Friday, October 28, 2022

"Tensions in Whoville"

 I was sorting through a stack of books about to be discarded by a friend when I came across Mary Oliver's  Red Bird, a collection of her poems that I had not read before.  Her poem "Of The Empire" grabbed me and has been gnawing at me ever since:

We will be known as a culture that feared death

and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity

for the few and cared little for the penury of the 

many.  We will be known as a culture that taught 

and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke

little if at all about the quality of life for

 people (other people), for dogs, for rivers.  All

the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a

commodity.  And they will say that this structure 

was held together politically, which it was, and

 they will say also that our politics was no more

than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of 

the heart, and that the heart, in those days

was small, and hard, and full of meanness. 

Oliver published this in 2008.  It put me in mind of the Dr. Seuss story of "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" - - the heart thing.  The Grinch's heart was two sizes too small - hard and full of meanness.  In the well known classic, the Grinch devises a plan to steal Christmas and all its trimmings from the town of Whoville. Disguising himself as Santa Claus, he cleans out the town  - the presents, the food for the feast, the Christmas Tree - all in the attempt to extingish the joyful noise of Christmas in Whoville that has annoyed him every year for 53 years.

As the mid-term elections loom in another couple of weeks, it is hard to get the "grinchiness" - - the small, hard and mean-heartedness of our politics out of my mind.  So much of what we value in our much threatened "Whoville" seems destined for the Grinch's sack - abortion rights, safe and honest elections, voting rights, sane and clear thinking legislators in congress who put the wellfare of the country and our democracy above their own greed for power at the expense of truth.

In the story, the Grinch takes his fully laden sleigh to the top of Mount Crumpit and prepares to dump the stolen belongings into the abyss.    A harrowing thought as the mid-terms draw near.  Children's stories simply must have a happy ending and when, on Christmas morning, the still joyful sounds of the people of Whoville reach the Grinch's ears, he is transformed - his heart grows 3 sizes larger - he joins the population of Whoville in their celebration of Christmas.   It was their heartfelt and joyous singing that did it. 

Of the ending of the story, author, Ted (Seuss) Geisel wrote: I got hung up getting the Grinch out of the mess. I got into a situation where I sounded like a second-rate preacher or some biblical truism... Finally in desperation... without making any statement whatever, I showed the Grinch and the Whos together at the table, and made a pun of the Grinch carving the 'roast beast.' ... I had gone through thousands of religious choices, and then after three months it came out like that. 

He got the Grinch out of the mess.  Whole hearted, full throated, joyful singing brought down the mean spirited Grinch - the one with the spiders in his soul.  The Whos and the Grinch sat at table together.

I wonder...could "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" be a parable for our time? The mid-term elections are approaching. The loaded sack is nearing the edge of the abyss.  Are there enough of us  singing?

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, October 21, 2022

"How can human beings...?"

 As I checked my email this morning, I found a message from an old friend from Germany. She spent several weeks in South Dakota on three different occasions, twice with a program I coordinated called “Learning Harmony with the Lakota.” We would spend three weeks camping in different reservation communities, hosted by Lakota or Dakota families, meeting people and learning about the culture.

The first time she attended the program she met a Jewish professor from the east coast. They became good friends. I recall them taking long walks together early in the morning. She struggled with what her forebears had done during the holocaust; found it difficult to comprehend how people had been complicit or silent during such a horrendous time. It occurred to me that likely her generation inherited the moral scars of her country’s past under Hitler and the Nazis. 

When you stop and think about it, it is hard to comprehend and understand. How can human beings assign the demonic to a whole group of people; then plan for their extermination and execute them? From what we know of German history, it happened in stages. Concentration camps were established early in 1933 for political opponents, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other, “dangerous to the regime,” people. After some 400 decrees and regulations restricting Jewish life stretching over years, Hitler and his minions developed the “final solution” for that minority, murdering five million Jews.   

I’ve been following the Congressional Committee investigating the events of January 6. I’m now convinced from the evidence presented that Donald Trump intended to remain in office no matter the vote tally, and he was willing to mobilize the forces necessary to help him stay in power. The attack on the Capitol was no random act, but a calculated plan with many armed and ready for violence.

The latest disturbing and unforgiveable revelation was the tweet the former President sent out at 2:24 PM the afternoon of January 6, as he sat in the White House dining room watching TV, while the riot was under way. He tweeted, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done.” Trump had been pressuring his Vice President for days to declare the election of President Biden invalid, something Pence had no legal or moral right to do. Pence stood by that      conviction even under intense White House pressure.

When that Trump tweet went out, the insurrection crowd erupted in chants of “Hang Mike Pence.” A gallows had been constructed. Armed and ready, the insurrectionists were intent on taking the Vice President dead or alive. They also wanted several others in the Capitol, especially Nancy Pelosi. Anyone who had fallen out of favor with their leader was fair game.

