Saturday, August 27, 2016

The diaspora of '66

This weekend the diaspora from Cheyenne Central, East, and St. Mary’s classes of 1966 gather to celebrate our 50th reunion. In June 1966, 350 of us graduated from East, 360 from Central, and 63 from St. Mary’s. We grew up in a Cheyenne nobody would recognize today.

There were neighborhood grocers like the Southside Superette, Branens, Millers, and Birge’s. There was Montgomery Ward and Woolworth’s. Lee Rider jeans sold at Gibson’s Discount Center for $2.99. Sam Stark and Sons offered men’s suits for $44.95. Grand Central sold women’s swimsuits for 5.99.

We hung out at King’s Food Host, cruising up Warren Avenue and down Central, flirting with the carhops at the Owl Inn before heading over the South Greeley Highway to the A&W. Some kept driving to a place across the Colorado line called Shamrock where eighteen year-olds could buy 3.2 beer. Most, but not all, made it home okay.

A new home in the fashionable Cole Addition sold for $19,500. You could drive away from Dinneens in a 1966 Mercury for $2788. Bud’s Car Lot on East Lincolnway promised to put you in a fine used car for $10 down.

There was an election to decide whether to build a college in Cheyenne. Newspaper ads said the future of our fellow high school students was at stake. An unimpressed electorate defeated the proposal a week before we graduated.

Local personality Timmy O’Toole appeared at the opening of Playland in Lion’s Park. “The Ten Commandments” showed at the Paramount Theater while “Poor White Trash” played at the Starlite Drive-in Theater. “No children will be allowed in with or without their parents.”

The new owners of the Plains Hotel were remodeling and advertising, “There’s nothing wrong with the Plains Hotel that some of your business won’t fix.” Our Senators were Milward Simpson and Gale McGee, leading someone to say how progressive it was that Wyoming had two women in the Senate, Gayle McGee and Mildred Simpson.

The Class of ’66 watched earlier as JFK was assassinated in 1963. President Lyndon Johnson enlisted some of us to fight his War On Poverty. Others fought his war against Ho Chi Minh. Muhammad Ali received his draft notice but refused to go, saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with no Viet Cong.” The Supreme Court created “Miranda Rights.”

Most didn’t grasp the significance of Texas Western’s upset victory over Kentucky when Texas’s coach started five black players for the first time in NCAA Championship history. Martin Luther King said, "We’ve come a long, long way, but we have a long, long way to go before the problem is solved." Two years before we graduated Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Two years after we graduated King was murdered. We still have a long way to go.

Classmates listened to Denver’s KIMN and KOMA in Oklahoma City, which I mildly resented since I was a disc jockey at KRAE. Top singles included the Association’s “Cherish,” the Righteous Brothers’ “Soul and Inspiration,” and “Reach Out I’ll Be There” by the Four Tops. The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” sold at the Record Shop for $2.94.

Music historian Jon Savage says 1966 was  “when almost all the ideas that would define the remaining years of the decade were in place; the love generation, opposition to the Vietnam war, critiques of consumerism, and a new world yet unmade.”

The distance seems shorter now than when we were looking forward from the summer of 1966. Today each of us feels what one poet called the “long breath of accumulated years.” None could have imagined that we’d accumulate so many years so quickly.

During those years we’ve many lost classmates including Wayne Spencer who passed away days before the reunion and Dwight Brockman whose murder a year ago was never solved.

Despite the years we’ve accumulated, life is short and old friendships never die. Among the most important friendships any of us have are those we formed in high school. This weekend, they’re being renewed.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Are progressives atheists?

Rev. Franklin Graham’s god (NOTE to Editor: lower case “g” is intentional) is small enough to fit tightly in his pocket. In Cheyenne he pulled it out long enough to insult a large share of Christendom proclaiming “progressive” is “just a code word for atheist.”

Speaking for progressive Christians let me say that in his case “convert” is just a code word for extremist.

Rev. Graham reminds me of attempting to kayak. The first lesson was how to upright the kayak after tipping it over. My head under water, my legs strapped in the kayak, I panicked, jerking upward hard and coming out of the water on one side, uprighted and flopping over to the other side, my head still under water.  

That’s the conversion Franklin Graham experienced. Drowning on one side from drug and alcohol, he jerked himself out of that water so enthusiastically that he went over the other side. Instead of entering recovery with humility and empathy he found himself drowning in the dark waters of judgmentalism. 

