Thursday, January 28, 2010

Somewhere I read that the actual amount of football being played in a 3½ hour NFL telecast is something like 11 minutes. Take away the huddles, timeouts, commercial breaks and the incredible amount of time spent reviewing previous plays and what you come up with is a little over ten minutes of actual football.
I thought of that interesting statistic while watching President Obama’s State of the Union address on Thursday night. It took over an hour to deliver but remove the inordinate amount of time it took the Democrats to rise up out of their seats in one more standing ovation and I’ll bet the speech could have fit into a Super Bowl halftime.
I exaggerate. I also admit to a certain admiration for the aerobic attributes of the many aged Democrats who stood up and sat down with such fervor and frequency one would have thought our president was leading an exercise class for senior citizens at the local rec-center.
Not so the Republicans. Glumly they sat as if daring Obama to just try and make them smile. Just try. Watching them reminded me of a time many years ago when I was the visiting preacher at a very traditional church in Pennsylvania. Because I think a little levity can go a long way in promoting the gospel, I offered up some of my best one-liners to the folk sitting in the pews, gags guaranteed to garner guffaws from the faithful. But there was nothing. The congregation just looked back at me utterly expressionless. It was sickeningly apparent to me that I was facing grim, grimacing practitioners of a kind of old-fashioned Protestantism that didn’t take kindly to levity. Nevertheless, I persevered, the only smile to greet me or my message coming from my wife sitting faithfully in the front pew. It came as something of a surprise then as I was shaking hands with these sober Lutherans filing past me on their way to whatever humorless pursuits filled their Sunday afternoons that one gentleman took my hand, looked me in the eye and with the slightest hint of a wink said, “Good job, pastor. You almost made me laugh!”
Almost. I don’t think our president even got that close with the Republicans. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, sat like a statue, unmoving, which, I thought, was an accurate representation of his party. Although there are many of us independents disenchanted with the laughable leadership of the Democratic Party at the moment, the Republicans have yet to offer anything close to a viable alternative. Indeed, they have offered no alternatives at all. “No” seems to be the entire platform of the current G.O.P. Given the current political climate in our country, it may be enough to garner some more seats in Congress but once the Republicans arrive will they have any idea what to do?
At least no one from the right made any cat-calls or rude accusations, not that I could hear, anyway. I suspect they were told to be on their best behavior. Making certain a continuing paralysis grips the democratic process and no meaningful legislation is ever passed for the next three years must be considered best behavior, as well.
Is it any wonder the public grows more and more cynical? Watching the smug smiles of those daring the president to try and pass any legislation, does give one pause. I appreciated the president turning to that somber collection of conservatives and inviting them into the policy making process. “If the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then the responsibility to govern is yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics but it’s not leadership.”
Surely somewhere out among those solemn senators there exists one or two politicians who actually believe that being in Congress carries a certain responsibility beyond lining one’s own or one’s constituency’s pockets. Surely there are one or two Republicans who can remember a time not all that long ago when being the loyal opposition meant working out compromises and forging coalitions. Surely there is someone amongst that severe gathering who has the faith in what our founding fathers created to re-start the process by reaching out a hand, looking the president in the eye and admitting with a wink, “You almost made me laugh!”

