Monday, November 23, 2009

Thomas and Patrick's Not So Excellent Adventure

Representative Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island is having a very public feud with the Bishop of Providence, Rhode Island, Bishop Thomas Tobin. In 2007 Tobin asked Kennedy to refrain from taking Holy Communion because of Kennedy’s stance on abortion which is contrary to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. In October, Kennedy was critical of Roman Catholic Bishops because he believed their concerns about abortion was potentially going to derail health care reform.

Most recently, Kennedy has stated that Tobin told priests in the Providence Diocese (which covers the totality of Rhode Island) to not serve Kennedy Holy Communion. Tobin has claimed that he has made no such order.

Bishop Tobin said, in part, “"The point is, because of his obstinate ... public support of abortion, which is clearly contrary to an essential teaching of the church of a matter of critical morality ... he is then not properly prepared to receive Holy Communion, No one has a right to receive Holy Communion."

We seem to be witnessing Thomas and Patrick's not so excellent adventure.

There is lots of stuff in this and this is a difficult scenario in which to deal.

First, Bishop Tobin has every right to make this determination. A Roman Catholic Bishop has the right and responsibility to set the rules and guidelines within his Diocese. He is ultimately the person in charge. The priests in his Diocese have all taken vows of obedience to his office (Office of Bishop) and are obligated, by their vows, to obey him. Whether one wants to quibble with how they feel about this is not particular relevant. This is how the Roman Catholic Church is organized and functions.

Additional, Rep. Kennedy has the responsibility to uphold the laws and Constitution of the United States. He took an oath to do this and is legally obligated to do so. Abortion is legal and he feels that he has an obligation to uphold the law. Again, we might quibble with this, but he has an obligation to uphold the law. If abortion was not legal, the argument changes.

If I were going to question both of them my first line of questioning with Bishop Tobin would be to ask him why he is only holding people’s feet to the fire on the abortion issue? Pope John Paul II was very clear that he found capital punishment to be immoral. I have not seen any Bishop ban any politician from taking Holy Communion because they were pro-capital punishment. In terms of war, the Roman Catholic Church is opposed to wars that are not ‘just wars.’ Great questions surround both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Roman Catholic Bishops, for the most part, have not make a major issue of this with either President Bush or President Obama. There are, obviously, many other ethical issues, but why is Tobin only tackling abortion?

As for Kennedy, I’m almost wondering why now? Tobin first said this in 2007 and has not really added anything to this. There is no suggestion that Kennedy has been denied Holy Communion in Roman Catholic congregations. He might not be taking Holy Communion, or he might not be. I am not sure what he is doing. I strongly suspect that if he attends a Roman Catholic Church in Rhode Island, and goes up to take Holy Communion, he receives it. From what I gather, Tobin didn’t so much ban Kennedy as tell him that he ‘ought not’ take Holy Communion because of his convictions.

I have several thoughts.

My first thought is this. Tobin is a politically inclined Bishop and Kennedy is a politician. Tobin’s actions are not remotely indicative of most Roman Catholic Bishops who are serving their Dioceses and not getting their names in the paper a great deal. Most are too pastorally inclined to make the kinds of statements Tobin has been making. Kennedy, on the other hand, is a politician. He is in a political party that strongly upholds abortion rights and he is going to be loyal to his party first. If he sees a political opportunity to make a name for himself by embarrassing his Bishop, he might just do so. My point is, obviously that both of these guys are very politically motivated and will do what they need to do to get attention.

My greater thought, however, is this. This is the Table of the Lord we are talking about. I live by the adage that it is the Table of the LORD. The LORD’S table. I disagree with Bishop Tobin is that I do believe that everyone has a right to come to the Lord’s Table because it is the Lord’s Table and no one has a right to bar anyone from it, for any reason, at any time. I recognize I state this as a United Church of Christ minister, following the beliefs of our denomination. But my point is very clear. I have a hard time banning anyone from the table. Ever.

