Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Feats of Clay

In February 2014 I posted an article about Cassius Clay / Mohammad Ali, who accomplished many outstanding feats. The famous boxer was the namesake of Cassius Marcellus Clay, a noted Kentucky politician and abolitionist. This article is about Henry Clay, the latter’s second cousin.
Henry Clay was born in Virginia 240 years ago, in April 1777, the son of a Baptist minister. Soon after being admitted to the Virginia Bar to practice law in 1797, he moved to Kentucky, where he soon became politically active.
In 1803 at the age of 26 Clay was elected to the Kentucky legislature. Three years later he was chosen to serve briefly in the U.S. Senate even though he was not legally old enough for that position. He was then elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1811—and was chosen to be Speaker of the House when he was only 35.
Several years later, Clay proposed the “Missouri Compromise,” which allowed Maine to become a state in 1820 and Missouri in 1821. Partly because of Clay’s part in Missouri statehood, a new county formed in 1822 was named Clay County. (That is the county where I have lived since 2005).
Henry Clay long sought to be President of the United States. He first ran for that office in 1824, but he lost to John Quincy Adams. There were four candidates that year, and Clay came in fourth, carrying only three states (including Missouri).
Eight years later Clay ran against incumbent Andrew Jackson—and again lost (badly) in a four-way race. But that time he came in second.
Clay strongly opposed the Jackson administration—and Jackson himself, referring to him derisively as “King Andrew.” That opposition led to the formation of the Whig Party in 1834, and Clay was its primary leader until his death in 1852.
In 1840 the Whigs elected their first President, William Henry Harrison—who died just 31 days after his inauguration. The Whigs chose not to support Harrison’s successor, John Tyler, so Clay became a candidate for President a third time—and lost (to James Polk) for a third time. 
While he never became President—and in 1840 he famously said, “I’d rather be right than President”—Clay had considerable influence as a Representative and then as a Senator. In 2000 the Senate adopted a resolution naming the seven greatest senators of all time. Clay was one of those seven.
Clay also had considerable influence on Abraham Lincoln, a young member of the Whig Party. “Honest Abe” joined that Party in the year of its formation and was a Whig during his years in the Illinois legislature, 1834-41.
When Clay died in 1852, Lincoln delivered a eulogy at his funeral. After Lincoln became President, he continued to praise Clay and to quote from his speeches.
Sam Graves is the current U.S. Representative for much of north Missouri, including most of Clay County. In his March 20 “e-newsletter,” Rep. Graves wrote, “On March 20, 1854, a group of former Whig Party loyalists came together . . . to replace the failing Whig Party—plotting a new path forward during a perilous and uncertain time in American history.”
Then he went on to write, “What emerged from that meeting was the modern-day Republican Party.”
Rep. Graves’s first statement is historically accurate. His second assertion is very questionable. The primary political positions of Clay and Lincoln, the first Republican President, were certainly not the same as held by today’s Republican Party.
Rep. Graves needs to learn more about the feats, and political ideas/ideals, of Henry Clay.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Resurrection and Fake News