His earlier experiences are no secret. One online critic pens a blog titled “The Old Redneck Speaks.” Redneck says, “Franklin Graham spent several years worshipping booze, pills, white powder, and wimmin. Then, one day, something happened.”

The younger Graham saw that getting right with Jesus could be profitable. He witnessed his father turn preaching into a $25 million fortune. “The Old Redneck” said the prodigal son of the famous evangelist “realized he had two roads open to him, an ever-downward spiral or ‘Get Right With God,’ which would make him heir to the fabulous Graham fortune.”

“Born again,” the younger member of the Graham preaching dynasty passed the proverbial collection plate and amassed a $10 million estate. That’s not exactly the widow’s mite.

How do you make that kind of money preaching? I could understand if he were in Congress, but preaching? If he gave seminars on turning preaching into gold, I’d be there. But to get a parson’s salary like that you’d have say the outrageous things Rev. Graham does. The money isn’t worth that.

He’s a “birther,” questioning President Obama’s citizenship. Ask Donald Trump. No one ever lost money playing that game. Rev. Graham calls Islam “evil and wicked.” He’s not a fan of contemporary churches either. In an interview he claimed American churches aren’t feeding the poor.

Making an anti-government statement, Rev. Graham claimed, "A hundred years ago the social safety net in the country was provided by the church. If you were hungry, you went to the local church and told them, I can't feed my family, and the church would help you. That's not being done.”

Wrong. My church is doing that. So are dozens of others in this community. We could help a lot more with a tithe of that $10 million he’s banked.

Franklin Graham made clear gays and lesbians are not included in his eisegesis of the “love thy neighbor” commandment. Friday Florida Senator Marco Rubio said evangelicals should acknowledge the pain they’ve caused the LGBT community. At the same moment in Cheyenne, Franklin Graham was adding to their pain.

The day before, Rev. Graham spoke in Boise. He said marriage equality was “celebrating sin” and would bring God’s judgment on the nation. Earlier he said gays “recruit.” Like Donald Trump, Graham sees Vladimir Putin as a standard for America. Rev. Graham noted, “America’s own morality has fallen so far that on this issue, protecting children from any homosexual agenda or propaganda, Russia’s standard is higher than our own.”

Like Donald Trump, Franklin Graham has little regard for America saying no one looks to us for moral leadership. He’s as wrong about that as he is about progressives. It’s just not his “moral leadership” they want. Theologically arrogant preachers like Rev. Graham are largely responsible for why “none of the above” is the fastest growing denomination in America.

In Cheyenne the extremist convert said, “Before our nation can be healed, our individual hearts must be healed.” Jesus had an answer for him. “Physician, heal thyself!”

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Un-endorsing Trump-an act of patriotism.

An open letter to Senators Mike Enzi and John Barrasso and Governor Matt Mead:

In the wake of Donald Trump’s dog whistle call for someone to consider his opponent’s assassination, the New York Daily News said this week, "Donald Trump must end his campaign for the White House in a reckoning with his own madness, while praying that nothing comes of his musing about an assassination of Hillary Clinton."

MSNBC host Joe Scarborough wrote in the Washington Post, "Paul Ryan and every Republican leader should revoke their endorsement of Donald Trump."

That includes the three of you.

This question is for Wyoming’s three highest-ranking Republicans: What could Donald Trump possibly say that would cause you to withdraw your support?

Don’t tell us “at least he’s not Hillary.” There are other choices. Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) won’t vote for either. He says, “Somebody needs to stand up and say this isn’t what the party stands for.”

Republican U.S. Senator, Susan Collins of Maine joined Flake and four other GOP Senators in saying she won’t vote for Mr. Trump because “he has shown a complete disregard for decency.”

As Victor Frankenstein created his monster, the GOP created its monster. As Mary Shelley wrote that monster out of the story, so must the Republican Party.

Un-endorsing Mr. Trump would be an act of patriotism.

By the time you endorsed him, we all knew who Donald Trump was. He was a racist who called Mexican immigrants rapists. He’d suggested a religious litmus test for Muslims running for office and sought to ban all Muslims from entering the country. Mr. Trump spoke of women in terms that would’ve angered you if aimed at the women in your life. He’d incited violence at rallies and said an American judge with Mexican heritage couldn’t give him a fair trial in a case charging Trump with fraud because the judge was “a Mexican and you know, I’m building a wall.”

You endorsed Mr. Trump after the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan endorsed him. You loaned him your good names after he said families of suspected terrorists should be killed, after he mocked a disabled reporter, and after he dissed John McCain, saying he liked people “who didn’t get caught.”

