A wide spot in my imagination.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dr. Laura and the F-Bomb

Dr. Laura dropped the F-Bomb on her radio show today. A few days ago, she repetitively used the N-word, so maybe you saw the F-word coming. I didn't. Read on.

My third place title for this blog post is, “Forgiveness 101.” But I decided on, “ Dr. Laura and the F-Bomb,” because that’s the most provocative. The runner-up title is, “Christianity Isn’t for Wimps.”

But, since I want to talk about forgiveness, let me back up to a confession. (Confession and forgiveness go together.)

My confession: When I’m out running errands or visiting people during the day, I sometimes listen to Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s call-in radio show. I know, I know, she’s a pariah among liberals. (I said this is confession which means I’m admitting my sins.) Dr. Laura has made some egregious homophobic remarks. And her latest babble using racially charged words was unconscionable. Moreover, from time to time she offers her callers advice that I think is socially and emotionally harmful.

But she is also entertaining, provocative, shocking. (That’s her business by the way, to attract listeners so they hear ads and buy stuff.) She also has a knack for cutting through callers’ BS that makes me chuckle. As a pastor I spend a lot of time using active listening, “what-I-hear-you-saying-is” responses. Dr. Laura gets to say, “Shut up.” So, I may listen because I’m a little jealous.

Anyway, I’m not supposed to like her. She’s ending her show, so she’s on the way out. And her history of wacko comments justifies reasons why I should change the station and certainly should not expect anything good from her.

So, there I was today, indulging in my secret, drive-time Dr. Laura fix. A caller phones in to her show to describe a personal life that is shaped by Catholic guilt. Dr. Laura listens, cajoles, and badgers for a while. Then she says that she herself was baptized Catholic but has never practiced the faith. (I think she’s Jewish.) She further clarifies that she is not clergy. Then she drops the F-Bomb.

She says, “Your God is a very forgiving God.” (pause) “So, why aren’t you?”

Wow! The F-Bomb from Dr. Laura. Not what I was expecting. Forgiveness.

I don’t know that she herself is able to practice that fully. She seems pretty ticked about the sponsors who’ve dropped her show and the kerfuffle she’s found herself in. There are probably a lot of people out there in radio land who need to forgive Dr. Laura.

But forgiveness is at the core of Christian living. The blustery radio doctor was right. And that’s where the “Christianity is not for wimps” idea comes in. Forgiveness is not all kissy-kissy, huggy-huggy, everybody-hold-hands-and-sing. Forgiveness is hard work. When someone has used racially derogatory terms to refer to you or your family, it’s hard to forgive them. When someone has called your version of the species “sick,” forgiveness is hard to come by.

I had a friend and church member who was prisoner of war during World War II. His living conditions and lack of food were appalling. His ordeal was torment. For the rest of his life, he wrestled with forgiveness.

I struggle with forgiving the people who viciously attacked and robbed my grandfather, an old man who walked with a cane.

No, Christianity isn’t for wimps. Forgiveness is hard work.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hic sunt dracones

Turns out, the old mapmaker was right. In the early 1500s, a mapmaker got to the edges of his (or her) known world. Uncertain as to what lay beyond, the mapmaker wrote, "Hic sunt dracones." ("Here be dragons").

Evidently, those dragons are real. And they're in the subway tunnels of Washington, DC.

You see, a Maine Tea Party blogger recently passed on some directions to his compatriots headed to DC for an upcoming rally. The writer suggested some eateries to enjoy, some sights to see, and some places to avoid. Specifically, the blogger recommended that Tea Partiers avoid certain lines on the DC Metro (the subway system, which, during my ten years of living in DC, I found safe, clean, and reliable).

Parts of the Metro should be avoided, the blogger says. As rationale he provides this gem: "You don't know where you are, so you should not explore." (Translation: "Hic sunt dracones.")

What great advice. (Sarcasm intended.)

Imagine how different the world would be if only that wisdom had been shared earlier.

Instead of sending his disciples into all the world, Jesus would have instructed them to go only to their old haunts where safety was assured. Silly Jesus, encouraging exploration.

Imagine Isabella and Ferdinand counseling Columbus: "Yes, we'll finance your sailing trip, only stay where you can see the shoreline of Europe."

Or what about Horace Greely's advice, "Go west, young man, go west. Only don't go any further than the end of the street where you your momma and daddy can still see you."

Mother Teresa would never have venture to India. Having never been there before, she should never have gone to explore the needs of Calcutta.

John Kennedy's rhetoric would have been far more reasonable if he declared to the nation, "The Russians can have outer space. Americans don't know what's out there, so we'll just stay home and gaze at our collective bellybuttons."

Any parent, I'm sure, would be wise to follow this advice and pass it on: "No, you can't think about going to college there. That campus is over seven miles away from home. We don't know what's there. Don't explore."

