophets have a deep understanding of the culture in which they live and of which they speak and its history as well as a deepened relationship with God.

Preachers are sometimes no different than those 400. They are afraid to speak the truth because they may offend their congregation or worse yet those with power in the community. So they often say what people want to hear, rather than looking deeper for God’s truth. 

Billy Graham admits to regrets that he once decided his relationship with Presidents was more important than the truth. To maintain that relationship, to stay on the White House invitation list, he supported the war in Viet Nam and even engaged in anti-Semitic conversations with Richard Nixon in the Oval Office. And as a result, Rev. Graham became America’s favorite preacher.

But when Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s one-time pastor, said, "And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains”…that’s being a prophet.  

Don’t we tend to idolize Billy while demonizing Jeremiah Wright? Rev. Wright was willing to risk it all…including the chance to be known as the President’s pastor, meetings in the White House and all the trappings of that relationship…to tell what he believed to be God’s truth. We can debate whether what he said is “the truth” but we cannot debate the fact that he was willing to set aside all self interests in order to say what he felt needed to be heard.

That is the difference between being a preacher and being a prophet. I am not here to criticize preachers. That’s what a lot of people in the pews want on Sunday morning. They like hearing what they want to hear about how it’s those others who are the sinners…people like a clear, crisp, literal interpretation of the Bible. They like messages that can be reduced to needlepoint and put on a doily or better yet a bumper sticker. Things like “Love the sinner but hate the sin.” Or my favorite (NOT) “The Bible says what it means and means what it says!” Cute quips that are designed to end the conversation. That’s preaching and that’s what preachers do.
Prophets are different. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Amos, Hosea, Obadiah...the others, were not preachers. I suspect they didn’t even like the preachers and I know preachers didn’t like them!
William Blake, the 18th century English poet, painter and visionary allows us to imagine what it might mean to see the prophets in this way: “The prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with me and I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert that God spoke to them, and whether they did not think at the time that they would be misunderstood, and so be the cause of imposition? To which Isaiah replied, ‘I saw no God nor heard any, in a finite organic perception, but my senses discovered the Infinite in everything and as I was then persuaded and remained confirmed that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for the consequences, but wrote.”
It is indeed a curious thing that today most pulpits are filled by preachers while the Bible is filled with prophets! I suppose it’s why we have more politicians than statesmen or women in public office. It’s what the people want! And God’s people have always gotten what they wanted…for good or bad…or wicked or indifferent. From the beginning God said, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me.”

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Nietzsche said, “The last Christian died on the cross!” 2000 years later, Christianity may be dying on the stage!

Religion has become as much a spectator sport in America as football and politics. A lot of good folks who once entered the arena to participate are more likely today to take a seat among the spectators. Perhaps there is good reason religion has become a “curiosity” rather than a “practice” for an increasing number. Look at the front page of the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle on June 21st for two stories to make my case.
The first was about a woman who shut down one of the nation’s busiest airports by simply disclosing to an airport worker that God had informed her a plane bound for Washington, DC carried a bomb. Anytime the world of homeland security collides with apocalyptic religion, you have a train wreck worth watching.
The second story was of a poll warning Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman that the way they worship God is a political liability. Nearly a quarter of all Republicans would not vote for a member of the Mormon Church. Ironically the home to the religious right and evangelical Christians has no room in the inn for some Christians. Huntsman is seeking to assuage voters concerned about his denominational label assuring them, “I can’t say I’m overly religious’…whatever that means. Although a large number of GOPers won’t vote for a Mormon that number is less than the one-third of Republican voters who believe the President is a closeted Muslim.
Curiouser still is the fact that among Democrats, the Party claiming to be more tolerant, an even higher number would vote for a yellow dog than would vote for a Mormon. Independents are only slightly less religiously bigoted. Many of these nice folks would be quick to assert a claim that the United States is what they would call “a Christian nation.” Perhaps but if so, a Christian nation with a very odd understanding of the Gospel.
Last week the New York Times ran a story about how a young man fled his gay life to attend a Bible College in Wyoming not far from where Matthew Shepherd was murdered upon learning the Bible teaches homosexuality is a sin. A Seattle preacher is busily warning his flock about the Satanic features of yoga. The Methodist Church is conducting an inquisitional trial of a female minister because of her same sex commitment. A French cult has joined a group of  American goofballs in predicting another “end of the world” causing their government to begin preparing for mass suicides ahead of this Armageddon-like scenario.  
Who could forget the members of Wyoming’s own “WyWatch” gathering ostentatiously in loud prayer in the State Capitol Building which I suppose is technically not a violation of Jesus’ admonition, “don't be like the hypocrites who love to stand on the street corners so that they will be seen by people.
But for them and other odd Christians “all the world’s a stage.” On the big media stage, some Christians are performing while others are wringing their hands over news that in the last decade the number of Americans who no longer identify themselves as Christian has doubled while the numbers who claim to be either agnostic or atheist have quadrupled. This comes as no surprise. It’s easy to understand that with as much drama as some Christians produce on stage it is far more interesting to be in the audience than to be a member of the cast. It’s certainly better to identify yourself as a spectator than as a performer.
Nietzsche said, “The last Christian died on the cross!” 2000 years later, Christianity may be dying on the stage!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Our lives can become a reflection of our regrets…

