Monday, August 29, 2011

It’s not too much to ask that Cindy Hill have a reasonable cause before firing employees.

                It should raise red flags when an elected official with less than a year of public service under her belt who is already trying to claim authority to fire state employees without cause. Cindy Hill was elected to the office of State Superintendent of Public Instruction only last November. Before even meeting some of her employees, Hill is already demanding the right to discharge any Department of Education employee without cause. She wants all Department employees to serve “at-her-will.”
            What does that mean and why should you care? The so-called “at-will” employment doctrine allows employers to discharge anyone for any or NO reason whatsoever. There are limited exceptions such as discharging because of gender or race but for the most part the doctrine deprives even the best employees any protection from abusive employers.
At-will has been described this way, “The doctrine of employment-at-will emerged in the nineteenth century in the United States in a climate of unbridled, laissez-faire expansionism, social Darwinism, and rugged individualism. It is often referred to as Wood's Rule, named after Horace C. Wood, who articulated the doctrine in an 1877 treatise Master and Servant. No doubt the title of the treatise says all that need be said regarding Wood's view of employment relations.”
For a reason that made more sense a century ago than it does today, the person chosen to manage education policy in the state is an elected official with a four year term. The Superintendent of Public Instruction is also a partisan. When Hill, a Republican, was elected she found most of the career employees who actually make the office function are protected from whimsical discharge. She’d like to change the rules.
I have served as a state agency head and am familiar with the common belief that it is “impossible to fire a bad state employee.” Not true. State employees, other than those who are “at-will” earn the right after one year of probation to be fired only for cause. If Ms. Hill or another agency head wants to deprive a person of their ability to earn a living, they must have a good reason. The state rules require the use of “progressive discipline” in order to give wayward employees an opportunity to improve performance. The requirement that an agency work with the employee to improve is hardly onerous given the amount of time and money it costs to recruit and train a replacement. If the employee fails to respond, the rules allow for discharge.
Other state agency heads are appointed by the governor. They understand they serve at the pleasure of the governor and that elections have consequences for policy makers. But the state personnel system has always recognized the importance of protecting employees below that level from political whims. For employees of the Department of Education it is all that much more important because this is the one state agency where the boss is elected on a partisan ballot.
It’s not too much to ask that Hill have a reasonable cause before firing employees. This basic protection serves the interests of the public by assuring state employees can speak up, be innovative and not simply slink around the office hoping to make no waves. It also protects us from political cronyism. Without collective bargaining, this protection is the system’s only conscience.
State government functions best when employees are protected from arbitrary, political decisions. Applying the “at-will” doctrine to every employee of the Department will damage both morale and performance.  Voters, legislators and others should be deeply concerned about a rookie elected official whose first act is to seek the power to fire dedicated employees for no cause at all. What’s that really all about?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Wyoming's tradtion of selling out the children continues!

Governor Mead is continuing a long-standing Wyoming tradition. He’s joined a lengthy list of Governor’s who have participated in a melodrama that always ends the same way. The interests of Wyoming children and families are eventually sold out to a group of whining judges and prosecutors. Like those before him, there was a brief time when this governor could see the damage Wyoming’s juvenile justice system is doing to young people. But that was before a group of lawyers and judges stood in his light.
            For nearly four decades the melodrama has followed the same script. A group of experts in juvenile justice studies the issue. Over many months they conduct public meetings, invite input, hold hearings, study the data, review best practices and develop a sincere proposal. As the proposal begins to win political support, a deus ex machina is written into the script. A well worn dramatic device, it’s the point in the story when a seemingly inextricable problem is abruptly solved with a contrived intervention.