Last month Christianity Today published “The Resurrection: Good News vs Fake News (An Easter Sermon Idea).” That article is by Karl Vaters, the pastor of an Assembly of God church in the suburbs of Los Angeles. It would be interesting to know how many Easter sermons will use his central idea—as I am in this blog article.
In the past few months we have heard much about “fake news.” But the fake news phenomenon has been around for a long time. In fact, Wikipedia’s article says, “Significant fake news stories can be traced back to Octavian's 1st-century campaign of misinformation against Mark Antony.
Vaters sees evidence of fake news long before that, though. He avers that fake news was “how the serpent tempted Eve. By taking what God really said and twisting it just enough to make her doubt reality.”
Propaganda is a common type of fake news that has been around for centuries, and it has been widely used in religious squabbles, in politics, and especially in times of war. As I quoted in my 7/25/16 blog article, “The first casualty when war comes is truth.”
To quote Vaters again, “The first challenge to the gospel wasn’t an alternative idea, a better philosophy or the refutation of an argument.” No, “The first challenge to the truth of the gospel was the planting of fake news to compete with the real news.”
As Vaters points out, according to Matthew the Roman soldiers who had been guarding Jesus’ tomb were bribed to spread a fake news story. (If you need to review that story in Matthew 28:11-15, you can find it here.)
There are many today who do not believe in the Resurrection of Jesus. That is not surprising if (a) one does not believe in a transcendent God (who is also immanent) or (b) one does not believe that there is any reality beyond the material world, which can be fully analyzed by science.
Such people must find some way to dismiss the claims of all those who believe the good news about the Resurrection. So whether they use those words or not, they reject the reports about the reality of the Resurrection as just fake news.
There are, however, no reports that have been longer lasting or of greater significance than those of the Resurrection. It has been believed by hundreds of millions of people around the world for nearly two millennia now.
Even during the heyday of atheistic Marxism in the Soviet Union, strong belief in the Resurrection remained in the hearts of multitudes of primarily Eastern Orthodox Christian believers there. As was true before and since, on Easter morning someone would call out,
Христо́с воскре́се! (Christ is risen!)
And the people within earshot would respond,
Вои́стину воскре́се! (He is risen indeed!) 
One of my favorite musical compositions is "Russian Easter Overture." It was composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) in 1888, nearly three decades before the Bolshevik Revolution. It expresses well the power of the ongoing Russian Orthodox belief in the Resurrection.
I encourage all of you to listen tomorrow (or anytime) to this magnificent 15-minute piece as performed by the Mariinsky Orchestra, one of the leading symphony orchestras in Russia, on YouTube here or here as conducted by Dmitri Kitayenko (b. 1940 in Leningrad).
Listening to that moving music reinforces my belief that the Resurrection is real! It is the reports denying that pivotal point in history that is fake news.

Happy Easter!

Monday, April 10, 2017

A "Syrious" Matter

Since last Thursday evening (U.S. time) the news media has focused on the U.S. military strike against an airbase in Syria and the aftermath of that decisive action authorized by President Trump. Without question, this is a very serious (“Syrious”) matter that deserves careful consideration.
As you know, at approximately 8:40 p.m. EDT (3:40 a.m. the next day in Syria) the U.S. launched 59 Tomahawk missiles on the Shayrat Air Base in western Syria.  
Pres. Trump ostensibly ordered the surprise strike in direct response to the chemical weapons attack in Idlib on April 4. That horrific attack apparently by the Assad regime killed around 80 people, about half of whom were women and children.
This month’s lethal gas attack in Syria, though, was on a far smaller scale than that of August 2013 when approximately 1,400 Syrians were killed by a similar attack.
Many politicians, mostly Republicans but some Democrats as well, were quite critical of President Obama for not taking action against the Assad regime following that 2013 attack. Of course, he did seek to get congressional approval for military action against Syria then, but Congress refused to act.
After his administration’s sputtering for its first 75 days, the current President may well have wanted to do something that would bolster his approval ratings and draw praise from the crowd who regularly referred to Obama as a feckless President.
Whether that was DJT’s intention or not, he seems to have reaped those benefits. Two of his Republican critics, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have praised his action. And he even garnered positive comments from Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.
There are, however, numerous troublesome questions, the greatest of which is, Will this escalate into a broader, more serious war—even into World War III? Because of that ongoing possibility, I, for one, was relieved that Pres. Obama did not initiate military action against Syria in 2013.
Here are some other questions raised by the DJT’s April 6 action.
1) Was this just a symbolic strike? The very next day Syrian airplanes were able to use the Shayrat runways for takeoffs. If it was just symbolic, what real benefit did it have?
2) What was gained by using 59 missiles that would cost an estimated $60,000,000 to replace at a time the President’s budget calls for cuts in foreign aid and at a time tens of thousands are in danger of dying from starvation in Africa? Does the President need to see some pictures of those dying children?
3) What does it mean for the President to say that he was acting out of sympathy for children killed in Syria when he has proposed not accepting refugees from Syria into the U.S.?
4) What does it mean for the U.S. to be now on the same side as ISIS in Syria?
5) And this is a major question: Was it legal/constitutional for the President to order the strike?
At this point, less than four days after the April 6 attack, the world will just have to wait and see what the short- and long-term consequences of that attack will be. There are too many unknown variables to make any predictions at this time.
The main thing we don’t know is whether there will be further military action by the U.S. If not, perhaps the negative consequences will be negligible.
But if there are further unilateral strikes launched by the U.S., or retaliatory attacks by Syria—or especially by Russia—there will doubtlessly be many dark days ahead.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Woman in the House