Regardless of one’s politics or theological background or beliefs, however, I truly hate to see that the news story of the day is about a battle for God’s Table. I fear we are all a bit tarnished by this.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Christus Rex

Today is the last Sunday of the church year. Lots of churches no longer follow the church year calendar and, sadly, miss the seasons that somehow make our lives as Christians a bit richer.

The church year begins on the First Sunday of Advent and makes four Sundays awaiting the birth of Jesus Christ. The last Sunday of the church year is generally referred to as Christ the King Sunday. If often gets lost in the midst of Thanksgiving, however, because the Sunday before Thanksgiving often corresponds with Christ the King Sunday.

Christ the King, in Latin is Christus Rex, and I love the Latin for this. I really don’t know why, I just do. It might simply be a case of ‘Quid quid latine dictum sit, altum videtur’ which simply means, anything said in Latin sounds profound.

The image of Christ as King is a striking image. We, as Americans, have no earthly king. Recently, when President Obama bowed to the Japanese Emperor there was a great deal of consternation. Americans do not bow to kings. No American, in theory, bows to a king. Many have over the years and some say it’s just a matter of respect. My opinion is that I have no opinion on this. I don’t know if Obama was right or wrong and, frankly, I don’t care.

But I digress. Back to Christ as King.

When we call Jesus our King, we are stating that Jesus has sovereignty over us. It means that when it comes to our will versus Jesus’ will, the will of Christ prevails. When it comes to finding a time when we disagree with something Jesus says in the Gospels, it is making a statement that we are wrong and Jesus is right.

This is big stuff. We all like to have our own independence, we all cherish our own free will, but we also acknowledge, even keeping our free will, that sometimes that will leads us in the wrong direction. We all have the ability to be incredibly wrong.

Pilate asks Jesus the question. “What is truth?” It is a conversation that holds the fate of Jesus in the balance. Jesus is before Pilate because Jesus has been declared King of the Jews. Pilate asks that amazing fateful question: “What is truth?”

In the teachings of Jesus, Jesus stated in John’s Gospel, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” The usage of the phrase “I Am,” in John’s Gospel is Jesus speaking very much as the Cosmic Christ; as the Christ of the resurrection; as the Christ of all eternity. It is a statement: “I am the Truth.” Ponder that for a moment. The Truth is not a statement of fact, or well argued opinion, or even a theological declaration. Truth is actually incarnate in the person of Christ.

In the midst of debates as to who is right and wrong and what have you, there is a reminder. The Truth is never something argued. The Truth is the person of Christ, the Persona Christi (more Latin for you!)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Abusing God's Word

Abusing God’s Word.

There is a new bumper sticker and T-shirt that is the current rage:

“Prayer for Obama.”
Psalm 109:8

This verse reads, “May his days be few; may another seize his position.”

It is obvious that the people who wear this shirt do not like President Obama. This, at face value, is not a great deal unlike people who drove around with bumper stickers that read, “01.20.09,” for the day George W. Bush left office. It seems that way, but there’s more to the story.

“May his days be few; may another seize his position.” If a person does not like Barack Obama as their President, and if this is a prayer that he lose the next election, there really is no problem. The problem, however, is that they are abusing God’s Word. Psalm 109, in its entirety is pretty ugly. What follows verse 8 reveals that this is not an innocent “01.20.09,” or a prayer that Obama will lose the next election:

8May his days be few;
may another seize his position.
9May his children be orphans,
and his wife a widow.
10May his children wander about and beg;
may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit.
11May the creditor seize all that he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil.
12May there be no one to do him a kindness,
nor anyone to pity his orphaned children.
13May his posterity be cut off;
may his name be blotted out in the second generation.
14May the iniquity of his father be remembered before the Lord,
and do not let the sin of his mother be blotted out.

This is not innocent. In fact, this “Prayer for Obama” is blasphemy.