Donald Trump disparaged the parents of a soldier who died in Iraq. His backers retaliated against the soldier’s grieving father, falsely accusing him of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Angry veterans are urging Republicans to withdraw their Donald Trump endorsements.

The irresponsible Mr. Trump now attempts to delegitimize the democratic process with a claim that if he loses (as he will) it will be the result of massive voter fraud.

Earlier it could be reasoned that not all Trumpsters are bigots, misogynists, or ignorant. It becomes harder every day to understand why those who aren’t would support him.

Some Republicans say they will vote for Hillary. Others won’t but say they can’t vote for Mr. Trump. A growing number find it impossible to remain silent. Silence is no longer golden.

Many loyal Republicans have had their fill of this candidate. Is there no limit for you? Do you agree with Donald Trump or do you lack the courage to speak out? 

Wyoming’s “Code of the West,” doesn’t condone racism, misogyny, bullying, ignorance, or your acquiescence. Two of its provisions apply. “Live each day with courage” and “Know where to draw the line.”

How about living today with courage? I realize there are more tea partiers in Wyoming than all of the Hispanics, blacks, and women who care about being marginalized combined. Still you three can be courageous. How about doing what’s right?

Where do you draw the line? Like Pontius Pilate, have you washed your hands of an inconvenient truth?

There’s one other provision in the Code. “Ride for the brand.” I suppose you could do that. After all, you are Republicans and Mr. Trump is a member of your tribe. But this isn’t about your party. It’s about our country.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

"We scare because we care"

Do heaven and hell exist? Want God’s truth? No one knows. As Tennyson said, “Nothing worth proving can be proved, nor yet disproven.” Brother Jack was an exception to the Tennyson doctrine. He was one of the preachers in a series of Baptist churches we attended when I was a kid.

Brother Jack could bring it. Over six feet tall, he weighed every bit of 220 pounds. With a booming voice he preached certitudes. Folks still like certitudes. One thing was certain. There is a hell. Brother Jack described it in gory detail. Looking down his long nose, he quoted from the book of Revelation, “If any one's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”

He looked at us kids and told us what it was like to burn for eternity in that lake of fire. We’d squirm thinking about our skin set afire, blistering and roiling. We’d all had something akin to first-degree sunburns but the thought of burning for eternity, whatever that was, scared hell out of us.

I am betting that was Brother Jack’s intention. It was like that line from the movie “Monsters, Inc.” “We scare because we care.”

If by “hell” you mean an eternal afterlife punishment for choices made about how we lived on earth, I’m confident in my guess that it doesn’t exist. That’s a creation of the church and a contradiction of everything we’ve been taught about God’s grace. That’s no small thing. As Paul said in the book of Romans, “If by grace, then [is it] no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace.”

Liberals reject a theology of eternal punishment in favor of belief in God’s grace. Threats of eternal punishment are how Brother Jack scared children. It’s not what Jesus did. Liberal preachers aren’t in the business of scaring listeners into avoiding hell. We’re more into a theology of grace based on the love of God, a love we didn’t earn, a love God will not withdraw. God doesn’t eternally discard those created in God’s image by tossing them into a lake of fire.

The possibility of God dispatching us to hell is designed to scare people into believing what some churches want them to believe. Conservatives say “salvation,” which allows you to avoid hell is a “free gift.” It’s bait and switch. To receive that “free” gift, you’re expected to see it their way.

And heaven? If by heaven you mean a place with streets of gold and mansions in the sky where angels play harps while we’re being reunited with those who went before, count me a doubter.

Theologian Ian Lawton tells this story. A rabbi dreamed he went to heaven. He was taken to a room filled with long tables.  A group of sages sat at tables, their heads buried in books.  The disappointed rabbi cried, “How could this be heaven?  It’s just a bunch of old men studying.”  A voice answered. “The sages aren’t in heaven, heaven is in the sages.” 

In other words, while we can’t know what’s one the other side of this life, if we take care of God’s business here, whatever follows will take care of itself. Jesus was more concerned about life in this world than about frightening people with a focus on punishments or rewards that might follow our earthly death.

Jesus wasn’t looking for guilt-ridden, hell-fearing followers. Jesus taught us to pray that “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

One of the most thoughtful theologians of our time, Marcus Borg, imagined what Christianity could be if it weren’t about “what’s-in-it-for-me” in the afterlife but about living this life centered on the teachings of Jesus.

In his book “The Underground Church” Robin Meyers says it best. “We should trust there is a reason for our lives without claiming to know what we do not know, (that is) what happens to us after we die.”