Thursday, December 31, 2015

Happy New Year of the Monkey

In Japan, New Year’s greetings are never made before January 1, so I am sending this on the morning of New Year’s Eve in the U.S.—but after the New Year has already begun in Japan.
As is common in this country, I am wishing you all a Happy New Year a day before the new year actually begins, and I pray for your health and happiness throughout 2016.
In the countries of East Asia, including Japan, 2016 is the Year of the Monkey. There is a 12 year cycle in the Asian zodiac, and today ends the Year of the Sheep.
(Of course, the Chinese new year, celebrated not only in China but in other Asian countries with strong Chinese influence, doesn’t begin until February 8—and it will be known as the year of the Fire Monkey.)
If you were born in 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, or 1980, the coming year is a special one for you—or would be if you lived in East Asia—for it will be your ataridoshi, or lucky year, the year with the same zodiac animal in which you were born.

Those born in the Year of the Monkey are said to be “clever and skillful in grand-scale operations and are smart when making financial deals. They are inventive, original and are able to solve the most difficult problems with ease.”
Or according to another website, “Charming, charismatic and extremely inventive, Monkey people are most noted for their intelligence and clever genius in working out difficult problems for themselves and others.” (There are some negative characteristics also, but I will let you look those up for yourself.)
In this country, of course, it is often an insult to call someone a monkey. Sometimes it is even a racial slur. Just last week the Washington Post published, and then had to pull, a cartoon of Sen. Ted Cruz dressed like an organ grinder in a Santa suit with two monkeys on leashes.
Cruz charged that the cartoon was making fun of his two daughters. Actually, Pulitzer prize-winner Ann Telnaes was making reference to Cruz using his daughters in a political ad that began airing early last week.
In that new campaign ad he is reading “timeless Christmas classics” to his two daughters—classics such as “How ObamaCare Stole Christmas” and “The Grinch Who Lost Her Emails.”
Cruz’s daughter Caroline, 7, loudly reads the following line from the latter: “I know just what I’ll do, I’ll use my own server, and no one will be the wiser!”
It was Cruz using his children for his personal gain—like an organ grinder using dancing monkeys—that Telnaes was depicting. Cruz and other Republicans took it that she was ridiculing Cruz’s children by making them monkeys.
The outcry worked, and the newspaper removed the cartoon in question. But Cruz will likely continue using the ad with his daughter criticizing Hillary Clinton over something that his daughters don’t understand at all.
In East Asia, though, there is no stigma for being born in the year of the Monkey—or the year of the Rat, as were two of my children. There are good and bad characteristics for all twelve of the animals that are signs for each year of the cycle.
So, if you were born in the year of the Monkey, enjoy your special year. And, regardless of the year in which you were born, I do pray that 2016 will be a good one for you.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Clothes for the New Year

Yesterday I had the privilege of preaching at St. Luke’s United Church of Christ in Independence, Mo., less than a 15-minute walk from the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum.

 St. Luke’s was founded in 1878 as the German Evangelical St. Lucas Church, and services were conducted in German until the First World War. There was a name change in 1934 and then the current name was chosen when the UCC was formed in 1957.

 St. Luke’s moved into their current church building in early 1960s, and the sanctuary is very attractive. June and I enjoyed worshipping there yesterday, the last Sunday of the year.
Following the lectionary, which I never did during all the years I was a (part-time) pastor, the text for my sermon was Colossians 3:12-17. That passage includes these words (in the NIV):
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
The items of clothing mentioned first are rather straightforward and perhaps need little explanation. It doesn’t take much reflection to understand the meaning of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.
Of course putting all those virtues into practice is a different matter.

The most important garment to put on, of course, is love. And in spite of the widespread use of that term, it is the most difficult to understand adequately and to put into practice.

 Jesus reportedly said that the second greatest commandment is “Love your neighbor as yourself(Matthew 22:39, citing Leviticus 19:18). Earlier, Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, “Love your enemies(5:44).

 But who of us really loves our neighbors as much as we love ourselves, let alone our enemies!

 And, as you have heard emphasized often, as Jesus talked about it love is not primarily a feeling; rather, it is an action. We love others not by what we feel or say but by what we do for them.

 In a very provocative statement, Shane Claiborne is reported to have said, “When we truly discover how to love our neighbor as our self, capitalism will not be possible and Marxism will not be necessary.”

 He may well be right.

 Accordingly, in these days after Christmas, it is fitting to reflect again on the wonderful words of Howard Thurman. (This was the heart of my blog article for Dec. 26, 2011.)