First off, regardless of how one feels about Barack Obama, whether one loves him or
loathes him as the President of the United States, he is the President of the United States and was elected to be so by a significant majority of people. In he process of how we do elections, he was elected. If people do not like him, it is their right to vote against him and vote against people who support him. It is also their right, and privilege, to speak out against him and his policies.

But this, all in all, is not about Barack Obama. It is about people who are calling themselves Christians, abusing God’s Word, and praying for Obama’s death. It goes even further than that. They want his legacy destroyed and his family to live in poverty and misery.

People look at Psalm 109 and wonder how this kind of stuff ends up in the Bible.

The Psalms are not ‘teaching’ books like much of the Bible. They are songs, and they are prayers that touch the visceral feelings the people had. Some are light-hearted and joyful, some are elegant and beautiful, and some speak of the anger that people had for being conquered and held captive. Psalms of Lament are not that uncommon. We do not learn what God wants of us from the Psalms, but we learn what people felt and often feel about their situation in life. The Psalms often provide brutal acts against one’s foes.

Psalm 109 is much like this. It is a Psalm of Lament, of being captive in a strange land, and longing for the death and destruction of enemies. No matter how one feels about the President of the United States, or Senators, or House Members, or anyone else, this is never a Psalm that can, in good conscience, ever be used by anyone to describe what they long to see.

What makes this particular adage blasphemous is it’s abusing God’s Word. It is taking one verse, removing the context, and making it seem like an innocent prayer hoping that Barack Obama loses the next election. It is not that. It never has been. This adage is a blight to all Americans and a disgrace to all whose who profess themselves to be Christians.

Christians have a responsibility to witness for things that are good, holy, and loving. T his kind of witness is something far other than any Christian, in good conscience, could ever utter.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Surely Goodness and Mercy....

I really don't know what I want to write. I am, however, trying to be a bit more active with my blog.

The most famous Psalm of all is the 23rd Psalm and I'm always struck by the words, 'surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life."

I speak these words in public more than the average person. Being a minister I officiate at Funeral Services and most all of them include the 23rd Psalm----magnificent words at a funeral. So, I say those words, 'Surely goodness and mercy,' a great deal. Aloud.

Yesterday there was a major shooting event at Fort Hood. An Army psychiatrist, a man educated by the Army, a man dedicated to healing, murdered others. A man dedicated to healing----bringing goodness and mercy. Brought evil and death. He proclaimed, while doing it, "God is great." A God of goodness and mercy is cursed by such an act.

Today another murder...

I am often struck by cruelty. Sometimes the cruelty is intentional. Sometimes it is the by-product of power. Sometimes it is the bi-product of making a profit. Some times it is the bi-product of trying to make a point or holding onto a conviction. People bring cruelty to others. But the words 'Surely goodness and mercy,' just hang on there waiting for someone to see them, hear them, and embrace them.

So please God help us find this goodness and mercy so often elusive to us.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Random Musings

In the world of sports, I am very frustrated by the play of the New York Giants. Ugh! They seem like they have fallen apart.

And, I have absolutely no interest in the World Series this year. I think that this is one of those Series where the only people really interested are the fans of the two teams involved. Besides, the “October Classic” in November is just awful.

Bernie Madoff is finding great humor in the fact that the SEC was totally incompetent and should have caught him years ago. He is right. They have been incompetent and should have caught him years ago. I wonder how entertaining it is to laugh, however, when you are living in a jail cell half the size of the laundry room of your old beach house.

Today’s election will not really be much of a test of bigger things. Joe Scarborough has it right when he says that it’s next year’s election and that will all be based on the economy. An election in rural upstate New York, no matter how much publicity it gets, is just an election in a very rural, very impoverished area that is heavily Republican to begin with. In Virginia the Democrats are running an incredibly weak candidate and in New Jersey, it is a world class stink fest. “None of the Above” would win handily in the Garden State. Of course, the press is making today’s elections into the be all and end all of western civilization.

