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." 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

“Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired”

Retired clergy of the greater Kansas City metropolitan area have monthly meetings, and I often attend those enjoyable lunch gatherings.
Bridget and Fran were the guest speakers at the March 14 (yesterday’s) retired clergy meeting. They have been workers in the fast-food industry for several years and both are active in the organizations known as Fight for $15 and Stand Up KC.
Neither woman has any worker benefits or health insurance. In addition, Fran has serious health issues, and she and her children are homeless.
Both women are members of the Fannie Lou Hamer Women’s Committee (FLHWC).
According to Stand Up KC’s website, FLHWC was formed in Oct. 2014 in order “to create a place where women can organize around the special issues” that they face as people in low-wage jobs, issues such as “discrimination, harassment, and lack of paid maternity leave.”
Many of you may have long been familiar with the name of Fannie Lou Hamer, but for some reason I don’t remember her name from the 1960s and ’70s when she was one of the most important advocates for civil rights in the U.S.
Fannie Lou was born in October 1917, the youngest of twenty children of Jim and Ella Townsend, who were sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta. She began working in the cotton fields when she was six and was only able to go to school through the sixth grade.
In 1942 Fannie Lou married Perry (“Pap”) Hamer, and although they adopted two daughters, Fannie never became a birth-mother.
Fannie Lou bravely sought to register to vote in 1962. Upon returning to the plantation the owner would not allow her to remain there, so she had to leave her husband and family. That is when she was courted by and, consequently, began to work for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
The following year when returning from a voter’s registration training meeting to her hometown of Ruleville, Miss., she was badly beaten in Winona, where the bus had stopped. She suffered from those wounds for the rest of her life.
For the next fourteen years, though, she became “the spirit of the civil rights movement.” (Her compelling story is told in detail in Kay Mills’s book This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (1993)
Fannie Lou died 40 years ago yesterday, on March 14, 1977, at the age of 59. Her tombstone is engraved with one of her famous quotes: 

While Fannie Lou’s main fight was against racism in Mississippi and in the nation, she was also a fighter against poverty—as was Martin Luther King, who launched the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968.
It was also in 1968 that Hamer started what she called a Pig Bank, and the following year she established the Freedom Farm Cooperative.
It is partly for that reason that the Fannie Lou Hamer Women’s Committee say on their website,
She knew that things only change in this country because people stand up to fight for what’s right. . . . We see her as an inspiration to continue our fight for collective rights.
We fight for economic dignity because, like Fannie Lou Hamer famously said, we are “Sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
When I chatted briefly with Fran after the meeting yesterday, she told how she and others who are struggling for better wages in Kansas City continue to be inspired by Fannie Lou.
I hope we can all be inspired by Fannie Lou Hamer to do more in support of women like Fran and Bridget.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Ten Most Admired Contemporary Christians

Who are the ten living, and still active, Christian speakers/writers that you admire/respect the most? Recently I began to think about that question, and now I am sharing my (tentative) list with you.

Please note that these are “professional” Christians who are currently active (or not completely retired). They are people who primarily speak to or write for a “popular” audience rather than to academia. Thus, none are full-time religion/theology professors.

(My list of the contemporary theologians/professors that I admire most would be quite different.)

One more brief caveat: my list is skewed a bit (but not much) by my desire to include some diversity. I didn’t want the list to be completely of white, male, Protestants like me.

So here is my list, presented in alphabetical order (by last name): 
Rev. Barber is perhaps the person on this list I have known about for the shortest time. I probably heard about him for the first time when working on my 9/30/13 blog article about the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina. I have since seen him on several YouTube videos and then was impressed anew when I heard him deliver a powerful sermon in Kansas City last year. Here is the link to the blog article I wrote about him last September.

AMY BUTLER (b. c. 1970)
Rev. Butler has been pastor of the highly influential Riverside Church in New York City since 2014. I first met her when I visited a Sunday morning worship service at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., in 2012 when she was pastor there, and I regularly see/read her perceptive op-ed articles.
Widely known as “the nun on the bus,” Sister Simone is the executive director of NETWORK, a nonprofit Catholic social justice lobby. She was the subject of my 9/20/14 blog article (see here).