Rev. Rodger McDaniel is the pastor at Highlands Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne.
These are excerpts from his sermon last Sunday morning.

2nd Kings 2, “Elisha took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.”  
The last prophet for whom God parted the waters was Moses. Now it is for this little known, seldom preached Elisha.
Elisha had many of the same qualities, many of the same powers, much of the same authority as Jesus of Nazareth and but for one especially dark incident in his life, we might honor him in much the same way.
The Gospel of John records the first of many of the miracles of Jesus. It was at a wedding when Jesus changed the water into wine. 2nd Kings records the first miracle of Elisha as the day when he turned polluted water into pure.
 19Now the people of the city said to Elisha, “The location of this city is good, as my lord sees; but the water is bad, and the land is unfruitful.” 20He said, “Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him. 21Then he went to the spring of water and threw the salt into it, and said, “Thus says the Lord, I have made this water wholesome; from now on neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.” 22
It was the first of Elisha’s many miracles. Elisha is approached by a woman whose husband has died. “Your servant my husband is dead; and you know that your servant feared the Lord, but a creditor has come to take my two children as slaves.” 2Elisha said to her, “Tell me, what do you have in the house?”
All she has in the world is a single jar of oil. In much the same way Jesus filled the vessels with new wine, Elisha tells her to find all the containers she can and go into her house and fill each with the oil from that last remaining jar which by the word of Elisha provided a never ending supply of precious oil. The oil from that one jar provided more and more oil until the containers were no more.She came and told the man of God, and he said, “Go sell the oil and pay your debts, and you and your children can live on the rest.”
Then a Shunammite lady befriended Elisha. Described as wealthy and provides hospitality to Elisha.
This kind woman has no son and her husband is elderly. He blesses her with the conception of a son who later dies. “When the child was older, he went out one day to his father among the reapers. 19He complained to his father, “Oh, my head, my head!” The father said to his servant, “Carry him to his mother.” 20He carried him and brought him to his mother; the child sat on her lap until noon, and he died.”
When Elisha came into the house, he saw the child lying dead on his bed. 33So he went in and closed the door on the two of them, and prayed to the Lord...3 3and the child opened his eyes. 36Elisha said, “Call the woman.” When she came, he said, “Take your son.” 37She came and fell at his feet, bowing to the ground; then she took her son and left. 21
Elisha now returns to Gilgal where he finds a famine. The people are starving. This story conjures memories of Jesus feeding the multitudes. Elisha too fed the multitudes.
A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” 43But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” So he repeated, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” 44He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.
But…Elisha is barely a memory today. Why is that? It’s because we know one thing too many about him.
I am reading an autobiography of Malcolm X who was once asked how he could defend Elijah Muhammed against charges of womanizing in the Nation of Islam.  “A prophet, he said, “must be weighed in the balance. Is right to toss out years of good because of one’s indiscretion?”
Elisha’s one discretion? This is a prophet who restored diseased water to purity, raised the dead, fed the hungry multitudes with a few loaves…but one day while walking to bethel, Elisha encountered a group of children. They did what children often do…the jeered him and made fun of his bald head. They called him “baldhead.” Go away Baldhead, they yelled. It seems like an annoying but harmless taunt. But it caught Elisha at an apparently bad moment. The scripture says he “cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.”
A life dedicated to God, doing good, healing and feeding and teaching…lost in memory to a single regretful incident. We do that, don’t we? We do that all the time to celebrities. Tiger will not be remembered for his unparalleled ability to play golf. Greg Mortenson will be remembered, if at all, not for building schools in Afghanistan but for the embellishments he included in his bestselling book. For all the good Elisha accomplished…the she-bear incident is what he is remembered for if at all.
Perhaps we have trouble weighing their lives in the balance of the good they’ve done because we can’t weigh our own lives in the balance.
Our lives can become a reflection of our regrets…those moments we’d like over, the things we said we wish we hadn’t, things we did that stung someone we love then…and us even now. Regrets over things we didn’t do, choices we wish we had made, lives we wish we had shared.  My guess is that to his dying day, Elisha was not able to see the face of the boy he raised from the dead, or the smiles of those he fed but not a day went by when he didn’t relive the mauling of those children by the bear set upon those boys by his own curse.
Was he good or bad? It’s important to go back to the theme with which we started out Bible study. If you don’t know the Old Testament, you will never understand Jesus. Jesus came to announce God’s covenant…we are all sinners and fall short…not any of are all good or all bad. But we are all forgiven.
We can let go of our regrets and be thankful for those times in our lives when we did what God called us to do when we loved a neighbor like ourselves, fed the hungry, comforted the grieving, celebrated Jesus in our lives. That is the mantle Jesus left for us. In God’s eyes, we are never defined by our regrets, but by the faith that allows us to move forward, to try again, to be redeemed.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

