Something Lost In My Generation

6We seem to have lost our appreciation of diversity.  We seem less and less these days to think of diversity as a strength that enriches us.  We want everyone to be like us and it is to our detriment.

Last night, I was sitting in a second church board meeting in two days. I chair the board (we call them Sesssions in the Presbyterian Church) of the church I serve and another that does not have a pastor.  The elders there mentioned they might be considering calling a part-time pastor.  I mentioned to them that I know of another church down the road from them that also will likely be looking for a part-time pastor in the near future but that it is a more liberal congregation whereas they are more conservative.  One of the elders looked perplexed and asked, “Couldn’t a pastor handle that?”  My answer was, “Of course, both congregations and a potential pastor should be able to handle that.  Nowadays though, we aren’t so good at that.”

We used to be so much better.  In the World War II generation, it was not unusual at all for a Presbyterian congregation to have a more liberal pastor with more conservative parishioners in the pews. Most congregations and pastors handled this well.  Outside of the church, many left and right politicians were good friends.  For example, Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil famously advocated for very different politics at work but were good friends off of the job.  As time has gone on, we have had more and more difficultly doing this. We see people who have differing theology or politics as our enemies.  This is also true on a personal level.  How many people do you know that are good friends but who disagree on gun control, abortion, or on gay rights?  How many libertarians do you know that like to hang out with liberal Democrats?  We seem to just want to congregate with people who see the world the exact same way we do.  How do we grow sequestering ourselves off like that?

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has been particularly bad about this all through my adulthood.  There are publications and websites whose whole purpose seems to be to lambaste people and policies which they differ with theologically and politically, almost never saying a kind word or complementing the denomination.  We form new denominations so we can gather just with Presbyterians who are just like us.  We don’t want to be around people who differ from us.  We vilify them.  We think we are stronger without them.  But really the opposite is true.

And I pray for my United Methodist sisters and brothers who are trying to figure out their way currently regarding gay rights/inclusion in their communion.  I again are reading voices talking of separating if things don’t go their way.  I surely hope they continue to set a good example.

I am grateful that Parkway (the church I serve) seems much more “old school” than many churches today.  People have opinions but they don’t let that divide them.  But I think we need to perpetually be on guard because it is all too easy for smaller groups to go the way of larger ones.  And overall, somehow, as a society, we have to find anew an appreciation for one another.  That doesn’t mean that we don’t try to stand up for what we believe in but we let go of the idea that our relationship with people is less important than the issues over which we might disagree.

Jesus Christ came to reconcile the world to God.  In Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, male or female (and to modernize it – no Democrat or Republican, gay or straight, pro-gun control or gun rights).  There also aren’t denominations in the Kingdom of God.

Stand up for what you believe.  But we need to find anew that our relationship with God and with one another should transcend temporal issues of the day.  And we just might learn and grow more if we talked more with people of different perspectives than with the same ones as us.

What has been lost can be found, if we want it to.

What do you think?

Until next time,

Tom

 

An Old Movie Review With a Current Message

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Over about four or five days, in twenty to thirty minute snippets, I re-watched Apocalypse Now, a movie I had not seen since 1979 when I was seventeen.  Vietnam had been a hush-hush kind of topic when I grew up.  It was never discussed in school.  On TV, I totally understood that M*A*S*H was a critique of Vietnam, not Korea (even though that is where it was set).  As a kid, I got the impression that for the first time, America had messed up in a war.  We hadn’t gone in with all of our hearts, set unfathomable limitations on our troops, and reaped the results.  Apocalypse Now did nothing to underscore these impressions.  It seemed surreal, violent, and although set in the Vietnam War, not exactly about it.

And then there was the water buffalo.  Toward the end of the movie, a water buffalo is sacrificed at the same time the protagonist goes up against the villain.  In every movie before that I had seen to date, I knew the animals, even when they appeared to die, were protected. I was appalled that they would actually kill an animal for “entertainment” (there is no question it was real, long before CGI).  I came out of the movie thinking I had learned little of Vietnam, angry that they had killed the poor beast, and really kind of feeling dirty for watching it.  Roger Ebert, the famous movie critic, had glowed about the movie. But I gave it a big thumbs down, back then.

