Friday, May 30, 2008

But do we hear it?...

I can't believe I haven't posted on here for three weeks. It kind of indicates a spiritual slump I've been in, for a while. But this has been on my mind for a while, and it just kind of kicked me to write about it. We start with a wee bit o' familiar Scripture...

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." (John 3:16-17, NIV)

John 3:16. Yeah, that verse.

We see it all the time, don't we? People at football games hold up "JOHN 3:16" posters so national TV will see it. You see it in the most unbelievable places (I'm including a few images for fun...). And I'll bet at least a half-dozen people reading this will read the first 4 words, think, "Oh, yeah, John 3:16," and skip right over the words. Yeah, we know it.

But do we hear it? Do we really take the time and the care to HEAR these words, and believe that they apply to US, today?

There is an idea in Christianity (and has been, for a while, actually) that we are unlovable by God, except through Jesus Christ. That without Christ, we are unbearable to God in our sinfulness. That the only way God can bear to see us is "clothed in Christ." Sad to say, I've heard an awful lot of preaching done on that very theme - even by some Lutheran pastors, who ought to know better.

But look at the first five words of that first verse, will you?...

God loved the world. AND, please note, God loved the world BEFORE he sent Jesus to it. It is, in fact, because of God's love for the world that God SENT Jesus to save it. In fact, throughout the Bible are messages that God loves the world. We are "fearfully (awesomely) and wonderfully made."

Now if you're at all like me, there is a tiny voice inside the back of your head that says, "Yeah, that may be true for them, but not for me..."

Yes, even for you. And me.

A wise friend of mine used to say, "Look around carefully, and realize that God's grace is available to everyone in the room..." And that made perfect sense to me. Of course, I'd heard that a thousand times.

And then he'd pause a bit and say, "...and like it or not - believe it or not - YOU are IN THE ROOM...."

I'm not sure what's crazier - that God loves us all with an unending love, despite our best efforts to deny it - or that we continue to struggle with accepting that love.

Thank you, God of mercy, for the gift of your love today. Help me, and each of us, to hear it, and believe it, today. Amen.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Time for a dose of rigorous honesty...

For years, I have felt increasingly out of touch with American culture, even as I have felt guilty about being infected by it, to some degree. It started with the wrench in values that said that you weren't having fun going to the prom unless you arrived in a $160-an-hour limousine. It spread to the concept that killing a human being in high-school to steal their Starter jacket or designer sneakers somehow became acceptable. (We won't even talk about the acceptability of $175 tennis shoes...)

It accelerated when we bought the lie that "we are what we drive" - so it made perfect sense for a four-foot-ten woman who weighed 96 pounds to be driving a Chevy Suburban to work - alone - "because it makes me feel safe." Or that somehow Hummers and Expeditions and Land Rovers (not to mention Ram or F150 pickups with enough horsepower to pull a hundred-year-old tree-stump out of the ground) were suddenly de rigueur for the commute through the wilderness of our downtown parking garages...

And suddenly you couldn't be caught dead buying a house without a Corian kitchen countertop. And then, in no time at all, anyone who "settled" for Corian instead of marble or granite may just as well have stuck down self-adhesive carpet tiles in the foyer, too. The idea of a $50,000 SUV parked in front of a $400,000 house with a $60,000 kitchen seemed, well, completely acceptable to some folks...

But I was absolutely astonished - hell, beyond astonished - to hear the May 6th announcement that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were providing special mortgage availability for what they called "jumbo mortgages ... for people who wanted to obtain mortgages up to $729,000!!

When the hell did it become necessary to ensure that people could get government help to buy a three-quarter-million dollar house??

I realize that I and my family, however, are also part of the problem. I myself labor under the weight of stupid, stupid consumer debt. My sister and brother-in-law were sold a mortgage they could just barely support, long-term. They were encouraged to take an adjustable-rate mortgage, even though the initial payment was at the absolute outside edge of what they could afford - let alone any rate adjustment in 2-1/2 years. Common sense would have said they couldn't do it - but everyone else was, and "it'll all work out..."

Then my sister got injured, and her cost-conscious employer ushered her out de' do' - saying goodbye to 18 years of service and the income they desperately needed to stay afloat, not to mention her very affordable health-care benefits. Now their monthly drug co-pays are just as much as their car payment - if not more - and my sister's replacement job only pays 2/3 what her old job did. Gas has gone up 50% in two years... and people are wondering why we in middle America are in trouble?

I'm tired of a war that should never have started, taking lives and draining resources from a country that so desperately needs to be building infrastructure of our own, not blowing up others'. I'm sick to death of the daily butcher's bill; of personal liberties and rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights being trampled in the name of "national security." Such a damn waste...

I'm tired of the majority of Republicans chanting about the "defense of marriage" against those scheming homosexuals and their "agenda" - when the people who are helping to destroy marriage are the straight white Christians who can't stay married, not the gays who would choose to be married if they could. And I'm even more tired of everyone pointing at that one issue as the primary reason for the "downfall of America" - when in fact the fault is laying at the feet of almost every single person who is pointing the finger...

One person, I think, is closer to the truth than others.

Thomas Friedman's editorial in the online New York Times on May 4th addresses an awful lot of the hows, and whys, of our current political and economic mess. He captures much of what I've been feeling for years - and just so the NYT doesn't archive this piece of wisdom, I include the text of it here, with all due credit to Friedman and the Times.

