Sunday, October 28, 2012

What Do YOU See?


The lectionary this morning is the story of a miracle.
A blind man asks for help and is given sight.
In this story Jesus credits the healing with the man’s own faith.
Stay with me on this.
We are going on a journey from unbelief to faith.
I may say some things you don’t like, but we will all win in the end.

Ever since the renaissance in the 14th century,
through the reformation in the 16th century,
and the enlightenment in the 18th century,
and the rise of science in the 20th century,
people have questioned miracle stories like this one.

There is a basic reason that fewer people believe in such miracles.
We have never seen one.
I have known a number of people blind from birth or by accident.
None of them regained their lost sight.
I had an uncle, blind from childhood.
My wife is nearly blind in one eye.
I have known many good church members in many places who were blind.
A destroyed retina or an inoperative or severed optic nerve in most cases
results in permanent blindness.
To accuse these people of a lack of faith would add insult to their injury.

Some will say that these facts make no difference.
They say that because Jesus was the Son of God,
that because he was divine, he could make the blind see.
I have a problem with that.
What kind of God would put a healing power on earth for a short time
only for the purpose of healing a few suffering people
to demonstrate the power of supernatural divinity?
That God would be a cruel God.
Not the God that Jesus taught.

So, if this is a story that could not have happened as told,
     how did it come to be?
What other meanings could it have?
We are fairly certain that Jesus did conduct a healing ministry.
We do not understand it, but not because it was supernatural
or from God in some way that we do not now experience.
There were other prophets and teachers in the first century,
in the ancient world, who healed the sick.
But the key word here is “ancient.”
This was the pre-modern world
in which there was no modern medicine as we know it.
We can understand that Jesus and others were able to heal
psychological disease caused by trauma or emotional distress.
And we understand more and more what we could call social disease –
not sexually transmitted disease – but ailments directly caused by
living conditions and by the way people have been oppressed
and treated by people with power.

Also, religion itself was different in the ancient world.
It was expected that there were gods who walked among us.
How did they know?
Because of their special powers, of course.
So anyone who was a Caesar was proclaimed a god
people told tall tales about them.
If a prophet or teacher moved you, lifted you up, made you feel accepted and free–
     you might tell such miracle stories about them.
Such stories would be and are hope producing and satisfying.

More importantly, such stories are also metaphorical.
That is, a story about blindness might be about something else.
The story of a man with demons might be symbolic of something else
going on, in the man or in the society.
The story of a man paralyzed might be about how the Roman Empire
paralyzed thinking and caring people.
The story of a woman with a discharge might be about the status of women
in the Roman Empire or the treatment they received by the Jewish law.
A great deal of the Bible cannot be understood
unless we read it as metaphor.

We all know how blindness is used as a metaphor.
In “Amazing Grace” we sing  "I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see."
The songwriter, who later in old age became blind,
wrote of blindness, as ignorance about God.
In a song called “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Bob Dylan wrote
“How many times can a man turn his head,
and pretend that he just doesn't see...
How many times must a man look up, Before he can see the sky?”
John Newton wrote Amazing Grace after having been a captain of slave ships.
200 years later Dylan wrote about racism.

It’s an old proverb: “There is no one so blind as the one who will not see.”
We walk by the homeless in cities, averting our eyes
so that we will not have to think about them.

Being blind to something means not understanding or being aware of it.
A "blind spot" is an area where we cannot see in traffic.
In Jesus’ day lepers, people with skin diseases,
were sent away so they could not be seen.
In my lifetime we have done that with the mentally ill and with the dying.
We have many blind spots.

This story of healing a blind man has something to tell us
      about the concept of salvation.
Every word we use about salvation implies a problem.
The gospel of John speaks about salvation as light.
Seeing the light is a metaphor for seeing God.
If light is the answer, what is the question?
How do I find my way out of the darkness?
Darkness is a metaphor for ignorance.

Salvation has been described in the Bible and by many famous teachers
as answers to different problems:
I mentioned the line in amazing grace “I was lost but now am found.”
If we are lost, salvation is being found.
If you are lonely or isolated, salvation is belonging in community;
If you are the victim of hate or uncaring salvation is love;
If you are oppressed by tyranny, salvation is freedom and liberation.
If we are sick salvation feels like being healed.
If we see ourselves as sinners, salvation is redemption.

If we are separated from one another and from ourselves
and from our very being, from God, then salvation is reconciliation.
This is the understanding of salvation in the Confession of ‘67,
used often in the PCUSA.
Who can deny that separation and conflict and polarization
are major experiences of life’s problems in our time.
The basic meaning of salvation, however, is being made whole.
If we are feeling as if our lives or our relationships are broken,
or as if we are coming apart, then we want to be made whole.

Being healed of blindness would be being made whole.
Marcus Borg tells of many understandings of “faith” of “believing.”
One of them is of faith as a way of seeing.
So maybe regaining sight is a metaphor for coming to believe in Jesus.

The story says that his faith has given Bartimaeus sight.
This must mean that he has seen something that he could not see before.
Bartimaeus had seen something in Jesus through his encounter with him.
It’s like meeting someone and just knowing that you understand that person,
that you like that person, maybe even love that person.
Bartimaeus had understood something, he had seen something –
even before he could see.
He gained his sight by seeing Jesus truly.

If you haven’t ever done it,
you should read the gospel of Mark all the way through.
It is short. Reading it out loud takes about 2-3 hours.
Then you would see the context of the story of Bartimaeus.
It comes after three stories of Jesus on the road to Jerusalem
with his disciples.
In each case Jesus tells them that he must suffer and die.

In the first story Peter tells Jesus he won’t suffer and die.
This angers Jesus who answers that Peter isn’t seeing things
from a spiritual point of view.

In the second story some of them ignore what Jesus says,
and argue about which of them is greatest.
Jesus tells them “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all
and servant of all.” and “Whoever welcomes a child welcomes me.”

In the third story they ask him to grant them seats to his right and left
in the Kingdom.
Jesus teaches them “Whoever wants to be great must be a servant.
The son of man came not to be served but to serve.”

It is clear in these stores that they don’t understand him.
But Bartimaeus answered Jesus’ call to him.
He threw off his cloak, probably all that he had,
and asked for the one great hard thing he wanted, his sight.
He tossed aside what little security he had to ask for his need.
I think Bartimaeus understood Jesus because he was blind.

You see, faith is a way of seeing the world.
Faith in Jesus is seeing the world the way Jesus saw the world.
We know how Jeus saw the world from his teachings:
Blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the peacemakers.
Blessings on all those who are not blessed in the world as we know it.
Be perfect in love: Not just don’t murder, but don’t be angry.
If anyone strikes you, turn the other cheek too.
Don’t just love those who love you, but Love your enemies.
Give without thought of whether anyone thanks you.
Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.
Don’t worry about tomorrow, but seek for the K of God.
This is a very quick summary of Jesus’ teachings,
but these teachings describe a world
where justice and peace and wholeness are the norm.
It is a world where people do what is just and what is right,
for the simple reason that these things are just and right.
But it is a world upside down from the one we know.
In our world the blind and the poor and the grieving
and the peacemakers are not highly esteemed.
In our world the rich are lifted up, those who have are given more,
despair and random violence are common.
The golden rule is not about thinking of others as equal to us.
The golden rule we know is: Those who have the gold make the rules.
Bartimaeus knew why Jesus had to die.
You can’t teach these things in an empire that allows no dissent.
And Bartimaeus is the only one healed who follows Jesus afterward.