            The “gods out of the machine” are a group of district court judges and elected county attorneys. After months of discussion during which they hide in the weeds, they appear at a legislative hearing, en masse. They take turns walking to the microphone, addressing legislators in their lawyerly best attire, with their lawyerly best arguments. In a few moments, the politicians melt away from bold ideas as these “experts” carefully explain why solutions that have worked in most others states simply cannot work in Wyoming.
            The plot reaches its climax with a press release that must, by now, be a form on the computers in the governor’s office where only the name of the sitting governor needs to be entered. It reads as follows, “Governor (fill in the blank) issued a statement saying he has wanted to work with stakeholders in the state's juvenile justice system to come up with a plan for making improvements. ‘There are prosecutors and judges in Wyoming that the rest of the state can learn from and I want their input so we don't reinvent the wheel.’ The Governor also said stakeholders have told him, ‘that it needs to be a consensus effort, not a top-down mandate. So, if the consensus is a unified system, great, if it is something else that is appropriate."
            It is the contrived appearance of the judges and prosecutors forever preventing consensus. Yet it is the need of timid politicians for the cover of consensus preventing the state from achieving a juvenile justice system that actually serves children.
Wyoming has a feudal lord system. Like the feudal system of the middle ages, Wyoming feudal lords, i.e. judges and county attorneys, observe a set of reciprocal obligations among themselves as lords over vassals and fiefdoms. They honor those obligations assuring the system works for one another with little regard for whether it works for the public good. Judges are more concerned with output than outcomes and so the county attorneys provide them with a cookie cutter approach to juveniles assuring the docket moves on schedule. The county attorneys who stand for election on a partisan ballot every four years need to be tough on crime. They have a need to control the system, decide who gets charged with what crime, and how they are punished. The judges acquiesce. It all works quite well for the feudal lords. For the children? Not so well.
            Governor Mead should gather all the studies Wyoming has conducted since the 1960’s on this matter. The size of the stack is impressive in itself. What’s even more impressive is that once you wipe off all the dust, they each offer substantially the same recommendations….recommendations that have been blocked for 40 years by the feudal lords who benefit most from the dysfunction.
The financial costs to taxpayers are enormous. The human costs to children and families whose lives are ground up in the system are incalculable. Yet sadly their lives are secondary to the tradition Governor Mead has chosen to continue. 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Christian Response to Same-sex Marriage

This is the sermon I delivered this morning at Highlands Presbyterian Church
regarding the matter of same-sex marriage.

