Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Star-Spangled Banner

As the sun arose on September 14, 1814, a man on a ship several miles away from Fort McHenry, which guarded the Baltimore harbor, saw that the American flag still waved over it after many hours of British bombardment. Inspired by the sight, that man, whose name was Francis Scott Key, wrote the first verse of a poem that he later expanded to four verses. And thus was born what we know as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

You can see the flag that flew over Fort McHenry if you visit the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History in Washington D.C. It’s not as large as those humongous banners flying over car dealerships, but it’s still a big flag. If you go visit the flag, or if you look at a picture of it online, you’ll notice a couple of things about it.

For one thing, it has fifteen stars and fifteen stripes, as it had since 1795, not long after the fourteenth and fifteenth states—Vermont and Kentucky—were added to the Union. The nation has changed a lot since then, as has the American flag, which now has fifty stars for the fifty states and thirteen stripes for the thirteen original states.

For another thing, the flag that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner” is damaged. Some of the damage occurred in battle, some from handling over the years, and some from people cutting pieces off as souvenirs. The first two kinds of damage are understandable, but not the last. It’s a shame that people damaged the flag out of selfish motives.

When we sing our national anthem, let’s give some thought to the fact that the song originally referred to a damaged flag. Let’s also think about how the pristine flags that fly over our government buildings, stadiums, and homes represent a damaged nation. That is always the case, no matter who is in the White House, in Congress, or on judicial benches.

Some damage to the nation is inevitable, given the imperfections of the humanity that comprise its citizenry and its leadership. Damaging actions are especially egregious, though, when they are carried out from self-serving motives. Our leaders should always strive to do what is best for all Americans rather than for one segment or for themselves. Leaders will always lead imperfectly, but they should at least lead with the interests of the entire nation uppermost in their minds.

Let’s also remember that the damaged flag that flew over Fort McHenry inspired Francis Scott Key to celebrate it in verse because it persevered and survived. Our democracy—indeed, our very nation—will also survive and persevere if we will commit ourselves to continually working to help it more fully live up to its ideals.

To love our country is to want it to be the best nation it can be. “My country, right or wrong,” people say, and indeed it is. When it is right, we should celebrate and try to make it even more right. When it is wrong—and sometimes it is—we should work to make it right.

“America the Beautiful” is another of our cherished songs. Every time we sing it, I reflect a lot on this line: “America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw.” That’s a good prayer. We should stay alert to how God would have us contribute to the mending process. What can we do to help make America better?

We deal with the fact that Americans have differing visions of what it means for America to be America, much less that it means for America to be damaged, to be whole, to be right, or to be wrong. But we need to find ways to work together to move toward ever greater equality and justice.

We sing about a damaged American flag. We love a damaged American nation. We need to build on what’s right and to correct what’s wrong. We need to keep moving toward “liberty and justice for all.”

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Let's Stick to the Point

Latin terms name the two basic choices we have when discussing, debating, or arguing with someone.

We can use ad hominem arguments. Ad hominem literally means “to the man” (we would say “to the person”). Someone using an ad hominem argument attacks the other person rather than discuss the issue. 

Our other option is to use ad rem arguments. Ad rem literally means “to the point.” Someone using an ad rem argument focuses on discussing the issue at hand rather than on attacking the other person.

It seems to me that people too often use ad hominem arguments rather than ad rem ones. We are quick to attack each other rather than talk about the issues. We see this tendency especially when people discuss political, social, or religious issues.

I suspect it’s always been that way, but social media seems to bring this tendency out in extreme ways. I’ve seen many of my Facebook friends and fellow tweeters use derogatory terms to attack those with whom they disagree. They sometimes direct their insults at individuals, but they usually target groups, particularly in generalized, stereotyped, or caricatured forms.

Such attacks aren’t helpful for many reasons, but I’ll name just two. First, they reflect false and careless thinking. All Democrats are not the same in their attitudes, perspectives, and positions. Neither are all Republicans, conservatives, or liberals. Every group has its subgroups, and every group is made up of individuals.

A second reason that attacking people rather than addressing issues is unhelpful is that it makes it very difficult to come together to solve problems.

Some of us like to engage in a form of ad hominem argumentation that I’ll call “name and blame.” Political leaders often use this approach. They’ll say something like, “It started under the last administration” or “It’s the other party’s fault.” Normal people say the same kinds of things: “Why didn’t you complain about this when your party was in control?” “Well, after all, Warren G. Harding did it first.”