So what do we believe? What is our faith?
Which means: What do we see? How do we see the universe?
How do we see our neighbors?
How do we see people who are different from ourselves?

[preached Oct. 28, 2012 at Charlton-Freehold PC]

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Education and Evaluation – Part III – Ned Flanders Shows How to Evaluate Teachers! And How Teachers Can Evaluate Themselves!


No, not that Ed Flanders. The one we are talking about here was Ned A. Flanders, director of research at the U of Michigan, who wrote Analyzing Teacher Behavior, 1970. I haven’t seen this book, but it seems to me that Flanders started from a different place and ended with a system that is much simpler and more practical than the IOTA system.


Ned A. Flanders asked “How do students and teachers interrelate in the classroom?”

Observing classroom settings Ned identified ten categories of verbal interaction, in three divisions:

A. Teacher Talk – Indirect Influence

1. Accepts Feeling (Acceptance or clarification of students’ expressed feelings, positive or negative. E.g., “I understand how you feel about bullies, John.” or “Mary, are you saying you could never forgive a cheater?”)
2. Praises or Encourages
3. Accepts or Uses Ideas of Students
4. Asks Questions

B. Teacher Talk – Direct Influence:

5. Lectures
6. Gives Directions
7. Criticizes or Justifies Authority

C. Student Talk:

8. Student Talk – Response
9. Student Talk – Initiation
10. Silence or Confusion

A teacher can record his or her class, any three minutes of it. As the teacher listens to it, he or she can write every three seconds what is heard by number. The numbers are totaled, 20 for each minute. Count the 1-4's, the 5-7's, and the 8-9's. Divide these numbers by the total number of observations to find the percentage of the teacher’s indirect, direct, and student participation. This can be done also by an observer. The goal is to increase student talk and decrease teacher talk, while increasing the teacher’s use of indirect influence over direct influence.

Dr. Flanders said: “The single most significant moment in a classroom is that ‘split second’ immediately following something said or done by a student”

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Education and Evaluation – Part II – How INSTROTEACH Worked – How Objectives Were Written and How Teaching Activities Were Devised


I don’t know what is taught today about teaching activities and how students learn. Maybe what I am sharing is old hat or out of date, but many basic concepts seem to be missing from discussion of school problems and teacher evaluation in the media. Furthermore, I doubt if anyone in the churches takes teaching as seriously as it was by the educators I am describing from past decades. Most church school teachers reject any curriculum that requires planning. Thus many non-denominational (and often fundamentalist) curricula are sold which have teaching activities pre-prepared. I remember that many of the teachers who listened to us in Duluth genuinely thought of what they were doing as ministry (i.e., important) and they wanted to do it as well as possible.

I wrote yesterday how n the late ‘60's, church educators took IOTA, a secular Instrument for the Observation of Teacher Activities, and adapted it to become INSTROTEACH, the INSTRument for the Observation of TEaching Activites in the Church. In addition to R. Merwin Deever and Locke Bowman, Jr., Howard J. Demeke, Raymond E. Wochner were writers of materials. Earl Cunningham, William Hastings, Elizabeth Helz, Irving Hitt, Oscar J. Hussel, Harold Minor, Mary Stepan, and Ralph A. Strong were in the editorial group. Some of these were seminary profs in education. (I think that this field hardly exists today.)

The seven areas of teacher competence for university teachers and six for public school teachers became five for church teachers:
1. Director of Learning
2. Guide and Counselor
3. Mediator and Interpreter of the Christian Faith
4. Link with the Community
5. Participant in the Church’s Teaching Ministry.
These five areas encompass 120 statements of what a good teacher does. These are the activities that are evaluated.

There were 14 observation scales:
1. Use of Materials in Teaching
2. Opportunity for Student Participation
3. Attitude toward Opinion
4. Classroom Control
5. Developing the Physical Environment
6. Student-Teacher Planning
7. Teacher Preparation for Classroom Session
8. Variety in Learning Activities
9. Relation of Church Subject Matter to Life Situations
10. Student Inquiry into Subject Matter
11. Recognition of Learning Difficulties
12. Social Climate
13. Classroom Activities to Encourage Christian Action
14. Developing Student Skill in Interpretation of the Bible

For each scale there is a statement of greatest effectiveness. For “Use of Materials in Teaching” this statement was: “Makes effective use of a wide variety of well-selected materials provided by the church and by his own initiative.” Four other statements had less and less to say so that the worst teaching “Makes ineffective or no used of materials provided by the church.” The observer could choose the statement describing what she observes without having to think much about it.

The 13 interview scales bring out the following information:
15. Evaluation of Individual Student Progress
16. Awareness of Peer Relationships
17. Personal Relationships with Individual Students
18. Development of Student Self-Concept
19. Cooperation with Professional Church Staff in Counseling Problems
20. Participation in Life of the Church
21. Parent Orientation to Church Education
22. Use of Community Resources
23. Community Involvement
24. Program of Personal Study
25. Relation of Classroom Program to Overall Aims of Parish Education
26. Participation in Staff Planning
27. Responsibility for Improvement of Teaching Skill

The Teaching Skills Institute workshop went beyond the INSTROTEACH evaluation instrument. We learned how to identify concepts for a lesson, and to cluster and classify them so that we could write key statements about the subject. We learned how to write goals and objectives. Goals were understood as global and tell where you are going. Objectives are not what the teacher will do but what the student will be able to do as a result of the teaching activities. Verbs would include name, list, identify, write, explain, compare, contrast. The objective will be observable student behavior and may include the conditions under which the behaviors are performed and the expected quality of student performance such as accuracy. Tests were easy to create once we knew what we were trying to elicit from the students.

We learned to choose deductive or inductive teaching strategies and how to combine them. We chose "media" for activities, wrote lesson plans, and then learned a simpler system to self-analyze teacher-student interaction in the classroom, which I will detail tomorrow.

Let’s note thus far that these systems assume that teachers evaluate students on the basis of what they can do, and that teachers can be evaluated on the basis of what they do. This was helpful to me when my senior pastor wanted to evaluate me, not on what I did, but on whether or not I met his goals. His objective was to create a youth group of 50 members. My objectives were the things I would do to attain that. I could not guarantee the result he wanted. Job evaluation should be done on the basis of whether one accomplishes objectives that he or she has had a role in writing. Then you can talk about whether you have done your work and how well you have done it. We can go further – There have been efforts in the church to evaluate the total organization and its “mission,” but it’s easier to spread rumors and unhappiness with the pastor, based on personality conflicts. INSTROTEACH led to a simple way to evaluate pastors which I will explain in a few days.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Education and Evaluation – Part I – From IOTA to INSTROTEACH


With so much in the news about the Chicago Teachers’ strike, politicized criticism of teachers, increased testing of students, the evaluation of teachers by student test results, the decline of public schools and the quality of traditional education today, I decided that I needed to think about these things. I am not an educator per se, but I have my qualifications. I taught in the Chicago Public Schools, 1968-69. After seminary, in 1975, I attended a week long “Teaching Skills Institute” run by the National Education Teacher Project of Scottsdale AZ, also known as the Arizona Experiment. The teacher was Locke E. Bowman, Jr. I still have 3 booklets from the event: 70 Cues for Teachers, by Bowman, The role of the Teacher in the Church: 5 Areas of Competence, and The Evaluation of Teaching Effectiveness in the Church. These booklets were produced by “INSTROTEACH,” an acronym for "INSTRument for the Observation of TEaching Activities in the CHurch." A point I hope to make is that educators in the '60's did ground-breaking and good work that seems to have been lost and forgotten. Perhaps it was only cast aside as thousands of new education academics made new studies, invented new theories, and developed new programs, not necessarily better.