When it comes to marriage, there are a lot of strange opinions. Gary Busey who may not be the best source on the topic, said, “Marriage is the only war where you sleep with the enemy.”  Not surprisingly, Mae West is quoted as having said, “They say love is blind...and marriage is an institution. Well, I'm not ready for an institution for the blind just yet.”
Just as strange to me is the popular opinion of many Christians. We hear a lot of talk about what they call “traditional Biblical marriage” claiming that marriage was intended by God to be a life-long relationship between one man and one woman.  One Christian web site makes this claim, “Traditional marriage has served all nations and all cultures well since the Garden of Eden!”
You don’t have to be a Biblical scholar to know that just ain’t true. The Bible rather provides support for polygamy, arranged marriage and other marital relationships for which you might go to jail these days.
Indeed as God set forth the law in the Book of Deuteronomy, God sanctioned marriages that included one man and more than one woman…envisioning the husband may like some and not others of his many wives. Deut 21: [15] "If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other disliked, and they have borne him children, both the loved and the disliked, and if the first-born son is hers that is disliked, [16] then on the day when he assigns his possessions as an inheritance to his sons, he may not treat the son of the loved as the first-born in preference to the son of the disliked, who is the first-born."
David whom God called a “man after his own heart” had countless wives, literally countless if you’ve ever tried. One was obtained though the killing of her first husband…and Solomon who is memorialized in the Bible as the wisest of all Kings had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines.
Interestingly…traditional Biblical limitations and restrictions on marriage had nothing to do with the number of wives you corralled…it was about whether you married someone unacceptable to the community.
1st Kings 11: Now King Solomon loved many foreign women: the daughter of Pharaoh, and Moabite, Ammonite, E'domite, Sido'nian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the LORD had said to the people of Israel, "You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods"; Solomon clung to these in love and his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father.”
The sin of Solomon was not that he married 700 women but that he married women from the other side of the tracks while David married within the community and so his heart was true. The Bible reflects a traditional attitude toward marriage…but not the one many conservative Christians would like to think it is. It was never “one man-one woman.”
That’s what Ezra is grappling with in today’s readings. The religious folks have read the scripture literally. They are pointing at the scripture! It says right there in the law that Israelites should not take foreign women in marriage…and now the devout must dump those women. Get rid of them, the sooner the better.
That’s nothing new. The religious community has forever struggled with who their sons and daughters should marry. I remember as a teen ager developing a crush on a local Jewish girl…whose parents put the kibosh on that real quick. I had friends who could not date certain kids because they were or were not Catholics or Mormons or whatever.
Their basis was again…the Bible that expressly teaches a Christian should never knowingly marry a non-Christian. The principle is set forth three times in the NT.  2 Corinthians 6:14, referred to in Ephesians 5:21–33 and Matthew 19:4–7. “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?”
Good Christians also used the Bible to condemn marriages between people of different skin color. As a result, interracial marriage was banned in most states until as late as 1967 when the US Supreme Court ruled such laws a violation of the Constitution.
The court case involved a young couple coincidentally named Loving…one black, the other white who were sentenced to prison for marrying one another by a judge who said, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
You may find it interesting to learn the Presbyterian Church was among the first to come out against the ban on interracial marriage. A year before the Supreme Court ruled, the UPC took a stand, stating the church did not condemn or prohibit interracial marriages. The church found even in the face of scripture "no theological grounds for condemning or prohibiting marriage between consenting adults merely because of racial origin.”
These days, there are no more difficult issues to talk about in the life of the church than those involving the Christian response to gays, lesbians and transgendered people. But it is also true the church has always had difficult issues dividing it. Slavery, the treatment of Native Americans, the role of women in the church and society, the acceptance of war. And it is likewise true the battleground on which these struggles have always taken place is the Bible.
I know you have heard it said scripture condemns homosexuals, declares them to be an abomination. Indeed there are parts of scripture, verses that when taken from the context of the entire story of God revealed through Jesus that can be interpreted to support that conclusion. But we worship God as revealed through Jesus and scripture is not always the final word…Jesus risked his life and was ultimately crucified because he rejected the literal words of the Bible in favor of loving those who the community vilified. The Gospel story calls us to do the same.
Luke Timothy Johnson is a conservative Christian writer who is often at odds with theologians I respect the most. He argues strongly with people like Daniel Berrigan and Marcus Borg. Listen to what this conservative Christian who has studied this matter far more deeply than most has to say about same sex marriage and scripture,
“Many of us who stand for the full recognition of gay and lesbian persons within the Christian communion find ourselves in a position similar to that of the early abolitionists-and of the early advocates for women’s full and equal roles in church and society.”
That “similar position” he talks about is confronting the literal interpretation of scripture in order to support a change in beliefs. Just as Jesus had to confront literal interpretations of scripture in order to heal on the Sabbath, touch and heal lepers, share bread with sinners…so Christians have always had to confront literal reading of scripture to do what we have concluded God would have us do to allow love to prevail.
Those like Jefferson Davis who quoted the Bible to support slavery were not incorrect in their reading of the Holy Book. Davis was right when he said, "Slavery was established by decree of Almighty is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation."
The Rev. Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of the Disciples of Christ correctly observed, "There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting slavery, but many regulating it. It is not then, we conclude, immoral."
