Saturday, May 31, 2014

Great American Hypocrisy

The politicians are exorcised over reports that the Veteran’s Administration is covering up its failure to provide adequate health care to American veterans.

If politicians are serious about putting an end to the disgraceful way in which our veterans are treated, they should stop creating so many of them.

It’s not been many months ago that Senators Enzi and Barrasso joined their GOP colleagues in derailing a $21 billion bill to enhance health care, education and job benefits for veterans. Now they are on a different quest.  They joined Representative Lummis in sending a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. “The reports we have read suggest that your Department has failed to live up to its promised core values of integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect, and excellence.”

The call for Shinseki’s resignation was one of the few bipartisan actions in congress for years. Everyone from the American Legion to the Gun Owners of America joined the choir. But it shouldn’t stop there. Politicians who voted to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan should follow Shinseki out the door.

This isn’t the first time congress and the administration failed vets. This isn’t the first time veterans have been poorly treated. George Washington said, "The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.”

If so, we wouldn’t have had enough men and women to serve in any war following the one fought for Independence. According to, the maltreatment started when the “states failed to pay pensions granted by the Constitutional Congress of 1776.”

Thousands of vets were left homeless and disabled when the Civil War ended. After World War I, Congress voted to give vets of that war a bonus. But they decided it would not be paid for another eight years. By then the depression had gnawed on the ability of the country to keep that promise.

Thousands of veterans came to Washington to protest. President Herbert Hoover turned General Douglas MacArthur and his troops and tanks on them. Instead of their bonus, they got the sharp end of bayonets and tear gas.

Viet Nam vets were treated notoriously bad. The number of homeless Vietnam War veterans exceeds the number who died in combat in Southeast Asia, according the VA’s CHALENG study. Sadly, that record may be exceeded by the treatment of the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), there are more than 1.7 million veterans who served in either or both of Iraq and Afghanistan. According to, “The war’s violence has rippled through the nation, affecting families and the communities where they live.”

There are more deaths from suicide than from combat. Returning vets suffer from physical and emotional wounds that will affect them and their families for generations. That unnecessary war has created the necessity to provide care for its vets.

We are learning now about the lack of care these wounds are receiving.

But none of this started with Secretary Shinseki and the Obama Administration. Unfortunately it won’t end there either regardless of how many officials resign or get fired.

Politicians who criticize the President and the VA are disingenuous if that’s all they do. Check their voting records. The problem is that members of congress are always able to find money to wage war but much slower to pay for the costs of caring for those who fight those wars.

When the next generation is asked to sacrifice itself to another war, it should heed George Washington’s advice. "The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.”

Someday congress might “throw a war” and find no one will show up to fight it for them.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Portrait of Laramie County

I hope you enjoy Mike Smith’s photo project as much as I. “Our Faces: Portraits of Laramie County” is Mike’s artistic way of showing the great diversity of the people of our community.

Day after day, we witness the project grow. He’s taken, and the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle has published, the photos of those among us who are well known and those who are not. There are photos of the young and the old as they work and play. Mike allows us to see one another. Some are in work clothes, others in costumes. The photographic images demonstrate the vitality of those around us. As the collection grows, we get a sense of the delightful and fulfilling way in which this community lives its daily life.

Recently one photo in particular caught my attention. Thirteen men were pictured sitting around a table at the El Charrito Mexican Grill drinking coffee. Gray hair now and broad smiles like always.

One of my favorite JFK quotes floated to mind as I examined Mike’s photo of these men. Then it was a formal dinner honoring several Nobel Prize winners from the Western Hemisphere. “I think,” said the President so eloquently, “this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House - with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Look at them. There is Gus Fleischli, Dave McCracken, John Pattno, T.V. “Tommy” Jones, Dennis Flynn, Dick Loseke, Larry Atwell, Dan Yoksh, Neil Emmons, Jim Olsen, Morris Perkins, Clark Smith, and Bill Allen.

Looking at their photograph, I couldn’t help but think this is one of the most extraordinary collections of talented, thoughtful, knowledgeable, philanthropic, and caring folks that has ever been gathered in a single room with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

That evening in April of 1962 at the White House, when President Kennedy invoked the name of Jefferson he said, “Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet.”

