Thursday, August 30, 2012

God Bless America? Yes, But...

“Although He's regularly asked to do so, God does not take sides in American politics.”
                                                                        --George J. Mitchell

“…and may God bless the United States of America!” This will be the final phrase of every single Presidential campaign speech for the next two months. O.K…that’s not an absolutely guaranteed fact. But try this experiment. During the next sixty days, listen to any of the hundreds of campaign speeches President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney will deliver daily, right up until Election Day. Chances are that almost every single one of these secular sermons will end with what has become a rhetorical cliché and the standard coda to every presidential stump speech.  “…and may God bless the United States of America!” 

It makes me wonder. Just what does it mean to ask for the blessing of the Divine upon a people or a nation?  Is it presumptuous to do so? Is it a sincere public act of faith? Or is it just something the speechwriter always tags on to the end of a speech? Just what do the candidates really desire when they ask God to “bless” America?   Something tells me that these questions won’t be asked in the Presidential debates.

So here’s a proposal. In the days leading up to our shared trip to the ballot box, let’s democratize this whole question of just who gets to ask God for a national blessing.  It is not just Romney or Obama who gets to invoke the Divine and then prayerfully make requests for America.  Faith is fully democratic. Prayer is as close and available as our deepest hopes, whether we speak them out loud or hold them in our hearts. 

We know the candidates want God to bless America.  What about you, as a citizen? If you do pray, what are the God given blessings you might request for this land that we call home?

Here’s a few of mine.  I might ask God to bless all of America and its political leaders with a spirit of humility.  America is an amazing country.  I do love it.  But God did not only make, and God does not only bless, our one land.  Instead God blesses and made all Creation. The U.S. is but one of 196 countries in the world. God made all peoples and nations. God loves every last child of God in every land, from Afghanistan and Albania, to Kenya and Kiribati, to Yemen, Zambia and Zimbabwe.  So may God Bless America and may God bless the whole world too.  No exceptions or exceptionalism. 

I might ask God to bless America and its leaders with courage.  Thus far in the Presidential campaign the candidates have been quite good at telling us what we want to hear, but not always so good at telling us what we need to hear.  Far too often they tell us we can spend without consequence and cut without pain. Also: we don’t have to sacrifice, taxpayers or beneficiaries alike, calculators and budgets be damned.

The real truth?  It is somewhere in the middle, a place neither party seems to want to move to.  So may God grant us the civic fortitude and courageous leadership to find answers outside of our cozy partisan comfort zones.

Then I might ask God to bless America with a spirit of generous compromise. Sociologists and political pundits report that America is as ideologically divided now as it was at the time of the Civil War.  We know how that turned out.  If America is to find solutions to our civic challenges, citizens and politicians need to find a common ground for the common good.  We need to let go of our often self-righteous and dogmatic positions. These may provide red meat for the media and ideologues but they do absolutely nothing to unlock gridlock and move us ahead.  So may God help us to ask not “What’s in it for me?” but instead “What is best for the whole country?”

Of course finally, we’ve no idea how God hears or responds to the most fervent of our prayers, collective and individual.  It would be prideful and arrogant to assume we know the mind and motives of God. Folks of faith always walk by faith, not proof. 

But yes, I’d still say, may God Bless the United States of America and the whole world.  May God bless the candidates and the citizenry, as we make and maybe even pray our way to November 6th.

What’s on your prayer list for America?

Friday, August 24, 2012

One Last Summer Road Trip

Road Trip (noun) 1. A journey via automobile, sometimes unplanned or impromptu's 21st Century Lexicon

Before summer ends and this sweet season’s final act brings down the curtain, I think I’ll take one last road trip.  I’ll pack the car with a large coffee and a couple of books on CD. I’ll put the windows down, fire up the GPS, fill the gas tank to “F” and look for an open road.  A road trip….

Americans will certainly hit the road this coming Labor Day weekend. The American Automobile Association estimates 33 million of us will travel fifty miles or more for this last true summer holiday, the highest number of folks to drive away since Labor Day 2007.  Though all of us vehicular wanderers claim some final destination (mine is Vermont’s Champlain Valley, right after church on Sunday), for true automobile road trippers, it’s the journey that matters most, the trek, not the arrival. 

