Saturday, April 24, 2010

Not a Joke

On Facebook this week there was a group that people were becoming fans of. It was ‘a prayer,’ that really mocked what a prayer actually is. It goes like this:


As of Saturday morning, April 24th, at 9:54AM the group has 1,093,107 fans.

I visited the group’s page and there are, as would be expected, numerous comments. Some call the ‘prayer’ appalling and want it removed. It is tasteless.

Some say, “Well where were you when people mocked George W. Bush???”

Some say, “It’s just a joke.”

I have several observations.

My first is this and this is one of those things that drives me crazy. They spelled Patrick Swayze’s and Farrah Fawcett’s names wrong. I mean, please, if you’re going to use people’s names, learn to spell them.

My second point is this. People did mock George W. Bush. People mock every President. There is fun mocking and there is tasteless mocking. Did people mock George W. Bush tastelessly? Of course. Were they right in doing so? Of course not! Does the fact that people were tasteless in mocking George W. Bush give people a right to mock Barack Obama tastelessly? Of course not. To defend this by saying that people were unfair and even mean to Bush is not really an argument based on any credibility. Wrong is wrong. Period.

Is it a joke?

I, for one, don’t like using a prayer as a joke. This one is pretty tasteless and cruel. It implies that the prayer wants Barack Obama dead. In the history of the United States, the death of a President, in office, has always been seen as a tragedy. It took many years for the nation to overcome the death of John F. Kennedy. His assassination touched off a turbulence in the 1960's that took decades from which to recover. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln had a devastating impact on rebuilding the nation after the Civil War.

Lest people forget, the last President to be shot while in office was Ronald Reagan. While he was in surgery, and recovering, the events that surrounded that day, and the consequences, were discussed a great deal and the consequences of his potential death from an assassin’s bullet would have impacted the nation greatly.

Whether we agree with a person’s politics or not, praying for the death of a President is destructive to the nation. Presidents can only serve two terms and if we do not like a President, they have this thing called an election that takes place every four years. Presidents can be re-elected or voted out. We do this routinely. If you don’t like someone, don’t vote for them.

Many people on the fan page of this ‘prayer’ are using it as a point of debate about the policies of Obama. Again, if you don’t like his policies, no problem. Just don’t pray for his death. Vote him out or vote for people from the other party to block his policies. Do not pray for his death.

Seeking the death of another is the highest form of rage. In listening to the Timothy McVeigh tapes, it is painfully obvious that he thought himself, and his violence, to be justified because of his hatred for the government. Killing was an expression of his rage.

Praying for someone’s death should never be in a prayer, and least of all, never be a joke.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Consequence of Hatred is Death

In listening to portions of the Timothy McVeigh tapes there is one thing that is very chilling. I believe he was sane.

Insanity is often seen as the inability to differentiate between right and wrong, good and bad, with no basis in rationality. McVeigh knew exactly what he was doing.

I found it chilling that he had no real guilt over what he had done.

I found it chilling that his only regret was that there was more ‘collateral damage’ than what he was anticipating. The military, at war, speaks of minimizing collateral damage during battles and air strikes. Within the military there is no desire to massacre civilian populations and so there is restraint----and decisions are weighed carefully.

McVeigh found it amusing, very amusing, that he was on the most evil people of the millennium list, just behind Vlad theImpaler who had, in McVeigh’s mind, a cool name, but McVeigh had no idea who he was. (And how evil Vlad was!)

And is ‘oh, children and people die all the time in accidents,’ kind of rationalization for not feeling all that badly about killing so many innocents.

When McVeigh was executed, I happened to be teaching a college course on Ethics and we discussed capital punishment in depth. I am, as most people who know me, opposed to capital punishment; but McVeigh was the poster child for capital punishment. It is difficult to come to any reasonable conclusion that the world would be better if he was still alive in it. Perhaps if a longer life would have given him a sense of guilt or remorse, but I’m doubting this. Sadly.

Timothy McVeigh was a man who grew to hate and that hate drove him to evil. St. Paul wrote that the consequences of sin is death and I strongly believe that the consequence of unrelenting hatred is also death. When hatred, no matter what drives is, is left to do nothing other than grow, then it ends up being completely destructive. And kills.

Timothy McVeigh was a man who became evil and did evil in the name of hate. Let us hope and pray we never encounter another one like him.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Damascus

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Damascus
Text: Acts 9:1-8
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
April 18, 2010

Have you ever noticed how often we use the word funny and how often it ends up meaning very different things?

For example, sometimes we use the word funny to mean humorous. A funny person is a person who enjoys laughing and making other people laugh. I love funny things and even attempt, on occasion, to be funny. Humor is important to me.

But we use the word funny in other ways.

If a person gets up in the morning and says, “My stomach feels funny,” they are not saying that their stomach is now starting a new career in stand up. It means that they are not feeling well.

If we say that we’d feel funny about doing something it means that we’d feel awkward about something which we are undertaking.

And if we say something funny happened on our way to someplace, well, it can either be that we had an entertaining event or something completely unexpected took place.

And then there was Saul. A funny thing happened on the way to Damascus and it wasn’t amusing.