"The freedom to express our thoughts ... means something only if we are able to have thoughts of our own.”

A 50 state review conducted by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University concludes Wyoming is one of the least “free” states in the region. Entitled “Freedom in the 50 States” the report assessed each state’s “public policies that affect individual freedoms in the economic, social, and personal spheres.” New Hampshire is said to be the most free and New York the least. Regionally, Wyoming ranked 21st, less “free” than South Dakota (2), Idaho (4), Colorado (7) and Utah (20) but more free than Montana (29) and Nebraska (23).
The authors describe the criteria. “We explicitly ground our conception of freedom on an individual-rights framework. In our view, individuals should be allowed to dispose of their lives, liberties, and properties as they see fit, as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others.”
The study offers a unique perspective on choices our legislature makes. A reader would walk away thinking Wyoming legislators are tax and spend liberals who have created a larger than necessary bureaucracy while making the state a safe place for insurance companies, liquor dealers, drunk drivers and home schoolers.
Wyoming would have received a higher ranking if, like New Hampshire, we had a same sex civil unions law. Wyoming was also marked down because of its mandate that employers contribute to the worker’s comp fund although the study calls Wyoming’s weak labor laws “market friendly.” I guess a state can’t protect working people and be considered “free” at the same time.
Our state scored higher than most because it has the lowest beer taxes in the nation, low cigarette taxes, weak smoke-free environment laws and no sobriety check-points. It appears public policies proven to reduce tobacco related illnesses, drunk driving and underage drinking infringe on the Mercatus Center’s views of freedom.
Laws assuring children are reasonably well educated when parents choose to home school are considered “paternalistic” by the Mercatus Center. Accordingly, the authors like the fact Wyoming has few meaningful standards for home schoolers but were unimpressed with our high rates of “victimless crimes arrests” and found our “drug law-enforcement rate is average.” They liked the fact Wyoming doesn’t do much to regulate the health insurance industry.
Robert Frost famously said, “If society fits you comfortably enough, you call it freedom.” Wyoming doesn’t quite fit comfortably enough with the Mercatus understanding of freedom. But is there a more objective standard? Yes. And it may be even more troubling for some whose political and social views arise from the ash heap of talk radio, FOX News and the talking points of their favorite politician.
One of my most memorable high school teachers was Nick Breitweiser. He taught 10th graders the meaning of freedom. I can still see him pulling out his hair as we described “freedom” as the right to vote and freedom of religion and speech. Mr. Breitweiser used Eric Fromm’s classic book Escape From Freedom in a doomed effort to teach us, "The freedom to express our thoughts ... means something only if we are able to have thoughts of our own.”
Mercatus defines freedom in terms of reduced regulation of health and safety, less taxation and public spending, and other standards that would make society more comfortable for them. Their study will make headlines which will themselves become talking points. But “freedom” is something far more important, far more difficult to understand and attain. The right to vote, speak, worship…what we often call “freedom” is meaningless where so few actually have their own thoughts.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The war against drugs, the war against poverty, the war against terrorism. much as the Golden Calf!

Rev. Rodger McDaniel is the pastor at Highlands Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne.
These are excerpts from his sermon last Sunday morning.