Adult, chaplain, minister, and veteran Tom definitely took it all in differently.  What was unknown to me at the time was that the movie was based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in which the author, using the African slave trade as a backdrop, explores the darkness in the human soul.  Coppola was trying to do the same, only changing the venue to Vietnam. Indeed, it is an anthropological, psychological, and even spiritual story as much as it is a film on war.  How can people do the dark deeds they do sometimes?  And why do we lie, often to ourselves, so easily?  And where does that lead?

The protagonist, if we can call him that, seems to be traveling as much toward hell as toward a military objective.  The insanity that surrounds him, and increases as he proceeds further and further from Saigon toward Cambodia, isn’t the result of crazy individuals but the results of seeds sewn and lies we tell ourselves from all the way back home.  The villain is simply yet the end result of those lies in the end.  He has gone totally mad and is acting as a deranged god.

The key moment in the movie, which to me is what it really was all about, occurs long before the villain appears.  It was when the Navy patrol boat pulls over a Vietnamese boat that is packed with food on the way to market.  The skipper is convinced they are transporting something illicit and orders the ambivalent crew, against the advice of the protagonist, to search the boat.  One woman is slow to follow orders, somebody moves unexpectedly, and they open fire – killing all but one who is severely wounded.  It ends up being the slow moving woman who was trying to protect not illicit material but a puppy.  The skipper orders her brought aboard but the protagonist shoots her.  In the narration he says that the crew will never look at him the same again but they had stopped an innocent boat, full of innocent people, killed almost all of them for nothing, and then tried to put a moral band-aid over it by trying to take one of their victims to a hospital.  He would have none of it and finished her.  They were lying to themselves about the supposed good they were doing.  Very dark movie.

If I had a time machine, I would ask my younger self why I was so appalled at the loss of a water buffalo but not thought through the real people who struggled, and continue to struggle, as the result of bad policy and self-deception.  How many real Americans and Vietnamese died when we hadn’t really thought through that war?  And why, young Tom, are you worried about that particular water buffalo when other water buffaloes are still sacrificed by some cultures in Asia (and, for that matter, how many animals are killed not for our entertainment, but for our lunch)?  My younger self would probably think such a question was mumbo-jumbo at first but maybe it would make me think later on.  When we get involved in anything, maybe especially a war, what is our underlying motivation?  Why are we there?  What is our goal?  Where will it likely lead?  And, overall, how are real people and animals being treated as a result of our lifestyle versus just ones we see in a fictional story?

I do think my younger self was right that this movie really doesn’t teach you about Vietnam.  But it points beyond it.  It points back home.  It points to our hearts and our lifestyles.  It points to the shadow that surrounds us and why we need God so very much in our lives.

It is a dark film.  It is not easy to watch, even today. I once read that Ezekiel was a book they wouldn’t let young rabbinical students read till they were thirty because of the heavy matters it deals with.  I very much think it about this film.  My seventeen year old self didn’t have the life experience or point of reference yet to take in its message.  And, even 54 year old Tom thinks they could have pulled off the same message without actually slaughtering an animal on screen.  Nevertheless, it is a film with a strong statement against self-deception and of the depravity of thinking yourself god simply because you have the money and the power.  And those two messages are ones our society still needs to hear.

For that, I reverse my younger self and give the film its deserved thumbs up.

Did you watch it then, or more recently?  What did you think?

Tom

 

 

 

What to do in a Holy Week with Terror?

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As if we needed anything else to remind us of the fallen nature of humanity, terrorists exploded bombs in two public transit areas in Belgium this morning. It is incredibly difficult to see this simply as the personification of sin. Sin to us seems like the routine, everyday moral errors we make. This gruesome killing of totally innocent people seems like abject evil. This isn’t just someone slightly off course. This action is the polar opposite of the action of God’s Son, whom we attempt to emulate and follow. So, what do we do?

Rome did its best to do its worst to those deemed to be enemies of the state. And Jesus did not just jump in, as so many wanted him to do, and fight back as they did. He even proclaimed from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” And ‘them’ sounds pretty inclusive.

What will define us as people as we face evil? Will hate? Will revenge? Will we go for an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?” We surely cannot be naïve. We do need to protect the innocent, or we are complicit in the attacks against them, just as Augustine once postulated. But in our quest for increased and better security, what will define us?

We are called to remember what changes people, even changed an empire. It was not hate but grace. That may be difficult to hear, but as Christians, it is important to follow Christ through Holy Week when evil rears its ugly head.