TONY CAMPOLO (b. 1935)
Stimulating writer and extraordinarily good speaker, in my 2/18/15 blog article I called Campolo “one of my favorite people.” He is one I would have long had on a list such as this.
The youngest person on this list, Claiborne is the author of The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (2006, 2016). He is a young man worth reading and listening to.

POPE FRANCIS (b. 1936)
Perhaps this selection speaks for itself.

JAMES FORBES (b. 1935)
A marvelous preacher and gentleman, I have long admired Rev. Forbes, who was pastor of Riverside Church in New York from 1989 to 2007.

BRIAN McLAREN (b. 1956)
I have been an admirer of McLaren since I read his novel A New Kind of Christian (2001). Then in 2008 I marked that the best theology book I had read that year was his Everything Must Change (2007). As a primary leader of the emergent church movement, he is a very significant contemporary Christian leader.

JIM WALLIS (b. 1948)
Founder, president, and CEO of Sojourners and editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine, I have been an admirer of Wallis since the early 1970s—and have written about him and his early activities in this article on another blogsite.

I have personally met or seen/heard all of the above persons—except for Pope Francis, for obvious reasons. But I have never met Yancey; however, I have read, and been impressed by, several of his books. I especially recommend What’s So Amazing about Grace? (1997) and Soul Survivor (2001).

Since these are contemporary Christians that I most admire, I have also learned from them--and my faith has grown, I believe, because of them. 

Who's on your list?

Sunday, March 5, 2017

What about “The Shack”?

“An African-American, a Jew, and an Asian walk into a bar” might be the beginning of somebody’s joke. But Wm. Paul Young is dead serious when he centers his 2007 novel The Shack on three such persons—and this weekend the movie by the same name opened in theaters across the country. 
Young (b. 1955) is a Canadian novelist who self-published The Shack after his manuscript was turned down by 26 publishers. Remarkably, by June 2008 it had sold a million copies—and now sales are said to be over 25 million!

While definitely fiction, the book is also a theodicy, an argument for God’s goodness in the face of evil. Much of the book is response to Missy’s question about “how come [God’s] so mean?” (p. 33).

The book/movie is also a reflection on the nature of the Trinity. While clearly a temporary manifestation to Mack, the central human being in the book, God appears as Elousia, an African-American woman usually called “Papa”; Jesus, a Jewish carpenter; and Sarayu, a willowy Asian woman. 

When first meeting these three “persons,” Mack asks which one of them is God. “’I am,’ said all three in unison” (p. 89).
What a marvelous time, and what a healing time, Mack spends with this amazing Trinity!  


There have been some very negative reviews of the book—mostly by conservative Christians. In 2010 Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called it (here) “deeply troubling” and declared that it “includes undiluted heresy.”
Earlier, in May 2008, Charles Colson advised his readers (here), “Stay Out of The Shack.”
These are just two of many written criticisms of the theological content of The Shack. In addition, though, just about a year ago a 79-minute documentary film was produced with the title “The Shack: Its Dangerous Theology and Error.”
There are perhaps some legitimate concerns about the theology of the book—but the more conservative or traditional one is, the greater those concerns will likely be.
In addition to the conservative Christians who criticize the theology of The Shack, there are now many secular movie critics who trash the film.
Returning home after watching the movie, with delight, late Friday afternoon, I looked up some movie reviews of the film—and was disappointed in what I found. They were mostly negative—especially the one by Peter Sobczynski on 
Perhaps “The Shack” is most appreciated/enjoyed by people with a moderate/liberal Christian worldview.
“When the imagination of a writer and the passion of a theologian cross-fertilize, the result is a novel on the order of The Shack. This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!” 
These words, by Eugene Peterson (of The Message fame) are perhaps the most effusive in praising The Shack, but there have been numerous clerics and moderate to liberal Christian writers who have had positive words about it.
Many of you know and appreciate Richard Rohr. (I wrote about him, here, in Nov. 2015.) Last year Fr. Rohr published The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation. I found it interesting that in this major book about the Trinity, Rohr had Young write the Foreword, mentions Young in the Introduction, and calls him a “dear brother” in the Acknowledgments. 
Except to my most (theologically) conservative and most secular friends, I highly recommend this delightful book/movie. It offers much to think about regarding the Triune God, dealing with grief, relationships (with God and other humans), as well as freedom of choice and the problem of evil.