What’s up with the Bible’s concern about idolatry? In all of the Abrahamic religions, idolatry or the worship of idols is strictly prohibited.
Idolatry is easy to understand when we see the golden calf. We get it when there is an object substituting for God. But, of course, idols can be more insidious than golden calves or bronze bulls. Idols can be ideas. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "Idolatry not only refers to false pagan worship...humans commit idolatry whenever they honor and revere a creature in place of God, whether this be gods or demons, power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, or money.”

We commit the sin of idolatry whenever we place our faith in an image, an idea, a promise or a hope other than the God of Creation. There are other idols Americans worship that are as damaging to our relationship with God as any golden calf. That idol is war. I am not talking about the obvious idols of military conflict. That’s easy pickings. I am talking about what we call “the wars.” The war against drugs, the war against poverty, the war against terrorism.

Idols? Idolatry? Yes, every bit as much as the golden calf. Recall the first instance in which idolatry became an issue of faith. The people of God have been delivered from Egypt. They follow Moses into the wilderness. Moses leaves them to go to the mountain top for his 10 Commandments moment with God.

Exodus 32:1-4: “It is a rush of fear that causes the people to sculpt the golden calf. They suddenly feel all alone, abandoned in the wilderness, fearful that Moses may not return. “The people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”

It was their fear, not their hope that causes them to turn focus their faith on a visible, understandable, discernible object. It is in their fear, they cannot find the God who has been faithful to them, who has cared for them and delivered them. The consistently vehement Biblical admonitions against idolatry serve the idea that there is only one God, a God who provides for our needs, who is present in our lives in a relationship of mutual trust. Fear often breaks the bond and causes us to look elsewhere for our hope. That can be a golden calf, as it was for the children of God left in the wilderness…or it can be turning away from God in the hopes the state can resolve our fears.

It is no different today when we talk about the so-called wars against drugs, the war against poverty, and the war against terrorism. The Old Testament laws against idolatry were fully anchored in the idea that resorting to idols was an unfaithful alternative to trusting God. God knew the human heart then as God does today. The human heart can be a tool of love or a tool of fear.

So…why then do I count the cultural wars against drugs, poverty and terror as idolatry. Because in each instance, we have placed our faith in the state, our government, programs, bureaucracies, police, the military, politicians, the CIA, the DEA, the TSA…we have made a deal with the state. We will pay our taxes and you solve our problems.

At the very root of the drug problem in this world, the problems arising from the impoverishment of millions and the use of terrorism…at the very root of each of those problems is the fear felt first by the children of Israel. We don’t trust that God can solve these problems and so we put our faith in an idol.

In the war on drugs, we have worshipped a golden calf believing that if only we arrest enough people and throw them in jail and throw away the key, the problem can be solved. In our fear or terrorism, we put our faith in the sword, believing that if only we kill enough Muslims, we can be safe again.

We look at the poor, the hungry, the homeless and say “the government, that idol of last resort, the government should do something, there should be a program and where there is a program it should work better.”

Putting our trust in God is not a passive hope but an active faith, lived out in ways that show the world we love God enough to love our neighbors, especially our difficult neighbors.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A spiritual perspective gained through study, experience and prayer requires me to argue the time has come to end to the war on drugs.