I love auto road trips.  I’m free and get to steer my own way, not imprisoned, as so much airplane travel can feel like these days. In my beat up, bumper sticker covered 149,000 mile trusty Toyota, I get to drive. No long airport security lines that ominously snake to way, way back there!? No airplane cabin seatmates reclining way to close for comfort and giving me a bird’s eye view of their bald spot. No weather delays or hundred yard dashes to make the flight or extra charges for luggage. All I need is my car and a wide open road which unfolds before me.

Freedom. To munch snack food I’d never normally eat.  My current car cuisine indulgence is Diet Vanilla Coke Zero and Pretzel Cheddar Cheese Combos, bite sized bits of salty crackers filled with day-glow orange pseudo-cheese. YUM! Freedom to stop somewhere I’ve never been before and explore: a side street antique store, a Main Street diner, or a dusty used bookstore.  Freedom to just go and as I go I leave behind work and worries, to-do lists and busyness, a jam packed life, at least for these few precious hours on the way.

I know all road trips aren’t so heavenly. I remember childhood family journeys which inevitably devolved into backseat guerilla warfare between me and my little sister. “YOU’RE SITTING ON MY SIDE OF THE SEAT!”  I know gas isn’t cheap and to fill up these days can cost more than $100.  I know summer is high time for road construction and the disappointment of flying along and all of a sudden coming to a traffic clogged standstill.  Just try driving to the Cape.

But still—give me a road trip, just every couple of months, to air out my life and have time to wonder, as lush green mountains emerge just around the next bend, as wheels whir with the melodic sound of asphalt on rubber, as I hook my arm out the window and feel the cool breeze and the heat of sunshine. 

Writing about his summer road trips, New York Times reporter Dwight Garner says, “I like…to drive long distances alone, preferably at night with the windows down and a pile of compact discs rattling around on the passenger side floorboards. I need these trips to see myself plain. I take out my failings as a husband, as a father and as a man, and put them on the dashboard where I can study them…”

On past road trips I’ve found that kind of thinking space and figured out….maybe it is time for a new job or time to end or begin a relationship.  I’ve worked out problems as the miles go by, pondered my life, even prayed.  There is something romantic, even spiritual about being on the road, being in motion, going away from something, going towards something but for a time, just being in between. 

God knows folks in the Bible never stayed put for long. Adam and Eve were given an involuntary detour out of the Garden of Eden by a disappointed Creator. The Hebrews took a long road trip out of Egypt.  An itinerant preacher visited villages and big cities but never stayed for long.  So maybe God can finally be found out on the road too, a Deity not static or stuck or status quo.  A Higher Power instead, inviting us to come along for the adventurous journey of life.  The journey of a thousand miles does begin with a road trip, right?

So maybe I’ll see you on the road next weekend.  For we all need an occasional road trip to clear the head, to remember the gift of the journey of life and to just enjoy the ride.  Safe travels.

Friday, August 17, 2012

To Cheat or Not to Cheat?

“I would prefer even to fail with honor than win by cheating.”          --Sophocles

It is a five letter word which, when played in this most familiar of American board games, is worth ten points. That’s assuming the tiles are not placed on any bonus squares. The game is Scrabble, and I confess I am a Scrabble aficionado, a geek, a fan, and lifelong enthusiastic player.  If Scrabble were an Olympic event I’d have dreams of winning a gold medal. I’ve loved Scrabble since our family first played it around the dining room table, perhaps on a rainy summer vacation day or a post holiday afternoon, when we were looking for something fun and challenging to do together as a clan. 

Scrabble is truly old school, retro, first invented in 1938. The elements of the game are basic. A board marked by a 15 by 15 grid. Ninety-eight wooden tiles, each affixed with a letter from the alphabet and point value, save for two which are blank.  Then all you need to play are a pencil, a score sheet, a dictionary and curiosity about language.  It is wildly popular. Scrabble is sold in 129 countries in 29 different languages. Millions play online Scrabble or variations of the game every day. 150 million games have been sold and it is estimated that one third of all American households own it.  Your copy is probably tucked away on a closet shelf or dusty bookcase or at the cabin or cottage, just waiting to be unpacked and played again. 

Oh and that five letter word? C-H-E-A-T.  For last week the Scrabble universe was rocked by its first major cheating scandal, which happened at the National Scrabble Championships in Orlando, Florida. OK, maybe “rocked” is too dramatic a word, though if you played that, it’s worth 13 points. But I digress. (9 points and even better, seven letters…sorry, can’t help it!)