The next month I became an assistant pastor at a large church in Duluth MN and immersed myself in church education. I became the chair of the Christian Education Committee of the Council of Churches. My pal was Fr. Lloyd Mudrack, who oversaw the best church resource library I ever saw. We brought INSTROTEACH to Duluth and taught church teachers to teach all around town for three years. Then I went to New Jersey and found my interests in urban problems and the peace movement. Later in the ‘90's I became Associate for Professional Development for the PCUSA and oversaw some materials and programs that related to the workshop I took in ‘75. More about that later.

These three booklets I have are rare. You can find mention of them online, but only a handful of libraries possess even a single copy. Here is what I have learned in recent weeks about them, their origin, and what I was taught in 1975:

Lucien B. Kinney taught education at Stanford. With some colleagues he developed IOTA, “Instructional Observation of Teacher Activities.” This evaluation tool grew out of the publication Teacher Competence: Its Nature and Scope by the California Teachers Association. It became widely used in California, Arizona, and other parts of the west. Kinney and his cohorts listed 123 things a good teacher does. They categorized them in 7 roles:
     1. Director of Learning.
     2. Counselor and Advisor.
     3. Mediator of the Culture.
     4. Link with the Public.
     5. Member of the Faculty.
     6. Member of the Teaching Profession.
     7. Member of an Academic Discipline.
There were 28 teaching activities or scales, each of which included five levels of teacher performance. 13 scales were used in classroom observation and 15 graded by teacher responses in an interview.

R. Merwin Deever taught at Arizona State. His work with IOTA led him into a group that was concerned with teacher education in the churches. It is difficult to imagine today the great works that were undertaken in the post WWII years by the churches in the area of education. I reprint here an letter by Locke Bowman Jr. explaining this. The letter is published online by Tom Rightmyer, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina. Tom says “Dr. Bowman retired in 2002 as the Executive Secretary of the General Board of Examining Chaplains of the Episcopal Church and Administrator of the General Ordination Examination. I served as a staff member of the General Board and assisted in writing, administering, and evaluating student responses to the Examination from 1990 to 2002. [I think I saw a notice of Locke’s death in 2011.]

Dear Tom:
        Here is what I would say to the person who directed a query to you about  church education 1945-1950+. This was a time of great ferment in all the Protestant churches. The Continental theologies had begun to affect seriously the curricula of all the theological seminaries, so that names like Barth, Brunner (Emil), Tillich, and Niebuhr were on everyone's lips, it seemed.
        The Presbyterians were the pioneers in developing teaching materials for use in the churches that would reflect the best educational theories and also focus seriously on theology. After a famous Long Island conference of leaders in the Church, they launched the "Christian Faith and Life" curriculum, sub-titled "A Program for Church and Home." This material was hailed by the New York Times education editor as the most significant publishing venture in the "history of Christendom." Hardback books for students were produced, and magazines were published for use jointly by parents in their homes and teachers in church classrooms. The curriculum was organized in a three-year cycle: Jesus Christ, Bible, and Church. The underpinning for this approach was Karl Barth's dogmatic, focusing on "the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ; the Word revealed in Holy Scripture; and the Word proclaimed and lived in the Church." 
Educational methodology was pedagogical--a serious teacher-student encounter focused on content. The Faith and Life curriculum appeared in 1948, and it was a huge success financially. Large numbers of Episcopal congregations purchased the materials. The curriculum, continually revised, continued until 1970 when it was replaced by a new approach called "Christian Faith and Action" (now superceded by other efforts).
        The Episcopalians watched the Presbyterian developments with keen interest and began to explore the idea of a national curriculum produced in New York. A series of false starts delayed their work, but finally the General Convention directed that work should begin. By 1957, the Seabury Series had appeared. (The Seabury Press was established specifically for the purpose of publishing the curriculum.) The Series also featured student books, some of them hardbacks, and there were classroom materials for teachers and students. The theology behind the
material was primarily Tillichian. 
        Emphasis was on combining theological reflection with a focus on group process. Churches were required to engage in training before the materials could be used. A typical class group would include a teaching team and a process observer. Emphasis was placed also on combining the educational ministry with the developing "family services" in Episcopal parishes. Growing suburban congregations were special targets of this approach.
        The Seabury Series fell into disuse in the 1970s and was not replaced. Seabury Press struggled along until about 1986 when it went out of business also. This was the Episcopal Church's first and last venture into national curriculum production. In 1985 an effort began to study Christian education in the church, and a task group reported to the General Convention in 1988. No recommendations were made concerning curriculum.
        The period after World War II also brought other churches into the discussions of effective Christian education--especially the Methodists, the Lutherans, and other denominations. [Southern Baptists continued to be the largest producers and consumers of teaching materials, but they marched to their own drummer and had little to do with any ecumenical efforts.] The Roman Catholics were in the Dark Ages until after Vatican II when they came to life after the American bishops issued a paper, "To Teach As Jesus Did." That resulted in modern curricular efforts that looked much like the Presbyterian and Episcopal efforts of earlier decades.
        Regrettably, few books are extant that reflect adequately the whole ferment of the post-World War II period. I would, however, recommend that these authors be explored: Randolph Crump Miller, distinguished professor of religious education at Yale Divinity School, who wrote extensively in the 1950s. As a priest of the Church, he epitomized Episcopal thinking at the time. Another seminal book widely read and earnestly discussed was "The Church Must Teach or Die," by James Smart (first editor in chief of the Presbyterian Faith and Life venture). These two authors and their bibliographies will lead any serious student to the heart of the issues for that post-War era.
        Hoping to be helpful, I remain sincerely,
        Locke E. Bowman, Jr., Professor  of Christian Education emeritus, Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria.

My spouse and I both grew up with Christian Faith and Life, and fought to keep Christian Faith and Action when it was attacked in the ‘70's. Books by Miller and Smart had places on my bookshelves. I would like to see the Seabury Series – Tillich appeals to me more than Barth. I also welcome any additional information on this history of these developments. I still need to describe INSTROTEACH, the work of Ned A. Flanders, and the work of the old Vocations Agency of the UPCUSA.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Plowing Ahead - a Sermon about Change and Loss


Luke 9:57 - 62
As Jesus and his disciples traveled along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Human One has no place to lay his head.” Then Jesus said to someone else, “Follow me.” That man replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s rule.” Someone else said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say good-bye to those in my house.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s Empire.”
----------
If you are like me, you are a bit bothered and weary of all the things going on around you. These past 40 years we have been living in probably the greatest period of change of all time.... Everything is changing. Change is coming at us faster and faster. All this change and the speed of change disturbs us.

If you are like me, you are always dealing with more than one big thing at a time. I and my family members and friends are getting older. Perhaps you come here this morning mourning or thinking about the death of a loved one or a friend. Change is a constant.

Many people come to church for fellowship and peace in a world of loneliness and change. And here we are reminded that Jesus says, “Follow me.” What would it mean to follow Jesus? How would we live? We the teachings of Jesus, but I suspect that we take them for granted.