And yet, not a one of us Bible believing Christians believe slavery to have any moral basis in our vision of Christ. Why is that? Rev. Johnson explains it this way, Christianity as actually practiced has never lived in precise accord with the Scriptures. War stands in tension with Jesus’ command of nonviolence, while divorce, even under another name (annulment), defies Jesus’ clear prohibition. And which Christians have ever observed the exhortation in Leviticus to stone psychics and put adulterers to death?’
The history of the church on the question of slavery is instructive. How is it that now” Johnson asks, “in the early twenty-first century, the authority of the scriptural texts on slavery and the arguments made on their basis appear to all of us, without exception, as completely beside the point and deeply wrong? The answer is that over time the human experience of slavery and its horror came home to the popular conscience—through personal testimony and direct personal contact, through fiction like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and, of course, through a great Civil War in which ghastly numbers of people gave their lives so that slaves could be seen not as property but as persons. As persons, they could be treated by the same law of love that governed relations among all Christians, and could therefore eventually also realize full civil rights within society. And once that experience of their full humanity and the evil of their bondage reached a stage of critical consciousness, this nation could neither turn back to the practice of slavery nor ever read the Bible in the same way again.
“Many of us who stand for the full recognition of gay and lesbian persons within the Christian communion find ourselves in a position similar to that of the early abolitionists—and of the early advocates for women’s full and equal roles in church and society. We are fully aware of the weight of scriptural evidence pointing away from our position, yet place our trust in the power of the living God to reveal as powerfully through personal experience and testimony as through written texts.
“To justify this trust, we invoke the basic Pauline principle that the Spirit gives life but the letter kills (2 Corinthians 3:6). And if the letter of Scripture cannot find room for the activity of the living God in the transformation of human lives, then trust and obedience must be paid to the living God rather than to the words of Scripture.” END QUOTE
I apologize for including such a lengthy quote from another theologian in my sermon but it is important that I tell you it isn’t only us liberals who have taken the position that words written thousands of years ago, yet now appearing on the pages of the Bible, should no longer guide a Christian response to gays and lesbians wishing to live committed loving lives together in marriage.
For Jesus the question was always whether literal scriptural interpretation would prevail or would love prevail. I want to share with you a true but ghastly story of how the destructive results of allowing scripture to trump the love of Christ.
And so it makes more sense than not when a conservative, evangelical, devout believer like Luke Timothy Johnson is one of a growing number of Christians who find it no longer acceptable for Christians to ignore genetics and the ongoing revelations of God through life’s experiences…who have reached a prayerful and studied conclusion in their own faithful lives that the Bible can no longer serve as the basis for denying some human beings the opportunity to live in a loving, respectful, honest, God ordained marriage.
Side by side with Old Testament law about homosexuality is this verse from Deuteronomy 29: 29 says, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever, to observe all the words of this law.”
The revealed things include a new understanding of sexuality and what it is about the way God created us that determines sexuality and other personal traits, knowledge that was among what the scripture called “the secret things.” But that knowledge has now been revealed to us and the Bible says we cannot now ignore it.
To those who say, “Where do we draw the line?” I say no one is asked to sanction or tolerate sexual immorality. The sin is sexual relationship practiced irresponsibly, dishonestly and without recognition that God’s gift of sexuality is an important part of how God created us, a part of the diversity of God’s creation.
We live in a world where there are arranged marriages, temporary marriages, abusive marriages, marriages of convenience, marriages not expected to procreate, where single people can acquire their children through sperm donations as well as adoption…a world where living together has become as much a form of marriage as those celebrated in churches and licensed by the state…we live in a country where one child in three is born outside of marriage, a country where 30 percent of wives in those so-called traditional marriages are victims of domestic violence…
…we also live in a world where we understand more of how God used genes and DNA to create us, giving each our own characteristics including our sexuality. A world that knows so much more about how God created it cannot be bound by the mores and notions of an ancient culture to whom none of that was revealed.
AND we live in a world where we are asked to apply God’s grace to our relationships with others. When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment, he unlike some of today’s preachers did not single out the one against homosexuality. Jesus was clear and quick to say it was to love, to love God and one another…he added…all of the law depends on these two. And so…I am left to conclude that where the Bible identifies homosexuality as a sin…it also makes clear we all sin and all fall short…and that God, not the church, certainly not the legislature…God is our judge…and Jesus would have us reject any interpretation of scripture that causes us to not love God or our brothers and sisters.
I join many of my brothers and sisters in Christ in saying to you…the deepest and most abiding responsibility and calling we have is to love one another. Using the Holy Scriptures, the Word of God to condemn others is at odds with the teachings of Jesus. To use select verses from the Bible to justify the oppression and marginalization of gays, lesbians and transgendered people is to deny the revelation of God through Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit.
Jennifer Finney Boylan is a NY Times columnist, born in what she describes as, “the body of a boy and the spirit of a girl. If you know anything about transgendered persons, there are few experiences in life more wrenching than to come to grips with who God created you to be than to deal with changing one’s physical gender to comport with one’s spiritual gender. Jennifer went through that experience, condemned by many but not her loving Christian parents. She wrote about the day she told her mother and father. “When I finally came out to her as transgender, just after I turned 40, my conservative, religious mother put her arms around me, and said, without hesitation, “Love will prevail.”
“Love will prevail.”  INDEED! Amen.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