Thursday, January 21, 2010

There’s been a dearth of good news lately and not just for the Democrats. The front page of most newspapers is a daily reminder of the vagaries of life on our planet and the subsequent sorrows, aggravation and anger that result. It is no wonder that Hollywood reports attendance at the movies is up again this year. Apparently and understandably, people prefer to peruse the entertainment pages for respite from the dreariness of the first few sections of the paper.
It was with that very sense of escapism that I came across an interesting site on the net hosted by Nic Baisley ( that listed his 50 most important religious films of all time. Since I have an abiding interest in both religion and film and with only cheerless columns of commentary set out before me, it was easy to wile away an afternoon studying his choices and wondering about my own.
Topping his list was Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments”. This one’s been around for over 50 years and anyone over that age has probably seen it more than once. I remember the first time it was thrust upon me. I was an impressionable teenager when our church youth group attended a wide-screen showing of the epic starring Charlton Heston as Mr. Moses. There were some great special effects to be sure but I left haunted by the premise that the God who we sang hymns to each Sunday was the same one who not only tormented thousands of innocent Egyptians with frogs, flies and a really nasty outbreak of acne but rather cavalierly concluded that the death of every first-born was a reasonable punishment for impiety. My theological concerns diminished on the ride home as we all recounted how cool it was to watch Pharaoh’s foot soldiers deep sixed in the Red Sea. Still, I remember offering up a little prayer of gratitude to God just in case He decided to pop off another generation of first-borns. “Thank you God for older brothers,” is what I said.
Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” came in at #6 which may seem high to some but those of us who have spent a good portion of our lives studying the life of Jesus understand how this one of Brian’s deserves the spot. One of the best critiques of the problems inherent in biblical oral tradition can be found in the scene where Jesus is giving the Sermon on the Mount and those on the edge of the crowd are struggling to hear the rabbi from Nazareth: “What’s he saying?,” someone asks. “It sounds like ‘Blessed are the cheese-makers,” someone else replies. And the word spreads. Soon a whole industry in cheese-making sweeps through the Middle East bringing great wealth to some, vast pride for others and all of it based on a misinterpretation of some very holy words. Anyone who has watched some of the televangelists tearfully declare that the end of the world is nigh or that the God who has a very biblical bias for the poor wants you to be rich understand why this apparent film farce is anything but.
I looked in vain for “Life is Beautiful”, Roberto Benigni’s great paean to hope portrayed amidst the misery of fascist anti-Semitism. Nor did I find my favorite religious film of all time: “Babette’s Feast” on the list. This 1987 Danish movie depicts the deep joy found in sharing one’s life with others and thus captures the essence of all healthy religion.
“The Greatest Story Ever Told” just barely gets in at #47. In the summer of 1965, I stood through this film nearly 100 times while working as an usher at a theatre on the corner of Sunset and Vine. I believe it was the most expensive film to date and I know it employed just about every out of work celebrity in Hollywood at the time. Would you believe Sal Mineo and Robert Blake as disciples? Or Jamie Farr as another of the twelve? Jamie, some of you elders will remember, went on to great fame playing the cross-dressing Klinger on TV’s long-running “M.A.S.H.” And speaking of oldies but goodies…what about Pat Boone as the angel at the tomb? I kid you not.
Although the actor portraying Jesus, the Swede, Max von Sydow, couldn’t speak a word of English back then, he did manage to clearly say, “Blessed are the peace-makers.” But Jose Ferrer, who played King Herod and presumably spoke English very well, makes a muddle of a line that comes out: “What do you know about a nam maimed Jesus?” Next time you’re feeling particularly pious, give this one a screening and see if it doesn’t sound that way to you. It really is a great story but after all those viewings, I’m not so sure this is the way it should be told.
NOTE: Last week I wrote of Adam Beitscher’s powerful plea for help for Haiti but I neglected to mention it was co-written by his fiancĂ©, Alison Quinn. Thanks to both of you!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Sitting, staring, wondering what could possibly be said about the tragedy in Haiti when I received the following from Summit High School graduate, Adam Beitscher. Adam graduated from SHS in 2001 and is now in medical school in Washington D.C. When he is not studying, he volunteers in third world countries. Last time we talked, he was planning on being a medical missionary. His words are compassionate and his idea creative enough to deserve a wider audience…
“Though some of the statements with the news of Haiti have been infuriating, this was written not to be about politics or religion, but rather progress and, hopefully, moving forward from the hell that has enveloped Haiti; because whether or not idiotic claims by zealots (read: Pat Robertson) are analyzed, it has no effect on the millions suffering and dying there.
Maybe we pull for the underdog – and if we’re honest with things, the Haitian poor would be underdogs in a competition against other underdogs of the world – but for some unexplainable reason this disaster strikes a very profound chord with us. Maybe it is because we had an opportunity to walk with the people there, witness their reality. All we know is that something about the country is intoxicating. In some strange way we feel connected with the Haitian people and desire to work with them for a justice that has been so wrongly denied them for so long. Reading a history of the people and their country, like Paul Farmer’s The Uses of Haiti, elucidates how this half of such a small island could be a tiny example of what some extraordinarily unjust practices of globalization and neo-colonialism have accomplished. Though this is not about the past, with some understanding of Haiti’s past maybe it will help what happens from this tragic moment on in the country’s history. Maybe nothing symbolizes that greater than the image of the Presidential palace, an homage to himself by François Duvalier – one of the most violent and evil dictators ever – toppled in on itself.
We have all seen the photographs. We can hear the cries for help from dust covered, bloody faces. We feel life’s fragility when we see bodies of the deceased piled into the streets. This stirs within us something which makes us forget ourselves, our problems, and focuses our sights and emotions on our common humanity. Our human response is often to help in any way possible. The difficult question is always “how?!” And if we do not know of a concrete way to give, we miss the chance. The emotions, pictures, and feelings subside, and people move on with their day to day.
So, at this present moment, with Haiti on the tips of tongues all across the globe, we will see a wonderful human response of agape in Haiti. In fact I’m sure that it has already begun. So this is merely a plea to further that response. Huge governmental aid packages are underway, yet we all know that this is not necessarily the most efficient way to get the money and supplies where it needs to go. I am suggesting a very simple commitment from people that would drastically alter the lives of millions whose world was just destroyed. My suggestion is that for one hour, yes, just one hour in the next month, every person donates that hour’s salary to Haiti (.625% of your monthly salary). So let’s set an arbitrary time: From 1-2 pm on Friday, January 22nd, 2010. At 2:01 pm if everybody donated that past hour’s time, how much could we raise? No matter where you are from, we could all join in solidarity with Haiti for at the least one hour, working together for relief. Tout kapab se Aiysyen pou youn heure!
“So where do I donate?” The Red Cross is always a good option. We prefer donating to organizations that have a constant presence in an area and a relationship to the people. Because of those relationships, we believe, there is more of an investment and more accountability of the organization.
Partners In Health (PIH) is our favorite option. PIH has been working in Haiti for over 20 years with the Haitian poor, delivering health care to those in need. PIH is one of the most well run organizations I have ever learned about and one of the highest rated non-profits according to If you find yourself wanting to help, please support their efforts. I am sure that if any group can start to build Haiti, they can.
We have just finished donating to PIH and if we can find money in our budgets as graduate students, we hope that you can find one hour’s salary, or whatever amount you can in your budget, and help restore sanity to a devastated country.”