Such statements aren’t helpful even when they’re true. Rehashing who did what way back when doesn’t get us anywhere here and now, and here is where we are and now is when we are.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t look back at all. We should, because understanding how we got here can help us figure out what we need to do now that we’ve arrived. For example, we can’t arrive at valid solutions to our immigration situation if we don’t recall how countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras got into the state they’re in, come to grips with the role we played in it, and make a strong commitment to work with them to help them become places where their citizens can be safe and secure.

But it does no good to blame those who came before. And it certainly does no good to blame those who voted for and supported those who came before.

We will be much better off if we’ll stick to ad rem arguments. We need to deal with the issues at hand in positive and constructive ways. This is difficult because different people have such different starting points. As for me, I make no apology for wanting always to begin with love, grace, compassion, and mercy. I realize this will never be a perfect world and we who live in it will always have mixed motives and limited perspectives.

But we need to come together to work on identifying the root causes of our problems, developing real solutions, and working to make things better.

I cling to the hope that we will.

Friday, June 22, 2018

American Children

As far as I can recall, no one has said to my literal or virtual face, “You care more about immigrant children than you care about American children.”

They may have thought it, though.

I have seen some of my Facebook friends say that about “liberals,” and since most of them probably put me in that category (and if my choice is between being liberal and what passes for “conservative” in the age of Trump, I’ll gladly accept the liberal tag), I reckon they include me in such statements.

I’ll admit to having difficulty in separating children according to their nationality. I tend to think that children are children, no matter where they’re from, what language they speak, or what color their skin is. I blame it on the Children’s Sunday School Assembly at Midway Baptist Church (located outside of Barnesville, Georgia on City Pond Road) in which, back in the 1960s, we sang “Jesus Loves the Little Children” every Sunday morning:

Jesus loves the little children,
all the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white,
they are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

All these years later, I still believe that Jesus loves all children the same. I have come to understand that, if I am a follower of Jesus, I must love them all the same too. 

The statements by some folks that liberals care more about immigrant children than they do American children have been made in the context of the current immigration crisis precipitated by Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy and the subsequent separation of children from their parents. (Some will nitpick at the way I put that, but I don’t have time to argue that point right now.)

I must challenge the assertion that people who think more or less like I do don’t care as much about American children as we should. Let me name a few of the ways I care about them. I’m speaking personally, but I can safely say that I’m speaking for most “liberals.”

      1.     I care enough to want every American child to have access to affordable quality healthcare.

      2.     I care enough to want every American child to attend a good school in a safe environment.

      3.     I care enough to want every American child to have clean water to drink and clean air to breathe.

      4.     I care enough to want every American child to live without fear of a nuclear, chemical, or biological holocaust or of having to fight in unnecessary wars.

      5.     I care enough to want every American child to have enough nutritious food to eat.

So yes, I care about migrant children. But I also care about American children.

Let me hasten to add that I know that most “conservatives” care about American children too. And recent events have shown that many of them don’t want migrant children separated from their parents. But I believe that more progressive or “liberal” policies reflect more care and concern for the children of America and of the world. Still, I hold out hope that people of different philosophical and political persuasions will join together out of concern for children (and for adults, for that matter) to work toward real solutions to our very real problems.

I'll confess that I'd like for all children everywhere to have the same benefits that I want American children to have. 

After all, Jesus loves all the children of the world.

So must I.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Two Important Years, A Decade Apart

My Good Wife and I had the very good fortune of visiting the Newseum in Washington D.C. a couple of weeks ago. The Newseum is exactly what its name indicates: a museum of news. According to its website, “The mission of the Newseum … is to increase public understanding of the importance of a free press and the First Amendment. Visitors experience the story of news, the role of a free press in major events in history, and how the core freedoms of the First Amendment — religion, speech, press, assembly and petition — apply to their lives.” I highly recommend that you visit it.
Two current exhibits in the Newseum invite us to reflect on the tumultuous and significant year 1968. One exhibit is called “The Marines and Tet: The Battle that Changed the Vietnam War.” It features photographs taken by Stars and Stripes photographer John Olson during the Battle of Hue. This battle took place as part of the Tet offensive, during which North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces attacked over one hundred cities, villages, and bases in South Vietnam. American and South Vietnamese forces eventually beat back the assault, but the events of the Tet offensive helped change the attitudes of many Americans about the war. Those events seemed to show Americans that the war wasn’t going as well as our leaders had been telling us it was.