What if Wyoming candidates ran on issues and qualifications instead of Party labels?

As much as we all decry the corrosive role of partisanship in government, it is not so much the people in elected office as it is the system of electing them that produces the partisanship. As much as Wyoming people are fond of claiming they “don’t vote for the party but for the best candidate,” state law requires all candidates for state and county offices run under a partisan label. While a candidate may run as an independent, the “system” makes it difficult and historically very few candidates choosing that label have been elected.
            I recall an interview with US Representative Cynthia Lummis, then in her freshman term. She contrasted the intense partisanship of Washington, DC with how little partisanship matters in Wyoming. Perhaps partisanship matters less in Wyoming because it is, in reality, a one-party state. With no Democrats among the states five top elected officials, none in the Congressional delegation since 1978 and only 14 Democrats among 90 state legislators, debates themselves don’t tend to be partisan, but Wyoming elections are!
The requirement that candidates claim a partisan label in order to get on the ballot creates a form of partisanship as destructive to open government than the kind we see in Washington. In a small rural state where people have an opportunity to meet candidates and measure them, the Party label attached to each candidate constrains the process. Otherwise good candidates with much to offer are denied an opportunity to serve because their label isn’t the right partisan label. In many cases, candidates with fewer qualifications are elected because of the partisan appeal of their label. This type of partisanship is why so many seats in the legislature and contests for other offices go unopposed. If you are a Democrat in certain counties or a Republican in a certain few districts, your label alone puts you at a serious disadvantage rendering your qualifications irrelevant. That, my friends, is the worst kind of partisanship.
            Arizona is considering reducing the impact of partisanship by opening their closed primaries. Some see allowing people to vote in either Party’s primary as a way if minimizing partisanship. I disagree. It seems to me that only makes for mischief allowing partsans to influence the other Party’s choices.
Why not take political parties out of the equation altogether? What if candidates for state and local office ran without a Party identification? Anyone who runs for office would be listed on the ballot. Instead of a Party label serving as shorthand for projecting what that candidate may stand for, each candidate would have an opportunity and an obligation to make his or her own appeal to the voters. They’d actually have to campaign on their records and on the issues. The purpose of the primary election would be to narrow the number of candidates for each office to two. Those two would vie for election in November after a campaign based on issues and not Party labels.
Partisanship would play no role. Voters could judge candidates accordingly, as individuals and not simply as standard bearers for one political party or another. Labels are a poor way for a democracy to choose its representatives. Labels are deceiving even as they say little about whether a candidate is actually qualified. But labels alone win too many Wyoming elections. Wyoming could set a higher standard by eliminating partisan labels altogether and creating an electoral system where it is ideas and issues that matter the most.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

“Doing the garden, digging the weeds, who could ask for more?”