Last January I retired after four years as Wyoming’s ranking official with responsibility for drug treatment and prevention. Previously I chaired the Governor’s Advisory Board on Substance Abuse. I was reluctant to take a position former colleagues may find contrary to our years of hard work. But I’ve learned too much about the science of addiction and I believe too strongly in God’s grace to be silent now. A spiritual perspective gained through study, experience and prayer requires me to argue the time has come to end to the war on drugs.
I share British columnist Johann Hari’s view. “The proponents of the "war on drugs" are well-intentioned people who believe they are saving people from the nightmare of drug addiction and making the world safer. But this self-image has turned into a faith – and like all faiths, it can only be maintained by cultivating a deliberate blindness to the evidence.”
Americans took a misstep dogmatizing counter-drug efforts as a war. The war wreaked havoc on the spiritual foundations of families and communities as politicians, judges, cops and parents marched off to wage war against their own children. Harsh drug laws are followed by even harsher laws, public health concerns sidelined while mandatory sentences replace judicial discretion.  
POW’s are taken at a rate of one every 19 seconds. Prisons overflow, new ones built, costs soar. If those imprisoned for drug violations were a state, it would be the 35th largest with more than 2 million inhabitants. The White House Drug Czar reports the 2010 federal tab was $15 billion. States appropriated another $25 billion.
As with any war, there’s been extensive collateral damage, e.g. erosion of constitutional rights, disparate impact on minorities, access to education denied for minor drug offenses, youth carrying criminal records that will long impact their futures and numerous regretful foreign policy choices. Families have been broken, children left in foster care, rendered more likely to follow parents into the corrections system. Some children are endangered while others endanger.
This quagmire created a drug-based economy characterized by extreme violence. Mexico, the most sensational example, will likely become a failed state in our lifetime, on our border. Current drug policy begets high demand begetting criminal enterprises worldwide anxious to control the lucrative US market.
Light at the end of this tunnel? In a recent poll 86% said “no.” The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration connects use of drugs with perceptions of how risky they are. It’s a clear indication what we’ve been doing, all we’ve spent, threats of jail sentences, haven’t brought this war nearer a conclusion. Today only a third of American teens perceive any risk in smoking marijuana. Less than half see risk in using cocaine. More than 40% think we’ve lied about the dangers of heroin use and half see no risk in trying LSD.
Proceeds from taxing drugs and licensing fees will provide a “peace dividend” fully funding treatment and prevention. A large body of evidence counters fears that ending prohibition will result in widespread addiction. Countries relaxing or eliminating criminal penalties show the rate unchanged. A certain percentage of people who experiment will always become addicted. The vast majority will not. When they do, let’s provide health care as we would for any other disease. When drug use leads to criminal violations, address those offenses using the research-based practices that have made drug courts in this community such a success in reducing recidivism.
The war on drugs has impacted America’s spiritual foundation as negatively as slavery and the historic cruelty perpetrated on Native Americans. The time has come, as it eventually did in Viet Nam, to end the hostilities, “bring the troops home” and to put the resources we’ve dedicated to war into treatment, health care and the restoration of lives.
Rev. Rodger McDaniel is pastor of Highlands Presbyterian Church of Cheyenne and the former head of the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Division of the Wyoming Department of Health.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

God spoke the world into existence and gave us the ability to do the same thing.

Rev. Rodger McDaniel is the pastor at Highlands Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne.
These are excerpts from his sermon last Sunday morning.

Stephen Prothero is a professor in the Department of Religion at Boston University and the author of numerous books on religion in America who describes himself as "religiously confused." It is precisely the willingness of such a learned person to describe himself as confused that makes him worth our listening. I always find religiously confused people more interesting and worthwhile than I do those who are religiously assured. Prothero wrote about Paul when Paul wrote this letter to the ancient church at Ephesus.
25So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 2631Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. 5Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Paul of Tarsus wrote while in prison in Rome (around AD 62). Ephesus was an ancient Greek city in what we know today as Turkey. Culturally, politically and religiously, the early Christians in Ephesus were far out of the mainstream of community life. It's the age old question. What does it mean to be Christian in a decidedly un-Christian culture? And so Paul’s letters even though written almost 2000 years ago, become relevant today.

Professor Prothero concluded we humans all live somewhere between the animals and the gods. While aspiring to be like the gods, we are often like the animals and so we live our lives somewhere between. Humans pat themselves on the back for being smarter than the animals. We claim a vast gap between us and other living creatures—the uniqueness of our intelligence, our culture, our ability to think and reason, and our countless impressive achievements. One anthropologist set out the key differences saying, “the animals don’t think or reason, write, read, listen to music (let alone compose it or perform it), drive cars, or understand mathematics and chemistry.

He doesn’t know my little dog Buddy. I have no way of knowing whether Buddy can read or write. I have never offered him a chance to drive my car. He may not understand mathematics or chemistry but that doesn’t separate him from me. I do know he listens to music. He and Pat are the only ones who’ve ever heard me sing and unlike my wife, Buddy seems to think I sing pretty well.

In the end, there is really only one sure characteristic separating Buddy and other animals from us…the ability to speak words! We take it granted. The only time we marvel at the ability to speak is when an infant says his or her first words. From then on, the ability to speak, to question, make observation, to gossip, lie, challenge, explain…the ability to form words that express feelings, beliefs, prejudice, love…the one characteristic that separates us from the rest of God’s creation is taken for granted.