The cheating happened in one of the tournament’s final rounds when a player, setting up for a new game, surreptitiously placed two blank tiles on the floor beneath his seat. Blanks are like gold to a Scrabble player. They can be used anywhere on the board to make or complete a word.  An opponent saw the cheater’s duplicitous deceit, called over a judicious judge and the wayward word thief fessed up to his feckless fraud and was summarily suspended. (To love Scrabble you gotta love words!)

I guess I’m not surprised that cheating has now infected the Scrabble community.  It does seem that wherever in the world competition happens, or a prize or honor is at stake, or when we humans imagine no one else is looking, we cheat. 

On the same day as Scrabble-gate, Melky Cabrera, the leading hitter in Major League Baseball’s National League, was suspended for 50 games for cheating, taking testosterone to enhance his skills.  The Internal Revenue Service routinely loses a big chunk of its tax collections to tax cheats, most often from folks who under-report (lie) about their income. $385 billion dollars was lost in 2006, the most recent year for when data was available. Companies cheat too. In the last year the Securities and Exchange Commission collected a $285 million settlement from Citi Group, owner of Citi Bank, the nation’s third largest bank, for betting against investments it had cheerfully recommended to its own customers. Goldman Sachs was caught doing the same shell game and paid the largest securities settlement in U.S. history, $550 million. 

Cheating. You can try to dress it up in an expensive suit and drive it away in a limo, spin it with lawyerly words or rationalizations, but still its deception.  Doesn’t matter whether we “just” hid a Scrabble tile, or juiced to get more hits, or fudged the bottom line on our taxes or committed fraud against trusting customers. It’s rigging the game.  Hiding a card up your sleeve.  Stacking the deck. Deceiving another. Breaking the law. Breaking a moral code.  Breaking God’s law. Lying.

So here’s an alternative word, both for the game of Scrabble and the game of life:
H-O-N-E-S-T-Y.   Play it right and you’ll score at least 13 points and also have the gift of knowing that when it came time to compete and to play, it was a fair game all around. Then the best person wins.  Trust wins. Integrity wins and claims the champion’s crown.

Anyone up for a game of Scrabble? No cheating please.




Monday, August 13, 2012

There's No Such Thing as "Normal"

“Difference is of the essence of humanity…and it should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict. The answer to difference is to respect it. Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace: respect for diversity.”       --John Hume

As a person of faith and an American, the shooting deaths of six Sikh worshippers at a temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin on August 5th just broke my heart.  How awful, how unfathomable it is for me to imagine worshipping in my home church on a quiet summer Sunday morning, and then witness a gunman break in and start shooting.  Wound, murder members of my faith family, my friends, my neighbors all because someone hated us, despised us for our “differentness”: for the way we worship our God, or our skin color, or the way we dress, or our country of birth, or the accent we speak with. Sentenced to death simply for being “different”.

I just can’t envision that reality and not just because it seems so far fetched but also because the truth is, that never once in my life, not once, have I ever paid a price for being “different”, for being who I am: white, Christian, male, straight.  I’ve never, ever paid a price socially or personally for any belief I claim or any human trait I possess. 

I’ve never been told I can’t marry the person I love because it is “immoral” or “unnatural”.  I’ve never been viewed with suspicion by a store clerk or security guard because of the shade of my skin.  I’ve never been labeled as one of “them” because I speak another language. I’ve never had the way I worship God stereotyped and maligned nor have folks of my faith ever had to fight just to worship without fear or neighborhood opposition.  I’ve never had the way I dress be criticized nor seen as odd.  I’ve never been pulled over by a cop or taken out of an airport security line and interrogated or profiled because of the way I look. I’ve never been turned down for a job or a raise or a promotion because of my gender. 

The lie of white supremacy, which fueled the temple shooter’s rage, also underlies many of the “-isms” we still face today in America.  The lie is this: some folks are “normal” and some folks are “different”.  “Different” is bad and “normal” is good.  “Different” people threaten “our way of life” so “they” need to be kept at arm’s length, labeled, stereotyped, ghettoized, dismissed as less than human, and even hurt or killed.  In this warped worldview “I” am always the “norm” and “they” are always “the other”.  Thus those who are “different”, now reduced to “it”, become easier to hate. 