I had a birthday today. My 63rd. God has blessed me with the opportunity to try to get to 64. And this old disc jockey could not help but be reminded of the Beatles song. “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm sixty-four.”
Paul McCartney wrote this song when he was a 16 year old Liverpool lad. When I was 16 about all I could think about was getting to 21 and suddenly, I turn around and I have lived 21 years three times in a row. As Ben Franklin said, "The only things certain in life are death and taxes." It turns out a good lobbyist can save you from taxes but we all live with the certainty of dying. It’s rather intimidating to think that it could not only happen but that the odds of it happening increase with each birthday. “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm sixty-four.”
Turning 63 is not that big a deal. The Census Bureau estimates about 9,999 other Americans did it on the same day I did. Nationwide, more than 70 million will join me this year. “When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now. Will you still be sending me a valentine, birthday greetings bottle of wine.”
Our lives have enjoyed certain symmetry. We came of age in the 60’s when the role of young people was honored. The voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. Young people demanded and got changes in civil rights, women’s rights and the environment. Today we’re a part of the fastest growing demographic in Wyoming and a general understanding that we 60-somethings have a genuine contribution to make to the future of the state.
We opened an interesting discussion this week at Bibles and Beer, a rather non-traditional happy hour Bible study each Monday at Uncle Charlie’s. Reading about how Lot was saved from the fire-bombing of Sodom and Gomorrah, we started to wonder what it means to live a righteous life.
“Doing the garden, digging the weeds, who could ask for more?”  The ancient Hebrews who wrote the story thought righteousness had something to do with engaging yourself in the life of the community. We shall scrimp and save. Grandchildren on your knee.”
Many of those of us who are turning 60 something every day have enjoyed a good life in this state and in this country. The fact that God has given us another day or another year or ten or more…means we still have a purpose. It is to be “righteous” in the way the ancients advocated, to engage ourselves in the community for the well-being of the future of those “grandchildren on your knee.”  We need to be the loudest Wyoming voices demanding higher quality child care, improvements in education, reforms in juvenile justice, better job and vocational opportunities, efforts to reduce the numbers of children growing up in poverty and opportunities for young parents to own their first home.
You and I have not been given simply an opportunity to breathe for 60 some years. We have been blessed with educations, experiences, knowledge and relationships that make us one of Wyoming’s most valuable resources. Curmudgeons United!
Send me a postcard, drop me a line,
Stating point of view
Indicate precisely what you mean to say
Yours sincerely, wasting away

Give me your answer, fill in a form
Mine for evermore
Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I'm sixty-four.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

“Meeting Jesus Again for the first Time”