It is easy to focus on the few who have embraced such hatred. But consider all the good people, like those above, in Paris writing their solidarity in chalk on the sidewalks. Also consider all those standing up to defend the people of Europe today.

We must always renounce evil and be vigilant against those on its path, who oppose our God. But let us show the world a better, more hope-filled way. Let us be even more visible than the terrorists.

And let us pray this holy week for the victims and even for our enemies. By God’s hand, and through the effort of God’s people, evil will be destroyed one day, and God’s people shall live on. Part of this happening is not shrinking in the face of evil but rising up and not living in fear. The Prince of Peace did not run from the evil in his day. He fought it with love, in a very different way, which God vindicated.

May God vindicate us, and may we try not to repay evil with evil but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

What do you think?

Until next time,

Tom

Division – Human Style

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You might think I would be getting pumped up for all the upcoming movies and TV series.  We’ve got Batman v. Superman, the Marvel Civil War with headliners Iron Man and allies squaring off against Captain America and allies, and Netflix’s Daredevil v. some uber vigilante.  But, more and more, I see my father in me.

When I was a kid, I used to ask my father if he was going to watch Marcus Welby, Doctor Kildare, General Hospital, or one of the other medical dramas.  And he would say, “Tom, I deal with that all day long, why would I want to watch it for entertainment?”  In much the same way, I know art (even comic book series art) helps us work through real life issues but I see enough division in the real world to want to go watch made up division (especially of the “good” guys).

Jesus Christ came to reconcile the world unto himself, scripture tells us.  Jesus was the peacemaker.  When the world threw the worst it could at him, Jesus took it and brought it to the next level.  It was not about defeating your opponent.  It was about making your opponent your ally and your friend.  The prodigal son doesn’t come home to displace the elder son who was obedient.  He came home and through the love of his father was meant to be a brother again.

We live in a time where we are urged to pick sides.  Let’s not.  Let us be God’s people.  Let us be against division.  Let us come together and stop trying to pick the right team to be on.

I know many of my friends will go and enjoy the upcoming comic feast.  But I’m going to skip it personally.

How do you think we can come together more as a society?

Until next time,

Tom

 

 

Politically Correct

If there has been a term that seemed to come out of nowhere to me, seemingly fade into the past, and return with a vengeance it is the term politically correct. I first became aware of it in the 1990s and it seemed to come from people on the left to want to show that default language, actions, and thought processes often come at the expense of others.  The challenge of this, of course, is that people can get offended by most anything. They can even be offended by someone who is not trying to say anything offensive at all. But, liberals wanted to shine a light and highlight that our normal mode of operating might come at the expense of others (even if that is not the intent).

I will always remember a moment in seminary when my male theology professor, from North Carolina, jokingly used NBA basketball to describe the power of good and evil.  To him, Michael Jordan kind of encapsulated a positive force and Dennis Rodman a negative force.  One of my female classmates got very angry.  I thought she must be a Dennis Rodman fan but that wasn’t it at all.  She accused the professor of using an analogy that would mean more to the men in the classroom than the women because most women did not watch NBA basketball and his analogy would mean little to them.  That was an example of political correctness to me.  On the one hand, it was a natural analogy for a guy who grew up in basketball country to make.  On the other hand, not everyone shares those experiences.  Can we think of how the other gender, other races, and other nationalities perceive what is normal to us?  Should it stay normal?

As the 1990s passed, so did I assume the term politically correct.  Like other time specific phrases, it seemed like a fad.  I heard the term less and less.  The concept was still out there for sure.  But beyond a shrinking segment, I would hear the term less and less often.  Then there was this year.

In 2016, the term politically correct is back with a vengeance.  But it comes back this time from conservatives rather than liberals.  It seems to be a banner this year for conservatives to claim that politically correct is what they are not.  Conservatives frequently feel we have become too sensitive as a society.  They feel people cannot state what to them is obvious because it might hurt someone’s feelings.  It is kind of the opposite way I was introduced to the term.  One side said back in the 90s, “You’re not being sensitive enough.”  The other side seems to say, “You are being way too sensitive.”  I honestly have sympathy for both sides in this to and fro.  Jesus’ Golden Rule does encourage us to consider the feelings of others and we should act accordingly.  At the same time, Jesus did all sorts of things that other people were offended by.  Striking the right balance seems key.