History offers more examples, I'm sure. But if you'll pardon me, I need to go outside and put up a "Hic Sunt Dracones" sign at the end of my driveway.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Report Cards

A brown manila envelope arrived in the mail three days ago. The slightly lumpy package contained my report cards from the 1st grade through college. My mother found them somewhere in my parent's house, decided that she and my dad no longer needed them, and mailed them to me.

Opening that package, and unexpectedly seeing every grade I was ever given, was a strange experience.

I noticed a trend: Math is not now, has not ever, probably shall never be my "thing." For the past couple of weeks, I've spent more hours than usual poring over finances at church. Summer is a traditionally "low income time" in congregations, and the Finance Committee has begun planning for next year, both of which require numerical attention from me. So, I've focused more time than normal on accrual statements and on profit and loss statements and on liabilities deducted from balance sheets rather than on expense sheets and on reconciliation reports and on actual-versus-budgeted figures. It makes my head hurt.

On my second grade report, my teacher made notes three out of six grading periods about my "regrouping" work in math. My head hurt then, too.

My seventh grade report cards are first where I wrote my own name in cursive. My handwriting is messier today, and the letters are "loopier," but basically the writing looks much the same. At what age are our traits -- handwriting or character -- set?

My 10th grade report showed a class I don't even remember taking. The teacher's name jarred only the slightest of memories.

My elementary and middle school reports cards were all hand-written. My high school and college report cards were computer-printed.

The elementary school I attended no longer exists as of this very week. Students started attending there in 1959. This week, when school begins, those students will begin their school year in a new building at a new location with a new name. I wish them well.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Seven Humans

The ongoing chitter-chatter over the proposed mosque near the site of the World Trade Center towers was met today with another bit of religion-related news. A poll found that an increasing number of Americans (something like 18%) think that President Obama is Muslim.

Both of these news stories have some valid questions to consider: Do we really believe in religious liberty in this country? Are city zoning regulations appropriate for houses of worship? Does the president's religion (any president's religion) matter? Should we pay attention to polls?

Others have addressed these stories with interesting facts (there's a strip joint right by Ground Zero, too; is that hallowed?), good humor (Colbert and Stewart for example), and historical analysis (see Mayor Bloomberg's speech).

Tucked away in all of this, though is a troubling idea: the idea that Muslims are "wrong," "evil" or "unAmerican."

Each Sunday in worship at the church I serve as pastor, we begin our services by quoting some lines from a story about Jesus. We talk about God as Spirit and Truth. These lines come a conversation that Jesus (a Jew) had with a (Samaritan) woman. Among the remarkable aspects of that story is the fact that Jesus treated this unnamed foreign woman like a person. And she treated him the same way. They worshiped differently, they followed different customs, they spoke different dialects. History taught them they were enemies. But, as the Gospel of John tells the story, they defied the traditions and biases of their day to have a civil conversation, person to person.

That seems to be missing in much of our public conversation today over mosques and presidential religious preferences.

Words like "terrorist," "infidel," and "mastermind" (with its comic book sinister feel) are tossed around. A billion or more people are compared by Newt Gingrich to Nazis. The Internet is too full of harmful people calling others "dogs," "satan followers" and worse.

I can't change all that. I don't have a national news show as a platform.

However, I can do this: I can offer seven quick stories of seven humans whom I know and appreciate who are Muslim. (Why seven? It's a holy number for Jews and Muslims. It's as good a number as any.)

First, there is woman who is my Facebook friend. She likes Darth Vader, Star Trek, U2, and Johnny Cash. She is a Muslim.

Second, one of the kids with whom my son built robots at school last year has an outlandishly loud laugh. He hugs his mom and walks to school with his dad. He's a Muslim.

The guy who bought books at our church's book fair and brought back the $60 he found tucked inside one of the books is Number Three. He's a Muslim.

My friend the imam who's kids were hanging on him while he was trying to lead a service at their mosque. He's a Muslim. My kids hand on me at our church sometime. Drives me bonkers. The imam is Number 4.

The couple who hosted (on their own dime) a breakfast for clergy of different faiths to come together just to to visit. They're Muslim. They're Numbers 5 and 6.

Number 7. The little boy who sat next to my kid all year last year during lunch who didn't eat all of the food his parents packed for him (just like my kid didn't), who whispered and giggled at the table, who talked about video games and Pokemon cards, and who couldn't wait to rush outside for recess. He's Muslim.

These are people whom I know. They are Muslim. And human.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

America's Got...Kids Growing Up Too Fast?

Reality TV shows are good summer entertainment, but they're not designed to be places of deep thought. And the "judges" on this summer's "America's Got Talent" don't pretend to be Plato, Aristotle and the like. But last night, the reality show's three judges -- Piers Morgan, Sharon Osbourne, and Howie Mandel engaged in a little philosophical back and forth that's worth thinking about.

In case you've never seen the show, it features acts of all sorts (jugglers, singers, harmonica payers and the like) doing their thing in 90 seconds, all with the hopes of winning a big cash prize. Last night, twelve acts pranced onto the small screens of America's living room.