Jon Gosselin has been talking about losing his ‘moral compass.’ His moral compass seems to have been a rotary fan in a state of constant, high speed spinning. Now he is seeing the “Rabbi to the Stars” Rabbi Shmuley Boteach who was Michael Jackson’s spiritual mentor. Well, I guess Rabbi Boteach did a great job with Jackson, as we can all see how well adjusted Jackson was.

No matter how you feel about the health care debate, or no matter what your politics happen to be, there is a lesson to be learned about Joe Lieberman. Never let him walk behind you!

“Mad Men” is an outstanding television show. I daresay it is the best show on television right now. There are other shows I greatly enjoy, but “Mad Men” is truly outstanding.

Yesterday, on his radio program Rush Limbaugh said, "Moderates by definition have no principles.”

Okay, so using Merriam-Webster as a source, here are some definitions.

Principle: 1 a : a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine, or assumption b (1) : a rule or code of conduct (2) : habitual devotion to right principles c : the laws or facts of nature underlying the working of an artificial device

Moderate: avoiding extremes of behavior or expression : observing reasonable limits
b : calm, temperate 2 a : tending toward the mean or average amount or dimension b : having average or less than average quality : mediocre
3 : professing or characterized by political or social beliefs that are not extreme

From the Oxford University Press Dictionary:

Principle >noun 1 a fundamental truth or proposition serving as the foundation for belief or action. 2 a rule or belief governing one's personal behavior. 3 morally correct behavior and attitudes. 4 a general scientific theorem or natural law. 5 a fundamental source or basis of something. 6 Chemistry an active or characteristic constituent of a substance.

Moderate: average in amount, intensity, or degree. 2 (of a political position) not radical or extreme. >noun a person with moderate views. >verb 1 make or become less extreme or intense. 2 review (examination papers or results) to ensure consistency of marking. 3 preside over (a deliberative body or a debate).

I am personally offended by Limbaugh’s remarks because I consider myself to be pretty moderate about most things, perhaps left of center. But I tend to very carefully look at things from multiple sides and have never been fixated by the belief that issues have only two sides. I think most people who know me see me as a principled person and for someone to even suggest that moderates have no principles is frankly, offensive. That will have to be another blog post, however.

But, underlying this is something else. Here are two working definitions of principle and moderate. Nowhere in the definitions, is it even faintly suggested that moderates, by definition, have no principles.

So, when Limbaugh says, “I don’t make this stuff up folks....” I hate to say it. He does.

Monday, November 02, 2009

The Ethical Nihilism of Ayn Rand

This is a short description of Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand, as stated by Rand herself in 1962:

My philosophy, Objectivism, holds that:

1. Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.

2. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.

3. Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.

4. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.

Ayn Rand grew up in Communist Russia and hated Socialism and the Communists. For her, the ‘collective’ was an awful idea. The only possible good, she felt, was a pursuit of rational self interest. A person was only good when a person was acting for their own self interests.

Rand, a novelist and a political philosopher, saw her ‘heroes’ as people who worked for themselves and cared nothing for the needs of others. The ultimate enemies, to her, were the people who saw charity and altruism as good, and sacrifice as a high moral calling.

In John Galt’s famous monologue at the end of Atlas Shrugged she wrote:

“For centuries, the mystics of spirit had existed by running a protection racket-by making life on earth unbearable, then charging you for consolation and relief, by forbidding all the virtues that make existence possible, then riding on the shoulders of your guilt, by declaring production and joy to be sins, then collecting blackmail from the sinners.”

Rand was a strict atheist. She saw God as a myth and believers, ‘mystics of the spirit’ as corrupt fools who preached the dreadful evil of self-sacrifice and caring for others. She believed that the highest moral good was personal prosperity and that the evil of poverty was caused by the evil of the poor. If people were poor, it was because they deserved to be and were probably just lazy. If the people with prosperity let the poor starve and go naked, then the world would be a better place. The poor would either work harder and have some prosperity or die. Either alternative was fine.