When did you first meet Jesus?
I first met Jesus as a child. It was in the Baptist church to which my parents belonged. The Jesus I first met was a child loving magician. His picture hung on the walls of the church. He looked like a handsome California surfer. White skin, tanned, children in his lap and a nice smile. I read parts of the Bible and what I learned he could turn water into wine, heal the sick, walk on water and raise the dead. The abracadabra Jesus!
We learned that as a part of God’s plan, this handsome young son had been brutally killed by the Jews but had miraculously come back to life and then descended to heaven. Before leaving Jesus had told the people there was only one way to get to heaven and that was to become a Christian. “I am the way, the truth and the life. No man can come to God but by me.” We never talked about how the Jesus who said that was, at the time, a Jewish rabbi.
It was the 50’s. I thought I’d won the lottery. A white American male who believed in the one true God…my future secured through eternity!
But along came the 60’s…the civil rights struggle, the women’s movement, Viet Nam. I read stories of church meetings in the south ending so that the members could go lynch black men. The Bible was quoted to support racial discrimination and the oppression of women. Jesus the magician could raise people from the dead but could not stop the bombing of black churches, the killing of little black children or the lynching of their fathers…or the killing of innocent children in Southeast Asia. That which was obviously unjust was ordained as just by the church in the name of the Jesus to whom they had introduced me.
Soon the stories of magic made no sense in the world I saw unfolding around me. I decided to wrestle with life without even trying to wrestle with its meaning.
When I had children of my own, we returned to church, returned as skeptics, uncommitted to the theology but committed to our children. Jesus was there but I was not particularly interested in a relationship…but we went to church faithfully every Sunday.
I met Jesus again in Nicaragua in 1989. I went to see what our government was doing waging war against the Sandinistas. A young priest named Father Bravo introduced me to Jesus anew. He was unlike any Jesus I had encountered. I had heard the story of Jesus and the young rich man to whom Jesus said, “sell your riches and give the money to the poor.” The American preacher said Jesus didn’t mean that literally. We didn’t have to give what we had to the poor…we only had to get rid of anything we had that made it hard to commit our lives to Jesus.
Father Bravo said the Jesus he knew meant exactly what he said. He said Jesus preferred the poor. “As you travel through Nicaragua look at our children,” he said. “You will meet children who have dirt floors, wearing rags, little to eat, dying of minor illnesses because they have no health care.” He said, ‘As you look at them and their little bellies swollen from hunger, ask yourself…are the children in the US better off because Jesus loves them more than he loves Nicaraguan children?”
The Jesus I met in Central America was an in-your-face sort of Jesus. No magic. No abracadabra. Jesus was my midlife crisis. Having met him, I was no longer comfortable in my skin…soon I moved to Nicaragua where I met people with absolutely nothing but their faith in this Jesus…and that was sufficient, sustaining their lives through the poverty, the violence, the hunger.
Meeting them and the Jesus who was a part of their lives was inspiring enough that when we returned to the US I made a decision to leave my career as a lawyer behind and go to seminary. I was about to meet Jesus again…again for the first time.
First, I was forced to become aware of the real damage done by the Jesus to whom I had first been introduced. I’m not talking of that sort of vague, detached academic awareness we all felt reading the history of the Crusades or the Inquisition or of the role of the church in the genocide of Native cultures or the support of the church for slavery. I am talking about an “in-your-face” sort of realization that comes when you understand how deeply the sins of Christians have impacted the ones you love.
I was really quite excited about going to seminary. One of the first persons I wanted to share this with was my beloved brother Bob.
Bob, who passed away 5 years ago, was a gay man. Over many years I had watched his life journey from when he was very young and we all knew he had a different view about sexuality through his years of denial when he worked overtime to avoid the reality…getting married, having children and dealing with the pain of not being able to be who God made him to be by becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol.
It was only after he came out that his life turned around. Once it did, Bob lived in one of the most loving, caring, respectful relationships I have ever known…the last 16 years of his life with Lee whom we now consider an integral part of our family. Through Bob, I learned what it means to have your life, the way God made you, become talking points for self righteous preachers and politicians…but I had overlooked the role of Christians in marginalizing gays and lesbians…
…until I called Bob to let him know I planned to quit practicing law and go to seminary. Bob and I were very close. So I was taken back when he reacted coldly to my big announcement. At first I passed it off but after 3-4 more conversations when he ignored my attempts to talk about it, I asked him, “What’s this about? Why are you so cool to the news?”
Bob said he assumed if I went into ministry I would be expected to denounce homosexuality and join those in the pulpit preaching that he and Lee and their brothers and sisters were abominations. That’s the Jesus he had come to know…the one I would have to confront.
I arrived at seminary aware of the Jesus Bob and others had come to know had brought only pain. I arrived wanting to find out who Jesus really is…which one of those I had met was real. I knew the Jesus stories, had read the parables and the miracles, avoided confronting what I really believed. I had met Jesus before going to seminary but our relationship was artificial, maybe even cosmetic.
I met Jesus again…for the first time…during my three years in the seminary. My introduction to what it means to know Jesus of Nazareth was helped along when I took a course from Marcus Borg, a visiting professor who wrote the book entitled, “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.”
Professor Borg began his lecture series with a stunning question. He asked us, “Does the tomb have to be empty for you to believe?” Jesus himself discounted the significance of someone coming back from the dead. In Luke 16, the rich man wasting away in hell asks Abraham to send Lazarus from the dead to warn his brothers. Abraham said someone returning from the dead matters not if they don’t believe the prophets!
The Jesus I met during those years taught me it is not so important that the tomb was found empty as it is that our lives be found to be full. I don’t know whether the resurrection ever happened but…it happens every day…if we are but willing to imagine a world beyond the ability of our culture to reason. Humans have a limited ability to reason, logic limited by the culture in which we live and breathe…a culture that sucks much of the oxygen out of our lives…but the Jesus I have come to know along with other spirit people like Mohammed, Gandhi, MLK, Merton, Daniel Berrigan…offer us an alternative way to look at life calling us beyond the limits imposed by traditional thinking into a world where an engaged spirituality creates new life, filled with alternatives to war, poverty, violence, hatred and marginalization…that’s resurrection.
It was never supposed to be about claiming an exclusive understanding of god through claims made through the stories they told of that god.
The Jesus who said, “I am the way” was a Jewish rabbi willing to give his life for what he believed and what he believed is that stories told by faith communities including his own should never be used or interpreted in a way that causes us to marginalize or oppress or to hate others.
But there is something innate in humans making it hard to share God with one another…something driving us to demand to know the unknowable …leaving us disturbed by the ambiguity of what is a clearly ambiguous relationship with the Divine…an urge or an instinct seemingly satisfied only when we find a way to claim God for ourselves and take god away from THEM.
Call it universalism, humanism or even heresy…Christians have no greater claim to Jesus than Muslims do to Mohammed or the Jews to Abraham. Life, resurrection itself is at stake in the ability of all of us to rise above the limits our traditions and our culture have placed on our ability to reason. I close with verses from a poem “The Voice Celestial” written by Ernest and Fenwick Holmes.
“A goodly company I claim, not Prodigals, whose wasted hours are tarnished o’er by the fear to try; they pressed upon the flying feet of winged goals and found the happiness that lies in the pursuit. And each drew some bright star from all the galaxies of heaven…had I the genius, I would pluck each star proclaimed by these great souls and with them form a new and brilliant galaxy and set them so in place that they would shine as ONE!”