Saul, the one we’ve come to know as St. Paul, was persecuting Christians. He was building up a case and was on his way to Damascus when a funny thing happened. Luke tells us that a light appeared and a voice came down from Heaven and asked Saul why he was persecuting me. And Saul wants to know who ‘me’ is. And Saul encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus. And Saul turns from being a persecutor of Christians to the person who is most important in the history of Christianity of anyone other than Jesus.

For many, this story is vexing and offers so many ways to approach it.

Let’s focus on Paul for a moment.

When we think of St. Paul we think of the great Christian. When the people Paul was first interacting with thought of him, they thought of him as this horrible person who was persecuting everyone in the early church. And they were correct. This is who he was.

And so there was the question. Why did God use this bad man for such a noble purpose? Or maybe better asked is wondering why God doesn’t use better people than Paul.

But there was more to Paul than this and one thing we often miss about St. Paul. He changed. He changed big time, and change is difficult.

Paul was not the average guy. He was incredibly accomplished. He was fluent in writing Greek and used many images from the philosopher Plato which means that he was highly educated by Greek philosophers-----this was reserved for only the best and the brightest, so he was one of the best and the brightest.

But in Acts of the Apostles Luke tells us that St. Paul was educated by the famous Rabbi Gamaliel who was the well known and highly renowned teacher of the best and brightest Rabbinical students.

Paul was brilliant. Seriously brilliant. When we speak of the great minds in history, Albert Einstein, Thomas Aquinas, Galileo, and Isaac Newton, we need to include St. Paul. He was in that category.

And he changed.

For a person of Paul’s brilliance and accomplishment and achievement, change would have been difficult. Very difficult.

It is easy to say that it would have been easier for him than most. After all, God spoke to him, God knocked him off the horse, and God made him blind. This would have been enough. But that’s not all together true.

Reread Exodus some day. God makes war on the land of Egypt. Ten plagues fall upon the people. Ten. The water turns to blood. Pestilence. Boils. Death of the firstborn. Horrible, horrible plagues. God was not getting the people’s attention in Egypt. God was picking them up by their feet, spinning them around, and launching them high in the air.

Yet, the Pharaoh still sent his troops after the Israelites. After so much, after TEN incredibly destructive plagues from a God he obviously could not defeat, he still kept up the fight. It was hard headed and hard hearted beyond all recourse. Yet, the Pharaoh keep it up.

But Paul changed.

Change is sometimes difficult because it may challenge our deepest principles. Saul was Jewish. He believed that Judaism was the one true religion, the one true faith. He did not believe the Christians were right; he believed they were wrong strongly enough that he was putting them to death.

Yet he changed.

In 1803 the President of the United States was Thomas Jefferson and he had a problem.

Before him was the offer of a huge parcel of land; the land we now call the Louisiana Purchase. Historians called this Jefferson’s finest moment, but Jefferson was vexed.

Jefferson did not really believe in a strong, central, national government. He was a huge advocate for state’s rights and believed that the Federal Government should be small and weak. But...

It was going to require a huge effort by the Federal Government to make this purchase. It would require taxation to pay for it and it would require Jefferson to move in a manner contrary to every political principle he had. His choice was simple: stick with his political principles and not purchase the land; or go against long held beliefs and make the purchase and transform the young nation.

He changed his mind. It was not because he was unprincipled, but because Jefferson determined there was something greater at stake that his principles.

For Paul it was a great deal like this except for one big thing. His principles were wrong. Everything he believed, his core set of beliefs, he came to understand, was wrong.

Truth is not something that always accommodates our own ideas. Truth is what it is. The fact that we have a set of beliefs or opinions or ideas contrary to the truth does not make our ideas better because we hold onto them. We are challenged, at times, to put everything we have at the core of our being at risk to be open to God.

We honor Paul because he did.

There is something else at work here.

At the stoning of Stephen, Luke seemed to note that something jarred inside Paul. That jarring was the beginning of respect for another.

We cannot grow, we cannot ever change, we cannot really experience instant or ongoing conversion unless we can learn to respect people who might have different perspectives than we do.

Sometimes I think we are a nation and a people in the midst of a great crisis. It isn’t economic or political or international as much as it is something amongst the people itself. We have, as a society, lost the ability to respect one another.

We see this all the time. We are probably all guilty of it.

I know I am guilty of it. You all know me. I am quick-witted, often make quick, sharp comments. I love sarcasm. Sadly, I can be sarcastic at the expense of others. I’d like to say that I’ve never been guilty of this, but I have been. I look forward to the day when I outgrow this!

But our society seems to be on the verge of a national nervous breakdown. People are so tense about the fact that people cut into each other quickly.

In the recent health reform issues in Washington D. C., I think many people watched in distress as something happened. There really was no debate. There really was no debate. I can say that 1001 times. There were contrasting monologues of posturing and speeches, and no debate. It was not about right or wrong, good or bad, it was about winning or losing. Or winning by making the other guy lose. When it was all over, there were no innocent parties.

But that was just a grand and glorious display of the nation. People are willing to cut into each other with vim, vigor, and glee, regardless of how much they hurt each other. Respecting one another has become lost.