And then there is Donald Trump.  Yesterday, Donald Trump said at a rally as they hauled away a protestor, “In the old days, someone like that would not be left standing.  But today we’ve become weak.  Now we are all politically correct.”  I find that rather disturbing.  He’s making the jump there from thoughts and words to actions.  He seems to be taking it to the next level saying, “If someone is offended by what you are saying, and shows it, you should create an environment where they do not feel safe doing that.”  That is starting to tread on dangerous ground to me and it is clear which side Jesus would be on (and for me to be clear, it is not on the side of those trying to use violence to suppress people who disagree with them).

The whole concept of political correctness is a bit disconcerting to me, both by helping me to see default settings in our society often do favor some over others.  At the same time, we are who we are.  We were born into the world we were born into.  And we need to dialogue and we cannot do that if topics and points of view remain forbidden to raise.  We have to find a way to help people talk with divergent points of view, to empathize with one another, and, most of all, to compromise (critical in a democracy).

Somehow, this 90s term, isn’t going to go away, is it?

What do you think?

Until next time,

Tom

In Black and White

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Growing up in New Orleans in the 1960s and 1970s I was distinctly aware of the racial divide in the city.  You would run into African Americans and Anglos working together in businesses  but residential areas, churches, playgrounds, social clubs, and even Mardi Gras parades were frequently segregated (by law when I was little, more by tradition when I was a teen).  I saw it as normal because it was all I had ever known.  And it did seem to me that certain ethnicities were involved in trouble more than others.

It all began to change in my twenties when, at Louisiana Tech, all of my classes in school were integrated.  I got to know people of color and of all different kinds of ethnicities.  One thing was clear to me – good and bad, smart and less so, contributor or detractor had little to do with skin color.  There weren’t tendencies in any ethnic group.  I saw the same good, and the same mess, coming out of everyone.

By the time I was in my thirties, I was living in Texas and Alaska.  It was interesting watching the self-imposed segregation go from white/black to white/Hispanic.  You could tell people thought they were making themselves safer, or simply hanging out with better people, by doing so.

By contrast, in the USAF, I can absolutely tell you that some of the smartest, most capable, and flat out good people I worked with, who worked for me, and I worked for were not lily white.  Any “lessons” learned from my youth where crime frequently came from the African American parts of the city were wiped away.  Crime, drug abuse, and poor education frequently come from poverty, not ethnicity.  I saw the same in Texas.  I saw the same in Alaska.

But my biggest eye opener was on a mission trip to Nicaragua where I found that people again were labeling others but this time it was the Hispanics in Nicaragua labeling those of native central American origins.  Guess who were more affluent.  Guess who came from the poor section of town.  There were no Anglos involved but I saw the same dynamic going on of judging people by skin color and it had no merit at all.

I have been blessed by my life experiences and my ability to travel and see much of the world.  I recognize that most people have not had these experiences in my hometown.  But I find myself back here and I will go onto the local social media, and even hear aloud, arguments and thinking going on that was common to me back in the 1960s and 70s.  This is highly distressing to me. There absolutely continues to be people who largely see others through what I consider to be a highly inaccurate racial lens and judge people accordingly.  And while society as a whole has made progress I find it less so in my hometown and that troubles me.

There is good and evil in the world.  There is intelligence and ignorance.  There is much to fight for.  We live in pivotal times.  But it is an utter waste of time to think you can figure out what is going on simply by looking at someone’s skin color.  Just think if someone judged you by how much hair you have on your heads or the color of your eyes.  Would it really tell them anything about you?  No.  Skin color is no different.

Beyond all this – poverty – systematic poverty and poor education are huge issues.  Many people will agree that we should judge people simply on their own merits.  But, just to do that at this point (particularly in some parts of our country) is kind of like telling runners they need to run a mile and a half race but some have to start at the starting line, others at mid-point, and others still can start at the mile and a quarter mark!  I do believe that people need to strive and grow and everyone needs to achieve.  You can’t just give people a prize from running.  But recognizing that some have a much longer and difficult race to run has to be considered.  And striving for a society where everyone runs as close to the same race as possible should be a perpetual goal.

I strive to be a part of the change that is needed.  But as we continue to approach major challenges in the 21st century we absolutely, as a society, need to jettison thinking that was never really valid in any time period and is detrimental to us all.

And as Christians, we need to remember we confess we were saved by a Middle Eastern Jewish man who was neither of Anglo, African, or Hispanic origin.  Few of us are Jewish.  Most people in our society have few ethnic ties to the Middle East.  Yet, we see such a man as the source God gave us of ultimate good.  If we drop the racial lens for good then, can’t we do it at other times too?