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

(As you may or may not know, Thurman, 1899-1981, was one of the most prominent African-American ministers in the U.S. in middle half of the 20th century; he was a classmate of Martin Luther King, Sr., and a mentor of MLK, Jr.)
Why this emphasis on what we should put on and wear in the new year? To answer that question as succinctly as possible: because it is good for you, it is good for others, and it pleases  God.

How can you beat that?

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Poor and Christmas

It goes without saying that Christmas is the most widely, and most elaborately, celebrated holiday of the year. Many of you are right now making final feverish attempts to get ready for Christmas. (In fact, my guess is that because of the bustle of the season, some of you won’t see this until after Christmas.)
It also goes without saying that Christmas is very highly commercialized. If fact, the strength of the national economy is indicated by, as well as influenced by, the amount of spending at Christmas.
A poll taken a month ago indicated that shoppers around the country were planning to spend an average of $882 for gifts this holiday season. That was a significant increase from the $431 in 2009 when the economy was so bad, but still somewhat below the record of $1,052 in 2001.
 (I wonder why it was so high then, just after the 9/11 attacks.)
With all of this spending, Christmas is a hard time for those who are poor. I feel sorry for parents, especially single moms, who have children at home. Because of peer pressure and constant advertising on television, most children seem to want, and expect, an awfully lot for Christmas.

I was amazed by some of the letters to Santa I saw in my hometown newspaper. Some asked for so much it would cost the average amount of $882 just to give them all they wanted.
There were, happily some exceptions. I was impressed with one boy who asked for “a pair of slippers and a good Christmas.” He may well have a better understanding of Christmas than most.
As Charles Pope, a prominent D.C. Catholic priest, has recently pointed out, poverty was an intrinsic aspect of the original story about the birth of Jesus. 
The first Christmas was anything but charming or sentimental. It is charged with homelessness, hardship, a lack of decent resources, disregard for human life (by Herod), and the flight of the Holy Family as refugees and aliens in a foreign land.
In spite of all the pictures of Mary riding a donkey to Bethlehem, Pope doubts that that was her mode of travel. Donkeys were expensive, and he thinks it is more likely Joseph pushed her in a cart in that long, 70-mile trip from Nazareth.

And the reason proper lodging could not be found may have had more to do with money than space. Pope suggests, “Lodging could likely have been found for the right price.”

Then when Jesus was grown, he talked much about the poor. Soon after he began his public ministry, in his hometown Jesus read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, . . .

And then Jesus added these important words: ““Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it” (Luke 4:17, 21; CEB).
Soon after he began preaching in public, Jesus declared, “Blessed are you who are poor, / for yours is the kingdom of God.”
Last December, Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle (who I am hoping will be the next Pope) said,
Christmas is never truly Christmas if we do not practice Jesus’ solidarity with the poor, the weak, and the neglected. Christmas is a season to see our own poverty, to see a companion in every person who suffers and to see Jesus in a needy brother or sister.
Those are important words to keep in mind this week—and all next year.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Is Politics Trumping Concern for the Planet?

“Politics is generally a mediocre to horrible platform for change.” That was a statement left by an anonymous person on my previous blog article. I am not sure what all the writer was suggesting, but how else can important changes be made in society?

 In this country, and many others, all major legislation that has made great and important changes for the betterment of society has been passed through the political process.

 One hundred and fifty years ago, in December 1865, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, and slavery was officially abolished.

 That Amendment, however, was defeated the first time it was voted on in the House of Representatives: in June 1864 it fell thirteen votes short of the two-thirds needed for passage.

 That vote was along party lines. No surprise there. But later it received sufficient votes in the House and significant change came through the political system.

 Eighty years ago, in August 1935, the Social Security Act was signed into law by President Roosevelt, and Social Security has become one of the most appreciated of all government programs. But there was considerable political opposition at first.

 Many Republicans and some conservative Democrats were fearful about the program's influence on the economy, and some objected because they thought the program was socialistic.

 After a week’s debate in June 1935, the Social Security Act was passed in the Senate by a vote of 77 yeas, 6 nays, and 12 not voting. Five of the negative votes were by Republicans, but a majority of those not voting were Democrats. But here again, long-lasting, significant change came through the political system.

 In the case of so many Southern Democrats voting against the 13th Amendment, most probably truly opposed freeing the slaves. And in the case of Social Security, the vote on which was not completely partisan; those who opposed it likely really did think it was not viable fiscally—or that it was socialistic.

 But what about current issues—such as legislation designed to combat global warming? On December 12, an historic agreement was made at the COP21 meeting in Paris. As Thomas L. Friedman wrote in his Dec. 16 op-ed piece for the New York Times, the Paris Climate Accord is “a big, big deal.”