The philosophy of Ayn Rand can be summarized in one line from John Galt’s monologue:

“Do not remind me that it pertains only to this life on earth. I am concerned with no other. Neither are you.”

For her, there is no God, no immortal soul, no afterlife, no morality of the soul, no common-good.

Her philosophy has one problem. If there is a God, then she is not only wrong, she’s wrong in a particularly sinister and brutal fashion and is little more than an ethical nihilist.

I raise the issue of Ayn Rand because of something very interesting. She has been, for quite a while, dismissed as a crackpot of her era. Her philosophy was often seen as little more than a reaction to Soviet rule and as an apologia for her hedonistic lifestyle. She was a brilliant writer to be sure and something of a political philosopher. The thing is, when I studied political philosophy in the 1970's our professor found her ideas to be on the periphery of sanity.

But, for some unusual reason, Ayn Rand has come into vogue.

Recently Governor Mark Sanford wrote an essay in Newsweek about Ayn Rand. It is a very thoughtful article and he attempts to make an argument that Rand makes a strong argument, useful for today, about limited government and how individuals, when unfettered by government interference, can do great things. He does prelude his comments with a criticism of Rand in which he states, “I've grown more critical of Rand's outlook because it doesn't include the human needs we have for grace, love, faith, or any form of social compact.”

In quoting “The Fountainhead” and adding his own words, Sanford writes: “I do not recognize anyone's right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy. Nor to any achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim, how large their number or how great their need … I recognize no obligations toward men except one: to respect their freedom and to take no part in a slave society." Cold though they sound, these words contain two basic truths. First, an individual can achieve great things without governmental benevolence, and second, one man has no right to another's achievement. These are lessons we should all remember today, when each week is seemingly marked by another government program designed to fix society.

The problem with Sanford’s logic here is that he is speaking strictly about government involvement being the obstacle. Rand would go much further than this----and does. She not only detested government involvement, but also detested an ethical involvement or a religious perspective of God. “I do not recognize anyone’s right to one minute of my life....”

The first question on the Evangelical Catechism, used by churches from a Lutheran perspective and Evangelical Synod within the United Church of Christ is this:

What should be the chief concern of man? Man’s chief concern should be to seek after the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.

Reformed Church tradition and the Heidelberg Catechism:

What is your only comfort in life and in death?

That I am not my own,
but belong—
body and soul,
in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,
and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.
He also watches over me in such a way
that not a hair can fall from my head
without the will of my Father in heaven:
in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him,
Christ, by his Holy Spirit,
assures me of eternal life
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready
from now on to live for him.

Question four of the Roman Catholic background Baltimore Catechism:

What must we do to gain the happiness of heaven?

To gain the happiness of heaven we must know, love, and serve God in this world.

Jesus when asked what the greatest commandment answered quickly:

Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

What is the form of greatest love according to Jesus?

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

In fairness to Mark Sanford, he’s trying to make an argument for smaller government and does make a point and indicates that Rand is in the neighborhood of making a point. The problem is, that when we cite Ayn Rand, we are citing a person who is not about small government, she’s about no constraints whatsoever on anyone other than keeping them from constraining someone else. She makes Gordon Gecko come off sound like Gandhi. To his great credit, Sanford makes some arguments about her having something of a point, but recognizes that the ice on which he is skating, by referring to Rand, is thin. Frankly, it was too thin to make a valid point.

The ‘virtues’ of Ayn Rand are being advocated on talk radio every day. Her philosophy is being spoken of, increasingly, as good for the United States. Politicians are citing her more and more.

Ayn Rand must be seen for what she was and is, an ethical nihilist who is best appreciated as a fiction writer with crackpot ideas for an ideal society; a society that ultimately has no common good because it has no God.

It is not a society I want to be a part of.