Who Will Tell the People?
By Thomas L. Friedman
published May 4th in the online New York Times

Traveling the country these past five months while writing a book, I’ve had my own opportunity to take the pulse, far from the campaign crowds. My own totally unscientific polling has left me feeling that if there is one overwhelming hunger in our country today it’s this: People want to do nation-building. They really do. But they want to do nation-building in America.

They are not only tired of nation-building in Iraq and in Afghanistan, with so little to show for it. They sense something deeper — that we’re just not that strong anymore. We’re borrowing money to shore up our banks from city-states called Dubai and Singapore. Our generals regularly tell us that Iran is subverting our efforts in Iraq, but they do nothing about it because we have no leverage — as long as our forces are pinned down in Baghdad and our economy is pinned to Middle East oil.

Our president’s latest energy initiative was to go to Saudi Arabia and beg King Abdullah to give us a little relief on gasoline prices. I guess there was some justice in that. When you, the president, after 9/11, tell the country to go shopping instead of buckling down to break our addiction to oil, it ends with you, the president, shopping the world for discount gasoline.

We are not as powerful as we used to be because over the past three decades, the Asian values of our parents’ generation — work hard, study, save, invest, live within your means — have given way to sub-prime values: "You can have the American dream — a house — with no money down and no payments for two years."

That’s why Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous defense of why he did not originally send more troops to Iraq is the mantra of our times: "You go to war with the army you have." Hey, you march into the future with the country you have — not the one that you need, not the one you want, not the best you could have.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I flew from New York’s Kennedy Airport to Singapore. In J.F.K.’s waiting lounge we could barely find a place to sit. Eighteen hours later, we landed at Singapore’s ultramodern airport, with free Internet portals and children’s play zones throughout. We felt, as we have before, like we had just flown from the Flintstones to the Jetsons. If all Americans could compare Berlin’s luxurious central train station today with the grimy, decrepit Penn Station in New York City, they would swear we were the ones who lost World War II.

How could this be? We are a great power. How could we be borrowing money from Singapore? Maybe it’s because Singapore is investing billions of dollars, from its own savings, into infrastructure and scientific research to attract the world’s best talent — including Americans.

And us? Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, just told a Senate hearing that cutbacks in government research funds were resulting in “downsized labs, layoffs of post-docs, slipping morale and more conservative science that shies away from the big research questions.” Today, she added, “China, India, Singapore ... have adopted biomedical research and the building of biotechnology clusters as national goals. Suddenly, those who train in America have significant options elsewhere.”

Much nonsense has been written about how Hillary Clinton is “toughening up” Barack Obama so he’ll be tough enough to withstand Republican attacks. Sorry, we don’t need a president who is tough enough to withstand the lies of his opponents. We need a president who is tough enough to tell the truth to the American people. Any one of the candidates can answer the Red Phone at 3 a.m. in the White House bedroom. I’m voting for the one who can talk straight to the American people on national TV — at 8 p.m. — from the White House East Room.

Who will tell the people? We are not who we think we are. We are living on borrowed time and borrowed dimes. We still have all the potential for greatness, but only if we get back to work on our country.

I don’t know if Barack Obama can lead that, but the notion that the idealism he has inspired in so many young people doesn’t matter is dead wrong. “Of course, hope alone is not enough,” says Tim Shriver, chairman of Special Olympics, “but it’s not trivial. It’s not trivial to inspire people to want to get up and do something with someone else.”

It is especially not trivial now, because millions of Americans are dying to be enlisted — enlisted to fix education, enlisted to research renewable energy, enlisted to repair our infrastructure, enlisted to help others. Look at the kids lining up to join Teach for America. They want our country to matter again. They want it to be about building wealth and dignity — big profits and big purposes. When we just do one, we are less than the sum of our parts. When we do both, said Shriver, “no one can touch us.”

Friday, May 02, 2008

Hold on, indeed

I saw it first on Erin's blog. Then I followed the link to Patchouli's. Both postings crushed my soul, it seems.

Suicide. Not one, but two.

Each time I hear of someone who has taken their own life, I am swept back to April 8, 1990. Palm Sunday. I'd spent the night advising a youth-group overnighter, and got the call from my then-wife that my dear friend Skip Bevens was missing.

And then, when I got home, I got the call that he'd been found.

I vaguely remember the rest. How it seemed impossible to even imagine. How it seemed that the phone suddenly weighed a thousand pounds. Going downtown, to what was then the Toledo Safety Building. The numbness. How everything just went gray, at least in my mind. I remember the memorial service, when the family who had rejected him were wondering why he would do this. I remember the priest trying to talk about mental illness, and part of my mind denying that my friend was "crazy" and hoping at the same time that he was - that this was not some conscious act of saying "Screw you!" to the world. To his friends and loved ones.

To me.

I remembered how we had parted, a week and a half earlier. It had not been a happy encounter; in retrospect, it looked like the straw that broke the camel's back. All I knew was that everyone - everyone - had gotten a suicide letter. Everyone, that is, except me.

In this wave of emotional recollection, I have to share with you the wise words of my friend Erin. These are the words I wish I had written:

Today is the day to check in with those you know. Do you know someone who just hasn't been themselves lately? Call them. Go out for coffee. Be ready to listen. Has someone just dropped out of the picture? Find them. Today is the 30th of the month, and thousands face foreclosure of their homes tomorrow. Is someone you know facing homelessness? Invite them home. If you are afraid that someone you know might harm themselves, make a call to get them help.

Pray. Listen. If God brings someone to your mind and heart, make a call. If you can't reach them, call again. And again.

If you are reading this, and you have been thinking of taking your life, hold on. Call someone. Email me. Just hold on.

Amen, and amen, Erin. You preach it, sister.