One of those acts featured two twelve year-old ballroom dancers. They were fast, sparkling, smiley and exceedingly talented. My year of Middle School cotillion lessons does not qualify me as a ballroom dance expert, but what the kids did was impressive and old-looking.

It's the old-looking that caught the judges' attention. One of the judges (Piers, I think) said the kids looked 25. Another of the judges (Howie, I think) picked up on that and said that 12 year- olds dancing like adults looked "creepy." And for a brief moment, the judges had a sort of philosophical discussion about age-appropriateness. Then -- poof! -- it was time for an advertisement break, and we Americans shifted out attention to what we do best: consumerism.

Their conversation was nothing new, but it's worth thinking about. Are kids growing up too fast? Do you they act older than their years? I think their the answer to both questions is often, Yes, and I don't think the consequences will be good.

Also on the show last night was a ten or eleven-year old rapper singing a love song. Does a child that age even understand love? Are audiences doing him any favor by applauding his imitation of adulthood? Another act (a troop of pre-teen or tween girls) did a hip-hop dance routine. Again, good dancing. It was their attitude that worried me: they were huffy, sultry, mean-looking. Is that what we expect/want/need from youngsters?

I know that styles change. And "style" can mean attitude, language, facial expressions, mannerisms and the like. And I recognize that as an over forty year old, I'm now firmly in the group that can't be trusted, headed toward stodgy-ism.

I don't think I'm trying to squelch talent, individualism or generational differences. But when hormones in milk are advancing the starting age for little girls' periods and even reality TV show judges are wondering about children posing as adults, maybe this is something we should consider.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The American Way?

Yesterday, the newspaper here in River City published a Letter to the Editor that was written in response to an earlier letter. I missed the first letter, but yesterday’s follow-up was a doozy. Almost every sentence is wrong, simplistic, or wildly biased. The letter writer was a fellow from a town north of here a few miles. The paper captioned his letter, “Gay is not the American way.”

Let me offer some feedback to that letter.

First, the letter writer says, “Our forefathers did come to America to avoid religious persecution, but not to avoid religion.” True, some came to avoid persecution. Others, it seems, may have come just to avoid religion. In a 2006 “Wall Street Journal” article entitled, “Sunday,” Craig Harline says that “at the founding of the Republic, not even two in ten American belonged to churches.”

The letter writer next wrote, “Look closely and you will find God mentioned in every document this country was founded on.” Not exactly true. The United States Constitution does not mention God. (However, the Liberian Constitution of 1984 mentioned God in the very first sentence. That was written right before they began to hack each other to bits in a brutal civil war.)

The letter writer went on to say, “The basic premise that marriage is a union between a man and woman was first given to us in God’s word." God’s word is heard in many ways: in Quaker silence, in hymns and songs, in religious traditions. I’m guessing the letter writer meant the scriptures Bible of the Jewish and Christian traditions. And true, marriage is mentioned in the Bible. But marriage seems to pre-date the written scriptures. The Code of Hammurabi mentioned marriage when it was written about 1790 BCE. Even the most conservative Bible scholars would say the first Jewish scriptures weren’t written until 300 years after that. Many biblical historians date the Bible as much younger. So, marriage was around before the Bible.

And, even if we assume the letter writer’s argument that “straight” marriage is the only way to go because it’s in the Bible, we have to be honest: Polygamy and concubinage are in the Bible as well, along with orders to stone children, not eat shrimp, and give all your money away. The Bible is a complicated, remarkable book. Doing something because “it’s in the Bible” can create a big mess.

Then, the letter writer leaves the Bible and goes back to our national documents. He says, “All of our founding documents were written with God and his moral teachings in mind.” This sentence makes me wonder: How, exactly, does this fellow in Texas in 2010 know what the writers had in mind as they wrote in the 1770s? Again, the Constitution does not mention God. Sure, the writers could have had God in mind, or they could have been thinking about English common, the Code of Hammurabi or pumpkin pie for all I know.

Then, referring either to the Bible or to our national documents (his antecedent is somewhat unclear) Mr. Lambert wrote, “These teachings held no place for same-sex marriage.” He’s probably right. Same-sex marriage seems not to have been on the radar of the psalmists, the Apostle Paul or James Madison. But they “held no place” for football, air conditioning, or televisions either.

The writer then says we should toss gay marriage: “It is the American way.” Again, his unclear antecedent makes you think he might be saying gay marriage is “the American way.” But I think he actually means tossing it is “the American way.” He’s entitled to his opinion, and he’s entitled to speak it and to write it to the newspaper. But claiming something is “the American way” is tricky. Slavery was once “the American way.” Not letting women vote was once “the American way.” Locking up citizens with Japanese and German ancestry was once “the American way.” Not having child labor laws was once “the American way.” “The American way” seems to be ever-changing.

Seems to me that respect is a more needed American way. Respect for the facts, respect for changing customs, respect for all God’s children. And more than “the American way,” that should be “the human way.”