The other exhibit is called “1968:  Civil Rights at 50.” The Civil Rights movement had been underway for many years, but 1968 featured many momentous events. They included the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, the Poor People’s March on Washington, and the killing of three protestors and wounding of many others in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on April 4. His assassination triggered widespread unrest and violence.

These were significant, world-changing events. Such occurrences affect us all, whether we realize it or not. They are huge events with national and even global effects.

Two events that occurred ten years later were also very important. They both took place in June 1978. On June 4, I (and many others) graduated from Mercer University. On June 10, my Good Fiancée and I got married. There are no exhibits about either event, unless you count (as I do) the life we have built on those two ceremonies and on all the experiences that led up to them and followed them. I could scarcely scratch the surface in this limited space of what the last forty years have meant to me. I’ll just say that God’s grace and human love have given me more life than I could have possibly imagined during the week of those two ceremonies. I am and will always be grateful.

Momentous events are always happening on the national and international scenes as well as in our personal lives. We can usually comprehend how smaller scale events affect us better than we can how larger scale occurrences do. The truth is, though, that the big events usually do affect our lives sooner or later whether or not we can see how. The truth also is that all of our small events work together to help create a collective consciousness that contributes to how our local, national, and global communities are going to develop.

It behooves us to pay as much attention as we can to as much of what has happened and will happen as we can. It all somehow works together to bring meaning to our individual lives and to the life of the world. As we reflect, we’ll find much to celebrate; as we do, let’s commit to make good things better. As we reflect, we’ll also find much to be concerned about; as we do, let’s commit to bring good things out of bad.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Test Results

I walked into the church office one morning and checked the voicemail on the prayer line. Someone had left the following message: “Please pray for my friend. She’s having an autopsy tomorrow.”

I will neither confirm nor deny that I laughed out loud.

I will confess to thinking, “I think it’s a little late for prayer.”

She meant to say “biopsy,” which is different. An autopsy is performed to determine a cause of death. A biopsy is performed to try to prevent a disease from causing death.

Sometimes we don’t want to have a biopsy because we fear what we’ll find out. But if we don’t let them do the biopsy, they may end up performing an autopsy. That’s not a win.

I think we need an ethical biopsy (by which I mean a biopsy on our ethics, not a biopsy performed ethically). I fear that if we don’t conduct one, we’ll need an ethical autopsy. An ethical biopsy will ask, “What is making our ethics sick?” An autopsy would ask, “What killed our ethics?” I hope we won’t wait until it’s too late.

How should we test our ethics? As a Christian, I would say we evaluate them by Jesus’ ethics. What were his perspectives, attitudes, and motives? How did he act on them? Jesus focused on doing what God wanted him to do, and what God wanted him to do was to give himself away for people’s sake. He came to serve rather than to be served. He came to empty himself rather than to build himself up. And he told us that following him means giving ourselves up and not seeking personal greatness or power.

Sadly, some of the most visible leaders associated with Christianity seem to have sold their spiritual birthright for a bowl of political pottage. Happily, the vast majority of Christian leaders do their best to serve as Jesus called them to do and showed them how to do.

All of us Christians should ask ourselves a few questions: (1) Do I love the Lord will my entire being? (2) Do I love my neighbors as I love myself? (3) Do I put others’ needs ahead of my own? (4) Do I care about and try to help the marginalized and oppressed? (5) Do I practice radical love that shows itself in radical forgiveness? (6) Does my experience of God’s grace and mercy cause me to treat others with grace and mercy?

If we apply those tests to our attitudes and behaviors, what will the results be?

Lots of people aren’t Christians, though. And lots of people who profess to be Christians don’t do much about it. So it’s not sound procedure to wait around for the United States to become a Christian nation on the assumption that it would make everything all right.

So how can we test the ethics of our nation as a whole? It comes down to how we think about, talk about, and treat other people. Here are some questions we should all ask about our country, our leaders, and ourselves: (1) Do we think of all people as being as fully human as we are? (2) Do we understand and remember that every individual is different and that differences are good? (3) Do we try to use our words to build up and help rather than to tear down and hurt? (4) Are we compassionate toward the marginalized and oppressed? (5) Do we practice both love for our country and respect for other countries? (6) Do we try to see the bad as well as the good in our culture and to see the good as well as the bad in other cultures?

We should ask many other questions, but those will get us started. We need to undertake an ethical biopsy so we can get rid of harmful motives, attitudes, and actions and so we can develop helpful ones. It can be a painful process, but it beats the alternative.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

A Free Press

May 3 was World Press Freedom Day, which is promoted annually by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). According to its website, it

is a date which celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom, to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.…

It serves as an occasion to inform citizens of violations of press freedom - a reminder that in dozens of countries around the world, publications are censored, fined, suspended and closed down, while journalists, editors and publishers are harassed, attacked, detained and even murdered.