The problem is that the reality of the God created world we live in is anything but uniform, standard, identical, or all the same. From the moment God lit the fuse on the big bang, the world has reflected a God made, God planned, God blessed and God celebrated diversity.  God was intentional from the start in making diversity the norm. 

Not one skin color but an amazingly beautiful palette of hues and shades and variations. Not one animal or plant species but millions. Not one way of knowing God but a wonderfully varied collection of religions and beliefs, one God but so many paths to God.  Not one mono boring culture or people but instead a world brimming with so many differing and beautiful ways to work and live and play and make art and pursue happiness and meaning.  As Genesis declares in the story of the end of God’s seven day creation spree, “God saw everything that he had made [in Creation], and indeed, it was very good.” Not just ok or middling or nice but very good, great, spectacular, fantastic.  Very good in all its diversity.

There is finally no “normal”, no “norm” when it comes to the way our world is made and all that is contained within it.  Different is normal.  There will probably always be mean and sick and warped and scared folks who try their very best to belie this truth.  But God knows that different is good, very good.



Monday, August 6, 2012

Whatever Happened to the Poor in America?

Poor (adjective) 1. having little or no money, goods, or other means of support                                                --American Heritage Dictionary

“Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” –Proverbs 31:8-9

Whatever happened to the poor in America?  Does anyone remember them anymore, the poor? These are the folks in our country who, for many reasons, are at the bottom of the economic ladder.  They are dead last, with most barely hanging on to the bottom rung.  The poor.  Each day they struggle to earn enough money, if they are lucky enough to be employed, to provide for themselves and their families, the basic staples of a good life: housing, food, health care, clothing, life in safe neighborhoods, and education in good schools.  Not so different from you and me in their aspirations, their dreams, for themselves and their families.

Whatever happened to the poor in America? If the ongoing economic downturn is an inconvenience for the very rich, difficult for the rich, and tough for the middle class, it is an absolute disaster, a train wreck for the poor. A recent Associated Press story reported, “the results of a survey of more than a dozen economists, think tanks and academics, both nonpartisan and those with known liberal or conservative leanings, and found a broad consensus. The official [United States] poverty rate will rise from 15.1 percent in 2010, climbing as high as 15.7 percent [in 2011].”  That’s almost 50,000,000 of our fellow citizens, the highest rate and number since 1965. Twenty two percent of children in America live in poverty.  Sixteen percent of the elderly live in poverty.

Whatever happened to the poor in America?  It’s not that the poor have somehow magically gone away. Statistics don’t lie. But it does seem as if those in poverty are not really on anyone’s radar screen these days.  Not the Presidential candidates. I did a thorough search of both President Obama’s and Governor Mitt Romney’s campaign websites and guess what?  The words “poverty” and “poor” were no where to be found, not even one reference.  The phrase “middle class” was certainly all over both sites, as both men jockey to see who can lay claim to cutting taxes for those voters. “Rich” showed up a lot too, either worshipped as “job creators” or vilified for not paying their “fair share” but nothing about the poor. 

It is as if a whole class of America is just invisible in this campaign.  No photo ops at soup kitchens.  No volunteer days at a Habitat for Humanity site for Barack or Mitt, swinging a hammer to build a house side by side with the working poor. No major policy speeches about the obscenity of so many of our neighbors hurting. I guess the poor couldn’t pull together enough money to buy a spot at a $100,000 a plate fundraiser.  Or maybe they are working so hard to survive the poor couldn’t hire high powered lobbyists to work the phones to Congress or fund political action committees to flood the airwaves with TV commercials.   

Whatever happened to the poor in America?  As a person of faith I always come back to what Jesus said when challenged about a particularly extravagant gift one woman gave to him.  A disciple of Jesus protested that the gift should have been sold and the money given to the poor.  Jesus instead says, “The poor will always be with you” quoting an older saying from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy which says, in full, “The poor will always be with you, [God] therefore commands you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” 

Whatever happened to the poor in America? Well they never went away. They’re still here and actually increasing in number.  So here’s a better question. Whatever happened to the compassionate ideal of actually caring for and about the poor in America, seeing the poor, and then doing something as neighbors, citizens, voters, and fellow children of God? 

It is time to ask and answer that question.