The latest report from the January 6 Committee included film of Senators in a secure location during the insurrection, trying to make contact with different people who might help stop the riot. In one of the film clips we see our own Senator John Thune. He is seen behind Pelosi and some others as they are on the phone seeking help. To his credit, with Senator McConnell, Thune was part of the bi-partisan effort to stop the violence. His body language in the film suggests his personal distress as he moves ceaselessly from side to side.

Senator Thune had a right to be worried! Trump had named him a RINO, a Republican in Name Only. Whether you were on the same team on policy didn’t make much difference to Trump. What mattered was your loyalty to Him. Look at Mike Pence! Here was a man who sat loyally by Trumps side for four years. To our knowledge, he didn’t refuse any duties assigned him; did them without complaint; except for the final ask, to obstruct a Constitutional process and overturn an election. That unwillingness to follow Trump put a target on his back and the Vice President was fortunate to avoid the gallows.

The former President has tried everything he could think of to keep from being a “loser” and he’s still at it. Sixty two court cases confirmed the results of the election, many with judges he appointed. The fiasco recount in Arizona to establish Trump won, actually found more votes for Biden. The call to Georgia to “find more votes” for Trump, failed. The attempt to send fake electoral college electors fizzled. Pence is still alive, but relatively quiet. And that’s a problem!

We desperately need Republican voices of conscience and integrity. Partisan political power be damned. Forget about elections and keeping the “base.” Our democracy is under serious threat. The kind of mass murders we see happening in our communities feeds, and is fed by, the threat of mass murder in the political sphere. 

And we desperately need those Christian nationalists, who see Trump as some kind of savior, to go back to their Bibles and read the Gospels. Their conception of a Savior doesn’t look anything like the picture of Jesus Christ you find in the synoptics. Their allegiance to political power that causes the “other” to suffer, is more like those criers of old, “crucify him;” motivated by hate, not love.

I’m not a supporter of the political views of Mike Pence. We have our differences. But I wouldn’t have any difficulty talking with him about those differences, and striving for mutual respect and mutually agreed upon policy. That would be possible, because now, after the way his former boss pressured him and invited his execution, I see the former Vice President in the strongest possible way as a person of integrity, true to his conscience and convictions. We need more participants in public life of conscience and conviction; fewer intent on profit and power.

Our children and grandchildren are already inheriting enough moral scars from our failures as a country and culture. My students can’t fathom how people had to ride the back of the bus or use a separate drinking fountain, simply because of the color of their skin. Let’s not add new moral burdens for future generations. We must soundly reject the new authoritarians who would classify and divide their fellow humans, and use hate and violence to enforce their choices.

Carl Kline

Friday, October 14, 2022

Meditation on Communion

 I love Worldwide Communion Sunday. It speaks to me about the unity of the church worldwide, and more inclusively the unity of humanity and of all creation. We share one bread and one planet. Christians like us living throughout the Americas, in all parts of Asia and Europe and across the continent of Africa, people in every city, village and hamlet are coming to the table just as we are to break bread and share this cup. Worldwide Communion Sunday is an embodiment of the beatific vision–the beloved community of all people and all races coming together in cooperation and mutual affirmation.

When I was a child the church I attended had the tradition of "first communion." We had to wait until after confirmation, usually in the eighth grade. Then, on confirmation Sunday, we received our first communion. It was a big event. We had communion 4 regular times a year and then on special occasions. The Deacons served communion and in those days the Deaconesses prepared Communion and cleaned up afterward. We passed the communion tray down the pew and everyone took a little cup and wafer or piece of bread. The minister told us to eat the bread as it was passed but to hold the cup so we could drink together. I thought it was wonderful.

Over time the tradition changed. One minister who influenced me greatly thought of communion as the inmost gathering of the church, which meant only baptized members of the church could share the meal. Another minister, who also had a great influence on me, believed in open communion. He taught that anyone of any age could come to the table. Christians and the curious were welcome. Those different ideas about who can share communion still persist in the church today.

More and more, I think, churches celebrate communion at least once a month. At our church we celebrate communion every Sunday. We no longer depend on deacons and deaconesses. This congregation is exceptional because members of the congregation may preside at communion.

The unity of the church is more than a nice idea. The church is often said to be a sign and a demonstration of a new community. Recently the World Council of Churches met in Karlsruhe, Germany. They elected a new executive committee to govern the Council. It’s extraordinary. Twenty people from countries as diverse as China, Turkey, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, and Korea serve on this committee. Women and men of diverse backgrounds, representing more than 500 million people and more than 110 countries are members of the World Council of Churches. They work together to promote a culture of peace.
Another story coming from the worldwide church comes from Assisi, Italy, the birthplace of St. Francis. Pope Francis recently convened a meeting of 1,000 people from around the world to help create what he is calling an “economy of friendship.”  The hallmarks of this economy, he said, are: the pursuit of peace, the care for the environment, and giving the poor and most marginalized a place at the table. An economy of friendship - the opposite of what we have now.  The present economy of capitalism began 500 years ago in England with the Enclosure. The enclosure was a movement to enclose the land and shut out the people. It was a movement to put private property over people. Thomas Moore characterized the new economy as “sheep eating people.” The pope said the time has come to create a new economy of friendship. 