Something akin to that could easily be said of the thirteen men in this edition of Mike Smith’s wonderful “Portrait of Wyoming.” These thirteen could do every bit of that and more.

I’d hazard a guess that among the thirteen, there must be no less than seven to eight centuries of service to our community, state, and nation. Most of these men served the nation in times of war and came home to raise wonderful families and help to build our community.

They served in public office, some as legislators, one was the county sheriff, another the county prosecuting attorney. All of them worked to develop the economy of Laramie County and the State of Wyoming. Their careers included public service, banking, real estate development, energy exploration and production, insurance, education, and more. Some, more quietly than others, were at the center of the history of our community for more than half of the 20th century.

They promoted not only economic development but also the general welfare of the community. They gave time and money to charitable causes, promoted Laramie County Community College and the University of Wyoming, Cheyenne Frontier Days, the United Way, and worked tirelessly on many other efforts to improve the life we all enjoy here.

These thirteen have so many stories to tell. Sitting around that table, smiling and enjoying one another’s company, as Mike Smith photographed them, you can almost hear the stories they are telling.

I’d love to see a photo of thirteen women of the same caliber and contributions. There are others, many others, to whom the same accolades have been earned. Smith’s photo project gives us a chance to meet them all. Laramie County has been blessed with any number of men and women who have made life here the opportunity it is.

Thanks to Mike and the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle for the reminder.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Enigmatic? Who? God?

Scriptural interpretation is a game anyone can play. Hollywood has as much right to play as anyone. With the exception of Mel Gibson, they’re actually pretty good at it.

My favorite is Martin Scorsese’s “The Last temptation of Christ.” Willem Dafoe played Jesus; Harvey Keitel, Judas; Barbara Hershey, Mary Magdalene; David Bowie; Pontius Pilate, Harry Dean Stanton was Paul. Talk about controversial!

I saw it in Salt Lake when someone jumped on the stage, slashing the screen with a knife. He was carted off. We watched on a “slit” screen. Russell Crowe’s “Noah” hasn’t been nearly so controversial.  Still some Christians have been offended, some Muslims as well.

“Noah” was banned in Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait are expected to follow. Al-Azhar (the Egyptian Sunni Muslim Institute) announced “the prohibition of the upcoming film about the Allah's messenger Noah -- peace be upon him."

The Quran teaches that Noah was a prophet, inspired by God, like Islamic prophets including Jesus, Abraham, Elijah, David, and Muhammad. Noah was a faithful messenger.

The Quran’s version will sound familiar to Christians and Jews. “We sent Noah to his people. He said: "O my people! Worship Allah! I fear for you the punishment of a dreadful day! But they rejected him, and We delivered him, and those with him, in the Ark: but We overwhelmed in the flood those who rejected Our signs. They were indeed a blind people! (Quran 7:59-64)

“It was revealed to Noah: ‘None of thy people will believe except those who have believed already! So grieve no longer over their evil deeds. But construct an Ark under Our eyes and Our inspiration, and address Me no further on behalf of those who are in sin: for they are about to be overwhelmed in the Flood." (11:36-37).

Muslim critics of the film stand on firmer ground than many of “Noah’s” Christian critics. Muslims object to the dramatic characterization of any of Allah’s prophets. Some Christian critics simply don’t like anyone else “moving their cheese.”

Ken Ham, a biblical literalist who recently debated Bill Nye “the Science Guy” on evolution argues the Bible proves the earth is but a few thousand years old. His complaint is that “Noah” strays from the Genesis story. Which one? There are two distinct Genesis stories of the flood. Each has literary gaps bridged by the creative screenwriter.

Father Jonathan Morris, a Fox News religious contributor, complained that God is portrayed in “Noah” as "enigmatic," and "an impersonal force telling you to do crazy things." Morris charges that Crowe’s “Noah” is made out to be “borderline schizophrenic."

Actually Morris’ description of the movie’s portrayal of God and Noah are consistent with Genesis. “Enigmatic” means hard to understand, having a quality of mystery and ambiguity.