Monday, August 1, 2011

"We don't care. We don't have to, (snort) We're the Phone Company!"

As the saying goes, “It’s been a tough week here in Lake Wobegon.” The Rockies traded Ubaldo to Cleveland and Obama traded the middle class to the Tea Party. Each has gone off to their respective fates with barely a whimper. The difference is that a baseball player knows a trade is a part of what they signed on for. Promises are never made to a ballplayer. The terms of their contracts provide no assurances or a long term relationship. When will we learn that candidates are no different? When does the hope run out?
We liberals (or “progressives” as those who prefer to market themselves as not really liberals might say) need to learn from baseball that our usefulness to people like Barack Obama has a shelf life. For a while the President actually had us believing things could change in America. He persuaded us that the historic election of the first person of color to the White House would be a game changer. We didn’t know all the while he and his staff were busy stocking the Oval Office with white flags.
The morning after the Tea Party got everything they wanted and a few extras through their willingness to expose us all to the nuclear fallout that would have followed a default, I awoke remembering the immortal words of Lily Tomlin who reminded us to “Remember…we are all in this alone.”
Tomlin was made famous by playing “Ernestine” the phone company operator in the early days of Saturday Night Live. Remember the skit? The phone rang, someone answered and the abuse began.
"A gracious good morning to you...Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?" Younger readers need to know in those days the “phone company” was a monopoly. Customers had no alternative and so the joke was then apparent as Ernestine abused her phone customers, intermittently laughing like a pig (snort! snort!).

"Here at the Phone Company we handle eighty-four billion calls a year. Serving everyone from presidents and kings to scum of the earth. (snort) We realize that every so often you can't get an operator, for no apparent reason your phone goes out of order [snatches plug out of switchboard], or perhaps you get charged for a call you didn't make. We don't care. But that's your problem, isn't it? Next time you complain about your phone service, why don't you try using two Dixie cups with a string. We don't care. We don't have to. (snort) We're the Phone Company!"
The President and his advisers believe we have no alternative. They think they have a monopoly on our votes. They think they can make and break promises and in the end we will all be so fearful of a Perry, Bachman, Cain, Pawlenty, Romney presidency that we’ll forgive and fall in line.
But I am left wondering how we would know the difference. It’s hard to even imagine how the President will distinguish himself from them in a 2012 campaign. He can hardly continue campaigning against the “Bush tax cuts.” Protecting social security and Medicare are not high on his list. Closing Guantanamo? Pleeez! Exchanging one war in Iraq for another in Libya?
Instead of speaking to our friends and defending this guy, we should instead use Ernestine’s alternative. In the next election, let’s “try using two Dixie cups with a string.” Instead of sending money to the campaign, send it to the Cheyenne Animal Shelter. At least then we know it’ll be used to feed the hungry and actually clean up the messes others have made.