It is a date to encourage and develop initiatives in favour of press freedom, and to assess the state of press freedom worldwide.

3 May acts as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom and is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics. Just as importantly, World Press Freedom Day is a day of support for media which are targets for the restraint, or abolition, of press freedom. It is also a day of remembrance for those journalists who lost their lives in the pursuit of a story.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 1303 journalists have been killed worldwide since 1992. Nine died on April 30 of this year in an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan. They were covering the aftermath of a suicide bombing when a second bomb was set off, killing the journalists and several relief workers. Also according to the CPJ, 262 journalists were imprisoned in 2017.

We assume that journalists here in the United States aren’t in danger, but we have some cause to be concerned. People in very high places say very negative things about journalists who report unfavorable things about them. Sometimes, they even point to the journalists who are covering a large gathering and criticize them in extreme terms. Politicians should be careful with such words. It’s bad enough to intentionally inspire disdain toward the press, but they could unintentionally inspire violence.

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” According to the Legal Information Institute of the Cornell University School of Law, the Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment’s prohibition of Congress from making any law against freedom of the press applies to the entire federal government and to state governments.

We should support a free press around the world. We should also support a free press here at home. I know we hear a lot about “fake news,” but it seems to me that what some people call “fake news” is actually negative coverage they don’t like, rather than something that is factually incorrect. Journalists aren’t perfect. Reporters have their perspectives and worldviews as anyone else does.

But we need a free press because it is necessary to our democracy. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time to investigate everything that our elected and appointed officials are doing. That’s the job of journalists, and we need them to keep doing it.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Sheep and Shepherds

I spent six years of my life preaching in a sanctuary that had a large stained glass picture hanging over its baptistery. (For you good folks who worship in churches that use less water than Baptists and some others do to baptize, that’s where they dunk new believers and the occasional backslider who wants a do-over.) The picture portrays Jesus holding a lamb. It’s one of the most beloved Christian images: Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

We get the image from Jesus’ own words: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). When we think about a good shepherd, our minds also go back to the 23rd Psalm, which begins, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The psalm celebrates the ways that God takes care of us as we journey through life. The Gospel celebrates the fact that Jesus is such a good shepherd that he died for our sake.

We don’t see a lot of sheep in our part of the world, so most of us don’t know much about them. I sure don’t.

One day I was telling a friend how weary I was of having to tell church folks the same things over and over—you know, things like how we Christians really should follow Jesus and try to treat other folks with love and respect. “Well,” he replied, “the Bible says we’re sheep, and sheep aren’t the brightest creatures in the world.” (You should know that my friend was a layperson, not a pastor, so he was talking about his own kind. You should also know that I’d never say such a thing about church members.) The truth about sheep, as I understand it from books and other such tools of enlightenment, is that they need a lot of help to survive; they really depend on a shepherd. It’s in that sense that people are like sheep: we need God to meet our ultimate need for life.

We also need other people. This leads me to mention one way that human sheep aren’t like literal sheep: they can’t become shepherds, but we can. We can become shepherds to each other.

Pastors are shepherds to their congregations; in fact, the word “pastor” literally means “shepherd.” This means at least two things. First, it means that pastors walk ahead of the sheep, showing the way with our lives, and not driving them from behind. Second, it means that, since we pastors are shepherds who serve the Good Shepherd, we are willing to lay down our lives for people. The odd thing about a pastor’s experience is that sometimes, when she or he tries really hard to lead the sheep in the way the Good Shepherd would have them go—the ways of grace, mercy, love, justice, empathy, compassion, and service—it’s the sheep in the church who attack them while the supposed predators outside the church appreciate their efforts.

But pastors aren’t the only sheep that can become shepherds. Any and all of us can as well. It’s in the Bible: “We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:16-17)

We might have a chance to help in a big way. So in Antioch, Tennessee, a few days ago, a young man wrestled the weapon away from a shooter who had already killed four people. And in Detroit, Michigan, thirteen semitruck drivers lined their trucks up under an overpass to shorten the possible fall of a man who was threatening to jump.

We may not be called on to do something quite as dramatic, but we can all lay down our lives for others. It may mean giving up something as precious as our comfort, our convenience, our customs, or even—get ready, now—our preconceived notions.

But we can do it. The Good Shepherd, and some other good shepherds, show us how.