Currently, there are 83 women who serve in the United States House of Representatives. That is 19.1% of the 435 House members, and about 3/4 of those 83 are Democrats. There have not always been women in the House, however.
Jeannette Rankin of Montana was the first female to serve in the U.S. Congress. In fact, it was 100 years ago this week that she became the first woman in the House.
Rankin was born in 1880 in Montana Territory, nine years before it became a state. In 1914, women’s suffrage was passed in both Montana and Nevada. They thus became the tenth and eleventh states to give women the right to vote.
Rankin had joined the suffrage movement in 1910 when she was working in an orphanage in Seattle. Partly because of her efforts, Washington voted for women’s suffrage in November of that year. 

Rankin then moved back to Montana, and in February 1911 she made her case for women's suffrage before the Montana legislature. That was the first time a woman had spoken to that body. It took until November of 1914, but then Montana also decided to allow women to vote.
Rankin decided to run in 1916 as a Republican for one of the two U.S. House of Representatives seats from Montana—and she won! In her first time to vote she voted for herself.
Rankin was introduced in Congress as its first female member on April 2, 1917.
On the very day she took office, Pres. Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress and urged a declaration of war against Germany, and on April 6 the vote went to the House.
Rankin was one of 50 representatives who voted against the American declaration of war—and she became the one most criticized for her negative vote.
Knowing she had little chance of being re-elected to the House, in 1918 Rankin ran for the Senate. However, she was unsuccessful. She was then no longer a member of Congress until her election in 1940 to serve once more as a Representative from Montana.
Soon, on Dec. 8, 1941, Congress voted once again on another declaration of war. Also, once again, Rankin voted against going to war—and this time she was the only one to cast a dissenting vote.
She was also once again widely maligned for voting against war. Here was the headline in one newspaper: 

Rankin, however, was consistently against war during her long lifetime.
In 1967, at the age of 87 and sixty years after first taking a seat in Congress, she organized the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, an organization that publicly protested against the Vietnam War.
Rankin died in 1973 at the age of 93.
The nation has moved considerably toward women’s equality since 1917—but many would argue not nearly far enough. Perhaps more women would mean a more peaceful country and a more peaceful world.
Not all women are against war the way Jeannette Rankin was. Still, there may be great truth in these words she spoke in 1925:
The work of educating the world for peace is a woman’s job, because men are afraid of being classed as cowards.
Maybe we should also agree with this statement: 

However, not all women are the same. I am not impressed by, nor a supporter of, the two women among the current eight U.S. Representatives from Missouri.
The women I want in Congress are people like Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who has served in the House since 1998--and like Jeannette Rankin, the first woman in the House.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Tearing Down / Building Up

To quote Mortimer Snerd (whom a few of you may remember), “Who'd a thunk it?” Last Friday the bill to repeal and replace “Obamacare” was pulled from the House floor. Thus, the ACA is still the law of the land “for the foreseeable future,” according to Speaker Paul Ryan.

For seven years the Republicans have been opposed to the ACA. The U.S. House of Representatives has voted to repeal or amend ACA more than 50 times since it was passed in October 2009.

As Time reported last week, “Republicans took control of the House in 2011, and on January 19 of that year they voted on, and passed, a measure to repeal all of the Affordable Care Act. (It was never considered by the Senate).”