That would be the God described in Genesis 6 who, after creating humans with free will “was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”

As for “telling you to do crazy things,” the Bible story speaks for itself as Bill Cosby’s classic comedic interpretation made clear.

If Russell Crowe’s “Noah” exhibits a borderline schizophrenia, it’s because of the Biblical Noah’s borderline personality. Personality disorders are diagnosed by oddities of thought, magical thinking, and social isolation. The Bible is silent here but I’m guessing his neighbors observed these behaviors in Noah as he built the ark.

The point is that moviemakers do what we all do. They bring themselves and their worldviews to the task of interpretation. Bible stories almost always leave gaps such as how did Noah really cut all that timber? Like preachers, Hollywood directors creatively fill those gaps.

Like those in the pews, movie audiences are free to take it for what it’s worth.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Meet AJ, the “T” in GLBTQ

Recently I met a young man transitioning from being a female to being the male God created him to be…A.J. is a mechanic. He told me the story of a day when a customer noticed the initials embroidered on the pocket of his uniform.

“What does “A.J.” stand for?”

A.J. hesitated. Friendly co-workers listened to hear how the young man would answer.  Then A.J. said, “Amanda Jo.” Co-workers laughed with A.J. The customer gave a discombobulated smile.

The Psalmist talked about A.J. when writing, “You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.” (139:13) A.J. is the “T” or transgender in GLBTQ. We met at a Human Rights Campaign town-hall meeting at Highlands Presbyterian Church, where I am the pastor. That evening 65-70 of us gathered to talk about the experiences of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, and questioning people in our community. Some spoke of discrimination they suffered on the job, at school, in churches, and among friends and family. Others spoke of acceptance and support they had received in those same venues.

With each passing day the walls of injustice targeting gays and lesbians come toppling down. Corporate America took the lead. Good business people recognize the contribution good employees make to their company’s success. Courts are interpreting the Constitution to prohibit state-sponsored discrimination.

Having had a gay brother and many gay and lesbian friends, I have a greater understanding of those issues and a vocabulary with which to discuss them. But I confess the need to grow in my understanding of what it means to be transgender. A.J. was willing to teach me.

A.J. told me that as a youngster he knew that “she” was really “he.” Amanda Jo always assumed a male role in play. As a teen, A.J. self-identified as a lesbian. But, he said, something was missing. “I realized there was more to me than being a lesbian.” He came to understand that he was living in a female’s body.

The American Psychiatric Association has an official diagnosis for what A.J. experienced: “gender dysphoria.” It describes humans with “a marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and (his or her) assigned gender.” The APA acknowledges there’s nothing inherently wrong with being transgender. Transgender identity is not the problem. The problem is societal gender constructions that create difficulties for people seeking to live lives of integrity.

The medical community needs a diagnostic term before providing transition medical treatment. There are medical standards of care for transitioning genders, including long-term psychological therapy to prepare mentally for what lies ahead.
For a female-to-male transgender, there is a lifetime of testosterone therapy, which induces masculinizing physical changes such as voice and body shape while maintaining the presence of masculine secondary sex characteristics. Later there may also be chest and genital reconstruction surgeries.
A.J. has support from most of his family and friends as well as his co-workers and employer. He told me his teenage children jokingly call him “MAD” for “mother and dad.” It’s a different story with his health insurance company. The high costs of medical care come from his pocket. Even though the medical community recognizes the legitimacy of gender dysphoria, some insurance companies don’t.

Many transgender people haven’t enjoyed the same level of support. He’s been courageous, open, and honest, finding that those who care about him want what is best for A.J. But for many, “coming out” is yet unsafe. The challenge for advocates is to create the safety that allows greater numbers to come out to their friends, neighbors, employers, and family members.

Knowing someone changes hearts. Changed hearts bring changed minds.

Many people may never understand transgender. That’s not an excuse for an unwillingness to accept others for who they are. There’s so much about God’s creation that we may never fully understand. But understanding transgender is easier because people like A.J. are willing to dialogue with those wanting to learn.

Ultimately, God doesn’t call on us to “understand” one another but to love one another.