 (COP stands for Conference of the Parties, referring to the countries that have signed the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; the COP in Paris was the 21st such conference.)

 The Paris agreement was highly praised by President Obama and political leaders around the world. It also received high praise from Pope Francis (him again!). In his address at the Vatican last Sunday, Pope Francis praised world leaders for reaching the historic agreement.

 Almost immediately after news of that significant agreement by 195 countries was announced, though, Republican politicians began to denounce it.

 Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said that President Obama is “making promises he can’t keep” and should remember that the agreement “is subject to being shredded in 13 months.”

 Such statements are surely made for political reasons rather than because of concern for the welfare of this planet and its inhabitants.

 In almost all of the world’s countries, while there may be disagreement about solutions there is almost universal agreement among politicians that global warming is a real problem.

 Only the U.S. has strong opposition to combatting global warming—and that is mostly because of opposition to President Obama, it seems.

 One cannot help but feel that Republican politics is trumping needed concern for the planet and our future.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Is Politics Trumping Mercy?

In this age of the demise of many magazines because of the great growth of information on the Internet, a small Christian community in New York known as the Bruderhof has bravely begun to publish the Plough Quarterly, an excellent new publication said to be “breaking ground for a renewed world.” 

The theme of the Winter 2016 issue, which I received earlier this month, is just their seventh one, and it is a good one. Each issue has a theme expressed in one word, and the theme of the new issue is “Mercy.”
A week ago, on the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council (about which I wrote in my previous article), the Jubilee Year of Mercy began in the Catholic Church. 
Back in April, Pope Francis issued a public statement that the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy would begin on the fiftieth anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. And he went on to declare, “The Church feels a great need to keep this event alive.” 
I don’t fully understand all that is meant by the Jubilee Year, but I do comprehend that Pope Francis is calling upon Catholics, and all Christians, to “live lives shaped by mercy.” 
According to Catholic teachings, seven types of actions are called “the corporeal works of mercy.” They include the seven things you see in the following image:
So even though they are on a vastly different scale, a small Protestant group and the large and powerful Catholic Church are emphasizing mercy at the very same time. That seems to be highly appropriate, for in the Bible the prophet Micah spoke these powerful words about God’s desire for us humans: 
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (6:8, NIV)
Acts of mercy are central to the Christian faith.
One definition of mercy is “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm.” The dictionary’s third definition of mercy is “compassionate treatment of those in distress.” 
As I understand it, the Bible’s emphasis on mercy is particularly of the latter type—and that is the type of mercy found in the Catholic Church’s list of “corporeal works of mercy.”
Recently (here) I was critical of Kentucky’s new governor and the other (mostly Republican) governors who are so negative about accepting Syrian refugees. Of course there has to be extensive checks on those coming into this country and the safety of U.S. citizens must always be a matter of great concern. 
But why does anyone think the President or the (mostly Democratic) governors who want to receive Syrian refugees are not concerned about the safety issue? Of course they are. 
Like so many other current matters, the acceptance of Syrian refugees into this country is to a large degree a political issue. 
Among other things, the Republican presidential candidates have greatly exaggerated the number of Syrian refugees being considered. Donald Trump even charged that the President wants to bring 250,000 into this country. But the real figure under consideration for 2016 is around 10,000. 
It is a real shame that politicians (and the segment of the public supporting those politicians) put politics ahead of mercy. I have it on good authority (see Matthew 5:7) that it is the merciful who will be blessed; for to them mercy will be shown.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Reflections on Vatican II

The first chapter of American Catholics in Transition is titled “The Legacy of Pre-Vatican II Catholics” and the authors refer to Catholics born in 1940 and earlier as “the pre-Vatican II generation.”

 They go on to say, “Prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Catholics were known for their willingness "to kneel, pray, pay, and obey.”

 Although I was not a Catholic, that is the age bracket I am in and that was the Catholic Church I grew up knowing only a little bit about.

 I finished my undergraduate theology degree in 1962. Since it was a Baptist seminary I attended, there was not a lot of study about Catholics. But of course there was some—and much of what I learned was very soon out of date.

As indicated above, the Second Vatican Council, often called Vatican II, began in 1962 and ended fifty years ago this week, on December 8, 1965.
Many significant changes were made in the Catholic Church at that Council. Consequently, much of what I had learned by 1962 about contemporary Catholic faith and practice was out of date by 1965.

Vatican II was the 21st so-called Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church, and the first one since Vatican I in 1869-70. It was called by John XXIII, the remarkable Pope who was canonized in April of last year. Already 76 years old when he was elected Pope in October 1958, he surprised most people, who expected him to be nothing more than a “caretaker pope.”