When the Bible says we were created in God’s image, this is precisely what that means. God spoke the world into existence and gave us the ability to do the same thing.
Think about it. What you say to your spouse, your children, your neighbors, friends, to strangers…the words you use to express love, anger, joy, sadness, confusion or certainty…the words you use to express your deepest thoughts or your momentary emotions…those words create the world in which you live. As you consider how your words create your world, think about Paul’s advice.
He says, put away falsehoods and speak the truth. Now he isn’t simply telling us not to tell lies. We know that is an important part of our relationships. Paul is saying something far bigger, far more difficult. Paul’s meaning is uncovered in the final words of this reading where he tells us to be “imitators of God and to live in love as Christ loved us, willing to give himself. And so the world we create with the words we use has to do with understanding that to be a Christian has a great deal to do with telling the truth to a culture that has much at stake in the lies that create that culture.
Listen to the culture this week in the new light of Paul’s letter. What kind of world is created by the words spoken on TV and radio, words used in newspapers, the words spoken by you to those you care about, those who care about you? What kind of world is created by the words spoken in anger, words to justify prejudice, to create fear? What words are spoken by you or to you that create hope, love.
Paul says, 29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”
The words of Paul are combined in today’s lesson to create your world, one in which you speak the truth, and  Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.
It is no accident or coincidence that of all of God’s creation, only we humans share with God the ability to speak words. God gave us that ability so that we might be full partners in God’s hope for the world with an expectation we use words not to harm or hurt but to build and to love.


Saturday, June 4, 2011

If you are looking for Medicaid fraud, go where the money is!

Senator Charlie Scott is apparently seeking higher office. Dissatisfied with Divinely imposed term limits, Charlie believes his legacy would best be fulfilled as the Mayor of Whoville. Like the Grinch who stole Christmas, Whoville Mayor Scott and his dog Max sit high atop the mountain above, watching over the Who-sters knowing they are up to something mendacious and deceitful.
Mayor Scott builds castles in the air colonized by Who-sters who know how to cheat the system. He’s been on that beat for some time now, having chased many of those same Whoville citizens off the public dole, claiming to have seen them drive to welfare offices in their Cadillacs, collecting welfare checks. Charlie used federal welfare reform laws as an opportunity to cut 90% of the Who-sters off the dole. “Get a job,” he told them. And so they did.
Many Who-sters were single mothers with children. Some were two parent homes. Parents put their children in daycare and went to work. What they found were jobs with little pay and no health insurance. So the Who-sters worked two or three jobs when jobs were available in Whoville. Still they took home so little they continued to qualify for public benefits such as Medicaid.
Rather than saying something about low wages and lack of access to affordable insurance, Whoville Mayor Scott knew in his gut citizens of the village have cheating hearts. Regardless of factoids, he was certain of his notions. The “truthiness” of the matter, according to the Mayor, is there are crafty, guileful and duplicitous women in Whoville who quit their jobs upon learning the stork is enroute. Unemployed, they sneak into the local DFS office and sign up for Medicaid. Then those devious Who-sters go back to work, still collecting ill-gotten Medicaid benefits. Who are these cheating Who-sters? The Mayor isn’t saying but, “Damn ‘em all,” the he cries.
His Excellency can’t explain why they would bother to quit their jobs when their wages are already so low they qualify for Medicaid but, hey, Whoville is his jurisdiction and he knows his people. I think if I were Mayor, I’d follow the advice of Willy Sutton. Asked why he robbed banks, Willy said, “Duh! Because that’s where the real money is!”
Last week Whoville’s attorney general announced the real money had been found, not in the off-shore bank accounts of Whoville welfare cheats but rather in the “white collar” hands of pharmaceutical companies. Through a variety of schemes that avoided the Mayor’s detection, these companies bilked Medicaid for so much money that little ole Whoville’s share comes to 1.4 million dollars!  
“There are many factors that contribute to why Medicare & Medicaid fraud is becoming out of control in America” according to “Two serious contributors are overpriced prescriptions for medications, devices and treatments in addition to overspending by largely unregulated hospitals. Doctors have many incentives for prescribing the most expensive drugs and medical devices mainly including rewards from drug companies. This type of fraud is estimated to account for about 15% of Medicare & Medicaid over-billings.” The report didn’t mention the women of Whoville.

Al Simpson famously said, “Never start a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. Likewise, the Grinch who plans to steal health care from the poor knows better than to start a fight with people who buy politicians by the barrel. Yet, Willy Sutton knew what he was talking about. Whoville would be better off if the Mayor followed the real money.