Before and since his election, Pres. Trump has publicly promised at least 68 times that he would lead in repealing and replacing Obamacare. Here is what he tweeted on Feb. 14: “Obamacare continues to fail. . . . Will repeal, replace & save healthcare for ALL Americans.”

(Those 68 statements can be found at this website.)

There is a big difference, however, between tearing something down and building something to take its place.

In thinking about the failure of the American Health Care Act, I was reminded of an anonymous poem that I first heard 60 or so years ago (in spite of a woman claiming on the Internet that her grandfather wrote it in 1967). 

The Republicans found out that it is much easier to repeal (tear down) the current healthcare system that to replace it by building a new healthcare program. Wrecking is much easier than building.

So, where does national healthcare go from here?

The current impasse could be overcome and a new and approved healthcare system could be implemented in this way:

First, Democrats would agree to call an improved healthcare system by the name of the Republican bill that was never voted on: the American Health Care Act. It would no longer be called Obamacare—just as it should probably never have been called that in the first place.

Then, the Republicans would agree to work with the Democrats in improving (building up what is already in place) the parts of ACA which are not working well: making it more affordable for everyone, giving people more choice, continuing to expand the program to cover all Americans, and so on.

Senate Minority Leader Schumer has already indicated willingness to cooperate in the hard work of building a better system. He is reported as saying, “If they [the Republicans] would denounce repeal . . . then we’ll work with them on improving it and making it better.”

Bipartisan efforts to build a better healthcare system is, doubtlessly, what the vast majority of the American people want—although it would still be opposed by those on the far right.

The latter would, also doubtlessly, continue to oppose having the federal government directly involved in healthcare, having equal or greater demand for taxes to pay for the continued (or expanded) program, and of not having tax breaks for the wealthy.

Constantly opposing any plan to tear down the current system and thus deprive millions of people from healthcare coverage, citizens who are concerned about all the people in our nation must demand that Congress build up (repair) the current healthcare system so it is better for all.
For those of you who may be interested, here is the rest of the poem cited above: 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Beethoven’s Immortally Beloved Music

As has been widely reported, rock and roll singer Chuck Berry died last week at the age of 90. One of his best-known hits was “Roll Over, Beethoven” (1956). This article, though, is about Beethoven.
Born in Bonn, Germany, in 1770, Beethoven died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. Knowing that the 190th anniversary of Beethoven’s death was coming up, the other day June and I watched (for at least the third time) the intriguing 1994 film “Immortal Beloved.” 

Statue of Beethoven
in Bonn, Germany
The movie is based on historical facts. In 1812 Beethoven wrote a passionate letter to a woman he called his “Immortal Beloved.” The letter was found after Beethoven’s death.
Numerous women amongst his students and friends have been proposed as the recipient of that missive. As the website says, however, “Unless a new document is discovered it is likely that the truth about this mysterious woman will remain unknown.”
There seems to be no historian who thinks that Beethoven’s “immortal beloved” could possibly the one identified as such in the movie—and yet it is a great movie, largely because of Beethoven’s wonderful music heard throughout it.
It is a sad movie, however, and Beethoven, who never married, is presented as an unhappy, lonely man—mainly, perhaps, because he suffered from unrequited love.
The life of the great composer was also extremely sad because he began to lose his hearing in the late 1790s, and from 1817 or so was completely deaf.
What could be worse than for a musician and composer to lose his hearing?
Because of the way that hearing loss, and the effects of that loss, are so poignantly portrayed, I continue to be impressed with the movie “Immortal Beloved.”
In one scene, Beethoven is conducting an orchestra playing one of his compositions. We hear the wonderful music—and then the scene shifts to what he hears: only unpleasant static.
What a tragic state of affairs!
Beethoven’s first symphony was performed in 1800, after he had begun to lose his hearing. His ninth symphony, one of the greatest musical compositions of all time, was completed in 1824, long after he had lost his hearing completely.
Not far from the end of “Immortal Beloved” comes one of my all-time favorite movie scenes. In a flashback, young Ludwig is running away from his abusive father, and that scene is accompanied by the delightful music of his ninth symphony.
The music continues to a climax with him floating on his back in a lake, looking up at the spectacular starry sky. (See the YouTube video of that scene here.) He had escaped, at least temporarily, from his unhappy environment and was there in complete peace, at one with the universe.
The implication is that at least some of Beethoven’s ninth symphony was the marvelous music he had heard in his head for more than forty years.
The fourth movement of that “Choral” symphony was an appropriate setting for the singing of Shiller’s “Ode to Joy,” which later morphed into one of my very favorite hymns, “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee," a hymn text written by Henry van Dyke in 1907.
As biographer John Suchet wrote in the last paragraph of his book Beethoven: The Man Revealed (2012), “Beethoven’s music will, quite simply, endure for ever and all time.”
Beethoven was not a religious man such as Bach and Handel were, but by God’s grace he wrote “divine” music. And while we may not know who his “beloved immortal” was, we know he wrote immortal, beloved music.