 How do we do that? Through the global faith community people are teaching their neighbors sustainable agriculture, promoting and advocating for the rights of women and others. In one story that I read, people in the Philippines are turning Lotus flowers into bricks for building houses. I also read about a 14 year old from Thailand who has launched a national campaign against plastic. When I read about him, I thought about a plastic water bottle that I threw away during the Pride Parade last week, and the plastic bags we get from a grocery store. An economy of friendship begins with me and the things that I can do to create a more sustainable and liveable world.

Last week Sally and I attended a meeting of community members and the police. The police called the meeting because they wanted to talk about a new program they were starting to reduce gun violence in our area. The community members wanted to talk about racism, jobs, and economic empowerment. Sally and I left the meeting wondering what is the ministry of the church in this situation, which is not happening in Karlsruhe or Assisi, but right here at our doorstep.

I began this meditation by saying that I like Worldwide Communion Sunday because it speaks to me of the unity of people and the unity of creation. History reminds us that this unity does not come easily. At our church we are watching videos of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, and other prophets of our time. Their lives, like the breaking of the bread at the communion table, remind us of the violence that seems to always be prowling outside the door.  But the common cup speaks of a deep unity and more profound hope that is rooted not in us, but in the promises of God. Like others, we too can be witnesses to what the Apostle Paul called “the more excellent way.” Amen.

Rev. Dr. David Hansen

Friday, October 7, 2022

Book Bans

 It happened! A school district banned the Bible. You may remember I recommended it in a previous column. If we’re going to get into the business of book banning, then this Biblical collection of violent stories and graphic sex, including rape and incest, needs to be at the top of the list.

Keller Independent School District outside of Fort Worth, Texas, has removed all versions of the Bible. It leaves me wondering if the Scriptures used by millions of people around the globe, will become part of the fuel for a public book burning.

There  are countless reasons for resisting book banning and book censorship.The following are my top ten:

1. There’s some useful material! If you take the Bible as an example, it has been an inspiration and guide to people of faith for centuries. It has a rich history of being used as a moral and ethical guide, even though there are some disturbing stories; and a main character for Christians, gets nailed to a cross to suffer a rather agonizing death.

2. You are introduced to some rather disturbing material! This seems to me a plus, not a minus. How much better to be introduced to some of the difficult circumstances in life through the printed page, before one encounters them face to face; or even afterwards, to help give the difficulty a little different context. Others, like parents and teachers, can often offer us context more easily to the printed page than the lived reality.
3. Some books banned are award winning literature! They have artistic merit. They are crafted well by a renowned writer. What’s next to be banned? Music? Poetry? Dance? Paintings? (Maybe I shouldn’t even mention this as it may give the censors additional targets; or the assassins new prey for their weapons).
4. Book banning could leave us with only mundane and boring reading!
It would be like going to the amusement park and finding the Ferris wheel gone, only a carousel remaining. “1984” was memorable reading, a great Ferris wheel. Maybe it’s on the banning list because it was a warning that got the date wrong.

5. Whatever political persuasion is in control gets to choose the books! Republican! Democrat! Theocrat! Autocrat! Take your pick. Eventually, if they all have their turn, they may put libraries out of business.

6. With book banning an educational purpose gets lost! Sometimes books can introduce us to a reality of life that prepares us for the future. It can help us learn about the tendency in human communities to enslave others, before someone tries to enslave us. Books can warn us of problems and pitfalls in our future and give us knowledge and courage to face them.

7. There’s always more to the story! Some people read the Bible and other books as if the words and ideas are frozen in time. If you look closely enough, the story continues; with another writer, another take on the same or similar material, another interpretation of the story. We need them all, all the stories, to have a full and more complete understanding.

8. You have a conversation starter with friends!
Some of my best conversations with friends are about books. Many of them the banners would burn. One friend and I meet occasionally to trade books and talk about them. I’m sending a friend off on his cross-country trip today with four books I’m donating to his time on the road, two of which most school districts in Texas would probably ban. 

9. Books don’t make good firewood! If you watch the video of Global Vision Bible Church in Tennessee burning “demonic” books like Harry Potter, you’ll notice that they have a good fire going first before they throw in the books. Pastor Greg Locke gets clearly worked up in the video by the “witchcraft” he sees around us. Good-bye the “Twilight” series!
10. There’s always the oral tradition or the internet! Personally, I like the feel of holding a book in my two hands with the printed page. There’s too much screen time in my life as it is. I don’t need or want an ebook. But in a pinch, if my chosen book were burnt, I’d go on line. Even more satisfying, I’d opt for the oral tradition. Give me a storyteller like Duane Hollow Horn Bear any day. It’s even better than a hold-in-my-hands book.

Carl Kline