Jesus blessed all those who are not blessed in the world as we know it: the poor, those who mourn, the peacemakers. Jesus asked us to be perfect – not in behavior but in love. He told us not just to refrain from murder, but don’t even be angry. He told us not only to not commit adultery, but not to even think about it. He gave us an extreme law against vengeance: If anyone strikes you, turn the other cheek too. He said if anyone asks you to carry a load for a mile, carry it for two, and don’t just love those who love you, but Love your enemies. And he told us to give without thought of whether anyone thanks you, to pray simply. Jesus tells us: Where your treasure is there your heart will be also. You cannot serve god and wealth. And he says don’t worry be happy! Don’t worry about tomorrow, but strive for the Kingdom or Empire of God.

This is a very quick summary of Jesus’ teachings. These teachings are powerful. They have the power to transform us, to make us want to follow him. Yet they are impossible to follow. And yet we are drawn to Jesus and to the ideals he puts before us.

Someone said “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus said “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but this mother’s son has nowhere to sleep.” This is a reference to the fact that Jesus didn’t have a home. Actually, he did have a home in Capernaum when he began his ministry. But at some point he abandoned that home, perhaps because he purposely became an itinerant teacher, or perhaps because the romans had a warrant out for his arrest and he had become an outlaw. That’s a different way of thinking of Jesus. So, if we are going to follow him, it might mean we will find ourselves to be as rootless as he was.

And then someone says, “I’ll follow you, but first I need to go home and grieve with my family for the death of my father. We have to bury him. Wow. Can you imagine your boss at your work not giving you time off when your Father dies? Jesus isn’t going to let his disciple go tend to this important highly emotional family matter.

This was a matter of religious law. A good Jew was required to sit shivah at the death of his father. As I understand them, the Jews have many excellent rituals to follow when someone in the family dies: Sit on a 3 legged stool to cry and pray. You are not supposed to be comfortable. It should not be easy for you to get up. Recite the Kaddish.

Kaddish means “holy.” This is a prayer that is mostly praises to God. It reminds the one praying about what and who is truly important. It is very much like Lord’s prayer, or rather the Lord’s Prayer is very like the Kaddish. It is said every day for 11 months after someone’s passing and then once a year on the anniversary of the death. Although the Kaddish contains no reference to death, it has become the prayer for mourners to say. One explanation is that it is an expression of acceptance of Divine judgment and justice when a person may easily become bitter and reject God. Kaddish is a way for children to show respect and concern for their parents even after they have died. It is also said for a child or spouse.

A friend of mine, also a presbyterian minister, learned this summer that his 25 year old son had died by his own hand. This was a total shock with no warning to anyone in the family that anything was wrong. A vital, beloved son and brother, dead and gone from the world.

Back to the Jewish Kaddish: By the letter of the law, a suicide does not receive the mourning rites including Kaddish. But there is a major exception. The library of interpretation of Jewish law forgives anyone who was not mentally stable before committing suicide. The rabbis asked: “And how can one who committed suicide be considered mentally stable?” Thus, it is possible to say Kaddish for those who committed suicide. I knew a Catholic priest who used this same logic to give a full requiem mass and burial in the Catholic cemetery to a man who killed himself, all in contradiction to Canon Law. These are examples of what Jesus meant when he said that the law was made for us not us for the law.

Jake’s parents are agonizing over their loss and how Jake’s life was shortened. I have been thinking a lot about this. He should have had a full life we think. But was not Jesus’ life shortened by his death? Did Jesus who died at 33 or George Gershwin who died at 39 not have a full life? What difference is it how long someone lives? I think more and more about my own death as it comes closer. Will I accomplish something so significant that I deserve to live past my current age of 68?

Wasn’t Jesus’ life complete? Wasn’t Jake’s life complete? We can imagine other things they could have done, but they did not and could not. Their lives were as long or as short as they were. They lived their time and no more, as we all will. What we have of Jesus or Jake is who and what they were. Jake seems to have had integrity in his life. He seems to have given and received love; his life was good. By all accounts Jake like Jesus lived fully and lived well. We have heard this truth before: It is not how long we live but how well. I say all of this knowing that it does not and can not ease the pain.

Each person’s life is complete and whole. Everything in religion is about wholeness and making whole. The root of the word religion may be “binding or bringing together” that which is separated. The big word salvation can be understood as wholeness.

Another would be disciple of Jesus said: “I will follow you but I have to go home to say goodbye and settle things with my family.” If Jesus would not let the man go home to bury and mourn his father, can we imagine he would have any sympathy here? Following Jesus is about commitment to those impossible things Jesus taught. It is about commitment to the Kingdom or Empire of God, which is above family, religion, nation, and everything else. We should not think that following Jesus is an easy thing. As a matter of fact, you and I can’t do it.

Luke ends this story by having Jesus say finally, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s empire.” We are all unfit. And we are all of us twisted and made fearful by all of the change we have seen and are experiencing. Still we must have that ideal of the Kingdom or Empire of God before us. We must look forward and press on.

There used to be lots of books about discipleship. There aren’t so many today. Books on spirituality have taken their place. Books on holy practices such as prayer and meditation and walking labyrinths have displaced discipleship, or the direct following and learning from Jesus. We do look to religion for help in finding rest for our spirits and peace for our souls.

There is a paradox here: Religion must give us peace so that we can accept and eventually welcome change, but religion must also drive change. Without the impossible teachings of Jesus and his vision of the Kingdom of heaven on earth there would be no future. God’s Kingdom and life itself is always about accepting and seeking something new.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What Jesus Said and Did about Guns and Killing


This is my response to a lot of what I read and hear about faith and what happened in Aurora CO, and about gun control in the U.S.

There is a huge tradition about Jesus dying “for us” or “for our sins.” The apostle Paul went further and said that the death of Jesus was the end of death itself. Powerful stuff. These are interpretations of Jesus’ death, not the ultimate meaning of his death.

The suffering and death of Jesus are significant because this was the undeserved and gruesome death of a great teacher of love and peace. His suffering and death for me symbolizes the undeserved and horrible suffering and death that befalls anyone and everyone who is such a victim.

The suffering of Jesus was no greater than the suffering of every victim of every crime and political execution and war. Jesus didn’t have to suffer more than anyone else for his death to have meaning for the rest of us. Neither was the suffering of Jesus less painful than it would be for us, because he was divine. If we think of his death in the context of his teachings, we cannot imagine that Jesus wanted us to focus on his suffering. With all his teaching about the Kingdom (Empire or Rule) of God, we can understand that it was his desire that we should all live as if God rules the world. I need to say here that God’s Rule in the context of Jesus’ teachings is no rule at all, at least as we understand law and power and rule.

The main and perhaps the only point of Jesus’ death is that it was wrong. This is a powerful statement because it means that the suffering of all the millions of others who have been tortured,
raped, and killed to suit someone’s desire for power, control, and revenge that has occurred 
in a hundred places and situations that we could name – their deaths were and are wrong, too.

Our traditions teach that Jesus died for our sins. I see no way that his death atones in any way for my sins or yours. His death, his spirituality, his religion, his God were about resistance to the uses of power against people. That resistance was non-violent and active, not passive. Jesus died because of our sins, because we want or consent to violence and killing.

The teaching of Jesus that we would rather he hadn’t taught, is to love our enemies. The power of Jesus was his subversive way of viewing the world, living in it, and dying. The power in Jesus' death was the great integrity by which he died for the values by which he lived. There is atonement only if you and I cease to support a system that does violence to people and kills them. 

When I ponder the death of Jesus, I don’t see the end of sin as such but a witness to the need for ending cruelty and torture, the death penalty, war, killing, and the end of violence itself. If Jesus in any way died for my sin or sins, or yours, he died so that no one else would have to die as he did.

If Jesus died for our sins, and we wish to follow him, we must renounce violence.