One of the most significant changes made at Vatican II was the position of the Catholic Church’s relationship to non-Catholic Christians as well as its relationships with other religious faiths. The “Decree on Ecumenism” was passed in late 1964, more than a year after Pope John had died (in June 1963), but it was very much in keeping with his stated desire.

That Decree declared that other Christians were “separated brethren,” a remarkable shift from prior church teaching that regarded them (us Protestants) as “heretics.”

Vatican II also greatly changed the relationship between the Catholic Church and Jews. The “Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions” was passed in October 1965, about six weeks before the close of Vatican II.

The fourth part of that Declaration speaks of the bond that ties the people of the “New Covenant”' (Christians) to Abraham’s stock (Jews).

It states that even though some Jewish authorities and those who followed them called for Jesus’s death, the blame for this cannot be laid at the door of all those Jews present at that time, nor can the Jews in our time be held as guilty.

Accordingly, the Jews “should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God.”

The Declaration also decries all displays of antisemitism made at any time by anyone. This repudiated the abuse heaped on Jewish people through the years because they were considered “Christ killers.”

There were also many changes in Catholic worship and practice. For example, there was a new emphasis on lay people reading the Bible. Also, Mass began to be conducted with the priest facing the congregation, and the language spoken by the congregants was used in worship rather than Latin.

Of course some things didn’t change, to the disappointment of some of the more progressive clergy and lay people: priests still couldn’t marry, women still couldn’t become priests, and contraceptives continued to be banned.

Some Catholics are now hoping Pope Francis will call for “Vatican III,” but that is not likely to happen.

But thank God for Vatican II!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Mixed Feelings about Governor Bevin

In the summer of 1959 June and I moved from our beloved state of Missouri to Kentucky. We spent seven years there and came to love Kentucky as our second “home state.” In addition to being a full-time seminary student I was also a pastor during most of that time, and I still have good memories and great respect for many of the Kentuckians in our churches.
 Perhaps because of that past connection, I was especially interested in the gubernatorial election in Kentucky last month. That highly contested election had ramifications beyond Kentucky: it may have even been a harbinger for the presidential election next year.
 Businessman Matt Bevin was elected as the new Kentucky governor. I have mixed emotions, however, about Bevin (b. 1967), who will be inaugurated on this coming Tuesday, December 8.
 On the one hand, Bevin seems to be a dedicated Christian layman. He is also a dedicated family man: he and his wife have nine children, including four from Ethiopia whom they adopted.
 Their oldest child, Brittiney, was killed in a car accident in 2003 on Lexington Road near the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) about a month before her 18th birthday. (I used to drive down that road several times a week.)
 Brittiney had wanted to be a missionary, so her parents provided an endowment in her memory to fund a facility at SBTS “for the advancement of the gospel amongst the nation and nations.” It opened in the fall of 2012. As one who went to seminary in order to become a missionary, the establishment of the Bevin Center for Missions Mobilization is something I have to evaluate highly.
 But there are aspects of Bevin’s words and actions that are troubling. Supported by the Tea Party, he ran in the 2014 primary election against Sen. Mitch McConnell, whom he considered too liberal. Bevin lost that election, but then the Tea Party successfully promoted his gubernatorial campaign.
 One of his main appeals during his campaign for governor was his pledge to cut the states Medicaid program and close the state-run Kynect health insurance exchange. After the election he tempered his rhetoric somewhat, but Bevin’s election was not good news for the poorest people of Kentucky who have been greatly helped by “Obamacare.”
 As one who agrees with the Tea Party, Bevin opposes all tax increases and wants to decrease spending for the needy in the state.
 That seems highly questionable for a man whose net worth is widely estimated as being between $13.4 million and $54.9 million, who lives in a house costing over $700,000, and who pays more in tuition for his children to attend a private Christian school than the yearly income of many of the families in the state of Kentucky.
 Bevin has also said that when he becomes governor on Dec. 8 he will call for barring Syrian refugees from settling in Kentucky.
 By contrast, Steve Beshear, Kentucky’s current governor, has said that Kentucky should do “the Christian thing” and welcome all refugees who have passed extensive background checks.
 It seems to me that Gov. Beshear is right, and I wonder how “good” Christians like Bevin, many other Republican governors, and some presidential candidates can be so harsh in their rejection of Syrian refugees, many of whom are terrified children.
 Moreover, does the election of a businessman who has never held public office to be the governor of Kentucky mean the same sort of thing might happen in the presidential election next year?
 Perhaps. But I certainly hope not, for the sake of our nation.