I am reminded, however, that this is not the way God calls us to be. In 1 Peter it is written:

Let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God's varied grace." 1 Peter 4:8-10

And that respect and intense for others is so key to conversion.

Perfection is often defined as the inability to improve.

You cannot make a perfect circle more perfect.

You cannot improve a perfect square.

You can write a perfect sentence. “John sees Mary.” If John sees Mary, it’s a perfect sentence.

Two plus two equals four. You cannot improve the answer.

We always have to ask ourselves: Am I perfect? I always know the answer to the question when it pertains to me. I suspect the answer is the same for everyone.

And unless we are perfect we are challenged to grow and to grow requires change, and to change requires learning from others and learning from others means first and foremost, to respect others. And the opinion of others.

We have a societal crisis because we cannot grow because we cannot respect one another.

St. Paul was an amazing man. Despite his great education and knowledge, he was humble enough to change. Despite his own person beliefs, even anger at others, he was able to respect and that respect enabled him to grow.

A funny thing happened on the way to Damascus. And Christianity was transformed by the greatness of the man knocked off his horse that day.

Friday, April 16, 2010

When Churches Profess to Welcome and Accept Everyone----And Live It!

Every church in the world professes to welcome and accept everyone. And everyone will be loved, except you need to....

People have been hearing that for years.

God's Church should be a place where everyone has a seat at the table. No exception or exclusion.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Things I Don’t Care About But End Up Having to Hear or Read About

I do not care about how many people Tiger Woods had an affair with. His marriage is between he and his wife.

I don’t care to hear any more about Michael Jackson. I have heard enough.

I don’t care that Sarah Palin wants bendable straws. If she likes straws that bend, my universe is not going to be shaken.

I do not care that Ashley Dupre has posed for Playboy and I don’t care that she thinks she’s now a marital expert. Anyone who thinks she is might be interested in a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.

Jon and Kate. I don’t care.

Jesse James. I don’t care. (But I think he’s an idiot!)

I don’t care that President Obama sneaks smokes.

I don’t care about American Idol or Dancing with the Stars.

I don’t care how many times Larry King has been married.

I don’t care about Joe Lieberman’s opinion on anything.

I don’t care about the Ipad. Or the Mini-IPad or the Maxi Ipad.

I don’t care what people’s speculations about Tim Tebow happen to be. He’ll get drafted and will play. We’ll find out then.

I don’t care what Jerry Jones thinks about anything.

I don’t care what Hugh Hefner thinks about Kate Gosselin. Actually, I don’t care what Hugh Hefner thinks about anything.

I don’t care what Levi Johnston’s opinions are about much of anything.

I don’t care who is on Survivor or who Donald Trump is going to fire next week.

Thus endeth my current rant.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Disenfranchising Friends

There is one lesson I have been learning slowly and it’s that in our highly charged, highly emotional, highly partisan environment, we have been developing an incredible ability at disenfranchising friends. And I say this not because I’ve been good and noble all the time, but because I haven’t been. I enjoy having fun at the expense of political leaders I do not like. Most people who know me well know that I have a particular dislike for the person who recently ran for Vice President. There are so many things I find distasteful about her on so many levels; but; I often find myself hurting people I care about in my expression of disdain for her, even when I sarcastically joke. Or maybe more when I sarcastically joke.

It is easy to disenfranchise friends. When I look out at my congregation on a Sunday morning I see many people who voted Democrat in my congregation. I see many people who voted Republican in my congregation. There is one thing they all have in common; they are all good people. Actually they are all very good people. They are people who pray together, play together, break bread together, and often disagree. But they do things together. And people all deserve to be respected and cared for by others. In the big thing, we are all Christians and we are all Americans. When things are good, they are good; when things are bad, they are bad, and everyone is in it together.

And yet our society is being torn asunder. It is easy to blame the people on talk radio, or the commentators on television, or those who write the newspapers, etc. It is easy to blame the bad behavior on others. It is tempting to blame the bad behavior on others. It is usually wrong to blame bad behavior on others. When we exercise sarcasm and a mean-spiritedness toward others, the fault lies within ourselves. If I can angry and something someone says, and I become sarcastic and mean, the fault is mine, and mine alone.

Some years ago Boris Yeltsin was in political trouble. His opponent in the general election was a Soviet styled Communist who wanted to restore Communism. Bill Clinton was the American President and this could not happen. President Clinton sent his best people to Russia to run an incredibly effective smear campaign to crush Yeltsin’s opponent. They had learned a lesson in American politics. Smearing people works. We see it all the time in American politics. Much of what we see on television in political campaigns is not an honest exchange of ideas; it is an incredible ability to smear the other person. And the commercials are often followed by, “I am John Manzo and I approve of this ad.” Frankly, many ought to be embarrassed by what they approve of.

But, so should we. We eat it up and we do it right along with them. And place friendships at peril.

Jesus said, ‘love one another.’

I am often reminded it would be a good time to start. I know, for me, I’m going to try harder to be kind, gentle, and loving. I, for one, want to live out Jesus’ command.