The Psalmist and the President

No doubt you have already heard that we are in a presidential election year.  It happens every four years, and in spite of anti-doping initiatives, we have been known to nominate and elect them anyway.  What if we raised our standards a bit?  What should we expect out of our next president?

Why not look to scripture for guidance, and, just to keep it simple, let’s turn to Psalm 72.  From the psalmist’s prayer we might expect a next president to:

Judge people with righteousness and the poor with justice.

Offer economic policies that will yield prosperity for all.

Defend the cause of the poor, deliver the needy, and be the help of those who have no help.

Defeat those who oppress others.

Be an agent of abounding peace in whose sight the blood of our people will be precious.

As our representative to the world, become a symbol of great respect and honor.

Perhaps that’s too much to expect, but it’s not too much to pray for.

Real Coffee Hour Questions

A friend  of mine recently sent me the following note:

Since you explained the whole purgatory locker room concept so well for me I thought I’d let you take a stab at this one. For 2 weeks in a row the Sunday paper has had a Q & A with a rabbi that referred to the subject of tattoos and how they are sinful.(No I don’t have one – but my son does) Yesterday they actually cited the verse. So here it is in Leviticus, but look at the verse before it! Yikes – I sin every 5 weeks without fail! What do you make of this?

Leviticus 19: 27-28 Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard. 28 Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.

Here is my off the top response.  How would you like to add to it, correct it, or offer something entirely different?

Good grief you ask hard questions.  My first suggestion would be to read the whole of Leviticus.  It contains dozens and dozens of laws and rules instructing the early Hebrew nation in how to become Jews.  The first thing you will notice is that we routinely ignore a great many of them because it is obvious that they have no application in our day and place, so it’s always problematic when someone goes back into Leviticus and hauls out some particular verse demanding that it be obeyed because it’s God’s law.  The one I’ve thought about keeping is the one about stoning disobedient sons (just a joke).  Orthodox and some Conservative Jews do make a very determined effort to obey each and all of them, which is why you see Orthodox men with long sideburns and fringed garments poking out under their regular clothes.  Reformed and Liberal Jews rely more on the judgment of a very dyamic rabbinical conversation to guide them in which of these laws are meant to be observed in the modern world and how.  Most all Jews agree that the prohibition of tattoos is important even today.  Given that both Jesus and Paul taught that to follow Christ frees us from the law, and, somewhere around the time of the Reformation, Christians more or less decided that O.T. laws dealing with rites and rituals were no longer binding, but laws dealing with morality were, we were left in a state of some perplexity.  That’s when the arguments about which was which began and continue to this day.  

Frankly, I like Leviticus.  The form in which we have it comes late, after the Babylonian exile, probably not more than four or five hundred years before Christ, but no doubt it transmits far more ancient law to us.  Consider then how a nomadic people loosely related by kinship and sort of following a God they knew very little about would be formed into a nation.  These laws provide the framework for a community of ordered life with very high moral standards and set pretty far apart from the surrounding religious practices.  It’s really quite remarkable. But it is also not the last word.  Deuteronomy, which may be a much older book and yet a more recent revision of the laws of Leviticus, makes some changes and eases things up a bit. God, through the prophets, dramatically changed more of them and added new dimensions that I think are valid still today.  Jesus redefined all of them in dramatic ways, especially in his Sermon on the Mount, and Paul was adamant that the old laws had no dominion over gentile Christians. 

So, the next time someone starts raging about illegal immigration, ask them if they are bible believers.  I’ll bet the answer is yes. Then ask them to read and comment on the meaning of Leviticus 19:33-34.


Can We Talk Politics About Health Care?

I don’t know why, but I’m on a lot of Republican mailing lists and get a lot of their “surveys”, which I am happy to fill out and mail back in the prepaid envelopes sans contribution.  For whatever reason the Democrats have never sent me a thing so I can’t comment on their propaganda. 

One of the big scare issues on a Republican survey is whether we want to turn over our health care to federal bureaucrats who will dictate to us how, when and where to get our health care. 

I find it ironic that there is any pretension that we have any freedom, choice or control now.  Consider that most persons who have insurance have no choice in who they get it from, what it costs or what it covers.  Persons who buy their own insurance, if they can afford to buy any at all, are at the mercy of insurance companies that show little compassion and have no reason to do so.  Once in an insurance program, consumers have little control over what doctors they can see, what procedures are covered, where they can get their medication and what medications are or are not covered. Uninsured persons are just at the mercy of the communities in which they live and the largesse of local hospitals.

My friends in medicine tell me that enormous amounts of their time, energy and money are spent on insurance company bureaucratic paper work nightmares.  A recent Diane Rehm show on NPR was dedicated to the ways that Medicare rules have severely distorted the ways in which compensation is distributed in medicine, not only for those on Medicare but for all insured persons of any age.  Moreover, the panel said, that distortion has also distorted the distribution of doctors and specialties to the detriment of over all health care services.

Is this the freedom of choice the Republicans want to preserve?  All their talk about reforming the system looks to me like a map for making the whole mess more complex and wasteful than it already is.  Their big scare piece is to allege that we will end up with the dreaded Canadian system.  For all of its faults, it’s not nearly as bad as what we already have and would be a huge improvement, but the fact is that no one is proposing the Canadian system for the U.S.

