Wading Into the Beehive Stirred

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Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, has sure stirred up what had been the simmering down topic of racial relations in our nation.  By refusing to stand for the national anthem, he has his own fans burning his jersey.  Even his birth mother disclaimed his actions on Twitter reportedly.  A presidential candidate has suggested he even find a new country.  I have seen conservative responses from a wide range of sources.  I have also seen liberal support that even claimed the national anthem is pro-slavery and calls to sit down too.  So much for a calming of the social waters.

In my line of work in the United States Air Force, we not only stand for the national anthem but we stop everything we are doing. When we are on a military base, we even stop driving till it is over.  We stand for it, even before a movie is played inside of a theater. Once, when I was a second lieutenant, I went running on base and was stopped by an irate Master Sergeant.  I had no idea why he was so angry.  But what I had done was run through the national anthem (I had headphones on and didn’t hear it playing). In the end, I felt he was right.  I should have been more aware.  Too many lives have been lived for and given to treat our nation’s standards lightly.

So, Kaepernick’s method of protest is one I never would have even considered.  Our nation has done much good over its history through a great deal of sacrifice.  This has been underscored to me even this week as I watch HBOs “The Pacific” where the first two episodes alone deal with the sacrifices born by a wide variety of Americans on Guadalcanal in late 1942.

Nevertheless, it is worth asking ourselves why our nation, over all other nations, has become renowned in the building of jails.  If I had told any of you alive in 1975 that a single country in the world was going to be building jails like shopping malls in forty years, would you have picked the United States of America?  It is equally true that said jails population do not match the ethnic diversity of our nation.  We jail our citizens in record numbers and at a disproportionate rate of some ethnic groups and less of others.  Why this is so is a complex problem which I believe has wrongly been attributed to supposed rampant racism of our law enforcement personnel.  I know law enforcement personnel in a variety of capacities (and of various ethnicities) and do not think racism is our core problem. But just because that is not the source of the problem does not mean we don’t have a problem in our country.  We all know the status quo is not good.  And there is no fixing it overnight.  But, when lost in the woods, one should take steps to get out of it versus denying we are lost in the first place.

I believe the problems start in many poor neighborhoods – systemically. Many of our fellow citizens grow up with little home structure, poor schools, poor role models, low wage jobs with little hope of advancement, and not much hope of escaping from those places.  Poor housing and easy access to drugs and to guns exacerbate the problems. And these blighted neighborhoods ethnically, tend to more closely match the makeup of our incarcerated population.

Building more and more jails, to me, is like buying more and more fire extinguishers for buildings that keep catching on fire versus asking ourselves what is causing the fires.  The problem isn’t with those trying to fight the fires.  The problem is with the root causes which we are all too comfortable to ignore.  And our penchant to collect as little in taxes as we possibly can further causes problems in many of these regions.  We can neither improve the schools, the housing, nor the law enforcement due to limited and even decreasing funding.  A secularization of society isn’t helping either as churches in many of these neighborhoods were often springboards which helped people escape the cycles of poverty, violence, and drug use.

Jesus saw the people who were hurting in his society.  He was drawn to them.  As his 21st century followers, we should too.  I truly believe Christ should call on us to transform the culture around us.  We need to acknowledge our society has not been on the right course in many of our poorer neighborhoods that particularly make up our inner cities for quite sometime.  We need to acknowledge that the reason why illegal drugs are a problem in our country and beyond is because we Americans are consuming them (and not just in poor neighborhoods either).  We like to blame drug cartels and other countries but the drug trade wouldn’t be there if people in our country were buying it.  We need to connect our churches across our cities and country to be resources for one another and care about what is going on in the worst parts of our towns.  We cannot fix problems until we acknowledge them.  And these problems are far worse than an NFL quarterback who won’t stand during the national anthem.

Our nation is meant to be a melting pot of people from a variety of backgrounds.  We have improved in many ways over the course of our history.  Other countries still look to us and the example we set.  Our TV shows and movies are watched worldwide and have a bigger impact than we sometimes imagine.  But that doesn’t mean we have reached Nirvana and all he need to do is hold on to the status quo.  Our better angels call on us to care for each other and to perpetually build a better society.  Our nation is far from perfect.  But we do need to keep moving forward.

I hope Colin Kaepernick will stand back up.  He is incredibly blessed to be born as an American.  But, more than that, I hope we as a society work to improve the lot of those who struggle the most among us.  It is what I think Jesus would do.  Our blessings stretch far beyond our nationality.

What do you think?

Until next time,

Tom

Perspective

 

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Every year everyone in the Air National Guard takes a physical fitness test.  Part of this test involves running a mile and a half in a certain amount of time (depending on your gender and age).  I have been running a great deal lately to prepare.

Being in my fifties, I also try to run at night.  I live in the south.  Night running means it is significantly cooler and I don’t have to worry about sun exposure (I hate putting on sun block to run, wearing hats, etc).  And since there are no lit running tracks near me, I run on neighborhood streets that aren’t too busy.

What it makes me appreciate more and more is how little power I have in regard to most on the road.  Most are either on bikes, motorcycles, cars, or trucks.  Even those on bikes are moving ten miles an hour faster than I am.  Cars, motorcycles, and trucks even more so.  I can’t just think of running as I run.  I have to be perpetually aware of others on the road (and get out of their way!).

I wonder, when we live in cultures that have much more power, much more money, and many more resources to tap into – how much this is like how smaller countries, ethnic groups, and even individuals experience trying to deal with us.  I wonder how much it parallels with what the poor experience trying to access services that I take for granted.  I wonder how much this is like for someone who happens to be born elsewhere when disease, natural disaster, or personal tragedy strikes.  I wonder if this is how it feels when one (or someone one loves) is diagnosed with a difficult disease or has a major injury and all the healthy people keep flying on with their healthy lives, almost totally unaware.  Bigger and more powerful forces keep flying by when you are worried about your own problem.

I know this – Jesus saw the people and peoples society tends to fly by, and we as God’s people should too.  God cares about people who struggle in the midst of great forces.  God is not so impressed with the powerful and strong of this world.  God cares about his people and God’s love is not based on how important our society or our world rates us.

As we evaluate who we are and who we are called to be, let us care as God cares.  And may we remember God cares about us not matter how big or small we are as we travel down the road of life.

Until next time,

Tom

 

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