So are you a Christian? How many Christians do you know? Could you become one? I have never been sure about myself. In my best moments I only witnessed to Jesus on these matters.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Iowa Noir



I grew up in Sioux City Iowa during the '50's. There are few books about Sioux City, so I ordered this one with great curiosity and without question. I lived less than a mile from Jimmy Bremmers who was kidnapped and killed in 1954 and from Donna Sue Davis who was kidnapped and killed in 1955.  But I didn't know half of what is in this book, Sex Crime Panic: A Journey to the Paranoid Heart of the 1950's, by Neil Miller (Alyson Books, 2002).  I read it in May and was in a kind of shock for weeks.

I was ten and eleven when these crimes occurred, but I knew the names of the cops and politicians who were involved. I didn’t know how they sought to make names for themselves and how they lived out their narrow understandings of the good society and what it is to be human. Now I understand better some of my Mother's fears and anxieties. Now I know why the Warrior Hotel was not spoken of in polite company. Now I see what a cloistered life I led and what a repressive society Sioux City embodied. Reading this book I could see the streets and homes and downtown buildings. My visual, aural, and olfactory memories went into overdrive. My questions about the milieu of my childhood multiplied. My preconceptions about society were shattered, as if they weren’t fragmented enough.

There were few clues leading to the child killers. After Jimmy disappeared the police found Ernest Triplett, a divorced ex-pimp who sold accordions door to door for a local music store, who was in the neighborhood the day the boy was taken. Triplett was tried and convicted. When the girl’s body was found there was no easy suspect. The police and the DA came up with an idea. They went after the queers.


There weren’t any “gays” yet. These were very different times from our own. I am told that it would be wrong to judge people’s attitudes and actions then by today’s standards, but we do anyway. The bar (the stylish Tom Tom Room) and adjacent men’s room at the Warrior Hotel (a wonderful art deco building across the street from First Presbyterian Church, where Carol and I were married in ‘66) were the center of the secretive gay community during the ‘50's. These sexual “perverts” must have been at the root of these kidnappings and other crimes. As the city became a bit unglued, the homosexuals were rounded up. One of the cops arrested a friend of his from high school. A high school teacher and a great many hair dressers and department store window dressers were among the suspect/victims. Rumors ruined the reputation of a pediatrician, whom it seems was totally innocent. He was able to keep out of jail and his patient families remained loyal to him. I am ashamed that we used his name as a joke and assumed his guilt when I was in junior high school.


Gov. Hoegh and some state legislators had ideas about all of this. They launched a moral crusade and a plan and a place for the perverts. Two really corrupt psychiatrists at the state mental hospital at Cherokee had been prominent in putting away Triplett. Now the governor asked the state hospital at Mt. Pleasant, in the southeast corner of the state, to set up a wing for sexual deviants. Twenty homosexual men from the Sioux City area were taken there.

I am relieved to know that the mental hospital in Mt. Pleasant did not do such great unpleasantness as they might have to the gay men who were sent there as "sexual psychopaths." The staff at Mt. Pleasant understood that these guys were harmless and could not be changed into “normal” heterosexuals. The great thing about political solutions to big problems is that they tend to evaporate when the political need for them goes away. Within a year the wing was closed down, and the men signed off to relatives and other “respectable” persons. Sadly or not, these men later repressed their experiences of Sioux City and Mt. Pleasant. Even they accepted the mores of the times in which they lived.

An Iowa law professor took on the Triplett case which was overturned in 1972.  Whether he was guilty or not remained disputed by those who knew him. In 1976 the state sexual psychopath law was overturned. A side note: How society defines sexual behaviors and defines some as crimes has an astounding history of its own. In the early ‘90's I remember a dispute in our church in Chicago. A majority wanted all the children fingerprinted and given bracelets to wear for identification. Carol and I and a few others protested, but were thought uncaring by the fearful.

Look how we identify and track what we now call “sexual offenders.” The laws passed in 1994 are more enlightened than the persecution of gays in the ‘50's. But a study of Megan’s Law in NJ “concluded that it had no effect on time to first re-arrest, showed no demonstrable effect in reducing sexual re-offenses, had no effect on the type of sexual re-offense or first time sexual offense (still largely child molestation), and had no effect on reducing the number of victims of sexual offenses. The authors felt that given the lack of demonstrated effect of the law on sexual offenses, its growing costs may not be justifiable.” [Wikipedia] Questions about the law in New York state are detailed at http://theparson.net/so/.  Every 20-30 years there has been a change in our definitions, descriptions, and prescriptions for sexual offenses. Every 20-30 years there is a new “sex crime panic.”

A side note: Megan Kanka for whom Megan’s Law is named was kidnapped and killed only a few miles from where I lived in New Jersey, but eight years before her death. I seem to be following these events. Perhaps life imitates Stephen King or Dennis LeHane novels.

I suspect that Sioux City hasn't changed a great deal. There was always a lot of sleaze in Sioux City. A lot of stuff that used to be hidden is now in the open. I don’t know how good or bad that is, although I like daylight. The descriptions in this book of Sioux City in the '50's and the '90's are very accurate. If we as a nation are to understand and transcend our past, we need more of this kind of social journalism.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

I Declare Success in My Career!


When I was in my first church, someone asked me what I hoped to accomplish in the church. My response then and ever was: “I want to drag the church out of the 17th century (or the 16th or the 5th or the 4th)!” Now for many millions of people this has come to pass.

1965 was the high point of membership in mainline Protestant churches. I joined in 1966 and from that time on membership declined. I swear that I was not the cause of this. Many like me in my generation weren’t good supporters of the status quo, but I was in that cohort that decided to try to change things from within the system. I’m not sure that it worked. I suspect things would have changed without me.

Many conservatives blamed “liberals” like me for wrecking the church by promoting social action, supporting minority rights, the poor, the hungry, and for talking too much about war and peace. There was a Ross Douthat op-ed piece in the New York Times this week saying exactly that thing. The kind of church Mr. Douthat wants is the one Tom Paine said was “the shame of God.”

One of my teachers, Carl Dudley, responded with a sociological analysis titled Where Have All the People Gone? Much of the loss had been demographic – we didn’t have enough children to sustain the membership and too many children weren’t sticking around. The National Council of Churches responded with Punctured Preconceptions, a statistical analysis which showed that more people had left the church because it hadn’t changed enough than had left because it supported too much change.

The world was changing very fast (and the change has accelerated). Many who wanted to keep up had to leave the church because it couldn’t. Some of us wanted to allow children to participate in the Lord’s Supper before Confirmation. (Many children would leave the church after Confirmation.) New theologies were proposed and preached which were challenging spiritually as well as politically.

There’s that word, spiritual. What does it mean? "Spirituality" before 1978 (or thereabouts) would have been understood as “discipleship.” It was about following Jesus and participating in the church, not because your friends and neighbors did, and not because it was helpful socially as people worked their way up a corporate ladder into the middle or upper classes. It meant allowing yourself to be influenced by the teachings and example of Jesus and the heroes of the faith who had gone before. In my earlier life this included Albert Schweitzer, Pearl Buck (Presbyterian but suspected Commie), Bonhoeffer, and even Gandhi.

Issues of gay rights have dominated the churches since the late ‘70's. Public attitudes towards gays have become much more positive since then. The churches are following (instead of leading).