What does any of this have to do with God, Christ or theology?  Everything, because it is all about creating a more just society that provides conditions for the flourishing of life for everyone.  I don’t really know what the answer is, I just know that as Christians we have got to demand better and not be intimidated by hysterical, sensationalized scare tactics.


Get Over It and Deal With It

A commentator on another site suggested that we did not have to take seriously Jesus’ statement that he is they way, truth and life (John 14.6) because Jesus may not have actually said it.  It was most likely, he said, a gloss added by a later redactor.  My response was that we have to deal with the text as it is and not try to dodge around it by treating it as it might have been or we wish it were.  That seemed to upset somebody writing as “anonymous” who immediately assumed that to deal with the text as it is means to fall into the literalist camp of the inerrancy crowd. 

That kind of knee jerk reaction gets us nowhere. 

As pastors and teachers we must address the text as it is presented to the people in the pews as well as those who have no exposure at all to Christianity or the bible.  One of the things I like about being Anglican is our preference for wallowing around in the text, subjecting it to close examination, questioning not just each other but God as well about its meaning.  In the end it is the text that we have that bears the illumination of God’s truth and provides the tools for receiving revelations yet to come.  That is why we are willing to call it holy and name it the Word of God.

Dealing with the text as we have it forces us to deal with uncomfortable questions, and not just about the red herring of homosexuality, but of the ongoing questions of good and evil, theodicy, the nature of the human condition and the meaning of salvation.  Dealing with the text as we have it forces us to address its relationship to non-canonical books.  Dealing with the text as we have it forces us to address its relationship to the oldest known texts in Greek or Hebrew – neither of which I am competent to do.  But most of all, dealing with the text as we have it forces us to address the same questions and concerns that are present in the minds and hearts of those in our care.

So don’t just blow off John 14.6, or any other passage, because it’s difficult.  Deal with it.

God without Religion

A friend of mine is a gruff, but very funny, old goat who has, from time to time, dared me to make him religious.  That’s just before he nails me with all the sins of religions to which he attributes nearly all of the world ills.  I’ve struggled with this for a couple of years and even wrote out a letter that turned into an essay, and then I stopped and looked back at the record bequeathed to us from Jesus and Paul.

Neither of them tried to make someone else become religious, or at least they didn’t try very hard.  The discourses and parables of Jesus are all about coming to know God and the nearness of the kingdom of heaven, but not about being religious.  Paul’s letters certainly deal with the problems of newly formed Christian congregations, but once more their power comes from his words that draw the people back from religion and toward a fuller knowledge of the presence in their lives of God in Christ Jesus.

Maybe that is a part of what Bonhoeffer was driving at with his appeal for a religionless religion.  Which is not at all to say that I think religion and denominations are unimportant.  Just look back at several posts on that subject written months ago.  Religion, in the form of the particular practices and teachings of denominations, is what gives shape and meaning to worship, a place in which to grow in knowledge, wisdom and faith, and the community of support and fellowship into which Christ has called us.  But before any of that can have meaning in someone’s life there must first be an engagement with God, and, as a Christian I assert that that engagement is best and most fully experienced through Jesus Christ.

So now I no longer want to make my friend religious.  I would rather explore with him his questions about God and life, introduce him to Jesus, and be his companion on a journey toward an engagement with them that will have meaning for him.  Maybe after that, if he lives long enough, we’ll talk about church, Sundays and the sacraments.

A Brief Hiatus

I’m in Honolulu for a niece’s wedding.  Right now I’m looking out my hotel window overlooking Kaimana beach.  It would be a great view of Waikiki if not for the waving palm trees in the way.  Frankly, I cannot think of a single important thing to write about.  I’m just sitting here tasting the breeze, enjoying the sun, relaxing in the water.  I’ll get intelligent again, maybe, on my return.  

There is one thing.  We took in an exhibit at the Honolulu Academy of Arts featuring the work of Chinese artists during and just after the Cultural Revolution.  It was one of the saddest and yet inspiring displays ever.  These artists risked everything to say in their art what could not be said out loud, but some of what they had to say expressed a deep disappointment and distrust in anything, past, present or future, that implied a wisdom they no longer believed existed in any form.  It reminded me of the 14th Psalm.  Look it up.

Learning English

I’ve been reading some posts on the Washington Post pages about Obama’s recent speech on the importance of learning a second language and urging less anxiety about immigrant children learning English.  Many of them echoed local comments about Mexicans refusing to learn English.   I wonder where that comes from if not from fear?  Our valley is pretty well populated with immigrants, mostly from Mexico, and I have run into very few who are not doing their best to pick up enough English to get by.  More important.  There are few immigrant children who are not learning English and quickly at that.  Admittedly that’s all anecdotal, but where is the evidence that “they refuse to learn English.”  We’ve been through this before with the Italians, Germans, Poles, Japanese and all other non-English speaking immigrant groups.  Eventually it passes but not without causing a lot of unnecessary hurt and humiliation.  As for me, English is the only language I need.  I’d write more about that but a padre friend just called saying he’s RSVP’d to an invitation to a fiesta out at the ranch.  Everyone is supposed to wear a sombrero and be ready to play a pinata game.  Should be fun, so sayonara for now and mahalo for reading today.