Jesus called on us to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  And that doesn’t mean just loving the neighbors in neighborhoods where everyone looks just like us.

What do you think?

Until next time,

Tom

The Bible…after 106 Weeks

bibleIf anyone had asked me before 2014 if I had read through the Bible, I felt I could answer yes because, at various times and points, I remember going through each book of the Bible.  Yet, even though I was baptized as a Christian, spent much of my life in church, and have been an ordained minister since 1998, I never really sat down and read it through.

The Bible app gave me a way to track this, so I jumped in on January 1, 2014 with the intention of reading it through in 52 weeks. Fifty two weeks morphed into one hundred and six, but I finished it today.

Imagine running around a track with someone saying, “Do that lap again” over and over.  That’s what it was like for me as a pastor because even though I had long read through passages in my reading plan, my other duties returned me to the same texts.

I’d like to share my thoughts now that I’m done.

The Bible is so unlike any other book we have. Its genres, authors, editors, and translators are diverse. They do not have any uniform perspective. Nevertheless, I absolutely continue to believe that the Bible is inspired, and if you listen to passages in concert with others, you hear something new, and learn something new, over and over.

People struck me differently when I read this at 54 years of age versus in my childhood, teens, twenties, thirties, or forties.

  1. David seems far less a hero to me today. He may have been a man after God’s own heart at times. But he also was a violent (and heartless) leader at others. His sins can’t just be condensed to one weak moment with Bathsheba. But the same can be said of us all.
  2. And his son, Absalom, while not a hero at all, is less the villain than I remember him.
  3. Solomon is probably the least heralded major figure in the Old Testament. He likely contributed to the Psalms, Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes. As much as his wisdom helped him, it alone wasn’t the answer. He fell into error (although in different ways from his father David). Reading Ecclesiastes anew makes me feel he was depressed (a common malady in the modern world). But many of his observations remain true today. Faith, in the end, is what we need.
  4. Joseph was a truly admirable man. Not only do we see grace in his actions as an adult, but you have to sympathize with the challenges he went through.
  5. Jonah is always read with utter seriousness, but I think when it was written it was supposed to make people smile (and make them think about the scope of God’s love by the end).
  6. The whole Bible is very male-centric. I wish the authors had included more women. But you see heroism, wisdom, faith, intelligence, and love in many of their stories (as short as they unfortunately are).
  7. I flat out question some of what the royal narrators in Samuel and Kings attribute to God as actually being from God.
  8. If Solomon is an unsung hero in the Old Testament, Luke is in the New Testament. Many don’t realize that he not only wrote one of the Gospels but the Acts of the Apostles as well. It is Luke, more than any other, who underscores the scope of Christ’s love. And John, while different in focus, really gets down to what it is all about. We all need to pay particular attention to his epistles.
  9. Ezekiel is likely the most unknown major prophet. His book is a challenge to get through but has some really good points.
  10. After reading, I absolutely think Mary, Jesus’ mother, is a primary source of our Gospel writers. There are so many stories that they could not know (unless by God speaking to them directly, which is not how I think the Bible was written) without Mary telling them.
More thoughts on the Bible:
  1. The Bible is a mix of actual history and symbolic storytelling and metaphor. Discerning the two is vital.
  2. The Psalms never gets old.  They are wondrous.
  3. I feel that the tragedy of our generation is that while the Bible is more easily accessible than an any time in humanity, our society is getting more and more biblically illiterate.
  4. At a time when symbol, myth, and metaphor can help us so much, we live in an age where people think if something is not literal, it has no value.
  5. We still, largely, do not appreciate the era in which the Bible was written or think that the Bible was never intended as a 21st century rulebook. Nevertheless, its value is beyond measure.
  6. To complete reading the Bible, I have spent a great deal of time in the Hebrew Bible. We are so guilty of erasing the ethnicity of all the stories. We need to appreciate the Israel of the Bible and the history of the Jewish people if we are to truly understand the stories.
  7. I absolutely see patterns in biblical times alive and well in modern times. God’s Word can continue to speak to us today if we study it together.
I look forward to continuing the read Scripture.  These are just my thoughts before I jump back in. Have you read through the Bible recently? What are your thoughts reading Scripture?

Until next time,

Tom