Spirituality is popular because it avoids the 4th and 16th centuries. We don’t have to fight about “beliefs” so much now. I think more people in and outside of churches think that Jesus thought we (as a society, not just as individuals) owed something to the poor and that he didn’t support war. If that is so, that’s my victory and success.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Writer’s Block


 I haven’t “blogged” in about a month. There have been many things I wanted to say or comment upon, but I couldn’t do it. It is called “writer’s block.” 



I have the solution to writer’s block taped to my computer screen. They are words from an episode of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion from a few years ago. They do a skit that has Garrison as an adult child living at home. He is a writer who has difficulty getting published. Sue Scott plays his Mother. There is someone who plays an old man who is the grouchy and very critical Grandfather.


Garrison complains about not being able to write. His Mother says:

“Why doncha write some words
and if you don’t like ‘em,
cross ‘em out and write some new ones
and sorta build like that.”

There just isn’t any answer to that. Except that first part – writing some words.


Monday, June 18, 2012

Our Presbyterian Outlook


The Presbyterian Outlook is a magazine that serves up news and a forum for the Presbyterian Church (USA). I follow this occasionally for news of my ecclesia mater, especially as we approach the now biennial General Assembly. (It used to be annual, but then we couldn't afford it.) This is the representative body that decides such things as the ordination of gays. Next on the agenda will be gay marriage so the pages of The Outlook are hot and of course those of The Layman are hotter still. Should we allow non-geographical regional bodies so that those opposed to the ordination and marriage of gays can live in purity with their own kind? That is an issue this year.

The decline of the denomination is serious and so The Outlook sent a survey instrument to the 177 presbytery “executives.” (This is a title dating from the early ‘70's, when corporate management thinking ruled the church.) I sent this in response to The Outlook article:

The Outlook survey of EP's was a creative initiative. I remember telling an EP in the '70's that the rest of us needed his observations and analysis of what was happening because only he had the big picture from interactions with all the congregations. Even 54% of returns are better than nothing. I hope that you worked with Research Services, one of the great and unique assets of the PCUSA.

It seems that what many of us suspected is now more real: We will lose 7-11% of membership and congregations over gay rights issues. Let's get on with it. I remember in 1994 sitting in a meeting of denominational executives discussing leadership issues. These were experienced men and women from the Episcopal Church, the UCC, the UMC, the Disciples of Christ, the RCA, the ELCA, and the United Church of Canada. Lunchtime conversation was about how there ought to be a grand re-alignment to result in a progressive United Church of North America. I was very surprised to hear this from that group. Now more than ever it seems so obvious. Many have said that they have much more in common with like-minded persons from these other denominations than we do with some of our PCUSA brothers and sisters. 

We are burdened with our past. The issues that made us separate denominations are mostly just history. The great questions of the last 50 years have included the role of tradition in our lives, the degree of ambiguity we can accept, and the meaning of community in the digital age. How much diversity can we accept without losing whatever identity we begin with?  Some pastors and congregations are busy working this out. It means re-thinking who we are -- as seeking people rather than the ones with the answers who are all in agreement. As we speak more and more of “Spirit” we need to question our root belief in the supernatural. Our organizational structures and procedures are heavy burdens that distract us from these more basic questions.

None of us handles high levels of continual change well. Nor can we live without more change in response to the changes that are both around and in us. This contradiction may be resolved only by the God that a pastor friend suggests is or resides in our ability to experience transcendence and to come to new consciousness about the things that challenge us.

This last comment is in reference to last Sunday's sermon by John Shuck, my on-line pastor and friend. I think it is some of his most significant and profound writing. I will blog on this. He tells us how prayer might be of value when we are essentially talking to ourselves. “God” as our ability to bring the unconscious to consciousness.  Hmm. A touch of Jung there that seems timely. Perhaps our outlook is improving.

Friday, June 8, 2012

40 Years for the Record


This week marks 40 years since I was ordained to “Minister of Word and Sacrament” or “Teaching Elder” in the United Presbyterian Church in the USA, now known as the Presbyterian Church (USA). This is a review where I have been and some things I did since seminary. In another posting I will declare my overall success and maybe even on what a young person might do with his or her life now.

I could have been ordained in the church to which I was going after semnary. I chose to be ordained in the church that mentored me through seminary: Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church in Chicago. The pastor, a model for ministry to me, Bill Taylor, some of my seminary professors, and lay people important to me and Carol laid hands on me. Two years later Bill left ministry telling the Chicago Tribune “The church of the ‘70's is a betrayal of the church of the ‘60's.” Yeah. [Somewhere I have photos I took of the Sears now Willis Tower in '71-'72.] The ordination ceremony was a significant ritual to mark the beginning of a career. I have now made it to retirement, but the denomination began its decline in 1965. A major problem was that ministry as a career was coming to an end, even as I began it.

The first congregation I served (Don’t you just love the churchiness of such locutions?) was Zion Presbyterian Church in Ellsworth, Minnesota. Membership was 330 in a town of 588. Now the town is 463 and the church is 291, but this is after a neighboring church of about 200 members was closed and essentially merged into Zion. It was here I learned that I am not a country boy. Not a sophisticated place; I didn't expect that. Not an especially gracious place. I remember asking for an offering for flood relief in South Dakota. “They shouldn’t build where it floods. They should have had insurance.” Small and small town churches are great for training new ministers. I learned how to speak evangelical here. There was a good priest and some great sisters in Ellsworth. Their Bishop pulled them and sidelined them for being too progressive (They were fans of John XXIII.)
Then I became Assistant Pastor (an obsolete title, hired by pastor, not by church as current Associates are) at Glen Avon in Duluth. This was a large church (1,400 members, now 545, a good picture of mainline church decline). I was attracted because I was more and more interested in teaching and church school program development (which I did citywide), and I was attracted by the more experienced “senior” pastor. I soon found that there was little to learn from him, but I was not loyal, so I had to move on.

Trenton NJ was alien to a midwesterner like me. Eight years that felt like exile in some ways. Here was a church that claimed 400 members, only I couldn’t find half of them, so church decline was my fault. My beloved predecessor had married everyone in the community and asked them to join the church in exchange. Lots of conflict, so I got a D.Min. to learn about the church as an organization. I was much involved in social issues in Trenton. My thesis project resulted in an area urban ministry/ community organizing effort that still exists as the “urban mission cabinet.” Our housing ministry project created home ownership for working poor, our soup kitchen converted some of my church members to help rather than fear the homeless, and our peacemaking task force helped persuade the denomination to establish one. I think I did good work here but my conflict management prof said I was a masochist.

I decided administration was more congenial to me than the parish. I raised money (at least $4 million) for good things in Chicago and participated in what was thought to be high level church politics. After eight years of that I moved on to headquarters in Louisville to lead professional development programs. Here as elsewhere I did not think or act politically enough to make things work better for myself (and therefore for others). I think I was mostly being used in that position by people who wanted other things for themselves, but it was lots of fun until a certain GA moderator wanted a newspaper for which there was no money. Close four different offices including mine – Voila! Newspaper failed as predicted.

Having worked with presbytery execs (equivalent to bishops, or at least a suffragan bishop as administrator to the body of teaching and ruling elders that are the presbytery, but don’t say it too loudly) I now became one. Lots of respect was given to my positional authority. I learned how to be wise on occasion, e.g., visiting a congregation in great conflict, I listened and then said “You will get through this,” which was followed by gasps of relief. Expending hours with churches that said they wanted to merge, I then discovered that they had gone through this futile exercise every seven years. Sort of a parable about how no one really wants to change anything in churches.