Thursday, January 07, 2010

I’m not sure when the maxim came into being but being warned to “Be careful what you wish for…” probably was in circulation back in 1170 when King Henry II pondered aloud over his problem with Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” is what the king was purported to have said loud enough to ignite the imaginations of four knights who promptly fulfilled the ruler’s wish by murdering Becket as he knelt in prayer.
Last week’s anniversary of that centuries-old scandal came too late to serve as a reminder to three American Evangelical Christian missionaries who gave a series of talks in Kampala, Uganda last March that focused on the threat traditional family values faced from homosexuals and the so-called homosexual agenda. Scott Lively, author of “Seven Steps to Recruit-Proof Your Child” joined with Exodus International’s Don Schmierer and Caleb Lee Brundidge to warn the Ugandans of the horrors that awaited those who ignored their collective counsel on the dangers of homosexuality in general and homosexuals in particular. (Exodus International is an organization committed to urging homosexuals to forego their lifestyles. Caleb Brundidge is a self-proclaimed “former gay-man”.)
In any case, the three crusaders may have got more than they wished for when, shortly after the men worked the faithful into a frenzy, the government of Uganda began considering legislation to make homosexuality a capital offense. The resultant threats from America and others of reduced aid to the impoverished African country forced the Ugandan government to back off from threatening to execute homosexuals and now promise only to imprison them for life.
Such systematized homophobia may be abhorrent to most of us but it is the logical extension of the kind of rhetoric employed by many of those involved in anti-homosexual activities. From snide remarks to sermonic rants, the words of condemnation can quickly morph into a rationale for insidious action. Although the three evangelists now appear to be both apologetic and appalled by what came of their preaching, they also seem to have underestimated the power of persuasion, particularly when it has the backing of God. Mr. Lively wrote in his blog last March:
“The Ugandan people are strongly pro-family, and there is a large Christian population which is much more activist minded than that of most western countries. However, the international gay movement has devoted a lot of resources to transforming the moral culture from a marriage-based one to one that embraces sexual anarchy. Just as in the U.S. many years ago they are leading with pornography to weaken the moral fiber of the people, and propagandizing the children behind the parent’s backs. On the TV show we exposed a book distributed to schools by UNICEF that normalizes homosexuality to teenagers. (We expect a massive protest by parents, who are mostly not aware that such materials even exist in their country, let alone in their children’s classrooms.)”
When the “massive protest” turned to demands to execute all homosexuals the Christians claim to be shocked. “I feel duped,” is how Mr. Schmierer put it. “Some of the nicest people I have ever met are gay people.” Nice, but damned according to the doctrine and if damned then, logic would have it, deserving of eternal punishment and if deserving of punishment in the next life, why not in this life as well? How about a nice Ugandan “massive protest” to show them we mean business? Oops. Sorry.
The language of exclusion and damnation can be powerful motivators among those who find hating their enemies much easier than loving them. The recent murder of the medical director of a Wichita women’s health clinic, Dr. George Tiller, by an anti-abortionist who still claims to have only done the work of God, is additional evidence that those who do the motivating must bear some responsibility for the resultant mayhem.
King Henry got his wish 840 years ago but the outcry over the archbishop’s murder quickly turned the people against him. In 1174, King Henry repented of his responsibility for Becket’s death and donned sack-cloth and ashes, walking through the streets of Canterbury while eighty monks ceremoniously whipped him with branches.
I can only wish that bit of ancient history serves as a modern warning to Messrs. Lively, Schmierer and Brundidge.