Beethoven doesn’t have to roll over for anyone!

Monday, March 20, 2017

"Was Blind, But Now I See"

Tomorrow, March 21, was a tremendously important day for John Newton, a man who experienced both disgrace and amazing grace.
John Newton was born in London in July 1725. He had good start in life with a godly mother, but she died when he was six. At the age of 11 he made his first of five sea voyages with his father, a respected sea captain. When John was still 18, he was “press-ganged” into the Royal Navy—and things went from bad to worse.
Later exchanged from his warship to a slave ship, Newton wrote that during that time he was “exceedingly vile.” According to a biographer, he became such “an aggressive atheist and blasphemer that even his shipmates were shocked by his oaths.”
Clearly, by the age of 22 John Newton was a disgrace.
On March 21, 1747 (or 1748; because of a change in the calendar in 1752, both dates are found), the ship Newton was sailing on was damaged by such a strong storm he thought he was going to perish. In his anguish he cried out to God for help—and he was saved from drowning in the stormy sea.
That experience was the beginning of Newton’s religious conversion, which continued to develop over the next many years. In spite of what we would like to think about people who are converted, Newton continued on as a slaver for the next six years.
In fact, it was many years later that he began to oppose slavery.
After meeting and being very positively influenced by George Whitefield and John Wesley, perhaps the two most outstanding Christian preachers in 18th century England, Newton (at the age of 33) felt a call to the ministry in 1758.
After several rejections, in 1764 Newton was finally ordained as a priest in the Church of England. He served the Church of St. Paul and St. Peter in Olney from then until 1780 and then was rector of a church in London until his death.
In preparation for his New Year’s sermon for 1773, Newton wrote the words for “Amazing Grace” with the autobiographical words, “I once was lost, but now am found / Was blind, but now I see.” 
It was still more than a decade, though, before he clearly saw the sinfulness of slavery and began to oppose it.
About that time, in 1885, he met with William Wilberforce, who was 34 years his junior, and encouraged him to remain in the British Parliament and to oppose slavery there—which he did.
Partly because of Newton’s being a mentor to Wilberforce, the 2006 movie about the latter’s indefatigable efforts to abolish slavery in Great Britain is titled “Amazing Grace.”
Finally in 1788 Newton published his highly influential pamphlet Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade.
After Newton’s death in 1807, the following epitaph was engraved on his tombstone:

At the very end of his fine biographical book John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace (2007), Jonathan Aitken concludes that Newton’s self-description “clearly demonstrated the depth of John Newton’s gratitude to God for rescuing him from disgrace and redeeming him with amazing grace” (p. 350).

It took many years for Newton to overcome his blindness to the evils of slavery and to see the humanity of every human being. So maybe there is hope for all of us who still have blind spots. Maybe there are issues about which we, too, will someday be able to say with John Newton, I once “was blind, but now I see."