Frustrated by the glacial pace of change in the church, I jumped at an opportunity to work outside or on the fringes of the church. I went to work with Bob Funk, founder and director of the Jesus Seminar. Wow, what a lot of wonderful scholars from around the world, and people in and about Santa Rosa, a special place (northern California). I raised money but the finances were going down because of embezzlement that I didn’t know about until a year later. Couldn’t find a job for Carol and couldn’t afford to live under the great housing boom (2002) so I returned to Illinois.

I discovered the larger church didn’t want me anymore, but finally a “larger parish” of 4 small congregations, two of which were UCC, wanted me as a co-pastor. I arrived in the most conservative county in Wisconsin and learned that the churches were in absolute denial about their finances. The co-pastor and I led them through a year-long planning process which led to our both leaving. I stayed half-time for about a year with the more sensible of the congregations.

Carol and I each found interim ministry positions on Long Island. This was desirable because our older daughter lived north of Albany and this brought us closer at a time when we were anticipating a grandchild. Good folks who spoke openly and had fun together at the congregation in Baldwin; not so much at the more conservative church Carol led. I found an interim position in Albany, we moved north to the Adirondacks and to retirement.

Family trumps church.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

40 Years Later


I was ordained at Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church, Chicago, in early June, 1972.

The ritual was performed at the right hour
and in the right way
by the right people
in the right vestments
and in accord with all the traditions.
Many people were in attendance
dressed in their finest
singing the best familiar and stirring hymns of glory
and all of this led them to feel that they
were in the presence of the transcendent divine.
The candidate was charged to be present to those he served
and to remember that he was a part of a wondrous history,
a new leader of the institution for its greater future
but most of all for a better world for all.
He knelt and hands of friends and mentors and teachers
were laid upon his head and shoulders.

All of this receded into the past
and many then present are now dead
and the body then celebrated is now a shadow
and the candidate is absent there
but now
celebrates daily
the turning of the earth,
the immensity and indifference of the cosmos
and life and creativity and serendipity and love
and music and art and a community of freethinkers.
The former ritual sought imagined favor and blessing
and authority
that was always ours to claim and to make and
to enjoy not forever but while we live.

(Note that before the sermon was on the blog I always preached when possible from the table as I learned at Lincoln Park.)

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Lies, Spies, and Damned Conspiracies


I majored in history as an undergraduate and learned very little. No professor delved into the massive changes that took place in the 19th century and how they contributed to our own. Or the sources of the American colonies’ struggle for independence and the roots of today’s racial problems in the U.S. I hope and suspect that such teaching is more focused today, even in public universities.

Today, a bit more from Umberto Eco. In The Prague Cemetery he revives the ancient political rules of political intrigue described so well by Machiavelli, employed so well by the European powers of the 19th century, and brought to a finer point in our own time. The quotes are from Eco:

“Tyranny, you understand, has been achieved thanks to universal suffrage. The scoundrels carry out authoritarian coups by appealing to the ignorant mob! This is a warning to us about the democracy of tomorrow.” I am glad that my freshman rhetoric graduate assistant, who made us read a wonderful essay on the tyranny of majorities.

“The secret service in each country believes only what it has already heard elsewhere and would discount as unreliable any information that is entirely new.” Intelligence agencies are both the subject and object of conspiracy theories.

“Socialists who seek to reform the human race, but without a revolution, are therefore scorned by communists and conservatives alike.” I studied Lenin and the 1917 Russian revolution in college, and now understand more clearly why he became so violent. He knew that if the Bosheviks didn’t eliminate their enemies, their enemies would eliminate them. I will blog later about the 1871 Paris Commune and its destruction, described by Eco so graphically that I nearly became ill. The issue here is about how to achieve needed change without violence.

“You don’t deal with spies by killing them but by passing them false information.” So many spy novels deal with this and the following: “No one working for the secret service must ever appear in a court of law. If this becomes likely, the agent will be the victim of an accident. His widow will have a proper pension.”

“What makes a police informer truly believable? Discovering a conspiracy. Therefore he (Simonini, the protaganist) had to organize a conspiracy so he could then uncover it.” This was the origin of the idea of the Jewish conspiracy. It is one thing for people to entertain falsehoods about each other and hate the other, but when nations adopt such hatred as policy by purchasing manufactured proof which they want to believe, we have “final solutions.”

An anarchist bomber says: “Why write a book and run the risk of prison when those who read books were already republicans by nature, and those who supported the dictator were illiterate peasants who’d been granted universal suffrage by the grace of God?”

To be believed, a conspiracy theory must not include all your suspicions: “You can never create danger that has a thousand different faces – danger has to have one face alone, otherwise people become distracted. If you want to expose the Jews, then talk about the Jews, not the Irish, the Neapolitan monarchy, Polish patriots and Russian nihilists. Too many irons in the fire. How can anyone be so chaotic?”

After a murder: “I realized that the most irritating aspect of a murder is hiding the body, and it must be for this reason that priests tell us not to kill, except of course in battle, where the bodies are left for the vultures.”

Eco wants us to know how language works and how words make our worlds.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Memorial Day Isn't Really Over.


Loss and grief go on. One of my very best friends died in Viet Nam. Doug Cain, July 14, 1968. He was in Nam about two weeks. He let his college deferment go. I never knew why. He was a poet and on the way to becoming perhaps a German scholar.

That is the context of what I have to say. This past weekend I heard many times about how we must thank veterans for winning the freedom I enjoy. No. Even many in the military now acknowledge that the wars they fight are mostly ill conceived and have nothing to do with our freedom. This means that a lot of soldiers have died or have been physically and emotionally wounded for bad politics.

The most patriotic thing we can do is criticize our government when we think it is wrong. That is a fundamental of democracies. We are responsible for what our country does or doesn’t do for its citizens and to other people around the world. Love of flag won’t substitute for that responsibility.

In 2006 I read in a newspaper “Young Marines in Iraq voice their frustrations over war.” One marine who joined after 9/11 said: “To be honest, I just wanted to take revenge.” He was honest. This is the reason we invaded Iraq. Revenge for 9/11 even though Saddam had nothing to do with it.

It is interesting that the first war in Afghanistan would have been tit for tat, for more than 3,000 Taliban and Al Quada were killed in that war from 2001 through 2003. That matches the nearly 3,000 who died on 9/11. [This says nothing about the possible 100,000-132,000 citizens of Iraq who died in our bombing and invasion. Here is what Wikileaks revealed about that. Here is more background.]

Walter Wink, the New Testament scholar who died recently, suggested in The Powers That Be that most Christians don’t believe the gospel taught by Jesus, but rather in “the myth of redemptive violence.” This is the idea that we can be redeemed, that everything can be set right, not by dying for others, but by killing others. In this dark and inverted gospel one achieves greatest glory by dying while killing others.

Any who were in Viet Nam will recognize these words, that were commonly engraved by soldiers, mostly draftees, on zippo lighters and scrawled on helmets:
We are the unwilling 
Led by the unqualified 
Doing the unnecessary 
For the ungrateful.
I suspect that these words have their origin in earlier wars.

Shortly after we invaded Iraq, I heard Walter Cronkite explain something that had long puzzled me:
‘Two forces drive war: National pride and human loss.  
The first starts wars.  The second sustains them.  
The first casualty creates an investment in blood 
that retreat would seem to dishonor.”

So as soon as there are casualties in a war, the soldiers and their families conclude that the war must be right because loved ones have died in it. After Doug’s death, his family would not speak to me or to his other friends who did not go. I think that we were to blame in their minds. The war had to have been right because Doug died there. We all should have gone and put ourselves in the danger that took him. When someone dies in war, it is difficult to accept that the fallen has died for stupid policies and decisions by politicians who spoke of domino theories, and by generals who were afraid that they would retire without having seen combat.

I have observed that the Viet Nam war still divides our nation after the 44 years since ‘68. It is like a scab that bleeds if we scratch it. Some still believe that it was a necessary war; we just didn’t have the will to win it. This must be so because we are incapable of losing a war. So we don’t talk about it, we just create new wars and defy others to deny their necessity and rightness. Worse, certain Republican candidates for President and past Presidents and Vice Presidents who dodged the draft (but didn’t oppose it) are excused because they support current and future use of military power to maintain American Empire. They are the official and phony patriots.

To all of this we must speak the truth and find ways to witness to it. Not to worry about future losses. From now on we will be using drones.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Not Healthy, Caring, nor a System

I just heard a great interview with Douglas Brinkley on his new book on Walter Cronkite. This reminded me of Cronkite's quip about our health care system: "It is neither healthy, caring, nor a system." Because this non-health care system must be reformed, I am alert to all of the local conservative media publishers who put down "Obamacare."

This week the Adirondack Journal included a "Viewpoint" by the publisher, Dan Alexander, who says the plan "runs counter to the basic principles of our free society." He is against any sort of government provided health care. He echoes the Chamber of Commerce, which is a fine organization as long as it promotes local business and stays out of ideological politics. So here is the letter I wrote:

To Dan Alexander
RE: Viewpoint May 26, 2012

I was disappointed in your viewpoint “Is Health Care Moving in the Right Direction?” You say that you would like to see affordable health care for all, but you question and criticize the only attempt to move towards this goal. I went to www.healthcare.gov and pretended to be a business in Lake George with 55 employees. I found more than 40 choices, some of which looked quite workable. I admit that it would take some work to analyze and compare these insurance plans.

In response to your concern about employer penalties, I found this National Council of State Legislators website that details the penalty scenarios. (I researched the NCSL and found that it is quite a respectable non-partisan lobby group. They don't accept money from corporations and alternate Democratic and Republican presidents.)

There is uncertainty for businesses and for individuals about AHCA because it is complex and doesn’t take full effect until 2014. Some parts have been implemented, some parts have already been changed, and I suspect there will be more changes before then. Why not give the Affordable Health Care Act of 2010 a chance?
We all need to be more informed about this issue. I highly recommend Fareed Zakaria’s CNN report,  "Health Insurance Is for Everyone,"and a related book, The Healing of America by T.R. Reid. These studies will change your mind about government provided health care and show a private based system like AHCA which has been operating for some years in Switzerland. My own view is that it is wrong to tie health insurance to employment since there will always be many people unemployed for many reasons. They need to be covered, too.

End of letter. Wish I could write better ones. Two more points: One, why do conservatives think so highly of the non-system that we currently have? It is objectively one of the worst in the world. Two, why is health care insurance so different from auto insurance? We are mandated to have it, and there is much competition, which should keep prices down and quality up. 

But it doesn't work that way because my insurance company (State Farm - and others) give money to ALEC (the very partisan American Legislative Exchange Council) which works behind closed doors in every state to lower the required insurance coverage for drivers. Their recommendations reduce it so much that in some states now it is not enough coverage! ALEC writes proposed legislation and gives it to state legislators to save them the work of governing. When you see states considering or passing crazy laws on immigration or abortion, it is the work of ALEC.

All of the competition for our auto insurance dollars must cost a lot in advertising. Finding out which auto insurer is better or best is very difficult. (Consumer Reports helps.) I am currently researching insurance companies so that I can dump State Farm, which hasn't responded to my emails or phone calls about their ties to ALEC. Here is the article in the Atlantic that exposed ALEC.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Humbert Humbert, or – the Origins of Hateful Conspiracy Theories


My Humbert is Umberto Eco. My older daughter is the devotee of Nabakov. My Humbert connection is valid because we cannot trust the narrator in Lolita. Eco is all about the untrustworthiness of narratives.

I admit that I often write about things I don’t understand, but it is possible that none of us fully understands what we say most of the time. Gibberish? No, semiotics. Umberto Eco is an Italian scholar of semiotics and gifted novelist. Semiotics is about signs and metaphors and ultimately, meaning. (That is a simple definition that probably shows my lack of understanding of the subject.) It isn't just that we create meaning, but we create history, too, both backwards and forwards.

In the U.S. we learned of Eco in 1980 with the book and film, The Name of the Rose. In this work we learned that understanding and indeed, the meaning of things, is illusory. Only the idea of the rose is lasting; the rose is ephemeral. My favorite moment in the book and film is the dispute between the Franciscan monks and the representatives of the Vatican about whether or not Jesus was poor. If he was poor, the Franciscans are his loyal followers and the Pope is faithless. If Jesus was rich, the wealth of the Vatican is justified and the Franciscans are fools. No wonder that the argument which takes place in a refectory ends in a food fight worthy of Animal House. This is much more fun than Richard Dawkins.

I think that Foucault’s Pendulum (1989) was very likely the inspiration for Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. Claims about the Knights Templar are fed into a computer and generate narratives that may be all too real. This book has been described as delightful albeit esoteric “brain candy.”

Finally, I have finished The Prague Cemetery. This is the last word on racism, ethnic hatred, and conspiracy theories. Here we have a narrator and the diary of a 19th century Italian lawyer who has a hidden second personna. We have his ruminations, too. Simonini, the lawyer, learns to hate Jews and Germans from his grandfather. Perhaps this is the origin of all such hatreds. One of the things we learn right away is that such hatred suffers great inconsistencies and contradictions. On one page the Jews are all sneaky, dirty petty thieves of the ghetto. On the next page they are rich and powerful and about to own the world. Henry Ford, Hitler, and Osama bin Laden believed all this. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and assorted nazis and skin heads still do.

Simonini learns early a low craft related to the law: he is a forger of documents. He can help you prove that something happened which others thought had not. Like a marriage or a business contract. He helps Garibaldi’s Italian revolution but quickly finds more money is to be made by working for the secret service. Lies and betrayals become his way of life. He needs to leave Italy and becomes a Parisian snitch for the police and the secret services of France, Germany, and Russia. Only he (and his other who can tell him what he chooses not to remember, like murders) can balance the needs of a triple agent and forge the writings that each country needs.

Simonini is the creation of Eco, but everything else is true. (I.e., the characters were real people and they did or said many of the things reported.) Eco has created the person who wrote The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (first published in Russia in 1905, and re-printed over and over again and again). This is the book that catapulted hatred of the Jews from the Dreyfus affair to Hitler and the Holocaust to contemporary Iran. It was created from a vast library of diverse writings from the 19th century which were plagiarized, copied, translated, altered, and re-written to prove that the Jews planned to take over the world. Along the way conspiracies involving Jesuits, Masonic orders, Marxists, spiritualists, anarchists, French and Italian royalists explain the French Revolution, the rise of Germany, and every major event and social disruption of that century and before. And all of it must be true because it comports with what we have heard or suspected before!

Eco introduced the last graphic novel by Will Eisner called The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. An equally serious but great way to get the origins of the Big Lie into the hands of young people and those who won’t likely read Eco. Eisner details how information hidden in Soviet files until the last decade explains the origin of the Protocols. By the way, the Jewish cemetery in Prague apparently was quite large, and someone imagined Jewish leaders meeting at night in the middle of the cemetery to plot their machinations. One version had Jesuits plotting there.